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Everything, Unless Security Is Compromised By Disclosure

Thursday, Mar. 07, 2002

Homeland Defense czar Tom Ridge is reportedly developing a system to rank government-announced terrorist threats by their severity. The ranking is a good development, but it won't do anything to address instances where the threat is never announced in the first place. Yet such threats, if they ever become reality, will be especially damaging, for by definition, the public - ignorant of their very existence - will not be fully prepared to meet them.

So far, the most blatant example of an unannounced threat of terrorism is one reported by Time magazine on Sunday. Time reported that last October, the government received a credible threat that a ten kiloton nuclear bomb - which could "kill some 100,000 civilians and irradiate 700,000 more, flattening everything in a half-mile diameter" - was being smuggled into Manhattan and might be detonated.

Yet neither then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani nor the public was informed of this threat by the federal government. The reason, according to Time, was fear of a panic. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has recently criticized this omission to tell even the Mayor, and rightly so.

The Mayor, and all New Yorkers, should have been told of this threat, and the public should be told of similar credible threats in the future. Indeed, the government should adopt a policy of informing the public of every threat, and ranking each according to Ridge's system, except in instances when the disclosure of a given threat could itself compromise national security.

Panic Can Be Prevented, and May Not Be As Intense As Expected

It is worth noting, to begin with, that the terrible attacks of September 11 caused far less panic that one might have thought. New Yorkers were subdued, extremely saddened, and certainly fearful, but they generally were not panicked - even in the wake of multiple, coordinated attacks by an as-yet unidentified enemy, and despite many people's witnessing decimation and even death, and losing those close to them.

Similarly, California Governor Gray Davis's announcement of a credible threat against California bridges did not provoke widespread panic, nor did it even empty the bridges. Davis agonized over whether to relay to the public the information he had received from the federal government, and eventually decided he had to do so. Even though nothing happened, he did the right thing.

One might argue, of course, that a nuclear threat is different - and nuclear threats could create far more panic than most - but I doubt that even news of a nuclear threat would empty New York City, as long as the government ranked the threat's credibility as being very low. People know that a threat is not a certainty, and the truth is that, these days, simply living in New York is already taking a significant risk.

Moreover, even if people did want to leave the City as a result of a nuclear threat, failing to believe the government's assessment that the threat's credibility was low, who could really fault them? The hard facts are that the government did not prevent September 11, does not know where Osama bin Laden is, and has not yet caught the anthrax perpetrator, even though it seems increasingly likely that he or she is a former government employee.

This evidence shows that despite its heroic efforts, the government is not omniscient. The public should therefore have the right to both judge for themselves, and choose knowledgeably what risks they will, and will not, take.

Lives Can Be Saved Through Travel Choices

Furthermore, a policy of broad threat disclosure, combined with a public information campaign, is apt to save lives. In part, that is because people can change their travel choices in response to threats.

On any given day, some people have to travel to Manhattan - or cross the Bay Bridge, or enter the Sears Tower - for work or other commitments, while others choose to do so for leisure, sightseeing, or other personal reasons. By revealing even the less credible threats of terrorism, the government could potentially save thousands of lives, should any of those threats ever turns out to be real, because the threat could convince people to choose other travel routes, in order to avoid potential attack sites.

Lives Can Be Saved Through Ordinary Citizens' Knowledge and Alertness

Disclosing threats can also save lives, by providing crucial lead time for those who can either act quickly to help prevent terrorism, or act quickly to save themselves.

Recall that Richard Reid's "shoe bombing" plot was prevented not by the government, nor by airport security, but rather by an alert flight attendant. Without her, more than three hundred more people would be dead. But what if the public, too, had been alerted to the "shoe bomb" threat, as airport personnel reportedly were?

If so, Reid's seatmates might have added an additional bulwark of security, intervening as soon as he leaned down to start fiddling with his shoe. And Reid's attempt could have been successfully foiled, regardless of whether or not the flight attendant had noticed his strange behavior. Having hundreds of alert passengers on a plane who are knowledgeable about specific threats will always be more effective than having a handful of flight attendants be the only ones to know about the threats - no matter how well-trained and alert those attendants may be.

The war on terrorism depends on us, as well as on the government. We have heard the phrase "Let's roll" repeatedly coming from our President, but we should always remember that it came from an ordinary person first. We are our first, last, and sometimes best defense.

After all, in a terrorist attack, relatively short spans of time can be crucial. Think, for example, of the short time period between the moment Todd Beamer and other passengers realized that Flight 93 was a suicide flight, and the moment they decided to rebel against their captors.

A person's ability to interpret and process information in the right context, as fast as possible, can be crucial. Yet leaving the public ignorant of threats will inevitably rob them of the context they need to not just be alert and watchful, but also to interpret correctly what they see.

Would Learning of A Nuclear Threat Be Futile?

One might object, though, that a nuclear threat is different. However, suppose that last October, New Yorkers had known of the nuclear bomb threat. The chance any bomb could have been prevented from entering the City would have shot up exponentially - with New Yorkers more watchful than ever before.

Yet suppose that prevention had not worked - and those New Yorkers who had chosen to stay in the city, despite the threat, had heard a huge explosion, or seen a blinding light, and learned that their worst fear had suddenly become reality. In this dramatic circumstance, would the warning even have mattered at all? After all, many accept that a nuclear war is not winnable. Would a nuclear bomb's destruction, similarly, be inevitable?

For a few, at Manhattan's very outskirts, or in a neighboring area, the answer might still be no. Tremendous, terrible devastation and death and loss would have resulted from the explosion of a nuclear bomb in the city, and no prior announcement of the threat could avoid that. But even in the case of a nuclear blast, a few people near the very periphery of the blast's effects might have saved themselves from lethal radiation poisoning through preparation - by taking potassium iodide pills to prevent thyroid cancer, and quickly fleeing in the right direction.

Moreover, in the far more likely event that a blast would be the result of the explosion of a "dirty bomb" - a conventional explosive with radioactive material - rather than a nuclear bomb, thousands more might have been saved from future cancers or current radiation poisoning through prior knowledge of the nuclear threat and quick action after the explosion.

Every life matters profoundly, and we should make policy with that in mind. We should not have to sit and wait for a television or radio to tell us what to do. We should know of threatened events before they happen, not after.

These things are terrible to write about, and to consider, but if we do not think and talk about them, then we could be in no better position than the people of Hiroshima were over fifty years ago - going about our business, unaware, when in a flash the world changes entirely.

Shifting Threats Into the Open

Tom Ridge has proposed five levels of threat alerts: "critical," "serious," "alert," "ready," and "routine." The demarcation is helpful to prevent us from becoming complacent in the face of repeated alerts, and to suggest to law enforcement when additional security measures are truly necessary. But this system is still not, by itself, enough. There are other, implicit levels of threat - "secret," "undisclosed," "too terrifying to reveal" - that should be eliminated.

A public smart enough to distinguish between different levels of threat is also smart enough to hear about all the threats as to which the government receives information. It is also a public smart enough not to panic, and smart enough to help prevent the threats from becoming reality, or at least to help save as many people as possible if they do.

If we do not control our fears, they will control us. And we do have something to fear, besides fear itself: A lack of information.

Julie Hilden, a FindLaw columnist and a graduate of Yale Law School, lives in Manhattan. She is a freelance writer and the author of the memoir The Bad Daughter. She practiced First Amendment law as an associate at the Washington, D.C. firm of Williams & Connolly from 1996-99.

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