Oops! We didn’t mean to do that

It was a mistake for Hawaii to post a confidential report on terror attack scenarios on its Web site, but it won’t keep the Homeland Security Department from alerting state and local authorities about potential threats, the agency’s chief said Wednesday.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said, however, that he plans to be less forthcoming with the public about possible terror threats as they unfold until he has definitive information to give.

The report, which catalogued ways terrorists might strike in the United States, was posted for more than three months on the Hawaii state Web site before officials took it down Tuesday night at Homeland Security’s request.

“My understanding is that this was an error,” Chertoff said in an interview with reporters.

Noting the report was still in draft stages, Chertoff said Homeland Security wanted “a finished product out there. So that’s unfortunate. But it’s not going to deter us from working closely with our state and local partners in fashioning these plans.”

The incident illustrates the careful balance Homeland Security is struggling to find in sharing sensitive or even incomplete information to keep its state and local counterparts in the loop – particularly as terror threats unfold.

Hawaii officials noted the report, a copy of which was obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press, was not labeled as confidential or classified. Moreover, the Hawaii officials said, Homeland Security never mentioned its sensitive nature in discussing the report during weekly conference calls.

“There was nothing on this document that was marked official use only,” said Maj. Charles Anthony, a spokesman for the Hawaii Department of Defense. “There was nothing marked confidential.”

The report, requested by a presidential directive in December 2003, marks Homeland Security efforts to spur state and local authorities into thinking about preventing attacks. It detailed 15 specific but hypothetical examples of attacks that could bring mass casualties – including by nerve gas, anthrax, pneumonic plague and truck bomb.

The report does not hypothesize where such attacks would take place in order to increase preparedness for states and cities throughout the country. A nuclear bomb, an exploding liquid chlorine tank or a widespread and prolonged aerosol anthrax spray ranked among the most devastating attacks outlined in the report.

Chertoff said Homeland Security will continue to share a wide array of information – including hunches, suspicions and tips – with local and state authorities. But he said he will “mightily resist the temptation” to give that same information to the public during potential attacks for fear of spreading inaccurate data.

His comments followed a Washington-area anthrax scare this week that appears to have been a false alarm. The two-day scare was marked by conflicting information from local, state and federal officials that led to some broadcast media to report inaccurately anthrax contamination.

“What I want to resist is what I sometimes have observed over the years: a temptation to feed the desire for information by putting something out that we are not in a position to speak about definitively,” Chertoff said. “Our credibility must rest in a sense that when we say something is a fact, we’ve done everything humanly possible to, in fact, ensure that we are giving the accurate facts out.”

On the Net:

Homeland Security Department: http://www.dhs.gov

© 2005 The Associated Press