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Terror Alerts: Genuine Threats Or Political Ploy?

Between The Lines
Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release Aug. 17, 2004

Terrorist Alerts: Genuine Threats or Political Ploy?

- Interview with Craig Eisendrath, senior fellow with the Center for International Policy, conducted by Scott Harris

Listen in RealAudio:

On Aug. 1, the Bush administration's Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge raised the terror level alert to "orange" and warned the public that the government had evidence of a possible plan by al Qaeda to attack financial centers in New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C.

Security was enhanced at the sites specified in the warnings, reducing many employees and residents in these areas to helpless and fearful observers.

But news reports later revealed that much of the information the White House based their warnings on was three or four years old. As the public reacted with confusion and skepticism, former Vermont governor and presidential candidate Howard Dean raised questions about the possible relationship between the terrorist warnings and the presidential election campaign, expressing concern that the alerts were being used to gain political advantage. The administration, anxious to justify the alert, responded by revealing the name of the source of their information, rendering him ineffective in any future counter-terrorism operation.

Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Craig Eisendrath, a senior fellow with the Center for International Policy, and co-author along with Mel Goodman of "Bush League Diplomacy: How the Neoconservatives Are Putting the World at Risk." Eisendrath assesses the usefulness of issuing terror alerts and examines the charge that these warnings are being exploited for political purposes in this election year.

Craig Eisendrath: I think the administration was using old information, and I think it has a record of manipulating threats for political purposes -- when it's in trouble, when the Democrats have seized the front page, they go to these terror threats. So I think we have to be very wary of them. On the other hand, there is a real danger of a terrorist attack, and we can't be totally privy to everything which the administration has as evidence.

My guess is that there is a propensity to manipulate, and one has to be very careful. I think that administration is treading on very dangerous ground in doing this, because what's happened is that the public has become jaundiced, they no longer believe them. They've heard so many color codes. They've watched Gov. Ridge at Homeland Security go on and on with this kind of thing and they no longer believe it. So it's lost the kind of effectiveness it should have if it's going to mobilize the attention and resources of the country for a real terrorist attack.

Between The Lines: I've always wondered, what the purpose of warnings of the nature we got just this past week or two, where specific targets are mentioned, where security is beefed up there. It's a message of course, not only to the American public, but to would-be terrorists out there: "Move onto another target, the jig's up." It seems to me that that doesn't necessarily play to the advantage of the people looking for those who might be planning acts of terrorism.

Craig Eisendrath: Well, that's true. On the other hand, it covers major parts of the "anatomy" of the administration, that's why they do it. If something is hit, they could always say, "Well we knew about it, we warned, we prepared." You see, it may be ineffective, but politically, it does cover them.

Between The Lines: What's the strongest evidence we have in this most recent instance, or prior, that the Bush administration has blatantly used this kind of terror warning for political advantage?

Craig Eisendrath: Well, I think if you go backward since 9/11, and you see the history of these terror warnings and ask what happened? In other words, if they're plausible, something should have happened, at least a certain percentage of the time, and it didn't. And then you begin collate the terror warning with the particular political situation at that time, and you see why it was done. That is, there's (1) no follow-through on the terror itself, and (2) connection with political advantage. That makes you suspect.

Between The Lines: But of course, the Bush administration would say, "Hey, look, you know, we're giving you this information and we've been thwarting terrorists left and right, and that's why you haven't seen these attacks or attempted attacks on the country and we've been keeping you safer."

Craig Eisendrath: I think there's no doubt that due to increased surveillance and somewhat better liaisons between the various intelligence agencies, that there has been some increase in security. There could have been a lot more. I think, for instance, that the liaison is still not good -- I think we're still not getting the kind of cooperation with the intelligence and police services of other countries that we need, and it's partly our fault because we're not using diplomacy and we're relying much more on force.

I still don’t think we're getting the kind of congressional surveillance of the intelligence system that we need, and we're not getting adequate White House surveillance. So on a number of fronts, it's still not working. There's still an enormous amount to do.

Between The Lines: If you had the ear of this president or any president, and you were able to put forward a short menu of must-do items for making the country safer and to more effectively combat terrorism and terrorists, maybe not just solely with the military, but with diplomacy and other tools, what would be in that shortlist?

Craig Eisendrath: Well, I think the first (item) would be to really work on a close working relationship with the police and intelligence systems of other countries. The president says, and rightly, that there are terrorist contingencies in over 60 countries. You don't deal with that by invading Iraq. You don't deal with that by taking over a country, which by the way, was not one of the countries where there were terrorists.

You do it by working through the diplomatic system, by cooperating with other countries. By signing international agreements. By speaking civilly to diplomats and foreign statesmen. And you gain their cooperation, and then you have these close working relationships which give you the kind of security you need.

Between The Lines: I have one last question for you, Craig, and that has to do with confronting Islamic fundamentalism, particularly the violent wing of Islamic fundamentalists that seem to be the number one threat to stability in our country and around the world, at least as we're told by those in the think tanks. But how do you see it?

Craig Eisendrath: The question is, why do radicals have the support of the street? Why do they have massive public support? I think it's interesting for instance, that after World War II, we started the Marshall Plan and the reason we did that, is we said, "if you have economic stability, you don't have wars." And, we are 16th (among the world's nations) in the amount of foreign aid that we are giving as a percentage of our gross national product. My guess is that if we use foreign aid constructively, if we created a sense of rising expectations and we were identified with those expectations, that radical terrorists would not have the support on the street that they presently have. There are always going to be fanatics -- people will always throw bombs, no matter what happens. There would be many fewer and this could be radically cut.

Contact the Center for International Policy by calling (202) 232-3317 or visit their website at

Related links on our website at

-"The Color-Coded Fear Factor Terror Alerts raise Blood Pressure, close Streets and scare up a Few Votes"

-"A Need to Believe That We're Not Being Manipulated"

-" Not Scared Yet? Try Connecting These Dots"

-"The Price of Freedom"

-"Timeline of Terror Alerts"

-"Chart of Bush Approval Ratings and Terror Alerts"


Scott Harris is executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 35 radio stations. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines ( for the week ending Aug. 20, 2004. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Anna Manzo and Scott Harris.

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