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Will New Terror Warnings Deter US Summer Travelers? - 2002-05-25

Here in the United States, this Memorial Day weekend marks the kickoff of the summer vacation season for Americans. And for many that will mean traveling in the shadow of new threats of terrorism and the memory of last September 11. Correspondent Nick Simeone has been sampling the attitudes of many of those who are planning to travel amid increasing government warnings about more terrorist attacks.

Americans approach this big travel holiday already on edge because of the near daily warnings of more terrorism. Just listen to some of the sobering comments during the past week from Vice President Dick Cheney and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, among others.

Cheney: "The prospects of a future attack against the United States are almost certain."
Ridge: "It's really not a question of if, but a question of when."

So how safe do travelers feel? At Washington's Reagan National Airport, many are not letting these warnings stand in the way of their Memorial Day or summer travel plans.

Female traveler: "They're a little disturbing but I can't do anything about them. I can't control them. I can't control what's going to happen."
Male traveler: "These alerts have been vague and kind of ever present so it's hard to get very nervous about them. I'm not very much worried about this sort of thing."
Second male traveler: "If we keep having these generalized warnings, keep crying wolf so to speak, people are going to get complacent."

In fact, a new poll finds three quarters of Americans asked say fears of terrorism are not affecting their summer travel plans even though travel agents point to a drop in bookings for travel overseas.

It's definitely deterred some.

Male traveler: "I think I'd be a little more leery about going abroad."
Other male travel: "I almost think it's safer going out of the country than flying around above ours."

And, this Memorial Day weekend, people on the go are also questioning the wisdom of what have been a series of government announcements alerting people to what are at best vague terrorist threats of questionable credibility when, as these travelers point out, there's not a lot the public can do in response.

Male traveler: "I think we need to know what's going on. But I think we need also to be reasonable with general alerts. We recognize something is going to happen, inevitably something will happen. But I don't think we can let that dictate our lives."
Female traveler: Sometimes you wonder if maybe they are needlessly scaring us.

This, at a time when the Bush administration has come under sharp criticism from Congress for perhaps withholding too much information and not telling the public all it knew about terrorist threats received prior to September 11.

University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato thinks the series of warnings made public in just the past week amount to a counterattack by a White House stung by questions from Congress about whether it acted properly on intelligence it had received before last September's attacks. "The administration has clearly learned from the intelligence failures of the summer of 2001," said Mr. Sabato. "Now that they have the same type of indications they are making certain that the public knows."

But a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that nearly 60 percent of Americans asked say they are satisfied with steps the government took prior to last year's attacks.

"Most Americans are simply disinclined to believe that the president had any real sense of what was going to happen and then did not act on it," Mr. Sabato went on to say.

As Americans head into the height of the summer travel season, security remains stepped up nationwide. In just one example of how air travel alone has changed since last September, nearly 4,000 undercover air marshals, authorized to stop would-be hijackers, are now flying on commercial airliners nationwide. Before last September's attacks, that number was less than 100.