CNN correspondent Jeanne Meserve interviewed Tom Ridge, former secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), about the department's decision not to raise the national threat level following Osama bin Laden's recent warning of future attacks against the United States. However, Meserve failed to ask Ridge an obvious question about his 2005 admission that, while head of the DHS, he had regularly been pressured by the Bush administration to raise the threat level even though he did not believe that the intelligence warranted it.
On the January 20 edition of CNN's Your World Today, homeland security correspondent Jeanne Meserve interviewed Tom Ridge, former secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), as part of a report on the DHS' decision not to raise the national threat level following Osama bin Laden's recent warning of future attacks against the United States. Meserve aired Ridge's opinion that the threat level should not be raised "based solely on the [bin Laden] tape." But, while interviewing Ridge about the threat-level decisions, Meserve failed to raise an obvious issue with Ridge: In May 2005, Ridge told an audience at a Washington, D.C., forum that while head of DHS, he had regularly been pressured by Bush administration officials to raise the threat level even though he did not believe that intelligence warranted it.
In her report, Meserve noted that the primary reason cited by U.S. officials for not raising the threat level is that "there is no intelligence indicating an attack plan is in motion." She went on to air clips from separate interviews with Ridge and deputy national security adviser J.D. Crouch, both of whom agreed that the bin Laden tape did not require any change in the level:
MESERVE: Counterterrorism officials say there is no plan to raise the national threat level at this time because there is no intelligence indicating an attack plan is in motion. And they have seen no upsurge in so-called chatter.
CROUCH: We're probably not going to be changing the security level simply because we don't see in this particular document a particular threat. It's a general threat.
MESERVE: Six times, specific, credible intelligence triggered boosts in the threat level. The seventh time, last summer, it was hiked as precaution after the London train bombings, but only for transit. It has never been raised solely because of a tape from Osama bin Laden. And it shouldn't be this time, according to the man who created the system.
RIDGE: Based solely on the tape, absolutely not. It's not news that we're a target. It's not news that he would say publicly that they continue to plan for attacks in the United States.
But Meserve ignored that Ridge himself has previously called into question whether those six decisions to boost the threat level were, in fact, justified by the intelligence available at the time. At a May 10, 2005, forum in Washington, D.C., Ridge said he wanted to "debunk the myth" that he had been responsible for repeatedly raising the threat level during his tenure at DHS, according to a USA Today article posted online that day:
The Bush administration periodically put the USA on high alert for terrorist attacks even though then-Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge argued there was only flimsy evidence to justify raising the threat level, Ridge now says.
Ridge, who resigned Feb. 1, said Tuesday that he often disagreed with administration officials who wanted to elevate the threat level to orange, or "high" risk of terrorist attack, but was overruled.
Ridge said he wanted to "debunk the myth" that his agency was responsible for repeatedly raising the alert under a color-coded system he unveiled in 2002.
"More often than not we were the least inclined to raise it," Ridge told reporters. "Sometimes we disagreed with the intelligence assessment. Sometimes we thought even if the intelligence was good, you don't necessarily put the country on (alert). ... There were times when some people were really aggressive about raising it, and we said, 'For that?' "
The White House immediately "dismissed" Ridge's allegations, according to a May 12, 2005, Chicago Tribune article:
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Wednesday that threat-level decisions are based on recommendations from a high-level council that gathers information about potential terrorism. When Ridge was in office, he was on the council with other key administration officials.
McClellan dismissed the notion that the White House pressured the council into higher levels of security.
"No one suggested that," he said.
Although clearly relevant to her examination of the decision-making process behind the threat level, Meserve made no mention of Ridge's 2005 comments and apparently did not ask him about them.
Further, in asserting that "specific credible intelligence triggered" the previous boosts in the threat level, Meserve ignored the fact that the information has in some cases been found to be years old and out-of-date. On August 1, 2004 -- shortly after the Democratic National Convention had concluded -- DHS raised the alert level for financial institutions in New York and Washington, citing "unusually specific" intelligence. But days later, it came to light that the information that led to the warning was actually "three or four years old," according to an August 3, 2004, New York Times article.
Such revelations have led some to speculate that political motivations may lie behind the terror alerts. On the October 6, 2005, edition of MSNBC's Countdown, host Keith Olbermann documented 13 "coincidences" -- instances characterized by "a political downturn for the administration, followed by a 'terror event' -- a change in alert status, an arrest, a warning."