- The Washington Times - Monday, August 2, 2004

The weekend warning of al Qaeda attacks against financial institutions in the District and the New York area illustrates a judgment call that security and intelligence officials must make when they receive threat intelligence.

Do they share the information with the public and face accusations of trying to scare people? Or do they hold the information, potentially risking lives, while they confirm details or learn more?

“Intelligence information is a judgment made by experts to build a picture,” said Liz Tobias, communications director for the House Select Committee on Homeland Security. “The judgment needs to be made whether the information is good enough to share.”

She said it was “entirely appropriate” for Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and other officials to tell the public this weekend that al Qaeda operatives had focused on five buildings in the District, New York and Newark, N.J.

“Shrouding threat intelligence of that specificity in secrecy would be a travesty,” she said.

Others disagree with that strategy.

“People don’t like the idea that their government will keep them in the dark,” said Larry Johnson, former deputy director of the State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism, but he argues that information should only be shared as a last resort.

“If the government can tell you something that will help you to save your life, then it has to be shared. But what is anyone supposed to do as a result of hearing [what officials said on Sunday]?” he asked. “All that’s been achieved is to tell the bad guys which surveillance packages we’ve discovered and which are still viable.”

Sandy Levine, who heads a public-relations firm that consults for government agencies, shares Mr. Johnson’s doubts about the wisdom of making public such specific information.

“I don’t know exactly what information those officials had, but I cannot believe I would have made that decision.”

Miss Tobias responded that the Department of Homeland Security was “doing its job” by sharing the information. “It’s the American people’s right to know.”

But Mr. Johnson said law-enforcement and intelligence agencies could work as effectively behind the scenes, involving private-sector security professionals as necessary, to thwart potential attacks.

Senior officials, he said, are making the threat public, “basically, to cover [themselves].”

Miss Levine agrees that officials are sharing too much detailed information for the wrong reasons.

“Especially in the midst of an election campaign, no one wants to be caught like they were on September 11, with no public warning,” she said. “Everyone expects that there may be an attack. … Under those circumstances, I believe officials feel like they would prefer to have a warning out there than not.”

She also agrees with Mr. Johnson that the impact and credibility of public warnings and the officials who issue them is being eroded.

“The danger is that the public is becoming immunized,” she said. “Every time one of these warnings is issued and there’s no attack, you increase the risk that people will start to think ‘There they go again’ the next time.”

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