updated 8/9/2004 3:33:56 PM ET 2004-08-09T19:33:56

The penalty for failing to alert the American people prior to an actual attack will be far greater than the penalty for repeated alerts – even seemingly false alerts when no attack occurs.

In recent weeks, more and more questions about the timing of terror alerts for possible political gain by the Bush Administration have seeped into our political dialog.

The Bush Administration has brought this questioning of its motives and credibility on itself with its lack of forthrightness on the critical issue of why our war on terror somehow turned into a war in Iraq. Yet I think there is a far less cynical explanation for the increased number of terror alerts – even those based on three-year-old intelligence.

Cost-benefit analysis

The Bush Administration knows that if it fails to alert the American people prior to an actual attack, its days are numbered. If the administration comes upon information about an attack, and that information is three-years-old, the administration can stay mum and suffer the consequences if anything happens or issue an alert based on three year old information.    Politically the safer choice for any administration will be to raise the alert status of the nation.

The Darkest DayThe problem does not begin at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. With so much pressure being heaped on the intelligence community from various congressional and independent panels who failed to raise a warning before 9/11, is it surprising that these agencies now consider it the better part of valor is to send any information they get quickly up the chain of command?

And senior officials now know that if  such information goes no further than their desk, they risk being the scapegoat if an attack related to that information, no matter how old it is, should happen. And so up the flimsy and aged information goes until the administration issues a new alert.

A moveable buck

But what does not start at the White House doesn’t necessarily stop there, either.  The media, like it or not, have become the equivalents of embeds in war on terrorism.

Moment by momentEven if the media believes it is being used, or that an alert is hyped, the  reporter or a network finds itself in the same quandary as the mid-level intelligence bureaucrat. What if they question the veracity of an alert instead of dutifully reporting the alert and something happens?

I could be wrong about this, but I don’t think the administration is practicing manipulative politics when it comes to terror alerts. No, it’s a different and less cynical form of politics being practiced – the C-Y-A kind.   

Just one possible explanation from one American who still wonders what he is supposed to do under orange alert.  

Joe Trippi, Howard Dean's former campaign manager, is an MSNBC contributor and a political analyst for "Hardball with Chris Matthews."  He's contributes to Hardball's weblog, and is author of "The Revolution Will Not be Televised: Democracy, the Internet and the Overthrow of Everything."


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