The Political Benefits of Terror
By Jason Leopold
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Monday 10 July 2006
With the battle for the House and Senate heating up, the White House has once again resorted to its old tactic - instilling fear in the American public - in hopes of regaining control of both Houses of Congress come November.
A peek into the memory hole shows that during the past few election seasons, the Bush administration has made a habit of issuing warnings about imminent terrorist threats in an attempt to shore up the president's sagging poll numbers.
On Memorial Day weekend in 2004, during the contentious presidential campaign between Bush and the Democratic challenger, Senator John Kerry, right through mid-June, Bush's approval ratings yo-yoed because of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the spike in American military casualties the US suffered in Iraq. By mid-June, 51% of Americans disapproved of the way Bush was handling the war in Iraq, up about four points from May, according to polling results from Zogby, Gallup and Pew.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, on May 26, former Attorney General John Ashcroft held a press conference warning the public that al-Qaeda "wants to hit America hard."
Ashcroft didn't release specific information because he didn't have any. He said that somewhere in this country seven al-Qaeda operatives were planning an attack. That's hardly information that warrants a press conference. His announcement didn't even elevate a change in the color-coded terrorist alert system that was once used. In fact, it was all a smokescreen to change the news cycle. It worked. Bush's numbers went back up soon after Ashcroft's press conference.
The Wall Street Journal reported a couple of days later that the Department of Homeland Security had found that the information that prompted Ashcroft's dire warnings of an attack on American soil "had been known for some time" and "was not new or specific enough to merit an announcement or other action."
Ashcroft cried wolf on a half-dozen other occasions too, including Independence Day and Christmas 2003 and right before the Super Bowl. Those alleged terrorist threats identified banks, shopping malls, power plants and stadiums, obvious targets for a militant group that wants to rack up a high number of casualties, but the evidence to support the threats either didn't exist or came from unreliable sources.
In the summer of 2004, former Homeland Security director Tom Ridge announced that terrorists wanted to blow up the Citicorp building in Manhattan's financial district, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Washington, DC, and the Prudential Building in Newark, NJ. The threat seemed more real, more imminent because, for the first time, specific information emerged. But the so-called threat smacked of election season politics, and evidence surfaced months later proving Ridge's announcement was based on information that came from suspect sources.
Now word comes that federal law enforcement officials thwarted three attacks in Chicago and New York City by so-called homegrown Islamic fundamentalists. The warnings are intended to convince the public that only Republicans can deal with terrorism and if voters consider casting a vote for a Democrat it's tantamount to putting your own safety at risk.
Don't buy it. The latest threats aren't real. The data doesn't lie.
It just so happens that nearly every terrorist warning that has been issued since 2003 came at a time when Bush's approval ratings lagged and when bad news was coming out of the war in Iraq. Go to pollingreport.com and then check the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department web sites and you'll see how the terrorist warnings were issued at the same time Bush started to fall behind in the polls.
The Australian newspaper The Age ran a Reuters story that quoted unnamed senior US officials as saying that the constant flow of terrorist warnings since March 2003 "may also just be a ploy to shore up the president's job approval ratings or divert attention from the increasingly unpopular Iraq campaign."
A few weeks before the Democratic National Convention, the New Republic ran a story alleging that senior Pakistani intelligence officials were pressured by members of the Bush administration to make arrests of so-called high-value terrorists during the Democratic National Convention in an attempt to boost Bush's standing in the polls during a time when John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, would have likely received a bounce in percentage points for his campaign.
The July 7, 2004, article, "July Surprise," said a Pakistani official was told by a White House aide "that it would be best if the arrest or killing of [any] HVT were announced on twenty-six, twenty-seven, or twenty-eight July" - the first three days of the Democratic National Convention in Boston.
At the end of the Democratic National Convention in July 2004, a Newsweek poll showed Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry leading Bush in the polls 52% to 44%. Less than a week later, Ridge, Bush's former Homeland Security chief, announced that al-Qaeda planned to blow up targets in New York, New Jersey and Washington, DC.
That event actually occurred on July 29 when Reuters reported that an unidentified US official confirmed that Pakistan had arrested "a senior al-Qaeda member wanted by the United States in connection with the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in East Africa," all of which lends credibility to the idea that the White House would do whatever it had to do to make sure Bush was re-elected.
Jason Leopold spent two years covering California's electricity crisis as Los Angeles bureau chief of Dow Jones Newswires. Jason has spent the last year cultivating sources close to the CIA leak investigation, and is a regular contributor to Truthout. He is the author of the new book NEWS JUNKIE. Visit www.newsjunkiebook.com for a preview.