WASHINGTON - Two days before the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush's domestic security adviser dismissed Al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden as "virtually impotent."
Frances F. Townsend made her comments three days after a new video recording of bin Laden appeared, with the terrorist leader comparing the Iraq war to Vietnam and praising the actions of the 19 airline hijackers who caused the deaths of almost 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001.
Townsend said the recorded statement released by an oddly dark-bearded bin Laden was genuine and recently made, but she described it as little more than a propaganda device.
"Let's remember almost six years now since September the 11th, we have not seen much of bin Laden," she said on "Fox News Sunday," pointing out that this was the third audio or video recording released of him in as many years. "This is about the best he can do. This is a man on the run, from a cave, who is virtually impotent other than these tapes."
President Bush on Saturday said the tape was a "reminder of the dangerous world in which we live."
But Townsend's assessment of the terrorist network leader - which she repeated, almost word for word, in a later appearance on CNN's "Late Edition" - echoed remarks last week by the newest GOP presidential candidate, former Tennessee senator Fred D. Thompson, who said in response to the latest video that bin Laden was "more symbolism than anything else."
Yesterday senators John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, and John McCain, Republican of Arizona, shot back on ABC's "This Week," saying that bin Laden remains a dangerously charismatic figure, with a broad Internet reach, who must be captured.
"He continues to communicate, he continues to lead, and he continues to be a symbol for them of leadership in this radical hatred and evil radical Islamic extremism," said McCain, who also is seeking his party's presidential nomination. If elected to the White House, McCain continued, "I'll get him. I'll get him. And we've got to get him."
Kerry, the Democrats' presidential candidate in 2004, called bin Laden's recent appearance testimony to "the failure of this administration to capture and kill him."
"Here's a man who is sending tapes, influencing the region, influencing and recruiting terrorists, who is still directing from Afghanistan and from Pakistan attacks against the United States," Kerry said. "And we have some Republican candidates for president who think it's insignificant? That should disqualify them from being president in the first place."
Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, expressed concern on "Late Edition" that the Iraq war was taking resources from the hunt for bin Laden. "Every time I see that fugitive terrorist on television taunting America, I think of how wrong this president was in turning away from going after that murderer who murdered our citizens, and moving into Iraq and not having any way of getting us out, while this guy keeps dying his beard apparently and making new tapes," she said.
Intelligence specialists are analyzing the video for clues to bin Laden's health and whereabouts. There has been speculation about his suddenly dark beard, and whether it suggests he has shaved to disguise himself.
Specialists also are working to determine whether the tape was released as a signal to Al Qaeda followers to launch another attack, Townsend said.
"There's nothing overtly obvious in the tape that would suggest that this is a trigger for an attack," she said. "We haven't seen to date the use of an audio or videotape as a trigger for an attack, so we start from that premise."