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Will we reach code red?

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | April 25, 2002

"We believe that this information sharing disrupts and prevents terrorist activity."

—John Ashcroft

Right now we're in code yellow. What would it take to reach code orange? And will we ever reach a code red?

The homeland security advisory system is a color-coded information strategy developed to help federal and state officials, disaster response groups, and the public understand the risk of terrorist attacks.

This week the nation remained in the "code yellow" category, a level that has remained in place even in the face of new threats against northeastern financial institutions last week.

Last week's warning went to more than 1,200 banks and savings institutions and to law enforcement in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and the District of Columbia.

The color-coded threat conditions can apply nationwide, or they may be declared for a specific geographic area or industrial sector.

Why, with the new threats, wasn't the nation -- or at least the northeast -- upgraded to the next level, "code orange?"

Because the threats would have to have included a specific time and date, and been corroborated and credible, U.S. officials said.

What makes a threat credible? First, an increased volume in level of activity involving threats of terrorist attacks. When analysts who review this information believe the quantity and level of threats are above the norm, they reach a threshold at which they notify U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft -- and he in turn notifies the public.

Only the intelligence community can specifically answer what makes a threat credible. Analysts gather information and make daily judgements about the credibility and relevance of threats.

Generally a threat is considered more credible when it comes from multiple sources. As Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge put it, "obviously there are men and women within the community whose business it has been for years to take a look at that information and draw conclusions and determine what we should do about it."

He pointed to this process working well in December 1999. "Authorities in Jordan, Canada and the United States uncovered and prevented plans for a series of attacks related to the dawn of the new millennium," he said. "Those plans were thwarted when intelligence learned about them, and law enforcement arrested the suspected terrorists."

Prior to issuing last week's advisory regarding banks, the government had, in the wake of Sept. 11, issued other industry-specific warnings to trucking companies, dams, water-suppliers, crop dusters, and nuclear plants, among others.

Public warnings about terrorist threats serve multiple purposes: they help responders prepare, they help keep the public alert, and they may help keep the threat from being carried out at all.

As U.S. officials continue this week to question Abu Zubaydah, Osama bin Laden's top field commander, even more information related to threats may surface. U.S. officials are still trying to figure out what's true and what's not.

Many regard the Saudi-born Palestinian as the link between bin Laden and many of al-Qaida's operational cells. Zubaydah's notebook was found when he was captured in a joint Pakistani-U.S. raid March 28 in Faisalabad, Pakistan. He is recovering at an undisclosed location from gunshot wounds received during his capture.

Zubaydah has claimed that al-Qaida knows how to build a "dirty bomb" designed to spread radioactivity over a wide area.

In the face of continued threats -- particularly if they don't crescendo into terrorist acts -- keeping the public alert becomes progressively more difficult, acknowledged Ridge.

"...I think it is very predictable and very understandable and very human, the further you get, the further away you are from an event, that distance and time may even unconsciously erode your commitment, erode that wariness, that attention span. And so, again, to remind everyone we're still at war, we're still at risk.

Ashcroft added that federal officials will continue to share information when they believe it merits attention from appropriate authorities and from the American public.

"We believe that this information sharing disrupts and prevents terrorist activity," he said.

The homeland security advisory system uses five color-coded threat conditions. Listed below, each has protective measures that may be applied on national, state, or local levels.

Green, or Low Condition

Refine and test preplanned protective measures

Ensure personnel receive training on the homeland security advisory system

Assess facilities for vulnerability

Blue, or Guarded Condition

Check communications between emergency responders

Review and update emergency response procedures

Provide the public with necessary information

Yellow, or Elevated Condition

Increase surveillance of critical locations

Coordinate emergency plans with nearby jurisdictions

Assess further refinement of protective measures within the context of the threat information

Orange, or High Condition

Coordinate necessary security efforts with armed forces or law enforcement

Take additional precaution at public events

Prepare to work at an alternate site or with a dispersed workforce

Restrict access to essential personnel

Red, or Severe Condition

Assign emergency response personnel and pre-position them

Monitor, redirect, or constrain transportation systems

Increase or redirect personnel to address critical emergency needs

For more information about the homeland security advisory system, visit the Office of Homeland Security's Web site.

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