- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Goodbye danger defined as yellow, orange and red.

The Homeland Security Department is looking to scrap the five-tiered color-coded terror warning system in favor of a streamlined one with as few as two alerts. The post-Sept. 11 George W. Bush-era system has been criticized as too vague to be useful in communicating the terror threat to the public and either ignored or the butt of jokes.

One option under consideration is to go to two threat levels instead of five: elevated and imminent. When the threat level would change to imminent under the new model, government officials would be expected to be as specific as possible in describing the threat without jeopardizing national security. An imminent threat would not last longer than a week, meaning the public wouldn’t see a consistently high and ambiguous threat level.

The eight-year-old alert system, with its rainbow of colors — from green, signifying a low threat, to red, meaning severe — has become a fixture in airports, government buildings and on newscasts.

Over the past four years, millions of travelers have begun and ended their trips to the sound of airport recordings warning that the threat level was orange, an alert that has become so routine that many simply tune it out. This could be the last holiday season they hear the monotonous message.

U.S. officials confirmed that the recommendation for a change had been made to President Obama, who has final say in the matter. The details of the proposal were described to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because no final decisions have been made.

The current system was one of the Bush administration’s most visible anti-terrorism programs.

The color has stayed the same since 2006: yellow for the country as a whole, meaning an elevated or significant risk, and orange for the aviation sector, a high risk. But the government has changed security protocols during that time without changing the color of the threat. For example, new airport security measures were introduced after a terrorist tried to bring down a Detroit-bound jetliner last Christmas.

The Homeland Security Department would not discuss the specific recommendations or estimate when a new system might be rolled out. The current color system remains in place.

“The overall sense is that we can do a better job of helping inform the public,” Transportation Security Administrator John S. Pistole told AP. There are several options on the table, he said. “For example, at the airport, instead of having that same recording that we’ve heard for all these years, replacing that with something more meaningful and relevant and timely.”

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ordered a review of the system in July 2009. Earlier this year, the department decided the best way forward would be to scrap the colors and use more descriptive language to talk about terror threats. With a new system, there would be an understanding with the public that there is a base-line level of vigilance needed in the U.S., but when the government gets information that suggests the threat is more specific, the new system would be used to communicate those details. One of the recommended names for the new system is the National Terrorist Advisory System, replacing the current Homeland Security Advisory System.

As part of her review in 2009, Ms. Napolitano solicited comments from the public about the current system. Some likened the color-coded system to the boy who cried wolf. Others criticized it for not following the natural color spectrum.

Under the current system, green, at the bottom, signals a low danger of attack; blue signals a general risk; yellow, a significant risk; orange, a high risk; and red, at the top, warns of a severe threat. Since the outset, the nation has never been below the third threat level, yellow an elevated or significant risk of terrorist attack.

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