Tuesday, July 13, 2004

The color-coded terrorist alert system used by the Homeland Security Department does not provide federal, state and local officials with enough information to prepare for an attack and lacks a protocol for communicating a change in its status, a government study said.

The 28 federal agencies and 56 states and territories surveyed said they “did not receive specific threat information and guidance, which they believe hindered their ability to determine and implement protective measures,” said the study conducted by the Government Accountability Office, formerly named the General Accounting Office.

It also said the Homeland Security Department should document its protocols for communicating threat level changes and explain the methods, timing and content of information it has received concerning threats. Warning should include the specific information, nature and location of a threat.

Agencies and states often learn the threat level is being raised from the news media instead of the Homeland Security Department, according to the report.

Homeland Security officials have reviewed the study released Monday, concurred with the GAO’s findings and are acting on the recommendations.

However, Anna Dixon, Homeland’s GAO liaison, said in a response some communication would continue to be problematic.

“The report implies and we fully agree, that terrorist threats are substantially different in nature and as such full application of the risk communication principles will be somewhat problematic in many situations,” she wrote.

The study was requested by Rep. Christopher Cox, California Republican and chairman of the Select Committee on Homeland Security, and Rep. Jim Turner, Texas Democrat and ranking member of the committee.

“The recommendations of the GAO to improve the Department of Homeland Security’s threat advisory system must be made to preserve public confidence and responsiveness to the warnings,” Mr. Turner said. “A lack of trust in the system will destroy its value to our public safety.”

Mr. Cox said raising the terror threat is the most important communication American citizens will ever receive from the federal government and it must be precise.

“As experience has demonstrated, these communications are most effective and efficient when they can be tailored to a specific region or sector,” Mr. Cox said. “GAO’s findings support this and provide clear recommendations to improve the system.”

The advisory system was established in March 2002 and announced at elevated, or Code Yellow. It has been raised five times to Code Orange, high alert, before being lowered back to Code Yellow, but has never reached red alert, severe.

Costs of raising the threat level were also reviewed, however, the GAO said the survey was incomplete.

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