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A New Code

The demise of the color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System

When Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano announced on Jan. 27, 2011, that the Homeland Security Advisory System – the color-coded terror alert system, enacted after 9/11, which had earned much criticism, and even derision, for nearly a decade – was to be phased out and replaced, many critics greeted the news with relief.

One of the most visible federal anti-terrorism measures rolled out after 9/11, the HSAS, which described the probability and potential gravity of terror threats to the United States in shades of red (severe), orange (high), yellow (elevated), blue (guarded) and green (low), was criticized almost immediately when it was created in March of 2002. There have never been any published criteria for the threat levels, and therefore no independent means of verifying a threat.

Representative Bennie Thompson (D-Miss), the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, is not sorry to see the HSAS go. “The old Bush color-coded security system taught Americans to be scared, not prepared,” he said. “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.”

Rick Nelson, Director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the shortcomings of the HSAS can be put in sharp relief by a comparison to another public alert system – the Amber Alert, the child abduction alert bulletin established in several countries since the murder of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman in Arlington, Texas in 1996.

“The Amber Alert is a very useful system for a variety of reasons,” said Nelson. “One is that everybody knows what an Amber Alert is: ‘We’re looking for possibly an abducted child.’ It narrows it down. Two, it informs people immediately. It’s on signs.” Amber Alerts are also broadcast over radio and television. “And it tells people what to look for: ‘We’re looking for a white sedan’ . . . And it also tells people what to do: ‘Call this number.’ It equips the average American with the information they need to be vigilant and effective in a scenario like this. That’s something that was missing in the color-coded system.”

The New System?

What will succeed the color-coded system? It’s not exactly clear. Secretary Napolitano has named the new system the National Terrorism Advisory System, and said, in her January 27 remarks, that alerts will be issued under either the category of “elevated” or “imminent.” When DHS has information about a specific, credible threat, it will issue a formal alert with as much information as possible, notifying the public through news outlets and social networking resources such as Facebook and Twitter. It will also, according to Napolitano, outline steps to take in response to a specific threat.

It’s impossible to judge the new NTAS yet – no alerts have been issued under the new system; it’s in the midst of a 90-day implementation period, with a final deadline of April 27, 2011. The legacy color-coded system will remain until then. The current status of the NTAS is available on-line at

For Nelson, the proposed changes are welcome news. “I’m not completely sure of this, but my understanding is that [the NTAS] will say, for example: ‘There is a threat at shopping centers,’ or ‘There’s a threat at shopping centers, and people should be on the lookout for suspicious packages.’ It’s going to be more along those lines. It will be interesting to see what it is. Again, for it to be useful, you’ve got to give people some more specificity about the threat, and you’ve got to give them something to do. Those would be my two criteria for judging a new system.”


Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...