Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Kaplan on the old data alert: a reasoned condemnation

Waving the Orange Flag - Did the Bushies overplay the latest al-Qaida threat? By Fred Kaplan
Given what the Times' counterterrorism source said about the vast set of blueprints that al-Qaida keeps on the shelf, U.S. intelligence might discover lots of laptops with lots of apparent plans. If the alert goes up to orange or red with each discovery, very soon nobody is going to take these alerts at all seriously—and that includes the local law enforcement agencies tasked with enforcing the alerts on already overstretched budgets.

If president Bush is truly serious about preventing terrorist attacks, he has to ensure that these alerts, even when they're wrong, are at least perceived as sincere and untainted by political motive. By this standard, Tom Ridge last Sunday proved himself a dreadful homeland security secretary, and the Bush administration (by association, if not collaboration) diminished the trust that a president must inspire on such matters.

During the news conference where he announced the heightened alert, Ridge made the following remark: 'We must understand that the kind of information available to us today is the result of the president's leadership in the war against terror.'

As far as I can tell, only Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central's The Daily Show, quoted this line. On one level, the 'real' news media might be lauded for ignoring the sentence and thus separating the news from the propaganda. But on another level, by censoring Ridge's spin, aren't they distorting the news? Isn't his spin part of the news? Could it be that the spin spurred the news, supplied (at least in part) the rationale for the announcement—especially given the broader context of its timing just a few days after the Democratic Convention?

Homeland security, like the Fed, should be appointed independently of the ruling party with congressional oversight. Kaplan's reasoning is persuasive. It was understandable that security heads and government wanted to announce the findings, but they are indeed old data. Given that, extra attention should have been paid to the perception of sincerity. Bush failed that test, but Rove passed his test.

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