January 26, 2011 -- Tomorrow Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano will announce that the much maligned color-code threat level, formally called the Homeland Security Advisory System, will be replaced with a more specific public alert system according to officials briefed on the issue.
In July, 2009 DHS Secretary 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. A report prepared by the Task Force noted, "Task Force membership believes the color code system has suffered from a lack of credibility and clarity leading to an erosion of public confidence such that it should be abandoned."
The system has not been raised or lowered since 2006 and officials say they have been better able to tailor security procedures without making changes to the color code system. While DHS officials declined to comment on the changes, which will be detailed Thursday by the Secretary in a speech at the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute, officials briefed on the issue say the new system will resemble terrorism alerts that are used by the United Kingdom.
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.
"The old color coded system taught Americans to be scared, not prepared. 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." said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS). "I applaud the Secretary for her decision to create a common sense approach to alerting the public when credible threats arise."
The 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 an interview with ABC News last November former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff described his reluctance to keep raising and lowering the threat level, "I wasn't so much thinking about credibility of the system as I was about not letting the system become part of the background noise, where people are so used to having the level changed on a very general basis that after a while they ignore it."
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.