Ridge: Bush administration wanted terror politicized

The former Homeland Security head says he got pressure to raise the alert level before the 2004 election

Topics: Tom Ridge, War Room,

Former Homeland Security head Tom Ridge appears to have confirmed what many already believed: The Bush administration wanted to use the terror alert level system for political gain.

Ridge, who was also the governor of Pennsylvania, has a new book coming out at the beginning of next month. U.S. News & World Report’s Paul Bedard reports on some details from the book:

Ridge was never invited to sit in on National Security Council meetings; was “blindsided” by the FBI in morning Oval Office meetings because the agency withheld critical information from him; found his urgings to block Michael Brown from being named head of the emergency agency blamed for the Hurricane Katrina disaster ignored; and 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.

Update: Via Marc Ambinder, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has more information on what concerned Ridge:

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Mr. Ridge is adamant in rejecting the contentions of Bush administration critics that the often-derided color-coded warning system he helped devise was manipulated for political ends. He depicts an atmosphere, however, in which the motives of some senior officials and Cabinet colleagues sometimes left lingering questions on that score.

The most dramatic example — and one that Mr. Ridge said would help him confirm his previous plans to leave his post — came on the eve of the 2004 election between Mr. Bush and Sen. John Kerry.

Osama bin Laden had released a videotape with one more ominous sounding but unspecific threat against the United States. Neither Mr. Ridge nor any of the department’s security experts thought the message warranted any change in the nation’s alert status … But that view met resistance in a tense conference call with members of the intelligence community and several other Cabinet officers including Attorney General John Ashcroft and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

“A vigorous, some might say dramatic, discussion ensured. Ashcroft strongly urged an increase in the threat level and was supported by Rumsfeld.”

Noting the correlation found between increases in the threat level and the president’s approval rating, Mr. Ridge writes, “I wondered, ‘Is this about security or politics?’ “

The dispute remained open at the end of the call. Mr. Ridge’s aides carried the word to the White House staff that the threat escalation would court accusations of politicizing national security. Mr. Ridge’s view finally prevailed.

“I believe our strong interventions had pulled the ‘go-up’ advocates back from the brink,” Mr. Ridge writes. “But I consider the episode to be not only a dramatic moment in Washington’s recent history, but another illustration of the intersection of politics, fear, credibility and security.”

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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