Just before New Year’s Day, the F.B.I. issued a warning to local police departments, telling them to watch out for people carrying almanacs. These books, the agency warned, contained information that terrorists might use for nefarious purposes.
It’s about time the feds realized how much subversive information is contained in almanacs. Some of us may use them simply for the data on birthstones, state capitals and Academy Award winners, but they are also invaluable tools for terrorists. I’ve often worried that the book I edit annually, The New York Times Almanac , might fall into the wrong hands.
For example, the calendars section features a chart of major Muslim holy days, so militant Islamists will know when to take a day off from suicide bombings. The section on the U.S. Postal Service lists domestic and international postage rates, so terrorists will know exactly how many stamps to put on an envelope full of anthrax. The media section lists the top-rated television shows, so terrorists will know exactly when most Americans will be too distracted to notice their neighbors planning a jihad. Ditto for the table of lunar and solar eclipses in 2004.
The physics section lists the year the first atomic bomb was invented, as well as a brief explanation of Einstein’s theory of relativity. Armed with that information, a terrorist would need only a rocket and thousands of pounds of uranium to create his own nuclear device. A table chronicling international arms sales from 1996 to 2001 will help in that endeavor, though any good terrorist probably already knows that the United States is the world leader, accounting for close to 50 percent of the total global weapons trade. For terrorists who aren’t particularly good at do-it-yourself projects, there’s also a list of Nobel Prize–winning physicists.
If a terrorist was looking for a ready reference of prominent Americans to target, he’d easily find it in an almanac. Our book contains the names of every member of Congress, all nine Supreme Court Justices, all the members of Bush’s cabinet and every player selected in the first round of last year’s N.B.A. draft.
The chart of time zones and area codes for nations around the world allows terrorists to know which country code to dial before phoning Osama bin Laden-not to mention the time difference between here and Afghanistan, so as not to awaken the Al Qaeda leader in the middle of night.
The section on U.S. energy doesn’t say where to stage an attack that will cause a massive blackout like the one we blamed on Canada last summer, but it does list the locations of the 104 nuclear-power plants in the United States. This information is widely available on the U.S. Department of Energy’s own Web site, but for the terrorist on the go without Internet access, the easy-to-read table, broken down by state, is a major time-saver. There’s also a helpful miles-to-kilometers conversion table that makes it easier for European terrorists to figure out the distance between such power plants.
The section on religion in America gives Islamic terrorists a laundry list of religions to pretend to convert to-Adventist, Baptist, Catholic, Episcopal, Mennonite, Pentecostal or even Salvation Army-so as to deter suspicious questioning from nosy neighbors. And the “Climate of U.S. Cities” table, which lists average monthly temperatures and rainfall amounts for the 32 largest U.S. cities, lets foreign terrorists know whether to pack an overcoat or shorts.
The sports section’s coverage of Indianapolis 500 winners since 1911 is a handy list of people qualified to drive a getaway car, while the Boston Marathon Champions table provides names of those more adept at fleeing on foot.
The same F.B.I. bulletin urged law-enforcement officers to keep a special eye out for almanacs that are annotated in suspicious ways. My own collection of several dozen almanacs is annotated with the names of dozens of government officials. Of course, most of these are names of the people in the Census Bureau and the Office of Management and Budget, who provide me with research assistance every year, but is the average cop going to know that?
While they’re at it, maybe law-enforcement officials should be suspicious of anyone carrying a road map, an atlas or a travel guide to Walt Disney World because, like almanacs, these might also be used by terrorists to assist with target selection and planning.
I thought we were supposed to be safer now that we’ve captured Saddam Hussein. But apparently, if our almanac were to explain the meaning of the colors in the government’s terror-alert system, I’d be suspected of treason. I guess it’s only a matter of time before the Bush administration starts rounding up the usual librarians.