The only way to handle the threat of terrorism is to be open with the British people

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The Independent Online

Few would argue that the US government's apparatus for alerting its population to specific terror threats is perfect. The events of this week have certainly added to the impression of fallibility. The head of their Department of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, was forced to admit on Tuesday that his earlier explicit warning that some US banks are in imminent danger was based, at least in part, on old information. This climbdown has reinforced suspicions that the alert was timed to benefit President Bush's re-election campaign. While Mr Ridge maintains that his department does not "do politics", some, understandably, think differently.

Few would argue that the US government's apparatus for alerting its population to specific terror threats is perfect. The events of this week have certainly added to the impression of fallibility. The head of their Department of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, was forced to admit on Tuesday that his earlier explicit warning that some US banks are in imminent danger was based, at least in part, on old information. This climbdown has reinforced suspicions that the alert was timed to benefit President Bush's re-election campaign. While Mr Ridge maintains that his department does not "do politics", some, understandably, think differently.

Despite this, our own Government should learn some lessons from the US approach to issuing terror alerts. One of these lessons is transparency. The information that certain banks in the UK might be a target too was made public by the US authorities. The disturbing revelation that al-Qa'ida was planning an attack in Heathrow airport seems to have come from Pakistani officials. The Government's policy is to give out as little information as possible. The result of this official silence, as we have seen this week, is endless speculation and a good deal of confusion. The questions mount up: is the arrest of a dozen suspects this week related to the terror alerts? How old is the information on the Heathrow attack? Do these multiple alerts mean people should be more vigilant?

Britain has no equivalent to the US Department of Homeland Security, which takes responsibility for issuing terror alerts and establishing the level of the threat. Information here tends to dribble out of either the Home Office, the police or whichever member of the Cabinet is put forward by the Prime Minister. This gives the impression that no one in Government really has a grip on what is going on. There is a strong case for the establishment of a department, perhaps within the Home Office, to take responsibility for issuing warnings and explaining the nature of the threat. We need not go so far as to import the US system of colour coding different threat levels, but it would be useful to know how serious a specific alert was considered to be by the security services.

The Government should also release more information about specific threats. Britain's history of dealing with IRA terrorism shows that the public is perfectly capable of acting sensibly on the basis of specific warnings. If people are kept informed about developments they will not panic. It is far more worrying to the general public to read wild speculation reported in the press, or to hear foreign governments outlining a potential threat when their own refuses to comment. Of course it would be unreasonable to expect the Government to publish every piece of intelligence that it receives. But a better balance can be struck than the state of affairs that prevails where we have either total silence from the Government, or full-scale alerts.

As in America, there is no way that security officials will be able to avoid accusations that they manipulate terror threats for political reasons, no matter how transparent their organisations are. And this Government's record of using intelligence impartially is not, needless to say, spotless. But as the US has demonstrated this week, the advantage of creating a department of government responsible for terror threats is that it can be held directly accountable for any improper issuing of alerts.

There are signs that progress is being made in confounding al-Qa'ida. The paradox is that the more successful the world's security services are in capturing terrorists and unearthing information about their operations, the greater the threat seems. The discovery of detailed plans on the computers of two al-Qa'ida agents in Pakistan seems to have led directly to this week's security scares. Since there is every reason to believe that this pattern will continue, the Government should waste no time in ensuring that its domestic warning system is appropriate to the age of insecurity in which we live.

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