Tom Ridge kisses and tells on Bush's 'terror levels'

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For those who had their doubts about the politics behind the Bush administration’s “war on terrorism,” Tom Ridge’s new book will fuel long-held suspicions.

The former Republican governor of Pennsylvania, who was the first head of the Department of Homeland Security, says two top Bush officials – Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Attorney General John Ashcroft – pressured him to up the terror alert level before the 2004 election, according to promotional materials by publisher Macmillan.

“Ridge also charges that he was often ‘blindsided’ during daily morning briefings with Bush because the FBI withheld information from him, and says he was never invited to sit in on National Security Council meetings,” reports AFP.

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Former Bush officials have been quick to push back on Ridge’s revelation.

Frances Frago Townsend, who coordinated homeland security matters at the National Security Council under President Bush, said Ridge is “absolutely wrong” in his allegation. “Politics played no part in any discussion” of the Homeland Security Council, Ms. Townsend insists in The Atlantic.

Not surprisingly, Ridge’s news has ricocheted around cable TV, radio talk shows, and the blogosphere.

Kansas City Star columnist Yael Abouhalkah says Ridge’s “serious charges” are “scathing.”

“An abuse so gross – if Ridge is right – shows, among other things, what a powerful influence on the all-important tracking polls terror alerts must have had,” writes Ben Smith on Politico.com. “And it suggests that Obama’s efforts to keep terror arrests out of the national news are good politics too.”

On the other hand, Jay Bookman, columnist and deputy editorial page editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, dug back into news stories from the summer of 2004 to find that Ridge may not have been the total white knight his publicists claim.

An Associated Press story with a lead that described the essence of John Kerry’s failing presidential campaign – “The politics of terrorism has Democrats tied in knots” – has Ridge warning of “possible al-Qaeda terrorist attacks to financial institutions in New York City, Washington, and Newark, N.J.

In other words, he wasn’t always fighting off the pressure to send sober warnings that just happened to benefit his boss running for reelection from the White House in the middle of a war that wasn’t going all that well. The AP story went on to point out that “the Bush administration let a 24-hour news cycle pass before acknowledging that most of the intelligence, while recently obtained, was three or four years old.”

Not long after the election that November, Ridge resigned.

“After that episode [involving Ashcroft and Rumsfeld], I knew I had to follow through with my plans to leave the federal government for the private sector,” Ridge writes in “The Test of Our Times: America Under Siege ... And How We Can Be Safe Again.”

It’s not unusual for former government officials to recount their version of history – for profit and as a means of shaping their reputation. Five years later, Tom Ridge is doing just that.

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