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
his boss lived to lie another day about the monumental failure of bin
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
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
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
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
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
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.