U.S. Should Simplify Terror Warning System, Panel Says

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A bipartisan task force recommended Tuesday that the Obama administration simplify and reset the U.S. government's iconic color-coded terrorism warning system to the lowest of three new levels, if it keeps using levels at all.

The findings, which Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said she will share with the White House and national security officials, could lead to substantial changes to a widely panned but politically sensitive tool created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to alert the nation to threats.

Since its inception, critics inside government and out have ridiculed the Homeland Security Advisory System -- keyed to five colors running from green, or "low risk," to red, or "severe risk" -- for being vague and unhelpful.

In raising and lowering alert levels 17 times from 2002 to 2006, the Bush administration opened itself to charges that it was manipulating the system for political effect. Tom Ridge, President George W. Bush's first homeland security secretary, acknowledged in a recent memoir that his personal concerns about that possibility contributed to his decision to step down after Bush's reelection in 2004.

In practice, the nation has never been below the third, or middle-threat, tier -- yellow, or "elevated risk." Analysts say it is unlikely any politician would risk lowering the level, regardless of threat intelligence, because any unexpected attack could hand opponents a political club.

Frances Fragos Townsend, co-chairman of the Napolitano task force and Bush's former homeland security adviser, said the system has lost the confidence of the public.

"The system's ability to communicate useful information in a credible manner has been poor," Townsend told a Department of Homeland Security advisory committee, which accepted her group's report and forwarded it to Napolitano. In announcing six findings and 20 recommendations, Townsend said reforms should focus on increasing the transparency of government warnings.

"The American people should be provided with as much detail -- consistent with national security -- that is focused on specific locations and sectors at specific risk," she said. They should also be confident that "alert states, if elevated, will be lowered back to normal" within 15 days, absent credible intelligence of a continuing threat, she said.

Specifically, the task force said the country should redefine the current threat level -- yellow -- to serve as a lower baseline, called "guarded." Orange would be redesignated as "elevated risk," and red would remain "high alert," for an imminent or ongoing attack.

Such a shift would follow a similar move by Britain, which lowered its terrorism warning level this summer. The U.S. alert level has not been changed since 2006, when the aviation sector was lifted from yellow to red, then lowered to orange, after a British-based plot to use liquid explosives to blow up transatlantic airliners was disrupted.

Among other findings, the group said the government should strengthen policies, procedures and staffing to decide when and why the threat level should be changed and how the White House will be consulted, and should formalize how the public, first responders and others are kept informed, replacing ad hoc practices.

The panel deadlocked over whether to abandon the tiered and color-based system altogether. Proponents said many local and state governments have systems tied to when the federal government changes its level.

Members also noted that the system has evolved into a more effective communications channel for the private sector and across government than for the general public.

Napolitano named the 17-member panel, which includes governors, mayors, public safety officials and academic experts, in July. In a written statement, Napolitano spokeswoman Sara Kuban said the secretary thanked the panel, looked forward to reviewing its recommendations and "believes the American people deserve an alert system that is effective and trusted."

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