Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Department of Homeland Security will officially scrap the much-derided color-coded terror-alert system next week and replace it with a tailored, specific alert system designed to give the public better information about "credible" terror threats facing the U.S.

The color-coded system, which debuted in March 2002, "has faded in utility, except for late-night comics," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a conference call Wednesday. She had pledged earlier this year to replace the old system, which came under fire shortly after its inception for its lack of precision and detailed information.

The new program, called the National Terrorism Advisory System, will go live April 26. Intelligence analysts from the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, and other government agencies will decide when to recommend a specific alert.

If she concurs, Ms. Napolitano will then make a public announcement, followed by detailed information on the Homeland Security website and alerts disseminated through social-media sites.

Classified bulletins to local law-enforcement agencies will continue under the new system.

The fundamental difference with the old color codes is the explicit recognition that the U.S. faces a constant threat of terrorist activity, "an elevated baseline," Ms. Napolitano said.

The new alerts will inform the public about "credible threats above that baseline," she said. The new alerts could be specific to certain places, certain sectors such as commercial aviation or hotels, or could detail specific terrorist tactics, trends, or behavior that the public should be aware of, she said.

The alerts will expire after two weeks unless fresh intelligence comes to light recommending a sustained alert. That stands in sharp contrast to the color-coded system, which "never seemed to disappear," Ms. Napolitano said.

For example, under the old system, U.S. airports have been at the second-highest threat level, orange, for almost five years. The two lowest levels on the color-coded threat system were never used.

Unlike the old system, the new alerts may also ask the public to play a bigger part, by looking for a vehicle matching a certain description, she said.

"For the public to play an active part, they need more information, certainly more than from the color-coded system," she said. The lack of public participation in homeland security, civil defense, and disaster preparation has been a constant criticism of DHS since it was created in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.


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