Ridge, outlining new alert system, says nation now at 'significant' level
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Unveiling a color-coded terrorism warning system, domestic security chief Tom Ridge said Tuesday the nation is on yellow alert _ facing a ``significant risk'' of danger but not the highest stage.
The five-level system is a response to public complaints that broad terror alerts issued by the government since the Sept. 11 attacks raised alarm without providing useful guidance.
The lowest-status warning is green, followed by blue, yellow, orange and red as the perceived dangers intensify.
Ridge said he hopes America is some day on the lowest level of alert, ``but I certainly think it's years away.'' He said the United States faces the ``permanent possibility'' of terrorist attack.
In a series of public events, Ridge outlined the stages of alert and how government agencies should respond:
_Green is a low risk of terrorist attack.
_Blue is a general risk, and agencies are asked to review and update emergency response procedures.
_Yellow is an ``elevated condition,'' meaning there is a significant risk of attack. Increased surveillance of critical locations and implementing some emergency response plans are called for.
_Orange signifies a high risk of attack, meaning the government should coordinate necessary security efforts with armed forces or law enforcement agencies and take additional precautions at public events.
_Red means a ``severe risk'' of attack and may require the pre-positioning of especially trained teams, closing public and government facilities and monitoring transportation systems.
America is at yellow alert because the al-Qaida terrorist network is trying to re-form after defeats in Afghanistan and has trained thousands of terrorists, some of whom have likely slipped into the United States, Ridge said.
Hundreds of local police agencies were being notified Tuesday of the yellow alert as well as what the color-coded system entails. The government has issued four ill-defined warnings since Sept. 11.
The alert system is in force immediately for federal agencies, and Ridge is urging state and local governments to adopt it, too. It will be subject to a 45-day comment period, after which it probably will be revised.
Ridge is not legally empowered to impose the new system on state and local governments or on private entities. In a speech to the National League of Cities, he implored officials from around the nation to adopt it.
``Unless we work together so that we have a seamless strategy through the state and down to the local government, I'm afraid we won't be as strong as we need to be to confront what I consider to be a permanent condition that we as a country need to accept as a fact of life,'' Ridge said.
As threats are assessed, the warning level can be upgraded for the entire country or for specific regions and economic sectors _ such as the nuclear industry, Ridge said. The system is intended to ensure that local governments prepare citizens, emergency response teams and the private sector for various threats, he said.
``We felt it was necessary to come up with a permanent mechanism to deal with the permanent possibility _ the permanent potential _ of terrorist attack,'' Ridge told reporters at a briefing in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.
Later, he said the system will provide a common vocabulary for citizens and government officials to react to threats.
``It empowers the government and citizens to take actions to address the threat. For every level of threat there will be a level of preparedness,'' Ridge told government officials in a speech a few blocks from the White House.
However, Ridge and other U.S. officials conceded the system does not tell private citizens how to respond to threats. Instead, the program was designed to motivate local governments to develop plans that will guide the actions of residents.
``There is no prescription we can write out and give to our communities,'' Ridge said.
He said the public will be notified of alert level changes in almost all cases, with the only exception being when the information might hinder police from catching a terrorist suspect.
There are various alert systems currently in place _ for functions ranging from transportation to the weather _ and President Bush ordered a review that will place them under a single federal framework. Attorney General John Ashcroft will assign threat conditions in consultation with Ridge.
Ridge said citizens and government officials will welcome a unified system, even if it leads to red-level warnings. ``I think the greatest danger is of the unknown,'' he said.