Threat put city leaders in bind

Mayor weighed risks of panic over anthrax before public was told

October 20, 2001|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

When Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley received word Wednesday morning that the FBI had information suggesting that Baltimore might be the target of an anthrax attack that afternoon, he had two choices, both fraught with problems.

He could go public with the information and risk inciting panic. Or he could keep quiet - and risk inciting panic.

As more threats like the one in Baltimore occur, city and state officials across the country might soon have to face such choices. Public leaders walk a fine line between spurring panic and preparedness, especially over an amorphous bio-terrorist threat that people can't immediately see or hear, crisis communications experts say.

"It's obviously a question of `Does the public need to know it?' That's the overriding factor," said David Margulies, president of Dallas-based Margulies Communications Group. "You're safer to tell them than to let it leak out. It will leak out. Government is a tough place to keep a secret."

O'Malley opted to tell the public and appeared at a scheduled 11:30 a.m. television news conference at police headquarters.

He and Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris had decided that the threat was serious enough to pass on to businesses, hospitals and city agencies. But they feared it would leak, twisting and turning as it traveled by water coolers and office cubicles and growing into a more sinister threat.

Before deciding, O'Malley weighed his options in a phone call with Norris and his chief of staff, Michael Enright.

"We said, `Well, what's more likely, that we panic people by the word getting out through all these different [business] sources or that we panic people by going in front of the cameras and saying it straight?'" O'Malley recalled.

"We all agreed that there was far less danger of panic if we announce this than if we roll the dice and it comes out in another way and then, in the half-hour it takes us to catch up with the story, it's spinning God knows where."

But it was a difficult decision to go on the air, something Gov. Parris N. Glendening chose not to do when he was informed. A gubernatorial spokeswoman, Michelle Byrnie, said the governor's goal in the post-Sept. 11 weeks has been to restore calm and that he feared going public could cause alarm.

"This was not the first threat that was received, and it certainly won't be the last," Byrnie said. "Part of being a leader at this point is reassuring people that you need to be alert, you need to be vigilant, but don't panic."

Some officials have been criticized for relaying vague threats that experts say terrify people and offer them little advice, or for playing down critical information.

On Oct. 11, the FBI released an alert that it had received information that there might be "additional terrorist attacks within the United States and against U.S. interests overseas over the next several days." That kind of warning, without any notion of where an attack would take place, is useless, experts say.

"If it's `Hey, everyone, watch out,' it's not helpful," said Juliette Kayyem, executive director of a program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government that is studying domestic preparedness.

The key for public officials, Kayyem said, is consistency. What panics people is hearing contradictory information - they don't know whom to believe.

She pointed to initial statements that minimized the anthrax cases in Florida by saying they were isolated. Then, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that he was opening a criminal investigation. Later, on Capitol Hill, House Speaker Dennis Hastert announced that anthrax was in ventilation systems and in the tunnels. That later proved to be untrue.

"The Hill was a nightmare," Kayyem said. "There was no one in charge."

Still, she echoed other experts in saying that news of the threat in Baltimore was destined to leak out. Public officials such as O'Malley are wise to tell people because they can better control the information.

"Rumors do a whole lot more damage than the truth," said Larry L. Smith, president of the Institute for Crisis Management, a consulting firm based in Louisville, Ky. "It's a principle of human nature that people will talk. ... [People] will either talk about what they have heard or what management has told them."

But he added that officials must be careful not to damage vital credibility by providing incorrect information or overreacting.

Dozens of calls concerning suspicious activity or packages are made to the Police Department daily, and O'Malley said each one is analyzed. Wednesday's threat was particularly credible because it came from the FBI via "a source outside the country" and was specific to the city, he said.

O'Malley said he was troubled because the FBI told him initially that he could not divulge the source of information. If nothing happened, he said, he could look like the storybook character who cried that the sky was falling.

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