In the summer of 2004, the Bush White House asked its Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to add three sentences to his announcement of an elevated terror threat alert for key U.S. cities. According to his new book, The Test of Our Times, Ridge did as he was asked, adding the following lines to his speech:
But we must understand that the kind of information available to us today is the result of the President’s leadership in the war against terror. The reports that have led to this alert are the result of offensive intelligence and military operations overseas, as well as strong partnerships with our allies around the world, such as Pakistan. Such operations and partnerships give us insight into the enemy so we can better target our defensive measures here and away from home.
The lines added nothing to the American people’s understanding of the threats facing the homeland. But they did have a clear political value: They were spoken just a few days after John Kerry accepted the Democratic nomination for president, and just a few months before George W. Bush would face reelection. Ridge denied at the time that he was doing anything political. “We don’t do politics in the Department of Homeland Security,” he said.
Five years later, Ridge admits he inadvertently played a political card, and writes that he regrets it. He explains, on page 234 of his new book, a copy of which has been obtained by TIME in advance of its September 1 release:
In almost any other situation in government or anywhere else, praising the boss would not be an issue. But in this case, citing “the result of the president’s leadership” was loaded with political implications, and this was not lost on our critics. John Kerry had just been nominated for president at the Democratic Party convention. Our announcement, as delivered with the loaded words, was seen in some as a way to divert attention from that event and to reenforce in the minds of Americans that–even as the Democrats enjoyed their hour upon the political stage–only the Republican incumbent could keep American safe. . . .
I am asked, as every public official is eventually asked, whether I have any regrets. I don’t harbor many that relate to my tie in service to the country. But this was one of them. I should have delivered the threat warning just as we had written it, and apologized later to the White House for my “oversight” in failing to include those congratulatory words. But, at the moment, it all seemed like pointless, throwaway rhetoric. Politics was not on my mind; I had something more important to say. It just goes to show that there’s no such thing as throwaway lines in these days of instant replay. There is no media or political tolerance for any mistake in judgment, apparent or otherwise, no matter the extenuating circumstances.
I was not surprised that Vice President Cheney used the self-praise in remarks given two days later. . . and that others were using it. “The president’s leadership” was a free-flowing phrase in the administration, as it is in any administration. It was understandable and predictable that the campaign would laud the president. A new norm was emerging, and I learned a hard lesson.
In an interview with Marc Ambinder, Fran Townsend, a former Homeland Security adviser to Bush, says that the White House provided the language to Ridge only because he previewed his speech internally. “So I called him said, here’s what I think should go in it,” Townsend tells Ambinder. “It wasn’t an order. I didn’t regularly see his speeches in advance. He made speeches all the time without running it by us.” This is less of a denial than a startling admission: Townsend, whose job profile had nothing to do with politics, is admitting that she wanted political language praising the President inserted into an election-year statement about new measures to protect against terrorist attack.
Elsewhere in his book, Ridge defends the administration’s decision to raise the terror alert levels for key cities just days after the Democratic National Convention had concluded. He says he was alerted in late July 2004 that Pakistani officials had obtained attack planning material from computers belonging to Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, who was thought to be “among the next generation of Al Qaeda leaders.” Though the records on the computer were three years old, predating the September 11, 2001 attacks, they contained more than five hundred photographs of potential targets and analyses of their vulnerabilities. The targets included a number of financial institutions, including the New York Stock Exchange, the headquarters of Prudential Financial in Newark, New Jersey, and the headquarters of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
“I knew going in that some people would dismiss the new intelligence as old intelligence,” Ridge writes. “But no one in our department felt that way.” It was in the announcement of this terror alert elevation that Ridge mentioned the “President’s leadership in the war on terror.”
Another controversial decision that Ridge mentions took place on the weekend before the 2004 elections, after Al Jazeera broadcast a new videotaped message from Osama Bin Laden. In a conference call the following day, Ridge writes, there was a strong disagreement about whether or not to raise the terror alert level just days before the election. Ridge continues:
[Attorney General John] Ashcroft strongly urged an increase in the treat level, and was supported by [Secertary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld. There was absolutely no support for that position within our department. None. I wondered, “Is this about security or politics?” Post-election analysis demonstrated a significant increase in the president’s approval rating in the days after the raising of the threat level.
The meeting produced no consensus, and therefore no recommendation to the president to raise the threat level. (Spokespeople for Rumsfeld and Ashcroft have adamantly denied that politics was a factor in the discussions, as has Townsend.) Ridge writes that one of his deputies, Susan Neely, later called Dan Bartlett, the White House director of communications, who was at the time flying with the president aboard Air Force One to a campaign event. Neely told Bartlett that the Department of Homeland Security opposed raising the threat level. “Bartlett told her that he would speak to the president and get back to her,” Ridge writes. “By the next day, the whole idea of raising the threat level was dropped.”