pre-election threats": these rolled off National Security Adviser
Condoleezza Rice's lips no less than seven times Sunday on CNN's Late Edition
as she discussed the likely timing of a terrorist attack. She stayed on message.
Dr. Rice said the government had actually "picked up discussion"
relating to "trying to do something in the pre-election period," and
added that information on the threat came from "active multiple sources."
I found myself wondering if those sources are any better than those cited by
Attorney General John Ashcroft on May 26, when he launched this campaign, citing
"credible intelligence from multiple sources that al-Qaeda plans an attack
on the United States" before the November election. Ashcroft's warning
came out of the blue, without the customary involvement of the directors of
the CIA and Department of Homeland Security (although the latter quickly fell
In support of his warning, Ashcroft cited "an al-Qaeda spokesman,"
who the FBI later was embarrassed to admit is "The Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades."
Sinister sounding though the name may be, this "group" is thought
to consist of no more than one person with a fax machine, according to a senior
U.S. intelligence official. That fax is notorious for claiming credit for all
manner of death and destruction.
Are the recent warnings and heightened alerts legitimate or contrived? Is this
yet another case of "intelligence" being conjured up to serve the
political purposes of President Bush and his top advisers? The record of the
past three years gives rise to the suspicion that this is precisely what is
While Iraq generally has moved off the front page,
those paying attention to developments there have watched a transition from
mayhem to bedlam in recent days. Worse still, the U.S. economy is again faltering
as the election draws near.
Perhaps most worrisome of all from the administration's point of view are the
fresh photos, film footage, and other reporting of torture in U.S.-run prisons
in Iraq and elsewhere that will surface in the coming weeks. This round is said
to include details of the rape and other abuse of some of the Iraqi women and
the hundred or so children some as young as 10 years old held
in jails like Abu Ghraib. U.S. Army Sgt. Samuel Provance, who was stationed
there, has blown the whistle on the abuse of children as well as other prisoners.
He recounted, for example, how interrogators soaked a 16-year-old, covered him
in mud, and then used his suffering to break the youth's father, also a prisoner,
I suspect the further revelations of torture worry the White House most. Adding
to its woes, last week over a hundred lawyers, including seven past presidents
of the American Bar Association and former FBI Director William Sessions, issued
a statement strongly condemning the legal opinions of government attorneys holding
that torture might be legally defensible. The lawyers called for an investigation
regarding whether there is a connection between those legal opinions and the
abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.
While Bush administration officials have tried to distance themselves from
the opinions and claim that the president did not authorize the torture of suspected
al-Qaeda or Taliban fighters, the photographic evidence speaks for itself. And
neoconservative William Kristol's bragging Sunday on ABC's This Week
that this administration's interrogation techniques have been successful because
they are "rougher than what John Kerry would approve of" does not
help the administration's case.
With each new revelation of torture, the "few-bad-apples" explanation
strains credulity closer to the breaking point. Nor can it be denied that the
abuse took place on this administration's watch. Thus, there are likely to be
increasing demands that the commander-in-chief or at least his defense
secretary take responsibility. Where is it that the buck is supposed
What has all this to do with Condoleezza Rice's
multiple mention of "pre-election threats"? Can these two dots be
connected? I fear they can.
When John Ashcroft fired the opening shot in this campaign to raise the specter
of a "pre-election" terrorist event, it seemed to me that the administration
might be beginning to prepare the American people to accept postponement or
cancellation of the November election as a reasonable option.
Tom Ridge's warning in early July that Osama bin Laden is "planning to
disrupt the November elections" added to my concern, as did: word that
Ridge has asked the Department of Justice to analyze what legal steps would
be needed to permit postponement of the election; the request by the Director
of the Election Assistance Commission for Ridge to provide "guidelines"
for canceling or rescheduling the election in the event of a terror attack;
the matter-of-fact tone of a recent vote on CNN's website: "Should the
United States postpone the election in the event of a terrorist attack?"
That vote seems to have been greeted more by yawns than by any expression of
That the House of Representatives on July 22 passed a resolution by a 419-2
vote denying any agency or individual the authority to postpone a national election
suggests that many in Congress are taking the various trial balloons and other
The Emperor's New Suit of Clothes
It seems a safe bet that President Bush is not
sleeping as soundly as he did before the abuse of prisoners came to light. He
may feel thoroughly exposed in the magic suit of sold him by Ashcroft's tailor/lawyers
together with those working for White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, and may
wish he had paid more attention to the strong cautions of Secretary of State
Colin Powell against playing fast and loose with the Geneva Conventions on Prisoners
The president can take little consolation in Gonzales' reassurance that there
is a "reasonable basis in law" that could provide a "solid defense,"
should an independent counsel at some point in the future attempt to prosecute
him under the U.S. War Crimes Act of 1996 for exempting the Taliban and perhaps
others from the protections of the Geneva Conventions, to which the War Crimes
Act is inextricably tied.
Meaning? Meaning that if the president's numbers look no better in October
than they do now, there will be particularly strong personal incentive on the
part of the president, Rumsfeld, and Vice President Cheney to pull out all the
stops in order to make four more years a sure thing. What seems increasingly
clear is that putting off the election is under active consideration
a course more likely to be chosen to the extent it achieves status as just another
How Would Americans React?
On Friday I listened to a reporter asking a tourist
in Washington, D.C., whether he felt inconvenienced by all the blockages and
barriers occasioned by the heightened alert. While the tourist acknowledged
that the various barriers and inspections made it difficult to get from one
place to another, he made his overall reaction quite clear: "Safety first!
I don't want to see another 9/11. Whatever it takes!" I was struck
a few hours later as I tuned into President Bush speaking at a campaign rally
in Michigan: "I will never relent in defending America. Whatever it
How prevalent this sentiment has become was brought home to me as Rep. Dennis
Kucinich (D-Ohio) quizzed 9/11 Commissioner Bob Kerrey (a former Democrat Senator
from Nebraska) at a hearing last week on the commission's sweeping recommendation
to centralize foreign and domestic intelligence under a new National Intelligence
Director in the White House. Kerrey grew quite angry as Kucinich kept insisting
on an answer to his question: "How do you protect civil liberties amid
such a concentration of information and power?"
Kerrey protested that the terrorists give no priority to civil liberties. He
went on to say that individual liberties must, in effect, be put on the back
burner, while priority is given to combating terrorism. Whatever it takes.
Does this not speak volumes? Would Kerrey suggest that Americans act like the
"good Germans" of the 1930s, and acquiesce in draconian steps like
postponement or cancellation of the November election?
These are no small matters. It is high time to think them through.