Top officials from the George W. Bush White House are disputing claims in former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge’s coming book that they pressured him to adjust the terror threat level for political gain.
“We went over backwards repeatedly and with great discipline to make sure politics did not influence any national security and homeland security decisions,” former White House chief of staff Andy Card told POLITICO. “The clear instructions were to make sure politics never influenced anything.”
“I’m a little mystified,” former homeland security adviser Fran Townsend added in an interview. “Never in my experience did I see any political influence exerted on the cabinet secretary.”
According to promotional materials for Ridge’s coming book, “The Test of Our Times: America Under Siege…And How We Can Be Safe Again,” the ex-homeland security secretary and governor of Pennsylvania accuses the Bush White House of pushing him to “raise the national security alert just before the 2004 Election.”
A description for the book on the publisher’s website also says Ridge “was pressured to connect homeland security to the international ‘war on terror’” and that he “pushed for a plan (defeated because of turf wars) to integrate DHS and FEMA disaster management in New Orleans and other areas before Hurricane Katrina.”
Townsend said Thursday that the accusations do not match her recollection of events and that any suggestion that the White House’s political team tried to alter the threat level is untrue.
“Under no circumstance was Tom Ridge or anyone else directed to change the threat level,” Townsend said. “It didn’t work that way, and it certainly didn’t work that way in 2004. It was always an apolitical process.”
Ridge did not respond to numerous requests for comment from POLITICO and a number of former top political and national security officials within the Bush administration declined to respond to Ridge, referring POLITICO to Card and Townsend.
“At no point when I was working with him did he express concerns about the raising or the lowering of the threat alert level,” Townsend said. “Never in my experience did I see any political influence exerted on the cabinet secretary.”
Townsend and Card also said that the process used to change the terror threat level made almost any claim of political influence impossible. Both said any change originated with DHS and was then referred to the National Security Council. The NSC then made a recommendation to the president which was then either agreed to or rejected.
Card insisted that he does not “remember the president ever overturning a recommendation” from DHS and NSC on any adjustment to the threat level.
“That would definitely be an overstatement because to my knowledge the president always took the advice of the National Security Council,” Card said of Ridge’s claim. “I remember saying ‘no decisions are going to be based on politics’” regarding the threat levels.
Card also disputed Ridge’s claim about a plan to specifically integrate DHS and FEMA disaster relief prior to Katrina.
“He did have a reorganization plan and there was a huge debate that I’m not sure was limited to FEMA,” Card said. “It was about do we reorganize all these offices.”
“There were lots of discussions around the bureaucracy of DHS,” the former White House chief of staff said. “Literally all of Tom Ridge’s world belonged to someone else prior to his becoming secretary.”
Townsend said she tried to reach out to Ridge before speaking with POLITICO, but was told he is on vacation. She said though that a number of ex-Bush officials she talked to Thursday were surprised by the news.
“People are surprised,” she said. “I’ve heard from folks asking me if this was consistent with anything I knew and I just keep saying no.”
“I didn’t even know Tom was even really writing a book,” said Card.
Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan, whose own tell all book was disputed by several top members of the Bush team, suggested in an email to POLITICO that Ridge’s claim may have some validity, though he predicted that if the former cabinet secretary cannot completely back his claim his former colleagues will push back hard.
“It is one thing if he is saying he simply felt it was politically motivated. It is quite another if he has specific information showing it was politically motivated,” McClellan wrote.
“There is no question exploiting the war on terror was viewed by the political strategists as integral to branding the president as a strong and decisive leader who will keep America safe,” he continued. ”If Secretary Ridge is making the serious allegation that the terror alert was driven primarily by political concerns late in the campaign, he is going to be expected to back it up with specific information. If he can, it is a serious matter. If he cannot, then I suspect critics will pounce.”