Decoding the chatter
A look at the evolution of a terrorist-attack warning: one part truth, one part rumor and one part fear
Imagine getting a call from your doctor one fine afternoon and being told that you are going to get cancer. You seek a second opinion, only to be told that you probably won't get cancer after all; it's just that the first doctor wanted to hedge his bets in case you ever got sick and sued for malpractice. Just as you are absorbing that dark bit of news, a third doctor breezes in to assure you once again that you're safe from cancer--but you will contract a fatal illness of some kind at some point soon. Before long, you'd be sitting in the lotus position in a hut drinking green tea, having fled Western medicine forever.
But when government officials issued a battery of vague and frightening warnings last week, all Americans could do was wait and worry. It was a kind of warning-signal whiplash, and it was exhausting. The fresh round of alerts began when Vice President Dick Cheney called the prospect of another major attack on the U.S. "very, very real" and suggested that suicide bombings are also a distinct possibility. Three other top Administration officials quickly echoed the fatalistic mantra. Their predictions weren't altogether new, but they contained hotter adjectives than Americans were used to. Before, new attacks were likely; now they were "inevitable." All the while, the FBI dispensed a steady stream of all-terrain warnings--about potential attacks on land, in the air and underwater. Specifically, New Yorkers were told that the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty and their apartment buildings could be targeted; the country's 103 nuclear power plants were placed on heightened alert; and new, cryptic FBI dispatches warned of the remote possibility of small-aircraft kamikazes and scuba-diver offensives--perhaps, a source tells TIME, to place a limpet mine on the hull of a cruise ship.
While government officials portrayed the warnings as a rational response to perceived threats, the alert bonanza was too confounding to be dutifully accepted at face value. Democratic strategists questioned the timing, since the new threats had conveniently deflected attention from criticism about pre-9/11 intelligence failures. Were the warnings a ploy to unite the nation behind the White House? If not, then where was the anxiety coming from? And if the risks had truly escalated, why was the country still bathing in the glow of a "yellow" security alert--the midpoint of the five-level system established in March?
Fundamentally, last week's warnings were confusing because the people issuing them are also confused. A close look at what triggered the alerts shows government officials operating in a mixture of self-protection, public interest and trial and error. Legitimate new details had surfaced about possible security risks, but because of old-fashioned p.r. fumbles, information too enigmatic for public dissemination leaked out, compounding the confusion. To make matters worse, besieged politicians and bureaucrats have started to overcompensate for past lapses by sharing more than necessary. "Now the feeling is 'When in doubt, put it out,'" says a U.S. counterterrorism official. And once the media and the public sniffed panic in the air, each warning took on a higher level of significance.
The anatomy of one such alert is telling. Last Monday night, the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force--a round-the-clock operation at the New York field office of the FBI--got a call from FBI headquarters. Abu Zubaydah, the highest al-Qaeda official to be captured by the U.S., had told interrogators that he had heard other Osama bin Laden loyalists discussing attacks on the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty and other U.S. landmarks. But, a federal law-enforcement official told TIME, Abu Zubaydah had said the conversations took place a while back and claimed he knew of no particular plan. Since his capture in March, Abu Zubaydah has shared some valuable information, says a senior U.S. intelligence source. "He's not b.s.ing us on everything." Then again, says Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, "he is also very skilled at avoiding interrogation. He is an agent of disinformation."
But Abu Zubaydah's statements jibed with claims made by other detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that landmarks may be struck during holidays--a strategy also endorsed by al-Qaeda training videos. Meanwhile, agents had noticed an increase in terrorist "chatter" picked up by telecommunications surveillance in recent months. "We couldn't just blow it off," says the senior intelligence official--especially given the firestorm over whether agencies could have done more to prevent 9/11. "How many times did someone get in trouble for issuing a warning that didn't happen?" a U.S. counterterrorism official asks rhetorically.
So the call was made to New York City, but the ambiguity persisted. "We never viewed it as a warning or an alert, like, 'The bridge is going to get hit within the next two days,'" says an FBI official. "It was more like, 'Out of an abundance of caution, we're telling you this.' It was just historical, lower-priority stuff." New York Police Department representatives on the task force passed along the information to their supervisors, who called N.Y.P.D. commissioner Raymond Kelly. He decided to post officers at both the statue and the bridge and make random checks of cars entering the city. On Tuesday, reporters inquired about the police presence. Kelly thought the FBI was going to publicize the advisements, according to deputy police chief Michael Collins, and he had been given permission by the local FBI office to tell the press himself, which he did. Sometime late Tuesday evening, the FBI posted a short statement on its website confirming the warning.
On Wednesday, however, FBI spokesman Joseph Valiquette said the bureau never intended to make the information public. And Bush Administration officials have privately said they are furious with New York officials. "There are some things the general public has to know, and quite frankly, there are some things they don't have to know," says an Administration official. Citizens can do very little about unconfirmed, nonspecific threats--and there are too many to count. Says a senior White House official: "If the press got hold of every warning that went from law enforcement to law enforcement, the country would be petrified."
But while the Administration was blaming New York officials for fanning the flames of anxiety, its leaders had just thrown on the logs. FBI head Robert Mueller told a group of district attorneys on Monday that "there will be another terrorist attack. We will not be able to stop it." Mueller claims he did not realize a reporter was in the room. And then on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a Senate subcommittee that terrorist networks will "inevitably" obtain weapons of mass destruction. Taken in isolation, none of these statements raise new alarms. But together, they sounded like an orchestrated campaign.
Bush Administration officials deny any coordinated effort. But the result is that Americans are more nervous, and there are downsides to all this hand wringing. Al-Qaeda operatives could be observing how U.S. officials respond to alerts--and taking notes. Among the public, hyper-nervousness could lead to fatigue and then complacency. "I do worry in the long term that maybe the American people will build up sort of an immunity," says Senator John McCain. In coming weeks, the White House plans to change the way it warns Americans about possible threats, a senior Administration official told TIME last week. Nobody is sure how, though. Until agents can separate meaningful threats from noise, it will be hard to help the public do so.
--Reported by Michael Duffy, Elaine Shannon, Karen Tumulty and Douglas Waller/Washington and James Carney with Bush
ALLPOLITICS TOP STORIES:
Karzai to U.S.: 'Stay with us'
Coast Guard joins Homeland Department
Frist offers hope to governors
Suit alleges hostility to Hispanic voters
CBS: Saddam challenges Bush to debate
|Back to the top|