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August 08, 2004

Real threats, bogus alerts

In what might be the least controversial post of his career, Kevin Drum writes:

REALITY CHECK....A quick note to all my Bush-hating homies out there: it's quite possible that (a) al-Qaeda really is planning an attack in the United States sometime soon and (b) that the Bush administration has cynically hyped this to the skies for the basest political reasons.
Both of these things might be true. My guess is that both are true.
So: feel free to beat up on the Bushies for their casual and unserious use of intelligence as little more than a partisan political club. I certainly do. On the other hand, don't assume that just because the Bushies are irresponsible there isn't any actual threat. There probably is. OK?

A-OK. The latest terror alert was based on good evidence of some sort of threat. The charge is that it was manipulated for political purposes. The discovery that Al Qaeda operatives cased major financial institutions is unequivocal evidence of a threat. However, the threat started pre-9/11 and continued up to January 2004 (maybe longer, but that's not what they told us). Then, suddenly, the Bush administration hikes the threat level on the basis of this old news. We ought to wonder what this sudden leap from Orange to Orange-Plus really means and why the government chose to upgrade today instead of next week or last week. Khan was captured weeks ago. His most recent data are several months old.

The deeper problem is with a candy-coded terror alert system. It's designed to politicize intelligence. The terror alert color is a vague but emotionally charged symbol that the government can manipulate at will. As British Home Secretary David Blunkett has argued, the terror alert system risks exposing politicians to "ridicule". Terrorism is absolutely real. That's why it's so counterproductive have so many meaningless gradations between "no threat" and "attack underway." The public has no way to assess whether the threat level was accurate if no attack actually occurs because an adequate justification would compromise sources and methods. We should all be vigilant. It's our civic duty to be alert. One of the most terrifying aspects of terrorism is that it is so difficult to predict when the next attack will occur. The current terror alert system fosters a false sense of security punctuated by dubious panics.

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