Terror alert system on its way out

The threat level has never gone below yellow, once went to red and now may fade to black.

The Homeland Security Department is poised to end its five-tiered, color-coded terrorism warning system, a post-Sept. 11 endeavor that has been called too vague to be useful and has been mostly ignored or mocked by the public.

So forgotten is the system that the Homeland Security Department hasn’t changed the alert level in four years, even after the attempted bombing of a flight on Christmas Day 2009. Instead of changing the alert color, within 24 hours of the foiled plot the department issued new security measures to airlines and businesses.

One alternative under consideration is to change to only two threat levels: elevated and imminent. Under the new model, whenever the threat level is changed to imminent, government officials would be expected to be as specific as possible in describing the threat and recommending a response without jeopardizing national security.


Homeland Security spokeswoman Amy Kudwa declined to comment on any recommendations that might be under review, but said that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was “committed to providing specific, actionable information based on the latest intelligence.”

A senior Homeland Security official, who did not want to speak on the record about a decision still under review, was blunter: “The goal is to replace a system that communicates nothing.”

The domestic security advisory system was created in 2002 under then-Secretary Tom Ridge. In 2004, the department began assigning color threat levels to general targets such as aviation, financial services and mass transit.

The current threat levels are green (low), blue (guarded), yellow (elevated), orange (high) and red (severe).

The threat was elevated to red only once, on Aug. 10, 2006, when British police disrupted a plot to detonate explosives on airliners.