The big news in Osama bin Laden's message to American voters was not his intercession in our election; that clumsy ploy was not as successful as his pre-election panicking of Spain's voters.
Nor was the news his delight in the "pet goat" sequence in Michael Moore's Bush-bashing film, and his admonition that "Bush is still deceiving you and hiding the truth from you," echoing the central Kerry theme. Nor was it the frustrating fact that our Global Enemy No. 1 is alive and well and still at large.
The unremarked news is that this mass murderer evidently seeks a kind of truce. Although some coverage of his pre-election message noted an unexpected "conciliatory tone," we have not fixed on the reason for this change in his attitude.
"Each state that does not harm our security will remain safe," bin Laden promised, which was "why we did not attack Sweden, for example." His unmistakable import: if the U.S. were to stop our war on Qaeda terror, which has killed or captured an estimated 75 percent of his closest collaborators, that would be what he called "the ideal way to avoid another Manhattan ..." Stop warring on terror and you will "remain safe."
Generals do not call for a truce when they're winning. Only warriors thrust on the defensive become conciliatory, hoping that negotiations will give them time to regroup and resupply. Bin Laden's vain hope seems to be that the defeat of Bush will give him time to buy or steal a horrific weapon as an "equalizer."
Bin Laden was the second outsider to try to influence our election in an "October surprise." I suspect the first was Mohamed ElBaradei, the chief U.N. arms inspector, said to be miffed at the Bush administration's refusal to support his bid for an unprecedented third term.
He has long known about the presence of "nuclear trigger" explosives (evidence of Saddam's nuclear ambitions?) in one of Iraq's thousands of ammo dumps. But, The Wall Street Journal reports that with exquisite political timing, on Oct. 1 ElBaradei sent a "reminder" to a Baathist science minister renewing the U.N. interest in these particular explosives. That produced a dutiful letter from the Iraqi bureaucrat to the U.N. nine days later that was promptly leaked to CBS News, which apparently turned to the more credible New York Times to do most of the reporting.
CBS originally admitted intending to break its surprise accusations about our troops' failure to secure the ammo on "60 Minutes" on Oct. 31, last night, only 36 hours before polls opened. Journalists call that hyping device a "keeper" - holding a story for the moment when it causes the most damage - which the victim cannot refute until after Election Day, by which time it's too late. (Now CBS claims that the network would never have done such a nefarious thing. Maybe, maybe not; that plan should be part of the investigation by CBS's panel looking into forged National Guard documents.)
The Times, to its ethical credit, refused to go along with CBS's planned last-minute ambush and instead front-paged its article one week ago. (Besides, competition was surfacing on the Internet.) That time enabled other network news organizations to cast doubt on the story. In addition, making our forces in the field look bad did not sit well, and the Pentagon was able to show that the 400 tons possibly missed by our advancing troops was one one-thousandth of the 400,000 tons found, secured or destroyed by the coalition.
What effect will these two manipulations by outsiders have on America's election decision tomorrow?
Until it was partly discredited, the product of ElBaradei's shrewd "reminder" damaged Bush by putting him on the defensive, giving Democrats a final-week boost. If Kerry wins, the Egyptian should be chief U.N. inspector for life.
But then came the Qaeda tape, followed by Bush's cool, nonpolitical response, and then by Kerry's blunder in trying to capitalize on it. Bin Laden's latest misreading of American public opinion plays to Bush's antiterrorist strength.
For now, bin Laden's unwelcome intercession is taken to be anti-Bush overkill. Coming from the fugitive terrorist, it will help ensure the president's re-election. Later, we will understand bin Laden's phony attempt at conciliation to be his first sign of weakness.