Edgy America: How to handle terror alerts

Citizen tips can help police arrest suspects, as in New York. But other alerts often turn out to be false.

Two dramatic stories of suspected terrorist groups busted on American soil – one in Florida, one in New York – grabbed attention this weekend.

Now it turns out that one may be true, while the other appears imagined. The cases highlight the new abnormal in America – where sorting out fact from fiction in terrorist threats is one of the toughest challenges facing the nation.

After a tense standoff on a Florida highway on Friday, authorities released three men of Middle Eastern origin, who promptly drove to a rest stop and denounced their treatment to TV cameras.

It all started when a Georgia woman says she overheard a suspicious conversation in a Shoney's restaurant and grabbed a crayon to jot down their license plate number. It led to an 18-hour closing of a major Florida highway.

It could seem a case of jittery Americans jumping to conclusions. And in some ways it fits a pattern. Nearly once a day, for instance, a US airport concourse is evacuated because of a security breach, often for what some people see as trivial reasons.

But then, five suspected Al Qaeda members were arrested in upstate New York on Saturday and charged with being part of a sleeper cell. Authorities claim the men trained at an Al Qaeda camp visited by Osama bin Laden.

Suddenly the cautious approaches in Florida and elsewhere seemed more justified, reminding Americans once again of the threat from within. It's all part of a nation and its people trying to balance between paranoia and prudence, inconvenience and safety, between being citizen snitches and watchful wardens.

"This isn't a perfect world, and we don't have perfect solutions," says Dave McIntyre of the Anser Institute for Homeland Security in Arlington, Va. But, he argues that "given the current circumstances, erring on the side of caution seems to make sense."

That's what happened in the Florida case – which also hints that the whole phenomena of citizen tips can be a double-edged sword. The woman reportedly said she overheard three men "laughing about 9/11," with one of them saying, "If they mourn Sept. 11, what will they think about Sept. 13?" Authorities put out an alert based on her report.

Then the men drove through a toll booth without paying and were pulled over by police. When bomb-sniffing dogs reacted as if there were explosives in the men's cars, the bomb squad was called in, and the long drama began. Ultimately, no explosives were found. And the men – two American citizens and the third on a valid visa – were released. "If they were making a joke, it was a stupid and insensitive one – and the woman did the right thing," says Mr. McIntyre.

Yet one concern is that the woman "put a little salt and pepper" in her story, as one of the men pulled over later suggested. Others were less generous, hinting racism may have been a factor.

Indeed, there's some evidence Americans these days are more suspicious of their Arab-American neighbors. A Gallup poll out this month found 44 percent of Americans saying they had "less trust" in Arabs living in the US than they did before the 9/11 attacks. That's up from 35 percent a year ago.

This comes amid a resurgence of citizen-watch efforts similar to those during World War II. One controversial Justice Department program – Operation TIPS – that would enlist postal carriers, utility workers, and truck drivers as government informants was scaled down amid concerns about privacy and snooping.

YET a vigilant citizenry can be a big help. For instance, it was ordinary people – not authorities – who stopped alleged shoe-bomber Richard Reid from blowing up a trans-Atlantic flight last December. And aviation experts say alert travelers may be the best defense against further airplane attacks.

Arab-Americans, too, have been helpful. In announcing the arrests in the steel-mill town of Lackawanna, N.Y., this weekend, US officials thanked local Arabs for alerting them to the men's suspicious travels. It was partly this case, officials said, that had led them to raise the national alert system to orange – the second-highest level – last week.

The five men – American citizens of Yemeni descent who are all in their 20s – were arraigned on federal charges of providing "material support" to terrorists, although officials acknowledge they didn't have proof of an imminent attack. Many relatives say they can't imagine the men were Al Qaeda soldiers.

The New York case shows the need for caution. Yet everything from airport evacuations to anthrax hoaxes threaten to disrupt activities. In just the past month, anthrax scares have forced the closure of everything from Al Gore's Tennessee office to 11 Massachusetts police stations.

Indeed, there's a delicate balance between paranoia and prudence. "If they [authorities] act, and nothing happens, they get blamed for causing inconvenience," says Philip Anderson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Yet if they do nothing, and something happens, they get excoriated.

Yet there's evidence of improvement in some areas. In November 2001, 58 concourse evacuations occurred in America's airports, federal statistics show. By this summer, the trend had slowed to about one per day.

Good information is critical. As the FBI beefs up its domestic intelligence capabilities, the quality of the decisions will improve. "We'll start to get our arms around it," says Mr. Anderson.

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