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What Those 'Threat' Words Actually Mean What Those 'Threat' Words Actually Mean

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ANALYSIS

What Those 'Threat' Words Actually Mean

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A canine unit police officer inspects cars outside Grand Central Station in New York on Friday.(MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

What does the U.S. government mean when it tells Americans that it has received a “specific,” “credible” but “unconfirmed” or “uncorrobated” terrorist threat?

Before he was inaugurated, President Obama decided, as a matter of policy, that the worst way to respond to a distinctive threat was to treat the country to a command performance by scary adults in suits, grimly conveying vague but ominous information to citizens. 

 

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If that old style, associated with the early years of the Bush administration, didn’t incite panic, it did lead to the inevitable question for which there is no answer: What the heck do we do with this information you have just given us? What does it even mean?

Obama’s approach, though, isn’t much better because it lacks a shared vocabulary. When the intelligence community thinks something is “specific,” what does that mean?  What counts, to Counterterrorism Adviser John Brennan, as a “credible” threat? 

It’s somewhat astonishing that, in the millions of person-hours that the brains who think about strategic communication have devoted to the question, no one has thought to tell Americans what the government means when it uses specific phrases. 

 

Doing so would not help terrorists, would remove some of the Orwellian taint associated with vague government warnings, and would foster a common sensibility about terrorism, as well as a more realistic view of what the law-enforcement and intelligence communities can and cannot do to defuse potential threats.

Here is what the words actually mean.

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.

Why the government can’t – or won’t – explain this is not obvious.

It may be that counterterrorism folks get so caught up in their world that they forget how to convey meaning to people who aren’t as entrenched as they are. It may be that some within the intelligence community believe that providing even such basic definitions would compromise sources and methods. If that’s the reason, then only the president can change the communication posture.

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