In his new tell-all book, former Secretary Of Homeland Security Tom Ridge reveals that he was under intense political pressure to raise the national security threat level on the eve of the 2004 presidential election.
In The Test of Our Times: America Under Siege…and How We Can Be Safe Again, to be released September 1st, Ridge says that he fought against changing the terror alert and wondered at the time whether the Ashcroft- and Rumsfeld-backed request was about “security or politics,” because while there was “nothing to indicate a specific threat and no reason to cause undue public alarm…Post-election analysis demonstrated a significant increase in the president’s approval rating in the days after the raising of the threat level.”
From the book:
On Friday, October 29, 2004, Osama bin Laden delivered a new videotape message that aired on the Arab language network Al Jazeera. The presidential election scheduled for the following Tuesday was tightening. The most recent polls had Bush leading Kerry by no more than two or three points. Having won my first congressional election by 729 votes and experienced the volatility of the election cycle during several campaigns, this race was literally a dead heat going into the final seventy-two hours.
We huddled that Friday night. Next morning we met early at the department’s headquarters. The country was unaware that all levels of government had quietly ramped up security several weeks before the election, although not to the level that would have been required had we actually gone to a higher public threat level (orange). The timing of the tape may have been a surprise; the content was not. Within the department no one felt it necessary to consider additional security measures or to call the Homeland Security Council into session.
In a conference call with members of the Bush administration’s national security and counter-terrorism team, Ridge pushed back against the request, which Attorney General John Ashcroft and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were eagerly promoting.
“A vigorous, some might say dramatic, discussion ensured. Ashcroft strongly urged an increase in the threat level and was supported by Rumsfeld,” writes Ridge. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Ridge’s aides carried the message to the White House that an Election Eve threat escalation “would court accusations of politicizing national security.” In the end, the terror alert level was not raised. Ridge himself writes that he was “incredulous” about the whole debate and acknowledges “we were on the verge of making a huge mistake.”
Admittedly, the notion of an attack during this period had been discussed…We were all mindful of the impact of an actual attack on the outcome of the Spanish election earlier in the year. But at this point there was nothing to indicate a specific threat and no reason to cause undue public alarm. And as the minutes passed at our videoconference we concluded that others in the administration were operating with the same threat information and didn’t know any more than we did, and that the idea was still a bad one. It also seemed possible to me and to others around the table that something could be afoot other than simple concern about the country’s safety.
I believe our strong interventions had pulled the ‘go-up’ advocates back from the brink. But I consider the episode to be not only a dramatic moment in Washington’s recent history, but another illustration of the intersection of politics, fear, credibility and security.
The terror alert system is currently in the middle of a 60-day review for possible alterations by the Department of Homeland Security, which Secretary Janet Napolitano announced in mid-July.
The incident left its mark on Ridge, who describes it as a serious turning point in his career. “After that episode, I knew I had to follow through with my plans to leave the federal government,” he writes. Ridge resigned after the election, on November 30, 2004, and at the time said it was in order to devote more time to his family.
Ridge revealed clashes between his department and the executive office on terror alerts back in 2005 in a much more mild-mannered way, saying “sometimes we disagreed.”
Late Update: Frances Townsend, former Homeland Security advisor to Bush, appeared on The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer on CNN this evening to refute Ridge’s allegations. “Nobody’s more surprised than I am,” she said. “Of course, Tom Ridge never expressed those concerns while he was in the administration, nor did he when I spoke to him after he left…[He] wasn’t the only one in that meeting who suggested the terror alert shouldn’t be raised. At no time was there a discussion of politics in that meeting. And the president was made a consensus recommendation from the council that he accepted - not to raise the terror alert.”
This post has been revised since it was originally published.