People jumped all over former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean on Monday for simply asking if presidential politics might have played a role in the financial district security alert issued Sunday by Tom Ridge, secretary for homeland security. Apologies may be in order; the alarm has left many in the federal government shaking their heads and wondering the same thing.
The first hint the alarm had more than one purpose came in Ridge's Sunday statement itself. In a curious injection of politics, Ridge said "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 . . . ."
But it turned out that, as the Washington Post reported, "Most of the Al-Qaida 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." The Post continued that "more than half a dozen government officials" said that "most, if not all, of the information . . . was about three years old, and possibly older."
One "senior law enforcment official" quoted by the Post said, "There is nothing right now that we're hearing that is new. Why did we go to this level? . . . I still don't know that."
Neither do the American people, but they do know there has been an uncanny pattern of security alerts announced at times politically expedient for the White House -- the latest one coming as Sen. John Kerry basked in the glow of a successful Democratic Convention in Boston.
Assuming federal officials genuinely felt the need to act despite the dated quality of the intelligence -- much of it taken from the Internet and other sources available to the general public -- it still seems likely that politics pushed the dramatic way they reacted. Quieter alerts to local authorities and efforts to beef up security at the targeted buildings might have brought the same security benefits without the hype. That is, by the way, how European governments typically respond.
And hype is a problem. The more such alerts issued and the more such questions raised about motive, the more Americans tend to take these dramatic messages from Ridge with a grain of salt. Federal officials might do everyone a favor by being a little less dramatic and a little more forthcoming with follow-up information about what an alert turned up and what it didn't.
Defenders of the Bush administration say it is damned if it does and damned if it doesn't where security alerts are concerned, and there's truth in that. But alerts can come in quite a lot of varieties, and when the dramatic kind such as Ridge announced Sunday are both wrapped in political rhetoric and based on dubious information, they feed cynicism. In this very real war on terror, cynicism could be fatal.
© 2004 Star Tribune