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'Concise' terror alertsto replace color codes

The Obama administration announced Thursday that it will scrap the color-coded terror threat alert system that was put in place after Sept. 11, 2001, and that became a symbol of the nation's anxiety after the attacks.

In its place, the White House plans to introduce a new two-tiered warning system aimed at providing more specific information about emerging threats and appropriate ways to respond.

The change was announced by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in a speech at George Washington University. It marks the demise of one of the signature post-Sept. 11 initiatives of the George W. Bush administration.

"This means that the days are numbered for the automated recordings at airports, and announcements about a color code level that were, too often, accompanied by little practical information," Napolitano said, according to the text of her prepared remarks.

The soon-to-be abandoned system was often criticized for raising anxiety more than awareness and became routine fodder for the monologues of late-night television talk show hosts.

The shift comes at a time when the United States is struggling to keep pace with threats from al-Qaeda and potent new offshoots, as well as a growing number of plots conceived inside the United States.

"Today, we operate under the premise that individuals prepared to carry out terrorist acts might already be in the country and could carry out further acts of terrorist violence with little or no warning," Napolitano said in the speech, which was billed as a homeland security companion to President Obama's State of the Union address.

The past two years have seen a rise in the number of arrests of U.S. residents on terrorism-related charges, including Najibullah Zazi, a legal permanent resident who has pleaded guilty in a plot to attack the New York City subway system, and Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized U.S. citizen who has pleaded guilty in a plot to explode a car bomb in Times Square.

The existing terrorism alert system, which has been in place since 2002, employs a band of colors - green, blue, yellow, orange and red - in a stoplight-like display meant to signal the nation's state of alert. Green indicates a low level and red a severe risk of attack.

The threat is currently set at yellow, or elevated, although officials set the threat to the airline sector at orange, meaning high. The fact that the main color hasn't been adjusted since 2006 is seen by some as a measure of how much the system has faded in relevance.

Napolitano said the five-color system will be phased out over the next 90 days, giving way to new alerts that will be categorized as "imminent" or "elevated" and will contain "a concise summary of the potential threat, information about actions being taken to ensure public safety, and recommended steps that individuals and communities can take."

The alerts are to be issued as statements from the Homeland Security Department.

U.S. officials have cited the travel warnings issued this past summer about terrorism plots targeting Europe as an example of the sort of specific information the new system is designed to provide.

Greg Miller covers intelligence agencies and terrorism for The Washington Post.


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