The idea behind the Homeland Security Department's alert- advisory system is sound - let the public and local officials know the government's estimation of the terrorist threat so they can act accordingly.
Yet problems with the color-coded alert system persist - and the government seems caught in a no-win situation: If it raises and lowers alert levels too frequently the public might become complacent. But if it doesn't issue an alert when there's a real threat, it looks as though government is asleep on the watch. And when it issues an alert with only a vague description of the threat, it confuses both the public and local officials.
Since its inception, the alert system has been raised to orange (high) four times (at a big cost to state and local "first responders"). It has never fallen below yellow (elevated).
Now a new report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service finds what most people already know: The alert system is vague and confuses an increasingly skeptical public.
The report offers such solutions as replacing the color palette with "general warnings concerning the threat of terrorist attacks" and creating a system that allows alert levels to be tailored more precisely to targets or regions. The second point certainly would be more useful.
What would not be useful is a system designed by 535 members of Congress. Congressional oversight is needed, but the Hill should leave the program's management in the executive branch, where it belongs.
Meanwhile, the government and the public will have to adjust, experiment, and refine as experience reveals what works and what doesn't. The public can do its part by maintaining an attitude of alertness, but not fear or panic. And it can make the effort to learn whichever alert system is in place.