Different threat, same questions

Authorities say they've foiled a plot on New York. Is this one for real?

Published July 7, 2006 2:02PM (EDT)

We were a little nervous when federal authorities announced that they had broken up a terror ring in Miami last month -- not because we ever thought there was something serious going on there, but because we were afraid of being a little too instantaneously skeptical in the face of claims about a big, scary terrorist threat to the Sears Tower.

We had nothing to worry about. Like the pre-election Orange Alert that was based on 3-year-old information, like the overhyped arrest of Jose Padilla, the Miami "plot" now seems to have been something less than those breathless "breaking news" reports might have suggested. As Newsweek has reported, federal authorities have admitted that that they don't know how much of a threat the Miami Seven posed, that they had no weapons and no detailed plan to attack anything, and that there is no evidence that they had any contact at all with al-Qaida or any other real terrorist group.

So what do we make of today's news? Law enforcement officials say they've broken up a plot to attack the tunnels that lead into New York City. Was this one serious? Is it for real? Maybe, maybe not. The New York Daily News first reported that the Holland Tunnel was the target. The Associated Press says that the plan involved the New York transportation system generally but didn't target the Holland Tunnel specifically. In either case, an FBI spokesman says: "At this time we have no indication of any imminent threat to the New York transportation system, or anywhere else in the U.S."

Well, right. If they're making arrests -- last month in Miami, now in Lebanon -- you'd like to think that there's no longer an "imminent threat." But was there ever? In Miami, the answer seems to be a pretty clear no. In New York? We don't know yet. Our guess? We'll go through this routine again, and we'll learn sooner or later that the guy they arrested in Lebanon is something less than the next Osama bin Laden. Maybe we'll be wrong this time. But the thing is, we shouldn't have to guess. We shouldn't have to wonder. We should be able to trust that our government is telling us the truth, at least when it comes to issues as important as this.

We don't, and we'd submit that this administration's track record on terrorism alerts and announcements justifies every inch of our skepticism. Again and again now, we've heard dire alerts about threats that weren't. At the same time, we're hearing that the president dismissed a warning about a potential 9/11 as somebody's "CYA" moment, and that the CIA has disbanded the unit that has been searching for bin Laden. So should we be worried about this New York plot? Maybe we will be as we learn more about it. But for now, we'll take our guidance from the president himself: "Fool me once, shame on -- shame on you. Fool me -- you can't get fooled again."

By Tim Grieve

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

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