The July surprise

Published July 29, 2004 10:19PM (EDT)

Just hours before the Democratic National Convention reaches its climax with John Kerry's acceptance speech, CNN is reporting that Pakistani security forces have captured a high-level al-Qaida operative who was on the FBI's most-wanted terrorist list in connection with the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa.

Pakistani Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat said that Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian national, was captured "a few days back," according to CNN, and that officials waited to disclose the information because they wanted to be sure of Ghailani's identity before making the capture public.

Is that the only reason they waited? Foremost, the capture is great news for all Americans -- of all political stripes. But the Bush White House probably isn't unhappy about appearing strong and effective in the fight against global terrorism right before John Kerry has his big moment in the national spotlight, either.

In fact, there is evidence the Bush camp sought to have events unfold precisely that way today. A July 19 article in the New Republic reported that the Bush administration was pressuring Pakistani officials to apprehend "high-value targets" ahead of the November elections -- and in particular, to coincide with the Democratic National Convention.

At the time, the Bush administration dismissed any connection between the war on terrorism and the electoral calendar. "Our attitude and actions have been the same since September 11 in terms of getting high-value targets off the street, and that doesn't change because of an election," said National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack.

But TNR cited Pakistani officials on background who said otherwise.

"A third source, an official who works under ISI's director, Lieutenant General Ehsan ul-Haq, informed TNR that the Pakistanis 'have been told at every level that apprehension or killing of HVTs before [the] election is [an] absolute must.' What's more, this source claims that Bush administration officials have told their Pakistani counterparts they have a date in mind for announcing this achievement: 'The last ten days of July deadline has been given repeatedly by visitors to Islamabad and during [ul-Haq's] meetings in Washington.' Says McCormack: 'I'm aware of no such comment.' But according to this ISI official, a White House aide told ul-Haq last spring that 'it would be best if the arrest or killing of [any] HVT were announced on twenty-six, twenty-seven, or twenty-eight July' -- the first three days of the Democratic National Convention in Boston."

With Kerry just hours from taking the stage at the Fleet Center, one day late may still qualify for mission accomplished.

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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