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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

When U.S. Officials Warn Public About New Terror Threats To Nation, Why Do They Have To Do It Anonymously?

August 2nd, 2010 · No Comments

An article yesterday by the Washington Post’s excellent homeland security reporter, Spencer S. Hsu, “Arrest of Va. man spotlights al-Qaeda’s new American recruiters,” looks at how al-Qaeda and its affiliates are “increasingly are relying on a new generation of American recruiters to radicalize other Americans.”

It’s an interesting piece about how this potential growth of domestic-based terrorism, but in this post I wanted to highlight a specific aspect of the article — why it is that U.S. officials when they warn the public about specific terrorism threat often feel they need to do it anonymously and as a result why they are generally unwilling to talk directly?

In the article, Hsu writes:

…attack plots against the United States have proliferated and grown more diverse. Over the past 18 months, the federal government has charged 34 U.S. citizens with direct involvement in terrorism. The Fort Hood, Tex., shootings in November, the May 1 Times Square car bombing attempt, and last year’s New York subway plot were each allegedly carried out by Americans inspired from or trained abroad.

The killing of many of al-Qaeda’s senior operatives has weakened the group, but the growing role of Americans may reflect the inability of its core leaders to mount more effective operations, authorities said. Still, even less sophisticated attacks can be deadly.

“The threat is complicated and diverse and in many ways more difficult for us to figure out,” a senior U.S. intelligence official said, speaking on condition of anonymity so he could freely discuss counterterrorism analysis. [my italics] “The training is quicker and tolerance [for less spectacular and successful plots] are much greater . . . but the likelihood of a mass 9/11-style attack is a lot smaller.”

Reading this struck me: why does that U.S. intelligence official need to speak on a “condition of anonymity” when all he or she is doing is informing the public and the media about the government’s best guess about future terrorism here. It would seem that this type of briefing would be best done by top leaders — including sometimes the President — who could bring attention to the subject, best instruct the public on what (if anything) they should be doing and thinking about the changing threat, and establish an open and trusted line of communication/dialogue with citizens on terrorism prevention and preparedness. Using anonymity makes it seems as somehow there is something wrong or secret about broadly informing the public about the nation’s terror situation

I’m not saying there necessarily is a lot of information that has to be disseminated to the public on this right now, but there is news (positive and negative) here on the changing scope of the terrorist threat, and I don’t understand why it cannot be done in a more planned, open and straightforward way rather than anonymously in response to a newspaper reporter.

My sense and hope is that Obama Administration as part of its development of a national See Something, Say Something” campaign and promise to provide a “clear appraisement” of terror threats will be providing more high profile briefings to the public and the media without the need for a condition for anonymity.

Senior yearbook photo of terror suspect Zachary Adam Chesser

The senior class photo of terror suspect Zachary A. Chesser, 20, from Oakton, Virginia, arrested last month  (credit: Washington Post)

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Tags: Domestic Terrorism · Risk Communications · See Something/Terrorism Tips

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