During the George W. Bush administration, the public was regaled repeatedly with warnings that intelligence had determined, through an in‐depth analysis of “chatter” and other such information, that al‐Qaida was about to strike again.
Thus in May 2004 — a few months before the presidential election — Attorney General John Ashcroft, standing beside the grim‐faced director of the FBI, Robert Mueller, announced that “credible intelligence from multiple sources” indicated that al‐Qaida was planning an attack on the United States in the next few months and specifically intended to “hit the United States hard.” He also pointed out ominously that the group had announced that it had completed “90 percent of the arrangements” for an attack.
Two months later, Department of Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge relayed a similar warning.
No terrorist disaster transpired or was attempted during the remainder of 2004. Of course, in the view of many, calamity did nonetheless ensue with the re‐election in November of George W. Bush — partly the result, they darkly suspect, of the artful, if unfulfilled, scare‐mongering earlier in the year.
And the 2004 warnings were hardly unusual. A year earlier, John Negroponte, then the U.S. representative at the United Nations, declared there to be “a high probability that within two years al‐Qaida will attempt an attack using a nuclear or other weapon of mass destruction.” And in 2007 DHS Director Michael Chertoff disclosed that his gut was telling him there’d be an attack that summer. Later that year U.S. intelligence was reportedly concluding that al‐Qaida was “marshaling its reconstituted forces for a spectacular new attack on the United States.” There were also innumerable raisings of that color‐coded threat indicator we all remember so fondly.
Regrettably, the Obama administration has never subjected massive homeland security expenditures to the kind of sober and systematic evaluation they so richly deserve after a decade of drunken‐sailor profligacy. And it has continued to find threatening proto‐al‐Qaidas popping up everywhere.However, it has reduced the official hysteria level. Only very occasionally have Obama’s representatives characterized the extremely limited terrorist threat as “existential.” The inflated phrase, “Global War on Terrorism,” has been consigned to well‐deserved oblivion. And the administration has mostly eschewed generalized warnings of the Ashcroft‐Ridge‐Chertoff sort. Because the current warnings and embassy closings across the Muslim world are coming from a less fear‐mongering administration, then, it is possible there is more to them than there was to the older ones, and that the perfect failure record of such warnings will be broken. But it must be said that the specifics — insofar as they exist — in these warnings don’t look any more convincing than those of old.