What the terror alerts really tell us
There is a vacuum at the heart of Bush's second-term programme.Sidney Blumenthal
Thursday August 5, 2004
The fog of war has descended over the campaign. Within 72 hours of the end of the Democratic convention, the department of homeland security declared a new terror alert, and the colour-coded level was jacked up to orange, verging on red. The reason, the government reported, was that the computer of an al-Qaida operative captured in Pakistan contained precise information about threats to five financial institutions in New York and Washington.
Then additional information was released: the intelligence was mostly three years old, the al-Qaida surveillance of US buildings had been mostly conducted through the internet, the computer file had been opened again in January for uncertain reason and with no new surveillance data added to it, and Pakistani officials said that the captured material indicated no new al-Qaida planning.
The effect of the alert has been to throw the campaign into turmoil and momentarily freeze it. John Kerry decided to accept the administration's explanations at face value. His critique of Bush's war on terrorism must be made with iron discipline, based on the facts, not suspicions. Yet other Democrats claimed the administration was using the situation for political advantage, putting additional pressure on Kerry, who has to hold fast.
In part, the level of partisanship increased because of the clumsy performance of Tom Ridge, the secretary of homeland security, who turned the announcement into a political rally. "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," he said. Whether planned politically or not, the alert exposed that, for Bush, it is the irreducible basis of his campaign. And while it starkly elevated his profile as the "war president" again, it also revealed indirectly the vacuum of his second-term programme. His hard-right issues are insufficient for a national majority, he is weak on the realities of homeland security, and he is desperate to smudge the history of his inactions leading to 9/11 and his responsibility for the deterioration of the Iraqi situation.
The widespread cynicism about the alerts, which may have no grounding, is a product of Bush's intense politicisation of national security and his record of misleading statements about almost every aspect of war.
The 9/11 commission report is a devastating record of Bush's passivity on terrorism, beginning with his first act: the demotion of the counterterrorism chief, Richard Clarke. The report documents that the administration "was not ready to confront Islamabad" on its support for the Taliban or to "engage actively against al-Qaida" and that it "did not develop new diplomatic initiatives on al-Qaida with the Saudi government". Bush told the commission that the August 6 2001 presidential daily brief, "Bin Laden Determined To Strike In US" was "historical in nature", though it contained current information. The neoconservatives, such as deputy secretary of defence Paul Wolfowitz, are depicted as dismissive - Wolfowitz opposed retaliation for the al-Qaida attack on the USS Cole as "stale" -and obsessed with Iraq as the source of all terrorism.
Bush's campaign must try to blur memory of his history. When Kerry seized upon the commission's recommendations, Bush reacted by endorsing a new national intelligence chief. But he would give this new post no control over budget, no White House office, no power over personnel, and no authority over intelligence operations. Once again, he appeared to be acting only on political motives.
Various bills for homeland security languish before the Congress, as Bush neglects them. His paltry $46m proposal for port security is more than $1bn short of what the US Coast Guard says is required. On port security, 10 Democratic amendments have already been defeated while Bush has slept. He prefers the money to be appropriated for tax cuts for the upper bracket.
Bush is haunted not only by the ghosts of his own past but the ghosts of other presidents past. While he attempts to redeem his father's political fall by avoiding his mistakes, his effort at reversal is creating a similar estrangement from the voters. Elder Bush won his war against Iraq and withdrew without toppling Saddam; his ratings were then at their peak. But his obliviousness to economic circumstances undermined the heroic image. Lyndon Johnson had an ambitious domestic agenda backed by a landslide mandate. But he squandered it in the Vietnam quagmire; his political credibility undermined his party's for a generation. Now, Bush's faltering credibility is tearing at trust in US national security. Perversely, his campaign must exploit the fears that his failures have helped engender. For him, this is not a war of choice, but necessity.
· Sidney Blumenthal is former senior adviser to President Clinton and Washington bureau chief of salon.com