I personally don't have a problem with terror alerts based on "unspecified" information. Although I do think there is an element of politics in the timing--notwithstanding Ridge's "we don't do politics" disclaimer today (oh please!!)--there's also a strong desire not to be caught flatfooted and napping the next time around. And I really think the latter is the stronger. We've told our government in no uncertain terms that we want to be kept informed (9/11 commission), so its pretty rude to complain when they do.
About this most recent alert, I can think of several scenarios why a valid threat might include information from 2 or 3 years ago. I, at least simply don't have enough information to support or condemn. So I guess the bottom line for me is that I give HS the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, heightened terror alerts don't really panic me. That doesn't happen to be part of my nature.
That doesn't mean there aren't problems. First, Ridge really has to stop the "rah rah brought to you by the amazing BushCo" endorsements tacked on to an alert announcement. It just weakens and cheapens the whole thing. Second, HS needs to realize that these alerts will bring to light weak spots in security caused by lack of federal funding, and they need to respond appropriately. Third, HS needs to deal with the inevitable widespread panic by doing more than just inform people of an alert--give us specific instructions on what to watch for, what to be ready for.
I wonder if it wouldn't be a good idea to have something like a national fire alarm program. If it was random and no one knew whether it was real or not, it would not only serve to give people practice in dealing with an alert, it would also allow HS to slip in a real alert without broadcasting what kind of intelligence they've acquired, which is another argument against these alerts. If the program laid out very specific and practical tasks for citizens to do, and if there was always the possibility that it was a drill, this would lessen the sense of general panic. At the same time, I think people are motivated to want to join in, practice. So I don't think, at least at the moment, that people would just brush it off. People overall would feel good about having a purpose, being able to take some small amount of control over the situation, and it would serve a practical purpose that over time people would do the right things at the right times. At the same time a national program would help us evaluate gaps and holes in infrastructure. It would be important to have a public analysis period afterwards, to learn from each exercise. And of course, the process would need to evolve over time as technology and targets change.
Something to think about, maybe.