Olbermann Downplays Terror Plot Urgency, Questions if Bush Timed Arrests for Politics

No matter which way the facts are pointing, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann can find a way to entertain an anti-Bush conspiracy theory on his Countdown show when the administration announces a terror alert.

Last week, when it appeared the British had decided when to arrest suspects planning to bomb airplanes, Olbermann pushed the theory that administration members used their foreknowledge to tailor attacks on anti-war Democrats to take political advantage of the impending arrests. But, in light of news that the administration, instead of waiting for the terrorists to board planes and make test runs, pressured the British to make the arrests a week earlier than the British had wanted to, Olbermann has started pushing the theory he probably wanted to push in the first place: that President Bush timed the arrests so he could use the news to discredit anti-war Democrats right after they denied renomination to pro-Iraq War Senator Joe Lieberman. (Transcript follows)

Harkening back to a segment from his Countdown show last October in which Olbermann listed 10 times when the administration either called a terror alert or released a terrorism-related story at a time when the Countdown host contended the attention might benefit the administration politically, Olbermann teased the August 14 Countdown show: "The 'Nexus of Politics and Terror' revisited: The British now insist no liquid bomb airliner attack was imminent, that it was the U.S. which pushed to arrest the alleged plotters last week, before and after which the administration beat up its critics over counterterrorism."

As he opened the show, the Countdown host referred to hints that the terror plot, "while real, might not have been quite as real as it was being advertised." Downplaying the urgency, he soon continued: "Now we know from senior members of British intelligence that no attack was imminent, that those suspected had yet to buy airline tickets, and some of them didn't even have passports."

As documented by NewsBusters, Olbermann had shown skepticism about the urgency during the teaser for the Thursday August 10 show, although he made no further elaboration on doubt during the show: "But intelligence sources say the supposed plotters only began looking at flight schedules last week. The source is the British, the same people who missed both subway bombings in London last year, then shot a purported terrorist wearing a suicide bomb vest and running from police, only it turned out he was a 27-year-old electrician wearing an ordinary shirt and walking."

Returning to the August 14 show, Olbermann contended that the Bush administration had "insisted on immediate arrests" and that "both before and after them" made "every imaginable piece of political hay out of them." Olbermann concluded his introduction by wondering: "Another question, at least the fourteenth in the last five years, about whether a government would really exaggerate or manipulate terror developments not to allay the fears of its citizenry, but rather to inflame them?"

After an update on Bush's poll numbers, Olbermann argued that former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge's comments criticizing Dick Cheney's attacks on anti-war Democrats has helped Olbermann's conspiracy theory "to stand up on its hind legs": "The administration has, at minimum, opened itself for criticism that the push to arrest the alleged plotters last week and the political firestorm last week did not constitute a coincidence. And that criticism has been able to stand up on its hind legs after comments from the former Secretary of Homeland Security Mr. Ridge and comments from British intelligence about how the American government insisted on acting now rather than waiting just days longer and gathering more valuable evidence still."

After a report by NBC's Lisa Myers in which she mentioned the disagreement between the U.S. and British governments about when to make the arrests, Olbermann brought aboard Dana Milbank of the Washington Post for further discussion. Milbank poured some water on Olbermann's ideas by disagreeing with the MSNBC host's obsession with the timing of the arrests, and by pointing out that Karl Rove has long talked about focusing this year's campaign on the war on terrorism, although Milbank oddly worded it, perhaps inadvertently, by saying that the campaign plan involved "stirring up" terrorism and then saying "we can protect you better than the other guy." Milbank: "Karl Rove came out earlier this year and said, look, this is what our fall campaign is going to be about, it's about stirring up terrorism and then saying that we can protect you better than the other guy. I wouldn't get too bogged down in the timing issue because, if anything, the Bush administration politically would have wanted to wait until September or October when everybody was paying attention. But it's not even an open secret, it's completely out in the open that terrorism is politicized routinely over and over again."

In response to a question from Olbermann about whether there was a risk of Cheney becoming a "liability," Milbank repeated the fallacy that Cheney had "implicated Saddam Hussein in the 9/11 attacks," and accused Cheney of being "fast and loose with the truth." Milbank: "He had implicated Iraq and Saddam Hussein in the 9/11 attacks. We know that not to be true. He said Iraq had reconstituted nuclear weapons. We know that not to be true. So he's known as being a bit out there, a bit more fast and loose with the truth than others have been." Perhaps Milbank gets his news from MSNBC, as the MRC documented in October 2004 that MSNBC hosts Olbermann and Chris Matthews distorted comments by Cheney to make it appear he had claimed that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks.

Later in the show, Olbermann revisited his conspiracy theory of whether the Bush administration has timed past terror alerts and the release of terrorism-related news to benefit the administration politically. Listing out many of what the Countdown host viewed as such examples, Olbermann replayed a segment titled 'Nexus of Politics and Terror,' first aired during the October 12 Countdown show.

Below is a complete transcript of relevant portions of the August 14 Countdown show:

Keith Olbermann, in opening teaser: "Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow? The 'Nexus of Politics and Terror' revisited: The British now insist no liquid bomb airliner attack was imminent, that it was the U.S. which pushed to arrest the alleged plotters last week, before and after which the administration beat up its critics over counterterrorism."

Olbermann: "And the Vice President gets beaten up for his remark about Ned Lamont's primary victory over Senator Joseph Lieberman. Mr. Cheney beaten up by former Secretary of Homeland Security Ridge."

Olbermann: "More tonight on funding for whatever scheme there really was and the lessons learned for our airport security."

George W. Bush: "And the lessons for those of us in Washington D.C. is to set aside politics and give our people the tools necessary to protect the American people."

Olbermann: "But has politics been set aside? We'll review the five-year history of the top 10 times political interests and security interests have interwoven or blurred."
...

Olbermann: "Good evening from Los Angeles. The first hint that the plot, while real, might not have been quite as real as it was being advertised, came Thursday night when Time magazine reported that the alleged airline liquid bomb plotters were arrested by the British only after American intelligence reported chatter among them. Then came the revelation that the British had the purported conspirators under surveillance for 13 months. Now we know from senior members of British intelligence that no attack was imminent, that those suspected had yet to buy airline tickets, and some of them didn't even have passports. British intelligence wanted another week, wanted to capture the man who was hoping to make a dry run as he dry ran, our government insisted on immediate arrests and proceeded both before and after them to make every imaginable piece of political hay out of them. Thus our fifth story on the Countdown, the 'Nexus of Politics and Terror.' Another question, at least the fourteenth in the last five years, about whether a government would really exaggerate or manipulate terror developments not to allay the fears of its citizenry, but rather to inflame them? We will look at 10 of those previous questions of timing in juxtaposition. We'll learn how former Secretary of Homeland Security Ridge blasted Vice President Cheney for making the kind of political hay we just discussed, and Lisa Myers with the details of the significant dispute between this country and England over when to interrupt the purported plot. First the irony that whatever the political end of this is, it did not seem to have an exceptional impact on public opinion. ..."
...

George W. Bush: "And the lesson for those of us in Washington D.C. is to set aside politics and give our people the tools necessary to protect the American people."

Olbermann: "But has anybody done that? The administration has, at minimum, opened itself for criticism that the push to arrest the alleged plotters last week and the political firestorm last week did not constitute a coincidence. And that criticism has been able to stand up on its hind legs after comments from the former Secretary of Homeland Security Mr. Ridge and comments from British intelligence about how the American government insisted on acting now rather than waiting just days longer and gathering more valuable evidence still. Ridge, in a moment. First our senior investigative correspondent Lisa Myers in London."

...
Lisa Myers: "British and American officials tell NBC there was a significant dispute over when to roll up this plot. The British wanted to wait at least another week until the plotters moved toward executing a dry run. But the U.S. insisted on shutting down the operation now."

Lord Toby Harris, London Metropolitan Police Authority: "I know that the United States government was very keen to move forward and very keen to be able to make public the concerns that were had so that security levels could be raised."
...

Olbermann: "Bush administration officials now trying to claim that the Vice President was unaware the British terror arrests were imminent when on Wednesday of last week he suggested that Senator Joe Lieberman's defeat in the Connecticut primary would encourage terrorists, even though by then the President had already known for about 72 hours of the arrests. The notoriously press-shy Mr. Cheney interrupting his summer vacation to tell reporters in a conference call that voters who supported Ned Lamont's anti-war candidacy might, quote, 'embolden the al-Qaeda types who want to break the will of the American people in terms of our ability to stay in the fight and complete the task.' This from the same man who also said the insurgency in Iraq was in its last throes. The Bush administration's former Homeland Security Secretary taking issue with the former colleague's most recent remark. Tom Ridge telling Newsweek magazine, 'That may be the way the Vice President sees it, but I don't see it that way, and I don't think most Americans see it that way.'"

Olbermann: "Time now to call in our own Dana Milbank, also of course the national political reporter of the Washington Post. Dana, good evening."

Dana Milbank, Washington Post: "Good evening, Keith."

Olbermann: "None of us can say for certain why the Bush administration would have pressured British authorities to move early on the terror arrests, but giving them the benefit of the doubt, even doing that, did not the pounding by the Vice President, by Ken Mehlman, by others, still leave the administration wide open for doubt and even suspicion about the timing of all this?"

Milbank: "Well, Keith, that's just the kind of question that emboldens the al-Qaeda types."

Olbermann: "Thank you very much."

Milbank: "Well, it's not really even a matter of suspicion. I mean, Karl Rove came out earlier this year and said, look, this is what our fall campaign is going to be about, it's about stirring up terrorism and then saying that we can protect you better than the other guy. I wouldn't get too bogged down in the timing issue because, if anything, the Bush administration politically would have wanted to wait until September or October when everybody was paying attention. But it's not even an open secret, it's completely out in the open that terrorism is politicized routinely over and over again."

Olbermann: "One apparent strategy for Democrats at least and critics to respond to Mr. Cheney's remarks is to just dismiss them and dismiss him as irrelevant. Senator Clinton told a radio station in New York she does not take anything he says seriously anymore. Is there a point, is it conceivable, is there a point at which that becomes the conventional wisdom about the Vice President? Could he ever become a true liability to the administration's base?"

Milbank: "I'm not sure about him becoming a liability to the base, but I think we have probably reached a point where people are discounting his remarks. You mentioned the 'last throes' remarks. I mean, he had implicated Iraq and Saddam Hussein in the 9/11 attacks. We know that not to be true. He said Iraq had reconstituted nuclear weapons. We know that not to be true. So he's known as being a bit out there, a bit more fast and loose with the truth than others have been. That doesn't mean he's a liability, I mean any more than he was before he was rather low in the polls. But I get the feeling that each time they go to the well with this, there's a little bit less impact in the public, a little less fright that is actually drawn out of it."

Olbermann: "Truth aside, appropriateness aside, look at it as a political gamesmanship here. Did the Bush administration succeed in undercutting any damage that would have been done by the defeat of Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut primary last week? It seems as if we all heard and read more last week about Dick Cheney's comments than we did about what Ned Lamont's victory would portend for the Republican Party come November."

Milbank: "I think they did succeed, and I'm not sure that even without all the developments in Britain and what Cheney had said that it would have made that much of a difference. Lieberman, his defeat may actually ultimately help the Republicans anyway because it shows a very divided Democratic Party, but certainly this allowed to blunt any sort of an anti-war question. I think the administration was quite clever in turning the British arrests to their advantage here, but I wouldn't be surprised if this does allow the Republicans to paint the Democrats as very divided."
...

Olbermann, before commercial break at 8:13 PM: "Also here, more on the 'Nexus of Politics and Terror': Has the administration shown a pattern of exploiting fear for political gain? We'll examine the 10 previous possible examples."
...

Olbermann, before commercial break at 8:26 PM: "And a reminder of these previous odd juxtapositions when other problems for the administration immediately preceded the raising of the terror threat level, often for something a little less legitimate than this: Snakes on a Plane ..."
...

Olbermann, at 8:30 PM: "The term we employ is the 'Nexus of Politics and Terror.' It does not imply that there is no terror. But it also does not deny that there is politics, and it refuses to assume that counterterror measures in this country are not being influenced by politics. Our third story in the Countdown, the basis of all this, at heart, remarks made on May 10, 2005 by a former Bush administration official discussing the old color-coded terror threat warning system. 'More often than not,' he said. 'we were the least inclined to raise it. Sometimes we disagreed with the intelligence assessment, sometimes we thought even if the intelligence was good, you don't necessarily put the country on alert. There were times when some people were really aggressive about raising it. And we said, "For that?"'"

Olbermann: "The speaker was the first Secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge. In the light of those remarks and his criticism this week of the Vice President for politicizing terror in the context of the Connecticut senatorial primary, it is imperative that we examine each of the coincidences of timing since 2002, including the one last week, in which excoriating comments by leading Republicans about leading Democrats just happened to precede arrests in a vast purported terror plot, arrests that we now know were carried out on a time line requested not by the British, nor necessitated by the evidence, but requested by this government."

Olbermann: "We introduce these coincidences to you exactly as we did when we first compiled this top 10 list after the revelation that the announced threats to New York's subway system last October had been wildly overblown. And we do so by reminding you and ourselves here that perhaps the simplest piece of wisdom in the world is called the 'logical fallacy.' Just because event A occurs and then event B occurs, that does not automatically mean that event A caused event B. But neither does it say the opposite. The 'Nexus of Politics and Terror,' please judge for yourself."

Olbermann: "Number one. May 18, 2002. The first details of the President's daily briefing of August 6, 2001, are revealed, including its title: 'Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.' The same day another memo is discovered revealing the FBI knew of men with links to al-Qaeda training at an Arizona flight school. The memo was never acted upon. Questions about 9/11 intelligence failures are swirling. May 20, 2002."

Tom Brokaw, NBC Nightly News Anchor: "The terror warnings from the highest levels of the federal government tonight are just-"

Olbermann: "Two days later, FBI director Mueller declares that another terrorist attack is 'inevitable.'"

Brokaw: "Tonight, there are even more warnings of possible terrorist attacks in America-"

Olbermann: "The next day, the Department of Homeland Security issues warnings of attacks against railroads nationwide, and against New York City landmarks like the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. Number two. Thursday, June 6, 2002."

Coleen Rowley, FBI Agent: "I never really anticipated this kind of impact."

Olbermann: "Coleen Rowley, the FBI agent who tried to alert her superiors to the specialized flight training taken by Zacarias Moussaoui, whose information suggests the government missed a chance to break up the 9/11 plot, testifies before Congress. Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Graham says Rowley's testimony has inspired similar pre-9/11 whistle-blowers. Monday, June 10, 2002. Four days later:"

John Ashcroft, Former Attorney General: "We have disrupted an unfolding terrorist plot-"

Olbermann: "Speaking from Russia, Attorney General John Ashcroft reveals that an American named Jose Padilla is under arrest, accused of plotting a radiation bomb attack in this country. In fact, Padilla had, by this time, already been detained for more than one month. Number three. February 5, 2003. Secretary of State Powell tells the United Nations Security Council of Iraq's concealment of weapons, including 18 mobile biological weapons laboratories, justifying a U.N. or U.S. first strike. Many in the U.N. are doubtful. Months later, much of the information proves untrue. February 7, 2003. Two days later, as anti-war demonstrations continue to take place around the globe:"

Tom Ridge, Former Homeland Security Secretary: "Take some time to prepare for emergency."

Olbermann: "Homeland Security Secretary Ridge cites credible threats by al-Qaeda and raises the terror alert level to orange. Three days after that, Fire Administrator David Paulison, who would become the acting head of FEMA after the Hurricane Katrina disaster, advises Americans to stock up on plastic sheeting and duct tape to protect themselves against radiological or biological attack. Number four. July 23, 2003. The White House admits that the CIA, months before the President's State of the Union Address, expressed strong doubts about the claim that Iraq had attempted to buy uranium from Niger. On the 24th, the Congressional report on the 9/11 attacks is issued. It criticizes government at all levels. It reveals an FBI informant had been living with two of the future hijackers. It concludes that Iraq had no link to al-Qaeda. Twenty-eight pages of the report are redacted. On the 26th, American troops are accused of beating Iraqi prisoners. July 29, 2003. Three days later, amid all of the negative headlines:"

Brokaw: "Word of a possible new al-Qaeda attack."

Olbermann: "Homeland Security issues warnings of further terrorist attempts to use airplanes for suicide attacks. Number five. December 17, 2003. 9/11 Commission co-chair Thomas Keane says the attacks were preventable. The next day, a federal appeals court says the government cannot detain suspected radiation bomber Jose Padilla indefinitely without charges. And the chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, Dr. David Kay, who has previously announced he has found no weapons of mass destruction there, announces he will resign his post. December 21, 2003. Four days later, the Sunday before Christmas:"

Ridge: "Today the United States government raised the national threat level."

Olbermann: "Homeland Security again raises the threat level to orange, claiming credible intelligence of further plots to crash airliners into U.S. cities. Subsequently, six international flights into this country are canceled after some passenger names purportedly produced matches on government no-fly lists. The French later identified those matched names. One belongs to an insurance salesman from Wales, another to an elderly Chinese woman, a third to a five-year-old boy. Number six. March 30, 2004. The new chief weapons inspector in Iraq, Charles Duelfer, tells Congress, 'We have still not found any WMD in that country.' And after weeks of having refused to appear before the 9/11 Commission, Condoleezza Rice relents and agrees to testify. On the 31st, four Blackwater USA contractors working in Iraq are murdered. Their mutilated bodies dragged through the streets and left on public display in Fallujah. The role of civilian contractors in Iraq is now widely questioned. April 2, 2004:"

Brian Williams, NBC Nightly News Anchor: "The FBI has issued a new warning tonight."

Olbermann: "Homeland Security issues a bulletin warning that terrorists may try to blow up buses and trains using fertilizer and fuel bombs like the one detonated in Oklahoma City, bombs stuffed into satchels or duffle bags. Number seven. May 16, 2004. Secretary of State Powell appears on Meet the Press. Moderator Tim Russert closes by asking him about the enormous personal credibility Powell had placed before the U.N. in laying out a case against Saddam Hussein. An aide to Powell interrupts the question, saying the interview is over."

Tim Russert: "I think that was one of your staff, Mr. Secretary. I don't think that's appropriate."

Powell: "Get, Emily, get out of the way."

Olbermann: "Powell finishes his answer, admitting that much of the information he had been given about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was-"

Powell: "-inaccurate and wrong and, in some cases, deliberately misleading."

Olbermann: "On the 21st, new photos showing mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison are released. On the 24th, Associated Press video from Iraq confirms U.S. forces mistakenly bombed a wedding party. killing more than 40. Wednesday, May 26, 2004. Two days later."

Ashcroft: "Good afternoon."

Olbermann: "Attorney General Ashcroft and FBI director Mueller warned that intelligence from multiple sources-"

Ashcroft: "-indicates al-Qaeda's specific intention to hit the United States hard."

Olbermann: "-and that 90 percent of the arrangements for an attack on the United States were complete. The color-coded warning system is not raised. The Homeland Security secretary, Tom Ridge, does not attend the announcement. Number eight. July 6, 2004. Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry selects Senator John Edwards as his vice presidential running mate, producing a small bump in the election opinion polls and producing a huge swing in media attention towards the Democratic campaign. July 8, 2004. Two days later."

Ridge: "Credible reporting now indicates that al-Qaeda is moving forward with its plans to carry out a large-scale attack in the United States."

Olbermann: "Homeland Secretary Ridge warns of information about al-Qaeda attacks during the summer or autumn. Four days after that, the head of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, Deforest B. Soaries Jr., confirms he has written to Ridge about the prospect of postponing the upcoming presidential election in the event it is interrupted by terrorist acts. Number nine. July 29, 2004. At their party convention in Boston, the Democrats formally nominate John Kerry as their candidate for President. As in the wake of any convention, the Democrats now dominate the media attention over the subsequent weekend. August 1, 2004, Monday morning. Three days later."

Ridge: "It is as reliable a source, group of sources that we've ever seen before."

Olbermann: "The Department of Homeland Security raises the alert status for financial centers in New York, New Jersey, and Washington to orange. The evidence supporting the warning, reconnaissance data left in a home in Iraq, later proves to be roughly four years old and largely out of date. Number 10. October 6, 2005, 10 a.m. Eastern time, the President addresses the National Endowment for Democracy, once again emphasizing the importance of the war on terror, and insisting his government has broken up at least 10 terrorist plots since 9/11. At 3 p.m. Eastern time, five hours after the President's speech has begun, the Associated Press reports that Karl Rove will testify again to the CIA leak grand jury and that special prosecutor Fitzgerald has told Rove he cannot guarantee that he will not be indicted."

Chris Matthews, MSNBC's Hardball Host: "We're awaiting a news conference at the bottom of the hour. New York City Police-"

Olbermann: "At 5:17 p.m. Eastern time, seven hours after the President's speech has begun, New York officials disclose a bomb threat to the city's subway system based on information supplied by the federal government. A Homeland Security spokesman says the intelligence upon which the disclosure is based is of doubtful credibility. And it later proves that New York City had known of the threat for at least three days and had increased police presence in the subways long before making the announcement at that particular time. Local New York television station WNBC reports it had the story of the threats days in advance of the announcement but was asked by high-ranking federal officials in New York and Washington to hold off on its story. Less than four days after having revealed the threat, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York says, 'Since the period of the threat now seems to be passing, I think over the immediate future we'll slowly be winding down the enhanced security.' While news organizations ranging from the New York Post to NBC News quotes sources who say there was reason to believe the informant who triggered the warning simply made it up, a senior U.S. counterterrorism official tells the New York Times, quote, 'there was no there there.'"

Olbermann: "In all fairness, as we observed last October, and we observe again tonight, we could possibly construct a similar time line of terror events and warnings and their relationship to the opening of new chain stores around the country. But if merely a reasonable case could be made that any of these juxtapositions of events are more than just coincidence, especially the one last week in which terror policy was again injected directly into a political race. It underscores the need for questions to be asked in this country, questions about what is prudence and what is fear-mongering."