U.S. Will Scrap Its Color-Coded Terror Alerts, Napolitano Says

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

The U.S. is abandoning the color-coded terror-alert guide adopted by the Bush administration in favor of a system designed to provide more specific warnings, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said.

The new system will recommend what actions should be taken to guard against a specific threat, Napolitano said in a speech today at George Washington University in Washington. The department will begin phasing out the color codes today and end the system in April, she said.

“We will provide whatever information we can so you can know how to protect yourselves, your families and your communities,” she said.

The color coding, lampooned on such comedy shows as “Saturday Night Live,” has been criticized as being too vague by lawmakers, security analysts and travelers since its adoption after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In November, a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity said scrapping the color codes was under consideration.

The new initiative will be called the National Terrorism Advisory System, Napolitano said. Alerts will specify whether they are describing an “imminent threat” or an “elevated threat,” she said.

Depending on the threat, the alerts may be issued just to law enforcement or specific businesses, or may be distributed more broadly to the general public, Napolitano said.

Some of the details about the new system were disclosed yesterday by a U.S. official who requested anonymity.

Color-Code Critics

In its eight years, the color-coded alerts fluctuated between yellow for “elevated” and orange for “high,” reaching red for “severe” once, on Aug. 10, 2006.

In that instance, the alert was applied to flights coming from the U.K. after discovery of what officials said was a well-advanced plan suggesting that al-Qaeda was plotting to use liquid explosives and detonators disguised as electronic devices to blow up jetliners in midair.

The threat level was lowered to orange three days later and has remained there. The green or blue symbols, representing the lowest threat levels, have never been used.

In her speech, Napolitano also said that the country is more secure than it was two years ago when President Barack Obama took office.

The U.S. is “producing more and better streams of intelligence,” she said. Napolitano also cited an October agreement with 190 countries to increase international aviation-security standards and cut in half illegal border crossings from their all-time high.

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