OK, It’s a Smoking Gun, but for Whom?

Yesterday, the Bush administration finally released the homemade movie that officials say U.S. military forces discovered in a house in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. If one believes the tape is real, as I do, it implicates Osama bin Laden in planning the Sept. 11 attacks.

The tape is consistent with bin Laden’s press interviews before Sept. 11, as he has long promised that he and his followers would attack the United States. While the radical Saudi did not become a household name in America until this fall, he has been our most-wanted man since the East Africa embassy bombings in 1998.

Unfortunately, however, what we Americans see clearly on our TV sets as a smoking gun will look like no more than a smokescreen to countless others abroad, and the Bush administration’s media policies are no small reason why. Top administration officials tried to control the on-screen images that not only we have seen but that non-Americans, too, have seen around the world. But, instead of enhancing our security, these heavy- handed efforts have only undermined the best evidence we now have against our principal enemy.

Propaganda is a factor in most wars, and bin Laden scored a coup when his face appeared on Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite network, only hours after the United States started bombing Afghanistan. The White House panicked. First, administration officials pressured the Emir of Qatar to censor Al-Jazeera, before they rushed one official after another, including National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, on Al- Jazeera to make the administration’s case through translators into Arabic. And the Bush administration took no chances at home, either, as Rice asked American television network executives to be wary of bin Laden’s messages and to avoid running his videos.

Censorship is often subtle, but the fist that imposes it is usually transparent — and afterward, few trust the news or what they see on TV. By intervening against the press both here and overseas, the United States squandered the opportunity to be believed now that U.S. forces have seized the videotape. For no matter how Americans perceive the tape, how many non-Americans will agree? Those who already see bin Laden as vile no doubt still will, probably even more so, while too many of those who have defended him will maintain he is not responsible for 9/11.

The price of censorship is credibility, and America is the loser in this case.

We also wear blinders here in the United States. The many videos produced and distributed by bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda organization provide insight into not only his plans but how he wants to be perceived in a Muslim world that extends way beyond the Mideast. Take the 90-minute-plus recruitment video that al-Qaida released to Al-Jazeera this summer. Much of it has the feel of a U.S. Marines TV commercial, with men dressed in black running obstacle courses. We cannot afford to discount the depth of bin Laden’s appeal in many quarters.

Destroying known Al-Qaeda operatives is one U.S. goal. But cooling the feverish climate that their deadly networks thrive in is another. Why do “they” hate us so much? It has less to do with the fact of our power than the arrogant way we tend to use it, serving our immediate interests while being callous about others. The world sees how the so-called defenders of democracy censor when they feel it is needed. By suppressing bin Laden’s publicity, we have unwittingly provided a way for him and his countless supporters to claim that the movie, with its poor soundtrack, was somehow doctored by us.

America needs both military and political tools to disarm terrorism, and our quick success in Afghanistan is as limited as the many strings of Al-Qaeda are long. While most of the September hijackers came from either Saudi Arabia or Egypt, Al-Qaeda networks are found in countries including Algeria, Tunisia, Bosnia, Tajikistan, Chechnya, the Philippines, Syria, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, Somalia and Indonesia, as well as the United States.

No one expected the top terrorist to be so cocky as to allow a confidant to film him incriminating himself in the 9/11 attacks. The tape leaves no doubt as to his culpability in my mind and probably yours. But to countless others elsewhere, our censorship only protects him like a screen from his own captured image.