US color-coded terror warnings to go by April 27


Published: Wednesday, January 26, 2011 at 8:44 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 27, 2011 at 12:16 a.m.

WASHINGTON — By the end of April, terror threats to the U.S. will no longer be described in shades of green, blue, yellow, orange and red, The Associated Press has learned.

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In this March 12, 2002 file photo, the color-coded terrorism warning system is shown in Washington. By the end of April, terror threats to the U.S. will no longer be described in shades of green, blue, yellow, orange and red, The Associated Press has learned Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011. (AP Photo/Joe Marquette, File)

The nation's color-coded terror warning system will be phased out beginning this week, according to government officials familiar with the plan. The officials requested anonymity to speak ahead of an announcement scheduled Thursday by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

The Homeland Security Department and other government agencies have been reviewing the Homeland Security Advisory System's usefulness for more than a year. One of the most notable changes to come: The public will no longer hear automated recordings at U.S. airports stating that the threat level is orange.

The Obama administration will take the next three months to roll out a replacement, which will be called the National Terrorism Advisory System. The new plan calls for notifying specific audiences about specific threats. In some cases, it might be a one-page threat description sent to law enforcement officials describing the threat, what law enforcement needs to do about it and what the federal government is doing, one of the officials said.

When agency officials think there is a threat the public should know about, they will issue an announcement and rely on news organizations and social media outlets to get the word out.

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the old threat system served a valuable purpose in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but that a more targeted system was needed.

"It sounds to me like the changes they are proposing make sense," King said in a statement. "We will have to wait and see how they implement this new, more targeted system. I expect the biggest challenge for DHS will be balancing the need to provide useful and timely information with the need to protect sensitive information."

The five-tiered, color-coded terror warning system, created after the Sept. 11 attacks, was one of the Bush administration's most visible anti-terrorism programs. Criticized as too vague to be useful in communicating the terror threat to the public, it quickly became the butt of late-night talk show jokes.

The government hasn't made changes in the colored alert levels since 2006, despite an uptick in attempted attacks against the U.S. However, the government has changed security protocols since then based on threats. For example, new airport security measures were introduced after an effort to bring down a Detroit-bound jetliner on Christmas Day 2009.

"The old Bush color-coded system taught Americans to be scared, not prepared," said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee. "Each and every time the threat level was raised, very rarely did the public know the reason, how to proceed, or for how long to be on alert."

Under that 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.

The use of colors emerged from a desire to clarify the nonspecific threat information that intelligence officials were receiving after the 2001 attacks.

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