Commentary

Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!

By Charles V. Peña
May 25, 2002

In the 1960s classic sci-fi TV series “Lost in Space,” the Robot would spin and flail his arms crying, “Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!” For three consecutive days, senior members of the Bush administration delivered similar warnings. Is this for real or are terrorists playing mind games?

On Sunday’s “Meet the Press” Vice President Cheney said that the “prospect of a future attack against the United States is almost certain. We don’t know if it’s going to be tomorrow or next week or next year.” On Monday FBI Director Robert Mueller said that suicide bombers like those who have attacked Israel are “inevitable.” “There will be another terrorist attack,” he said. “We will not be able to stop it. It’s something we all live with.”

And on Tuesday Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Secretary of State Colin Powell all warned of pending terrorist attacks. Capping those warnings, the FBI alerted New York City authorities about possible terrorist attacks against city landmarks, such as the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge. The warning was based on information that was not specific and not corroborated.

According to White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, the intensifying rhetoric was due to increased terrorist “chatter” picked up by intelligence agencies and the controversy surrounding the revelation that President Bush had been briefed in August that al Qaeda wanted to hijack U.S. jetliners (but not how they intended to use them). Let’s hope that all the sound and fury is simply posturing to quell the scrutiny and criticism of what the administration did or didn’t know and what it could have done to prevent 9/11. The various statements are also probably part of the White House’s efforts to thwart calls for an independent commission to investigate the intelligence failures before Sept. 11. And certainly, the administration is clearly making a statement that it’s not asleep at the wheel - if something actually does happen, they can claim they gave fair warning.

Those are the reasonable explanations. But there are other possibilities to consider. One is that the administration actually has real information about possible terrorist attacks and just isn’t telling us everything it knows. Given the administration’s penchant for being tight-lipped and controlling information released to the media and public, the possibility cannot be discounted. But if that’s the case, such actions would be irresponsible. The paramount obligation of the government is to protect its citizenry and if the government has specific information about credible threats, then the public must be informed. But the mostly vague and general warnings that have been issued so far are unhelpful.

Another possibility is that the administration is contemplating homeland security measures that are likely to be considered infringing on civil liberties and personal freedoms (after all, the administration didn’t get everything it wanted in the PATRIOT Act and there is proposed legislation in the House that would allow the Postal Service to conduct warrant-less searches of outbound mail). But a more dire sense of the terrorist threat would be needed to make more draconian actions acceptable and palatable to the American public.

Perhaps the most interesting and telling aspect of all these recent terrorist threat warnings (and previous ones) is that the Office of Homeland Security’s advisory system for the terrorist threat level remains (as of May 22) at “yellow” (where it has been ever since the color-coded system was introduced in March), indicating a “significant risk of terrorist attacks.” Three consecutive days of senior administration officials’ warnings and the FBI warning that New York City could be attacked has not been enough to budge the indicator to “orange,” indicating “high risk.” It would seem that despite the administration pronouncements, the homeland security warning system has flatlined into a perpetual state of yellow.

The real danger is that, over time, the public won’t take the warnings seriously. Indeed, New York Governor George Pataki said that people should “go on and go about their ordinary lives.” Raise the specter of a possible threat. Don’t change the alert status. Tell people to act as if everything is “normal.” How often can this happen before people think the administration is crying wolf? And are we doing more to help the terrorists plan their next attack as they watch how the government and public react to the warnings? Indeed, Rumsfeld admits that the terrorists “try to jerk us around and test us.”

Charles V. Peña is senior defense policy analyst at the Cato Institute.