Ridge: Color-Coded Security Alerts Should Be Reviewed

SAN DIEGO (AP) - Outgoing U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said Tuesday that the government should reconsider how it warns people about security threats, conceding that its color-coded scale has invited ``questions and even occasional derision.''

Ridge heeded a recommendation of his department's Homeland Security Advisory Council to solicit views from the public on the color scale, which assigns red, orange, yellow, blue and green, in descending order of risk.

The system sowed confusion since it was adopted in 2002.

Bruce Lawlor, who stepped down as Ridge's chief of staff last year, said the color scale suffers ``credibility issues'' and may have outlived its purpose.

``I think we need to step back and say, 'Do we really need to rely on colors?''' said Lawlor, a retired Army major general.

Frank Cilluffo, associate vice president for homeland security at George Washington University, disagreed, saying the system may need tweaking but that it shouldn't be junked. He likened it to faulty software.

``Software has bugs,'' he said. The next version gets better.''

Ridge, who plans to step down after President Bush names a successor, defended the warnings but said the public may want more specifics when the threat level is changed.

``I think the system is here to stay,'' he told reporters. ``I just think that we need clearly to take a look at what kind of information do we need to give to the public.''

The color-coded warnings highlighted a two-hour meeting during which the advisory panel counseled Ridge on how to run the new department. Twenty-two disparate federal agencies with more than 180,000 employees and a combined budget of $36 billion were merged in March 2003 to form the department.

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who participated by phone, chided the federal government for giving sometimes confusing signals about terrorist threats to state and local officials. Information comes from Homeland Security, Defense and other departments -- and it is not always in sync.

``It's like the fire hydrant has been opened,'' Romney said.

Ridge agreed, saying his department should be a leading contender to be the single funnel of information on domestic threats.

``Whether or not we win the turf war, who knows?'' he said.

Bush still must name a new head of the Homeland Security Department to take the place of Bernard Kerik, who abruptly withdrew Friday night, citing immigration problems with a family housekeeper.

``I don't think there's any impact at all on the department,'' Ridge told reporters. ``Frankly, I just think it's a blip on the screen.''