Saturday, October 2, 2004

Local terror alert letter was confusing


Hamilton County Sheriff Simon Leis and Cincinnati Police Chief Tom Streicher offered some sound advice the other day on watching out for terrorists. But the timing and tone of their warning caused plenty of unnecessary alarm and confusion.

Their letter "To the citizens of Greater Cincinnati" was sent out to thousands of schools, businesses, shopping malls and media outlets on Thursday, announcing that increased police patrols were being implemented because of heightened concerns over possible terrorist attacks.

In an interview, the sheriff said he sent the letter because of recent conversations he had with federal authorities and information via the Internet suggested the possibility of a terrorist attack before the election. "This is a rare step," the sheriff said. "I've never witnessed anything like this before."

The letter notes that there is no physical description common to all terrorists, but that persons acting suspiciously, loitering, drawing maps or diagrams of buildings, taking photos or videos, "or otherwise acting in a questionable manner," should be brought to the attention of the police.

"There is a strong indication that a terrorist attack will occur before the election. We are concerned about it happening in the Middle West," the sheriff said.

The only problem with the letter is that it came as a surprise to the FBI and federal Homeland Security officials, who said as far as they knew, there is no new information indicating an upgraded terrorist threat. The information that such an attack might come before the election is about six months old and already had been widely reported. Nor has there been a specific threat against a Midwest target, said Jim Turgal, supervisor of the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force in Cincinnati. Turgal's group is the one that is supposed to coordinate the region's anti-terrorism efforts.

We applaud the vigilance of Leis and Streicher, and urge anyone who sees something they find suspicious to report it immediately to the police. But we also urge our local law enforcement agencies to work in concert with the federal authorities in these efforts. We believe the first step toward better security should be better communications.

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