- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 4, 2004

Homeland-security officials got a tongue-lashing yesterday in a House committee hearing about the nation’s color-coded terror alert system, but defended the system as a work in progress.

Rep. Christopher Cox, California Republican and chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said the nation could not afford the “senseless, unfocused, nationwide response” that too often was caused by “unspecified threat alerts.”

The Homeland Security Advisory System — as the five-level, color-coded warning system formally is known — was introduced on March 11, 2002.

In the past year, it has been raised from Code Yellow, or “elevated,” to Code Orange, or “high,” three times, but it also has come under increasing criticism, much of it reiterated by lawmakers yesterday.

Panel members argued that the system was too broad, offered too little guidance to the public and imposed crippling costs on state and local governments.

Rep. Jim Turner of Texas, the panel’s senior Democrat, called for the system to be eliminated because its “all-or-nothing nature” forced the entire country into a defensive posture.

“A wide range of federal, state, local and private-sector protection plans go into effect, although the intelligence has not suggested that all sectors of our society are specifically threatened,” he said. “State and local governments spend hundreds of thousands of dollars — perhaps millions — to defend against an amorphous threat.”

Adm. James Loy, deputy homeland-security secretary, replied that the system was “evolving” as better information on terror makes more “targeted actions and prevention measures” available.

He cited the Code Orange alert during the holiday season as an example. When the threat level was lowered Jan. 9, the department recommended for the first time that “several industry sectors and geographic locales continue on a heightened alert status.”

Lawmakers also were concerned about advising the public on how it should behave when the threat level is increased.

“When they are on high alert,” Rep. Christopher Shays, Connecticut Republican, said of Israeli authorities, “there are certain things they don’t want [the public] to do,” such as large assemblies like those that took place across the country on New Year’s Eve.

“Tell me one thing that you don’t want the public to do” when the threat level rises, demanded Mr. Shays, who had urged people not to attend the Times Square celebration on New Year’s Eve and came under fire from New York officials for his warning.

When Adm. Loy suggested that he would address the issue in a closed-door session, Mr. Shays became visibly angry.

“Why?” he demanded, before being gaveled down by the chairman. “Why should you know, and I know and other people know, but not the public?”

Later he told reporters that his “outrage” about the “bureaucratic stupidity” of the officials’ unwillingness to talk about threats in public had angered him.

“That’s why I lost it,” he said.

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