FBI, Justice Department and Homeland Security Department officials aren’t talking much about the threat of a terrorist attack to disrupt the election in two weeks.
It hasn’t gone away; they’re just wary of saying anything in public that could prompt Democrats to charge the administration is playing up a terror threat to frighten voters.
It was far different in the months and weeks before the political conventions in July and August. Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge all openly discussed the seriousness of the threat.
By all accounts, many hundreds of law enforcement agents are working around the clock to prevent al-Qaida from pulling off the major attack that intelligence suggests the terrorist network wants to carry out before the Nov. 2 election.
But Ashcroft, Mueller and Ridge have been largely silent of late about a pre-election threat, and there has been no change in the nation’s color-coded threat level, which remains at the midpoint of yellow, or elevated.
Low profile from high-profile officials
Ashcroft has appeared several times in public in the past two weeks, mainly to talk about theft of intellectual property like movies and music. Mueller has kept a very low profile and made clear at headquarters that he wants the bureau kept out of the news. Ridge has kept public comments at a minimum.
Terror is a major issue in the presidential campaign. President Bush and Vice President Cheney and their Democratic opponents, Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards, spar often over who can best deal with the threat.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Bush said Monday the government remains worried that terrorists want to disrupt the U.S. election as they did in Spain, where the ruling party was defeated after commuter train attacks in March killed 191 people.
“We have no specific threat information, otherwise we would have — we would have let everybody know,” Bush told the AP.
Cheney said Tuesday in Ohio that “the ultimate threat” is the possible use by terrorists of a weapon of mass destruction against a U.S. target.
‘Playing on people's fears’
Kerry’s running mate, Edwards, accused Bush this week of “playing on people’s fears” by basing his campaign on fighting terrorism.
Campaigning and political speeches are far different from official government threat warnings, and some Democrats contend those have been subject to political manipulation.
“I am concerned that every time something happens that’s not good for President Bush, he plays this trump card, which is terrorism,” former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean said in August after warnings were issued for financial institutions in New York, New Jersey and Washington.
Although Kerry distanced himself from those comments — “I haven’t suggested that, and I won’t suggest that,” he said then — a dire new warning from the FBI or Homeland Security Department would raise new political red flags among Democrats.
“They could accuse the administration of doing things for political reasons instead of security reasons,” said Robert Shapiro, political science professor at Columbia University.
Correlation between threats, approval scores
Robb Willer, a Cornell University sociology professor, said his research shows that each time a terrorism warning is issued the president’s approval rating increases a couple of points the following week, as measured by the Gallup polling organization.
“This research suggests that individuals may respond to reminders of their mortality, like terror warnings, by supporting their current leaders,” Willer said.
For their part, administration officials say they are focused on the threat, not politics. Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said Tuesday the level of intensity among federal agents is nearly what it was in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
“We are doing everything we can within the law to protect the lives and liberties of all Americans by preventing another terrorist attack,” Corallo said. “No serious person would claim that politics has anything to do with the Justice Department’s efforts to disrupt and disable the threat.”
91 visa violators arrested
As part of the anti-terrorism effort, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say they have arrested more than 91 visa violators since Oct. 1, including several tagged for national security reasons.
Among those recently arrested were a 28-year-old Saudi who was stopped last year from boarding a commercial aircraft carrying a high-voltage stun gun. He was picked up for violating terms of a student visa. Another was a 34-year-old Jordanian, also a student visa violator, who was the subject of a “national security lookout,” officials said without providing further details.
Law enforcement officials acknowledge these arrests and thousands of FBI interviews of Muslims and others around the country have produced no evidence of an al-Qaida pre-election plot or arrests of known terror operatives. They also point out that the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers went virtually undetected before pulling off their attack.