The Green Papers
The Green Papers

Notes on a rather useless warning

by Richard E. Berg-Andersson Staff
Thu 11 Oct 2001

Shortly after mid-afternoon, Washington time, on Thursday 11 October, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation put out the following press release:

For Immediate Release October 11, 2001
Washington D.C. FBI National Press Office

Certain information, while not specific as to target, gives the government reason to believe that there may be additional terrorist attacks within the United States and against U.S. interests overseas over the next several days. The FBI has again alerted all local law enforcement to be on the highest alert and we call on all people to immediately notify the FBI and local law enforcement of any unusual or suspicious activity.

Subsequent discussion- some on the record by spokespersons for the FBI, others from various sources in the law enforcement and intelligence communities on background- suggested that the reason for issuing the above warning was a "credible threat" based on "new intelligence" but, nevertheless, one with "no specificity": in other words, there will likely be another terrorist attack either here in the United States or abroad in which Americans will be targeted (and presumably maimed, where not killed outright) but neither the specific threat nor its specific location(s) is currently known.

Thanks a heap!!!

Some four hours after the news of the FBI's warning swept across the airwaves and the Internet like a prairie fire, President George W. Bush held a live prime-time press conference in the White House East Room (the first held by a President in some 6 1/2 years) and- when the issues behind this warning happened to be addressed (most of the White House press corps seemingly much more interested in the minutiae of military actions and diplomatic initiatives related to the War on International Terrorism, the first phase of which is now ongoing in Afghanistan)- we learned that: a.) it was issued with the foreknowledge, if not the outright approval, of the President; b.) that the President was familiar with, but obviously did not feel it prudent to reveal, at least some of the sources behind the warning; and c.) that it was issued to reassure [??!!] the American People that the U.S. Government was on the case protecting our lives and liberty and preventing any and all future terrorist actions that it could find out about ahead of time. Throughout his press conference, the President consistently insisted that we Americans should get on with our normal, everyday lives despite the warning issued hours earlier.

My own impression of what this whole sorry episode illustrates is that we are woefully unprepared for the next terrorist attack. There was no guidance whatsoever from the President (other than some lame joke about looking out for someone taking a cropduster that doesn't belong to him) as to what we ordinary citizens are actually supposed to do with this information. Go about our daily lives? On the morning of 11 September, some 5000-plus people went about their daily lives and, in the course of same, went to work in the upper floors of both Towers of the World Trade Center; going about their daily lives cost them those lives.

But at least they had no warning. They didn't have the slightest idea that terrorists bent on committing suicide to illustrate a bizarre, twisted political/religious viewpoint would be so bold as to take so many innocent people simply doing their jobs in an office tower with them as they carried out their dastardly deed. With this warning, I've been reminded of Nikita Khrushchev's famous line- re: all-out nuclear war- that "the survivors will envy the dead". Then again, I suppose that, should I- over the ensuing hours, days and weeks- find myself in the wrong place at the wrong time when the next terrorist attack comes, I should be most grateful that at least I knew it was coming- even though I couldn't possibly know it was actually coming toward me! I hope my widow would be similarly grateful: somehow I think that, in her love and devotion for me, she would not- and I wouldn't blame her in the least for feeling that way.

If this is, indeed, the "brave new world" we Americans- for the first time- face on our own home soil, then we had better be much better prepared than we currently are. The brand, spanking new Office of Homeland Security and its Director, former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, had better develop much better ways (and soon!) of raising awareness of potential terrorist threats among the general public than that the FBI- with, apparently, the tacit approval of the Bush Administration in general- utilized on that afternoon of 11 October. Until such manners and methods can be designed and implemented, I would much prefer that the powers-that-be keep their warnings to themselves and, instead, concentrate on informing Americans on specific activity to look out for, along with telling the citizenry (and telling them honestly!- none of that 1950s "duck and cover" or 1960s "line up single file in the school hallway" crap!) what to do if various terrorist-caused scenarios should take place. It would be far better- and certainly much more effective!- to revive a public concern for issues of Civil Defense.

Being told that a terrorist threat is virtually a certainty without having in place a method through which the average American can best use such information effectively (beyond simply asking for the citizen to report "suspicious activity"- whatever THAT means!- to law enforcement) is a dead end activity that only ends up sounding more like knee-jerk protection of one's own bureaucratic behind (as in "we told you so, even though we couldn't tell you what" after the fact). It all reminds me of a droll Russian joke from the Cold War era: "Q. What's the best thing to do if you hear your village is subject to a nuclear attack? A. Put a bedsheet over yourself and start walking toward the village cemetery". A warning such as that of 11 October doesn't leave us with all that many more alternatives than this!

Modified .