Ridge: Stop 'hyperventilating' about those 2004 terror alerts

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It's a little like screaming fire in a crowded theater, and then blaming the patrons for running for the doors.

Earlier this month, Tom Ridge, the first head of the Department of Homeland Security and the former Republican governor of Pennsylvania, said he was pressured in 2004 by top Bush administration officials to raise the terror alert levels. Ridge's claims, which will be published in a forthcoming book titled "The Test of Our Times: America Under Siege... And How We Can Be Safe Again," confirmed a longstanding fear among progressives: that Republicans played politics with the war on terror.

In an excerpt of "The Test of Our Times" published today by ABC.com, Ridge recalls a meeting convened in October of 2004, not long after the airing of a tape from a top Al-Qaeda official and a month before the presidential election:

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Participating were representatives from the intelligence community, the FBI, and the Departments of Justice, State, and Defense. A vigorous, some might say dramatic, discussion ensued. [Former Attorney General John] Ashcroft strongly urged an increase in the threat level, and was supported by [Former Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld. There was absolutely no support for that position within our department. None. I wondered, "Is this about security or politics?" Post-election analysis demonstrated a significant increase in the president's approval rating in the days after the raising of the threat level.

Of course the release of these excerpts – which were obviously designed to gin up interest in Ridge's book – have been greeted with anger from former Bushies. Frances Frago Townsend, who handled homeland security matters at the National Security Council in 2004, said Ridge is “absolutely wrong." And Nicole Wallace, a White House communications director under Bush, called Ridge's claims "wussy" and "fishy." (Wallace did not, however, deny the substance of the allegations.)

Now Ridge is seeking to calm a week-long media frenzy over his remarks. In an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America" – part of a publicity tour for the book – he said he was surprised that people "are hyperventilating... A consensus was reached. We didn't go up. The process worked," Ridge said. This is consistent with Ridge's previous remarks, and the excerpt from his book. There was a "lively" discussion, Ridge wrote, though the levels were never actually raised.

Fair enough. But one can hardly dangle a big, politically-divisive story in the front of a hungry press – and then act totally surprised when that story gets batted around the airwaves. As Mark Silva of the Swamp puts it, "This could either be a case of an overzealous publisher promoting a book, or a contrite author backpedaling from the written word once he's seen the reaction to it."

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