Bush Official, in Book, Tells of Pressure on ’04 Vote
By PETER BAKER | August 20, 2009
WASHINGTON — Tom Ridge, the first secretary of homeland security, asserts in a new book that he was pressured by top advisers to President George W. Bush to raise the national threat level just before the 2004 election in what he suspected was an effort to influence the vote.
After Osama bin Laden released a threatening videotape four days before the election, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld pushed Mr. Ridge to elevate the public threat posture but he refused, according to the book. Mr. Ridge calls it a “dramatic and inconceivable” event that “proved most troublesome” and reinforced his decision to resign.
The provocative allegation provides fresh ammunition for critics who have accused the Bush administration of politicizing national security. Mr. Bush and his Democratic challenger, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, were locked in a tight race heading into that final weekend, and some analysts concluded that even without a higher threat level, the bin Laden tape helped the president win re-election by reminding voters of the danger of Al Qaeda.
Keith M. Urbahn, a spokesman for Mr. Rumsfeld, said the defense secretary supported letting the public know if intelligence agencies believed there was a greater threat, and pointed to a variety of chilling Qaeda warnings in those days, including one tape vowing that “the streets of America will run red with blood.”
“Given those facts,” Mr. Urbahn said, “it would seem reasonable for senior administration officials to discuss the threat level. Indeed, it would have been irresponsible had that discussion not taken place.”
Mr. Urbahn said “the storyline advanced by his publisher seemingly to sell copies of the book is nonsense.”
Mr. Ashcroft could not be reached for comment. But Mark Corallo, who was his spokesman at the Justice Department, dismissed Mr. Ridge’s account. “Didn’t happen,” he said. “Now would be a good time for Mr. Ridge to use his emergency duct tape.”
Frances Fragos Townsend, who was Mr. Bush’s homeland security adviser, said that “there was a fulsome debate” about the threat level but that “the politics of it were not ever a factor.”
Mr. Ridge’s book, called “The Test of Our Times” and due out Sept. 1 from Thomas Dunne Books, is the latest by a Bush adviser to disclose internal disagreements and establish distance from an unpopular administration. Mr. Ridge complains that he was never invited to National Security Council meetings, that Mr. Rumsfeld would rarely meet with him and that the White House pressured him to include a justification for the Iraq war in a speech.
He also writes that he lobbied unsuccessfully before Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to replace Michael D. Brown as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and that the White House killed his proposal to open a homeland security regional office in New Orleans.
The most sensational assertion was the pre-election debate in 2004 about the threat level, first reported by U.S. News & World Report. Mr. Ridge writes that the bin Laden tape alone did not justify a change in the nation’s security posture but describes “a vigorous, some might say dramatic, discussion” on Oct. 30 to do so.
“There was absolutely no support for that position within our department. None,” he writes. “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.”
Mr. Ridge provides no evidence that politics motivated the discussion. Until now, he has denied politics played a role in threat levels. Asked by Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times if politics ever influenced decisions on threat warnings, he volunteered to take a lie-detector test. “Wire me up,” Mr. Ridge said, according to Mr. Lichtblau’s book, “Bush’s Law.” “Not a chance. Politics played no part.”