The President who cried al Qaeda

By Andrew Gumbel

WASHINGTON - Once again, George W. Bush finds himself in deep political trouble. And, once again, he has chosen to invoke the spectre of a terrorist attack on US soil, only to draw immediate suspicion about his motives at the start of what promises to be a long, bruising mid-term election campaign.

The President's announcement last week that al Qaeda had considered attacking the tallest skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles more than three years ago generated some eye-catching headlines. It may even have helped him to build public support for a once-secret domestic counter-terrorist wire-tapping programme that critics in both parties have denounced as unconstitutional.

But there are also signs that the political strategy that worked so well in the 2002 mid-term elections, helped to sell the war in Iraq and got Bush re-elected in 2004 - that is, appealing to the country to stand by its President as he strives to protect them from outside attack - may be wearing thin.

No sooner had the President spoken than his announcement was greeted with consternation in Los Angeles.

LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said he felt "blindsided" to learn from the TV instead of from the White House the details of the 2002 plan to attack the 73-storey Library Tower.

Jim Hahn, who was mayor of LA at the time, said he too had never heard anything about it other than a vague outline already given by Bush in a speech last October.

The chairman of the Los Angeles public safety commission, Jack Weiss, accused Bush of wanting to alarm the country for political reasons and said it was doubtful how much of a plot there had really been in the first place.

President Bush claimed in his speech that the US, in concert with foreign governments, had "faced down a relentless and determined enemy" and "stopped a catastrophic attack on our homeland".

He said the plot was orchestrated by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the suspected mastermind behind the September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, who recruited four Asian men to board a plane, breach the cockpit door with shoe bombs and then fly into the tower.

The President's domestic security adviser, Frances Townsend, soon told reporters that the attack on LA was originally conceived as part of the September 11 attacks but was postponed because al Qaeda did not have the resources to pull it off.

Several security experts said they did not believe the plot went past the conceptual stage before it was disrupted by arrests in Asia after September 11.

Southeast Asian experts told the Associated Press the man recruited to fly the plane into the Los Angeles tower, a Malaysian engineer called Zaini Zakaria, pulled out of the plot after he saw the scale of the destruction and death at the World Trade Center. He later gave himself up to Malaysian authorities.

"Let's call this what it was," said Weiss, a Los Angeles City Council member. "President Bush is digging out of an extraordinarily large political hole. ... He's trying to build support for the NSA [National Security Agency] wiretapping programme and so, to build that support, he dusts off details that are at best three years old, at worst closer to four years old.

"It's just part of his constant speechifying, to impress upon people what he's doing in the war on terror."

Hillary Clinton, gearing up to run for President in 2008, said the White House was "playing the fear card".

John Rockefeller, Senator for West Virginia who sits on the Intelligence Committee, was one of several Democrats who said he could see little security-related reason for President Bush's announcement.

IN THE past, the standard White House response to such criticisms has been to accuse the Democrats of being soft on terrorism and living in a "pre-9/11 world".

But that line, too, may be fraying because of growing anger about what is widely seen as a highly political approach to national security.

Much of the funding from the Department of Homeland Security is not distributed according to need but rather in proportion to states' showing in the presidential election. That means an over-abundance of funds for reliably Republican Wyoming and complaints of funding shortages in probable target cities such as New York and Los Angeles, which happen to be staunchly Democrat.

Weiss said he could have understood the President's announcement if he had followed it with a pledge of a few extra millions for LA's counter-terrorism operations.

But, he charged, the President "doesn't get that part of the equation".

Security consultants, led by Stephen Flynn of the Council on Foreign Relations, have been sounding the alarm for some time that the US remains vulnerable to attack and has not been assiduous enough in taking basic security precautions, such as securing the former Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal - a programme that is years from completion.

In his book America the Vulnerable, Flynn describes ways in which the container shipping industry could be safeguarded, but largely has not been, because the Bush Administration has other budgetary and geopolitical priorities - notably fighting the war in Iraq.

The twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which account for almost half the container traffic coming in and out of the United States, are fitted with radiation portals to help detect dirty bombs. But the giant X-ray machines generally regarded as essential accompaniments to the portals - to detect suspicious materials, including radioactive substances - are still in woefully short supply.

Senior members of the Bush Administration almost never refer to such issues. Instead, they have been content to raise the alarm about possible attacks - especially at moments of particular political difficulty.

Before the 2004 election, the Administration would habitually raise the much-publicised, colour-coded threat level in the wake of negative publicity about the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, say, or even to coincide with the Democratic National Convention.

Tom Ridge, President Bush's first homeland security director, revealed shortly after he left office that he frequently disapproved of decisions to raise the alert.

"Sometimes we disagreed with the intelligence assessment," he said. "Sometimes we thought even if the intelligence was good, you don't necessarily put the country on alert. ... There were times when some people were really aggressive about raising it, and we said, 'For that?'"

The colour-coded system has all but disappeared from President Bush's second term, but the allusions to al Qaeda attacks have persisted.

Last October, when it appeared that the President's trusted political adviser Karl Rove might be indicted over the leaking of an undercover CIA operative's name - itself a highly political affair linked to the US case for going to war in Iraq - officials in New York issued a warning about a threat to the subway system, based on information from federal officials that later turned out to be either erroneous or a hoax.

Those seeking a political strategy behind the President's Library Tower announcement have pointed to a speech that Rove gave two weeks ago, in which he made clear that the Republican mid-term election strategy would rely, once again, on painting the party as the only reliable guardian of the country's safety.

With anxiety running high about Iraq, the economy, the botched response to Hurricane Katrina and corruption scandals in the Republican Party, the President's approval rating remains below 40 per cent.

Is the American electorate still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on national security? The anger and recriminations of the past two days would suggest that the President's prospects are slowly dwindling.

- INDEPENDENT

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