It didn’t take more than a few hours for key Bush administration officials to respond to allegations forthcoming from Tom Ridge’s memoirs that they had pressured him to raise terrorist threat levels for the 2004 re-election campaign. Not only did they deny it in the strongest terms, some of them explained to Politico that the process was specifically designed to prevent that kind of political manipulation, and expressed puzzlement over how Ridge could have been “pressured” in a process that was deliberately passive to the NSC and President. For that matter, a New York Times report seems to indicate that Ridge wasn’t entirely sure, either:
Top officials from the George W. Bush White House are disputing claims in former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge’s coming book that they pressured him to adjust the terror threat level for political gain.
“We went over backwards repeatedly and with great discipline to make sure politics did not influence any national security and homeland security decisions,” former White House chief of staff Andy Card told POLITICO. “The clear instructions were to make sure politics never influenced anything.”
“I’m a little mystified,” former homeland security adviser Fran Townsend added in an interview. “Never in my experience did I see any political influence exerted on the cabinet secretary.” …
Townsend and Card also said that the process used to change the terror threat level made almost any claim of political influence impossible. Both said any change originated with DHS and was then referred to the National Security Council. The NSC then made a recommendation to the president which was then either agreed to or rejected.
So what did Ridge see that made him feel pressured? Even Ridge seems unsure (emphases mine):
The most sensational assertion was the pre-election debate in 2004 about the threat level, first reported by U.S. News & World Report. Mr. Ridge writes that the bin Laden tape alone did not justify a change in the nation’s security posture but describes “a vigorous, some might say dramatic, discussion” on Oct. 30 to do so.
“There was absolutely no support for that position within our department. None,” he writes. “I wondered, ‘Is this about security or politics?’ Post-election analysis demonstrated a significant increase in the president’s approval rating in the days after the raising of the threat level.”
Mr. Ridge provides no evidence that politics motivated the discussion. Until now, he has denied politics played a role in threat levels. Asked by Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times if politics ever influenced decisions on threat warnings, he volunteered to take a lie-detector test. “Wire me up,” Mr. Ridge said, according to Mr. Lichtblau’s book, “Bush’s Law.” “Not a chance. Politics played no part.”
I believe this is a process known better in Washington as “talking out of one’s ass,” and I’m not referring to the Democratic Party mascot. Perhaps Lichtblau should have taken Ridge up on his offer. I’d also note that after this news broke across the media yesterday, the Times’ Book section report leaves this part of their report to the final three paragraphs.
But if this is all he has, it’s beyond thin, especially considering that analysts had determined earlier that Osama bin Laden’s tapes appeared to trigger major al-Qaeda operations in the past. It would not have been at all unreasonable in 2004 to at least consider that pattern to still be operational, and to hike a threat levelfor a few days in response. In fact, that’s exactly why we have the threat level system — to warn law enforcement of an increased possibility of attack.
As Michelle notes, either Ridge lied to Lichtblau (Bush’s Law was published in 2008, almost three years after Ridge left DHS) or he’s lying now. It’s not difficult to guess that Ridge may have wanted to make a big splash for his book, and this kind of unsupported allegation — as the Times itself acknowledges — would help. I’m sure it will sell big on the Left.
Update: An excerpt from another book quoting Ridge seems to negate this allegation, too:
“In spite of allegations of playing politics, as time went on, our office was more often than not the most reluctant to raise the threat level. Despite perception to the contrary, the White House couldn’t, as a matter of course, call us up and say, ‘Go to orange, Tom.'”
Um, wait … that’s a quote from Ridge’s book, found by Caleb Howe. He also has this:
It is possible, at this point, that you find none of this very definitive. But that is OK, because Tom Ridge has a definitive statement for you. Earlier in the book, addressing the allegations that political pressure had been applied to raise threat levels, Ridge has this to say:
“Let me make it very clear. I was never directed to do so no matter how many analysts, pundits or critics say so.”
Maybe you should ask your publisher to read your book, Mr. Ridge.