U.S. ends, Russia begins colour-coded terrorism alerts

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has announced that the United States will be phasing out the colour-coded terrorism alert program in favour of a system that is supposed to better inform the public about the nature and meaning of terrorism threats.  Homeland Security asserts that the colour-coded system was useful in the wake of 9/11 but is now outdated (Alan Levin, “Napolitano announces end to color-coded terror alerts,” USA Today, 26 January 2011):

“The old color-coded system taught Americans to be scared, not prepared,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the highest-ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee. “Each and every time the threat level was raised, very rarely did the public know the reason, how to proceed, or for how long to be on alert.”

Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y., the chairman of the committee, praised the move. “Though the system served a valuable purpose in the terrible days and months following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, it was clearly time for the current color-coded system to be replaced with a more targeted system,” he said.

Clark Ervin, a former inspector general at Homeland Security, said the color codes created confusion with the public because changes in the security level were often not explained by government officials. Ervin served on a task force that advised the department to come up with a better alert system.

The government will not abandon alerts completely. Napolitano said the department will continue to issue specific warnings to local law enforcement agencies, airlines or businesses if it fears there is heightened risk of an attack. Or it could issue broader alerts through public announcements, she said.

The article goes on to explain that Homeland Security is shifting its focus from the threat of international terrorism to potential ‘homegrown’ activity.

“Today, we operate under the premise that individuals prepared to carry out terrorist acts might already be in the country and could carry out further acts of terrorist violence with little or no warning,” Napolitano said. “We must all work to gain a better understanding of the behaviors, tactics and other indicators that could point to terrorist activity.”

Meanwhile, apparently oblivious to the lessons of the U.S. experience, Russia is fast-tracking implementation of a colour-coded terror alert system of its own in the wake of a deadly terrorist attack at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport (Ellen Barry, “Russia adopts color-coded terror alert system,” New York Times, 28 January 2011).

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