Special Report: George W. Bush engaged in a feckless eight-year pursuit of Osama bin Laden while using him for a political edge, says Robert Parry. May 7, 2011
By Robert Parry
Since Osama bin Laden’s killing on May 1, it has become shockingly clear that the terrorist leader did not spend most of the last decade on the run or hiding in caves. He was holed up in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad enjoying the comforts of family life with his twenty-something-year-old latest wife.
And, while criticism has fallen on Pakistani authorities for being either complicit or incompetent, almost no attention has focused on the curious symbiotic relationship that has existed since 9/11 between Osama bin Laden and George W. 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 later 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 on Friday, “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 allowing 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, even though Hussein, a secularist, and bin Laden, a fundamentalist, were mortal enemies in the Islamic world.
But the American people didn’t know such details. Many fell in line behind Bush’s claims, trusting him in the face of periodic panics over heightened, level-orange terrorist threats.
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” in Iraq, 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 allowed bin Laden to recruit new terrorist cadre over resentments about the Iraq War.
By bogging down U.S. military and intelligence assets far from bin Laden’s Pakistani hideouts, the Iraq War helped bin Laden in another way. His life-style improved. His growing sense of security led him to leave the rough tribal areas and begin to settle down in more civilized environs of Pakistan.
Returning this favor, bin Laden gave Bush a big assist in the tense final days of Campaign 2004.
With no WMD found in Iraq and the war going badly, Bush was struggling and Democrat John Kerry was 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 immediately spun by Bush’s supporters as bin Laden’s “endorsement” of 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 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.
A CIA Assessment
Immediately after bin Laden’s videotape appeared, 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.”
So how hard is it to figure out that bin Laden – a longtime student of American politics – would have understood exactly the same point?
We now know that Bush’s second term meant a continuation of bin Laden’s relative safety. In 2005, Bush closed down a special CIA unit that had been tracking bin Laden’s whereabouts for almost a decade, with its responsibilities merged with a broader counter-terrorism office.
In 2006, more information also surfaced about how Bush’s pivot to Iraq had protected bin Laden. Lt. Gen. John Vines told the Washington Post that his troops were within a half-hour of catching bin Laden but needed three drones to cover the escape routes. The general said only one drone was available because the others had been reassigned for service in Iraq.
According to new evidence that has surfaced since bin Laden’s death, it appears that early in Bush’s second term, bin Laden moved into the compound in Abbottabad, an hour-or-so drive from Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad, where he set up house with family members, including his young wife.
By late 2005, bin Laden’s inner circle also understood that their safety and success were tied to dragging out the U.S. military debacle in Iraq, which Bush called the “central front in the war on terror,” even though bin Laden was about 1,500 miles away in Pakistan.
In a letter, dated Dec. 11, 2005, a senior al-Qaeda operative known as “Atiyah” lectured the then-leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, on the necessity of taking a long view on the Iraq conflict rather than rushing things.
“Prolonging the war is in our interest,” Atiyah told 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. [To view the “prolonging the war” excerpt, click here. To read the entire Atiyah letter, click here. ]
The hard truth is that Bush and bin Laden shared a common goal in Iraq. They both wanted U.S. forces to “stay the course.”
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 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 and not 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 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 was jailing 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 Barack 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. However, 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 family and young wife.
When CIA analysts concluded that the preponderance of evidence indicated that bin Laden was in the compound, President Obama ordered the May 1 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, apparently including one 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. 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. 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 also reveals 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.
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.
Now, more than two years after Bush left office, Obama’s administration finished the job and Bush’s acolytes can’t bring themselves to admit Bush’s failure or Obama’s success.
Similarly, after the 9/11 attacks, 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.
Protecting Bush’s legacy was the main point of the 2006 docu-drama “The Path to 9/11,” produced by Disney’s ABC-TV which assigned pro-Bush operatives as 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 take action as president to prevent 9/11, the blame had to be shifted to his predecessor, and now when his successor succeeds at getting bin Laden, the credit must accrue to Bush.
Then, the power of the right-wing news media and the influence of the neoconservatives ensure that many gullible Americans accept 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 which had nothing to do with 9/11.
All the while, Bush pursued at best a feckless strategy for tracking down al-Qaeda’s top leader and even chuckled about how bin Laden had helped assure his election victory in 2004.
The end result of this strange symbiosis appears to have been that bin Laden grew increasingly confident of his own security. Perhaps, Bush’s apologists will next claim that Bush deserves credit for getting bin Laden because he gave the terrorist leader what turned out to be a false sense of security.
[For more on these topics, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, now available in a two-book set for the discount price of only $19. For details, click here.]
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 Iraqand Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.