Ridge Says He Was Pressured to Elevate Threat Warning on Eve of 2004 Election

By Garance Franke-Ruta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 21, 2009; 5:40 PM

Former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, the first director of the Department of Homeland Security, says that he was pressured by other Bush administration department heads to raise the national security-threat level on the eve of the 2004 presidential election -- a move he rejected as having such uncomfortable political undertones that it could destroy the administration's credibility.

The disclosure comes in Ridge's new book, "The Test of Our Times: America Under Siege . . . and How We Can Be Safe Again," written with Larry Bloom and published by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin's Press. It will not hit bookstores until Sept. 1, but a copy of the book was obtained Friday by The Washington Post.

Attorney General John D. Ashcroft "strongly urged" that the threat level be raised just three days before the election, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld sided with Ashcroft in the "vigorous, some might say dramatic discussion," Ridge writes.

Five days before the 2004 election, Osama bin Laden had released to al-Jazeera a message critical of President Bush. "As you spoil our security, we will do so to you," he threatened.

The next morning, a Saturday, Ridge and his aides huddled at DHS headquarters.

"A threatening message, audio or visual, should not be the sole reasons to elevate the threat level," they concluded, according to Ridge. Given that protective steps had already been taken in advance of the election, "No one felt it necessary to consider additional security measures," Ridge writes

A videoconference with members of the intelligence community and relevant Cabinet chiefs followed. The position Ashcroft and Rumsfeld took provoked Ridge to wonder, he writes, "'Is this about security or politics?'"

Federal Bureau of Investigation director Robert S. Mueller III sided with Ridge, he writes, and in the absence of consensus, no recommendation was made to White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend.

Instead, a Ridge aide advised the president, who was flying on Air Force One to a campaign stop, through his aide Dan Bartlett that DHS was "strongly opposed" to raising the threat level, and by the next day the question was dropped.

"I believe our strong interventions had pulled the 'go up' advocates back from the brink," Ridge writes.

"After that episode, I knew I had to follow through with my plans to leave the federal government for the private sector."

He submitted his resignation within the month.

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