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Elevated Threat

IN 2002, REPUBLICANS RAN ON THE war on terrorism. In 2004, they ran on the war on terrorism. And, last week, Karl Rove informed the country that, in 2006, they plan to run on…the war on terrorism. It’s the political equivalent of Groundhog Day.

Of course, every two years, the specifics change slightly. In 2002, the White House argued that, because Democrats wanted labor protections in the Homeland Security bill, they would leave the United States vulnerable to another September 11. In 2004, they argued that, because John Kerry was a serial flip-flopper with no backbone, he’d leave the United States vulnerable to another September 11. And, in 2006, according to Rove, they will argue that, because Democrats care too much about civil liberties, they’ll leave the United States vulnerable to another September 11. As with any familiar recipe, you can add an ingredient here or there, but it tastes pretty much the same in the end.

The White House strategy is hardly surprising. National security has worked for them before, and, after Social Security, Katrina, and assorted scandals, they aren’t exactly swamped with good alternatives. But there’s a problem: Every two years, September 11 recedes further into the distance. In the late nineteenth century, Republicans won elections by reminding voters that Democrats had supported secession. In the mid-twentieth century, Democrats won elections by reminding voters that Republicans had presided over the Great Depression. But, after a while, times change, and old attacks lose their zing. You could almost detect a note of desperation in Dick Cheney’s recent lament that, “as we get farther away from September 11, some in Washington are yielding to the temptation to downplay the ongoing threat to our country and to back away from the business at hand. This is perhaps a natural impulse, as time passes and alarms don’t sound.

And the impulse extends far beyond Washington. A recent poll found that only 5 percent of Americans consider terrorism the most important issue facing the country—down from 19 percent on Election Day 2004. And, as the public focus on terrorism recedes, the balance between national security and civil liberties shifts. In the summer of 2002, according to a CNN survey, only 11 percent of Americans thought President Bush’s war on terrorism had restricted civil liberties too much. Now, 38 percent say so— double the number that say he should restrict them more. In December 2001, 64 percent of Americans thought a wartime president should “have the authority to make changes in the rights usually guaranteed by the Constitution.” This month, it was only 36 percent. Cheney, Rove, and the gang can defend their electronic-surveillance programs all they want. They can demand the full reauthorization of the Patriot Act until they’re blue in the face. But it won’t work unless Americans are more worried about terrorism than they are now.

So look for the White House to find ways of making the terrorist alarms sound, just as it did two years ago. In 2004, the Bush administration told Americans again and again that they were likely to be attacked—soon. In late May, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft called a press conference to suggest that Al Qaeda might launch a pre-election attack in the United States, as it had in Spain. But the Homeland Security Department poured cold water on the idea, noting that there was no new intelligence to buttress his claim.

In early July, however, then-Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge picked up the thread himself, grabbing front-page headlines with his statement that “Al Qaeda is moving forward with its plans to carry out a large-scale attack in the United States in an effort to disrupt our democratic process.” But, when The New York Times interviewed more than 20 U.S. and European counter-terrorism officials about Ridge’s suggestion, they mostly dismissed it—saying Al Qaeda would strike when it had the best chance of success, not according to the political calendar. ”On a scale of one to a hundred,” said a senior American intelligence official about Ridge’s claim, “I’d give it about a two.” A Washington Post investigation also found little evidence of an election year plot. And Representative Jim Turner—who, as ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, received classified briefings on Al Qaeda—said that Ridge’s statements “appear to have no basis.” Nonetheless, other top Bush officials kept publicly speculating about a pre-election attack. In early August, Ridge raised the terrorist threat level for key cities and industries. One week after the election, he lowered it again.

To be sure, no one without a top-secret security clearance can know exactly what information the Bush administration had. And, if politics came into play, at least some of it was the nonpartisan, CYA kind: Far better to warn of an attack that never comes than to remain silent and appear taken by surprise.Still, in 2005, the Bush administration’s rhetoric became markedly less alarmist. When New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that terrorists might be plotting an attack on New York’s subways last October, administration officials actually downplayed the danger. There is no obvious reason the Al Qaeda threat should have been significantly smaller in 2005 than in 2004, and yet, judging from Bush administration rhetoric, you could easily have thought it was.

Which brings us back to Cheney’s lament. Ironically, it is precisely the administration’s failure to sound alarms in 2005 that contributed to the public’s growing inattention to the terrorist threat. If the administration starts sounding them again—holding high-profile press conferences to announce vague new threats—the press will face a serious test. Will it aggressively investigate the possibility that the claims are more about politics than national security, even though such investigations will produce a vicious response from administration spokesmen? How courageously the press does its job could help determine whether the White House strategy succeeds yet again.

None of this is to suggest that the jihadist threat isn’t real. The Bush administration should be worried about another attack. Dick Cheney may even be right that many Americans have succumbed to a false sense of security. But, if they have, it is at least partly because Cheney and his colleagues have degraded the very idea of a war on terrorism by so relentlessly using it as a partisan club. If America is at war, it’s at war—not only in election years.

This article appeared in the February 6, 2006 issue of the magazine.