MARGARET WARNER: What does the election outcome in Spain say about al-Qaida's reach. And how will it affect U.S. efforts to sustain a coalition in Iraq, and against terror worldwide?
For that, we turn to Richard Burt, former assistant secretary of state and ambassador to Germany in the Reagan administration. Charles Kupchan, former director of European affairs at the National Security Council in the Clinton administration; Daniel Benjamin, a director for counterterrorism at NSC during the Clinton years; and Nicolas Checa, a former adviser to the Zapatero campaign -- he's currently managing director of Kissinger McLarty associates, born in Spain, he recently became a U.S. citizen. Welcome to you all.
Dan Benjamin, was the timing of this an accident, or is there evidence that in fact toppling the Spanish government was a specific explicit goal of al-Qaida?
DANIEL BENJAMIN: I don't think it's an accident at all. There has been a long trail of Jihadist statements suggesting that the Spanish were going to be targeted and in fact in some of these things which were largely issued on the Web, there's actually very precise discussion about the political situation in Spain, the need to put pressure on the government, the possibility to exploit the fact that the Spanish populous is very upset about the deployment to Iraq, and it actually specified that the period before the election would be a very good time to carry out an attack.
So I don't think this is an accident at all. What's more is the terrorists have actually figured out that if you peeled off the Spanish, there would be pressure on the Italians and ultimately pressure on the British. So they've sought in a very sophisticated way about this.
MARGARET WARNER: And what does their ability to pull this off with the timing they wanted, the fact that there were ten bombs in four different locations near simultaneous? What does that say about the sophistication and reach of al-Qaida in Europe ?
DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, it says clearly that they are very capable, have operatives in Europe who have very clear and very good skills to do this sort of thing. I mean, this is really a fairly remarkable operation. It's not hugely surprising because we know that there are a lot of, there have been a lot of cells in Europe, it's been principally a logistical staging post for attacks against the U.S. and elsewhere -- Spain in particular.
But what's also very worrisome is that there is an increasingly large group of radicalized Muslims of European nationality who have fairly sophisticated skills themselves and who may be moving in the al-Qaida direction, may have joined up with the network. There is no shortage of people to carry these things out, unfortunately.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Checa, what is your reading of what was the number one thing behind the outcome? In other words, was it Aznar's support for the war against Bush or those people, or was it this public perception that he was trying to withhold information about who was behind the bombing?
NICOLAS CHECA: Margaret, I really think what the key issue here is the handling or mishandling of public information in the 48 hours after the tragic events of last Thursday. I think it bears mentioning that the election was a statistical dead heat, according to public polls the morning of the tragedy on Thursday morning well within the margin of error, one or two points. And it was really not until Saturday evening, as Keith in your set-up shared with us, that the government decided to come forward with information as to the arrest of these five suspects linked to al-Qaida.
As an example, it took a personal call from Prime Minister Elect Zapatero to the interior minister, the Spanish homeland security secretary, informing him that the Socialist Party was aware of the arrest and that he was prepared to move forward with that information. It took that kind of information to get the current government to come forward and announce to the country at large that in fact it was not the ETA lead that would generate success down the road in the investigation, but rather the al-Qaida route.
MARGARET WARNER: So you're saying it more than just a public suspicion that they were withholding information, in fact the Zapatero campaign had to essentially pressure the government to release this information?
NICOLAS CHECA: Precisely. Yet there was a report earlier in the afternoon on Saturday coming out of Spanish intelligence agency saying that they were 99 percent confident that ETA was not responsible for the attacks and that all the avenues of the investigation pointed into al-Qaida.
In the early afternoon after the arrests had already been made, the director of the Spanish CIA denied those reports and it was after that that the campaign manager for the Zapatero campaign had to come forward and basically inform public opinion that there was information that was not being shared with the population.
MARGARET WARNER: Charles Kupchan, how do you think these results are being read in Europe right now?
CHARLES KUPCHAN: I think that the European political landscape is in a very fluent situation because up until now we essentially had a Franco-German coalition that was against the war and that has leaned against the Bush administration's policies toward Iraq . You had a circling around that inner core -- Britain, Spain, Italy and Poland , essentially tilting towards the United States.
The fall of the conservative government in Spain and the emergence of a Socialist Party that is much more pro-European that explicitly attacks the idea that this was a just war, radically alters that landscape and I think it's going to leave the Poles and the Italians somewhat more exposed.
MARGARET WARNER: But do you think it's going to be read as simply the Aznar government messed up in terms of withholding information or more a repudiation of his policy of aligning with the U.S. on Iraq?
CHARLES KUPCHAN: Well, I think that one of the effects of the bombing was that it turned the election in Spain into a referendum, if you will, on the war in Iraq . It made it the central issue that divided the center right from the center left. And in that sense the Spanish that were opposed to the war from the beginning were saying we still don't like it, we don't like the way this war on terror is being waged.
MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Burt, is there any other way to read this other than as a repudiation of cooperation with the U.S.?
RICHARD BURT: Well, I think we first all have to understand this was a very unusual situation, to have an election just on the heels of this disastrous incident. And people I think maybe reacted with shock and fear rather than kind of letting it sink in and think through the implications. It was interesting today that nearly every government in Europe that has troops now in Iraq came out publicly and stated that they are planning to keep their force there. And they're not going to practice any kind of policy that would appear to be caving in to al-Qaida or their affiliated groups. So I think it was a pretty unique situation.
I also, if I could, I disagree a little bit with Charlie's analysis that this has destabilized this kind of balance of power between the French and the Germans who opposed Iraq and other Europeans who supported it. I think there's been a real effort in recent months on the part of all Europeans, whether they are for or against the war, together with the Bush administration to look forward. And there's a lot of talk today about a greater Middle East initiative, and Chancellor Schroeder when he recently visited Washington I think made it very clear that he's trying to put Iraq behind him.
That raises a very interesting question though about Madrid -- is whether or not this will maybe remobilize public opposition, not governmental opposition so much to the war, but maybe get the people who oppose the war, that demonstrated a year ago or so, back into action, putting more pressure on governments and making it more difficult to come together. Remember, there are three important summits coming up. You've got an EU summit, a NATO summit and a G-8 meeting and they are all meant to show from the standpoint of the administration and Europe that we can work together. It may be more difficult now to do that.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Mr. Checa, do you think that the new prime minister, Zapatero is going to follow through on his, more than threats, his assurance that he will withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq ? You heard of course that other members of the coalition warned him against that saying that would hand a victory to terrorists.
NICOLAS CHECA: Well, Margaret, without a clear U.N. mandate, I think Prime Minister Elect Zapatero will have to follow through with his campaign pledge and withdraw the troops. However, I think it's very important to remember that Spaniards, the incoming and the outgoing government of Spain were the victims of this al-Qaida attack, and at some point Prime Minister Elect Zapatero will be held accountable for the efforts of the Spanish government to fight al-Qaida.
MARGARET WARNER: So you mean fighting terrorism in some fashion is still going to have to remain a major focus with this new government?
NICOLAS CHECA: Without a doubt. In fact, this morning at the same time in the same press availability that Zapatero announced that the troops are likely to be withdrawn if U.N. support is not provided, he also declared that the top priority of this administration will be fighting terrorism of all forms in all possible ways.
MARGARET WARNER: Rich Burt what would be the effect on the coalition and the U.S. , how big a blow is to it the U.S. if Spain does withdraw its troops?
RICHARD BURT: I think it's very important that these other governments spoke out very quickly. And I'm sure there was some communication between Washington and those governments. They do leave a military hole, we're stretched thin in Iraq . I don't think though that's the main point.
MARGARET WARNER: But wasn't there a hope on the U.S. part that more and more that that would become the core of kind of a NATO presence there?
RICHARD BURT: That's exactly the point. In Afghanistan , you have a NATO force. In fact the Germans who strongly opposed a force, Iraq have a major force and have taken a lead in Afghanistan . And I think the hope was if we could get the earlier disagreement behind us we could find a role for NATO in Iraq.
This will make it more difficult because I think the Spaniards who were only second behind Tony Blair in supporting us now appear to be the caboose on this train. So getting the consensus together to get a NATO presence in Iraq is indeed going to be much more difficult.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, Dan Benjamin, back to fighting terror in Europe, at this point what impact or what message do you think this attack is sending to the governments of, and the people of say Italy and Poland and Great Britain ? I mean, was Spain uniquely vulnerable or are these countries equally vulnerable? And what effect do you think that will have on the way the governments approach fighting terror?
DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, in terms of fighting al-Qaida, I don't think it's going to have anything but positive impact in the sense that all of them are going to redouble their commitment. And they are already working extraordinarily hard at the intelligence and law enforcement level.
And we shouldn't forget that the British have already been hit, they lost many of their citizens in the bombings in Istanbul a few months ago. Poland is less likely to suffer an attack, simply because there is not a large infrastructure there.
MARGARET WARNER: Islamic radicals?
DANIEL BENJAMIN: Islamic radicals. Now, Italy on the other hand is going to be challenged and the Italian intelligence and police have been working very hard for quite a long time, long before 9/11 they understood the nature of the threat. I think that tragic as it is, this will galvanize the political leadership in Europe to invest their people more in the threat and say although we may have disagreed with the Americans about Iraq, the al-Qaida threat is absolutely real and it is targeted at us as well, and we can no longer pretend that we're not the target -- that the U.S. is the only target. So I think in that sense we'll see a lot of cooperation. But there will be more questions about whether or not Iraq really served the larger war on terror.
MARGARET WARNER: And Charles Kupchan, how about fighting on both, on the international front, in other words as you know the Bush administration says you not only have to fight at home you have to take the fight to where the terrorists live, and the U.S. has really wanted to get some kind of a U. N. resolution before June 30. Spain had always been a huge help, a rotating member of the Security Council. Has the U.S. lost a really important ally in that effort?
CHARLES KUPCHAN: I think Rich is right to say that over the last few months a lots of progress has been made on the atmospherics. I think the Bush administration and various European governments have tried to put the past behind them. But what I think what we now see is that the Spanish election does to some extent create a political dynamic that is moving forward. We don't know where it's going to go.
And I think there are two competing impulses, on the one hand you have a sense of -- listen, Bush was right, al-Qaida now struck in the heart of Europe, we need to go with the United States and go where we need to the get al-Qaida. The other reaction is that we went with the United Sates and we got hit -- that this war on terror as defined by the United States may be causing more trouble than good. Maybe Iraq distracted us from going after al-Qaida. Which of those two impulses wins out is very difficult to say at this point. In the Spanish case, the impulse that said we don't like this, narrowly beat the impulse that said let's go with the U.S. . I think a key question is: Will this create problems for Berlusconi in Italy or the prime minister or president of Poland , and again we don't know yet.
MARGARET WARNER: And very briefly Mr. Checa, we only have 30 seconds, what's your take on the impact this will have on U.S. Cooperation with some of these other countries -- or the other countries' willingness to cooperate with us?
NICOLAS CHECA: The government of Spain on both sides of the aisle has a lot of experience in dealing with terrorism and fighting terrorism. I think in the end after the dust settles, after we all understand that the election is over, I think we're likely to see a tremendous amount of European cooperation and indeed a Spanish cooperation on the global fight of terrorism.
Will it happen in the same terms and in the precise specific fronts that we have seen it so far with the previous government -- possibly not. But will the government of Spain be an ally for the global fight on terrorism -- no question about it.
MARGARET WARNER: Gentlemen all four, thank you very much.