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The Nation

Terror Warnings Offer Cautionary Tale

Security: Four top officials have said attacks are inevitable. The resulting storm shows how little consensus there is on disclosure.

May 23, 2002|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Deciding how much to disclose about potential terrorist threats is proving almost as difficult for the Bush administration as obtaining the information in the first place.

Just days after the White House faced accusations of mishandling clues before Sept. 11, it confronts new questions about whether officials are now frightening and confusing the public with too many warnings.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 24, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 9 inches; 336 words Type of Material: Correction
Fleet Week parade--A caption in Thursday's Section A described Marines and sailors aboard the amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima as being at ease. They were standing at parade rest.

Since Sunday, four top officials have declared that various forms of terrorist attacks are inevitable. Meanwhile, the FBI in recent days issued two warnings against more specific targets: apartment buildings and landmarks in New York City.

Some critics fear the generalized warnings are obscuring the more specific alerts and numbing the public. Others question whether the administration is trying to change the subject from the criticism of its pre-Sept. 11 performance, a contention senior officials emphatically deny.

In an interview Wednesday on CNN's ''Larry King Live,'' Vice President Dick Cheney said: ''The fact is there is reason to believe that the threat level has increased somewhat.... We haven't changed our practices at all in terms of when we decide to go public and caution people.''

Still, this new swarm of alerts suggests the political pressure now clearly tilts toward greater disclosure of potential threats. Politically, analysts in both parties agree, the risk of saying too little now appears much greater than the risk of saying too much.

But the controversy surrounding the latest sequence of warnings suggests how far officials remain from a consensus on when and how to raise a red flag in an environment transformed by Sept. 11.

"You've got to strike a balance between keeping people informed and not scaring them to death," said Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, a nonpartisan polling group. "But in all fairness to the administration, who knows what that balance is? We are in uncharted waters."

Indeed, since Sept. 11, officials at all levels of government have been alternately criticized for releasing too much or too little information.

Last fall, California Gov. Gray Davis was ridiculed by some for publicizing warnings of potential threats to California bridges that the FBI later said were uncorroborated. Around the same time, critics charged the Bush administration was desensitizing the public with overly broad warnings and open-ended calls for Americans to remain on highest alert.

In recent weeks, the wheel has turned and the administration has faced its sharpest post-Sept. 11 questioning over charges the FBI and CIA failed to act aggressively enough last summer on information that might have offered clues to the terrorist plot. Those questions reached an apex last week with the revelation that the CIA had briefed Bush last August on the possibility of hijackings as a future Al Qaeda tactic.

While Bush's overall approval rating has not declined, several polls have found that substantial numbers of Americans now wonder whether officials did all they could to prevent the attacks. In an ABC/Washington Post survey last week, Americans split evenly on whether the administration followed up aggressively enough on the intelligence reports.

The flurry of new terror warnings emerged against that highly charged backdrop.

The drumbeat began on Sunday with newspaper reports in which unnamed administration officials said they had intercepted an increasing level of communication among Al Qaeda operatives that could hint at a new attack.

Also on Sunday, Vice President Dick Cheney, appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," said future attacks were "not a matter of if, but when."

On Monday, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told a conference of district attorneys that he considered it "inevitable" the United States would be targeted by suicide bombers. On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told a congressional panel he believed terrorists "inevitably" will acquire weapons of mass destruction.

Also since Sunday, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge has issued similar warnings about the risk of future attack--even as the FBI transmitted its alerts to local officials on apartment buildings and New York City monuments.

All of these ringing alarms have raised intertwined political and policy questions.

On the political front, some Democrats flatly accuse the administration of seeking to shift attention from the debate over its performance before Sept. 11. "It simply is not coincidental they have their first public relations debacle since [the attacks] ... and the first person they send out, Dick Cheney, says we are all going to die soon," charged Jim Jordan, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "You wonder what state of national alert we will be in in October" just before this year's election.

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