The Obama administration has begun a review that could spell the end of the color-coded terrorism advisories, long derided by late night TV comics and portrayed by some Democrats as a tool for Bush administration political manipulation.
It's not likely the review will plunge an alert system into the dark all together, but short of that, everything is on the table for consideration, according to one administration official familiar with the plans. The official was not authorized to speak publicly about potential outcomes.
The alert system assigns five different colors to terror risk levels. Green at the bottom signals a low danger of attack and red at the top warns of a severe threat. It was put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and was designed to help emergency responders get prepared.
But it's been the butt of late-night television comics' jokes and criticized by Republicans and Democrats alike for being too vague to deliver enough useful information.
"Like yesterday, apparently, went from blue to pink and now half the country thinks we're pregnant," "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno said on March 14, 2002. "To give you an idea how sophisticated this system is, today they added a plaid in case we were ever attacked by Scotland."
Allegations of political manipulation
And Democrats have said the Bush administration used the system for political manipulation to trumpet the administration's anti-terrorist credentials.
"They raised and lowered it several times in fairly rapid succession," former national Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean said. "It had something to do with politics."
For example, in August 2004, then-Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge raised the alert level to orange, the second-highest level signifying a high risk of attack, in Washington, New York City and Newark, N.J., because of potential threats to financial buildings there. But Democrats questioned the Bush administration's motives, because the change came as they concluded their presidential convention and swung attention to national security, the signature issue of President George W. Bush's re-election campaign.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced the review Tuesday by a panel of 17 people that include Democrats and Republicans, mayors, governors, police executives, and public and private security experts. It is a balanced group clearly designed to not only evaluate the alert system but also to provide political cover from critics for any changes to the color-coded system.
"My goal is simple: To have the most effective system in place to inform the American people about threats to our country," Napolitano said in a statement.
Problem for local governments
Scrapping the color system could prove complicated because many local governments have policies triggered when the federal government changes the alert level, in some cases, qualifying for federal aid for police overtime, said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
After the 60-day review, Napolitano will confer with other cabinet members before making a recommendation to the White House, the official said. Even if the panel says the color-coded system is the best option, Napolitano will be open to that.
Reaching across the political spectrum is a smart move, said James Carafano, a review panel member and fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Scrapping the colors needs to be done in a way that doesn't leave the administration vulnerable to ridicule or criticism that it's being soft on terrorism, Carafano said.
Fran Townsend, a former White House homeland security adviser for George W. Bush and once a key intelligence aide to Democratic Attorney General Janet Reno, is co-chairing the review panel with William H. Webster. Webster is the only man ever to head both the FBI and the CIA, the first in a Democratic administration and the second in a Republican one.
Townsend called it a no-win assignment, but an important one.
"This is a system that was devised in the immediate aftermath of the most horrific attack on American soil that we've ever suffered," she said. Reviewing the system nearly eight years later is an opportunity. "You need a warning system," but there might be a more effective way to communicate with the public, Townsend said.
No system will give everyone all the details about threat information that they might want, she said. But as a mother, she sees a need to have enough detail to make an informed decision about protecting her family.
"Maybe there is no better way," she said. But Napolitano "is right to ask the question and have us take a look at it."
Level hasn't changed since 2006
Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge also thinks now is a good time for review. Ridge was traveling and could not be reached Tuesday, but an aide said Napolitano told him about the review before she announced it.
The alert level has not been changed since 2006 when it was raised from yellow — an elevated or significant risk of terrorist attack — to red then lowered to orange in the aviation sector after terrorist plans to blow up jetliners en route to the U.S. from Britain were discovered.
The nation has never been below yellow since 2001, but the warnings have been revised so that they can address a specific region or sector, as opposed to the entire country. The United States hasn't been attacked since 2001, though plots have been disrupted.
The Homeland Security Department will accept public comment on the system by e-mail to hsasreview(at)dhs.gov.