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New State Dept travel guidance ranks countries by threat level

The State Department launched its new travel advisory system Wednesday in an effort to simplify the information it provides to American travelers about security threats abroad.

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Laura Koran
WASHINGTON (CNN) — The State Department launched its new travel advisory system Wednesday in an effort to simplify the information it provides to American travelers about security threats abroad.

The system, announced last month, ranks countries into four security tiers based on a number of factors, including the risk of crime, terrorism, natural disaster, and civil unrest. Those tiers are:

Tier 1 - Exercise normal precautions Tier 2 - Exercise increased caution Tier 3 - Reconsider travel Tier 4 - Do not travel

Based on CNN's review of the published information eleven countries landed in Tier 4: Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, the Central African Republic, Yemen.

"Basically, these are the countries where, under the previous travel warning, we already recommended people not to go to them," said Michelle Bernier-Toth, the acting deputy assistant secretary of state for overseas citizens services.

While the State Department is warning all US citizens not to travel to those countries, it cannot prohibit them from doing so. North Korea is the exception to that rule, since the United States banned travel on American passports to that country over the summer.

The State Department insists the rankings are based solely on security conditions in a country, but is aware of the possibility for pushback from governments that are unhappy with their ranking.

"We gave our embassies authority to provide their host governments with an advance of the final travel advisory for their country if they thought that was important to the host government," said Bernier-Toth on a conference call with reporters Wednesday, adding that "by and large, I think there have been no surprises."

"We do not give foreign governments the ability to change the language," she noted. "These are not political documents. These are simply based on our assessment of the security situation, and what we need to tell US citizens who might be traveling or living in that country."

There were, however, some surprises in the new rankings.

Cuba, for instance, where the State Department has previously advised against travel, was listed as a Tier 3, rather than Tier 4, country.

In September, the agency stated in a travel warning that, "numerous U.S. Embassy Havana employees have been targeted in specific attacks," suffering "significant injuries as a consequence of these attacks."

"Because our personnel's safety is at risk, and we are unable to identify the source of the attacks, we believe U.S. citizens may also be at risk and warn them not to travel to Cuba," the travel warning noted.

"As we were putting all this together we did a very careful assessment," said Bernier-Toth, explaining the Tier 3 ranking, "we talked to all of our experts, and this is where we came out on Cuba."

The new page for Cuba on the State Department's travel website states that Americans should, "Reconsider travel to Cuba due to health attacks directed at U.S. Embassy Havana employees."

Several European countries that are popular with American tourists were put at the Tier 2 level due to risks related to terrorism. These include France and Belgium, where an ISIS cell conducted deadly attacks in 2015 and 2016, as well as Germany, where a truck plowed into a group of people at a Christmas market in December 2016.

Perennial US adversary Russia was listed as a Tier 3 country, due to the risk of "terrorism and harassment."

The Democratic Republic of Congo was ranked at Tier 2, despite what the State Department has flagged as "ongoing instability and sporadic violence in many parts of the country." An American UN monitor was found dead in the DRC's Central Kasai region last year along with a Swedish counterpart. At least 15 UN peacekeepers have also been killed in the country in recent weeks.

US citizens are advised not to travel to the eastern DRC and Kasai provinces under the new system, which sometimes has separate, higher tier rankings for particular regions within a country.

The changes are the result of a year-long review process, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Carl Risch told reporters last month. That process found that members of the public were confused by the current system and unsure how to respond to the various alerts and warnings issued by the State Department.

"We wanted it to be an easier to understand system," Risch said.

That was a message echoed by Bernier-Toth on Wednesday. She noted that even some of her colleagues had difficulty understanding the difference between "travel alerts" and "travel warnings" under the previous system.

"We shouldn't need to spend more time explaining the difference between those two documents than we do explaining what the threat actually is," she said.

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