Aug. 3, 2004

The “Old Intelligence” Myth

The press teems today with stories accusing the Bush administration of using four-year-old intelligence to upgrade to “high” the threat level in New York City, northern New Jersey and Washington, D.C. This is a classic case of terrible reporting. Not only does it engage in transparent political advocacy – hinting, as Howard Dean did, that Team Bush concocted the tale to stoke up its lackluster poll ratings – but it also misrepresents the nature of terrorism, intelligence-gathering, and ongoing efforts to defeat Al Qaeda.

Fact: Terrorists don’t act on impulse. Al Qaeda spent years planning the September 11 attacks, and its votaries of violence have devoted similar time to follow-up efforts. Some of the intelligence about those second-wave schemes emerged four years ago, when agents spied suspicious characters snapping pictures of key financial centers in the U.S. But some information came to light only last month, when Pakistani agents rounded up a couple of key Al Qaeda goons, as a result of intelligence gleaned from an earlier Al Qaeda arrest. In addition, the CIA has received permission to sew wire taps throughout the region – including in Pakistan, which remains a seedbed for terror operations. Information gleaned from those wiretaps, plus testimony from recently captured terrorists, plus clues gathered from internet transmissions between would-be Islamist killers helped provide enough clues to issue a warning – and a very specific one.

The “old intelligence charge” not only is irresponsible, but dangerous. It invites Americans to drop their guard and ignore warning signs. It even sends the signal that only nutballs would dare inform law-enforcement agents of unusual activity. Yet, here’s where a final act of hypocrisy arises. The same people who accuse the president of fabricating intelligence also warn that the world is a more dangerous place because George Bush took the fight to Saddam Hussein. In other words, they want to claim both that (1) the president was unduly alarmist in warning that terrorists want to get us and (2) the president has been unduly negligent, because terrorists want to get us. My advice: Democrats ought to look for a fight they can win, not one that calls into question their maturity, patience and intelligence.

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