George Bush, Katie Couric and the Terror Plot that Wasn't
By Gar Smith
September 21, 2006
As the new host of the CBS Evening News, former chat show host Katie Couric kept to familiar ground by kick-starting her September 6th debut with a celebrity guest interview. The celebrity was George W. Bush.
At one point in their televised tete-a-tete, Ms. Couric asked Mr. Bush if he could provide any examples of a terror plot that his administration had actually foiled
Bush replied: "Well, for example -- there's a -- we, we uncovered a potential anthrax attack on the United States. Or the fact that -- Khalid Shaykh Muhammad had got somebody to -- to line up people to fly airlines, to -- to crash airlines on, I think, the West Coast or somewhere in America."
"The West Coast or somewhere in America"???
If there was a plot to crash airplanes into a West Coast city, shouldn't the Commander-in-Chief at least be able to recall which of the three states had been targeted?
Phone calls to the offices of Senators Boxer and Feinstein failed to clarify the mystery. No one in either the California or DC offices could recall being informed of any such previously unknown plots. The California Department of Emergency Services also reported no knowledge of any alerts involving terrorist plans to target the state.
"These would be Southeast Asians," Bush told Couric. "In other words, we've uncovered cells." He explained that the information on the airline plot stemmed from "pretty rich data that has been declassified so that I'm capable of telling the American people...."
Telling the American people what?
Instead of ending the sentence by explaining that the data had been declassified so he could warn the American people about a specific danger, Bush announced that he was using the declassified information to tell "the American people the importance of the interrogation program."
Bush had chosen to raise the specter of renewed anthrax and airborne attacks to promote his campaign to free CIA interrogators to use legalized torture tactics. Bush pressed his point by telling Couric: "CIA officials feel like the rules are so vague that they cannot interrogate without being tried as war criminals& and so what I'm asking Congress to do is to interpret Article III of the Geneva Convention under US law."
It would take a pretty compelling threat to justify any nation arguing that it has to take upon itself to "rewrite" the Geneva Convention. Were the incidents Bush cited worthy of such an extraordinary reaction?
The Department of Homeland Security in DC was not able to immediately identify the threats Bush cited on the CBS Evening News. The DHS promised to look into the matter but, to date, no additional information has come from DHS officials.
In the meantime, Chris Bertelli, the Assistand Deputy Director of the California Office of Homeland Security happened to recall a speech that Bush gave on February 9, 2006. Bertelli provided a link to the White House transcript of the address. The description of the plot Bush highlighted in that speech matched the details Bush related to Couric.
'Reaching Far into the Past'
The LA plot that Bush seemed to offer as a new threat to "the Homeland," was, as the politicians like to say, "old news."
In his February 9 speech at the National Guard Memorial Building, Bush declared: "We now know that, in October 2001, Khalid Shaykh Muhammad -- the mastermind of the September the 11th attacks -- has [sic] already set in motion a plan to have terrorist operatives hijack an airplane using shoe bombs to breach the cockpit door, and fly the plane into the tallest building on the West Coast. We believe the intended target was Liberty Tower in Los Angeles, California."
(White House staff had to issue a correction. It turns out there was no "Liberty Tower" in LA. The 73-story structure Bush referred to was the "Library Building" -- since renamed the US Bank Tower).
The plot's alleged mastermind, Khalid Shaykh Muhammad was arrested in Pakistan in March 2003. His successor, a man known as Hambali, was captured in Thailand in August 2003. Both have been in US custody ever since.
The LA Tower Plot has been in the news since at least 2004. It was included in the 9/11 Commission Report. (In the Report, Khalid Shaykh Muhammad was quoted as saying that he abandoned the plot because he was too preoccupied planning the East Coast 9/11 attacks.)
Bush also mentioned the LA Tower Plot in an October 2005 speech, in which he listed 10 terror plots that he claimed his administration had thwarted. (Only three of the plots involved targets inside the US. In addition to the LA attack, Bush mentioned second aircraft attack aimed at unidentified "East Coast targets" and the widely reported "dirty bomb attack" involving US citizen Jose Padilla -- an overblown charge that was subsequently dropped for lack of evidence.)
How Serious Was the Threat?
When it comes to citing secret intelligence, a president always holds a stacked deck. But given the chance to play the "terror card" during the Couric interview, the best Bush could come up with was this four-year-old incident. It leaves one wondering: just how serious was this particular threat?
According to US intelligence, the LA attack was actually called off by Osama bin Laden. Attempting simultaneous attacks on both coasts was deemed too risky. Khalid Shaykh Muhammad reportedly attempted to revive the plot on his own but the scheme was fatally squelched in early 2002 when an unidentified "Southeast Asian nation" arrested one of the four conspirators after he decided to back out of the plan.
On February 10, the LA Times asked a "US official familiar with the operational aspects of the war on terrorism" to assess the threat. Speaking anonymously, the terror official stated: "It didn't go. It didn't happen."
According to the Times, the official said he believed the Tower plot was "one of many Al Qaeda operations that had not gone much past the conceptual stage." The Times noted that the official "spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying that those familiar with the plot feared political retaliation for providing a different characterization of the plan that that of the president."
Vincent Canistraro, head of the CIA's counter-terrorism operations from 1988 to 1991, told the Voice of America (VoA) that Khalid Shaykh Muhammad "had gotten to the point of recruiting volunteers to commit suicide in carrying out the plot" but "whether it would have been successful or not, we'll never know."
Michael Scheuer, the leading al-Qaeda expert in the CIA's counter-terrorism center, told the VoA that he was "not aware of any such serious threat against the West Coast in 2002.
"This doesn't sound like anything that I would recall as a major threat, or as a major success in stopping it," Scheuer told the VoA seven months before Bush recycled the LA plot on the CBS Evening News. "My impression," Scheuer volunteered, was that the National Security Council "culled through information to look for something that resembled a serious threat in 2002. It doesn't strike me -- either as someone who was there or as someone who has followed al-Qaeda pretty closely -- that this was really a serious sort of effort." While the threat may have been reported, Scheuer said, it was "not one that, at the time, was taken all that seriously."
Bush's Previous Use of the 'Tower Plot'
The LA Times reported that, after Bush resurrected this threadbare threat in February, Democrats "accused Bush of reaching far back into time as part of a public relations ploy to maintain focus on his battle against terrorism."
Senate Intelligence Committee member John D. Rockefeller IV (D-West Virginia) said he "didn't find [Bush's speech] very helpful." Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) "said rumors of those attacks in Los Angeles had been known to officials for some time."
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the House Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Nonproliferation, called the speech a "political stunt" designed to deflect criticism of the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretaps. "I can't think of a governmental reason to disclose these details at this time to the general public," Sherman said back in February. "Clearly, the goal was to create headlines."
As CBS News pointed out, Bush chose to trumpet the LA Tower Plot "on the same day his administration, facing growing pressure, gave Congress more details on his controversial domestic eavesdropping program." But, as CBS soon discovered, "the White House won't go anywhere near the question of whether eavesdropping... had anything to do with foiling the West Coast bomb plot. And CBS News couldn't find a single official who would say there was any connection."
During his CBS appearance, Bush once again chose to revive the old LA Plot at a moment of political difficulty -- in this case, citing the plot as an argument for legalizing "aggressive" interrogation tactics.
But it is now clear that the LA plot was not foiled because the CIA's interrogators had been unshackled from the constraints of Article III of the Geneva Convention. The cell was busted by a foreign government after a would-be martyr had second thoughts.
A Return to the Talking Points
So why did George W. Bush re-hash such a dated and dubious scenario during his prime-time chat with Katie Couric? Once again, the goal was political: to link the "War on Terror" with the Occupation of Iraq.
Bush made the point twice during the interview. "You know, when you really think about why would somebody kill 3,000 Americans?&. The more I learn, the more I realized that this is an enemy that is bound by ideology and has got desires. They want to drive us out of the region. They want to establish a caliphate, which is like a Muslim, you know, empire."
At this point, Couric could have summoned the ghost of Dan Rather and pointed out that, "Mr. President. We are in their region. We weren't invited. And many in the Muslim and non-Muslim world see our presence there as an act of empire building by the US."
Instead, Couric followed up with: "You have said, Mr. President, that America is safer but we are not yet saved [sic]."
Later in the interview, Bush returned to this talking point. When asked whether the US war in Iraq hasn't created even more terrorists, Bush replied: "Well, the first thing I would tell people that -- we weren't in Iraq on September the 11th, when 19 killers killed 3,000 Americans in the most brutal attack on our -- on our soil, ever."
"But they were from Saudi Arabia," Couric corrected.
Bush was momentarily flustered. "No, but they're -- but -- but they share the same jihadist mentality, this radicalism. See, that's the interesting thing about this war, Katie. It's -- we're not facing a nation-state. We're facing people from & around the globe, frankly, that share an ideology and the desire to -- achieve objectives through killing innocent people."
"In other words," Bush concluded, "they attacked us before we went to Iraq.... This is a war between extremists who want to stop the advance of democracy and liberty -- versus, you know, democracies and reformers and mothers who want their children to raise up -- be raised in -- in a peaceful world."
When Bush suggested that "this quagmire, this -- this kind of swamp of resentment can be drained by liberty," Couric was prompted to ask: "Could it be drained, also, by more diplomacy?"
"Diplomacy for the sake of diplomacy doesn't achieve objectives," Bush replied. "Unfortunately, diplomacy takes -- requires a certain degree of patience."
Finally, Couric mentioned the soldiers in Iraq that "you care so much about." When they learned that the president was going to be a guest on her newscast, Couric said, "almost all of them said: 'Would you please ask the President of the United States when can we come home?'"
Bush replied: "I get a little different response from the soldiers I meet, you know" I -- frankly, I've never had one say that."
Gar Smith is Editor Emeritus of Earth Island Journal, editor of The-Edge.org and co-Founder of Environmentalists Against War. He is the winner of several Project Censored Awards.
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