Playing Wolf

The delicate balancing act of general alerts


Does the public have a right to know if the government has credible information that it might be attacked? That's the question raised by recent "general alerts" that some sort of terrorist activity may have been scheduled for a particular time frame.

It isn't a dumb question; nor can there be a simple one-size-fits-all answer. But here are the five issues that factor into whether or not to make such announcements.

1. It's the Economy, Stupid

As President Bush has acknowledged, and some congressmen will grudgingly admit, the American war machine is just that, a machine. The ability of the Armed Forces to deliver crushing blows to the Taliban and the next few targets-to-be-named-later has to be fueled and paid for by the U.S. economy.

Thus, in his September 20 address and in subsequent statements, the president has stressed the need not for sacrifice but for a return to normalcy. His piddling fiscal stimulus package is meant to nudge the economy in the right direction.

When flights are grounded on hunches, borders are momentarily tightened, and people are more likely to invest in candles and gas masks than real estate, normalcy is made all the more difficult. By issuing a general alert, the government makes it less likely that business as usual will be a possibility.

2. Don't Panic

Closely related to the last factor is the public's possible reflexive panic. When California Gov. Gray Davis recently announced that he had (ultimately bogus) information that the state's bridges might be in danger, it was a brave human being who would cross the structures.

Telling of an incident in which a local supermarket was closed down for two days because of some unknown suspicious-looking "white powder" in the aisles (likely flour, sugar, or detergent) Naval War College professor Tom Nichols says that the alerts are "part of the problem instead of the solution."

Speaking for the growing bipartisan anti-alert coalition (including Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd), Nichols says that any possible terrorist act should be delegated to the proper authorities to handle. As for the public, "We simply do not need to know."

3. Crying Wolf in a Crowded Movie Theater

As the story of the boy who cried wolf demonstrates, false alarms can dull people to real dangers. And a government crying wolf can diminish the people's trust in their elected leaders.

David Brinkley's 1988 memoir, Washington Goes to War, includes a relevant vignette from World War II. To test the efficiency of the government's public radio broadcasts encouraging people to conserve or donate things, one writer wrote a meaningless announcement of his own and slipped it into the rotation: "It was on the radio for two months and neither the announcers nor anyone in the listening audience seemed to notice." The repeated attempts to get people to voluntarily conserve or donate items mostly ended in failure.

4. We Know Where You Sleep

Even anti-alertists such as Prof. Nichols admit that there is one very good reason to make general public alerts: as a way of loudly letting the terrorists know that we know where they sleep:

"Letting the enemy know that you have anticipated his plans might indeed avert an attack, and even spook the would-be attackers into running for, and revealing, their escape routes and other aspects of their network."

5. September 11 Redivivus

There is a final, more immediate calculus to be considered: The fear, bureaucratic and moral, of what would happen if the government had credible information of another attack on the order and magnitude of September 11 and chose to stay silent about it.

The cynics are justified in seeing in this yet more bureaucratic ass-covering. The FBI and CIA have been let off the hook for what occurred with the Pentagon and Twin Towers largely because the hijackers/ terrorists behaved with a creativity and chutzpah that few could have anticipated. But it is important to remember that in order to get off the hook, one would has to be on it in the first place. General alerts, if prescient, may insure job security in the face of further tragedy.

Those of a less cynical bent also have a point. Even if it slows down the war effort, even if it inspires silliness and panics, even if it makes the government look less than fully on the ball, it would be very difficult for people in the government to know of a possible repeat of September 11 and not let the public know about it.

In fact, without arguing in favor of constant alerts, it's worth noting the paternalistic instincts of some of the critics. Their basic outlook screams that this is a problem for the U.S. government to deal with. The rest of us should go about our business and defer to the expertise of law enforcement officials.

That's a rather dangerous assumption in this day and age.