Last week the Bush administration announced that measures – such as the much-debated NSA wiretaps on Americans – were needed and “proved it” by claiming 10 terrorism plots had been averted because of measures such as this. This interesting correlation between falling poll numbers for the president and an announcement stressing the threat of terrorism was nothing new.
Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush’s approval ratings reached an all-time high of nearly 90 percent. The nation was under attack and clung to the president for leadership, even though it seemed as if Bush’s presidency was running out of steam mere days before the attacks. A man who had been belittled for weeks entered the classroom at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota on the morning of Sept. 11 and exited as the nation’s “war-time president.”
The strong numbers held steady through most of the military actions in Afghanistan began to taper off. The notable spikes, however, are dates on which terrorism, for one reason or another, was in the news.
It didn’t take long for Bush’s strategists, namely Karl Rove, to figure the political capital this was bringing the president, “enhanced” by strategically placing the speeches announcing the shocking “new evidence” of terrorist threats that often turned out to be much ado about nothing.
One instance of such overwhelming theatrics was the indictment of former USF professor Sami Al-Arian. Al-Arian was the subject of an impromptu morning press conference by former United States Attorney General John Ashcroft on Feb. 20, 2003. (Incidentally, Karl Rove hosted events including Al-Arian to lobby for the now less-embattled “Arab vote” in 2001.)
When I read the 120-page indictment of Al-Arian cover to cover later that day, I had the distinct feeling that there was no case, but rather a laundry list of guilt by association and circumstantial evidence. It was outright troubling. The attorney general apparently thought this was a case that was important, otherwise the press conference would have been much smaller in scale, or not have happened at all – yet the case was flimsy at best. Almost three years, an election, a war and an attorney general later, Al-Arian’s jury confirmed my initial feeling, but the administration is threatening a retrial.
I had the chance to ask the then soon-to be Democratic nominee John Kerry in the summer of 2004 if he thought the terrorism alerts were being abused for political means. Kerry responded by saying that he did not have basis on which to believe that was the case, nor did he ever suggest such a thing himself.
So why didn’t anyone raise this question in Congress? Probably because Kerry, like most members of Congress, did not want to be perceived or labeled as “un-American.” It’s the political plague of our times.
What puzzles me to this day is that after I asked Kerry the question at the event hosted in one of USF’s theaters, a reporter from the Washington Post came up to me and encouragingly said “good question.” He started talking to me about my journalistic ambitions, a topic that made me forget to ask him why it had to be me, a lowly college columnist, who asked that question instead of the mainstream press.
Looking at the list of “10 foiled terrorist threats” Bush so gloatingly yet hauntingly announced last week, I again felt torn. It would have been so convenient to say, “Yes, this information is solid, I buy it entirely.” But since threats on the list have already been debunked as, shall we say, false alarms, it is evident the narrative of how the War on Terror is proceeding that what the administration has been coasting on for years had once again been more important than solid fact.
The “attack” on the 73-story U.S. Bank Tower in Los Angeles with commercial airliners involved shoe bombs to open the plane’s cockpit door, but otherwise seemed rather vague. Surely, the talking heads on TV agreed, the president had more information he was withholding since the plot seemed less credible than recent plot twists on FOX’s terrorism-themed action series 24.
Yet it was only after Bush made the dramatic unveiling of his hitherto unknown anti-terrorism heroism that the mayor of Los Angeles found out that such a “threat” even existed. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said to Associated Press, “I’m amazed that the president would make this (announcement) on national TV and not inform us of these details through the appropriate channels.”
Maybe not that credible after all? It clearly made for good press coverage, though.
Something tells me that if the list had been more generally referring to wins in the fight against terror Al-Arian’s name could have easily been on that list as well, since the Al-Arian trial itself was considered a win by the administration. And that’s not funny at all.
Sebastian Meyer is a senior majoring in political geography and a former Oracle opinion editor.