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Bill Press is a syndicated columnist, CNN political commentator and author of the newly-published book Spin This!

What next from the FBI? Terrorists disguised as farm animals?

By Bill Press
Tribune Media Services

WASHINGTON (Tribune Media Services) -- "In this world," Benjamin Franklin once famously wrote, "nothing is certain but death and taxes." Were he alive today, wise old Ben would have to add: "the daily FBI terrorist alert."

For the last two weeks, FBI alarms have been ringing with alarming regularity. First, we were warned of a possible attacks on Washington-based financial institutions. Banks were closed for a day. Nothing happened. Next, warnings of attacks on shopping malls. Extra guards were deployed. Nothing happened. Then, direct hits on the Brooklyn Bridge and Statue of Liberty. They closed both. Again, nothing happened.

The latest: an official notice this week to beware of terrorists in scuba diving gear.

Next thing you know, they'll be warning us to watch out for terrorists masquerading as barnyard animals. Quick! Run down that cow crossing the road. It could be an al-Qaida member disguised as Daisy.

FBI alerts, in fact, have been issued with such frequency lately that nobody takes them seriously anymore. There is, after all, something to that old tale about the boy who cried wolf. The FBI has cried "wolf" too many times.

And besides, even if you did want to take their warnings seriously, the FBI never tells us what we're supposed to do about them. To most Americans, a warning to look out for scuba divers is not a lot of help. In most parts of the country, you could spend your entire day, if not your entire lifetime, without seeing one and, when you do, they're underwater.

Why is the FBI, which issued no warnings of possible terrorist attacks before September 11, now suddenly flooding us daily with dire threats? There are two explanations. The first is that the FBI is being taken for a ride.

Consider the source. Most of the warnings released in recent weeks have come from interrogations of al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The primary source is Abu Zubaydah, believed to be Osama bin Laden's former chief of operations, who first warned about bombings of shopping malls, banks and apartment complexes.

Zubaydah hasn't been right about anything so far. Yet, for some reason, the FBI still continues to take everything he says literally, even to the point of absurdity. When Zubaydah recently suggested terrorists might be taking clues from the 1998 remake of the monster movie "Godzilla," gullible agents rushed out to rent the video, discovered scenes of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty and, as noted above, immediately shut both landmarks down. Meanwhile, Zubaydah must have been laughing out loud in his cell.

Why believe Zubaydah, especially now? It was foolish, in the first place, to think a top bin Laden agent would so quickly turn tables and reveal the al-Qaida game plan. It is more foolish now, after so many wild goose chases, to continue taking him seriously.

Clearly, he is playing mind games with the FBI. Unfortunately, based on his wild statements, the FBI is, in turn, playing mind games with the American people.

The second reason for the sudden flurry of FBI warnings: a giant, bureaucratic CYA. Or, as CBS national security correspondent David Martin more politely puts it: "Right now, they're putting out all these warnings to change the subject from what was known prior to September 11 to what is known now."

Every day brings more embarrassment to the FBI. We now know an agent in Phoenix wrote a memo on July 10, 2001, warning that bin Laden operatives might be training for terrorist activities in American flight schools. The next month, an agent in Minneapolis raised suspicions about Zacarias Moussaoui, expressing fear that Moussaoui who applied for lessons on how to steer a 747, but not how to take off or land might be planning to fly a jumbo jet into the World Trade Center. Both agents were ignored by Washington headquarters.

No wonder the FBI wants to change the subject. They fell down on the job. Now they're trying to overcompensate and cover their collective bureaucratic behinds. But it's too late.

A cascade of phony warnings today is no substitute for having failed to take appropriate action before September 11.




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