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Homepage / ANALYSIS

What Those 'Threat' Words Actually Mean

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

photo of Marc Ambinder
September 9, 2011

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.

One major source of tension between the FBI and the New York Police Department since 9/11 has been the police department’s decision to try to communicate better with New Yorkers about threats. The FBI wants to be general. NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly and NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg want to be specific. This is one reason why, in the spirit of cooperation, the NYPD wants the FBI to have a presence at its press conferences … but also a reason why the FBI doesn’t usually say anything.

To the Obama administration’s credit, when word of a threat was first leaked (and a government official says that there was no plan to divulge the information precisely because there was nothing they wanted Americans to do with it) the Homeland Security Department released a very short statement confirming the threat. The spokesman used that confusing set of words, but he also tried to put them into context, pointing out that as "we always do before important dates like the anniversary of 9/11, we will undoubtedly get more reporting in the coming days. Sometimes this reporting is credible and warrants intense focus; other times it lacks credibility and is highly unlikely to be reflective of real plots under way.”

Transparency is generally a good thing. And it is very difficult to keep the existence of a credible threat from the American people, which is also probably a good thing. Part of our bargain with the government about secrecy includes its willingness to treat us as adults when it comes to informing us if the level of danger we face going about our daily lives is heightened from normal.

But in the post-9/11 push to share information, plenty of bad stuff gets out too, such as reports on Thursday night about missing trucks from Kansas City. (These trucks had nothing to do with the threat, and, in fact, were not missing.)  Bad information adds to the sense of psychological anxiety we all feel when we see cable networks flash their Breaking News banners.

But dribbling out accurate details might well compromise an active investigation: Maybe you don’t want the potential terrorists to know if you’re close to nabbing them.  

On the other hand, sometimes accurate information placed in the public domain might serve as a deterrent to anyone contemplating an attack--or might cause the bad guys to change their methods in a way that makes them stand out more easily.

So there is a case to make that, when it comes to real, potential terrorist threats, it is reasonable to expect the government  -- the people who know as much as there is to know – to keep some things secret  -- and to allow them the discretion to do so.

But the government ought to be obligated to make this case, and to make sure that, when it does communicate, either to clarify leaks or to simply inform us, it makes a good-faith effort to ensure that the end result is a shared understanding.

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