WASHINGTON - In light of all the latest warnings of terrorist attacks, which according to Vice President Dick Cheney could come as soon as "tomorrow," I decided to check in with the Office of Homeland Security to find out what level of threat we're at now.
After convincing the telephone operator that there was such an office under the president, I reached a public affairs officer who told me we're still at "yellow," the designation for a "significant risk" of attack.
Innocently, I asked why, in light of the new alerts from everyone from Mr. Cheney to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to FBI Director Robert Mueller and the homeland security maestro himself, Tom Ridge, we haven't been bumped up to "orange." In the Bush administration's color-coded world of terrorist peril, "orange" signifies a "high risk," which apparently is greater than a "significant risk."
Sounding like a tape-recorded message, Mr. Ridge's aide responded that we were still at "yellow" and "no new alert has been issued." Then why, I inquired, were we getting this barrage of new warnings from on high? All she knew, she repeated, was that "no new alert has been issued."
So what are we to conclude? We are told by administration officials that the new wave of alerts has been dictated by the increased "chatter" from various intelligence sources, similar to what happened in advance of the Sept. 11 attacks. But just as our intelligence experts didn't know what it meant then, we don't know what it means now. So if they don't know any more than that, why let us in on it?
If I remember correctly, when President Bush in September first addressed the matter of living in a world of terrorist attacks, he urged us to get on with our normal lives but be more alert to the dangers. Other administration figures subsequently reminded us of that same advice several times.
When no further attacks came after the new warnings, and citizens expressed confusion and doubts, the Office of Homeland Security dreamed up the color-coded warning system, complete with a rainbow chart explained by the ever earnest Mr. Ridge. We were at "yellow," he said, and there we have stayed in spite of the new warnings.
It's puzzling. While prospective new attacks can be described as everything from "almost certain" (by Mr. Cheney) to "inevitable" (by Mr. Mueller), we're seemingly stuck at "yellow." Mr. Ridge, the minister without much of a portfolio, is not authorized to upgrade the color, his spokesman said. That would have to be done by Attorney General John Ashcroft, who, for once, is not saying anything.
If I were the cynical sort, I would wonder why so many top administration officials were reciting the same thing about new attacks at precisely this time. It could not be, certainly, that President Bush was thrown on the defensive over the disclosure that he had been told before Sept. 11 that al-Qaida planners were known to be considering the hijacking of airplanes.
When House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt raised questions about that and the FBI field memo expressing alarm over Middle Easterners taking flight training in this country, Mr. Cheney accused the Democrats of playing dangerous politics. That accusation, in turn, brought counter-charges about patriotism being the last refuge of scoundrels.
In this climate, the latest warnings of terrorists out there who can strike again suggest a bit of posterior covering. If or when such new attacks come, the administration can truthfully observe, "Don't say we didn't warn you."
Specific alerts about specific threats are one thing. Knowledge of them can help Americans decide what they can do about them and government can offer its advice.
But these continued vague and unspecific warnings can have a lulling effect. As Mr. Cheney said on television Sunday: "You can only sustain an alert for so long, and then it gets to be old hat. People have heard that before so they begin not to respond."
Jules Witcover's column from The Sun's Washington bureau appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.