Nov 01, 2004

Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, John Miller and PB

BLITZER: Osama bin Laden's surprise videotaped message to America is raising several questions, among them his whereabouts, whether he's planning more terrorist attacks, and if he's trying to influence the U.S. presidential election.

For some answers we turn to two guests who have both met with the al Qaeda leader in recent years. In Los Angeles, the former ABC News correspondent John Miller. He is now the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department's counterterrorism bureau. And in Washington, CNN's terrorism analyst, Peter Bergen.

Gentlemen, thanks to both of you for joining us.

Let's run a little clip first of Osama bin Laden on that videotape that Al Jazeera broadcast on Friday. Listen to this.


BIN LADEN (through translator): I wonder about you, after even the fourth year after September 11th, Bush is confusing you and not telling you the true reason. So the motivation is still there for us to repeat what happened. I will talk to you about the reasons behind those events, and I will be honest with you about the moments the decision was taken so that you can ponder.


BLITZER: I'll go to you, John, first. Do you sense in listening and watching this videotape he might be trying to send some hidden message to his cohorts out there to plot or to go forward with another strike?

JOHN MILLER, FORMER ABC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Well, if so, Wolf, I don't think the hidden message is ever hidden in the tape. I think that if the tapes have ever been used as a hidden message -- and, remember, there were two tapes released by al Qaeda this week, one of bin Laden and one of Azzam the American -- that the release of the tapes itself is the message. In other words, if they can't communicate with a cell, they say wait for word from the sheikh, i.e. bin Laden, or some other spokesperson, and that will be your signal.

Actually, that gives us some concern here. Al Qaeda has always prestaged its major attacks with a statement, either from bin Laden or someone else. BLITZER: Peter, what do you say?

PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: I'm totally with John. You know, to my mind this whole thing of hidden messages is sort of -- sort of wrong. I mean, the message is usually very overt...Kill Americans. In this particular instance, the message was actually rather unbelligerent. We didn't see -- this is the only videotape I can remember with no gun in the frame. Bin Laden presented himself as a statesman in sort of a Halloween parody of an Oval Office address. He sat at this table, speaking directly to the American people, suggesting some kind of truce, similar to a similar offer that he made back in the spring of this year in which he offered a truce to European nations who are willing to drop out of the coalition in Iraq.

So the message was actually less belligerent than normal, but as John indicated, tapes have preceded attacks. But we've had now so many tapes that it's often hard to really see an exact causal relationship.

This is now by my count the 27th audio or video message from either bin Laden or Ayman Al Zawahiri himself since 9/11, so we're getting an average of one every six weeks, which to me what this tape demonstrates is our intelligence gathering, in terms of following the chain of custody of these tapes, is obviously rather poor, since this is number 27, and it was not a complete surprise that bin Laden would try and insert himself into the American election process in this manner.

BLITZER: I want to get to that in a moment, but John, I was also struck, A, by how good he looked, how serious he sounded -- didn't ramble, he had a very direct message there -- and the production value of this videotape. The lighting was pretty good. The audio was pretty good. All of us work in television, we know that's not always that easy, especially if someone is hunkered down in a cave someplace.

Give us your thoughts on that.

MILLER: Well, I think that the production values are obvious, and as Peter pointed out, it's not the bin Laden we know, the bin Laden that Peter met. The bin Laden that I sat down with is a guy who sits cross-legged on the floor cradling an AK-47 in a camouflaged jacket.

This was the presidential bin Laden. This was sitting at the desk, looking like Peter Jennings or Aaron Brown, with a backdrop and a very formal garb. He was trying to speak from a position of power, as a statesman not a military leader, and I would not rule out the possibility in either bin Laden's case or Azzam the American, if you look at that tape closely, that there were not cue cards to even TelePrompTer to keep them specifically on message, because it sounded felt and read in a very literally scripted way. I think the message was important, too.

BLITZER: And that was quite different, I thought, amazingly different. Peter, let me get your thoughts on the production side of what we saw on that videotape. BERGEN: Well, similar also, we've also had another videotape back on the anniversary of 9/11 from Ayman Al Zawahiri, his number two. So we've had the Azzam statement that John mentioned, bin Laden himself, Ayman Al Zawahiri, all these guys producing these videotapes which suggest some kind of leisure and certainly a feeling of security, that they were able to do it.

After all, the last time we had an on-camera videotape statement from bin Laden was back on December 26th, 2001. In that statement, he looked dreadful. I mean, the guy was 45 at the time. He looked like he was in his mid-70s. His whole left side was immobilized, probably a shoulder wound he sustained at the battle of Tora Bora. He's obviously recovered from that. He clearly is not suffering from some kind of life-threatening kidney disease as has been widely reported, judging on the present video. So unfortunately he seems to be in rather good shape.

BLITZER: John, the timing of this videotape, only four days or so approximately before the U.S. presidential election. What do you make of that?

MILLER: Well, there are no accidents in timing when it comes to communications by al Qaeda. The fact that the Azzam the American tape was released in Waziristan, Pakistan to a known ABC News operative there showed a deliberate attempt on al Qaeda's part in that case to get this immediately to an American audience, through an American broadcasting source.

In the case of using the usual channel with bin Laden, which was from al Qaeda's production company straight to Al Jazeera, which then goes through CNN and to the world, shows that they wanted to do some pre-election communication here.

The message is interesting, Wolf. What he says is, Bush is not the source of your problems, Kerry is not the answer to your problems. So he may go neutral in the election process.

The underlying message, if there's a hidden message in this tape, is that America's outlook from bin Laden's view as a colonialist power, its support of Israel, that those are the underlying problems that replacing politicians will not solve. And I think that's what he's trying to say to the American people.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to ask John Miller and Peter Bergen to stand by. We're going to take a quick break. More on the Osama bin Laden videotape message when we come back.

BLITZER: Welcome back. We're talking about that Osama bin Laden videotape, his reemergence, what it means, with two guests: Los Angeles Police Department counterrorism bureau chief John Miller and CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen.

Let's play another clip from that Osama bin Laden videotape, going back to what he now says was the origin of his idea to go after the United States.


OSAMA BIN LADEN (through translator): The events that directly and personally affected me go back to 1982, what happened when America gave permission for Israel to invade Lebanon, and assistance was given by the American Sixth Fleet.


BLITZER: Peter, have you heard this argument from Osama bin Laden before?

BERGEN: No, and I think it's sort of rubbish, to be honest. I mean, bin Laden was 25 back in 1982. The notion that somehow he started thinking about a 9/11 attack back in '82 is just total rubbish. And if you look at the 9/11 Commission, it's clear that the idea really kind of started percolating in al Qaeda in '96 and only got a go-ahead from bin Laden in '99.

So, no doubt that he's been anti-American for a long time, but I don't think there's any connection between Israel's invasion in 1982 and what happened on 9/11. I just think that's bogus.

BLITZER: You mentioned that other videotape, John, videotape of a person called Azzam the American, supposedly an American al Qaeda operative. We'll show a little bit of that videotape to our viewers.

You think there was a connection to what this person said and to what Osama bin Laden said in the other videotape?

MILLER: I have no doubt, Wolf. I would look at this tape, and I would say bin Laden is being portrayed by us largely as a guy who is on the run, who is hunkered down, who has lost his power, so he portrays himself in this, "I'm in control, I'm at the desk here, I look good, and I'm still running the empire." He raises himself up to the level of a statesman with this, for bin Laden at least, very measured talk, while he discusses the murder of thousands of New Yorkers and people in Washington.

On the other hand, al Qaeda still gets out their tough talk by using this guy, which is a classic example of psy-op, psychological warfare. He's an American like Tokyo Rose, speaking in English, as an American to America, saying the streets will run with blood.

So the idea of engineering this split message from Azzam the American threatening us and bin Laden as the statesman saying, "If you could only come to your senses, nothing terrible would happen," is nothing short of masterful propaganda on the part of al Qaeda.

BLITZER: Peter, the Knight-Ritter newspapers today reporting they've gone back and taken a look at the question, did the U.S. let Osama bin Laden slip through Tora Bora? Who's right on that sensitive political debate under way between the Kerry and Bush people right now?

I know you've done a lot of reviewing and researching into what happened at Tora Bora. Where do you come down on this?

BERGEN: There are a lot of things we can't know for 100 percent for sure, but the idea that bin Laden was wasn't at Tora Bora I think is not supported by the facts.

CNN and many other organizations reported at the time that there were radio transmissions indicating he was there. There are eyewitness accounts of him being there. Bin Laden himself released an audiotape last year talking about his experiences at the battle of Tora Bora, as indeed did Ayman al Zawahiri talk about his experiences at the battle of Tora Bora in his autobiography which was released back in early 2002.

So the preponderance of the evidence indicates, A, that bin Laden was at the battle of Tora Bora, and, secondly, the notion that we outsourced it to the Afghan warlords in the area is absolutely the case. There were more American journalists, by my counting, at the battle of Tora Bora than American soldiers, a fact which kind of speaks for itself.

We were the victims of our own success, in a sense, relying entirely with U.S. Special Forces and Afghans on the ground. That was a brilliant strategy for overthrowing the Taliban, but it failed us at the battle of Tora Bora. And there was an implicit recognition of this fact in the subsequent Operation Anaconda. There were a thousand American soldiers on the ground.

So certainly people at the top levels of the Pentagon understood that Tora Bora was not the model to follow, in terms of actually finding the top leaders of al Qaeda and surrounding them in the mountains of Afghanistan.

BLITZER: Peter Bergen, we'll have to leave it right there.

John Miller, thanks to you, as well.