17 November 2002
The New York Times, November 17, 2002
Fourteen months after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, the American people deserve a more effective warning system about possible new assaults than the Chicken Little alerts the Bush administration is providing. Once again last week, Washington, in effect, warned that the sky was falling, and officials did a good imitation of Henny Penny as they analyzed the latest intelligence data about Osama bin Laden. This is no way to conduct the affairs of the most powerful, technologically advanced nation on the planet.
The only thing warnings this vague are good for is providing political cover in case of disaster. They offer no specific information about the location, timing or method of attack, and are all but useless to the average citizen, or even to local law enforcement officers. If there is another terror strike, however, we can be sure that the White House, Federal Bureau of Investigation and Central Intelligence Agency will be quick to remind everyone that they saw it coming this time and did their best to prevent it.
Last week's F.B.I. warning was at once frightening and painfully obvious Al Qaeda wants to kill as many Americans as possible in spectacular fashion. The prime targets, the bulletin said, "remain within the aviation, petroleum and nuclear sectors, as well as significant national landmarks." It doesn't take a more than $30 billion intelligence budget and new Department of Homeland Security to figure that out. If places like airports and nuclear power plants need special scare tactics to put them on alert after all that's happened, the country is in more trouble than another F.B.I. bulletin can fix.
Despite the new alert, the government's color-coded threat level barometer was not adjusted to a higher setting. That oddity was supposedly explained by the fact that the F.B.I. notification was sent to state and local law enforcement agencies but was not meant to be made public. Apparently someone in Washington actually believed that a message sent to hundreds of police departments would remain secret.
The terror threat against the United States is too critical and too lethal to be handled in this ludicrous manner. We recognize the difficulty of sorting through the daily blizzard of intelligence data, and appreciate that much of the government's effort to combat terrorism has to be conducted in secret. The broadcast last week of an audio message that appears to come from Osama bin Laden and indicates that he may still be alive underscored how hard it will be to prevail in the war against terrorism. Nevertheless, the Bush administration must devise a more useful, calibrated method of putting the nation on alert.
The place to begin is with a candid acknowledgment to Americans that the C.I.A. and F.B.I., for all their redoubled efforts, have found it exceedingly difficult to detect and disrupt terror plots as they are unfolding. Given the shortage of specific information, the government would better serve the country by not rushing forward with every new indication that trouble is brewing. Instead, it should reserve alerts for moments when concrete information can be given to specific communities that appear to be targeted. The danger of the present system, apart from the sowing of generic fear, is that people will stop paying attention. That's exactly what the terrorists want.