Thu, Aug 05, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Issuing US terror alerts presents a Hobson's choice

Washington's latest alert has left some people suspicious that there were political motivations behind issuing it. But not issuing warnings presents obvious problems as well

By Todd Purdum  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , WASHINGTON

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

It is a quandary as old as Aesop and as fresh as the morning's news: When should a threat prompt a warning? And how many warnings without either disaster or a confirmed defusing does it take to make even the worst threat seem somehow less urgent, or credible or real?

Almost every time the administration of US President George W. Bush has issued an elevated-threat warning over the last two years -- often as a result of menacing but imprecise intelligence -- it has faced such questions. Administration officials from the president on down say they have little choice, and they believe that such warnings have a deterrent, disruptive effect on plotting by al-Qaeda.

On Sunday, Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge not only issued a public warning for financial institutions in New York, New Jersey and Washington, but also took the unusual step of conducting a conference call with network anchors and newspaper editors to alert them that the warning was coming. As he had before, Ridge pledged increased vigilance, then urged even those workers most directly affected by the threat to say, "Well, we know what you know, and we're going to go about leading our lives."

But how?

"In a society such as ours is becoming, it is intolerable that officials might know about an impending attack and not make this knowledge public," said Philip Bobbitt, a law professor at the University of Texas who is an expert on international security affairs.

"On the other hand, it hands the terrorists a costless if minor victory by terrorizing the population. If officials try to minimize that impact -- `Go on about your business, et cetera' -- they dilute the effectiveness of the announcement and encourage a complacency they were trying to pierce with the announcement in the first place," Bobbit said.

Bush himself was emphatic, telling reporters in the Rose Garden on Monday: "We have an obligation. When we find out something, we got to share it. And what we're talking about here is a very serious matter based upon sound intelligence. And I would hope the people affected in New York realize that by sharing intelligence, we can better prepare in case something were to happen.

"In other words, if we were just silent on the subject, I think people would be a lot more nervous," he said.

Would they?

Ridge has raised the color-coded threat level from yellow to orange on five previous occasions, often as a result of threats that were relatively specific as to time but not to place. Previous confidential warnings to local law enforcement agencies alerting them to possible attacks on specific sites, from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Sears Tower in Chicago, have leaked out, sometimes prompting more confusion than clarity.

Just last month, Ridge endured some criticism for announcing that the nation faced a heightened threat from al-Qaeda in the period leading up to the fall election while also saying there was not enough detailed information to warrant increasing the official threat level.

On Sunday, Ridge did just that, with a public notice unlike any that had come before.

He warned of threats against specific buildings in at least three cities, yet offered no real sense of whether active plots were under way or when such attacks might be planned to occur, "beyond the period leading up to our national elections."

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