Nation Left Jittery by Latest Series of Terror Warnings
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told a Senate committee yesterday that terrorists will "inevitably" obtain weapons of mass destruction, issuing the latest in a series of warnings from the Bush administration about the likelihood of future attacks and leaving security officials and ordinary citizens wondering what to do.
"In just facing the facts, we have to recognize that terrorist networks have relationships with terrorist states that have weapons of mass destruction, and that they inevitably are going to get their hands on them, and they would not hesitate one minute in using them," Rumsfeld said.
"That's the world we live in."
Rumsfeld expressed similar concerns in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. But his testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee came after several pronouncements from the Bush administration that began Sunday, when Vice President Cheney declared that another terrorist strike was "almost certain."
On Monday, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said that suicide bombings like those taking place in Israel are "inevitable." Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge declared yesterday that additional terrorist attacks are "not a question of if, but a question of when."
Bush, in an interview yesterday with Italian television before his departure for Europe today, said the warnings by Cheney and Mueller were general. He said that if any specific threat were made, the United States would respond.
"The al Qaeda still exists, they still hate America and any other country which loves freedom and they want to hurt us," Bush said. "They're nothing but a bunch of cold-blooded killers."
The FBI also heightened anxiety levels in New York yesterday by advising officials that landmarks there could be terrorist targets. Officials said the advisory was based on the same kind of uncorroborated information that has led to other notices to law enforcement in recent weeks about threats to banks, nuclear power plants, water systems, shopping malls, supermarkets and apartment buildings.
The latest warning came from captured al Qaeda fighters detained at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, officials said.
New York police immediately bolstered security at the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge and other landmarks.
Despite the escalating talk about threats, officials have not raised the nation's level of alert. It is at "yellow," the midpoint of the five-level warning system established in March, and denotes a significant risk of attack.
Ridge said the stream of intelligence has been vague. He and other officials said they needed corroboration or more details about dates, locations and methods of attack before the warning would be escalated.
The new system gives federal officials the authority to put particular regions or industries on a higher state of alert, but there are no plans to do so at this time, according to administration officials. The next stage up is orange, which reflects a high risk of attack. The top level, red, is reserved for severe risk.
The color-coded system was created after complaints from mayors and police chiefs about the generalized alerts announced in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, warnings that urged the public to be vigilant while continuing normal activities. Local officials said those warnings were too vague to be helpful. Now, some mayors said, the administration seems to be returning to a failed strategy.
"This was definitely moving in the right direction, and then came Sunday and it's like, 'Wait a minute,' " said Scott L. King (D), the mayor of Gary, Ind. "I don't think it's been good and it's not useful. I think it represents backsliding."
King added, "Nobody will ever accuse the vice president or FBI director of being less than intelligent or astute, or, in the vice president's case, politically savvy. Clearly they didn't blurt this out. But what were they doing?"
Across the country yesterday, officials and the public were trying to weigh the significance of the new information. It became public days after the White House began facing questions from critics in Congress about what Bush, intelligence officials and the FBI knew in advance of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"It looks totally political to me," said Cleveland Mayor Jane L. Campbell, another Democrat. "It appears as if the reaction is, 'Now we're going to tell everybody every time we're worried about anything.' I grew up reading 'The Little Boy Who Cried Wolf.' "
In New York and elsewhere, many people said they are growing increasingly jittery. "What can we do besides run?" asked Jose Vazquez, 26, a photographer who comes in New York once or twice a week. "There's not a sense of security. . . . I'm just waiting for something else to happen.'
New York's Rent Stabilization Association received a dozen calls about concerns that a tenant could blow up an apartment building. The calls were prompted by an FBI warning over the weekend that terrorists might stage such attacks. The association is setting up a meeting with the FBI, said President Joseph Strasburg.
Others said the latest round of warnings is valuable.
Stephen Push of Great Falls, whose wife, Lisa J. Raines, died on the American Airlines flight that crashed into the Pentagon, last week criticized federal agencies for not sharing more intelligence with the public before Sept. 11. But now, he said, "I appreciate that the administration is being forthcoming about information about potential threats." He contended that the public isn't being unnecessarily alarmed.
Maj. Gen. Timothy J. Lowenberg, who leads the National Guard and heads homeland security efforts in the state of Washington, also said the warnings are appropriate.
"I think what everyone is experiencing right now is the frustration that there's nothing more concrete that we can take action on," he said. "But there is a certain value in reminding the American public that this is not a transitory phase. This is part of life in the 21st century. We just have to accept it as part of the environment."
Sue Mencer, a former FBI agent who heads Colorado's homeland security efforts, described the bottom line this way: "Everyone needs to be wary."
In his testimony, Rumsfeld said terrorists have close links to Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, North Korea and "one or two others" developing weapons of mass destruction. He said terrorists would seek to obtain nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and ultimately would succeed despite U.S. efforts to prevent them.
"We are going to be living in a period of limited or no warning," he added. He said al Qaeda terrorists are in the United States, "and they are very well-trained."
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said the administration's statements in recent days reflect "the generalized level of alert and concern we have that's been out there. And, of course, there has been a recent increase in the chatter that we've heard in the system, and that was reflected in what they said."
Polls indicate that the public's nervousness is rising. A CBS News poll released yesterday showed 33 percent of those surveyed said they believe another terrorist attack is "very likely." A week ago, 25 percent held that view.
Fewer than half of those questioned in a Washington Post-ABC News poll said they are confident that the government could stop attacks -- the first time since Sept. 11 that less than a majority expressed confidence in the government's ability to protect them.
"You have to crank it up to get us to pay attention," said Chris Crandall, a psychology professor at the University of Kansas, who cited studies on human behavior. But doing so also raises the risk that the public will eventually tune out and grow cynical or complacent, he said.
"Information that is not informative does not get paid attention to," he said.