Chicken Little or Attacking Terrorist Strategy? Why the U.S. Issues Warnings about Attacks


In a recent op-ed on CNN, Peter Bergen took the U.S. government and intelligence community to task because no terrorist attack occurred during the Independence Day holiday. He wrote that U.S. government warnings prior to the Fourth were overblown and counterproductive because it had no “specific intelligence.” They cried wolf, he claimed.

Judging by Bergen’s confidence in his judgments, he must be privy to the intelligence or lack thereof one would need to make these claims. If not, I would like to ask Mr. Bergen to consider the following:

What if the intelligence community had no specific intelligence that they could share publicly because to do so might compromise sources and methods? If the intelligence community did, in fact, have real indications and warnings of something nefarious — does the government not have a duty to warn its people?

What if the warnings were designed to directly expose the enemy’s strategy? What if the increase in vigilance (i.e., anti-terrorism measures) caused the enemy to scrap its attack plans because the likelihood of compromise and mission failure had increased? Would we prefer no warning and then have an attack?

Mr. Bergen also wrote:

Crying wolf, however, does have repercussions. There are significant costs to these terror alerts, both economic and social.

This weekend, local governments and businesses spent significant sums putting temporary security upgrades in place. Some Americans made alternative vacation plans. In the past, many flights have been canceled and commerce impeded.

More fundamentally, the issuing of alerts undermines the essential purpose of counterterrorism — to prevent terrorist attacks, yes, but also to guarantee American citizens’ right to live outside the realm of fear that terrorists want to impose on us. Inflated, ineffectual warnings do not serve the purpose of effective counterterrorism; they contradict it.

Yes, local governments spent a lot of money but did the people not come out and safely enjoy the weekend’s festivities?  Wasn’t the money well spent if a terrorist attack was prevented or made less likely due to the vigilance of our law enforcement and intelligence agencies?

Bergen illustrates the paradox of deterrence and attacking the enemy’s strategy. Taking all prudent anti-terrorism measures can deter terrorism but when the terrorist act does not occur the pundits criticize the government for alarming the people. The government is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t.  No warnings and then attack equals failure and tragedy.  Warnings and no attack also equals “failure” in the eyes of the pundits and talking heads.

But Bergen of all people should know that we live in a world where those seeking to attack the United States and its people through acts of terrorism are arguably stronger than they have been since September 10, 2001 due to the collapse of security regimes across the Middle East and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

This threat cannot be ignored or wished away. We have to live in the world as it really is and not as we would wish it to be. And we all have a role in anti-terrorism. We should give the intelligence community and our government credit because we had an Independence Day holiday without a terrorist attack. Those who believe that our government was crying wolf simply because nothing happened actually damage our national security. Rather than criticizing the intelligence community and government, pundits would better serve the American people by explaining how the warnings contributed to effective anti-terrorism measures that may have prevented an attack. Every law enforcement official, security guard, and vigilant American contributed to preventing a terrorist attack. And they all enjoyed the holiday weekend.


David S. Maxwell is the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University and teaches unconventional warfare and special operations for policymakers and strategists.  He is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces colonel with command and staff assignments in Korea, Japan, Germany, the Philippines, and the United States. He served as a member of the military faculty teaching national security at the National War College.  He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, the Command and General Staff College, the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth and the National War College, National Defense University.


Photo credit: Always Shooting (adapted by WOTR)