Somebody owes Howard Dean an apology.
Over the past few days, the former Vermont governor and
Democratic Presidential candidate has endured a barrage of bad press and nasty
commentary, simply because he expressed honest doubts about the government’s
latest terror alarm. Republican pundits and politicians predictably denounced
him. Senator John Kerry disowned Dr. Dean’s remarks, and Senator Joe Lieberman
went further, suggesting that anyone who harbors such doubts must not be “in
their right mind.”
In short, to think that the Bush administration might issue an
alert for political advantage is a symptom of madness. The latest news reports,
however, indicate that Dr. Dean’s suspicions were hardly unfounded.
On Aug. 1, as every alert
citizen knows, Homeland Security
Secretary Tom Ridge held an unusual Sunday press conference to announce that
the Bush administration had raised its color-coded threat level from yellow to
orange in certain selected places-in New York and New Jersey’s financial
centers and the World Bank headquarters in Washington, D.C. In his opening
remarks, Mr. Ridge told America that the decision was provoked by “new and unusually
The stolid bureaucrat went on with boilerplate rhetoric about the
administration’s brilliant performance in securing the homeland. Somewhat
gratuitously, he urged us all to “understand that the kind of information
available to us today is the result of the President’s leadership in the war
Mr. Ridge did not, however, explain what he meant in describing
this scary information as “new.” His response to reporters who asked for more
specifics was opaque and nearly incoherent. Within 48 hours, we learned why he
wouldn’t give a straight answer.
But first, while most Democrats reacted cautiously, Dr. Dean
spoke out on CNN. “I am concerned that every time something happens that’s not
good for President Bush, he plays this trump card, which is terrorism,” he
said. “It’s just impossible to know how much of this is real and how much of
this is politics, and I suspect there’s some of both in it.”
He didn’t have to wait long for a measure of vindication. Two
days after the Ridge press conference, the truth about the “new” threat leaked
out. On the front pages of The New York
Times and The Washington Post, various
unnamed officials revealed that the data cited by Mr. Ridge was actually “three
or four years old.” According to the newspapers, there is no fresh evidence of
a planned assault by Al Qaeda on East Coast financial institutions.
That doesn’t mean Osama bin
Laden’s minions won’t try to strike the buildings they surveyed years ago.
Vigilance is imperative. But as one senior law-enforcement official confided to
the Post, there was no clear reason
for Mr. Ridge to hit the “orange” button last Sunday.
Equally troubling was the
secretary’s failure to explain that the information wasn’t exactly “new,”
although it had been obtained recently from computers seized in Pakistan. His
remarks on Sunday were simultaneously incoherent and misleading.
For instance, a reporter inquired whether Mr. Ridge could link
“this plot” to the “pre-election threats” he had mentioned at a widely
criticized July 8 press conference. “I think one could reasonably infer that
this could be part of that effort,” he replied. “But I don’t think you
necessarily should put a time frame around when these targets, if they were
ultimately the subject of an attack, would be attacked. I mean, given the
specificity of the information, you’ve got to appreciate that and consider that
in light of the broader general threat to try to disrupt the democratic
What did Mr. Ridge mean by all that tangled verbiage? He seemed
to be suggesting that the threat information was indeed current. (Subsequently,
he claimed that Al Qaeda had “updated” its old surveillance information last
January, without citing any proof.)
Cynicism about the administration’s possible misuse of terror
alerts has been stoked repeatedly by the performance of Mr. Ridge and his
rival, Attorney General John Ashcroft, who proclaimed a sudden terror scare
last spring when the President was in trouble over Iraq.
Those who would still disparage Dr. Dean must account for another
curious event that coincided with the Democratic convention.
On July 29, Pakistani
officials announced the capture of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, an alleged Al Qaeda
operative wanted in connection with the 1998 embassy bombings. The Tanzanian
suspect had been picked up a few days earlier, but for some reason the authorities
chose to display him only hours before the climactic moment of the Democratic
It might be almost possible to believe that this confluence was
pure coincidence, except for a telltale clue: Ten days earlier, an
investigative article published in The
New Republic reported that Bush administration officials have been
demanding that Pakistan apprehend “high-value” terrorist suspects before
November-and preferably during the final few days of July.