Many liberals and Democrats have focused on allegations of Republican voter suppression and vote tampering, especially in the swing state of Ohio. But polls suggest that a more decisive factor in Bush's narrow victory in 2004 was the reaction of the American people to bin Laden's last-minute tirade against Bush.
On Oct. 29, 2004, the Friday before Election 2004, bin Laden broke nearly a year of silence and took the risk of releasing a videotape that denounced Bush and was immediately spun by Bush's supporters as bin Laden's "endorsement" of Democratic Sen. John Kerry.
According to two polls taken during and after the videotape's release, Bush experienced a bump of several percentage points, from a virtual tie with Kerry to a five or six percentage point lead. Tracking polls by TIPP and Newsweek detected a surge in Bush support from a statistically insignificant two-point lead to five and six points, respectively.
After the videotape appeared, senior CIA analysts concluded that ensuring a second term for Bush was precisely what bin Laden intended.
"Bin Laden certainly did a nice favor today for the President," said deputy CIA director John McLaughlin in opening a meeting to review secret "strategic analysis" after the videotape had dominated the day's news, according to Ron Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine, which draws heavily from CIA insiders.
Suskind wrote that CIA analysts had spent years "parsing each expressed word of the al-Qaeda leader and his deputy, [Ayman] Zawahiri. What they'd learned over nearly a decade is that bin Laden speaks only for strategic reasons. ... Today's conclusion: bin Laden's message was clearly designed to assist the President's reelection."
Jami Miscik, CIA deputy associate director for intelligence, expressed the consensus view that bin Laden recognized how Bush's heavy-handed policies - such as the Guantanamo prison camp, the Abu Ghraib scandal and the war in Iraq - were serving al-Qaeda's strategic goals for recruiting a new generation of jihadists.
"Certainly," Miscik said, "he would want Bush to keep doing what he's doing for a few more years," according to Suskind's account.
As their internal assessment sank in, the CIA analysts were troubled by the implications of their own conclusions. "An ocean of hard truths before them - such as what did it say about U.S. policies that bin Laden would want Bush reelected - remained untouched," Suskind wrote.
Bush enthusiasts, however, took bin Laden's videotape at face value, calling it proof the terrorist leader feared Bush and favored Kerry.
In a fawningly pro-Bush book entitled Strategery: How George W. Bush Is Defeating Terrorists, Outwitting Democrats and Confounding the Mainstream Media, right-wing journalist Bill Sammon devoted several pages to bin Laden's videotape, portraying it as an attempt by the terrorist leader to persuade Americans to vote for Kerry.
"Bin Laden stopped short of overtly endorsing Kerry," Sammon wrote, "but the terrorist offered a polemic against reelecting Bush. ... Unfortunately for Kerry, bin Laden then proceeded to parrot the Democrat's litany of complaints against Bush, right down to the Michael Moore-inspired canard about My Pet Goat."
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