The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

The Tom Ridge Non-Story


I used to admire Tom Ridge. After reading Peter Baker in The New York Times, I have to say, I’ve lost a lot of respect for the man

By now you’ve probably heard about Ridge’s allegation that he faced political pressure to change the Homeland Security Department’s threat level in 2004. 

The most sensational assertion was the pre-election debate in 2004 about the threat level, first reported by U.S. News & World Report. Mr. Ridge writes that the bin Laden tape alone did not justify a change in the nation’s security posture but describes “a vigorous, some might say dramatic, discussion” on Oct. 30 to do so.

“There was absolutely no support for that position within our department. None,” he writes. “I wondered, ‘Is this about security or politics?’ Post-election analysis demonstrated a significant increase in the president’s approval rating in the days after the raising of the threat level.”

But Baker, to his great credit, then states the obvious:

Mr. Ridge provides no evidence that politics motivated the discussion. Until now, he has denied politics played a role in threat levels. Asked by Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times if politics ever influenced decisions on threat warnings, he volunteered to take a lie-detector test. “Wire me up,” Mr. Ridge said, according to Mr. Lichtblau’s book, “Bush’s Law.” “Not a chance. Politics played no part.”

Interestingly, a number of observers have taken Ridge’s remarks — which, lest we forget, have been made in the run-up to the publication of a book that in the absence of shocking revelations would likely sink like a stone — as confirmation of their long-held views. As Marc Ambinder correctly notes, the only new information we have is this: 

Reading the excerpts from Tom Ridge’s book, it is not clear to me that he is actually arguing against interest, or that he is correct. No doubt, Don Rumsfeld and John Ashcroft had very strong views about terrorism, but simply because Ridge — who disagreed with Rumsfeld and Ashcroft about many, many things — had a feeling that Rumsfeld was trying to tinker with an election’s outcome does not, by a mile, prove anything.

What it establishes is that Ridge had the same suspicions as many liberals and libertarians. And Ridge, having access to most of the intelligence, had sound reasons to object. 

Which is fair enough. But this doesn’t strike me as “confirmation” of anything.

The fundamental problem is that the idea of a “threat level” was itself completely specious. Consider the controversy over the CBO’s bizarre analysis of IMAC, the president’s proposal to shift authority over Medicare from Congress to an independent commission. Peter Orszag wrote an insightful blog post on the nature of the CBO’s cost estimate. Part of the problem with the CBO’s analysis, in Orszag’s view, was that:

The point of the proposal, however, was never to generate savings over the next decade.  (Indeed, under the Administration’s approach, the IMAC system would not even begin to make recommendations until 2015.)  Instead, the goal is to provide a mechanism for improving quality of care for beneficiaries and reducing costs over the long term.  In other words, in the terminology ofour belt-and-suspenders approach to a fiscally responsible health reform, the IMAC is a game changer not a scoreable offset.

How does one responsibly “score” something like a “threat level”? This is fundamentally a matter of political guesswork. And it’s also about something we call “CYA.” Ridge seems to believe that the Bush administration wanted the threat level raise to enhance the president’s re-election prospects. But after the Bin Laden tape, many people believed that the Al Qaeda threat was real and potent. While Ridge claims that there was “absolutely no support for that position within our department,” other administration officials clearly disagree. Moreover, the decision-makers were presumably mindful of the consequences of not raising the threat level and then facing a major terrorist attack. This is the reason why the threat level concept has always been utter nonsense.


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