Al Qaeda in Michael Chertoff's Stomach: The Terror of a 'Gut Feeling'
You have by now heard the remark -- instantly added to our through-the-looking-glass lexicon of the 21st century, a time when we suddenly started referring to this country as "the homeland," as if anybody here has used that term since Charles Lindbergh or the German-American Bund in 1940.
Michael Chertoff's "gut feeling."
Which, he took pains to emphasize, was based on no specific nor even vague intelligence that we are entering a period of increased risk of terrorism here.
He got as specific as saying that al Qaeda seems to like the summer, but as to the rest of it, he is perfectly content to let us sit and wait and worry -- and to contemplate his gut.
We used to have John Ashcroft's major announcements.
We used to have David Paulison's breathless advisories about how to use duct tape against radiation attacks.
We used to have Tom Ridge's color-coded threat levels.
Now we have Michael Chertoff's gut!
Once, we thought we were tiptoeing along a Grand Canyon of possible and actual freedoms and civil liberties destroyed, as part of some kind of nauseating but ultimately necessary and intricately designed plan to stop future 9/11s or even future Glasgow car bombers who wind up having to get out and push their failed weapons.
Now it turns out we are risking all of our rights and protections -- and risking the anger and hatred of the rest of the world -- for the sake of Michael Chertoff's gut.
I have pondered this supreme expression of diminished expectations for parts of three days now. I have concluded that there are only five possible explanations for Mr. Chertoff's remarkable revelations about his transcendently important counterterrorism stomach.
Firstly, Mr. Chertoff, you are, as Richard Wolffe said here the other night, actually referencing not your gut but your backside -- as in, "covering it." CYA.
Not only has there not been a terrorist attack stopped in this country, but your good old Homeland Security hasn't even unraveled a plausible terrorist plan.
And you and your folks there have a different kind of stomach pain, knowing that with a track record that consists largely of two accomplishments -- inconveniencing people at airports and scaring them everywhere else -- your department doesn't know what the hell it's doing, and even you, Mr. Chertoff, know it.
Secondly, of course, there is the explanation of choice for those millions of us who have heard the shrill and curiously timed cries of "wolf" over the past six years -- what we've called here "the Nexus of Politics and Terror" -- that there isn't anything cooking, and your "gut feeling" was actually that you'd better throw up a diversion soon on Mr. Bush's behalf or something real -- like the Republicans' revolt about Iraq, and the nauseating "gut feeling" that we have gotten 3,611 Americans killed there for no reason -- was actually going to seep into the American headlines and consciousness.
It's impossible to prove a negative, to guarantee that you and your predecessors deliberately scared the American public just for the political hell of it -- even though your predecessor, Mr. Ridge, admitted he had his suspicions about exactly that.
Suffice to say, Mr. Chertoff: If it ever can be proved, there will be a lot of people from Homeland Security and other outposts of this remarkably corrupt administration who will be going to prison.
Thirdly -- and most charitably, I guess, Mr. Chertoff -- is the possibility that you have made some credible inference that we are really at greater risk right now but that any detail might blow some sort of attempt at interruption. There is some silver lining in this one.
But the silver lining would have been a greater one if this National Counter Terrorism Center Report hadn't leaked out the day after you introduced us to your gut, a report suggesting al Qaeda had re-built its operational capacity to pre-9/11 levels.
Not only did this latest hair-on-fire missive remind us that al Qaeda's re-growth has been along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border; not only did it remind us that your boss let this happen by shifting his resources out of Afghanistan to Iraq for his own vain and foolish purposes, to say nothing of ignoring Pakistan; not only did it underscore the ominous truth that if this country is victimized again by al Qaeda, the personal responsibility for the failure of our misplaced defenses would belong to President Bush and President Bush alone, but on top of all of it, Mr. Chertoff, it revealed you for the phony expert you are -- the kid who hears in confidence something smart from somebody smart and then makes his prediction that what the smart kid said confidentially is about to happen.
It reads just as you revised the "gut" remark this morning, sir -- the "informed opinion." The kid telling stories out of school.
The fourth possibility is a simple reversal of the third, Mr. Chertoff.
You shot off your bazoo, and then this National Counter Terrorism Center report was rushed out -- even created -- to cover you, to give you credibility, to cloud the reality that you actually intoned to the Chicago Tribune, the 21st-century equivalent of "by the pricking of my thumb, something wicked this way comes."
But the fifth possible explanation of your gut, Mr. Chertoff, is the real nightmare scenario.
And it is simple.
That you, the man who famously told us "Louisiana is a city that is largely under water," meant this literally.
That we really have been reduced to listening to see if your gut will growl.
That your intestines are our best defense.
That your bowels are our listening devices, your digestive tract is full of augurs, your colon produces the results that the torture at Gitmo does not.
All hail the prophetic gut!
So there are your choices: bureaucratic self-protection, political manipulation of the worst kind, the dropping of opaque hints, a gaffe backfilled by an "instant report," or the complete disintegration of our counterterror effort.
Even if there really is never another terror attempt in this country, we have already lost too much in these last six years to now have to listen to Michael Chertoff's gut, no matter what its motivation.
We cannot and will not turn this country into a police state.
But even those of us who say that most loudly and insistently acknowledge that some stricter measures, under the still-stricter supervision of as many watchdogs as we can summon, are appropriate.
But you're not even going to wring any of that from us, Mr. Chertoff, if we're going to hear remarks about your "gut feelings."
You have reduced yourself to the status of a hunch-driven clown, and it's probably time you turned your task over to somebody who represents the brain and not the gut, certainly to somebody who does not, as you do now, represent that other part of the anatomy -- the one through which the body disposes of what the stomach doesn't want.