SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gray Davis’ warning that the Golden Gate and three other California bridges could be on terrorists’ Friday rush-hour hit list has renewed a debate over whether such disclosures do more harm than good.
Just making the warning, rightly or wrongly, accomplished a terrorist goal, the disruption of normal life, said George Vinson, the special security adviser Davis named Thursday.
“This is exactly what terrorism is all about. They release information, they make threats, they want to create anxiety among people.”
But Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said there’s no “universal blueprint” for deciding whether to publicize threats. Because federal investigators released information about the threats to various West Coast law enforcement agencies, the information might have become public without Davis.
Robyn Pangi, a domestic preparedness specialist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., said the public has received too many mixed messages since the Sept. 11 attacks and the more recent anthrax incidents from officials including President Bush, Ridge and Davis.
“You’ve got one person saying, ’Go along with your lives,’ another saying ’Don’t cross a bridge,”’ she said. “People want to know what’s going on, but when you’re not giving them any advice, it’s not doing them any good.”
Announcements, however, can make the public more vigilant, said University of California, Irvine political scientist Mark P. Petracca, who defended Davis.
“I think they have a moral obligation to let people know, even if it increases anxiety,” Petracca said.
Bush, a Republican, backed the Democratic governor Friday as he promised continued cooperation between federal, state and local law enforcement agencies despite the FBI’s fears that Davis might have compromised its investigation.
“Part of the homeland defense is active and strong communications so that governors and/or local authorities can harden targets, respond to uncorroborated evidence and to protect their people,” Bush said during a Rose Garden appearance.
As Ridge mentioned, some of the information was already leaking out, said San Francisco Police Chief Fred Lau, adding that he was preparing to release the information himself Thursday after learning that East Coast corporations were already warning their western employees of the threat.
Lau said he wanted to keep his announcement low key, because “we didn’t want to overreact and cause a panic.”
Across the San Francisco Bay, Alameda County Sheriff Charles Plummer, Northern California’s liaison to state emergency officials, said Davis’ information was so nebulous that it just “scares people to death.”
Davis on Friday again defended his decision, which he said was based on written warnings from three federal agencies.
“This one was time-specific and location-specific and I felt it was appropriate to tell people what I was doing to prepare for that threat and to fully inform them,” Davis said at an economic summit press conference in Burbank.
“We do have to find a way to balance the seemingly competing concerns of keeping people safe and restoring confidence so they can go about their lives. This is not an easy line to walk. There is no playbook to guide us,” Davis said.
Despite the FBI’s concern for its investigation, disclosure could stop the attacks if terrorist know their plans are no longer secret, Davis said.
“We don’t want to just clean up the dead and wounded, we want to prevent terrorism in the first place,” Davis told CNN’s “Larry King Live” Thursday night.
Davis and California Highway Patrol Commissioner D.O. “Spike” Helmick said their listing of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridge, both in San Francisco, the Vincent Thomas Bridge at the Port of Los Angeles, and the San Diego Coronado Bridge as possible targets was only done to cite examples.
They said they wanted to assure motorists extra care was taken and not to panic.
Yet the governors of Washington and Oregon chose not to issue warnings, and Seattle’s mayor held a news conference to downplay the threat only after Davis’ announcement.
The warning was sent Wednesday to law enforcement agencies not only in the three West Coast states, but to Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Montana and Idaho.
On Friday, traffic flowed normally across San Francisco Bay Area bridges during the morning commute, amid noticeably higher security. Several commuters who decided not to alter their plans said Davis overreacted.
But Bechtel Inc., the engineering company that built the Bay Bridge linking San Francisco with Oakland, gave its 1,200 San Francisco employees the option of working from home or taking time off for the next few business days after Davis’ warning.
Officials should limit the number of announcements they make to avoid crying wolf and diminishing their future credibility, said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat whose district includes the potential targets.
“The purpose of terrorism is to instill fear,” said Pelosi, a top House Democrat and her party’s top member of the House intelligence committee. “They engage is disinformation and deception by throwing out more threats than they are capable of.”
Despite Bush’s emphasis on constant communication, Plummer said California could be cut off from future warnings.
“Do you think the FBI is going to tell the governor anything from now on?” Plummer asked. “I think he just burned his bridge.”