Homeland Security Advisory System

From Academic Kids

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Homeland Security Advisory System Color Chart

In the United States, the Homeland Security Advisory System is a color-coded terrorism threat advisory scale. The different levels trigger specific actions by federal agencies and state and local governments, and they affect the level of security at some airports and other public facilities.

The system was created by Presidential Directive six months after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, to provide a "comprehensive and effective means to disseminate information regarding the risk of terrorist acts to Federal, State, and local authorities and to the American people." It was unveiled March 12, 2002, by Tom Ridge, then the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security, but responsibility for developing, implementing and managing the system was given to the U.S. Attorney General.

In January 2003, the AG's office began administering the system in coordination with the newly-formed Department of Homeland Security. The decision to publicly announce threat conditions is made case-by-case by the Attorney General in consultation with the DHS secretary.

The scale consists of five color-coded threat levels, which reflect both the estimated probability of a terrorist attack occurring and its potential gravity:

  • Low (Green): low risk.
  • Guarded (Blue): general risk.
  • Elevated (Yellow) significant risk.
  • High (Orange): high risk.
  • Severe (Red): severe risk.

The specific government actions triggered by different threat levels are often not publicly described. Some actions which have occurred (such as systematic forced searches of otherwise innocent automobiles near airports [1] (http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A27518-2003Feb18?language=printer) [2] (http://www.doverpost.com/PostArchives/04-02-03/war/statethreatlevelrai.html)) have been held in earlier court decisions to violate the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment. No court has yet ruled on a specific search triggered by this threat advisory system. The published terror alert notices have also not included enough information for ordinary citizens to do anything useful in response.

There are no published criteria for the threat levels, and thus no independent way to tell whether the current threat level is accurate. The evidence cited to justify past changes in threat levels has been stated vaguely (see below) and its sources have seldom been revealed. This makes the system vulnerable to manipulation by government officials. These attributes have been ridiculed by cartoonists ([3] (http://www.balloon-juice.com/archives/002120.html), [4] (http://209.157.64.200/focus/f-news/1089947/posts), [5] (http://www.classbrain.com/artteensb/publish/article_338.shtml)), journalists ([6] (http://www.csmonitor.com/2004/0804/p01s02-usgn.html)), entertainers ([7] (http://www.imao.us/archives/000651.html)), civil libertarians ([8] (http://www.opednews.com/wade_071904_warning.htm)), and security experts (Do Terror Alerts Work? (http://www.rakemag.com/features/detail.asp?catID=46&itemID=19950)). Some observers have also pointed out that two of the colors are out of correct sequence, as green is between yellow and blue in the spectrum of visible light, but the system places blue between yellow and green.

In December 2004, the Homeland Security Advisory Council voted to review the color-coded system. One panel member suggested that it has outlived its usefulness. ([9] (http://www.nctimes.com/articles/2004/12/15/news/top_stories/19_42_4412_14_04.txt)) In a public forum, Ridge himself conceded the system has invited "questions and even occasional derision."[10] (http://www.freep.com/news/nw/ridge15e_20041215.htm) Moreover, Ridge said, Department of Homeland Security staff were often reluctant to raise the threat level, but were outvoted by White House and other agencies. "Sometimes we disagreed with the intelligence assessment," Ridge said. "Sometimes we thought even if the intelligence was good, you don't necessarily put the country on (alert). ... There were times when some people were really aggressive about raising it, and we said, 'For that?'" [11] (http://wireservice.wired.com/wired/story.asp?section=Breaking&storyId=1031895&tw=wn_wire_story)

Threat level changes

The threat level has stood at yellow for most of its existence. It has been raised to orange six times:

  • September 10 - September 24, 2002, around the first anniversary of the September 11, 2001.
  • February 7 - February 27, 2003, near the end of the Muslim religious holiday Hajj. Intelligence reports suggested the possiblity of terrorist attacks against "apartment buildings, hotels, and other soft or lightly secured targets."
  • March 17 - April 16, 2003, around the beginning of U.S. and Coalition military action in Iraq.
  • May 20 - May 30, 2003, "The U.S. Intelligence Community believes that Al Qaida has entered an operational period worldwide, and this may include terrorist attacks in the United States." - Tom Ridge
  • December 21, 2003 - January 9, 2004, citing intelligence information suggesting large-scale attacks around the holiday season.
  • August 1-November 10, 2004, for specific financial institutions in northern New Jersey, New York, and Washington, D.C., citing intelligence pointing to the possibility of a car or truck bomb attack, naming specific buildings as possible targets. [12] (http://abcnews.go.com/wire/US/ap20040801_723.html)[13] (http://www.dhs.gov/dhspublic/display?theme=29)

Other official terrorism warnings issued without raising the threat level above yellow:

  • May 28, 2004, citing "credible evidence" of terrorist intent to affect upcoming elections.
  • July 8, 2004, again citing "credible evidence" of terrorist intent to affect upcoming elections.


The threat level has never been lowered to blue or green, nor elevated to red.

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