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Excerpt: 'The Test Of Our Times'

Cover Of 'The Test Of Our Times'



A few days before the 2004 presidential election, The New York Times reported that national polls showed a virtual dead heat in the race between President Bush and Senator John Kerry. What the Times didn't print and didn't know is that an election- eve drama was being played out at the highest levels of our government that speaks to some of the most significant and delicate issues we face as a nation. Had this episode been reported, I can only imagine how the editorial page of the Times, never a fan of the Bush administration — or me, for that matter — would have reacted: "The White House has put the country's welfare at risk for blatantly political reasons — so that the president, whose strategy since 9/11 has been to strike fear into the hearts of U.S. citizens, can assure himself a second term." The reality was more complex than that — realities are always more complex than editorials portray them — but I confess that this event, dramatic and inconceivable, proved most troublesome for all of us in the department.

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.

Late night news, morning show hosts, and probably every American citizen was wondering what it all meant. The messenger, the message, the timing — was an attack imminent?

Predictably, the message was critical of President Bush. It threatened, "As you spoil our security, we will do so to you Your security is not in the hands of Kerry or Bush or Al Qaeda. Your security is in your own hands. Any nation that does not attack us will not be attacked." Was it a precursor to another attack?

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.

Bin Laden had contempt for the president and hated America: This was not news. From September 11, 2001, to this video broadcast, there had been nearly twenty audio and videotapes attributed to either bin Laden or his lieutenant al-Zawahiri. In fact, earlier in October, al-Zawahiri, in an audio recording, again urged Muslims to mount resistance to "crusader America." As was the case after receipt of most of the previous tapes, no one got particularly spun up about al-Zawahiri's remarks. While not a counterterrorism expert, I had drawn some conclusions about these matters along the way. A threatening message, audio or visual, should not be the sole reason to elevate the threat level. Having been schooled by General Pat Hughes, the much larger question had to be answered. Other than the tape, what was the factual basis for taking such a dramatic step?

With internal agreement that the tape should not alter our security posture, my leadership team and I gathered in our makeshift Situation Room at the NAC to participate in a secure videoconference and listening to a discussion focused on that possibility. Participating were representatives from the intelligence community, the FBI, and the Departments of Justice, State, and Defense.

A vigorous, some might say dramatic, discussion ensued. Ashcroft strongly urged an increase in the threat level, and was supported by Rumsfeld. There was absolutely no support for that position within our department. None. I wondered, "Is this about security or politics?" Post-election analysis demonstrated a significant increase in the president's approval rating in the days after the raising of the threat level.

There was no consensus reached at that session, and we took it upon ourselves to keep it that way. I was adamantly opposed to raising the threat level and was grateful that Robert Mueller agreed. Absent a consensus, there could be no recommendation for Townsend to present to the president.

There is a cautionary expression that surfaces occasionally during Oval Office or Situation Room briefings and even more frequently in the intelligence and law enforcement communities: "We don't know what we don't know." Let me assure you, it is not expressed as a hedge against future accountability. It is, however, a necessary and painful reminder that total situational awareness in any critical decision-making context is the ideal, never the reality. In the real world of information gathering and analysis, complete and accurate information in the form of actionable intelligence is afforded our leaders about as often as the Chicago Cubs reach the World Series. Assuming we would never have the benefit of a complete picture, we were struggling to understand the proponents' point of view based upon the intelligence we did possess. We certainly didn't believe the tape alone warranted action, and we weren't seeing any additional intelligence that justified it. In fact, we were incredulous.

Admittedly, the notion of an attack during this period had been discussed. Early in the year, we had identified key events at which Al Qaeda might take great glee in dropping something on us: the Democratic convention in Boston, the Republican convention in New York, and the general election were among them. 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.

All of us at DHS knew better than our fellow participants of the delicacy of raising the threat level. We had long ago learned the disadvantages of routinely worrying the public, of making people fearful without being able to give them any specific information about the threat. We knew the tremendous cost incurred at local levels whenever the level went up. We could fairly predict the public outcry of a national threat alert without sharing specific and credible information to justify it on the eve of an election. We could not see the justification within the intelligence in our hands. But even then, we knew that there was a widespread suspicion of such motives and tactics, and this could entirely undermine the credibility of not just the department, but the administration.

As the conference concluded, we agreed to talk the next morning. We began immediately to engage in our own intelligence gathering. Without more specific information that could be shared with a suspicious public on the eve of an election, we were moving toward a certain public relations disaster. We had to learn more or put an end to the discussion. We were on the verge of making a huge mistake. Pat Hughes would check around the intelligence community. Jim Loy would reach out to his fellow deputies within the cabinet. Susan Neely would contact Dan Bartlett, the head of public affairs for the White House.

When Neely reached Bartlett, he was aboard Air Force One, which was flying the president to a campaign stop. Bartlett said he had been unaware of the discussion that had taken place earlier that morning. He was strongly advised that DHS was strongly opposed. Neely spoke for all of us when she said, "We think it's a terrible thing to do." It was important to remind the White House that just a few weeks earlier, in August, when there was real, substantial, hard information about the threat to the financial sector, a large segment of the media had nevertheless accused the administration of politicizing the nation's security. And now, with absolutely nothing but the tape to justify raising the level, the administration would certainly take an even bigger hit, and perhaps, from the election point of view, a fatal one. Bartlett told her that he would speak to the president and get back to her. By the next day, the whole idea of raising the level was dropped.

I believe our strong interventions had pulled the "go up" advocates back from the brink. But I consider that 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.

From The Test of Our Times by Tom Ridge. Copyright 2009 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin's Press, LLC.

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Tom Ridge