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January 25, 2006

Counterspinning McClellan


by Paul Sperry

Thursday was a very bad day for the control freaks at the White House. Osama bin Laden caught them completely off guard by rearing his ugly head again, after a year of silence, and ominously making a direct threat against the American people.

Several facades carefully constructed by the White House were instantly shattered with the release of the terror kingpin's latest CD. Turns out America's Enemy No. 1 isn't dead or licking his wounds in a cave. The central front is not in Iraq, but right back where George W.M.D. Bush left it four years ago. Al-Qaeda is not broken, and we're not really winning the war on terror.

The morning news, broken by bin Laden's favorite TV station, al-Jazeera, sent White House spokesman Scott McClellan scrambling. He learned about the tape only after the American people, then had to face the press. He barely had time to craft, let alone burnish, his spin before his scheduled daily news conference with reporters – who for once found themselves plying an uncharacteristically rattled and off-balance communications team.

Here was their golden chance, at last, to pull back the curtain and expose the tough Bush war strategy for the schmaltzy flag-waving sham it is. And they flinched. Again. Bah, bah, bleated the glorified stenographers of the White House impressed corps. They barely challenged McClellan as he threw out the same cavalier line about bin Laden being "on the run." And he and his boss lived to lie another day about the monumental failure of bin Laden's survival.

Here is the press conference that should have taken place had the sheepish scribes been less concerned about their standing with a bullying White House and more concerned about cutting through its false bravado and doublespeak so Americans could better gauge if they are being lulled into a false sense of security about al-Qaeda:

McClellan: Good afternoon, everyone.

I know there's a lot of interest in the purported bin Laden tape. But let me just say we continue to act on all fronts to win the war on terrorism. We are taking the fight to the enemy. We are working to advance freedom and democracy to defeat their evil ideology. We are winning.

Q: How can you say we're winning when the leader of the organization that attacked us is still threatening us?

McClellan: The fact we haven't been attacked again in four years shows we are putting al-Qaeda out of business. Clearly, our strategy is working.

Q: But they waited eight years to finish off the World Trade Center.

McClellan: Look, bin Laden is clearly on the run and under a lot of pressure.

Q: How do you know he's on the run? I mean, you don't know where he is, so how can you be certain he's in flight? Couldn't he be making all these tapes from the comfort of a safehouse?

McClellan: The last time we heard from him was a year ago – in another audiotape. Clearly, he's unable to communicate like he'd like to.

Q: But why isn't it just as possible he's trying to avoid giving U.S. intelligence clues to his whereabouts?

McClellan: I think it's clear from all indications he's hiding in a cave somewhere thanks to the pressure we've put on him.

Q: But what do you make of all the references he makes in his tape to "opinion polls," "documents," "Pentagon figures," "humanitarian reports," and obscure books like Rogue State? Sounds more like he's been hanging out in a municipal library than a cave.

McClellan: I'll let the intelligence community do the analysis of the tape –

Q: But –

McClellan: – and look at the words he may or may not have used. Look, this war is broader than just one man.

Q: Maybe so, but that wasn't the case in September 2001 when the president said bin Laden was top priority and was wanted "dead or alive." And are you now saying you're no longer hunting for him?

McClellan: Of course we are, along with a lot of other terrorists like –

Q: How?

McClellan: – Zarqawi in Iraq. I'm not going to go into talking about any intelligence matters, if that's what you're getting at.

Q: But you released a 35-page blueprint for "Victory in Iraq." Why not tell the public your strategy for decapitating the al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan?

McClellan: We have a clear strategy in place that the president has articulated to the American people. And our plan is working. We've got al-Qaeda under a lot of pressure. Bin Laden and other leaders are on the run.

Q: But with respect, Scott, your plan is not working if bin Laden and his deputy are still alive and calling the shots four years after you went after them. What is the president's new plan? Because the old plan obviously has failed. Don't you owe something more concrete at least to the widows of 9/11 victims who have to see and hear their murderers lecturing them on TV over and over again?

McClellan: We're working very closely with Pakistan, which is a valued ally in the war on terror.

Q: So your plan is to leave it up to the Pakistani military to hunt down their former allies? What intelligence assets and special forces, if any, has the president redeployed to the Afghan border from Iraq after shifting them over there in 2002-2003? Is the president concerned that al-Qaeda couriers are trafficking in the bin Laden tapes to al-Jazeera's bureaus in Islamabad and Karachi with impunity? Why can't U.S. intelligence track these couriers back to bin Laden?

McClellan: Again, we work very closely with Pakistan to pursue al-Qaeda leaders and bring them to justice. We have made great progress over the last few years. We've already brought to justice some three-quarters of the al-Qaeda leadership.

Q: Yeah, that figure has been bandied about a lot – can you tell us how you arrived at it? How are you defining al-Qaeda "leaders"? And how many of them haven't just been replaced?

McClellan: Those are the facts, and if you –

Q: Point is, Scott, much of al-Qaeda's inner circle is still at large, including bin Laden, his deputy Zawahiri, his son Saad bin Laden, his security chief and military operations man Saif al-Adel, his training camp commanders, top recruiters, his spokesman, his personal aides, his bodyguards, and on and on. For that matter, the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists list doesn't look a whole lot different than before 9/11. How is this –

McClellan: This is not a –

Q: – excuse me, Scott –

McClellan: – a law enforcement –

Q: – excuse me, but how can you say that's the picture of progress?

McClellan: – matter. Look, this is not a law enforcement matter. We're fighting the terrorists differently than previous administrations. The president made it clear that this is an ideological struggle against people who hate our freedoms and democracy. This is a global war, in case you've forgotten.

Q: OK, but if you can't use troops in Pakistan to hunt for the world's top terrorist – someone who's now talking about making final plans to attack us again – and if you have to resort to CIA drones in lieu of boots on the ground, aren't you just repeating the "law enforcement operations" you criticize the previous administration for conducting? I mean, how are covert CIA ops a military strategy?

McClellan: Again, as I indicated earlier, this war is broader than any one person. The threat won't end with Osama bin Laden. Look at the words of Zarqawi in Iraq, too, someone who has pledged allegiance to bin Laden. Anyone who thinks that Iraq is not the central front in the war on terrorism should look at his words.

Q: But the average American might wonder why we're focusing on bin Laden-wannabes over in Iraq, when the real deal is staring us in the face and threatening to hit us here at home – again. How do you respond?

McClellan: We know the enemy wants to attack us again and they want to inflict even greater harm than they have previously. And that's why we must continue taking the fight to them. That's why we must not stop until they are defeated. And that's what this president is committed to doing for the American people, and I think –

Q: Scott, could I follow up?

McClellan: Hold on – we've got bin Laden on the run. We've got him under a lot of pressure, and we've been fortunate not to have been attacked again, and I think the American people recognize and appreciate that. One more –

Q: Scott, over the past few months, Secretary Rumsfeld and other members of the administration have floated the idea that bin Laden was dead or injured. Talk radio and Fox News seized on the speculation and had a lot of Americans believing he was in fact dead. There were a lot of rumors and stories flying around to that effect. Now, of course, we know the rumors of bin Laden's demise were greatly exaggerated. Question is, has the administration been giving the American people a false sense of security?

McClellan: Absolutely not. We are winning the war on terrorism, and clearly this purported bin Laden tape is the last gasp of a dying organization. Thank you.

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Sperry, formerly Washington bureau chief of Investors Business Daily, is a Hoover Institution media fellow and author of Crude Politics: How Bush's Oil Cronies Hijacked the War on Terrorism (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003).

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