Figures of Speech

One of John Kerry's stronger moments in the first presidential debate came when he explained that, contrary to what George W. Bush would still have had inattentive viewers believe, Saddam Hussein did not attack the United States. To this cold reminder, Bush snapped back defensively, “Of course I know Osama bin Laden attacked us. I know that.” He also stumbled embarrassingly into the following boast: “Of course we're after Saddam Hussein -- I mean bin Laden. He's isolated. Seventy-five percent of his people have been brought to justice.”

At the Republican convention in early September, Bush had recited this same talking point more carefully, speaking not of bin Laden's “people” in general but of “al-Qaeda's key members and associates.” Before the convention, the White House had claimed that “two-thirds” of the “senior al-Qaeda and associated leaders, operational managers, and key facilitators” had been captured or killed. So, between the convention and the first debate, somehow and without explanation, two-thirds had magically become three-quarters. What a coincidence: As the election drew nearer, the administration had upped its assessment of how many terrorists had been captured or killed.

But this touted “progress” in the war on terrorism seemed just as inexplicable as an increase from yellow to orange in the government's color-coded threat-advisory system. The Bush administration has become famous for its willingness to mine data selectively in order to garner support for its policies. So what about this impressive-looking 75 percent?

The consensus among experts is that this is a meaningless figure, plucked from the air to make the administration look more effective than it has been. No one can be sure about the size of al-Qaeda, and therefore no one can possibly know what percentage of its members have been captured or killed. In the shadowy and fluid world of transnational terrorism, moreover, originally independent groups frequently cooperate, morph, or merge into one another. This summer, London's International Institute for Strategic Studies, a leading source of information on global-security issues, made a stab at answering one version of the question. As a baseline, the institute used the 20,000 militants ostensibly trained in Afghan camps. Of these, the organization estimated that about 2,000 had been put out of commission. That makes exactly 10 percent -- a decent number, but perhaps not high enough for an election year.

When Bush refers to 75 percent of bin Laden's “people,” he presumably does not have the graduates of the Afghan training camps in mind. He must be referring to 75 percent of al-Qaeda's “top leaders” or “key members and affiliates.”

To establish that 75 percent of “key al-Qaeda operatives and affiliates” have been captured or killed, we would have to know something we do not know: namely, how many key al-Qaeda operatives and affiliates were active at the beginning of the hunt. So how should we put Bush's boast to the test?

One way is to revisit the administration's own lists of “most wanted” terrorists. Two lists stand out. On October 10, 2001, the administration announced a most-wanted list of 22 suspected terrorists, headed by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri and including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Mohammed Atef, along with 18 other individuals, most of them affiliated with al-Qaeda. On May 26, 2004, Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller asked the American public to help find seven suspected al-Qaeda members potentially in the United States. Two of these seven had appeared on the original list of 22. All told, therefore, official U.S. government Web sites since September 11 have listed 27 known terrorists.

So how many have been captured or killed? Three.

One man on the list, Mohammed Atef, was apparently killed during the Afghan war, though the Department of Justice's “Rewards for Justice” Web site still lists him as “wanted.” Two more of the original 27 are in custody. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was captured March 1, 2003, and Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian, was arrested on July 25 of this year.

Three out of 27 makes 11 percent. So how did Bush come up with his 75-percent success rate?

Perhaps those who prepared his talking points were thinking of other al-Qaeda members arrested by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Perhaps they had in mind the three or four al-Qaeda members who are “in custody” in Iran. (At least one of them, Saif Al-Adel, was on the original list of 22.) Because the United States has no access to those held in Iran, however, and no guarantee that their communications with other members of al-Qaeda around the world have been cut, it seems a stretch to include them in a list of incapacitated al-Qaeda members.

To make matters worse, other “key members and affiliates” of al-Qaeda who were not on the original lists also remain at large. Two of the most prominent of these are Mullah Omar and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Adding such well-known names to those on the administration's published lists, we can infer that at least 25 of bin Laden's “people” remain at large. If Bush's 75-percent figure is to have any meaning, then, it follows that about 75 key al-Qaeda operatives and affiliates must be known to have been killed or captured. The question is, who are (or were) these people?

Admittedly, a half-dozen known terrorists -- Abu Zabaida, Ahmed Ressam, Ramzi Binalshibh, Hambali, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, and Abu Issa al-Hindi -- who were not on the original lists have also been captured or killed. But what about the dozens of others who must have been taken out if there is anything to Bush's 75-percent boast? Where are they? Some may be “ghost detainees” imprisoned around the world. If that is the case, how can we be sure that the administration, less famous for the accuracy of its intelligence than for its proclivity to praise itself undeservedly, has locked up the right men? How can we tell if its claims of a 75-percent success rate are believable or bogus? How can we be sure that Bush is not making an unverifiable assertion in the hope that uncritical listeners will be favorably impressed?

We can't. Without a reliable count of all key al-Qaeda operatives and affiliates, the president has no business throwing percentages around. His willingness to do so reveals, once again, his administration's proclivity to manipulate evidence for electoral gain.

It also reveals something deeper and more disturbing. In his scathing memoir, Richard Clarke recounts a conversation, not long after 9-11, in which Bush asked his staff for a chart of senior al-Qaeda leaders. “He announced his intentions,” Clarke writes, “to measure progress in the war on terrorism by crossing through the pictures of those caught or killed.” Bush seemed to believe that there existed a fixed number of al-Qaeda terrorists, and that the organization could be shut down by capturing or killing its members one by one. When Bush speaks today about 75 percent of al-Qaeda having been captured or killed, he is of course repeating what he has been told to say. But he is also expressing his own crude picture of the terrorist threat. He obviously believes, contrary to all historical evidence, that terrorist ranks will always be depleted and never replenished by the application of military force.

To expose Bush's dangerous failure to comprehend the war on terrorism, we need not rely on his severest critics; we can cite a member of his own cabinet. In the internal memo that he wrote on October 16, 2003, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld admitted, “We are having mixed results with Al Qaeda.” Speaking with much greater candor in this private communication than did President Bush before a television audience, Rumsfeld concluded: “Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror. Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?”

But if Rumsfeld is right, why does the president go around brandishing phony percentages to convince the American electorate that he is succeeding in the war on terrorism? Of course, we know why. But we should not let the sheer fatuity of Bush's rhetoric distract us from the danger that his pitiful grasp of the terrorist threat poses to America's security. Terrorists attack soft civilian targets in order to lure a more powerful enemy into overreacting and alienating the wider community. This is why an effective counter- terrorist campaign has to be conducted with great intelligence, lest it becomes counterproductive, creating more terrorists than it destroys. When Kerry tried to make this elementary point in that first debate, Bush practically covered his ears.

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; he also reveals the fatal limits of his own understanding. Why does he seem so blankly unaware of the damage his calamitous adventure in Iraq has inflicted on America's national security? The reason is simple: Bush cannot see the disaster into which he has dragged us because he is clueless about our enemy's extraordinary capacity for self-replication; he simply cannot imagine that terrorist ranks will swell as our high-tech military fills Iraqi cemeteries with civilians, all under the eye of Arab satellite TV.

Karen J. Greenberg is the director of the Center on Law and Security at the New York University School of Law. Stephen Holmes is a professor at the New York University School of Law.