In war on terrorism, too much information better than not enough What others say

Posted: Monday, January 13, 2003

The credibility of the FBI's terror alert system is being questioned after the agency called off a nationwide manhunt because of bogus details from tipsters.

Details from FBI informants, including Michael John Hamdani, an accused immigrant smuggler being held in Canada, prompted the alert. It urged people to look out for five men of Arab ancestry who may have slipped across the Canadian border.

Authorities had described the men as "persons of interest" wanted for questioning regarding possible terrorist ties. The FBI posted information on its Web site, TV stations across the country shared the news with pictures, and even President Bush urged people to come forward with information.

The alert came Dec. 29 and raised anxieties about possible terrorist attacks at New Year's celebrations in New York City's Times Square.

Then came the news ... that the tipsters who prompted the alert had given fraudulent information to possibly gain leverage with authorities regarding their pending criminal charges.

A Pakistani jeweler told authorities his picture had been wrongly included among the five men but under a different name.

Authorities haven't found any of the other men in the original alert and now say they aren't suspected of any criminal activity.

Criticism of the FBI over this matter is expected. The government should not be in the business of issuing misleading information, particularly about something as serious as terrorism.

But the incident also is a reminder of how tough the war business can be.

Officials base alerts on a variety of factors, including sensitive tips and other intelligence information. Truth can be elusive in some cases, and officials are constantly faced with weighty questions about how much information is enough to release and when.

We prefer that they err on the side of releasing too much, rather than too little.

-- The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville - Jan. 11

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