The Attack Starts

Should we be scared? Yeah. Of what exactly? Dunno.

When Mayor Mike Bloomberg said Sunday that "New York City continues to be a target of choice for those who want to destroy our way of life," he wasn't talking about the Republican National Convention.

Or was he?

Of course that wasn't his intention, and we'd all be fools—especially those of us in New York City—not to take the threat of terrorism seriously.

Howard Dean, in an act of political courage, was one of the few to dare suggest publicly that politics—shocking though that may be—could just have something to do with Tom Ridge's changing New York City's "orange" alert level to, well, what appears to be a deeper, richer, scarier orange.

Dean told CNN, "It's just impossible to know how much of this is real and how much of this is politics, and I suspect there's some of both."

He was excoriated by Joe Lieberman and others for saying so, even though the nation just received a final report from the 9/11 Commission that detailed thousands of political calculations and miscalculations in the "war on terror."

No matter how real or unreal, how political or nonpolitical the Ridge move was (starting with the leaks Friday night so that a proper crescendo could be built), there's no question that protesting the Republican National Convention is going to be more difficult, because the city's going to be locked down even tighter. Any plans the protesters had for demonstrating in front of Citigroup, for instance, are probably out the window. The cops and troops now have a great excuse for the pre-emptive action they're sure to take—and are already taking.

We already know, thanks to Time and others, that the FBI warned everyone in May to be on the lookout for people with "clenched fists," which are considered a sign of "trouble" and could mean the person is a suicide bomber.

And the timing makes sense. It's right after the Democrats' convention ended, so the Bush regime can't be accused of stealing thunder from their opponents. And Ridge's announcement is far enough in advance of the RNC that the regime's opponents can't say it's directly aimed at stifling protests at the end of the month.

It's not news that Al Qaeda places what Ridge on Sunday called an "iconic" value on our financial institutions—the World Trade Center was first bombed by terrorists in 1993. The key is that Bloomberg also said, "There will be an even greater law enforcement presence at sensitive and symbolic locations across the city."

And that Ridge also said, "State-of-the-art equipment...is now being installed to protect the Republican National Convention in New York later this year. This equipment and added personnel will bolster security measures already being put in place at Madison Square Garden and throughout the transportation systems in New York City."

Oh, was the Republican National Convention also on the list of targets?

Ridge's performance was understandably partisan at times; he can't be faulted for that. It's a given that politics enters into the equation, no matter what Lieberman says. The Homeland Security czar peppered his press conference with promos for Bush, like this one: "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..."

But Ridge was extremely careful not to say that this is a "plot"—though the way most of the media ran with it has to make the administration happy. (A notable exception: The always solid Wall Street Journal news staff noted fairly high in the paper's Monday-morning story that "intelligence officials admit they are unsure whether the new information is current or outdated.")

What's old info, and what's new? It'll probably take another presidential commission sometime in the future to sort that out. But Dean suggested on CNN that Bush's "whole campaign is based on the notion that 'I can keep you safe. Therefore, in times of difficulty in America, stick with me.' "

Ridge's press conference Sunday was a shrewd piece of work. He started it this way: "President Bush has told you, and I have reiterated the promise, that when we have specific credible information, that we will share it. This afternoon we do have new and unusually specific information about where Al Qaeda would like to attack."

Now, he's not saying the government got the information Sunday afternoon, but you could read it that way, and the implication is strong that it's immediate. It could, however, be detailed infrastructure information the U.S. got off computers seized in Afghanistan in 2002. Reporters from major outlets were briefed "on background" by other administration officials with further details.

As a typical news story from August 2002 noted, “Al Qaeda computers seized in Afghanistan and cyber sleuthing by U.S. agents showed that users had collected information on dams and "dirty" nuclear bombs, and had explored all sorts of U.S. infrastructure-related sites.”

The key is what Ridge said when reporters asked about the new alert. In fact, the reasons for this terror alert may be a lot hazier than the way they're being played. Ridge wrapped up the Q&A part of his press conference Sunday by saying only that the "financial sector ... seems to be the primary focus."

Here's his complete quote, according to a Fox News transcript the cable channel attributed to e-Media MillWorks Inc.:

"There are other—I think it's reasonable to infer from that that for the time being, targets of economic opportunity, or iconic economic targets, are at the heart of their interest.

"And therefore, until we get more information, because we're still rolling out more information, still getting more information, still analyzing more information, we just thought confined area, financial sector, seems to be the primary focus.

"Let's raise it to orange, review vulnerabilities and assess protective measures, even at other financial institutions that may not be on the list, just as a precautionary measure. It seems to indicate a clear intent, and until we can conclude otherwise, we think it's best to move in that direction."

How did the media play all this? This online Daily News story is typical:

"Top authorities ratcheted up security in New York and Washington yesterday amid frightening new evidence of Al Qaeda plots to blow up the New York Stock Exchange and other key financial centers."

"Frightening new evidence"? Ridge didn't go that far. His words: "a level of detail that is very specific." And Ridge added, "We have new and unusually specific information about where Al Qaeda would like to attack."

He didn't say "plans" to attack or "plots" to attack, but "would like to attack." We've known since at least the first attack on the World Trade Center, in 1993, that plotters associated with Osama bin Laden love to hate iconic symbols of the global financial economy.

The first question he took from reporters was this: "Mr. Secretary, would you say it's fair to say that what has been uncovered here is a specific plot?"

Ridge, according to the transcript, replied: "I think it's fair to say that we have more specific information about potential targets that I think you can conclude may be the subject of a particular plot."

As Ridge talked with reporters—and not for very long—the saturation level of this new "orange alert" seemed to subside: "Again, what is extraordinary about these particular sites," he said, "is the considerable detail or quality of information regarding those sites. So, again, we have no specific information that says an attack is imminent, but given the specificity and quality of information around these sites, obviously one would conclude, if you were considering the potential attack, these might be among the targets."

Another reporter asked this question: “Can you talk a little bit more about the nature of the intelligence? You said specific, credible, and multiple sources. Is it coming from interrogations, the Internet, interceptions?”

Ridge replied: "I will just—I will tell you that—just to stay consistent with what I said before, multiple locations, multiple sources, and you can read into that, because of—again, I think it's very important to point out that most of those sources are related to the extraordinary offensive effort we have taken overseas."

There's that promo for his administration's hard work. Nice job of countering the conclusions of the 9/11 Commission that there was a systemic breakdown.

Ridge added, "Playing strong offense overseas, in many different ways, the military, the CIA, the partnerships, our global partners, gives us a capability to prepare better defense back home."

We report. You decide.


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