NO ONE wants to be surprised by another terrorist attack, but the American people have to be wondering what to make of the latest declaration from the White House that al-Qaeda is readying a new assault on U.S. soil sometime this summer.
The warning was issued Wednesday by Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller, who said it was based on "credible intelligence from multiple sources."
Al-Qaeda, according to Mr. Ashcroft, claimed after the Spanish train bombing on March 11 that it was "90 percent" completed with planning for another attack, and a steady stream of intelligence both before and since indicates the terrorist group is "almost ready" to carry it out.
Coming as it does at the beginning of the summer travel season, this warning is both ominous, for obvious reasons, and annoying, because we've heard this sort of stuff before. As in the past, the administration officials are implying that an attack is imminent, but they provide no details. And, while they trot out the pictures of seven terrorist suspects, they say the threat is not serious enough to crank the national alert status up another notch, from the normal yellow (elevated) to orange (high).
In the past, raising the color code has proven to be more embarrassing than anything for the government. The threat level was raised to orange from last Dec. 22 to Jan. 9, but law enforcement officials later revealed that the action was taken on the basis of information that proved to have been fabricated by a captured al-Qaeda member.
Likewise, it's hard to forget February, 2003, when the public was given the absurd advice - later retracted - to keep duct tape and plastic sheeting on hand to seal windows in case of a chemical or radiation attack.
Certainly it's better to be safe than sorry, and in that sense, perhaps the administration can't win. But the public appears to have little tolerance for alarms that don't pan out. As a result, it could be difficult to convince people of the seriousness of an attack, if and when one takes place.
With cynicism at an all-time high this political season, there is also the notion that the administration might like to divert the public's mind from other troubling matters, particularly the chaos of the Iraq occupation and the prisoner-abuse scandal.
While we would like to believe that the administration would not stoop to such tactics, Mr. Ashcroft has regularly demonstrated that he is as political an attorney general as has ever occupied the office. Evidence? This week's news conference was not coordinated with the Department of Homeland Security, where officials were actually surprised by the threat claims.
As tempting as it might be to believe that terrorists would target today's World War II Memorial dedication in Washington, the upcoming G-8 summit in Georgia, or the Democratic and Republican conventions in Boston and New York, security will be so high that the crucial element of surprise would be lost.
As for disrupting the presidential election on Nov. 2, an attack around that time would be more likely to so gravely offend the sensibilities of the American public that it would precipitate the largest voter turnout in history in response.
So the question remains: What are people to make of the latest "threat"? We don't want to be caught unaware, but by the same token we don't need to struggle through a summer of needless fear.