The color of emergency alerts does not matter if the people producing the alerts cannot be trusted. That’s the problem facing the White House and, more important, the citizens of the United States. The Bush Administration sounds the trumpets–An attack may be coming! An attack may be coming!–just after the Democrats conclude a successful convention but claims it is only doing its job. Still, the audience–the public at large–is justified in questioning the timing of the alerts or viewing them with outright cynicism, for this Administration has completely shot its credibility.

In launching the Iraq war, Bush peddled false information and maintained that the threat was far more serious than the intelligence (even the overstated intelligence) claimed. He opposed the creation of the Homeland Security Department, then flip-flopped after he was assailed for not paying sufficient attention to pre-9/11 warnings of terrorist attacks. He opposed the creation of an independent 9/11 commission until he could no longer resist pressure mounted by the 9/11 families. And he showed little interest in restructuring the intelligence establishment until the 9/11 commission and John Kerry made intelligence reform a campaign issue. In the middle of the latest terror-alert controversy, his Administration leaked the news that a computer whiz who had been passing on information about Al Qaeda had been arrested in Pakistan. This leak seemed designed to support the decision to raise the security level, but it came at a cost: Pakistani officials have complained that it enabled other Al Qaeda suspects to escape. When CIA chief George Tenet resigned, Bush said he would not quickly replace him. But facing criticism for his go-slow approach, he switched course and nominated Representative Porter Goss, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a former CIA case officer.

One result of such questionable actions and misuses of intelligence (often barely challenged by a supine press) is that Bush has made it difficult to fulfill one of the most vital job duties of a President: to warn the public at home and abroad about true threats and to persuade people here and overseas to take appropriate measures. Should years-old information seen in a new light prompt massive concern? Should an Administration that misled the country about WMD be believed when it announces–at a politically convenient time–that the threat from Al Qaeda is more pronounced than it was a week earlier?

Moreover, the use of a terror rainbow is questionable. The melodramatic color declarations seem barely useful beyond serving as obvious reminders that citizens should be alert. Speaking at a convention of minority journalists, Bush defended the latest alert, which ID’d several financial centers as possible targets: “When we find out intelligence that is real that threatens people, I believe we have an obligation to share that with people. And imagine what would happen if we didn’t share that information with the people in those buildings, and something were to happen. Then what would you write, what would you say?” But people working at Citigroup’s headquarters in New York and Prudential Financial’s offices in Newark weren’t helped much by the alert. Were they allowed to stay home until orange returned to yellow?

When it comes to the war on terrorism, little that Bush says can be taken on faith. What the public needs is for Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill to engage in nonpartisan oversight of the terrorism alerts, including routine hearings on the quality of the intelligence behind them. We have no illusions, however, that this will happen in the months leading up to the elections; more likely, citizens will continue to wonder whether they are being warned–or manipulated–by the Bush White House.