Gauging the seriousness of vague new terror warnings

Caught off guard by 9/11, officials are now issuing a drumbeat of dire, general warnings.

It's been a week of vague but ominous statements from America's top officials:

FBI Director Robert Mueller called suicide bombings "inevitable." Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge characterized it as "not a question of if, but when." Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said terrorists will "inevitably" acquire weapons of mass destruction and "will not hesitate to use them."

So how are Americans supposed to take rhetoric like that? The absence of any more specific information leaves it unclear just what the new warnings mean – especially since there's been no change in the nation's official level of alert, which remains at code "yellow," the midpoint of the rating system.

Also, the timing of the warnings – so soon after the White House took some flack for possibly failing to act on pre-9/11 threats – has raised questions about whether politics is in any way motivating the warnings.

Yet terror analysts say the empirical evidence does point to a strong likelihood of another attack.

So, in the end, staking out a middle ground between the factual case for inevitability – and the politics of issuing general warnings – is probably a realistic approach, analysts suggest.

"We're just at the beginning of striking the balance between not sharing much information at all and scaring the public to death," says Gregory Treverton, an analyst at Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif. "Having under-warned last summer, we're likely to do some over-warning now."

On a political level, calling future attacks "inevitable" strikes some as, in part, an effort to provide cover for the administration in the event something happens.

"It's not exactly clear what you gain by saying that," notes Mr. Treverton.

The source of the new warnings, officials say, is increased "chatter" in the system – a combination of intelligence gathered abroad, as well as from prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Administration officials say the pattern of signals is alarmingly similar to that picked up in the months prior to Sept. 11.

Indeed, many experts on terrorism agree that some sort of future incident seems likely, given that Al Qaeda has attempted an attack against American targets every year for nearly a decade and many members of the group are still at large, including Osama bin Laden. The increased turmoil in the Middle East also contributes to the threat, as government officials recently warned that the US could face attacks not only from Al Qaeda but also from other militant Arab groups such as Hamas and Hizbullah.

"Asking if there's going to be another attack is like asking whether there's going to be another war," says Neal Pollard, founding director of the Terrorism Research Center. The threat is not going to go away "until we've removed all the causes of terrorism."

Certainly, this week's warnings from the administration help maintain a heightened public awareness of general vulnerability in a war the administration promised would not be short.

Indeed, during the eight-month war on terror, the nation has taken a number of steps to meet the threat – such as boosting domestic preparedness, particularly among those who would respond to such attacks, thereby mitigating the impact they might have. Just this week, for example, in response to an FBI warning, New York City went on its highest state of alert since last fall, installing checkpoints at bridges and tunnels and increasing security around the city's landmarks. And, arguably, public awareness can help foil certain plots – as in the case of alleged shoe-bomber Richard Reid, who was subdued by alert airline passengers.

But despite the shock of 9/11, public alertness in the ongoing war on terror waxes and wanes. "For a lot of the country, there was a sense right after 9/11 that we were at war," says Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, a former Clinton administration counterterrorism official. "But as the weeks went by, the farther off the East Coast, the more remote it seemed."

Out in the heartland, Des Moines fire chief Ron Wakeham, for one, is fully aware of the need to find a realistic approach to warnings out of Washington.

He says that for the average citizen, simply being aware of the possibility of an attack is important. Particularly for those who don't live on the East Coast, he says, the reality of the threat had started to fade in recent months.

"I don't particularly like the comments I hear of people around here saying, 'it can't happen here,'" Mr. Wakeham says. "Let me tell you, being in emergency services for 30 years, it can happen here. I expect to see some of these suicide bombings here. I have no doubt that we'll see more attacks."

But in the absence of more specific information, he acknowledges, there's not much more that local officials can do that hasn't been done already to address the threat.

"We're not doing anything differently," he says. "If we responded every time there was a warning, we'd be bankrupt pretty quick."

Experts agree that the usefulness of government warnings is in direct proportion to the specific information they provide. For example, warnings that terrorists might have rented apartments with the intent of blowing up buildings from the inside may lead landlords and tenants to pay closer attention to their neighbors' activities. By contrast, "for ordinary citizens, the least valuable thing is blanket warnings that aren't actionable," says Treverton, of Rand.

Significantly, polls show increasing public skepticism about the government's ability to protect its citizens. A recent Washington Post-ABC News survey found that only 46 percent of Americans were confident that the government could prevent future attacks – down from 66 percent in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

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