Terror Alert Raises the Trust Issue

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, August 4, 2004; 11:32 AM

The White House is on the defensive again today after it turned out that the threatening information about al Qaeda publicized by administration officials on Sunday wasn't as current as they made it sound.

Today's press reports give a picture of a White House with credibility issues fiercely defending the announcement, even as it starts fleshing out -- and changing -- its story.

The Analysis

Glenn Kessler writes in a Washington Post news analysis: "The White House's failure to make it clear that the dramatic terrorism alert Sunday was based largely on information that predated the Sept. 11 attacks is a case study in the difficulty of managing such warnings for an administration whose credibility is a central issue in a difficult presidential campaign."

Todd S. Purdum writes in a New York Times news analysis: "In an election that could well turn on questions of war and peace, danger and safety, all politics sometimes seem to be security these days. And all security has an unmistakable overtone of politics, whatever the reality or immediacy of any announced threat.

"'We don't do politics in the Department of Homeland Security,' Secretary Tom Ridge said on Tuesday in dismissing any suggestion that his latest threat warning had a political motive. But on Sunday, Mr. Ridge, a former Republican congressman and governor of Pennsylvania, did do some politics all the same, when he declared that the intelligence behind his alert was 'the result of the president's leadership in the war against terror.'"

The News

Dan Eggen and John Mintz write in The Washington Post: "Bush administration officials acknowledged yesterday that the latest terrorism alert was based primarily on information that is three to four years old, but they aggressively defended the decision to warn financial sectors in Washington, New York and Newark because of the continuing threat posed by al Qaeda."

Officials "did not publicly make it clear until yesterday that the information compiled during that surveillance, contained on computer disks and documents seized during raids in Pakistan, was created in 2000 and 2001 or, in some cases, undated. Much of the information was also obtained from the Internet or other public sources, officials said."

Bush has not made himself available to reporters since the revelation that the information was dated. Instead, press secretary Scott McClellan gaggled the reporters on Air Force One yesterday.

McClellan simply denied that the reports are old. "I think it's wrong and plain irresponsible to suggest that it was based on old information," he said. "Anyone who looks at the detail and specificity of this information, which was updated -- some of which was updated as recently as this year, and couple that with what we know about al Qaeda's sophistication and history, and the continuing stream of intelligence we have been receiving about al Qaeda's desire to attack us during this summer or fall time period, would not make such an irresponsible suggestion."

McClellan didn't explain why the administration let reporters -- and the public -- labor under the belief that there was an imminent threat. Here's the text of the gaggle.

Douglas Jehl and Richard W. Stevenson write in the New York Times that the administration's story is evolving.

"Senior government officials said Tuesday that new intelligence pointing to a current threat of a terrorist attack on financial targets in New York and possibly in Washington -- not just information about surveillance on specific buildings over the years -- was a major factor in the decision over the weekend to raise the terrorism alert level.

"The officials said the separate stream of intelligence, which they had not previously disclosed, reached the White House only late last week and was part of a flow that the officials said had prompted them to act urgently in the last few days."

Where's all this new information coming from?

"The White House officials spoke in a lengthy interview arranged at the request of The New York Times in which they offered a detailed accounting of the decision-making that led to the terrorist alert."

Nevertheless, Jehl and Stevenson reach the conclusion that the administration's "shifting tone may prove frustrating to the public, providing little guidance for assessing the gravity of threat information whose details remain shrouded in intelligence reports not available to anyone outside the highest ranks of the government."

Also in the Times, David Johnston and Eric Lichtblau have a "tick-tock" piece, describing the scene in the White House starting on Friday morning, when officials there received the first reports from the Pakistani hard drive.

"The dated nature of the reports did not alter the thinking of either the analysts or the counterterrorism officials who read their reports or senior policy makers at the White House, even though by Monday some expressed doubt about the urgency of reports three or four years old."

Kevin Johnson and John Diamond write in USA Today: "The U.S. financial institutions identified in a recently disclosed al-Qaeda surveillance operation are not believed to be at imminent risk of attack, two federal law enforcement officials with knowledge of the investigation said Tuesday.

"The urgency to raise the terror alert level in the financial centers of New York City, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., is now being attributed to separate pieces of intelligence that streamed into Washington last week, one of the officials said."

Halliburton Watch

Maura Reynolds writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Halliburton Co. agreed to pay a $7.5-million fine for alleged accounting irregularities in a case that pulled Vice President Dick Cheney off the campaign trail to provide sworn testimony to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the government and the company said Tuesday."

The commission provided no details of Cheney's deposition, which apparently came in the last few days.

David Teather writes in the Guardian: "Mr Cheney has not been charged. In a statement, the SEC commission said he had 'cooperated willingly' with the investigation. But the whiff of controversy could still colour voters in the current race for the White House."

USA Today has a helpful list of the other, pending Halliburton probes.

And in other news, Ariana Eunjung Cha writes in The Washington Post: "Halliburton Co. and other U.S. contractors are being paid at least $1.9 billion from Iraqi funds under an arrangement set by the U.S.-led occupation authority, according to a review of documents and interviews with government agencies, companies and auditors.

"Most of the money is for two controversial deals that originally had been financed with money approved by the U.S. Congress, but later shifted to Iraqi funds that were governed by fewer restrictions and less rigorous oversight."

And Katherine McIntire Peters writes in Government Executive: "Halliburton, the giant services firm formerly run by Vice President Dick Cheney, saw a sixfold increase in earnings from contracts with the Defense Department last year, making the Houston-based company the nation's seventh largest defense contractor."

White House Author Live Online Today

In anticipation of our Live Online today at 1 p.m. ET, author Ronald Kessler sent me an e-mail about the making of his new book, "A Matter of Character: Inside the White House of George W. Bush."

The book is a hugely flattering portrait of Bush, with some swipes at the Clintons thrown in for good measure. Even so, Kessler tells me he had a hard time piercing White House secrecy until he found a "rabbi" in deputy OMB director Clay Johnson III.

"Johnson got behind the project, smoothing the way," Kessler writes. "I wound up interviewing all the major players -- Karl Rove, Condi Rice, Andy Card -- as well as Bush's friends and White House aides who never appear in the media but may be as influential in their own spheres as the more well-known figures."

Here's some promotional material for the book, including an excerpt (scroll down for that). In short, Kessler finds Bush honest and full of integrity and clarity of purpose.

Please send your questions and comments to Kessler (and me).

Kessler's view should make for an interesting contrast with the views of the last author I had Live Online: Psychoanalyst Justin Frank, who concluded that Bush is an unstable "dry drunk" with paranoid and megalomaniacal tendencies.

Meanwhile, in New York

Randy Kennedy writes in the New York Times about a MoveOn.org benefit performance of "a playlet in which a man portrays Laura Bush, talking passionately about Dostoyevsky and moral relativity to the ghosts of Iraqi children, cursing occasionally and revealing at one point that she sometimes calls her husband 'the Chimp.' ('You know, those ears,' the character of the first lady says, smiling impishly.)"

It was a scene by the celebrated playwright Tony Kushner from a planned longer work to be called "Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy." A version of it ran in The Nation magazine last year.

Kushner "said he decided to write the scene especially after the first lady had mentioned in an interview that her favorite piece of fiction was the Grand Inquisitor scene in 'The Brothers Karamazov,' one of the more ambiguous in literature. (Mrs. Bush has said, however, that she does not consider it ambiguous but finds it to be about Christ and to be reassuring.)"

Laura Bush Watch

The first lady herself was on Fox News's "O'Reilly Factor" yesterday,

(Here's Part One, and Part Two) where the very friendly Bill O'Reilly speculated on the reasons why the country is so divided. It's obviously nothing Bush himself did, O'Reilly said, maybe it's the media?

"You gave me a really great idea. Maybe it is the media that has us divided!" Laura Bush exclaimed delightedly.

Later, she added: "I think there are a lot of reasons to be critical of the media in America. I think that a lot of times the media sensationalize or magnify things that aren't -- that really shouldn't be.

"I do think there's a big move away from actual reporting, trying to report facts, in newspapers and everything you read -- that a lot more is opinion."

What about the twins?

The first lady said they're learning even more about being under scrutiny, now that they're on the campaign trail.

"If they do anything, like one of them's already done -- the sticking out the tongue that Jenna did -- you know that makes the newspaper. And she turned around to her dad and said, 'I just stuck my tongue out' and he said, 'Well, Jenna it'll be in the paper tomorrow.' So they're learning."

The first lady was also on CBS's "Early Show" today, and told Rene Styler about the little conversation she had with Jenna after the incident. "I said maybe you should work on your issues of impulsiveness or something."

Bush and the Catholic Vote

Alan Cooperman writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush told an effervescent crowd of 2,500 Catholics at the annual convention of the Knights of Columbus on Tuesday that they have a friend in the White House who will work with them to restrict abortion, provide vouchers for parochial schools and champion a constitutional amendment to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

"'Four more years!' delegates to the convention roared as Bush entered the hall and embraced their leader, Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson. As a nonprofit charitable organization, the Knights are forbidden by tax laws from making political endorsements. But Anderson gave Bush a warm welcome, thanking him for 'supporting the right to life of unborn children' and 'restoring moral integrity to the office of the president.' . . .

"Bush used the occasion to announce $188 million in grants under his four-year-old 'faith-based' initiative to help religious charities compete for federal funds."

Two things Bush didn't do: Mention his Catholic opponent by name, or mention the war in Iraq and the death penalty, which the church opposes.

Ron Hutcheson writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "The president's speech at the Dallas convention was billed as an official White House event, but the tone and substance more closely resembled a campaign rally."

Here's the text of his speech to the Knights of Columbus.

Cheney on the Stump

Ryan J. Donmoyer writes for Bloomberg: "Vice President Dick Cheney said Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry won't fight terrorists as aggressively as the Bush administration has since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks."

Here's the text of Cheney's remarks in Arkansas.

NID Watch

NID, by the way, means National Intelligence Director, and it's the newest hot Washington acronym.

Walter Pincus writes in The Washington Post: "Senior Senate and House members called for giving a new national intelligence director more authority than proposed by President Bush, arguing yesterday that the position must have budgetary and personnel powers over the 15 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community. . . .

"White House spokesman Scott McClellan, responding to questions about the criticisms, indicated that Bush may be willing to negotiate on the plans he announced Monday."

Philip Shenon writes in the New York Times: "Members of the Sept. 11 commission joined with Congressional Democrats on Tuesday in criticizing President Bush's proposal for creating the job of national intelligence director, saying the plan would not grant nearly enough power to the position."

Photo of the Day

Here's an Associated Press photo of Bush with some Knights of Columbus yesterday. It's sort of too bad he didn't try on one of those funny hats. That would have merited a caption contest.

Color Lacking in the Corps

Unity, the minority journalist umbrella group, today released its study of diversity among reporters covering the White House and Capitol Hill, which shows underrepresentation of minorities in that elite group.

The study found that just 10.5 percent of Washington's newspaper press corps are journalists of color. This represents 60 out of 574 press corps members.

The front and back covers of the report feature striking photos of Bush addressing the White House press corps -- which looks pretty darn white, now that you mention it.

Among its recommendations: "Washington media groups such as the White House Correspondents Association, should find opportunities to offer or promote training and offer guidance to journalists who have an interest in covering national politics and government."

Middle East (Non)Watch

Mary Curtius writes in the Los Angeles Times that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's itinerary in the Middle East last week was "an indication that Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking has fallen far down the administration's list of foreign policy priorities.

"Little more than a year after President Bush vowed to pursue a resolution to that conflict 'to the bitter end,' Powell's decision to steer clear of Jerusalem and Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority government, reflects a new political reality. With national elections looming in the U.S. and Israelis and Palestinians embroiled in their own political crises, the administration is unwilling to spend any more political capital on the issue."

Today's Calendar

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush is campaigning in two adjoining Midwest states he narrowly lost four years ago, as he and rival John Kerry battle it out in the same Iowa city on the same day, and the president promotes an environmental program in rural Minnesota.

Cheney speaks at Walzcraft Industries in La Crosse, Wisc., then at Billy Goat Industries in Lee's Summit, Mo., and finishes the day at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds in Golden, Colo.

Ad Watch

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush launched a new ad yesterday saying the country is 'rising to the challenge' of terrorism and economic difficulties even as Democrats unveiled plans to outspend him with a television blitz in five swing states." Here's video of that ad.

Kurtz adds: "What may garner even more attention, though, is the Media Fund's plans for an online video featuring comedian Will Ferrell, formerly of 'Saturday Night Live,' ridiculing Bush." Here's that video.

Wacky Foreign Gifts

Washington Post columnist Al Kamen spotted an AFP story that I missed yesterday, which reports that "Saudi Arabia's de facto leader lavished nearly 130,000 dollars of fine jewelry on US President George W. Bush, his wife, children and top aides in 2003 but the weightiest gift presented to the first family last year came in the form of hundreds of pounds of raw meat, according to documents released."

And no, the Bushes didn't get to keep any of it.

Here's the complete list of gifts from the Federal Register.

© 2004 washingtonpost.com