Here we go again.
On Sunday, Vice President Dick Cheney warned that another al-Qaida terrorist strike in America is virtually guaranteed. Not if, but when, according to the V.P. On Monday, FBI director Robert Mueller added to the sense of pending doom by suggesting that Palestinian-style suicide bombings are "inevitable" on American soil and unstoppable. And Tuesday saw Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld testify before Congress about the real and present danger of terrorists obtaining weapons of mass destruction.
The warnings came against a backdrop in which "intelligence analysts have noted a surge in communications among al-Qaida terrorist operatives regarding an assault," reported the New York Times.
On one level it's impossible to hear these dire assessments and, with charred images of Sept. 11 still fresh in our minds, not recoil. And only a fool would dismiss them out of hand. Still, skeptics must be allowed to ask the obvious out loud: Don't these hair-raising warnings come at a convenient time for the White House, as it tries both to fend off criticism for its mishandling of terrorist intelligence and to squash an expansive inquiry on Capitol Hill?
Supporters argue that the administration is simply being vigilant and answering critics who've suggested the White House isn't sharing enough information. But the mostly useless, vague data Cheney and others cite ("chatter," intelligence officials have dubbed it) makes last summer's ignored FBI terrorist memos look like detailed blueprints.
While the White House clearly hoped that last week's report about Bush's botched pre-9/11 briefing was a nonstarter, with new revelations coming out daily it's obvious the story has developed sturdy, Emmett Smith-type legs. All the more reason for the White House to try to change the topic.
For instance, this week's Newsweek paints a devastating portrait of the Bush administration and its lack of interest in counterterrorism pre-Sept. 11. The magazine reports that incoming Attorney General John Ashcroft, determined to set a new agenda of fighting violent crime and drugs, "didn't want to hear about" the urgency surrounding terrorist threats, and that on Sept. 10 "Ashcroft submitted his budget request, barely mentioning counter-terrorism." Meanwhile, Rumsfeld was so enamored with Star Wars technology that he "vetoed a request to divert $800 million from missile defense into counter-terrorism."
National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice denies that the barrage of recent administration warnings is an attempt to deflect criticism from the White House's handling of pre-Sept. 11 intelligence. She told reporters that this is "not the first time [White House officials] have talked about vulnerabilities."
She's right. The last time we saw this kind of orchestrated scare campaign was in late January, when normally tight-lipped Bush officials paraded in front of reporters, detailing a slew of grave and startling terrorist scenarios.
FBI director Mueller warned that undetected al-Qaida "sleeper cells" may still be operating on American soil. The FBI also issued an alert to public utilities warning them that Osama bin Laden's operatives were eyeing dams and reservoirs. Rumsfeld advised Americans to prepare for other attacks that "could grow vastly more deadly than those we suffered" Sept. 11. And CIA director George Tenet sent a report to Congress saying agents found crude diagrams of nuclear weapons in a suspected al-Qaida safe house in Afghanistan. (Upon close scrutiny, it was clear that the administration's unnerving scenarios were based on vague and, at times, dubious sources.)
Why the rash of very public warnings from the notoriously secretive administration? They came just as President Bush proposed a $48 billion increase in defense spending, and just when an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that nearly half of Americans felt the nation was back to normal, or nearly normal.
Perhaps most important, they came just in time for Bush's hawkish State of the Union address. Pundits predicted the speech would touch on the war but focus on domestic affairs; the opposite was true as Bush dwelled on the war and introduced the infamous "axis of evil" phrase. He also revealed that U.S. intelligence officers had found in Afghan caves "diagrams of American nuclear power plants and public water facilities, detailed instructions for making chemical weapons, surveillance maps of American cities, and thorough descriptions of landmarks in America."
With its sobering call for an unlimited war on terrorism and its proposal for a massive buildup in the Pentagon budget, the Bush administration knew it needed to rally public support -- and there was no better way to do this than to strike fear into the nation's heart. Its terror revelations dominated the news for a week as reporters dutifully noted each possible doomsday prediction, while Democrats obligingly shrunk from noting "a whiff of politics" in the air.
Now, with its back against the wall, the White House is trying to play the same card.
If officials wanted to frighten the American people, they've succeeded. According to the new Washington Post/ABC News poll, only 46 percent of Americans think the government can stop future terrorist attacks. That's down 20 points from last September. And the actual confidence level may even be lower; the poll was conducted last Saturday and Sunday, just as the White House launched its latest scare offensive.
The real danger, noted a New York Times editorial Tuesday, is that the warnings, "which have already lost much of their power to command public attention, will become meaningless if they are perceived merely to be a way of changing the subject."
Further undermining the administration's credibility was the fact that the increased al-Qaida "chatter" being intercepted by U.S. intelligence actually stretched back "over the last few months," according to the New York Times. So why was the White House trumpeting them now?
Tim Russert was too polite to ask Vice President Cheney this on Sunday's "Meet the Press." Nor did Russert dwell on the administration's low level of vigilance before Sept. 11, allowing Cheney to focus instead on the White House's latest fear campaign.
In general, though, the press this time is not simply taking we're-at-war dictation from the White House. There's a new level of skepticism about this latest round of official alarms. As Mark Halperin and Marc Ambinder wrote in their ABC.com column the Note: "Is there a way to read (the recent terrorism) disclosure other than as a ham-handed attempt to (1) change the subject from the pre-9/11 flap; and (2) to fight off an investigation by buttressing the Cheney-Rice argument that an investigation could help the enemy?"
What's so strange about the White House's strategy is that by stressing increased activity by al-Qaida and bracing Americans for suicide bombers at home, the Bush administration is practically advertising its incompetence in the war on terrorism. After spending billions of dollars since Sept. 11 on the war in Afghanistan, why on earth is the government still hearing "the chattering" of al-Qaida terrorist operatives? Shouldn't that band of mountain bandits be rolled up by now?
Apparently the White House is so desperate to change the topic, it's willing to invite fresh scrutiny on that underexamined but politically explosive question: Why haven't we captured Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants?
And here's another question raised by the administration's scare offensive: Is FBI chief Mueller really suggesting that the bureau, which employs 27,000 people and operates on an annual budget of $3 billion, is powerless to stop a small group of foreign radicals from launching attacks on American soil?
Next time White House political operatives try to change the subject of public debate, they ought to make sure they don't raise equally troublesome questions in the process.