The feds who cried ‘wolf’

THE FEDS WHO CRIED ‘WOLF’…. Michael Crowley noted this morning, “It’s a little weird that there hasn’t been more alarm surrounding the apparently major Denver-based terror plot busted up by the feds in the past few days. Last night, ABC News reported that authorities believe Najibullah Zazi’s may have co-plotters who are still at large.”

We obviously need quite a bit more information about the Zazi case, but given what we know, it’s a fair point. There are reports that this alleged terrorist plot may be “the most serious in years.” If the allegations are true, “Zazi, a legal immigrant from Afghanistan, had carefully prepared for a terrorist attack. He attended a Qaeda training camp in Pakistan, received training in explosives and stored in his laptop computer nine pages of instructions for making bombs from the same kind of chemicals he had bought.”

So, where’s the freak-out? Jason Zengerle offers a compelling explanation.

Part of it is the crying wolf phenomenon: After so many supposedly big-deal domestic terrorism arrests turned out to be what NYU law school’s Karen J. Greenberg calls “fantasy terrorism cases” (Padilla, the Liberty City Six, the Lackawanna Six, etc.), I think a lot of people have just become inured to this sort of thing, not to mention skeptical.

Right. I used to maintain a list of the “thwarted” Bush-era terrorist plots that, as additional information came to light, were not even close to what they appeared to be initially. The plot to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge wasn’t quite what it was cracked up to be. Jose Padilla was not actually prepared to detonate a dirty bomb in DC. The plot by the “Seas of David” cult in Miami — billed by Dick Cheney as being “a very real threat” — wasn’t a very real threat. The facts of the British hijacking plot didn’t stand up well to scrutiny, while the plot to attack Los Angeles’ Library Tower turned out to be far less serious than we’d been led to believe. Eventually, I gave up — there were just too many.

Periodically, the Bush administration would, to significant fanfare, claim to have made a major counter-terrorism breakthrough. They’d hold press conferences, and pat one another on the back. Invariably, the claims crumbled upon scrutiny, which only fueled cynicism.

When there is a significant story, we’re understandably hesitant.

I should add, of course, that it’s certainly possible that the Zazi case may, in time, fall into the same category. The facts appear horrifying — the suspect is believed to have the intent, training, and materials to launch a serious attack — but time will tell. Karen Greenberg, executive director of the Center on Law and Security at New York University law school, said, the Zazi case “actually looks like the case the government kept claiming it had but never did.” She added that “the ingredients here are quite scary.”

But unlike the Bush era, the Obama team has skipped “the bombast and exaggeration” that was the standard operating procedure of the previous administration.

It’s nice having grown-ups running the place for a change.