By Lindsay Beyerstein
(Hello, Obsidian Wings readers. I'm the newest member of ObWi and I'm truly honored to be here. Thanks to Publius and the team for inviting me. A bit about me: I'm a freelance journalist based in New York City. I also write for the Media Consortium, UN Dispatch, In These Times, and for my personal blog, Majikthise.)
Former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge claims in his forthcoming memoir that Sec Def Don Rumsfeld and AG John Ashcroft unsuccessfully pressured him to raise the terror alert on the eve of the 2004 election.
Four days before the vote, someone dropped a previously unseen video message from Osama Bin Laden on al Jazeera's doorstep. Bin Laden told the citizens of the United States that neither John Kerry nor George Bush could protect them, but he didn't issue any specific threats.
Ridge claims Bush officials pressured him to raise the threat level, even though the tape contained no specific threat. Officially, an orange alert indicates a "high probability" of terrorist attacks. According to DHS guidelines adopted in 2003, orange alerts are reserved cases where there is specific, credible, detailed evidence of an imminent attack on American soil.
"We certainly didn't believe the tape alone warranted action, and we weren't seeing any additional intelligence that justified it. In fact, we were incredulous," Ridge wrote "... I wondered, 'Is this about security or politics?'" (Keep in mind that the panel that advised Ridge on threat levels included not only Rumsfeld and Ashcroft but also notorious intel politicizer George Tenet, who was responsible for fixing the facts around the Bush administration's policy of invading Iraq.)
Former national security adviser Fran Townsend confirmed that there was an intense pre-election conference call to discuss raising the threat level in response to the Bin Laden tape. However, she characterizes the call as a debate over how to interpret the intel. Rumsfeld's spokesman also confirmed that Rummy pushed for an eleventh-hour threat hike on the call.
Ridge's critics are demanding to know why he didn't come forward sooner. While the charges of attempted election tampering are new, but Ridge complained as early as 2005 that administration officials pressured him to raise the threat level based on flimsy evidence. (Ridge announced his resignation on Dec 1, 2004, less than a month after the election.)
As several commentators have pointed out, Ridge previously denied to journalist Eric Lichtblau that politics influenced decisions about threat warnings. The exchange appears in Lichtblau's new book "Bush's Law." Sadly, page 274 is not previewable on Google Books or Amazon. Since Lichtblau's book covers the whole Bush administration, it's important to know when this interview took place. And strictly speaking, politics didn't influence the threat level in Nov 2004--Ridge prevailed and the threat level stayed put.
Administration officials now claim that the Bin Laden tape wasn't the sole basis for proposing a last-minute orange alert. But there's little doubt that if officials had presented any evidence of a specific plot, Ridge would have raised the threat level as a matter of course. The man signed off on some pretty lame orange alerts in his time, including two over the summer of 2004.
But how exactly did Ridge know that Rumsfeld and Ashcroft had political motives? Maybe they were just being extra-cautious. We'll have to wait until the book comes out next month get Ridge's whole story.
However, I found an interesting item in the New York Times archive... I think it lends credence to the hypothesis that top Bush officials wanted an orange alert for political reasons. In Sept 2003, DHS imposed tougher standards for tweaking the terror level. Under the new rules, the threat level would only be raised if there was "credible, detailed evidence of an imminent terrorist attack on American soil," Phil Shenon reported:
The officials cited the new guidelines in explaining why the administration decided not to raise the alert level this week despite a pair of events that could have easily justified a heightened alert in the past: Thursday's anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks and the broadcast of a new videotape suggesting that Osama bin Laden and his chief lieutenant were alive and plotting catastrophic attacks. [NYT]In 2003, officials told Shenon that the latest Osama tape didn't meet their standards for an orange alert, even though its release coincided with the anniversary of 9/11.
Yet, Ridge says that Rumsfeld and Ashcroft wanted him to up the threat level on the eve of the 2004 election in response to the new tape, even though it contained no specific threat--let alone credible, detailed evidence of an imminent attack on American soil.
Assuming that the rules outlined in the Times were still in effect, Bush officials were asking ridge Ridge to break with precedent and DHS's own guidelines. If Rumsfeld and Ashcroft were pressuring Ridge to change the rules, that should raise our index of suspicion.