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Another alert, and more insecurity
by Thomas Oliphant
Boston Globe
August 3, 2004

WASHINGTON BASED ON what US officials have been saying since Sunday, it's at least clear what the government says it doesn't know.

It doesn't know whether there was ever a specific plot to attack five buildings here, in Newark, and in New York -- all involved with big-time finance. If there was one, it doesn't know whether it is ongoing or long since abandoned. It doesn't know whether the planning information found on the computer of a terrorist suspect in Pakistan was sent up or down a chain of command. It doesn't know how much, if any, other detailed information exists about facilities in this country that might become, or might have become, targets of a specific attack plot.

It doesn't know whether there is a connection between general intelligence information about possible attacks this election year and the specific information apparently uncovered last week. It doesn't know whether what intelligence officials are calling a "treasure trove" of information is an insight into Al Qaeda's strength (past or present) or its weakness (current).

One official compared the breakthrough to a homeowner getting a call from the cops informing him that a man they had arrested had drawings of his home, a listing of his family's comings and goings, information about his private security service, and a detailed memorandum about what kinds of explosives and delivery vehicles might best be used to blow up the house.

How would you feel? I'd feel relieved that the authorities were able to warn me in advance of something horrible so I could take precautions. But I'd also feel insecure not knowing what else was going on and realizing that I might be up against sophisticated criminals.

Somewhere in that mixture of feelings is the politics of terrorism nearly three years after the 9/11 attacks. President Bush likes to cite the phrase in the 9/11 commission report that makes him most comfortable: that the country is safer but not safe. That is gibberish, a word game that ought to make Americans wonder about a guy who has been a lot more than a day late and countless dollars short in every one of his responses to terrorism.

His fixation on the nearly unilateral invasion and occupation of Iraq should also disturb those who have terrorism more clearly in their sights. It's too late to go back two years, but the price of getting rid of Saddam the way we did has been a distraction from fighting terrorism, a loosening of vital ties to other countries, and the creation of a huge recruiting poster for terrorists everywhere in the form of the occupation.

Yesterday another immense Bush goof was on display for those living with the latest alert. In front of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund buildings here, just a few blocks from the White House, were all the people whom we look to for protection -- cops, firefighters, and emergency people, not "suits" from federal agencies. The warped Bush budget policies that are reducing instead of increasing the numbers of these people are unconscionable.

For nearly three years, Bush has had to be dragged into responding effectively to the 9/11 attacks. Had it not been for the dogged insistence of people like Joe Lieberman, there wouldn't be a Department of Homeland Security to consolidate domestic functions.

Had it not been for the survivors of the victims of the attacks, there would not have been a 9/11 commission to tell us what went wrong and what is still wrong. Had it not been for those survivors and their supporters, Bush's first instinct in response to the report (kiss it off) would have been his policy. Only public and political pressure produced yesterday's Rose Garden announcement that clear lines of responsibility that could have been created at least a year ago will now be created.

There is, in short, an abundance of evidence to support Kerry's assertion that fresh leadership can produce a more vigorous and effective war on terrorism. At the least, we would have a president who wouldn't feel the need to indulge in Bush's silly contradictions: We're fighting the terrorists successfully; we have Al Qaeda on the run; we already have two-thirds of its top leaders, but Al Qaeda is just as capable as it was three years ago of launching devastating assaults and is planning to do so right now.

There is also an abundance of evidence that Kerry is committed to more than fresh leadership. As one of his closest advisers -- Senator Joe Biden -- likes to say, one way you would know Kerry was president is that $60 billion not now being committed to inspecting shipping containers, fortifying chemical plants, and keeping police officers and firefighters on the job would get committed.

If Kerry can show leadership and forcefully swat away supporters like Howard Dean and their unsupported suggestions that politics had something to do with the weekend's alert, he can make a powerful case. The contents of that terrorist's computer do not represent a success story; they are another warning that our defenses are far from constructed.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com.

Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.

Posted: August 6, 2004


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