The ad starts with Bush and his September 14, 2001, bullhorn. This time, though, it’s a Kerry commercial that reminds swing-state Americans of Bush’s blood vow—precisely three years ago—that “the people who knocked down these buildings” would “hear all of us soon.” The cowboy soundbites that we would “smoke ’em out” track across the screen with any network’s footage of the “wanted dead or alive” culprits: Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Mullah Omar.
Then the camera moves on to anchors reporting that bin Laden was cornered at Tora Bora, picked up on cell-phone intercepts commanding the surrounded 2,000 Al Qaeda troops, but that U.S. commanders were allowing mercenary Pashtuns to lead the fighting and Pakistanis to seal the backside border. Next, news headlines blare that Special Forces and key CIA operatives were prematurely pulled out of Afghanistan to prepare for the war on Iraq. The last visual is of Bush momentarily forced at a March 2002 press conference to discuss bin Laden: “I just don’t spend that much time on him, to be honest with ya.”
The voice-over is Monica Gabrielle’s, a 9-11 widow and leader. “My husband died in tower two and the people who killed him have not heard from us three years later. The president will not even talk about these murderers. Sometimes he claims his administration has captured two-thirds of Al Qaeda’s lesser leaders; sometimes, three-quarters. The 9-11 Commission says one-quarter. Terrorists killed more people—625—in 2003 than in any year other than 2001. They wounded more than ever—3,646 people. Even the president concedes that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the attack that changed my life forever. Why have we expended hundreds of times the resources and troops in Iraq than we have in pursuit of the mass murderers who vow to hit us again? Anybody could accept a good-faith effort that failed. But we cannot accept a so-called war on terror that has never aggressively targeted the number one terrorists.”
With all its metered focus groups, the Kerry campaign remains blind to the core weakness of the Bush campaign. It is not Iraq, still a 50-50 proposition with American voters. The economy is backdrop when life-and-death fear grips us. It is the abject failure of the Bush team to make America safer—either by corralling the killers or raising the defenses. Three times as many Americans died in two hours on 9-11 than have died in 18 months in Iraq, and the country trembles with belief that many more could die tomorrow. No one better embodies the dismal three-year Bush record on terror than bin Laden and Zawahiri, who resurfaced in a new tape just last week looking healthy and threatening, an ace in a card deck the White House has yet to deal.
It makes all the sense in the world that the Bush convention—with a hundred references in major speeches to terror and 69 to Iraq or Hussein—mentioned Osama just once, and then only to blame him on Bill Clinton. What makes no sense is that bin Laden was never mentioned in Kerry’s Boston show. With cable and the networks also blocking on Osama, he may take a back seat to Ho Chi Minh in the 2004 presidential election. What also makes no sense is that bin Laden’s never been featured in a Kerry commercial and, if he is mentioned at all in Kerry speeches, he is an afterthought, with Iraq or the economy dominant. Does anyone doubt that if Al Gore was in the White House and had the same record on bin Laden, he would be the drumbeat of the perpetually riveted, on-message, Republican campaign?
Kerry has begun using Osama in the laundry list of his complaints about the Iraq war. He’s got it backwards. Osama’s escape cannot be reduced to just one more consequence of the Iraq miscalculation, a postscript to a war critique. Instead, one of the reasons the real terrorists still threaten us—the number one issue to Americans—is because Bush got diverted into Iraq. That’s where the emphasis belongs. Tommy Franks’s book—American Soldier—inadvertently makes the case: He’s forced to trek to Crawford to deliver an Iraq war plan months before his troops have even fought their first major Afghan battle in the Shah-I-Kot Valley, where he still hoped to find bin Laden. Indeed, American troops were used then precisely because of the catastrophe at Tora Bora, which The Washington Post branded “the gravest error in the war against al Qaeda.”
Listen to the families. Gabrielle, the wife of an AON executive who lives in Connecticut and refused to take the millions in federal settlement money, says the Bush administration has been “horrendous” in the pursuit of bin Laden. “They’ve lost the entire focus of their mission,” she told the Voice. Mindy Kleinberg, co-chair of September 11th Advocates, says she “feels very strongly” that the U.S. left the Afghan war “too early,” adding: “When we don’t focus on Al Qaeda, we leave ourselves open to another attack. If you want to send a message to Al Qaeda, the best thing to do is go after their leader.” Bill Doyle, the lead plaintiff in the family case against the Saudis, wonders: “Why not go get BL first? Why don’t we get the people who commit all this hara-kiri throughout the world?”
Anthony Gardner, who runs the WTC United Family Group, says the Republicans “don’t refer to bin Laden much because it’s an embarrassment that he hasn’t been caught,” and Colleen Kelly, who heads 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, says: “I think all the families would like to see justice brought to the real perpetrators. It seems we’ve gotten sidetracked from who we were supposed to be going after.” These family leaders might be more powerful spokespeople on security than Swift boat crewmen.
And if the Kerry campaign were to decide to focus in speeches and commercials on Bush’s strategic and homeland failures—beyond bin Laden—all the evidence they’d need is contained in the most saluted yet ignored document of our time: the 9-11 Commission report. The bipartisan commission’s 41 recommendations are repeatedly rooted in shortcomings of current policy rarely, if ever, cited by the media:
Intelligence: “Thoughtful reform bills” have “foundered because the president did not support them” and the Defense secretary “opposed them.”
Unifying national security information: “Only presidential leadership can develop government-wide concepts and standards,” but “currently no one is doing this job,” while the CIA “has no strategy for removing information-sharing barriers.”
Reorganizing security institutions: “As presently configured,” they “are still the institutions constructed to win the Cold War,” and “Americans should not settle for incremental, ad hoc adjustments to a system designed generations ago for a world that no longer exists.”
Private-sector preparedness: With this sector controlling 85 percent of the nation’s critical infrastructure (e.g., chemical and nuclear plants), “witness after witness told us that despite 9-11, it remains largely unprepared for a terrorist attack” in part because the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has failed to push private-sector standards.
Homeland security funding: “Nothing has been harder for officials—executive or legislative—than to set priorities, making hard choices in allocating resources” to protect any real vulnerabilities, a failure that’s “particularly afflicted DHS.”
Transportation security: “Despite congressional deadlines” built into several laws, the administration “has developed neither an integrated strategic plan for the transportation sector nor specific plans for the various modes—air, sea and ground,” with “great or greater opportunities to do harm.”
Border screening: Though colossal immigration breakdowns were found to have facilitated the 9-11 attacks, “these weaknesses have been reduced but are far from being overcome.”
Terrorist financing: Efforts to freeze terrorist assets “appeared to have little effect” and “have not been adequately enforced.”
Nuclear proliferation: “Outside experts are deeply worried about the U.S. government’s commitment and approach to securing the weapons and highly dangerous materials still scattered in Russia,” and the bipartisan congressional program to reduce this threat is “now in need of expansion, improvement and resources.”
Constructive relationships in the Muslim world: The prison abuse scandal “makes it harder to build the diplomatic, political and military alliances” needed and are tied to the U.S.’s unwillingness to apply the Geneva Conventions to terrorists though “they are commonly accepted” as “minimum standards” for “humane treatment.”
Afghanistan as a continuing sanctuary: “Grave challenges remain,” with Taliban and al Qaeda fighters having “regrouped”; warlords controlling “much of the country beyond Kabul”; “the land awash in weapons”; the narcotics trade booming; and warnings that the country is “near the brink of chaos.”
Other than ending for all rational observers the invidious Dick Cheney efforts to tie Iraq to 9-11 or Al Qaeda, the commission explicitly says it did not examine the war’s effect on the struggle against terrorism. But it does reject the rhetorical use of terrorism as “some generic evil,” saying that “blurs the strategy.” Instead, the threat is “Islamist terrorism—especially the al Qaeda network, its affiliates, and its ideology.” Five Republicans and five Democrats agreed that this “first enemy” has been “weakened” since 9-11 “but continues to pose a grave threat.” American efforts, the commission concludes, “should be directed at those individuals and organizations.”
“If a president wanted to rally the American people to a warlike effort,” the commission noted, “he would need to publicize an assessment of the growing al Qaeda danger.” The government “could spark a full public discussion” of BL, his organization, intent, and capabilities. Had it already done so, the commission concludes, public opinion “and the range of options for a president” might be different. Instead, this president says almost nothing about our prime enemy, and the media mimics him.
The only one who can insinuate the real threat, and our lack of response to it, at the core of the American presidential debate is the man who has the most to gain by doing so. No fear of an October surprise should stop John Kerry—if it happens, he loses anyway. The only way to beat Bush is on the terrorist turf that pundits and polls say is Bush’s. Kerry must do it because that’s how Americans will decide this year and, ironically, because that’s where the Texas swaggerer is all bluster.
Research assistance: Nathan Deuel, Deborah S. Esquenazi, Emily Keller, Eric Magnuson, and Ben Reiter