WASHINGTON -- An FBI tip about a possible terrorist threat to the Orlando, Fla., water supply was so vague that officials did not know what contaminants to check for. They publicized the threat anyway.
"We didn't want to be caught with our pants down," said Lisa Akhavan, speaking for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Across the country, local officials are newly sensitive about sitting on information that could presage a terrorist attack, even when the leads are less than solid.
As a result, more public warnings may be issued, however vague, as authorities juggle intelligence that's disturbing but frequently unreliable.
No one wants to face the criticism now being leveled at the Bush administration -- that it took insufficient action last summer when it heard the al-Qaida terrorist network was planning an attack that could include a hijacking.
Recent warnings have included threats against apartment buildings, banks, shopping malls -- even the Liberty Bell. Bush administration officials also have warned that some kind of terrorist attack is inevitable.
Striking the right balance will be tough, experts say. Too few warnings and officials will seem unprepared, incompetent or uncaring. Too many and the warnings will lose their punch.
Not wanting to cry wolf
"Information has to be researched before it's released or else the government will sound like the boy who cried wolf," said terrorism researcher Michael Scardaville of the Heritage Foundation think tank.
"If this happens every day, the American people are going to start to ignore it, so that when a real threat comes through, people are going to think nothing is going to happen."
Federal officials make public warnings only when threats are specific and credible, said Gordon Johndroe, speaking for Tom Ridge, the homeland security chief.
But officials send more ambiguous information to local law enforcement authorities, who can decide, as Florida officials did, to disclose it.
Johndroe said that's what happened with an FBI warning about apartment complexes, issued twice earlier and made public Monday.
"There are indications that al-Qaida leaders have discussed the possibility of renting apartment units in various areas of the United States and rigging them with explosives," the FBI warning said, according to Jennifer Gordon of the Arkansas Emergency Management Department.
"The FBI has no indication that this proposed plot has advanced beyond the discussion stage."
That warning first went out to local officials April 3 and was repeated May 6, Johndroe said. Federal officials didn't think it was specific enough to merit a public warning, he said.
Some local officials agreed. In Denver, police were told to mention the warning when they talked to apartment owners but officials decided not to make a general announcement, said police spokesman Sgt. Tony Lombard.
"As far as a blanket notification, I don't see us doing that," Lombard said. "That's what the media's for."
In Orlando, officials increased security at the eight facilities treating water for the city and its major theme parks and found no evidence of tampering.
Although the threat was not specific, officials didn't want to be criticized for withholding information as President Bush and his aides were, Akhavan said.
"We're letting the public know what's going on, reassuring them that law enforcement is working on their side," she said.
The risks of another attack were underscored in the past few days by Vice President Dick Cheney, who said terrorists are almost certain to try again, and by FBI Director Robert Mueller, who said walk-up suicide bombings like those in the Middle East are bound to be tried in America.
"People do need to be reminded that we are still at war, that there are terrorist organizations that continue to make plans to attack America," Johndroe said.
But Michael O'Hanlon of the liberal Brookings Institution said public warnings aren't as helpful as concrete security measures such as enhanced screening at airports. "These temporary alerts have only a marginal benefit," he said.
Local officials have responded in a measured way to some uncorroborated threats. Authorities in Philadelphia reacted to a threat in February about the Liberty Bell by tightening security in the neighborhood, but they did not stop public tours.
Just as officials can be criticized for keeping a lid on information about potential danger, they can take heat for coming out with it and -- in some minds -- overreacting.
In November, California Gov. Gray Davis announced the FBI had warned of a threat to attack bridges in the West, including California. He ordered National Guard troops stationed at four bridges, switching the security to state troopers only last week.
Critics, including Davis' Republican opponent in the governor's race, said the announcement did little more than scare people. ------
On the Net:
Office of Homeland Security: http://www.whitehouse.gov/homeland/