One dark morning a few weeks ago I stepped into a cab. The cab driver, keenly following the news of the aftermath of September 11th, had been listening to radio reports all night. But he tore his attention away from the tragedy, and we began to chat idly.
As used car and donut signs whizzed by, the sonorous voice of the radio news announcer broke in on our conversation. That day's lead story was the Taliban's reply to Washington's ultimatum to hand over Osama bin Laden. We both pricked up our ears as the news announcer began.
"The Taliban has agreed to hand over Osama bin Laden," the announcer said, "but is asking Washington to show clear evidence of bin Laden's involvement in the September 11th attacks."
Eminently reasonable, I thought. If there's evidence pointing to bin Laden's complicity, he should be turned over, and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. There's plenty of evidence that he's been behind terrorist attacks elsewhere - in Kosovo, in Macedonia, in Bosnia, in Chechnya, and in Dagestan, in those instances, with the full knowledge of Washington.
For example, on May 4th, 1999, The Washington Post reported that in 1998 "State Department officials labeled the KLA a terrorist organization, saying it bankrolled its operations with proceeds from the heroin trade and from loans from known terrorists like bin Laden...The officials charged that the KLA used terrorist tactics to assault Serbian and ethnic Albanian civilians in a campaign to ruthlessly induce Western media sympathy and achieve independence."
On June 22, 2001 The Washington Times reported that a bin Laden representative "is the main financial supporter of the National Liberation Army," the NLA, which has terrorized Macedonia.
In November, 1998 The Sunday Times reported that bin Laden operated a terrorist network out of Albania.
On September 24, 1999 Agence France Presse reported that bin Laden was granted as Bosnian passport in 1993. The report pointed out that "Islamic fighters battled alongside Muslim soldiers in central Bosnia against Bosnian Serbs."
Of course, bin Laden's connection to terror attacks elsewhere doesn't mean he plotted the September 11th attacks, but if there's credible evidence he did, he should be held to account for those attacks, and for his involvement in other terror operations too, including those in the Balkans and central Asia. Indeed, bin Laden's support for terrorism in the Balkans should have been stopped long ago. Instead, Washington let bin Laden's terrorism go unchecked, even siding with him against the victims.
But as I soon discovered, my view wasn't shared - not by the cab driver, not by the news announcer, and certainly not by Washington.
"Evidence! What evidence do you need?" the driver sputtered in exasperation. "The evidence is staring you in the face."
Others, including Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz would later make the same claim. Bin Laden's culpability is so plain that asking for evidence is like asking for evidence that Michael Jackson has had re-constructive surgery.
But as the days rolled by, the initial acceptance that Washington didn't need to produce evidence started to fray at the edges, and some reporters and some current and could-be US allies began to ask questions. Are you going to show us the evidence that bin Laden's involved? "Sure," said Secretary of State Colin Powel. "Soon." But that promise, was, a few days later, followed by a retraction. Powel couldn't present the evidence, he explained. Security concerns. Disclosing the evidence would compromise intelligence sources.
Allies flocked to Powel's rescue. "We don't need evidence," they said. "We're convinced it was bin Laden." Of course, anyone who made the equally lame statement, "I'm convinced it's not Osama bin Laden, and I don't need any evidence," would be hooted down with well-deserved derision. So why not leaders like Canada's Jean Chretien, or NATO chief Lord Robertson?
Perhaps recognizing that Chretien's and Robertson's idiocy was doing more harm than good, Tony Blair, Britain's Prime Minister, and Washington's junior partner, declared that he had seen the evidence, and it was powerful and incontrovertible.
Yesterday, Blair disclosed the evidence to the public, laying out "in 70 damning points...the complete evidence (showing) the direct complicity of Osama bin Laden in the terrorist attacks of September 11th."
Someone should tell Blair that restating allegations is not the same as presenting evidence.
Blair's 70-point brief, if you take the time to sift through it, is nothing more than a rehash of old newspaper stories, innuendo, leaps of logic, and a restatement of the charges, with a significant part of bin Laden's history and connection to "international terrorism" left out.
Sixty of Blair's seventy-points have nothing whatever to do with the September 11th attacks, but offer an incomplete history of bin Laden , his movements, and Al-Qaeda. There's nothing on the Saudi millionaire's connections to terror campaigns in the Balkans or Chechnya or Dagestan.
The greatest detail is provided in describing the 1993 attacks on US military personnel in Somalia and the 1998 attacks on the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam , as if establishing bin Laden's connection to those attacks, proves he was behind the New York and Washington attacks.
And then Blair offers something significant: "Mr. bin Laden has claimed responsibility for the attack on US soldiers in Somalia....; for the attack on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August of 1998." But he hasn't claimed responsibility for the September 11th attacks. Quite the opposite - he denies responsibility. That's something Blair doesn't wonder about.
You could see a particularly dim prosecutor making the same kind of case against a bank robber, and being excoriated by the judge for wasting the Court's time. "Well, Butch here, robbed a bank in L.A. in 1993, and another in Phoenix in 1995. He's admitted to both robberies. And while he denies he robbed the bank in Sydney, Australia two weeks ago, it must be him because he robbed those two other banks here in the US. "
Is Blair's case any different?
After plowing through 60 points of background we finally get to the meat of the document, or what's supposed to be a thick, succulent slab of evidence, but turns out to be a disappointing piece of warmed over shoe leather.
Points 61 through 69 deal with the September 11th attacks. They're mostly a rehash of what anyone who reads a daily newspaper will already have read - 19 men are identified as the hijackers of which three are linked to al-Qaeda, etc.. Sensing perhaps that by this point anyone who's taken the time to read the brief will be throwing their hands up in exasperation, crying, "You haven't told me anything new," Blair introduces this bombshell: "There is evidence of a very specific nature relating to the guilt of Mr. bin Laden and his associates that is too sensitive to release."
What? I've gone this far, plowing through a document that purports to present incontrovertible evidence, but has presented none, only to be told at point 62 of 70 that, "We have evidence, but we can't tell you what it is"?
But Blair's not done. There are seven more points to go. Having established that bin Laden is connected with previous terror attacks against US targets, in Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania, Blair says in point 65, "The attacks of September 11 are consistent with the scale and sophistication of the previous attacks."
Huh? Has he been briefed on what happened that terrible day?
The attacks of September 11th were on a much bigger scale and involved infinitely more sophistication and coordination and cunning and daring than car bombings. Comparing previous attacks to the September 11th attacks is like comparing the sniffles to viral pneumonia.
And isn't there an astonishing leap of logic here? Evidence of Bin Laden being involved in previous attacks, does not constitute evidence that he was involved in the September 11th attacks, especially given the previous attacks were nothing like the September 11th attacks. Blair's simply saying, "Bin Laden's a bad guy. Therefore, he must be involved. He's done this kind of thing before," not much different from the dim prosecutor who points to an accused's previous crimes as evidence of culpability for some current crime. I don't know about you, but in my books - and in a court of law -- that hardly counts as overwhelming, incontrovertible evidence.
Blair's argument about September 11th having the marks of a bin Laden operation is made in point 64: "The modus operandi of September 11th was entirely consistent with previous attacks."
No it wasn't. For one, Blair says bin Laden claimed responsibility for the Somalia, Tanzania and Kenya attacks. But the Saudi millionaire has denied responsibility for the New York and Washington attacks. That hardly seems consistent. And the previous attacks were attacks on American targets in foreign countries. This was an attack on US soil. That, too, is inconsistent. Moreover, most attacks bin Laden has some connection to, have been directed at Serbs, Macedonians and Russians, not Americans, a point Blair is silent on.
What's more, no one would deny that the September 11th attacks were unique. Nothing like the operation has ever been done before. So how can it be said to be like previous bin Laden operations? This wasn't like any operation anywhere.
Wrapping up, Blair declares in point 69 that "no other organization has the motivation and the capability to carry out attacks like those of September 11," but what evidence does he offer? None, which, it seems, is only to be expected from Blair. I can think of plenty of organizations that have the resources to pull something off like September 11th , none of them a rag-tag band of people living in tents in an enormously poor and backward country, that has never mounted an operation of this scale and sophistication before.
So, weeks after I first heard the news report that the Taliban had demanded evidence of bin Laden's involvement in the September 11th attacks, we're no further ahead. Nothing has changed, except that Washington and its junior partner in London are a little farther along in their plans to launch a major military operation, directed ostensibly at a man and organization they can't, or won't, provide evidence of being involved in the September 11th attacks. Meanwhile, Washington, and many of its allies, have taken a good many steps toward crafting legislation to limit civil liberties, and towards shoveling billions more into the pockets of defense contractors. In Bush's case, there's been ground made on the tax cut front, with promises to cut taxes even more generously for the wealthy, as a means of "stimulating an economy weakened by the attacks," but it may be more accurate to say he's made a good start in making over the US to benefit the wealthy in a way he would never had been able to do in the absence of September 11th. And significantly, with the establishment of a substantial military presence in central Asia underway, Washington will soon crack the nut of securing access to the trillions of dollars of oil wealth locked beneath the Caspian Sea.
A lot has been accomplished in a few short weeks by those whose interests lie firmly in oil wealth, lower taxes, defense spending, and muzzling what was becoming a bothersome anti-globalization movement. But those weeks have come and gone, and despite promises that the proof was forthcoming, despite Paul Wolfowitz's claim that the evidence was plain to see, despite Blair's 70-point restatement of the allegations, we still have no more of a sound basis to believe that bin Laden was behind the attacks than we did that dark morning I stepped into the taxi cab to hear the Taliban agree to hand over bin Laden if Washington could present proof.
Proof? Who needs proof? Washington says, "Trust us. Trust Tony Blair. Have we ever lied?"
Mr. Steve Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.