Terror Warning Timing Questioned

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, May 27, 2004; 10:30 AM

We don't take much at face value here in Washington, so it shouldn't be a surprise that the Bush administration's warning of a possible terror attack yesterday was greeted with skepticism in some quarters.

Could it have been an attempt to change the subject away from the grim news from Iraq and the president's drooping poll numbers?

On CBS's "Early Show" today, Thalia Assuras says: "The question is whether politics played a role. After all, the threat level, despite all the 'credible intelligence chatter' has not been raised. . . .

"We've heard it all for months now: The U.S. is a target for terrorists. So why this latest frenzy?"

Richard W. Stevenson and Eric Lichtblau write in the New York Times: "[S]ome opponents of President Bush, including police and firefighter union leaders aligned with Senator John Kerry, the expected Democratic presidential candidate, said the timing of the announcement appeared intended in part to distract attention from Mr. Bush's sagging poll numbers and problems in Iraq.

"The administration did not raise the terrorist threat advisory from its current level of elevated, or yellow, and the White House said Mr. Bush would not alter his schedule because of security concerns."

CNN's Dana Bash told Judy Woodruff yesterday: "Judy, as far as their motives go, the Bush team certainly is well aware of the fact that people are questioning their motives and that there's a perception that perhaps that there was a political motive out there.

"As a matter of fact, they understand it is, people think, perhaps to change the subject on Iraq. I talked to an official about Iraq earlier, called the official and started asking questions about that. And sarcastically the official said, 'Why are you calling me about this? Don't you know that we changed the subject?'"

Here's an excerpt from a Live Online with Dana Priest of The Washington Post yesterday:

"Bethesda, Md.: Do you see a manipulation in the timing of the administration's terror warnings -- that they tend to come when things are going badly in Iraq or some other aspect of American politics?

"Dana Priest: I'm very suspicious, especially of the 'election threat' -- so we didn't write this story for a while, in order to ask a wider range of people and certainly enough non-political types to feel certain we were not being spun."

Marc Sandalow writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Attorney General John Ashcroft's solemn announcement that al Qaeda planned to attack America in the next few months seemed to provoke as much skepticism as fear Wednesday, raising doubts as to whether any terror warnings will be taken seriously in the heat of an election campaign. . . .

"But with an election five months away and polls showing President Bush's approval ratings slipping below 50 percent on most policy matters except fighting terror, there was rampant speculation that politics had prompted the announcement, thrusting the president's best issue back onto the front page."

Sandalow writes that "the nation's ambivalence was evident on television screens, where cable stations screamed out 'Breaking News' to report the threat of a catastrophic terrorist attack while the broadcast networks did not interrupt their daytime soap operas to carry the news conference live."

In a Newsweek.com column, Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball write that "U.S. intelligence officials were privately divided about whether the government had obtained any fresh information that justified such an extraordinary public announcement."

Richard B. Schmitt and Josh Meyer write in the Los Angeles Times that "White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan denied that politics was involved. 'The president believes it's very important to share information appropriately,' McClellan said. 'We do that in a number of ways when it comes to looking at the threats we face here in the homeland.'"

Abu Ghraib Watch

Here's more evidence Bush's announcement on Monday that Abu Ghraib will be razed was premature at best. (See yesterday's column.)

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "On Monday night, President Bush made the dramatic announcement that the United States would demolish Abu Ghraib prison and build a modern maximum-security center in Baghdad to replace it. But on Wednesday, Pentagon officials said the president's words had taken them by surprise, and they scrambled without success to come up with details of the plan. . . .

"A White House official said Wednesday that it had been Mr. Bush's idea to insert the prison announcement into his speech Monday. . . . "

Deep Budget Cuts Ahead

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "The White House put government agencies on notice this month that if President Bush is reelected, his budget for 2006 may include spending cuts for virtually all agencies in charge of domestic programs, including education, homeland security and others that the president backed in this campaign year.

"Administration officials had dismissed the significance of the proposed cuts when they surfaced in February as part of an internal White House budget office computer printout. At the time, officials said the cuts were based on a formula and did not accurately reflect administration policy. But a May 19 White House budget memorandum obtained by The Washington Post said that agencies should assume the spending levels in that printout when they prepare their fiscal 2006 budgets this summer."

Here's a February Post story by Dan Morgan about the printout.

Ombwatch.org has a copy of that printout as well as other documents. Here's a report on the topic from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Gore to War Cabinet: Quit

Al Gore said yesterday that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and CIA Director George J. Tenet should resign.

Mike Allen writes in the Washington Post: "In calling for the resignations, Gore said that Rice 'has badly mishandled the coordination of national security policy' and that 'the nation is especially at risk every single day that Rumsfeld remains as secretary of defense.'"

James Barron writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Gore also accused President Bush of 'utter incompetence' on Iraq, adding that the president had 'made the world a far more dangerous place and dramatically increased the threat of terrorism against the United States.'"

Here is the full text of Gore's speech, and some video excerpts.

White House Flashback

Michael Dobbs writes in The Washington Post: "President Richard M. Nixon jokingly threatened to drop a nuclear bomb on Capitol Hill in March 1974 as Congress was moving to impeach him over the Watergate scandal, according to transcripts of telephone conversations among his closest aides that were released yesterday."

"He is just unwinding," White House Chief of Staff Alexander M. Haig Jr. told Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger at the time. "Don't take him too seriously."

Elizabeth Becker, in the New York Times, hears "uncanny echoes of the Iraq war and the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison" in a 1969 White House conversation about the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.

Cicada Watch

Yesterday, I speculated (somewhat direly) on the relative lack of cicadas on the White House grounds.

I called the White House to find out what was up.

And it turns out that Dale Haney, the White House horticulturist, is as puzzled as I am.

"We have very few here," he said. "I can't figure out why we don't have more. . . . It's nothing like we expected it to be. We expected it to be much heavier."

Haney, who has been tending plants at the White House for 30 years, said he remembers the last visit of Brood X quite well.

"There was definitely more than what we have now," he said. This year, he noted, "it seems pretty quiet in this whole general area."

Haney said the trees on the White House grounds have not been disturbed. He said he uses almost no pesticides. And he said he didn't take any anti-cicada precautions, not considering them dangerous or a security risk.

"I don't know what happened," he said.

This is not to suggest that the White House is a 100 percent cicada-free zone.

There are still a few around. "Barney plays with them," Haney said of the world-famous White House dog (who has his own Web site at Barney.gov.) "If they're jumping around, he'll pick them up and throw them back, but I haven't seen him eat any. But he does like to play with them if they're moving."

WMD Commission Watch

Katherine Pfleger Shrader of the Associated Press reports: "In its first official meeting Wednesday, the president's commission investigating flawed intelligence on weapons of mass destruction heard from David Kay, the former Iraq weapons inspector whose criticism helped drive the panel's creation.

"Kay, along with about a dozen other experts, appeared before the commission in a closed seven-hour session to brief the nine commissioners as they begin sorting out the quality of U.S. intelligence on the threat of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."

For background, see my All About the WMD Commission page.

Greenspan Visits a Lot

Nell Henderson writes in The Washington Post: "Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's visits to the White House and meetings with top administration officials increased sharply after President Bush took office in January 2001, according to records released to an academic researcher under the Freedom of Information Act. . . .

"Greenspan's frequent contacts with the Bush administration do raise questions for Kenneth H. Thomas, a lecturer in finance at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. 'There's the appearance that [Greenspan] might not just be affected by economic winds, but possibly by political winds,' said Thomas, who obtained records of Greenspan's appointments back to 1996 through the Freedom of Information Act, and who published his findings in an article in the American Banker last month."

Here's the story from the American Banker (subscription required); here's a lengthy excerpt, reprinted with permission of the author, on a blog called The Big Picture.

Today's Calendar

After a meeting with President Francisco Flores of El Salvador, Bush is off to the swing state of Tennessee today.

Pete Yost of the Associated Press reports: "President Bush will try to solidify his support in a Southern state where his Democratic rival is showing strength with a visit and a discussion of his ideas for high-tech innovation in the health care field. . . .

"After a tour and remarks at Vanderbilt's Children's Hospital, Bush was to attend a Republican Party fund-raiser.

"The visit to Tennessee will be the ninth of Bush's presidency, and the second this year."

The White House and the Web

Here's what's great about the Internet: You, the ordinary citizen, can now ask tough questions directly to senior White House officials.

Here's the bad news: No follow-up questions. So they can filibuster their non-answers.

Case in point, yesterday's "Ask the White House" with Doug Badger, the senior White House health policy adviser.

In its daily e-mail, the liberal Center for American Progress encouraged its readers to badger the adviser with some hardball questions about Bush's Medicare law.

And several of them did indeed get through to Badger, who appeared to remain cheerful under the barrage -- but didn't exactly answer most of them, choosing instead to use them as launching points for statements that were more on message.

There are also some tough questions showing up in "E-mail the White House." For instance:

"The Bush Regime hates nature. How else to explain the war against our land, water and air? Does anyone there care to explain the totally Orwellian 'Healthy Forest' act? To save the village we had to destroy it. Sound familiar?"

Jim Connaugton, the director of the Council of Environmental Quality, fielded that one, at some length.

And: "Does anyone even read these e-mails?"

White House Internet Director Jimmy Orr, who normally farms questions out to the appropriate staffer, took that one himself.

"You can imagine the number of e-mails we receive, but every e-mail sent in to White House Interaction is read," Orr wrote. "I know, because I receive them."

Got a great question you sent the White House that didn't get answered? Send it to me at froomkin@washingtonpost.com. I read all my e-mail, too.

© 2004 washingtonpost.com