The Confusing Thing About 'Unconfirmed' Terrorist Attacks

The only way to confirm them is if they actually happen

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Last night, reports of a "credible," "specific," "unconfirmed," and "uncorroborated," threat of a terrorist attack that officials say there is "no certainty" of ever having been planned continue to dominate this morning's headlines. The confusing thing about these types of government alerts is that they routinely involve contradictory language in an effort to strike a balance between emphasizing caution and urging people not to panic. As Capital New York's Tom McGeveran noticed in his daily read of this morning's tabloids, it's "reminiscent of a certain immediately-post-attack absurdity: The credible, specific, uncorroborated threat."

These types of alerts often spark a kind of bizarre narcissism of panic. For instance, though the heads of the Los Angeles Police Department and the Chicago Police Department are reassuring citizens that the alert issued by the federal officials "reveals no credible threats" to any cities outside of New York and Washington, here we have a report about authorities in Central Florida "planning to amp up security while the government sorts through information the CIA received about a credible terror threat on the United State." As the report from the Florida affiliate notes "Even though the Central Florida area wasn't specifically mentioned, local officials say Orlando could be high on the threat list."

But to give the media some credit, the reason these reports are so confusing is because of twisted statements given by government officials. On Good Morning America this morning, Vice President Joe Biden shared the threat like this: "We do have talk about using a car bomb... We've been told that was an intention from a credible source," he said. "But we do not have confirmation of that... We don't have a smoking gun." Credible, no confirmation, and no smoking gun. What does that mean?

And yesterday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano may have made things even more confusing with her ambiguous talk of "lots of chatter" happening: "It is still the case that we don't have something that would reach that standard, but we still have lots of chatter out there. And we take every bit of that seriously and track it down. ... The date is important because it's 9/11. But as I said, in the intel world there's lots of chatter and we're taking it all seriously. Should there be something that rises to the level where I have to issue a threat advisory, we will issue a threat advisory." A threat advisory? Is that more serious than what we have now? Getting to the heart of the confusion in his morning column, McGeveran writes "There is something that nags me about the word 'UNCONFIRMED' ...Can there ever really be 'confirmation,' for the public, unless it actually happens?"

Update: Our colleague Marc Ambinder at National Journal answers our questions, noting that it's "astonishing" government officials have never explained what these key alert words actually mean to the American people. He are a few tidbits from his wildly helpful explainer:

A specific threat is one that includes details that are distinctive enough to allow the government to narrow the target set – what’s supposed to blow up – and/or the identifies of the terrorists – not just “two men,” but “two guys who trained at terrorist camp X and who might have entered the U.S. on or around this specific” case. Generally, timing doesn’t factor into these considerations, because anniversaries of some particular event come up almost every day.

A credible threat refers to the source. What makes a source credible? Generally, if the source in the past has provided specific (see above) information that has turned out to be correct – if they have been clairvoyant – then they are credible. Usually, a credible source is a foreign government – as is the case for this particular threat, according to U.S. officials. Another source of credible information: a terrorist or bad guy who just got arrested and may feel some incentive to provide accurate information to interrogators. 

What about uncorroborated or unconfirmed? These terms are mostly interchangeable. It means that the government’s massive global-surveillance network has not intercepted or yet processed information that correlates to the specific details provided to the source. That is, the National Security Agency has not intercepted any phone conversation that provides similar info; liaison services haven’t picked up the same info; a cursory link analysis of names, financial transactions, transits to and from the U.S., and other data searched with reference to the terms associated with the specific threat has not resulted in any pattern than would corroborate the threat.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.