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Alice Cherbonnier: The 75% Solution

MEDIA CRITICISM:

The 75% Solution


by Alice Cherbonnier

Four times--at the Republican Convention and in the three presidential "debates," Bush declared that 75% of the al Quaeda leadership had been eliminated. Missing from the media analyses: who, what, when, where, how and why.

On Sept. 30, George W. Bush, during the first presidential debate, stated, "We pursued Al Qaida wherever Al Qaida tries to hide. Seventy-five percent of known Al Qaida leaders have been brought to justice. The rest of them know we're after them." He also said, "[Osama bin Laden is] isolated--75 percent of his people have been brought to justice." Then, on Oct. 8,he said, "I vowed to our countrymen that I would do everything I could to protect the American people. That's why we're bringing Al Qaida to justice. Seventy five percent of them have been brought to justice." And, on Oct. 13, he said, "I have got a comprehensive strategy to not only chase down the Al Qaida, wherever it exists--and we're making progress; three-quarters of Al Qaida leaders have been brought to justice--but to make sure that countries that harbor terrorists are held to account."

The "75%" claim was also made by Bush during the Republican convention.

As this is an extraordinary claim, wouldn't it be reasonable to expect our "free press" to check it out? Questions that come to mind, that should have been asked and answered in prominent media sources, include:

  • How many Al Quaeda leaders, in raw numbers rather than percentages, have been removed from their leadership roles?
  • Who are these apprehended individuals?
  • How were these individuals identified?
  • How were they apprehended?
  • Were they formally charged with any crimes? If so, under what judicial system are they being/have they been (Bush's tenses vary) "brought to justice"?
  • If still living, where are these individuals now?
  • Only two US news sources, to this writer's knowledge, have attempted to dissect the 75% claim: An AP critique on Oct. 1 of the Sept. 30 debate included this: "The president was actually referring to deaths or arrests of operatives who powered al-Qaida when it mounted the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, not those behind the organization today. Earlier this year, the CIA estimated two-thirds of those leaders were gone. Bush upped the proportion to three-quarters in his GOP national convention speech, based on intelligence findings that were not publicly detailed." ( Reference this story and others)

    That's it for the "major" newspapers. The November issue of The American Prospect magazine covered the story in detail. Karen J. Greenberg and Stephen Holmes (respectively, director of the Center on Law and Security at the New York University School of Law and professor at the New York University School of Law) wrote, "Figures of Speech: Bush says the United States has captured or killed three-quarters of al-Qaeda. Where does that number come from? Thin air." The authors conclude: "By flaunting a precise percentage of bin Laden's 'people' captured or killed, the president exposes more than his instinctive confidence that America can win the war on terrorism by knocking off terrorist leaders one at a time...."

    Greenberg and Holmes mention, but appear to discount as unrealistic, the possibility that the 75% figure masks a very small number of "al Quaeda leaders."

    While the US press generally seemed content to allow the 75% claim to stand unchallenged, questions were being raised and discussed elsewhere in the world, such as in the Daily Times in Pakistan (using Reuters as a source). Noting that US officials previously claimed to have apprehended two-thirds of the leadership, but upped the figure to three-quarters (but providing no actual numbers), the story concludes, "A White House fact sheet listing those captured or killed includes: Mohammed Atef, Al Qaeda's senior field commander, killed in a bombing raid in Afghanistan; Abu Zubaydah, Osama Bin Laden's field commander after the killing of Atef, captured in Pakistan; as well as Al Qaeda's senior leader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was captured in Pakistan. Bin Laden remains at large."

    Here's a quote about this matter from a representative White House fact sheet, part of an undated "record of achievement" in fighting terrorism that has been posted online by the White House. A Bush quote from 2001, however, precedes the section containing the following paragraph: "Of the senior al Qaeda and associated leaders, operational managers, and key facilitators the United States has been tracking, more than two-thirds have been detained, captured, or killed. These include Mohammed Atef, al Qaeda's senior field commander killed in a bombing raid in Afghanistan; Abu Zubaida, Osama bin Laden's field commander after the killing of Atef, captured in Pakistan; Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the September 11th attacks, captured in Pakistan; Ramzi Binalshibh, a coordinator of the September 11th attacks, captured in Pakistan; Hambali, top strategist for al Qaeda's associate group Jemaah Islamiah in Southeast Asia, captured in Thailand; Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, al Qaeda's chief of operations in the Persian Gulf, captured in the United Arab Emirates; Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a suspect in the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, captured in Pakistan; and Abu Issa al-Hindi, a central planner of detailed reconnaissance of American financial institutions, captured in Britain."

    Bush improved his "terror-fighting" grade from a merely-passing 66% to a more respectable 75%. But the US press flat-out failed.

    Thus the claim was previously two-thirds, as Greenberg and Holmes note in their story, but Bush upped the claim to three-quarters in time for the Republican Convention and the debates, with no explanation given. Only the Pakistan Daily Times, through Reuters, found a way to explain the the larger percentage: just discount the importance of some of the "leaders" in the "two-thirds" list, and come up with four top leaders, including bin Laden. Subtract three already disposed of, and voila! Progress appears to have been made.

    This nation, and the world, should want to know much more about the 75 percent claim.

    Bush improved his "terror-fighting" grade from a merely-passing 66% to a more respectable 75%. But the US press flat-out failed.

    **************

    This story was originally published in the Baltimore Chronicle on October 26, 2004 Submitted to Scoop by the author.

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