Just What is a "Credible Threat," Anyway?

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Already on edge, Americans went to bed Monday night with yet another warning hanging over our collective head. Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller issued the warning late Monday afternoon, telling the nation there was a "credible" threat of new terrorist attacks over the next seven days.

The latest admonition, like the one issued October 11th, is shrouded in vague language and frustratingly oblique parameters. Law enforcement agencies and the public are both advised to be on "highest alert," which, as many police departments are finding, is not much different than where we've been for the past month.

Officials are sympathetic to the exhaustion inherent in perpetual alert, but urge people not to fall asleep at the proverbial wheel. "We are dealing with an unknown; we are dealing without a lot of specific information," Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge told CNN Tuesday.

The warning had immediate effects in official circles: Vice President Cheney is once again in an undisclosed, secure location. The rest of us are left to wait, wonder and worry. How nervous should we be? Why do they keep issuing these warnings? TIME Justice Department correspondent Elaine Shannon spoke with TIME.com Tuesday and answered some of our most pressing questions.

TIME.com: What is the definition of a "credible" threat, anyway?

Elaine Shannon: A "credible" threat comes from a source thatís been reliable in the past. In this case, the threat reportedly came from an intercepted call from Afghanistan.

Some of us wonder if these warnings cause more panic than preparedness. Is there any discussion about the pros and cons of issuing statements like this?

Of course this always generates a great deal of discussion. There was some debate as to whether it was a good idea to release these warnings again. Officials got trashed by police departments after the October 11th warning because there was very little lead time and most people had no warning at all. That happened again yesterday; Ashcroft and Mueller made the announcement just before the national news.

Whatís the benefit of issuing this kind of warning? Doesnít it just make people incredibly nervous?

Thatís a real dilemma for the administration; they are debating how to maintain transparency and keep expectations realistic. When they issue these warnings they inevitably get a million calls from people asking questions, and they have nothing to add. There just isnít any more information.

Are the anthrax letters considered terrorism? Would the threat of a letter be enough to generate a warning?

The letters are certainly considered acts of terror, but thereís no word on whether theyíre connected to Al-Qaeda.