Almanac carries lot of weight in warning

FBI's recent alert has editor bemused

January 01, 2004|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

At first, Kevin Seabrooke admitted he felt "a little bemused" by this week's news of the FBI's terrorist warning to 18,000 law enforcement organizations to be watchful of people in possession of, well, almanacs.

Seabrooke, a senior editor for annually published The World Almanac and Book of Facts, did not say "amused."

"Be-mused," said Seabrooke, employing an appropriately cautious synonym for "bewildered ... perplexed ... utterly confused" and/or "stupefied."

Monday, when the FBI's Christmas Eve bulletin - urging police to be alert for almanac-wielding rascals who might use the weighty compendiums for "target selection and pre-operational planning" - became public, Seabrooke was in the midst of his usual end-of-the-year radio trivia shows - "talking to people doing wrap-ups on the Top 10 news stories and that kind of thing."

Suddenly, he was at home on the phone doing damage control. He acknowledged that he has had to be careful not to be too critical of an alert that some people might consider a bit overwrought.

"We applaud the FBI," Seabrooke said. "They're trying to do their job and keep us safe and cover all the bases - and perhaps over-covering the bases, but who can say?"

So instead of criticizing, Seabrooke said he's telling people everything in the almanac is already public information readily available on the Internet and at their local libraries. "In fact," he added, masking a hint of irony, "the government is our biggest single supplier of information."

He is also quietly reminding everyone that in 1961, a wire service photograph of President John F. Kennedy sitting at his desk in the White House showed only six books on his desk - including The World Almanac. And a similar photo of President Bill Clinton in 1999 showed the chief executive at his desk with a copy of The World Almanac clearly visible. During World War II, he added, the government asked almanac editors to send 100,000 copies of the popular tome to American troops overseas. Which they did, of course.

"We've been around for 136 years," Seabrooke said, noting that the FBI's warning might only be relevant to the 2004 book's chapter titled "Buildings, Bridges and Tunnels," which begins on page 436 and, he hastened to add, only covers "12 pages out of 1,008."

As for those pages, Seabrooke said, much of the information can be obtained easily from The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, which is where the almanac got it. Some of it may even be found in ordinary newspaper stories like this one (the tallest building in Baltimore, according to the almanac, is the Legg Mason Building at 100 Light St.).

Furthermore, the FBI's alert did not specifically point to The World Almanac, Seabrooke said, but almanacs, in general. And besides, he said, if a terrorist wanted to keep such critical information close at hand, "they could just write things down on a piece of paper and not carry around a 1,008-page book."

No, Seabrooke concluded, the FBI's warning would not hurt sales in the coming year.

In fact, he said he is not in the least concerned about that - the latest edition has been out since November and is already No. 2 on The New York Times best-seller list for paperback advice books and No. 29 for USA Today's best-seller list for all books.

"I think it will just generate more interest," Seabrooke said, finally shedding the last inkling of bemusement as he imagined the publicity turning in his favor. "A lot of people will want to check it out and see what all the fuss is about."

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