Bush's Death Wish

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, December 9, 2008; 1:10 PM

There is a sometimes weirdly symbiotic relationship between President Bush and the terrorist masterminds who inspired his war on terror.

Yesterday, for instance, Bush and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed -- the self-proclaimed ringleader of the Sept. 11 attacks -- found themselves more or less on the same side, as Mohammed tried to plead guilty before a military tribunal at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. The torturer and the tortured share an eagerness to bring the current legal proceedings to a quick end before President-elect Obama, who has promised to abolish the military-commission process and close Guantanamo, takes over.

Bush is hoping for at least one "win" for his hugely controversial Guantanamo experiment, which has repeatedly run afoul of the courts. He wants Mohammed to die to show the system worked. And Mohammed, who the CIA admits was subjected to waterboarding, wants martyrdom. He wants to die to show the system is a mockery. It's kismet.

It's also more than a little reminiscent of Bush's odd pas de deux with al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Although Bush famously called for bin Laden to be captured "dead or alive," Bush's policies have served as bin Laden's greatest possible recruiting tool and his defense of those policies has made him one of al-Qaeda's best publicists.

And without the war on terror, where would Bush be? It became the centerpiece of his presidency, and although it's hard to see how this served him well in the end, one shouldn't forget how much he gained in public stature after the attacks, and how he took advantage of his "wartime presidency" to expand his powers, get re-elected and run rougshod over a supine Congress.

The Coverage

Peter Finn writes in The Washington Post: "Five of the men accused of planning the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks said Monday that they wanted to plead guilty to murder and war crimes but withdrew the offer when a military judge raised questions about whether it would prevent them from fulfilling their desire to receive the death penalty."

What's it all about? The Post's Joby Warrick explains: "The White House and the terrorism suspect both appeared intent on bringing about a conclusion to his case before the current president leaves office. . . .

"[B]y essentially asking for death, Mohammed publicly thumbed his nose at the U.S. legal process and showed once again his talent for grabbing media attention, analysts said. At the same time, the White House and U.S. intelligence agencies seized on the prospect of his confession to claim vindication for their policies in the fight against terrorism, including the controversial tactics they used in capturing and detaining Mohammed and other al-Qaeda leaders. . . .

"Mohammed may also have perceived his chances for glorious martyrdom slipping away. . . . An execution would be a propaganda boon for al-Qaeda and would be 'infinitely preferable to spending a life in prison,' [Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and professor at Georgetown University,] said.

"Even prison itself -- which, under Bush, carried at least the prospect of being seen as a 'living martyr' for al-Qaeda -- would lose some of its status under an Obama administration, which would probably transfer inmates from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to ordinary prisons in the United States, Hoffman said."

Meanwhile, Warrick reports that "both the White House and U.S. intelligence agencies saw vindication in the readiness of Mohammed and his four co-defendants to confess to the Sept. 11 attacks. . . .

"The CIA, which whisked Mohammed away to a secret prison after his arrest in Pakistan in 2003, drew international criticism for its use of coercive interrogation techniques -- including waterboarding -- on the al-Qaeda leader. But Mohammed's offer to plead guilty to the deadliest terrorist attacks in U.S. history allows the agency to argue that its methods were warranted. . . .

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