Ridge wants to revise terror alert system

Friday, June 6, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge acknowledged frustration with the nation's color-coded terror alert system Thursday and said he wants a system of specific alerts when intelligence warrants it.

Ridge said he believes the national alert system provides vital information to law enforcement, businesses and the public about the seriousness of intelligence gathered on terrorists. But he said his goal is to provide more targeted information so individual communities or sectors of the economy can take needed action.

That takes specific intelligence, he said. So far, the information that led officials to raise the alert level to orange three times in the last four months has been too general, he said.

He acknowledged that color ratings that bounce between yellow -- indicating the threat of terrorism is elevated -- to orange -- or high -- has produced complaints.

State and local government officials chafe at the cost of paying police and emergency personnel so much overtime, particularly in parts of the country where terrorist attacks don't seem likely.

In Arizona, the state's homeland security director told The Arizona Republic last week the alerts were "disruptive" and suggested the state may not increase security during the next alert if information suggests his state isn't a target.

Others note that during the four orange alerts, no attacks have been attempted, leading them to question whether the intelligence used to guide them is reliable.

"We worry about the credibility of the system," Ridge said. "It's a pretty high threshold to take it from yellow to orange."

He predicted that as intelligence-gathering improves, so will the alert system.

Captured al-Qaida operatives have generally not provided the sort of information interrogators need to provide warning to specific cities or sectors of the economy, he said.

"There is a tradecraft to what they do," Ridge said of the prisoners. "They just don't roll over. We have to be persistent."

Ridge also sought to counter criticism that the federal government is not funding security improvements it has mandated around the country, noting that the department has made $4.4 billion in grants available to cities and states.

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