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Too Much Information

When it comes to homeland security, some questions are better left unanswered and some scenarios left unexplored.

11:00 PM, Feb 25, 2003 • By HUGH HEWITT
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FROM THE MOMENT listeners realized that terrorism had come to America, callers to my radio program have wanted to discuss various terrorism scenarios. Invariably the conversation begins, "If I was a terrorist, here's how I'd paralyze the country . . ."

Then I cut them off. It is a conversation with no upside other than ratings, and perhaps a little--or even more than a little--risk. Why advertise vulnerability, and why encourage paranoia?

Last week I called some local law-enforcement types to press them on the mechanics of homeland defense. These questions raised hypotheticals and to their credit, the very polite officers I spoke with refused to discuss vulnerabilities with journalists. They will confirm facts, and patiently repeat already-public details and statistics, but no one was in a hurry to elaborate on holes in the security net or worst-case scenarios. "Need to know" remains an operational concept in some places.

This is not the style of Sgt. George McClaskey, "a Baltimore cop," according to Sunday's New York Times Magazine, "who spends his days thinking" about terrorism's next generation of targets. Not only does he think about them, McClaskey is comfortable sharing that thinking. "If I wanted to create a big bang," McClaskey told Times writer Matthew Brezezinski, "I'd pack a small boat with explosives and crash it right there," pointing to a promenade on Baltimore's Inner Harbor. The officer waxed poetic about the nearby Domino sugar refinery, full of flammable dust: "Most people don't think about it," he mused, "but that's a giant bomb." They're thinking about it now.

Offcier McClaskey has nothing on the California attorney general, however, as evidenced by Saturday's Los Angeles Times story: "LAX Ranks No. 1 on State List of Terrorist Targets: Attorney general names 624 sites thought to be most attractive to terrorists, including ports, the Golden Gate Bridge, bottling plants." And indeed he had. The Los Angeles Times produced a partial list for the perusal of its readers, and a few churches were surprised they had been ranked so high on the target list. The Times carefully noted that "[n]either the Santa Monica Pier nor the nearby Third Street Promenade are on the list, even though they attract thousands of visitors daily." Handy info, that, though perhaps the local merchants' association might have declined the opportunity to participate in this particular listing.

Four days later there has been no follow-up story that I can find and the website of the Golden State's attorney general, the in-way-over-his-head Bill Lockyer, is not presently providing the complete list. We are left to wonder whether someone thought better of spelling out the entire list of 600-plus targets.

The identification of vulnerabilities and possible targets of course makes perfect sense. And so does a policy of discretion when it comes time to naming those targets and sharing those worries. A lot of well-meaning people are feeling their way along in this new age of security. One of the lessons that needs to be learned is that just because a list exists doesn't mean it ought to be published. And a corollary: Just because a journalist asks, doesn't mean an answer is deserved.

Hugh Hewitt is the host of The Hugh Hewitt Show, a nationally syndicated radio talkshow, and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.