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If you weren't listening closely to Ari Fleischer this Tuesday, you might have missed the troubling gist of his remark. Facing the Washington press corps, the White House spokesman caught and parried questions about public panic, both the recent alerts and the ravings of administration officials about certain calamity.
From Vice President Dick Cheney to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, leaders had given up the pretense of trying to calm the nation, and the reporters wanted to Fleischer to explain. "Is there some sort of heightened campaign on the part of the administrationvalid or notto raise the awareness?" asked Helen Thomas, the aging dean. "Is this to arouse the American people to a new danger?"
Fleischer didn't stumble. He never does. He told Thomas the president has a consistent approach to assessing the threat of terror, analyzing the "threat matrix" and the amount of concern voiced by a variety of advisers.
Then he added an unexpectedly frank giblet. "I think, Helen, that it was just more as a result of all the controversy that took place last week," he said.
Wow! Was the press secretary attributing the recent flurry of alerts to the shellacking his administration has taken from the Democrats over a few missed 9-11 signals? Not wag the dog per se, but wag the terrorist?
The White House did not return calls for a clarification of his statement.
"It's a little disturbing," says Bill Allison, a spokesperson for the Center for Public Integrity. "If the Bush White House is reacting to polls and then deciding which information to release on the basis of cosmetics, it's a sign they're not reacting properly.
"We know they're getting information with little specifics," Allison adds, "but releasing it now is a little suspicious."
Promptly following accusations that Team Bush had ignored a variety of pre-9-11 warnings, Vice President Cheney had hit the Sunday-morning talk-show circuit, talking patriotism and doomsday. FBI director Richard Mueller had delivered a similar jolt, telling reporters there will be another attack and "we will not be able to stop it." That very morning, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld had said terrorists would inevitably buy weapons of mass destruction from rogue nations and use them, on U.S. soil, as payback.
(For a report on how the Bush administration has politically used fear to drive the war on terrorism, see "Bush's Little Shop of Horrors.")
Fleischer finished his Q&A with the same sympathetic refrain: The war on terrorism is tough, leaders are all doing their best, and the president is focused on uniting the dividers and winning the war. The administration may be losing ground with the people, though. Last week, a CNN/USA Gallup poll found that 52 percent of Americans believed federal authorities "did not act on the information available to them in a proper way."
Bush might take that number as another warning.