Bush on Terror Plots: More Numbers that Don't Add Up

In his never-ending attempt to link Iraq and 9/11, the president made the claim this week that America had no choice but to remain in Iraq, lest Al Qaeda be able to use it as a terrorist base. Gee, I've lost track, what is this now... White House Excuse for War #178? And pardon me for asking, but didn't Al Qaeda set up shop in Iraq only after we invaded? Just checking.

I've said before that when it comes to understanding how the war in Iraq is going, it's all about the numbers. After parsing Bush's big foreign policy address on Thursday, it's clear the same can be said for the war on terror. So get out your al-Qaeda workbooks and let's do the math...

Looking to bring back the Fear Factor that worked so well in the 2004 campaign, the president boldly declared that the U.S. and its partners "have disrupted at least ten serious al-Qaida plots since September 11 -- including three al-Qaida plots to attack inside the United States. We have stopped at least five more al-Qaida efforts to case targets in the United States or infiltrate operatives into our country." Holy Moly -- that sounds impressive... and effective... and scary.

That is, until the details of exactly which "serious" plots the president was referring to came out. Hours after the speech, the White House released a helpful worksheet... and the experts started scratching their heads. Check out this L.A. Times article and see if you can't hear the law enforcement officials quoted offering up a collective "Huh?"

For instance, one of the three U.S.-targeted plots cited by the president involved plans to use hijacked airplanes to attack targets on the West Coast in 2002 -- plans hatched by 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. This was part of the so-called second wave of suicide attacks disclosed by the 9/11 commission, attacks that never materialized because Mohammed became "too busy" to see them through. The 9/11 commission reported that the hijacking plot never got beyond the theoretical stages. Which raises the philosophical question: If a plot never moves beyond the spitballing stage, is it even possible to foil it? And does a terrorist abandoning his plans because he has too much on his plate qualify as America having "disrupted" him?

The L.A. Times quotes a federal counter-terrorism official as saying of the hijacking plots: "I don't think we ever resolved these... [they] were on the boards, but they never got anywhere." Yet the White House listed them as the top two "serious" plots that had been thwarted. And it went downhill from there.

Top plot number 3 cited by the White House was the case of reputed "dirty bomber" Jose Padilla. But the "senior federal law enforcement officials" interviewed by the L.A. Times said "they hadn't found any evidence... that the plot had developed into any kind of operational plan." As for the remaining "serious plots," here is the New York Times' assessment: "It was not immediately clear whether other items on the list represented significant threats."

In other words, it was a Top 10 list more suited to Letterman than a major presidential speech.

Well, what about those 5 instances of "casings and infiltrations"? Unfortunately, these were even less detailed than the 10 plots, including one "in which an unnamed person was said to be given the task of collecting information on unspecified tourist targets." We are, of course, glad those were stopped. But they are hardly compelling evidence as to why we need to stay the course in Iraq. If this is the best the White House has, then I'm really scared.

When asked why the White House would include so many alleged, vague, and seemingly half-baked schemes in a triumphant list of thwarted terrorist plots, yet another federal counter-terrorism official said: "Everyone is allowed to count in their own way."

Especially if they are President of the United States. And have an approval rating of 37%.