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Soothing Our Suspicions

By George F. Will
Thursday, August 12, 2004; Page A23

On Nov. 12, 1940, Luftwaffe headquarters issued orders to German air forces throughout occupied Western Europe concerning Operation Moonlight Sonata. It was to be a mighty attack by 509 Heinkel bombers -- just 57 had razed part of Rotterdam in May -- on the English industrial city of Coventry, which had the world's largest machine tool works and was crucial to Britain's war effort. The raid was to occur the night of Nov. 14-15.

The British knew it was coming. They knew because of their secret code-breaking ability, "Ultra." And in the two days they had to prepare for the onslaught they did . . . nothing.

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In "Bodyguard of Lies" (1975), Anthony Cave Brown wrote that Churchill's government did not mount preemptive attacks on the Luftwaffe bases from which the attack would be launched, nor did it concentrate antiaircraft guns and searchlights to force the German bombers to high altitudes. No evacuations were ordered. The city's chief of civil defense was not even warned, lest any sign of foreknowledge alert the Germans to the Ultra capacity.

Today the U.S. government must make decisions not as agonizing but nonetheless difficult concerning homeland security. When captured terrorists and their computers yield information about aspirations and planning, what should be done? Should the plotters be allowed to continue plotting for a while, unaware that they have been detected, in the hope that more ganglions of the conspiracy will be revealed? Or should maximum publicity be given to discovered information, in the hope that this will put conspirators on the run, complicating their conspiring?

Counterterrorism requires case-by-case judgments. But officials making the judgments should consider the country's current temper.

On portions of the interstate highway system, electronic message signs over the highway -- signs that usually communicate information about road repair work ahead or the exits for sports venues -- now say: "Report Suspicious Activity 1-800-492-TIPS." But for many Americans, the suspicious activity they think they detect is by the federal government.

In formulating and publicizing its policies regarding homeland security, the Bush administration must take seriously a fact it deplores: Regarding the war on terrorism, a sizable minority believes that the government's words and deeds merit deep skepticism. The hard core of this minority is the Michael Moore-Howard Dean cohort of fanatics, but the minority is much larger than that, and it will become even larger unless the administration worries about its sensibilities. For example, if a terrorism alert is based on intelligence some of which is years old, the government should say so immediately.

Writing in the New Republic, three non-fanatics -- John Judis, Spencer Ackerman and Massoud Ansari -- note that last month the magazine reported that the Bush administration was pressuring Pakistan to deliver a "high-value target" (HVT) in time for the November election. A Pakistani intelligence official says a colleague was told during a spring visit to the White House that "it would be best if the arrest or killing of [any] HVT were announced on twenty-six, twenty-seven or twenty-eight July" -- during the Democratic convention. A spokesman for the National Security Council says the New Republic's story is not confirmed by Pakistan's announcement on the 29th, the day of John Kerry's acceptance speech, of the arrest four days earlier of a senior al Qaeda figure.

The announcement was made at midnight in Pakistan. That was afternoon in Boston, where convening Democrats were suspicious.

Such suspicions are hardly self-validating. However, the government should take care not to inadvertently foment them. So, for example, it would be well if Tom Ridge henceforth would make those grim homeland security announcements without including testimonials to the president's leadership. Just the news, please.

Bad news is probable. In a book published this week, "Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe," Graham Allison, founding dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, former assistant secretary of defense and current adviser to Kerry's campaign, writes:

"An al Qaeda sleeper cell in Singapore, among the most secure and watchful societies in the world, was narrowly prevented from launching an attack on the U.S. and Israeli embassies there, with 10 times the amount of explosives used by Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City. As one Singaporean official observed, 'If they could do it here, they could do it anywhere.' "

If -- when -- they do it here, the country's problems will be severe. They will be worse if today's cynicism is aggravated by government insensitivity to suspicions that already are rampant, partly because of things the government has said about Iraq and other matters.

georgewill@washpost.com


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