WITH THE LATEST blast of confusing statements about terrorist threats, most of the homeland security officials involved have slipped into parody. The trouble began last weekend during an interview on CBS's "Face the Nation" when Frances Fragos Townsend, the White House homeland security adviser -- who now seems to be in higher favor as a spokesman than Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge -- appeared to have said that the intelligence behind the recent decision to raise the alert level in Washington and New York to orange contained specific threats to Congress and the Capitol. Close reading of the transcript reveals that Mrs. Townsend did not, in fact, quite say that; instead she referred to "this continuing threat stream" that implied a danger to the Capitol, not to a specific recent threat. But "this continuing threat stream" is a vague term. In the context, it was even more vague. Those who watched the program can be forgiven for not having quite gotten her point.
But then, in response to Mrs. Townsend's comments, the Capitol police chief, Terrance W. Gainer, took the opportunity to contradict what she had not said. As far as he knew, he said, "there is not a specific, credible, direct threat against Congress as an institution, or its members." We welcome his clarity -- but wonder, if that is the case, why he remains so intent on closing a major thoroughfare near the Capitol and setting up vehicle checkpoints that will significantly disrupt the officials and tourists who need access to this country's most symbolic and significant public building. In fact, his statements this week make clear that Chief Gainer had long been planning to increase the fortifications around the Capitol and simply seized on the latest intelligence as an excuse, without bothering to inform other District officials of his intentions. Worse, Chief Gainer's office now confirms that the blockages will last "indefinitely."
To sum up: The country has an administration that has still not mastered the art of conveying clear, useful information about terrorist threats to the public. The city has a Capitol security team that doesn't act according to that information anyway. Surely there must be a better way.