Say goodbye to those “orange” and “red” alert signs that tell the public – in very non-specific terms – about terror threats to the nation.
Instead, starting next Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security will issue much more specific information, either as an “elevated threat” that warns of a credible terrorist threat or an “imminent threat” that gives even more specific information such as an actual location or type of attack.
On Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano described the new system as a better way to keep the public informed about potential attacks.
“It will provide alerts on specific credible information about potential terrorist activity,” said Ms. Napolitano, speaking at a press conference in New York’s Grand Central Station. “They will give you as many details as we can provide in an unclassified form.”
“This is a common sense evolution of the system,” says Daniel Kaniewski, deputy director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute in Washington. “She has basically removed the lower levels and acknowledged we are at a certain level all the time.”
The new system will also tell Americans how they can help, how they can prepare for a potential threat and what they need to do to stay informed. To get this information, the Department of Homeland Security is setting up a web site (www.dhs.gov/alerts) and is planning to also communicate through some of the new social media such as Twitter and Facebook. In addition, the alerts will expire after two weeks unless the DHS decides the alert needs to be continued.
Napolitano says the new system, called the National Terrorism Advisory System, was necessary because the color-coded system did not communicate enough information. “What was the threat? What were you supposed to do? Where were you supposed to go to get up-to-date information?” In addition, the older system “had no natural way to be reduced if a threat dissipated or was removed,” she added.
It's a “sound, common-sense approach to distributing terror-related information," says New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.
From a practical standpoint, the change will mean travelers will no longer see color-coded threat announcements at airports, train stations and other venues.
This is a much better, system, since many people had “basically tuned out” the color-coded system, says Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D) of New York. It “never really ended and you didn’t know what it meant.”
Napolitano says some of the new alerts may be very limited in nature, for example, warning citizens about a credible threat to hotels, or shopping malls.
If DHS has descriptions of potential terrorists or license plate numbers, “some of that information we may make known, as well,” she adds.
However, Mr. Kaniewski points out that it is rare for security officials to have information that is so credible and specific that they won’t act on it before they warn the public. “If we know a bad guy is going to take X action at a specific time and he is under surveillance by the FBI, they will arrest him before he takes that action.”
Kaniewski says the challenge for Napolitano and other Homeland Security chiefs will be to determine how to meet actual threats and when those threats should be shared. “This is going to be very challenging to implement,” he says.
Napolitano first announced the change in January, in a speech at the Homeland Security Policy Institute. She then appointed a group of experts, such as former FBI chief Judge William Webster, to make suggestions on a new system. The last change to the alert system came from Michael Chertoff, the Secretary of Homeland Security under President Bush.
At the moment, no warnings of either an “elevated threat" or “imminent threat” face the nation, says Napolitano.