NYTimes Op/Ed piece: Alarmism Abets the Terrorists

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So, the question is, why is the Clinton administration (and the press) screaming "Fire!"?

(For educational purposes only)

Alarmism Abets the Terrorists

December 23, 1999

Alarmism Abets the Terrorists


WASHINGTON -- The guiding tenet of terrorism is to do a lot with a little. From the Assassins in the Middle Ages to Osama bin Laden, terrorists have aimed at targets that will help magnify their real strength. Killing a sultan or bombing an embassy is an ideal way to gain attention and spread fear.

One must ask, then, what in the world the Clinton administration was doing with its bulletins from the State Department earlier this week warning American citizens around the world about possible attacks during the holiday season. This was free advertising for anti-American terrorists, feeding perceptions that the Middle East's holy warriors have scared the United States.

The recent arrests of men in Jordan suspected to be bin Laden acolytes and of an Algerian carrying incendiary materials across an American border do nothing to vindicate these counterproductive warnings. Neither the alerts nor the subsequent quick arrests should be interpreted to mean that American counterterrorist policies are smart and efficient against Mr. bin Laden.

The United States government clearly has a moral obligation to inform American tourists and expatriates of real risks to their safety. The State Department has most often tried to do this through fairly detailed, dispassionate consular information sheets and more general travel advisories. But now American ambassadors are regularly torn between the State Department's traditional reflex to measure overseas dangers calmly and quietly -- and thereby avoid suggesting that the host country's security services are failing -- and the bureaucratic imperative to cover their backs.

After the bombing of Pan American Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, the department adopted a "no double standard" policy, intended to ensure that government employees wouldn't have privileged, save-my-family-first access to information about terrorist threats. Since then, American officials have feared a public-relations disaster that might follow a terrorist incident where there had been no warning to be cautious. Senior foreign affairs and intelligence officials increasingly take the safe route, raising frequent alarms, rather than choosing diplomatic discretion.

It should be the mission of the White House to counter, not abet, the timidity of bureaucratic foreign policy. Though yesterday President Clinton tried to calm the public concern generated by the warnings, his administration's approach violates common sense.

Does anyone believe, anyway, that a quarter of a million American expatriates in Paris will cower indoors or "away from crowds," as recommended in a recent warning, while Frenchmen are partying around Notre Dame? Are Americans any less brave than Israelis, who still manage to gather outdoors though their streets are blown up periodically? Are American Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land supposed to curtail the public expression of their faith? And does anyone in Israel, Egypt or Turkey -- all regularly menaced by terrorism -- really benefit from generalized warnings about possible attacks?

What the repeated recent State Department warnings may really reveal is that American intelligence on its own has little hard information about Islamic terrorism, in particular about Osama bin Laden. A general rule: If the public commentary surrounding a possible terrorist act is loud, actual information about the dangers is probably secondhand and scanty. Really good intelligence -- the rare type that saves lives -- is almost always delivered quietly.

The arrests in Jordan that prompted the State Department warnings appear to have come about because the suspects were carrying poorly counterfeited travel documents -- proving only that the Jordanian or Pakistani equivalents of our Immigration and Naturalization Service and Customs Service were not asleep.

Counterterrorism operations in the Central Intelligence Agency -- in theory the cutting edge of our effort -- aren't in good shape. Bloated, intellectually undernourished and linguistically bereft, the C.I.A. counterterrorism center generates more heat in Washington than it does overseas. Yet even if it were better, the odds of success wouldn't be high in the battle against Middle East extremists, who have so many sympathizers on their home ground.

The Clinton administration should understand that neither United States citizens nor foreign intelligence services are helped by Washington periodically screaming "fire."

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a former Middle Eastern specialist in the Central Intelligence Agency. Under the pseudonym of Edward Shirley, he is the author of "Know Thine Enemy: A Spy's Journey into Revolutionary Iran."

-- (pshannon@inch.com), December 23, 1999


Oh, you city dwellers who will party on regardless of terrorists or Y2K! Such courage!

But next time, save it for the battlefield. In civilian life it is called stupidity.

-- cgbg jr (cgbgjr@webtv.net), December 23, 1999.

The "no double standard" policy doesn't seem to apply domestically- all the ATF agents were warned away from the Murrah building in OKC. (not that they were grateful to Carol Howe for the tip, mind you, they had to tie her up with a spurious indictment to keep her from testifying at McVeigh's trial.)

I don't think it is the equivalent of yelling fire in a crowded theater when the potential at this time is so obvious. Silence on their part would be the worse choice.

-- Forrest Covington (theforrest@mindspring.com), December 23, 1999.

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