By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 9, 2004; 8:37 AM
Is the latest Tom Ridge Terror Alert politically motivated?
Is the administration trying to steal the headlines from John Edwards?
Is Bush's gang really trying to sew up the election by capturing Osama?
What do I look like, a mind reader?
There's no way to prove or disprove any political calculation that might lie behind yesterday's warning that al-Qaeda is planning an attack to disrupt the elections. The same has been true of all the orange alerts around major holidays. If something happened and the administration had failed to publicize what it knew, the country would be understandably outraged.
At the same time, with no specific information about where such an attack might take place, what exactly are we supposed to do?
I tend to think any terror attack would create a rally-round-the-president effect, but let's hope we don't have to find out.
A more interesting debate has been set off by John Judis in the New Republic, who reports that the chatter about a politically timed seizure of Osama may be no conspiratorial fantasy:
"This spring, the administration significantly increased its pressure on Pakistan to kill or capture Osama bin Laden, his deputy, Ayman Al Zawahiri, or the Taliban's Mullah Mohammed Omar, all of whom are believed to be hiding in the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan. A succession of high-level American officials--from outgoing CIA Director George Tenet to Secretary of State Colin Powell to Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca to State Department counterterrorism chief Cofer Black to a top CIA South Asia official--have visited Pakistan in recent months to urge General Pervez Musharraf's government to do more in the war on terrorism. In April, Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador to Afghanistan, publicly chided the Pakistanis for providing a 'sanctuary' for Al Qaeda and Taliban forces crossing the Afghan border."
So far, so good. But:
"This public pressure would be appropriate, even laudable, had it not been accompanied by an unseemly private insistence that the Pakistanis deliver these high-value targets (HVTs) before Americans go to the polls in November. The Bush administration denies it has geared the war on terrorism to the electoral calendar. 'Our attitude and actions have been the same since September 11 in terms of getting high-value targets off the street, and that doesn't change because of an election,' says National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack.
"But The New Republic has learned that Pakistani security officials have been told they must produce HVTs by the election. According to one source in Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), 'The Pakistani government is really desperate and wants to flush out bin Laden and his associates after the latest pressures from the U.S. administration to deliver before the [upcoming] U.S. elections.' Introducing target dates for Al Qaeda captures is a new twist in U.S.-Pakistani counterterrorism relations--according to a recently departed intelligence official, 'no timetable[s]' were discussed in 2002 or 2003--but the November election is apparently bringing a new deadline pressure to the hunt. Another official, this one from the Pakistani Interior Ministry, which is responsible for internal security, explains, 'The Musharraf government has a history of rescuing the Bush administration. They now want Musharraf to bail them out when they are facing hard times in the coming elections' . . .
"A third source, an official who works under ISI's director, Lieutenant General Ehsan ul-Haq, informed TNR that the Pakistanis 'have been told at every level that apprehension or killing of HVTs before [the] election is [an] absolute must.' What's more, this source claims that Bush administration officials have told their Pakistani counterparts they have a date in mind for announcing this achievement: 'The last ten days of July deadline has been given repeatedly by visitors to Islamabad and during [ul-Haq's] meetings in Washington.' Says McCormack: 'I'm aware of no such comment.' But according to this ISI official, a White House aide told ul-Haq last spring that 'it would be best if the arrest or killing of [any] HVT were announced on twenty-six, twenty-seven, or twenty-eight July'--the first three days of the Democratic National Convention in Boston."
Can you imagine? "BREAKING NEWS" from Pakistan just as Kerry is making his way to the podium? Overshadowed by Osama? Would anyone care that the timing seemed crassly political?
Seems like a long shot, but who knows?
The New York Times reports: "Osama bin Laden and his chief lieutenants, operating from hideouts suspected to be along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, are directing a Qaeda effort to launch an attack in the United States sometime this year, senior Bush Administration officials said on Thursday . . .
"Counterterrorism officials have said for weeks that they are increasingly worried by a continuing stream of intelligence suggesting that Al Qaeda wanted to carry out a significant terror attack on United States soil this year. But until the comments of the senior administration officials on Thursday, it was not clear that Mr. bin Laden and top deputies like Ayman Zawahiri were responsible for the concern.
"Another senior administration official said on Thursday that the intelligence reports - apparently drawn partly from interviews with captured Qaeda members and partly from other intelligence, referred to efforts 'to inflict catastrophic effects' before the election . . .
"Mr. Ridge brushed aside any suggestion that the administration was trying to create a widespread sense of unease that might work to President Bush's advantage less than four months before the election."
Says the Los Angeles Times: "His warning appeared to leave FBI officials baffled.
"An FBI counterterrorism official said the bureau had not received any substantive new intelligence about a possible Al Qaeda attack in the United States since Director Robert S. Mueller III issued a similar warning on May 26."
Bush's new attack ad uses a dispute over the Laci Peterson law to attack Kerry's values, and apparently we haven't heard the last of the V word:
"President Bush will lead a new Republican effort Friday to shift the debate in the presidential race from the candidates' experience to their votes and values," says USA Today.
"In a speech today in York, Pa., Bush plans to contrast Sen. John Kerry's recent claim that he represents 'conservative values' with the Democratic candidate's voting record, USA TODAY has learned."
Funny, but Kerry and Edwards have been wearing out that word as well.
Is Edwards getting Kerry to chill a bit? The Philadelphia Inquirer thinks so:
"Sen. John Kerry may never be a public party animal - he's a serious man, speaking in sonorous paragraphs filled with nuance - but two days of traveling with Sen. John Edwards appears to have loosened him up.
"He has been cracking jokes, bantering with audiences instead of talking over interruptions, and acting as an indulgent uncle to Edwards' towheaded children, Emma Claire, 6, and Jack, 4.
"Kerry doesn't even seem to mind that Edwards, with his Southern charisma, sometimes gets bigger cheers."
National Review has not joined the long line of conservatives making knee-jerk denunciations of Kerry's new running mate:
"With the selection of John Edwards, John Kerry has shown that he is more ambitious than self-indulgent. It would have been natural for Kerry to carry resentments from the primaries. He could reasonably have feared that Edwards's fans in the press would write that Kerry will be upstaged by his running mate. Kerry decided that Edwards would help him win the election, and all merely personal considerations were laid aside.
"We are inclined to think that Kerry's calculation was correct: Edwards brings real strengths to the Democratic ticket. He is an attractive figure. Voters seem to respond to youth, energy, and good looks. Edwards may also help Kerry appeal to centrist voters: Americans outside the South have a dated perception of how conservative southern Democrats are. Edwards's campaign speech, though centered on the idea that Americans who are not rich have little hope of making it on their own, somehow comes across as optimistic. So Kerry may find himself competing with Edwards over who can better excite the crowds. The competition may be good for Kerry. Edwards does not much help him win voters concerned about national security -- but Kerry was always going to have to stand or fall on his own in this area.
"Republicans will be tempted to make an issue of Edwards's background as a trial lawyer. They should not overestimate the extent to which the public at large shares their dislike of trial lawyers. They make their money, after all, by telling sympathetic stories that win over ordinary people."
Did I pick up the Nation by mistake?
At the Weekly Standard, Paul Chesser examines the media's embrace of Edwards:
"The major press and broadcast outlets like to think that Edwards is right where they believe they are: in the middle. Look for reporters to use terms, as they have in the past, such as 'moderate,' 'middle-class,' 'populist,' 'small-town appeal,' 'working families,' 'common,' and 'folksy' in articles describing Edwards. Oh, and 'mill,' too--they love those downtrodden factory origins.
"For such an average, middling guy, Edwards possesses the pizzazz that the media has wanted from the Kerry campaign. Journalists use descriptions that include 'fresh-faced,' 'vigorous,' 'engaging,' 'crisp,' 'charismatic,' 'eloquent,' 'uplifting,' 'appealing,' and 'youthful.' It sounds like a focus-group dream. John Edwards: He's Mountain Dew, chicken Caesar salad, and raspberry sorbet all rolled into one.
"Need a role model? Edwards is your man. He was the first in his family to attend college--as reporters are fond to repeat--and is the son of the now-most famous, yet unnamed small-town mill worker in the world. Biographical articles about Wallace Edwards's son have characterized him as 'overachieving,, because he overcame an alleged disadvantage by coming from a blue-collar small town.
"Meanwhile, in the coming months criticisms of Edwards's inexperience will likely be relegated to a single short paragraph or two, and attributed to a Republican. Almost all other unfavorable adjectives will also be attached to his political opponents. Don't expect an 'objective' challenge to Edwards's lack of 'gravitas.'"
John McCain rarely draws press criticism, but Salon's Joe Conason has at him:
"For weeks or longer, the Bush-Cheney campaign planned to upstage John Kerry's announcement of his vice-presidential choice by waving the magical image of John McCain, whose crossover appeal had enticed many Democrats into imagining him on their ticket. They knew the Arizona senator would let them use him.
"Their new TV commercial, called 'First Choice,' feeds off the rumor that McCain decided to back Bush-Cheney rather than accept Kerry's offer as vice president."
Time out: It's not a rumor. Both Kerry and McCain aides have confirmed that the two men discussed the vice presidency several times, though no formal offer was made.
"It's a revealing production: Sen. McCain embraces George W. Bush and endorses the president with rhetorical flourishes -- but there is a strangely passive aspect to his presence in this ad. He stands onstage, never facing the camera and addressing voters directly. It is almost as if he isn't really participating, almost as if he knew that this role demeans him.
"Characteristically, McCain tried to soften the ad's impact by insisting that he would never attack Kerry or his new running mate, John Edwards. Through a spokesman he went even further, issuing a statement that said he had never been offered the vice presidency by anyone, clearly contradicting the 'First Choice' commercial.
"By then, however, the damage had been done -- mostly to McCain himself. For a man so famously preoccupied with honor, both personal and political, his transformation into a tool of those who have consistently denigrated him signals a low moment."
Kevin Drum looks at the other (imaginary) veepstakes in his Washington Monthly column:
"CONDI FOR VEEP? The latest buzz in Republican circles -- apparently -- is that George Bush is going to dump Dick Cheney as his running mate. The scenario, I assume, would involve a medical report saying that Cheney isn't up to a second term, leaving Bush free to make a dramatic announcement of a new vice presidential candidate at the convention.
"Bruce Bartlett summarizes the basic argument in the Washington Times: Cheney is a polarizing figure, his approval ratings are low, and he can't run for president in 2008. So how about Condi Rice instead?
"Personally, I think these rumors are nuts. Cheney is perfectly fit to serve a second term, Bush prizes loyalty far too much to replace him, and dumping him would be viewed as a desperate attempt to distance himself from Cheney's warmongering ways. On all counts, it would be a disaster.
"But just like the morbid fascination with Hillary -- She's going to run! She's waiting to be drafted! She's going to be Kerry's veep! She's going to sabotage the ticket so her path is clear in 2008! -- this seems to be another conservative fetish that won't go away."
This Andrew Sullivan posting may get a little inside, but it involves a rationale for sending Bush packing:
"Mickey Kaus opines that Peggy Noonan 'has done the Democrats a big favor by coming up with [a winning message for Kerry]. The message is that America wants a respite from all the headstrong history-making of the past four years.' Noonan argues in her recent WSJ column that
"The American people may come to feel that George W. Bush did the job history sent him to do. He handled 9/11, turned the economy around, went into Afghanistan, captured and removed Saddam Hussein. And now let's hire someone who'll just by his presence function as an emollient. A big greasy one but an emollient nonetheless. I just have a feeling this sort of thing may have some impact this year. 'A return to normalcy,' with Mr. Kerry as the normal guy.
"I agree - but then I wrote something almost identical last February in Time:
"Here's what a really smart Democratic contender could say to the president this fall: 'Thank you, Mr president, for your leadership in difficult times. You took some tough decisions and we are safer as a result. But the very qualities that made you a perfect pick for the war so far are the very ones that make you less effective from now on. You are too polarizing a figure to bring real peace to Iraq. You are too unpopular to allow European governments to cooperate fully in the attempt to hunt down terrorists. And your deep unpopularity in half the country makes it impossible for you to make the necessary compromises that the country needs domestically. Thanks for all you've done, but bye-bye.'"
The Winston Churchill argument.
The New York Post didn't seem terribly exercised about the F-bomb that Dick Cheney hurled at Pat Leahy, but get a load of this:
"Whoopi Goldberg delivered an X-rated rant full of sexual innuendoes against President Bush last night at a Radio City gala that raised $7.5 million for the newly minted Democratic ticket of John Kerry and John Edwards.
"Waving a bottle of wine, she fired off a stream of vulgar sexual wordplays on Bush's name in a riff about female genitalia, and boasted that she'd refused to let Team Kerry clear her material . . .
"Kerry could be seen laughing uproariously during part of Goldberg's tirade - and neither he nor Edwards voiced a single objection to its tone when they spoke to the crowd...
"Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt noted that Kerry is claiming to share 'conservative values' and said, 'Sitting there while the vitriol and venom spew forth demonstrates [Kerry's] lack of leadership and how far he is from mainstream America.'"
Making Whoopi is apparently now out of the mainstream.
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