The New York terror alert: Questions where there shouldn't be

Has anyone ever read about the boy who cried wolf?

Published October 7, 2005 4:31PM (EDT)

When we caught a ride with John Kerry last May, he complained to us about the boy-who-cried-wolf nature of the Bush administration's terror warnings. Maybe all those orange alerts had been justified by intelligence reports, Kerry told us, but maybe they'd been driven by political concerns, too. "I just have no way to measure it," he said. "Instead of feeling absolutely confident, I have no way of measuring it."

It turned out that Kerry was right to be concerned. Long after the election was over, former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge acknowledged that the Bush administration had sometimes raised alert levels based on flimsy evidence and over his objections.

So what are we to make of yesterday's news of a heightened alert for the New York subway system? Maybe the alert is justified by credible intelligence: Officials say they have received intelligence that a group of men had hatched a plan to hide explosives in baby strollers and briefcases and then set them off in the subway. Or maybe the alert, or at least the timing of it, had something to do with changing the subject for the White House: After all, as Bush's Supreme Court nominee runs into opposition and his chief political advisor returns to the grand jury room, the White House is suddenly talking an awful lot about the global war on terrorism again.

The answer is, we just don't know. It's the problem with the boy who cried wolf. We know that the government has raised the terror alert level before on what turned out to be false information. We know that the government had a hand in manipulating the timing of the news this time around. We're not saying that there's anything nefarious going on here. We're just saying that there's reason to wonder, and there shouldn't be.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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