Leonard Pitts Jr.
I have nothing against Tom Ridge.
Granted, his color-coded threat alert system seems nearly useless as a way of spreading anything but anxiety. And his advocacy of duct tape as a security measure was one of 2003’s great moments of unintended comedy.
For all that, though, the homeland security secretary strikes me as a man doing the best he can with a thankless job. Complain all you want about his incessant warnings of attacks that never come. Let it be discovered in the wake of some future assault that Ridge sat on information, however vague, that might have prevented it, and they will string him up in front of the Capitol. And none of the people calling him an alarmist will mutter a word in his defense.
So I tend to sympathize with the man when he’s forced to fend off critics who question the timing or necessity of his terror warnings. However, Ridge said something last week that I can’t allow to pass without challenge.
You will recall that the nation’s terror alert level was recently raised, largely due to information that was revealed to be several years old. This led some critics to suggest Ridge acted less from the need to respond to a terrorist threat than from the need to snatch the spotlight from John Kerry.
Ridge’s reply? “We don’t do politics in the Department of Homeland Security,” he said.
It would be nice to believe the department is a politics-free zone. But it has become increasingly obvious that no such thing exists in the Bush White House. I feel constrained to remind Ridge that he serves an administration where credibility is not exactly at a surplus. More to the point, an administration that has never been reticent about subordinating truth to politics.
The disastrous war in Iraq, to which President Bush rushed based upon shaky intelligence and a true believer’s zeal, is but the most obvious example. The president’s brazen dismissal of his own rationale for that war is but the latest.
In between his claim that weapons of mass destruction were coming to get us and his more recent admission that weapons of mass destruction don’t matter and never really did, lie many other examples of the malleability of truth and the pre-eminence of politics in the Bush White House.
This is, after all, the same administration that suppressed a report from its own Department of Agriculture, which found a link between potentially dangerous airborne bacteria and animal waste at large farms.
The same one that edited a warning about global warming out of a report from the Environmental Protection Agency.
The same one that rewrote a Health Department study because it documented racial bias among health-care providers.
The same one that axed a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web page that said education about condom use does not lead to increased sexual activity.
The same one that killed a National Cancer Institute statement that abortion does not increase a woman’s chance of getting breast cancer.
And it is, I’m sure, just happy coincidence that this wholesale rewriting of fact pleases precisely the sort of folks — anti-abortion activists, big business, religious fundamentalists — who are most likely to donate to and vote for the president.
As I said, Tom Ridge has my sympathy. But before he protests his credibility too loudly, he might want to stop and consider the company he keeps. As a member of the most ideologically driven, truth-challenged administration since Nixon, he’s in a poor position to demand that we take him on faith.
So the secretary will have to forgive me if I’m a tad skeptical of his claim that they don’t do politics in the department of homeland security.
Why in the world would they not do it there? They do it everywhere else.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: