updated 12/28/2003 4:33:14 PM ET 2003-12-28T21:33:14

Top lawmakers charged with oversight on homeland security issues pressed Sunday for changes to the nation’s color-coded terrorism alert system, including proposed warnings based on specific regions or industries.

“I think we always have to worry about scaring people to death,” said Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., chairman of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security.

“Right now, the color code level is a one-size-fits-all notion. It applies to a quarter-billion people in America,” explained Cox on “Fox News Sunday.”

He said the administration “has been sparing in its use of this tool.” But once the decision to raise the terror warning is made, Cox said, “we go to a higher state of alert everywhere, in all places in America, even though, no matter how general the threat, we can be certain that the country is not threatened in a homogenized way everywhere, the same way at all times.”

Focus on regionalism
Rep. Jim Turner of Texas, the top Democrat on the panel, says refining the alert system so that specific locations or industries are targeted will help keep people from tuning out the threat warnings when they’re issued.

“We thought that over time if we continue to have this general alert system that people would begin to ignore the alert, and even states and localities and local officials would find that it would be hard to justify the increased expense,” Turner said.

“Because it does cost states and local governments hundreds of thousands of dollars every time the alert level is raised, I think we owe it to local governments to be more specific when possible,” he added.

The committee is considering bipartisan legislation that would make these refinements.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has acknowledged frustration with the alert system and said he wants a system of specific warnings when intelligence warrants it. Spokeswoman Rachael Sunbarger said Sunday that the department is looking at ways to make adjustments that could include alerts for certain regions or sectors of the economy.

Pre-holiday warnings
Cox said the threat warnings that led the Bush administration to increase the nation’s alert level on Dec. 21 to “orange” or “high risk” started coming in before Thanksgiving, suggesting an attack sometime during the holiday season — including Christmas, Hanukkah and the new year.

Officials have said intelligence points to possible attacks in cities such as New York, Washington or Los Angeles, with al-Qaida terrorists using airplanes as their weapon of choice, as they did on Sept. 11, 2001.

Concerns about such a plot prompted the cancellation of six Air France flights between Los Angeles and Paris last week. French investigators questioned several men but so far have found no evidence of a terrorist plot in connection with the flights.

Senior administration officials, meanwhile, have new concerns about the nation’s readiness to deal with terrorist attacks involving anthrax, according to The New York Times.

The paper reported a drill held last month found that antibiotics in some cities could not be distributed and administered quickly enough and that a widespread attack could kill thousands. A homeland security spokeswoman declined to comment on the report.

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