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Terror Alert: Severe Risk of Hype

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, June 27, 2006

It is the sheerest luck, I know, that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales looks (to me) a bit like Jerry Mahoney, because he fulfills the same function for the Bush administration that the dummy did for the ventriloquist Paul Winchell. At risk to his reputation and the mocking he must get when he comes home at night, Gonzales will call virtually anyone an al-Qaeda-type terrorist. He did that last week in announcing the arrest of seven inferred (it's the strongest word I can use) terrorists. I thought I saw Dick Cheney moving his lips.

The seven were indicted on charges that they wanted to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago and the FBI bureau in Miami. The arrests came in the nick of time, since all that prevented mass murder, mayhem and an incessant crawl at the bottom of our TV screens was the lack of explosives, weapons or vehicles. The alleged conspirators did have boots, which were supplied by an FBI informant. Maybe the devil does wear Prada.

Naturally, cable news was all over the story since it provided pictures . These included shots of the Sears Tower, the FBI bureau, the seven alleged terrorists and, of course, Gonzales dutifully playing his assigned role of the dummy. He noted that the suspects wanted to wage a "full ground war" against the United States and "kill all the devils" they could -- this despite a clear lack of materiel and sidewalk-level IQs. Still, as Gonzales pointed out, if "left unchecked, these homegrown terrorists may prove to be as dangerous as groups like al-Qaeda." A presidential medal for the man, please.

It is not now and never has been my intention to belittle terrorism. Clearly, if what the government alleges turns out to be the truth -- look, that sometimes happens -- then these guys deserve punishment. But theirs was such a preposterous, crackpot plot that the only reason it rose to the level of a televised news conference by the nation's chief law enforcement officer was the Bush administration's compulsive need to hype everything. For this, Gonzales, like a good Boy Scout, is always prepared.

Does it matter? Yes, it does. It matters because the Bush administration has already lost almost all credibility when it comes to terrorism. It said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and there were none. It said al-Qaeda and Iraq were in cahoots and that was not the case. It has so exaggerated its domestic success in arresting or convicting terrorists that it simply cannot be believed on that score. About a year ago, for instance, President Bush (with Gonzales at his side) asserted that "federal terrorism investigations have resulted in charges against more than 400 suspects, and more than half of those charged have been convicted." The Post looked into that and found that the total number of (broadly defined) "terrorism" convictions was 39.

This compulsion to exaggerate and lie is so much a part of the Bush administration's DNA that it persists even though it has become counterproductive. For instance, the arrest of the seven suspects in Miami essentially coincided with the revelation by the New York Times that the government has "gained access to financial records from a vast international database and examined banking transactions involving thousands of Americans." Almost instantly, the administration did two things: It confirmed the story and complained about it. The Times account only helped terrorists, Cheney said.

Is he right? I wonder. This is a serious matter. After all, Americans are being asked to surrender a measure of privacy and civil liberties in the fight against terrorism -- essentially the argument Cheney has been making. I for one am willing to make some compromises, but I feel downright foolish doing so if the fruit of the enterprise turns out to be seven hapless idiots who would blow up the Sears Tower, if only they could get to Chicago.

Cheney in particular has zero credibility, but his administration colleagues are not far behind. Prominent among them, of course, is the attorney general, a man so adept at crying wolf and mouthing the administration's line that he simply cannot be believed any more.

The Sears Tower. The Miami bureau of the FBI. Please. Someone, put the dummy back in his box.

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