The United States announced Thursday an end to the color-coded alert system drafted in the wake of 9/11, citing the need to keep citizens better informed in the event of a terror threat.
The old guide, to be phased out by late April, will be replaced by a two-tiered National Terrorism Advisory System detailing more specific warnings, with either an “imminent threat” or “elevated threat” of a terror attack, said President Barack Obama’s Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
The alerts rainbow, launched in 2002 by then-president George W. Bush, ranged from the lowest level green to blue (guarded), yellow (elevated), orange (high) and red (severe).
The system was often mocked by critics as a relic of post-September 11, 2001 frenzy that caused alarm without explaining the reasons for the alerts.
“This new system is built on a clear and simple premise: when a credible threat develops that could impact the public, we will tell you and provide whatever information we can so that you know how to keep yourselves, your families and your communities safe,” Napolitano said in a speech at George Washington University that she described as her debut “state of homeland security” address.
“The alerts will be specific to the threat posed,” she said.
Depending on the threat, the warnings may be issued just to government agencies, law enforcement, or private businesses, but in the event of a broader threat they could be issued to the general public, Napolitano added.
“They may recommend certain actions… and they will have a specific end date. You can clap on that one, yes,” she said in an apparent acknowledgment of the frustrations many Americans have voiced over the constant state of heightened alert critics of the system say left the country in a perpetual state of fear since 9/11.
DHS said in a statement the new alerts “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, businesses and governments can take.”
DHS has been mulling doing away with the color alerts since 2009.
Last November DHS sent a draft proposal of the new system to the White House, 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 color has not changed from orange, or elevated, since 2006.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike have backed the move to replace the color alerts, which were featured in public service announcements at US airports.
“The current color-coded system is too blunt an instrument,” said Susan Collins, the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
DHS “must ensure that the new system will effectively disseminate threat information in a timely manner and provide sound guidance to the public and affected homeland security partners on the actions they should take to protect themselves and the nation.”
Napolitano also noted the increasing number of US citizens and legal residents arrested for planning to carry out terror attacks, saying authorities had to move beyond focusing efforts largely outside US borders.
She cited the “arrest of more than two dozen Americans on terror-related charges over the past two years,” including Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad, sentenced last year to life in prison for his botched car bomb attempt in New York’s Times Square.