Truth or Terrorism? The Real Story Behind Five Years of High Alerts (Full Text, for Posterity)
Truth or Terrorism? The Real Story Behind Five Years of High Alerts: A history of the Bush administration's most dubious terror scares — and the headlines they buried
TIM DICKINSON Posted Feb 07, 2008 8:00 AM in Rolling Stone
"Sometimes we disagreed with the intelligence assessment. There were times when some people in the administration were really aggressive about raising the threat level, and we said, 'For that?!'" — Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge,
The Bush administration has never shied from playing the fear card to distract the American public from scandal or goad them into supporting a deeply flawed foreign policy. Here a history of the administration's most-dubious terror alerts — including three consecutive Memorial Day scare-a-thons — all of which proved far less terrifying than the screamer headlines they inspired.
February 12, 2002
The Threat: Yemenite terrorist set to attack U.S. — today! "I want, to encourage... all Americans everywhere to be on the highest state of alert," warns Attorney General John Ashcroft.
The Reality: The threat hadn't been corroborated by U.S. intelligence agencies — and the evidence actually pointed to an attack not in the U.S., but in Yemen.
The Real News: Announced the same day that Enron CEO Ken Lay appeared before Congress, and a week after the White House was instructed not to destroy its Enron-related documents.
May 19-27, 2002
The Threat: Dick Cheney kicks off Memorial Day weekend by calling a new Al Qaeda strike "almost a certainty — it could happen tomorrow." FBI Director Robert Mueller adds, "There will be another terrorist attack." The FBI warns of strikes on the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty.
The Reality: The administration "made a political decision" to make public all threats — even those from "hoaxers," says a retired CIA counterterrorism expert. "The amount of chatter hasn't changed in volume," adds a defense official. As for the New York threats, "There really isn't any hard information," declares the former head of the FBI bureau in New York.
The Real News: The administration's failures in preventing 9/11 were under the microscope: Bush acknowledged receiving a briefing titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." a month before the attacks; the FAA said it had failed to alert airlines of the arrest of would-be hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui; the FBI admitted it had ignored a pre-9/11 warning that Al Qaeda had infiltrated American flight schools.
June 10, 2002
The Threat: U.S.-born Al Qaeda agent captured. John Ashcroft interrupts a trip to Russia to brag on live TV of bagging "a known terrorist who was exploring a plan to build and explode a 'dirty bomb' in the United States."
The Reality: The suspect, Jose Padilla, had actually been in custody for a month. The "dirty bomb" allegations were so flimsy that they were dropped after the administration agreed to try the case in federal court rather than in a military tribunal.
The Real News: The threat was announced four days after FBI whistle-blower Coleen Rowley testified before Congress that 9/11 might have been prevented if the FBI flight-school warning had reached federal agents investigating Moussaoui.
September 10, 2002
The Threat: Bush personally announces the first nationwide Orange Alert. Cheney flees to a "secure location" as Ashcroft warns that Al Qaeda appears to be targeting "transportation and energy sectors."
The Reality: There was no specific threat against any American target.
The Real News: The heightened terror alert went into effect just in time for the president's address to the nation from Ellis Island on the first anniversary of 9/11.
February 7, 2003
The Threat: Orange Alert. CIA Director George Tenet calls the threat "the most specific we have seen" since 9/11; says Al Qaeda may use a "radiological dispersal device, as well as poisons and chemicals."
The Reality: The alert, accompanied by a warning to stock up on plastic sheets and duct tape, was debunked within days; the main source failed an FBI polygraph. Threat level remained stuck on orange for two more weeks.
The Real News: The alert followed less than forty-eight hours after Colin Powell's speech to the United Nations in which he falsely accused Saddam Hussein of harboring Al Qaeda and training terrorists in the use of chemical weapons.
March 17, 2003
The Threat: Orange Alert. FBI warns of terror strikes by Saddam or "allied or sympathetic terrorist organizations, most notably the Al Qaeda network."
The Reality: Claim debunked by future CIA director Porter Goss, then chair of House intelligence committee: No intel suggests new attack.
The Real News: Nation's third Orange Alert came three days before Bush invaded Iraq, opening what he called the "central front of the War on Terror."
May 20, 2003
The Threat: For a second Memorial Day in a row, country is placed on Orange Alert following warning that "Al Qaeda has entered an operational period worldwide."
The Reality: No specific threat ever cited; alert issued because of what the Department of Homeland Security calls "the heightened vulnerability associated with the Memorial Day holiday."
The Real News: Two weeks after Bush declared "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq, administration's plan to implement Iraq, self-rule was postponed "indefinitely" due to looting and lawlessness.
July 29, 2003
The Threat: Homeland Security warns that new, 9/11-like strikes are in the works: "At least one of these attacks could be executed by the end of the summer."
The Reality: Not one of the alleged attacks ever materialized.
The Real News: Days earlier, the Bush administration revealed that the CIA forewarned the president about the lack of evidence for his claim that Saddam was seeking uranium from Africa.
December 21, 2003
The Threat: Orange Alert for the holidays. Ridge warns that threat of attack is "perhaps greater now than at any point since 9/11." Six flights are canceled; several passengers match terror watch list.
The Reality: The supposed "terrorists" included a Welsh insurance salesman, an elderly Chinese woman and a kindergartner.
The Real News: The alert came after 9/11 Commission chair Tom Kean suggested the 9/11 attacks could have been thwarted. Bush is also under fire for failing to find weapons of mass destruction.
May 26, 2004
The Threat: Memorial Day again: "They are going to attack and hit us hard," warns a senior intelligence official. Ashcroft relays an Al Qaeda threat that "ninety percent of the arrangements for an attack in the United States were complete."
The Reality: The threat Ashcroft attributed to Al Qaeda was actually made by a discredited group that falsely claimed credit for the Madrid train bombings. This group "is not really taken seriously by Western intelligence," says one expert.
The Real News: The Abu Ghraib torture scandal has come to a full boil.
June 14, 2004
The Threat: A shopping mall in Columbus, Ohio, is threatened by Al Qaeda bomber. "The American heartland was targeted for death and destruction," Ashcroft declares.
The Reality: The Somali suspect whose indictment Ashcroft trumpeted had been in custody for seven months. The charges against him made no mention of a shopping mall.
The Real News: John Kerry leads Bush by seven points in early Ohio polling.
July 8, 2004
The Threat: Tom Ridge warns that "Al Qaeda is moving forward with its plans to carry out a large-scale attack in the United States in an effort to disrupt our democratic process."
The Reality: The plot did not exist: Says a top European spy, "I am aware of no intelligence, nothing that shows there will be an attack before the U.S. presidential election." Real News: Two days earlier, John Kerry tapped John Edwards as his running mate.
August 1, 2004
The Threat: Orange Alert. Citing "new and unusually specific" intelligence, Ridge details a threat to the Citigroup building and the New York Stock Exchange. Adds Bush, "We wouldn't be, you know, contacting authorities at the local level unless something was real."
The Reality: The president allowed his own daughters to do a photo-op at one of the targeted buildings. Perhaps that's because the "new" intelligence was actually three years old. "There is nothing right now that we're hearing that is new," says a senior law-enforcement official. Real News: Alert came three days after Kerry took the Democratic nomination at the party's convention in Boston.
October 6, 2005
The Threat: FBI warns of Al Qaeda subway bombing "on or about October 9th, 2005." Bush claims to have foiled ten terror plots since 9/11.
The Reality: A counter-terrorism official calls the warning unfounded: "There was no there there." None of the plots cited by Bush were operational.
The Real News: Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court is failing.
June 23, 2006
The Threat: Miami-based terrorists plotting to topple the Sears Tower. "These homegrown terrorists may prove to be as dangerous as groups like Al Qaida," says Alberto Gonzales.
The Reality: FBI Deputy Director John Pistole terms plot ?more aspirational than operational.? Suspects armed to the teeth — with paintball guns — attempted to secure Al Qaeda funds at local 7-11.
The Real News: Abu Musab Al Zarqawi had been killed days earlier — removing the villain who was then America's poster boy of terror.
July 7, 2006
The Threat: New York Daily News breaks news of plot to bomb Holland Tunnel, flood Wall Street. FBI Assistant Director Mark Mershon calls threat "the real deal."
The Reality: Suspect had been arrested three months earlier, after bragging about his planned exploits in an Internet chat room. Said one CIA officer, "The plot, if that is what we would call it, was not well conceived, and there was no possibility of flooding Wall Street. There was no connection to a cell in the US. Finally, professional terrorists generally do not discuss targeting on open channels."
The Real News: News of plot leaked to coincide with the first anniversary of the July 7, 2005 London bombings.
July 10, 2007
The Threat: Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff warns of his "gut feeling" that the U.S. is entering "a period of increased vulnerability" of attack from terrorists: ?Summertime seems to be appealing to them.?
The Reality: Chertoff subsequently confessed, "We don't have specific intelligence about an attack, that is, a particular attack against the homeland, that is imminent or scheduled for the summer."
The Real News: Two days later, the intelligence community revealed Al Qaeda's strength was "undiminished" in spite of six years of the "War on Terror."
Bonus Rolling Stone reading:
The Fear Factory: The FBI now has more than 100 task forces devoted exclusively to fighting terrorism. But is the government manufacturing ghosts?