Color-Coded Con Job?

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On August 1, 2004, just days after the Democratic National Convention nominated presidential candidate John Kerry on a national security platform, the Bush Administration raised its terror threat level to “Code Orange,” or high, for certain cities with major financial institutions. In a press conference to announce the change, which stepped on the Kerry storyline coming out of the convention, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge described the source of the intelligence that led to the color change:

[W]e 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.

It sounded like politics, but Ridge swore politics had nothing to do with the serious task of protecting the nation. Two days later, he beat back such suggestions forcefully: “We don’t do politics in the Department of Homeland Security,” he said, offering a quote so-snappy that TIME magazine republished it that week in the front of the magazine.

Now, we have word from the publisher of Ridge’s forthcoming memoir, The Test of Our Times, that politics was in fact very much in play in the color-coded discussions with the Department of Homeland Security before the election. According to Paul Bedard, of Washington Whispers, Ridge admits in the book that he “was pushed to raise the security alert on the eve of President Bush’s re-election, something he saw as politically motivated and worth resigning over.”

To understand the import of this admission, we must remember the politically charged mood of national insecurity that dominated in 2004. For months, there had been significant buzz about a possible Al Qaeda attack, which never materialized. The issue became a regular topic of debate and discussion within the media, spreading a message of continuing insecurity that clearly aided President Bush’s campaign themes.

A week after the alerts were raised in August, for instance, the discussion of another attack dominated the Sunday talk shows. As CNN noted at the time, “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.”

By late October, The New York Times was writing about just how little was known about any possible plans for an attack. Here is one excerpt from a story called “Little Evidence of Qaeda Plot Timed to Vote,” which ran on October 24:

“I’ve seen some analytical pieces from the bureau and the agency,” said one senior American counterintelligence official, referring to election threat reports by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency. “On a scale of one to a hundred, I’d give it about a two.”

Then, just days before the election, Osama Bin Laden released a videotape, which lead an emergency meeting among senior members of the Bush Administration. The New York Times characterized the meeting like this:

At the previously undisclosed meeting, in which senior counterterrorism officials assembled via a White House video conference hookup, Attorney General John Ashcroft and others favored ratcheting up the alert level because of the bin Laden tape, the officials said.

But others disagreed, the officials said. The homeland security secretary, Tom Ridge; the F.B.I. director, Robert S. Mueller III; and other White House officials expressed reservations or wanted a more detailed analysis of the tape, which contained no explicit threat of an attack against the United States. In the end, the idea of raising the threat level was dropped, the officials said.

Even though no action was taken, the meeting reflected how the new bin Laden tape concerned Mr. Bush’s aides as the presidential campaign swirled into its final frantic hours.

This appears to be the “politically-motivated” decision that Ridge is referring to in his book, though the full context has yet to be made public. (The book is due out on September 1.) It is also unclear whether Ridge addresses the charges that his August announcement of the “orange” alert had been politically motivated.

On November 10, just eight days after President Bush had secured victory for his second term, the Department of Homeland Security downgraded the “orange” alert for the financial services sector back to “yellow,” or elevated. The threat had apparently passed.

MORE: Marc Ambinder catches up with Fran Townsend, the Bush Administration official who oversaw the terror threat discussions in 2004. She says Ridge is “absolutely wrong” about political pressure.