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Colors could disappear from US terror alert system
Updated: 2009-07-15 08:13

WASHINGTON: The Obama administration has begun a review that could spell the end of the color-coded terrorism advisories, long derided by late night TV comics and portrayed by some Democrats as a tool for Bush administration political manipulation.

It's not likely the review will plunge an alert system into the dark all together, but short of that, everything is on the table for consideration, according to one administration official familiar with the plans. The official was not authorized to speak publicly about potential outcomes.

Colors could disappear from US terror alert system
US President Barack Obama speaks with the use of one teleprompter after the other fell and broke at the Urban and Metropolitan Policy Roundtable at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington, July 13, 2009.  [Agencies]
The alert system assigns five different colors to terror risk levels. Green at the bottom signals a low danger of attack and red at the top warns of a severe threat. It was put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and was designed to help emergency responders get prepared.

But it's been the butt of late-night television comics' jokes and criticized by Republicans and Democrats alike for being too vague to deliver enough useful information.

"Like yesterday, apparently, went from blue to pink and now half the country thinks we're pregnant," "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno said on March 14, 2002. "To give you an idea how sophisticated this system is, today they added a plaid in case we were ever attacked by Scotland."

And Democrats have said the Bush administration used the system for political manipulation to trumpet the administration's anti-terrorist credentials.

"They raised and lowered it several times in fairly rapid succession," former national Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean said. "It had something to do with politics."

For example, in August 2004, then-Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge raised the alert level to orange, the second-highest level signifying a high risk of attack, in Washington, New York City and Newark, N.J., because of potential threats to financial buildings there. But Democrats questioned the Bush administration's motives, because the change came as they concluded their presidential convention and swung attention to national security, the signature issue of President George W. Bush's re-election campaign.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced the review Tuesday by a panel of 17 people that include Democrats and Republicans, mayors, governors, police executives, and public and private security experts. It is a balanced group clearly designed to not only evaluate the alert system but also to provide political cover from critics for any changes to the color-coded system.

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"My goal is simple: To have the most effective system in place to inform the American people about threats to our country," Napolitano said in a statement.

Scrapping the color system could prove complicated because many local governments have policies triggered when the federal government changes the alert level, in some cases, qualifying for federal aid for police overtime, said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

After the 60-day review, Napolitano will confer with other cabinet members before making a recommendation to the White House, the official said. Even if the panel says the color-coded system is the best option, Napolitano will be open to that.

Reaching across the political spectrum is a smart move, said James Carafano, a review panel member and fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

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