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Napolitano Announces New Terror Alert System, Acknowledges Public's Role in Preventing Attacks

By Matthew Harwood

The days are numbered for the nation's stoplight-like terror alert system.

During her state of homeland security address yesterday at George Washington University, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano officially announced the retirement of the old color-coded terrorism advisory system and began implementation of a new, more specific system that will be in place nationwide by the end of April.

The system will be built upon "a clear and simple premise," she said. "When a threat develops that could impact you – the public – we will tell you. We will provide whatever information we can so you know how to protect yourselves, your families, and your communities."

Instead of five color-coded threat levels, the terrorism advisory system will now come with only two threat levels: "imminent" or "elevated." When an alert is issued, it will come with a concise summary of the threat, what authorities are doing to combat it, and public safety recommendations. Sometimes the alerts will only be sent to a particular audience, like law enforcement or malls. At other times the alerts will be sent to the American people, with DHS relying on media and social networking to get the word out.

The new alerts, unlike the old advisory system, will also have a beginning and an end. Critics, including the Homeland Security Advisory Council, pummeled the old system for perpetually leaving the country on elevated alert, which the public gradually began to ignore and led to wasteful security spending. According to the Associate Press, the color-coded threat level has not changed since 2006, even though DHS has implemented security policy and technology changes since that time in response to terrorist threats, most notably full body scanners and enhanced pat-downs.

“The old color coded system taught Americans to be scared, not prepared," Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), the ranking member on the House Homeland Security Committee said in a statement anticipating the announcement. "Each and every time the threat level was raised, very rarely did the public know the reason, how to proceed, or for how long to be on alert."

Summarizing the new approach, Napolitano said: "The alerts will be specific to the threat. They may recommend certain actions, or suggest looking for specific suspicious behavior. And they will have a specified end date."

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