Bin Laden Tape Ripples Through Washington

The first confirmed tape of al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden in three months surfaced over the weekend. Renee Montagne speaks with Cokie Roberts about the political implications of the new tape. They also discuss President Bush's trip to California.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

If the Moussaoui trial is a constant reminder of the events of September 11th, so too is the failure to capture the mastermind of those attacks, Osama bin Laden. A new audio tape of the al-Qaida leader surfaced yesterday, in which he accuses the U.S. and Europe of waging war against Islam.

Joining me now for some analysis is NPR's Cokie Roberts. Good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS reporting:

Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And Cokie, what does it mean that this tape is coming out now? It's been several months since we heard from Osama bin Laden.

ROBERTS: In fact, three months, and of course no one can read his mind. The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, ventured an opinion yesterday on CNN, saying, and I'm quoting here, "He wants to be relevant to the situation, wants to get attention that he's still a player."

And bin Laden did mention some recent events in this tape. He talked about the West cutoff of aid to the Hamas government in the Palestinian territories, saying, quote, "This proves a Zionist crusader's war on Islam," all the hot-button words. He talked about Western forces in Sudan where the peacekeeping forces are going to protect the Darfur region, and called on his followers to go there to wage war. And then he talked about the Danish cartoons. And he seems to be justifying attacks on civilians, calling for a boycott of American goods.

Now, some terrorism experts are saying that it's significant that this is an audio tape, not a video tape, that Bin Laden doesn't seem to be able to show himself. But I think that's cold comfort if he succeeds in stirring up his followers, Renee.

MONTAGNE: In the past, when a new Bin Laden tape has been broadcast, we've seen support increase for President Bush, at least temporarily. Do you think that's likely to happen this time around?

ROBERTS: I think it's more likely to be a reminder that Bin Laden has not yet been caught and that is really the theme that the Democrats are hammering home. This tape came out before the Sunday talk shows yesterday, and Senator Kennedy and Senator Kerry, the two Massachusetts senators, on different networks certainly made that point, that the Bush administration had taken their eye off the ball, these senators said, the ball of al-Qaida, when then went into Iraq.

And with the public unhappiness about the war in Iraq, Renee, and the President's advantage on national security and terrorism having really disappeared in the public opinion polls, I think that it's very unlikely that Osama Bin Laden can be a boost to the Bush administration this time around.

MONTAGNE: Well, turning now to other political challenges facing the President, Mr. Bush today makes another appearance here in California. He seems to be concentrating more on this state than ever before. What's that all about?

ROBERTS: Well, as you well know, it's about politics. And he met with the Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is in a tough reelection campaign this November. Those two politicians have had a somewhat uneasy relationship, but they seemed to have a cordial meeting this time around. And President Bush also called on President Ford, who had come out in support of Donald Rumsfeld, the embattled Secretary of Defense.

I think that President Bush is paying some attention to California because it's obviously the biggest state, the state where he has a lot at stake to try to get the Republicans back in some kind of position there which they have not been for many, many years.

MONTAGNE: Members of Congress returned to Washington this week and they'll be dealing with some new faces at the White House. How are the changes there likely to affect the President's legislative agenda?

ROBERTS: Well, Republicans up for reelection are hopeful that it will have an enormous change, and at least in terms of personalities, it might. Joshua Bolten is well-liked on Capitol Hill. Rob Portman, the new head of budget, which is always a dicey relationship, the head of the budget bureau and the Congress, he's a former member of Congress, also very well-liked.

To the degree that they can soothe members of Congress, listen to members of Congress, effect compromises and get something done, that will be helpful for Republicans going into the next election. That is a very, very tall order. You have Democrats who have no desire to see Republican successes going into this election, and a lot of fractures inside the Republican Party that personalities will have a hard time healing.

MONTAGNE: Cokie, thanks very much. That's NPR news analyst Cokie Roberts.

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