During the 2004 presidential race, many on the left accused the Bush White House of trying to use the politics of fear to get re-elected. That same claim is now coming from a former Bush insider.
America's first secretary of homeland security, former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, says in his new book that he was pressured to raise the nation’s terror alert level ahead of the election.
Frances Townsend, former homeland security adviser for the Bush administration, says that's not what happened. Townsend is now a CNN national security contributor and she spoke with Kiran Chetry and John Roberts on CNN’s “American Morning” Friday.
Kiran Chetry: In his book Ridge says, “Ashcroft strongly urged an increase in the threat level, and was supported by Rumsfeld. There was absolutely no support for that position within our department. None. I wondered, ‘Is this about security or politics?’” Fran, you were in the meetings. What is your recollection of how that whole conversation went down?
Frances Townsend: Kiran, I actually chaired the meeting and called it. Tom Ridge knew very well that I agreed with him that I didn't believe there was a basis to raise the threat level, but I knew there were others in the Homeland Security Council that did believe that and we agreed we'd have the conversation. By the way, what Tom Ridge's book doesn't say is the most eloquent case for not raising the threat level was not made by Tom in fact, it was made by Secretary of State at the time, Colin Powell. And Bob Mueller, at great personal risk – remember his boss John Ashcroft was advocating to raise it – based on the facts of the intelligence, Bob Mueller himself made an eloquent case not to raise it.
Chetry: He's saying he felt politics played in to those decisions and it was the straw that broke the camel's back in terms of him deciding to get out of federal government. Do you think politics came in to the equation at all during the time when it came to deciding whether or not to raise the threat level?
Townsend: Not only do I not think that it – that politics played any part in it at all – it was never discussed. In fact, the only thing that was discussed was – earlier that summer there had been a threat against the financial district, there was the Bin Laden tape, and then there was another tape, Kiran, by Adam Gadahn a U.S. citizen who was a member of al Qaeda. And it was a very threatening tape. And so the discussion really revolved around what the intelligence was. There was no discussion of politics whatsoever.
John Roberts: There was also some controversy following the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston when the threat level was raised and was later found out that a lot of the information, or at least some of the information that played in to that decision to raise the threat level, was three-years-old. So there were a lot of people who were already suspicious. I mean, when you take these two things in combination, does it suggest that maybe people were looking at this idea – well, it is the fall of the election campaign, we're in a tight race here with John Kerry, maybe we could work some things to our advantage?
Townsend: You know, in fact, not only was there no discussion in those meetings, the discussions on the margins – you know one of the people who was in that meeting was John McLaughlin, the acting director of CIA, and John Brennan, the current homeland security adviser was then the head of the National Counterterrorism Center. The only discussions I recall were, on the margins of that, there was concern if the intelligence supported raising the threat level it might actually be to the detriment of President Bush because people might perceive it being political. In the end John, people have to remember, you want the Cabinet members who disagree to have a healthy debate. And this in the end came out in the right place. The threat level was not raised and there’s no reason to suspect this discussion would have had any impact on the election whatsoever.
Chetry: When we talk about whether or not politics played in to any of this equation, a lot of people say perhaps there are some political ambitions on the part of Tom Ridge and that he wants to perhaps separate himself from the Bush administration in some ways moving forward. Do you think that what he wrote or what he's alleging here perhaps has a political motivation?
Townsend: I've got to believe it does, Kiran. And I'm sorry to say that because I really enjoyed working with Tom Ridge. But I will tell you not only did he never say this at the time – that he thought political influence was involved in the raising or lowering of the threat level – he’s never said it since when I’ve spoken to him. And just two weeks ago – I'm co-chairing along with Bill Webster a bipartisan task force to make recommendations to Secretary Napolitano now about the threat advisory system. One of the things we obviously did was ask Tom Ridge and Secretary Chertoff to come in and talk to the panel. This is two weeks ago. And Tom Ridge never in that meeting ever mentioned any concern and he mentioned what concerns he had. He never mentioned any concern about politicization of the threat advisory system. So you've got to believe that this is personally motivated in some way.
Roberts: He’s not coming out to talk about this until the first of September. Between now and then … if he doesn't have specifics to back this up, he's going to get eaten alive by folks like you, Andy Card, and other Bush administration officials who are going to try to slam him down as hard as they can.
Townsend: Well John, I’ll tell you, last night I got my hands on one of the books and I looked at it. And, in fact, in other parts of the book, Tom acknowledges that politics never played a role in any of his decisions about the threat alert system. So you have to wonder if this is not just publicity meant to sell more books.