Superpower politics and bin Laden's beard: Bernd Debusmann

Wed Mar 5, 2008 10:22am EST

Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

By Bernd Debusmann

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - It would be hard to believe if it didn't come from the man who ran the unit charged with capturing Osama bin Laden.

Preparations at one point included lawyers from several branches of the U.S. intelligence community. Their task? "To examine rolls of masking, duct and medical-adhesive tape and determine which had the right amount of stickiness to ensure that bin Laden's face and beard would not be excessively irritated if his mouth had to be taped shut after capture."

This comes in a footnote in an angry book by an angry man, Michael Scheuer, a 20-year veteran of CIA covert-action operations who left the agency in 2004 and became a vocal critic of what he sees as the failure of successive U.S. administrations to take seriously the threat of Islamist terrorism.

The beard-and-tape episode dates back to 1998 when, he says, "CIA engineers were required to produce an ergonomically correct chair for bin Laden to be seated in after he was captured. Likewise, well-padded restraint devices were manufactured to avoid chafing his skin..."

So much for the ruthless, brutal, cold-hearted officials of popular lore.

The operation was called off because the Clinton administration feared a huge backlash if bin Laden had been killed by accident in the attempt to snatch him.

Also at play, according to Scheuer, was "the first question always asked by the (CIA) Agency's senior most managers 'Will it pass the Washington Post giggle test?' No...operation could be considered if the Post and other media would ridicule it if it failed and became public knowledge."

The giggle test, says Scheuer was applied throughout his service with the CIA, which included arming Afghan mujahedin in their fight against Soviet occupation. He was one of the architects of the CIA's controversial rendition program under which al Qaeda suspects are seized and taken to third countries.

Bin Laden is still on the run, more than six years after 19 hijackers under his command rammed airliners into New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing more than 3,000 people.

In his just-published book "Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam after Iraq," Scheuer argues that the U.S. faces more trouble because its leaders refuse to recognize what drives terrorism.

FOREIGN POLICY GRIEVANCES

President George W. Bush argues terrorists: "hate our freedoms - our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote..." but polls show the bedrock of support for militancy among the world's 1.3 billion Muslims is detestation of U.S. foreign policies

Scheuer faults U.S. leaders for failing to acknowledge the grievances bin Laden laid out in precise detail and adopted by the followers he inspired. They were: the U.S. presence in the Arabian Peninsula; unqualified support for Israel; U.S. support for states oppressing Muslims, especially China, India, and Russia; U.S. exploitation of Muslim oil; U.S. support and funding of authoritarian Arab regimes.

There is no reason to believe that the United States is about to change the foreign policies that motivate Muslim extremists in a region where politics and religion are intertwined and where many believe that the "war on terror" is really a war on Islam.

Foreign policy has not been much of a subject in the U.S. presidential election campaign. The candidates differ over when and how to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but none of them has given any indication of policies that would take the air out of the arguments al Qaeda and like-minded groups have used to attract recruits.

John McCain, the Republican nominee, and the rivals for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, have all pledged commitment to Israel and none of them is likely to loosen Washington's embrace of Saudi Arabia, or push Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak towards greater democracy.

Polls show that radicals - potential suicide bombers and hostage takers - and moderate Muslims are in favor of moving towards more democracy, a process stifled in many places by authoritarian rulers who enjoy the backing of the U.S.

It cemented its reputation as the superpower of hypocrites after one of the very few democratic elections in Middle Eastern history, the 2006 vote in which Palestinians opted for the Islamist party Hamas over Fatah, the corrupt ruling bureaucracy built up by Yasser Arafat. The closely-monitored election vote was free and fair.

The U.S. responded by boycotting Hamas and backing Fatah.

(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters com)

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