The Confusing War on Terror


It’s been a confusing two weeks in the war on terror, leaving even the most knowledgeable person wondering what’s really going on:

May 12: Terrorists bomb three housing compounds in Saudi Arabia. Almost at once, the U.S. says the attacks look like the work of Al Qaeda.

May 14: At a White House briefing, Ari Fleischer explains, “So Al Qaeda does remain a threat, but it is a diminished threat. . . . But if this was Al Qaeda, it does show that they, indeed, remain a threat. And that’s why this administration is working so diligently to prosecute this war against Al Qaeda everywhere.”

May 20: In morning testimony before Congress, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge says the U.S. is “significantly safer than we were 20 months ago.” During the day, however, the terror alert level is raised to Code Orange—”high risk.” The decision is said to be based on bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco and on intelligence reports of terrorists’ intentions.

Later in the day, Ridge explains that the intelligence community believes that “Al Qaeda has entered into an operational period worldwide, which may include attack in the United States,” but also that there’s a lack of “credible, specific information with respect to targets or method of attack.”

Meanwhile, on the same day, but on Capitol Hill, the Justice Department presents to the House Judiciary Committee its first accounting of activities under the Patriot Act, responding to questions raised by House Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. and ranking Democrat John Conyers. Its report shares the front page with Code Orange next day. Bottom line: The Patriot Act doesn’t infringe on civil rights because of Justice’s restrained and sensible use, always aimed at preserving civil rights. Justice spokesperson Barbara Comstock is quoted as saying, “These tools have been very carefully targeted, and when we do use them, it’s because there are valid reasons that often involve life and death.” The FBI contacted only 50 libraries, and only 10 FBI offices inquired into activities of nearby mosques, resulting in “fewer than 50” people held as material witnesses, 90 percent of them let go within 90 days.

If this is true, it might seem to some that the Patriot Act wasn’t really necessary in the first place. Not so, said Justice, because it’s been helpful in nabbing crooks in other areas. The Washington Post reported, under the headline “Anti-Terror Power Used Broadly,” that the 60-page Justice report reveals that people have been tracked, using Patriot Act powers, for crimes not terrorism-related, such as credit card fraud, bank theft, and drug crimes. One example: The Patriot Act was used to seize funds stolen by a lawyer from where he had placed them, in Belize bank accounts.

And Justice insisted: “In our judgment, the government’s success in preventing another catastrophic attack on the American homeland in the 20 months since September 11, 2001, would have been much more difficult, if not impossibly so, without the USA Patriot Act.” Findings show substantial use of surveillance and eavesdropping powers granted under the Patriot Act—in the first year, 113 authorizations for electronic or physical surveillance were granted, compared with fewer than 50 over the previous 23 years.

May 21: Under the Code Orange alert, jet fighters fly over major U.S. cities at random intervals. Troops with surface-to-air and shoulder-fired missiles are posted around the D.C. area. In New York City, more armed National Guard troops are sent to Penn Station. Bridge and tunnel checks are promised, along with coast guard harbor patrols and tighter nuclear power plant security.

On the Senate floor, Robert Byrd again attacks Bush: “Regarding the situation in Iraq, it appears to this senator that the American people may have been lured into accepting the unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation, in violation of long-standing international law, under false premises. . . . The tactic was guaranteed to provoke a sure reaction from a nation still suffering from a combination of post-traumatic stress and justifiable anger after the attacks of 9-11. It was the exploitation of fear. It was a placebo for the anger.”

May 22: Officials in D.C., casually responding to the Code Orange alert, keep the Capitol open to tours, along with keeping the sidewalk in front of the White House open—even though these were closed off during the war. This is said to be due to the vague nature of the threat. The D.C. police chief is quoted as saying, “You have a very general alert. . . . I mean, Washington, D.C., and Wichita, Kansas, were placed on the same alert.” Mayor Anthony Williams is out of town on a business trip.

The same day, a Washington Post profile suggests that Ridge and consultants were trying to give the Homeland Security Department a heightened image by “branding” it in hopes of giving it an “identity.” Washington Post reporter Mark Leibovich followed Ridge around for a day and reported that he and his aides appeared to talk an awful lot about this “branding” and “identity.” Homeland Security crops up many times in their conversation in terms of “visual brand,” “respected brands,” and this clincher, courtesy of Ridge himself: “The ultimate branding we do is a sharing of a sense of mission.” Ridge’s wife shows the reporter bottles of water and other emergency equipment in her basement, and especially notes that waxed dental floss is a great item to have on hand because it can be used to tie things together.

Additional reporting: Joanna Khenkine and Phoebe St John

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