What to think

by Ted on August 4, 2004

Ken Layne is back from a long hiatus, and he’s smelling opportunism in the Sunday terror alert. He begins:

After getting through the insane security at CitiBank Headquarters—caused by four-year-old Evidence of Terror Plans released Sunday to scare the bejesus out of you—you get to say “Hi” to Laura Bush in the lobby! That’s neat. (emphasis added)

It’s neat when schedules work out that way.

Oh, and the Immediate Alert Scary-Ville terror info? Now they’re saying it actually refers to an attack planned for Sept. 2. You know, the last day of the Republican Convention in New York, when Bush gives his big speech?

This stinks. Go ahead and say, as Tom Ridge did this morning, “This is not about politics. It’s about confidence in government.” If you have to deny it’s about politics—while your party is actively campaigning in the locked-down buildings of New York City filled with teevee cameras and photographers and frazzled employees who wonder if today’s Terror Day—then you have done a Poor Job of showing us otherwise.

I didn’t know that. I’ve been content to be agnostic about this; I genuinely sympathize with the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” dillemma that the Administration faces.

But, yeah. If Homeland Security seriously believed that the CitiBank building was under direct threat- an “enemy target area”, specifically- what was Laura Bush doing there? Wouldn’t it put her safety at risk, while making the building a more attractive target?

{ 33 comments }

1

son volt 08.04.04 at 8:23 pm

I genuinely sympathize with the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” dillemma that the Administration faces.


Fred Kaplan has a good column
in Slate making just this point, but there’s an important caveat:

If President Bush is truly serious about preventing terrorist attacks, he has to ensure that these alerts, even when they’re wrong, are at least perceived as sincere and untainted by political motive. By this standard, Tom Ridge last Sunday proved himself a dreadful homeland security secretary, and the Bush administration (by association, if not collaboration) diminished the trust that a president must inspire on such matters.

2

Andrew Boucher 08.04.04 at 8:34 pm

Unless it was announced a few days ahead of time that L. Bush was going to be in the lobby, I don’t see how her presence can be said to attract al Qaeda – they’re not that quick.

And I’d prefer L. Bush in Citibank’s lobby than GW Bush cowering on some airbase on 9/11.

3

ucblockhead 08.04.04 at 8:43 pm

If you thought terrorists might attack a particular building, would you send your wife there?


So either Bush doesn’t care about his wife, or he doesn’t think the threat’s real.

4

Brett Bellmore 08.04.04 at 9:04 pm

“If President Bush is truly serious about preventing terrorist attacks, he has to ensure that these alerts, even when they’re wrong, are at least perceived as sincere and untainted by political motive.”

I don’t think that’s actually possible, no matter what Bush does. There are a certain number of people who are going to be totally convinced that it’s all a sham, no matter what evidence is presented.

UCBlockhead, first, the President’s wife is likely a target no matter where she is, and second, she was probably surrounded by enough security people to cause terrorists to scrub their mission even if they WERE planning on attacking that building on that day. Unless they’re total idiots, they’ll attack where our security is weak, not where it’s strong. Warnings such as these are effectively self-negating prophesies.

5

Cranky Observer 08.04.04 at 9:12 pm

> what was Laura Bush doing there

That is a fairly simple analysis: risk that an attack will happen during the 2 hours Laura Bush is there: very low. Cost to economy if 10,000 people refuse to work in Citicorp Tower: very high. So expose Laura to the risk for 2 hours to create a perception of security among the 10,000, then get her the heck out of Dodge.

Meanwhile, the 10,000 continue (or not) to absorb the risk for the next 20 years.

Cranky

6

Carlos 08.04.04 at 9:25 pm

It seems to me that this type of “Alert system”, while useful in other emergencies, is not very effective in this area. Differently from let’s say hurricanes or nuclear attacks, the authorities usually do not have reasonable certainty that an attack will be coming at a given time (or where, for that matter). Without that certainty, the alert is to the public simultaneously alarming and useless. You are supposed to act like nothing happens but be very afraid doing it (which frankly it’s not very useful). Interestingly enough, countries with long experiences with terrorism like England or Spain, deal with information about attacks in a completely different way.

7

Winston Smith 08.04.04 at 9:50 pm

I agree that
(a) The administration handled this latest warning in the only way they could, and that
(b) They will, in fact, be damned either way, politically speaking.

But they *did* bring this on themselves by shredding their own credibility over the last 3 1/2 years. They Saddamed (Saddamned?) themselves. We’ve got so much evidence that they’re willing to lie about important matters that it’s now rational to be suspicious of them at every turn, even though the evidence taken by itself in this particular case is far from damning.

8

Winston Smith 08.04.04 at 9:50 pm

I agree that
(a) The administration handled this latest warning in the only way they could, and that
(b) They will, in fact, be damned either way, politically speaking.

But they *did* bring this on themselves by shredding their own credibility over the last 3 1/2 years. They Saddamed (Saddamned?) themselves. We’ve got so much evidence that they’re willing to lie about important matters that it’s now rational to be suspicious of them at every turn, even though the evidence taken by itself in this particular case is far from damning.

9

Winston Smith 08.04.04 at 9:50 pm

I agree that
(a) The administration handled this latest warning in the only way they could, and that
(b) They will, in fact, be damned either way, politically speaking.

But they *did* bring this on themselves by shredding their own credibility over the last 3 1/2 years. They Saddamed (Saddamned?) themselves. We’ve got so much evidence that they’re willing to lie about important matters that it’s now rational to be suspicious of them at every turn, even though the evidence taken by itself in this particular case is far from damning.

10

Ken Houghton 08.04.04 at 10:02 pm

So let me see if I can “connect the dots” on Winston Smith’s belief that “The administration handled this latest warning in the only way they could”:

1) There are credible reports, based on information that dates back to at least January, that there will be an attack on a specific building or buildings (including one quite close to where I am right now and one very directly on my way home, so, yes, I take this personally) on a specific date.

2) The specific date is, at the time of the warning, over a month away.

3) The date happens to coincide with the date that everyone and his brother would MOST expect an attack in the NYC area.

4) The warning is issued without mentioning the date.

If this is “the only way,” what happened to, say, (1) quietly increasing security, (2) not making any public announcement that would alert the terrorist early enough for them to, say, select an alternative target, and (3) only making an announcement closer to the expected time–a time, to be nice about it, when there will be EXTREME security in NYC?

11

rea 08.04.04 at 10:05 pm

What someone tells you three times is true . . .
;)

12

Xavier 08.04.04 at 10:06 pm

I think the point of sending Laura Bush to the building was to show that it was safe to be in the building. But it was safe because of the heightened security precautions, not because the threat was bogus. I think Ted’s analysis assumes that the heightened security in response to the threat doesn’t actually improve security. That may be true, but I don’t think you can make that assumption implicitly.

13

Cranky Observer 08.04.04 at 10:08 pm

> What someone tells you three times
> is true . . .

Whereas I go with the Little Bunny Foo-Foo theory: “I give you threeeeeee chances…”

Cranky

14

Winston Smith 08.04.04 at 10:14 pm

I agree that
(a) The administration handled this latest warning in the only way they could, and that
(b) They will, in fact, be damned either way, politically speaking.

But they *did* bring this on themselves by shredding their own credibility over the last 3 1/2 years. They Saddamed (Saddamned?) themselves. We’ve got so much evidence that they’re willing to lie about important matters that it’s now rational to be suspicious of them at every turn, even though the evidence taken by itself in this particular case is far from damning.

15

Winston Smith 08.04.04 at 10:14 pm

I agree that
(a) The administration handled this latest warning in the only way they could, and that
(b) They will, in fact, be damned either way, politically speaking.

But they *did* bring this on themselves by shredding their own credibility over the last 3 1/2 years. They Saddamed (Saddamned?) themselves. We’ve got so much evidence that they’re willing to lie about important matters that it’s now rational to be suspicious of them at every turn, even though the evidence taken by itself in this particular case is far from damning.

16

Ross Silverman 08.04.04 at 10:23 pm

If you don’t make high-profile public relations stops on behalf of your husband’s campaign, then the terrorists have won.

17

Winston Smith 08.04.04 at 10:30 pm

Egad, sorry about that… The page locked up on me…for awhile I valiantly resisted the urge to click ‘post’ again…but then…then…the temptation was just too great…

I am mortified…

Ken–I just heard about the 9/2 date, so hadn’t had time to think about that. I was still thinking in terms of the undated threat. In such a case, seems like all you can do is put the info out with some alacrity. They waited three weeks, but I’m willing to give ’em that; keeping it secret for awhile while you try to exploit the info in secret ops seems reasonable.

My point is, in fact, this: what they did seems reasonable enough to me…or it would, anyway, if I weren’t already suspicious of them.

18

Not Me 08.04.04 at 10:45 pm

Not just Laura, but George W’s daughters were there too. I might buy that Laura being there is an “it’s safe” thing, but you just don’t send your kids into something like that if you honestly believe there is a heightened threat. It’s ridiculous.

19

Sullivan 08.04.04 at 11:06 pm

That is a fairly simple analysis: risk that an attack will happen during the 2 hours Laura Bush is there: very low. Cost to economy if 10,000 people refuse to work in Citicorp Tower: very high. So expose Laura to the risk for 2 hours to create a perception of security among the 10,000, then get her the heck out of Dodge.

Who the hell would have a family member at a place where a terrorist threat warning was issued. Ask yourself this: if there’s a lightning storm are you gonna run outside and hold a metal rod in the air because there is a slim chance you might get electrocuted? I wouldn’t.

20

Ken Houghton 08.04.04 at 11:52 pm

Winston,

I readily concede that, without a time frame, it is much more difficult NOT to “cry wolf” IF you have credible information.

But, if you have no timeframe, how credible can your information be? Especially when you declare–as Ridge did the next day, despite having used the word “new” in the initial announcement–that the most recent of it is from January?

The Best Case scenario (again, without a date): ORG plans to do X, which involves specific targets, within the next Y months. We have just reached the end of Y-1.

So you know they plan to do something within the next few weeks.

The problem is: I’m still at a loss to see why–IF you plan to PREVENT them doing something–you announce the SPECIFIC targets with no more reliable information.

The two choices are: (1) you KNOW the actual targets are NOT those named, and you’re trying to fool the terrorists into thinking your most reliable information is outdated (in which case, you send your wife, knowing you are NOT making the Henry-Fonda-at-the-end-of-_Fail Safe_-choice) or (2) you know you will NOT prevent the attack, and want to make people think “we tried.”

I’m still failing to see EITHER of those as a good option, let alone the only one.

Where do you get “three weeks”? If the most recent information is January, it’s longer than that. If the information is directly tied to the Pakistan initiative, it’s significantly less than that.

As I say, I work in the general area, and am walking through the notably increased security every day; they do not appear to have endeavoured to do anything by stealth BEFORE “going public.”

21

Winston Smith 08.05.04 at 1:12 am

Ken,
Re: three weeks:
Apparently they got the information three weeks ago, tho, as you point out, it was most recently updated in January.
Anyway, so the info is kinda old to al Q, but new to us…it’s not like they could have released it in February…
Anyway, it sounds to me like our only substantive disagreement may be over whether to release the info or not. I wondered about this, too, but apparently even non-administration types agree that al Q. drops targets once they’re outted. So the policy is apparently to release the info in order to cause ’em to start over on new targets. It doesn’t obviously seem to be the right strategy to folks like us, be we aren’t experts, and that’s what the experts say–even those who are not running dog lackies of the admin.–so we should believe ’em.

And I should hope that you couldn’t detect their stealth operations (if any)! I hope they’re better than that!

22

hippocopter 08.05.04 at 1:16 am

I’ve heard that the info was years old, but that the file on the bad guys’ computer might have been “opened” as recently as January.

Assuming there is a kernal of truth to the story, the majority of the info predates 9/11 (they admit this, yes?). Why wouldn’t the contacts, operatives, information on sites, security, etc., have been significantly affected by the prosecution of the “Worldwide War on Terror!” sice then?

IOW, if alQ’s planning info has withstood 3 or 4 years of the US post-9/11 anti-terrorism campaign, then somebody’s not doing a very good job.

But I don’t follow this WOT stuff too closely, so caveats…I just can’t stand to listen to the posturing and paranoia-pandering from the media morons and terrorism experts, as they repeat each other’s meaningless conventional wisdom. I wish they would go back to hyperventilating about, say, the undercooked chicken crisis. The chances of dying from your dinner are, actually, much higher after all. (6000-9000 deaths a year).

23

Cranky Observer 08.05.04 at 2:29 am

Who the hell would have a family member at a place where a terrorist threat warning was issued. Ask yourself this: if there’s a lightning storm are you gonna run outside and hold a metal rod in the air because there is a slim chance you might get electrocuted? I wouldn’t.

Whereas lightning researchers would, and do. One of the downsides (or upsides, if you are an adrenaline lover) to a government job at the very top is that you expose your family to some risks – sometimes intentionally, for political ends.

sPh

24

mc 08.05.04 at 7:16 am

Poor Laura. Sacrificed to the altar of Security. It’s such a hard job being the President, or his wife, or his men. You expose yourself so much to such risks, PEOPLE SHOULD JUST BE MORE GRATEFUL!!! And stop with the questions already, ok? What are you, anti-american? Have some faith, you whiney bastards.

That’s what I’d say, if I was Tom Ridge.

Such a relief, that he had more conscience than that!

25

dan 08.05.04 at 9:57 am

The Laura Bush things reminds me of that guy who had his daughter eat a hamburger on tv a few years back, during the mad cow scare. They are hardly putting their loved ones in danger – the fact that the kid ate a burger, or that the First Lady visited the building, would not have been noteworthy if it had not been set up as a publicity stunt.

My opinion is that, when the government releases warnings like this, there is usually no way of knowing whether they were right to issue the warning or whether it was politically motivated. I don’t expect enough relevant information to be public, which is as it should be. But I need to be able to trust that government is working to thwart terrorist attacks, and not for political gain. Once they’ve lost that trust and shown a pattern of dubious claims and politically calculated behavior, then skeptical speculation about their motives spreads well beyond fringe conspiracy theorists and becomes common (though most likely inconclusive).

26

MFB 08.05.04 at 10:17 am

The “guy” was British Minister for Agriculture John Selwyn Gummer (known as “Forrest Gum” to his friends).

If George Bush has sunk to the level of John Selwyn Gummer, boy, has the United States got problems!

27

john b 08.05.04 at 10:28 am

MFB: ITYM “risen”. HTH.

28

john b 08.05.04 at 10:29 am

MFB: ITYM “risen”. HTH.

29

Ken Houghton 08.05.04 at 4:01 pm

Winston (love the nom de guerre, by the way),

They’re better on stealth efforts (though there is one guy who is always in the same place, no matter what time I pass him), but most of the acts they’ve taken “in response” are ones that (1) they could have done without announcing why because they are (2) not noticeable incrementally, i.e., an extra guard or two blends in, even in fatigues.

And the stealth measures are, as noted, supposed to be stealth.

Remember, NYC is Orange anyway. So “raising” the alert to Orange doesn’t affect this area as much as it would some place in AL or AZ or WY…

What is the evidence that aQ changes targets when outted? Their ventures have all been (a) thoroughly planned and organized and (b) had incremental more redundancy in the plan [e.g., flight 93 failed, but the operation was successful).

If that were true, every leaders would simply announce that s/he has “credible evidence” that aQ plans to attack [name significant city or building]. The Spanish leader certainly neglected to do that.

Try a thought experiment: Bush and Co. actually READ their briefings, the National Security Advisor actually had paid attention in 1998 when the G-10 first worried publicly about the possibility of using passenger planes as weapons, and the FBI field reports were escalated. Oh, and the month of August wasn’t treated as vacation by the entire upper level of the administration.

However, the drone Clinton used to track Bin Laden remains removed, and there are limited or no incremental security measures at the airports (no time to put them in place, etc.)

Somewhere around late August/early September (after the August 6th PDB but before September 11th), the Administration puts the pieces together and realises that al Queda plans to use passenger planes as a weapon.

If they make an announcement on, say, September 7th that they have credible evidence that terrorists plan to attack the World Trade Center (tallest building in NYC), the Pentagon, the White House, the Sears Tower in Chicago, and the Transamerica building in SF, does that prevent aQ from completing its years-in-the-planning attacks?

This is a straightforward problem of economics: information asymmetry leading to an arbitrage opportunity. In this specific case, greater information dissemination may change magnitude (marginal effect; e.g., the ca. 21% of people in this week’s CNN poll who said they wouldn’t have gone to work reduces casualty count), but it seems unlikely to change the occurence.

30

charlene 08.05.04 at 4:39 pm

Just a word in defence of John Gummer. Despite his moment of folly early on in the BSE crisis, it is worth bearing in mind that he has been hugely right-on about world poverty issues, wasting nonrenewable natural resources etc, and is an excellent constituency MP. And a Tory to boot. Frankly, he could wipe the floor with George W and most of his compatriots.

31

wfeather 08.05.04 at 5:08 pm

Perhaps Laura’s presence in the danger zone was suggested by Condi to her husb… er, the President.

Seriously, I would have given much more credence to Ridge’s pronouncements if he had just been straightforward and not included the political fluff. God, I hate what these people have done to my country.

32

Raymond 08.06.04 at 6:26 am

You see, Laura is Very Brave. And of course she’s an excellent driver.

33

V. 08.06.04 at 2:21 pm

Carlos said: “Interestingly enough, countries with long experiences with terrorism like England or Spain, deal with information about attacks in a completely different way.”

Yes, what do they do? I agree fully that the alert system seems unhappily imported from other domains in which it is more suitable and useful. But then, because I am ignorant of the other strategies for handling this kind of situation (and, I suppose, an uncreative thinker in this regard) I find that I am often left thinking, “Well, this is useless, but what else could they do?” This is unsatisfactory.

Educate me, please.

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