Published Tuesday, August 17, 2004, in Investors Business Daily, p. A14

Does Release Of Terror Info Do More Harm Than Good? 

By John R. Lott, Jr.

What did we gain by telling the terrorists we know exactly which five targets in D.C., New York and New Jersey they were planning to blow up?

After all the late-night TV jokes trying to figure out what the different vague terrorist color alerts mean, many find comfort in having such specific information made public, but it is a false feeling of safety.

While those five targets are undoubtedly safer, we have likely lost an important informational advantage and left new targets more vulnerable than the original ones.

Can you imagine past wars if we had let the enemy know we had broken its codes before a major battle? How would World War II have turned out if we had let the Japanese know we knew of their carrier movements before Midway?

Some security experts, such as Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism chief, praised Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge's announcement: "If I worked in one of those buildings, I would feel very safe now. Given that it's captured material and now made public, there's a good chance it won't happen."

Well, by that logic, Midway also could have been prevented.

Switch Targets

Last week, President Bush reiterated his promise to keep releasing this information. Over the weekend Rep. Jane Harmon, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, and Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer demanded that such information continue to be released.

But two points are clear. Terrorists can change their plans, and there are a lot of vulnerable targets. The five listed targets are financial centers: the New York Stock Exchange, Citigroup bank, Prudential Financial and international aid agencies located in Washington.

The NYSE is an obvious target. But there are important financial centers, such as the Chicago Board of Trade, in other cities. Citigroup is the largest bank in the world and an attractive target. But even among U.S. banks, there are other attractive targets.

And what are terrorists to make of Ridge's statement that there is no information about attacks against financial targets in Chicago, San Francisco or Los Angeles?

Focus Resources

If the terrorists behave like common criminals, one thing is certain: They move when enforcement gets hot. When police target drug dealing or prostitution in one part of town, these crimes don't stop. They move someplace else. Even when you let citizens carry concealed handguns, part of the local drop in crime is from criminals moving to nearby areas that do not let people protect themselves.

If Ridge's announcement leads to a change in where the attack takes place, we lose an important informal advantage. Would you rather have an attack on a specific target we know of in advance or have an attack on one we don't?

At least if you know terrorists are going to try to blow up a particular building, you can put all your resources around that building to stop them in the act.

With revelations that there were 10 other buildings that had been cased by the terrorists, it doesn't seem that replanning truck or car bombs will be that difficult.

Some might fear that by involving local police, our information will leak out. If so, we would then be in the same position we are now.

Getting the public to take the general threat seriously and putting people onalert is something everyone values, as long as we are putting them on alert in the right place. An attack that occurs at a different target than those announced only undermines getting people to be vigilant in the future.

Even if special untold circumstances justify the information being released, Bush and Ridge's promise that "when we have specific credible information we will share it" makes no sense as a general rule.

The capture of Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, who Pakistani intelligence say operated a secret al-Qaida communications system, is a major breakthrough in the war on terrorism and gave the administration the information behind its warning. But clearly the terrorist cells that were to attack the financial targets are still out there.

The question is: What are the odds that we will again discover their plans before they strike their new target?

Politics played an important role in Ridge's announcement, though not the role that Democrats claim. The firestorm that would erupt if a president knew of an impending attack and didn't announce it would be devastating. The same trade-off exists for any public official.

Yet what is politically the right answer isn't always the right answer for stopping an attack.

Choosing The Lowest Risk

Those used as "bait" would be justifiably angry, but the question is what actions will save the most lives. Unfortunately, the political calculus seems clear: It is far better politically for a president to honestly say he put out the information he had, even he failed to stop an attack on what turned out to be the new target.

With Democratic surrogates such as Howard Dean on TV claiming that Ridge's announcement was simply designed to bolster Bush's political support and prominent Democrats embracing Michael Moore's conspiracy theories, a low political risk strategy may be the only possibility. But low-risk politics is not the same as low risk to lives.

John R. Lott is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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