- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 18, 2005


The Homeland Security Department would be forced to scale back its color-coded alert system for nationwide terror threats and tailor public warnings to specific, targeted locations under a House bill approved yesterday.

Changes in the threat system were part of a wide-ranging $34 billion bill, approved by a 424-4 vote, that would set Homeland Security priorities for next year.

It also would require the hiring of 2,000 border patrol agents ? far more than the 210 requested by President Bush ? and bolster efforts to remove illegal aliens from the United States.

Additionally, the bill directs Homeland Security to give more intelligence about nuclear and biological weapons to state, local and private-sector officials.

The White House issued a statement of tepid support for the legislation, saying it has serious concerns that parts of the bill could ?hinder the department’s ability to implement its various missions.?

The Senate is working on its own version of a homeland security bill, but a Republican spokeswoman could not offer a deadline for when it might be finished.

The color-coded system, introduced in March 2002, has been widely criticized for being too vague to help the public understand what kind of threat it faces.

?The system has provided more material for late-night comedians than effective information on threats for the public,? said Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi Democrat.

Under the House legislation, Homeland Security would have to give specific information about an attack’s target and how to respond to the threat. It would also make the color system optional.

Ideally, Republican aides said, alerts would be issued to geographic regions or industry, similar to when threat levels were raised to orange, or high risk, at financial sectors in New York, Washington and northern New Jersey last August.

The House plan also changes the so-called ?30-minute rule? that prohibits airplane passengers from leaving their seats within a half-hour of flying in or out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Washington. The amendment by Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, Michigan Republican, would reduce the time to 15 minutes. The ban has been in place since the September 11 terror attacks.

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