With thousands of Afghanis, Iraqis, and U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq since Sept. 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden, the fugitive icon of terrorist networks, was finally tracked down and killed in Pakistan. And not just in Pakistan, either, but in the city of Abbottabad, in the neighborhood of Pakistan’s military academy.
Let’s say this clearly, just once: Part of the unnecessarily prolonged failure to catch bin Laden, and a very large part of the tragic diversions of two bloody wars, can be laid to the account of the large media outlets in this country. Foreign policy under the Bush administration was dictated by selfish concerns, and corporate media outlets almost entirely went along. Foreign policy was influenced—to put it nicely—by politics, and politics was influenced—again, to put it nicely—by money, and the big media almost entirely went along.
Indeed, it would be more accurate to say that foreign policy, like domestic policy, was determined by political advantage—in simplest terms, money to get position, position to get money. Thus the previous administration (like others before it) bound the full faith and credit of the American public, largely without its consent and often without its knowledge, to a series of repressive regimes in the Middle East perpetually at odds with their own populations.
That this strained and upside-down affiliation was not in the best interest of the American public was spectacularly demonstrated by the official response to 9/11. Just a few outstanding and (by now) widely known facts in the public record reflect the discrepancy between Bush policy and public interest:
- Most of the skyjackers were Saudis, yet members of the Saudi ruling family were permitted to fly out of the U.S.—actually, helped to fly out of the U.S.–immediately after the 9/11 attacks.
- Foreign affairs experts and security experts knew that the Saudi regime was financing terrorism, yet the Bush administration enabled some of these special flights with Saudis aboard, just after 9/11, to leave from Las Vegas. Their luggage and cargo were not even searched, according to people I have interviewed.
- Similarly, anyone with expertise in pertinent fields knew that training for violent Islamist partisans took place in Pakistan, with collusion in the Pakistani military and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), its secret service. Furthermore, some of the money that went to skyjacker Mohamed Atta was quickly traced to an account in Pakistan. Yet Gen. Musharraf, Pakistan’s dictator, was swiftly photographed sitting next to President Bush in the White House, a “partner” in the ‘war on terror.’
- There were no Afghanis among the skyjackers. Yet in spite of the key facts of Saudi finance and Pakistani training, White House emphasis and rhetoric in late 2001 was all about “harboring.” Pitiful Afghanistan, whose people had little to no say in Osama bin Laden’s having been harbored there, bore the brunt of a massive U.S. assault ostensibly in response to 9/11—until the Iraq war.
- There were no Iraqis among the skyjackers, and there was no affiliation between Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and Islamist partisan networks. Quite the contrary. Yet from at least 2002, the Bush-Cheney was obsessively focused on invading Iraq.
As someone said, “Why didn’t we lash out at Saudi Arabia?”
Instead, we got a narrative from the then-White House that was all about a Dr. No-type ‘mastermind,’ later enriched with anthrax—until the source of the anthrax mailings was determined to be domestic rather than exotic—and spiced up with ‘caves’ and mountain wilderness impenetrable to anyone but National Geographic photographers. And the largest media outlets, with few exceptions, went along with this Aladdin-influenced narrative every step of the way.
This is a spectacular demonstration of what can happen when news outlets (television) pay more attention to production values than to research, evidence and investigation. I said in a radio interview years ago that if just one, just one, of our three traditional television networks had had a division dedicated to research, data and investigation, the entire history of America following 9/11 would have been different. (Ted Koppel, then at ABC, soon afterward at least devoted an hour or so to reading the names of American troops killed in the war.)
This whole bloody, tragic exercise in futility is also a demonstration of what can happen when news outlets (print) pay more attention to who’s who than to research, evidence and investigation. I have always loved newspapers, but there was remarkably little appetite in the political press in our nation’s capital for close scrutiny of the Bush administration or of its policies, domestic or foreign. Access uber alles.
It’s not like they didn’t have some hints, either. Back to Pakistan and some known facts about Pakistan:
- Gen. Musharraf, universally regarded as a dictator by any standard, attained his office in the first place through a coup d’etat.
- Pakistan’s military and ISI openly supported partisan networks during and after the Afghani ouster of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, receiving CIA support to do so.
- Pakistan’s Lt. Gen. Mahmud Ahmed resigned his position at the ISI immediately after 9/11. So complete was the ISI’s lack of oversight and lack of help (for the U.S.) regarding the 9/11 attacks that Ahmed had been in the United States, visiting members of the Bush administration, on Sept. 11.
But in the major media outlets, virtually none of the information above was allowed to dilute the central Bush-Cheney narrative “We’re at war”—first with Afghanistan, next with Iraq, next if they’d been able to manage it with Syria and Iran. The narrative remained almost unquestioned, and of course actively supported by neo-cons in PNAC and elsewhere, even when Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan.
Things could have been different. I am far from being an expert on the Middle East and have spent only one month there, but even I could provide a short overview in 2001 on Pakistan’s sponsoring terrorism.* Strange how little we heard of that from Bush or Cheney, I always thought. But anyone who mentioned it in Washington was persona non grata.
Needless to say, we all make mistakes. So completely did Bush-Cheney obviate bin Laden’s existence that even I thought at one point that bin Laden was dead. Gen. Musharraf was among those who said bin Laden had been killed at Tora Bora:
“Musharraf, a Bush ally, made some of his comments on CNN. The FBI speculated openly around the same time that bin Laden was dead. So did the Pentagon.
According to “The News,” Islamabad’s main newspaper, “Fed up by the questioning [about bin Laden], the U.S. military authorities announced finally that they would stop chasing shadows and instead focus on other aspects of the so-called war on terrorism.” (“Musharraf Advised to be Less Forthcoming While Commenting on bin Laden,” Jan. 20, 2002).”
A security and intelligence expert I interviewed, Theodore Pahle, thought the same, and said so. Shortly after that, bin Laden surfaced in another video, all but explicitly displaying as an icon. This was immediately before the 2004 election. (I have thought for years that bin Laden was reading his own press. Current news on information cached at bin Laden’s hideout is reporting some heterodox schemes for attacks on anniversaries, etc.)
Daniel Pearl was killed in Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated when she returned to Pakistan, Abu Zubaydah was captured in Pakistan. Yet the focus was always on Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Iran—anywhere, anywhere but Pakistan (and Saudi Arabia). Follow the little bouncing ball. President Zardari of Pakistan also speculated publicly that bin Laden was dead.
And in connection with the Bush-Cheney never-ending war, those imaginary glittering caves in Afghanistan—“poor as field mice” said a man who was kidnapped there, describing the actual inhabitants of that terrain–were replaced only with imaginary rustic huts in the mountainous border region. Aladdin replaced by Indiana Jones. This although the production values in bin Laden’s videotapes made it highly unlikely that they could have been produced in such a venue.
*A version of this article ran in the Prince George’s Journal. It, like the other Journal newspapers—a local chain in metro D.C.—no longer exists. The chain was bought out by the barking-dog rightwing Examiner company in 2004. (All the columns I had published in various Journals from 1996 to 2004 disappeared except in some sheets I saved. I was barely able to print out most of the titles before the web site was wiped by the publishers.)