Homeland Security Recommends Sunset for Color Code System

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The Department of Homeland Security is recommending that the Homeland Security Threat Advisory System -- known as the "color code" -- be scrapped in favor of warnings that would be more specific, according to senior administration officials.

The final decision is not expected for several weeks and is currently undergoing an interagency review and consultation with the White House. This change in DHS culture and philosophy began under former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, who grew weary of criticism and complaints about raising and lowering the threat level without specifics--often based on so-called intelligence "chatter".

In July, 2009, Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano ordered a 60-day review of the system used to inform the public of the terror threat environment to see if it needed to be altered. The task force appointed by Napolitano was split on whether to keep the current advisory system in place.

Officials briefed on the issue said security officials have been better able to tailor security procedures without making changes to the color code system. But officials say this may not mean the end of terrorism alerts.

One senior administration officials said, "We are committed to providing specific, actionable information based on the latest intelligence; when we make changes to the Homeland Security Advisory System, we will do so with this partnership approach in mind."

The system, initially set up in 2002, has been adjusted 16 times. The system, which spans the spectrum of colors from green -- or low -- risk of terrorist attack, to red -- or severe -- risk, has never gone below yellow -- or elevated -- risk.

Since 2004, the system has been raised to identify specific sectors which were under heightened alert. This first happened after counterterrorism investigators discovered al Qaeda surveillance tapes and casing reports, indicating that major institutions in the financial sector, including the International Monetary Fund/World Bank in Washington, D.C., Citigroup Center in New York and Prudential Plaza in New Jersey, were the targets of a possible bomb plot.

Threat Level for Aviation High

In August, 2006, the code was raised to red – or severe – when a plot to use liquid explosives to destroy up to eight airliners flying from the United Kingdom to the U.S. and Canada was uncovered. The plot was disrupted, and after three days, the code was lowered one level, to orange -- or high -- and has remained there ever since for the aviation sector. The current threat level for the rest of the United States is currently at Yellow.

Appearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in September, 2009, Napolitano said DHS considered raising the threat level again, after counterterrorism officials uncovered a plot by Najibullah Zazi to bomb the New York City subway system in the days after the 9/11 anniversary in 2009.

"We thought about it and rejected it, because we didn't have in the Zazi investigation any kind of the specific location time that, in our view, would justify actually raising the color code," Napolitano said at the time.

Other countries such as the U.K. and France currently use threat level systems to inform the public about the risk of an attack. In the U.K., the threat level is reviewed by the Security Service MI-5 and the Joint Terrorism Analysis Center.

The U.K. threat level system does not rely on colors but spans five levels from low -- meaning an attack is unlikely -- to critical -- indicating an attack is expected imminently. Currently the U.K. system is set at severe -- meaning that a terrorist attack is highly likely.

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