Last weekend, the Bush administration started putting out word that the nation was in imminent danger of another Sept.-11-style attack. On Saturday, the New York Times’ Web siteposted a panic-inducing story that Chatterbox guessed to be a leak from National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. It was the lead story on Page One on Sunday. That same day, Vice President Dick Cheney said on Fox News Sunday that “the prospects of a future attack on the U.S. are almost a certainty,” and on Meet the Press he said it was “[n]ot a matter of if, but when.” On Monday, FBI Director Robert Mueller said, “There will be another terrorist attack. We will not be able to stop it.” On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, “We do face additional terrorist threats. And the issue is not if but when and where and how.”
The most shocking thing about this rhetoric was its fatalism. Chatterbox can’t recall any previous administration greeting the prospect of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil with so Gallic a shrug. The Bushies came perilously close to endorsing Warren Buffett’s nihilistic statement at a May 6 shareholder meeting: “We’re going to have something in the way of a major nuclear event in this country.” Buffett has no expertise on the subject of nuclear security; his remark was probably meant to assist his post-Sept.-11 campaign for the federal government to become guarantor of last resort on private insurance policies. (Buffett’s firm, Berkshire Hathaway, owns several insurance companies.) When Meet the Press host Tim Russert asked Cheney to comment on Buffett’s prediction, he replied, “I can’t say that. I would not go that far.” Two days later, though, Rumsfeld told a Senate appropriations subcommittee:
[W]e have to recognize that terrorist networks have relationships with terrorist states that have weapons of mass destruction, and that they inevitably are going to get their hands on them, and they would not hesitate one minute in using them. That’s the world we live in.
The likely motivation behind all this fatalistic talk was the need to halt growing criticism (much of it unfair) about the Bush administration’s failure to heed warning signs prior to Sept. 11. It worked. The “Could Bush Have Prevented 9/11” stories have largely abated (except for the stories about the FBI’s handling of the July 10 Phoenix memo, which grow more damaging by the day). In their place, we got “We’re All Going To Die” stories and a growing anxiety among Democratic strategists that anti-Bush 9/11 recriminations won’t play well in November. The panic stories now seem to be cresting, in part because the White House likely fears that it let things get out of control. Chatterbox’s evidence for this last assertion is an interview President Bush gave yesterday to European newspaper and magazine reporters. In it, Bush seemed to be saying that, contrary to what Cheney, Mueller, and Rumsfeld have been hollering about, there’s no basis for believing that the country now faces an elevated risk of terrorist attack:
Q: Mr. President, the warnings which have been issued in the last days about terrorist threat, including what the Vice President said on Sunday, is it a kind of general notice to the American people that they must stay vigilant in the demands on the U.S. front? Or does it point out to any specific and imminent threat?A: The FBI Director yesterday, I talked to him—he comes in every morning, by the way. So this subject, he came up this morning. He was talking about, he was speculating based upon a lot of intelligence that indicates that the al Qaeda is active, plotting, planning, you know, trying to hit us. So he was speculating. He basically said, look, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is another attack, and it’s going to be difficult to stop them, is what he said. The Vice President also reflected that attitude. Now, if and when we have a specific threat, you know, we—in other words, if I were to tell you that I know that there’s a—thinking about an attack on a certain moment at a certain place, we would deal with that in a way that would obviously harden that site. We would put our assets in place to prevent that from happening. I doubt there’d be a lot of publicity.
Note the repetition of the word “speculative,” the absence of the word “inevitable,” and Bush’s failure to cite heightened “chatter” or “noise” among intelligence sources about a new attack. If such a spike really occurred, Bush has decided no longer to dwell on it. Our brief national rhetorical nightmare is over.