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Toying With Terror Alerts?

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In the Bush era, the timing and quality of “arrests” and “warnings” have a suspicious ring

By Joshua Micah Marshall
Time Magazine
July 07, 2006

In these perilous days, we must be ready to think the unthinkable. No, I don’t mean the possibility of a catastrophic terrorist attack. After 9/11, that’s all too easy to imagine. No, I’m talking about a thought that even now seldom forces its way into respectable conversation: the quite reasonable suspicion that the Bush Administration orchestrates its terror alerts and arrests to goose the GOP’s poll numbers.

Now, I’m a respectable columnist. I don’t want to draw rolled eyes. But think about it.

The 18 months prior to the 2004 presidential election witnessed a barrage of those ridiculous color-coded terror alerts, quashed-plot headlines and breathless press conferences from Administration officials. Warnings of terror attacks over the Christmas 2003 holidays, warnings over summer terror attacks at the 2004 political conventions, then a whole slew of warnings of terror attacks to disrupt the election itself. Even the timing of the alerts seemed to fall with odd regularity right on the heels of major political events. One of Department of Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge’s terror warnings came two days after John Kerry picked John Edwards as his running mate; another came three days after the end of the Democratic convention.

So it went right through the 2004 election. And then not long after the champagne corks stopped popping at Bush campaign headquarters, terror alerts seemed to go out of style. The color codes became yesterday’s news. With the exception of one warning about mass-transit facilities in response to the London bombing on July 7, 2005, that was pretty much it until this summer. I live in lower Manhattan and my wife works in a building overlooking Ground Zero. So I want to know when something’s really up and not worry that I’m getting bamboozled to amp the President’s approval rating.

Can I prove any of this was politically motivated? Of course not. But that’s the magic of the terror-alert song and dance. There’s no way to know. All the key facts are veiled in secrecy, as they must be. So it’s impossible to know from the outside whether it’s on the level or not. But with another election looming, it seems we’re about to get a bunch of new chances to wonder.

On June 23, cable-news channels went gonzo over a raid on a homegrown terror cell in Miami that foiled an alleged plot to blow up Chicago’s Sears Tower. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales held a press conference to announce the arrests. Even Vice President Dick Cheney weighed in and called the group a “very real threat.” He did so at a political fundraiser.

But as often is the case in these announcements, it turned out to be a lot less than advertised, unless you were a writer for Saturday Night Live. When the FBI raided the abandoned warehouse where the group hung out in Miami’s impoverished Liberty City neighborhood, they found no weapons, no money and no evidence of ties to any terrorist group anywhere. Indeed, these would-be jihadis were so early in their planning for jihad that they hadn’t yet set aside time to become Muslims. The group, according to a follow-up report from Reuters, “mixes Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Freemasonry, Gnosticism and Taoism.” Their covert methods included taking turns guarding the abandoned warehouse (which served as their clubhouse) wearing black uniforms, ski masks and combat boots in the hot Florida summer. Their leader, Narseal Batiste, roamed the streets in a bathrobe with a crooked wooden staff recruiting men to join his group. The oath of allegiance to al-Qaeda they allegedly made to an FBI informant seems as likely as not to have been prompted by the informants’ offer of new pairs of boots for the gang. Shoes were apparently in short supply.

You don’t need to be a Muslim or even that bright a bulb to create deadly mayhem. Richard Reid, the would-be shoe bomber, was a klutz, but one who might have downed an airliner en route to the U.S. in the days after 9/11. But the Miami warehouse cult that gave Cheney the willies seemed like they’d have trouble finding a Sears let alone blowing up the Sears Tower.

Two weeks later there was another report of a foiled plot, this one a far more serious-sounding scheme to blow up the Holland Tunnel, which connects New Jersey to Manhattan. Sensing their credibility might be running thin, FBI officials as well as members of media started referring to these plotters as the “real deal” plotters, presumably to distinguish them from whack jobs in Miami. These guys too, it turned out, hadn’t done much more than talk in an Internet chat room about blowing something up. And their plan to flood downtown New York City with sea water from a demolished tunnel would have been complicated a bit by the fact that, unlike New Orleans, Manhattan is well above sea level.

The “tell” in this case was the date. The FBI got wind of this plot last summer and arrests were made back in April. So why did we hear about them on July 7, the anniversary of the London bombings? I believe the question answers itself. The story was leaked to pump up the anniversary of the London subway bombings on July 7, 2005, and remind people that if it could happen in London it could happen here. The dozens if not hundreds of law enforcement folks who worked on thwarting this embryonic plot were not part of some political scheme. But whoever chose July 7 to leak the story clearly was. With the mid-term election less than four months away, for some people, that’s a helpful message.

Joshua Micah Marshall is head of TPM Media and the founder of Talkingpointsmemo.com

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