Dean Sees Red Over Code Orange

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

specific information.”

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

against terror.”

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

process.”

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

convention.

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.