WASHINGTON – Terror alerts from the government will soon have just two levels of warnings – elevated and imminent – and those will be relayed to the public only under certain circumstances. Color codes are out; Facebook and Twitter will sometimes be in, according to a Homeland Security draft obtained by the Associated Press.
Some terror warnings could be withheld from the public if announcing a threat would risk exposing an intelligence operation or an ongoing investigation, according to the government’s confidential plan.
Like a gallon of milk, the new terror warnings will each come with a stamped expiration date.
The new system, replacing the five color-coded levels, is expected to be in place by April 27.
A 19-page document, marked “for official use only” and dated April 1, describes the step-by-step process that would occur behind the scenes when the government believes terrorists might be threatening Americans. It describes the sequence of notifying members of Congress, then counterterrorism officials in states and cities, then governors and mayors and, ultimately, the public.
It even specifies details about how many minutes U.S. officials can wait before organizing urgent conference calls to discuss pending threats. It places the Homeland Security secretary, currently Janet Napolitano, in charge of the National Terrorism Advisory System.
The new terror alerts would also be published online using Facebook and Twitter “when appropriate,” the plan said, but only after federal, state and local leaders have been notified.
The government has struggled with how much information to share with the public about specific threats, sometimes over concern about revealing classified intelligence or law enforcement efforts to disrupt an unfolding plot. But the color warnings that became one of the government’s most visible anti-terrorism programs since the September 2001 attacks were criticized as too vague to be useful and were sometimes mocked by TV comedians.
The new advisory system is designed to be easier to understand and more specific, but it’s unclear how often the public will receive warnings. The message will always depend on the threat and the intelligence behind it.
For example, if there is a specific threat that terrorists are looking to hide explosives in backpacks around U.S. airports, the government might issue a public warning that would be announced in airports telling travelers to be extra vigilant and report any unattended backpacks or other suspicious activity.
If the intelligence community believes a terror threat is so serious that an alert should be issued, the warning would offer specific information for specific audiences. The Homeland Security secretary would make the final decision on whether to issue an alert and to whom – sometimes just to law enforcement and other times to the public.
According to the draft plan, an “elevated” alert would warn of a credible threat against the U.S. It probably would not specify timing or targets, but it could reveal terrorist trends that intelligence officials believe should be shared in order to prevent an attack. That alert would expire after no more than 30 days but could be extended.
An “imminent” alert would warn about a credible, specific and impending terrorist threat or an ongoing attack against the U.S. That alert would expire after no more than seven days, though it, too, could be extended.