Seemingly taunting Osama bin Laden, President Bush’s homeland security adviser said Sunday the fugitive al-Qaida leader is “virtually impotent” beyond his ability to hide away and spread anti-American propaganda.
The provocative characterization came just days after bin Laden attracted international attention with the release of a video in which he ridicules President Bush about the Iraq war and reminds the world that he has not been captured.
Ahead of the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes, White House aide Frances Fragos Townsend made a clear attempt to diminish the influence — or the perception — of the man who masterminded those attacks.
“This is about the best he can do,” Townsend said of bin Laden. “This is a man on a run, from a cave, who’s virtually impotent other than these tapes.”
In appearance on two Sunday talk shows, she used the “virtually impotent” reference both times, suggesting the language was chosen with careful purpose.
“We know that al-Qaida is still determined to attack, and we take it seriously,” Townsend said. “But this tape appears to be nothing more than threats. It’s propaganda on their part.”
Townsend was considerably more direct than even Bush in rebuking bin Laden. The president responded to bin Laden’s tape last week by saying it was a reminder that the world is dangerous and that Iraq is part of the war against extremists. He never identified bin Laden by name.
Terrorism experts disagree
The consensus of the nation’s top intelligence analysts is that bin Laden’s terrorist network is anything but impotent.
Terrorism experts say the network is regrouping in the lawless Pakistan-Afghanistan border region. The latest National Intelligence Estimate says al-Qaida is growing in strength, intensifying its efforts to put operatives in the United States and plotting against U.S. targets that will cause massive casualties. The U.S. is in a “heightened threat environment” and al-Qaida is the most serious threat, the analysts found.
The tape was the first time bin Laden had appeared in a new video since 2004. In the recording, bin Laden tells Americans they should convert to Islam if they want the war in Iraq to end. He makes no overt threats and does not directly call for attacks.
“While he may be physically contained, his influence is not bounded by any physical barriers,” said Thomas Sanderson, an authority on terrorism at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Obviously, in a sense, it does not matter that we’ve got him trapped in a cave. He has sent forth enough messages to incite violence worldwide against us,” he said in an interview Sunday.
Townsend said experts are doing a technical analysis, looking for clues about bin Laden’s health and whereabouts.
“There’s nothing overtly obvious in the tape that would suggest this is a trigger for an attack,” she said.
She emphasized another finding from the intelligence estimate released in July — that worldwide counterterrorism efforts have constrained the ability of al-Qaida to hit the U.S.
“We ought to remember, six years since the tragedy of the September 11th, we haven’t seen another attack,” Townsend said.
More than 3,000 people died on that day in 2001, the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history. Tuesday’s anniversary has renewed questions about whether the country is safer today.
‘Distracted and complacent’
“Six years later, we are safer in a narrow sense: We have not been attacked, and our defenses are better,” wrote the chairmen of the independent Sept. 11 commission, Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, in Sunday’s Washington Post. “But we have become distracted and complacent.”
Townsend disputed that assessment. She said the government has made considerable progress in protecting the country.
“We are safer than we were in 2001,” she said.
The anniversary of the attacks comes in the same week that Bush is expected to announce the next stage of U.S. involvement in the war in Iraq. The war is portrayed in starkly different terms by Bush, who sees it as vital to stopping al-Qaida, and by his critics, who view it is as unrelated to the terrorist attacks.
“This is an insult to everybody in the world that this man is still sending his tapes,” said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., of bin Laden. “And it is the real failure because Iraq has nothing to do with Osama bin Laden in the beginning.”
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona — who has stuck by Bush’s war strategy — nevertheless described bin Laden as a “great danger.”
“He continues to communicate, he continues to lead, and he continues to be a symbol for them of leadership in this radical hatred and evil radical Islamic extremism,” McCain said.
Taunting bin Laden as “virtually impotent” would likely not provoke him to respond, because his strategy of attacks involves lengthy planning that would not be derailed by a single comment, said Sanderson, a senior fellow at CSIS. But such a comment could prove incendiary to like-minded followers of bin Laden who see themselves as a “vanguard of a global assault on the United States,” he said.
“A provocation like that,” he said, “is not helpful.”
Townsend appeared on “Fox News Sunday” and CNN’s “Late Edition.” Kerry and McCain were on “This Week” on ABC.