U.S. to drop color-coded terror alerts

By John Schwartz

New York Times News Service

Published: Thursday, Nov. 25 2010 8:55 p.m. MST

In this file photo Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge unveils a color-coded terrorism warning system in Washington. The Homeland Security Department says it will review the multicolored terror alert system.

Joe Marquette, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

There goes another punch line.

The Department of Homeland Security is planning to get rid of the color-coded terrorism alert system. Known officially as the Homeland Security Advisory System, the five-color scheme was introduced by the Bush administration in March 2002.

Red, the highest level, meant "severe risk of terrorist attacks." The lowest level, green, meant "low risk of terrorist attacks." Between those were blue (guarded risk), yellow (significant) and orange (high).

The nation has generally lived in the yellow and orange range. The threat level has never been green, or even blue.

In an interview on "The Daily Show" last year, the homeland security chief, Janet Napolitano, said the department was "revisiting the whole issue of color codes and schemes as to whether, you know, these things really communicate anything to the American people any more."

The answer, apparently, is no.

The color-coded threat levels were doomed to fail because "they don't tell people what they can do — they just make people afraid," said Bruce Schneier, an author on security issues.

He said the system was "a relic of our panic after 9/11" that "never served any security purpose."

The Homeland Security Department said in a statement that the colors would be replaced with a new system — recommendations are still under review — that should provide more clarity and guidance. The change was first reported by The Associated Press.

"The goal is to replace a system that communicates nothing," the agency said, "with a partnership approach with law enforcement, the private sector and the American public that provides specific, actionable information based on the latest intelligence."

The department has already begun working toward the goal of providing more specific alerts.

After a Nigerian citizen, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was accused of trying to bring down a Detroit-bound plane last Christmas with explosives, the department issued new guidelines to airports and airlines without raising the threat level.

While the system may have had limited usefulness for the U.S. public, it proved to be comedy gold for late-night shows.

Conan O'Brien joked, "Champagne-fuchsia means we're being attacked by Martha Stewart." Jay Leno said, "They added a plaid in case we were ever attacked by Scotland."

Meanwhile, critics of the Bush administration argued that the system was a political tool.

And even Tom Ridge, the secretary of homeland security under President George W. Bush, has raised questions. In his memoir, "The Test of Our Times: America Under Siege ...And How We Can Be Safe Again," Ridge said then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pushed for an elevated terrorism level in October 2004 after a threatening tape from Osama bin Laden was revealed.

Ridge wrote after "a vigorous, some might say dramatic, debate, I wondered, 'is this about security, or politics?'"

While the security level ultimately was not raised, he said the incident helped him decide that it was time to leave the government in February 2005.

Amy Wax, president of the International Association of Color Consultants North America, said — perhaps not surprisingly — colors could be an effective part of a warning system if tied to specific action.

"How are we going to take those instructions and apply it to our lives?" she said. "Are we going to go to the airport, or not go to the airport?"

She said the agency's use of "childish" primary colors like red, yellow and blue might have diluted the impact.

"Purple, orange and magenta might create a sense of something that would get attention," she said.

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