Bush administration officials, including President George W. Bush and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, have been trying to spin a possible terrorist attack before the November 2004 presidential election as an effort to replicate the terrorists' alleged success in Spain, the site of a train bombing in March.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge also warned of a possible terrorist effort to "disrupt the democratic process," which a senior U.S. intelligence official compared to the attack in Spain.
Underlying the Bush administration officials' predictions is the assumption that the March attack in Madrid in fact brought about the ouster of pro-Bush, Iraq war supporter Prime Minister José María Aznar, who lost to Socialist Party challenger Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero the week after the terrorist attack.
This assumption has incurred little challenge. Members of the media have dutifully echoed the Bush administration's line, presenting as fact that Al Qaeda or an affiliated terrorist organization succeeded in bringing about Aznar's defeat. On July 8, CNN justice correspondent Kelli Arena stated -- just prior to CNN's live coverage of Ridge's briefing on possible Al Qaeda plans to disrupt the American election -- that "Al Qaeda could be trying to disrupt the November elections, which they were very successful in doing in Madrid, if you remember."
In the July 19 issue of Newsweek, in an article exploring the potential postponement of the presidential election, investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff expanded on Al Qaeda's perceived role in Spain's election, speaking of "the success of March's Madrid railway bombings in influencing the Spanish elections."
As Media Matters for America has previously documented, some media outlets have even framed the potential terrorist threat to the U.S. election in partisan political terms, suggesting a preference by Al Qaeda in the outcome of the election, like there purportedly was in Spain.
For example, The New York Times repeated (and MSNBC repeated) unsourced speculation that New York, the site of this summer's Republican National Convention, is a bigger terrorist target than Boston, where the Democrats will hold their convention. CNN's Arena went so far as to report without citation, "[T]here is some speculation that Al Qaeda believes it has a better chance of winning in Iraq if John Kerry is in the White House."
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, fully articulated the view that Al Qaeda might attempt an attack in the United States for the same "desired" "effect" that terrorists achieved in Spain (i.e., to remove a governing political party hostile to their aims), when he said the following on the July 12 edition of FOX News Channel's Special Report with Brit Hume:
SABATO: They did it in Spain, of course, and it had the effect they desired, which was to throw out the incumbent party that had been friendly to the United States and involved in Iraq, and put into place a socialist government that quickly withdrew all Spanish troops.
However, Sabato predicted that if Al Qaeda were "to participate in electioneering in that way" in the United States, "the American electorate" would not "react the same way as the Spanish electorate" and would not likely "turn tail on the incumbent government."
But the assumption that terrorists successfully brought about Aznar's defeat in Spain is questionable. Even if the Madrid terrorist attacks had not occurred, polls show that the election would have been very close. Opinion polls taken before the attack showed the Populist Party's lead over the rival Socialist Party to be between as few as three percentage points and as many as six percentage points -- figures at or near the statistical margin of error.
Furthermore, in the March 21 European edition of TIME magazine, Paris and Brussels bureau chief James Graff reported, "[J]ust hours before the bombings, results leaked from private PP [Aznar's Populist Party] and PSOE [Zapatero's Socialist Party] polling showed the parties in a dead heat, according to the veteran Madrid journalist José Antonio Martínez Soler." Even though the American edition of TIME accepted that the Spain bombings may be motivating Osama bin Laden to engage in "preelection terror," the magazine reported that the result of the Spanish elections would likely have been "similar" had they been held a year before: "[P]olls last March found that as much as 90 percent of Spanish voters opposed their government's support for the war in Iraq. The latest terror attacks simply put the Iraq issue back at center stage."
Other evidence suggests that the terrorist attacks may have had some effect on the outcome of the election -- but only indirectly and not in the manner that the terrorists purportedly intended. After the bombings, the Populist Party was greatly weakened by public accusations of a cover-up when, as Graff noted, the "government [led by Aznar] persisted in blaming the Basque terrorists of ETA -- even after news broke of an al-Qaeda connection" as possible retaliation for "Aznar's support for the war in Iraq, which 90% of Spaniards opposed."
The Washington Post reported on March 16 that determining that the ETA Basque separatists committed the attack would have proven politically beneficial to Aznar (and his government), who had "been widely credited for taking a tough stance against ETA." However, when it became apparent to many voters that Aznar was covering up Al Qaeda's responsibility for the attack, distrust of Aznar (which had already taken root, in part as a result of what the Post described as "claims that Aznar's government had concealed damaging information about a major oil spill off Spain's Atlantic coast two years ago") grew. As Graff reported, "[O]n election day, the Socialists surged to an astounding 5% lead over the PP."