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Al Qaeda's Best Publicist

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, July 25, 2007; 1:32 PM

Like any terrorist organization, al-Qaeda wants attention. It wants to be perceived as powerful. And it particularly wants Americans to live in fear.

Could al-Qaeda possibly have found a better publicist than President Bush?

At a South Carolina Air Force base yesterday, Bush mentioned al-Qaeda and bin Laden 118 times in 29 minutes, arguing that the violence unleashed by the U.S. invasion in Iraq would somehow come to America's shores if U.S. troops were to withdraw.

But the majority of that violence in Iraq is caused either by Iraqis murdering each other for religious reasons or by Iraqis trying to throw off the American occupation. The group that calls itself al-Qaeda in Iraq is only one of a multitude of factions creating chaos in that country, and the long-term goals of its Iraqi members are almost certainly not in line with those of al-Qaeda HQ (which is safely ensconced in Pakistan).

Furthermore, the administration's own intelligence community has concluded that the war in Iraq has helped rather than hurt al-Qaeda.

What effect would a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq really have on al-Qaeda? Is it true that "surrendering the future of Iraq to al Qaida would be a disaster for our country," as Bush admonished yesterday?

Bush's predictions about the region have been uniformly abysmal, so the opposite may be at least as likely. And in that scenario, a U.S. troop withdrawal would rob al-Qaeda of its greatest recruiting tool. It would also free American and Iraqi fighters to hunt down bin Laden and his fellow vermin wherever they are and give them what they deserve -- which is not publicity, but ignominy and extinction.

The Coverage

Unlike his routine speeches about Iraq, Bush's remarks yesterday included a specific attempt to rebut critics who have accused him of unfairly conflating Iraq and al-Qaeda.

"Today I will consider the arguments of those who say that al Qaeda and al Qaeda in Iraq are separate entities," he said. "I will explain why they are both part of the same terrorist network -- and why they are dangerous to our country."

The resulting coverage was probably not exactly what he'd hoped for.

Caren Bohan writes for Reuters: "Mindful of his trouble selling the U.S. public on the war, Bush has worked harder to put the spotlight on al Qaeda, the Islamist group behind the September 11 attacks on the United States and whose leader, bin Laden, has eluded a U.S.-led manhunt.

"But war critics accuse him of overstating the connections between al Qaeda and Iraq-based militants in an attempt to de-emphasize the role of sectarian fighting in the country's turmoil and justify the U.S. military presence there."

Josh Meyer, James Gerstenzang and Greg Miller write in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush made provocative new assertions Tuesday about Al Qaeda's role in Iraq, using recently declassified information to make his case that the global battle with the terrorism network -- and Americans' safety at home -- hinges on keeping U.S. troops there to fight.

"Bush's comments were met with skepticism by some terrorism experts and former U.S. intelligence officials, who said the president exaggerated or even misrepresented the facts in Iraq. . . .

"'I think what the president is saying is in some sense fundamentally misleading,' said Robert Grenier, former head of the counter-terrorism center at the CIA as well as the agency's mission manager for the war in Iraq. 'If he means to suggest the invasion of Iraq has not created more jihadists bent on killing Americans, and that if Iraq hadn't been there as a magnet they would have been attracted somewhere else, that's completely disingenuous.'

"The war 'has convinced many Muslims that the United States is the enemy of Islam and is attacking Muslims, and they have become jihadists as a result of their experience in Iraq,' Grenier said.

"Bush also said Al Qaeda in Iraq posed a threat to Americans at home. 'We've already seen how Al Qaeda used a failed state thousands of miles from our shores to bring death and destruction to the streets of our cities, and we must not allow them to do so again,' he said.

"Several experts said prevailing U.S. intelligence was at odds with that assertion as well.

"Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University, a veteran counter-terrorism analyst and government consultant, said the vast majority of fighters who are part of Al Qaeda in Iraq are Iraqis who have shown little interest in seeking targets beyond that country's borders."

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "U.S. intelligence officials, in a declassified report on al-Qaeda released last week, described al-Qaeda in Iraq as an 'affiliate' of the larger terrorist network, which has reestablished a haven in Pakistan.

"But the report did not say that the Iraqi group had taken orders from the network; instead, it said that the larger network 'will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities' of the Iraqi group and use its association with the group to 'energize the broader Sunni extremist community' for fundraising and recruiting.

"That conclusion prompted Democrats and others to say that al-Qaeda is not running the war, but is instead benefiting from it, and thus that the conflict has increased the terrorist threat rather than diminished it.

"'The masterminds who want to harm this country are in Pakistan while our troops are in Iraq. It doesn't get much simpler than that,' said Rand Beers, a former National Security Council aide who is president of the National Security Network, an advocacy group."

Fletcher also notes: "Although aides said that Bush had declassified sensitive information to make his case, most of the details he used have long been in the public domain."

Jim Rutenberg and Mark Mazzetti write in the New York Times that Bush's speech "reflected concern at the White House over criticism that he is focusing on the wrong terrorist threat. . . .

"The overall thrust of the speech was that the administration believes that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia has enough connections to Mr. bin Laden's group to be considered the same threat, that its ultimate goal is to strike America and that to think otherwise is 'like watching a man walk into a bank with a mask and a gun and saying he's probably just there to cash a check.' . . .

"Kevin Sullivan, the White House communications director, said the speech was devised as a 'surge of facts' meant to rebut critics who say Mr. Bush is trying to rebuild support for the war by linking the Iraq group and the one led by Mr. bin Laden.

"But Democratic lawmakers accused Mr. Bush of overstating those ties to provide a basis for continuing the American presence in Iraq. The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, said Mr. Bush was 'trying to justify claims that have long ago been proven to be misleading.'"

And, as Rutenberg and Mazzetti explain: "The Iraqi group is a homegrown Sunni Arab extremist group with some foreign operatives that has claimed a loose affiliation to Mr. bin Laden's network, although the precise links are unclear."

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "Bush is up against highly skeptical audiences with 18 months left in office. The public has largely lost faith in the war, Congress is weighing ways to end it, and international partners have fading memories of the 2001 attacks against the U.S.

"In Washington, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said Bush 'is trying to scare the American people into believing that al Qaida is the rationale for continuing the war in Iraq.' But Kerry said Bush presented no new evidence to back that up, and added: 'The president is picking the wrong rationale for this war. Al-Qaida is not the principal killer of American forces in Iraq.'"

Here is a White House " fact sheet" on al-Qaeda in Iraq. Here is a rebuttal from the National Security Network.

Bush and Bin Laden, a Brief History

There was a long period, starting around 2003, during which Bush avoided even mentioning Osama bin Laden's name, presumably embarrassed by his failure to capture the man "dead or alive" as promised -- and loath to enhance bin Laden's stature with a presidential mention.

Asked directly about bin Laden at a March 2003 press conference, Bush responded: "He's a person who's now been margimalized.... I truly am not that concerned about him."

But by the summer of 2005, Bush had changed course. Ever since a speech in June of that year-- in which he thunderously exclaimed "Hear the words of Osama bin Laden: 'This Third World War is raging' in Iraq" -- Bush has repeatedly invoked Bin Laden in an effort to terrify Americans into supporting his unpopular policies.

Sales Job

David Jackson writes for USA Today: "For the next seven weeks, the commander in chief becomes salesman in chief. . . .

"Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, is to report by Sept. 15 on Iraq's progress. In the meantime, the Bush administration will try to convince wavering Republicans, world leaders and other groups that winning the war is possible. . . .

"White House spokesman Tony Snow said Bush will talk 'a fair amount' about Iraq in the weeks ahead, 'because it's important the American people get a fuller and deeper appreciation of what's going on.'

"Snow said other salesmen would include 'the people who are closest to the fighting,' such as Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. Petraeus and Crocker have briefed about 200 members of Congress on the war."

See yesterday's column, Bush Can't Make the Sale.

Not Exactly Responsive

Bush deserves some credit for acknowledging some of the criticisms that have been leveled against the White House position on Iraq. Typically Bush has either ignored or badly mischaracterized his critics. Yesterday, however, Bush did a creditable job of describing some of the charges against him.

For instance, Bush said: "Some say that Iraq is not part of the broader war on terror. They complain when I say that the al-Qaeda terrorists we face in Iraq are part of the same enemy that attacked us on September the 11th, 2001. They claim that the organization called al-Qaeda in Iraq is an Iraqi phenomenon, that it's independent of Osama bin Laden and that it's not interested in attacking America."

But his rebuttals were sometimes not really responsive. Case in point:

"Some note that al Qaida in Iraq did not exist until the U.S. invasion -- and argue that it is a problem of our own making. The argument follows the flawed logic that terrorism is caused by American actions. Iraq is not the reason that the terrorists are at war with us. We were not in Iraq when the terrorists bombed the World Trade Center in 1993. We were not in Iraq when they attacked our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. We were not in Iraq when they attacked the USS Cole in 2000. And we were not in Iraq on September the 11th, 2001."

But critics are not saying that terrorism is America's fault, nor that the invasion of Iraq caused 9/11. They're saying that the way America fights terror matters. Good strategy can minimize terrorism; bad strategy can play right into the terrorist's hands.

About That Audience

Kenneth R. Bazinet writes for the New York Daily News: "Trying again to wrest control of the Iraq war debate from the Democrats, President Bush used a friendly military audience yesterday to repeat claims of a link between the 9/11 attacks and insurgents in Iraq. . . .

"Observers have noted that Bush seeks out military audiences the way President Richard Nixon traveled abroad to escape fallout from the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal.

"'He spends almost all his time speaking in front of friendly audiences, and there is no more friendly an audience for George Bush than the military,' said Hunter College political scientist Andrew Polski."

Opinion Watch

The New York Times editorial board writes: "The American people have only one question left about Iraq: What is President Bush's plan for a timely and responsible exit? That is the essential precondition for salvaging broader American interests in the Middle East and for waging a more effective fight against Al Qaeda in its base areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And it is exactly the question that Mr. Bush, his top generals and his diplomats so stubbornly and damagingly refuse to answer. . . .

"Mr. Bush proposed no realistic new plan for more effectively fighting Al Qaeda in its heartland or for exiting from the tragic misadventure in Iraq. Instead he offered the familiar, simplistic and misleading arguments that he used to drag the country into this disastrous war to start.

"Prolonging the war for another two years will not bring victory. It will mean more lives lost, more damage to America's international standing and fewer resources to fight the real fight against terrorists. If Mr. Bush's advisers can't tell him that, Congress will have to -- with a veto-proof majority."

Bush's BFF

Jim Rutenberg and Alissa J. Rubin write in the New York Times: "Once every two weeks, sometimes more often, President Bush gathers with the vice president and the national security adviser in the newly refurbished White House Situation Room and peers, electronically, into the eyes of the man to whom his legacy is so inextricably linked: Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq.

"In sessions usually lasting more than an hour, Mr. Bush, a committed Christian of Texas by way of privileged schooling in New England, and Mr. Maliki, an Iraqi Shiite by way of political exile in Iran and Syria, talk about leadership and democracy, troop deployments and their own domestic challenges.

"Sometimes, said an official who has sat in on the meetings, they talk about their faith in God. . . .

"The official declined to elaborate on the extent of their religious discussions, but said, 'It is an issue that comes up between two men who are believers in difficult times, who are being challenged.'"

So what does Bush have to show for all this hand-holding?

"It was in the teleconferences, aides said, that Mr. Bush prevailed upon Mr. Maliki to implore his colleagues in Parliament to reduce their planned two-month vacation this summer, though their grudging concession to take just one month has not done much to quiet criticism."

Gonzales on the Hill

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday accused Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales of repeatedly misleading Congress and suggested that he had perjured himself in connection with statements to lawmakers about an anti-terrorism program.

"One after another, Democrats -- and some Republicans -- accused Gonzales of a pattern of deceit in addressing issues from his role in last year's firing of top prosecutors to his 2004 participation in an unusual late-night visit to the hospital room of his ailing predecessor, John Ashcroft."

Dan Eggen and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post: "Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales testified yesterday that top congressional leaders from both parties agreed in March 2004 to continue a classified surveillance activity that Justice Department officials had deemed illegal, a contention immediately disputed by key Democratic lawmakers.

"Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (W.Va.), who were briefed on the program at the time, said there was no consensus that it should proceed. Three others who were at the meeting also said the legal underpinnings of the program were never discussed.

"'He once again is making something up to protect himself,' Rockefeller said of the embattled attorney general."

Spencer Ackerman and Paul Kiel write for TPM Muckraker with more about Gonzales's conflicting statements.

Lara Jakes Jordan writes for the Associated Press with the White House response: "'Of course the president continues to have full confidence in the attorney general,' White House spokesman Tony Fratto said after the hearing ended. 'We have every reason to believe that the attorney general testified truthfully.'"

Special Prosecutor Watch?

Marisa Taylor and Margaret Talev write for McClatchy Newspapers: "A powerful Republican senator said Tuesday that if the Bush administration wouldn't appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the firings of nine U.S. attorneys, Congress should consider starting contempt proceedings on its own against the White House.

"The proposal from Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, ratchets up a seven-month standoff between the White House and Congress over whether former and current White House officials should be compelled to testify or provide documents related to the firings."

Contempt Watch

Amy Goldstein writes in The Washington Post: "House Democrats, preparing for a vote today on contempt citations against President Bush's chief of staff and former counsel, produced a report yesterday that for the first time alleges specific ways that several administration officials may have broken the law during the multiple firings of U.S. attorneys.

"The report says that Congress's seven-month investigation into the firings raises 'serious concerns' that senior White House and Justice Department aides involved in the removal of nine U.S. attorneys last year may have obstructed justice and violated federal statutes that protect civil service employees, prohibit political retaliation against government officials and cover presidential records."

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post about all the invective directed at Gonzales yesterday. "But the scandal-ridden Gonzales has the support of the only person who matters -- President Bush -- and that allowed him to be as contemptuous as he was contemptible."

Talking Points Memo Blogger Josh Marshall calls attention to one particular act of contempt, complete with video clip: "In this exchange Sen. Schumer (D) asks Gonzales who sent him and Andy Card to John Ashcroft's bedside. And Gonzales just refuses to answer. He keeps repeating that they went 'on behalf' of the president. But he won't say if the president sent them. He just won't answer.

"Schumer notes the key point: Gonzales isn't even asserting any kind of privilege. He doesn't say he can't remember. He just won't answer. . . .

"Testifying before Congress is like being called to testify in court. You have to answer every question. Every question. You can fudge and say you don't remember something and see how far you get. Or you can invoke various privileges. And it's up to the courts to decide if the invocations are valid. But it's simply not permitted to refuse to answer a question. It is quite literally contempt of Congress."

Cheney and Justice

Michael Roston writes for Raw Story: "Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) questioned the Attorney General about the independence of the Justice Department and communications with the White House on pending cases or investigations.

"He then pointed to a May 4, 2006 memorandum signed by Gonzales which showed that the Office of the Vice President had been granted parallel privileges with the Executive Office of the President on communicating directly with the Justice Department's staff on criminal and civil matters.

"'What -- on earth -- business does the Office of the Vice President have in the internal workings of the Department of Justice with respect to criminal investigations, civil investigations, and ongoing matters?' the Senator asked.

"Gonzales was stumped. 'As a general matter, I would say that's a good question.'"

Key Cheney Staffer Quits

Investigative reporter Robert Dreyfuss blogs: "Vice President Cheney is losing a trusted aide: David Wurmser, Cheney's chief adviser on Middle East affairs and perhaps the Bush administration's most radical hawk. According to multiple sources, Wurmser will leave the office of the vice president (OVP) in August for the private sector, where he will start a risk-consulting business. . . .

"In June, Wurmser's name appeared in a front-page New York Times story. In that account, based in part on reporting that first surfaced in Steve Clemons' blog, The Washington Note, Wurmser was alleged to have told thinktanks and conservative policy analysts that Vice President Cheney disagreed with President Bush's decision to use diplomacy to dissuade Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons. According to the Times, Wurmser said 'that Mr. Cheney believed that [Condi] Rice's diplomatic strategy was failing, and that by next spring Mr. Bush might have to decide whether to take military action.'"

Torture Opinion Watch

The Washington Post editorial board responds to Bush's new interrogation policies and concludes that "the result may be the return by the CIA to methods that most people, including most of the world's democracies, regard as improper and illegal under international law -- and to a new threat to Americans captured by hostile governments. . . .

"In theory, the agency's methods will also conform to Geneva; in practice, administration lawyers, who have used loopholes and far-fetched reasoning to justify torture in the past, will have the leeway to justify abuses again. . . .

"Administration officials argue -- without offering evidence -- that harsh methods are needed to gain intelligence from hardened al-Qaeda operatives. In fact, studies of interrogations and the military's experience show the opposite -- that torture does not produce reliable information. Officials also claim that the CIA's methods, unlike the Army's interrogation manual, must be kept secret so that detainees will not know what they might face. Yet any abusive technique that U.S. interrogators use is likely to become publicly known, as was the case with waterboarding. When that happens, hostile governments will acquire a valuable weapon: cruel treatment they will be able to use on captured Americans, treatment that they will claim conforms to the Geneva Conventions -- on the authority of Mr. Bush."

Most Unpopular

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "With 18 months left in office, he is in the running for most unpopular president in the history of modern polling.

"The latest Washington Post-ABC News survey shows that 65 percent of Americans disapprove of Bush's job performance, matching his all-time low. In polls conducted by The Post or Gallup going back to 1938, only once has a president exceeded that level of public animosity -- and that was Richard M. Nixon, who hit 66 percent four days before he resigned.

"The historic depth of Bush's public standing has whipsawed his White House, sapped his clout, drained his advisers, encouraged his enemies and jeopardized his legacy. Around the White House, aides make gallows-humor jokes about how they can alienate their remaining supporters -- at least those aides not heading for the door. Outside the White House, many former aides privately express anger and bitterness at their erstwhile colleagues, Bush and the fate of his presidency."

Politicization Watch

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "The White House said Tuesday that there was nothing improper about Bush administration political advisers briefing top diplomats about key congressional and gubernatorial races and President Bush's re-election goals.

"'You've got political appointees getting political briefings,' White House press secretary Tony Snow said Tuesday with a dose of sarcasm. 'I'm shocked. Shocked.'"

Dress Code?

Al Kamen writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration may be taking some hits lately in the polls, but that doesn't mean it's going to let down its sartorial standards.

"So signs have popped up at various White House entrances -- including the press entrance and the staff and visitors' entrance at the southwest gate -- along with e-mails to staff members, to remind everyone, particularly tour groups, that, even in these times of sinking poll numbers, proper attire is to be maintained.

"The e-mail reminder was all in capital letters. It advised that there would be no jeans, sneakers, shorts, miniskirts, T-shirts, tank tops and -- with boldface added -- 'NO FLIP FLOPS'....

"'When the Clintons came in, all hell broke loose' in terms of dress code -- and perhaps other things? -- one current aide said. 'We're just trying to get things back on track.'"

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Cartoon Humor

Ben Sargent on Bush's health-care plan; Glenn McCoy on Bush's real problem

Late Night Humor

David Letterman, via U.S. News: "Well, over the weekend, President Bush had his annual physical, and he had one of those colonoscopies. Now he knows what it feels like to be invaded."

And from Jay Leno: "The White House announced that right after President Bush got his colonoscopy on Saturday, he immediately played with his dogs and rode his bicycle. How old is he, 12?"

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