Alerts, With Meaning

Obviously, the White House has taken a calculated risk in issuing various warnings of terrorist threats post 9/11. They're tough calls, and erring on the side of caution has been warranted. But the warnings typically have been vague, and the the public largely has been left in the dark.

That's partly why homeland security chief Tom Ridge announced a color-coded, five-stage national alert system this week, with input from state and local officials (see story, page 1).

Not unlike the military's internal threat-alert warning system, the idea is to "grade" threats - green being the least urgent, then blue, yellow, orange, and red. The multitude of law-enforcement agencies working to assess threats will use common criteria. That should increase coordination. The agreement also should help provide more specificity without compromising security.

The system is designed to give guidance to citizens, wherever they may live or work. Indeed, each alert will be followed with steps the public can, or must, take.

Such specifics can help boost credibility, and give Americans something tangible to be alert to. Still, terrorist threats, like a recent one based on interrogation of prisoners at Guantánamo and in Afghanistan, raise the possibility of less-than-credible information from suspect sources anxious to throw federal officials off the scent. It took a long time for officials to decide they had enough evidence to issue a warning.

Attorney General John Ashcroft recently noted the need for better information-gathering and coordination, saying: "Information is the best friend that freedom has." But turning that information into useful knowledge that can thwart terrorists must be part of the ongoing discussion among law-enforcement officials, even with the new scheme in place. Sketchy or questionable pieces of information without context can lead to unwarranted threat alerts of any hue. But with due sensibility applied, national alerts should be more consistent, so Americans can exercise watchfulness without fear and be better prepared.

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