US strengthens its case against bin Laden

Indictment of a suspected co-conspirator and a video of the Al Qaeda leader offer the public strongest evidence yet.

As recently as three years ago, the Clinton administration was derided for describing Osama bin Laden in frightening superlatives - "the preeminent organizer and financier of international terrorism in the world today" - without offering evidence to back up those assertions.

Such information, the Clinton team countered, came from intelligence too sensitive to reveal.

Now, the Bush administration, though it shares the same concerns about exposing top-secret intelligence, appears anxious to divulge what information it safely can to persuade the public - both here and abroad - of Mr. bin Laden's involvement in acts of terrorism. And, increasingly, the evidence looks to be more concrete.

Clearly, the situation is different now. The US has suffered a devastating attack on its own soil, and the public is squarely behind a war on terrorism. But now a federal indictment of a suspected conspirator in the Sept. 11 attacks, plus a videotape of bin Laden boasting about the attacks (which the White House was expected to release as early as yesterday), are demonstrating how the Bush administration intends to win the case against international terrorism in the court of public opinion.

In US district court in Virginia Tuesday, a federal grand jury handed up a 30-page indictment of Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen of Morrocan descent. The document, in effect, accuses Mr. Moussaoui of conspiring with bin Laden's Al Qaeda network to be the 20th hijacker in the airliner attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

'Wait, there will be more'

The bin Laden videotape, for its part, is said to provide chilling evidence that bin Laden knew of and helped plan the most devastating terrorist attacks in history. President Bush says the tape, found by the CIA in a house in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, proves bin Laden is "guilty of incredible murder."

The tape, according to those who have seen it or read a transcript of its dialogue, shows bin Laden bragging to associates assembled at a meal that the devastation from the Sept. 11 attacks was much greater than he had expected. He also says that when an aide rushed in to tell him on Sept. 11 of radio reports of the first attack, he replied, "Wait, there will be more."

Together, the Moussaoui indictment and the video constitute the best public proof that bin Laden was involved in the attacks. Until now, perhaps the most complete public evidence against bin Laden was a six-page summary available on British Prime Minister Tony Blair's 10 Downing Street website. That document offers a summary and facts for a case that concludes, "The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were planned and carried out by Al Qaeda, an organization whose head is Osama bin Laden." It also concludes the attacks could not have occurred without the assistance of the Taliban, Afghanistan's deposed government, which hosted Al Qaeda.

But just as the Clinton administration was accused of offering too little support for its accusations, the Blair document also offers "facts" that it says cannot be publicly substantiated for intelligence reasons.

Hence, the Moussaoui indictment in US court - and not before a military tribunal, as some had anticipated - is significant because it means information will be made public during trial. It also may indicate that the miltiary tribunals Mr. Bush has ordered would be used for foreign-based accused terrorists such as bin Laden.

As early as the first days following the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush team shared some evidence with national political leaders and with foreign governments in an effort to build a solid counterterror coalition against bin Laden. But it discouraged any public airing of what had been disclosed: Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah was reprimanded early on, for example, after saying he'd been told the US had picked up telephone intercepts in which two bin Laden associates "acknowledged a couple of targets were hit."

The senator's revelations may have miffed officials who feared his words could compromise fruitful sources of information. But legal experts say such "bits and pieces" of evidence, when coupled with the most recent video, could provide solid evidence against bin Laden.

"If you have intelligence intercepts tying Al Qaeda members to 9/11, and you follow that with a tape of bin Laden indicating foreknowledge of the attacks, it all fits together very well and would be very compelling evidence," says retired Gen. Michael Nardotti who, as a judge advocate general, was the senior military lawyer.

Will Arabs believe evidence?

None of this, though, guarantees that the foreign audience - especially in Arab and Muslim countries - will accept this evidence and turn its back on bin Laden and the Islamic-extremist Al Qaeda.

"The charge that 'there's no proof' won't necessarily change for a lot of people, because it's not based on objectivity," says Jerrold Post, an expert in political psychology at George Washington University here. "We might think that [the tape] seems to quite explicitly confirm bin Laden's involvement in the planning, but public opinions are based to a certain extent on a need to believe one way or another."

The fact the CIA found the videotape will raise some questions, Dr. Post says, as will any English translation of the Arabic and the tape's apparently poor quality.

But if the video shows bin Laden as officials say it does, it could tarnish his "heroic image," he adds. It reportedly shows bin Laden laughing as he reveals that several hijackers didn't know until they were on the planes that they were on a mission of death. Divulging that could help convince aspiring Al Qaeda recruits that bin Laden is just another "exploitative leader," Post says.

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