There is a cautionary expression that surfaces occasionally during Oval Office or Situation Room briefings and even more frequently in the intelligence and law enforcement communities: "We don't know what we don't know." Let me assure you, it is not expressed as a hedge against future accountability. It is, however, a necessary and painful reminder that total situational awareness in any critical decision- making context is the ideal, never the reality. In the real world of information gathering and analysis, complete and accurate information in the form of actionable intelligence is afforded our leaders about as often as the Chicago Cubs reach the World Series. Assuming we would never have the benefit of a complete picture, we were struggling to understand the proponents' point of view based upon the intelligence we did possess. We certainly didn't believe the tape alone warranted action, and we weren't seeing any additional intelligence that justified it. In fact, we were incredulous.
Admittedly, the notion of an attack during this period had been discussed. Early in the year, we had identified key events at which Al Qaeda might take great glee in dropping something on us: the Democratic convention in Boston, the Republican convention in New York, and the general election were among them. We were all mindful of the impact of an actual attack on the outcome of the Spanish election earlier in the year. But at this point there was nothing to indicate a specific threat and no reason to cause undue public alarm. And as the minutes passed at our videoconference we concluded that others in the administration were operating with the same threat information and didn't know any more than we did, and that the idea was still a bad one. It also seemed possible to me and to others around the table that something could be afoot other than simple concern about the country's safety.
All of us at DHS knew better than our fellow participants of the delicacy of raising the threat level. We had long ago learned the disadvantages of routinely worrying the public, of making people fearful without being able to give them any specific information about the threat. We knew the tremendous cost incurred at local levels whenever the level went up. We could fairly predict the public outcry of a national threat alert without sharing specific and credible information to justify it on the eve of an election. We could not see the justification within the intelligence in our hands. But even then, we knew that there was a widespread suspicion of such motives and tactics, and this could entirely undermine the credibility of not just the department, but the administration.
As the conference concluded, we agreed to talk the next morning. We began immediately to engage in our own intelligence gathering. Without more specific information that could be shared with a suspicious public on the eve of an election, we were moving toward a certain public relations disaster. We had to learn more or put an end to the discussion. We were on the verge of making a huge mistake. Pat Hughes would check around the intelligence community. Jim Loy would reach out to his fellow deputies within the cabinet. Susan Neely would contact Dan Bartlett, the head of public affairs for the White House.