Terror-alert system: how it's working

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The newest terror warnings and response by authorities this week have rekindled the long-standing debate over whether the alert system is working, credible, and useful.

Critics claim this week's warnings are politically motivated - especially since it is unclear how current some of the intelligence is - and could ultimately provide information that will assist terrorists in planning future attacks, without offering much protection to the American people.

Others say the specificity offered by Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge - that terrorists are focused on certain financial centers in Manhattan, Washington, and Newark, N.J. - points to major improvements in information gathering since 9/11. Moreover, they say, it shows that the administration is taking into account criticism over the one-size-fits-all color-coded system.

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"Basically it's been a failed system so far," says Juliette Kayyem, a homeland security specialist at Harvard University. "This time they got it right. What they are saying by going so public is, 'Terrorists, postpone your plans'; they're getting them back to the drawing board. And a terrorism attack delayed is a plus."

Officials announced the security measures after pointing to photos, drawings, and written documents, which indicated that terrorists were focusing on the New York Stock Exchange and Citigroup Center in Manhattan, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in Washington, and Prudential Financial Inc.'s headquarters in Newark, N.J.

Officials carried out extra bag and identification checks across the cities this week, while police officers and bomb-sniffing dogs milled outside of office buildings. Some bridges and tunnels in New York were closed to trucks. Officials said the measures would be evaluated daily.

Many analysts say the measures could help thwart imminent attacks. "It may be the dog that doesn't bark for that reason," says Robert Pfaltzgraff, a security expert at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

Officials have acknowledged that while the newest information came from a Pakistani computer engineer captured last month, much of the information was culled years earlier, even before 9/11. No timetable for a possible attack has been specified.

But US officials note that the intelligence was updated as of January and still represents a credible threat. Mr. Ridge said Tuesday that "I don't want anyone to disabuse themselves of the seriousness of this information simply because of reports that much of it is dated.... This is actionable information."

Still, the question persists: Why release the information now? Moreover, how long to stay on high alert is a major challenge facing officials. "Today they won't be complaining about [security measures]. But what will they say on Friday? And the following Friday?" says Randall Larsen, CEO and founder of Homeland Security Associates, a consulting firm in Washington.

As the national color-coded system took a departure with these newest warnings - leaving not just geographical areas but individual employees of specific organizations as targets - analysts are weighing its effectiveness against the psychological impact on both the public and the potential perpetrators.

For some, the warnings, even though specific, still cause unnecessary panic - even beyond the target areas. Security measures have been ramped up in cities across the nation. Robert Butterworth, a trauma psychologist in Los Angeles, says the alert system creates "anticipatory anxiety," in which the public is scared long before anything happens.

"If you hear there is going to be a bank robbery, do you announce it on the radio?" says Dr. Butterworth. He says officials should put precautions in place, "but don't broadcast it to the world" - especially since this threat is not believed to entail large-scale biological or nuclear weapons.

But others say that the government, if operating with credible information, would have had no choice but to release the information to the wider public. "It would be very difficult to say to the people, 'We have a credible threat to your building, but we don't want you to talk about it,' " Mr. Pfaltzgraff says. With the thousands of people who work in those buildings - witnesses to the ramped-up security - secrecy would create more alarm.

To a certain extent, the information released could tell terrorists what US officials know: what top level members of Al Qaeda have been captured or what channels of communication they have accessed. It can also jeopardize sources, says Pfaltzgraff.

There's also the possibility that terrorists could purposefully mislead US officials. They could be looking at secondary targets. "Everyone is looking at truck bombs, car bombs, and suicide bombers," says Mr. Larsen. "How about if they planned a different kind of attack?"

The US pronouncements of specific information may be a brief setback psychologically to the terrorist network, but analysts say it doesn't necessarily have a demoralizing effect. In fact, such setbacks could serve as challenges. "There's going to be a core group of people who want to do it in any event, and might even view it is a dare to see if they can actually do it," says Kayyem.

But so long as a threat exists, many say the specific information is a positive departure from the color-coded system, in which, in theory, a terrorist attack was just as likely to occur on the East Coast as the Midwest plains. "It had been so broad, so nebulous," says Kayyem. This time, officials are telling the public "who should be nervous and who should not be. And that is important."

Anthony Cordesman, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the information points to a more integrated intelligence system.

Ron Scherer in New York contributed to this report.

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