Don't Panic

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Is the Bush administration's latest terror announcement politically motivated?

When Condi and I broke up, I didn't just lose the only woman on Earth who can talk the president of the United States into launching a missile strike and sight-read Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 4 in G-Minor. (Oh, how I miss my sweet, sweet Rice Puddin'!) I also lost my source for details about the president's secret intelligence briefings. Without access to those intelligence briefings, it's impossible to determine with any certainty just how seriously we should take what the White House and departments of Homeland Security and Justice are announcing about looming terrorist threats.

Unfortunately, there is plenty about the government's periodic terror warnings to make even non-conspiracy-minded-Elvis-is-dead-Oswald-worked-alone types wonder whether the Bush/Cheney re-election team doesn't at least have a hand in them.

Take, for example, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge's July 31 warning about threats against important buildings in D.C., New York and New Jersey. Ridge didn't find any space on his teleprompter to tell the public that the information he based the announcement on was pre-9/11 target scouting found on a laptop in Pakistan (nor did President Bush when he spoke to reporters the next day). Ridge did, however, have room in his announcement for a Bush/Cheney 2004 talking point highlighting Bush's "leadership in the war against terror." Smooth.

Campaign messages aside, how exactly is it a revelation that al-Qaeda wants to attack important buildings in D.C. and NYC? Haven't we all been pretty certain of that since about, oh, late morning on Sept. 11, 2001?

Ridge's threat announcement, coming just as John Kerry began his highest-profile campaign trip yet, was just one in a long line of administration threat announcements that seems timed to serve the administration's political needs rather than those of the public. In July, the day after John Kerry announced his selection of John Edwards as his running mate, Ridge held a so-called "status of the threat" news conference. Even in White House spokesman Scott McClellan's assessment, the announcement offered no "precise or specific information related to time, place or location." It didn't help us, or law enforcement, but it did interrupt the "Boy, that John Edwards sure is charming, and handsome to boot!" media fiesta for a couple of hours.

Another recent "Is it terror or is it politics?" puzzler was Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Chief Robert Mueller's "news" conference in June to "announce" the names of seven people whom the feds wanted to talk to in connection with terrorism. Only that time, it wasn't much of a puzzle. I put news and announce in sarcastic quotation marks because six of the names already had been announced months before.

And who can forget last month's report in The New Republic (which, for the record, supported Gulf War 2: The Phantom Menace) that quoted a Pakistani intelligence official saying that the White House pressured Pakistan's intelligence agency to capture a high-value target and announce it at the end of July to boost Bush's "Is he doing a good job against terror?" poll numbers. Is it just me, or has this outsourcing to south Asia thing gotten out of hand?

Anyway, bing-bang-boom, whaddya know, Pakistan's interior minister got on TV just hours before John Kerry's acceptance speech and announced the capture of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the FBI's 22nd most wanted terrorist (19th in the AP Coaches Poll). The announcement was obviously just for U.S. media consumption; it was the middle of the night in Pakistan at the time.

Manipulating the War On Terror for political purposes is dangerous. If we can't trust what the government tells us, it's bound to hurt public readiness. Apparently, there's a boy somewhere who keeps hollering about a wolf who can probably explain this better than I can.

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