Phased-Out Color-Coded Warning System “Worse Than Useless,” Says National Security Expert

Media Contact: Keith Lawrence
(919) 681-8059

•David Schanzer
Director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke and UNC; associate professor of the practice, Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy (website)

An expert in the areas of terrorism, national security law and policy, homeland security, emergency preparedness and response. Co-authored a report on risk management in homeland security for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. The report can be viewed at

“The color-coded warning system has never served a useful purpose and deserved all the ridicule it received over the past decade.

“The system pretended that the risk from a sophisticated, multi-factor threat like terrorism could be boiled down to one code, applicable at all times and places across our vast and diverse nation. But terrorism is not like the risk of a forest fire, which can be easily determined by calculating how dry the brush is. We really have very little idea where or when terrorists are going to strike or even when the likelihood of an attack is elevated. And when we do have information suitable for public disclosure about a terrorist threat, the public deserves and demands a more detailed explanation about it than a change in the colors on the Department of Homeland Security website.

“Even in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Americans immediately understood that the system provided no useful information or guidance on meaningful actions that they should take in response to government warnings. So the system was ignored.

“But the system was even worse than useless. When it was first put into place, the government moved it up and down multiple times. Every time we moved it down, we signaled to al Qaeda that we were easing our guard.

“Once the government realized that, it kept the color code at an elevated level indefinitely. No political leader could risk lowering the threat level, only to have the country suffer a terrorist attack. So the threat has been stuck at ‘Yellow’ for years.

“Moreover, the system has been an albatross around the neck of the Department of Homeland Security since its inception. DHS’s identification with the often-mocked system eroded public confidence in the fledgling agency literally before it opened its doors.

“No one -- not our politicians, nor our first responders, law enforcement officials or citizens -- will miss the color-coded terrorism warning system.”

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