Don't Cry For Tom Ridge

The news this morning that former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge believed that President Bush and his top advisers manipulated the terror threat alert system for their political gain is really -- and it ought to be -- a major story. Ridge was in a position to know, for certain, whether this was the case. And though he's hinted at it before, he now says, in his soon-to-be-released book, that he was pressured into raising the alert level before the 2004 election. Let's see what Ridge actually writes before making too many conclusions. Let's talk to other Bush officials and try to figure out whether we need to exercise caution about Ridge's own perspective. For one thing, Ridge didn't immediately resign. He resigned after the election. If he believed at the time that manipulating the terror alert system was damaging to the country, and he said nothing, and when he did resign, he said nothing, then he doesn't come off as a particularly sympathetic figure. Ridge left the White House in 2005. He's joined several corporate boards, has made a lot of money consulting on homeland security, and has been mostly silent. He's probably been saving it for the book.

Journalists, including myself, were very skeptical when anti-Bush liberals insisted that what Ridge now says is true, was true. We were wrong.  Our skepticism about the activists' conclusions was warranted because these folks based their assumption on gut hatred for President Bush, and not on any evaluation of the raw intelligence. [Addition: That's a hasty generalization. Many of the loudest voices were reflexively anti-Bush, but I can't accurately describe the motivations of everyone, much less a majority, of those who were skeptical. There were plenty of non-liberals who believed that the terror threats were exaggerated.]  But journalists should have been even more skeptical about the administration's pronouncements. And yet -- we, too, weren't privy to the intelligence. Information asymmetry is always going to exist, and, living as we do in a Democratic system, most journalists are going to give the government the benefit of some doubt, even having learned lessons about giving the government that benefit.

My colleague Justin Miller adds this caution:

The question that needs to be asked of the raising the threat level before the election matter is whether there was a) any intelligence that led people to believing there was a greater risk of attack. If not, then raising the threat level was unquestionably a political move. B) If there was intelligence - and different people had different judgments on whether it was credible or spoke of an imminent threat - and Ridge landed on the side that said it was not so dangerous, that's another matter. Maybe "pressure" in that sense was the pressure of an abundance of caution, the "one-percent doctrine" and the example of the pre-election attacks in Madrid several months before our presidential. It's not as if the idea that al Qaeda may try to throw the U.S. election or wreak havoc was implausible.

We'll have a better picture once Ridge's book is directly quoted. Rest assured the Cheney team will come out swinging against this too.