When U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller recently held a televised press conference to announce that terrorists were seeking to strike at us this summer, and publicized mug shots of some of the suspects in the process, I turned to my son and laughingly said: “Just watch what happens now! The criticism’s going to be along the lines of,  “Why is the Bush administration alarming the public unnecessarily?” Or “Why are they racially profiling these suspects?” Or ?Why didn’t they tell us about this sooner?” Or “Why did they have to tell us at all, since it only increases the danger by giving the terrorists advance notice that we’re on to them?” “

One way or another, I told my son, the media and their left-leaning political allies are going to find a way to attack this latest administration effort. Of course, the 9/11 commissioninvestigation is about exactly the same sort of thing: What did Bush and company know before 9/11, and what should they have known – and what should they have done differently from what they did? The whole point of that exercise seems, more and more, to be about raising doubts in the minds of the public concerning Bush’s performance in the months preceding those devastating attacks. And it has had exactly that corrosive effect, just as its most vociferous proponents had hoped.

Now, imagine we do get attacks of this sort in the summer, as feared. And imagine it turns out afterward that the Bush administration had in its possession photos of real suspects, just like those mugshots shown by Ashcroft and Mueller the other day – but, for whatever reason, the administration had neglected to share them with the public. Wouldn’t that be an invitation for renewed accusations and investigations? Wouldn’t that lead to still another commission whose not-so-hidden agenda would be to stir the same critical pot, create further embarrassment for the president and erode the confidence of the electorate?

Just imagine the brouhaha if it came out, after such an event, that our government had advance information about a potential attack but hadn’t fully publicized it.

So can anyone blame the administration for wanting to go public now and get the information out? Well, it seems The New York Times, bless its fair-minded editorial heart, can. Still, the Times managed to come up with a negative spin on this that even I hadn’t thought of. It seems that Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge was not present at the Ashcroft-Mueller press conference and that he did not raise the administration’s color-coded alert status in sympathy with the Justice Department announcement. So the Times moved in swiftly.

“Attorney General John Ashcroft and Robert Mueller III . . . created unease on Wednesday with their vague warning that Al Qaeda is planning an attack in the United States,” said a Times editorial on May 29. “It wasn’t so much the grimly familiar warning,” added the editorial writer. “It was the absence of Tom Ridge.”

Mr. Ridge, said the writer, “had been on television that very morning assuring viewers that there was no new intelligence requiring an increase in the threat level. That left everyone wondering what to make of Mr. Ashcroft’s different message.”

So the Times was confused along with “everyone” else? Well, I didn’t feel the least bit confused. The color-coded threat level system that the administration instituted after 9/11 has often been derided as being imprecise and likely to lead to growing complacency. When you raise the threat level every time a new hat drops, it not only increases costs for federal, state and local authorities, it causes people to become jaded and pay less attention to the warnings. And, of course, the Times has been among the color-coded system’s most vocal critics for just these reasons.

So why should we expect the administration to link every announcement concerning the ongoing risks of terrorism to changes in the threat level as the Times seems to demand? The Times itself noted that “the official explanation (was) that Mr. Ashcroft just wanted to show the pictures of wanted terrorists . . .” That seems a perfectly rational explanation to a simple guy like me. Should the administration, in the Times’s view, raise the threat level each time it needs to put out new information? Wouldn’t that undermine the effectiveness of the system and fuel the crescendo of criticism from papers like the Times and other anti-Bush partisans?

But of course the Times sees through the murk here. Ashcroft’s comments “about terrorists perhaps wanting to disrupt the election, presumably to hurt the incumbent,” they tell us, “were horribly inappropriate.” Concludes the Gray Lady of journalism: “the administration needs to be far more competent and consistent — and apolitical — when it talks about threats.”

So, in their view, Ashcroft really had an ulterior motive: to win sympathy for the president. Never mind the possibility that he really was serious about apprehending terrorists before they can act and really did seek to make critical information available to the public in advance, in the hope that public awareness could contribute to terrorism prevention. No, says the Times, Ashcroft’s announcement was nothing more than a political ploy designed to help the president.

You have to wonder what sort of ulterior motive the Times itself has when it relentlessly attacks the Bush administration like this ? for not acting preemptively enough before 9/11 but then for acting too preemptively afterward, or for raising the terrorist threat level too frequently, but then for not raising it at the drop of every new FBI hat.

Does partisanship always have to edge out journalistic fair-mindedness? Or is it just something that’s unique to this present unfortunate hour on our political clock?

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