Is the Latest Terrorism Alert Earnest or Overhyped?

It's hard to tell -- and strange that our ultra-secretive government revealed surveillance details that we didn't need to know.
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Every so often, the U.S. government alerts us that there may be a heightened risk of a terrorist attack. "Specific incidents are hard to anticipate," a State Department spokeswoman declared while addressing the latest worldwide travel alert, issued this week. "The alert is just to remind people of the potential for terrorist attack. Travelers should maintain a heightened sense of awareness."

It's advice that's certain to make some travelers uneasy. I'm not sure it makes anyone safer. Would it be better to deny al-Qaeda the ability to terrorize when they haven't even attacked? Isn't a certain level of awareness always prudent, especially when traveling abroad?

In fairness, Team Obama is in a difficult position: If there is prior warning of a successful attack and they say nothing, they'd face intense recriminations. And I don't doubt that lots of Obama Administration staffers are trying their utmost, under very difficult circumstances, to do the right thing.

Nor do I doubt that there is a serious, ongoing threat of terrorism -- there could, God forbid, be an attack today.

Yet a part of me is wary and cynical. As with the Bush Administration's color-coded terror alerts, I can't help but wonder if the State Department warning and this week's news stories about renewed threats from al-Qaeda are being hyped.

To what extent does this week's news reflect changes in that threat, and to what extent is the American public being manipulated, or misled so that Team Obama can manipulate al-Qaeda?

There's just no way to know.

It wouldn't shock me if the closure of diplomatic facilities abroad is entirely threat based -- or if the threat were being exaggerated to undermine the growing Congressional backlash to NSA surveillance. Or to give Team Obama cover for a surge of drone strikes in Yemen, despite that recent drone speech. It wouldn't even shock me if what's really going on is something I can't even conceive. And it feels strange to be left parsing news stories pregnant with unexplained happenings. Consider this New York Times article:

The United States intercepted electronic communications this week among senior operatives of Al Qaeda, in which the terrorists discussed attacks against American interests in the Middle East and North Africa, American officials said Friday. The intercepts and a subsequent analysis of them by American intelligence agencies prompted the United States to issue an unusual global travel alert to American citizens on Friday, warning of the potential for terrorist attacks by operatives of Al Qaeda and their associates beginning Sunday through the end of August. Intelligence officials said the threat focused on the Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, which has been tied to plots to blow up American-bound cargo and commercial flights.

That doesn't read like an unauthorized statement, and I haven't read anyone decrying it is as a leak that has damaged national security. But isn't the fact that America intercepted communications between senior al-Qaeda operatives exactly the sort of thing we wouldn't want them to know? The Obama Administration won't even tell us the legal theories behind some of its actions, but multiple officials are willing to tip us off right after senior al-Qaeda leaders were surveilled? They've told us the one thing we don't need to know about the surveillance state.

follow-up New York Times article adds:

In an article posted on the Web on Friday and published on Saturday, The New York Times agreed to withhold the identities of the Qaeda leaders whose conversations were intercepted after senior American intelligence officials said the information could jeopardize their operations.

The names were disclosed Sunday by McClatchy Newspapers, and after the government became aware of the article on Monday, it dropped its objections to The Times' publishing the same information.

But the al-Qaeda leaders themselves surely know what they said to one another. What good did it do to reveal that we overheard them without acknowledging their identities? I can't figure it out. The end of that article:

Counterterrorism analysts, as well as former intelligence official, said closing the embassies -- and depriving Al Qaeda of targets, at least for now -- may have deterred an attack.

"The announcement itself may also be designed to interrupt Al Qaeda planning, to put them off stride," Michael V. Hayden, a former C.I.A. director, said on "Fox News Sunday." "To put them on the back foot, to let them know that we're alert and that we're on at least to a portion of this plotline."

Marcy Wheeler tries to figure out what's going on here.

All I can offer by way of conclusion is this bit of counsel: It would be foolish to take anything the Obama Administration says at face value; and as foolish to dismiss everything they say as lies or propaganda. So be vigilant, but be not afraid.

And accept that there's no reliable way to know the truth.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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