NEW YORK – Although the federal government should release information regarding potential terror threats to the public, some experts said that same information could tip terrorists off and provide them an opportunity to hatch an alternative plot.
"This whole situation on what to do is sort of like an iceberg — the public only sees part of it, the rest of it is sort of submerged and difficult to look at," said national security analyst Harlan Ullman, author of "Finishing Business: 10 Steps to Defeating Global Terror," adding that the intelligence community is often unhappy with releasing some information for fear certain investigations could be compromised.
"It's a very, very difficult call to make," Ullman added.
Soon after the federal government this week raised the terror alert level (search) for New York City, northern New Jersey and Washington, D.C., officials were defensive about why they had put the nation on the offense. On the campaign trail Friday, President Bush himself defended giving the OK to let the public know that some financial institutions in those areas could be terror targets, despite the fact that the some of the intelligence information gleaned from two nabbed terror suspects was anywhere from four years to one month old.
"When we find out intelligence that is real, that threatens people, I believe we have an obligation as government to share that with people," Bush told a convention of minority journalists. "Imagine what would happen if we didn't share that information with the people in those buildings and something were to happen, then what would you write? What would you say?"
Information from the two captives — a young militant familiar with computers and a man indicted for the U.S. embassy bombings in Africa in 1998 — had provided the bulk of the intelligence that led to Sunday's warnings.
One train of thought is that perhaps warning the public about potential plans could intimidate the terrorists.
"I don't know if they would be intimidated," Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said on FOX News' "The O'Reilly Factor" this week. "I would hope that what we're doing is communicating to the American people that we are doing what is needed to try and disrupt these plans. And we are working, not just here, but abroad as well to try and disrupt their plans."
Ullman said that by releasing information such as potential targets and methods of attack — in this case, truck bombs — it could cause terrorists to change their modus operendi. It could also cause the would-be evildoers to put together some sort of "deception plan," such as forming a fake computerized attack, for example, to throw investigators off to their real plan.
"You obviously want to keep the public aware, on the other hand, no president or presidential contender wants to get caught not announcing an attack," Ullman said. But "I'm not sure that announcing this publicly really helps us as much as they think.
Some Democrats — including one-time presidential candidate and current John Kerry (search) supporter, Howard Dean (search) — have blasted the Bush administration, saying that releasing the terror information was nothing more than a political ploy designed to give the current commander-in-chief a boost in the polls.
"I am concerned that every time something happens that's not good for President Bush, he plays this trump card, which is terrorism," Dean, the former governor of Vermont, said last Sunday.
The raising of the alert came three days after the close of the Democratic National Convention, which helped increase Kerry's terrorism-fighting poll ratings and less than two weeks after a report by the Sept. 11 Commission was released.
But some strategists say putting the information out there to at the very least, put Americans on watch, is the right thing to do.
"I think it's essential that if there's any information that appears to be meaningful, we have to take account of it. We have to protect our people," said GOP strategist Ron Kaufman.
"I think the problem here is the affidavit striation has been squandering its credibility over four years. It's done it on jobs, it's done it on the deficit, it's done it on Iraq, and so because it's said things that turned out not to be true in other areas, now when they say things even in the area of terrorism, there's more skepticism than there probably should be."
Juval Aviv, president and CEO of Interfor, Inc., an international corporate intelligence and investigations firm, said that while the raised alert level is good — since it signifies the United States is getting better at analyzing credible intelligence information and acting on it — more needs to be done than just broadcasting the threats on the airwaves.
"We are in a great race right now preventing the next attack and we need to do what we need to do," Aviv said. "We scared the public a little bit about it, but there's not much we've done to educate the public on what we expect them to do."
The public's help is needed to bolster law enforcement's effort in tracking down leads on potential terrorists, Aviv added.
"The colored alert is great, but it doesn't tell you what to do — it doesn't teach the public what to do, what to look for," he said. "Your [phone] call, your piece of the puzzle, could make the picture clear."