WASHINGTON – The Homeland Security Department usually has been the federal agency most reluctant to raise the national terror alert level, former Secretary Tom Ridge (search) said Tuesday.
Ridge, who resigned Feb. 1 as the first Cabinet-level homeland security chief, defended the color-coded alert system that he helped create after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but he said it could be changed to give more information to the public.
Speaking at a panel discussion of other former top Homeland Security (search) officials, Ridge described vigorous debates among a few presidential security advisers over whether to put the nation on high alert.
Raising the terror threat level generally costs state and local emergency responders millions of dollars in overtime salaries, causes widespread travel delays and takes a hit on the public's psyche.
"In those debates, in those discussions, more often than not we were the least inclined to raise it," Ridge told reporters.
"Sometimes we disagreed with the intelligence assessment," Ridge said. "Sometimes we thought even if the intelligence was good, you don't necessarily put the country on [alert]. ... There were times when some people were really aggressive about raising it, and we said, 'For that?'"
As a result, the terror alert was not raised, but the flap called attention to the division between the Homeland Security and the Justice departments on how aggressively the public should be warned.
On Tuesday, Ridge called that incident "a blip on the screen" and said information-sharing systems between Homeland Security and Justice were improved as a result.
A Justice Department spokesman had no immediate comment.
Ridge was later widely criticized, mostly by Democrats, for raising the alert level to orange in Washington, New York City, and Newark, N.J., in August to warn about possible Al Qaeda attacks on financial institutions in those three cities.
The alert level was raised just as Democrats concluded their presidential convention and swung attention back to the Bush administration.
But Ridge said the public should be given ample information about a potential threat when the national alert is raised, and agreed the color-coded system could be tweaked. His successor, Secretary Michael Chertoff (search), is considering changing the system or scrapping it entirely. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Christopher Cox (search), R-Calif., also has proposed making the color system optional, saying it is too vague.
"I think people focus too much on the colors," Ridge said. "It could be colors, it could be numbers, it could be animals. I don't care what you use to designate the trigger. But it's what kind of information do you share when you raise the threat level that I think is more important to the public. ... They want more information."
Homeland Security is reviewing potential changes to the alert system "as part of a comprehensive review of the department that will focus on improvements or adjustments that could be made," spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said.