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On Quoting bin Laden

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, September 6, 2006; 12:46 PM

The spectacle of the president of the United States extensively quoting Osama bin Laden to bolster his controversial policies during political season deserves notice, and reflection.

By all rights, President Bush ought to be embarrassed that the al Qaeda leader who masterminded the September 11 terrorist attacks remains at large almost five years later.

But Bush yesterday let bin Laden share his bulliest of pulpits, giving the mass murderer precisely the attention he craves and endorsing his extreme view that a Third World War is under way.

Here's the text of Bush's speech.

Mentioning bin Laden so much couldn't help but remind listeners of Bush's failure to capture or kill him. But the risk was easily offset by the fact that bin Laden remains the most effective bogeyman out there, and job one for the White House in the run-up to a potentially crippling mid-term election is to scare the hell out of people.

Today's Coverage

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush issued a stern warning yesterday about what he called the continuing terrorist threat confronting the nation, using the haunting words of Islamic extremists to support his assertion that they remain determined to attack the United States.

"Abandoning his practice of only rarely mentioning al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Bush repeatedly quoted him and purported terrorist letters, recordings and documents to make his case that terrorists have broad totalitarian ambitions and believe the war in Iraq is a key theater in a wider struggle."

Notably, in the New York Times this morning, Bush's speech not only doesn't make the front page -- it doesn't even get its own story.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes: "President Bush and Congressional Democrats locked horns on Tuesday on whether Americans are safe from terrorism, part of a calculated effort by both parties to capitalize on the coming anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and gain the upper hand in this year's election debate over national security."

And Stolberg notes: "The speech used a classic strategy of Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's chief political adviser, who specializes in turning a candidate's weakness into a strength. In this case, Mr. Bush's weakness is that Mr. bin Laden has not been captured -- a point that was quickly picked up by Democrats. Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts said that if Mr. Bush had 'unleashed the American military to do the job at Tora Bora four years ago and killed Osama bin Laden, he wouldn't have to quote this barbarian's words today.'

"That did not stop Mr. Bush from mentioning Mr. bin Laden 17 times in the 44-minute speech, a tactic that seemed intended to emphasize the Republican argument that the nation can trust the president and his party more than Democrats to protect it from attacks."

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "Voters were never more united behind the president than in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, and his speech was designed to convince Americans that the threat has not faded five years later."

Mark Silva and Andrew Zajac write in the Chicago Tribune: "As part of a series of speeches that coincide with the fifth anniversary of the attacks, the president again linked the war on terror with the war in Iraq -- despite escalating deaths of Iraqis in sectarian violence and fresh evidence of a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan."

Craig Gordon writes in Newsday: "Hoping once more to tap the political potency of 9/11, President George W. Bush repeatedly quoted Osama bin Laden yesterday to warn that the threat of terrorism lives on - and to try to rally voters behind the Republican vision for fighting it. . . .

"It's all part of a three-week campaign-style push - timed to Monday's anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks - in which Bush is seeking to tap into past voter support for his anti-terror polices, support that has largely eroded over public dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq. . . .

"For Bush, raising bin Laden so forcefully comes with some risks - not the least of which is to remind voters that even though Bush famously declared he wanted bin Laden 'dead or alive,' the U.S. military has failed to capture or kill him.

"But David Heyman, a terrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, said Bush weathered that problem in the 2004 campaign and may now believe it's worth the risk again 'to put a real face on terrorism . . . . I would guess there's been some [internal Republican] polling that people get riled up when they hear bin Laden's name.'"

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek.com: "There was a time when the White House considered Osama bin Laden so contemptible and so radioactive that it would rarely mention his name in any presidential speech. President Bush's aides didn't want to dignify the Al Qaeda leader by suggesting he was worthy of a presidential response. Moreover, they thought there was some danger in propagating the views of a figure who wanted to reach the widest audience -- and possibly even send coded messages to his followers. . . .

"That was the old rhetoric of the war on terror. In the latest version of the war of words, the White House has elevated bin Laden to a mixture of foreign leader, historical icon and political adversary. Bin Laden's words (and those of his henchmen) provided the backbone for Bush's speech to military officers on Tuesday. Far from brushing aside bin Laden's rants, Bush insisted they were a modern-day Mein Kampf, a guide to Al Qaeda's global strategy. The White House now finds itself in the extraordinary position of selling the war on terror by citing the very man it ranks as public enemy No. 1.

"Why the turnaround? Bush's aides acknowledge that voters have become confused about who the enemy is and what they represent -- in part because Iraq has muddied the concept of the war."

Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes in the Baltimore Sun that other than the rhetoric, there wasn't much new in Bush's speech: "Even Bush's top advisers acknowledged that the president is not offering fresh plans about how to turn things around in Iraq or keep Americans safe."

Here's Wolf Blitzer on CNN yesterday afternoon, talking to White House correspondent Ed Henry:

"BLITZER: When you speak to White House officials, Ed, how embarrassed are they -- if they are embarrassed -- that five years after 9/11, the man responsible for those 3,000 deaths, Osama bin Laden, is still a free man?

"HENRY: As you can imagine, it's a sore subject for White House officials. They insist they still have al Qaeda on the run. And you heard from the president himself today almost goading bin Laden by saying that he has to remain in hiding and that he won't come out and show his face. But you can bet, it's an embarrassment for them five years later, Wolf."

Deja Vu All Over Again

Although the journalists covering yesterday's event seem to have forgotten, this wasn't the first time Bush tried quoting bin Laden. More than a year ago, facing sagging poll numbers and a growing antiwar sentiment, Bush did almost exactly the same thing. Here's the text of his June 28, 2005, speech.

"Hear the words of Osama Bin Laden," Bush intoned. "'This Third World War is raging' in Iraq. 'The whole world is watching this war.' He says it will end in 'victory and glory, or misery and humiliation.'"

See more in my column from the following day.

Reality Check

The president gave bin Laden way too much credit in his speech, casting him as the oracular leader of a global movement and taking seriously his vision of an Islamic caliphate "stretching from Europe to North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia." Even the White House's own report on terrorism issued yesterday morning barely mentioned bin Laden, noting that the terror threat has become more widely diffused during Bush's tenure.

Chas Freeman , president of the Middle East Policy Council, told me in an interview earlier this year: "Only two people in the world actually believe that there's any possibility of a new caliphate being established, stretching from Spain to Indonesia: Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush. . . .

"So, rather than simply passing along what our own politicians and pundits say -- often on the basis of nothing but the congealed prejudice of stereotypes -- that people in the Middle East want, the press should be digging into what they are actually demanding, and why."

Opinion Watch

Maureen Dowd writes in her New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "After playing down bin Laden for years, barely mentioning him and minimizing his importance, W. has once more picked up a metaphorical bullhorn on the cusp of the 9/11 anniversary to make Osama the villain, using his name 18 times in a 40-minute speech. Once it would have made a difference to decapitate Osama, and it would still be great to do it. But it's too late to stop Al Qaeda that way now. The organization has diffused to a state of mind, fueled by hatred of U.S. occupation of Muslim land.

"W.'s plan to save his legacy and keep Congress out of Democratic hands is to absorb a misbegotten and mishandled war, Iraq, into the good wars of the 20th century, World War II and the cold war. Instead of just admitting he bollixed up Iraq, W. and his henchmen are ratcheting up, fusing enemies willy-nilly, running around giving speeches with the simplistic, black-helicopter paranoid message: All those scary Arabs are in league to knock us off and institute the rule of Allah."

Liberal blogger John Aravosis writes: "What this idiot doesn't understand, or chooses to ignore, is that regardless of how evil the enemy, the problem isn't that the American people don't understand the dangers we face. The problem is that the American people have finally understood that we have an incompetent buffoon in charge of tackling said danger. And no amount of prattling about Lenin or Hitler is going to quell people's concerns that Bush is simply not up to the task."

Keith Olbermann expounds on MSNBC: "It is to our deep national shame -- and ultimately it will be to the President's deep personal regret -- that he has followed his Secretary of Defense down the path of trying to tie those loyal Americans who disagree with his policies -- or even question their effectiveness or execution -- to the Nazis of the past, and the al Qaeda of the present. . . .

"And it becomes necessary to reach back into our history, for yet another quote, from yet another time and to ask it of Mr. Bush:

"'Have you no sense of decency, sir?'"

Iran Watch

Meanwhile, the rhetoric against Iran continues to get hotter.

Barry Schweid writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush said Tuesday a nuclear-armed Iran would blackmail the free world and raise a mortal threat to the American people."

John D. McKinnon writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "As the five-year anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks approaches, the Bush administration is spotlighting an explicit terror threat: the danger that Iran could someday supply terrorists with nuclear weapons."

Counterterrorism Report

Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "A new counterterrorism strategy released yesterday by the White House describes al-Qaeda as a significantly degraded organization, but outlines potent threats from smaller networks and individuals motivated by al-Qaeda ideology, a lack of freedom and 'twisted' propaganda about U.S. policy in the Middle East.

" The National Strategy for Combating Terrorism reflects the intelligence community's latest analysis of the evolving nature of the threats from widely dispersed Islamic extremists who are often isolated and linked by little more than the Internet. It describes President Bush's 'freedom agenda' of promoting democracy as the leading long-term weapon against them."

After Hamdan

R. Jeffrey Smith writes in The Washington Post: "Key Republican senators have drafted a legislative plan for special military trials of suspected terrorists that diverges from a recent Bush administration plan by granting defendants rights that the White House has sought to proscribe, government officials said yesterday.

"Under the lawmakers' plan, any future military trials of the nearly 200 eligible U.S. detainees held in military prisons at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other locations around the world would be governed by a law that explicitly ensures that defendants have the right to know the evidence against them. . . .

"The final version of the administration's legislative draft is slated to be released today after a speech on the subject by President Bush. It is expected to retain provisions that allow military prosecutors to introduce evidence collected during coercive interrogations that fall short of torture and evidence obtained through hearsay."

Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi write for NBC News: "The audience for the speech will consist of key Cabinet members, September 11 families, first responders, former Administration officials, conservative opinion leaders, and think-tank members."

Charlie Savage wrote in the Boston Globe last weekend about the White House allowing only limited input on the issue from military lawyers, a group that has long been a thorn in the side of Vice President Cheney.

Julian E. Barnes writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Bowing to critics of its tough interrogation policies, the Pentagon is issuing a new Army field manual that provides Geneva Convention protections for all detainees and eliminates a secret list of interrogation tactics. . . .

"After the abuse of detainees at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison came to light in 2004, some Defense Department lawyers pushed to incorporate the protections of Common Article 3 into the field manual. But senior political appointees argued that doing so would tie the hands of U.S. troops."

Background Briefing Watch

It's been a while, but the White House today is holding an "off-camera background briefing by senior administration officials," presumable about the military tribunals.

Why on background? Will reporters persuade the officials to go on the record? Will anyone walk out otherwise? Will anyone leak the official's identity to an eager columnist? Stay tuned.

Doublespeak Watch

The libertarian Cato Institute is out with a new report on Doublespeak and the War on Terrorism .

"Since the catastrophic terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the federal government has routinely employed a disturbing new vocabulary -- or doublespeak -- to expand its police powers," Cato announces.

On Wiretapping

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "Deepening Republican divisions over the future of President Bush's warrantless wiretapping program may jeopardize GOP leaders' hopes of making terrorism surveillance legislation a centerpiece of their final legislative push this month."

Briefing Follies

Editor and Publisher takes note of the kerfuffle at yesterday's gaggle which "turned rancorous with NBC's David Gregory telling Press Secretary Tony Snow, 'Don't point your finger at me,' and Snow accusing the newsman of being 'rude' and delivering Democratic talking points.

Here's how it started:

Gregory: "Okay. There's so much emphasis by the President on his resolve and on the consequences of failure, which seems to dovetail to the political strategy of casting the vote as not a referendum on his leadership or his conduct in the war on terror, leading the war on terror, but on a choice between two parties and their visions. And I'm curious whether, in this document, there's any reflection on the fact that this White House, this administration failed to anticipate a violent terrorist-based insurgency in Iraq, and also failed to adapt once it learned of its presence? And shouldn't that be put before the voters this fall?

"MR. SNOW: I think you've admirably expressed the Democratic point of view, but I don't think -- . . . .

"Q It's not a Democratic argument, Tony.

"MR. SNOW: Let me answer the question, David.

"Q But hold on, let's not let you get away with saying that's a Democratic argument.

"MR. SNOW: Okay, let me -- let's not let you get away with being rude. Let me just answer the question, and you can come back at me.

"Q Excuse me. Don't point your finger at me. I'm not being rude.

" MR. SNOW: Yes, you are.

"Q Don't try to dismiss me as making a Democratic argument, Tony, when I'm speaking fact."

Greg Sargent blogs for the American Prospect: "What you have here is the perfect expression of this White House's desperate desire to avoid accountability. Anyone asking whether the electorate should be evaluating Bush's actual performance in Iraq and even in the 'war on terror,' his supposed strong suit -- or anyone asking God forbid if the administration should reflect on past failures to better decide how best to proceed going forward -- is simply expressing the 'Democratic point of view.' Of course, Snow was later forced to backtrack and say that the White House is 'perfectly happy' to have its performance judged. But the first reaction was far and away the more telling one."

Rove Book

The new book about Karl Rove by James Moore and Wayne Slater -- "The Architect: Karl Rove and the Master Plan for Absolute Power" -- is making some waves.

Marcus Baram writes for Radar Online: "While the authors' description of Rove's relationship with indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff is certain to have D.C. buzzing, their revelations about his family life are even more intriguing: According to the book, the architect of the Bush administration's anti-gay policies was raised by a homosexual father who abandoned his family to lead an openly gay life in Palm Springs."

James Moore publishes an excerpt from the book on Huffingtonpost.com.

Plame Watch

While I was away, a new book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff revealed that the first official to disclose Valerie Plame Wilson's identity as a C.I.A. operative to columnist Robert Novak was then-deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage.

Joe Conason writes in the New York Observer that as a result of this revelation, "numerous pundits and talking heads have deduced that [Karl] Rove and [Scooter] Libby were guiltless, that there was no White House effort to expose Ms. Wilson, and that the entire leak investigation was a partisan witch hunt and perhaps an abuse of discretion by the special counsel, Patrick Fitzgerald. The same pundits now proclaim that Mr. Armitage's minor role somehow proves the White House didn't seek to punish Valerie Wilson and her husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson, for his decision to publicly debunk the Presidential misuse of dubious intelligence from Niger concerning Iraq's alleged attempts to purchase yellowcake uranium.

"But whatever Mr. Armitage did, or says he did, in no way alters what Mr. Rove and Mr. Libby did in the days that followed, nor does it change their intentions. It's a simple concept -- two people or more can commit a similar act for entirely different reasons -- but evidently it has flummoxed the great minds of contemporary journalism."

And now Corn reveals in the Nation that Plame was chief of operations for the CIA's Joint Task Force on Iraq, "frantically toiling away in the basement, mounting espionage operations to gather information on the WMD programs Iraq might have."

He Writes a Letter

Chief of Staff Josh Bolten yesterday made public his reply to a letter from Democratic leaders about Iraq.

Writes Bolten: "Regardless of the specifics you envision by 'phased redeployment,' any premature withdrawal of U.S forces would have disastrous consequences for America's security. Such a policy would embolden our terrorist enemies; betray the hopes of the Iraqi people; lead to a terrorist state in control of huge oil reserves; shatter the confidence our regional allies have in America; undermine the spread of democracy in the Middle East; and mean the sacrifices of American troops would have been in vain."

Protest Watch

Petula Dvorak writes in The Washington Post: "The antiwar activists who picketed near the president's ranch this summer traded dusty Texas for soggy Washington yesterday, when they set up camp near the White House to continue their vigil. . . .

"Camp Democracy, a spinoff from Camp Casey in Crawford, Tex., started by antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan, will feature a series of speeches, lectures and discussions under white tents pitched on the Mall at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW."

Always Time for Baseball

Joe Strauss writes in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "On the same day that he gave a major speech regarding the nation's war on terror, President George W. Bush hosted a contingent of Cardinals in the Oval Office on Tuesday morning.

"Bush, former general partner of the Texas Rangers and a close friend of Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., received a group that included DeWitt, general manager Walt Jocketty, manager Tony La Russa, the team's coaching staff and five players. . . .

"La Russa said he was impressed by the time spent and the message Bush delivered.

"'He spoke about the responsibilities he has, the decisions he has to make and how he goes about making them,' La Russa said. . . .

"In greeting [Gary] Bennett, Bush referred to the catcher's game-ending grand slam against the Chicago Cubs on Aug. 27.

"'He's one of the most powerful men in the world. He's got a lot more important things on his mind,' Bennett said. 'To remember something relatively meaningless in the grand scheme of things . . . it's pretty impressive.'"

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