Color-coded terror warnings on track to disappear

Goodbye danger defined as yellow, orange and red.

The Homeland Security Department is looking to scrap the five-tiered color-coded terror warning system in favor of a streamlined one with as few as two alerts. The post-9/11, Bush-era system has been criticized as too vague to be useful in communicating the terror threat to the public, either ignored or the butt of jokes.

One option under consideration is to go to two threat levels instead of five: elevated and imminent. When the threat level would change to imminent under the new model, government officials would be expected to be as specific as possible in describing the threat without jeopardizing national security. And an imminent threat would not last longer than a week, meaning the public wouldn't see a consistently high and ambiguous threat level.

The 8-year-old alert system, with its rainbow of colors — from green, signifying a low threat, to red, meaning severe — has become a fixture in airports, government buildings and on newscasts.

Over the past four years, millions of travelers have begun and ended their trips to the sound of airport recordings warning that the threat level was orange, an alert that has become so routine that many now simply tune it out. This could be the last holiday season they hear the monotonous message.

U.S. officials confirmed the recommendation for a change had been made to President Barack Obama, who has final say in the matter. The details of the proposal were described to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because no final decisions have been made.

The current system was one of the Bush administration's most visible anti-terrorism programs.

The color has stayed the same since 2006: yellow for the country as a whole, meaning an elevated or significant risk, and orange for the aviation sector, a high risk. But the government has changed security protocols during that time without changing the color of the threat. For example, new airport security measures were introduced after a terrorist tried to bring down a Detroit-bound jetliner last Christmas.

The Homeland Security Department would not discuss the specific recommendations or estimate when a new system might be rolled out. The current color system remains in place.

"The overall sense is that we can do a better job of helping inform the public," Transportation Security Administrator John Pistole told the AP. There are several options on the table, he said. "For example, at the airport, instead of having that same recording that we've heard for all these years, replacing that with something more meaningful and relevant and timely."

In July 2009, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ordered a review of the system. Earlier this year, the department decided the best way forward would be to scrap the colors and use more descriptive language to talk about terror threats. With a new system, there would be an understanding with the public that there is a baseline level of vigilance needed in the U.S., but when the government gets information that suggests the threat is more specific, the new system would be used to communicate those details. One of the recommended names for the new system is the National Terrorist Advisory System, replacing the current Homeland Security Advisory System.

As part of her review in 2009, Napolitano solicited comments from the public about the current system. Some likened the color-coded system to the boy who cried wolf. Others criticized it for not following the natural color spectrum.

Under the current system, green, at the bottom, signals a low danger of attack; blue signals a general risk; yellow, a significant risk; orange, a high risk, and red, at the top, warns of a severe threat. Since the outset, the nation has never been below the third threat level, yellow — an elevated or significant risk of terrorist attack.

The use of colors emerged from a desire to clarify the nonspecific threat information that intelligence officials were receiving after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

"We had no way of informing the public," former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said Wednesday. Ridge helped develop the system in 2002 when he was the president's homeland security adviser, and he also helped with the 2009 review. The question, he said, has always been: "How do you inform the general public that the threat is different tomorrow than it's been today?"

"I'm anxious to see what their alternative is to this," Ridge said.

From the beginning, officials knew comedians would have a field day with the concept, Ridge wrote in a 2009 book.

Late-night TV host Conan O'Brien chimed in just days after the Bush administration announced it in March 2002.

"Earlier this week, Homeland Security Adviser Tom Ridge announced a new color-coded warning system. A color-coded system to keep the public informed about disasters. Seems like a good idea," O'Brien said. "Yeah, apparently red is the highest alert, and it means Dick Cheney is about to eat a mozzarella stick."

The colors weren't part of the original concept, said John Fenzele, an Army special forces officer who led the development eight years ago. "I think it's a positive development that they're looking at revisions and refining the system." Fenzele said, "I don't think ... necessarily that the colors were at all vital."