Who’s Jerking Whom Around on Terror Alerts

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld bluntly told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the Pentagon budget that the terrorists are “jerking us” around with their terror threats. Rumsfeld then upped the terror ante by gravely warning that the terrorists soon will have nuclear weapons and will use them against the U.S. Rumsfeld didn’t say when the unnamed terrorists would get the weapons, or how and where they’ll use them. He didn’t have to.

None of the senators challenged him to give more specifics. But if Rumsfeld was in reality jerking the senators around with unsubstantiated warnings, he wasn’t alone. In the space of days, FBI director Robert Mueller, Vice-President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Florida Senator Bob Graham leaped over each other to blitz the public with terrorists-on-the loose warnings.

The attacks were coming from, take your pick: Al-Qaeda operatives, suicide bombers, extremists arriving in container cargo ships, and President Bush’s unholy five, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Cuba, or North Korea. Bush officials and Graham cited no intelligence report, informants; captured Al-Qaeda prisoners, or documents as their sources. They were not pressed to name names and sources, nor was their independent confirmation from the Coast Guard of Graham’s charge.

In the midst of the latest terror-warning surge by Bush officials several questions could and should have been asked about the timing and the motives for the alerts. Were the alerts tossed out to take some heat off Bush for allegedly having foreknowledge of a pending Sept. 11 attack and doing nothing to stop it? Are the alerts a political ploy by Rumsfeld to get Congress to pump even more billions into the Pentagon’s already bloated budget for, as he put it, greater military “preparedeness?” Or, with off year national elections this November, is terror alerts part of the Bush campaign strategy to pack even more Republicans into Congress and state offices?

If Rumsfeld, Mueller, Powell and Cheney overplay the terror card for self-serving domestic political gain, they are following a well-worn script. Since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Attorney-General John Ashcroft and the FBI have issued torrents of terror alerts. The targets have been everything from movie studios, farms, shopping centers, chemical plants, apartment buildings and bridges. There have been no attacks on these supposed targets, they have never named their sources, and there have been no firm demands by the media or Congress to name them. They have ignored the few scattered and tepid suggestions by Congressional Democrats that the Justice Department cease issuing alerts unless it has solid information of possible attacks.

Bush officials shrug off the faint criticism that they are hammering Americans with false alerts by insisting that their information is legitimate, and that to reveal sources will compromise national security. It boils down to this: Accept at face value whatever the administration says on the terrorism front. In the coming months, Bush officials will issue more alerts, and they will almost certainly not have to explain why:

-- Despite the avalanche of FBI terror alerts since Sept. 11, the only verifiable terror attacks in the United States have been the handful of anthrax cases in which the FBI admitted was likely the handiwork of domestic extremists, and the planting of pipe bombs in rural mailboxes in the Midwest by a disgruntled, whacked out, young white college drop-out. The anthrax attacks and the pipe bombings had no direct link to Osama bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda network.

-- The FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service have detained or arrested more than 1,000 persons since Sept. 11. Yet, only one of the detainees has been formally charged with conspiracy in the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

-- Thousands of law enforcement agencies and National Guard units have sprung into action in response to the blizzard of terror alerts. They have smothered airports, power plants, municipal buildings, bridges, highways, freeway overpasses, and all New York City landmarks with security. Yet, not one police agency or military unit has reported an attack on a municipal structure since Sept. 11.

When Bush, Rumsfield, Mueller, Cheney, Powell and Ashcroft receive ironclad information from credible sources of a possible terror attack they are duty-bound to warn law enforcement and the public of the danger. But it is irresponsible and foolhardy to issue alerts based on the haziest of information, as has been the case in the latest wave of warnings.

A CBS news poll found that the overwhelming majority of Americans think it’s a good idea for Bush officials to issue terror alerts though they cite no sources and give no specifics. But crying wolf once too often smacks of political opportunism, and risks jading the public to future warnings, even one that might be real. This does absolutely nothing to protect and everything to endanger the public.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion Web site www.thehutchinsonreport.com

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