Used to be you could count on the Bush administration to hype a terror threat: FBI bulletins about the risks of chemical devices, limos, helicopters, women, and poison; John Ashcroft announcing indictment after indictment; Orange Alerts left and right. Meanwhile, New York City—despite the gaping whole downtown—always played it relatively cool. Even when a drawing of Grand Central surfaced during the investigation of the 3-11 Madrid bombings, Ray Kelly didn’t sound any public alarm. Odd, then, that the feds are the ones downplaying the intelligence that led Mayor Bloomberg to up security Thursday.
After Homeland Security pooh-poohed the credibility of that threat on Thursday, the White House on Friday joined in. “In this case, we notified New York City officials early on of the intelligence information that we had received. And while it is specific, you heard our homeland security officials say it is of doubtful credibility. It is something we continue to analyze,” Dubya said.
So how could the NYPD think a threat was credible if the feds did not? What makes a threat credible anyway? “It’s not just looking at, ‘The guy said this,’ ” says Walt Purdy of the Terrorism Research Center. “It’s putting the pieces together. There are people in some of these countries who probably say everyday, ‘Well we’d love to come to America and blow this up.’ That’s showing that they have the intent but do they have the capability and opportunity to carry through?”
But while the feds can afford to do that evaluation at some distance, Purdy says, New York’s security officials have to think, “They’re mentioning city and subways. We’re going to take this as credible because if we don’t take this seriously and something happens, people are going to say, ‘You had people in Iraq giving information. Why didn’t the commissioner and they city do something about it?”
Last year, Dubya was often suspected of hyping the threat for political purposes. And there was Bloomberg on Thursday announcing the threat just hours before the mayoral debate he wasn’t going to attend. But two top City Council Democrats on security matters aired no suspicions about the mayor’s motives. “We do get these threats often here in New York City. The chatter that’s intercepted constantly mentions New York City and there’s a conscious decision made not to alert the public unless the threat is credible,” says Public Safety committee chair Peter Vallone, Jr. “That’s why it’s so important to have a mayor and a police commissioner that you trust.” His colleague John Liu, chair of Transportation, told the Voice, “I assume as soon as a threat is considered serious and credible that the public is notified and that there’s no games being played with the timing.”
For Dubya, it seems the timing couldn’t have been better, a day after he defended his conduct of the “war on terror” by listing 15 instances where terrorist activity had been thwarted on his watch. One was the Iyman Faris case, in which, the White House said, Faris “was exploring the destruction of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York.” Actually, Faris admitted to casing the bridge but then abandoning the plan because of the security around the structure. Another recent case involving New York City, the purported Herald Square bomb plot that led to arrests last summer, has yet to go to trial.