Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano said Wednesday she was scrapping the much-maligned five-level, color-coded terrorist alert system, and replacing it with a two-tier approach that would be simpler and more informative.
The color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System has been stuck on orange (for aviation) and yellow (for the rest of the country) for nearly five years.
"It has faded in utility, except for late-night comics," Ms. Napolitano told reporters in a conference call Wednesday.
In its place next week will arise a new, two-tier system — dubbed NTAS for National Terrorism Advisory System — under which the alert level will be either "elevated," in response to a credible threat, or "imminent," in response to more specific information about an immediate threat.
Some observers suggested the system, while an improvement, would still leave officials grappling with the problem of how much to tell the public about secret intelligence warnings received by the government.
Alongside any alert, Ms. Napolitano promised, officials will provide additional information to the public - "what they need to do, [and] how they can prepare."
"They need more information certainly than they received from the color system,"she said. But, she explained, there would be more comprehensive, classified warnings for state and local law enforcement accompanying the alerts. "In that instance ,we would not make it available to the media."
She said the NTAS alerts would begin with a press release or public announcement by the Homeland Security secretary, followed by tweets and other updates to social media as well as announcements on the department's website.
Alerts might be issued "very, very quickly," she said, "In an ideal world, we'll give state and local officials a heads up" but that would not always be possible.
The frequency of alerts "will depend on the intelligence." Alerts might be specific to a place or a particular sector, like the existing system, but will expire after two weeks unless refreshed.
White House officials introduced the five-level system in March 2002, as a way to communicate with state and local law enforcement and other officials across the country, who were struggling with a constant stream of mainly classified warnings U.S. agencies were getting about possible terrorist plots against the U.S.
Former officials say working out how to communicate about such threats was one of the toughest problems they faced in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Very little though had been given … to how to communicate with state and local governments" about terror threats, Daniel Kaniewski, deputy director of the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute, told The Washington Times. Mr. Kaniewski served in the White House from 2005 to 2008.
The color-coded system officials put together ended up the butt of TV humor and for critics came to symbolize, along with frisking grandmothers at airports, the inanity of the entire homeland security enterprise.
"The color system from the very beginning confused me," former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani told Fox News on Wednesday.
But Mr. Kaniewski questioned whether the new system would make that big a difference to the underlying problem, which was "how much information to share" with the public.
"The more detailed the information you provide [about a plot or other threat], the more likely it is you might interfere with the investigation — and the efforts to interdict the attack," he said.
Nonetheless, he applauded the change, calling it "a step in the right direction."
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