WASHINGTON – The Homeland Security Department will review and possibly replace the often-ridiculed multicolored terror alert system created after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Since it was created in 2002, the system has been confusing and became the butt of jokes by late-night television comics.
Critics have said assigning different categories to different colors is too vague an approach to deliver enough information to be useful. And Democrats said the Bush administration used it for political manipulation.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano appointed a task force Tuesday to determine in 60 days how effective the current system is.
"My goal is simple: to have the most effective system in place to inform the American people about threats to our country," Napolitano said in a statement.
The 17-member task force consists of Democrats and Republicans and will be chaired by former FBI Director William Webster and the former White House homeland security adviser, Fran Townsend.
The system which goes from green, signaling a low danger of attack, to red, signaling a severe threat of attack, could get an overhaul — or could be eliminated entirely.
There's been bipartisan concern in Congress about the current system and in 2007 required the department to "provide greater specificity in its threat advisories and warnings," and include countermeasures as part of the program.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., who chairs the Senate's Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said he would support the review and hoped it would achieve what Congress asked for two years ago. The top Republican on the committee, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, explained Congress' reasoning behind the requirements added in 2007: "Rather than rely solely on a color-coded designation, we wanted to make more information available to citizens, first responders and the private sector, so that appropriate steps could be taken by local officials and the general public."
The system was widely panned from the outset. Democrats in particular criticized it in recent years, suggesting at times that the Bush administration was using the alert codes to swing public opinion by focusing attention on national security — a signature issue then for the Republican White House.
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 it was discovered that terrorists planned to blow up jetliners en route to the U.S. from Britain.
The nation has never been below yellow since 2001, although Hawaii put itself at blue for a year after the national system was adopted. It has since raised the level to yellow.
The United States hasn't been attacked since 2001, although several plots have been disrupted.
The department will accept public comment on the system by e-mail to hsasreview(at)dhs.gov.