Playing the Fear Card

Lots of people have been suggesting cynically that the Administration's warning that there are terrorists under the bed might have been an attempt to distract people from Iraq and other news displeasing to the Bush re-election machine.

The cartoonists in particular have had a field day with that one. A New York Times columnist cited the doubtful reaction in his column as a sign that the press might be rising from its dormancy.

Well, don't get your hopes up too high quite yet. Consider this Newsday item (Newsday hardly being a shrinking violet) reprinted in the LA Times, Threat Warning Called a Surprise to Agency:

The Homeland Security Department was surprised by the announcement by Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III that a terrorist attack was increasingly likely in coming months, officials said Thursday.

The department, created a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, is charged with issuing terrorism warnings to the public, and tension arose when Ashcroft and Mueller effectively took over that role at a news conference Wednesday when they said Al Qaeda is preparing a powerful attack.

Officials said the Homeland Security Department knew in advance about the news conference but expected it to focus on seven suspects with ties to Al Qaeda who were wanted for arrest or questioning. Department officials said they were caught off guard when Ashcroft went further and warned that Al Qaeda “is ready to attack the United States.”

The news conference, which excluded Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, raised concerns in Washington that his department was not coordinating the domestic fight against terrorism, which was confusing the message for the public and for local authorities.

Talk about missing the point! What this set of facts loudly suggests is NOT that Homeland Security is a useless agency with a confusing message (although it is), but rather that Ashcroft was doing political spear-carrying. The threat level wasn't changed because the non-evidence Ashcroft presented wasn't enough to warrant raising it (raising the 'threat level' above yellow imposes millions of dollars of extra policing and security costs on states, localities and airports).

The anonymous author of this story is fatally infected with the idea that the administration would not make an announcement about a heightened terror threat unless (a) it believed it and (b) was doing something about it. Yet the story itself suggests strongly that neither of these are in fact the case, since if there really were a domestic threat and plans to do something about it, Homeland Security would be involved, if only in an inter-agency way. As the Washington Post reminds us

Under the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and Bush administration rules, only the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can publicly issue threat warnings, and they must be approved in a complex interagency process involving the White House. Administration officials sympathetic to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said he was not informed Ashcroft was going to characterize the threat in that way — an assertion that Justice officials deny.

The failure to even pick up the phone and call Ridge's office is nearly conclusive evidence that Ashcroft's press conference was just a stunt—based on facts that the Post reports may be “six weeks old”.

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