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Homeland Security Drops Color-Coded Terror Alerts 183

Posted by timothy
from the magic-8-ball-warnings dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "The LA Times reports that the Homeland Security Department is poised to end its five-tiered, color-coded terrorism warning system, a post-Sept. 11 endeavor that has been called too vague to be useful and has been mostly ignored or mocked by the public. The domestic security advisory system was created in 2002 under then-Secretary Tom Ridge and in 2004, the department began assigning color threat levels to general targets such as aviation, financial services and mass transit. However the Department hasn't changed the alert level in four years, even after the attempted bombing of a flight to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 and the alert level has only been elevated to red once, on Aug. 10, 2006, when British police disrupted a plot to detonate liquid explosives on airliners. Although it is unknown what, if anything, will replace the color-coded alerts, a senior Homeland Security official, who did not want to speak on the record about a decision still under review, says that 'the goal is to replace a system that communicates nothing.'" Can't we just re-use the big DefCon displays from Wargames?
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Homeland Security Drops Color-Coded Terror Alerts

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  • by Anrego (830717) * on Thursday November 25, 2010 @12:01PM (#34343042)

    Disclaimer: I’m Canadian, so my view of this whole color coded terror alert thing may be a bit off.

    Rather than trying to produce something that “provides more information”, try producing something that directly satisfies someones requirements.

    Who wants this information. What are they going to do with it? Lets say we are a financial institution and our terror alert is high.. what does this mean to us? How does it change our activities for today? What threat specific info would be useful in guiding us?

    I think “levels” are kind of silly.. the information should be self explanatory and maybe in bulletin form. “There was an attempted bombing. We are not sure if this is isolated or part of a larger plot. Similar institutions or people in the same geographic area should be on the lookout for: whatever.” If there is a transit bombing.. then other transit institutions should be notified and some kind of established procedures should go into effect.

    Using colors I think was especially silly, because paraphrasing Lewis Black (with less profanity), every time they talk about the color they have to explain what it means anyway.

    • by peragrin (659227)

      I agreed right up until you said geographic area.

      Canada and the USA are too large. Someone making a statement could very easily attack NY, chicago, and LA all at the same time. Limiting yourself to a geographic area is limiting.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Yvan256 (722131)

        How about "Warning! Some bad shit may happen somewhere on planet Earth! Be careful!"

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by GameboyRMH (1153867)

          I agreed with you until you said planet Earth.

          The solar system is too large. Someone making a statement could very easily attack the Washington Monument, the face on Mars and the Apollo landing site all at the same time. Limiting yourself to a planet is limiting.

      • by xaxa (988988)

        I agreed right up until you said geographic area.

        Canada and the USA are too large. Someone making a statement could very easily attack NY, chicago, and LA all at the same time. Limiting yourself to a geographic area is limiting.

        Then say "the USA" as your geographic area, but say "Chicago" if intelligence suggests the problem is specific to Chicago.

    • by poetmatt (793785)

      the problem is the new system is just as much bullshit as the last.

      saying that we are in a continually elevated threat of terrorism (at a minimum) is a complete misnomer.

      • by Anrego (830717) *

        saying that we are in a continually elevated threat of terrorism (at a minimum) is a complete misnomer.

        Indeed. A base level should be established and called simply "the norm". The whole "always in danger" thing seems mostly political.

        Bulletins (or deviations from the norm) should be posted when a specific event happens. Some arbitrary "level" is just silly because no one is ever going to want to lower it.. which completely defeats any meaning it holds.

    • by sjames (1099) on Thursday November 25, 2010 @02:41PM (#34344194) Homepage

      No system can help. It's not the specificity of the system that's the problem, it's that it's being run by Chicken Little.

      The terror threat went to RED, meaning attack imminent based on the group in the U.K. that were allegedly working on a binary explosive. What we don't hear as often is that it could never have been made to work ever (unless they could somehow talk the flight attendant into letting them take 50 pounds of ice into the lav), and they didn't even have passports needed to board a flight to the U.S. In spite of that, we still can't take liquids on the plane to this day. (BTW, the final result of the chemistry is a white crystalline powder, so it's not like the liquid ban will help if they mix it in advance).

      The terror threat NEVER got below yellow even for a second. An alarm that never stops sounding eventually becomes background noise and then means nothing at all.

      Meanwhile, the special procedures supposed to go into effect with a higher threat level never actually caught anyone doing anything anywhere. Not once.

      People don't make fun of the alert system because it was inherently silly, they make fun of it because the people running the system are silly. The color code just provides us with a gauge of how silly they are.

      People will make fun of the new system as well. That's not because of the system, it's because the same silly cowards will be running it.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by interkin3tic (1469267)

        People will make fun of the new system as well. That's not because of the system, it's because the same silly cowards will be running it.

        To prove your point "One alternative under consideration is to change to only two threat levels: elevated and imminent."

        "Elevated?" From what? From what we'd like it to be? From what we assumed it was before 9/11? From

        I'm guessing this is how the new threat level indicator was conceived: A TSA head was wondering how he could convince people to still be afraid and get their congressmen to keep increasing the TSA budget as he wandered into a McDonalds. He asked for a diet coke, small. The cashier said

      • by Doc Ruby (173196) on Thursday November 25, 2010 @04:09PM (#34344828) Homepage Journal

        I also note that on 9/11/2001 there were no Emergency Broadcast System alerts issued, even in NYC, or in DC, as both the Pentagon and the World Trade Center were violently attacked. Despite several generations of Americans being trained that such an attack would be followed by such an alert, "in the event of an actual emergency".

        I wonder if those nuke warheads even work.

  • by mysidia (191772) on Thursday November 25, 2010 @12:01PM (#34343046)

    Any higher level alert will be avoided as it could cause a panic and play into the terrorists' hands.

    Any lower level alert will never be used because by design the war on terror is a perpetual war [wikipedia.org]. And ending the crisis would constitute the government surrendering power back to the people, which they don't want to do.

    • by MBCook (132727) <foobarsoft@foobarsoft.com> on Thursday November 25, 2010 @12:15PM (#34343178) Homepage

      It's Blakley's Law [blogspot.com]:

      "Every public alert system's status indicator rises until it reaches its disaster imminent setting and remains at that setting until it is retired from service."

    • by gstoddart (321705) on Thursday November 25, 2010 @12:17PM (#34343190) Homepage

      Obsolete because we will always be at Orange Alert

      Yes, this is the problem.

      The last time flew into Denver from Canada, they kept saying over the loudspeaker in the airport that we were at Threat Level Orange. I assumed this was something new and that I should brace for even worse security.

      When I asked my US counterparts what was up, they basically said the same thing ... they've been at Threat Level Orange (it sounds much more official with the caps) for most of the last decade, and that they've stopped listening to it -- pretty much the whole country. In fact, they joked about it because it had ceased to be meaningful in any way. It seems to have become a perpetual state from which nobody will ever be moved. I fear, as you say, they would never allow us to go back to normal, because they'd have to give up their new-found control.

      We have always been at war with Oceana (or is that us? I get so confused).

      • by mrsquid0 (1335303)

        > Obsolete because we will always be at Orange Alert

        I think that a more appropriate term is Scare Level Orange.

      • by KiloByte (825081)

        they joked about it because it had ceased to be meaningful in any way

        In order to cease, you need to start first.

      • by xaxa (988988)

        The last time flew into Denver from Canada, they kept saying over the loudspeaker in the airport that we were at Threat Level Orange. I assumed this was something new and that I should brace for even worse security.

        <voice accent="british" type="male robotic overlo^W^H">
        "May I have your attention please. Please do not leave cases or parcels unattended anywhere on the station. Any unattended articles are likely to be removed without warning."

        "Please do not leave cases or parcels unattended anywhere on the station. Any unattended articles are likely to be removed and may be destroyed by the security services."
        </voice>

        <voice accent="british" type="female robotic mistress">
        "Please keep your belongings wit

      • In fact, they joked about it because it had ceased to be meaningful in any way.

        I was never quite clear what the I was supposed to do with the threat level information anyway.

        "Threat level orange? Well then I'm going to report the guy with a stick of dynamite in his back pocket. Were it threat level green, I'd just assume he was just being prepared for some emergency demolition."

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Lanteran (1883836)
        Oceana is the Americas, Australia, GB and shifting territory around the equator. Eurasia is- Eurasia minus china, plus the shifting territory. Eastasia is china, japan, the pacific that's not oceana and shifting territories.
    • by Tuoqui (1091447)

      Yet everyone that has an IQ over 100 can see the 'terror threat level' is total bullshit... It's the other 80% of the population under 100 that is too stupid to realize these facts.

      • It's the other 80% of the population under 100 that is too stupid to realize these facts.

        This isn't about intelligence, though. It is about fear. Fear is an emotional state and not tied at all to intelligence. There are lots of very intelligent people who know the same facts that we do, and are still scared of a terrorist attack because they have visions of planes flying into buildings. Is it irrational? Sure. But fear has nothing to do with rationality because it is an emotional response. People will go for anything that makes them feel less afraid. Intrusive searches and security leve

        • This isn't about intelligence, though. It is about fear. Fear is an emotional state and not tied at all to intelligence.

          It may not be about intelligence, but it certainly is all about stupidity and ignorance - traits that enhance a person's susceptibility to self-destructive fear and political manipulation.

      • Y'know, I realize you're trying to be facetious, but by definition, 50% of the population has an IQ under 100.

        Of course, IQ is a meaningless number as it is. It really doesn't mean anything when expressed as a number like that. It *could* have some meaning when expressed as +/- standard deviations (though it still isn't an accurate measure of your ability to actually use that knowledge), but that'll never happen, because that would require that the population as a whole have at least a basic understanding o

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by amRadioHed (463061)

          Y'know, I realize you're trying to be facetious, but by definition, 50% of the population has an IQ under 100.

          ...at the time the tests were last normalized. If American's are getting dumber at a fast enough rate his numbers could very well be correct.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by bunratty (545641)
      Get serious. There's a doubleplusgood reason we've always been at war with Eurasia.
    • We had this in the UK with the Bikini Alert codes... technically we should have remained at Amber for very long periods, but the overhead required in continuously mounting armed guards and vehicle searches on our bases was getting rather tiresome, so they introduced Bikini Black Aalpha which allowed them to drop to the new state of "higher than Black" but not have to perform all the extra checks required by Amber... we still performed a lot of checks, but on a random basis instead of having to search every
    • by Jeremi (14640) on Thursday November 25, 2010 @02:21PM (#34344050) Homepage

      Any lower level alert will never be used because by design the war on terror is a perpetual war . And ending the crisis would constitute the government surrendering power back to the people, which they don't want to do.

      Well, that's the obligatory cynical take on it. The more obvious reason is: if and when the next terror attack occurs, whomever was responsible for lowering the alert status most recently would inevitably be sacked for "taking their eye off the ball". And nobody wants to be the one holding that hot potato.

  • This actually makes sense. The "threat level orange" was getting pretty ridiculous, and political chances of the "threat level" ever returning to "green" or even "yellow" seemed awfully remote.

    • by MrMickS (568778) on Thursday November 25, 2010 @12:44PM (#34343420) Homepage Journal

      Getting rid of it makes sense. Replacing it with something else doesn't. The true threat level can't be communicated to the general public as it would cause awkward questions. The current situation raises one awkward question that seems unpatriotic to ask. "Why is there always a threat of terrorism?"

    • The "threat level orange" was getting pretty ridiculous, and political chances of the "threat level" ever returning to "green" or even "yellow" seemed awfully remote.

      Technically, it was only the airports in the US that were permanently frozen at "threat level orange". Of course, most people never heard the threat level announced anywhere else, so they never realized that the threat level for the rest of the country was indeed variable.

      I point this out not to defend the system - which sucks beyond any potential defense - but rather because I was myself surprised when I found this out.

  • how many fingers am I holding up?
  • by Jojoba86 (1496883) on Thursday November 25, 2010 @12:02PM (#34343058)

    Why not use probability average American will get killed in a car accident divided by probability they will be killed by a terrorist.

    It gives a useful comparison, is verifiable and makes the danger level obvious to all.

    • by 6031769 (829845)

      I think it would be more intuitive if you were to swap the numerator and denominator. Otherwise, it's a good plan with much to recommend it.

      • by Jojoba86 (1496883)

        Damn it, that's the way round I intended!

        I never say the complete opposite of what I mean.

    • You answered your own question there.

      Why not[...]?

      Because...

      it [...] makes the danger level obvious to all.

    • by Greyfox (87712)
      We Americans aren't that good at math. Perhaps we could have some sort of Dorito-coded threat system? We could go from threat level cool-ranch all the way through threat level spicy-nacho!
    • by Jeremi (14640) on Thursday November 25, 2010 @02:34PM (#34344154) Homepage

      Why not use probability average American will get killed in a car accident divided by probability they will be killed by a terrorist.

      Because then the Palin administration will successfully reduce the threat of terrorism by banning seat belts.

    • You mean a system that makes it obvious what a pitifully small risk terrorism actually is in this country? Obviously that idea is a nonstarter.

  • Replacement (Score:5, Funny)

    by JohnyDog (129809) on Thursday November 25, 2010 @12:03PM (#34343060)

    I bet the replacement will be 2-way switch with labels "Terror" and "More Terror" glued shut in the latter position.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by ddxexex (1664191)
      According to the article the replacement is 'elevated' and 'imminent'. With imminent they have to say why it is imminent and give a reasonably specific reason why. So you were right about the switch, but it sounds like they are going to at least toggle the switch once or twice before it gets stuck.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Arancaytar (966377)

      And every time you try to switch it to "Terror" instead, it explodes?

  • Suggested levels (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Trip6 (1184883) on Thursday November 25, 2010 @12:11PM (#34343132)

    "Saddam" (i.e. no threat)
    "Oh shit, I might have bounced a check"
    "Oh shit, I bounced a check"
    "OMG"
    "OMFG"
    "Pant-shitting"

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      No no, this is slashdot - stick to the theme. I propose:

      -"It's just a PEBKAC"
      -"Goddammit, one of the RAID drives died"
      -"Aww fuck, the PHBs are switching us over to Outlook"
      -"What do you mean, you typed rm -rf?"
      -The Data Centre is now a swimming pool"
      • If you draw the control diagram suggested by the acronym, "PEBKAC" you will see the underlying problem with that production model.

        Hint 1: it's open circuit.

        Hint 2: where is your input coming from...

      • Wait, isn't typing rm -rf also just a PEBKAC? The severity of PEBKACs varies greatly depending on what the keyboard is plugged into and who's sitting in the chair.

    • by gfreeman (456642)

      Where's my car analogy?!

      • by Abstrackt (609015)
        "Driving conditions are fine"
        "It's raining, roads might be slippery"
        "Thick fog, we don't know what's out there but it's probably bad"
        "Black ice on the road, watch out for assholes"
        "Canadian winter, better move into a bunker until this blows over"
      • You're driving your car. Here are your five threat levels:

        1) "Sha-na-na-na, sha-na-na-na-na-na, ..." (Cruising for burgers)
        2) "What an idiot!" (Where'd that bozo get a license?!)
        3) "WTF?" (Damn! Where'd that car come from?)
        4) "Oh, shit!" (Mother of God, please make the airbags work!)
        5) Wham! (preemptive strike without warning)

  • by Assmasher (456699) on Thursday November 25, 2010 @12:16PM (#34343186) Journal

    ...as threat indicators, I mean come on, how cool would it be to hear "*ding**dong*The Department of Homeland Security has deemed the current threat level to be 'Tapioca'"

    • by Abstrackt (609015)
      That's a good idea in theory but I imagine the general population would deem the current threat level to be "Bullshit". ;)
  • Oh Great!

    For years, I looked at these home-built alert level gadgets and finally decided to build one myself.

    -And the moment I buy a string of orange Halloween LED-lights, they decide to drop the color level system

  • Replace the system with nothing. General description of threat is meaningless and does nothing but frightens the public.
  • Level 0: "Friendly pat" - no terror threat. Only theoretical, as we will never see this level.
    Level 1: "First Knuckle" - be afraid citizen, but only a little, as the DHS will protect you. Now, cough, please.
    Level 2: "Middle Finger" - citizen, we are going to have to "set aside" your rights for a bit. I hope you aren't allergic to latex.
    Level 3: "Two in the stink" - prole, you will comply, for the good of the country.
    Level 4: "Fist" - your papers are not in order. You vill follow us to the back room.
    Level 5:

  • Calibration time. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Apuleius (6901) on Thursday November 25, 2010 @12:25PM (#34343256) Journal

    Yesterday most of the TSA's whole boddy scanners were idled, and very few passengers were asked to go through them. This way the TSA was able to claim that only a small number of people opted out (since only a small number of people were made to choose between getting pornscanned or gateraped.)

    So apparently, the threat of bad PR and long lines from National Opt Out Day was a bigger threat than Al Qaeda. That is a more informative datum than the color code.

    So clearly, people should chill the fuck out, we are not under a great thread, and it's time to quit pornscanning and fear mongering.

    And also, it's time to change the thread scale from the color code to a scale of bitchiness, i.e. how bitchy do you have to be to be considered a bigger concern than Al Qaeda. Yesterday was clearly around a 2 out of 10 (i.e. "Meh") on any bitchiness scale. Even a slight level of bitchiness was enough to be a bigger concern than Al Qaeda. If Osama and his guys get some respite from dodging the Hellfire missiles and plan an actual attack, the level will rise all the way to 10/10 ("Reno 911").

    Howzat?

  • They were probably tired of switching light bulbs whenever they were going from blue alert to red alert.
  • Replace the entire DHS with nothing. While we're at it, let's demolish the ICE black helicopter corps and every other federal domestic paramilitary department of ritual abuse.

  • by Idarubicin (579475) <allsquietNO@SPAMhotmail.com> on Thursday November 25, 2010 @12:34PM (#34343328) Journal

    Can't we just re-use the big DefCon displays from Wargames?

    While I realize that the submitter was just cracking a joke, it's actually pretty lame on an important level (...probably on some unimportant ones, too, but I digress).

    The DEFCON [wikipedia.org] (Defence Readiness Condition) system is in many ways the antithesis to the obscure TSA color-coded alerts. DEFCON assigns its lowest level (5) to the 'normal' state of preparedness -- none of this nonsense with a perpetual orange alert; if something is usual practice then that's the lowest condition.

    Under DEFCON rules (or the terorrism-related FPCON [wikipedia.org] rules), members of the military have specific, clearly delineated responsibilities and tasks. There is a firm grasp of the meaning and intent of each condition. In contrast, telling civilians they're facing threat level Orange (or Yellow, or Red) doesn't mean anything. We don't know what to do differently - if anything - and we don't know what might happen, or how to respond, or when the condition might be returned to normal.

    Of course, I also recognize that my message header could serve as an apt description of the whole color-coded threat warning system....

  • It's hard to feel a sense of emergency when the threat level has been stuck on the same level for years.
  • Sunkist [sunkist.com] sales were down. Nobody was buying oranges anymore, and lemon sales were stagnating too.

    • by gstoddart (321705)

      Sunkist [sunkist.com] sales were down. Nobody was buying oranges anymore, and lemon sales were stagnating too.

      And apparently nobody remembers what a lime even looks like. ;-)

      • by Yvan256 (722131)

        I'm Canadian. I thought USA homeland security only used yellow, orange and red.

        • by gstoddart (321705)

          I'm Canadian. I thought USA homeland security only used yellow, orange and red.

          As am I. Green is the hypothetical color we'll never see again -- think September 10, 2001.

          • by Abstrackt (609015)

            I'm Canadian. I thought USA homeland security only used yellow, orange and red.

            As am I. Green is the hypothetical color we'll never see again -- think September 10, 2001.

            You wouldn't have seen green back then anyway, or any other color for that matter, the color-coding system was introduced March 11, 2002; nobody thought it was necessary before that point.

  • One less toy for politicians to play bullshit bingo with whenever federal elections are around the corner.
    Back in the day the Bush administration simply took the whole thing too far.

  • The best explanation of the purpose of the color system I have heard is as follows. Potential suicide bombers are, by definition, not afraid of death, because they believe that their murder/suicide will bring them paradise. They are, however, terrified of being captured. This would mean an ignominous death in a jail cell of old age, and they would be denied their afterlife reward. As a result, AQ is said to be extremely skittish. If AQ believes that a plan has been exposed, they will scuttle the plan and go

    • by Reapman (740286)

      Sooo by having a threat level ALWAYS IN THE SAME COLOR is magically keeping the baddies away? How exactlly did the current threat level stop any of the attempts we know about? After the incident last year around Christmas I believe it went up, but it was AFTER the fact.

      The color system in theory may have worked if it was used properly, but it wasn't. As the summary said, keeping it at the same threat level for 4 years is a joke. If I hear that we're at orange alert that should MEAN something.

    • by Jeremi (14640)

      This would, it was hoped, spook AQ enough for them to postpone or cancel the attack.

      On the other hand, this could backfire: if AQ start planning their attack, and the color-level didn't change, AQ would be assured that their plan was undetected, and would be encouraged to proceed.

      But as the other poster noted, it's all academic anyway, since the level was never changed from orange.

    • by sjames (1099)

      Since it hasn't changed in years now and there still haven't been any terrorist attacks, it is apparently not needed at all.

      Of course, at best it will never be better proven than the tiger repelling rock.

  • DHS will now release colored chickens to broadcast level of terror alerts. Citizens are encouraged to take the below actions depending on what color chicken you see running around in their neighborhood :

    - Yellow colored chickens : Start looking at the minorities in your neighborhood suspiciously and irritatingly

    - Orange colored chickens : Start moaning about good old days in doorsteps with your neighbors, and comment that "Good old {Insert-conservative-dead-president} would not let these damn {Insert-
    • by lennier1 (264730)

      At which stage do we have to prepare for Radscorpions?

      • by unity100 (970058)
        if you reach the stage of donning a scantily clad leather armor as your everyday clothes. that will be way past the level of calling yourself 'Doggone' and starting to go around with a chicken under your left arm as your grand grand father.
  • Can't we just re-use the big DefCon displays from Wargames?

    How about we have no indicator whatsoever? I know, it's a crazy, wild idea. Just hold on a sec and follow along. I know, I know, it's crazy, but hear me out. The current color-coded threat level has been derided as useless by the public. The government employees themselves don't pay attention to it. Raising the threat any higher means Bad Things Coming, and we can't lower it, for fear of the public and officials getting complacent. Homeland security is doing nothing because it's hands are tied, and t

  • The Colours should have immediately obvious meanings.

    For Example: Threat level Pink - LGBT Terrorist attacks imminent. Threat level Amber - we are being attacked by missing children. Threat level Plaid - Scottish Terrorists are about to play bagpipes at us.
  • Now can we work on that awkward name which sounds a little too much like "Department of Fatherland Security"? How about Domestic Security Service or Dept. of Domestic Security? Or State Security Department? "Homeland" sounds far too much like something George Bush thought of while he was playing with his Al Qaeda and G.I. Joe figurines.

  • I think the entire thing is off base because it does not relate to real life in any meaningful way.

    Call something: level Brown and people will understand - Brown is when you shit yourself.

    Level Yellow is when you piss yourself.

    Level Blue - that's when you have no air left and will die from suffocation.

    Etc. Things like that.

  • A great (or at least, silly) man once said that if he were to replace the colored threat level system, he would do it with only two levels:

    • Go find a helmet
    • Put on the damn helmet

    And now, people know what to do when the threat level is elevated.

    Also, they call him "Tater Salad."

  • The actual point of the colors were to make sure that the lowest 2 would never be used. It was basically a constant "Everyone, live in fear!" sign. It was ignored and/or mocked by the public because pretty much everyone realized this. I can't find the graph, but someone charted the 8 years of Bush's approval rating, with the color chart on the background of graph, and it matches up almost perfectly, to the surprise of basically no one.

    I'd be great if this were a 1-party thing, since then we could simply vot

  • I absolutely HATE being in Orlando International Airport and hearing a steady drone of how the current threat level is "orange." It's been that way for YEARS which proves two things: 1) it's completely inaccurate and 2) the creators never read The Boy Who Cried Wolf. [wikipedia.org]

  • After all, airports have been at code orange permanently ever since the code system was introduced. Yet for some reason every airport in the US plays the same announcement that is worded to make it sound as if the TSA just changed it to Orange this morning. Hell, I've heard that announcement so many times I can usually recite it from memory ... I guess we are retiring this system because the new machines at the airport now make us all dramatically safer from terrorist threat?

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