- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 13, 2002

Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge yesterday announced a color-coded system to alert Americans of terrorism threat levels, predicting it will be years before the lowest level can be declared.
"With the Homeland Security Advisory System, we hope to make America safer and more aware," Mr. Ridge told a meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution. "However, we should not expect a VT day, a victory over terrorism day, anytime soon."
Mr. Ridge said the risk of terrorist strikes against the nation is currently "elevated," which is the third of five gradations in the new system. The corresponding color is yellow, which denotes a "significant risk of terrorist attacks."
If warranted, the federal government can heighten the threat level to "high," which is orange, or even "severe," which is red.
"Under red, you might see actions similar to the ones taken on 9/11, when we basically grounded most or all of air traffic for an extended period of time," Mr. Ridge said.
But changes in threat levels might not be made public immediately if authorities believe that would tip off terrorists to imminent arrests.
"We may have that information, but simultaneously we may have an opportunity to apprehend the terrorists," Mr. Ridge told reporters in the Cabinet Room of the White House. "The decision may be to deal with the law enforcement over a limited period of time."
He added: "That's frankly the only condition under which we would not go to the public first. I've got to preserve that option for the Attorney General."
The government can also lower the threat level to "guarded," which is blue, or even "low," which is green. But officials are not likely to announce such downgrades anytime soon.
"Whether or not we can ever get to low, I'm hopeful but I still think it's years away," Mr. Ridge said in response to a question from The Washington Times.
"But even in a low level of risk, there's a recognition that the possibility or the potential of a terrorist attack still exists," he added. "And that, I think, is a permanent condition of the world."
The color-coded system goes into effect immediately in federal agencies, although it could be months before states and the private sector adopt the system, which is not mandatory. The Office of Homeland Security will accept public feedback for the next 45 days and then conduct a review for 90 days before finalizing the system.
Mr. Ridge hopes the new system stops complaints from the press and public that there was no way to gauge the relative threat level from day to day. In the six months since the terrorist attacks of September 11, the administration has issued four elevated terrorism alerts, although it has been reluctant to ratchet those alerts back down when the threat decreased.
The last of these old alerts expired Monday. The first of the new alerts was issued yesterday, when the entire nation was placed on the elevated, or yellow, threat level. That means law-enforcement authorities are encouraged to increase surveillance of critical locations and take other preventive measures.
It will be possible to elevate the threat level for a single community, a sector of the economy or even an individual industry. While the rest of the nation remains under code yellow, for example, bridges or nuclear plants or national monuments might be elevated to code orange or red. These moves can also be made unilaterally by local authorities.
Mr. Ridge hopes the new system standardizes a pathwork of varying standards among the 50 states, 3,300 counties, 18,000 cities and countless private industries.
"It is historic," he said. "It is unprecedented, to the extent that we are going to engage law-enforcement and public officials at all levels to come up with levels of preparedness."
He added: "It's not just the level of risk we want the levels of preparedness."
In other words, Mr. Ridge foresees a time when local fire departments, for example, will automatically ramp up preparedness whenever the threat level is increased. He said that within a year or two, the Federal Emergency Management Agency might conduct drills in individual communities by announcing a threat level and then gauging the response.
This would be a dramatic departure from the old system, under which ill-defined threat alerts caused confusion among local authorities.
"Sharing that kind of information without any context, without any texture, without any relevance to levels of readiness or preparedness was not a condition that we should, or could, or wanted to sustain in the future," Mr. Ridge said.
Mr. Ridge, whose office was created in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, cautioned that the new threat-advisory system is not a panacea.
"It's not perfect, but I think it's a substantial improvement over the existing system," he said. "The system will not eliminate risk. No system can.
"We face an enemy as ruthless and as cunning and as unpredictable as any we've ever faced," he added. "Our intelligence may not pick up every threat."
Changes in the threat level will be announced by Attorney General John Ashcroft, after consulting with Mr. Ridge and the Homeland Security Council. The decisions will be based on a mix of hard intelligence and gut instinct.
"There's a little science in here and a lot of art," Mr. Ridge told reporters. "There are value judgments associated with it that's a fact of life.
"If you're looking for a specific, scientific, very linear dimension to this whole process, it's not to be found," he added.


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