Gar Smith / Environmentalists Against War – 2006-09-13 16:13:52
As the new host of the CBS Evening News, former talk show host Katie Couric kept to familiar ground by kicking things off with a celebrity guest interview. The celebrity was George W. Bush. In the course of their “wide-ranging” tete-a-tete, Ms. Couric challenged Mr. Bush to provide an example of a terror plot that his administration had actually detected and foiled.
Bush replied: “Well, for example — there’s a — we, we uncovered a a potential anthrax attack on the United States. Or the fact that — Khalid Sheik Mohammad had got somebody to — to line up people to fly airlines, to — to crash airlines on, I think, the West Coast or somewhere in America.”
“The West Coast or somewhere in America” struck some viewers as a singularly muddled response, even for someone with Mr. Bush’s sometimes dazed-and-confused demeanor.
If there had been a plot to crash airplanes into a West Coast city, wouldn’t the Commander-in-Chief at least be able to recall which of the three states had been targeted?
Phone calls to the offices of Senators Boxer and Feinstein failed to clarify the mystery. No one in either the California or DC offices could recall being informed of any such plots. The California Department of Emergency Services also reported no knowledge of any alerts involving terrorist plans to target the state.
“These would be Southeast Asians,” Bush continued. “In other words, we’ve uncovered cells.” He explained that the information on the airline plot stemmed from “pretty rich data that has been declassified so that I’m capable of telling the American people….” Instead of ending the sentence by explaining that the data had been declassified so he could warn the American people about a specific danger, Bush concluded that he was using the declassified information to tell “the American people the importance of the interrogation program.”
Bush had chosen to raise the specter of renewed anthrax attacks and airborne attacks to promote his political agenda. He pressed his point by lecturing Couric: “CIA officials feel like the rules are so vague that they cannot interrogate without being tried as war criminals…. So I’m — we wanna — in other words, the point is we wanna work with Congress and clarify the rules.”
Bush went on to complain specifically about the Supreme Court ruling that declared his policy of detaining people without charge or trial and subjecting them to torture was a violation of both domestic and international law. The hang-up, as Bush saw it, was Article III of the Geneva Convention, “and so what I’m asking Congress to do,” he told Couric‚ “is to interpret Article III of the Geneva Convention under US law.”
In point of fact, the Geneva Convention is an international treaty and is not susceptible to domestic interpretation. The US, as a signatory, is bound to honor — not edit — such agreements.
It would take a pretty compelling threat to justify any nation arguing that it has to take upon itself to “rewrite” the Geneva Convention. Were the incidents Bush cited worthy of such an extraordinary reaction?
Mr. Bush stated that the information on the anthrax and airline plots had been declassified with the goal of “telling the American people.” .
Calls to the Washington offices of Senators Feinstein and Boxer could not confirm whether either senator had reviewed the documents that Bush cited. If the Senators have not inspected these now-declassified records, it would be most unusual since, as we since have been able to ascertain, the airline plot was directed at California.
An official in the California Office of Homeland Security happened to recall a speech Bush gave earlier this year and provided the White House transcript. The description of the plot Bush gave in this speech happened to match the few details that Bush related to Couric.
‘Reaching Far into the Past’
While Bush made it appear that interrogation tactics had been responsible for unearthing a new threat to the US, the truth is somewhat different. The plot Bush was citing was, as the politicians like to say, “old news.” It was part of the original 9/11 plan, which involved simultaneous attacks on tall buildings on both coasts.
According to Bush, the target of the LA attack was the 73-story-tall Library Building (renamed the US Bank Tower), the tallest building west of the Mississippi. But Frances Townsend, Bush’s chief domestic security advisor told the LA Times that the plotters had only spoken of attacking the tallest building on the West Coast. It was an “analytic judgment” on the part of US intelligence that the target was the Library Tower. The plotters may have been thinking about the Space Needle in Seattle.
The plot’s alleged mastermind, Khalid Shayk Mohammad was arrested in Pakistan in March 2003 and his successor, a man known as Hambali, was captured in Thailand in August 2003. Both have been in US custody ever since.
US officials have been recycling the LA Tower Plot since 2004. It was included in the 9/11 Commission Report. Bush cited it in a speech that he gave in October 2005, in which he listed 10 terror plots that he claimed his administration had foiled. Of those 10 plots, only three targeted the US. One was the LA attack, a second involved an aircraft attack on another US target and the third was the widely reported “dirty bomb attack” allegedly planned by US citizen Jose Padilla. (Bush failed to mention that the “dirty bomb plot” charges have been dropped for lack of evidence.)
Bush also trotted out the old plot in a February 9, 2006 speech the National Guard Memorial Building. “We now know that, in October 2001, Khalid Shayke Mohammad — the mastermind of the September the 11th attacks — has already set in motion a plan to have terrorist operatives hijack an airplane using shoe bombs to breach the cockpit door, and fly the plane into the tallest building on the West Coast. We believe the intended target was Liberty Tower in Los Angeles, California.”
(Note: Bush misspoke. The White House staff subsequently issued a correction, identifying the building as the “Library Tower.” Now known as the US Bank Tower, it is located at the intersection of Souuth Hope and West Fifth in Downtown LA.)
According to US intelligence, the LA attack was actually called off by none other than Osama bin Laden. It was thought that attempting simultaneous attacks on both coasts was too risky. Khalid Shaykh Mohammad reportedly attempted to revive the plot on his own but he subsequently admitted in the 9/11 Commission Report that he had been too preoccupied with planning the East Coast attacks to plan any “second wave” assualt.
The scheme was fatally squelched in early 2002 when an unidentified “Southeast Asian nation” arrested one of the four conspirators. Zaini Zakaria, a Malaysian recruited as one of the suicide pilots, was arrested after he decided to back out of the plan.
The plot was foiled, but not (as Bush would have the American people believe) because the CIA’s interrogators had been unshackled from the constraints of Article III of the Geneva Convention. The cell was busted by a foreign government and a suicide bomber who had second thoughts.
How Serious Was the Threat?
During his February speech at the National Guard Memorial, Bush warned sternly: “We cannot let the fact that America hasn’t been attacked in a 4 1/2 years since September the 11th lull us into the illusion that the threats to our nation have disappeared. They have not.”
But given that the best Mr. Bush can offer in playing the “terror card” is to cite this four-year-old incident, one must wonder: just how serious was this particular threat?
On February 10, the LA Times put the question to a “US official familiar with the operational aspects of the war on terrorism.” Speaking anonymously, the terror official stated: “It didn’t go. It didn’t happen.”
“The official said he believed the Library Tower plot was one of many Al Qaeda operations that had not gone much past the conceptual stage,” the Times reported, noting: “The official spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying that those familiar with the plot feared political retaliation for providing a different characterization of the plan that that of the president.”
The Voice of America interviewed Vincent Canistraro, former head of the CIA’s counter-terrorism operations from 1988 to 1991. “Bin Laden thought the plans were too complicated,” Cannistraro said, ” he wanted to simplify it. So he cut off the West Coast option.” Khalid Sheik Mohammed tried to proceed on his own, Cannistraro reported. “We know that they had gotten to the point of recruiting volunteers to commit suicide in carrying out the plot. Se whether it would have been successful or not, we’ll never know. But we do know that it was pre-empted.”
Michael Scheuer, the leading al-Qaida expert in the CIA’s counter-terrorism center, was not too impressed with the plot. The VoA reported that Scheuer was “not aware of any such serious threat against the West Coast in 2002.”
“This doesn’t sound like anything that I would recall as a major threate, or as a major success in stopping it,” Scheuer told the VoA. “My impression,” Scheuer volunteered, was that the National Security Council “culled through information to look for something that resembled a serious threat in 2002. It doesn’t strike me, either as someone who was there or as someone who has followed al-Qaida pretty closely, that this was really a serious sort of effort.”
While the threat may have been reported, it was “not one that at the time was taken all that seriously.”
Democrats, needless to say, were skeptical. The Times reported that Democrat critics “accused Bush of reaching far back into time as part of a public relations ploy to maintain focus on his battle against terrorism.”
Senator John D. Rockefeller IV (D-West Virginia) said he “didn’t find [Bush’s speech] very helpful… from a professional point of view.” Rockefeller serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-California) called the speech a “political stunt” designed to deflect criticism of the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretaps. “I can’t think of a governmental reason to disclose these details at this time to the general public,” Sherman said. “Clearly, the goal was to create headlines.” Sherman is the ranking Democrat on the House Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Nonproliferation.
CBS News seemed to share Sherman’s suspicions, pointing out that Bush “outlined the foiled attack on the same day his administration, facing growing pressure, gave Congress more details on his controversial domestic eavesdropping program.”
The apparent goal was to use the “terror card” to boost public acceptance of the White House’s previously secret warrantless wiretapping program. CBS also reported that, when asked directly, “the White House won’t go anywhere near the question of whether eavesdropping… had anything to do with foiling the West Coast bomb plot. And CBS News couldn’t find a single official who would say there was any connection.”
According to CBS News, Senator Dianne Feinstein “said rumors of those attacks in Los Angeles had been known to officials for some time.” But apparently, those rumors were not shared with the local authorities in the targeted city.
LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was astounded by the news. “I’m amazed that the president would make this [announcement) on national TV and not inform us of these details through the appropriate channels,” he told the AP shortly after Bush’s speech. And he further vented his frustration in the pages of the LA Times. “I would have expected a direct call from the White House,” the Mayor declared. “We should have been award of all the details much before today. We did not know all of the facts.”
A Return to the Talking Points
So why did George W. Bush re-hash such a dated and dubious scenario during his prime-time chat with Katie Couric? Once again, the goal was political: to link the “War on Terror” with the Occupation of Iraq. Bush made the point twice during the interview. “You know, when you really think about why would somebody kill 3,000 Americans?…. The more I learn, the more I realized that this is an enemy that is bound by ideology and has got desires. They want to drive us out of the region. They want to establish a caliphate, which is like a Muslim, you know, empire.”
At this point, Couric could have summoned the ghost of Dan Rather and pointed out that, “Mr. President. We are in their region. We weren’t invited. And many in the Muslim and non-Muslim world see our presence there as an act of empire building by the US.”
Instead, Couric followed up with: “You have said, Mr. President, that America is safer but we are not yet saved [sic].”
Later in the interview, Bush returned to this talking point. When asked whether the US war in Iraq hasn’t created even more terrorists, Bush replied: “Well, the first thing I would tell people that — we weren’t in Iraq on September the 11th, when 19 killers killed 3,000 Americans in the most brutal attack on our — on our soil, ever.”
“But they were from Saudi Arabia,” Couric corrected.
Bush was momentarily flustered. “No, but they’re — but — but they share the same jihadist mentality, this radicalism. See, that’s the interesting thing about this war, Katie. It’s — we’re not facing a nation-state. We’re facing people from … around the globe, frankly, that share an ideology and the desire to — achieve objectives through killing innocent people.”
“In other words,” Bush concluded, “they attacked us before we went to Iraq…. This is a war between extremists who want to stop the advance of democracy and liberty — versus, you know, democracies and reformers and mothers who want their children to raise up — be raised in — in a peaceful world.”
When Bush suggested that “this quagmire, this — this kind of swamp of resentment can be drained by liberty,” Couric was prompted to ask: “Could it be drained, also, by more diplomacy?”
“Diplomacy for the sake of diplomacy doesn’t achieve objectives,” Bush replied. “Unfortunately, diplomacy takes — requires a certain degree of patience.”
Finally, Couric mentioned the soldiers in Iraq that “you care so much about.” When they learned that the president was going to be a guest on her newscast, Couric said, “almost all of them said: ‘Would you please ask the President of the United States when can we come home?'”
Bush replied: “I get a little different response from the soldiers I meet, you know” I — frankly, I’ve never had one say that.”
Maybe Mr. Bush needs to listen in on the NSA’s wiretaps if the phones of our brave men and women serving in Iraq.
Gar Smith is a co-founder of Environmentalists Against War, Editor Emeritus of Earth Island Journal and editor of The-Edge.org