State considering four-level terror threat warning system

By Don Thompson, The Associated Press
Wednesday November 21, 2001

SACRAMENTO — California is considering a four-tier system to decide when to warn the public about possible terrorist threats, Gov. Gray Davis’ new security adviser said Tuesday. 

Level Four would be assigned to nebulous, unconfirmed reports, while a Level One would be reserved for credible threats that specify the time, location, target and other details, said Davis security adviser George Vinson. 

The effort predates the debate that followed Davis’ decision earlier this month to make public a private warning by the FBI that terrorists might be targeting bridges in Western states, Vinson said. 

Davis spokesman Steve Maviglio said such a warning likely would have been given the second highest classification because it included a specific time frame and range of targets, but was not corroborated. 

That might not have qualified it for public release under the guidelines outlined by Vinson, though he previously supported Davis’ decision to issue a public warning. 

Davis’ decision spurred a nationwide debate over when such warnings are beneficial. 

Davis had considered closing four California bridges after learning of a threat the FBI later determined was not credible. But Vinson said the governor opted to post extra patrols there instead so as not to interrupt state commerce. 

Vinson said the tiers would function as “a guide for decision makers” who would then advise Davis on making the threat public. 

But Vinson said he would recommend publicizing any Level One threat, most often in cooperation with federal officials. 

The levels are still being developed, but should be finalized “within days,” Maviglio said. 

A Level Three threat will likely be from a source of unknown reliability when there is no corroboration or specifics, while a Level Two would be when the source is believed to be reliable and there is some corroboration, but many details are missing, said Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for Attorney General Bill Lockyer. Lockyer is overseeing the new California Anti-Terrorism Information Center that is reviewing the guidelines. 

The idea for a tiered threat warning system grew out of frustration by local politicians and law enforcement over when to warn the public, said Vinson, a 23-year FBI veteran who headed two West Coast counterterrorism task forces. 

“They were all kind of on their own making these decisions,” Vinson said. 

“We’re dealing with threats every single day,” he said. However, “there is a real thick fog around intelligence” that means some threats are far more credible than others.