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New Osama bin Laden Tape

February 11, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: Joining me are Dana Priest– she covers intelligence issues for the Washington Post– and Steven Simon, who served as a national security adviser on counterterrorism during the Clinton administration. He recently co-authored “The Age of Sacred Terror,” a book about al-Qaida. Dana Priest, what do we know about the authenticity of this tape?

DANA PRIEST: Well, U.S. officials are saying that it is authentic, that it’s not 100 percent but their preliminary analysis done by people who know bin Laden’s voice, know his speech pattern and know his rhetoric say that it sounds an awful lot like him. They’ll send it out for more technical analysis now. But they do expect that that will come back and validate their initial assessment.

GWEN IFILL: Are the things that are contained, the statements that he has made in this audio tape today, are they different? How do they compare to the kinds of statements we’ve seen in these types of cases before?

DAN PRIEST: Well, they’re not different in one sense, in the sense that he is again calling Muslims to arms to rise up against the United States. He does make reference specifically to Iraq, so that gets us to this particular moment where actually U.S. officials and intelligence analysts had predicted that if we get closer to war and the United States looks like it is going to invade that that will incite people to rise up and join al-Qaida and other terrorist networks. That looks like what is happening.

GWEN IFILL: Steve Simon, from what you’re reading of the transcript of this tape does it sound like Osama bin laden is making common cause as the administration put it today with Saddam Hussein? Is he making common cause with the Iraqi people or just with Muslims everywhere?

STEVEN SIMON: Well, bin laden sees the world of Islam as locked in a terrible battle, a climactic battle with Christians and Jews. For him, the U.S. assault on Iraq proves this thesis. He wants to reinforce his point with his Muslim audience by saying, “look, even here in Iraq you have the U.S. taking on Muslims and trying to eliminate the only Muslim country that has dared to stand up to the Christian juggernaut.”

GWEN IFILL: But he doesn’t mention Saddam Hussein at all in this statement. In fact he says the fighting should be in the name of God only not in the name of national ideologies nor to seek victory for the ignorant government that rule all Arab states including Iraq. It sounds like he’s almost distancing himself from Saddam Hussein.

STEVEN SIMON: Well he doesn’t hold Saddam Hussein in high regard. He sees Saddam as being an apostate. He is willing to sort of fight alongside Iraq in this great battle because, again, he sees it as an issue of Muslims versus their enemies, not the Iraqi state versus another nation-state which it opposes.

GWEN IFILL: So, Dana Priest, when administration officials like Colin Powell and the intelligence officials you heard in the hearing today, George Tenet and john Mueller, when they start to say there is a nexus here between what’s happening in Iraq and what’s happening with Osama bin laden, do they make the case?

DANA PRIEST: Yes, they did. You know, what you’re seeing is sort of a slingshot effect. They’re talking about terrorism here if we start a war in Iraq. How does that ha happen? They say as Mueller did today that he thinks Baghdad will find a way to get chemical, nuclear and biological weapons here, may do it in concert with terrorist organizations that they have not worked with in the past and as CIA Director Tenet said the differences between terrorist organizations now are not important, that they think their common enemy, the United States, has united them and erased some of their ideological divisions that they have previously not been able to overcome.

GWEN IFILL: And they pretty much are assuming and embracing this tape, that Osama bin laden is alive, as they did after the last November tape I think.

DANA PRIEST: Well, right now there’s no indication that it’s as old as more than a year. So they will… that will be part of the upcoming analysis to figure out if, in fact, the tape could be… could have been made many, many months ago. But their assumption is that he is alive.

GWEN IFILL: Now when these tapes first began to surface, Dana, there was a lot of consternation within the administration that we in the news media were broadcasting them without looking at them too carefully, that we were playing into Osama bin Laden’s game. Today it was the administration that called attention to this tape first in Sec. Powell’s testimony. Why the change?

DANA PRIEST: Well, I think for exactly the reason that Secretary of State Powell was able to use this tape to say, “ha, this is further evidence of a connection between Iraq and al-Qaida,” which as you know is a central point to the administration’s policy of why attack Iraq now? The reason is that he is making common cause with terrorists who can deliver weapons of mass destruction to the United States. That’s why he’s an imminent threat so they used the tape in this regard to make that case.

GWEN IFILL: Steve Simon, is the case made in your opinion?

STEVEN SIMON: Well, there have clearly been contacts between the regime and the people, the guy who was identified the other day as having received medical care in Baghdad is clearly an important al-Qaida figure. The regime has also had extensive contacts with an al-Qaida affiliated group in northern Iraq with which the regime in Baghdad cooperates to destabilize the Kurds in northern Iraq, clearly an important objective for Saddam and something on which these groups are cooperate.

GWEN IFILL: So because so much of Osama bin Laden’s justification is religious and so much of Saddam’s justification is not, do they really have something in common here, just hatred of the infidels, of America?

STEVEN SIMON: Well, they have a common enemy. For Saddam it’s not a religious issue. For Saddam it’s an issue of real politic, just power politics. For bin Laden I expect it’s actually different. He sees this as a religious war, which requires him to use whatever means are at his disposal and which require Muslims everywhere to rise up against their oppressors.

GWEN IFILL: Is it significant that this came on the last day of the Hajj?

STEVEN SIMON: This would be a time when there would be sermons with important themes that the preachers would raise so it’s not surprising in that way.

GWEN IFILL: Dana, so today as we mentioned earlier we heard some of the administration officials talking about this orange alert which went into effect yesterday. At the same time, we then get this latest, newest threat from Osama bin laden. Is there a link between these two events?

DAN PRIEST: Well, it’s yet to be seen. I’ll have to tell you that in talking to intelligence officials today some of the most worrisome feelings came out that what they know about this sort of a statement is that in the last two times bin Laden has made them, they have been followed by terrorist actions, one in Mombassa, Kenya and the other against the French oil tanker. So this just adds one more element to what they already say, as George Tenet did today, said that our intelligence is the most specific that it has been. So even though we don’t know what they mean by that exactly because they won’t tell us, they are trying to convey something that is different from the past.

GWEN IFILL: Dana Priest and Steve Simon, thank you very much.