The Obama administration next week is expected to create an official committee to consider modifying or even abolishing the widely ridiculed color-coded terrorism alert system introduced by the Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks.
Current and former government officials, who asked for anonymity when discussing nonpublic information, told NEWSWEEK that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will appoint a "task force" made up of national, state, and local government experts, possibly including governors and mayors, to examine whether the color-coded system has outlived its usefulness. Bush administration officials who developed and oversaw the system may also play a role. The committee is likely to solicit comments about the alert system from industries affected by it, including airlines and companies that make or ship hazardous materials. The committee will have 60 days to examine the system and draw up recommendations on its future.
Democratic Rep. Jane Harman, who chairs a House Homeland Security subcommittee on intelligence and counter-terrorism, told NEWSWEEK that reevaluating the color-coded alert system was "a good idea ... It has become meaningless to the public." Harman says that she advised Napolitano that the government should "retire the fear card ... Prepare, don't scare, the public." She says the color-coding system had become so ineffective that even top officials like Tom Ridge, George W. Bush's first homeland-security secretary, used to make jokes about it.
The system grades the perceived terror threat facing the U.S. at five levels: Red (severe risk of terrorist attacks); Orange (high risk of terrorist attacks); Yellow (elevated/significant risk of terrorist attacks); Blue (guarded/general risk of terrorist attacks); and Green (low risk of terrorist attacks). Since 9/11, the alert level has mostly fluctuated between Orange and Yellow. After political foes criticized the Bush White House for allegedly manipulating the alert level on occasion for political advantage, the administration downplayed the system, and it has since largely faded from the public's memory.
The Homeland Security Department declined to comment.