- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 2, 2009


Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge is telling people to stop “hyperventilating” over a passage in his new book, “The Test of Our Times — America Under Siege.” Let’s take a deep breath and check the facts.

The story goes that when Osama bin Laden released a videotape the Friday before the Nov. 2, 2004, election, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Attorney General John D. Ashcroft wanted to bump up the terror-alert status. They were concerned about the possibility that al Qaeda was planning to attack the United States before or during the election, but Mr. Ridge did not think the release of the video warranted a heightened state of alert and declined. Mr. Ridge speculates in his book that politics may have been involved in the alert request. Last-minute polling showed a tight race with President George W. Bush maintaining a slight edge over challenger Sen. John Kerry. Perhaps a “terror alert bump” would seal the deal.

Set aside the fact that the bin Laden video was front-page news and a topic of intense speculation right up to Election Day. Undecided voters likely to be swayed by the threat of terrorism would have responded to the saturation press coverage; a change in the much-derided and largely ignored terror-alert level would have been lost in the noise.

More important, there was no historical relationship between terror-alert levels and presidential approval ratings. If anything, changes in alert status depressed approval numbers. The United States went to “orange alert” for the first time on Sept. 10 through 24, 2002, based on the reasonable belief that the first anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks would be a dangerous time. A Fox News poll taken Sept. 8 showed Mr. Bush with 66 percent approval. The Sept. 25 Fox poll had him at 65 percent. An ABC News poll from Sept. 8 had Mr. Bush at 71 percent approval, which dropped four points by Sept. 26.

On Feb. 9, 2003, America went to orange alert again based on intelligence that al Qaeda was planning to attack. The previous week, the Fox poll had the president at 59 percent approval. Two days after the alert, his approval had dropped two points. Gallup showed a three-point drop over a similar period, and Mr. Bush lost four points in the ABC poll.

In late May 2003, it was the same story: another orange alert, another drop in the polls. Mr. Bush then lost three points according to ABC and five in the Gallup poll. On Dec. 21, 2003, the terror alert was raised ahead of the Christmas holiday. By January, Mr. Bush’s approval had dropped one point according to ABC, three points according to Gallup and four points according to NBC. After that, the national alert level remained at yellow until the election, though on Aug. 2, 2004, there was a special alert in New York City and Washington, which were not exactly likely to be pushed into the Bush column. The Fox poll showed Mr. Bush’s approval drop three points.

When looking at the poll data, it turns out that raising the alert levels never benefited Mr. Bush but may actually have hurt him. So we suggest a new conspiracy theory — that Mr. Ridge stopped the country from going to orange alert to secure the re-election of Mr. Bush. As the current hyperventilating shows, some people will believe anything.

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