Terrorism alerts based more on political need than fact

Capital Hill Blue | January 2, 2003
By Doug Thompson

Intelligence professionals say privately the Bush administration is engaging in “hysterics” with multiple terrorism alerts that have little or no basis in fact.

The alerts, instead, are part of a carefully scripted White House campaign to keep terrorism on the minds of American voters along with public approval ratings of administration handling of the stalled war on terrorism.

“Unfortunately, we haven’t made a lot of progress against al Qaeda or the war on terrorism,” says one FBI agent assigned to the task. “We’ve been spinning our wheels for several weeks now.”

Sources within both the FBI and CIA tell Capitol Hill Blue the Bush administration keeps up the pressure to come up with “something, anything” to support the glut of vague terrorism alerts from both the White House and the Department of Homeland Security.

“Most of the time, we have little to go on, only unconfirmed snippets of information,” admits another FBI agent. “Most alerts are issued without any concrete data to back up the assumptions.”

Disgruntled agents say the latest nationwide manhunt for “five Arab men” is an example of politics superseding normal investigative procedures.

“We have very, very little to support the notion that these five represent any more of a threat than any of the other thousands of people who enter this nation every day,” says terrorism expert Ronald Blackstone. “It’s a fishing expedition.”

And some of the fish may not even be in this country. On Wednesday, a Pakistani jeweler, Mohammed Asghar, said he was one of the five men in the pictures distributed by the FBI. The Associated Press tracked him down in Pakistan, not the U.S., and Asghar said he’s never been in this country.

“I imagine the finger pointing has started at the White House,” Blackstone said. “Somebody screwed the pooch on this one.”

Another source said early today that the tip on the five men came from a known document forger who was arrested and is trying to cut a deal to avoid prosecution.

"Hopefully, they have more than that," Blackstone adds. "Felons will say anything to try and stay out of jail."

FBI sources say the bureau has two classifications for keeping track of potential terrorists: those identified by real police work and those tagged by the White House and the Department of Homeland Security. The White House files are often referred to as the “Japanese Camp” files, a reference to the detention of Japanese-Americans in camps during World War II.

“Don’t misunderstand, there is a real terrorist threat to this country,” says another FBI agent, “but every time we go public with one of this phony ‘heightened state of alerts’ it just numbs the public against the day when we have another real alert.”

Sources inside both the FBI and CIA say recent disclosure of a White House planning memo listing the war on terrorism as a legitimate political advantage and fundraising tool is just one of many documents that discuss how to use the threat to greatest political advantage.

“Of course the White House is going to exploit the terrorism threat to the fullest political advantage,” says Democratic strategist Russ Barksdale. “They would be fools not to. We’d do the same thing.”

Yet political strategists on both sides admit the administration is playing “with fire” and urge caution.

“We can’t slam the Democrats on a daily basis for politicizing the war on terrorism and then do the same thing ourselves,” says one GOP consultant. “It’s very, very dangerous.”

The White House would not return phone calls seeking comment on these reports.