To act on every threat would finish normalcy

Posted: Wednesday, May 22, 2002

For those critical of President George W. Bush for his alleged "prior knowledge" of the Sept. 11 attacks, here's a little sample of what a new warning might really look like. Highly placed sources told this columnist last week that U.S. officials fear the potential for another al-Qaida strike in the United States in the coming months.

This past weekend, Vice President Dick Cheney echoed these general concerns by saying that another attack, perhaps of greater magnitude than Sept. 11, is not only likely, but is less a question of if it will come than when and where. My sources suggested last week that the level of communications among al-Qaida cell groups had increased markedly in recent weeks. That we all now know.

But they also implied that federal officials see in the enemy's recent communications a pattern that might suggest plans for an attack on America between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. Of course, this could mean any time, or no time at all.

And what is the magnitude of these potential new attacks? Well, before addressing that issue, it would be wise to answer an e-mail received from a reader in Elyria, Ohio. He wanted to know if I still believe George Bush should have been named Time's "Person of the Year" in light of the president's alleged negligence in not properly warning Americans of the potential of an attack last September.

This question goes to the heart of the issue of receiving and acting upon "information before it's news." For example, not only has this column revealed a potential time period for which there is reportedly great concern, but it will end by reporting what several high officials believe to be a possible form of attack. It is a chilling scenario, and although the law of averages suggests that both the time frame and the manner of attack could well turn out to be wrong, if the president rather than a columnist were to make public this possibility, it would probably trigger mass panic.

Prior to Sept. 11 President Bush -- like President Bill Clinton before him -- received the exact same, highly detailed daily briefings about military and criminal threats of all types to American interests. These are highly sophisticated reports that go far deeper than the sources any writer or reporter could ever hope to access.

I believe President Clinton would explain to the reader in Ohio that, as president, he too received numerous briefings that reported potential attacks on this nation and on Americans abroad. Indeed, evidence was emerging as early as this past weekend suggesting that Bill Clinton may have received a briefing in which the potential for attacks on government buildings in Washington, using hijacked planes, was discussed. Clinton received daily briefings filled with all types of credible threats.

But had he or Bush acted on every single threat received, they would have shut down, at one time or another, every aspect of our lives. General criticism of Bush or Clinton on this matter is unsophisticated and counterproductive.

And so what do these high-level sources -- who before the government, or anyone else, helped reveal to readers of this column that suicide bombers could become a reality in America -- now say is a potential means of attack for the attack now feared by Vice President Cheney and others?

Apparently the information now coming from captured Osama bin Laden aide Abu Zubaydah is either more credible than it was previously, or he's just getting better at misleading his interrogators.

But due at least in part to Zubaydah's talk, officials are now concerned that al Qaida is making rapid progress in its attempt to create, deliver and detonate a so-called "dirty bomb" -- a weapon consisting of a core of radioactive material wrapped in conventional explosives.

Are they right? If so, does the president know about it? And if he does, should he appear on national television and paralyze us with fear, given that he would likely not be sure of a date or location?

The answer is that, just as a writer's sources can be incorrect (as in this case we hope so), so too can the president's be uncertain, even though the intelligence he receives is of course the most highly classified and accurate in the world.

The president must always weigh the likelihood that his attack-scenario information is correct versus the damage that unwarranted panic and intrusion into the lives of Americans might bring.

Yes, to the reader in Ohio, not only should Bush be "Person of the Year," he should be joined on the list by all the men and women who are working silently in a race against time to protect our nation, on battlefields and throughout our land.

Matt Towery writes a syndicated column based out of the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. He can be reached at

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