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.


Mark Follman
May 4, 2005 9:34PM (UTC)

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.

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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.

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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.


Mark Follman

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

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