The Bush-Bin Laden Symbiosis
By Robert Parry
August 11, 2006
As Americans suffer through another terrorism scare and George W. Bush talks tough about a long war against “Islamic fascists,” it bears remembering that top CIA analysts concluded that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden released a videotape right before Election 2004 to help Bush win a second term.
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 Laden intended.
“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 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 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 people.
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 Consortiumnews.com’s “Osama’s 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 Commission Report.
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 U.S. cities.
“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 high-rise building.”
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 “blinking red.”
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 Alternet.
“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 Cole.
“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 stem-cell research.
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 civilians.
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 comfortable.
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 terrorists.
“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