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A Mole Made Public

The politics of terror alerts and how they color public safety.



Exactly one week after president Bush accepts his party's nomination in New York on September 2nd, two days before the anniversary of 9/11 and seven weeks before Election Day, Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge plans to hold a Washington press conference to announce that September will be "National Preparedness Month."

The government's "partners" in this month-long, well-meaning public-awareness campaign will include many national groups, such as the American Red Cross, the National Association of Broadcasters, and the Advertising Council. Newspapers and airwaves will be saturated with messages urging worried citizens to learn how to cope with "emergencies."

Let's hope that Ridge can set politics aside when he inaugurates this campaign. (For a darkly amusing chart that plots terror alerts against the president's poll ratings and various political events, see Unfortunately, the news that has emerged about the administration's bungling of its latest orange alert suggests otherwise. Their first mistake came when Ridge misled the press about the information that prompted him to elevate the threat level after the Democratic convention. The alert was based on information that was at least three years old. His remarks obfuscated that truth.

Administration officials quickly explained they had acted on the basis of current intelligence that amplified the alarm raised by the old computer files. But Ridge's British counterpart, Home Secretary David Blunkett, soon denounced the entire exercise. Writing in a London newspaper on August 7th, Blunkett asked acidly: "Is that really the job of a senior cabinet minister in charge of counter-terrorism? To feed the media? To increase concern? Of course not. This is arrant nonsense."

According to press reports, the Bush administration's closest allies in the Blair government were "dismayed by the nakedly political use made of recent intelligence breakthroughs both in the U.S. and in Pakistan." The Brits simply didn't believe there was any imminent threat justifying a public alert.

That brings us to the second, more serious error committed by the Bush administration last week. To justify the Ridge announcement, unnamed officials revealed that an al-Qaeda operative arrested in Pakistan had provided fresh information. On August 2nd, The New York Times named the captured operative, Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan.

Leaking Khan's name enhanced nobody's safety -- with the possible exception of certain al-Qaeda members warned of their own impending capture when they read the morning newspapers. Within a few days, Reuters reported that following his arrest, Khan had been "turned." A computer expert, Khan was said to be helping the authorities break up terrorist cells in Britain and the United States.

Security officials in London are still enraged because the Khan leak from Washington forced them to act too precipitously, rushing to arrest 13 suspects in raids across Britain the next day. No doubt the C.I.A. officials whose high-tech tracking efforts led to Khan's capture felt similar frustration. In a war against terrorist groups that have proved nearly impossible to penetrate with human agents, the loss of such a well-placed turncoat could prove tragic.

There is no question about who perpetrated the leak. On August 8th, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice admitted that the administration had disclosed Khan's arrest to the Times "on background." Experts around the world are still astonished by this reckless decision.

"The whole thing smacks of either incompetence or worse," said Tim Ripley, a security expert who writes for Jane's Defense publications. "You have to ask: What are they doing compromising a deep mole within al-Qaeda, when it's so difficult to get these guys in there in the first place?"

That is the pertinent question, and the answer is all too obvious.

What useful purpose was served by Ridge's press conference remains unclear. His defenders say that he would be mercilessly criticized if he failed to warn the public about a real attack. But the problem during the months before 9/11 was not the government's failure to post constant vague alerts of impending disaster, true as they eventually would have proved to be. The problem was that the agencies and individuals responsible for protecting the United States, including the president, failed to mobilize and act together, despite many warnings from within and outside the government.

It is encouraging that American intelligence agencies and their allies in Britain and Pakistan have begun to roll up al-Qaeda cells. It is troubling that their efforts were compromised for political advantage.

Joe Conason writes a weekly column on politics for The New York Observer, where this column first appeared.

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