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Ridge Felt a Push to Politicize Alert Levels

Globe Staff and Agencies

WASHINGTON - The first Homeland Security secretary, Tom Ridge, says in a new book that he was pressured by other members of President George W. Bush’s Cabinet to raise the nation’s terror alert level just before the 2004 presidential election.

Ridge says he successfully objected to raising the security level despite the urgings of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, according to a release from Ridge’s publisher.

Ridge writes that there was a “vigorous, some might say dramatic, discussion’’ about raising the threat level. The former Republican governor of Pennsylvania says his aides told the White House that doing so would politicize national security.

“I believe our strong interventions had pulled the ‘go-up’ advocates back from the brink,’’ he writes. “But I consider the episode to be not only a dramatic moment in Washington’s recent history, but another illustration of the intersection of politics, fear, credibility, and security.’’

He said the episode convinced him to follow through with his plans to leave the administration for the private sector; he resigned weeks after the election, which Bush won over Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.

Ridge’s account could fuel the claims of Bush critics, who have long said that his White House used terror threats to distract the public from the unpopular Iraq war and to boost support during an election year.

But Bush’s former homeland security adviser, Frances Townsend, said yesterday that politics never played a role in determining alert levels.

She noted that in the weeks leading up to the election two videotapes were released by al Qaeda, including one by terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, that she said contained “very graphic’’ and threatening messages.

Townsend said that any time there was a discussion of changing the alert level, she first spoke with Ridge and then, if necessary, called a meeting of the homeland security council. The group then made a recommendation to the president about whether the color-coded threat level should be raised.

Asked if there was any reason for Ridge to have felt pressured, Townsend said: “He was certainly not pressured. And, by the way, he didn’t object when it was raised, and he certainly didn’t object when it wasn’t raised.’’

Ridge’s publicist, Joe Rinaldi, said Ridge was out of town and was not doing interviews until his book, “The Test of Our Times: America Under Siege . . . and How We Can Be Safe Again,’’ is released on Sept. 1.

In 2005, Ridge said his agency had been the most reluctant to raise the alert level. But his book appears to be the first time he publicly attributes some of the pressure to politics.

Asked about the allegation, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs noted yesterday that current Homeland Security Janet Napolitano launched a study whether to scrap the color-coded system, which critics say is ineffective and confusing.

“Decisions regarding the terror threat should be made based on the rise and fall of that threat, not based on anything else,’’ Gibbs said.
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