Rethinking the color-coded scheme

Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I.: "What we have now is a system that tells us to be scared. That's it.''

Published May 20, 2005 7:26PM (EDT)

Former Homeland Security czar Tom Ridge's admission last week that the Bush administration routinely persuaded the department to rely on flimsy intelligence when raising the terror alert level seems to have gotten Congress's attention. The House overwhelmingly approved legislation this week that would eliminate the rainbow-of-scare scale altogether. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., acknowledged that the system hasn't made Americans feel safer. "The color-coded system does not work well and has undermined the department's credibility," Kennedy said. "What we have now is a system that tells us to be scared. That's it.''

The system's fear factor has long been the subject of complaints; critics have suspected the Bush administration of manipulating the country's terror ratings in order to boost its own approval rating (and, as we also noted last week, they were right -- according to a Pew Research Center poll, terror warnings did translate into increased support for Republicans in general, and President Bush in particular). A White House statement on the issue, which the Washington Post called "a tepid statement of support," said the bill could "hinder the department's ability to implement its various missions."

If the legislation becomes law (it's not clear that it will see the same support in the Senate), one of Homeland Security's missions would certainly change: The department will be less able to take the White House's cues on when to spook the country. Instead, Homeland Security will be required to craft a replacement warning system that allows individual cities, states, or economic sectors to be put on alert, and includes emergency-specific tips to help citizens protect themselves.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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