Threat advisories improving, DHS says

The Homeland Security Department's second-in-command said the color-coded threat advisory system is a work in progress that is improving daily despite criticism from House lawmakers.

During a House Select Committee on Homeland Security hearing today on the system, members said lowering and raising the threat alerts is expensive for state and local governments that must deploy police to protect their communities. For example, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported that cities spent $70 million a week related to orange alerts.

The advisory system, created nearly two years ago, also confuses and agitates the public who don't know what to make of it. "It may, over time, actually contribute to the degradation of this nation's vigilance — warning fatigue — and so diminish the utility of the Homeland Security Advisory System," said Committee Chairman Christopher Cox (R-Calif.).

Rep. Jim Turner (D-Texas) called for the elimination of the color-coded system. "I really do think you have reached a point where you could abandon these color codes and rely on specific threat advisory information," he said. "And if that information needs to go to the public, have a press conference, tell every network what it is."

Both congressmen said the system should dispense more specific information related to industry sectors and regions. Such language is even reflected in a bipartisan bill that the committee has introduced.

In his testimony, Adm. James Loy, DHS' deputy secretary, said the most recent raising and lowering of the threat level over the holiday season displayed a good use of the system. "Even though the national threat condition was lowered on Jan. 9, 2004, DHS recommended that several industry sectors and geographic locales continue on a heightened alert status," he said, adding it was the first time such an action was taken since the creation of the communication tool.

He said DHS officials and others are constantly refining the system and may take another year before it can consistently communicate more specific threat information.

Loy said there have been discussions to eliminate the five color codes signifying the different threat levels. Since inception, the country has been at either yellow or orange, the second highest level. The highest threat level is red.

"I do believe this is a work in progress," he said. There may come a day when such color codes are no longer necessary, but he added the public, businesses and governments must first internalize this new security environment. He also said he favors better education for the public about what to do when the threat is raised.

John Brennan, director of the multiagency Terrorist Threat Integration Center, testified about TTIC's role in supporting the system. He said TTIC coordinates terrorist threat assessments through electronic communication and multiple meetings with stakeholders.

"This multiagency coordination process is enabling the [U.S. government] to better know what we know, compare information and make rational decisions based on a more comprehensive threat picture," he said.

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