McCain worries al-Qaida will attack to keep him out of office

The presumptive Republican nominee's statement doesn't reflect the terror group's past actions.

By Alex Koppelman
Published March 14, 2008 6:36PM (EDT)

Speaking at a town hall in Pennsylvania on Friday, John McCain was reportedly asked whether he worried that al-Qaida and other groups in Iraq would step up their attacks there in order to influence the general election against him. McCain, Reuters says, responded: "Yes, I worry about it. And I know they pay attention because of the intercepts we have of their communications."

Now, we can't speak to the intentions and political leanings of Iraqi insurgent groups, but this particular line about al-Qaida hoping for Democratic election victories gets repeated pretty often by Republicans, since, after all, everyone knows that if the Democrats win, they'll simply be turning the keys of the White House over to Osama bin Laden. (Recently, it was Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King who tried it out, saying in a radio interview that al-Qaida and other radical Islamists would be "dancing in the streets" if Barack Obama was elected, both because of Obama's middle name and "because of his posture that says: Pull out of the Middle East and pull out of this conflict.")

But what we know from recent history is that U.S. intelligence analysts identified what they believed to be an attempt by bin Laden to influence the presidential election in 2004, and that those analysts believed bin Laden's goal was to help President Bush win reelection. Granted, to some degree that was apparently because bin Laden saw an advantage in having Bush personally in power, as it helped bin Laden by giving Muslims an image of a direct clash between the two men. But as author Ron Suskind reported in his book "The One Percent Doctrine," there was also some muted thought of what bin Laden's apparent desire said about the Bush administration's strategy in the war on terror, which McCain has said he would continue. Describing a meeting at which a tape of bin Laden, released not long before the 2004 election, was discussed, Suskind writes:

Today's conclusion: bin Laden's message was clearly designed to assist the President's reelection ...

John McLaughlin [then acting director of the CIA] opened the issue with the consensus view: "Bin Laden certainly did a nice favor today for the president."

Around the table, there were nods ... There was some speculative talk of why -- knowing that bin Laden acted out a strategic rationale -- he would have done this, just as there was, [Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, formerly the the CIA's operational chief for WMD and terrorism,] recalled, of why the Soviets liked certain American leaders, such as Nixon: because they were consistent and predictable ...

But an ocean of hard truths before them -- such as what did it say about U.S. policies that bin Laden would want Bush reelected -- remained untouched.

"It was sad," Mowatt-Larssen remembered. "We just sat there. We were dispirited. We had nothing left at that point."

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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2008 Elections Al-qaida John Mccain R-ariz.