Politics drove decision to raise alert level

Capitol Hill Blue 02/12/03

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Friday’s elevation of the terrorist threat level from yellow (moderate) to orange (high) ignited a heated debate within America’s intelligence community with some career professionals complaining the Bush administration is playing politics with the nation’s security.

Highly-placed sources within both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency tell Capitol Hill Blue that while “chatter” has increased in recent days, they have no hard evidence a new attack is forthcoming from Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorist network or any of the dozens of other terrorist groups currently monitored.

“We have lots of raw data, much of it conflicting,” says one FBI agent. “Nothing is conclusive, nothing contains the level of substantiation we like to see in these cases.”

Some senior intelligence professionals recommended against raising the threat level without more specific information while others, fearing getting burned by another 9-11 level surprise, went along with the threat elevation.

“In the end, it was a political decision as much as anything else,” a White House source admitted Monday evening. “Better to elevate the threat level and have nothing happen than say nothing and get hit by another attack.”

Yet some White House planners fear the administration may lose credibility in the public’s eyes if nothing happens.

“We need to have an attack stopped before it takes place,” says the White House aide. “That would be the best scenario.”

White House political operatives, however, have drafted several sets of talking points to explain the elevated threat level, including a set in case disaster strikes and a different set if nothing happens.

Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge is hitting the talk and news show circuit to sell the administration position. As the newest member of the administration’s anti-terror team, Ridge is also the designated “fall guy” if nothing happens.

Explaining Friday's elevation of the national terror-alert status, Ridge told CBS's The Early Show that "one of the reasons that we raised it is that because we believe the threat has substantially increased in the last couple of weeks."

On the five-step alert scale, red is the highest, but no such terrorist warning level has yet been issued.

Ridge and his deputies also advised various industries and local governments how to increase security in response to the threat.

On Friday, Homeland Security officials recommended that hotels inspect all cars, that malls and offices prohibit delivery trucks from entering underground parking garages, and that office tower managers control access at the door and monitor their heating and air conditioning ducts for breaches.

Terrorists could use chemical or biological weapons in ductwork to attack an entire building, officials said.

Monday, federal officials recommended that Americans should take basic disaster-preparation steps such as maintaining a three-day stockpile of food and water. They also recommended obtaining duct tape and plastic sheeting to seal a house in the event of a chemical or biological attack or disaster.

Homeland Security spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the recommendations for the household are not in response to the orange alert but instead just proper planning for disasters, including terrorist attacks.

Asked Monday what U.S. citizens are expected to do in response to such warnings, Ridge said, "When we raise the level of alert, when we raise the national consciousness about the level of attack, that in itself, is a deterrence. ... Just being more ready, being more prepared, is a deterrent in and of itself."

Ridge was questioned about the seriousness of the warning, which remains in effect.

"In discussing this matter with people that have been around the White House longer than I have, it is universally agreed that this is the most significant set of warnings that we've had since before Sept. 11," he replied.

Asked about critics' accusations that the alert might have been tied to President Bush's warning to Saddam Hussein that time is running out on Baghdad avoiding war, Ridge said, "Well, I regret that interpretation."

Appearing on NBC's Today program, Ridge said the warning was based on "the accumulation of credible corroborated sources, none of which are connected to the possibility of military involvement with Iraq."

Ridge, however, said it was not possible to be more specific about possible targets.

"We get general information and specific information, but none of the specific information talks about time, place or methods or means ... We don't get the specificity that we would all like to have in order to prepare," he said.

Political scientist George Harleigh says the administration is playing a “high stakes political spin game” with the threat level.

“If you keep warning that something will happen and nothing happens, the American public will stop listening to the alerts,” Harleigh said. “When that happens, the country becomes most vulnerable.”
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