The Catch on Smoking Guns: How the Bin Laden Tape Could Make Future Cases in the War on Terror Harder to Close

By Alter, Jonathan | Newsweek, December 24, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Catch on Smoking Guns: How the Bin Laden Tape Could Make Future Cases in the War on Terror Harder to Close


Alter, Jonathan, Newsweek


Byline: Jonathan Alter

Call in the FBI and [say] 'Don't go any further into this case, period!' " That was a portion of the June 23, 1972, audio recording that became the original "smoking gun" tape, proving that President Nixon had ordered the Watergate cover-up. When it was finally released in August of 1974, the last remnants of Nixon's GOP support collapsed and he was forced to resign.

The sins of Richard Nixon and Osama bin Laden are in different moral universes. But the two men do share the dubious distinction of being caught red-handed on tape, with no real room for argument except among the brainwashed. And both cases suggest that smoking guns can have unintended consequences, especially when they raise expectations down the road. For the Bush administration's propaganda campaign in the war against terror, it could be all downhill from here.

In the short run, at least, the airing of the tape is clearly good for the good guys. For all of the exertions of Tony Blair and American authorities, evidence of bin Laden's prior knowledge of September 11 had been circumstantial until the tape. The very fact that so many Arabs believe the video was doctored suggests they know that the sick merriment of bin Laden and his toadies helps the American cause. (My favorite absurdity is that it's actually spliced video from the wedding of bin Laden's son.) If nothing else, the leader has been demystified, stripped of some of his romantic revolutionary allure, his Che street cred.

But soon enough, the problem will be less bin Laden than bin Laden wanna-bes, spread across 60 countries. The chances of any of them being caught on a smoking-gun tape are now small, though you can never underestimate a villain's egotistical desire to dance in the end zone. At least for a while, they'll be camera-shy; videotaping of anything but carefully planned propaganda efforts will be about as welcome in Al Qaeda hideouts as the Star of David. When we swoop down to arrest or assassinate suspected terrorists, much of the Arab world (if not the international community at large) may say: "How do you know they're terrorists? Where's the incriminating video?"

In other words, today's smoking gun could blow a hole in tomorrow's quest for justice. After that Nixon tape, Charles Peters of The Washington Monthly predicted that it would be much harder to make charges of malfeasance against future presidents stick. He was right. The bar was raised. Despite plenty of evidence suggesting that higher-ups in the Reagan administration lied about the Iran-contra affair, investigators lacked a smoking gun. They couldn't find it again during a probe of the 1996 Clinton campaign's funding (though they did find a smoking blue dress). Each time the standard of proof is raised, it makes it harder to win the next round in the court of public opinion. …

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