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Bush on defensive over timing of terrorism warnings

Critics skeptical that alerts not politically driven

DALLAS -- After lying low throughout the Democratic convention last week, President Bush seized the initiative in the campaign over the past two days, announcing plans for an overhaul of the nation's intelligence services just after his administration issued new warnings about possible terrorist attacks.

But even with Bush on the offensive, administration officials have faced questions about the timing of their announcements, especially following reports that the terror alert was based on information from before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Former presidential candidate Howard Dean, the most prominent Democrat to voice skepticism about the administration's announcements this week, yesterday described the timing as a "peculiar coincidence," coming so soon after Senator John F. Kerry's nomination speech.

In particular, Dean seized on reports that the new terror alerts were partly based on old information gleaned from an Al Qaeda operative captured last month and on computer files that indicated the terrorist group was casing US financial sector buildings before the Sept. 11 attacks.

"If this information was three years old, and if this Al Qaeda operative, the most recent capture, was on July 13, that means that this administration knew about this at least three weeks ago, that the information was three years old, that they could have chosen any date they wanted to reveal this to the public," Dean said on MSNBC. "Isn't it unusual they might choose two days after the Democratic National Convention, when John Kerry was in the middle of his bounce?"

White House officials pushed back yesterday against suggestions that the terror alert had political underpinnings -- and denied the information was old, or even outdated, as some intelligence analysts cautioned on Monday. "I think it's wrong and plain irresponsible to suggest that it was based on old information," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan, traveling with Bush on Air Force One to appearances in Texas yesterday.

Fred Fielding, a Republican member of the Sept. 11 commission, backed the White House position, saying the information used to heighten the terror alert was "very precise, very particular, which is unusual for a terrorist threat."

"I don't think that there's any evidence at all of this being politically motivated," Fielding said.

Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge -- who in announcing the new terror warnings on Sunday credited President Bush's approach to the war on terror with making the discoveries possible, helping fuel criticism of political motivations -- also dismissed allegations that the presidential campaign played any role in his department's assessments. "We don't do politics," Ridge said yesterday.

But the administration's defensive posture suggested that, at a minimum, the political campaign has made it difficult for Bush to address terrorism in a vacuum, however innocent his motives.

"Every time something happens that's not good for President Bush, he plays this trump card, which is terrorism," Dean said on CNN. "His whole campaign is based on the notion that 'I can keep you safe; therefore, in times of difficulty for America, stick with me,' and then out comes Tom Ridge. It's just impossible to know how much of this is real and how much of this is politics."

The Kerry campaign distanced itself from those comments, quickly issuing a statement that instead used the new threat information to vow that it would hunt down Al Qaeda if elected and to criticize the Bush administration for not having done more to improve homeland security in the past three years.

At the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning think tank, former Clinton-era National Security Council official PJ Crowley said he believed that the Bush administration had used terror warnings for political purposes in the past, although he thought this weekend's was legitimate.

Specifically, he cited a news conference called by Attorney General John Ashcroft in June and another called by Ridge in July, each issuing vague warnings about Al Qaeda's intent to strike the United States sometime before the November presidential election. In neither of those cases did the administration issue new information to justify the timing of the reminder, unlike Sunday's announcement about materials found in Pakistan.

Still, Crowley noted, while the ability to change the subject back to the Al Qaeda threat does help the incumbent president by showing him in charge and making decisions in the war on terrorism, it also holds risks by implicitly reminding the public that the Iraq invasion did not address the perpetrators of Sept. 11.

"An incumbent administration always has some ability to set the agenda, but I think this is a double-edged sword, because as the administration acknowledges the ongoing threat Al Qaeda poses, it once again calls into question the validity of its decision to go into Iraq. . . . It causes the American people to scratch their heads and say 'Why are we devoting all this energy and resources to a country that had nothing to do with the threat?' "

Savage reported from Washington.

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