The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Tuesday, August 03, 2004  

Theoretics of the Absurd

It sure sounded real, didn’t it? “A serious business,” said President George W. Bush. “Alarming,” said Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge. “We will spare no expense,” said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Whether National Security Adviser Condoleezza “Mushroom Cloud” Rice, who has been keeping a low profile lately, said anything at all I’m not sure.

Speaking of Rice, the question today is whether the threat was imminent, “historical,” off in the future, or possibly something else entirely. As an editorial in today’s Washington Post states:

[A]lthough this latest information pointed to precise targets, only a broad time frame was supplied. Some of the information reportedly in al Qaeda’s possession, on the structure of the buildings and their security, had been collected over a period of years. World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn told his colleagues yesterday that “there is no information that indicates a specific time for these attacks.” Hence the odd sight of police pulling trucks over, as if attacks were imminent, and journalists parking their trucks directly in front of the buildings, as if attacks were only theoretical. [Emphasis added.]

Theoretical or theatrical?

The news reports out late yesterday and in this morning’s papers raise serious doubts, as if any more could be tolerated, regarding the credibility of the Bush administration. The New York Times reports (“Reports That Led to Terror Alert Were Years Old, Officials Say,” by Douglas Jehl and David Johnston):

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. […]

“You could say that the bulk of this information is old, but we know that Al Qaeda collects, collects, collects until they're comfortable,” said one senior government official. “Only then do they carry out an operation. And there are signs that some of this may have been updated or may be more recent.”

How recent?

Frances Fragos Townsend, the White House homeland security adviser, said on Monday in an interview on PBS that surveillance reports, apparently collected by Qaeda operatives had been “gathered in 2000 and 2001.” But she added that information may have been updated as recently as January.

The Times then soft pedals the administration’s own backpedaling:

The comments of government officials on Monday seemed softer in tone than the warning issued the day before. . . . The officials said on Monday that they were still analyzing computer records, photos, drawings and other documents, seized last month in Pakistan, which showed that Qaeda operatives had conducted extensive reconnaissance.

“What we’ve uncovered is a collection operation as opposed to the launching of an attack,” a senior American official said. […]

Federal authorities said on Monday that they had uncovered no evidence that any of the surveillance activities described in the documents was currently under way. […] Another counterterrorism official in Washington said that it was not yet clear whether the information pointed to a current plot.”

It appears, then, that what we have here is a case of standard, and hopefully much improved, ongoing intelligence gathering. That’s good. We’re all in favor of that, especially when it’s done effectively and consistently, and someone, somewhere actually takes note of the intelligence community’s findings. But why the big show of force and fear?

Meanwhile, the Washington Post today reports (“Pre-9/11 Acts Led To Alerts,” by Dan Eggen and Dana Priest):

Most of the al Qaeda surveillance of five financial institutions that led to a new terrorism alert Sunday was conducted before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and authorities are not sure whether the casing of the buildings has continued, numerous intelligence and law enforcement officials said yesterday.

More than half a dozen government officials interviewed yesterday, who declined to be identified because classified information is involved, said that most, if not all, of the information about the buildings seized by authorities in a raid in Pakistan last week was about three years old, and possibly older.

“There is nothing right now that we're hearing that is new,” said one senior law enforcement official who was briefed on the alert. “Why did we go to this level? . . . I still don’t know that.”

More interesting, with respect to the January 2004 updating of information so ominously cited by Townsend, the White House homeland security adviser, the Post reports: “[O]fficials could not say yesterday whether that piece of data was the result of active surveillance by al Qaeda or came instead from information about the buildings that is publicly available.”

Sounds like ongoing intelligence gathering, but as engaged in by the other side. To be expected, to be countered, to be obstructed. But need it be turned into street theater at the whim of the White House?

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