David Kurtz

David Kurtz is Managing Editor and Washington Bureau Chief of Talking Points Memo where he oversees the news operations of TPM and its sister sites.

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I hate to do a third post on "block cheese," but this is just absurd.

The AP is running a story in which security experts praise the Transportation Security Administration for sending out a bulletin about suspicious items found in passenger luggage even though some of the alleged "incidents" were incorrectly reported by TSA:

Security experts and politicians--even longtime critics--praised the Transportation Security Administration’s warning that terrorists might be testing whether innocent-looking bomb components can be smuggled onto an airplane. . . .

The experts agreed that this judgment holds true even if the four incidents that triggered the warning turn out to have innocent explanations, as two of them – in San Diego and Baltimore – appeared to on Wednesday.

Say what?

First off, the San Diego incident didn't just turn out to have an innocent explanation. In fact, a reasonable person might conclude that there wasn't really any incident at all. The inspectors mistook an ice pack that was leaking for a ice pack stuffed with a clay-like substance similar to the consistency of plastic explosives--a mistake that was recognized on the spot after further inspection.

But even if you live in a perpetual state of paranoia and think that a 60-year-old lady with a leaking ice pack in her luggage constitutes an "incident," how can you possibly praise the TSA for issuing a bulletin about the incident that gets all the facts wrong?

As the San Diego Union-Tribune discovered yesterday when it looked further into the so-called incident, the TSA bulletin said the ice packs were covered in duct tape and had clay inside of them, but local law enforcement said they weren't covered in duct tape and didn't have clay inside of them. “It is a little bit off,” a local official told the paper.

I'm all for TSA being proactive about security (up to a point), but this is just incompetence masquerading as hyper-vigilance. Getting facts wrong, mistaking utterly innocent behavior for threatening behavior, and over-reacting to perceived threats may be worse than doing nothing. It diverts and wastes limited resources and contributes to a panicky atmosphere that skews judgments.

We have to start being smart about security and counterterrorism and stop being so fearful.

Senate Democrats are calling for a special prosecutor to probe Alberto Gonzales . . . more soon.

Update: We have video up at TPMmuckraker of some of this morning's press conference held by Senate Democrats.

This morning I noted, somewhat sarcastically, that the Transportation Security Administration had put out a bulletin warning that terrorists may be conducting dry runs for future attacks using airlines. The bulletin was based on the discovery of odd contents of passenger luggage around the country, including "block cheese."

But it wasn't just cheese. One incident involved mysteriously altered ice packs:

San Diego, July 7. A U.S. person - either a citizen or a foreigner legally here - checked baggage containing two ice packs covered in duct tape. The ice packs had clay inside them rather than the normal blue gel.

Or so it seemed. Now it turns out the ice packs didn't contain clay, as initially reported, but rather they had leaked and the gel had congealed. False alarm.

The San Diego Union-Tribune sniffs out what really happened:

San Diego Harbor Police Chief Kirk Sanfilippo said the incident involved a bag checked by a woman in her 60s flying out of Lindbergh Field.

Sanfilippo said a routine swab test of the bag indicated the presence of a chemical that is sometimes used in explosives or medications. Inside the luggage, inspectors found cold packs, wrapped in clear packing tape, that were old and leaking.

The TSA bulletin said the ice packs were covered in duct tape and had clay inside of them.

Sanfilippo said they weren't covered in duct tape and didn't have clay inside of them. “It is a little bit off,” he said of the bulletin.

The chief said a Harbor Police officer found what appeared to be hardened old gel that had seeped out of the ice packs and dried, leaving a clay-like substance around the outside edge of the pack.

. . .

In all, it took about three hours for the woman's luggage to be cleared by security officials.

After the packs were cleared, the woman told authorities she didn't want to keep them and they were thrown away, Sanfilippo said.

Sanfilippo said he first heard the San Diego incident was being highlighted in the TSA bulletin early Wednesday morning on the TV news.

Still no word on whether TSA got the "block cheese" reports wrong, too, but the money quote comes from the local TSA official in San Diego: “We get these [bulletins] all the time,” he told the Union-Tribune. “Almost all the time they prove false.”

In March, President Bush offered his support for his embattled attorney general, but admitted that Alberto Gonzales "has some work to do" up on Capitol Hill:

[A]nytime anybody goes up to Capitol Hill, they've got to make sure they fully understand the facts, and how they characterize the issue to members of Congress. And the fact that both Republicans and Democrats feel like that there was not straightforward communication troubles me, and it troubles the Attorney General, so he took action. And he needs to continue to take action.

Perhaps someone can ask the President if he's still troubled, since every time Gonzales has gone back to the Hill since March members of both parties have still felt "that there was not straightforward communication." Or maybe the better question is, how is the attorney general's "work" coming along up on the Hill?

Update: As of today, the official party line is still: Gonzales stays.

Justin Rood reports:

The FBI is taking cues from the CIA to recruit thousands of covert informants in the United States as part of a sprawling effort to boost its intelligence capabilities.

According to a recent unclassified report to Congress, the FBI expects its informants to provide secrets about possible terrorists and foreign spies, although some may also be expected to aid with criminal investigations, in the tradition of law enforcement confidential informants. The FBI did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

The FBI said the push was driven by a 2004 directive from President Bush ordering the bureau to improve its counterterrorism efforts by boosting its human intelligence capabilities.

The aggressive push for more secret informants appears to be part of a new effort to grow its intelligence and counterterrorism efforts. Other recent proposals include expanding its collection and analysis of data on U.S. persons, retaining years' worth of Americans' phone records and even increasing so-called "black bag" secret entry operations.

Just the sort of thing you would want Alberto Gonzales ultimately in charge of.

TPM Reader JJ makes an interesting observation about Alberto Gonzales' latest account of his visit to the hospital bedside of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft:

I realize that there is a virtual treasure trove of obfuscation to wade through from [Gonzales’] appearance, but here’s a point that I haven’t seen addressed yet. AG trotted out a shiny new excuse for his visit to Ashcroft in the hospital. The so-called gang of eight had just met and were so concerned that the illegal wiretapping (or whatever) wouldn’t be approved by Comey that they all agreed that it should continue anyway. This was a bombshell that AG felt Ashcroft must know about immediately. Yet when asked by Schumer whether classified information was discussed in the hospital setting with Mrs. Ashcroft present, who wasn’t cleared for such info, AG responded that it had been Ashcroft who had done all of the talking and in an attempt at being cute, AG said that he didn’t think that Ashcroft had let loose with any classified into during his monologue. How does that jibe with the stated reason for the visit, which was for AG to tell Ashcroft about the gang of eight meeting?

There are other inconsistencies, to be sure. Why did Gonzales bring the re-authorization order for the secret program to the hospital with him if, as Gonzales claims, he didn't intend to press Ashcroft to sign it? Indeed, given Ashcroft's condition, why go to the hospital at all if they were not prepared to pressure Ashcroft to overrule James Comey, the acting attorney general?

It would be all laughable were it not so serious.

Via a reader in Wisconsin (of course):

Airport security officers around the nation have been alerted by federal officials to look out for terrorists practicing to carry explosive components onto aircraft, based on four curious seizures at airports since last September. . . .

The seizures at airports in San Diego, Milwaukee, Houston and Baltimore included "wires, switches, pipes or tubes, cell phone components and dense clay-like substances," including block cheese, the bulletin said. . . .

"There is no credible, specific threat here," TSA spokeswoman Ellen Howe said Tuesday. "Don't panic. We do these things all the time."

NBC has more.

I suppose grated cheese, American cheese, and Cheez Whiz are safe. Just watch out for the "block cheese."

It's shaping up as perhaps the most crucial piece of testimony from Alberto Gonzales today in his appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In explaining why he and then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card made a dramatic visit to the hospital bedside of a seriously ill Attorney General John Ashcroft, Gonzales points to a key meeting earlier that same day, March 10, 2004.

At that meeting, according to Gonzales, the bipartisan group of congressional leaders known as the Gang of Eight, which oversees the most sensitive aspects of the intelligence community, demanded that a top secret surveillance program (widely believed to be the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program) be continued despite the refusal of the Department of Justice to sign off on the legality of the program.

It was upon that basis, Gonzales says, that he and Card went to Ashcroft to present him with this important new information.

But tonight Democratic leaders who were at that meeting dispute Gonzales' version of events. Spencer Ackerman is reporting that Tom Daschle and Nancy Pelosi, at the time the Democratic minority leaders in the Senate and House respectively, dispute Gonzales' account. The Washington Post is likewise reporting that Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), the ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time, strongly takes issue with Gonzales' version of events.

Why would an embattled attorney general whose credibility is in tatters spin a version of events that others are in a position to debunk? That's not clear at this point. But if it comes down to which version of events to believe, who is going to believe Alberto Gonzales?

Since Alberto Gonzales has about as much credibility left as professional cycling, maybe it's no surprise that members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are hinting that Gonzales may be subject to an inquiry into whether he perjured himself before the committee in denying that there was any serious dispute within the Justice Department about the legality of the President's warrantless wiretapping program. (Spencer Ackerman and Paul Kiel have the details.)

While it may not be surprising per se, think about what it means for the institutions of justice in this country that the sitting Attorney General of the United States is suspected of perjury, by senators from his own party, who are willing to say so publicly, in matters involving national security and the fundamental constitutional rights of American citizens; yet, the President does nothing but voice his support for man.

I suppose we should not be surprised, but we should also not lose our capacity to be outraged.