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Report suggests overhaul of terror-warning system

It says color-coded system is vague, costly

It says color-coded system is vague, costly

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A new report prepared for Congress says the color-coded national terrorism warning system is too vague, lacks specific protective measures for law enforcement and costs an extraordinary amount to be implemented.

"While the need for terrorist threat warnings seems to be widely acknowledged, there are numerous issues associated with [the warning] and its effects on states, localities, the public and the private sector," says the report, which was compiled by the Congressional Research Service and released last week.

The system, which is operated by the Department of Homeland Security, went into effect in March 2002 in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001.

The system has been maintained at "yellow," or "elevated," since then. On four occasions, it has been raised to "orange," or "high," which requires law enforcement agencies nationwide to prepare contingency operations and take extra protective measures at public events and other sites that might be susceptible to attack.

Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske said the system was a "good initial step" after the September 11 attacks, but he and other police chiefs want "more specificity" about the nature of the threat.

"It does need to be overhauled," he said. "People want confidence in their public safety professionals to be on top of this issue, and right now this isn't the system getting us there."

However, John Miller, the commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department's counterterrorism bureau, said he believes the threat system works. When the system has been raised, he said, his bureau receives more phone calls about suspicious activity from people who otherwise would not have called.

"People do pay more attention, and that's useful to me," Miller told CNN.

Five trouble spots

The report broke down the problems into five categories:

• Vagueness of warnings disseminated by the system

• Lack of recommended protective measures

• Method of threat dissemination to state and local governments

• Coordination of warnings

• Cost of threat level changes

As to the vagueness of the warnings, the report says every time the system has been raised, "no specifics" have been offered as to what might be targeted.

"Moreover, DHS has never explained the sources and quality of intelligence upon which the threat levels were based," the report says.

Such vagueness, the report says, can lead to the public becoming more complacent. It also provides law enforcement with "no basis for formulating a clear, easily understood public message."

Better nationwide communication

The report says the federal government should consider offering better guidance to state and local law enforcement about protective measures that should be taken when the warning system is raised.

It also says the DHS should devise a new plan on how to communicate with law enforcement nationwide. For instance, it cites a police chief in Portland, Maine, who once learned from CNN that the threat system was going to be raised.

"He added that he received official notification from state authorities eight hours later," the report says.

In addition, the report says, there are eight federal warning systems that provide information about potentially catastrophic events, ranging from severe weather to terrorist attacks. The warning systems are not interoperable, and Congress should consider having federal agencies coordinate and update the existing systems, the report says.

Lastly, there is the cost that law enforcement must bear because of the terrorism threat level changes. For instance, Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport pays $180,000 a month to conduct random car searches at the nation's busiest airport -- a cost borne by the city's police department and the airport.

The report says the federal government should consider establishing a grant program that funds terrorist-prevention efforts.

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