As Americans observe the one-year anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Vice President Cheney is reportedly spending his nights at a “secure location.” The FBI is warning of potential threats, but has little specific information. And for the first time since it was created in March, the homeland security advisory system status has been changed from “yellow alert,” indicating a “significant risk of terrorist attacks,” to “orange alert,” indicating a “high risk of terrorist attacks.”
But why? Previously, the system was flatlined into a perpetual state of yellow despite a series of warnings over several months.
In April, the FBI issued warnings about possible terrorist plans to strike banks and financial institutions. And a warning was issued about a possible attack on a shopping mall or supermarket. Yellow alert.
In May, there were a flurry of warnings and dire pronouncements. U.S. intelligence sources reported that Islamic terrorists were planning an attack on nuclear power plants on the 4th of July. Cheney warned that another terrorist attack was “almost certain.” FBI Director Robert Mueller said that suicide bombers like those who have attacked Israel are “inevitable,” and the FBI asked apartment owners to report any suspicious activity. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said a future terrorist attack was “not a question of if, but a question of when.” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld echoed Ridge, stating that the “question is not if, but when, where, and how” another terrorist attack will occur. Capping those warnings, the FBI alerted New York City authorities about possible terrorist attacks against city landmarks, such as the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge. The Department of Transportation also issued a warning about possible attacks against subway and rail systems. Yellow alert.
In June, Attorney General Ashcroft announced an alleged “dirty bomb” plot in connection with the arrest of U.S. citizen Jose Padilla. The Coast Guard issued an alert for ports and harbors. And the FBI warned about fuel tanker attacks against Jewish schools and synagogues, and investigated the claim of a cell phone conversation in Arabic talking about a “hit” on the “day of freedom.” The FBI also issued a secret alert to law enforcement agencies — but did not warn the public — about a possible terrorist attack around the 4th of July holiday. Yellow alert.
In July, the Transportation Security Administration warned small airports and private pilots to be on the lookout for suspicious persons, activities and operations. The Senate Select Committee on intelligence stated that al Qaeda was regrouping and working secretly inside the United States, and U.S. intelligence agencies claimed that the al Qaeda infrastructure in the United States could be as many as 5,000 terrorists and supporters. “Intelligence chatter” raised serious concerns that terrorists would try to strike again sometime during the summer. An al Qaeda spokesman claimed that Osama bin Laden was still alive and that more attacks were being organized. Still more of the same: Yellow alert.
But now — on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — the warning status has been elevated. Yet the threat remains as vague as it was before. According to one law enforcement official in Washington, D.C., “There’s no specific threat.” White House officials say they have no details of any impending attack, but that they’re not taking any chances. Clearly, the politicians and bureaucrats are making sure they are “doing something” to show the public that they are not asleep at the wheel — if something actually does happen, they can claim they gave fair warning.
Even harder to fathom is Attorney General John Ashcroft’s claim that the heightened terror alert is prompted by “specific intelligence” pointing to threats against U.S. interests in South Asia and the Middle East. Perhaps the attorney general forgot that it’s a homeland security advisory system?
The real danger is that, over time, the public won’t take the warnings seriously. First the specter of a possible threat was raised, but with no change in the alert status. Now the alert status has been raised, but there’s no specific information about an increased or impending threat. How often can this happen before people think the administration is crying wolf? Doesn’t it all become government sound and fury signifying nothing? And are we doing more to help the terrorists plan their next attack as they watch how the government and public react to the warnings?
A year ago, the vast federal bureaucracy could not predict the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Now, one year later, the status of the homeland security advisory system does not inspire confidence that there has been any significant improvement.
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