Public’s right to know

The American public is flying blind right now. Since Sept. 11, the government has provided little more than cursory information regarding their response to the attacks and, more importantly, what threats still face the nation. So far the government has been most forthcoming about the bombings in Afghanistan, which seems counterintuitive considering at last count the FBI estimated there might be a dozen terrorist “handlers” still in the United States. What happens in Afghanistan is important, but more pressing is what’s going on here.

Two weeks ago, The Washington Post’s story on the CIA’s new mission to kill Osama bin Laden told of a daily report from the CIA to President George W. Bush called the “threat matrix.” This report contains only what the agency considers pressing terrorist threats and, according to the article, lists up to 100 of these per day. But the public won’t know of them until, at the very earliest, officials increase security.

The closing of airports in central Pennsylvania two weeks ago serves as an example. After officials at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant received what they called a “credible threat,” they shut down local airports and increased plant security. Security returned to normal the next day, after officials said the threat no longer existed. What, specifically, the threat entailed and where it came from remain unknown. We might never know if the government issued the warning or if a member of al-Qaida made a phone call.

Also unknown are the steps being taken to combat this and other potential attacks. The FBI has tasked one of every four agents to domestic terror investigations. Aside from that number, however, little information on their progress has been forthcoming from any federal agency.

Things like troop movements in Afghanistan or future Air Force targets should, for safety reasons, not be publicized. But the most credible threats to American civilians should be made known and for the very same reason. The Center for Disease Control’s recent bungling of the anthrax attacks illustrates this point. The public has a right to know if they are being threatened and what steps are being taken to protect them. They also have a right to know if nothing is being done, and why that is the case.

Government officials have repeatedly urged the public to return, as much as possible, to their normal lives. Keeping people ignorant of the threats they face won’t alleviate fear. In fact, if people are blindsided by another attack, these clandestine policies will backfire completely. Americans must know what they’re facing because the stakes have risen. What we don’t know could kill us.