In a post-election interview with Washington Times
reporter Bill Sammon, Bush said he judged that bin-Laden’s harsh
denunciation of him in a videotape released on Oct. 29, 2004, had
rallied voters to the Republican banner.
“I thought it was going to help,” Bush said. “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.”
Bin-Laden’s diatribe – after nearly a year of
silence – indeed did give Bush a crucial late boost with one national
poll recording a six-percentage-point bounce in Bush’s favor. Bush
supporters and many neutral voters apparently took bin-Laden’s words at
face value, assuming that bin-Laden really wanted Bush to be defeated.
But CIA analysts concluded that bin-Laden was
actually playing a double game, pretending to want Bush out when he
really hoped Bush would stay in. Bin-Laden was cagy enough to realize
that his well-timed denunciation of Bush would have a predictable
boomerang effect and thus help Bush gain a second term.
Bin-Laden’s thinking apparently was that Bush’s
highly aggressive “war on terror,” especially the bloody occupation of
Iraq, would continue creating thousands of new extremists to swell the
ranks of al-Qaeda while also enhancing bin-Laden’s personal status in
the Islamic world.
This CIA assessment was disclosed in a brief
passage near the end of Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine,
which draws heavily from CIA insiders. Suskind wrote that the CIA
analysts based their troubling judgment on classified information.
According to Suskind’s book, 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. …
“Their [the CIA’s] assessments, at day’s end, are a
distillate of the kind of secret, internal conversations that the
American public [was] not sanctioned to hear: strategic analysis.
Today’s conclusion: bin-Laden’s message was clearly designed to assist
the President’s reelection.
“At the five o’clock meeting, [deputy CIA director]
John McLaughlin opened the issue with the consensus view: ‘Bin-Laden
certainly did a nice favor today for the President.’”
McLaughlin’s comment drew nods from CIA officers at
Jami Miscik, CIA deputy associate director for
intelligence, suggested that the al-Qaeda founder may have come to
Bush’s aid because bin-Laden felt threatened by the rise in Iraq of
Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi; bin-Laden might have thought
his leadership would be diminished if Bush lost the White House and
their “eye-to-eye struggle” ended.
But the CIA analysts also felt that bin-Laden might
have recognized how Bush’s policies – including the Guantanamo prison
camp, the Abu Ghraib scandal and the war in Iraq – were serving al-Qaeda’s
strategic goals for recruiting a new generation of jihadists.
“Certainly,” the CIA’s Miscik said, “he would want
Bush to keep doing what he’s doing for a few more years,” according to
Suskind’s account of the meeting.
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,”
Bush enthusiasts, however, have continued to cite
bin-Laden’s videotape as proof that the terrorist leader genuinely
feared George W. Bush and favored John Kerry.
In a fawningly pro-Bush book entitled Strategery:
How George W. Bush Is Defeating Terrorists, Outwitting Democrats and
Confounding the Mainstream Media, right-wing journalist Sammon
devoted several pages to bin-Laden’s videotape, portraying it as an
attempt by the terrorist leader to persuade Americans to vote for Kerry.
“Bin-Laden stopped short of overtly endorsing
Kerry,” Sammon wrote, “but the terrorist offered a polemic against
reelecting Bush. … Unfortunately for Kerry, bin-Laden then proceeded to
parrot the Democrat’s litany of complaints against Bush, right down to
the Michael Moore-inspired canard about My Pet Goat.”
It’s not clear why Sammon uses the word “canard,”
which means an unfounded or false story, since it’s a well-established
fact that Bush did sit paralyzed for about seven minutes in a Florida
classroom reading My Pet Goat after being told on Sept. 11, 2001,
that “America is under attack.”
But Sammon, like many Bush acolytes, appears to
live in a world where facts and logic have no particular relevance. So,
not surprisingly, Sammon didn’t weigh the possibility that bin-Laden
might have understood that his “endorsement” of one candidate over
another would achieve the opposite effect.
Indeed, many right-wing pundits appear to have
played into bin-Laden’s hands by promoting his anti-Bush diatribe in
just the way he wanted it, as a de facto recommendation that
Americans vote for Kerry – and as a sure way to generate votes for Bush.
In Strategery, Sammon also quotes 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.”
So how hard is it to figure out that bin-Laden – a
longtime student of American politics – would have understood exactly
the same point?
Many American baby-boomers grew up watching Walt
Disney’s “Song of the South,” featuring Uncle Remus tales describing how
the clever Brer Rabbit escaped one famously tight spot by pretending
that what he feared most was to be hurled into the briar patch – when
that was exactly where he wanted to go.
Indeed, the evidence is now clear that al-Qaeda
strategists have long operated in much the same way, trying to goad the
U.S. government into an overreaction that would put them in an
environment where they could be most successful. [See
Briar Patch” or “Is
Bush al-Qaeda's 'Useful Idiot?'”]
By the end of the Clinton administration, al-Qaeda’s
leaders had been chased to the farthest corners of the planet, the
mountains of Afghanistan. They were exiles from across the Islamic
world, largely because they had lost battle after battle against their
Al-Qaeda’s brand of Islamic fundamentalism had been
rejected in Muslim societies from Algeria and Egypt to Saudi Arabia and
Jordan. Bin-Laden and his lieutenants had even been expelled from the
At this critical juncture, al-Qaeda’s brain trust
decided that their best hope was to strike at the United States and
count on a clumsy reaction that would offend the Islamic world and rally
angry young Muslims to al-Qaeda’s banner. The Oct. 12, 2000, bombing of
the USS Cole had failed to elicit a sufficient reaction, so al-Qaeda
planned something bigger.
By early summer 2001, as 19 al-Qaeda operatives
positioned themselves inside the United States, U.S. intelligence
analysts picked up evidence of al-Qaeda’s plans by sifting through the
“chatter” of electronic intercepts. The U.S. warning system was
Over the July Fourth 2001 holiday, a well-placed
U.S. intelligence source passed on a disturbing piece of information to
then-New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who later recounted the
incident in an interview with
“The person told me that there was some concern
about an intercept that had been picked up,” Miller said. “The incident
that had gotten everyone’s attention was a conversation between two
members of al-Qaeda. And they had been talking to one another,
supposedly expressing disappointment that the United States had not
chosen to retaliate more seriously against what had happened to the
“And one al-Qaeda operative was overheard saying to
the other, ‘Don’t worry; we’re planning something so big now that the
U.S. will have to respond.’”
In the Alternet interview, published in May 2006
after Miller resigned from the Times, the reporter expressed regret that
she had not been able to nail down enough details about the intercept to
get the story into the newspaper.
But the significance of her recollection is that
more than two months before the 9/11 attacks, the CIA knew that al-Qaeda
was planning a major attack with the intent of provoking a U.S. military
reaction – or in this case, an overreaction.
The CIA tried to warn Bush about the threat with
the hope that presidential action could energize government agencies and
head off the attack. On Aug. 6, 2001, the CIA sent analysts to Bush’s
ranch in Crawford, Texas, to brief him and deliver a report entitled
“Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US.”
Bush was not pleased by the intrusion. He glared at
the CIA briefer and snapped, “All right, you’ve covered your ass,”
according to Suskind’s book.
Then, ordering no special response, Bush returned
to a vacation of fishing, clearing brush and working on a speech about
For its part, al-Qaeda was running a risk that the
United States might strike a precise and devastating blow against the
terrorist organization, eliminating it as an effective force without
alienating much of the Muslim world.
If that happened, the cause of Islamic extremism
could have been set back years, without eliciting much sympathy from
most Muslims for a band of killers who wantonly murdered innocent
After the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda’s gamble almost
failed as the CIA, backed by U.S. Special Forces, ousted bin-Laden’s
Taliban allies in Afghanistan and cornered much of the al-Qaeda
leadership in the mountains of Tora Bora near the Pakistani border.
But instead of using U.S. ground troops to seal the
border, Bush relied on the Pakistani army. The Pakistani military, which
included many Taliban sympathizers, moved too slowly, allowing bin-Laden
and other leaders to escape.
Then, instead of staying focused on bin-Laden and
his fellow fugitives, Bush shifted U.S. Special Forces toward Saddam
Hussein and Iraq.
Many U.S. terrorism experts, including White House
counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, were shocked since the
intelligence community didn’t believe that Hussein’s secular
dictatorship had any working relationship with al-Qaeda – and had no
role in the 9/11 attacks.
Nevertheless, Bush ordered an invasion of Iraq on
March 19, 2003, ousting Hussein from power but also unleashing mayhem
across Iraqi society. Soon, the Iraq War along with the controversies
over torture and mistreatment of Muslim detainees were serving as
recruitment posters for al-Qaeda.
Under Jordanian exile Zarqawi, al-Qaeda set up
terrorist cells in central Iraq, taking root amid the weeds of sectarian
violence and the nation’s general anarchy. Instead of an obscure group
of misfits, al-Qaeda was achieving legendary status among many Muslims
as the defenders of the Islamic holy lands, battling the new “crusaders”
led by Bush.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, the 9/11
attacks had allowed Bush to reinvent himself as the “war president” who
operated almost without oversight. He saw his approval ratings surge
from the 50s to the 90s – and watched as the Republican Party
consolidated its control of the U.S. Congress in 2002.
Though the worsening bloodshed in Iraq eroded
Bush’s popularity in 2004, political adviser Karl Rove still framed the
election around Bush’s aggressive moves to defend the United States and
to punish American enemies.
Whereas Bush was supposedly resolute, Democrat
Kerry was portrayed as weak and indecisive, a “flip-flopper.” Kerry,
however, scored some political points in the presidential debates by
citing the debacle at Tora Bora that enabled bin-Laden to escape.
The race was considered neck-and-neck as it turned
toward the final weekend of campaigning. Then, the shimmering image of
Osama bin-Laden appeared on American televisions, speaking directly to
the American people, mocking Bush and offering a kind of truce if U.S.
forces withdrew from the Middle East.
“He [Bush] was more interested in listening to the
child’s story about the goat rather than worry about what was happening
to the [twin] towers,” bin-Laden
said. “So, we had three times the
time necessary to accomplish the events.”
Over the final weekend of the campaign, right-wing
pundits, bloggers and talk-show hosts portrayed bin-Laden’s videotape as
an effort to hurt Bush and help Kerry – which understandably prompted
the opposite reaction among many Americans.
Behind the walls of secrecy at Langley, Virginia,
however, U.S. intelligence experts reviewed the evidence and concluded
that bin-Laden had achieved exactly what he wanted, a stampede of voters
to Bush and a continuation of his clumsy “war on terror.”
Now as the Mid-East conflagration spreads to Gaza
and Lebanon – and threatens to draw in Syria and Iran – the larger
Islamic world is beginning to look more and more like the briar patch
where Osama bin-Laden and other violent extremists feel most
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra
stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from
Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at
secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine,
the Press & 'Project Truth.'