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I have no faith in the ability of the U.S. government to keep out terrorists. But I have absolute faith in the ability of New York co-op boards to keep out terrorists.

The FBI has warned apartment managers in New York that the evildoers might try to get a place, furnish it with explosives and blow up the building.But first the Qaida rats would have to find an empty, affordable apartment. Then they'd have to get past the withering front line of real estate agents. Finally, they'd have to penetrate the maximum security defenses of New York City co-op boards.

There's screening and then there's screening.

The enemy vermin can dupe the INS to get student visas, but wait until the East Side co-op president starts grilling them about where they went to school, what eating clubs they were in, which dancing class they attended, and whether they would bother the neighbors with any impolite crashes or unaesthetic bangs. If Henry van der Luyden of the Ardsthorpe had interrogated Mohamed Atta, that creep would have been screaming for mercy.

Beyond the co-op boards, however, we're on our apocalyptic own.

Robert Mueller calls suicide attacks ``inevitable.' Dick Cheney says another terrorism episode is ``not a matter of if, but when.'

Donald Rumsfeld warns that the terrorists ``inevitably will get their hands on' nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

``They jerk us around, try to jerk us around, and test us,' the defense secretary told senators on Tuesday. ``We are going to be living in a period of limited or no warning because of the asymmetrical advantages of the attacker as opposed to the defender.'

Mayor Michael Bloomberg says it's impossible to guard against all the different ways terrorists can do damage in New York. Instead, he says, we should just live our lives.

All this fatalism from our leaders, and we're still only on a yellow alert?!?!

Yellow in the Tom Ridge color scheme means the risk of an attack is significant. As opposed to an orange alert, which means high, or red alert, which signals severe danger.

There is a red alert going on now, but it's only in Karl Rove's office. (There is a severe risk of political damage to the Bush administration.)

That's why the Bushies are trying to terrify us. They desperately want to change the subject from the stunning lapses of their ostensibly expert foreign policy team - and they cynically want to make it sound as if nothing they do or don't do really matters in the end.

Ridge offers five colors to warn against infiltrations. (This being Washington, officials hotly debated including white in the terror pinwheel but decided against it, perhaps fearing it would look like a white flag.)

I think it would be far more useful, however, if we had a wheel with five colors to warn against incompetence.

Holy heather: At this level, John Ashcroft stays so busy whiting out lines of the Constitution, diluting Justice's civil rights division, lionizing the Second Amendment and robing naked statues that he forgets to give the president a detailed FBI memo describing the time and place of the next terrorist attack.

\ Squeal teal: At this level, George Tenet, a rare Clinton holdover, so assiduously ingratiates himself with the president (he named the CIA building after Poppy and keeps him in the loop) and has his minions spin the blame toward the FBI that he can't manage to find even an hour to figure out how to infiltrate al-Qaida.

\ Top-secret taupe: The president and vice president keep secret all the data that Americans need, on the spurious assumption that They Know Best (the Bush family motto). The Bushies become so obsessed with drawing attention to Bill Clinton's failure to eliminate Osama that they have no energy to eliminate Osama.

\ Bureaucratic balsam: Tom Ridge works so hard trying to prove his relevance that he becomes unable to do his irrelevant job, which is teaming with Norm Mineta to hire more of the highly trained airport professionals who drag 85-year-old dowagers and eight-month-old infants out of the security lines and make them remove their orthopedics and booties.

\ Visas-for-everyone violet: INS employees continue to show up for work, exponentially ratcheting up the risks to the U.S. public.

\ Maureen Dowd is a columnist for The New York Times. Write to her at 229 W. 43rd St., Room 943, New York, NY 10036.

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