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Washington Spin War Erupts Over Terror Alert

With 19 American diplomatic outposts closed around the world, the Obama administration’s spies are currently waging an intense campaign to track down the terrorists they believe are behind the latest threat to U.S. national security. Just today, a suspected U.S. drone strike killed four alleged al Qaeda members in Yemen, as the State Department evacuated ...

MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

With 19 American diplomatic outposts closed around the world, the Obama administration’s spies are currently waging an intense campaign to track down the terrorists they believe are behind the latest threat to U.S. national security. Just today, a suspected U.S. drone strike killed four alleged al Qaeda members in Yemen, as the State Department evacuated its embassy there and urged U.S. citizens in the country to "depart immediately." Meanwhile, in Washington, a second front has opened up: the terror alert spin war.

In newspaper columns and television hits, a furious battle is being waged over how to understand the current threat. In one corner, skeptics of the Obama administration’s national security credentials are arguing that the terror alert is yet another component of the White House’s elaborate Benghazi cover-up. In the other corner, privacy rights activists are clamoring that the latest threat is simply an underhanded effort to justify intelligence-gathering practices at the embattled National Security Agency.

It all makes for a boisterous Washington brawl.

For the hawks who spy a cover-up, the allegations of politicizing terror turn on the timing of the administration’s terror alert. On Monday, the conservative journalist Bill Gertz reported in the Washington Free Beacon that the Obama administration has known of this threat for months. Gertz’s sources tell him that intelligence reporting has described the threat as primarily directed toward 22 consulates and embassies, and that Sunday had been pegged as the putative date for the attack, though no such event took place.

"Why is this coming out now? Is the administration trying to suck up news coverage with the embassy threats to distract attention from what the CIA was doing in Benghazi?" an official with access to threat data asked Gertz, referring to a recent CNN report alleging that the CIA was putting heavy pressure on employees not to describe its activities at the Libyan outpost. That report also suggested that the CIA may have been using the Benghazi post as a transit point for shipping surface-to-air missiles from Libya to Syrian rebels. Both allegations, if proven true, have the potential to give the Benghazi scandal new life — and create a whole new set of headaches for the White House, which by now wants nothing more than for the whole thing to go away.

The White House, of course, has its own explanation, critics be damned. According to administration officials, the timing of the terror alert was tied to intercepted communications between al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri and Nasser al-Wahishi, the head of its affiliate al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Obama administration officials allege that Zawahiri ordered Wahishi to carry out an attack, which they say prompted a broad warning, including the embassy shutdowns.

But Obama’s skeptics aren’t buying it. "If you would lie about Benghazi and make up the story about the cause being a YouTube video, what else wouldn’t you do?" a former White House intelligence official told the Beacon.

A similar line of reasoning has privacy rights activists sounding an equally conspiratorial note. The intercepted communications between Zawahiri and Wahishi — an intelligence coup if there ever was one — are being attributed to the work of the NSA, which over the course of the past two months has been rocked by revelations of the full reach of its intelligence-gathering capabilities. By getting credit for possibly stopping an attack on a U.S. diplomatic post, the NSA is getting a rare bit of good PR (critically, officials now emphasize that the initial tip on the attack was not picked up by the agency). That has privacy rights advocates thinking that the terror alert is nothing more than a ruse to justify the intelligence community’s intrusive activities. By hyping the agency’s importance to national security, critics argue, the White House is able to drum up fear and justify mass-surveillance tactics.

As with the allegations of a cover-up, the charge of fear-mongering turns on the timing of the latest alert. "The NSA takes in threat information every day. You have to ask, why now? What makes this information different?" Amie Stepanovich, a lawyer with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told the Guardian. "The NSA’s choice to publish these threats at this time perpetuates a culture of fear and unquestioning deference to surveillance in the United States."

Ironically, the White House’s response to its conspiratorially minded critics on both the right and the left is in this case one and the same: the intercepted communication between Zawahiri and Wahishi. But that is unlikely to stop the Washington spin war from grinding on and the issue of politicized intelligence from continuing to occupy pundits. Of course, nearly every terror alert comes with an accompanying spin war, even if this one has been particularly intense. In these situations, ironclad facts are hard to come by since the true nature of the threat is muddled. Fear that a given threat may actually be the one exacerbates the sense of uncertainty. Inevitably, someone steps in to fill these gaps, often to advance his or her own agenda.

In defense of these critics, there is a rich history in Washington of using terror alerts for political ends. With the re-election of President George W. Bush hanging in the balance in 2004, for example, officials in his administration pressured then-Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge to increase the terror alert level. Ridge interpreted the request as a politically minded move that would benefit the president against then-Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, who was seen as weak on national security. The alert was not raised, but the chain of events serves as a searing reminder of how the White House can use terror alerts for its own ends.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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