The Spectacle Blog

The Politics of the Politics of Fear

By on 8.21.09 | 11:18AM

The buzz is building over a new supposed tell-all by former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge, "The Test of Our Times". The book, however, directly contradicts the fast moving media message that the Bush White House tried to manipulate Homeland Security threat levels for partisan gain.

In promotional materials distributed by his publisher in advance of the September debut, and in the subsequent media orgy, a narrative has developed. George Bush, the story goes, through John Ashcroft and Donald Rumsfeld pressured Tom Ridge to increase the threat level ahead of the 2004 presidential election in order to gain politically. Ridge refused and, as a result, subsequently retired. A neat little package tied in a bow, that, and a delicious second-helping of Bush-derangement syndrome for all the right people. A recipe, you might be forgiven for adding, for book sales.

A salacious story, if true. Verifying the accuracy, however, requires unraveling layers upon layers of spin.

Let's start at the end. The summary above is what most Americans are hearing in sound bite form or reading in newspapers and blogs. For example, the dramatic telling from the Washington Post below:

Former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, the first director of the Department of Homeland Security, says that he was pressured by other agency heads to raise the national security-threat level on the eve of the 2004 presidential election -- a move he rejected as having political undertones.

The disclosure comes in promotional materials for Ridge's new book, due out Sept. 1, in which he writes that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Attorney General John D. Ashcroft tried to pressure him to raise the threat level.

"After that episode, I knew I had to follow through with my plans to leave the federal government for the private sector," Ridge writes in the book, "The Test of Our Times: America Under Siege ... and How We Can Be Safe Again," according to publishers Thomas Dunne Books.

He submitted his resignation within the month.

Stirring. Likewise, the following from the Christian Science Monitor's Vote Blog:

For those who had their doubts about the politics behind the Bush administration’s “war on terrorism,” Tom Ridge’s new book will fuel long-held suspicions.

The former Republican governor of Pennsylvania, who was the first head of the Department of Homeland Security, says two top Bush officials – Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Attorney General John Ashcroft – pressured him to up the terror alert level before the 2004 election, according to promotional materials by publisher Macmillan.

Vote Blog's headline reads "Tom Ridge kisses and tells on Bush’s ‘terror levels.'" The scare quotes on "terror levels" are the blog equivalent of threat level orange, if you aren't familiar.

I asked Donald Rumsfeld's office if they had any comment on the allegations above. The entire statement is below the fold, but here's a choice excerpt.

"We have no idea what Tom Ridge's book actually says. The storyline advanced by his publisher seemingly to sell copies of the book is nonsense. During the fall of 2004, Osama bin Laden and an American member of al-Qaida released videotapes that said in no uncertain terms that al-Qaida intended to launch more attacks against Americans. 'The streets of America will run red with blood,' al-Qaida warned. Given those facts, 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."

What the book actually says would seem to be the question. Most of the press regarding the allegations cite the promotional materials from the publisher. Considering the stir they've caused, one can only assume the pitch will be lightning hot. Right?

He details the obstacles faced in his new post—often within the administration itself—as well as the failures of Congress to provide for critical homeland security needs, and the irresponsible use of terrorism by both parties to curry favors with voters. Ridge also reveals: • How the DHS was pressured to connect homeland security to the international “war on terror”
• How Ridge effectively thwarted a plan to raise the national security alert just before the 2004 Election
• How Ridge had pushed for a plan (defeated because of turf wars) to integrate DHS and FEMA disaster management in New Orleans and other areas before Hurricane Katrina

Emphasis added. While certainly the general basis of the press frenzy exists, it's hardly the explosive confession you might have expected. It doesn't even, in fact, have a quote from the actual book. I, however, do.

"In spite of allegations of playing politics, as time went on, our office was more often than not the most reluctant to raise the threat level. Despite perception to the contrary, the White House couldn't, as a matter of course, call us up and say, 'Go to orange, Tom.'"

Interesting. That quote is from the chapter titled "The Politics of Terrorism, Part I," however, which is not the chapter apparently cited in the press frenzy. The story most people are discussing is one in which Ridge was allegedly pressured by Ashcroft and Rumsfeld, not George Bush. The story is recounted in a later chapter "The Politics of Terrorism, Part II."

In October of 2004, a videotaped message from Osama Bin Laden surfaced. There were mere days until the election. There was, of course, a Homeland Security meeting. According to Ridge, an internal consensus was reached that they did not need to raise the threat level to orange. Security was heightened already in advance of the election, but had not been officially designated as a new threat level. Then the decision was brought to a security meeting with the FBI, the State Department, the Defense Department and so on. According to Ridge, Ashcroft argues for raising the threat level, while Ridge argues against. Here is the apparent money quote:

"I wondered, 'Is this about security or politics?'"

He wondered. "There was no consensus reached at that session, and we took it upon ourselves to keep it that way," he concludes, which I can only assume is what we are supposed to call "thwarting" a "plan" to raise the alert level.

It is possible, at this point, that you find none of this very definitive. But that is OK, because Tom Ridge has a definitive statement for you. Earlier in the book, addressing the allegations that political pressure had been applied to raise threat levels, Ridge has this to say:

"Let me make it very clear. I was never directed to do so no matter how many analysts, pundits or critics say so."

That is very clear indeed, Secretary Ridge.

Below, please find the full statement from the office of Donald Rumsfeld. A call to Tom Ridge's publicist was not immediately returned.

Statement by Keith Urbahn, Office of Donald Rumsfeld

"We have no idea what Tom Ridge's book actually says. The storyline advanced by his publisher seemingly to sell copies of the book is nonsense. During the fall of 2004, Osama bin Laden and an American member of al-Qaida released videotapes that said in no uncertain terms that al-Qaida intended to launch more attacks against Americans. 'The streets of America will run red with blood,' al-Qaida warned. Given those facts, 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."

For context, I’d urge you to consult the transcripts of the two videos. Here are some choice quotes:

"After decades of American tyranny and oppression, now it's your turn to die. Allah willing, the streets of America will run red with blood matching drop for drop the blood of America's victims." – Adam Gadahn, October 28, 2004 video

"People of America, I remind you of the weighty words of our leaders, Osama bin Laden and Dr. Ayman al-Zawahri, that what took place on Sept. 11 was but the opening salvo of the global war on America. And that Allah willing, the magnitude and ferocity of what is coming your way will make you forget all about Sept. 11." – Adam Gadahn, October 28, 2004 video

"We never knew that the commander-in-chief of the American armed forces would leave 50,000 of his people in the two towers to face those events by themselves when they were in the most urgent need of their leader.” – UBL, October 29, 2004 video

“It is known that those who hate freedom don't have souls with integrity, like the souls of those 19. May the mercy of God be upon them." – UBL, October 29, 2004
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