THE cases of Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch were ugly enough. So surely someone in the White House might have the good taste to draw the line at exploiting the murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. But nothing is out of bounds for a government that puts the darkest arts of politics and public relations above even the exigencies of war.
As Jane Mayer told the story in last week's New Yorker, Mariane Pearl was called by Alberto Gonzales with some good news in March: the Justice Department was releasing a transcript in which the long-incarcerated Qaeda thug Khalid Sheikh Mohammed confessed to the beheading of her husband. But there was something off about Mr. Gonzales's news. It was almost four years old.
Condoleezza Rice had called Ms. Pearl to tell her in confidence about the very same confession back in 2003; it was also reported that year in The Journal and elsewhere. What's more, the confession was suspect; another terrorist had been convicted in the Pearl case in Pakistan in 2002. There is no known corroborating evidence that Mohammed, the 9/11 ringleader who has taken credit for many horrific crimes while in American custody, was responsible for this particular murder. None of his claims, particularly those possibly coerced by torture, can be taken as gospel solely on our truth-challenged attorney general's say-so.
Ms. Pearl recognized a publicity ploy when she saw it. And this one wasn't subtle. Mr. Gonzales released the Mohammed transcript just as the latest Justice Department scandal was catching fire, with newly disclosed e-mail exchanges revealing the extent of White House collaboration in the United States attorney firings. Had the attorney general succeeded in enlisting Daniel Pearl's widow as a player in his stunt, it might have diverted attention from a fracas then engulfing President Bush on his Latin American tour.
Though he failed this time, Mr. Gonzales's P.R. manipulation of the war on terror hasn't always been so fruitless. To upstage increasingly contentious Congressional restlessness about Iraq in 2006, he put on a widely viewed show to announce an alleged plot by men in Miami to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago and conduct a "full ground war." He said at the time the men "swore allegiance to Al Qaeda" but, funnily enough, last week this case was conspicuously missing from a long new White House "fact sheet" listing all the terrorist plots it had foiled.
The Gonzales antics are, of course, in the tradition of an administration with a genius for stirring up terror nightmares at politically opportune times, like just before the Democratic convention in 2004. The Sears Tower scenario came right out of the playbook of his predecessor, John Ashcroft. In 2002, Mr. Ashcroft waited a full month to announce the Chicago arrest of the "dirty bomber" Jose Padilla - suddenly commandeering TV cameras in the middle of a trip to Moscow so that this tardy "news" could drown out the damning pre-9/11 revelations from the F.B.I. whistleblower Coleen Rowley. Since then, the dirty bomb in the Padilla case has evaporated much like Mr. Gonzales's Sears Tower extravaganza.
Now that the administration is winding down and the Qaeda threat is at its scariest since 2001, one might hope that such stunts would cease. Indeed, two of the White House's most accomplished artificial-reality Imagineers both left their jobs last month: Scott Sforza, the former ABC News producer who polished up the "Mission Accomplished" spectacle, and Peter Feaver, the academic specialist in wartime public opinion who helped conceive the 35-page National Security Council document that Mr. Bush unveiled as his Iraq "Plan for Victory" in November 2005.
Mr. Feaver's document used the word victory six times in its table of contents alone, and was introduced by a speech at the Naval Academy in which Mr. Bush invoked "victory" 15 times while standing on a set bedecked with "Plan for Victory" signage. Alas, it turned out that victory could not be achieved merely by Orwellian incantation, so the plan was scrapped only 13 months later for the "surge." But while Mr. Feaver and his doomed effort to substitute propaganda for action may now be gone, the White House's public relations strategies for the war, far from waning, are again gathering steam, to America's peril.
This came into sharp focus last weekend, when our military disclosed, very quietly and with a suspicious lack of accompanying White House fanfare, that it had killed a major terror culprit in Iraq, Haythem Sabah al-Badri. Never heard of him? Usually this administration oversells every death of a terrorist leader. It underplayed Badri's demise for a reason. The fine print would further expose the fictional new story line that has been concocted to rebrand and resell the Iraq war as a battle against Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda - or, as Mr. Bush now puts it, "the very same folks that attacked us on September the 11th."
To understand how, revisit the president's trial run of this new narrative, when he announced the surge in January. Mr. Bush had to explain why his previous "Plan for Victory" had gone belly up so quickly, so he came up with a new premise that absolved him of blame. In his prime-time speech, the president implied that all had been on track in Iraq after the country's December 2005 elections until Feb. 22, 2006, when one of the holiest Shiite shrines, the gold-domed mosque in Samarra, was blown up. In this revisionist history, that single terrorist act set off the outbreak of sectarian violence in Iraq now requiring the surge.
This narrative was false. Shiite death squads had been attacking Sunnis for more than a year before the Samarra bombing. The mosque attack was not a turning point. It was merely a confirmation of the Iraqi civil war that Mr. Bush refuses to acknowledge because American voters don't want their troops in the middle of one.
But that wasn't the only new plot point that the president advanced in his surge speech. With no proof, Mr. Bush directly attributed the newly all-important Samarra bombing to "Al Qaeda terrorists and Sunni insurgents," cementing a rhetorical sleight of hand he had started sketching out during the midterm election season.
In fact, no one has taken credit for the mosque bombing to this day. But Iraqi government officials fingered Badri as the culprit. (Some local officials told The Washington Post after the bombing that Iraqi security forces were themselves responsible.) Since Badri is a leader of a tiny insurgent cell reportedly affiliated with what the president calls "Al Qaeda in Iraq," Mr. Bush had the last synthetic piece he needed to complete his newest work of fiction: 1) All was hunky-dory with his plan for victory until the mosque was bombed. 2) "Al Qaeda in Iraq" bombed the mosque. 3) Ipso facto, America must escalate the war to defeat "Al Qaeda in Iraq," those "very same folks that attacked us on September the 11th."
As a growing chorus of critics reiterates, "Al Qaeda in Iraq" is not those very same folks. It did not exist on 9/11 but was a product of the Iraq war and accounts for only a small fraction of the Sunni insurgency. It is not to be confused with the resurgent bin Laden network we've been warned about in the latest National Intelligence Estimate. But this factual issue hasn't deterred Mr. Bush. He has merely stepped up his bogus conflation of the two Qaedas by emphasizing all the "foreign leaders" of "Al Qaeda in Iraq," because that might allow him to imply they are bin Laden emissaries. In a speech in Charleston, S.C., on July 24, he listed a Syrian, an Egyptian, a Tunisian, a Saudi and a Turk.
Against the backdrop of this stepped-up propaganda blitz, Badri's death nine days later was an inconvenient reminder of the hole in the official White House narrative. Mr. Bush couldn't do his usual victory jig over Badri's demise because there's no way to pass off Badri as a link to bin Laden. He was born in Samarra and was a member of Saddam's Special Republican Guard.
If Badri was responsible for the mosque bombing that has caused all our woes in Iraq and forced us to stay there, then the president's story line falls apart. Far from having any connection to bin Laden's Qaeda, the Samarra bombing was instead another manifestation of the Iraqi civil war that Mr. Bush denies. No wonder the same White House "fact sheet" that left out Mr. Gonzales's foiled Sears Tower plot and, for that matter, Jose Padilla, also omitted Badri's name from its list of captured and killed "Senior Al Qaeda Leaders." Surely it was a coincidence that this latest statement of official Bush administration amnesia was released on Aug. 6, the sixth anniversary of the President's Daily Brief titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S."
And so the president, firm in his resolve against "Al Qaeda in Iraq," heads toward another August break in Crawford while Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan remains determined to strike in America. No one can doubt Mr. Bush's triumph in the P.R. war: There are more American troops than ever mired in Iraq, sent there by a fresh round of White House fictions. And the real war? The enemy that did attack us six years ago, sad to say, is likely to persist in its nasty habit of operating in the reality-based world that our president disdains. Frank Rich is a regular columnist for The New York Times.
© 2007 The New York Times