- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Code magenta? Fuchsia alert? Throw out the Crayola box?

The Department of Homeland Security is preparing to restructure the color-coded terror alert system.

Secretary Janet Napolitano named a task force Tuesday to review the Homeland Security Advisory System (HSAS) and report back to her in 60 days how the outdated system can work more efficiently, or be eliminated entirely.

“My goal is simple: to have the most effective system in place to inform the American people about threats to our country,” Ms. Napolitano said.

Created in March 2002, the color code debuted at “yellow,” or “elevated” risk of a terrorist attack, and has been raised 15 times to “orange” or “high” risk of attack.

It was raised only once to “red,” or severe risk, on Aug. 10, 2006, after a group of suspected terrorists was arrested in Britain, and the warning applied specifically to flights originating from Britain to the U.S. Three days later the risk was lowered to orange, and the system has not been elevated since.

The threat level has never been lowered to “blue,” or “guarded” risk or the bottom of the chart at “green” or “low” risk.

The chart has been ridiculed by comedians and criticized by local and state officials who say they are forced to spend millions of dollars responding to threat level rises without information as to whether it directly affects their regions.

Congress legislated changes in 2007 that required the Homeland Security Department to provide more specific information in threat warnings and to include information on protective countermeasures as part of the system.

Although there was support from Republicans and Democrats to eliminate the color codes, the Bush administration insisted on keeping the color chart but did tweak the system to specify threats including the financial sector in 2004, mass transit in 2005 after the London subway bombings, and airlines in 2006 following the arrests in Britain.

“These provisions of the act have not yet been fully implemented, so I welcome this review as a step in carrying out that requirement and look forward to working with DHS on this review,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent and chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

Rep. Michael McCaul, Texas Republican and ranking member of the Homeland Security subcommittee on intelligence, said the new system needs to be “more relevant and useful.”

“The scale was originally meant for law enforcement and was once useful, but the public has clearly become fatigued by its ambiguity,” Mr. McCaul said. “As long as the threat of a terror attack exists against America we have an obligation to warn our citizens.”

Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican and Homeland Security Committee ranking member, said she supports the Obama administration’s decision to re-examine and rework the system.

“In 2007, Sen. Lieberman and I authored a law that required the Department of Homeland Security to revise the current system and to provide the maximum level of detail possible. Rather than rely solely on a color-coded designation, we wanted to make more information available to citizens, first responders, and the private sector, so that appropriate steps could be taken by local officials and the general public,” Ms. Collins said.

The task force is made up of Democrats and Republicans, elected officials at the state and local level, security experts, and law enforcement officials.

Co-chairing the task force are Fran Townsend, President George W. Bush’s homeland security assistant, and Judge William Webster, former CIA director under President Reagan and FBI director under President Carter.

Ms. Napolitano also appointed to the task force Randy Beardsworth, former assistant secretary for strategic plans at Homeland Security when the department was first created.

“It was a blunt instrument, and now it’s time to look at it and see what will serve us best today as the department has matured and technology has matured,” said Mr. Beardsworth, now a principal at Catalyst Partners.

“We’ve gotten smarter and the technology has gotten better over time,” Mr. Beardsworth said.

“It’s been a while since we even used it, and what Secretary Napolitano wants is for us to take a look and see what’s needed for the way we operate today,” Mr. Beardsworth said.

• Audrey Hudson can be reached at ahudson@washingtontimes.com.

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