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Bush's Dubious Terror Alerts
Is Administration's Political Agenda Driving Warnings of Terrorism?

by Bill Berkowitz
August 20, 2004

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WASHINGTON -- "The Bush administration has discovered no evidence of imminent plans by terrorists to attack U.S. financial buildings, nearly two weeks after the government issued startling warnings about such possible threats, a White House official said."

-- Associated Press, August 12, 2004.

When the going gets tough, the "tough" get to issuing terrorist alerts, announcing high profile arrests, and raising the terrorism threat level. Since January 2002, according to JuliusBlog, an Internet web log, there have been at least fifteen incidents where Team Bush, responding to adverse news or dipping presidential poll numbers, turned either Attorney General John Ashcroft or Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge loose to ramp up talk of terrorism and terrorist attacks.

The latest episode aired on August 1, shortly after the conclusion of the Democratic National Convention, when Secretary Ridge raised the Homeland Security Department's terrorist level to Code Orange -- "high threat of terrorist attacks" -- claiming that there was ample information about terrorists targeting the financial services sector in New York City, northern New Jersey and Washington, D.C. to warrant the action. In prepared remarks, Ridge told the press: "...reports indicate that al-Qaeda is targeting several specific buildings, including the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in the District of Columbia; Prudential Financial in Northern New Jersey; and Citigroup buildings and the New York Stock Exchange in New York." The rest of the country remained at Code Yellow -- "significant risk of terrorist attacks."

One week later, the New York Times reported that Pakistan had warned the United States "that Al Qaeda has considered using tourist helicopters in terror attacks in New York City." Within hours reporters were on the scene interviewing heliport personnel and scaring the bejeezus out of tourists coming off their flights.

In the run-up to the Republican Party Convention in New York City later this month, terrorist alerts are rolling out of the Dept. of Homeland Security faster than the grounds crew rolls out the Yankee Stadium tarp during a sudden summer shower.

With each real or perceived threat, the American people are reminded of the president's belief that we live in the age of the permanent war against terrorism, a stance he spelled out in a November 2002 document titled "Securing the Homeland, Strengthening the Nation." While outlining his budget priorities, Bush maintained that the threat of terrorism is "an inescapable reality of life in the 21st century" and "a permanent condition to which America and the entire world must adjust." The president also said:

"Today's terrorists can strike at any place, at any time, and with a wide variety of weapons. The most urgent terrorist threat to America is the Al Qaeda network. We will prosecute our war with these terrorists until they are routed from the Earth. But we will not let our guard down after we defeat Al Qaeda. The terrorist threat to America takes many forms, has many places to hide, and is often invisible. We can never be sure that we have defeated all of our terrorist enemies, and therefore we can never again allow ourselves to become overconfident about the security of our homeland."

Ramping up the Homeland Security Dept.'s threat level may result in greater vigilance amongst both law enforcement and the public, and it is conceivable that a terrorist attack may have been prevented. The cranking-up of the threat level, however, also drives the panic-mongers, most notably the 24/7 cable news networks: "Terrorist Alert" banners drape the screen, crawls get creepier, and terrorist experts are trucked out to provide wall-to-wall commentary.

After several years of warnings, and no major terrorist incident, some are questioning the accuracy and timing of these alerts: Are they based on new information or old information? Is the information reliable? How great is the threat? Should we take for granted the administration's oft-heard mantra that Al Qaeda wants to disrupt the November elections?


With the presidential election less than three months away, there are those with the temerity to question these warnings: Are there other stories -- the continued fighting in Iraq, the mounting death toll of U.S. service personnel, more Abu Ghraib revelations -- that are overshadowed by terrorist warnings? Are the recent warnings aimed at discouraging protesters from demonstrating at the GOP convention? Is there a relationship between how the president is doing at the polls and the issuing of terrorist alerts?


JuliusBlog, posted under the pseudonym Julius Civitatus, along with Biltud, put together a chart and timeline (available at the site) which in part compares "Bush approval numbers to the timeline of terror alerts." Although JuliusBlog doesn't claim that all the "alerts are politically motivated," it "is important to note...that many of these 'immediate' terror alerts were later on discredited."

A few examples provided by JuliusBlog:

February 2002: A week after Ken Lay was subpoenaed by Congress to testify about Enron, and the media latched on to the Bush/Lay connection, Attorney General John Ashcroft called on "all Americans to be on the highest state of alert" after an FBI warning of a possible imminent terrorist attack.

June 9, 2002: Whistleblower Coleen Rowley testified before Congress "that she had tried to notify her superiors about the suspicious flight students 9/[ing] the agency's bureaucracy to the 'Little Shop Of Horrors,' [and told] Congress the FBI could have done more to prevent the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Two days later, at a press conference in Russia, Attorney General Ashcroft announced the arrest of Jose Padilla, the "dirty bomb" suspect.


July 25 through July 29, 2003: After delaying the publication of Congress' findings on 9/11, the government publishes them, but deleted 28 pages "believed to detail Saudi funding of members of Al Qaeda in the Untied States prior to Sept. 11." Shortly after U.S. troops were charged with beating Iraqi POWs and 15 U.S. soldiers died over 8 days in Iraq, the Department of Homeland Security "issue[d] a warning about the possibility of suicide attacks on airplanes."


December 18, through December 21, 2003: During this period, 9/11 Committee Chair Thomas Kean pointed out that the attacks were preventable; a federal appeals court ruled the government can not detain U.S. citizen Jose Padilla indefinitely without pressing charges against him or allowing him access to the courts; the Wall Street Journal reported that Pentagon auditors accused Halliburton of refusing to hand over internal documents related to allegations that it overcharged the U.S. government in Iraq; and David Kay, the heads of the weapons inspection team in Iraq, quits, having found no WMDs. Secretary Ridge raised the terror threat level in time for the holidays.

According to JuliusBlog: 1) when Bush's poll ratings dip, "there's a new terror alert"; 2) the alerts are followed by "a slight uptick" in the president's approval ratings; 3) "Whenever there are many unfavorable headlines, there's another alert or announcement (distraction effect)"; 4) As the November elections get closer, "the number and frequency of terror alerts keeps growing, to the point that they collapse in the graphic."

JuliusBlog is paying a price for his work. In an e-mail, the creator of the web log told me that while the "attacks on his computer were waning," the first few days after the posting he received "an avalanche of emails loaded with viruses, some even disguised (or forged), as journalists asking about the timeline. Even though I'm very savvy about these matters, and won't ever open any of these virus-laden emails, somehow something nasty got into my home computer on Sunday and destroyed all data and boot records."


Although he admits to not having a "clue" as to who might be behind the sabotage, it is "obviously someone unhappy" with the chart and timeline. "There are some infamous right-wing activists groups on the net that engage in all sorts of harassment activities like these. While I have no clue or proof to point at anyone in particular, I am working with my ISP and email provider to locate the origins of these attacks."


"Julius Civitatus" said that he was "surprised that nobody in the so-called mainstream media thought about plotting all the terror alerts in a chart."


It is worth remembering that since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, other than the anthrax attacks in 2001 -- the perpetrator/s of those incidents remain at large -- there has been a series of seemingly well-orchestrated false alarms: Terrorist attacks on bridges, water systems, transportation hubs, and nuclear power plants have not occurred; the use of chemical or biological weapons have not materialized; there have been no "dirty bombers" or suicide bombers; and the much-hyped smallpox epidemic -- remember when President Bush pushed for a national smallpox vaccination program? -- has not happened.

When the threat level is raised, polls invariably find Americans becoming more fearful and more anxious. The alerts sustain public anxiety even if information later proves the threat was over-hyped. This was best exemplified by the near-panic atmosphere Secretary Ridge caused by his Duct Tape & Plastic Sheeting Advisory in early 2003. Imagine the response if there actually were another foreign-initiated terrorist attack on American soil?

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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