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When Animals Attack! --Matt Taibbi

"People focus too much on colors. It could be numbers, it could be animals."

-- Tom Ridge, former Homeland Security director, on proposed changes to the color-coded warning system.
It could be animals?

TERROR ALERT! Threat level: Seychelles sheath-tailed bat! Al-Qaeda mobilizes: Black-faced Lion Tamarind alert!

According to the Associated Press, research has shown that the color-coded alert system has been problematic mainly because "the public found it confusing." Polls showed that a majority of Americans had trouble grasping such murky concepts as We're Fucked! and Run For Your Lives! and Red Alert!

Logic would tend to dictate, then, that if you can't handle red or orange, you're probably not going to do too much better with Bactrian Camel! But we're not dealing with logic here, we're dealing with the language of the War on Terrorism-- and within the parameters of that cubist comedy, all of this makes perfect sense.

The terror-alert system, after all, has never been anything more than a running comedy of preposterous, redundant paranoia.

Insofar as it related to the average person, it has always been completely absurd on its face. No one ever explained to any of us what the hell we were supposed to do with the warnings that were issued. The highest ranking security officials in the country would get together from time to time and, by means of some mysterious process of deliberation whose formulae were never revealed to the public, announce a higher or lower threat level.

And if it was code orange -- a "high" risk-- who knew what that meant? Did it mean expect at any minute to get your head blown off? Did it mean look both ways on the road to your son's tee ball game? Who knew? They didn't even pretend to explain.

Comedians, sensing a trap, hesitated for months to make jokes about it. It wasn't until the waning days of 2002 that people like Conan O'Brien ("Red means we're in extreme danger, and champagne-fuchsia means we're being attacked by Martha Stewart") realized that the burden of explaining this business to the public had more or less officially been farmed out to late-night standups.

Now, with a new Homeland Security Director in place (Michael Chertoff), the system is being reviewed. Hilariously, the Department has hired a psychologist to try -- using an academic's advanced expertise -- to identify the "problems" with the previous system. That psychologist, Roxanne Cohen-Silver of UC-Irvine, recently revealed that her research indicated that perhaps the previous system was "too vague."

"To just say 'Be alert, look around,' that's a little too vague," she said last week -- adding quietly that, with regard to terror-alert announcements, "maybe it would be advisable not to hold a press conference unless officials can give people something they can do about it."

It took them four years to figure this out. You can't make this stuff up. This is paranoid lunacy on a level that would have been beyond an Orwell or a Zamyatin to invent. It's not even dystopia. It's slapstick. And somehow the whole country managed to swallow it for almost twelve hundred days without so much as a hiccup.

For all that, there was always a vast gap between the openly ridiculous ostensible purpose of the terror alerts, and their probable real purpose. The alerts appeared to accomplish two things for the administration. One, they would have allowed it to cover its ass in the event of an attack actually occurring. Second, they conveniently reminded the public of its duty to remain in a dumb animal panic straight through the 2004 elections, which the administration went to great pains to make into a referendum on George Bush's national security credentials.

With regard to that second point, a piece of startling news slithered into print last week and somehow managed to avoid being made into a big deal by the allegedly Bush-hating liberal media. In fact there were two such highly combustible news items last week, both of which died without any furor.

The first was the revelation, hinted at in the British press for more than a month, that then-Mi6 chief Richard Dearlove told Tony Blair nine months before the invasion of Iraq that the U.S. intended to go to war no matter what, and that intelligence was "being fixed around the policy" by the Bush administration. This story, reported by the Sunday Times of London two weeks ago, was virtually stillborn in the U.S. press, with a small page 18 item in the Washington Post being a typical response.

The second was a series of casual remarks by Tom Ridge to the effect that in the six instances between 2002 and the fall elections last year that the threat level was raised from yellow to orange, the decision to make the change usually came from the White House, over the objections of the Homeland Security department. The decisions, Ridge said, often were based upon (and this is his own characterization) "flimsy" evidence.

"More often than not we were the least inclined to raise it," Ridge told reporters. "Sometimes we disagreed with the intelligence assessment. 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?' "

Think about how absurd this is. After 9/11 happens, the Bush administration creates a huge cabinet-level agency whose entire purpose is to be relentlessly, stringently paranoid about the possibility of terrorist attacks. Simultaneous to the creation of the DHS, the administration creates the color-coded alert system, which, as has been demonstrated, had absolutely no concrete purpose beyond generally scaring the shit out of the population.

Now it comes out that the Bush administration routinely overruled its own house paranoiac to unilaterally declare orange and red alerts. The White House, of course, doesn't have its own intelligence apparatus. In making a dissenting assessment of intelligence its judgments necessarily had to be entirely political.

We already knew that the timing of these alerts was extremely suspicious. The public has forgotten already, of course, but it's worth recalling now that just four days before Christmas in 2003, at a time when the country was still somewhat divided over whether or not to go to war in Iraq, the DHS announced a code orange alert. Just as the population was settling in for the holidays, in fact, Donald Rumsfeld made an unequivocal announcement:

"Indications [are] that [the] near-term attacks," he said, "will either rival or exceed the [9/11] attacks."

Then there was the code red in New York on July 29, 2004-- the same day that John Kerry made his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention. We were told, among other things, that al-Qaeda was planning on blowing up the Citibank building. News leaked out later that this intelligence was at least three years old.

At the time, everyone blamed Tom Ridge for this. It was Ridge, after all, who said of the Citibank threat: "The quality of this intelligence, based on multiple reporting streams in multiple locations, is rarely seen."

Now it comes out that it wasn't Ridge at all, but the White House, acting on its own initiative. Considering the timing of the alerts-- before elections in 2003, in a period when the administration was garnering support for the Iraq invasion, before the 2004 election-- the idea that the White House just pulled these stunts willy-nilly is criminal. Watergate started as a bunch of cheap frat pranks to knock Ed Muskie out of the race. This would be terrorizing 270 million people to go to war, and win an election. If that's what they did. And what does it look like?

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