Column: Innocuous phrases can have far-reaching consequences

You knew it was probably important when the TV networks interrupted their Sunday afternoon programming to air an announcement from Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge.

In his quiet, reserved manner, Ridge said “new and unusually specific information about where al-Qaeda would like to attack,” had led the government to raise the threat level to Code Orange for the financial services sector in New York City, northern New Jersey and Washington, D.C.

At the time, Ridge did not say the information included photographs and plans for buildings in those areas that had been found on a laptop computer owned by a Pakistani who appeared to be a communications specialist for al-Qaeda.

That came later as the administration tried to defend itself from the political reverberations from Ridge’s praise of President Bush’s leadership in the war against terror that came near the end of his statement.

Political commentators with Democratic leanings accused the administration of timing the Aug. 1 warning to soften the expected Democratic National Convention “bounce” for presidential candidate John Kerry. The DNC was held the week before in Boston.

What few realized – besides those who regularly read press releases from federal departments and agencies – was that Ridge’s allusion to the President’s fight against terrorism wasn’t that unusual.

Looking back at recent releases and speech texts issued by USDA, for example, you find that the majority contain references to President Bush’s policies or Bush administration efforts which have little to do with USDA’s mission or activities.

“Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman today announced that USDA would fully implement President Bush’s directive to sustain the environmental benefits of the Conservation Reserve Program by offering early enrollments…” reads a release from Aug. 4.

“Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman today announced, as a part of the Bush administration’s effort to expand the availability of broadband technology in rural areas, the approval of an $11.2-million loan to provide wireless broadband service to North Dakota…” read another.

Before my Republican friends start bombarding my in-box with e-mails, I will hasten to add that releases containing similar phrases were sent out by USDA under the last administration.

But the fact that both parties have done it doesn’t justify the use of taxpayer dollars to send what amounts to subliminal political messages or the damage that the Ridge statement may have done to the ongoing war on terror.

In defending the administration against the political fallout, someone revealed that the information came from a laptop discovered when Pakistani and CIA agents arrested Mohammed Neem Noor Kahn and persuaded him to continue sending e-mails to his contacts in al-Qaeda.

Once the word got out that Kahn was no longer working solely for al-Qaeda, the messages stopped flowing.

The little phrases in USDA and other agency releases seem innocuous enough – most editors cut them out anyway – but in the case of the Ridge announcement only time will tell what opportunities for dealing more damage to al-Qaeda were lost.

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