Study: Americans would prefer to know about potential terrorist attacks

If the government knew of a potential terrorist attack scheduled for tomorrow, should the American public know?

A study by an ASU professor published in July shows that Americans are very adamant about information released on a potential terrorist attack on an airplane.

The study, conducted by economics professor V. Kerry Smith, showed that of 2,000 people surveyed in 33 metropolitan areas, including New York City and Washington, D.C., 83 percent favored the release of information relative to an airplane crash caused by terrorists.

Smith contrasted this with two other situations involving terrorist attacks, and both were met with much less interest in information release.

Seventy-seven percent of those surveyed favored withholding information of a thwarted attack on airports in major metropolitan areas if it meant not giving away tactics used in identifying the suspects or other security techniques.

Seventy-six percent also would want information used to capture terrorists who attack the financial sector — by disrupting transactions at banks — to be withheld, as it might make future attacks more difficult to prevent.

Smith said these results make it very easy to see that the nature of a terrorist attack is a deciding factor in whether or not the public would want the information to go public, regardless of the potential dangers in releasing it.

“Anything that enhances the risk of air travel is potentially much more threatening,” Smith said.

Smith added that he believes this is a result of a belief of the public that a lot of the risk of commercial airline travel is out of their control.

“People, even though it’s a safe mode of travel, worry about air travel,” Smith said. “People tend to rate activities where the risk is outside of their control as being more dangerous.”

Though Smith’s findings prioritize attacks against commercial airlines, supply chain management sophomore Adam Morrison said he feels that because the nation makes physical attacks a priority over digital attacks, the U.S. may be more vulnerable to a digital attack similar to the one Smith posed in his survey.

“I feel like we’re pretty well prepared against a physical attack against airlines,” Morrison said. “Not to say we’re not prepared for one, but I think we’re less prepared for a digital attack.”

The survey was conducted in December 2009, which Smith noted was interesting because it coincided with the thwarted terrorist attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 last Christmas.

Though Smith found that respondents with a college education were the least willing to allow limits on information release, Emily Bovee, a biology sophomore, said that releasing methods the government uses to capture terrorists is a bad idea.

“It limits our options for future attacks,” Bovee said. “It puts us more at risk.”

Smith ran a similar study in April 2010, though on a smaller scale. She said the results were very similar.

The studies were funded by the National Bureau of Economic Research through the Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE). Smith was aided by Carol Mansfield of RTI International and H. Allen Klaiber, an assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University.

Reach the reporter at Michael.reppenhagen@asu.edu