Olbermann Questions Timing of Terror Alert ... Again

Another terror alert, another chance for Keith Olbermann to question whether it's politically motivated. There seems to be a pattern that when the Bush administration announces a terror alert, MSNBC's Countdown host speculates about whether it was politically timed to benefit the administration in some way. Only this time, while doing so again on Thursday night's show, Olbermann oddly used self-contradictory logic in admitting repeatedly that not only were administration members not the ones who decided to announce the latest terror alert, but that the White House has actually been downplaying the authenticity of the information that New York City authorities decided to take seriously.

Olbermann also found time to mock President Bush's speech on terrorism from earlier that day, saying the President was "returning to the theme of scaring the bejesus out of anybody who will listen." He later speculated to MSNBC analyst Craig Crawford that when a politician "seems to be using [the issue of terrorism] as a last line of personal political defense," does he risk "trivializing the issue" and "sounding like Joe McCarthy on communist infiltration?"

After leading the October 6 show with an update on Karl Rove's expected fourth grand jury appearance, Olbermann first raised the coincidental timing of the terror alert and sarcastically cautioned the audience, "Stop what you're thinking. It's just an amazing coincidence. The terrorists just happened to wait to make these threats until there's bad news about the administration that it needs to preempt. Just a coincidence." After making a similar sarcastic comment later, he got to an interview with Crawford in which he revealed that "we've cobbled together in the last couple of hours a list of at least 13 occasions that, on which, whenever there has been news that significantly impacted the White House negatively, there has been some sudden credible terror threat somewhere in this country," and then wondered, "How could the coincidence be so consistent?" Crawford agreed that "it is a pattern" and complained that "those of us who bring it up get accused of treason."

But when Olbermann later raised the same point with MSNBC terrorism analyst Evan Kohlman and wondered whether "somebody could really be playing domestic politics with terror," Kohlman shot down the theory, explaining that "I'm not sure it's generated of national politics" because "it's really coming from New York" and the "federal agencies that you would think would be spouting off President Bush's policy like the Department of Homeland Security are the ones that are pouring water on it."

In fact, Olbermann himself had even conveyed this information five times during the show, one example of which came during a plug at about 8:15pm EDT when he said of the terror alert, "New York acted on it. Washington seems to be downplaying it. Is there a threat or does somebody just want us to think there is?" So, according to Olbermann himself, the White House has actually been negating the authenticity of the terror threat, yet he still speculates that the terror alert was politically timed to benefit the White House. Are we to believe the Bush administration has someone planted in New York City's government to call terror alerts whenever Karl Rove gets into trouble?

Below is a transcript of the relevant parts of Thursday night's Countdown show:

Keith Olbermann, at about 8:07 pm EDT: "Remarkably enough, Karl Rove's possible legal problems were book-ended today by two pieces of terror news. Before, came a presidential speech on the war on terror. After, came a supposed terrorist threat to New York's subway system. Stop what you're thinking. It's just an amazing coincidence. The terrorists just happened to wait to make these threats until there's bad news about the administration that it needs to preempt. Just a coincidence. The threat in a moment. First, the speech that preceded it by hours. Mr. Bush returning to the theme of scaring the bejesus out of anybody who will listen, offering what was called a major speech on the war on terror, comparing the conflict to the fight against fascism and communism, comparing Osama bin Laden to both Hitler and Pol Pot. Perhaps making up for lost time, more than four years after the September 11th attacks, Osama bin Laden now back in the cross hairs as White House public enemy number one."

Olbermann played clips of Bush mentioning Osama bin Laden in his speech and clips of criticism from Nancy Pelosi, and then read a short item on Republican Senators siding against Bush in passing a bill to put limits on interrogation of detainees before proceeding to the story of the terror alert in New York City.

Olbermann: "But wait, this just in. Chatter pulling ahead of clatter down at the wire today with a late-day word of a bomb threat against the New York City subway system. That news breaking at 5:17 p.m. Eastern time, the start of rush hour. Law enforcement officials saying that the threat is, quote, 'specific to place, time and method.' And, as we mentioned, the method is bombing. Nobody would mention the time, though it inevitably leaked out: Second week of October. Instead, though, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announcing plans to flood the transit system with police officers, step up bag searches that were put into place after July's London bombings. The FBI man in New York saying much of the alleged planning has been interrupted by the authorities. A White House official, though, tells NBC News that it had previously discussed the so-called threat with the Department of Homeland Security, and that it has, quoting the White House official, 'doubtful credibility.' Overall message to New York's strap hangers: Be afraid, but not too much because we stepped in on this, but remember, be afraid anyway. Timing, coincidence."

Olbermann: "We'll take up some of the terror-specific elements in a moment with Evan Kohlman. First, back to the big picture, the President's speech included. Let's call in Craig Crawford, MSNBC analyst and author of Attack the Messenger. Good evening, Craig."

Craig Crawford: "Hi, there. You sounding a bit skeptical tonight."

Olbermann: "Yeah, and I'm going to raise this question as skeptically and bluntly as I can. It's not a question that doubts the existence of terror, nor the threat of terrorism. But we've cobbled together in the last couple of hours a list of at least 13 occasions that, on which, whenever there has been news that significantly impacted the White House negatively, there has been some sudden credible terror threat somewhere in this country. How could the coincidence be so consistent?"

Crawford: "It's a, it is a pattern. One of the most memorable was just after the Democratic Convention in the 2004 election when they talked about the threat to New York and even the World Bank, and it turned out that was based on intelligence that was three years old, even before 9/11. There is a pattern here, and I think it's difficult sometimes to take it at face value. But in these moments when it looks like a crisis, those of us who bring it up get accused of treason. That's what Howard Dean was accused of when he raised that after the Democratic Convention scare alert."

Olbermann: "About that, that was, I think, by the way, number 12 on the list. About the speech, and again, not to question the existence of terrorism, but if a prominent politician takes any issue and seems to be using it as a last line of personal political defense, does history, does our history not teach us and supposedly, the politician, that he risks trivializing the issue, that he risks sounding like Joe McCarthy on communist infiltration?"

Crawford: "The President has given this speech so many times now. It was a bit stronger in his assertion that we will stay the course until the bitter end, until we get victory. It was a very forceful speech. But in many ways, he just turned up the volume on a broken record."

Olbermann: But, Craig, as much as the speech, these speeches, this repeated speech might seem like white noise, there was something today that I don't recall hearing the President say before, that the terrorists' goal was no longer what he said it usually has been in the past, which is 'destroying our freedom,' but that their goal was to rally people in the Middle East to overthrow secular governments in the Middle East, which is what the international terrorism analysts have been saying since 2001. Did he just get the memo or did somebody say that would sell better here? Where did that replace, or how did that replace the old line today?"

Crawford: "I sense some test marketing out there on what arguments are working and what doesn't work. I think the toughest argument he tried to make in this speech is connecting the war in Iraq to the overall war on terror. I think a lot of people aren't buying that so much. The strongest argument is Iraq's such a mess, we can't leave, we can't leave the mess there, the chaos that would ensue in a civil war. And he's trying to make the connection that that would lead to more terror. I think the real problem with leaving, if he were really straight up and honest with the American people is that we can't afford chaos in a region where we get our oil supply. That was not so much mentioned in the speech."

At about 8:14 pm EDT, after asking a question about Republican Senator Rick Santorum's take on the President's speech, and before a commercial break, Olbermann says: "Back to the New York City subway threat. There is a threat, isn't there? Yes, says New York. Uhhhh, not so much, says Washington. ..."

[commercial break]

Olbermann, during a commercial break at about 8:15 pm EDT: "Security heightened on New York's subways, but the threat level was not raised. Authorities have known for days. They only said something today as rush hour began. New York acted on it. Washington seems to be downplaying it. Is there a threat or does somebody just want us to think there is? Countdown continues."

[commercial break]

Olbermann, returning from a commercial break: "Terrorist threats are beginning to take on the aura of prophets who predict the end of the world. What are literally doomsayers can tell you when, where, and even how, only we don't send police into the streets every time one of them shoots off his bazoo. Our fourth story in the Countdown, an additional problem about the latest supposed threat to the New York City subway system. Counterterrorism authorities in the federal government do not seem to find it as credible as the local ones in New York do. The U.S. official telling NBC News the source of the threat is the same one who provided the FBI and the military with information that led to the capture of a terror suspect in Baghdad last night. The source spoke of men being sent to New York to leave bombs in the subway, maybe in briefcases, maybe in baby carriages, during the second week of October. As other figures in Washington have told NBC News, the source has apparently given some accurate information in the past and some inaccurate. And there are reasons, they say, to doubt this new information. Evan Kohlman is the founder of GlobalTerrorAlert.com and an MSNBC analyst. Good evening to you, sir."

Evan Kohlman, MSNBC terrorism analyst: "Good evening."

Olbermann: "I have to read this. It just has crossed on the Associated Press wire. The doubts in Washington about this, while the FBI man is in New York talking about interrupting some plan or getting some people who might be involved in it out of the way, he was talking as if they had actually reduced a tangible threat. Then he said it was totally uncorroborated. Now, the Washington sources who had said that the threat was, at best, exaggerated, there's now a quote attributed to a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, a man named Russ Knock, who said, 'The intelligence community has concluded the information, this information, to be of doubtful credibility. We shared this information early on with state and local authorities in New York.' It's beginning to sound like one loud scream of gibberish."

Kohlman: "Well, I mean, it's not something we haven't heard before. We've seen this kind of infighting before between federal agencies over the value of terrorist captures, over the threats to various different targets inside of the United States. In this case, I'm not really that surprised. New York has one of the most important counterterrorism programs in the country. It is independent in some ways of the federal government, and they do consider New Yorkers to be very important, and they consider New York to be a primary target, and they treat New York as a primary target. So everything, whether it even has the ring of truth, is taken very seriously. I think what happened here is there was an overabundance of caution. And I can't necessarily blame New York authorities for that. But are you asking, 'Is this a credible terrorist threat?' No, it doesn't look like there's a credible terrorist threat against the subway system. Is it good to be alert and aware? Well, that's a different story. It probably benefits us to be alert and aware because even if there's not a real plot from Iraqi insurgents going on right now, that doesn't mean that it couldn't happen in the future."

Olbermann: "The coincidence factor, which is more of a political thing than a terrorism issue, but as we mentioned here, a quick hour or so of research has produced a list of 13 reasonable occasions in which events that have been politically disadvantageous to the current administration have been occurring simultaneously, or followed quickly upon with something related to terrorism on a big scale. And I'm just, in your opinion, from your perspective on the counterterrorism threat, can coincidences like that in that volume really be coincidences? Or do we have to look at the prospect that somebody could really be playing domestic politics with terror?"

Kohlman: "Well, I would concede to you that there are those that play domestic politics with terror. And we even had an incidence of that last week. Unfortunately, I mean, I just disagree with the administration when they say they arrested the number two most important al-Qaeda official in Iraq. I don't believe that they did. He was an important guy. He wasn't number two. However, this particular piece of terror-related news, this threat against the subway system, I'm not sure it's generated of national politics. The reason being, of the source. It's really coming from New York. And the federal agencies that you would think would be spouting off President Bush's policy like the Department of Homeland Security are the ones that are pouring water on it. So it doesn't appear that this news item is being generated from D.C. It appears it's being generated right here from New York by individuals that I think are really more concerned with what would happen if New Yorkers woke up one day in the midst of a major terrorist attack and turned around and said, 'Why is it that, five years after 9/11, that the New York FBI and New York Police Department are still unable to protect us?' I think that's really the concern here, not generic political motives. But, again, that's always a concern, and it's something you have to pay attention to."

Olbermann: "But does it worry you in the larger definition of what your expertise is, that there is the terror that is caused by people intentionally trying to take jet liners and crash them into huge sky scrapers and then there is the terror that is created by people who are on their way into the subway at 5:17 in the afternoon and told, 'Oh, by the way, we might have, there might have been a terrorist threat, and we're not sure, and we think we stopped it,' but totally contradictory and self-conflicting information that is broadcast nationally so it becomes a national story, it becomes the lead story in the national news. Is there not a kind of terror created by the response to terror when it's handled this way?"

Kohlman: "Well, I think really, this should be taken as a bit of a warning sign. It should be taken as a warning sign that this chaos that we're watching right now is symptomatic of a lack of progress being made by federal and state counterterrorism authorities in terms of identifying al-Qaeda cells, in term of identifying what's a real al-Qaeda threat and what's not. Right now, we're still kind of babes lost in the wilderness really. It's amazing how little is really understood about what's going on, and that's why plots like this, that are really only semi-credible if at all credible, are being trumped up into what you've seen on television today."

Olbermann: "Evan Kohlman, founder of GlobalTerrorAlert.com, very reasoned and calm analysis tonight, and we appreciate that greatly. Thank you."

Brad Wilmouth
Brad Wilmouth is a contributing blogger to NewsBusters