On August 11, John Kerry criticized the Bush Administration for blocking a bipartisan plan to give seniors access to lower-priced prescription drugs from Canada. With almost 80 percent of Medicare recipients supporting Kerry’s position, the Bush campaign was faced with the prospect of defending a politically unpopular position.
That same day, in an interview with the Associated Press, FDA Acting Commissioner Lester Crawford said terrorist “cues from chatter” led him to believe Al Qaeda may try to attack Americans by contaminating imported prescription drugs. Crawford refused to provide any details to substantiate his claims.
Asked about Crawford’s comments, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security was forced to concede, “We have no specific information now about any Al Qaeda threats to our food or drug supply.” The Administration had brazenly used Americans’ justifiable fears of a future terrorist attack to parry a routine criticism of its policies.
How did it come to this?
Crawford’s comments were the latest iteration of a political strategy–hatched in the days after 9/11–that has spiraled out of control. What started as an effort to leverage early support for the President on national security issues has expanded into the politicization of our country’s safety and security infrastructure. That process has damaged the credibility of the federal government and made all Americans less secure.
Revving the Engines
In the weeks following 9/11, President Bush’s popularity–which was languishing at around 50 percent in August 2001–soared to 90 percent. By mid-October 2001, support for Republicans in Congress–which was at just 37 percent in August–had shot up thirty points. After Republicans lost most major 2001 gubernatorial races to Democrats, GOP strategists realized that the key to electoral success was tapping into the post-9/11 fear of terrorism and focusing on security issues.
On January 19, 2002–just nineteen weeks after the 9/11 attacks–Bush’s top political adviser, Karl Rove, told a high-level gathering at the Republican National Committee to “go to the country” and tell the American people they can “trust the Republican Party to do a better job of…protecting America.” Soon afterward, Bush authorized the Republican Party to sell photographs of himself aboard Air Force One, looking concerned and talking on a red telephone to the Vice President on 9/11.
As the 2002 midterm elections neared, White House political director Ken Mehlman developed a secret PowerPoint presentation–which was made public after being dropped in a park–urging Republican candidates to highlight fears of future terrorist attacks. In the most outrageous example, Georgia Senate candidate Saxby Chambliss, who had avoided service in Vietnam, ran campaign commercials drawing parallels between triple amputee Vietnam War veteran Max Cleland and Osama bin Laden.
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President Bush reinforced these tactics by barnstorming the country–he made seventeen appearances in the last week of the campaign alone–emphasizing the threat posed by Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein and impugning the security credentials of Democrats. Campaigning in New Jersey in late September, Bush claimed Democrats in the Senate were “not interested in the security of the American people.”
The strategy was successful, and on Election Day 2002, Republicans made significant gains in the House and Senate.
Getting Up to Speed
In January 2003, eager to repeat their success, the Republicans decided to hold their convention in New York City in late August and early September of 2004–the latest date a convention has ever been held. The move insured that Ground Zero would be their backdrop on the eve of the three-year anniversary of 9/11.
And it did not stop there. The Bush team’s first political ads featured grisly images of firefighters carrying flag-draped coffins out of the rubble of the World Trade Center. But the spots backfired after firefighters and 9/11 victims’ families accused the campaign of seeking to exploit the attacks for political gain.
Republicans were forced to adopt alternative tactics, this time through mythmaking. In the spring, Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma told a group of Republicans that “if George Bush loses the election, Osama bin Laden wins the election.” He was echoed by the right-wing media. One nationally syndicated columnist wrote, “Which candidate does our enemy want to lose? George W. Bush.” Fox News pundit Monica Crowley similarly observed, “America’s adversaries want to see John Kerry elected.” Later that month, Republican political operatives commissioned an “independent” poll that purported to find that “60 percent of registered voters believed that terrorists would support John Kerry in this year’s presidential elections.” The poll was so suspect that only the right-wing media reported it. But it helped advance the story.
By May, CNN Justice Department correspondent Kelli Arena “reported” that there was “some speculation that Al Qaeda believes it has a better chance of winning in Iraq if John Kerry is in the White House.”
The Bush campaign, meanwhile, sought to bolster this speculation with a new barrage of campaign advertisements distorting Kerry’s voting record on defense and intelligence issues. All this despite Bush’s January 2002 promise that he had “no ambition whatsoever to use the war [on ‘terrorism’] as a political issue.”
But the images, partisan attacks and myths were not improving the President’s poll numbers fast enough to counterbalance damage brought on by violence in Iraq and a sluggish economy. On May 16, a new Gallup poll showed the President’s job-approval rating had fallen to 46 percent. Days later, as the Abu Ghraib prison scandal was taking its toll on the White House, the media uncovered new information suggesting that responsibility for the scandal reached to top Administration officials.
In short, more was needed.
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.