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Attorneys General Who Cry Wolf

by Beverly Gage on Nov 14, 2001

Beverly Gage

In our current predicament, it seems hard to go wrong urging Americans to watch for suspicious men, New Jersey postmarks and other signs that American security is sliding from bad to worse. Newscasters spin doomsday scenarios. So do public officials.

But should Attorney General John Ashcroft be engaged in such an enterprise? Specifically, should he be issuing the vague warnings – of something terrible that might happen sometime somewhere someplace — that caused such anxiety over the past several weeks?

If the experience of A. Mitchell Palmer is any example, the answer is a decided no. As attorney general under Woodrow Wilson, Palmer rose to infamy as architect of the eponymous “Palmer raids” of 1919 and 1920, in which thousands of immigrants were rounded up on vague suspicion of communist or anarchist sympathies.

Ashcroft and his aides have indicated, commendably, that they want to avoid the civil liberties abuses of the Palmer era. (How, exactly, secret detainments and the wire-tapping of attorney-client communications meet that goal is not entirely clear.) But by continuing to warn of terrors which have not come to pass, Ashcroft is in danger of becoming what Palmer became in 1920 — in the words of one newspaper, a “Little Red Riding Hood with a cry of ‘Wolf.'”

Like Ashcroft, Palmer found himself confronted with terrorism early in his term. The first major episode of violence, known as the “May Day Bomb Plot” of 1919, began when a package arrived at the office of Seattle’s mayor, Ole Hanson. Supposedly sent from Gimbel’s New York department store, the package contained a bomb that failed to detonate. The next day, a second Gimbel’s package blew off the hands of a senator’s maid in Georgia.

Reading about the attacks while headed home on a streetcar, a conscientious New York postal employee rushed back to work, where he found more than dozen similar bombs addressed to public figures such as J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and Palmer himself. Within days, 36 bombs were uncovered. Their delivery had been delayed because of insufficient postage.

Then, on June 2, bombs exploded overnight in seven American cities. One blew off the front of Palmer’s Washington home, killing the bomber in the process. Scattered across the lawn with bits of flesh were several pamphlets titled “Plain Words”: “There will have to be bloodshed; we will not dodge; there will have to be murder; we will kill…” They were signed “The Anarchist Fighters.”

Like the Sept. 11 attacks, the 1919 bombings required planning and coordination, raising the specter of an organized terrorist group within the United States. And, like the destruction of the World Trade Center, the 1919 bombings left Americans wondering when, where and how the next attack might hit.

Palmer, like Ashcroft, offered ready answers. The next attack, he announced in mid-June, would hit on July 4, 1919. In New York, 11,000 police officers went on 24-hour duty. In Chicago, two U.S. Army companies and 1,000 volunteers came in to supplement the police. By the end of the day, precisely nothing had happened. It was said that Palmer’s warnings must have disrupted the terrorists’ plans.

In April 1920, Palmer — having carried out his infamous raids — again warned of imminent attack. “Terror Reign by Radicals, says Palmer,” read one newspaper headline. “Nation-wide Uprising on Saturday,” announced another. Again, the police were called out in every major American city. And again, no violence erupted.

This time, Palmer received a fierce rhetorical whipping. Newspapers declared him a “national menace,” “full of hot air.” He had warned once too often of horrors that never emerged, and the public had ceased to believe him.

Having recovered from the paralyzing fear of Sept. 11, today’s commentators have already begun to denounce Ashcroft’s alerts as “uncorroborated rumors,” like the work of a “second-rate fortune teller.”

“There’s a lot of noise, not a lot of clarity,” Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd complained in late October.

When pressed for the reasons behind his recent alerts, Ashcroft has professed a simple desire to be as forthcoming as possible about potential threats. It seems likely, however, that his motives are a bit more complex.

Palmer’s certainly were. He hoped his warnings would keep his name in the press, whip up support for the Palmer raids, and gain more money for his agency. He also trusted, quite sincerely, that the nation was under attack.

Perhaps Ashcroft believes that regular alerts will maintain support for the war in Afghanistan or for the detainment of immigrants within the United States. Perhaps he thinks that the terror threats, substantiated or not, will boost enthusiasm for his proposed “wartime reorganization” of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Justice Department, and the FBI.

In announcing his reorganization plan on Nov. 9, Ashcroft commented, “When terrorism threatens our future, we cannot afford to live in the past.”

Ashcroft, for one, cannot afford to forget the past. Whatever he hopes to gain by issuing terrorism alerts, the attorney general should remember that he also has much to lose. As the United States enters what will undoubtedly be a sustained and controversial “war on terrorism,” he should be wary — if only for the sake of his own political career – of squandering the public’s trust.

Public credibility, as Palmer learned, is a notoriously unstable asset. Ashcroft will need plenty of it in the days to come.

Beverly Gage is a President's Fellow at Columbia University and a writer for the History News Service. She is writing a book on the 1920 Wall Street explosion.