Aviation Alert Level Remains at Orange

April 10, 2007
"The threat still exists. The threat is very real and we need to remain at orange until the threat no longer exists."

The U.S. threat level for aviation remains at "orange," or high, eight months after Britain said it had disrupted a plot to blow up airliners headed to the United States.

Bush administration officials say there is no indication the danger has receded.

When the plot's discovery was announced in August, the U.S. immediately raised the level to orange, the second-highest level, but only for the aviation sector. The rest of the nation stayed at yellow, or "guarded," the next level down.

"The threat still exists," Transportation Security Administration spokesman Christopher White said in a recent interview. "The threat is very real and we need to remain at orange until the threat no longer exists."

The disrupted plot allegedly involved people planning to construct bombs onboard aircraft from small amounts of liquids or gels carried in innocent-looking containers. More than a dozen people, all British, are awaiting trial in the case.

White pointed out that U.S. officials, working closely with their British counterparts, banned all liquids from flights overnight.

After conducting extensive research into explosive materials, White said, the agency began allowing limited quantities of liquids to be carried onto planes.

Since Sept. 25, under the "3-1-1 rule," passengers have been allowed to carry on three-ounce or less bottles of liquid, all stored in a quart-size, clear, zip-top plastic bag, with just one plastic bag per passenger.

White said both the orange alert level and the 3-1-1 rule are directly tied to intelligence about the current threat. He refused to speculate how long each might remain in place.

The chief intelligence officer at the Homeland Security Department, Charles Allen, also said it would be premature to lower the level for aviation at this point, and he noted that the head of the U.K.'s counterterror agency last November warned of continued high level attack planning.

"We live in a time when there are bad guys out there who continue to have an interest in striking at us using the aviation sector," Russ Knocke, spokesman for Homeland Security, said Monday.

The color-coded threat system was established by presidential order in March 2002 as a way to inform law enforcement agencies quickly when intelligence indicated a change in the terrorist threat facing the nation.

The system runs from a low of green, through blue for "guarded," yellow for "elevated," orange for "high" to red for "severe" - or under attack.

P.J. Crowley, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who worked in the Clinton administration, said Monday the color-coding system no longer communicates anything useful to the public. He said it was originally intended as an alert solely to law enforcement but then started being used to communicate to the public as well.

"Someone in the White House decided it would be used as a P.R. tool and it was abused as a P.R. tool to the point it became meaningless," said Crowley.

But Crowley added, "obviously, we continue to fly in record numbers," so it may be that the system actually is ignored by the public while communicating information to law enforcement.

Knocke acknowledged that in the early days of the department, changes to the system covered the entire nation and were perhaps broader than they needed to be. Now, he said, the system is better able to target by sector, by threat and even by geographic region, which, he said, is "evidence that as a department and as a country we are maturing in how we recognize, communicate and respond to potential threats."

Knocke said there is still an ongoing investigation into the August plot that has resulted in a wealth of information that continues to support the actions taken.

"We're very satisfied with how airport operations are working," he said.


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