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USA to bin colour-code terror warning system - report

'There can only be shades of grey' says UK top cop

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The widely-derided US system of colour-coded terror warnings may soon be binned, according to reports.

The system, brought in eight years ago in the wake of 9/11, ranges from green (low risk of attacks) up through blue, yellow ("significant" risk, the current level for the US as a whole) and orange ("high risk", the current level for the aviation sector) to red ("severe" risk). It is currently being considered by a wide-ranging internal review of domestic security set in train by Obama administration homeland-sec chief Janet Napolitano.

The AP cites undisclosed official sources as saying that a proposal to scrap the multicoloured plan is under consideration by the multiple federal agencies involved.

The Bush-era alert scheme has been widely lampooned by US comedians and heavily criticised on the grounds that it causes needless concern and fear.

Reportedly, it would not be entirely scrapped but replaced by a more clear-cut alert system of some kind which would compel security officials to be more specific and offer less scope for long-duration "cover your ass" warnings designed more to protect organisations from criticism after an attack than genuinely to help public awareness.

A possible future plan described by the AP's sources would be reduction of the types of alert to just two, the normal state of play (perhaps tagged as "elevated" threat) and an "imminent" warning condition that would not be allowed to persist for more than one week at a time.

The UK also operates a five-level terror warning system (low/moderate/substantial/severe/critical) split into threats from "international" (set by a multi-agency body) and "Irish-related" terrorism (set by MI5/SS). The international threat is currently set at severe, and the irish-related menace as severe in Northern Ireland but only substantial on the UK mainland.

All the systems have relatively little relevance to civilians, but among security, intelligence and military organisations the alert level is of great significance at it causes procedures, measures and permissions to be put into or out of effect.

The present-day UK terror system was introduced in 2006, replacing various earlier procedures such as the BIKINI State formerly employed by the UK Ministry of Defence. BIKINI states originally ranged from White (which was never used) up through Black ("possible") to Amber and Red. As Amber and Red could only be practically maintained for limited periods of time and nobody in the MoD was willing to drop to White, a further "Black Special" state was later brought in.

There was also another obscure system called TESSERAL, indicating a specific threat to military aircraft, which would be used if anyone thought that Irish republican terrorists had got hold of anti-aircraft missiles.

The UK's top cop, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson, warned this morning that the threat from terrorism in the UK is at its highest level for three years. He appeared to add a timely sneer at the USA's colour code system, saying:

"These are fine judgements and there are no black and white answers, no absolutes - only shades of grey."

Or perhaps we've taken that out of context. ®

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