Napolitano: Colored threats replaced by 'formal, detailed alerts' in three months

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced on Thursday that the department is planning to phase out its color-coded threat advisory system over the next three months.

In its place, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) plans to issue “formal, detailed alerts” about “a specific or credible terrorist threat” to law enforcement officials, private businesses – such as shopping malls or hotels – and the American public, depending on the nature of the threat.

“These alerts will include a clear statement that there is an ‘imminent threat’ or ‘elevated threat,’ " said Napolitano. “The alerts also will provide 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.”

Napolitano, speaking at George Washington University in what she dubbed her first “State of America’s Homeland Security” address, said the new system was developed with the input of law enforcement officials, officials from previous White House administrations and former governors and mayors.

The color-coded threat advisory system was put into place following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as a way for the American public to gauge the level of violent threats against the United States based on intelligence that law enforcement officials had received.

The incremental risk level is represented by colors — from green as the lowest risk to blue, yellow, orange and red — and the precautionary measures to be undertaken by the government and travel officials, such as the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), in response would correspond accordingly.

But the system, which has largely remained at yellow for domestic travel and orange for national security, has been widely criticized as ineffective. Napolitano acknowledged the frustration of the public and members of Congress with the system.

“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,” she said.

The ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), applauded the ending of the color-coded system, saying that many of his fellow lawmakers thought it was used by the Bush administration as “a political scare tactic.”

“The old color coded system taught Americans to be scared, not prepared,” said Thompson in a statement. “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.”

“Many in Congress felt the system was being used as a political scare tactic — raising and lowering the threat levels when it best suited the Bush Administration.”

The chairman of the committee, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), also lauded the decision to end the system, but said he was reserving judgment about the new system until it was implemented.

“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,” said King in a statement.

Napolitano heralded many of the agency’s recent undertakings in the areas of cycbersecurity, border security, aviation security and in battling homegrown terrorism, saying that the security of the nation was the strongest it has been in the past 10 years.

“The Director of National Intelligence, the CIA, and the entire Intelligence Community, of which DHS is a member, is producing more and better streams of intelligence than at any time in the past,” she said.

The new threat advisory system is part of DHS’s push to engage local communities and law enforcement officials in identifying suspicious activity or behavior, which was launched to the forefront last year with the department’s “See something — say something” campaign. That campaign broadcasts pre-recorded messages in major transportation hubs, and Napolitano said the department plans to extend these messages to other highly frequented locations, such as Wal-Marts and sports stadiums.

Dozens of students were in the audience on Thursday and Napolitano pushed them to consider a career with DHS, saying that the military’s recruitment poster for World War I depicting Uncle Sam with his finger pointed to the viewer and the words “I want you” was in need of an update.

“It is with the greatest respect that I say it’s time for a new recruitment poster,” said Napolitano. “Today, DHS wants you. We want a new generation of Americans to join the fight against the new generation of threats to our homeland.”
“All of these positions — all of them — come with the opportunity not only to do great work in this exciting field, but to serve your nation as well.”

Napolitano also said that in the event of a terrorist attack, she remains confident that the underlying values of “freedom, hard work, shared responsibility” would persevere.

“Common sense would say that in an open society with 8,000 miles of land borders, and 95,000 miles of coastline, a terrorist could get through, or a homegrown one could succeed,” she said. “Even if our enemies were to succeed in pulling off an attack on the homeland, they will never succeed in undermining those enduring values.”