News & Politics

Bush Panics on Terror

Code Orange made headline news in the press, but there was little indication that reporters made a serious effort to confirm that the sources that warned of the alleged attacks were legitimate.
In his weekly radio address, President Bush urged Americans not to panic over the Code Orange terror alert. This is the government's highest-level warning on a color-coded scale of five. But Bush got it backward. Americans didn't panic, he did. The Orange alert was based on a phony tip. There were no imminent "dirty bomb" attacks, or plots to blow up a Jewish owned hotel in Virginia Beach. The false tip came from what intelligence agencies labeled "unreliable informants." It was corroborated by equally unreliable random pieces of electronic intercepts, foreign intelligence sources, rumors, and flat-out guesses by government operatives. As usual, the informants weren't named, the alleged attackers weren't positively identified, no specific intelligence report or documents were cited, and no date or time of the attacks was given.

The government warning made headline news in the press, but there was little indication that reporters made a serious effort to confirm that the sources that warned of the alleged attacks were legitimate. The same was true with a tape played a few days before the Orange alert was issued purportedly from bin Laden that warned of fresh attacks in the United States. Fox News played the tape in its entirety but did not publicly say what, if any, efforts it made to verify the tape's authenticity.

Since the September 11 terror attacks, FBI director Robert Mueller, Vice-President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Tom Ridge have leaped over each other to blitz the public with terrorists-on-the loose warnings. The alleged attackers have been Al-Qaeda operatives, suicide bombers, or Saddam Hussein henchmen. Their alleged 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, and each time the attacks failed to materialize there were no firm effort by the media or Congress to firmly pin the Bush administration down on its sources for these phantom attacks.

Bush officials shrug off the faint criticism that they are hammering Americans with false alerts by insisting that their information is valid, and that to reveal sources will compromise national security. While there may be some truth to this claim, the reality is that despite the torrent of alerts, the only verifiable terror attacks in the United States since September 11 have been a 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.

No direct links were found between the anthrax attacks and the pipe bombings had no direct link to bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda network. Still, thousands of law enforcement agencies and National Guard units have smothered airports, power plants, municipal buildings, bridges, highways, freeway overpasses with security. Cash strapped states and local governments have been forced to pick up the tab. The FBI has rounded up dozens of immigrants, many of them legal residents, on the flimsiest of suspicions and have held them in preventive detention, threatened them with deportation, or harsh jail terms. Bush officials have proposed radically revising the 2001 anti-terrorism Patriot Act to give even more spy power to the FBI and local law enforcement agencies, permit secret arrests, eliminate some aspects of judicial oversight, establish a DNA data base on anyone suspected of engaging in terrorism, and snatch citizenship from anyone who belongs to or supports a "disfavored political group." The Justice Department and the FBI would have the final say over who and what those groups are. In the absence of fresh terror attacks, there are several troubling questions about the alerts. Do Bush officials toss them out to quash protest over a pending attack on Iraq? Are the alerts a political ploy to get Congress to pump even more billions into the Pentagon's already bloated budget, and to prevent some squeamish Congressional Democrats from protesting to loudly about the pending attack? Are they a way to deflect public criticism from Bush's miserable handling of the nation's growing domestic woes? Bush officials are also mindful of the firestorm of Congressional and public criticism following a report that government intelligence agencies may have had forewarning of the September 11 attacks and did nothing about it. Rather than risk being again accused of inaction, intelligence agencies will quickly sound the alarm when they receive even the shakiest of information of pending trouble. And Bush officials will promptly issue the alerts as fact to the public.

If Bush officials receive verifiable 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 was the case in the Code Orange alert warnings. This risks jading the public to future warnings, even one that m ight be real, and it smacks of crass political opportunism. This is certainly something to panic over.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion Web site: He is the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press).
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