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Life During Wartime: This Ain't No Warning

I know what my next job should be: White House terrorism event forecaster. I think I’d be pretty good at it. How difficult is it to go before a congressional committee or appear on a Sunday morning political talk show and say, “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when” without having to specify “when”? Certainly, another awful act of terrorism in the United States is likely to occur eventually. But let’s see the he-men of the not-if-but-when gang -- Dick Cheney, Tom Ridge, Donald Rumsfeld, and Robert Mueller III -- give us news we can use. Like date, time and place. Not that the New York Police Department did New Yorkers any favor by declaring the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge were possible targets of terror. What were anxious Brooklynites to do with that 411? Flood the less-aesthetic Manhattan Bridge, even though the authorities were not shutting down its majestic East River brother?

It was tough to look at the recent White House warning shuffle and not wonder if the Bush administration were trying both to change the national conversation and to cover its derriere. After CBS News reported that on August 6, 2001, George W. Bush had received a briefing noting al Qaeda’s interest in hijacking airliners, the President was criticized -- a bit unfairly -- for having perhaps missed an opportunity to thwart the September 11 plot. The firestorm that ensued was an overreaction, but it did cast light on a real issue: why had the intelligence establishment, under Bill Clinton’s and George W. Bush’s supervision, not adequately handled hints since 1995 suggesting al Qaeda might have something like 9/11 in mind? As the debate was heading in that direction, the Bushies, to no useful purpose, started exclaiming, “The terrorists are coming, the terrorists are coming.” Coincidence?

As this warning frenzy was under way, I encountered a corporate security adviser who used to be a senior FBI official involved in counterterrorism. I asked if he was telling his clients a terrorist action had become more probable. “There’s no difference in the threat level today,” he said. “I don’t see the intelligence, but I talk to people who do. Nothing has changed in recent weeks or months.” So why all of a sudden were senior Bush officials preparing the nation for the next strike? “Call me cynical, but....” He pointed to a nearby television that was playing a cable news show. “It’s a different tune than what was playing a few days ago.” Also, if any terrorism does come to pass, the administration will be able to declare, we told you so, you can’t accuse us of sitting on the intelligence.

Don’t get me wrong. The nation’s leaders should be informing the public about the prospect of future terrorism. But an orchestrated it’s-commmmiiinnng chorus doesn’t help much in that regard. As The Wall Street Journal reported recently, the federal government, even after the anthrax attacks of last fall, is still woefully unprepared to deal with bioterrorism. Moreover, there are no signs the Bush administration is considering how to reduce the threat of cataclysmic terrorist action by reducing targets of opportunity.

Take nuclear energy. Many words have been written about the possibility of terrorists slamming an airliner into a nuclear plant or swiping nuclear waste for use in a “dirty bomb” (a conventional explosive that would disperse nuclear material). True, the feds and the nuclear power industry claim to have enhanced security at nuclear facilities. But if the war on terrorism is going to last as long as the Cold War (as Rumsfeld and others have suggested) and if terrorist attacks are now as inevitable as death and taxes, perhaps the United States ought to begin considering societal changes that lessen potential dangers. That might mean decreasing the nation’s dependence on highly toxic substances -- such as nuclear material -- that are so inviting to those seeking to do the United States harm.

Vague warnings are no substitutes for policy initiatives. Yet when the Bushies talk about the war on terrorism these days, they usually seem more focused on Saddam Hussein, who had nothing to do with the airliners-turned-weapons plot, than on the 9/11 perps. Once the White House rallying cry, was Osama bin Laden -- dead or alive. Now, it’s more like, who’s that? The administration has not presented a gameplan for how it intends to crush al Qaeda. Maybe it can’t. In either case, the Bush warriors -- at congressional hearings, on television shows -- ought to be addressing the matter. Bin Laden still is a more pressing threat than Saddam, especially if the administration's warnings are to be taken seriously.

At a recent meeting of the World Economic Forum, Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, did say the United States will continue “taking the fight to the enemy” by denying al Qaeda “the havens and state support they’ve taken for granted for years.” He also observed that bin Laden’s network has “burrowed” into at least 60 countries around the world. So how does Wolfowitz and company aim to unburrow it? Let’s hear government officials answer that question, rather than tell us that sporting events and malls could be targets.

Wolfowitz did say the United States will have to pay more attention to the problems of the Islamic world. The war, he explained, “isn’t just about defeating terrorism. It’s about building a better world.” Yet the administration has been loathe to do much to enhance security in Afghanistan, its first laboratory of better-world-making. Even Republicans in Congress, worried about the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, recently supported a measure that compels the Bush White House to report to Congress within 45 days of its plan to deal with declining security in Afghanistan. Six months of fighting succeeded in forcing al Qaeda out of Afghanistan. But that country is reverting to a fractured, warlord-dominated society in which terrorists thrive. And the Bush administration has said little about what it intends to do in the five dozen other countries al Qaeda fancies.

I will give the warning-criers of the administration some credit. If they want to scare people, they sure know how. And that might be a valuable exercise. Before Bush officials mentioned this possibility, how many Americans had considered a scenario in which al Qaeda terrorists rent an apartment, fill the pad with explosives, and blow up the entire apartment building? How can that be stopped? It probably cannot be. But it is a public service for the government to inform Americans what to look for beyond the damn-obvious -- even if that results in folks freaking out about that strange, bearded dude who lives downstairs and just moved dozens of crates into his apartment.

Which brings me back to the post of terrorism event forecaster. In such a position, one would be paid for one’s nightmares. When I was chatting with the abovementioned counterterrorism specialist, he told me he had his “pet scenario.” Terrorists posing as businesspeople or tourists make repeated visits to the Hotel Washington, which is a block from the White House. Each time they come, they ask for the same room--for sentimental reasons, they explain. And on each visit, they replace part of a piece of furniture or a fixture with a component of a dirty bomb. Then, when it’s all assembled..... Not bad, I said. Then, as part of this sick game, I shared my own dark vision. When the second Star Wars prequel opened, I worried terrorists wearing belt-bombs would infiltrate different theaters. Security at multiplexes? It’s nonexistent. Hundreds would be injured. Hollywood would be devastated, as filmgoers across the country eschewed the big summer movies. “I never thought of that,” the CT man said. Never thought of that? Now, I was worried. He has worked this field for years and no one ever considered this? “Several theaters at once -- they could do that," he continued. "We cannot stop belt-bombs. Look, the Israelis are the best at this, and they can’t stop them. Belt-bombs will come here. A few of them could turn this country upside down. On the same day, in different cities, hit movie theaters, apartment buildings, schools.” As he spoke, he seemed to be frightening himself. “Maybe we shouldn’t give them any ideas,” he added.

Later that day, I mentioned this conversation to a friend. “Blowing up movie theaters?” he said. “Don’t worry about giving anyone that idea.” Why? Did some blue-ribbon commission on terrorism already issue a warning about that (after all, I saw one warning about scuba-diving terrorists)? Not quite. “They were doing that in the movie The Siege -- and blowing up buses,” he said. Maybe the guys and gals at the FBI ought to be watching more movies.

Okay, we’ve been warned. By the vice president, the homeland security czar, the guy in charge of the Pentagon, and the nation’s top cop, for what it’s worth. They’re saying, in essence, we’re not going to be able to stop it. Might this be a preemptive strike of spin? Are they establishing a foundation -- lowering expectations -- so the public will not blame them when it (whatever it is) happens? Perhaps now is time for a warning in the opposite direction. Don't bother us with unspecific declarations. Instead, tell us, show us, what you are doing to prevent an attack. Let actions speak louder than warnings.

David Corn is Washington editor of The Nation magazine.

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