Prove It, Mr. President

This appeared in the May/June 2002 issue of The Humanist Magazine.

President Bush’s new claim that the September 11th hijackers were directly dispatched from Afghanistan may well not be false.
But the time has come to prove that it’s true.

Last September 27th the Los Angeles Times produced a lengthy examination of the biographical journeys that led the 19 skyjackers to their fatal choices on September 11th. It provided extensive background on flying lessons in Florida, alleged ringleader Mohammed Atta’s time as a student in Germany, and how the perpetrators lived what seemed to their neighbors to be quiet and ordinary lives in the United States.

But one thing that narrative did not contain was a single word about Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, or Osama bin Laden. Since then, no other media outlet or any government source has demonstrated a direct and unambiguous connection between the crimes of September 11th and the terror operations in Afghanistan.

Until the State of the Union address on January 29th. President Bush dropped the information seemingly in passing, as if it had long been common knowledge. Most of the subsequent media attention was devoted to the speech’s “axis of evil” saber rattling. (There appears to be no truth to the Internet rumor that China, Libya, and Syria – feeling a bit left out – are on the verge of announcing the formation of a new “Axis of Just as Evil.”) So the new factoid passed virtually without notice.

“Most of the 19 men who hijacked planes on September the 11th,” said the president, “were trained in Afghanistan’s camps.” This was the most damning accusation the Administration – or anyone else – had yet delivered directly linking the September 11th perpetrators to Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. The closest any Western leader had come to such a claim was last October, when British Prime Minister Tony Blair said that three of the 19 had been identified as bin Laden associates, “with a track record in his camps and organization.” Now, suddenly, it was “most.” It is difficult to conceive of anything, if true, that could more thoroughly justify (even if retrospectively) the righteousness of the military action against Afghanistan that the U.S. commenced on October 7th.

But the president did not offer any evidence of his new claim during the address itself. Nor has he since. The Administration apparently expects that people will take simply the president’s word for it. Apparently most people have.

President Bush’s new suggestion that the September 11th hijackers were owned and operated and directly dispatched from Afghanistan by Osama bin Laden may well not be false. But the time has come to prove that it’s true. When President Clinton bombed the Sudanese pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum in 1998, he claimed that it was engaged in the production of nerve gas. But he never produced the evidence. This is precisely the kind of arrogant transgression that generated the hatred and rage that undoubtedly motivated the perpetrators of September 11th. Now, in response to September 11th, we seem to be making the same mistake.

In the first weeks following the attack, leading officials from the three leading coalition partners in the “war on terrorism” – the U.S., Britain, and Pakistan – couldn’t seem to get their story straight regarding the sufficiency of the evidence against Osama bin Laden. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said on September 23rd that he would soon provide tangible proof that bin Laden was indeed the evil genius behind September 11th. “In the near future,” Powell told Sunday morning talk aficionados, “we’ll be able to put out on paper a document that will describe quite clearly the evidence that we have linking (bin Laden) to this attack.” But that document was never forthcoming, and that promise quietly forgotten. The U.S. instead has repeatedly claimed that it was providing its proof “in secret” to its allies. Powell himself 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.”

On October 4th, British Prime Minister Tony Blair posted what he called “incontrovertible” proof of Al Qaeda’s guilt on the British government’s website. But much of that evidence was circumstantial, and few citations 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 had indeed 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.”

“How can there be any doubt now,” said Secretary of State Colin Powell after the house tape’s release, “that he is the mastermind?” But the tape hardly closes the case against bin Laden. Virtually all the debate about bin Laden’s undeniably 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 have been telling the truth. Just because he says he did it doesn’t mean he did it.

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 the statements he made 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.

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 faux 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 has anyone asked what possible motive bin Laden himself might possess for saying such things on tape? We still know nothing of the circumstances of how the tape came into American possession, other than that it was found in “a house in Jalalabad.” Are we really supposed to believe that Osama bin Laden 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. It was hardly coincidental that our commencement of bombing on October 7th was accompanied by the release of the videotape of Osama and Dr. Zawahiri on Al Jazeera. Al Qaeda clearly sees videotaped statements as an essential part of its strategy against the West. Osama bin Laden on the house tape may well have been trying to take credit for actions that were perpetrated by someone else. Might not he simply have been bragging to the fawning Saudi shaykh … 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. 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.

In any case, even if this videotape is considered the nail in the evidentiary coffin, it should be recalled that the U.S. government drew its conclusions about bin Laden’s culpability long before the tape was discovered.

Few American commentators have bothered to question whether we possess real evidence that Al Qaeda was behind September 11th. But foreign voices – especially in the Muslim world – have repeatedly asked for such proof. “Why hasn’t (the U.S.) shown us the real evidence that gave them the right in the first place to start bombing,” asked Nabel Saeed in Bahrain’s Gulf Daily News in December. “Show us your proof, and we will defend America indeed.” “The interest of the U.S. in airing this tape worldwide to incriminate bin Laden,” said Fahed El-Fanek in Jordan’s Al’rai after the videotape of bin Laden’s conversation with a visiting Saudi shaykh was released in December, “is proof that the U.S. went to war lacking any evidence against bin Laden.” “We have nothing to show from the United States,” said Sheik Mohammed bin Jubeir, the chair of the appointed Saudi Arabian legislature in January. “All we hear from the U.S. are accusations. No proof.”

Our refusal to provide such proof may well be why the same calls are now being heard about the “axis of evil” claim during the State of the Union address. “We condemn the American accusations,” said Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi the day after the speech. “We think Mr. Bush would do better by providing proof of his allegations … the repetition of such accusations is not going to help him.” “We should … provide evidence to each other,” said Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov in a February Oval Office meeting, “and assure all others that those threats really exist.”

American interests would have been much better served if we had declared from the outset that we believed that Osama bin Laden and his cohorts were responsible for the attacks, and presented tangible evidence to establish “probable cause” against them. That’s what President Reagan did after the Soviet downing of the KAL 007 in 1983 – and it immediately brought the entire non-communist world to our side. That’s what President Kennedy did two decades before that in 1962 – in one of the most dramatic moments of the 20th century – when his UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson interrogated Soviet UN Ambassador Valerian Zorin in the Security Council chamber, could not get a straight answer, and then presented unmistakable photographic proof to a riveted worldwide television audience that Soviet missiles were on the ground in Cuba. In a stroke, the whole non-communist world converged behind us.

Such a presentation in this case would have generated more robust support for our anti-terror campaign from governments around the world – especially 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. 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 more than four months later, Osama bin Laden is still at large.

Numerous U.S. government officials have claimed since September 11th that they themselves have seen conclusive proof of bin Laden’s complicity, but that the evidence can’t be revealed because it would “compromise intelligence sources.” This is beyond patronizing. Do we ever say this in domestic criminal cases – that we have plenty of evidence, but that most of it is simply “too sensitive” to ever be revealed?

Of course there are some evidentiary details that would have to be heavily cloaked, or withheld altogether, for precisely that purpose. But all? It simply defies credulity to believe that the U.S. government is incapable of putting together a package of evidence and a persuasive case while also safeguarding its intelligence establishment.

In fact, some American officials do provide evidence of their claims. Two days after the State of the Union speech, FBI Director Robert Mueller said that Al Qaeda operatives in Malaysia had helped to plan the September 11th crimes and had directly aided the perpetrators. But Mueller didn’t expect the world just to take his word for it. FBI officials provided the media with a detailed account of financial transactions, forged identifications, weapons purchases, and the particular dates in January 2000 when Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi – who allegedly helped to commandeer the flight that crashed into the Pentagon on September 11th – slept in an Al Qaeda-owned condo in Kuala Lumpur.

If we can offer this level of detail regarding the Al Qaeda operation in Malaysia, why can’t we do the same regarding the Al Qaeda operation in Afghanistan?

The answer 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 they 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 known conclusively to be 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 hard truth, they would find it a less than fully satisfying response to the events of that terrifying day.

Osama bin Laden may indeed have been the evil genius who plotted and conceptualized and funded the foul attacks of September 11th – and who dispatched minions directly from his camps in Afghanistan to carry them out. But whether or not that is the case, it should not divert us from recognizing that neither the U.S. government nor any other has yet put forth conclusive proof that this was so.

On the same day that Mueller provided the proof for his allegations, President Bush continued to ratchet up his rhetoric against possible future targets of American military action. “(If) you don’t hold the values we hold dear true to your heart, then you, too, are on our watch list,” the president said to potential adversaries. “People say, ‘What does that mean?’ It means they better get their house in order is what it means. It means they better respect the rule of law.”

It wouldn’t hurt for us to set an example.

Posted in Preventing Terrorism