As if color-coded domestic terror advisories were not vague enough, the U.S. State Department has now issued a travel alert, set to expire on Jan. 31, 2011, for Americans in Europe. According to The New York Times, “The decision to warn travelers came as officials in Europe and the United States were assessing possible plots originating in Pakistan and North Africa, aimed at Britain, France and Germany.” The Christian Science Monitor notes: “Media reports have linked the plot to US drone strikes in Pakistan. But it is unclear whether the Al Qaeda plot was an attempt to respond to the drone strikes, or whether the strikes were intended to disrupt the plot – or both.”
Following are a few excerpts from the State Department teleconference briefing yesterday with Undersecretary for Management Patrick Kennedy, who does not discuss drone attacks on Pakistan but does discuss how important it is, in light of the travel alert, that Americans know how to operate foreign pay phones. Why the Pakistani government does not issue terror advisories of its own is meanwhile called into question by headlines like this one.
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: … [O]ne has to understand how I guess we get to a Travel Alert. It is a cumulative process. The State Department, every day, has personnel who monitor the world, looking at conditions that might have an impact on American citizens, and as information comes on, there could be a eureka moment where there is information that comes to our attention that – bingo, that’s it, we issue the – an alert immediately.
Other situations are cumulative. Bits and pieces of information come together; the State Department is in constant contact with colleagues in the other elements of the United States Government, the intelligence and law enforcement communities, and with allies and friends throughout the world. And as information comes in, it can reach the point where the cumulative effect says: Now is the time to issue a Travel Alert, and the situation, I think, can be really summed up by what Secretary Clinton said as – a couple of days ago, I mean, the – which is that we all know that al-Qaida and its networks of terrorists wish to attack both European and American targets.
QUESTION: … [D]o you remember if there was one country-specific or even continent-specific alert like this after either the London or Madrid bombings?
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Let’s see, I am trying to remember back that far and I’m not sure if there was one after either London or Madrid. Let me flip through my notes here and I promise to announce that in a couple of seconds.
QUESTION: Okay. If there’s just – if there’s a way that someone could check, because on the website, you can’t really find the archive of the —
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Right.
QUESTION: The new ones supersede the old ones and so it’s hard to tell —
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Yes.
QUESTION: — from the website if there was one. If someone – it doesn’t have to be you. If someone could just check and —
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Certainly, absolutely.
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: We are not, repeat not, advising Americans not to go to Europe…
Now, we tell them that – basically, to use common sense if they see unattended packages or they hear loud noises or they see something beginning to happen that they should quickly move away from them. These are common sense precautions that people ought to take – don’t have lots of baggage tags on your luggage that directly identify you as an American, know how to use the pay telephone, know how to contact the American embassy if you need help.
QUESTION: …One, is there something you guys know that we don’t that prompted this? Is this based on something that – I think a lot of people are wondering, is – does the government know something that we don’t or is this based on the fact that the Eiffel Tower has been evacuated a couple times and stuff like that. And secondly, are you asking airlines to do something in particular?
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: Well, first, we don’t – we never discuss intelligence information that has come to our attention. I mean, you can certainly understand that. We certainly don’t want to tip our hand. I again refer to the fact that when we take these steps, which we take very seriously because of the importance of our assisting American citizens, it is a cumulative effect of all types of information that comes to our attention. And so I can’t comment upon any specific piece of intelligence. That would be inappropriate.
On your – and your second question was?
QUESTION: Just are you asking airlines or study abroad programs or anything to do something in particular?
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: No. We are not asking Americans or even – we’re not –we’re not recommending, that American citizens of any kind – business, tourism, study abroad – we are not – we are not, not, not saying that they should defer travel to Europe at this time, absolutely not.
UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY: [W]e’re not saying don’t travel to Europe. We’re not saying don’t visit tourist — major tourist attractions or historic sites or monuments. In the State Department website we offer some very practical situations. Make sure that you’ve registered with the American embassy. If you — avoid public demonstrations, avoid civil disturbances. Don’t discuss your travel plans or where you’re going with others or where others may overhear them. Know what you’re doing, be aware of your circumstances around you. If you see something that looks untoward, move away from it and inform law enforcement personnel. If you see unattended packages, or such, move away from them and inform law enforcement.