Exclusive: President George W. Bush not only botched the Afghan and Iraq wars but he bungled his “dead or alive” pursuit of Osama bin Laden, assuring al-Qaeda’s leader nine more years of life and the opportunity to father four more children with his 20-something third wife, Robert Parry writes.
By Robert Parry
Recent disclosures about Osama bin Laden’s life after he slipped through George W. Bush’s fingers in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks put into a more personal light why the terrorist leader so appreciated Bush’s decision to divert U.S. military attention to Iraq: Bin Laden spent his last nine years living with his three wives and fathering four more children.
Bin Laden especially got to enjoy the pleasures of his youngest wife who was in her 20s — and who bore him the four children — as the fugitive family skipped across Pakistan from safe house to safe house before settling down at a compound in Abbottabad. Bin Laden was finally tracked down there and killed in May 2011 on President Barack Obama’s orders.
Bin Laden’s youngest wife, Amal Ahmad Abdul Fateh, said the family moved into the Abbottabad compound, near Pakistan’s national military academy, in mid-2005, according to her account to Pakistani authorities. At the time, the war in Iraq was descending into ever more hellish violence.
But a decisive end to the U.S. war in Iraq – either victory or withdrawal – was not in the interests of bin Laden and his inner circle holed up in Pakistan. If not preoccupied with the Iraqi occupation, the U.S. military might remember who it was after in the first place.
After bin Laden settled into his Abbottabad compound and got to fathering two more children with his 20-something bride, it was clear to him that his security – and his domestic bliss – were tied to dragging out the U.S. military debacle in Iraq, which Bush had deemed the “central front in the war on terror,” though bin Laden was about 1,500 miles away in Pakistan.
In a letter, dated Dec. 11, 2005, bin Laden’s closest lieutenant, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, conveyed bin Laden’s concerns to the then-leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Atiyah criticized Zarqawi’s excessive violence, especially toward Shiite Muslims, and urged a more measured pace for the war.
“Prolonging the war is in our interest,” Atiyah explained to Zarqawi.
The “Atiyah letter” was discovered by U.S. authorities at the time of Zarqawi’s death on June 7, 2006, and was translated by the U.S. military’s Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Atiyah himself was killed by a U.S. drone strike in August 2011. [To view the “prolonging the war” excerpt, click here. To read the entire Atiyah letter, click here.]
By 2005, Bush and bin Laden shared a common goal in Iraq. They both wanted U.S. forces to “stay the course.” It was only after the Obama administration drew down U.S. forces in Iraq and expanded counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda headquarters that the leads were developed that located bin Laden’s possible hideout in central Pakistan.
A raid by a helicopter-borne Special Forces team swooped in on bin Laden’s compound in the early hours of May 2, 2011. Bin Laden and four others were killed and his youngest wife, Fateh, was wounded in the leg. Later, Pakistani authorities arrived to take the survivors into custody and began the process of debriefing them about bin Laden’s life as a fugitive.
While criticism fell on Pakistani authorities – as either complicit or incompetent – for allowing bin Laden to live so long in their country, bin Laden’s belated demise also spotlighted the curious symbiotic relationship that had existed since 9/11 between bin Laden and Bush and even longer between the bin Laden family and the Bush family.
At nearly every turn, President George W. Bush acted – presumably with incompetence, not complicity – in ways that enabled bin Laden to remain free, and the terrorist leader repaid the favor by surfacing at key political moments to scare the American people back into Bush’s arms.
Although Bush talked tough about getting bin Laden “dead or alive,” he consistently failed to follow through. In November 2001, when bin Laden and his top lieutenants were cornered at the Tora Bora mountain range in eastern Afghanistan, Bush ordered the U.S. military to prematurely pivot toward planning the next war with Iraq.
According to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report, Bush’s order to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to freshen up the plans for an Iraq invasion literally pulled Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the Central Command, away from planning the assault on Tora Bora.
The White House also rebuffed CIA appeals for the dispatch of 1,000 Marines to cut off bin Laden’s escape routes, the report said. Denied the extra troops to catch bin Laden, U.S. Special Forces couldn’t nab the terrorist leader before he made his getaway to Pakistan. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Finishing a Job: Obama Gets Osama.”]
The hunt for bin Laden was soon put on the back burner. As the Washington Post reported in a retrospective on the hunt for bin Laden, “A few months after Tora Bora, as part of the preparation for war in Iraq, the Bush administration pulled out many of the Special Operations and CIA forces that had been searching for bin Laden in Afghanistan, according to several U.S officials who served at the time.”
Just six months after 9/11 and three months after bin Laden evaded capture at Tora Bora, Bush personally began downplaying the importance of capturing al-Qaeda’s leader. “I don’t know where he is,” Bush told a news conference. “I really just don’t spend that much time on him, to be honest with you.”
Yet, with bin Laden at large, Bush enjoyed an advantage. He could use the specter of bin Laden as an all-purpose bogeyman to scare the American people. A living bin Laden allowed Bush to create a plausible scenario for additional al-Qaeda attacks inside the United States and thus the justification for Bush to assert unprecedented powers as Commander in Chief.
Bush also cited the continued threat from bin Laden to stampede the American people and Congress into supporting the invasion of Iraq. One of Bush’s key arguments was that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein might share weapons of mass destruction with bin Laden’s operatives. Most Americans weren’t aware that Hussein, a secularist, and bin Laden, a fundamentalist, were mortal enemies in the Islamic world.
Bush kept the American people in line as his administration touched off periodic panics over terrorism by pushing the color-coded warnings up the threat spectrum.
‘Winning’ in Iraq
In 2003, the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Hussein further enhanced Bush’s reputation as the heroic, self-proclaimed “war president.” As Bush declared a premature “mission accomplished,” he also consolidated his extraordinary claims of presidential powers.
But bin Laden was another winner. His escape from Tora Bora in 2001 not only burnished his reputation as an Islamic folk hero who had defied the Americans, but Bush’s invasion of Iraq enabled bin Laden to begin rebuilding his tattered organization by recruiting new terrorist cadre angered over the Iraq War.
The new revelations from bin Laden’s youngest widow indicate that he was adding to his ranks in another way, by fathering children with her. A thankful bin Laden then gave Bush a big assist in the tense final days of Campaign 2004.
Since no WMD stockpiles had been found in Iraq and with the war going badly, Bush’s reelection campaign was staggering toward Election Day with Democrat John Kerry within reach of victory. It was then that bin Laden ended nearly a year of silence by taking the risky step of releasing a new video on Oct. 29, 2004.
Bin Laden’s rant attacking Bush was spun by Bush’s supporters as bin Laden’s “endorsement” of Kerry, but some observers noted that bin Laden’s reappearance was having the predictable result of giving Bush an October Surprise boost. Senior CIA analysts reached just that conclusion about bin Laden’s intent.
“Bin Laden certainly did a nice favor today for the President,” said deputy CIA director John McLaughlin in opening a meeting to review secret “strategic analysis” of the videotape, according to Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine, which drew heavily from CIA insiders.
Suskind wrote that CIA analysts had spent years “parsing each expressed word of the al-Qaeda leader and his deputy, [Ayman] Zawahiri. What they’d learned over nearly a decade is that bin Laden speaks only for strategic reasons. … Today’s conclusion: bin Laden’s message was clearly designed to assist the President’s reelection.”
Jami Miscik, CIA deputy associate director for intelligence, expressed the consensus view that bin Laden recognized how Bush’s heavy-handed policies – such as the Guantanamo prison camp, the Abu Ghraib torture scandal and the war in Iraq – were serving al-Qaeda’s strategic goals for recruiting a new generation of jihadists.
“Certainly,” Miscik said, “he would want Bush to keep doing what he’s doing for a few more years,” according to Suskind’s account.
As their internal assessment sank in, the CIA analysts were troubled by the implications of their own conclusions. “An ocean of hard truths before them – such as what did it say about U.S. policies that bin Laden would want Bush reelected – remained untouched,” Suskind wrote.
Bush enthusiasts, however, took bin Laden’s videotape at face value, calling it proof the terrorist leader feared Bush and favored Kerry. In a pro-Bush book, Strategery, right-wing journalist Bill Sammon portrayed bin Laden’s videotape as an attempt by the terrorist leader to persuade Americans to vote for Kerry.
But Bush himself recognized the real impact of bin Laden’s rant. “I thought it was going to help,” Bush told Sammon after the election. “I thought it would help remind people that if bin Laden doesn’t want Bush to be the President, something must be right with Bush.”
In Strategery, Sammon also quoted Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman as agreeing that bin Laden’s videotape helped Bush. “It reminded people of the stakes,” Mehlman said. “It reinforced an issue on which Bush had a big lead over Kerry.”
Indeed, two polls taken during and after the videotape’s release showed exactly that. Bush experienced a bump of several percentage points, from a virtual tie with Kerry to a five or six percentage point lead. Tracking polls by TIPP and Newsweek detected a surge in Bush support from a statistically insignificant two-point lead to five and six points, respectively.
On Election Day, Nov. 2, the official results showed Bush winning by a margin of less than three percentage points. So, arguably the intervention by bin Laden – urging Americans to reject Bush and thus having the predictable effect of boosting Bush – may have tipped the election and given Bush a second term.
How hard would it have been for bin Laden – a longtime student of American politics – to have figured that out?
We now know that bin Laden saw Bush’s second term as a time to feel more confident and to find a more permanent homestead. In 2005, as Bush closed down the special CIA unit assigned to track bin Laden’s whereabouts – folding its responsibilities into the broader counter-terrorism office – bin Laden and his three wives settled into their new home in Abbottabad.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, the Republicans continued using the specter of bin Laden to undermine Democrats, sometimes juxtaposing a photo of bin Laden next to the image of a Democratic candidate who was being smeared as “soft on terror.”
Even during Campaign 2006, when the American voters were finally catching on to this ruse, the Republican National Committee released a campaign ad to rally voters to the GOP banner by showing threatening quotes from bin Laden followed by the pitch: “These are the stakes.”
Desperate to hold onto a Republican congressional majority, President Bush flogged the same theme in lashing Democrats who favored a military withdrawal from Iraq.
“If we were to follow the Democrats’ prescriptions and withdraw from Iraq, we would be fulfilling Osama bin Laden’s highest aspirations,” Bush said at an Oct. 19, 2006, campaign speech in Pennsylvania. “We should at least be able to agree that the path to victory is not to do precisely what the terrorists want.”
But we now know that what al-Qaeda’s leaders really wanted was for the United States to stay stuck in Iraq, all the better not to have the resources to track down bin Laden at his compound in Abbottabad, nor to have enough troops in Afghanistan to thwart a comeback by the Taliban.
The Historic Ties
Perhaps even more curious about this Bush/bin Laden symbiosis is that it predated the 9/11 attacks and involved other family members and friends.
In 1979, Bush’s former Texas Air National Guard buddy James Bath was the sole U.S. business representative for Salem bin Laden, scion of the wealthy Saudi bin Laden family and Osama’s half-brother. While fronting for Salem bin Laden, Bath helped bankroll Bush’s first company, Arbusto Energy, by investing $50,000 for a five percent stake. [For details, see Neck Deep.]
In the 1980s, the fortunes of the Bush and bin Laden families crossed paths again. George H.W. Bush – as vice president and president – supported a CIA program to aid Islamic mujahedeen in their anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. It was during that conflict against the Soviet army that Osama bin Laden traveled to Afghanistan and established himself as a legendary Islamic fighter.
In early 1989, President George H.W. Bush spurned Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s proposal for a political settlement in Afghanistan and chose to continue the CIA war, even after the Soviets withdrew. That decision contributed to the rise of the Taliban in the mid-1990s and the formation of al-Qaeda out of veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Why Afghanistan Really Fell Apart.”]
By the late 1990s, the Clinton administration recognized Osama bin Laden and his new al-Qaeda organization as a major terrorist threat to the United States. However, once in the White House, President George W. Bush let down the nation’s guard.
When the CIA warned him on Aug. 6, 2001, that bin Laden was determined “to strike inside the U.S.,” Bush brushed off the warning and went fishing. Rather than rallying the government to examine available clues and tighten security, he continued a month-long vacation.
A little more than a month after the CIA warning, on the morning of Sept. 11, George H.W. Bush and members of the bin Laden family were participating in a Carlyle Group investment meeting in Washington. It was disrupted by the machinations of another branch of the bin Laden family, when Osama’s al-Qaeda operatives hijacked planes and crashed them into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.
According to one source, a bin Laden family member at the Carlyle meeting immediately sensed who was behind the terror attacks and removed his name tag.
In the following days, as the Justice Department jailed hundreds of Arab cab drivers and other “usual suspects,” George W. Bush cleared the bin Ladens to fly out of the United States, after only cursory interrogations by the FBI, by letting them board some of the first planes that were allowed back into U.S. air space. [For details, see Craig Unger’s House of Bush, House of Saud.]
Going After Osama
It was not until George W. Bush finally was out of office in 2009 that the U.S. government refocused its attention on getting bin Laden. President Obama said he ordered CIA Director Leon Panetta to make the killing or capturing of bin Laden the agency’s top priority.
Obama also drew down U.S. forces in Iraq and bolstered the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Further, the new president authorized more aggressive use of Predator drones to attack suspected Taliban militants and al-Qaeda operatives inside Pakistan.
The pressure was building on bin Laden. But the terrorist leader apparently had grown accustomed to his relative security at his compound in Abbottabad. He was careful not to use electronic communications or to step outside into the open, but the 54-year-old Saudi exile stayed put with his young wife and his growing family.
When CIA analysts concluded that the preponderance of evidence indicated that bin Laden was in the compound, President Obama ordered the May 2 nighttime raid by U.S. Special Forces without telling the Pakistani government.
Members of SEAL Team-6 and other personnel quickly secured bin Laden’s compound, killing four of his associates, including one 20-year-old son. Upon spotting bin Laden on the third floor, the commandos shot and killed him. They then carried bin Laden’s corpse to a helicopter and spirited the body away. U.S. authorities said it was later taken to a U.S. aircraft carrier and buried at sea.
One might have thought that given the strange history of the Bush/bin Laden symbiosis, the American Right would have simply given Obama credit for the successful operation and tried not to mention Bush at all. But that isn’t how the Right and its media machinery work.
Almost immediately, Republicans and right-wing media figures began claiming that George W. Bush deserved substantial credit for bin Laden’s death because one or two shards of information about the identity of bin Laden’s top courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, had been extracted from al-Qaeda operatives subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques” at CIA black sites.
Ironically, however, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged operational mastermind of the 9/11 attacks who was waterboarded 183 times, continued to lie about al-Kuwaiti’s significance as did another al-Qaeda leader, Abu Faraj al-Libi who also was subjected to harsh treatment.
Bush defenders have spun those facts to claim that the failure to elicit the truth from these individuals paradoxically revealed the value of the torture techniques because supposedly the continued lying by the two men after being tortured indicated how important al-Kuwaiti must have been.
However, as CIA Director Panetta and FBI interrogators have noted, it’s impossible to say whether the captives would have revealed as much or more information if they had been subjected to professional questioning using traditional interrogation methods.
The Scourge of Torture
There’s also the legal and moral issue of whether torture is ever justified. The Inquisition extracted many confessions – some of them surely valid – but most civilized people thought those methods had been consigned to the shameful trash heap of the Dark Ages and more modern barbaric regimes like the Nazis.
Yet, what is perhaps most audacious about the Right’s demand that Bush be given substantial credit for the elimination of bin Laden is that Bush had nearly eight years to make good on his “dead or alive” threat and failed. More than two years after Bush left office, Obama’s administration finally finished the job, but Bush’s acolytes still couldn’t bring themselves to admit Bush’s failure or Obama’s success.
Similarly, after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the Right tried to palm off blame on President Bill Clinton, although Bush had been in office almost eight months and had ignored the CIA’s terror warnings. Blaming Clinton had been the main point of the 2006 docu-drama “The Path to 9/11,” produced by Disney’s ABC-TV which assigned pro-Bush operatives to be the directors.
The program, which ABC touted as a public service shown “with no commercial interruptions,” mixed real and fabricated events to put Democrats in the worst possible light and portray Bush as the hero who finally set things right.
In other words, when Bush failed to prevent 9/11, the blame had to be shifted to his predecessor, and when his successor finally got bin Laden, the credit was assigned to Bush. The power of the right-wing news media and the influence of the neoconservatives ensured that many gullible Americans accepted this narrative.
But the real history presents a more troubling picture, one in which Bush failed to protect the nation from al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks and then exploited the public’s fear to justify an expansion of his own powers and an aggressive war against Iraq, a country innocent of 9/11.
All the while, Bush pursued at best a feckless strategy for tracking down al-Qaeda’s top leader and even chuckled to a conservative author about how bin Laden helped assure his reelection victory in 2004. Relatively safe in Pakistan, bin Laden pursued his own domestic pleasures.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.