KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
After the attacks on 9/11, the government developed a system of color-coded warnings. They were to alert people to the risk of another terrorist attack. The color-coded threat levels were pretty widely mocked and then phased out in 2011 and replaced by a system that's never been activated. Now Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson says it's time to change the terrorism warning system to one that reflects the current environment. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Johnson says Homeland Security officials have been working for a while to reform the threat level system, work that's been made more urgent by recent attacks last week in San Bernardino and in Paris last month. He talked about the process in a forum this morning sponsored by Defense One, a national security news outlet.
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JEH JOHNSON: I believe that we need to do a better job of informing the public at large of what we are seeing, removing some of the mystery about the global terrorist threat and what we are doing about it and what we're asking the public to do.
NAYLOR: The attack last week in San Bernardino was troubling to government security officials for a number of reasons. There's no evidence the attack was directed by a terrorist group, but it was apparently inspired by ISIS. The alleged attackers were apparently not on the government's radar or watch list, and there seems to have been no intelligence that any kind of an attack was imminent. Johnson says under the current system known as NTAS, the National Terrorism Advisory System, without that specific credible threat, there is no trigger for a warning to the public. So just as the terror threat has evolved, Johnson says it's time for the threat warning system to follow.
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JOHNSON: I believe that in this environment, we need to get beyond that and go to a new system that has an intermediate level to it. And I'll be announcing soon, hopefully, what our new system is that I think reflects the current environment and the current realities.
NAYLOR: The current system which replaced the color-coding was put in place in 2011. Richard Burke is a former Homeland Security official who led that effort. He said the high bar to issue a warning was deliberate.
RICHARD BURKE: You had to have specific and credible intelligence to warrant issuing a either elevated alert or an imminent alert. And although there were several debates within the department while I was there about whether or not to issue an alert - an NTAS alert - because of certain threat streams they were looking at, they made the decision not to.
NAYLOR: Burke says now it makes sense to tweak the system to reflect how the terrorist threat has changed.
BURKE: I think what they're trying to do is to be able to give people as much information as they can, that is, information they can make their own decisions with about how they want to act. At the same time, you want to avoid what ultimately happened with the color-coding system, where we approached a new normal where there was really nothing the government could say that was different from what had happened the previous day.
NAYLOR: The idea is to avoid the threat level becoming background noise that's easily ignored. Burke says any improvements to the current system should make it more flexible, allowing for tailored warnings for specific audiences like operators of sports stadiums or for different regions of the country. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.
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