Homeland Security, a Politicized Issue
To Suspicious Candidates, the Threat of Attack Is No Longer Above the Fray
By John Mintz and Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 27, 2004; Page A06
Hours before Attorney General John D. Ashcroft announced a new threat of a terrorist attack last month, the presidential campaign of John F. Kerry was ready with an unusual response.
Harold A. Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, which has endorsed Kerry, told reporters that he found the timing of the news conference "very suspicious" because it followed a fall in President Bush's approval ratings. Kerry aides, it turned out, had e-mailed "talking points" to sympathetic Democrats urging such a response, and organized the telephone news conference that featured Schaitberger.
Homeland security was once a field in which Democrats and Republicans largely avoided savaging each other, to show unity to enemies and allies alike. But the episode suggests the degree to which the issue is becoming politicized as the first presidential election since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks approaches, according to government officials, members of both political parties and experts on terrorism.
"It used to be said that in war, partisan politics ended at the water's edge," said Randall J. Larsen, a retired Air Force colonel and now a consultant on domestic security. "But that was when the battlefields were overseas. Now the battlefields are here, and we don't know where to draw the lines."
The battle lines between Bush and Kerry are evenly drawn. In a June 20 Washington Post-ABC News poll, when voters were asked to name the candidate they trust to do a better job handling the war on terrorism, 48 percent favored Kerry and 47 percent preferred Bush. Just a month before, voters chose Bush by 52 to 39 percent.
In April, Kerry accused Bush of failing to secure the nation's chemical plants from terrorist attacks. In recent weeks, he has given speeches on nuclear terrorism and defenses against biological weapons attack. On May 26, Kerry told a rally at a Seattle pier that the Department of Homeland Security should inspect all incoming shipping containers, not just the 2 percent now examined.
"We deserve a president who doesn't make homeland security a photo opportunity," Kerry said.
Democrats note that these charges are not extraordinary; they have been leveled by bipartisan commissions that studied homeland security. Bush campaign officials say the administration already is acting on many of their recommendations.
For their part, Republicans have also politicized the issue, at times distorting Kerry's stance on terrorism matters, Democrats say. Last month, a Bush campaign ad said Kerry was "pressured by fellow liberals" to oppose wiretaps and subpoena powers in the USA Patriot Act, and "would now repeal the Patriot Act's use of these tools against terrorists."
In a Bush campaign conference call with reporters, campaign manager Ken Mehlman was asked to back up the statement that Kerry was pressured by liberals or that Kerry opposed wiretaps, but did not. He said Kerry objected to the USA Patriot Act after liberals did, and that "a common-sense reading indicates he intends to repeal those important tools."
Referring to the growing political discord, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said, "We know 2004 will be a political roller-coaster ride."
Ridge said he confronts a difficult situation: While U.S. intelligence believes terrorists want to disrupt this summer's national political conventions, any security actions by his department as the election approaches will prompt suspicions among some that he is politicizing security. "My job is not to be distracted by that," he said.
A year ago, Ridge said, he and Bush agreed he should not participate in GOP fundraisers or other partisan events. Ridge recalled occasions when he joined Bush at nonpolitical homeland security events around the country in the daytime, and then, as the president went on to attend political fundraisers in the evening, Ridge waited alone in limousines in hotel parking garages.
Democrats know they can tap into some Americans' concern that terrorism alerts could be used to distract the public from bad news about the Bush administration. Government officials strenuously deny ever doing this.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company