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We have a right to know -- to a point

BY TOM MITSOFF

If the local police department learns that a robbery is planned at the 99th National Bank, should it contact the newspaper and other media, asking them to notify the public that a robbery might be planned?

After all, that would certainly protect the public by having them steer clear of the bank until all possibility of a robbery is passed.

Last week it was revealed that warnings of the possible nature of al-Qaedaís attack plans last fall were percolating in various levels of the administration and intelligence gathering system in the weeks and months leading up to September 11. One of the criticisms made by critics of the administrationís failure to act decisively on the information available was that the public was never warned.

Through the din of accusations, charges and rebuttals, there is nobody who suggests that President Bush knew of the specific plans to hijack airliners on the morning of September 11 and fly them into buildings. If that knowledge had been available, Osama bin Ladenís plan would certainly have failed. There would have been security guards or federal agents waiting at the Boston and Washington airports. Air defenses would have already been scrambled in the event that somehow the hijackers foiled airport security.

So nobody knew the exact date, time and method of the attack -- just like our hypothetical local police department with information about a planned robbery. Hereís what would happen in our town if the police responded to that information by quickly notifying the public.

First, if the thieves-in-waiting hear that the jig is up and authorities are aware of their plans, chances are very good that they will abandon the plan for the theft. Most criminals rely on the sense of surprise to achieve their goals, and when they perceive that the element of surprise is gone, so is the chance for success without apprehension. Thatís a good thing, so why isnít this done on a regular basis?

Well, what would happen to the business of the 99th National Bank in the aftermath of such a warning to the public? It would be devastated. Who would go into a bank that is known to be the target of a robbery attempt? Anyone who needs access to their money would have to go in, but others who may be shopping for a bank or for a loan would drive right on by. The same would go for any other commercial enterprise -- a grocery store, a movie theater, anywhere that people go by choice. Most people choose not to put themselves or their families in harmís way.

Days and weeks pass without incident at the bank, and slowly its business returns to normal. The local police department continues to alert the general public about specific tips they get regarding specific planned crimes, and none of the incidents occur. The police department receives kudos from the public, but as time passes, the townís citizens learn that nothing happens after the warnings, and they after awhile become desensitized to them. Why worry about them when nothing ever comes of them?

These are just some of the reasons that tips and information gathered by U.S. intelligence agencies are not issued to the general public. On April 18, 2001, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a memo to the airlines that Middle Eastern terrorists could try to hijack or blow up a U.S. plane and that carriers should ďdemonstrate a high degree of alertness.Ē Should that memo have also been released to the media and the public? Proponents would say, that sure would have deterred the terrorists, wouldnít it? What it also would have done is to economically damage the airline industry in response to a report with no specifics in terms of dates or methods. And that is no way to run a railroad, an airline or a government.

The Bush Administrationís failure to notify the public in advance of September 11 is not what enabled al-Qaeda to be successful. There were certainly failures within the intelligence community to share information gathered in Arizona, Minnesota and other locales and to connect the dots of this devious plan. And we tend to think of ourselves sometimes as the only society on the planet capable of brilliant and innovative thought. Bin Ladenís plan was as brilliantly conceived as it was evil. The fact that he continues to elude detection, despite the resources being brought to bear to try to root him out, continues to show that he is among the most formidable foes that any government has ever faced, and he will go down in history as such.

To alert the public about every single tip and piece of intelligence received would do more harm in the long run than good. Eventually we would become desensitized to such warnings, as they would come and go without incident.

The most effective way to deal with terrorist threats, and all threats of criminal activity, is to have law enforcement officials picking up on tips and be waiting on terrorists when they arrive at their targets. Our intelligence system will have to improved in order to make that happen.

If a threat is discovered that is imminent and cannot be interceded upon, then certainly the public should be notified for its own safety. But the fate of the 99th National Bank and its town would become the fate of our nation if the Bush Administration caves in to the sentiment that we have the right to know everything.

We donít, and itís for our own good. This column was written May 19, 2002, and published in several print publications across the country.

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