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Colour-coded terror alert system set to be axed

America's Homeland Security Department is proposing to discontinue the colour-coded terror alert system that became a symbol of the country's post-9/11 jitters and the butt of late-night talk show jokes.

The system, with its rainbow of five colours — from green, signifying a low threat, to red, meaning severe — became a fixture in airports, in government buildings and on newscasts. Over the past four years, millions of travellers have begun and ended their trips to the sound of airport recordings warning that the threat level is orange.

The system's demise would not be the end of terror alerts; instead, the alerts would become more descriptive and not as colourful. In the past two years, Obama administration officials have changed security protocols without changing the colour of the threat, such as introducing new airport security measures after a terrorist tried to bring down a Detroit-bound jetliner last Christmas.

By scrapping the colours, Barack Obama would abandon a system that critics have long said was too vague to be useful and that Democrats criticised as a political scare tactic. And it would represent a formal undoing of one of the George W Bush administration's most visible legacies.

Officials confirmed that the recommendation and the draft proposal was described to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because other federal agencies are privately weighing in on the idea, and no final decision has been made.

Janet Napolitano, the Homeland Security Secretary, ordered a review of the system in July 2009. Earlier this year, the department decided the best way forward would be to scrap the colours and use more descriptive language to talk about terror threats. The recommendation is not related to the recent furore over airport security pat-downs and body scans.

The details of the new alert system – including the words that would be used to describe the threats – are still being worked out internally by multiple government agencies and the White House.

The Homeland Security Department would not discuss the recommendations and did not know when a new system would be rolled out. The current coloured system remains in place.

"We are committed to providing specific, actionable information based on the latest intelligence," said spokeswoman Amy Kudwa.

An option under consideration is to go from five threat tiers to two: elevated and imminent. Under the current system, green, at the bottom, signals a low danger of attack; blue signals a general risk; yellow, a significant risk; orange, a high risk; and red, at the top, warns of a severe threat. The nation has never been below the third threat level, yellow – an elevated or significant risk of terrorist attack.