WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Department of Homeland Security will replace the widely pilloried color-coded warning system for terrorism threats with more targeted alerts to the public, a senior lawmaker said on Wednesday.
The five-step system of colors and threat levels was adopted months after the September 11 attacks in 2001 when critics said government warnings were insufficient. But over the years since, it also has been panned as ineffective.
DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano is due to give a speech on the state of U.S. homeland security on Thursday. Department officials declined to comment ahead of her remarks.
“It sounds to me like the changes they are proposing make sense. We will have to wait and see how they implement this new, more targeted system,” said Peter King, Republican chairman of the Homeland Security Committee in the House of Representatives.
“I expect the biggest challenge for DHS will be balancing the need to provide useful and timely information with the need to protect sensitive information,” he said in a statement.
Lawmakers were briefed about the new system on Wednesday.
“The old color-coded system taught Americans to be scared, not prepared,” said Bennie Thompson, the senior Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee.
“I applaud the secretary for her decision to create a common sense approach to alerting the public when credible threats arise,” he said in a statement.
Comedians have had a field day mocking the system as a poor way to alert people about serious issues like terrorism, so much so that it is widely viewed as irrelevant.
The system runs from green (“low”) to red (“severe”).
The current threat level is 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 the potential threats.
After a Nigerian man tried to blow up a U.S. commercial 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.
When al Qaeda operatives from Yemen tried to hide bombs in printer toner cartridges aboard cargo planes, the DHS banned large ink and toner cartridges from domestic and U.S.-bound flights.
The Transportation Security Administration also said it would start closely examining insulated drink containers on planes after receiving intelligence that the Yemen affiliate of al Qaeda may try to hide explosives in them.
An administration official said in November that Napolitano planned to scrap the color-coded threat system.
Reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky; Editing by John O'Callaghan