Report Questions Value of Color-Coded Warnings


The New York Times

Ju;y 13, 2004

WASHINGTON, July 12 - The federal government's color-coded threat system is too vague and confusing to help many local and state law enforcement officials prepare for possible terrorist attacks, Congressional investigators said Monday in a report that prompted leading members of Congress to call for an overhaul.

The report by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, cited widespread concern among federal, state and local officials about the quality and timing of threat information they received from the Department of Homeland Security. A survey sent to 84 agencies, states and United States territories as part of the study found that the warnings were often vague and inadequate, and had "hindered their ability to determine whether they were at risk" and what protective measures to take in response.

Representative Christopher Cox, the California Republican who leads the House homeland security committee, said in releasing the report that the officials overseeing the threat system needed to "make it work better or get rid of it."

Mr. Cox and Representative Jim Turner of Texas, the ranking Democrat on the panel, said the public was at risk for "threat fatigue."

"I'm afraid if we don't make improvements in the system," Mr. Turner said, "the public's going to lose trust and confidence in that system and won't pay any attention to it anymore."

Their comments reflected a growing unease in recent months among leading members of Congress about the government's ability to warn law enforcement officials and the public of an attack.

Those concerns have taken on new urgency after Tom Ridge, the homeland security secretary, warned anew last week that Al Qaeda might be planning a major attack in order to disrupt the electoral process in November.

But domestic security officials said they decided not to raise the nation's threat status - now at yellow, the midpoint in the five-color scheme - because they said they did not have specific information about the timing, place or manner of such an attack.

Domestic security officials defended the threat warning system, saying they had sought to offer more detailed guidance in recent months.

"The homeland security system is a good system," said Brian Roehrkasse, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security. "Over the past year, it has continued to evolve into more of a risk-based system because we are further along in our assessment of the nation's critical infrastructure, allowing us to determine the impact an attack would have."

One change that Mr. Cox and Mr. Turner said they would push as part of an intelligence bill to be considered in the House this week was to give the homeland security secretary the authority to put out limited advisories to particular states, regions or sectors.

Mr. Turner said that putting out nationwide alerts "willy-nilly"-when there might be no direct threat to 90 percent of the country - was costly, confusing and potentially counterproductive.

But domestic security officials said they had already been putting out more pinpointed, regional alerts and the Congressional proposal for "limited advisories" would merely codify the practice. The department has issued some 80 bulletins in the last 16 months to specific regions, sectors or facilities that may be at particular risk, officials said.

The General Accounting Office study, expanding on preliminary findings issued by the office in March, found "continuing confusion" among federal, state and local officials about how threat warnings are made and how they should respond.

The report said that many federal agencies and some states said that they had learned about changes in the threat level from news reports.

The General Accounting Office report also found that the Department of Homeland Security had not documented the policies and procedures it uses for assessing intelligence information, determining whether to raise or lower the threat level, and notifying other agencies about changes in the threat level. A domestic security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the department had such a protocol in place but did not turn it over to Congressional investigators because of its sensitive nature.