Is Bush Hyping the New al-Qaida Threat?

God, Chatterbox hopes so.

For obvious reasons, this column always takes notice when a high-ranking government official uses the word “chatter.” In her May 16 press briefing, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice used the word six times to describe the vague portents of trouble that the Bush administration received prior to Sept. 11. “There was a lot of chatter in the system,” Rice said, and President Bush “asked me to go back and to see what was being done about all of the chatter that was there.” It turned out there was “much less reporting or chatter at home,” leading the administration to think that the terrorism threat was focused on Americans abroad, but it was still “more chatter than usual.”

Three days after Rice’s press briefing, the New York TimesJames Risen and David Johnston broke the terrifying news that American intelligence agencies were once again picking up vague signals that al-Qaida was planning an operation “as big as the Sept. 11 attacks or bigger.” The Times piece quoted a “senior administration official” saying, “There’s just a lot of chatter in the system again.” The next day, Rice was talking up the imminent threat on CNN Late Edition With Wolf Blitzer,ABC’s This Week,and CBS’s Face the Nation.

The repetition of the phrase “chatter in the system” and the fact that Rice was energetically promoting the notion of an impending attack soon after the Times story broke suggests to Chatterbox that Rice was the Times’ “senior administration official.” Chatterbox suspects that Rice leaked the al-Qaida-Will-Strike-Again story, or at least lent the Times an unusual level of background assistance, in order to deflect attention from the burgeoning (and slightly unfair) Could-Bush-Have-Prevented-9/11 story. Although it’s counterintuitive that the White House would leak a story that it wanted to receive wide dissemination—why not just give it to everyone?—leaking to the Times is a well-known public relations trick. An exclusive gets better Times play—in this case, it was the lead story on Page One—and leaves the rest of the media, which regard the Times as holy writ, racing furiously to catch up. This works even better in the Internet age because now a Times exclusive doesn’t have to wait until morning to put competitors in a tizzy. A version of the al-Qaida-Will-Strike-Again story was actually posted on the Times Web site Saturday afternoon prior to appearing in the print edition Sunday.

Chatterbox is not such a cynic that he thinks the Bushies invented this latest al-Qaida threat. It’s probably real. But Chatterbox doesn’t put it past the Bush White House to time its release of this dire news for maximum political benefit. With the start of a new week, Topic A is shifting away from the Bush administration’s possible incompetence in handling the 9/11 threat (mounting evidence suggests that the worst of this occurred within the FBI) and toward the prospect of a new, devastating al-Qaida attack on U.S. soil. Indeed, in a May 19 appearance on Fox News Sunday, Dick Cheney stated flatly that dwelling too publicly on the former would only encourage the latter:

It’s a very real concern that if we’re going to deal with the next attack—and we started this morning talking about the prospects of another attack—the last thing we want to do is to go out and lay out on the record now our capabilities in terms of how we collect information.

Cheney said much the same thing that same day on Meet the Press. Chatterbox feels fairly certain that Cheney himself was not the Times’ “senior administration official.” (That’s because Cheney uses the word “noise” rather than “chatter” to describe the portents of doom emanating from the intelligence agencies.) But he very likely had a hand in formulating the White House’s probable leak-to-the-Times media strategy.

Is the White House exaggerating the imminent danger? Chatterbox, not being well-sourced within al-Qaida, can’t say. He does find it curious, however, that while the national security adviser, the vice president, and now FBI director Robert Mueller are doing their best to maximize Americans’ sense of danger, the newly created White House Office of Homeland Security is keeping the nation on a relatively ho-hum yellow alert (“Elevated: Significant Risk of Terrorist Attacks”), right smack in the middle between green (“Low Risk of Terrorist Attacks”) and red ("Severe Risk of Terrorist Attacks”). According to Homeland Security Presidential Directive Three, a yellow alert should prompt consideration of:

1) Increasing surveillance of critical locations;
2) Coordinating emergency plans as appropriate with nearby jurisdictions;
3) Assessing whether the precise characteristics of the threat require the further refinement of preplanned Protective Measures;
4) and Implementing, as appropriate, contingency and emergency response plans.

Nowhere on this list does Chatterbox see “5. Spreading panic in order to stifle debate about the Bush administration’s competence during prior disasters.” But these guidelines are new, and no doubt susceptible to broad interpretation.