In addition, we were growing weary at DHS of the allegation that on those few occasions when the threat level was changed, it was done solely for political reasons. I often said, "We don't do politics." (And I made good on that by not engaging in any partisan activity during my tenure.) But there were many who thought otherwise, including much of the media and many Democrats, who, in an election year, were not shy about making the charge. Their argument was that the federal government—and specifically the White House with the willful collaboration of the Department of Homeland Security—would do anything it needed to do to scare the hell out of the country in order to keep the Republicans—generally considered to be more vigilant and committed on the issue of security—in power. Not true. The critics consistently ignored the reality of the decision-making process. The role of the White House was to accept or reject the consensus recommendation of the Homeland Security Council.
I knew going in that some people would dismiss the new intelligence as old intelligence. But no one in our department felt that way. One of the CEOs I contacted to discuss the upcoming threat alert had the best perspective: The age of the intelligence was of little concern to him. He took it seriously. Enough said. Our work had shown repeatedly that this new enemy of ours has a different view of the calendar than we do. The 9/11 attack was in the works for years, and so was the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. The fact that the information we discovered was three years old by the summer of 2004 in no way convinced us that it was outdated or irrelevant.
We decided that the specific city of the information enabled us to use our alert system in a new and limited way. If this was a precursor to a potential attack on the financial sector, meant to be symbolic in the way that passenger jets destroying the White House and Pentagon were, we could be more precise in our warning. We could focus exclusively on the financial community and the region in which the potential targets were located. No need to involve any other sectors or cities. We limited our elevated alert (orange) to areas of New York City, Newark, and Washington, D.C. And in the case of those cities, our information was specific enough to allow local officials to concentrate security forces in limited areas rather than at every subway station and public building. Even so, we knew that being so visible on Wall Street and other economic locations would be alarming to some.
There was no other choice. Visible security can be a reassuring sign and a deterrent. It was recorded that the attendance on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange the following day was higher than the same day the previous summer. It was another example of Americans being unwilling to bend to fear, to alter their behavior in the face of the plans of an unknown enemy. If Khan had been back with his camera in 2004, he would have seen a different picture.
After the threat level was lowered, the reaction around the country to its use was positive. Credibility was always our goal while communicating to the public. Yet, in dealing with these events, I inadvertently appeared to undermine my own.