I DON'T KNOW about anyone else around here, but I've been enjoying watching Martin O'Malley, my mayor, run for governor. Or FBI director. Or terrorism czar. Or president. Whatever it is he's running for. He's very good at it and very obvious, which is the part I like. My mayor has put himself on the national map and already I'm starting to feel a little weepy about the guy, like he might not be ours for long. It's how I felt about Oprah when she was on Channel 13.
Look at him, all dressed up in nice suits, going off to Washington and creating stirs and raising eyebrows, getting more mug time than Geraldo. He's made a splash by making Baltimore a "model for counterterrorism" and by criticizing the FBI for not sharing information about terrorists with the local police - O'Malley's police!
He's testified before Congress, appeared on network television and given tips to mayors across the country through Internet video conferences. In the process, he's made himself America's Other Mayor ("America's Mayor" being Rudy Giuliani).
Can you say grandstanding?
Sure you can.
But here's the thing about Martin O'Mayor and all his running-for-something grandstanding on terrorism: He has a point.
"The disconnect in criminal intelligence is the biggest threat right now and the most dangerous one," O'Malley told a congressional subcommittee in October. And his police commissioner, Ed Norris, sat right next to him and said: "We have to know what the FBI knows about threats, tips and even just rumors. Why aren't we all working together to find the people the FBI is looking for?"
When I first heard this testimony it sounded a little whiny, like: "Hey, look at us! We're from Baltimore! We're a big city, too. Terrorists could bomb us, too!"
It also looked as though O'Malley had seen an opportunity to score some points with important Maryland voters in a certain part of the state - Montgomery and Prince George's counties - close to the nation's capital and loaded with government workers feeling especially vulnerable to terrorism.
But inside the transparent politics was a point and O'Malley's cover: The left hand in this country doesn't know what the right's doing, and that costs lives. (See indictment, U.S. vs. Moussaoui.)
At the time of O'Malley's first appearance before Congress on this matter, the FBI had logged 260,000 leads in its investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks and not one of Baltimore's 3,000-plus cops had been asked to check any of them out. Joint federal-local law enforcement operations have been effective in the past, and O'Malley seemed to be asking why it couldn't happen with antiterrorism as well.
He had his moment in the national spotlight, then chilled a bit on the counterterrorism stuff. Until this week.
This week, Geraldo went to war and O'Malley went back to Washington. To a Senate subcommittee he reported still little federal-local cooperation in the battle against terrorism. "We have a bad case of the slows," America's Other Mayor said.
This immediately angered the FBI, whose regional spokesman called O'Malley's statement "totally wrong."
To complete his sting of the feds, the mayor dropped a little zinger that not only ended up as front-page news but further angered law enforcement officials.
In describing what he disingenuously claimed was a "hypothetical" situation, O'Malley revealed something we hadn't heard before - that 36 hours before taking part in the Sept. 11 attacks, an alleged organizer of the suicide hijackings had been stopped for speeding by a Maryland state trooper on Interstate 95 in Cecil County. The trooper stopped Ziad Jarrah for doing 90 mph and gave him a ticket. Investigators discovered the ticket in the glove compartment of a car left at Newark Airport on Sept. 11.
In letting this slip, even in "hypothetical" form, O'Malley apparently was telling a tale out of school.
Some law enforcement officials told The Sun they were appalled that O'Malley had breached a confidence by giving this factoid away.
But I don't see what the big deal is. Jarrah is dead, and we all know what happened Sept. 11.
Come on. O'Malley saw the I-95 anecdote as a way to make headlines and make his point: If the trooper had known Jarrah was on the FBI's "watch list" for terrorists, he could have nabbed him.
Of course, there are at least four problems with that suggestion.
1. Jarrah hadn't been on a watch list.
2. Even if he had, is there a federal law that permits arresting someone for being on a watch list?
3. Even if state police had access to the FBI's terrorist database, do you think troopers would check it every time they stop someone for speeding? They're already trying to recover from accusations of racial profiling, never mind ethnic profiling.
4. I'd like to remind my fellow citizens that hardly anyone in this country was thinking about any of this stuff before Sept. 11, and that includes Martin O'Mayor.
Despite those complicating details, you can see the mayor's point.
And you can see right through him as he makes it.
That's part of what makes him a joy to watch in this run for higher office. You don't need to be a seasoned political observer to understand what he's doing out there on the public stage. He doesn't conceal much. He's pretty much transparent and thus, in that smirking, disingenuous way of his, completely honest. He's a clever politician and a pleasure to watch. We ought to enjoy this while we can. He might not be ours forever.