Homeland threat system released

Homeland Security Advisory System

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The Bush administration on March 12 released the Homeland Security Advisory System, which defines five threat levels and provides a template for actions that federal, state and local governments should take at each level.

Tom Ridge, director of the Office of Homeland Security, outlined the "information-based" HSAS at an event for federal, state and local officials, but did not release any details regarding the technology that could be used to collect and disseminate the information.

The basic purpose of the system is to offer "a common vocabulary so officials at all levels of government can communicate with" one another, Ridge said.

In addition to defining the level of threat, the system also outlines the minimum suggested actions for agencies to take when at each color-coded level (see "Homeland alert levels defined").

"For every level of threat, there will be a level of preparedness," Ridge said. "For the first time, threat conditions will be coupled with protective measures."

Right now the federal government has placed the country at "yellow," or elevated alert, he said.

The administration is requiring all federal agencies to align their homeland security response plans with the HSAS levels, taking the system's suggested actions as the minimum actions. "It is a floor, it is not a ceiling," Ridge said.

The system is open for comments from other levels of government and the public during the next 45 days. Many state and local government organizations are already planning responses, and are concerned about the level of technology available at the local level to receive alert information passed on by the federal government (see "Locals look to IT in homeland plan").

"The execution now is going to be the challenge," said Rock Regan, president of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers and the CIO of Connecticut.

Although the White House will not mandate that state and local agencies follow the system, Ridge said he hopes they will use it as a baseline to develop their own response plans.

"The states encouraged us to act; now they have a template to guide their actions," he said.

The system will be run by the Justice Department, with the Attorney General issuing all alerts after consultation with the Office of Homeland Security and other pertinent federal agencies.

As information comes in from federal, state, local and private sector sources, it will be weighed against several factors, including if it is credible, if it can be corroborated, if it is a specific or imminent threat, what the consequences would be, and if the threat can be deterred.

And state and local officials are an important part of the equation when it comes to passing on the information that will lead to the alerts, said Associate Attorney General Jay Stephens.

The consistent threat-level definitions will make it much easier for federal agencies to work together to counter any potential terrorist attacks, said Gale Norton, Interior secretary. Among other functions, Interior manages the nation's national landmarks and parks, and oversees many international borders, so the department must interact with agencies at all levels of government.

Working with those other agencies after Sept. 11, Norton said she found they "had no common way to explain how we were preparing, or how we were assessing" the threats.

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