Do The Osama Tapes Really Prove His Guilt?

This appeared in the January 2, 2002 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Just because he says he didn’t doesn’t mean he did it.

Are the two “Osama tapes” that we’ve seen really conclusive evidence of his guilt? Virtually all the debate about bin Laden’s loathsome conversation with a visiting Saudi shaykh centered on whether that tape was “authentic” or “fabricated.” But there is a third possibility: The tape may be both genuine and accurately translated — but bin Laden may not be telling the truth. Like the latest tape released the day after Christmas — where bin Laden again takes credit for the crimes of September 11th — the “house tape” is likely part of a broader propaganda campaign. Just because he says he did it doesn’t mean he did it.

In the first weeks following the attack, the three leading partners in the war on terrorism — the U.S., Britain, and Pakistan — couldn’t get their story straight regarding the sufficiency of the evidence. Secretary of State Colin Powell boldly proclaimed on September 23rd that the U.S. would “put before the world (and) the American people a persuasive case.” But that case was never forthcoming, and that promise quietly forgotten. Powell admitted on October 2nd that the evidence in U.S. possession was not good enough to present to a judge.

But Pakistan drew precisely the opposite conclusion. “We have seen the material that was provided by the American side,” said Foreign Ministry Riaz Khan. “This material provides sufficient basis for indictment in a court of law.”

In early October British Prime Minister Tony Blair posted “incontrovertible” proof of Al Qaeda’s guilt on the British government’s website. But much of that evidence was circumstantial, and few sources were offered. On November 14th the U.K. offered additional proof, but, like Powell, acknowledged that the material in total did not add up to a prosecutable case against bin Laden.

Finally on December 14th, U.S. officials released the Osama house tape, which appears to capture bin Laden telling his cohorts that he planned the crime, that he had “calculated in advance the number of casualties,” that he didn’t foresee the cataclysmic effect of the flaming jet fuel, and that the collapse of the two towers was “more than he had hoped for.”

There is no question that the house tape depicts bin Laden taking glee in the devastation that was wrought on September 14th. His moral stature after making these statements could not be more odious. He views those who don’t share his warped views of modernity as subhuman. As George Kennan has observed about the Nazi’s use of the word untermenschen, some terms are applicable only to those who employ them.

But don’t police officials regularly receive many false claims of responsibility for heinous crimes and terrorist acts? Virtually all of bin Laden’s comments on the tape could have been derived from things we all heard in the days immediately following the attacks. Many structural engineers observed that the collapse of the towers was “more than they would have expected,” and that the full effect of a full tank of jet fuel was the one thing they never anticipated. All this proves is that bin Laden read the newspapers on September 12th.

Isn’t it possible that Osama bin Laden is trying to take credit for actions that were perpetrated by someone else? Might not he simply have been bragging to the fawning Saudi shaykh on the house tape — falsely? “What he said on the tape will gain him more support among the Muslim masses,” claimed the Iran News. That surely must be the primary audience for all these tapes, and the primary motivation for making them.

It is difficult to conceive that American officials would have fabricated the house tape — not because of any ethical restraints, but because of the enormous dangers if caught. The whole antiterrorism coalition would unravel in a stroke if such a calculated deception were to emerge. The risks of such an undertaking would far exceed the benefits.

But it is just as difficult to imagine that Osama bin Laden would have allowed himself to be videotaped saying these things, and then absent-mindedly left such an incriminating item behind. “Oh fiddlesticks, we left the iron on and we forgot to pack the tape where I reveal all!”

It seems much more likely to suppose that the house tape was meant to be made and meant to be found. Osama bin Laden wants his potential constituents in the Muslim world to hold him responsible for the September 11th attacks — whether he was in fact actually responsible or not.

American interests would have been much better served if we had declared from the outset that we considered Osama bin Laden and his minions to be criminal suspects, and presented enough evidence to the world to establish “probable cause” against them. That’s what President Kennedy did during the Cuban missile crisis. That’s what President Reagan did after the Soviet downing of the KAL 007. And that’s the common international procedure following a formal extradition request.

Such a presentation would have generated more robust support for our anti-terror campaign from Arab and Muslim governments. It would have provided them with powerful ammunition to withstand domestic opposition in their own countries. It would have reduced the danger that our campaign will motivate future acts of terror. And it may well have meant that Osama bin Laden would be in custody today.

By the end of September the Taliban were clearly feeling the heat. They were frightened, they pleaded for negotiations, and they showed an increasing willingness to surrender bin Laden. All they asked for was a rudimentary display of evidence. Taliban officials stated for the first time that bin Laden was under their control on September 30th — clearly suggesting that it was indeed within their power to turn him over to us. A few days later Taliban representative Abdul Salam Zaeef practically begged the United States to offer some proof. “We are willing to try him (ourselves) if America provides solid evidence of his involvement in the attacks,” he said. Then, going further, he stated: “We are willing to talk about (trying him) in another country … but we must be given the evidence.” Instead of providing it, we began bombing Afghanistan on October 7th. And over three months later, Osama bin Laden is still at large.

Removing the Taliban regime and eliminating the Al Qaeda operation in Afghanistan may well have been a wise American policy choice. And Osama bin Laden may indeed have been the evil genius who orchestrated the evil attacks of September 11th. But whether or not that is the case, it should not divert us from recognizing that no government has yet put forth conclusive proof that this is so.

In the end it may be that we have not disclosed much evidence because we don’t have much evidence. The heavy public attention the Bush Administration itself directed toward the house tape strongly suggests that we possess little else in the way of tangible proof. In reality, the immediate U.S. government response to the crimes of September 11th seems to have been to decisively go after the guys responsible for the crimes of 1998 (the embassy bombings in Africa), and the crimes of 2000 (the assault on the U.S.S Cole). Osama bin Laden has been indicted in both of these cases. When one recalls that President Bush called President Mushareff of Pakistan on September 11th to request his help in apprehending bin Laden, it makes this scenario hard to resist. And it seems likely that if most Americans came face to face with this cold truth, they would find it a less than fully satisfying response to the events of that terrifying day.

Posted in Preventing Terrorism