Durbin: "I trust Tom Ridge"

By Mary Jacoby
Published August 5, 2004 6:09PM (EDT)

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., is an outspoken critic of the Bush administration. He has called for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to resign over his handling of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, and he has characterized the president's approach to intelligence community reform as dangerously lackadaisical. He voted against the war in Iraq and, after condemning the rationale for the invasion, became the object of a White House smear campaign suggesting he should be booted from his influential seat on the Senate Intelligence Committee for disclosing classified information (Durbin had done nothing of the sort.)

And so, in weighing in on the controversy about whether the administration is playing politics with terror alert announcements, the Illinois Democrat brings special credibility. His advice: Leave off the conspiracy theories.

"The amount of evidence and the credibility of the evidence suggests there is more danger," Durbin said in a telephone interview with Salon on Wednesday as he campaigned in Illinois with Democratic Senate candidate Barack Obama, the keynote speaker at last week's Democratic National Convention.

Given the "fragmentary nature" of the evidence, Durbin conceded that "it is impossible to judge" how serious or imminent is the threat to the five financial institutions in Washington and New York that the administration had identified as of special interest to al-Qaida. But he said that his work on the intelligence panel has convinced him that al-Qaida remains determined to mount another attack.

"There are two problems the administration faces," Durbin said. "One is that despite repeated warnings, there's been no danger" evident to the public. "The other is that we are in the middle of a very heated political campaign, and every word and every action is judged in this political context. And so I understand the skepticism."

Despite the administration's general lack of commitment to the truth, Durbin said he did not believe that his former colleague in the House of Representatives, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, would throw the country into turmoil for momentary partisan political advantage. "I respect Tom Ridge. I trust him. That's all I can do at this point," Durbin said.

Yet, Ridge fueled doubts about the White House's motives by praising Bush's leadership in the "war against terror" when he announced the decision to raise the threat level last Sunday. Ridge also did not make clear initially that the detailed reconnaissance information about the World Bank, the New York Stock Exchange and other institutions  obtained after the arrest in Pakistan of a key al-Qaida operative -- was several years old.

Further, the July 29 announcement in Pakistan of the arrest of another high-ranking al-Qaida member, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, appeared to confirm an earlier report in the New Republic that the Bush administration had asked Pakistan to overshadow coverage of Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry by unveiling a dramatic development in the war on terror during the Democratic National Convention.

Perhaps all this helps explain why Ridge is said by colleagues to be weary of the difficult Homeland Security job and eager to depart. If the former Pennsylvania governor's integrity is what Durbin says it is, then the stress of trying to keep it while serving this administration is undoubtedly most unpleasant.

Mary Jacoby

Mary Jacoby is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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