Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it was clear that Election 2004 would turn on the threat of terrorism in the homeland. Whether that threat was real or imagined when Karl Rove set out his strategy for Team Bush, terror was at its core. The guiding principles were spelled out in the president's 2003 budget -- published in the summer of 2002. In "Securing the Homeland, Strengthening the Nation," the Bush Administration staked its claim to the permanent war against terrorism: The threat of terrorism had become "an inescapable reality of life in the 21st century... a permanent condition to which America and the entire world must adjust."
In April 2003, the New York Times' Adam Nagourney and Richard W. Stevenson reported that the Republican Party's convention -- scheduled for New York in September 2004, just prior to the third anniversary of 9/11 -- would usher in a 3-month sprint to the finish line with Bush waving the banner of fighting the war against terrorism: "The framework for the general election campaign," Nagourney and Stevenson wrote, is being "built around national security and Bush's role in combating terrorism."
In a November 2003 visit with troops at Fort Carson, Colorado, the president framed the campaign's fear-mongering refrain: "We are fighting the terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan and in other parts of the world so we do not have to fight them in the streets of our own cities."
Although Bush's sprint to the finish line has been marked by all sorts of potholes -- escalating US casualties in Iraq, 380 tons of weapons gone missing after US troops arrived in country, report after report detailing the administration's feckless behavior during the occupation -- Team Bush has never veered from its message: There could be another major terrorist attack on the United States if John Kerry becomes president.
From Memorial Day through July 4, the Department of Homeland Security cranked out a series of terror alerts. Soon after, warnings that Al Qaeda could disrupt the November elections were issued. When the administration spoke, the media pumped up the volume.
In reality, however, other than the anthrax attacks in 2001 -- which still remain unsolved -- the US has thankfully experienced only a series of false alarms: Terrorist attacks on bridges, water systems, transportation hubs, and nuclear power plants haven't happened; there have been no chemical or biological attacks; no "dirty bombers" or suicide bombers have been apprehended; and the possibility of a smallpox epidemic -- the president received a highly-publicized smallpox vaccination and encouraged first responders to follow his lead -- never materialized.
"Today's terrorists can strike at any place, at any time, and with a wide variety of weapons," the White House document warned. "The most urgent terrorist threat to America is the Al Qaeda network. We will prosecute our war with these terrorists until they are routed from the Earth. But we will not let our guard down after we defeat Al Qaeda. The terrorist threat to America takes many forms, has many places to hide, and is often invisible. We can never be sure that we have defeated all of our terrorist enemies, and therefore we can never again allow ourselves to become overconfident about the security of our homeland."
As time passed, the urgency -- not the memory -- unleashed by 9/11 began to fade. To ensure that terrorism wouldn't disappear from center stage, the administration used all the tools at its disposal including Tom Ridge's Department of Homeland Security, which periodically ratcheted up its color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System elevating security alerts from yellow -- significant risk of terrorist attacks -- to orange -- high risk of terrorist attacks. These warnings sustained public anxiety even when later information proved the threats had been over-hyped or based on inconclusive or false information: When the advisory system was cranked-up, polls found that Americans became more fearful of a possible terrorist attack. Ridge even became fodder for late-night television's comedic talents when in 2003, his Duct Tape & Plastic Sheeting Advisory created a panicked buying frenzy at America's big box retail outfits.
During the same period, Attorney General John Ashcroft would command center stage and announce that the Justice Department had apprehended some high-profile terrorist; suspects that turned out to be neither terrorist nor significant apprehensions.
Prior to the March 2003, invasion of Iraq the administration initiated Operation Liberty Shield. Operation Liberty Shield promised to protect the ports and waterways, increase surveillance and monitoring of America's borders, provide detaining of suspected terrorists, stronger airport, rail and road protection, greater monitoring of terrorist suspects, increased public health preparedness, and to have federal response resources "positioned and ready."
Team Bush claimed that terrorists could unleash multiple attacks against U.S. and Coalition targets worldwide in the event of a U.S.-led military campaign against Saddam Hussein. The invasion came and went and in the twilight of the quagmire of occupation, there have been no terrorist attacks in the homeland.
It is fair to say that now, more than three years after 9/11 and 19 months after Bush's invasion of Iraq, many people have accepted the notion that we are fighting terrorism in Iraq so we don't have to fight it in Boise, Boston or Boca Raton. Yet, despite the administration's epoxy-like grip on the issue of the war against terror, questions abound as to how successful the administration has been in pursuing terrorists.
Consider the Department of Homeland Security: How is it functioning these days?
Despite nearly 200,000 employees and a budget of almost $27 billion, reporter Matthew Brzezinski in his lengthy investigation of Tom Ridge's operation for Mother Jones magazine, charges that: "Hamstrung by special interests, staffed with B-team political appointees, and crippled by a lack of funding and political support, DHS is a premier example of how the administration's misplaced priorities -- and its obsession with Iraq -- have come at the direct expense of homeland security."
While "the war on terror has many fronts," Brzezinski writes, "not the least of which is the one right here at home," the author of "Fortress America: A Inside Look at the Coming Surveillance State," concludes that "defending the homeland simply doesn't appear to have captured the imagination of the White House the way, say, a firefight in Falluja does."
The situation at the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba indicates how wrong the Bush policy of rounding up terrorists and locking them away has been. In addition to charges that prisoners captured in Afghanistan and shipped to Guantanamo were tortured, it now appears that the military may not have captured many terrorists at all. In fact, as Lt. Col. Thomas Berg recently told the New York Times, we may have merely captured "the slowest guys on the battlefield?"
With the situation at Guantanamo degenerating into what the San Francisco Chronicle's Jon Carroll recently called "not only an unholy mess and a human rights disaster, [but]... a pointless unholy mess and human rights disaster," the situation in Iraq bogged down and the homeland no safer than it was three years ago, Americans are not better off with President Bush leading the fight against terrorism. "If you believe that terrorism is the No. 1 threat to the nation," Carroll writes, "why ever would you vote for George Bush?
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.
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