The FBI Warnings: What Do They Mean?

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FBI Director Robert Mueller

"Certain information, while not specific as to target, gives the government the reason to believe that there may be additional terrorist attacks within the United States and against U.S. interests overseas over the next several days. The FBI has again alerted all local law enforcement to be on the highest alert, and we call on all people to immediately notify the FBI and local law enforcement of any unusual or suspicious activity."

This statement, released Thursday by the Justice Department, represents the starkest warning yet of a post-September 11th follow-up terrorist attack. Despite the non-specific nature of the FBIís message, it was designed to make Americans sit up and take notice. And sit up we did: Newspapers were quick to leap on the panic bandwagon: RED ALERT, screamed the New York Post. TERRORIST ATTACKS IMMINENT, blared the Washington Post. Any latent fears were further fanned by the announcement Friday morning that an employee of NBC News in New York had tested positive for cutaneous anthrax.

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The FBI warning certainly provoked a reaction, but was it a responsible warning, or the work of an agency unnecessarily scaring the populace? Moments after they delivered this latest warning, public officials were urging us to go back to our "normal lives." Do we believe them, or should we alter our plans for the weekend, change our lives to suit our newfound fears? And just what are our normal lives in this new world, anyway?

Itís important to be vigilant, according to William Waugh, professor of Public Administration and Urban Studies/Political Science at Georgia State University in Atlanta. But itís equally important to not overreact, says Waugh, an expert on international and domestic terrorism and the author of "Terrorism and Emergency Management" and "Living with Hazards, Dealing with Disasters." spoke with Professor Waugh on Friday morning about what the warnings mean — and how we should respond to them. Does it make sense for the government to issue this kind of warning to the public?

William Waugh: Well, it could probably be argued that weíve been on alert since September 11th, so Iím not really sure this warning has changed anything. All of our emergency response teams were already on highest alert before the warning, and I donít think thereís any way to ramp up from there.

The only danger I can see in issuing such a strongly worded warning is if nothing happens this time around, the next time thereís an alert the government may find people lose attentiveness, or patience, and become less vigilant. Itís kind of a "Boy Who Cried Wolf" scenario.

What does the public hear when authorities issue a warning like this?

Itís a bit of a mixed message: For the first two weeks after the attacks, the public heard assurances from John Ashcroft and other officials, telling us everything was under control and we had nothing to worry about. Then, about two weeks ago, the warnings became more shrill. Whatís the public supposed to think?

I do think we need to recognize the cyclical nature of this story: We keep passing these milestones after the attacks — Thursday was the one-month anniversary — and so each time that happens, alarm is going to spike briefly.

In terms of relating to the public, this situation is particularly tough for some agencies, like law enforcement, which have little or no experience dealing with the public in the role of "communicator." Other agencies, like public health organizations, are better at things like that, but at moments like this itís more often law enforcement that breaks the news.

How should the public respond to this heightened state of alert? What can we do?

If people really feel they need to do something, they should prepare as if for a hurricane, with some water and some canned goods. This is not a moment to run out and buy a gas mask; if youíve been watching the news you know it wouldnít do you a whole lot of good anyway. But they should also just watch the news — this is definitely a situation where information is power. People generally feel more secure when they have more information.