When I was growing up, a child of the '70s, one of my favorite comedians was Robert Klein. He had a bit about doing impersonations; he told the audience that he liked to do "off-beat impressions," like Sir Issac Newton, the renowned physicist and pioneer in studying gravity. Why? "Who can check?"
I thought of that this weekend when I heard that the State Department was going to close all its embassies and consulates around the Islamic world for a day because of an alleged terror plot -- later it was reported that government spies, presumably from the controversial National Security Agency, had picked up "chatter" (there's some 2000s nostalgia for you!) among senior al Qaeda members about an operation. One report said the operatives had been "selected and were in place" -- which made it sound a little like a reality show on Bravo.
Here's what interested me -- although the terror warning was the lead story on most newscasts and websites that week, there was very little "chatter" -- for want of a better term -- on Twitter about the topic. That's what's kind of disturbing about these terror warnings -- they have a chilling effect on discourse. No one dares completely dismiss them (and I'm not, even if it sounds like I am) because people are terrified -- again, for want of a better word -- of looking foolish if there is an actual attack.
If there is no attack, which history suggests is likely, the Obama administration may have committed an act of great foresight, scaring these "already selected" attackers away. Most Americans -- myself included -- wish with hindsight that George W. Bush had issued such an alert when he read, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." Or, the entire alert may be based upon intelligence that is over-hyped, or misinterpreted -- or even non-existent. The average U.S. citizen will never know for sure what the "chatter" said or even how it was intercepted.
Like Robert Klein said, who can check?
The few longtime readers I have left remember that during the Bush-Cheney years, I was a frequent critic of how that administration used and abused (as later confirmed) those orange terror alerts for political purposes, seemingly to distract the American people from problems elsewhere. On TV, Keith Olbermann even had a name for it, "The Nexus of Politics and Terror." So now that Obama seems to be doing the same thing, do I see things differently? No, I do not. I'm just as concerned and wary of the practice under Obama as I was under Bush-Cheney, maybe more so.
Regardless of what one thinks about the embassy closings, no one can argue that the Obama administration wants to change the subject, especially about national security matters and the NSA. Just in the last few days, we've learned about the NSA's XKeyscore program that reportedly collects "nearly everything a user does on the Internet," about the hollowness of Obama's promises to curtail the drone war overseas, and that the CIA is going to extraordinary lengths to cover-up the true nature of its activities in Benghazi last fall. Is it crazy to wonder if there's a...nexus?
The real problem is the credibility gap inside the Beltway, starting with the war in Iraq -- the mother of all lies -- and going right up to a few months ago when Obama's national intelligence director committed perjury before Congress but knew that he will never be charged, presumably because he's not a Major League Baseball player accused of using steroids.
Remember the moral of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" is that finally there really as a wolf -- but no one believed the boy because of all the lies that came before. Likewise, the problem with the terror warning of 2013 is not the warning itself but the decade of government baloney that preceded it. Washington needs to acknowledge the reality: If it wants to better a job of keeping the public safe, it will need to start doing a much, much better job of telling the public the truth.
UPDATE: The great blogger emptywheel was already on the case...so I'm not crazy.