Tuesday, November 28, 2006

What should "credible" mean? Why words matter, when it comes to homeland security

Out of an abudance of caution a little more than a month ago, the Department of Homeland Security alerted seven NFL stadiums and the relevant state and local governments to a threat posted on a website to detonate dirty bombs during various football games around the country. DHS deemed the threat "not credible." Still, the department said that it was advising the appropriate parties of the threat to enable them to take whatever action, if any, they deemed necessary. Fortunately, it all turned out to be a hoax, and gridiron fans were able to enjoy their games in peace.

But, it would be a mistake to leave it at that. We can learn something from how the government handled this threat, in case the next threat (and there definitely will be one) turns out to be "credible." The question we should ponder from this incident is what should credible mean?

Given how this event was handled, a "credible" terrorist threat apparently does now means one that is: (1) corroborated by other intelligence; and (2) communicated by or through a source deemed to be reliable as regards information related to terrorism. In this instance, there was no other intelligence confirming the threat, and the applicable website was not known to be a terrorist mouthpiece.

Certainly, whether there is corroboration for a threat, and whether the source of it is known to be reliable, are critical factors that should be considered by the government in determining whether to pass on threats and to act on them. There have to be some criteria, after all. There are numerous threats each day, and there has to be some rational way to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff. Otherwise, the government will be paralyzed and the American people will constantly be terrorized, which, of course, is the very goal of terrorism.

But, what if terrorists really did intend to attack us and there was only one warning, posted on some obscure website? Is there some terrorist rulebook somewhere that forbids them from attacking us unless we're warned beforehand, multiple times, by sources known to be privy to terorrists' plots and plans? I don't think so.

In this instance, there was more than sufficient reason, in my judgment, for the government to have passed this information along. It was unusually specific as to target (football stadiums in New York, Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Seattle, Cleveland, and Oakland), date (October 22), and method (dirty bomb). There was some political significance to the date (the end of Ramadan). Al Qaeda is known to favor iconic targets that are symbolic of America (what's more American than football?). Al Qaeda is known to be interested in carrying out dirty bomb attacks (convicted terrorist Jose Padilla, for example, was initially charged with intent to carry out a dirty bomb attack in Chicago some years ago). It's fairly easy to make dirty bombs and to sneak them into the country (undercover congressional investigators have used fake credentials to trick border inspectors into letting them bring enough radioactive material over the Mexican and Canadian borders to make two dirty bombs.). The fifth anniversary of 9/11 was a little over a month before this incident. There has been a steady stream of audiotapes and videotapes this year from bin Laden and his top deputy threatening more attacks on America. And, our prosecution of the war in Iraq, and our support for Israel's prosecution of its war against Hezbollah in Lebanon last summer, has only intensified terrorists' hatred of America and their determination to strike us again. Finally, while it is a good thing that already "hard" targets like airports, seaports, nuclear power plants, and politically symbolic buildings have been hardened since 9/11 to make them harder still to attack, the upshot is that "soft" targets like sports stadiums have, as a consequence, only become more attractive to terrorists.

For all these reaosns, it seems to me that it was right for DHS to pass on the threat to responsible officials. But, for all these reasons, the threat should have been deemed "credible." "Credible" shouldn't be made synonymous with "confirmed from multiple reliable sources." Otherwise, we're setting the bar too high. In future instances, when the threat is real, the government might fail even to pass on information that doesn't meet these tests, or, the recipients of the information might not act on it. As a result, attacks that could be prevented won't be.

Right now, we're only confusing people. It is, indeed, legitimate to ask why information is being passed on at all if it's not credible. The cynical might even say that it's being done to try to influence the political calendar or to protect bureaucrats from retribution if their judgment turns out to be erroneous. We can do away with confusion and cynicism, and, more important, save lives, by deeming "credible" any threat information that is specific, plausible, and consistent with what we know about terrorists' intentions, methods, and capabilities.