HUTCHINSON: Overplaying the Terror Card

The day after Halloween national newscasts and front-page newspaper pictures showed battle fatigued, machine gun toting National Guard troops patrolling the Golden Gate Bridge and other major bridges throughout California. They were on patrol because California Governor Gray Davis said he had a reliable report that there would be six terrorist attacks on the bridges starting November 2. There were no attacks. And what were the reliable reports that Davis based his action on?

They came from the FBI, the U.S. Customs Service, and the Coast Guard. But these agencies did not publicly cite any source or evidence for issuing the warning. The FBI admitted later that the threat was "not credible." The Coast Guard refused to say if it even issued a warning. But Davis plunged ahead anyway with the alert. And in the process grabbed headlines, landed a spot on Larry King's CNN show, sowed panic and fear in Californians, and other Americans, and spent thousands in tax dollars on the troop deployment.

Davis is up for reelection in 2002 and, though he was once thought a shoo-in winner, polls now show that he's imminently beatable. He is widely blamed for bungling the state's energy crisis, and ordering draconian slashes in state spending that will drastically hamper state services. He is running neck and neck in the polls with Republican former L.A. mayor, Richard Riordan, who only recently formally declared his candidacy. By acting on the false rumor, Davis momentarily lifted his sagging public image. In a CNN viewers poll 80 percent said they backed his decision to place the state on alert.

Davis probably won't be the last politician to get tangled in the morass of faulty Bush administration terror alerts. Since the September 11 terror massacre at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Attorney General John Ashcroft has issued two national alerts. The target in the first was the movie studios. The next was a general terrorism warning with no specific target named. Again, there were no attacks.

Meanwhile, the FBI has issued at least 15 national alerts warning of attacks against crop dusters, trucks transporting hazardous materials, and the movie studios. And again in every case, there were no attacks. Each time Ashcroft and FBI officials fend off tepid criticism that they are blitzing Americans with false alerts by insisting that their information is legitimate, and that to reveal sources will compromise national security. It boils down to this: Accept at face value whatever the administration says on the terrorism front. Bush bluntly told the National Association of Manufacturers, "I put the country on alert for a reason." Period!

But this demand for blind trust is beginning to fray. After the second White House warning, some lawmakers demanded that Ashcroft tell where the Justice Department gets its information from before issuing future alerts. Ashcroft refused to make this commitment. Bush and Ashcroft will almost certainly issue more alerts, and if they're no attacks, they will defend their alerts on these grounds.

- Bin Laden retaliation. It's been two months since the September 11 massac re, and one month since the start of the air war against Afghanistan. Yet, other than isolated incidents, that have no verifiable connection to bin Laden, there have been no attacks since September 11 anywhere in the U.S.

- Terrorists-on-the loose. The FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service have detained or arrested more than 1,100 persons since September 11. Many have been denied a court hearing, legal counsel, and visits by relatives. Yet, not one of the detainees has been formally charged with conspiracy in the terror attacks.

- The anthrax scare. Bush, Ashcroft and FBI officials admit that they have found no direct link between bin Laden and the handful of anthrax cases and threats. One month after the first anthrax case was reported, the FBI admitted the likelihood is that the threats and attacks could come from domestic extremists. Even so, there is no public hint that it will aggressively target white supremacists, or individuals influenced by them, for investigation, surveillance, and detention, even though several of them have been nabbed with and prosecuted for possessing lethal toxins in the past few years.

- Police response. Nearly 20,000 law enforcement agencies leaped into action in response to the blizzard of terror alerts. They have smothered airports, power plants, municipal buildings, bridges, highways, and freeway overpasses with security. Yet, not one police agency has reported an attack on a municipal structure since September 11.

If Bush, Ashcroft, and FBI officials receive ironclad information from credible sources of a possible terror attack they are obligated to warn law enforcement and the public of the danger. But it is irresponsible and foolhardy to issue alerts based on the haziest of information, as was the case in Davis's warning.

Crying wolf once too often smacks of political opportunism, and risks jading the public to future warnings, even one that might be real. That's the ultimate danger in overplaying the terror card.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website:

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