The memory remains vivid. I had just gotten home from the 2004 Democratic National Convention, having exhausted myself in the usual manner unique to those events, having walked across downtown Boston eight or nine times, having watched John Kerry conclude a successful convention that had buoyed his prospects for defeating President Bush, and I was trying to regain my bearings by sleeping late on a Sunday morning. But alas, there was news on the TV - or, rather, faux news - that required my attention:
The Bush administration, fronted that morning by homeland security chief Tom Ridge, was declaring that the evil-doers were poised to murder us at any moment. Ridge said that information, obtained within the previous 72 hours, signaled a potentially imminent al Qaeda attack on financial institutions in New York, Newark, and Washington.
What I remember most is my reaction. I laughed. I've always appreciated good comic timing.
This incident came to mind yesterday when reports began to circulate about Ridge's imminent memoir of his Bush tenure, The Test of Our Times. He asserts in his book - and hang onto your hats, I know this will come as a shock - that the Bush team sought to hype the terrorist threat and scare the bejeezus out of the American people in order to up the boss' poll ratings when he was down.
Ridge writes, for instance, that he was under serious pressure from senior Bushies to raise the terrorist alert level three days before the November '04 election, simply because Osama bin Laden had just run his mouth again in a video. Ridge recalls that he saw need whatsoever to change the alert status, writing that "there was nothing to indicate a specific threat and no reason to cause undue public alarm." But the Bush people kept pressuring him. Ridge notes that terror alerts always seemed to spark a spike in Bush's poll ratings, and, in the midst of this pressure, "I wondered, 'Is this about security or politics?'" In the end, his view apparently prevailed, but he calls the incident "another illustration of the intersection of politics, fear, credibility, and security."
So...the Bush regime did indeed exploit what Ridge now calls "the darkest possibilities of the politics of terrorism." I have two reactions to his disclosure:
1. Duh, ya think?
2. If he knew all this to be true at the time, why did he lie when skeptics suggested at the time that the Bush team was politicizing the fear factor? Why publicly insist, during the summer of 2004, that "we don't do politics in the Department of Homeland Security"? Why tell a New York Times reporter that "politics played no part?"
It's nice that Ridge, albeit retroactively, has decided to help illuminate the true record of one of the most ruinous administrations in history. It's valuable for historians to have confirmation from an insider, and it's nice to know that we skeptics were right all along. But we knew we were right at the time - which is why, three days after Kerry's successful convention, I merely scoffed at Ridge's post-convention terror warning.
Of course, we had no hard evidence that the Bush team was playing the fear card for political purposes; by definition, the team's deliberations about good or bad intelligence were secret. But we knew it instinctively, simply because the circumstantial evidence was abundant. The Bush team always managed to roll out some kind of ominous terror warning just when the president most needed a weapon of mass distraction.
This was obvious as early as May 2002. That was when Monica Crowley, an FBI agent in Minneapolis, blew the whistle on the administration, revealing in a detailed 13-page letter about how, one year earlier, Washington foot-draggers had actively blocked her attempts to fully investigate a suspicious flight-school trainee who turned out to be a 9/11 conspirator. Crowley's charge was politically incendiary; she said that she and her fellow agents were denied the opportunity to blow the 9/11 case wide open. But at the exact time she went public, guess what else happened oh so coincidentally:
Dick Cheney declared he was "almost certain" the terrorists were poised to strike soon. The FBI director said a day later that suicide bombers were "inevitable," and that the terrorists were planning to hit the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge. Then came Donald Rumsfeld, warning that the terrorists would "inevitably" used WMDs. (Nevertheless, Crowley pressed on with her accusations, and ultimately she was invited that summer of 2002 to give sworn Senate testimony - on TV, no less. But on the exact morning of her appearance, guess what Bush did oh so coincidentally: He announced that he supported the creation of a Homeland Security department, thereby reversing his longstanding opposition to the Democrats' proposal. This enabled Bush to bury Crowley in the news cycle. In other words, Ridge's job as the first homeland security chief was actually rooted in a Bush PR trick.)
Anyway, post-Crowley the fear card was played at all kinds of fortuitous moments. There was a scary terror warning in late December 2003, which just so happened to be a time when the Democrats were campaigning heavily in early primary states and thus dominating the political news. There was another frightfest shortly before Memorial Day weekend 2004 - with Bush attorney general John Aschcroft warning that the terrorists were poised to "hit the United States hard" - which just so happened to coincide with the news that Bush's approval ratings had fallen to an all-time low and that Bush was trailing Kerry badly, particularly among independents. (Ashcroft named seven people as the likely hard-hitting evil-doers; it later turned out that six of the seven had been invoked in previous warnings, going back more than two years.)
Then there was the time that Ridge surfaced to send shivers down American spines with yet more that al Qaeda was imminently poised "to disrupt our democratic process." This particular announcement just so happened to coincide with another downturn in Bush's poll ratings; two days earlier, Kerry had tapped then-unblemished John Edwards as his running mate, a PR triumph that was dominating the news and buoying Kerry in the polls.
Given this lamentable track record, it's actually tiresome to see yet another Bush lieutenant airing the administration's dirty laundry long after the fact (Scott McClellan also comes to mind). It's not clear, from the Ridge book fragments reported thus far (the book itself will be published in a couple weeks) whether he tries to square his current disclosures with his previous insistence that the Bush team did not play the fear card for political gain. Or whether he tries to explain that post-Democratic convention warning, the one about al Qaeda hitting three cities - a dire warning, according to the Associated Press, that was actually based on intelligence that was three or four years old.
It's pleasing, however, to have a Bush insider confirm that we skeptics were thinking clearly at the time - despite all the efforts by Bush acolytes to label us as mentally unhinged, or congenitally paranoid, or whatever. Some of the Fox people used to suggest that we needed "psychological help," but today perhaps we should be asking why a decent guy like Tom Ridge would stay on the job so long and permit himself to be used in such a tawdry fashion. Public servants who aid and abet craven regimes are arguably the persons most in need of humane counseling.