A modulated response

August 03, 2004

THERE IS A herky-jerky quality to the manner in which the nation is put on alert for potential terrorist activity that so jangles the nerves they ultimately go numb.

The latest example was the sudden announcement Sunday that security measures are being dramatically escalated in New York, Washington and New Jersey based on intelligence reports that terrorists had been casing five financial institutions at those locations in preparation for attacks using car or truck bombs.

No one would suggest that precautions are unnecessary or that federal authorities should fail to act on credible intelligence. But in the repeated instances of such alerts, there seems too broad a swing from inaction to overreaction, undermining the confidence of Americans whose cooperation is essential.

At worst, the unusually specific threat warnings - coming just days after Democrat John Kerry used his nominating convention to try to undercut President Bush's perceived advantage as the candidate voters most trust to lead the war on terror - are open to charges of political manipulation. Not the least because Mr. Bush seems to have found new urgency in endorsing recommendations from the 9/11 commission.

Some fine-tuning of the security precautions is immediately in order and should be among the first byproducts of revamping the national intelligence-gathering system along the lines the commission suggested.

Greater coordination and sharing of information under a national intelligence director aided by a counterterrorism center, as Mr. Bush proposed, should allow for a more temperate, rational response to what they learn than the dire warnings and traffic shutdowns of the past couple of days.

"If we were silent on the subject," Mr. Bush said yesterday, critics would ask of his administration, "Why aren't they sharing?"

But surely there is a mid-range between silence and overwhelming Americans with information too vague to be useful - except perhaps to terrorists tipped off about security measures. And too much security that disrupts commerce and everyday life at some point becomes a hazard in itself.

However belated, President Bush's enthusiasm for creating a more efficient intelligence-gathering network, as well as more accountable oversight by Congress, is welcome. Lawmakers, who are scheduled to hold a series of hearings on the recommendations this month, should begin carefully crafting legislation as soon as possible.

It seems foolish, however, and perhaps even dangerous to push the legislative process along quickly enough, as Mr. Kerry urged, to get the job done before this year's election. The scope is too big and the mission too important for a rush job.

While the legislation is developing, though, it wouldn't hurt for the administration to moderate the alarm level of those terrorist alerts before Americans tune them out altogether.

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