Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Seventh son of a seventh son?

Remember when the shelf-life of science fiction was at least a few decades? Speculation must age faster these days, because Gov. Howard Dean's speculations have become reality in just a couple of days. Only two days ago, Howard Dean was being portrayed as a shrill, partisan dope after hitting the talking-head shows and gaving voice to what many people were thinking - that the new Orange Alert might be as much a political act as a public-safety one. Not that he denied that there was a potential danger ... despite how it was painted in much of the press, Dean didn't dismiss the warning as bogus or unwarranted, he only stated that it was explicitly political.

In the lead front-page stories in today's Washington Post and New York Times, the details behind the new al-Quaeda intelligence comes out, and it once again calls into question the motivations for raising the terrorism alert level. Most, if not all of the "new" information dates from before the 9/11 attacks.

From WaPo:
Most of the al Qaeda surveillance of five financial institutions that led to a new terrorism alert Sunday was conducted before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and authorities are not sure whether the casing of the buildings has continued, numerous intelligence and law enforcement officials said yesterday.

More than half a dozen government officials interviewed yesterday, who declined to be identified because classified information is involved, said that most, if not all, of the information about the buildings seized by authorities in a raid in Pakistan last week was about three years old, and possibly older.

"There is nothing right now that we're hearing that is new," said one senior law enforcement official who was briefed on the alert. "Why did we go to this level? . . . I still don't know that."
Here's the real problem: we have no idea when, if ever, to take a Homeland Security alert seriously. When they talk about "chatter," is there really a threat? It seems more likely that when the alert level is raised it's less to prepare us than to frighten us into a cowed malleability.

Last month in The New Republic, John Judis and Spencer Ackerman predicted a "July Surprise" - the Pakistani government would, as a favor to President Bush, produce a new "high value target" al Quaeda arrest during the Democratic Convention. Sure enough, Pakistan did indeed announce the arrest of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian Al Qaeda operative.

The Pakistan al-Q story didn't do much to distract the public's attention, but Sunday's terror alerts seem to have done a better job. I guess it wouldn't do to let John Kerry dominate the headlines when sowing fear (and the public's concomitant resistance to leadership change) works so much better for the Bush administration's plans to retain office.

In a related story (again on both papers' front pages) Mr. Bush says that he'll create both a new post for national intelligence chief and a new federal counter-terrorism agency. These are both from the 9/11 Commission's recommendations, and come only after Senator Kerry said he'd create them immediately on entering office. These announcements, like raising the alert level, seem designed explicitly to both get the President back to the top of Page 1 and to associate both threat and response to threat in the public mind with George W Bush. One need only read Tom Ridge's statement to the press on Sunday to see where the motivation for all of this lies:
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.
(empahsis mine)
If there had been any doubt that politics is a primary motivation for the Bush Administration's alerts and homeland security initiatives, I think Gov. Ridge's statement lays them pretty well to rest.

Howard Dean has gone in just two days from goat to genius. All I can say to Gov. Dean, John Judis, and Spencer Ackerman is this - watch your asses, guys. Cassandra didn't exactly prosper after being given the gift of foretelling the future.

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