A June 27 article incorrectly reported that, in a conference call with reporters, Bush-Cheney campaign manager Ken Mehlman did not "back up" an assertion in a campaign ad. The ad said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) was "pressured by fellow liberals" to oppose the wiretap provision in the USA Patriot Act. During the call, Mehlman cited criticism of the provision by former Vermont governor Howard Dean and the American Civil Liberties Union and noted Kerry's apparent change of position on wiretaps. (Published 7/3/04)
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.
Kerry campaign aides who asked for anonymity because the matter is a delicate one theorize that the administration is manipulating for political impact the U.S. intelligence conclusion that al Qaeda hopes to derail U.S. elections with new attacks.
Democrats say the fact the Republican National Convention is to be held only miles from the World Trade Center site in New York weeks before the third anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks will allow Bush's promoters to invoke powerful imagery of loss, heroism and American resolve for naked political advantage.
Firefighters, whose union was the only one to endorse Kerry during the Democratic primaries, and New York police officers have volunteered to speak out during convention week if Bush is perceived as exploiting the convention date or site.
Republicans "will rue the day they chose this place and date, because it will backfire on them when people see that they are exploiting a tragedy," Democratic National Committee Chairman Terence R. McAuliffe said of the GOP convention.
"We are not, and will not in any way, exploit" the convention's proximity to Sept. 11, Bush campaign manager Mehlman said. "Their credibility in talking about politicizing this is zero, given their politicization of it."
In the first two years after the attacks, the politics of homeland security were relatively easygoing. Congressional Republicans were as likely as Democrats to criticize the Bush administration for foot-dragging and inattention.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Chris Cox (R-Calif.) and ranking Democrat Jim Turner (Tex.) have joined to promote several initiatives, such as a bill to reset formulas determining how homeland security grants are parceled out to states.
But the two-party collegiality on homeland security has worn thin in recent months.
On the morning of Ashcroft's announcement, which cited weeks-old intelligence, Ridge appeared on five morning news shows. In contrast to the dire message Ashcroft would later deliver, Ridge said that the terrorist danger was serious but not the gravest it had ever been.
As Ridge's appearances continued, the Kerry campaign e-mailed Democrats asking surrogates to say publicly that "it was wrong to sit on this [terrorist threat] information so long" and expressing the hope that the administration is "following a security schedule, not a political schedule" in issuing the alert.
Just after noon, Schaitberger, who has lobbied for greater spending on firefighters, said the Ashcroft announcement scheduled for an hour later was a trick to divert attention from Bush's political headaches.
On the same call, David Holway, president of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers -- which also endorsed Kerry -- said, "the administration has been sitting on information that is vital to our law enforcement. I would hope this whole [Ashcroft] press conference has not been coordinated by the Bush committee."
Hours later, Ashcroft held his news conference, describing a graver danger than Ridge had described. Ashcroft said al Qaeda was "90 percent" finished preparing for an attack here. People close to Ridge said he and his aides were deeply frustrated by Ashcroft's statements, because the Homeland Security Department, not the Justice Department, has the authority to issue such alerts. Ashcroft had not vetted that language with other officials, they said.
Moderate Democrats on Capitol Hill were frustrated as well, but for a different reason. Starting early that morning, they told Kerry aides they were making a mistake by suggesting the Bush administration had politicized terrorism fears, congressional sources said.
"We told the Kerry people, 'you shouldn't be saying that. . . . A Kerry administration would say the same thing as Ashcroft,' " given the security concerns about the upcoming Memorial Day and plans for hundreds of thousands of people to visit the Mall, a Democratic staffer said. Rep. Turner said that "based on briefings I have previously received, the information presented today [by Ashcroft and Ridge] was accurate and balanced."