Colour-coded US terror alerts may end

2010-11-24 19:39

Washington - The Homeland Security department is proposing to discontinue the colour-coded terror alert system that became a symbol of the country's jitters after the September 11 attacks and the butt of late-night talk show jokes.

The 8-year-old system, with its rainbow of five colours - from green, signifying a low threat, to red, meaning severe - became a fixture in airports, in government buildings and on newscasts. Over the past four years, millions of travellers have begun and ended their trips to the sound of airport recordings warning that the threat level is orange.

The system's demise would not be the end of terror alerts; instead, the alerts would become more descriptive and not as colourful. In the past two years, Obama administration officials have changed security protocols without changing the colour of the threat, such as introducing new airport security measures after a terrorist tried to bring down a Detroit-bound airliner last Christmas.

By scrapping the colours, President Barack Obama would abandon a system that critics long have said was too vague to be useful and that Democrats criticised as a political scare tactic.

And it would represent a formal undoing of one of the George W Bush administration's most visible legacies.

Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole said on ABC television on Wednesday that he believes the aim of the administration's plan is to help people better understand concepts about danger that may be too vague when conveyed through the colour-coded system.

"I think it's something that is under review to make it meaningful and relevant to the American people," he said. "I'm just not sure how relevant it is."

Common sense

He called Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's internal review "just a common sense approach" and said she should be credited with "making some judgements going forward".

Officials confirmed the recommendation and the draft proposal was described to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because other federal agencies are privately weighing in on the idea, and no final decision has been made.

Napolitano ordered a review of the system in July 2009. Earlier this year, the department decided the best way forward would be to scrap the colours and use more descriptive language to talk about terror threats. The recommendation is not related to the recent furore over airport security pat-downs and body scans.

The details of the new alert system - including the words that would be used to describe the threats - are still being worked out internally by multiple government agencies and the White House.

The Homeland Security department would not discuss the recommendations and did not know when a new system would be rolled out. The current coloured system remains in place.

"We are committed to providing specific, actionable information based on the latest intelligence," department spokesperson Amy Kudwa said.

An option under consideration is to go from five threat tiers to two: elevated and imminent. Under that model, when the threat level changes to imminent, government officials would be expected to be as specific as possible in describing the threat without jeopardising national security.

And an imminent threat would not last longer than a week, meaning the public wouldn't see a consistently high and ambiguous threat level.

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