Crying Wolf

Friday evening, the top story on MSNBC.com was headlined “QUESTIONABLE SOURCE: Ashcroft’s information on threat may not be credible”. And we were treated to a typical pic of the glowering Big Brother John himself. (See my site for a pic.) The June 7 issue of NEWSWEEK has a story on the vague warnings called “Enemies Among Us” and includes this:

Once again it appears that politics and national security are bedfellows in post-9/11 America. That is not to say that Bush administration officials are crying wolf. It's just that they know less—and want more—than the attorney general appeared to be saying.
Well, NEWSWEEK won't say the administration is crying wolf. But NEWSWEEK seems to hope you'll think they are.

This sort of press strikes me as far more surreal than just about anything else I've been blasted with lately. How is it, that in a post-9/11 America during an election year, major news organizations can all but dismiss threats of terror because the information might be "questionable"? If 20 Arabs had been arrested on September 10, 2001 and Special Forces sent into Afghanistan the following week based on info in the August 8, 2001 PDB, then I'd be listening to this line of thinking.

Twenty guys without anything bigger than box cutters are going to destroy the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and either the Capitol or the White House? With airliners? And THAT is why we're going to overthrow the poorest nation on the face of the planet? Riiiiight.

But this is a different world.

NEWSWEEK seems to be banging the "politics of the terror alert" drum pretty loudly. In fact, the second link in the headline box on MSNBC.com last Friday led to a NEWSWEEK column by Elanor Clift entitled "Washington Intrigue". The link on the MSNBC.com front page called it, well, "Politics of terror alert". (Incidentally, the Clift story is interesting and worth a read.)

Forgive me if I'm confused. I know that not everyone thinks so, but we are at war. Even the most anti-war among us won't shut up about how the invasion of Iraq has made the world less safe and put America even more solidly in the crosshairs of international terrorism. Those who opposed the invasion of Iraq but agree that military action against the Taliban and Al Qaeda is justified moan about how the overthrow of Saddam and the reconstruction of Iraq have diverted our attention from the "real enemy". If this is the case, shouldn't we be hypersensitive to warnings from the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, or the White House? (Yes, I know all about the Goering quote. Please don't repeat it again.)

We were told in April that the administration had shirked its duties when it didn't move heaven and earth in response to the 8/6/01 Presidential Daily Brief entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike Inside the US". Now, if you've read that PDB, you'll know that it is full of information of unknown credibility from questionable sources. Do I wish that the administration and others had done more based upon that spotty, inaccurate, questionable information? Of course I do. But I do understand why that brief didn't set off the downfall of the 9/11 hijackers.

Now, less than two months later, Ashcroft is being pooh-poohed by NEWSWEEK because he's warning about threats that may not be credible? Using information from sources that may not be above question? I agree that Ashcroft's warnings don't really spell out what's going to come down. I agree that too many vague threats condition us to ignore all of them. I agree that politics is a big part of what the politicians do.

But either Bush & Co. were wrong for under-reacting to the 8/6/01 PDB or they're wrong for over-reacting to this latest information. It can't really be both, can it? Not to those who are watching at home. We don't have 1% of the information available to us that the decision-makers do. Members of the press probably have much more information available, and they can find out things that we cannot. But is it just possible that NEWSWEEK and MSNBC.com's headline writers are playing a little politics, too?

The "Enemies Among Us" story includes this:

The November elections are not far away. The White House, NEWSWEEK has learned, played a role in the decision to go public with the warning. According to a White House official, President Bush signed off on the press conference after meeting with Mueller, Ridge and Ashcroft, the former senator who has a taste for splashy publicity. With the president's poll numbers dropping, the Bush administration is surely eager to divert media and public attention from Iraq to the terrorist threat. Instead of the images of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, the White House would prefer that voters see the faces of terrorists who aim to kill them.
I believe that the writer is 100% correct. If you were the President, wouldn't you want to make sure Americans remember that there are actually bad guys out there? I mean, after a straight month of Abu Ghraib coverage on the front page of the NEW YORK TIMES, wouldn't you hope that people, many of them voters, don't forget that there is more to all of this than that one prison?

The WASHINGTON POST writes "Terror suspects beating charges in Europe". An empty rocket launcher is disovered beside train tracks near Atlanta and no one seems to care. The ACLU is fighting a No-Fly list intended to keep questionable people off of US jetliners. Pretty much everyone everywhere comdemns the USA Patriot Act.

How is it that terror warnings, increased security measures at airports, and events at home and abroad get little more than a few late-night television jokes and claims of partisan politics? Isn't this a lot of what we wish had been done before 9/11? One of the main provisions in the Patriot Act is the sharing of information between intelligence agencies, which has been highlighted as one of the primary shortcomings in US policy that allowed the 9/11 plans to succeed.

Yes, there is politicking involved. Yes, the USA Patriot Act could potentially endanger a lot of what we want America to stand for. Yes, the Bush administration has kicked the CYA policies into full-gear.

But why are so many in the media and elsewhere, who coincidentally oppose the President on just about every other subject as well, working so hard to dismiss these warnings? It's good that NEWSWEEK is on the record with "That is not to say that Bush administration officials are crying wolf". Because the wolves have already eaten some of us. We know they're there, and we know they want more.

The government doesn't have all the information. And you and I only hear a tiny bit of what they DO have. Our want of and need for the latest news makes things more than a little confusing. Why are some working so hard to make it even worse?

Posted by murdoc at May 31, 2004 7:56 PM | TrackBack (1)