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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

Mukasey’s ‘Surprise’ Underscores Government/Public Disconnect On Terrorist Threat

March 31st, 2008 · 1 Comment

This past Friday, Attorney General Michael Mukasey told reporters he was “surprised by how surprised” he was to learn about the variety and scope of terrorist threats once he took over the job.

From Terry Frieden’s report on

“I’m surprised by how surprised I am,” said Mukasey, who as a federal judge presided over terrorism-related trials in New York.

“It’s surprising how varied [the threat] is, how many directions it comes from, how geographically spread out it is,” he said.

Mukasey’s realization underscores a phenomenon I’ve observed during some of my discussions with top homeland security and law enforcement officials on the subject to the terrorist threat. Many of those with access to sensitive, insider information — those within what I’ll call the ’inner circle of intelligence’ – emphasize how serious and imminent the threats are to the U.S. based on the information they have seen. And interestingly, some of these same officials will bemoan the fact that the public has become complacent about terrorism, now six and a half years after 9/11. They say that citizens don’t fully understand the seriousnessness of threat from abroad and within. Most of those I have spoken to see this public complacency as a problem, but don’t know what to do about it.

I would argue that one reason for that complacency and in some cases a lack of trust is that authorities have not been willing to share enough information on the scope and seriousness of the threat that they see in their briefings.

Now, obviously the government cannot give away sources and methods. And officials are rightly concerned about scaring the citizenry (or being accused of doing so).

However, there needs to be some middle ground found if government officials want to address public complacency.  It won’t be easy to figure out where that balance is. And it will change from situation to situation. It will take some work by the government as well as some patience from the public and the media.  But it is important to try. If a citizen as knowledgible as Mukasey was “surprised” when he received access to this ”inner circle of intelligence” indicates the gulf of knowledge between the public and the government. It is understandable why Americans might be complacent or even skeptical when they rarely are given much threat information. 

What makes it even more difficult is that the government does not know if, when, where, how of these threats (nor even whether they are actually real). And sometimes the public is going to have to accept uncertainty from its government. But not telling people is not a good long term approach. We must find a way to get the public more informed and engaged so they can be better citizens in a post- 9/11 world.

Actually, I have found that many top officials would like to inform the public more, because it would make their job easier. However, they don’t know how to do it. I believe that figuring out how best to disseminate this information to the public in a substantive, careful and actionable manner may be one of the most important tasks for the government going forward. Analyzing — and providing recommendations on — that challenge will be one of the major themes of this blog. 


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1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Diane // Jul 7, 2008 at 10:56 am

    “… figuring out how best to disseminate this information to the public in a substantive, careful and actionable manner may be one of the most important tasks for the government…”

    Current methods mostly provide information about what people need to do but not how to do it. And the information- from many sources and in many mediums- has become so ubiquitous, it is easily ignored.
    The key words are “substantive” and “actionable.”
    Brochures, flyers, presentations, radio and TV spots etc. will inform people about evacuations. But they don’t include what routes to take, where to go, hazards to avoid (or how to avoid them,) or any other information that is specific to a locality or population. In short, providing general information is not substantive and may prove to be not useful.
    To persuade people, one must actively involve them. Current methods keep the general public in a passive role. I believe that Emergency Management officials need to educate the public, not simply inform it. Research shows that there is an increase in participation, knowledge, and retention when adults have the opportunity for active learning, collaborative learning, exercises, and drills. This would take more time and planning, but the benefit of lessening complacency would be well worth it.

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