Ridge-induced flashback: Media dismissed Bush terror alert skeptics as paranoid conspiracy theorists

››› ››› MATT GERTZ

In his forthcoming book, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge reportedly claims that politics may have played a role in the question of whether to raise the terror threat levels on the eve of the November 2004 presidential election -- echoing contemporaneous allegations made by several progressives. Media Matters for America presents a sampling -- by no means exhaustive -- of media personalities who at the time portrayed those progressives as suffering from "cynicism" and "paranoia" and obsessed with a "conspiracy theory," despite credible evidence that the Bush administration was using the War on Terror for political gain, particularly in the months before the 2004 election.

On Hardball, Reagan and Walsh explain how liberals were "mocked" for their allegations

Salon.com's Joan Walsh: "It's completely believable and liberals were saying it that summer and they were laughed at."

MATTHEWS: It seems to me that you must be somewhat sanguine about realizing that the other side of the ideological argument has been caught with an insider blowing the whistle as loud as I can imagine. The secretary of Homeland Security himself is saying that in the interest of politics, the people around the table the weekend before the 2004 election were playing politics to get their guy re-elected so they could keep their jobs.

WALSH: It's completely believable, and liberals were saying it that summer and they were laughed at, they were mocked. He also admits that he raised the threat level and, you know, talked about the great presidency of George Bush right after John Kerry accepted the nomination in Boston that year. So they really did orchestrate -- they used terror to scare people, they used terror to diminish Kerry. I remember John Kerry had to come out and smack Howard Dean, who was telling the truth about this -- that they were politicizing the terror warnings -- because he didn't want to be seen as some kind o fleft-wing lunatic. And this is what they did all along. Going back to October 2002, they had to have the authorization to use military force right before those midterm elections. They had to do that. They used politics all along. Tom Ridge is an honorable man. I'm glad he's finally telling the truth. [MSNBC's Hardball, 8/21/09]

Radio host Ron Reagan: "Isn't it funny how left-wing lunacy turns into reality after a few years?"

MATTHEWS: Again, Ron Reagan, thanks for coming back, Ron.


MATTHEWS: Again, it seems to me that this line is the one that jumped out at me. You know how careful people are when they work in administrations. They know -- they hear the footsteps, they know Dick Cheney's coming, they know Rumsfeld's coming, they know Ashcroft's coming. When they get their name mentioned in these books, they know who's coming after them. Here he is saying this: "There is something afoot other than a simple concern of the country's safety at that table." We're talking about a video conference on the nation's security. Something afoot besides security.

REAGAN: Yeah, indeed, something afoot. And you know, Tom Ridge has actually implied as much, going way back to May 10 of 2005. In a USA Today article, he was quoted as implying many of the things he's stating more baldly now in his book. Now, the media didn't pick up on it so much then because, of course, it was just left-wing lunacy, I guess. But isn't it funny how left-wing lunacy turns into reality after a few years?

MATTHEWS: Sometimes.

REAGAN: Sometimes. Yeah, in this instance, I think so. So yeah. And as everybody has said, Tom Ridge is an honorable man, If some of these people like Frances Townsend want to come out and call him a liar, they're welcome to do that. But if you parse their words very carefully, they're also hedging a little bit. Townsend said today that, well, it was never mentioned in that context, in her presence. [MSNBC's Hardball, 8/21/09]

Examples of media figures dismissing progressives' concerns and mocking them as conspiracy theorists

Tucker Carlson: "[C]onspiracy theory" is "bad for the Democrats," adherents need "psychological help"

From the September 6, 2006, edition of MSNBC's Tucker (accessed from Nexis):

CARLSON: Well, listen. I'll give you a great example. And it was brought out today in a piece in the San Francisco Chronicle.

How many times have you heard Democrats say, when there's a terror alert, you know, whisper to one another, or say, so (inaudible) say, this is all political. This is phony, cooked up by the White House.

Well, this San Francisco Chronicle piece basically claims to show that every time one of these terror alerts comes out the public is afraid and Bush's poll numbers go up.

This, I think, will definitely add fuel to the conspiracy theory. And I think it's bad for the Democrats.

I mean, look, the bottom line is there really is an enemy out there trying to hurt us. And to the extent Democrats pretend there isn't, I mean, it hurts them.

From the August 2, 2004 edition of CNN's Crossfire:

JIM GILMORE (then-Virginia governor): And that means intelligence becomes more and more important. That's why the president took his actions today to establish a national director. I think there's going to be a lot of work to make all that come through the correct way. But he's taken the decisive action to put together a counterterrorism center in order to put things together.

In other words, Jim -- James -- what he's doing is, he's doing the job. And so is Tom Ridge. And that's what they're supposed to do.

[cheering and applause]

JAMES CARVILLE (co-host): I hope that -- I hope you can convince -- I hope you can convince some of these Democrats that --

TUCKER CARLSON (co-host): Now, Congressman -- no, what they really need is psychological help, obviously.

NY Post columnist Steve Dunleavy: "[T]o assail a genuine and credible alert" is "outrageous."

The lefties in the Democratic party are trying to tell us this high alert on terrorism is just Republican politics.

Dr. Howard Dean actually said that there is "ample evidence" that President Bush was playing politics when he approved raising the terror alert last Sunday.

"I am concerned that every time something happens that's not good for President Bush, he plays the trump card, which is terrorism."

When the terror alert went up on Sunday, Washington, of course, had a lot to do with this. But on board was Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.

Howard Dean and the Kerry-istas probably only have a passing acquaintance with Mayor Bloomberg and the commish.

But for them to assail a genuine and credible alert is to say that Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly were part of this phony conspiracy-terror alert - outrageous. [New York Post, 8/6/04, accessed from Nexis]

Chicago Tribune editorial board: "[Height of cynicism" to believe the "conspiracy theory."

After a new terror alert was issued Sunday for financial landmarks on the East Coast, similar charges surfaced. Former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean gave voice to the conspiracy theories, suggesting that such terror alerts were a "trump card" for the administration when "something happens that's not good for President Bush."

Others have suggested the White House is mounting a re-election bid predicated on public fear.

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has wisely distanced himself from such irresponsible remarks. "I haven't suggested that and I won't suggest that," Kerry told CNN.

That's smart for two reasons. First, if an attack were to occur, such shortsighted criticism would create an instant and profound backlash. Second, criticizing the administration for doing what most Americans demand--that is, timely, focused warnings on potential terrorist attacks--is misguided, if not worse.

But the debate persists over whether the warnings issued last weekend had a political hue. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge didn't help his boss when, in the midst of announcing the alert, he squirted in what amounted to a George Bush testimonial. "The kind of information available to us today is the result of the president's leadership in the war against terror," Ridge said. He would be wise in the coming weeks to stick to facts and skip the campaign commercials.

It is the height of cynicism, though, to suggest that the terror alert was prompted by political timing or political considerations. It was prompted, from everything we can see, by recently received and credible evidence of specific danger. [Chicago Tribune, 8/5/06, accessed from Nexis]

The Washington Post's Kathleen Parker: The suspicious suffer from "cynicism," "paranoia," use "twisted logic."

Bush, it seems, is in the quintessential parental predicament of "damned if you do, damned if you don't." What if there were a terrorist threat and Bush said or did nothing? Damn him, as critics damned him for not connecting the dots before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. What if Bush issued a terrorist warning and nothing happened? Damn him again for instilling fear and, as some are insisting even now, manipulating emotion for political gain.

What, one wonders, is the alternative? Where does such cynicism lead? To a John Kerry and John Edwards victory in November? Then what? Do we trust terror warnings under a new administration? Do we cease to have terror threats because Al Qaeda will have succeeded in its mission of derailing Bush? Are we safer then?

Reality gets lost amid such cynicism and paranoia. We believe nothing if it comes from a Bush White House but believe everything if it comes from a Michael Moore dreamscape. Yet Moore, whose film has become the video generation's Declaration of Disbelief, is demonstrably dishonest in his documentary.

In just one example, Moore flashes headlines across the screen about Florida's contested 2000 election results. One purportedly from the Bloomington, Ill., Pantagraph's Dec. 19, 2001, issue reads, "Latest Florida recount shows Gore won election."

The only problem is, no such headline appeared on the front page that day. Instead, the headline ran in a different, smaller typeface above a letter to the editor on Dec. 5, 2001, as noted by Pantagraph columnist Bill Flick in a mid-July column.

Headlines that run with letters to the editor typically reflect the letter writer's point and are not necessarily factual. But who cares about facts, or logic for that matter?

Except in the twisted logic of the bitterly partisan, there is no reason for Bush to fake terrorist threats, especially against financial institutions. When he needs economic growth and stability for re-election, no real-world benefit accrues to him from threats that could shake market confidence.

What is nearly as frightening as any terrorist chatter is a degree of cynicism that makes fact out of fiction, heroes of villains and Bush-hatred more compelling than appropriate distrust of and caution toward our enemies. [Washington Post, 8/4/04, accessed from Nexis]

Tony Blankley: Claims "played to" "the natural paranoia and conspiracy theories that are floating around."

BLANKLEY: Well, look, the story got a boost when The Washington Post and The New York Times ran front-page stories that implied that perhaps there was some politics behind this. I happened to have been on a TV show with the reporter who wrote the front-page Washington Post story.

JOHN McLAUGHLIN (host): Who was that?

BLANKLEY: Dana Priest. And after we went around and discussed it, she said from all of her reporting -- and this was a couple of days after -- she had no evidence but that the president had acted properly in putting out the report and he should have put it out. But by then, Howard Dean had jumped out to play his little game. And given the natural paranoia and conspiracy theories that are floating around, it played to it.

Now, I agree with you on one point, Eleanor. I think that Ridge made a mistake when he used the phrase -- complimented the president. Normally secretaries routinely do that. Because of the sensitivity of this issue, he shouldn't have made that one statement. But the presentation itself, the evidence itself -- and then, of course, a couple of days later the government came out with more and more recent information to further corroborate it. [The McLaughlin Group, 8/6/04, accessed from Nexis]

Cause for suspicion: Terror threat level raised on heels of Dem convention based on information that was "three or four years old"

DHS raised threat level in response to threat in August 2004, shortly after the conclusion of the Democratic National Convention. On August 1, 2004, Ridge stated that "we do have new and unusually specific information about where al-Qaeda would like to attack. And as a result, today, the United States Government is raising the threat level to Code Orange for the financial services sector in New York City, Northern New Jersey and Washington, D.C." In response to a subsequent question, Ridge stated, "So again, we have no specific information that says an attack is eminent [sic], but given the specificity and the quality of information around these sites, obviously one would conclude, if you were considering a potential attack, these might be among the targets." [Remarks by Ridge, 8/1/04]

Officials said intelligence "was three or four years old" and no "concrete evidence" that plot was still "under way." On August 2, 2004, The New York Times reported:

Much of the information that led the authorities to raise the terror alert at several large financial institutions in the New York City and Washington areas was three or four years old, intelligence and law enforcement officials said on Monday. They reported that they had not yet found concrete evidence that a terrorist plot or preparatory surveillance operations were still under way.

CNN: "Rice conceded that the surveillance ... dates back to before the attacks of September 11, 2001." CNN.com reported at the time of the August 2004 DHS decision to change the threat level, "The decision to raise the alert level to orange, or elevated, for specific buildings in New York City; Newark, New Jersey; and Washington, D.C., has been criticized because it was based at least partly on information three or four years old. [Then-Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice conceded that the surveillance of the buildings by al Qaeda operatives dates to before the attacks of September 11, 2001." [CNN.com, 8/9/04]

Olbermann: August 2004 warning one of many "coincidences" -- "political downturn for the administration, followed by a 'terror event'." On October 12, 2005, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann documented 13 "coincidences" -- instances characterized by "a political downturn for the administration, followed by a 'terror event' -- a change in alert status, an arrest, a warning." Of the August 2004 warning, Olbermann wrote:

July 29th, 2004. At their party convention in Boston, the Democrats formally nominate John Kerry as their candidate for President. As in the wake of any convention, the Democrats dominate the media attention over the ensuing weekend.

Monday, August 1st, 2004. The Department of Homeland Security raises the alert status for financial centers in New York, New Jersey, and Washington to orange. The evidence supporting the warning - reconnaissance data, left in a home in Iraq - later proves to be roughly four years old and largely out-of-date.

Suspects arrested on August 3, 2004. On August 18, 2004, The New York Times reported: "The British police charged eight men on Tuesday with conspiracy to murder and with violations of the Terrorism Act after finding that two of them possessed surveillance information on financial centers in Washington, New York and New Jersey that were the focus of the terror alert earlier this month in the United States. The eight men were arrested Aug. 3 and have been held at a high-security police facility in West London. Under the two-week deadline set by the Terrorism Act, the police had until Tuesday to bring charges against the men or release them."

Cause for suspicion: Bush administration reportedly pressured Pakistani officials to arrest "high-value targets" during the 2004 Democratic National Convention

Weeks before convention, The New Republic reports Pakistani intelligence sources claim Bush administration is pressuring them. In an article published weeks before the 2004 Democratic National Convention, The New Republic quoted two sources from Pakistan's intelligence service and another from its Interior Ministry (which handles the country's internal security) saying that the Bush administration was pressuring Pakistani officials to make arrests of so-called "high-value targets" (HVTs) during the convention. One source reportedly said: "The last ten days of July deadline has been given repeatedly by visitors to Islamabad and during [Pakistani intelligence director General Ehsan ul-Haq's] meetings in Washington." The article continued: "[A] White House aide had told him that 'it would be best if the arrest or killing of [any] HVT were announced on twenty-six, twenty-seven, or twenty-eight July.' -- the first three days of the Democratic National Convention in Boston." [The New Republic, 7/19/04, accessed from Nexis]

July 29, 2004: Reuters reports Pakistani forces arrest Al Qaeda suspect in the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. On July 29, 2004 -- the last day of the Democratic National Convention -- Reuters reported: "Pakistan said on Friday it had arrested a key al Qaeda member wanted for his suspected involvement in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat identified the man as Ahmed Khalfan Ghailini and said he was a Tanzanian national." [Accessed from the Factiva database]

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