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Viewpoint by Tom Elias: To tell or not to tell? Davis chose the right

November 20, 2001

To tell or not to tell? That is often the question for government in this post-Sept. 11 world. Gov. Gray Davis properly answered in the affirmative the other day, when he warned of "credible" threats to California's treasured suspension bridges.

He was quickly blasted by some political foe, and damned with faint praise by others for his decision to be forthright. Perhaps he was influenced by the lambasting he took all spring from some of the same parties over the secrecy he imposed on negotiations for long-term electricity contracts.

Davis policies may sometimes seem confused on energy, but he has never been more focused on any issue in his career than he's been on the potential for terror in this state all fall.

Now the question is whether his openness helped or hurt. If by keeping quiet and still taking the same safety precautions at the bridges Davis could have helped authorities snooker would-be terrorists into being caught in their attempt, then his openness was harmful. If by speaking out, he prevented destruction of the bridges and made potential terrorists aware the structures are not the soft target they sometimes appear, he made a positive contribution and may have saved hundreds of lives.

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One other thing: The same e-mail message Davis received about the possible sabotage of the bridges went to 1,700 corporations on the FBI's InfraGuard list, designed to warn companies that run vital services like power plants and telecommunications. Not only were their executives warned, but they had the option of warning employees.

Shouldn't the public have the same options as big companies? Davis answered this in the affirmative.

So this is a law enforcement question and a political question and a survival question. It's also a psychological question. Does a warning like the one Davis passed on or the two less specific but purportedly more solid ones given in October by Attorney General John Ashcroft help or harm the nation's mental health?

"There are positives and negatives," says psychiatrist Martin Greenberg of San Diego. "A lot of people would like to know if there's a danger, so they can take precautions and make their own decisions. Also, there's an abiding suspicion in this country that the government keeps important secrets. A move like Davis' helps restore some of that lost trust."

That's the positive side. The down side, says Greenberg, is the warning produced heightened anxiety.

"We all have a new high level of stress," he added. "We've seen things attacked that are surreal, like a nightmare or a movie you think can never be reality. Two symbols have been attacked or destroyed, our mail system is under attack by some insidious, unknown force. This creates more unease."

But Greenberg thinks the positives of warning outweigh the negatives.

"The American people are fed up with disinformation," he said.

Davis' political opponents disagree.

"When you come out and make a blanket statement that the bridges might be attacked, I think that sends a certain level of panic and fear in people," opined financier William Simon, a Republican running for governor.

Sean Walsh, a campaign adviser to Secretary of State Bill Jones, claimed "This comes very close to crying fire in a crowded theater."

Both Jones and Simon, of course, were among the chorus demanding openness when Davis chose secrecy while negotiating energy contracts. Meanwhile, neither President Bush nor Attorney General John Ashcroft, both of whom have taken criticism for their own vague terror alerts, would knock Davis. But Bush was less than enthusiastic:

"I think any governor should be able to conduct their business the way they see fit," he said.

The facts are that Davis had warnings of possible attacks on West Coast bridges from the FBI, the Customs Service and, reportedly, the Coast Guard.

Could he ignore them and possibly allow motorists to die?

He thought not.

"There is no playbook for these times," he told reporters in a conference call. "This threat was time specific and location specific. It's the first duty of all public officials to keep our people safe."

Davis tried to do that not just with his warning, but by redoubling the already heightened security around, above and below the bridges.

For his political rivals to try to make hay out of his agonized choice and warning is plain wrong. In fact, one such rival — former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan — simply kept quiet and showed himself to be a classier act than other Republicans he'll face in the primary election.

Whether the threat was real or not, by placing all Californians on alert, Davis put both the public and the powerful on equal footing, giving everyone the simple choice of taking a slight risk or avoiding the bridges and taking the long way around to their eventual destinations.

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