Week in Review: Bin Laden; CIA Prisons; Torture Manual

Highlights in the week's news include President Bush's repeated references to Osama bin Laden in speeches leading to the Sept. 11 anniversary; acknowledgement of secret CIA prisons; a manual forbidding torture techniques used at Abu Ghraib prison.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Osama bin Laden has called the 9/11 attacks, in his words, a great step towards the unity of Muslims and establishing the righteous caliphate. This caliphate would be a totalitarian Islamic Empire encompassing all current and former Muslim lands, stretching from Europe to North Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

WERTHEIMER: President Bush speaking at the White House on Tuesday. The President has delivered four speeches this week on national security, and in just one of those speeches he mentioned Osama bin Laden 17 times.

NPR senior news analyst Daniel Schorr joins us.

Hello, Dan.

DANIEL SCHORR: Hi, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: So Dan, the President's speech on Tuesday kept circling back to Osama bin Laden.

SCHORR: Yes.

WERTHEIMER: He said that bin Laden has plans to create an empire based in Iraq. He compared bin Laden to Lenin and to Hitler. What do you think was the overall impression left by all those speeches?

SCHORR: Well, the overall impression left on me, at least - I won't speak for others - is that the President would like to get credit now for going back to fighting the war against terror. Notice that he didn't talk very much about magnificent progress in Iraq, because that would be considered a little ironic. As you pointed out, there were 17 references in one speech to Osama bin Laden. Interesting also is that he wants to proceed with his program and so he's opening up a little bit about what he hasn't told us all this time, about hush-hush prison programs and surveillance. And now he goes to Congress to get what he needs.

WERTHEIMER: The President confirmed, as you were saying, the existence of a secret CIA prison system, some nine months after The Washington Post reported that they existed and the Bush administration denied it. Mr. Bush said that 14 high-value detainees were transferred from these secret prisons to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. He didn't say the secret prisons would be closed, however.

SCHORR: No.

WERTHEIMER: Why do you suppose he decided to reveal this information now?

SCHORR: Well, because some of it has leaked. And because he wants to have it legitimized, as the Supreme Court said he should do, by getting action by Congress, which would let him do legally what until now the Supreme Court has said he did somewhat unconstitutionally. And so if he's - to get what he wants and have the Supreme Court approve it, he has to go to the public.

WERTHEIMER: Dan, the Pentagon this week issued a new Army Field Manual outlining new rules for interrogations. Water-boarding, hooding prisoners, intimidating prisoners with dogs, all those things are now forbidden. The Pentagon also issued a policy directive that said detainees must be treated according to the standards of the Geneva Conventions. Why is the Army issuing these new rules now, and isn't it there a conflict between the president and the Army on this stuff?

SCHORR: Well, he's trying to minimize - there is a little bit of a conflict, but he is trying to minimize it. I think that he has accepted the general thesis that we have to treat enemy combatants as we would hope that they would treat American soldiers. That has come through loud and clear for what America wants to see. And therefore he's willing to make gestures in that direction.

WERTHEIMER: In his speeches this week, Dan, the president asked Congress to pass legislation that would give explicit approval for his warrantless wiretapping program. He also asked for Congress to approve new rules for military tribunals for terror suspects. What's the politics here? If the Democrats vote against these measures, are they going to come out on the wrong side of the national security issue? What do you think the politics is?

SCHORR: Well, his problem isn't only Democrats. Part of his problem is with some of the Republicans in Congress. You've had Senator Specter, Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and John McCain, Lindsey Graham, all objecting to one thing or another in the president's program. So that he's going to have a great deal of difficulty laying it on the Democrats, when members of his own party have also their reservations. He has to negotiate with Congress and he has to negotiate in the first place with his own party in Congress.

WERTHEIMER: Now, national security themes worked well for Republicans in the 2002 and 2004 election. That was before, of course, the Iraq war became so unpopular with the American people. Will the unpopularity of the war sidetrack his message, do you think?

SCHORR: Well, I think a lot depends on what happens in the war between now and Election Day. If there's some unforeseen change in the fortunes of that war, that would probably be very helpful. But if it's about as it is now, or maybe even somewhat worse, then Iraq becomes kind of a loadstone around the neck of any candidate who doesn't move away from the president. So we're in now for a period in which a president can cross his fingers, and so can a lot of Republican candidates.

WERTHEIMER: Now, another thing that happened, which could not have been good for the president, something that I'm sure he very much regrets. British Prime Minister Tony Blair...

SCHORR: Yes.

WERTHEIMER: ...who has been the president's staunchest ally in the Iraq war, Blair announced this week that he will be resigning his post as prime minister within the year. Many people are blaming his policies in the Middle East, his support for the Iraq war on, on this sort of unpopularity that is dragging him down, forcing him out.

SCHORR: Well, yes, of course. Tony Blair hitched his wagon to President Bush's star and they crashed together. This was somebody that been called in Britain Bush's poodle, and he's had to accept that. And now they think it's time for him to retire and get somebody else. It's a most amazing thing of how a very popular Labour Party candidate hitched himself to a conservative Republican and it did a lot for President Bush, did not do very much for Tony Blair.

WERHEIMER: And then something else that happened in Washington this week, which was quite a sort of a surprising thing. The former President of Iran, Mohammed Khatami, visited Washington. Khatami has a reputation as a moderate. He called for dialogue between the U.S. and Iran. But does he speak for anybody?

SCHORR: Oh, typical good cop/bad cop. He speaks in his own way for the government of President Ahmadinejad, who is a great radical, but apparently also willing to negotiate. And so you get Khatami comes here and in our National Cathedral says that all religions should work together and the United States and Iran should speak. But he doesn't say that in order to achieve that, that they will suspend their nuclear program. So it's very simple. He comes here and says, sure we want to talk, on our terms.

WERTHEIMER: Which is what President Ahmadinejad has been saying.

SCHORR: Which is - exactly. Good cop/bad cop.

WERTHEIMER: Dan, we've been hearing a lot about 9/11 on our program and other programs. ABC is presenting a sort of miniseries about the root of the 9/11 attacks, sort of the back-story. Former President Clinton is disputing their facts. He disagrees with the depiction of events that happened on his watch. What do you think?

SCHORR: Well, you know, you do this docudrama style. You take basic information and transform it for television and it comes out somewhat different. ABC says this is not meant to be factual. This is meant to be fiction. There is one incident in this thing in which Sandy Berger, who's President Clinton's security adviser, is shown speaking to a CIA agent who has Osama bin Laden in his sights and misses the chance to get Osama bin Laden.

Well, clearly the people in the Clinton administration don't care for this very much. This is not only a question of whether they can get angry about it, whether there's talk about the possibility of a defamation suit.

And it's interesting that the Clinton people have not gone to ABC; they've gone to Disney, which owns ABC. So I don't think we've seen the end of this one yet.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much, Dan.

SCHORR: Sure, Linda.

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