Orange You Glad He Didn't Raise the Level to Red?


In the wake of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge's recent regional upping of the terrorist threat level, former prez candidate Gov. Howard Dean has accused the DHS of jacking the rainbow whenever the Bush administration has a bad week.

However unfounded Dean's statment may be, Ridge's response is equally dubious: "We don't do politics in the Department of Homeland Security." Of course you don't, Tommy. After all, you're a political appointee in a presidential administration. Politics is the last thing that enters your mind.

Which isn't to say that this particular warning was sent out in order to boost Bush's poll numbers. But it's a totally plausible charge and one that underscores an often-overlooked problem in fighting the war on terror: the public's justifiably cynical attitude toward all sorts of government proclamations.

In its current form, this skepticism goes back at least to LBJ's credibility gap on Vietnam and various Nixonian machinations (ranging from his "secret plan" to end the war in Southeast Asia to his secret bombings in the same place to Watergate and more). Ford's pardon of Nixon stunk to high heaven and Carter's presidency just stunk. Reagan had more than a few credibility problems (e.g., Iran-Contra) and he also (legitimately) talked about government as the "problem"–a shtick that helped him take control of the very institution whose credibility he undermined. Poppy Bush dissembled on Iran-Contra (and his tax pledge) and Clinton was simply breathtaking when it came to highly suspicious actions. Does anyone really believe that the precise timing of air strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan and the Balkans just happened to coincide with Monica Lewinsky's testimony and his impeachment trial?

While never the out-and-out government critic that Reagan was, Dubya took office being skeptical of government solutions to most problems, yet his years in office have alienated hard-core conservatives such as Pat Buchanan as much as they have lunatic-fringe lefties. His administration's penchant for secrecy and the undermining of most of the pre-war intelligence don't help him seem like a politics-free sort of guy. Neither does his half-assed capitulation to the 9/11 commission's recommendations re: reorganizing U.S. intelligence operations.

All that and more (e.g., ongoing government farces such as the crap science and rhetoric coming out of the drug czar's office) add up to a public that is rightly dubious about all official pronouncements.
Given that Bush that is president in no small part to the anti-government rhetoric the GOP has mastered, it's more than a little ironic (and scary for the rest of us) that such an attitude may make it harder for him to prosecute the war on terror. But trust is easy to lose and hard to earn–and to keep. And the past 30 years haven't made that any easier.

NEXT: Abu Ghraib Jr.

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  1. My great grandpa Bernard was a CPA. His bullshit detector went on when they established the income tax, and it never went off afterwards.

  2. Yeah, the Bushies really care a lot about their poll numbers in early August. Enough to spook the markets with a faux terror alert. Or perhaps the evil Bush cabal shorted the markets, and issued the new alert to cash out of a market dip? I mean, we all know Bushitler is a corporate puppet and does everything to line his evil master’s pockets, right?

    What a load of crap. Whatever that bonehead Ridge may have done, it wasn’t to help Bush bup his poll numbers up a few points for a few days.

  3. a public that is rightly dubious about all official pronouncements

    If only. Just look at the number of people who believe that Iraq was behind 9/11.

  4. I agree with Anon Coward.

    People are far more inclined to believe the official pronouncements of government than to be skeptical (especially when fear is used as a constant refrain).

    Just read RC Dean’s posts, for example…

  5. “If only. Just look at the number of people who believe that Iraq was behind 9/11.”

    Most people who believe that Iraq was behind 9/11 didn’t get the wrong information from the government. They got the wrong information from the media who repeatedly claimed that Bush said Iraq was behind 9/11.

  6. trainwreck, one of the underlying assumptions of your “fear is used…” assertion is that the “fear” has no realistic basis.

    i agree that skepticism should always be the order of the day, but every serious person believes that there is a basis to “the fear.” There’s a legitimate debate over the scope, the origin, etc.

  7. This is nothing new.

    i dunno, paul — things have changed quite a lot. the kind of credit mobilier public fleecing that threatened to bring government down in grant’s day is de rigeur now, not even news. what is most disturbing, imo, is the changed expectation of the public — it’s not that scandal did not exist before, but rather that today scandal is understood, a given, almost acceptable.

  8. Joe,

    FWIW, Nixon likely never said that, at least not in so many words. The New York Times has actually printed their belief that Nixon never said it and vowed never to print that quote.

  9. I have to agree with Unknown. As the Bush administration went about their efforts to link 9/11 to Iraq, they were remarkably careful to use language that merely created the impression they were saying it, rather than stating the assertion plainly.

    Go over some of those old quotes – Cheney’s appearances on Sunday talk shows are a good place to start. They’re real works of art.

  10. Snake c’mon. That wasn’t a premise of my statement at all.

    I’m not saying there is nothing to fear. But the use of fear, or the impending crisis, is the oldest trick in the government play book.

    The Bush Administration, consiously or not, are using fear (vote for me because that guy won’t keep you safe) an unprecedented level in my experience. It’s the wrong way to govern or run a party, IMHO. But it is effective.

  11. The NYT piece on how the latest threat was based on outdated information shouldn’t have been news. If you read the transcript provided by Drudge of the announcement of the threat, you’ll see they stated some of the information was old, and some was new. They should have repeatedly stressed that some of the information was old and some had been updated in order to prevent things like the NYT report.

    As far as the DHS not doing politics, I provided a very stark counterexample: “Baca and several other legislators in Washington discussed the [illegal alien] sweeps with Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security at the Department of Homeland Security. After the meeting, Hutchinson declared the sweeps a violation of agency policy and said future operations far from the border must be approved by the department…”

    And, consider that not just one or two, but three Texas congressmen are complaining about the DHS releasing illegal aliens into the U.S. on their OR. Including non-Mexicans and including people from high-terror-risk countries. Details here

  12. I’m always ready to listen to a charge of government misconduct or a good conspiracy theory, but jeez, there sure are a lot of feeble ones around these days. The “suspicious timing” of terror alerts is one. Logically, this last alert could only come before, during, or after the Democratic convention. So if Bush were manipulating things for political gain, wouldn’t he get maximum impact from raising the alert level before or during the convention? An alert announced after the convention is clearly the least useful, from a Republican political point of view. But I doubt if logic will prevent the Michael Moorelocks out there from claiming this is another Bush Crime.

  13. Since when is Pat Buchanan a “hard-core conservative”? Strident isolationist, trade protectionist, and fleeting traces of anti-Semitism? He’s the remnant of the ’50s conservatives that Bill Buckley helped kill off.

  14. An alert announced after the convention is clearly the least useful, from a Republican political point of view

    But, that’s just it. You apparently don’t appreciate the Machiavelian cunning of $hrubCo. The terror alert wasn’t designed to hurt the convention, it was designed to prevent a Kerry Bounce.

  15. The notion that DHS put out the alert because Bush “had a bad week” is retarded.

    Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that DHS Terror Alerts give Bush a poll boost. Well, every time DHS cries wolf, more and more people start ignoring what they say. So if DHS is issuing a false warning now, it knows that reduces the effectiveness of its warnings in the future.

    So we’re supposed to believe that DHS is lying in order to temporarily boost Bush’s poll numbers now, in AUGUST? Did the date for the election get moved up three months and I just didn’t hear about it? Because if DHS is, in fact, willing to fabricate a terror alert just to give Bush a boost, why are they blowing their wad *now*, when public approval of the Bush administration is completely irrelevant, when doing so will make them less able to boost Bush’s poll numbers for the actual election?

  16. Dan: In case you’re referring to my comment, I have an urgent message for you. After updating your US Bank info, DO NOT ACCESS YOUR ACCOUNT FOR 48 HOURS UNTIL WE’VE HAD TIME TO PUT THE SECURITY MEASURES IN PLACE.

  17. Guys, the bullshit meter has been on 11 for the past 80 years and more. I come from a bootlegging family, need I say more?

    In other news, W.R. Hearst didn’t help matters.

    I wish I could be the optimist Dan is, but the cynic in me is rolling eyes and looking harder at Badnarik following this recent raise in color fashions.

  18. To paraphrase David Cross;

    “There’s a REASON why a terror alert is announced every time the President does something stupid or the Democrats start to look good; it’s called CO-IN-CI-DENCE. Why can’t you damned hippies get that through to your mind?”

  19. David “chicken-pot pie” Cross my ass. I’ve got twice the stand-up security analysis cred as David and it appears clear to me that Kerry’s appeasement speech at the DNC sent al Qaeda into hyperdrive and now Bush is left to clean up the mess. You partisan hacks need to get your head out of your asses and look at this objectively.

  20. “Why can’t you damned hippies get that through to your mind?”

    Jennifer – As I grew up in the 60’s, lived through the Vietnam war days, enjoyed the 70’s, 80’s etc, I always thought myself a hippie.

    Through our understanding of others and continued acceptance of other peoples way of life, we hippies keep this world a better place.

    If you believe there is a problem with hippies – perhaps you’re the problem.

  21. echoes of raimondo’s column today.

    i think one of the definitions of institutions in decadence is the inability to act even when the wish to is there — and our well-founded cynicism is certainly, in that light, a vehicle of decadence.

  22. “We don’t do politics in the Department of Homeland Security.” Tom Ridge, August 3.

    “But we must understand that the kind of information available to us today is the result of the President’s leadership in the war against terror.” Tom Ridge, August 1, in his public statement raising the terror alert level, the week after the Democratic Convention.

  23. Nick, I hope you feel better now that you’ve had your rant.

  24. It’s easy (and people are already doing it) to nitpick or score partisan points on a sentence or two of this well written post…It’s just that it’s absolutely impossible to dispute Gillespie’s conclusion, i.e., that the public is increasingly cynical of “government proclamations.”

    Liberal, conservative, libertarian, whatever, everyone’s bullshit detector has been turned up to 10 since about 1990.

  25. i would say, for the sake of argument, since about 1968.

  26. In 1968, gaius, Americans were still willing to believe “I have a secret plan to end the war.”

    I peg it to Watergate and the dirty laundry from the Church hearings.

  27. You’ve got to be kidding. How about dating it back to the 1920’s, with Warren G. Harding, Huey Long, et al., or to the Grant administration in the 1870’s?? This is nothing new.

  28. I didn’t hear about this raise until yesterday, but, as I’ve argued before, it doesn’t really make much of a difference to most people if the terror alert level is ‘one’ or ‘the other’. The only time it will go to red is if there’s an attack (and that’s a bit too late, isn’t it) because otherwise there’s too much to be gained by postponing whatever attack prompted the red level, and it will never go to blue or green as long as there are some terrorists anywhere. Therefore all we’ll do is waffle back and forth between yellow and orange, with neither meaning particularly more.

    Not only have the BS detectors been pegged so often that they’re thinking of coming out with a log-scale one, what does it really matter to 98% of the people in the country? Even most government employees don’t really need to know what the terror threat level is. I think the whole warning system is more of a ‘See, we’re doing something!’ ploy than anything else.

  29. I wish I could be the optimist Dan is, but the cynic in me is rolling eyes and looking harder at Badnarik following this recent raise in color fashions.

    Optimist? I was pointing out that the “DHS is fabricating threats to help Bush” theory doesn’t even make sense from a cynical point of view. A cynic would conclude that the DHS will help Bush by playing up the terror threats in November, not in August.

    The cynical take on the DHS terror alerts is “they’ve covering their asses”. Look at it from a bureaucrat’s perspective — the personal benefit of predicting a terrorist attack is enormous, and the personal cost of *failing* to predict one is also enormous. The personal cost of predicting a terror attack that doesn’t happen, on the other hand, is almost zero. So the cynical explanation for the DHS terror warnings is that the folks giving them would rather issue a thousand mistaken warnings, than risk mistakenly NOT ordering an accurate one. From a purely self-interested point of view, a bureaucrat’s best move is to cry “Terror” whenever he encounters the slightest little hint of a rumor of an innuendo that there might be an attack.

    To paraphrase David Cross; “There’s a REASON why a terror alert is announced every time the President does something stupid or the Democrats start to look good; it’s called CO-IN-CI-DENCE. Why can’t you damned hippies get that through to your mind?”

    Please identify exactly when, in your opinion, Bush *wasn’t* doing something stupid and the Democrats *didn’t* look better than Bush. Because I have no memory of you ever acknowledging that such a thing happened.

    The reason terror announcements happen “when Bush is doing badly in the polls” or “when Democrats start to look better” or when “Bush does something stupid” is that Bush has been doing badly in the polls for the last year, Democrats have been looking better for the last year, and the anti-Bush crowd thinks everything he does is stupid.

    So naturally when terror announcements happen, they happen when Bush is suffering in the polls, the Democrats look like they might do better, and Bush has just done something stupid! When the SUN comes up in the morning, it does so just as Bush is in trouble, Democrats look like they might win, and Bush has done something stupid!

  30. Neverbad-
    I too smoked a lot of pot in my day, but I can still recognize sarcasm most of the time.

  31. Yea, this terror alert thing has just sucked all the joy and exitement the Democrat’s convention filled me with.

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