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On Monday, the Department of Homeland Security issued guidance to all Americans on how best to prepare for a terrorist attack that made use of a weapon of mass destruction. There is some curious guidance here, especially this exchange:
Q: What should I do in a radiological attack?
A: Seek shelter below ground and stay there until told otherwise. If you’re caught outside, lie on the ground and cover your head.
This is, of course, absurd if the attack comes on a subway as has been much discussed, or if the attack is a couple of blocks away from where you happen to be, in which case most folks will take a page from Monty Python’s Department of Homeland Security as seen in the “Holy Grail” movie – the bunny scene – and “run away, run away!” Can you imagine the poor fool who lies down on a major street and covers his head? Think Messala in the chariot race in “Ben Hur.”
The department is only a couple of months old, and the seriousness of this new threat has got it issuing such guidance because it has to be seen to be doing something and the important stuff it is doing it can’t really tell the public about. Still, I have some guidance for it.
In the aftermath of a terror attack, there is going to be terror – especially if it’s a biological attack, but any weapon of the sort we have been discussing for the last 18 months is going to scare the pants off of millions.
The antidotes to terror are information and instruction. The good news is that a vast infrastructure of information distribution has been assembled over the past decade. It is called the Internet.
The bad news is that the government hasn’t figured out how to use it to communicate crucial information in a timely fashion.
The old world of government operated on the principle that information was a prized commodity, and it was not to be shared with the public except under tightly controlled circumstances and only after committees of committees had drafted, edited, cleared and reviewed the releases.
In the aftermath of any attack, the government had better have a host of sites up and running with concrete and particularized instructions on the threat and the actual steps that need to be taken. Secretary Ridge, the attorney general and of course the White House staff will have to start communicating clear and precise directions to the public immediately, and one or two servers won’t do it.
Today, I have no idea where I would link to get updates on what the government believes is the best reaction to any sort of an attack. I’d probably go to Instapundit, Powerline, the Volokh Conspiracy or Free Republic and the Democratic Underground to get the latest news and hope that someone among these bloggers and web editors had the real scoop.
It would be much better if the new department actually designed a string of sites that could carry the huge traffic and then prepared to upload huge amounts of information as it flowed in so that it could flow out from a reliable source.
Again, think of an attack from a biological agent. The public is going to need to know immediately where the original attack was thought to have occurred, who might have been exposed and what those people should do. The government would want to direct the flow of people seeking care to particular sites, and to issue guidance to medical professionals who hadn’t bothered to read up on whatever nasty has been launched. Evacuation or stay-put orders have to reach tens of millions to be effective, and as much as I love the Fox News Network, I’d rather read the Department’s advice in the original.
The government has been playing catch up since 9-11 and doing – by any fair estimate – a tremendous job. But constructing the information dispersal system needs to be a priority, as does senior official training on how to communicate with 280 million people. Sending Al Haig to announce who was in control 20 years ago had nearly the opposite effect of its intention, but the danger of miscommunication should not paralyze the operation.
Here’s my suggestion: Select a senior official with mature judgment and experience who has experience in mass media and the confidence of the president (one example: the No. 2 at Homeland Security, Asa Hutchinson) and instruct him or her that they will be in charge – sole charge – of whatever gets posted on the government’s designated websites (again, there should be many, many links).
That individual gets access to all the incoming data on the nature of the attack and has available to him all the experts he needs. He doesn’t need anyone’s clearance, he just starts pumping out guidance because any guidance from such a source will be preferable to silence and/or mixed signals. He will make mistakes, of course, and the process of continually updating the site will be rocky and pressure filled, but again the alternative is panic and loss of control over the message.
The time to get organized is short. Let’s hope they have been planning the rollout of such a system for some time.