Friday, August 21, 2009

In Search of Lost Terrorism

So Tom Ridge, George W. Bush's first homeland security secretary, writes in a new book that ex-Attorney General John Ashcroft, et al., pressured him to raise the terrorist attack alert level the weekend before the November 2004 election to help GWB's reelection bid, not because the threat of an attack was actually higher.

To place Ridge's tardy admission in historical context, Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz dug up some discourse by AP writer Ron Fournier from the summer of 2004. Fournier observed that President Bush kept playing on fears of a terrorist attack in the U.S. to shift the campaign debate away from the increasingly nettlesome occupation of Iraq. "The advantages of incumbency were in full display Sunday, when Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge warned of possible al-Qaida terrorist attacks to financial institutions in New York City, Washington and Newark, N.J.," Fournier reported.

Kurtz's column reminded us of a parallel utterance right here in Miami in the summer of 2004, this time with Ashcroft on the stump at the U.S. Attorney's office, which we chronicled in Miami New Times that year. Back then we wrote:

When U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft visited Miami two weeks ago as part of a nationwide blitz to promote the Bush administration's war on terror, he issued a scary warning. "Multiple available streams of intelligence indicate to us that al Qaeda plans to attack the United States this year and to hit us hard," he declared. "The USA Patriot Act is working to protect American lives and liberties and makes it possible for us to bring charges against individuals who threaten the United States and our security."

Of course our account then devolved into a local scandal -- how a different brand of fear led then-U.S. attorney Marcos Jimenez to bar TV reporter Ike Seamans from the news conference, owing to fallout from a certain unresolved public corruption case involving Miami International Airport. (It concerned allegations against lobbyists who helped a company named Host Marriott win a contract for food and beverage concessions worth an
estimated $40 million per year.) We continued:

In anticipation of Ashcroft's Miami appearance, his host, U.S. Attorney Marcos D. Jimenez, issued his own warning. Though this one was directed at a local news organization, not the nation at large; and though it did not concern terrorists, it was chilling in its own way. Jimenez instructed his special counsel for public affairs, Carlos Castillo, to phone in some extraordinary news to WTVJ-TV (Channel 6): Ike Seamans, senior correspondent for the NBC-owned station, would be banned from Ashcroft's June 30 news conference at the federal justice building in downtown Miami. "He said, 'If you send Ike, he will not be allowed in,'" recounts WTVJ's vice president for news, Yvette Miley, who took the call. She says she responded to Castillo: "That's shocking. You really can't dictate to us who we send to cover an event.' I asked him what his issues were and why he would even try to go down that road. And he talked about a past story."

Miami political history buffs can read on via this link.

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