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October 18, 2005
Chalk It Up To A Costly Rehearsal

The city of Baltimore found itself in the same predicament that New York faced a few weeks ago -- a thinly-sourced but unsettlingly specific terrorist threat forced the city to decide whether to disrupt a major urban area and risk looking foolish, or ignore it and risk the deaths of hundreds of people, perhaps thousands. New York found out after snarling its subway system and causing perhaps millions of dollars in economic disruption that the threat turned out to be a hoax. Baltimore hasn't reached that conclusion yet, but the action they took turned out to either be completely effective or unnecessary:

Federal agents were questioning "a couple" of people Tuesday in connection with a terror threat that prompted Baltimore authorities to temporarily close one of two downtown tunnels under Baltimore Harbor and restrict traffic through the other, U.S. officials said.

The restrictions were put in place out of what a state police official called "an abundance of caution," although the FBI said it had not been able to corroborate the reported threat. ...

A federal government official said the source of the threat intelligence has provided some useful information in the past. But Perkins said agents were interviewing "certain individuals in an effort to determine the credibility of the information."

According to multiple U.S. officials, the Baltimore alert was triggered by a report that a shipment of explosives was heading into the city's harbor disguised as cocoa. The explosives then would have been used to build a truck bomb to be detonated inside the tunnel, the officials said.

The latest threat came nearly two weeks after a similar warning prompted a security alert on New York's subway system -- and the warning later was determined to have been a hoax, government sources said.

It turns out that the threat came two weeks ago, and that city, state, and federal agencies have worked during that time to sharpen their intelligence on the matter. They managed to keep it quiet -- a feat at which federal investigators failed during the New York threat -- and pulled out all stops today in an effort to catch any potential terrorists planting bombs in Baltimore tunnels.

The nature of terrorism will always place civilians in harm's way, and so when threats arise, they will almost always involve places with the highest concentration of civilian traffic. In this case, that literally meant road traffic, which the authorities snarled for hours as they tried to trap the potential attackers. For two hours, gridlock allowed the feds to capture all possible suspects on the roads before they had a chance to plant their weapons.

Fortunately for Baltimore but perhaps to the detriment of the investigators, they found nothing.

And yet, what else could Baltimore do? Too often, we have demanded that investigators do the improbable and connect dots that seem obvious in hindsight but bear little resemblance prior to any overt act. For those who missed appointments, got sick in their cars, or just suffered enormous inconvenience on Baltimore's roads today, the experience might enrage them into thinking that the people who protect us show nothing but incompetence at that task. However, in this kind of war, we must prepare ourselves not just for attack but also for inevitable false alarms. We should rejoice that no attack materialized, and consider this an excellent opportunity to conduct an unscheduled exercise.

However, the two incidents coming so close together sounds like more than two hoaxes or misunderstandings, if Baltimore's turns out to be no more substantial than New York's. When clandestine networks want to shake out their informants, they create misinformation and spread it in specific manners to see where and how that faulty data gets used. Thanks to the largely disruptive nature of the measures used to respond to these threats, the terrorists can easily trace which people may have transmitted this information to American authorities, if this does turn out to be a disinformation campaign.

In both cases, the federal agents initially insisted that the sources had come up with good information on other occasions. Now those sources will not get that kind of access any longer, if they survive at all. If they do manage to keep from having their heads chopped off, no one will trust them in the future.

The protectors in both cities made the right decision. However, if we had these kind of measures in place as more of a routine, the sudden and notable reactions might provide less of a giveaway.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at October 18, 2005 10:13 PM

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