When bad times bring good news

Today's announcement of a major arrest in the war on terrorism is welcome news -- and for President Bush, it probably couldn't be more timely.

Published May 4, 2005 5:34PM (EDT)

What do you do if, as president, your sweeping political agenda is fast losing steam, your prime-time ratings are in the tank, and public support for the war you launched has sunk to an all-time low?

Maybe, just maybe, you take a moment to remind folks once again that the world is a truly scary place and that you're doing a great job of protecting them -- by announcing the capture of a major terrorist figure.

We'll be the first to agree that the nabbing of top al-Qaida operative Abu Farraj al-Libbi is fantastic news. As President Bush noted today in Washington -- taking a moment from yet another speech on his less-than-popular plan for Social Security -- the arrest is "a critical victory in the war on terror." No doubt a dangerous world has just been made a little less dangerous; one American counterterrorism official, according to the New York Times, described Libbi's capture in Pakistan earlier this week as the "most important blow to al-Qaida since the arrest of Khalid Sheik Mohammed more than two years ago."

But when exactly was al-Libbi captured? As the Times report notes, there have been conflicting accounts as to when and how al-Libbi was apprehended. A Reuters report quoted the Pakistani interior minister, Aftab Sherpao, as saying al-Libbi had been arrested a few days ago. Pakistani information minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, however, maintained that the arrest came only Tuesday, contending that Pakistani authorities could not have concealed the capture of such a senior figure for more than a day.

Of course, there may be any number of reasons for delaying or perhaps altering information that's made public about intelligence operations and the capture of key terrorists. (And it's certainly plausible that a senior figure like al-Libbi has been in custody for much longer than a week; some intelligence experts have pointed out that if the U.S. were to catch Osama bin Laden himself, it might make sense to keep his capture a secret in order to round up key henchmen later attempting to make contact with him.) U.S. officials are currently citing human intelligence as "critical" to al-Libbi's capture and are applauding Pakistani cooperation; they aren't commenting specifically about the role of the CIA.

The problem is, it's kind of difficult to trust that the Bush administration isn't exploiting the war on terrorism to score points at an opportune moment -- just as it appeared to be doing, also with Pakistan's help, during a critical moment of the 2004 presidential race.

By Mark Follman

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

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