Dover Bitch

Sunday, August 24, 2008

There will be no honeymoon

(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo)

On the eve of the Democratic Convention, I think it might be a good idea to remind ourselves what happened after the last one and prepare ourselves for how quickly the Republicans will try to change the subject.

On Thursday, July 29, 2004, John Kerry had a modest lead in the polls and Democrats were energized as the convention came to a close. Delegates, activists and party leaders returned home, ready to re-engage with their communities. But before Monday rolled around and anybody had a chance to gather at the water cooler, Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge emerged with an important announcement:

Secretary Ridge: Good afternoon, ladies and gentleman. President Bush has told you, and I have reiterated the promise, that when we have specific credible information, that we will share it. Now this afternoon, 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, DC.

Since September 11th, 2001, leaders of our commercial financial institutions have demonstrated exceptional leadership in improving its security. However, in light of new intelligence information, we have made the decision to raise the threat level for this sector, in these communities, to bring protective resources to an even higher level.

Code Orange!

It was still 2004, so millions of Americans who know now that the Bush Administration will tell them absolutely anything were still willing to accept that there was a legitimate threat and action needed to be taken immediately. It wasn't just Republicans, after all. When crazy Howard Dean suggested there may be politics involved (YEARGHH!), George Bush's favorite Democrat took to the airwaves with outrage:

SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN (D), CONNECTICUT: I don't think anybody who has any fairness or is in their right mind would think that the president or the secretary of Homeland Security would raise an alert level and scare people for political reasons.

Perish the thought. This was "specific credible information" and Sec. Ridge had no choice but to come right out that particular Sunday and deliver the grim news. After all, the information they had was, uh, three years old.

Ridge hadn't exactly divulged that the information was in their possession for a long time and was more along the lines of surveillance notes rather than attack plans. But any reporter -- or citizen -- with the ability to think rationally when the government screamed "TERROR!" might have noticed that this is a strange thing to see when you bring your camera to a building that's about to be attacked by al-Qaeda:

Naturally, when there is "specific credible information" that a building is about to be attacked, the Presidential Playbook instructs him to send his wife and children to the target for a photo op with the mayor and governor. Bush's decision was textbook.

It is as clear in retrospect as it should have been to any observer back then: The Bush/Cheney/Rove operation would play on America's fears to win the election. Keith Olbermann has documented this strategy well with his Nexus Of Politics And Terror.

It's also important to note that there is a steep cost to us all when this happens. Not just the psychological damage that comes with an electorate whose judgment is clouded by fear and not just the damage done to our nation when a population ceases to trust a government that cries wolf. According to the American Public Transportation Association, "[e]very day on Orange Alert costs transit systems at least $900,000 a day."

In 2003, New York Governor George Pataki explained that Code Orange isn't free:

GOV. GEORGE PATAKI (R), NEW YORK: Well, there's no question that being at this heightened level of alert has cost New York State hundreds of millions of dollars.

MESERVE: Neighboring New Jersey says maintaining threat level orange costs $125,000 a day. And the city of Baltimore estimates its costs at $300,000 a week.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors in 2003 (PDF) wrote:

[W]we estimate that cities nationwide are spending nearly $70 million per week in additional homeland security costs due to the war and heightened threat alert level. If the war and/or threat alert level continue for six months, cities would incur nearly $2 billion in additional costs.

We stress that these costs come ON TOP OF existing homeland security spending already underway or planned since 9/11. In addition, this survey only asked cities about DIRECT costs, new money that had to be allocated for homeland security because of the war or threat alert. These figures do NOT account for the huge INDIRECT costs cities are experiencing.

In the case of this "limited" Orange Alert in New York, many of those indirect costs were paid by ordinary citizens:

''Anything that slows down the city in general has economic impact, and anything that affects the financial institutions that are still our most important industry also has an impact,'' said Ronnie Lowenstein, an economist who is director of the city's Independent Budget Office. ''It is hard to imagine that these kinds of warnings don't have any impact.''

Rob Kotch, who runs Breakaway Courier Systems, a business that like much of New York's economy depends on speed and mobility, put it another way.

''The cost of all this security is friction to the economy,'' Mr. Kotch said. ''You consider the cost of a driver is $45 an hour. Do the math. If you put a dollar amount on waiting time sitting in traffic for security checks, it can be huge.''

Millions of dollars for the First Lady and Twins to "reassure" the people working in one building. Millions of dollars to make everybody in America afraid. Mostly taxpayer dollars. That Aug. 1 Orange Alert remained in effect for 102 days, through the RNC in New York City and until after the election.

And the cost was actually much steeper. It wasn't simply a financial loss America took to change the subject away from John Kerry's convention:

But what's more disturbing, perhaps even more than the new details of al-Qaida's twisted plotting, is the Bush administration's outing of an undercover al-Qaida agent in its rush to justify raising the terror alert. This move, whether politically motivated or rooted in incompetence has terrorism and security experts shocked and dismayed for the harm inflicted on intelligence operations against al-Qaida. CNN reports today that the administration "may have shut down an important source of information that has already led to a series of al-Qaida arrests" when officials revealed Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan's identity to journalists last week (Khan is the computer expert who "flipped" last month and was operating as a double-agent for the Pakistani government). Do we have so many plugged-in al-Qaida double agents that we can afford to lose one and with him all of his connections and leads? Of course not.

Juan Cole looks at the consequences: British intelligence agents scrambled last week to arrest 13 members of a London al-Qaida cell before they fled after learning  from the Bush administration!  that Khan had been arrested. "The British do not, however, appear to have finished gathering enough evidence to prosecute the 13 in the courts successfully," Cole writes. And even worse: 5 got away. "If this is true," Cole says. "It is likely that the 5 went underground on hearing that Khan was in custody. That is, the loose lips of the Bush administration enabled them to flee arrest. Of the 13 taken into custody on Aug. 3, two were released for lack of evidence and two others were 'no longer being questioned on suspicion of terrorism offences.'"

It may be another election, but George Bush is still president, Dick Cheney is still VP. Karl Rove's team is advising John McCain. Joe Lieberman and Tom Ridge are on television every day as McCain surrogates and potential VP picks. The polls are close and all the talking heads believe (as does McCain, evidenced by his reaction to events in Georgia) that anything involving threats to America will help the GOP.

I'm glad Barack Obama already had a week to have fun in Hawaii. There will be no honeymoon after this convention.

UPDATE: By popular demand, here is a 2005 USA Today story about the source of Ridge's announcements:

WASHINGTON — 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.

His comments at a Washington forum describe spirited debates over terrorist intelligence and provide rare insight into the inner workings of the nation's homeland security apparatus.

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?' "

For the record, I'm not predicting that there will be a terror alert next week. I'm merely pointing out that this crew will go to serious lengths to change the subject and we might as well prevent the element of surprise from being a factor (and bust out the popcorn).

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