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Duty versus devotion
An editorial / By Dale McFeatters
Scripps Howard News Service


October 21, 2005

Two senior Department of Homeland Security officials have been stripped of their security clearances and transferred to lesser duties. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg says it's not enough. He wants them fired.

Their offense: One e-mailed his son and the other an old friend tipping them off to a possible plot to bomb to bomb New York's subways. The recipients, in turn, warned others and the tip metastasized, forcing Bloomberg to call a press conference to alert the public to what the authorities already knew.

Soon after, DHS said the evidence of a plot, supposedly by al Qaeda, was not credible, setting off a whole, separate ruckus.

But the e-mails touch on an ethical and moral dilemma beloved of scriptwriters and novelists that must be faced in planning for acts of terrorism. The plot usually runs like this: A nuclear device is planted in a city where, it so happens, the hero's family is living or visiting. There can be no public warning because it would cause mass panic and alert the terrorists. The only hope is that the hero can locate the device before it goes off. Does he quietly tell his family to get out?

That dilemma was why the massive, 1950s bunker under The Greenbrier resort would have never worked. In the event of impending nuclear attack, it required the 100 members of the Senate, 435 members of the House and the 12 Supreme Court justice to abandon their families and staffs and slip off to a remote location hours away in West Virginia. It wouldn't have happened.

The dilemma will never be totally resolved but it can be much diminished by a minimum of secrecy. Security planning should not concentrate on the most apocalyptic and improbable threats - a nuclear device ticking down, etc. - but on more likely threats, like an assault on the subways for which there was clear precedent in London and Madrid.

When the threat became public, New Yorkers took it in stride, deciding for themselves whether to take the subway. Those who did cooperated good-naturedly in the extra security and searches.

The two DHS officials should not have done what they did - they made a certain commitment when they signed on to the job - but it is also beyond government's capacity to change human nature.


Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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