WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration on Thursday unveiled a new system to warn Americans about terrorism threats that will include specific information about the threat, scrapping the widely ignored color-coded alerts.
The old approach was criticized because it lacked specifics about threats, prompting people to ignore the warnings. The new approach will tell the public whether the threat is “imminent” or if there is an “elevated” risk of threat.
“The new system reflects the reality that we must always be on alert and be ready,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a speech to George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute.
“The alerts will be specific to the threat posed. They may recommend certain actions, or suggest looking for specific suspicious behavior. And they will have a specified end date,” Napolitano said.
She acknowledged that the color-coded system too often was “accompanied by little practical information.”
The new system will be implemented over the next three months and U.S. security officials have apparently quietly tried the new alert approach.
The Transportation Security Administration, responsible for airport security, issued an advisory in December that officers may closely examine insulated drink containers after learning al Qaeda operatives may try to hide explosives in them.
Further, when al Qaeda operatives from Yemen tried to hide bombs in printer toner cartridges aboard cargo planes, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) banned large ink and toner cartridges from domestic and U.S.-bound flights.
Obama administration officials have been trying to figure out more effective ways to provide information about terrorism threats as al Qaeda and other militants continued to attempt attacks on Americans and the United States.
Napolitano said U.S. authorities must constantly adapt their approach to the threats. She described them as “real, they are persistent and they are evolving rapidly.”
“We are also dealing with the threat from terrorists who use the Internet and social media like Facebook and YouTube to reach vulnerable individuals and inspire new recruits,” she said.
Napolitano also said that security authorities could no longer assume threats would come from abroad after several plots emerged recently involving people already in the country.
“We must all work to gain a better understanding of the behaviors, tactics and other indicators that could point to terrorist activity,” she said. Napolitano also noted that they were now receiving better streams of intelligence.
Under the old color-coded system, the threat level has been set at orange (“high”) for the aviation system, which has been a popular target of al Qaeda militants. For the rest of the country, it is yellow (“elevated”).
Those levels have not changed since August 2006 despite numerous attempted attacks on the United States. Instead, DHS officials have issued warnings and advisories with more details of potential threats.
After a Nigerian man allegedly tried to blow up a U.S. airliner with a bomb sewn into his underwear, authorities stepped up physical patdowns of passengers and accelerated the rollout of full-body scanners for air travelers.
Napolitano and other DHS officials have also launched a campaign to encourage people to report suspicious activity they see that could be linked to terrorism or an attempted attack, dubbed “If You See Something, Say Something.”
Last year, authorities got lucky when a man tried to detonate a car bomb in the heart of New York’s Times Square. A street vendor noticed the car was smoking and alerted authorities. The crude bomb failed to explode.
Additional reporting by James Vicini; Editing by Eric Beech and Paul Simao