Monday, February 14, 2005

U.S. ad blitz targets bin Laden

Chicago Tribune
U.S. ad blitz targets bin Laden

By Rudolph Bush Tribune staff reporter

Radio spots promoting a $25 million reward for information leading to the capture of Osama bin Laden (news - web sites) and another $25 million for his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are airing in the rural mountains of northwest Pakistan for the first time.

Television ads promising that fortune in return for bin Laden ran on two Pakistani stations last weekend, and will run regularly on the country's biggest station starting Tuesday.

And last month, newspaper ads appeared for the first time in major cities featuring bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and other top Al Qaeda lieutenants.

The ads are the result of legislation written by Rep. Mark Kirk (news, bio, voting record) (R-Ill.) and pushed into law late last year by a fellow Illinois Republican, Rep. Henry Hyde (news, bio, voting record), chairman of the House International Relations Committee. The two took action after learning that little had been done since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to publicize the rewards program to capture Al Qaeda's leaders where they may be hiding.

Trail growing cold

Kirk, who in late January returned from a trip to the Pakistani tribal region of Waziristan, said he could remember the moment he realized the trail to bin Laden had gone cold.

On a trip to Islamabad in January 2004, he visited the U.S. Embassy and asked then-Ambassador Nancy Powell about who was overseeing the publicity for the rewards program.

"The ambassador said, `I don't know who is working the rewards program,' which was stunning to me," Kirk said.

On the same trip, Kirk and a senior staff member on the International Relations Committee noticed boxes of matchbooks with information about the rewards gathering dust in the basement of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan (news - web sites).

There were no radio ads about the program, even on the Voice of America station where they cost the government nothing, said the staff member, who asked not to be named. "We came back saying, `What a disaster.'" A State Department spokesman had no comment on why the program was not being publicized in Pakistan or Afghanistan, but he said the department's approach has changed.

As a congressional staffer on the International Relations Committee, Kirk wrote the rewards legislation to include those charged with war crimes. When he learned last year that the program was stalled, he was livid and complained to then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

Since then, there is a new ambassador in Pakistan and the embassy has hired an advertising agency to handle the ad campaigns that will air on Pakistani stations and the BBC station that tribal leaders have said their people prefer.

So far, the U.S. has spent $100,000 on the print and broadcast advertising.

In the days after the first newspaper ads hit the streets in January, two people provided tips about bin Laden's whereabouts that are still being vetted, the International Relations Committee staff member said.

The television ads got off to a rockier start. After running briefly on two stations during the first weekend in February, they were quickly pulled. And the country's largest station, GEO, initially refused to run them for fear of a backlash over their content, according to a U.S. Embassy document.

Last week, a mob broke into the station's headquarters in Karachi after it aired a controversial program unrelated to the rewards program. But after reviewing the ad, station officials agreed to run them regularly beginning Tuesday.

Turning up heat

The ads will increase the odds of finding bin Laden, said Vance Serchuk, a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.

"Is this going to be a magic bullet that nets bin Laden? I'm not sure there is a magic bullet," he said. "Might this benefit on the margins? Yes."

Kirk and Hyde's measure also enables President Bush (news - web sites) to sweeten the pot; it authorizes him to increase the bounty on bin Laden to $50 million.

More important, Kirk says, it also made the reward more flexible and comprehensible to the rural Pakistani tribesmen he hopes will one day turn over bin Laden: Payments can be in farm equipment and livestock as well as new trucks and motorcycles.

"In some parts of the world people understand what a herd of cattle or herd of goats means," the State Department spokesman said. "That's more realistic to them than a number such as $25 million."

The State Department agrees the rewards program has been successful when publicized. So far, it has netted tips that led U.S. agents or soldiers to the 1993 World Trade Center bomber, Ramzi Yousef, who is serving a life term in the United States, as well as Saddam Hussein (news - web sites)'s sons, Udai and Qusai, who were killed during a shootout with U.S. troops in 2003. The government has paid out more than $57 million for the tips.

Kirk and Hyde hope now for a similar result in Pakistan.

originally published Sat Feb 12, 9:40 AM ET