Keeping 'Em Scared

The July employment report (32,000 jobs created instead of the 200,000 to 300,000 expected by private economists) proved one thing beyond the shadow of a doubt: The Bush administration is in big trouble. Economic problems White House spokesmen insisted were behind us in the spring during the mini-boomlet of April and May are back in spades, including the jobless recovery and an anemic stock market (down 3% for the year as of early August, with the Dow sliding well below 10,000). In addition, gasoline prices, that dependable bellwether of the US economy, remain at historically high and painful levels. George W. Bush's rosy predictions to the contrary, things are not getting better for most Americans.

This places the administration in a bind. It can't claim clear success on the economic front and can only offer the hollow claim that the president "inherited" the present domestic situation. Inherited? After four years? As the saying goes, that dog won't hunt. The upshot is that Karl Rove, Dubya's political guru, has been left with one last electioneering gambit, the one he used to run the table in 2002. The Republicans are going to scare their way to victory this year, assuming the voting public cooperates.

We're already hearing updated versions of Lincoln's observation during the wartime election of 1864 that his supporters thought it best "not to swap horses while crossing the river" -- a metaphor for not changing presidents in a time of national emergency. The terrorist "war" (a misnomer; it's really a law-enforcement exercise), which has been on the back burner for almost two years, is suddenly front and center once more. And guess which indispensable national leader is needed to continue its prosecution successfully? One hint: his middle initial is W.

Democrats are going to have to answer this -- and fast. To his credit, Howard Dean has already spoken out and called the sudden obsession with domestic terrorism what it almost certainly is: an election-year ploy. Other party members with more mainstream reputations should follow suit, rather than taking the Lieberman route of endorsing this transparent attempt at manufactured hysteria. Senators Kerry and Edwards, who are in need of every possible vote, including those of the paranoid and the frightened, are not in an ideal position to say the emperor has no clothes, but other Democrats can call the administration on its flawed intelligence, frivolous security alerts, and alarmist posturing.

There are some obvious targets for criticism. First, it needs to be asked why each terrorist revelation, reasonable or farfetched, solidly based or a product of rumor and hearsay, results in a color-coded alert by the Department of Homeland Security. The public can do little and is unnecessarily alarmed. Local police have no spare resources to throw at the problem; they're already stretched thin. Declaring constant alerts does serve to enhance the status of the security branches within the federal government, reminding everyone they're on the job; it also polishes the inflated self-images of people like John Ashcroft and Tom Ridge. Mostly, however, the alerts keep Americans anxious and on edge, looking (so the administration hopes) to the White House for reassurance.

Second, why are so-called intelligence breaks immediately announced and the details leaked to the media or revealed in high-profile press conferences? Does the administration want to give al Qaeda a head start? Does it want our adversaries to know what information we have, so as to give them a sporting opportunity to adjust plans and change strategy? Is it playing some demented game of international "gotcha" with people's lives at stake? Or, as is most likely the case, is it trying to persuade the voting public that the White House crowd is all-knowing and all-seeing when it comes to terrorism, and therefore essential to keep in office?

Third, why is America's security complex depending on countries such as Pakistan (an unstable dictatorship) to do its work, pressuring foreign leaders like Musharraf for information and timely arrests, while Washington acts as the public relations arm for the so-called war on terrorism? It appears as though US energies are not going into undercover espionage, state-of-the-art policing, or mastery of language and interrogation skills, but into media presentation.

An effective intelligence force would avoid the limelight, act quietly behind the scenes, and never expose its agents, sources, and tactics unnecessarily.

It used to be axiomatic in the counterintelligence game that the best operatives were the ones who performed without public recognition and whose deeds were rarely, if ever, known. During World War II, the very existence of the clandestine Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was barely acknowledged. The politically conscious intelligence network of the Bush administration, on the other hand, wants the voters to know and appreciate its every move, even if that means alerting the opposition.

One problem may be that creating the huge, sprawling Department of Homeland Security brought to life a bureaucratic Frankenstein monster political in the way J. Edgar Hoover's FBI was political, but more dangerous because of its size and open-ended mandate. At the same time, the monster exercises no direct control over older, established security agencies, such as the FBI, CIA, and NSA (National Security Agency), and has little effective coordination with a Justice Department obsessed with enforcement of the draconian PATRIOT Act. Inefficiency, unwieldiness, and dispersal of responsibility: the worst of all possible worlds.

In only one area, the political, is the US security apparatus currently effective. Witness the latest orange-alert announcement, which cleverly morphed into a Bush campaign commercial. That's not surprising. Tom Ridge, the head of Homeland Security, is a former Republican politican. So is Justice Department head John Ashcroft, an ex-senator. Likewise the proposed new director of the CIA, outgoing Congressman Porter Goss. These men know their charge: Defend the country, yes, but above all, see to the president's reelection. And the best way to do that is to keep the public uneasy and focused on an impending terrorist threat.

Meanwhile, the conservative media machine will continue to exhort the voters not to change horses in the middle of the stream. They hope the American people will forget we did exactly that in the midst of both the Korean and Vietnam wars without endangering the Republic. Its past time to saddle up another mount.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

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