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26 February 2024

US to black out colour-coded terror alerts

In a sign of just how vague it has become, the colour has not changed from orange, or elevated, since 2006 (FILE)


The United States is scrapping its colour-coded threat advisories drafted in the wake of 9/11, as a lawmaker criticized Wednesday a system that "taught Americans to be scared."

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who ordered a review of the system in July 2009, is expected to announce a revamp Thursday during an annual address on the state of US security.

The system launched in 2002 offered a rainbow of threat levels, from the lowest level green to blue (guarded), yellow (elevated), orange (high) and red (severe). The higher the threat condition, the greater the risk of a terror attack, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

But the system initiated by then-president George W Bush was often mocked by critics as a relic of post-September 11, 2001 frenzy that caused alarm without explaining the reasons for the alerts.

"The old colour-coded system taught Americans to be scared, not prepared," said Representative Bennie Thompson, the top Democrat on the House Committee on Homeland Security.

"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," he added in a statement, applauding Napolitano for her "decision to create a common sense approach to alerting the public when credible threats arise."

Republican Pete King, the committee's chairman, also backed the move to replace the color-coded alerts featured in public service announcements at US airports.

"Though the system served a valuable purpose in the terrible days and months following the terrorist attacks of Sept 11th, it was clearly time for the current color-coded system to be replaced with a more targeted system," he said.

King said he would work with Napolitano to help implement the changes, but said DHS faced the challenge of "balancing the need to provide useful and timely information with the need to protect sensitive information."

The agency declined to provide details on what would replace the band of colours, though ABC News reported it would institute a more specific public alert system similar to the one used in Britain.

DHS sent its draft proposal to the White House for review last November, with a goal to "replace a system that communicates nothing with a system that communicates precise, actionable information based on the latest intelligence," a senior Homeland Security official told The Washington Post at the time.

The threat level mostly hovered around the yellow and orange range, never dipping to green or blue. It only reached red once, on August 10, 2006, amid a disrupted Al-Qaeda plot targeting transatlantic flights.

In a sign of just how vague it has become, the colour has not changed from orange, or elevated, since 2006.