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THOMAS OLIPHANT

Spain's vote against mendacity

WASHINGTON
IN AN atmosphere of horror and anger, Spanish voters managed to sort through their emotions over the weekend to deliver a surprisingly clear message to their government. Perhaps we should listen in the United States.

 

Governments that lie and cover up on matters not only central to national security but also to the commitment of armed forces abroad are inviting rejection.

Governments that seek to use events as unspeakable as mass murder for political purposes are doing the same. It was clear something was wrong within hours of last Thursday's bombings in Madrid. Virtually all of the sketchy information being gathered by US officials here and abroad pointed in the direction of Al Qaeda and away from the Basque terrorist group known as ETA.

But all the Spanish government's statements pointed in ETA's direction, and the Bush administration decided to suppress its own knowledge and evidence-based suspicions to the contrary in order to support one of its few unquestioning allies in the occupation of Iraq virtually on the eve of the national elections the bombings were obviously timed to influence.

From the outset, however, clues that led away from ETA and toward Al Qaeda registered with increasing force on Spanish public opinion. The result was revulsion and anger on a scale sufficient to sweep away the preelection polls and predictions. The government fell, and the Bush administration will have difficulty deflecting suspicion that it was complicit in a coverup.

The initial near-insistence by officials of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's government that this was Basque and not fanatical Islamist terrorism now appears based less on evidence and more on the fact that such a theory of the crime best fit Aznar's Popular Party election chances.

However, the evidence was flimsy. Not only did the coordinated commuter train bombings not fit ETA's profile; there was a steady stream of information pointing in Al Qaeda's direction. There were repeated denials of complicity by ETA and its above-ground supporters, clashing with the group's consistent pattern in the past of claiming responsibility when it was involved, and there were repeated statements of complicity in domestic and international channels linked to Al Qaeda. As doubts and evidence accumulated, public opinion took an astonishingly rapid turn toward the Socialist candidacy of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero -- not only an opponent a year ago of the US invasion of Iraq but an advocate of the withdrawal of Spain's token 1,300-member force from the US-led coalition.

By the time the voting began on Sunday, authorities could not suppress the fact that five men, one with a clear record of involvement in an Al Qaeda cell long linked to the logistical support of the attacks on the US in 2001, had been detained in the mass killings and that a videotaped confession on Al Qaeda's behalf was in official hands. With the stench of the government's duplicity in the air, the support behind Aznar's designated successor, Mariano Rajoy, collapsed in a heap of public disgust.

The initial handling of the bombings calls into question both the Bush administration's credibility and its judgment. Intelligence sharing between the two governments has been intimate. US officials followed security matters in Spain especially closely because the Al Qaeda cell there was important to 9/11 logistics as well as ongoing planned operations. The idea that the Bush administration was not aware that the five men detained over the weekend had been watched for weeks before the attacks is preposterous.

Nonetheless, officials from Secretary of State Colin Powell on down insisted through the weekend that the evidence was inconclusive -- comments framed to help Aznar's Popular Party survive the election.

Worse, the administration used the Madrid bombings in this country as a fresh justification for its partisan exploitation of terrorism.

The Spanish lesson is that fighting Al Qaeda has clearly been undercut by the preoccupation with Iraq. The picture of Aznar standing in the Azores with Bush and Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair just before the war started a year ago is eloquent evidence to the phoniness of the pledge Bush made that the role of the United Nations in the war and its aftermath would have to be central. The Spanish lesson is that it had better be by June 30 or the Spaniards are gone.

The most important lesson, however, is that in a time of national shock only truth is acceptable. Bush might want to remember that before he makes his next use of 9/11 imagery in his campaign commercials or digs his hole deeper with more manufactured descriptions of the "threat" Iraq posed a year ago that required a near-unilateral invasion and occupation in haste.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com.

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