US sets new terrorism alert system, ending colour rankings

20 April 2011 19:37  [Source: ICIS news]

WASHINGTON (ICIS)--US security officials on Wednesday replaced the nine-year-old colour-coded national terrorism alert system with a new advisory policy that will raise an alarm only when a credible terrorist threat becomes apparent.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said that the new approach, called the National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS), would issue incident-specific warnings only when US intelligence officials decide that a terrorist threat is both credible and possible in the near term.

The previous approach, known as the Homeland Security Advisory System, used a five-tier colour code to designate various levels of possible terrorist threat to US territory, ranging from low (green) to severe (red).

Critics of the colour-coded system argued that because it was "always on” – usually at the elevated risk level (yellow) – people generally ignored it. 

The previous system was also criticised because, on the few occasions when the threat alert was raised to high (orange) or severe (red), there was no substantive accompanying information on when, where or how an attack might be expected – needlessly raising fears across the entire country.

Since 2002, the old alert system has been raised to high (orange) only five times and to severe (red) only once. The latter was in August 2006 when a plot to blow up multiple US-bound airliners was uncovered and disrupted in the UK.

Under the new system, the DHS said it would “issue detailed alerts to the public when the federal government receives information about a credible terrorist threat”.

However, the alerts might be limited to law enforcement, emergency response officials and critical private sector facilities in a specific area, rather than broadcast to the public at large.

Either way, the new alerts will provide a concise summary of the potential threat, including the geographic region likely at risk and the mode of transportation or critical infrastructure potentially affected by the threat, according to the department's system summary.

In addition, an alert would relate actions being taken by authorities to ensure public safety and recommend steps that individuals, businesses and local governments could do to help prevent, mitigate or respond to the threat.

The DHS said that an alert would be characterised in one of two ways.

An “elevated threat” would be issued when there was a credible terrorist threat against the US. An “imminent threat” alert would be issued for a “credible, specific and impending terrorist threat” against the US.

The alerts would be issued for defined time periods and would expire automatically, unless federal officials obtained new information that warranted an extension.

As many as 5,000 US petrochemical production sites and downstream chemical manufacturing facilities are considered to be at high risk for an attack by terrorists seeking to cause large-scale off-site casualties.

Those facilities are under an ongoing, four-year-old federal security mandate through which the DHS sets antiterrorism protection standards for plant operators.

By: Joe Kamalick
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