2004: Vote for Bush or Die
This is when mounting evidence began to indicate that the timing and substance of the government's terror warnings were being driven, in part, by political considerations.
On May 26 Attorney General John Ashcroft held a dramatic press conference announcing that Al Qaeda was "almost ready to attack the United States" and had the "specific intention to hit the United States hard." But Ashcroft did not provide any new or specific information, the Homeland Security Department did not raise the terrorism threat alert level, and a senior Administration official told the New York Times that there was "no real new intelligence" to substantiate the warning.
In July, two days after Kerry selected John Edwards as his running mate, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge held a press conference of his own to say that "Al Qaeda is moving forward with its plans to carry out a large-scale attack in the United States." Again, he did not elaborate on what was new about his statement and was forced to admit, "We lack precise knowledge about time, place and method of attack."
That same month, The New Republic reported that top Pakistani security officials were being pressured by the Bush Administration to announce the capture of high-value terrorist targets during the Democratic National Convention. The White House responded with a standard denial, and the rest of the media ultimately brushed it off as an uncorroborated conspiracy theory.
But on July 29, just hours before Kerry's keynote address, Pakistan announced the capture of Al Qaeda suspect Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani. Curiously, he had been apprehended five days earlier. Even more suspect: The announcement was made at midnight Pakistani time, when most Pakistanis were asleep, but at the perfect time to coincide with America's prime-time television news schedule.
A few days later--during the period when attention to nominee Kerry would traditionally lead to a bounce in popularity--Ridge announced that he was raising the threat level in New York City, Northern New Jersey and the District of Columbia to "Code Orange." He claimed the threat level was being raised because of "new and unusually specific information about where Al Qaeda would like to attack." Undermining his claim that "we don't do politics in the Department of Homeland Security," he wove a campaign-style endorsement of the President into his warning: "We must understand that the kind of information available to us today is the result of the President's leadership in the war against terror," Ridge declared just a few breaths after invoking frightening images of "explosives," "weapons of mass destruction" and "biological pathogens."
But Ridge neglected to mention that most of the information was at least three years old, much of it surveillance data that had been collected before 9/11. Ridge also conceded that New York City--which was already at "Code Orange" before his announcement--would not raise its level of alert.
A week later the right-wing media did its best to deflect the embarrassment by once again dredging up the myth that a vote against Bush is a vote for terrorists. The conservative Washington Times ran a front-page story quoting Bush officials as saying that in the upcoming election, "the view of Al Qaeda is 'anybody but Bush.'" Again, they provided no proof to back up the claim.
Speaking to voters in Iowa on September 7, Cheney expressed what is now the very public message of the Bush campaign: "It's absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on November 2, we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice then the danger is that we'll get hit again. And we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating." In other words, vote for us or you'll die.
The double talk and political opportunism by the Administration on these issues go beyond poor taste. By sending conflicting messages to the public, Administration officials create confusion about what actually poses a threat. Beyond that, each unnecessary warning produces "threat fatigue"--the tendency to ignore warnings when they are repeated--in the American public. That means Americans will become less receptive to truly urgent terrorism warnings when they arise. And if recent polling is any indication, this erosion in public confidence is already occurring. A new survey by Columbia University found that 59 percent of those polled would not evacuate their town immediately if directed to do so by the government.
This is not to imply that the threat of terrorism isn't real. There is no reason to doubt the staff statement of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission that Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are "actively striving to attack the United States and inflict mass casualties." That means the government has a solemn obligation to do whatever is required to protect the American people from this threat.
But there are now justifiable doubts about what is actually dictating our government's actions. Today critical decisions appear to be guided by political operatives instead of terrorism experts. And in the long run, that has weakened national security--the very issue Republicans want so desperately to call their own.