Video: No. 3 terrorist captured

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updated 5/5/2005 6:59:14 PM ET 2005-05-05T22:59:14

The White House announced a major arrest in the war on terror Wednesday.  A top Al-Qaida general was apprehended earlier this week by Pakistani security forces. 

It was a triumphant President Bush interrupted an event about Social Security the following day to talk about a top aide to Osama bin Laden.

Intelligence officials say Al-Libbi was captured in Pakistan's tribal region of south Waziristan where Al-Qaida militants have been fighting Pakistani forces for over a year.

Al-Libbi himself is suspected of being the ringleader behind two assassination attempts on Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who shortly after 9/11, pledged to help the United States dismantle Al-Qaida and find the group's leaders along the rugged Pakistan-Afghan border.

According to administration officials, Al-Libbi was al Qaida's third in command, behind only bin laden and top deputy Ayman Al-Zawahiri.

Furthermore, officials say Al-Libbi's arrest was the result of human intelligence.  That means the U.S. or Pakistani government now has insiders or helpful contacts within al-Qaida's upper eschelon. It's the kind of penetration the Bush administration has been seeking for three years.

Al-Libbi's arrest is tantalizing to U.S. officials, in part because he is believed to be the only al-Qaida member who was communicating directly with bin Laden. That could mean Al-Libbi knows where bin Laden is and also knows how bin Laden gets messages to deputies.

The prospects of getting closer to bin Laden come at a crucial time for the administration. The president's approval rating is the lowest since he took office, and the White House has been getting hammered after telling the state department to stop publishing a report that found there were more terror attacks last year than any year since 1985.

Cynics, therefore, have already begun to suggest the Bush administration may be inflating the significance of al-Libbi's capture.  But administration officials say the arrest really is a big deal and that this is an important day in the war on terror.

David Shuster reports for Hardball, which airs weeknights, 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC.

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