War Stories

Waving the Orange Flag

Did the Bushies overplay the latest al-Qaida threat?

What are we to make of the latest terrorist alert? Is it real? Is it irrelevant? Is it pre-election scare-mongering? And whatever it is, what are we—meaning the U.S. government and the American people—supposed to do about it?

For those already so frightened that they’ve been hiding in a cave the past few days, Tom Ridge, the secretary of homeland security, interrupted his Sunday to warn the nation of new intelligence—taken from a captured terrorist’s laptop—about al-Qaida’s preparations to attack five specific targets in three U.S. cities: the New York Stock Exchange and Citibank headquarters in New York City; Prudential Financial in Newark, N.J.; and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund headquarters in Washington, D.C. The documents, he said, were “unusually specific,” down to detailing the easiest ways to enter the buildings, the most damaging place to blow up a bomb, and the times when pedestrian traffic is densest.

However, certain things about this report seemed odd or at least ambiguous from the get-go. Officials noted that al-Qaida’s surveillance of these buildings had begun before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Did this computer file reflect an ongoing plan or a shard from the archives? On Monday, the first full day of reporting, only the Wall Street Journal pursued this line of inquiry. In the third paragraph of their front-page story, Robert Block and Kara Scannell wrote:

But since there is no time frame for a possible attack, and since intelligence officials admit they are unsure whether the new information is current or outdated … [the alert] represents a bit of a gamble because it threatens to leave some potential targets more thinly secured than others while flagging for the terrorists those where security has been beefed up.

By Monday night, the Journal’s skepticism was confirmed. As reported in all major media this morning, the intelligence is three or four years old, and there’s no indication that the attack plan is still active. In fact, it’s less than clear that there ever was a real plan.

The 18th paragraph of the story in today’s New York Times quotes a “counterterrorism official in Washington” as saying, “We know that al-Qaeda routinely cases targets and then puts the plans on a shelf without doing anything.” The third paragraph of the Washington Post story quotes a “senior law enforcement official who was briefed on the alert” as saying, “There is nothing right now that we’re hearing that’s new. Why did we go to this [heightened alert] level? … I still don’t know that.”

Then again, Fran Townsend, the White House homeland security adviser, said on NBC’s Today show, “From what we know of al-Qaeda’s methods … they do these years in advance and then update them before they actually launch the attack.”

So, if you’re the head of the CIA, the FBI, or the Department of Homeland Security, and you’ve read these files on the laptop of a captured al-Qaida terrorist, what do you do? Do you shrug them off as old plans? Then what happens if the attacks actually take place and the Senate Intelligence Committee discovers that your agents had captured this treasure trove of documents outlining the attacks precisely, that you had personally examined the evidence, and that you did nothingabout it? Some have excused the neglect of warnings about 9/11 because the intel never said precisely where, or by what means, the attacks would take place. But these documents were extremely specific, spookily detailed—and, still, you did nothing! What happens? You’ll never get a job in this—or any other American—town again. You’ll be a pariah, your name a synonym for malignant neglect. For decades to come, people will say to their neglectful friends, “You really pulled a Ridge with that one!” And your president, the man who entrusted you with that job, will get thrown out this November in a landslide.

In other words, the safest thing to do—on several levels (personal, political, and professional)—is to take the intelligence seriously.

Once it’s taken seriously, should you inform the public? Yes. Security would be beefed up; explanations would be demanded; the intel would be leaked anyway. Besides, if the attack really is about to happen and you scream to the world that you know about it and that you’re taking extra measures to prevent it, the attackers might very well be scared off themselves.

Still, this leaves open another set of questions. Did Ridge and company take any steps to find out whether these files were really plans and if the plans were really current? U.S. intelligence agencies had the laptop’s owner in custody. Did they interrogate him? No doubt. Hence the law enforcement official quoted in the Washington Post as being puzzled that Ridge was making a big deal of this.

Then again, if the al-Qaida agent said it was an old, discarded plan, why should we believe him? Again, the safe thing, in the short run, is to go with it.

But there are two other considerations here. Given what the Times’ counterterrorism source said about the vast set of blueprints that al-Qaida keeps on the shelf, U.S. intelligence might discover lots of laptops with lots of apparent plans. If the alert goes up to orange or red with each discovery, very soon nobody is going to take these alerts at all seriously—and that includes the local law enforcement agencies tasked with enforcing the alerts on already overstretched budgets.

If President Bush is truly serious about preventing terrorist attacks, he has to ensure that these alerts, even when they’re wrong, are at least perceived as sincere and untainted by political motive. By this standard, Tom Ridge last Sunday proved himself a dreadful homeland security secretary, and the Bush administration (by association, if not collaboration) diminished the trust that a president must inspire on such matters.

During the news conference where he announced the heightened alert, Ridge made the following remark: “We must understand that the kind of information available to us today is the result of the president’s leadership in the war against terror.”

As far as I can tell, only Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, quoted this line. On one level, the “real” news media might be lauded for ignoring the sentence and thus separating the news from the propaganda. But on another level, by censoring Ridge’s spin, aren’t they distorting the news? Isn’t his spin part of the news? Could it be that the spin spurred the news, supplied (at least in part) the rationale for the announcement—especially given the broader context of its timing just a few days after the Democratic Convention?

Assuming the documents are authentic, a case can be made that Bush should have issued the alert, regardless of whether his motives were honorable or cynical. But given the bumpy ride ahead, it would be nice if we could assume they are honorable.