In elevating the terrorist threat alert levels for the financial sectors of New York City, Washington, D.C., and Newark, N.J., on Sunday, the Department of Homeland Security acted with a specificity that increases its credibility.
Prior changes in the color-coded alert system were devoid of detail, both in terms of the nature of the threats themselves, and exactly what to do about them. The previous alerts left Americans wondering how to respond, and the administration open to charges of issuing alerts for political gain.
This time around, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge noted "unusually specific" information about possible terrorist targets in those cities, including threats against named financial institutions. He even said the terrorists' "preferred method of attack [is] car or truck bombs" and called for individuals to watch out for "unusual patterns or vehicles" and to be alert for unanticipated deliveries or maintenance work.
It was a recent CIA raid in Pakistan that formed the core of the detailed information that included terrorist observations of traffic patterns, guards, cameras, and garages for the targeted buildings. The information was shared Thursday at a daily meeting of the country's intelligence and military officials, and ultimately led to the higher alert level of orange, and the enhanced security measures.
The new warnings will be a clear test for financial institutions' ability to secure themselves. As with the intelligence agencies, they've already taken progressive steps. A disaster plan tested last May by the Securities Industry and Bond Market Associations in response to two mock bombings was deemed a success. And the New York Stock Exchange has established an alternate trading floor in the wake of 9/11, even as investment firms created their own emergency centers, some of them outside Manhattan.
The higher alert level should add momentum to the recent recommendations of the 9/11 commission, some of which the White House endorsed Monday - including a needed national intelligence director. Certainly, the alert underscores the benefit of various intelligence agencies cooperating, and lends support to the suggestion that homeland defense funds be distributed around the country based on "risks and vulnerabilities."
The heightened state of alert raises questions, such as whether the government has released too much information, or whether Al Qaeda will alter its plans or plant false plots. But compared with the past, government officials and citizens this time have a more solid starting point from which to consider such questions.