Time to Call a Cop

Editorial

Los Angeles Times

October 30, 2004

Every presidential election brings expectations of an October surprise. A truly wacky one landed Friday: A long videotaped ramble by Osama bin Laden, directed at the American people.

It hardly matters what Bin Laden said or intended. Anything that heightens the perceived threat to national security would tend to squelch voters' doubts and push them toward President Bush. Yet on the logic side of the equation, the tape is also evidence that the man Bush vowed to capture "dead or alive" is still able to professionally communicate his message.

The U.S. failure to capture Bin Laden has been a strong point for Sen. John F. Kerry, one that Bush has tried to undercut by scoffing at Kerry's "law enforcement" approach to fighting terrorism. Speaking at a rally in Saginaw, Mich., on Thursday, Bush said: "He says his goal is to go back to the days of the 1990s, when terrorism was seen as a nuisance fought with subpoenas and cruise missiles." But the longer the U.S. is mired in Iraq, the clearer it becomes that the law enforcement approach Bush ridicules is an essential part of the battle against terrorists and Bin Laden himself.

The latest U.S. intelligence, according to a New York Times report, indicates that the insurgents infiltrating Iraq are able to draw on almost limitless funds, partly from Saddam Hussein's transfers of cash to Syria and from wealthy Saudi families. Al Qaeda and its spinoffs use a global fundraising network consisting of charities, mosques, websites and banks to finance its activities.

But the Bush credo is that a law enforcement approach, of hunting down and convicting individual terrorists in cooperation with other countries, is largely feckless. Whether it was the bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole or the Khobar Towers foreign enclave in Saudi Arabia, the argument goes, the U.S. failed to go to the source — to attack the countries that harbored terrorists. After 9/11, Bush correctly attacked Afghanistan's Taliban, which really was harboring Al Qaeda. But Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney had to torture the analogy to create connections between Hussein and Al Qaeda.

Kerry does not dispute the importance of military action and has in fact criticized Bush for failing to apply enough of it to catch Bin Laden when he was fleeing Afghanistan. But Kerry also stresses from experience that law enforcement, including following the money trail of drug dealers and crooked banks, is a vital part of stopping terrorism.

One simple, positive step would be to designate a single senior official to coordinate diplomatic, law enforcement and intelligence efforts to disrupt terrorist financial networks. As a Council on Foreign Relations report notes, such an official could help lead international efforts, including under the auspices of the Group of 7 industrialized nations, to target terrorist funds.

The continuing hunt for Bin Laden now needs accountants as well as infantry.