John Ashcroft - Minister Of Fear
By Dick Meyer -- CBS News' 'Against The Grain'
WASHINGTON (CBS/AP) - That Ashcroft overstated the threat of the Padilla
Plot... shows with egregious clarity how willing Ashcroft is to use scare-tactics to
grab headlines, control the news agenda and make himself look good.
Why is our own attorney general always trying to scare us?
In his latest Against the Grain commentary, CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer says its
time for President Bush to rein him in.
Who needs terrorists when we have John Ashcroft to scare us out of our pants?
The way the attorney general detonated the "dirty bomber" case this week
completes his metamorphosis from a common press hog to a genuine fear monger.
That Ashcroft insisted that he had to scoop all the other terror warriors (Mssrs.
Mueller, Wolfowitz and Thompson) and make the announcement about Jose
Padilla, a.k.a. Abdullah Al Muhajir, in a panicky performance from Moscow shows
what a camera-moth Ashcroft is.
That Ashcroft overstated the threat of the Padilla Plot and of "dirty bombs" as
weapons of mass destruction, shows with egregious clarity how willing Ashcroft is
to use scare-tactics to grab headlines, control the news agenda and make himself
In his Monday statement, Ashcroft said, "In apprehending Al Muhajir as he sought
entry into the United States, we have disrupted an unfolding terrorist plot to attack
the United States by exploding a radioactive 'dirty bomb.'"
By Monday night, my colleague Jim Stewart, was reporting that FBI sources were
"backing off" Ashcroft's assertion that there was a specific, developed, real plan to
use a "dirty bomb" in the U.S.
By Tuesday morning, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, the
Administration's hardest hard-liner, was telling CBS News that, " I don't think there
was actually a plot beyond some fairly loose talk and [Al Muhajir's] coming in here
obviously to plan further deeds."
By Wednesday morning, White House sources were telling USA Today that
Ashcroft had been chastised for overplaying the Padilla Plot.
On Monday, Ashcroft also said that, "a radioactive 'dirty bomb' involves exploding
a conventional bomb that not only kills victims in the immediate vicinity, but also
spreads radioactive material that is highly toxic to humans and can cause mass
death and injury."
In truth, while "dirty bombs" are extremely dangerous, it is an exaggeration to say
they will cause "mass death and injury." The conventional explosion that initiates a
"dirty bomb" can cause death and destruction in the immediate vicinity of the blast.
But the effects of the radiation that is then spread are long-term and very
uncertain. Perhaps the worst effects of a "dirty bomb" are fear and panic. Ashcroft
did his part.
The crazy thing is that Al Muhajir does seem to be an actual bad guy. And al Qaida
is actually interested in using "dirty bombs." It is unquestionably a success that he
was apprehended. Ashcroft didn't need to exaggerate the threat and scare us more
than necessary to get some credit for that success.
This is a pattern with the attorney general. In October, Ashcroft presided over two
general warnings about impending acts of terror. In his October 29 warning, he
said, "the Administration has concluded based on information developed that there
may be additional terrorist attacks within the U.S. and against U.S. interests over
the next week."
Ashcroft was gently criticized then for scaring, not calming, in a way that didn't
make us safer or more prepared.
The same was true in April when he put on another hastily arranged road
announcement, this time in Pittsburgh, to warn that banks in the Northeast could
be terror targets. "It's important to note that there is no specific threat to any
specific institution," Ashcroft said. "We are not asking the banks to close, nor
urging people to stay away from banks."
So why bother to make the announcement?
Well, it was a slow Friday and he had a good chance of leading all three network
The administration is taking heat lately for timing its news making to further its
political agenda. President Bush proposed the new homeland security cabinet
agency just as Congress was starting its "connect the dots" hearings and as an FBI
whistleblower was preparing to testify. The hearings continued as the Padilla Plot
Minister of Propaganda Ari Fleischer hates to hear stuff like that. "Look," he said,
"these very few people who want to make such an outlandish political accusation
represent the most cynical among the most partisan, and they're not to be taken
seriously." Go ahead, Ari, call us unpatriotic.
Personally, I think Fleischer should be proud of his team's agenda control prowess.
They kept the homeland security agency announcement a secret, they timed it to
eclipse some negative stories and to give the proposal more momentum in
Congress. That's called politics. Or governing. Or statecraft. Democrats and
reporters shouldn't be "shocked, shocked." And White House spinners shouldn't
ride around on their high horsies.
But scaring people is another matter. And it's turning the Department of Justice
into the Ministry of Fear.
Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is
Editorial Director of CBSNews.com based in Washington.
E-mail your questions and comments to AgainstTheGrain@cbsnews.com By Dick
Meyer © MMII, CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved.