DHS Dropping Color Coded Terror Alerts

The end of a not-very-well-executed and much mocked* idea:

WASHINGTON — By the end of April, terror threats to the U.S. will no longer be described in shades of green, blue, yellow, orange and red, The Associated Press has learned.

The nation’s color-coded terror warning system will be phased out beginning this week, according to government officials familiar with the plan. The officials requested anonymity to speak ahead of an announcement scheduled Thursday by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

The Homeland Security Department and other government agencies have been reviewing the Homeland Security Advisory System’s usefulness for more than a year. One of the most notable changes to come: The public will no longer hear automated recordings at U.S. airports stating that the threat level is orange.

The Obama administration will take the next three months to roll out a replacement, which will be called the National Terrorism Advisory System. The new plan calls for notifying specific audiences about specific threats. In some cases, it might be a one-page threat description sent to law enforcement officials describing the threat, what law enforcement needs to do about it and what the federal government is doing, one of the officials said.

When agency officials think there is a threat the public should know about, they will issue an announcement and rely on news organizations and social media outlets to get the word out

Considering that the alert level has never been lower than “Elevated” (and in New York City it’s been on “High” the whole time), and that there haven’t been any changes made since 2006 despite additional attacks and threats of attacks since then, it’s pretty clear that this was never more than a public relations stunt. Good riddance.

*UPDATE (James Joyner):  OTB has been mocking the color code system since February 6, 2003 — its first week in existence.  My best critique, which was quite brief, was on December 22, 2003.

My problem with the system is that it becomes background noise. There are five alert levels: Low, Guarded, Elevated, High, and Severe.

Since the inception of the system, we have always been in either Elevated or High status. Because the level is set by a bureaucracy, it will likely always be either Elevated or High. No bureaucrat is going to be willing to take the risk of lowering the level to merely Guarded or-Heaven forfend-Low because, if they do, and an attack happens, heads would roll. Likewise, we’re unlikely to see the level raised to Severe unless we’re literally in the midst of an attack and already know it. No one is going to be willing to call Red Alert and then not have an attack happen.

I stand by that analysis.

FILED UNDER: National Security, Terrorism, , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Loviatar says:


    I see that both you and John make no mention on how the color code system was abused by the Bush administration to politicize terrorism for political purposes.


  2. Neil Hudelson says:

    How am I going to know when to be afraid now?

  3. anjin-san says:

    Jihadist flotillas are off both coasts. When the color code system is gone, they will move in, and it is goodbye America.

  4. anjin-san says:

    > How am I going to know when to be afraid now?

    Well, you have heard Palin and Bachmann speak, and they are considered to be leaders by millions in our country. The answer is simple. Be afraid all the time.