New York Times
The death from inhalation anthrax yesterday of a woman who worked at a hospital in New York adds a puzzling new dimension to the anthrax scare. Hers was the second case of anthrax in recent days that seemed to fall outside the previous pattern of contamination that exposed only people working in government offices, media companies and postal facilities. The two cases have raised troubling new questions as to how the anthrax is being spread and whether ordinary citizens are now also at risk. The answers will not be known until medical detectives complete their examinations, but there are reasons to be optimistic that these cases do not signify any major change in the small-scale nature of the anthrax attacks that have terrified the public.
The New York victim, a 61-year-old Vietnamese immigrant, had a remote connection to the postal system. She worked in a hospital stockroom that was near the mailroom, and that mailroom received letters that may have come through a Manhattan distribution center where anthrax spores had previously been detected. She also occasionally handled mail herself, so she could have touched contaminated mail. Letters filled with anthrax spores can clearly cause inhalation anthrax, but health and military officials deem it highly unlikely that spores that simply settled on an envelope as it passed through a postal facility could be elevated back up into the air to cause inhalation anthrax.
Still, we are learning more every day about the vagaries of this disease, so that possibility cannot be ruled out. Nor can the possibility that the woman was peculiarly susceptible to minute quantities of anthrax that would not harm most people.
Yet it is reassuring, at least for now, that no new cluster of anthrax cases has occurred recently in New York, as would be the case if the woman had been subjected to a new kind of attack, like a dispersion of anthrax aerosols in some space she had recently visited. If she had been, hospitals would presumably be seeing other sick people who were exposed at the same time. That has not happened yet, but they will be looking hard for new cases. ...
Although the past few weeks of anthrax scares have been traumatic, we have learned that inhalation anthrax, whose symptoms were once regarded as a virtual death sentence, can be cured in some people with powerful antibiotics even after symptoms have appeared. And nothing in the new developments affects the basic arithmetic that the anthrax attacks have harmed relatively few people. Thus far, there have been 16 confirmed cases. Four people have died of inhalation anthrax, six have contracted inhalation anthrax and another six have confirmed cutaneous anthrax. These are tragedies for the individual victims but not, so far, a mass threat to the public.
The bombing in Afghanistan has not yet produced a mistake as tragic as the destruction of a Baghdad bunker containing scores of civilians during the Persian Gulf War, or as politically damaging as the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the conflict in Kosovo. But like all air campaigns, it is causing unintended civilian casualties; and, as in the past, a debate has begun about whether those casualties make the bombing counterproductive or unsustainable. Calls for a bombing "pause" began coming from the reliably anti-American corners of the international aid community even before the first reports of civilian deaths had been confirmed. By this week Ruud Lubbers, the Dutch head of the U.N. refugee agency, was saying that even a pause would not be enough, that still more comprehensive U.S. "self-restraint" was necessary. Worried about public opinion in Europe and the Muslim world, British officials have been hinting that the bombing should be slowed or even stopped for a while during winter or during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, while emphasis is given to lower-profile operations.
The concern with civilian casualties is certainly legitimate, both on moral and practical grounds. The United States is fighting not just a local war against the rulers of Afghanistan but also a global struggle against terrorism, and its efforts to prevail in the ideological contest with Islamic extremists are not helped by constant satellite television coverage in the Arab world of ruined hospitals and villages. But the critics of the bombing would, by their prescriptions, only increase and prolong the suffering of the Afghan civilians they mean to defend. As Mr. Lubbers knows, the greatest interference to U.N. relief supplies inside Afghanistan has come not from the accidental bombing of warehouses but from the Taliban, which has confiscated food stocks, driven away relief workers and seized their vehicles for military use. Thanks to the Taliban's policies, thousands of Afghans died and more than 4 million were dependent on international food aid before Sept. 11. Whether or not there is bombing, the suffering and starvation of Afghans will only increase as long as the Taliban is in power. And as long as any kind of military activity continues in the country, high or low profile, during Ramadan or not, the United States and Britain will surely be blamed for that suffering by the same voices that now criticize the bombing.
Military planners and pilots must do their best to eliminate the sometimes rudimentary human errors that lead to such grievous mistakes as the bombing of a Red Cross warehouse in Kabul not once but twice. A new effort by Britain and the United States to quickly counter Taliban propaganda may also help. But the best way to minimize civilian casualties, limit the suffering of Afghans and curtail the harmful news broadcasts is to defeat the Taliban as quickly as possible -- even if that means stepping up the war in the coming weeks. Winter in Kabul will surely be far harder on civilians if the Taliban is still in control than if its forces can be destroyed by then. And the longer the Taliban survives and is able to protect the leadership of the al Qaeda terrorist network, the greater will be the threat to American civilians -- whose losses are so far several times greater than those of the Afghans.
Taking Kabul and other cities will mean confronting another dilemma: The Taliban, clearly not believing its own propaganda about civilian casualties, has moved some of its best troops and arms into mosques and schools in cities, rightly betting that those are the safest places. They cannot be allowed to escape in that way; but the United States must also do its best to avoid fulfilling the Taliban's despicable plan to deliberately cause the slaughter of schoolchildren and worshipers. Such tactics may best be countered by ground forces. But U.S. and allied political leaders must be prepared to accept the reality that there will be more civilian casualties before the Taliban is defeated -- and more pressure to limit bombing that, for the sake of both Afghan and American civilians, ought to be resisted.
Ostensible allies are pressuring the U.S. military to suspend operations during the upcoming Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins Nov. 16. Since the al Qaida terrorist network has pledged to continue its war against America, acquiescing to such pressure would be a terrible idea.
In a meeting in Islamabad with Army Gen. Tommy Franks, who is the American commander overseeing the war, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf reportedly asked for a bombing halt during Ramadan. What apparently concerns General Musharraf is the fact that the bombing tactics the U.S. military has employed so far have failed to achieve the goal of the campaign, which is to destroy Osama bin Laden's terrorist network and the Taliban regime that gives it safe harbor. Yet, it has been General Musharraf who has been intensively lobbying against a massive bombing campaign intended to destroy entrenched Taliban forces, a development that would enable the opposition Northern Alliance to seize Kabul. Having spent the better part of the last decade helping the Pashtun-dominated Taliban achieve power and then propping it up, Pakistan is now loath to see the non-Pashtun forces of the Northern Alliance control Kabul. But Gen. Musharraf surely knows that Sept. 11 forever changed the Pakistan-Taliban dynamic.
Meanwhile, the Saudis -- who have been less than helpful to America since 15 Saudi citizens were among the 19 hijackers who massacred thousands of innocent U.S. citizens in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- are also exerting pressure for an end to hostilities during Ramadan. Prince Turki as-Sudairi, a member of the corrupt Saudi royal family who publishes the state-controlled Al Riyadh newspaper, told the Wall Street Journal, "Ramadan is very important," adding, "Emotions will run high. There will be more support for Islamic groups."
This newfound Muslim concern for war during Ramadan reeks of hypocrisy. In the first place, Mohammed himself fought during Ramadan in a battle to conquer Mecca in 624. More recently, Saudi Arabia would have been only too happy for the United States to continue fighting the 1991 Persian Gulf War, if necessary, during Ramadan in order to expel from Kuwait the Iraqi Muslim forces threatening the Saudi kingdom. In 1973, Muslim forces from Egypt and Syria launched an attack on Israel on the very day during Ramadan that marked Mohammed's successful conquest of Mecca. It didn't matter to the Muslims that their Oct. 6, 1973, surprise attack occurred on Yom Kippur, the most sacred day of the Jewish year. Saudi Arabia itself joined the 1973 Mideast war a week later, participating in what came to be known in the Muslim world as the Ramadan War. Iran and Iraq, of course, regularly fought each other during Ramadan throughout their particularly gruesome inter-Muslim war from 1980 to 1988. Iran even launched an "Operation Ramadan" offensive in 1982.
As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld observed on Sunday, "The Northern Alliance and the Taliban fought through Ramadan year after year." That is the standard the U.S. military must apply this year and however long the war against terrorism continues.
America's war in Afghanistan is not yet four weeks old. Yet some members of Congress, U.S. allies and armchair quarterbacks in the news media are getting impatient. Like Notre Dame alumni and New York Yankees fans, they expect victory, preferably the quick and overwhelming kind.
There is growing talk of the need for U.S. ground forces to finish the job. At some point, perhaps soon, troops may be needed in far greater numbers than those American forces already working with resistance fighters of the Northern Alliance and conducting the occasional commando operation in the south.
Remember, though, the air war has run just 25 days. High-tech wizardry, cruise missiles and smart bombs may have conditioned Americans to believe air superiority meant quick victory. It rarely does.
Air strikes during the 1991 Persian Gulf War went on for 39 days before ground forces went in to roust Iraq from Kuwait. The 1999 air war over Kosovo took 78 days of NATO bombing before Yugoslavia capitulated.
"We cannot fight this war from the air alone," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., wrote last week in The Wall Street Journal. "We cannot fight it without casualties. And we cannot fight it without risking unintended damage to humanitarian and political interests."
McCain will probably be proved correct on all three counts. But on the question of ground troops, the United States will have to carefully calibrate precisely what the strategy will be.
So far, the United States has relied on troops of the Northern Alliance. The fighters of the Northern Alliance have the advantage of knowing the terrain of Afghanistan; they are, in effect, fighting at home. But they are also outnumbered three-to-one by Taliban forces, they are modestly equipped and they can hardly match the technical and strategic ability of the U.S. military.
The United States may yet strike pay dirt. It may capture or kill Osama bin Laden through an assassin's bullet or a remarkably fortunate bomb strike. It may see the Taliban fall by insurrection in the ranks. But winter is approaching and neither goal has been achieved yet.
So there will be more talk of a ground war. And that will inevitably invite comparisons to how the Soviets got bogged down in an unwinnable ground war in Afghanistan. The difference is that the Soviets were fighting an Afghan enemy that had considerable help from a powerful ally -- the United States. This time, the Taliban has largely been isolated and it won't have a superpower to call on for assistance. There is but one superpower, and it is intent on taking the Taliban down.
A ground war will require a force that can overwhelm the estimated 50,000 to 60,000 Taliban troops. That will mean bringing several hundred thousand troops through the territory of a U.S. ally, most likely Uzbekistan or Pakistan. So, yes, the United States will have to prepare -- and may well be preparing -- for the option of an overwhelming ground force to defeat the Taliban.
That will require time -- the troop buildup for the Persian Gulf War took nearly six months to accomplish.
And it will require America's patience.
Dallas Morning News
Almost everyone familiar with the Middle East understands that the Saudi royal family walks a fine line. They must do business with an outside world of wealthy client-states. But they must live with the Islamic fundamentalists who populate their country, who detest those client-states.
But maybe the moment has arrived when leaders of the coalition against terrorism should worry less about playing the understanding outsiders and push harder for the Saudi government to rein in terrorism. Crown Prince Abdullah should not mind the move since he cheekily suggested to President Bush in August that our relationship may have to change over the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Yes, yes, we know. The United States and its Western allies need Saudi oil. And energy companies like Exxon Mobil are eyeing lucrative developments there. But let's also be honest: Saudi Arabia needs the money from oil sales and protection by U.S. troops. The Saudi economy continues to tank and that nation lacks the military means to counter Iraq.
Let's also be direct about this point: The Saudis are not exactly our sincerest friends. Until Wednesday, when they finally ordered a freeze on terrorist-linked assets, they have acted more like the Swiss in World War II than a gutsier player like Pakistan.
Consider the ample reports about wealthy Saudis funneling money to Osama bin Laden's ring of terror. Journalist Seymour Hersh provides one example, in a recent New Yorker essay, reporting how the National Security Agency has intercepted information showing how private Saudi money has helped Osama bin Laden conduct significant operations.
What's more, consider the many Saudi schools that specialize in the zealous form of Islam known as Wahhabism. Those schools appear to breed holy warriors. Was it truly coincidence that more than half of the suspected Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudis?
The United States and its allies certainly cannot intervene in the Saudi school system. But they can use their financial leverage to at least ask the Saudis to teach what many other Muslims do, namely that a jihad is not about launching terror on perceived infidels. Perhaps Robert Jordan, the Dallas attorney who serves as the new U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, can press this issue behind the scenes as he develops his standing there.
What's more, Mr. Jordan and other diplomats must continue to push the Saudis to share information about the Sept. 11 hijackers. According to most reports, the Saudis have not adequately cooperated with the FBI and CIA in exchanging information about the perpetrators. No matter how much Saudi fundamentalists hate the presence of U.S. troops on their soil, it would seem that we have some capital to spend with the Saudi leadership. After all, those troops keep Saddam Hussein at bay.
Americans themselves can help diplomats play a different game with the Saudis, as can other energy-gulping coalition members. As Chuck Hermann of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service notes, "the developed world has become extraordinarily dependent upon Saudi Arabia for oil."
That means shifting to cars or sport utility vehicles that are more fuel efficient. That's not much of a sacrifice to develop more freedom from Middle Eastern oil. In the long run, Mr. Hermann correctly notes, we will emerge stronger and with more freedom.
Longstanding U.S. support for a Saudi regime that knows little about democracy has made our course harder. Still, President Bush and coalition leaders should ratchet up the pressure on Saudi counterparts. The Saudis should release information on suspected terrorists, dry up the money flow to al-Qaeda and provide some balance in their schools.
The strategy contains risks. But the whole world just got riskier. The Saudis need to show the coalition they deplore terrorism, not just tell the world they do.
With little fanfare, the United States and Colombia have been cooperating to bring suspected drug dealers to trial in U.S. courts. It's a powerful idea and a boon in the battle against drugs. On Tuesday, suspected drug kingpin Alejandro Bernal made the trip to America under necessarily heavy security.
The arrest of Bernal is a coup for U.S. and Colombian prosecutors. He's the biggest suspected arrested to date in the campaign dubbed as Operation Millennium. Prosecutors believe that he was involved in shipping as much as 30 tons of cocaine a month.
Federal indictments have been issued against 43 suspects, of which 17 await trial or have pleaded guilty. Nineteen have been arrested and await extradition hearings and seven are still at large.
Bernal's arrest and extradition means that there will be a better chance for a trial and more-consistent application of the law. In Colombia, suspected drug traffickers sometimes were able to bribe their way to freedom or received lenient sentences from judges who feared for their lives. Although Bernal kept a low profile, prosecutors believe he acted as an intermediary between traffickers who pooled their funds for large shipments.
U.S. and Colombian officials involved in Operation Millennium should give themselves a pat on the back for their joint execution of this portion of the anti-drug effort. Success of the campaign is the best way to let traffickers known that the battle against drugs is serious, and the consequences severe.
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Of all the changes wrought by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the reworking of the U.S.-Russia relationship is, one would hope, among the permanent. An early, important benefit of the new relationship is that Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Bush now appear poised to amend, and thus preserve, the 1972 Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty. The goal is to adjust treaty language so it will allow the United States to test a national missile defense system. That is far preferable to a unilateral U.S. decision to withdraw from the treaty and thus let it lapse.
The Bush administration has been in "consultations" with Russian officials for months over the ABM issue, but it appeared little progress was being made -- until Bush and Putin met recently in Shanghai for an Asia-Pacific Economic Conference meeting. At that meeting, Putin told Bush he was open to making treaty changes -- in return for U.S. agreement to radically cut both sides' existing nuclear arsenals.
Apparently the United States has been successful in convincing Putin that a missile defense system aimed at defending against rogue nations would not nullify Russia's nuclear deterrent. And Russia, strapped for cash and watching its 6,000 nuclear weapons deteriorate, badly wants to downsize its arsenal. Putin has proposed that its 6,000 weapons and the United States' 7,000 be drawn down to no more than 1,500.
The United States has agreed in principle to such a drawdown but has not put forward a specific number. It is scheduled to do that very soon, as part of a hectic negotiating schedule before Putin's visit to Washington in two weeks. Both Washington and Moscow would like during that visit to announce agreements that define a new strategic framework for relations between the two nations.
In anticipation of Putin's visit, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last week postponed three missile-defense tests he said would have violated the ABM treaty. Rumsfeld, an ardent preacher of the missile-defense theology, was making the point that the treaty is beginning to impede testing. But he also was signaling to Moscow that Washington is quite aware and respectful of Russia's ABM sensibilities.
This all is happening against the backdrop of Sept. 11, of course. Putin enlisted early and vigorously in the war against terrorism, and Bush needs to keep him enlisted. But more than the fight against terrorism is at work here. Putin quite deliberately has moved Russia a long distance toward full integration into Europe and the West. It's not nearly as fanciful as it was two months ago to imagine a future in which Russia becomes a full member of the European Union -- and perhaps even NATO.
The irony in this is palpable. President Bush comes from the wing of the Republican Party that does not believe in arms control and is not that comfortable with multilateralism. And yet Bush is up to his shoulders in post-Sept. 11 multilateralism, plus is working on deep cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal and amendments that would keep the ABM in force. In this as in many things recently, Bush has been surprisingly able to evolve into a perspective that is capable of sophisticated, nuanced diplomacy. It's pretty impressive. Now if only he can find a way toward similar missile-defense rapprochement with China.
There is no question that innocent people have been swept into the Justice Department's terrorist dragnet since Sept. 11. The question is if those innocent people can wrest themselves free -- or if Americans have enough information to ensure no one in prison is forgotten.
Today, the answer is still no. This breach of justice must stop.
U.S. authorities have arrested or detained more than 1,000 people since the terrorist attacks seven weeks ago. Most of those people are still in custody, but few outside of U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft know who they are or anything about them.
While individual confidentiality is necessary for several of the cases -- and required by law for at least 180 others -- the information blackout is unnecessary and unacceptable.
Ashcroft should immediately provide the following information:
Who is in custody, and for how long?
Who are their lawyers?
Where are they held, and under what conditions?
What are the charges against them and the status of their cases?
This information is a matter of public record for two basic reasons. First, government actions -- especially by prosecutors, police officers and federal agents -- are infinitely more likely to be fair and honorable when they are overseen by the public. Second, if an innocent person is wrongly charged, it is far more difficult for him to find help when he is imprisoned in secret.
The stories emerging are troubling.
The innocent Saudi radiologist jailed for 13 days; seven without a lawyer. (His name is similar to two of the terrorist hijackers.)
The innocent Egyptian restaurant owner detained because he took flying lessons. (They were a gift from this father-in-law.)
The five innocent Israeli men with box cutters who were detained, blindfolded, strip-searched and held for a month. (They worked for a moving company.)
A handful of other stories are emerging. People charged with minor crimes may have been sent to maximum-security prison cells. People whose visas are slightly "out of status" are reportedly being treated and held like terrorists -- for example, people who got married but haven't yet changed their green-card status, or people who switched jobs but didn't amend their work visas. Still, information remains at a trickle.
Some confidentiality is truly a matter of national security. For example, the public doesn't need detailed information on the handful of material witnesses allegedly in custody, while sensitive investigations are still pending. And some privacy is a matter of law. Under federal statute, for example, the names of the roughly 180 people detained for immigration violations are supposed to stay confidential.
Still, the public needs to know the types of violations and the status of the cases. It is the only way to ensure immigrants are not jailed indefinitely for minor visa problems -- or for major mistakes and delays by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
That aside, this still leaves 800 people we know nothing about, some of whom may be trapped in maximum-security prisons. They were swept into the terrorist dragnet, then held on alleged violations of local, state or federal law; authorities admit they can find no ties to the terrorist attacks or the al Qaida network.
What are their alleged crimes? Shoplifting? Murder? Lying to a FBI agent? "Spitting on the sidewalk," as Ashcroft has boasted?
Anyone who breaks the law deserves to be punished. But in order for justice to be done, the punishments must fit the crimes. And in order for justice to be democratic, it must stay open to scrutiny. This is not a country of secret detentions or preventive punishment.
Or is it?
San Francisco Chronicle
As the bombs fall in Afghanistan, all too easily forgotten is the other U.S. foreign military mission -- the drug war in Colombia.
Washington's role in Colombia has grown rapidly in the past two years. More than $1 billion has been spent, hundreds of U.S. military advisers and private military contractors are helping the Colombian army, but the result has been failure.
The production of cocaine and heroin keeps increasing, and the Colombian army keeps committing bloody human-rights abuses.
In the next few days, Congress will decide whether to impose some prudent safeguards.
A House-Senate conference committee must work out differences between competing versions of the $15 billion foreign aid bill. The Senate version has several crucial advantages:
The Senate bill would spend less overall on Andean drug-fighting than the House bill -- $547 million rather than $675 million -- with the savings going to much-needed programs, such as international AIDS prevention and nuclear nonproliferation in former Soviet states.
The Senate bill also requires that aerial fumigation of coca- and poppy-growing areas be delayed until programs are fully in place to help Colombian farmers plant legal crops. Without this measure, premature spraying will drive desperate farmers to join the leftist guerrillas and rightist paramilitary groups, thus fueling Colombia's 37-year-old civil war.
The Senate version also stiffens requirements that the Colombian army stop its rampant collaboration with the paramilitaries and end its stonewalling of civilian prosecutors who investigate army abuses.
By adopting the Senate's language, Congress would be taking a few small, incremental steps to repair its anti-drug strategy. But the overall policy is deeply flawed.
Studies have repeatedly shown that domestic drug treatment and education programs are much more dollar-effective at reducing U.S. narcotics abuse than foreign military aid.
U.S. support for Colombia's army has drawn Washington into a quagmire of a civil war, similar to the Reagan administration's adventures in Central America in the 1980s. Under the rubric of anti-terrorism, some Bush administration officials now predict that the U.S. military will take a more direct role in fighting the guerrillas.
The choice is stark. Rather than getting caught in a morally and strategically dubious war in Colombia, the United States should adopt a more practical, effective strategy to fight drug abuse at home.
Louisville Courier Journal
Seven weeks into the war against terrorists, Americans could be forgiven if they felt things aren't going real well. And, in fact, some national polls do indicate rising levels of anxiety. After all, the anthrax threat seems deadlier and scarier than first thought, and the Taliban aren't collapsing on queue in Afghanistan.
But impatience, while understandable, reflects a lack of perspective. As in many of its previous conflicts, war came upon the United States suddenly, and the country faced underestimated challenges in mobilizing for its counterattack. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, it was not even clear who the enemy was, and authorities still do not know who is behind the anthrax attack.
Even during World War II, which Americans have come to believe imprecisely was a model of efficient war-making, the American effort had difficulty gaining traction. The German army did not taste defeat (and then with little American involvement) until 11 months after Pearl Harbor. Successes came more quickly in the Pacific, with victories at Midway and in the Coral Sea, but not until after Japan's stunning conquests of the Philippines and much of South Asia, including Singapore.
Meanwhile, as Harvard historian Ernest R. May noted in a recent article in The New York Times, "War production [at the war's outset] was at least as jumbled and mismanaged as antiterrorism is today."
The intent here is not to overdraw parallels between the two wars. However, it is critical to bear in mind that the United States is in the earliest stages of what will be a long and difficult struggle. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, the country has not yet arrived even at the end of the beginning.
But American unease may well go beyond the slowness with which military progress is coming in Afghanistan or the sense of vulnerability magnified by federal officials' unsteady handling of the anthrax cases.
Unlike in other major American wars, there is not yet a role for citizens who desperately want to be involved. At least for now, there is no need for large numbers of military recruits, a new generation of Rosie the Riveters or even for people willing to endure rationing of gasoline and coffee.
One useful suggestion comes from historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who suggests President Bush engage the nation with a Manhattan Project-scope undertaking to produce enormous levels of vaccines and treatments to combat bioterrorist threats.
In any event, the key contribution Americans can make now is to avoid any slackening of resolve. The country brings to this war justice, purpose and massive power, from which a despicable enemy must not be allowed to escape.
Chattanooga Times Free Press
The Bush administration's precautionary warning of possible terrorist attacks within a week seems both reasonably vague and alarmingly unhelpful. Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller III say they have credible evidence on which to base the warning, but no specific information to reveal about targets, timing or methods. Americans should just carry on as normal, but be vigilant, Mr. Ashcroft advises. The nation's vigilance, he believes, may serve as "a force multiplier" to guard against such an attack.
A skeptic easily could say the warning is a useless, cover-your-backside act from bureaucrats who want to assure Americans that they're on the job, but can't be held accountable for failing to stop terrorist acts that they cannot foresee. Officials confront a new dilemma, however, and merit more understanding.
They are responsible for the safety of Americans in a time when the nation is at war, yet still vulnerable to the sort of terrorism that started this war. If they know a terrorist act is imminent but fail to provide that information, they could -- and probably would -- later be blamed for that omission in the aftermath of a new tragedy.
Certainly their announcement pre-empted the suspicion and worrisome, catch-up admissions that would have occurred had they failed to inform the nation that they had issued a terrorism action alert to some 18,000 state and local police agencies. That alert quickly would have become subject to leaks, media reports and public demands for more information -- and accusations that it should not have been kept secret.
Predictably, of course, there are accusations that officials should have held their tongues if they had nothing more specific to say. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., criticized the administration yesterday for alarming people without offering "some solution (for) what a family can do to protect themselves."
There is, in fact, no well-defined way in this new territory for the FBI and other agencies to discharge the responsibility that has been thrust upon them. They are rapidly developing investigative information and receiving numerous leads (many false) regarding the terrorist attacks and networks. Justice Department officials have confirmed that more than 1,000 people have been detained in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks. While those arrests have been clouded in secrecy -- in part under emergency secret detention authority -- investigators are learning how terrorist cells on U.S. soil have been communicating. Some of that communication is digitally embedded and camouflaged in computer pictures, videos and music files.
Officials say they gathered the present warning in part through a source that has proven believable before, and in part through electronic intercepts of conversations -- believed to be between al Qaida members -- that used language similar to what had been heard in intelligence intercepts before Sept. 11.
Regardless, state and local police typically believe they already are at the highest state of alert. Departments around the nation have developed threat assessment teams, surveyed potential terrorist targets and taken what precautions they can with limited manpower, daily duties and strained budgets. Many, quite reasonably, cannot imagine ways to increase their level of vigilance.
It is painfully obvious, moreover, that in an open, democratic society, communities are vulnerable in countless ways to acts of terrorism. Our public activities, gatherings and sports arenas, our venues of business, commerce and transportation, would all be held hostage to fear of terrorism were Americans to forsake such activities because of vague threats.
Mr. Ashcroft is correct to warn that Americans must not be lulled "into a false sense of indifference." But neither should we be paralyzed by the possibility of terrorism. That would be the ultimate surrender to terrorism. In this contradictory circumstance, carrying on with our daily activities, but with some sense of vigilance, is the only option.
(Compiled by United Press International.)