Panel recommends 3 terror alerts

September 15, 2009 4:19:42 PM PDT
A special task force recommended Tuesday that if the Obama administration keeps color-coded terror alerts, the number of colors and levels of risk should be reduced from five to three. The recommendations come after a 60-day bipartisan review of the often ridiculed color-coded terror alert system.

The task force was divided on whether the colors should be eliminated, but all agreed that if the administration chooses to keep the colors, there should be only three tiers, said Fran Townsend, the former homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush. Townsend, who co-chaired the task force, explained the recommendations during a teleconference Tuesday afternoon.

The color-coded terrorism advisories have long been derided by late-night TV comics and portrayed by some Democrats as a tool for Bush administration political manipulation.

Under the current system, green, at the bottom, signals a low danger of attack; blue signals a general risk; yellow, a significant risk; orange, a high risk; and red, at the top, warns of a severe threat. It was put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and was designed to help emergency responders get prepared. The nation has never been below the third threat level, yellow -- an elevated or significant risk of terrorist attack.

"There should be a focus on lowering the alert status," Townsend said.

The review determined the government's decisions for raising and lowering the terror alert levels need to be more transparent. When the alert level is raised, it should be reviewed after a certain period of time. And if it is determined that the level must remain where it is, the homeland security secretary needs to explain why it's necessary to remain at a heightened state of alert.

In its 17-page report, the task force suggested the administration use these tiers:

--Yellow or guarded: constant state of vigilance to protect against a terrorist attack.

--Orange or elevated: increased protective measures based on specific threat information regarding a known or suspected terrorist plot.

--Red or high alert: maximum protective measures to protect against an imminent or ongoing terrorist attack.

The recommendation to reduce the number of colors is in line with a suggestion from former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. In an interview with The Associated Press, Chertoff said, "I think the lower levels are unlikely to be achieved in any reasonable period of time."

Though some members of the task force argued for scrapping the system altogether, that move could prove complicated because many local governments have policies and procedures triggered when the federal government changes the alert level.

The task force also recommended that the federal government hire people to manage the system and formalize the processes for communicating the messages to the public and first responders -- something that has yet to be done, Townsend said.

The alert level has not been changed since 2006, when it was raised from yellow to red then lowered to orange in the aviation sector after terrorist plans to blow up jetliners en route to the U.S. from Britain were discovered.

The 17-member task force included Democrats and Republicans, mayors, governors, police executives and public and private security experts. It was a balanced group designed to not only evaluate the alert system but also to provide political cover from critics for any changes to the color-coded system.

Homeland Security spokeswoman Sara Kuban said Secretary Janet Napolitano plans to review the recommendations and share them with the president and other members of his cabinet.

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