Orange is the color currently in fashion in the nation’s capital and its main financial center. The U.S. government has once again raised the terror alert level from yellow to orange—this time in Washington, D.C. and New York City—based on information obtained from the arrest of a computer engineer in Pakistan several weeks ago. Yet by frequently changing its colors, the government has cried wolf too many times.
New Yorkers and Washingtonians are justifiably skeptical and nonchalant about the heightened warning level. Although urging Americans to “keep shopping” during all prior orange alerts, the government has never told us how to behave differently at various “threat” levels. The rhetoric by Tom Ridge, the nation’s Secretary of Homeland Security, and other anonymous U.S. officials would have us believe that the current threat level is very severe. Yet, they didn’t change the alert system to red, its highest color, probably because people would be too frightened to leave their homes for the shopping mall.
Come to think of it, since the inception of the alert system, the government has toggled the levels only between yellow and orange. We’ve never seen blue or green either. Maybe it’s because these lower levels might encourage the terrorists to attack by signaling that U.S. defenses were relaxed. More important, no self-respecting cautious bureaucracy would open itself to the risk of future post-attack criticism for not sufficiently warning the American people. To cover their backsides, the tendency of security bureaucrats has been to “over-warn” Americans by crying wolf with unneeded episodes of heightened alert. So there is plenty of room for suspecting that the system has been politicized, especially in the wake of Attorney General Ashcroft’s recent manipulation of terrorist threats for political gain and John Kerry’s unexpected challenge to President Bush’s record on security issues at the Democratic National Convention.
There may well be a real threat this time, but the information picked up in Pakistan indicated that al Qaeda had been conducting surveillance on financial buildings in these two cities for years and it apparently provided no specific intelligence of an imminent attack on a particular date. Al Qaeda conducted surveillance on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania for four years before striking. Is the government going to keep the alert system at the orange level for another four years or only until the November election? Given the sorry performance of the U.S. intelligence agencies prior to September 11(as noted by the 9/11 Commission) and on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (as exposed by the Senate Intelligence Committee), how do we know that the “treasure trove” discovered in Pakistan is not false information deliberately planted by al Qaeda either to scare the American public or to tweak a response from U.S. defenses so that al Qaeda can better learn how they react?
If President Bush and his security apparatus really want to make us safer, they should use the alert system differently. Every time the U.S. government meddles overseas—for example, needlessly invading the Islamic country du jour—and enlarges the bull’s eye already painted on us here at home, the alert level should be raised a notch. Thus, in this election year, voters would have a better idea of exactly how safe government actions overseas were making all of us here at home. Gauging from the sheepishly revised State Department report showing that terrorism has recently been on the rise, the threat to America posed by the Bush administration’s foreign policy is clearly in the red zone.
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute in Oakland, CA., and author of the book, Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy: Rethinking U.S. Security in the Post-Cold War World. For further articles and studies, see the War on Terrorism and OnPower.org.
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