Many liberals and Democrats have focused on
allegations of Republican voter suppression and vote tampering,
especially in the swing state of Ohio. But polls suggest that a more
decisive factor in Bush’s narrow victory in 2004 was the reaction of the
American people to bin Laden’s last-minute tirade against Bush.
On Oct. 29, 2004, the Friday before Election 2004,
bin Laden broke nearly a year of silence and took the risk of releasing
a videotape that denounced Bush and was immediately spun by Bush’s
supporters as bin Laden’s “endorsement” of Democratic Sen. John Kerry.
According to two polls taken during and after the
videotape’s release, 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 Nov. 2, 2004, the official results showed Bush
winning by a margin of less than three percentage points. So, arguably
the intervention by bin Laden – essentially urging Americans to reject
Bush – had the predictable effect of driving voters to the President,
possibly in sufficient numbers to tip the balance of the election.
After the videotape appeared, senior CIA analysts
concluded that ensuring a second term for Bush was precisely what bin
“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” after the videotape had
dominated the day’s news, according to Ron Suskind’s The One Percent
Doctrine, which draws 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 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
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, took bin Laden’s
videotape at face value, calling it proof the terrorist leader feared
Bush and favored 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 Bill 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 used 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.”
Sammon also didn’t weigh the obvious possibility
that the crafty bin Laden might have understood that his “endorsement”
of Kerry over Bush would achieve the opposite effect with the American
Indeed, many right-wing pundits appear to have
played into bin Laden’s hands by promoting his anti-Bush diatribe just
he wanted, as a de facto recommendation that Americans vote for
Kerry – and thus a sure way to generate votes for Bush.
Bush himself recognized this fact. “I thought it
was going to help,” Bush said in a post-election interview with Sammon
about bin Laden’s videotape. “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 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?'”]
At the height of Campaign 2000, al-Qaeda took aim
at another American target, the destroyer USS Cole, as it docked in the
port of Aden. On Oct. 12, 2000, al-Qaeda operatives piloted a small boat
laden with explosives into the Cole’s hull, blasting a hole that killed
17 crew members and wounded another 40.
Back in Afghanistan, bin Laden anticipated – and
desired – a retaliatory strike. He hoped to lure the United States
deeper into a direct conflict with al-Qaeda, which would enhance his
group’s reputation and – assuming a clumsy U.S. response – would
radicalize the region’s Muslim populations.
Bin Laden evacuated al-Qaeda’s compound at the
Kandahar airport and fled into the desert near Kabul and then to
hideouts in Khowst and Jalalabad before returning to Kandahar where he
alternated sleeping among a half dozen residences, according to the 9/11
But lacking hard evidence proving who was behind
the Cole bombing, President Bill Clinton didn’t order a retaliatory
strike, leaving bin Laden deeply frustrated. Eventually, U.S.
intelligence reached a conclusion that the attack was “a full-fledged
al-Qaeda operation” under the direct supervision of bin Laden.
However, in January 2001,
George W. Bush took office and wanted nothing to do with Clinton’s
assessment that al-Qaeda ranked at the top of the U.S. threat list. From
his opening days in office, Bush rebuffed the recommendations from
almost anyone who shared Clinton’s phobia about terrorism.
On Jan. 31, 2001, just 11
days after Bush’s Inauguration, a bipartisan terrorism commission headed
by former Sens. Gary Hart and Warren Rudman unveiled its final report,
warning that urgent steps were needed to prevent a terrorist attack on
“States, terrorists and
other disaffected groups will acquire weapons of mass destruction, and
some will use them,” the report said. “Americans will likely die on
American soil, possibly in large numbers.” Hart specifically noted that
the nation was vulnerable to “a weapon of mass destruction in a
The 9/11 Strike
Meanwhile, al-Qaeda was preparing precisely that
kind of attack.
“In February 2001, a source reported that an
individual whom he identified as the big instructor (probably a
reference to bin Laden) complained frequently that the United States had
not yet attacked. According to the source, bin Laden wanted the United
States to attack, and if it did not he would launch something bigger,”
the 9/11 Commission wrote,
By early summer 2001, as 19 al-Qaeda operatives
positioned themselves inside the United States, U.S. intelligence
analysts picked up more 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. The Iraq War along with the controversies over
torture and mistreatment of Muslim detainees served as recruitment
posters for al-Qaeda.
Soon, al-Qaeda had established 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.
The Bush Bounce
Back in the United States, the 9/11 attacks were
working political wonders for Bush, too. He had reinvented himself as a
“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 the clumsy “war on terror.”
Now as the Middle East conflagration has drawn in
Israel and spread to Lebanon and Gaza – and may jump to 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
Similarly, the Aug. 10 arrests of 24 alleged
plotters scheming to use mixtures of liquid chemicals to blow up U.S.
airliners over the Atlantic Ocean have given Bush the opportunity to
reprise his popular role as the nation’s protector against the evil
“The recent arrests that our fellow citizens are
now learning about are a stark reminder that this nation is at war with
Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love
freedom, to hurt our nation,” Bush said, standing dramatically alone on
the tarmac of an airport in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
If recent history is any guide, Bush can expect a
bump in his sagging poll numbers as Americans again rally around the
President during a time of anxiety. The strange symbiotic relationship
between Bush and bin Laden continues.
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.'