The White House's failure to make it clear that the dramatic terrorism alert Sunday was based largely on information that predated the Sept. 11 attacks is a case study in the difficulty of managing such warnings for an administration whose credibility is a central issue in a difficult presidential campaign.
At one level, experts yesterday credited the Department of Homeland Security for narrowly targeting the warning to selected buildings in three cities, rather than raising the threat level across the nation. But they said the effort was seriously undercut by the revelation that much of the surveillance of those buildings took place three to four years ago.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge speaks in New York, joined by Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, left, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
(Mary Altaffer -- AP)
"Their efforts to focus attention on specific areas and targets is good," said William H. Webster, a former FBI and CIA director who is vice chairman of the Homeland Security Department's Advisory Council. "But they obviously have a ways to go," he said, adding that "it opens the door for people to be suspicious and cynical."
Webster said the administration is trying to avoid appearing as if it is "crying wolf," and he felt the news conference by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge was "studied and not designed to raise panic levels." He also noted that terrorist acts often take years of planning, so a "three-year spread doesn't mean the intentions have changed; it just means nothing has happened."
Still, Webster said, it is unclear when -- or whether -- the threat level for these buildings could be lowered, given that the surveillance that prompted the alert was old. In an odd coincidence, another high-profile New York landmark -- the Statue of Liberty -- reopened yesterday for the first time since the 2001 attacks, despite the increased vigilance in the nearby financial center.
Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry -- who received a briefing on the intelligence behind the warning from Ridge -- has not faulted the administration for its handling of the situation, and his campaign declined yesterday to make an official available to comment. Other Democrats have not been shy, however, with former Vermont governor and presidential candidate Howard Dean strongly suggesting political motives behind the announcement. "I am concerned that every time something happens that's not good for President Bush, he plays this trump card, which is terrorism," Dean said Sunday.
Moreover, the administration's credibility on intelligence matters has been undermined by the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq -- a fact that Kerry has repeatedly noted on the stump. In his nomination acceptance speech last week, Kerry declared: "Saying there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq doesn't make it so. . . . As president, I will ask hard questions and demand hard evidence."
Jesse L. Jackson, echoing that theme, said he was suspicious of the timing of the alert, just days after the Democratic convention. "We've been told to be on alert" before, he said yesterday, referring to Iraq and the unsuccessful search for banned weapons there. "That did not prove to be true."
Administration officials defended the decision to make the announcement, saying that the information, even if old, was too specific to ignore. "What we know about al Qaeda is that they case things and they do their homework well in advance and then update it before an attack," White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend said on NBC's "Today."
One piece of information on one building, which intelligence officials would not name, appears to have been updated in a computer file as recently as January 2004. But officials could not say whether that data resulted from active surveillance by al Qaeda or came from publicly available information.
To some extent, the disclosure that the federal government only now learned that three years ago al Qaeda was checking out these buildings underscores the limited nature of the intelligence in the government's hands -- and how little the administration knows about al Qaeda's activities.
Michael Greenberger, director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland, found it curious that the administration withheld the dated nature of the information at the time of the original announcement and disclosed it only after President Bush made a Rose Garden appearance Monday to discuss reforms of the intelligence community recommended by the Sept. 11 commission.
When Bush held his news conference, reporters knew only that the administration had recently uncovered this information. Bush "would have faced more difficult questions" if reporters had known how much of the information had been obtained three years after the surveillance, Greenberger said.
Greenberger added that the alert "has left a lot of anger in its wake" among local officials, who had to use resources and money that might have been held in reserve if the age of the intelligence had been clear from the beginning. He said the administration's credibility may be hurt the next time it issues a warning.
"It is going to wear the welcome mat away," Greenberger said.
Bruce Hoffman, Washington director of Rand Corp., noted that the government understands the where -- economic targets -- and the why of al Qaeda attacks. "But very rarely will we know the when" of an attack, he said, adding that "we may not know as much as we think" about al Qaeda's operations.
Hoffman said that the Sept. 11 attacks took six years of planning and the East African embassy attacks took five years and that one reason no more attacks have occurred on U.S. soil may be that al Qaeda is still in mid-operational cycle. He said that the administration had little choice but to release the information and that it could still throw al Qaeda off balance.
"I've always found if you are straightforward and honest with people and give them the facts, it is a lot easier for them to deal with," said James Lee Witt, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Bill Clinton and now head of a crisis consulting firm. "They should have said, 'This is the information we found, but it is old.' That is what I would have done."