Former Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge in an upcoming book will make an allegation that seemingly will confirm to many what Bush administration critics have long suspected: the administration’s attempts to raise color terrorism alerts smelled political to him.
Tom Ridge, the first secretary of homeland security, asserts in a new book that he was pressured by top advisers to President George W. Bush to raise the national threat level just before the 2004 election in what he suspected was an effort to influence the vote.
After Osama bin Laden released a threatening videotape four days before the election, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld pushed Mr. Ridge to elevate the public threat posture but he refused, according to the book. Mr. Ridge calls it a “dramatic and inconceivable” event that “proved most troublesome for all of us in the department.”
The provocative accusation provides fresh ammunition for critics who have accused the Bush administration of politicizing national security. Mr. Bush and his Democratic challenger, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, were locked in a tight race heading into that final weekend, and some analysts concluded that even without a higher threat level, the bin Laden tape helped the president win re-election by reminding voters of the danger of Al Qaeda.
Keith M. Urbahn, a spokesman for Mr. Rumsfeld, said the defense secretary supported letting the public know if intelligence agencies believed there was a greater threat, and pointed to a variety of chilling Qaeda warnings in those days, including one tape vowing that “the streets of America will run red with blood.”
“Given those facts,” Mr. Urbahn said, “it would seem reasonable for senior administration officials to discuss the threat level. Indeed, it would have been irresponsible had that discussion not taken place.”
The most sensational assertion was the pre-election debate in 2004 about the threat level, first reported by U.S. News & World Report. Mr. Ridge writes that the bin Laden tape alone did not justify a change in the nation’s security posture but describes “a vigorous, some might say dramatic, discussion” on Oct. 30 to do so.
“There was absolutely no support for that position within our department. None,” he writes. “I wondered, ‘Is this about security or politics?’ Post-election analysis demonstrated a significant increase in the president’s approval rating in the days after the raising of the threat level.”
Mr. Ridge said that confirmed for him his decision to resign the next month but he provides no evidence that politics motivated the discussion. Until now, he has denied politics played a role in threat levels. Asked by Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times if politics ever influenced decisions on threat warnings, he volunteered to take a lie-detector test. “Wire me up,” Mr. Ridge said, according to Mr. Lichtblau’s book, “Bush’s Law.” “Not a chance. Politics played no part.”
There have been insinuations and allegations about the Bush administration using terrorism alerts to deflect bad news or rally the nation using the “fear card.” For instance read this list. And these allegations.
The difference between these previous examples and Ridge’s upcoming book: 1. It comes from someone who was inside the administration. 2. It comes from someone George Bush originally reportedly considered for Veep. 3. It comes from the person who headed Homeland Security.
The book will likely be painted as a book by a “disgruntled former employee” (which begs the question: does this mean other employees are “gruntled?). Liberals, moderates and some non-talk radio political culture Republicans, and Republicans who don’t feel a vested interest in defending Bush will consider it one more piece of a puzzle that suggests the terrorism issue was manipulated– as real as the threat was. And Bush’s staunchest defenders will most likely try to discredit Ridge either before or after his book comes out.
The real blow is to Bush’s legacy.
When historians sift through the verbiage of new and old media stories, opinion columns and blog posts written by people who have a vested interest in painting the Bush administration one way or another, and videos and radio clips of screaming head and talk shows, they’ll balance all of it. And the fact Ridge was a rising Republican start and head of Homeland Security will likely mean that the verdict will be: the terror alerts were likely used in some instances as a political tool. Add to that the GOP’s rhetoric at the time suggesting that Democrats really didn’t want to fight terrorism and the use of the terrorism issue as a political wedge issue is brought into even sharper focus and seeming confirmation.
UPDATE: The Christian Science Monitor’s The Vote blog notes that the “push back” against Ridge and his allegations has already begun.
UPDATE TWO: An more rebuttal from Bush administration associates.
For more blog reaction go here.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.