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A July Surprise? Pakistan Announces Arrest of Top Al Qaeda Figure Hours Before Kerry Speech

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The timing of the disclosure rekindles controversy surrounding an earlier report by the New Republic that the White House was pressuring Pakistan to produce a “high value target” in July during the Democratic convention. We talk to New Republic editor John Judis. [includes rush transcript]

John Kerry delivering his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston last night. Just hours before his address, Pakistan announced the arrest of a top al-Qaeda suspect that made headline news across the world.

The man, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, is a key suspect in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa that killed more than 200 people, including 12 American citizens. He is the most senior al Qaeda operative caught in Pakistan since the arrest in March 2003 of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11. attacks.

The timing of the disclosure may rekindle controversy surrounding an earlier report alleging White House pressure on Pakistan to produce a “high value target” in July when the Democratic convention was to kick off.

Pakistani officials say Ghailani was captured last Sunday, during a 14-hour gunbattle in the town of Gujrat. Ghailani was on the FBI”s list of 22 “most wanted terrorists” after being indicted in New York over the bombings of the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. A reward of up to $25 million had been offered by the U.S. for Ghaili”s capture–the same bounty offered for Osama bin Laden.

It remains unclear how long Pakistani authorities knew Ghailani”s identity before releasing the news, four days after apprehending him. In the July 19 edition of The New Republic, several unnamed Pakistani security officials said the Bush administration has been privately bearing down on the Pakistani government to capture Osama bin Laden, his deputy, Ayman Al Zawahiri, or the Taliban”s Mullah before U.S. elections in November. One source in the report said a White House aide suggested to Pakistan”s intelligence chief that the first three days of the Democratic convention would be the “best” timing.

We are joined on the phone by John Judis, senior editor at The New Republic and author of the article entitled “Pakistan for Bush: July Surprise?”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are joined now on the telephone by John Judis, senior editor at the New Republic author of the article Pakistan for Bush: July Surprise? Welcome to Democracy Now!’s Breaking with Convention, John.

JOHN JUDIS: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you talk about this latest development?

JOHN JUDIS: Well, the latest development pretty much confirms what we wrote in the article, which is that there was pressure to have, for Pakistan to produce a high-value target during the last 10 days of July and to announce that arrest. What our source said to us was it would be best if the arrest or killing of any high-value target were announced on 26, 27 or 28 of July which is the first three days of the convention. So it was announced on the fourth day. The question is why then? Already, there’s some questions that I have seen raised from intelligence officials here because you have two, basically two possibilities. One is that they held the guy for several days before making the announcement on Thursday. So why, after having captured him on Sunday did they announce it then? But you have an even more interesting question raised of why they announced it at all? Because when you have somebody who’s been in hiding since 1998, they have an enormous amount of information and contacts. By announcing this guy’s arrest, what you do is you warn off everybody who’s been associated with him from the last five or six years. You tell them that they better get their act together or they are going to be found. So, there’s some, really a lot of questions of why they announced this thing when they did.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how you learned of this story? And what your contacts are saying right now? Yesterday, headlines around the world upstaging the Kerry nomination.

JOHN JUDIS: Well, we learned this story from diverse sources in the Pakistani government. We had two contacts in the ISI, the equivalent of the American CIA. We had another contact in the Interior Ministry which is in charge of Internal Security that announced the arrest and we had another contact who was a top general. We are going back to them right now in preparation for a story next week, so I can’t discuss yet what we are going to find out. But I think the reason we got this story was that the Pakistanis were irritated that they were getting this kind of pressure to produce at a certain date. Mostly because what that entailed was going into these tribal areas in the north and possibly precipitating a kind of civil war.

AMY GOODMAN: John Judis, is there anything else would you like it add?

JOHN JUDIS: Well, I think what I would like to add, I would like to see this question turned out not so much on were we right, but what’s the Bush administration really up to? Are they politicizing foreign policy to a degree we really haven’t seen sense the Nixon years.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you say it’s fair it say that it’s not bad to capture these high-value targets. That it’s not so much that they pushed to speed up the process, but perhaps put it off?

JOHN JUDIS: Well, yes. And it’s, again, it’s a question of politics—politics is supposed to end at the water’s edge. When it intrudes in foreign policy, you get decisions that don’t necessarily reflect the national interest, but simply reflect the interest of a particular party or individual wanting to make—wanting to win an election. Sometimes that can coincide with what everybody wants, but sometimes it can’t. It may be in this case that we—that we, and the Pakistanis got somebody and prematurely announced this person’s arrest in order to have an electoral impact.

AMY GOODMAN: John Judis, I want to thank you very much for being with us, senior editor at the New Republic author of the article Pakistan for Bush: July Surprise?

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