WASHINGTON – The Bush administration, which once urged American television networks to show restraint in airing messages from Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden, on Tuesday spread the word itself that another tape had surfaced.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, during testimony on Capitol Hill, said the apparent new bin Laden recording claiming solidarity with Iraqi Muslims was evidence of the administration's claims of ties between Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.
Powell delivered the news that the audiotape would be played on the Arab TV station al-Jazeera even before the news outlet said it had such a tape. "Be patient, it's coming," Powell responded.
And it did. About three hours after Powell's revelation before the Senate Budget Committee, al-Jazeera said it had received the tape, which it then broadcast.
U.S. counterterrorism officials said the audio message was probably a real recording of bin Laden, and that a technical analysis was planned to authenticate it. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was unclear when the recording was made but said it was probably recent, given all the attention the speaker gave to Iraq.
The White House was reluctant to repeat Powell's announcement of the tape's existence before its airing, repeatedly referencing Powell's statements when asked about it. But the administration nonetheless wasted no time portraying the tape as bolstering a key element of President Bush's argument that Saddam must be disarmed soon, before he hands weapons of mass destruction the United States says he has to terrorist networks like Al Qaeda.
"What the secretary has alluded to this morning gives further proof of the concerns that we have about Iraq and Al Qaeda linking up," Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, cited several statements made by the speaker as proof of a "burgeoning alliance of terror" between Saddam and bin Laden, despite a history of enmity between the two.
The speaker urged Iraqis to carry out suicide attacks against Americans and defend themselves against a U.S. attack. The speaker also urged Iraqis to dig trenches and engage in urban warfare to fend off U.S. troops. However, the speaker said nothing about direct ties between Al Qaeda and the Iraqi government -- saying his followers only share a common interest with Iraq. He denounced Saddam's secular, socialist al-Baath party as "infidels."
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher made himself available to al-Jazeera for an interview after the tape's broadcast, in which he said the recording showed the Iraqi president and the terrorist leader to be "bound by a common hatred."
Bush countered the tape's message for the world's Muslims, released on the first day of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, with a statement on the festivities.
"This year's celebration comes at a time when our world faces great challenges and important opportunities," Bush said. "The United States remains committed to promoting justice, tolerance and understanding throughout the world."
However, the president met with stony silence a request to comment on the tape from reporters invited to witness the start of an unrelated meeting with members of Congress.
In October 2001, just weeks after Al Qaeda's terrorist attacks on Washington and New York, the Bush administration urged television executives to use caution in airing bin Laden tapes, for fear he was sending "hidden messages" to followers.
Asked why the administration this time chose not only to not repeat that request but to publicize the tape before its broadcast, Fleischer demurred. Powell merely "alluded to something that he was aware of" while discussing the threats faced by the United States, he said.
Fleischer added: "If we are aware of something like this and we didn't say anything about it, your questions would be: Why aren't you saying something? Are you trying to hide something?"
Fox News Channel aired what appeared to be the full audiotape, with English translations, as soon as it was received from al-Jazeera. CNN and MSNBC waited until their own translators heard the tape, and then ran excerpts.