09/21/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Breaking! Transcript of 2004 Bush Cabinet Threat-Level Discussion!

One of the fun things about being a columnist for the Huffington Post is that anonymous sources send me hot inside information, totally out of the blue.

This information comes in "over the transom," as they used to say. For those unfamiliar with the ink-smudged, glory-filled days of the newspaper game, a "transom" is the piece of wood forming the top frame of a door, that also forms the bottom frame of the little rectangular window above that door. In the day, newspaper-people -- who all wore visors, greased their hair with Vitalis, and smoked cigars, even the women -- would leave the transom window open and lock the door at night when they went home to their families, who all wore beehives and polyester dresses, even the husbands and teenage boys (although they usually did so in the privacy of their rooms).

So, if someone had a story, they came by late at night and slipped it "over the transom," that is, through the little window above the door, where it would fall to the floor, to be discovered by the printer, who would set the story in type and run it on page one. For a byline, he would use the name of the reporter who last bought him lunch. This is why printers had it good. They never had to pay for lunch, ever.

The same thing happens today. Sort of. We newspaper people still have transoms. Now, however, we rent them, from a transom warehouse on 11th Street, just north of K. The facility I use has 200 transoms for rent, each one little window above a wooden door, with a little space behind. These days, many of these rented transoms are standing idle. I actually share a rental transom with a couple of guys at McClatchy. We have a sign by ours that says, "PLEASE CLEARLY INDICATE WHICH JOURNALIST YOUR STORY IS INTENDED FOR!!"

The point of this was just to introduce the latest hot news item I have received with some folksy history about recent changes in the newspapers business.

So here's the news: The other day, when I stopped by to check my transom, I came across an explosive item, the transcript of the Bush cabinet meeting at which Tom Ridge was "pressured" to raise the Department of Homeland Security threat-level in the weeks preceding the 2004 election.

I know! This is a real scoop. The transcript is shocking, too. It may even get me a Pulitzer. It also casts Mr. Ridge's role in something of a new light. Here it is.

Bush Cabinet Meeting Official Transcript: 9-21-04

POTUS: . . . and so the cowboy says, "No, bartender, I said two LONG NECKS."


POTUS: Hooo! Oh, boy. [wiping tear] Ah, OK, so where were we?

Mr. MINETA: OK, first item. Kerry has narrowed the gap to seven points. That's Gallup nationwide, released this morning.

POTUS: Hey, since when did the Secretary of Transportation get to run these meetings?

[more laughter]

Mr. CHENEY: OK, seriously, though, we have to do something. Seven points. He could close that.

POTUS: But what can we do? The CIA keeps saying there's no credible threat of a new attack. There isn't even any chatter out there.


Mr. CHENEY: Fear is our strongest political currency. I think of the wires connected to my heart, and the cold metal case in my chest keeping me alive. How can we make people afraid?

POTUS: We could do one of those things where I go out to those microphones and pretend not to know the details of an issue of great national significance.

Mr. POWELL: You mean a press conference?

POTUS: That's it! Press conference. Yes.

Mr. GONZALEZ: I sometimes have those. Had one just the other day. Mine are pretty small.

Mr. RUMSFELD: We need to go bigger. Drive the fear of Jesus into people. This is the fourth quarter.

Mr. RIDGE: I could just raise the threat-level.

[awkward silence]

POTUS: What?

Mr. RIDGE: You know, raise the threat-level. I think we're at purple now, or beige, or something . . .


Mr. RIDGE: But seriously, we kick it up a notch, and issue a press release. Something about new information of a credible threat.

Mr. POWELL: I'm sorry, but we can't do that. The national terror alert system's color codes are precisely calibrated to reflect . . .

Mr. RUMSFELD: Oh, put a sock in it, Colin. My question is, what if this gets leaked? It goes from being an unknown known to a known known. What then?

Mr. RIDGE: I take the fall. It was my idea. The President never knew.

POTUS: I like it. I was never here.

Mr. RIDGE: It was actually Karl's idea. He called me with it this morning.

Mr. MINETA: Dick, why are you clutching at your heart?

Mr. CHENEY: Electrode skipped a pulse. Saw my life flash. I'll be fine.

POTUS: Can we go up to orange? I think orange would be good. Red might be too much.

Mr. RIDGE: Definitely agree. Orange is perfect. We need somewhere to go if, God willing, there's a genuine attack.

Mr. RUMSFELD: One hundred percent. Right in the bull's eye.

Mr. CHENEY: Tom, our story is, if this ever leaks, it was your idea. None of the rest of us ever knew.

Mr. RIDGE: I will never falter, Mr. President. I will never fail.

Mr. CHENEY: [indicating] Uh, Tom, remember he's the, uh . . .

Mr. RIDGE: Oh, right. Right.

POTUS: I think that's a wrap. That's a fine day's work, everyone. Let's call it good.

Mr. MINETA: Meeting is adjourned. Tom, you'll get a draft of the press release to Karl and we'll go from there?

[sounds of meeting breaking up.]

POTUS: Mr. Swift Boat. We'll show him how we do things.

Mr. RUMSFELD: Yes we will, sir. Yes we will.