The revelation that President Bush was notified of possible al Qaeda hijackings last August swept through DC this month, bringing some welcome friction to an otherwise chilly May. Democrats, suspecting they'd found an issue on which they could finally claim the patriotic high ground, grew downright giddy with their calls for investigations. The press corps, blandly complicit since last year's terrorists attacks, leapt to life and grilled Ari Fleischer with a long-dormant enthusiasm. And the Bush team pushed back hard, picking fights and taking aim with its silver bullet for silencing nonbelievers, "to question us is to play politics in a time of war."Then, curiously, came new warnings. Four days after stories on the August briefings broke, unnamed administration officials leaked word that US intelligence had seen a surge in al Qaeda communications regarding another attack. The next day, Dick Cheney appeared on NBC's Meet the Press to say that another terrorist attack was coming, and Condoleeza Rice intoned on CBS' Face the Nation, "I do not believe we can have assurance that we're going to prevent another attack.
FBI Director Robert Mueller warned of Palestinian-style suicide bombings on Monday, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Tuesday that terrorists would soon have nuclear weapons. And on and on it went ...
"You want it, you got it,
the administration seemed to say. There was no new information and no actual threat, vague or specific, to speak of.
But there were suddenly more warnings - exactly the type Bush is accused of not issuing last August - than an independent counsel could shake a stick at.
Intentional or not (and they swore it wasn't), the administration managed to change the conversation by shoving the noses of Democrats and the press in a pile of what they'd been asking for.
While it has a certain snide charm, this strategy is at least as unappetizing as it was effective. Yes, most polls showed no real change in Bush's approval rating, earning a quick retreat from the Democrats, who decided they had little to win from this fight. But those same polls suggested a change in public opinion the White House hadn't counted on.
After a weekend of being told their government would be unable to stop another attack, Americans began to believe it. A Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that only 46% of Americans now believe their government can stop another terrorist attack. That's down from 55% in March, a major decline in only two months. "You want it, you got it
Of course, a temporary loss of confidence in the government's terrorist-stopping abilities isn't a bad trade-off for the administration if it prevents a Warnings-gate scenario. And the rather obvious upside to this strategy is that if there is another attack, the administration gets credit for giving the heads up. If there isn't, the administration gets the credit for that, too.
But there's something unseemly about stirring up the public's fear to divert its attention. Yes, playing politics in a time of war is despicable, but is it any more so than playing with people's emotions in a time of heightened anxiety? Either way, the White House once again used a version of its silver bullet to silence the opposition. If Democrats don't find a way around this tactic soon, the chill over DC may stick around longer than they think.