Skip to main content

Why the US scuttled the rainbow-colored terrorism threat chart

In 2011, the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security replaced the rainbow-colored National Terrorism Advisory System with a new Homeland Security Advisory System.

The new National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) took effect in the United States on April 26, 2011. It replaced the Homeland Security Advisory System (HSAS) which was introduced on March 12, 2002 by a presidential directive.

History of the iconic rainbow-colored chart

HSAS was originally developed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to warn the public of the possibility of imminent terrorist attack. It was represented by the iconic rainbow-colored chart in which red is "Severe," orange is "High," yellow is "Elevated," blue is "Guarded" and green is "Low." With yellow as the default, the threat level was raised to orange five times in the first two years. Each of these so-called "orange alerts" lasted an average of 19 days and did not specify the nature of the threat about which the public was supposedly being warned.

HSAS subsequently began to provide more information about the threats. Only days after the Democratic National Convention in 2004, there was an orange alert that lasted 102 days regarding the financial services sectors in New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. This alert was based largely on intelligence that pre-dated 9/11. In 2005, an orange alert for mass transit lasted 36 days. In August 2006, all commercial flights were placed on an orange alert which was never lifted until the HSAS was dissolved in April 2011.


Critics complained that the color-coded HSAS was vague and offered no practical guidance that individuals could use to protect themselves. "The terror alert system may be contributing to the very panic and confusion in our society that the terrorists seek to generate," Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said in a press statement in 2003. In a 2005 op-ed for the New York Times, Stephen E. Flynn, of the Council on Foreign Relations, complained U.S. intelligence is not actually able to analyze information quickly enough to provide useful public warning and that the government should not portray a monolithic threat level when certain areas are at more risk than others. Flynn cited figures that show a public outlay of about $10 million for each day the country is on "orange alert."

On July 14, 2009, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano announced there would be a 60-day review of the effectiveness of the HSAS. A month later, former DHS Secretary Tom Ridge alleged he had been pressured to raise the threat level the night before President Bush's re-election in November 2004. (He said the incident was detailed in his forthcoming book "The Test of Our Times.") Although alerts could be issued without Ridge's approval by the members of the Homeland Security Advisory Council - who, at the time, included Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI chief Robert Mueller, CIA director George Tenet, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell - Ridge said he successfully argued against raising the threat level in Nov. 2004. The orange alert was actually lowered to yellow on Nov. 10, and Ridge announced his resignation on Nov. 30.

The introduction of a new system

With Napolitano's acknowledgement that HSAS "has faded in utility except for late-night comics," her task force recommended eliminating the never-used lower levels of blue and green. The new NTAS system unveiled on April 20, 2011 reduced the number of alert levels to only two. Under the new system, there is no default alert level. If there is a specific threat, an alert will be issued on either the "elevated" or "imminent" level (the latter being the more severe). Details specific to the threat will be announced on television, radio, Twitter, Facebook, and on If there is no reason to extend the alert, it will automatically expire after two weeks.

The system is improved

Andrew McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor who went after suspects in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, told Fox News: "I never thought that color coding made America safer to begin with." Many Americans held the same opinion, and they were probably right. The average airplane passenger has all but forgotten that the permanent "orange alert" was removed in 2011, and air travel seems no more risky today for its lack of a color-coded fear level.

Originally posted to Helium Network on March 4, 2007. Updated April 2014 on Helium Network.

Paul Blumenthal (August 1, 2020):

Trump’s War is suffused with “war on terrorism” rhetoric. The deployment of officers into cities is a “surge.” The New York Post labels demonstrators damaging property as “insurgents.” The Pentagon calls protesters and journalists “adversaries.” The Department of Homeland Security circulates “Baseball cards” identifying protesters, as the military did for former ministers and generals in Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq and al-Qaeda terrorist leaders.


Popular posts from this blog

Castration at the Battle of Adwa (1896)

On March 1, 1896, the Battle of Adwa "cast doubt upon an unshakable certainty of the age – that sooner or later Africans would fall under the rule of Europeans." In this battle, Ethiopians beat back the invading Italians and forced them to retreat permanently. It was not until 1922 that Benito Mussolini would again initiate designs against Ethiopia; despite Ethiopia's defeat in 1936, the nation ultimately retained its independence. "Adwa opened a breach that would lead, in the aftermath of world war fifty years later, to the rollback of European rule in Africa. It was," Raymond Jonas wrote, "an event that determined the color of Africa." (p. 1) It was also significant because it upheld the power of Ethiopia's Christian monarchy that controlled an ethnically diverse nation (p. 333), a nation in which, in the late 19th century, the Christian Emperor Yohannes had tried to force Muslims to convert to Christianity. (p. 36) The Victorian English spelli

Review of Cliff Sims' 'Team of Vipers' (2019)

After he resigned his position, Cliff Sims spent two months in Fall 2018 writing Team of Vipers: My 500 Extraordinary Days in the Trump White House . Many stories are told, some already well known to the public, some not. One buys this book, most likely, to gape at the colossal flameout spectacle that is Donald Trump, as with most things with Trump's name. Sims exposes the thoughtlessness, the chaos, the lack of empathy among his fellow insiders in the campaign and later in the White House, but he does not at all acknowledge the real consequences for ordinary Americans — there might as well be no world outside the Trump insider bubble, for all this narrative concerns itself with — and therefore falls far short of fully grappling with the ethical implications of his complicity. Previously, Sims was a journalist. "I had written tough stories, including some that helped take down a once-popular Republican governor in my home state," he says. "I had done my best to be

The ‘prostitute with a gun’ was a middle-class high school girl

On May 19, 1992, Amy Fisher, a 17-year-old high school student in Long Island, N.Y., rang the bell at the home of 37-year-old Mary Jo Buttafuoco. Buttafuoco stepped onto her front porch and had a brief conversation with the girl, whom she had never met before. Fisher then shot her in the face and fled the scene. Neighbors heard the shot and rushed to Buttafuoco's aid. She regained consciousness the next day in a hospital and was able to recall the conversation with her attacker. This information helped police to promptly identify and arrest Fisher. Fisher's explanation of her action shocked the nation. She claimed that she had been lovers with her victim's husband, Joey Buttafuoco, 36, since the previous summer when she was still only 16. While those who knew Buttafuoco believed him to be a pillar of the community, Fisher said he perpetrated auto theft scams. She claimed he introduced her to a life of prostitution, such that she wore a beeper to her high school classes an