Blitzer interview with Townsend echoes Bush-era media failures regarding alleged terror threats

››› ››› JEREMY HOLDEN

During a discussion with former Bush adviser Fran Townsend about former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge's reported claim that politics may have played a role in the question of whether to raise the terror threat levels on the eve of the November 2004 presidential election, Wolf Blitzer asked Townsend if there was any "hard intelligence" to back up the claim that the terror threat level should have been raised. After Townsend responded that "earlier that summer, there had been the threat against the financial districts in New York, Washington, and New Jersey," Blitzer did not ask Townsend to explain how the financial districts plot, thwarted in August 2004 and based on information that was "three or four years old," was still considered "hard" evidence that the terror threat should have been raised more than two months after the plot was thwarted.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Ridge reportedly alleges politicization of terror threat on eve of 2004 election

From the August 20 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

BLITZER: A new bombshell about the politics of terror in the Bush administration. Let's go right to our national political correspondent Jessica Yellin. She's getting the details. Jessica?

JESSICA YELLIN (CNN national political correspondent): Wolf, you remember those days when we were constantly reporting that the threat levels had gone up or down. Are we orange today? Yellow? How much were those driven by politics and how much by hard intelligence?

A new book by the former chief, the first chief of the Homeland Security Department, suggests that politics may have, indeed, played a role. Now, according to former Secretary Tom Ridge, just days before the 2004 election, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld urged that the threat level be raised.

Now, Wolf, you remember that bin Laden had just -- a tape from bin Laden had just been released, and at the same time, Senator John Kerry and President Bush were running neck and neck. Well, Ridge says there was no intelligence to justify raising the threat level, and he writes in this book: "I wondered, is this about security or politics?"

Now he says there was a tense debate. He won. The issue never even reached the president. But it did reinforce Ridge's decision to leave the administration. So the question is: Why is Ridge sharing this information now?

Townsend claims without challenge that August 2004 alleged threat against financial districts was "real concern" on "eve of the election"

From the August 20 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

BLITZER: Was there any intelligence --

TOWNSEND: -- State Department --

BLITZER: -- to back up that the threat level should be increased?

TOWNSEND: Well, you'll remember it was not just a bin Laden tape. Adam Gadahn, the American member of Al Qaeda, had said that the streets were going to run with blood. And there was great concern that given that, coupled with the bin Laden tape, that we were seeing an --

BLITZER: But was there any hard intelligence beyond that kind of assumption?

TOWNSEND: Well, there was also the two -- earlier that summer, there had been the threat against the financial districts in New York, Washington, and New Jersey, and they were very specific. So all these things came together on the eve of the election, and there was real concern.

BLITZER: So you say Ridge is wrong?

Terror threat level raised in August 2004 -- on heels of Dem convention -- based on information that was "three or four years old"

DHS raised threat level in response to threat in August 2004, shortly after the conclusion of the Democratic National Convention. On August 1, 2004, Ridge stated that "we do have new and unusually specific information about where al-Qaeda would like to attack. And as a result, today, the United States Government is raising the threat level to Code Orange for the financial services sector in New York City, Northern New Jersey and Washington, D.C." In response to a subsequent question, Ridge stated, "So again, we have no specific information that says an attack is eminent [sic], but given the specificity and the quality of information around these sites, obviously one would conclude, if you were considering a potential attack, these might be among the targets." [Remarks by Ridge, 8/1/04]

Officials said intelligence "was three or four years old" and no "concrete evidence" that plot was still "under way." On August 2, 2004, The New York Times reported:

Much of the information that led the authorities to raise the terror alert at several large financial institutions in the New York City and Washington areas was three or four years old, intelligence and law enforcement officials said on Monday. They reported that they had not yet found concrete evidence that a terrorist plot or preparatory surveillance operations were still under way.

CNN: "Rice conceded that the surveillance ... dates back to before the attacks of September 11, 2001." CNN.com reported at the time of the August 2004 DHS decision to change the threat level, "The decision to raise the alert level to orange, or elevated, for specific buildings in New York City; Newark, New Jersey; and Washington, D.C., has been criticized because it was based at least partly on information three or four years old. [Then-Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice conceded that the surveillance of the buildings by al Qaeda operatives dates to before the attacks of September 11, 2001." [CNN.com, 8/9/04]

Olbermann: August 2004 warning one of many "coincidences" -- "political downturn for the administration, followed by a 'terror event'." On October 12, 2005, MSNBC's 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." Of the August 2004 warning, Olbermann wrote:

July 29th, 2004. At their party convention in Boston, the Democrats formally nominate John Kerry as their candidate for President. As in the wake of any convention, the Democrats dominate the media attention over the ensuing weekend.

Monday, August 1st, 2004. The Department of Homeland Security raises the alert status for financial centers in New York, New Jersey, and Washington to orange. The evidence supporting the warning - reconnaissance data, left in a home in Iraq - later proves to be roughly four years old and largely out-of-date.

Suspects arrested on August 3, 2004. On August 18, 2004, The New York Times reported: "The British police charged eight men on Tuesday with conspiracy to murder and with violations of the Terrorism Act after finding that two of them possessed surveillance information on financial centers in Washington, New York and New Jersey that were the focus of the terror alert earlier this month in the United States. The eight men were arrested Aug. 3 and have been held at a high-security police facility in West London. Under the two-week deadline set by the Terrorism Act, the police had until Tuesday to bring charges against the men or release them."

Blitzer latest to uncritically advance Bush administration's preferred narrative on terror threats

CNN's Meserve ignored Ridge's 2005 admission that Bush administration pressured him to raise threat levels. During a 2006 interview, CNN's Jeanne Meserve failed to ask Ridge 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, while discussing 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. [Your World Today, 1/20/06]

ABC's Gibson uncritically reported "we dodged a bullet" by foiling terror plot on Fort Dix. Charlie Gibson and Brian Ross reported on the indictment of six men alleged to have plotted an armed attack on the Fort Dix military base in New Jersey and repeated an FBI official's claim that "[t]oday, we dodged a bullet. In fact, when you look at the type of weapons this group was trying to purchase, we may have dodged a lot of bullets." Neither Gibson nor Ross noted that no attack was alleged to be imminent and that Fort Dix officials had reportedly claimed that the base was not, at any point, in immediate danger. [World News, 5/8/07]

Transcript

From the August 20 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

BLITZER: A new bombshell about the politics of terror in the Bush administration. Let's go right to our national political correspondent Jessica Yellin. She's getting the details. Jessica?

YELLIN: Wolf, you remember those days when we were constantly reporting that the threat levels had gone up or down. Are we orange today? Yellow? How much were those driven by politics and how much by hard intelligence?

A new book by the former chief, the first chief of the Homeland Security Department, suggests that politics may have, indeed, played a role. Now, according to former Secretary Tom Ridge, just days before the 2004 election, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld urged that the threat level be raised.

Now, Wolf, you remember that bin Laden had just -- a tape from bin Laden had just been released, and at the same time, Senator John Kerry and President Bush were running neck and neck. Well, Ridge says there was no intelligence to justify raising the threat level, and he writes in this book: "I wondered, is this about security or politics?"

Now he says there was a tense debate. He won. The issue never even reached the president. But it did reinforce Ridge's decision to leave the administration. So the question is: Why is Ridge sharing this information now? Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Good question. But before we get to some answers on that, I want to bring in the former Bush Homeland Security adviser, Fran Townsend. She's now a CNN national security contributor.

You were working in the White House during those tense days before the election, and that's a pretty amazing, startling allegation that Tom Ridge makes. He's a serious guy.

TOWNSEND: Well, nobody's more surprised than I am because, of course, Tom Ridge never expressed those concerns when he was in the administration, nor when I spoke to him after he left. There were -- let's be clear on what the process was.

You know, the secretary and I would speak, and then we would call Homeland Security Council. You want to encourage real debate in those councils so that the president and the country get the best advice.

BLITZER: Was there a debate that went under way?

TOWNSEND: Absolutely there was a debate. And by the way, Tom Ridge wasn't the only person in that meeting who suggested that the terror alert shouldn't be raised. At no time was there any discussion of politics at that meeting. And the president was made a recommendation, a consensus recommendation from the council that he accepted, not to raise the terror alert.

BLITZER: In the book, he specifically refers to the attorney general and the defense secretary, John Ashcroft and Donald Rumsfeld.

TOWNSEND: And there were more -- there were more than just Don Rumsfeld and Attorney General Ashcroft in that meeting. Bob Mueller was there, the CIA was represented --

BLITZER: Was there any intelligence --

TOWNSEND: -- State Department --

BLITZER: -- to back up that the threat level should be increased?

TOWNSEND: Well, you'll remember it was not just a bin Laden tape. Adam Gadahn, the American member of Al Qaeda, had said that the streets were going to run with blood. And there was great concern that given that, coupled with the bin Laden tape, that we were seeing an --

BLITZER: But was there any hard intelligence beyond that kind of assumption?

TOWNSEND: Well, there was also the two -- earlier that summer, there had been the threat against the financial districts in New York, Washington, and New Jersey, and they were very specific. So all these things came together on the eve of the election, and there was real concern.

BLITZER: So you say Ridge is wrong?

TOWNSEND: I don't understand why he -- why he's concerned about politics when there was intelligence that caused us to have the discussion in the first place.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, Terrorism
Network/Outlet
CNN
Person
Wolf Blitzer
Show/Publication
The Situation Room
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