Today, Vice President Dick Cheney said in an interview on Fox News that he’s not sure whether or not Osama bin Laden is alive: “I don’t know and I’m guessing he is. We’ve had certain pieces of evidence become available from time to time, there’ll be a photograph released or something that allows the intelligence community to judge that he is still alive.”
This is the deliberately careful language of an administration with too many premature declarations on its record. After George W. Bush’s almost pre-war “mission accomplished” and Cheney’s own unfortunate declaration that the Iraqi insurgency was in its “last throes,” nothing short of bin Laden’s identifiable corpse could spur the announcement of his death.
This is why the Vice President’s “I don’t know and I’m guessing . . .” carries considerable weight. It’s as far as he can risk going in a public statement, but there must be some reason behind his not simply saying, “yes.” If you’re not a member of a P.R.-traumatized administration, one compelling reason is easily identified, even without access to classified intelligence: since 2004, Osama bin Laden has not released a video in which he is seen discussing current events. Even the September 2007 “black beard” video, considered fresh evidence of his existence, freezes whenever the ranting turns to contemporary issues.
The most recent, and convincing, indication that Osama bin Laden is dead came when al Qaeda’s supposed number two, Ayman al Zawahiri released the group’s official message to President-elect Obama. If bin Laden were alive, he’d be isolated and operationally impotent, and his sole utility would exist in delivering just such a message. That it came instead from Zawahiri is monumental. And that Zawahiri has released a string of verifiable videos during the period of time in which bin Laden has not done so is deeply puzzling. How could al Qaeda’s number two have better equipment and a more reliable media channel than the world’s preeminent jihadist?
The Bush administration has been exceedingly inept at public relations. The President and Vice President’s habit of crowing prematurely is coupled by their inability to capitalize on, or even convey, positive developments in the war on terror. The issue of bin Laden’s death is one they will have to suck-up forever. And the American public is stuck reading between the lines indefinitely.
The parries and postures of the next administration are likely to provide little more than hints about the status of America’s number one enemy. If President Bush painted himself into a silent corner, Barack Obama has turned bin Laden’s capture into a political football. Even if justice has been served, (and I think it has), Americans, particularly the families of the victims of 9/11, will never have closure on the matter.