This past Friday, Attorney General Michael Mukasey told reportersÂ he was “surprised by how surprised” he was to learn about the variety and scope of terrorist threats once he took over the job.
FromÂ Terry Frieden’s report on CNN.com:Â
“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’veÂ observed during some of my discussions withÂ top homeland security and law enforcement officials on the subject to the terrorist threat. Many of thoseÂ withÂ access to sensitive, insider information — those within what I’ll call theÂ ’inner circleÂ of intelligence’ –Â emphasizeÂ 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 theÂ public has become complacent about terrorism, now six and a half years after 9/11. They say that citizens don’tÂ fully understand the seriousnessness of threat from abroad and within. Most of those I have spoken toÂ 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 enoughÂ information on the scope and seriousness of the threat that they see in their briefings.
Now, obviouslyÂ the government cannotÂ give away sources and methods. And officials are rightly concerned about scaring the citizenryÂ (or beingÂ accused of doing so).
However, there needs to be some middle ground foundÂ if government officials want to address public complacency.Â Â It won’t be easyÂ 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.Â But it is important to try. If aÂ citizen asÂ knowledgible as Mukasey was “surprised” when he received access to thisÂ ”inner circle of intelligence” indicates the gulf of knowledgeÂ between the public and theÂ government. It is understandable why Americans might be complacent or even skeptical when they rarely are given much threat information.Â
What makes it even more difficultÂ is that the government does not knowÂ if,Â when, where, how of these threatsÂ (nor even whether they are actually real).Â And sometimes the public is going to have to accept uncertainty from its government. But not telling peopleÂ 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 toÂ inform the public more, because it would make their job easier. However, they don’tÂ 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 beÂ one of the major themes of this blog.Â