May 11, 2005

To Alert or Not to Alert...

Two interesting stories hit the wires at about the same time today. Shortly after noon Eastern Time (and just moments after I went off the air), we began getting reports from correspondents that the White House and the Capitol had been evacuated and/or locked down.

People in the Capitol and in the surrounding House and Senate Office Buildings received a simple order from Capitol Police: “Run.” Nobody knew why, nor did many people hang around and ask questions. As happened with an earlier evacuation, everybody began scampering away, to the best of their abilities, panting, panicking and filling the streets.

One officer picked up House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and lugged her away like a loaf of bread. As he did, both of her pink pumps fell to the ground. Gumshoes eventually retrieved one of the shoes; the other remains at large.

Meanwhile, panting reporters called in rumors: there was fear of some airborne toxin, someone wondered whether potential terrorists had been spotted in or near the government buildings, etc. As civilians scampered through city streets, a helicopter plopped down near the FOX building and F-16s went screaming past the Capitol.

A similar type of ordered chaos took over at the White House. Even though the Executive Mansion is supposed to have a public-address system for use in such emergencies, the system didn’t work. Therefore, secret service agents ran around telling some journalists to hit the streets. Security officers secreted other reporters to a secure facility below the compound at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue White House employees were treated in much the same way.

As it turns out, two guys in a small private aircraft occasioned the mini-panic. The duo apparently had no idea they had invaded restricted airspace – not once, but twice – and had blundered to within three miles of the White House. A fighter pilot nudged them away and forced them to land in Frederick, Maryland. The guys admitted somewhat sheepishly that they had been trying to fly to an air show in North Carolina. Instead, they got to perform face plants on the tarmac in Maryland.

Not long after that drama, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan had to address allegations that former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge had complained about the government’s excessive eagerness to raise alert levels during Ridge’s tenure as Secretary of Homeland Security. Ridge, reporters said, claimed he had felt pressure from the White House to hype potential dangers.

That also turns out to have been an over-hyped story. Ridge never claimed the president’s men had strong-armed him. He said that his department was more reluctant than others to raise alert levels. This may explain why reporters had so much difficulty getting straight answers from then-Homeland Security Secretary Ridge about specific alerts, and why he never protested much when questioners maligned the multi-colored threat-warning system.

Such controversies aside, the Capitol/White House evacuations dramatize the challenge government-security officials, including Ridge’s successors, face all the time. Each day brings dozens of security warnings – reports of bad guys crossing the border, inventories of nuclear materials ranging from medical waste to missing weapons of mass destruction, intercepts of patchy conversations between terror suspect and the like. The president gets briefed on some of these; the heads of the FBI, the CIA and other security agencies get far more detailed listings of threats and potential dangers.

People on the inside say the information is so hair-raising that they’re tempted to go on full alert every day. As a practical matter, however, the alert system is useless for you and me. At most, it inspires folks to start scrutinizing Muslim cabbies and phoning breathless reports to the local gendarmerie.

Ridge would have been well within his rights to disparage the system, which was designed to alert cops and medical teams rather than civilians. Nevertheless, it’s also worth remembering that al Qaeda and its ideological progeny still lust for ways of killing a whole lot of Americans — not because the planners believe they can conquer the world, but because they get what they consider a holy thrill just by murdering innocents. Their craziness doesn’t detract from their seriousness. It informs and focuses their homicidal instincts.

So even though today’s alerts turned out to be false alarms, the men and women flooding into the Washington streets at noontime knew they could been in the midst of a real attack – and that under the circumstances, they’d rather be served by a government that overreacted than one whose jaded officials dismissed such reports with a yawn and a wave.