Politics, the Media and 9/11
Perhaps the CNN headline from August 2, 2004, summed up best just how effective such coverage can be at helping the Administration regain political advantage. It read: John Kerry Gets Little Bounce From DNC; Terror Level Raised in New York, New Jersey, Washington, DC.
The August 2004 terror scare that helped doom Kerry did not occur in a vacuum. For years following the 9/11 attacks, the Administration crowed about doomsday terror plots that had been foiled, although time and again the facts failed to back up the page-one rhetoric. Recall that when announcing the arrest of alleged dirty bomber José Padilla in June 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft proclaimed (via satellite from Russia, no less), "We have disrupted an unfolding terrorist plot," when in fact Padilla had already been detained for a month and was ultimately charged only with conspiracy to murder with no mention of the alleged dirty bomb plot.
Note also that the first noticeable wave of Administration warnings came in early 2002 in the weeks surrounding Bush's hawkish "axis of evil" State of the Union address, in which the first seeds for an invasion of Iraq were publicly planted. In his speech Bush warned about "thousands of dangerous killers" who had spread throughout the world "like ticking time bombs set to go off without warning."
The same week, FBI Director Robert Mueller warned that undetected Al Qaeda sleeper cells were likely operating on American soil, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned Americans to prepare for other attacks that "could grow vastly more deadly than those we suffered" on September 11. The bad news came so fast and furious it was hard to get a handle on what was more upsetting: that the Bush Administration, which had previously maintained absolute secrecy about its domestic antiterror operations, was suddenly so talkative, or that the media reported the thinly documented terror threats so breathlessly and uncritically.
Fast-forward to the winter of 2003. With the war in Iraq only weeks away, the mainstream media took their "Fear Factor" programming to new extremes (remember the duct tape scare?), never pausing to ask whether the red-hot terror rhetoric streaming out of the Administration--nationwide terror threats were boosted on February 7 and March 17--were intended to accomplish anything besides whip up hysteria about Islamic terrorists and place the country on a firm war footing.
By the time of Kerry's nomination in 2004, perhaps the White House reasoned that since media-aided terror warnings had been so effective in setting the scene for the war in Iraq, there was no reason they couldn't be used to help to re-elect Bush.
At 2 pm on August 1, 2004, Ridge held an unprecedented Sunday afternoon press conference, broadcast live on network television, to announce the terror scare. Ridge ended his prepared remarks with an unusually partisan flourish: "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."
The scare dovetailed perfectly with the Bush/Cheney political strategy. Indeed, the entire re-election campaign was a terrorist-themed event, with officials--including Ridge--stressing to reporters they were convinced Al Qaeda was planning a pre-election day strike inside America. To formalize the theory, the Bush-appointed head of the US Election Assistance Commission wrote to Ridge asking about the possibility of postponing the 2004 presidential election in the event it was interrupted by a terrorist attack.
Rather than describing the uncovering of a specific Al Qaeda terror plot, the way British intelligence officials claimed to have done this summer, what Ridge was touting on August 1 was newly uncovered and detailed surveillance intelligence showing that Al Qaeda members had been casing the World Bank headquarters in Washington, the Citicorp building in New York City and the Prudential financial headquarters in Newark, New Jersey. What Ridge failed to mention, and what government officials seemed to purposely obfuscate, was that the surveillance intelligence predated 9/11--which raised serious doubts about how imminent (or "near term") the threat uncovered actually was. (A spokesman for the World Bank later dismissed the uncovered information as being "largely out of date.")
Later when pressed about the gaping hole in his presentation, Ridge stamped his feet, insisting, "We don't do politics in the Department of Homeland Security." It should be noted though, that during the 2004 campaign season Ridge met privately with two key Republican pollsters, Frank Luntz and Bill McInturff, and took sixteen trips to visit ten presidential battleground states between late May and late October.