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Panic Attack

Code Orange. Dirty bombs. North Korean missiles that can hit Utah. Go get the duct tape and bottled water. In his latest Against the Grain commentary, CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer looks behind the fear factor.

Washington is getting squirrelly.

Usually nonchalant newsroom colleagues are jittery, buying – or thinking about buying - plastic sheeting, duct tape, bottled water and Valium.

Don't worry; they don't know anything you don't know.

In fact, suspicious Washington reporters are constitutionally inclined to believe the government is being alarmist about the terror threat.

And there is considerable private speculation about whether the rising scare-o-meter is somehow playing into the march toward war. This isn't a conspiracy theory, yet – just a curiosity.

Despite that, steely nerves are getting spongy. This is not limited to Washington. A new CBS News/New York Times poll shows fear of a terrorist attack is at the highest level since soon after 9/11; 82 percent think an attack is likely in the next few months.

No wonder. The news this week has been relentlessly grim and scary – on several fronts. When you stack the stories up, it's downright depressing.

It began three days after Colin Powell's famous appearance at the United Nations when the alert advisory went from Yellow to Orange.

We're told the move was prompted by an increase in terrorist "chatter" picked up by the wizards of the spy world, signs of activity that were unusually specific. The focus was on the United States and the Arabian Peninsula, and on "dirty bombs."

Still, federal officials privately told CBS News that the decision to change the alert level could have just as easily been made two or six months ago. The White House made the final decision.

On Monday, Homeland Security officials (it still sounds Teutonic to me) issued guidelines for how citizens and families should protect themselves – now know as Duct and Cover Decree of 2003.

This was a very strange move. Telling citizens to stockpile batteries, radios, canned goods and first aid kits is a big deal. People tend to get itchy when their government says they might have to take their families into sealed rooms for a few days.

The announcement wasn't made carefully. It was hastily arranged and rushed. The instructions were not very clear or sensible. They contradicted instructions from local agencies. But it did cause a run on duct tape at hardware stores.

On Tuesday, it was a bad news monsoon.

FBI Director Robert Mueller and CIA Director George Tenet went up to the Senate Intelligence Committee and gave what one veteran national security reporter called the most sobering national security briefing he had ever heard.

Mueller said publicly for the first time what FBI sources been saying privately for a while – al Qaeda is here and they don't know where. "The greatest threat is from al Qaeda cells in the U.S. that we have not identified yet," he warned.

Tenet's warnings about the threat of an imminent terrorist attack got the headlines. But his declaration of a new nuclear arms race among smaller countries was just as disturbing. "We have entered a new world of proliferation," Tenet said. North Korea, Iraq, Iran and Libya are all trying to get nukes, aided, Tenet said, by "non-state purveyors" – that is, nuclear black marketers.

The head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby, rounded the session out with his concerns "about the potential for more attacks using portable surface-to-air missiles with civilian airliners as key targets."

Then there's the decision of the U.N. nuclear agency to report North Korea for violations, and the disclosure that the North Koreans have a ballistic missile that can hit the western United States.

Add the new Osama bin Laden tape to the mix and you have a pretty grisly lineup of news.

So we're scared. And it just so happens that this is all is happening as the administration makes its final preparations for war on Iraq.

A coincidence? I doubt it.

A clever plot to manipulate public opinion to make the war seem more necessary and justifiable? I doubt it.

The possibility of war surely makes this country a more dangerous place. The terrorist threat is not made up.

But decisions about changing alert levels, about issuing do-it-yourself attack safety guidelines, about what information to disclose in public intelligence briefings are very political, public relations-oriented decisions. They can be as much about covering bureaucratic rear ends and promoting an administration's agenda as they are about public safety.

Let's hope they aren't this time.

Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is Editorial Director of CBSNews.com based in Washington.

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Against the Grain