Last Friday I was on Wisconsin Public Radio, doing the "Week in Review" opposite Ann Althouse, the UW law professor/fulltime blogger who voted for Bush and spews Republican talking points while claiming to be an ideological virgin, a person to whom the label "conservative" doesn't really apply.
The final topic of the day caught me by surprise. I confess I didn't know much about it, other than some ominous rumblings I heard emanating from Fox's Bill O'Reilly.
It seems that a series of curious seizures at airports since last September -- four in all, including one in Milwaukee -- had prompted federal officials to issue a security notice.
The seizures, according to this unclassified notice, involved "wires, switches, pipes or tubes, cell phone components and dense clay-like substances," including block cheese. "The unusual nature and increase in number of these improvised items raise concern."
The concern, as suggested in this notice and hyped by the media, was that terrorists were staging "dry run" experiments to see if they could successfully penetrate airport security. If they could smuggle through a block of cheese, why not plastic explosives?
Thus airport security officers were urged to be on the lookout for "ordinary items that look like improvised explosive device components."
O'Reilly and others, predictably, talked this up as a looming threat -- 9/11, Part II in the making. One republished article from the AP on this issue, on the website NewsMax.com, even included a bolded Editor's Note: "Be prepared for terror with an Emergency Radio. Homeland Security says every home should have one. Get our FREE offer Emergency Radio -- Go Here Now."
The only ones who didn't seem to consider this a major crisis were the federal officials in charge of airport and national security.
"There is no credible, specific threat here," said Ellen Howe, spokesperson for the Transportation Secutrity Administration. "Don't panic. We do these things all the time." The agency likened the notice to dozens of others that had been sent out over the previous six months.
Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke agreed, calling the notice a routine informational bulletin.
When the subject came up on Wisconsin Public Radio, host Joy Cardin turned first to Althouse for her thoughts.
"It sounds funny but it isn't funny at all," announced Althouse. "It looks like it was a dry run for a bomb on planes. There were four instances and one was in Milwaukee... . In fact, the block of cheese was the same consistency as a kind of explosive substance that could be used. And so it looks like they used the cheese with some kind of wires and devices around it to see if they could get it through security, and then if they could get that through security, they'd know they could get a bomb through."
[The entire Friday, July 27 show at 8 a.m. can be downloaded here, with the exchange starting at the 45:00 minute mark.]
Cardin gave some more information, then asked me if I thought the issue might be "yet another scare tactic." I didn't take the bait. Here is my reply:
"It's hard to say whether it's a legitimate threat. It could be, or it could be something that is being misinterpereted, either deliberately or accidently. We don't know for sure."
This really set Althouse off. Her face in the studio where we sat was a mask of pure shock. She sputtered her reply:
"I have to say. You're saying that. People are saying that..."
I interjected: "Cheese with a wire in it is autmotically a terrorist plot?"
"Oh, my," continued Althouse. "This makes me feel like I just have to say..."
"If I go home and stick a wire in a piece of cheese in my refigerator, I'm a terrorist?" I continued, as Althouse spit the words "Democrats," then "liberals," from her mouth. She took another run at it and this time managed to get out a complete sentence.
"You, and many Democrats, many liberals, do not take the terrorism threat seriously. And I think your attitude there is absolutely shocking. That's why I vote for Bush." [Now we know.]
My rejoinder: "You're saying that every time someone says there's a potential threat, we have to say, 'Of course, it is,' and we need to overreact, we need to take it seriously unquestioningly -- that's the only appropriate response? I'm saying it could be a genuine threat. It could be not a genuine threat. We don't know. You don't know."
Althouse was astounded by my ignorance, my gullibility, my lack of concern. "It wasn't just wires," she insisted. "It was devices. It was exactly the physical format of a bomb, except cheese was where the explosive devices [would be]."
I countered with this: "My guess is that if they intercepted the cheese they caught the people who were trying to fob it off, which ought to give them some information about the nature of this..."
Interrupted Althouse: "But it means there are threats, there are plans."
I continued making my point: "Why don't we wait for that? Why don't we wait to ask some questions?"
Althouse: "Why don't we wait until the bomb blows up?" She could hardly believe how stupid I was.
Neither could one of her dittoheads. Here's a comment on her blog alert about our radio gig: "I loved Bill's attempt to rationalize that story by mocking and dismissing it, without offering any coherent explanation of what would be a legitimate explanation. I want this guy in TV. National TV. He should be on the News Hour filling in for Mark Shields. The more people hear this guy, the fewer people are going to take the democrats seriously on national security. That was a genius move on Karl's part, planting a sleeper agent as editor of the Ithsmus!!" [Yeah, you idiot, that's really how the paper's name is spelled.]
The very next day, CNN aired this report [emphasis added]:
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): July 5, San Diego. Transportation Security Administration screeners find a bag with two ice packs covered in tape with clay inside them rather than blue gel. It's included in a TSA bulletin mentioning three other similar incidents warning of dry runs for terrorist attacks. This is the woman who carried those ice packs.
SARA WEISS, AIRPORT PASSENGER: I'm not a terrorist. I'm a 66-year-old woman with a bad back. I was on vacation going to visit my son in San Diego.
TODD: Sarah Weiss says the ice packs she carried, like these, had clay inside them because they were old and that's the way they were made. Weiss was held for three hours, questioned by San Diego harbor police and two men who she said were in plain clothes and didn't identify themselves. She says one question, from a San Diego harbor policeman, shocked her.
WEISS: Do you know Osama bin Laden? And my response was, first of all, I thought it was a very ridiculous and strange question because if I did know -- if I really did know Osama bin Laden and if I were a real terrorist, do you think I'd answer that question?
TODD: Contacted by CNN, the San Diego Harbor police chief said the officers are not briefed to ask that question. Weiss says she also raised suspicion because she carried a report on survey about Muslim Americans.
WEISS: I work for a faith-based organization; part of their responsibility is to provide interfaith cooperation and understanding.
TODD: Is she angry about the experience?
WEISS: No. I'm not bitter. I understand that they had to do their job. I think they totally overreacted...
TODD: In fact, a U.S. government official, familiar with the investigation, now says there were valid explanations for all four incidents in that bulletin and no charges will be brought in any of these cases.
(on camera): TSA officials first told us the incident with Sarah Weiss got put on that bulletin with a systems error and they also say they were right to put all four of these incidents on that alert because whenever they find suspicious objects they have to run them to ground and tell law enforcement officials to look out for items like that.
Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.
I caught a mention of this development on Keith Olbermann's Countdown for July 31, but haven't seen and couldn't find it mentioned anywhere else, not even by those media who reported this looming and imminent threat to our nation's security.
Certainly, Ann Althouse has done nothing to set the record straight. Apparently, her commitment to truth is as imperfect as conservatives' war on terror. No wonder she votes Republican.