Terrorist Feint

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Jeffrey A. Panehal
Weekly Standard Online
November 8, 2005

Are terrorists trying to turn our vigilance against us?

FROM NEW YORK CITY’S subways to Baltimore’s highway tunnels, October brought repeated instances of local authorities stepping up security in response to terrorist threat warnings. After New York City police decided to scale back their heightened security measures on October 10–just four days after the subway threat was announced–second-guessing about Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to raise the alert kicked into high gear. The threat to Baltimore’s Harbor Tunnel and Fort McHenry Tunnel had a similar ending, as city officials were criticized for closing both. New York City and Baltimore officials presented almost identical defenses, arguing that it’s best to err on the side of caution. Framed in this way, their actions seem unassailable: Mistakenly raising the terror alert only wastes resources, while mistakenly deciding not to raise it can cost lives. But is it really this simple?

In fact, captured terrorists have for some time put forward false information about supposed plots in progress. The New York and Baltimore cases are only the most recent examples of how an overseas source can provide an uncorroborated story that triggers a potentially disproportionate reaction in the United States.

Jack Cloonan, who served as an FBI agent for 25 years and performed some important terrorist interrogations, recently stated that in the early stages of questioning, terrorists frequently put forward credible-sounding stories about plots in progress. “They can construct a story that sounds reasonable with all the specificity in the world, as was the case [with the New York subway],” he said. “But it is just a canard.” Cloonan said that captured terrorists thus try to exact a cost through false stories:

They may have failed in the final act of committing suicide, they failed at carrying out the attack. But even once in custody, they can still be very effective for their brothers. They’ll send you out on wild goose chases, use up an untold amount of monetary resources and cause a great deal of anxiety. This is one of the primary weapons al-Qaida has used.

Other observers agree about this pattern of captured terrorists offering bad information to interrogators. ABC News consultant Kyle Olson said that there’s no question in his mind about the prevalence of bogus threats. He stated, “I suspect that the sheer volume of spurious intelligence that is going into the system from foreign and domestic sources would blow your socks off.”

WHILE CITY OFFICIALS can explain that their decision to raise the alert level arose from an “abundance of caution,” it’s important to understand why terrorists habitually spread false information. Terrorists seem to benefit from false alerts by imposing three distinct costs on society: economic costs, security costs, and perceptual costs.

The economic costs of raising the terror alert level are two-fold. First, there’s the obvious cost of an increased police presence. Shows of force aren’t cheap, and the increased patrols of New York City’s subways and buses after London’s 7/7 attacks cost around $1.9 million a week. The price tag for policing in the wake of the October subway threat was likely comparable. Transportation delays also carry an economic cost. Time that commuters waste waiting for major transportation arteries such as the Baltimore tunnels to open, or waiting to enter the subway, could instead be spent as productive working hours.

One of al Qaeda’s key strategies for battling the United States has been to damage it economically, as evidenced by Osama bin Laden trumpeting his “bleed-until-bankruptcy plan” for defeating America in his October 2004 videotape. While erroneous terror alerts won’t bankrupt us, the economic cost of these alerts is one reason that captured terrorists offer interrogators bad information on plots.

There is also a security cost to erroneously raising the alert level, since large-scale alerts may provide terrorists with the blueprint for a future attack. These alerts deploy our police departments and other first responders in specific, detailed ways that can be observed and probed for weaknesses. If an attack on a highway tunnel or subway system is in the planning stages, what better way to ensure its success than getting an advance look at our defenses when we’re at our highest level of vigilance?

Finally, there’s a perceptual cost to these alerts, as they serve two seemingly paradoxical terrorist goals. First, each false threat instills fear in the populace. The responses to bogus threats are public, spectacular, and frightening. When the threat passes without a police victory, it generates fear without release. But in the long term, repeated bogus alerts will desensitize us to the terror threat and erode our vigilance. In Preventing Surprise Attacks, Richard Posner refers to this as the “boy crying wolf” cost, and writes that false alerts “increase the likelihood that true alarms will be ignored.”

Were New York and Baltimore officials wrong to raise their cities’ alert levels in response to the recent threats? Ultimately, second-guessing their decisions when we don’t know the information before them is a fool’s game. But it’s important for us to understand that there are costs to mistakenly raising the terror alert level. It’s not just a matter of conserving resources; there are also real security reasons to show restraint.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a Washington, D.C.-based counterterrorism consultant and attorney. Jeffrey A. Panehal is a freelance writer based in Cleveland, Ohio.

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