Panel to Homeland Security: terror warning system doesn't work

A task force Tuesday recommended eliminating or overhauling the color-coded system, which has become a source of jokes and political controversy.

After much ridicule and political controversy, the United States’ color-coded terror warning system may be facing its end. That’s one of the recommendations a special task force made Tuesday to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano about the future of the terror warning system.

While some members of the group, advocated doing away with the color-coded system altogether, there was a unanimous agreement that if the system remains, reforms must be made to restore public confidence in it.

The system was created after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Between 2002 and 2006 the Bush administration raised or lowered the threat level 17 times, but it has never dropped to the bottom two levels.

Tom Ridge, the first homeland security secretary, wrote in his recent memoir that he faced pressure from the Bush administration to change the threat level for political reasons. This played a significant role in his decision to step down in 2004.

Under the current system, politicians would be unlikely to lower the threat level to one of the bottom tiers regardless of what intelligence they had because an unexpected terrorist attack could provide their enemies with lethal fodder, reports the Washington Post. With issues like this as part of the public discussion, the system has failed to win widespread confidence, says Frances Townsend, co-chairman of the Napolitano task force.

“The system's ability to communicate useful information in a credible manner has been poor,” Townsend told a Department of Homeland Security advisory committee. … “The American people should be provided with as much detail -- consistent with national security -- that is focused on specific locations and sectors at specific risk,” she said. They should also be confident that "alert states, if elevated, will be lowered back to normal" within 15 days, absent credible intelligence of a continuing threat, she said.

If the system remains, the task force recommends reducing the number of threat levels from five to three. It also said that if the authorities raise the threat level they should communicate to the public about the nature of the threat, what steps they are taking to stop a potential attack, and how citizens can protect themselves, reports CNN.

Although there was some discussion among the task force about broadening the warning system to include threats from disease pandemics or major natural disasters, such as hurricanes, the panel decided to keep the system dedicated to terror threats, reports the Wall Street Journal.

The bipartisan task force was made up of 17 members, which included governors, mayors, police officials, and private security experts, reports the Associated Press. The group spent 60 days reviewing the threat code system.

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