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US terror alert becomes political football

Crying wolf at great public expense

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Update As we reported recently, the latest ratcheting up of the terror threat level in the United States was based on captured documents dating back some time. In that article, we observed that it was "not clear whether any of the information recently obtained relates to current or future schemes."

We can now address that question with some confidence. According to the New York Times, "much of the information that led the authorities to raise the terror alert at several large financial institutions in the New York City and Washington areas was three or four years old, intelligence and law enforcement officials said on Monday. They reported that they had not yet found concrete evidence that a terrorist plot or preparatory surveillance operations were still under way."

One may well wonder why the cities of New York, Washington, and Newark suddenly began burning taxpayer dollars to stage a grand security rain dance - guarding sites that might have been attacked during the past four years, or may be attacked four years hence. With such a vast window of opportunity, one must ask why there should have been a sudden rush to security starting on Monday of this week.

It certainly sounded like an emergency, at least to hear Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge tell it. "The quality of this intelligence based on multiple reporting streams in multiple locations, is rarely seen, and it is alarming in both the amount and specificity," he said.

Ridge also gushed about "the President's leadership in the war on terror," to which he conspicuously credited this lifesaving, four-year-old information.

Predictably, President Bush and Senator Kerry went tit for tat on Monday, slagging each other and bickering over who can "protect us" better, and even answering each other in subsequent speeches. Meanwhile, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card staged a lengthy press conference with National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice to emphasize Junior's deep respect for the 9/11 Commission report, and in particular its recommendation that a cabinet-level coordinator of intelligence be created.

No fewer than eight different "terrorism experts" were interviewed on CNN, MSNBC and Fox, which simply would not let go of the terror alert story, leading with it every half hour for over twenty-four hours.

After her press conference, Condoleeza Rice later appeared on the NBC Nightly News to peddle her views on the fine job the President is doing to eradicate Al Qaeda and protect the Fatherland, and to explain why his new initiative on the intelligence coordinator is so crucial to that mission.

Why now?

If anyone is wondering why terrorism, and especially attacks at home, should have been so fully hyped on such thin evidence, it's useful to consider the news cycle.

Last week, John Kerry did a surprisingly good job of introducing himself to the nation as a plausible replacement for Bush. Last week, a devastating car bomb claimed the lives of 68 Iraqis, just as US Secretary of State Colin Powell was in country to deliver several absurdly optimistic speeches. Christian churches in Iraq have for the first time become the targets of terrorist attacks, in which eleven lives have so far been claimed. And the infamous Abu Ghraib Military Police unit has just returned Stateside to answer charges of torture.

Not to put too fine a point on it, last week sucked for the Bush Administration. It's no wonder, then, that a multi-city security rain dance should be choreographed - no wonder that police in paramilitary jumpsuits and helmets and boots should appear on the streets and in the subways with fully automatic weapons. It's no wonder that streets should be closed to traffic and cars stopped at random. The rest of the news is just too depressing.

Practicalities

One hates to rain on the Administration's parade of media misdirection, but practical matters do apply. Guarding these sites, which have been under careful surveillance by Al Qaeda for four years without incident, is expensive. The question is, when does one stop guarding them? Al Qaeda is renowned for its patience. If the security emergency is called off six months from now, then perhaps the sites will be attacked three years further on. Or perhaps they will not be attacked at all, since they're now under scrutiny. And perhaps a half-dozen unknown targets that have been cased thoroughly will be substituted for the ones we're now guarding so assiduously.

Clearly, aggressive security will have to stand down at some point. But where is that point? How long should we maintain this posture? If we spend a fortune protecting the sites currently under protection for years to come, and inconveniencing citizens in the bargain, how will we protect the next fifty or sixty sites that may pop up on the radar as potential targets in the future? How will we manage our resources in that case? The enemy could easily use misdirection to tie up resources and hamstring security efforts in a cumulative manner.

Furthermore, the problem with telling the enemy what you know is that you can't avoid telling it what you don't know. We've announced publicly the sites that we think need defending. Only Al Qaeda knows the target sites that we haven't discovered.

From a security point of view, the exercise is pointless. The Administration should never have indicated the particular sites it's focused on. From a security point of view, the smart thing would have been to announce in vague terms that Al Qaeda attack plans have been discovered, and then to beef up security quietly and subtly in the particular areas that the information specified.

Let the enemy guess what we do and don't know.

Politics

But this rain dance was not undertaken from a security point of view. It was concocted with a political motive, and its purpose was to distract the public from the additive disasters in Iraq, and the unexpectedly strong showing by the Democrats in Boston last week. It was designed to make Junior look like the "strong leader" that his cheerleaders insist, against all evidence, that he really is. (We note that the true Prince of Darkness, Dick Cheney, has been dutifully silent, and conspicuously absent, during the recent national security festivities, to vouchsafe the limelight to Junior.)

But it would be unfair not to point out Democratic exploitation of the Republican exploitation. On at least two occasions Monday, John Kerry took the terror warnings at face value, rather than as examples of Tom Ridge's exceptional proclivity for crying wolf, and insisted that he would have overreacted sooner than Bush, and at even greater expense.

And thus national security has become firmly established as a key campaign issue, and a dangerous political football that can only bring us harm regardless of who wins the election. ®

Thomas C Greene is the author of Computer Security for the Home and Small Office, a comprehensive guide to system hardening, malware protection, online anonymity, encryption, and data hygiene for Windows and Linux.

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