Washington Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge forcefully defended the Bush administration Tuesday against charges that the decision to increase the terror-threat level may have been motivated more by presidential politics than a looming danger.
Democratic critics have suggested the Bush administration is playing its "trump card" -- terrorism -- to blunt the momentum of the president's opponent, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., in the aftermath of last week's Democratic National Convention.
Both Ridge and the White House also rejected complaints that some of the intelligence at the core of the latest warning came from al-Qaida surveillance predating the 9-11 attacks. While some suggested that this made the intelligence less relevant, others noted that some of the surveillance was updated earlier this year and that al-Qaida often plans several years in advance before launching an attack.
During a visit to New York City, Ridge was asked what he would say to New Yorkers skeptical about the timing of the alert.
"Well, I guess I wish I could give them all top-secret clearances and let them review the information that some of us have the responsibility to review," he said. "We don't do politics in the Department of Homeland Security."
Bush's 'trump card'
Since Sunday when Ridge announced that recently acquired intelligence indicated that al-Qaida operatives had done surveillance on major financial centers in the New York area and Washington, questions have been raised about whether the alert was politically motivated.
"I am concerned that every time something happens that's not good for President Bush, he plays this trump card, which is terrorism," said former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean on Sunday.
On Tuesday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson also questioned the timing. In a phone interview, Jackson said the administration brought doubts about its motives on itself through its handling of the now-discredited intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which was used to take the United States to war.
"But even saying that, we must take the alert seriously," said Jackson, who added that the administration would do more to bolster its credibility on homeland security by paying closer attention to port security, an area Democrats and others say the administration has neglected.
The Kerry campaign has not publicly suggested that the latest warning was anything but legitimate. But The Associated Press reported that people within the campaign, as well as some Republicans and senior government intelligence officials, have quietly questioned the timing.
Ridge insisted it was the unusually specific nature of the intelligence that dictated the administration's decision to increase the alert level from yellow to orange -- from elevated to high -- for financial buildings in the New York area and Washington, D.C.
"I would point out that this is the most significant detailed pieces of information about any particular region that we've come across in a long, long time, perhaps ever," Ridge said.
" ... That's why we needed to share it publicly," he said. "It's always a judgment call ... but here it went above any kind of threshold we might have had previously."
U.S. officials say al-Qaida operatives conducted surveillance on the New York Stock Exchange and Citigroup office towers in New York City, Prudential Plaza in Newark, N.J., and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund buildings in Washington.
Much of al-Qaida's surveillance was conducted before 9-11, though information on at least one of the buildings was updated early this year, officials said. They did not disclose which building that was.
Newark Mayor Sharpe James was among the officials angry that Ridge didn't reveal the age of the intelligence on Sunday. James said he found out by watching the news on Monday night.
"The tragedy of this whole issue is that with homeland security, you can't separate the politics from the security," he told The New York Times. "We're damned if we do, and we're damned if we don't. If we don't set up precautions and tragedy happens, we're irresponsible. And yet we're being fed half-information and half-truths that cost the city a lot of money."
Jack Evans, a Washington City Council member, was frustrated as well. "The federal government overreacted," he told The Washington Post. "The information was three years old, for God's sake."
White House press secretary Scott McClellan rejected that view.
"It's wrong and plain irresponsible to suggest that it was based on old information," McClellan said. "Anyone who looks at the detail and specificity of this information, some of which was updated as recently as this year, and couple that with what we know about al-Qaida's sophistication and history and the continuing stream of intelligence we have been receiving about al-Qaida's desire to attack us during this summer or fall time period, would not make such an irresponsible suggestion," he said.
Ridge emphasized that "we know this is an organization that plans in advance, that prepares in its patience."