While it may be true that no one in their right mind doubted that the Bush-Cheney administration was manipulating all those color-coded terror alerts for political purposes, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge’s confirmation of the suspicion is significant for political and legal reasons.

Ridge’s upcoming book, The Test of Our Times: America Under Siege… And How We Can Be Safe Again, accuses the Bush-Cheney White House of pushing the homeland security chief to “raise the national security alert just before the 2004 election.”

According to the former Pennsylvania governor’s publisher, the book will reveal that Ridge was, for political reasons, “pressured to connect homeland security to the international ‘war on terror.'”

The alleged manipulations of terror alerts around the time of the 2002 and 2004 elections represent the ugliest and most troubling of the alleged assaults by the Bush-Cheney administration on the democratic process and on national security. Ridge says he resisted some of the pressure, but his charges open up serious questions about the extent to which the alerts were used to warp voting and policy-making to fit the dictates of White House political czar Karl Rove’s electoral strategies.

It is entirely reasonable to suggest that voting patterns and perhaps even results were influenced by the dialing up of the fear factor. At the very least, it taints the claims of mandates by conservative Republicans in 2002 — when able senators such as Georgia’s Max Cleland were defeated — and by former President Bush in 2004.

Just as significantly, it begs the question of whether Americans were endangered by members of the Bush-Cheney administration. While it is likely that cynical manipulations of terror alerts may have yielded political benefits in initial election cycles following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, such machinations had the potential to create confusion and uncertainty about how seriously to take official warnings. Ultimately, the games White House insiders are alleged to have played ran the risk of making terror alerts meaningless for most Americans.

These two issues need to be addressed by a congressional inquiry, and perhaps by an independent prosecutor.

Using the machinery of the federal government to influence election results is unquestionably a violation of the oaths of office sworn by officials who pledge not only to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” but to “well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office” they hold.

Because of the seriousness of the allegations, most former Bush-Cheney aides are denying they did played politics with terror alerts.

But former White House press secretary Scott McClellan says: “There is no question exploiting the war on terror was viewed by the political strategists as integral to branding the president as a strong and decisive leader who will keep America safe.”

McClellan says that Ridge needs to back his claim up with specifics, and that is certainly true.

But the accusations by Ridge and McClellan offer sufficient grounds for a congressional inquiry. Both men should testify under oath about what they know about the politicizing of the war on terror and homeland security.

If the charges so warrant, Congress should at the very least formally censure those who used their executive branch positions to warp and undermine the democratic processes of the republic. The question of whether referrals for prosecution should be made will depend both on what Ridge and McClellan say and on a review of previously unavailable communications and records that now must be requested by congressional investigators.

Those investigators — either on the House Judiciary Committee, which has already been examining the Rove’s wrongdoing, or the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee — should be aggressive in pursuing the issues raised by Ridge.

A Congress that failed to effectively check and balance the Bush-Cheney administration during the period of its lawlessness still has a responsibility to hold those who violated oaths and laws to account.