Who played politics with terror warnings?

Former Homeland Secretary Tom Ridge admits he often thought the evidence behind raising terror threat warnings was flimsy.

Published May 11, 2005 3:37PM (EDT)

The same day a major new survey confirmed that it was 9/11, and the wartime culture following the terrorist attack, that provided President Bush and Republicans with their biggest political advantage in recent years, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge admitted that he often argued with top administration officials who pressed for the color-coded terror threat levels to be raised -- level changes that, according to polls, routinely translated into political gain for Republicans.

The survey was conducted by Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and it highlighted the strong gains Republicans have made, particularly among swing voters, since Bush took office. "The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, helped redraw the political landscape in America, giving President Bush and the Republicans an advantage over the Democrats," is how the Washington Post summarized the findings. "The survey underscored how important the issues of terrorism and national security and Bush's personal appeal were in helping the GOP put together a winning coalition of voters in 2004."

And what was one of the most effective ways to remind voters about the looming threat of terrorism? Homeland Security's color coded warning system, which became controversial. Not only were the dire warnings criticized by emergency preparedness officials for their vague instructions, but from Democrats who accused the Bush administration of playing politics with the yellow ("elevated") and orange ("high") warnings. Research showed that when the threat level was raised, Bush's approval ratings the following week would increase in the Gallup polls.

The two most questionable threat escalations came at crucial junctures for Bush. One, in February of 2003, came just as Bush was trying to rally the nation for war in Iraq, and the second, in August of 2004, in advance of Bush's Republican convention, where GOP officials dwelled on the war on terror. (Bush's handling of the war on terror consistently ranks as his highest scoring response in voter surveys.)

But now Ridge concedes he often thought the evidence used to up the terror threats was weak, and that the warnings were raised over his objections. "The Bush administration periodically put the USA on high alert for terrorist attacks even though then-Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge argued there was only flimsy evidence to justify raising the threat level, Ridge now says," reports today's USA Today.

According to the report, Ridge was trying to debunk the myth that his Homeland Security Department was responsible for the yo-yoing warning system. In the end, the threat level was raised if the president's Homeland Security Advisory Council favored it and President Bush agreed. Among those on the council were Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI chief Robert Mueller, CIA director George Tenet, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

"Sometimes we disagreed with the intelligence assessment. Sometimes we thought even if the intelligence was good, you don't necessarily put the country on (alert)," said Ridge. "There were times when some people were really aggressive about raising it, and we said, 'For that?'"

But Ridge's candid comments also raise questions about his own actions. Time and again when he was in charge of Homeland Security and he was pressed on the quality of the evidence behind raising the threat level, Ridge adamantly defended the decision. For instance, in December 2003 when the threat level was yet again raised, Ridge insisted "strategic indicators [of an attack], including al-Qaida's continued desire to carry out attacks against our homeland, are perhaps greater now than at any point since September 11th, 2001."

But it now appears, based on Ridge's own admission, that he didn't always believe the explanations he was giving in public.

And while Ridge always insisted Homeland Security didn't "do" politics, the fact is he met privately with Republican pollsters last year before embarking on more than a dozen trips to battleground states.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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