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How Many Terror Alerts Does It Take To Elect A President?

Tim McGivern
13 min read
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It's become a familiar routine. First the terror alert originates somewhere in the halls of the federal government, then it gets filtered to the mainstream media, which passes the information on to the public. The public puts on its collective “Code Orange” game face, while terror alert banners scroll across the 24/7 cable news screens and each network's security experts analyze the latest threat on the talk shows.

The drill can also be completed in moderation, such as the occurrence of an “elevated risk” day in America, which means get your “Code Yellow” game face on and don't stress too much if you skip the talk shows.

As for the latest threat, on Aug. 18 an Associated Press report announced that Adnan G. El Shukrijumah, a Saudi national suspected of being an al Qaeda member, might be coming to America. The AP story comprised just a few paragraphs, but swept across the country's headlines, informing the public that Mr. El Shukrijumah “may try to cross the border into the U.S. through Arizona or Texas.” A spokesman for the FBI’s office in El Paso, Texas, offered the only official quote in the story, stating the obvious: “We certainly don’t want him crossing into the United States because his plan is to conduct terror operations.”

The next day, an Internet blogger who goes by the pseudonym Julius Civitatus, wrote on his website, “Right on cue, before the Republican Convention, they issue a new ’terror alert'.” Civitatus then mockingly predicted the GOP convention will be “all al Qaeda, all the time.”

What makes this blogger's cynicism more compelling than that of the average Bush skeptic is that his website ( posts a “Terror Alert Timeline” and accompanying graph that would give pause to anyone with a slight inclination toward conspiracy theory.

The empirical evidence shows a stark pattern. For the past 30 months, whenever President Bush's approval ratings declined, a new terror alert was soon to follow. And for every terror alert, Bush's approval ratings experienced a “slight uptick.” And with the presidential election approaching and Bush's approval ratings having dropped to their lowest levels since he took office, “the number and frequency of terror alerts keeps growing, to the point that they collapse in the graphic.”

“For the record, we are not claiming that all these alerts are politically motivated,” writes Civitatus in the timeline intro. “We are sure a considerable amount of these alerts were legit and caused by real and immediate information of potential threats. What is important to note is that many of these ’immediate' terror alerts were later discredited. In some cases they used old data, in other cases the announcements were less immediate and less urgent than we were lead to believe, as the press reported. Those are the cases that could be interpreted as politically motivated, especially when they seemed to coincide with political news and events unfavorable to the administration.”

The timeline's findings, however, reveal a consistent pattern of either Attorney General John Ashcroft or Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge issuing a terror alert in the days following a White House mishap or scandal that carried the news of the day.

Terror Alert Timeline

In early February 2002, while the Enron scandal and Bush's close ties to the company's CEO Ken Lay consumed headlines and the Winter Olympics in Utah seemed a possible target in the aftermath of 9-11, Ashcroft called on “all Americans to be on the highest state of alert” and “report anything suspicious” to the proper authorities after issuing a “threat alert” concerning a suspected al Qaeda member that the FBI could not confirm was even inside the United States. The information disseminated to the public was vague and useless, but once readers get to the end of the timeline in August 2004, it reads like a trial balloon for the more than 15 alerts that would follow—each relatively vague, and some later found to be unsubstantiated.

The week including May 20 through May 24, 2002, was a particularly bad one for the White House. An FBI whistle-blower, Coleen Rowley, claimed agency leaders ignored her al Qaeda memo that might actually have prevented the 9-11 atrocities. At the same time, President Bush opposed the creation of the 9-11 Commission fueling outrage from victims' relatives, followed by the ongoing press rumblings about Bush administration ties to Enron.

But on May 25, the headlines gave way to an FBI report based on “uncorroborated and unconfirmed information” that scuba diver terrorists were, possibly, a new threat. Two and a half years later, the scuba scare has not been mentioned again.

“Americans go into the Memorial Day weekend with alerts about terrorism ringing in their ears,” announced CNN, before quoting the FBI's advice to “remain in a heightened state of alert” for railroad bombers and suicide aircraft as well, particularly targeting the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge.

On June 9, 2002, the FBI's Rowley testified before Congress, furthering the claim that bureaucratic incompetence was partially to blame for the failure to thwart the 9-11 terrorists.

The next day, Ashcroft held a press conference while in Russia announcing Jose Padilla, the “dirty bomb” suspect, had been arrested. The arrest however took place on May 9, a month earlier. After being held without charge in a military prison for the next two years, on June 28, 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Padilla must be charged or freed.

On Feb. 6, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell failed to persuade the United Nations to support the invasion of Iraq. Powell, it was later reported, didn't have much faith in the evidence he postured that day and Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix dismissed Powell's testimony as implausible. As Bob Woodward's book Plan of Attack makes clear, at this time the White House's Iraq war planning was well underway, even as Bush was denying it to reporters.

With the United Nations skeptical and the Pentagon's planning well underway, the primary administration concern was winning the support of the American public, regardless of the dubious evidence supporting an Iraqi invasion. The terror alert onslaught that followed was so wayward, even at the time, it quickly became the butt of jokes on “The Tonight Show” and “Saturday Night Live.”

On Feb. 7, the orange terror alert, or “highest” threat level, was issued by the White House, erasing Powell's uninspired performance from the public consciousness almost immediately. The thrust of the federal alert was a plea to be vigilant of “suspicious activity” and prepare for a chemical attack by purchasing plastic sheeting and duct tape to cover your windows, “just in case.” The talk focused on terrorism disaster kits, such as this Feb. 13, 2003, report in the Christian Science Monitor, noting “Gas masks aren’t on the Department of Homeland Security or Red Cross disaster kit lists, but sheeting and duct tape are.”

The high alert remained through Feb. 15, continuing even after ABC's “World News Tonight” reported a story “False Alarm?” on Feb. 13, suggesting the orange alert was “partly based on fabricated information.”

A Season to Remember

In the past five months, according to the JuliusBlog timeline, the terror alerts have become more frequent.

April 1, 2004 was a particularly bad day for the White House. Photos of four mutilated U.S. contractors hanging from an Iraqi bridge and former White House counter terrorism chief Richard Clarke insisting Bush ignored terrorist threats prior to September 11, 2001, highlighted the day's news.

Later that evening, around midnight, the FBI and Homeland Security Department issued a bulletin suggesting that terrorists “might try to bomb buses and rail lines in major U.S. cities this summer,” according to a PBS “NewsHour” special report broadcast the following day. The warning captured headlines across America on April 2, with the NewsHour reporting “uncorroborated intelligence point(s) to a bomb made out of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and diesel fuel, similar to the one used to blow up the Oklahoma City federal building in April 1995.” Such a bomb “could be concealed in standard luggage,” the bulletin warned.

On May 18, Colin Powell told NBC's “Meet the Press” that he was deliberately mislead about WMD information pertaining to Iraq, eliminating any doubt that there was growing discord between the State Department and Pentagon. The Abu Ghraib prison scandal and Halliburton overcharging for Iraq work were hot topics in the news the following days, while the 9-11 Commission hearings were in full swing. Bush's presidential approval ratings were at their lowest.

Then, this headline news from CNN on May 25, sums the day's top story: “Several U.S. officials said Tuesday that intelligence indicates there is increasing concern about the possibility of a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil, perhaps as early as this summer. Such an attack might take place before the November presidential election in an attempt to affect the outcome, the officials said. … Although there is no specific target, time or date for the possible attack, the information is the culmination of intelligence that has been known and gathered over time—and it is the assessment that is new, the sources said.” The story was attributed to two unidentified “counterterrorism sources.”

FBI Director Robert Mueller and Attorney General Ashcroft held a news conference the next day, May 26. Citing “multiple sources,” Ashcroft announced, “This disturbing intelligence indicates al Qaeda’s specific intention to hit the United States hard. Beyond this intelligence, al Qaeda’s own public statements indicate that it is almost ready to attack the United States.” Of course, Osama bin Laden has released videotapes for more than a decade announcing that he plans to attack the United States. Could this be what Ashcroft was referring to?

While these examples are part of a more comprehensive timeline, it is always possible that heightened terror alerts have nothing to do with our nation's news cycles. A bad day for the White House followed by a terror alert could be just coincidence. Of course, you can log on and draw your own conclusions.

Still, when a terror alert was issued on Aug. 2, it came just days after the Democratic Convention and the day after the White House announced the year's federal deficit had soared to a record $445 billion.

At least this orange alert specifically identified corporate and government financial institutions in New York and Washington as possible targets. Oddly enough, First Lady Laura Bush and her daughters appeared at one of the targets, the Citicorp building in New York City, that same day, lauding folks for coming to work and not succumbing to fear.

Talk about mixed messages. Was the building at risk of a terror attack or not? Knowing the kind of security detail the First Lady requires, obviously the Secret Service thought it was safe for her to be there. And, of course, there was no attack, despite Secretary Ridge's dire warning.

The very next day, Aug. 3, The New York Times and Washington Post, both reported that the information that led authorities to raise the threat level was three or four years old, and there was no hard evidence that a terrorist plot or surveillance operations persisted. The Post article cites more than a half-dozen government intelligence officials, who all spoke on condition of anonymity, saying there was no new information to warrant the announcement.

Further digging by the press led the AP to report on Aug. 12: “The Bush administration has discovered no evidence of imminent plans by terrorists to attack U.S. financial buildings, nearly two weeks after the government issued startling warnings about such possible threats, a White House official said.”

So was it all a hoax?

The Politics of Fear

Looking at an Associated Press transcript of Ridge's Aug. 1 press conference, his words were tinged with political rhetoric and would seem to provide even the least discerning citizens ample evidence that he aimed to boost the president's stature as the leader in the war on terror, even if the rhetoric comes with a dubious threat alert.

Ridge began: “President Bush has told you, and I have reiterated the promise, that when we have specific credible information that we will share it. This afternoon we do have new and unusually specific information about where al Qaeda would like to attack.”

After Ridge announced the threat level was once again “Code Orange,” the vague justification followed: “The quality of this intelligence, based on multiple reporting streams in multiple locations, is rarely seen, and it is alarming in both the amount and specificity of the information.”

He never mentioned the “new” information was actually three to four years old and only admitted to it after anonymous leaks from intelligence officials. However, in conclusion, Ridge stated: “But 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, the reports that have led to this alert are the result of offensive intelligence and military operations overseas, as well as strong partnerships with our allies around the world, such as Pakistan.”


I happened to be traveling on July 30, the day after John Kerry's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. Perusing the dailies at an airport newsstand in California, I noticed the Los Angeles Times, San Jose Mercury News, Sacramento Bee, New York Times and USA Today all predictably ran frontpage stories on Kerry's speech. And each of the papers also had a frontpage story about the capture of an al Qaeda operative in Pakistan.

Interestingly, The New Republic magazine reported on July 19, in an article entitled “July Surprise?,” that White House officials told Pakistan security officials to announce the capture of an al Qaeda member between July 26 and July 29, the days of the Democratic convention. Despite this cat being out of the bag, (OK not everyone reads The New Republic, but this was a major scoop) in the hours preceding Kerry's speech and in time for the next day's headline, Pakistan's government issued the announcement.

It was later revealed the al Qaeda operative had been captured on July 12, making the timing seem obviously politically motivated and further legitimizing The New Republic's scoop.

The New Republic article also noted an ABC News/Washington Post poll showing that Kerry, by mid-July, had drawn even with Bush on the question of which candidate voters trusted in handling the war on terrorism. Considering the issue was supposedly Bush's strength, and a crucial part of his campaign platform, this was not good news. In fact, Kerry had been behind on that question by 21-points as recently as April, but had now closed the gap.

“Pushing Musharraf (Pakistan's president) to go after al Qaeda in the tribal areas may be a good idea despite the risks,” concludes TNR. “But, if that is the case, it was a good idea in 2002 and 2003. Why the switch now? Top Pakistanis think they know: This year, the president’s re-election is at stake.”

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