If communication between agencies is key to unraveling terrorist plots, and the administration is truly committed to such efforts, then Attorney General John Ashcroft's pre-Memorial Day warning of an impending terrorist threat was either irresponsible or political grandstanding at its worst.
Ashcroft said at a Justice Department press conference that "disturbing intelligence" indicated al Qaeda's plan for a summer attack was "90 percent complete."
The announcement strayed from the usual procedure -- such warnings always go through the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which usually increases the color-coded threat level to coincide with the threat.
Ashcroft's announcement also appeared to be news to DHS Secretary Tom Ridge, who under the Homeland Security Act makes such announcements. Ridge reportedly was blindsided by the Ashcroft press conference. Ridge did not raise the threat level as a result, and his statements afterward suggested everything on the homeland security front was business as usual.
The mixed message was a bit disconcerting to state and local government officials charged with protecting critical infrastructures with limited resources. It has them shaking their heads in disbelief.
What does it suggest to state and local officials when the Justice Department and the DHS put forth vague and conflicting accounts? What does that suggest to a local cop who is required to cultivate and corroborate specific intelligence? It suggests the intelligence isn't credible.
Ashcroft wasn't any more specific than to say the targets might be big, since we are entering a season of "symbolic events" with the coming national election.
How revealing is that?
"Tell us something useful," state and locals are saying, "something we can sink our teeth into."
My neighbors and yours could come up with a warning that says, "Watch symbolic events like political and Memorial Day gatherings, they could be targets." It was a warning that said absolutely nothing and will yield absolutely nothing except skepticism about homeland security and the administration's goals.
So why would Ashcroft suddenly stray from the norm and issue a vague warning without consulting the DHS? Was he playing politics with homeland security? Or was it just an unfortunate oversight?
The Justice Department and DHS have since said they are definitely on the same page. Their actions suggest otherwise and for state and local officials, that's not comforting.