Bush's New War Room

This time, the White House was ready. Last Saturday morning, Osama bin Laden released a videotaped message denouncing the United States and the "unjust, ferocious campaign" against Afghanistan. The tape was sent to Al Jazeera, the independent Arab television station. But before it was aired in full, the Bush administration launched a pre-emptive strike--negotiating with Al Jazeera to give a U.S. spokesman nearly two hours of live airtime to respond. Speaking in fluent Arabic, Christopher Ross, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, charged, "The terrorists are falsifying facts and history."

The media coup was the work of the Coalition Information Centers, the administration's new "rapid response" team, created to wage the propaganda war against bin Laden. The CIC is the Bush team's answer to a growing problem: though many Arab governments support the United States, bin Laden has been winning the war of words in the souks and universities of the Arab world. Bin Laden and his Taliban allies--who ban television in their own country--have adeptly used TV, radio and newspapers in the Middle East and Europe to make themselves appear the victims of American aggression. The White House, in part distracted by the anthrax scare, hasn't been quick to respond. When bin Laden issued an earlier rant, the White House was caught off guard.

Headed by top Bush adviser Karen Hughes, the CIC was launched to keep that from happening again. The team is responsible for delivering the White House line overseas, booking pro-U.S. guests on foreign TV and radio shows and using Arab newspapers to refute Taliban charges. When the Red Cross praised American kids who raised money for children in Afghanistan, the White House invited Al Jazeera's cameras to the event. A second war room is operating in London, run by Alastair Campbell, a media- savvy Tony Blair aide who helped develop the concept. An Islamabad office, closer to the action, is in the works. Hughes plans to go on the offensive soon with a media campaign detailing the Taliban's awful treatment of women. "We'll be ready when bin Laden chucks out a video from his cave," says one Downing Street source.

The CIC team spent days preparing the response to bin Laden's latest message. Last Thursday, NEWSWEEK has learned, the White House got word that bin Laden was going to release the tape. Hughes ordered her deputy, Jim Wilkinson, to draft a response. Ross translated the rebuttal into Arabic and delivered it from Al Jazeera's D.C. bureau.

It's tough to tell how the media campaign will play overseas. The White House knows the effort isn't likely to win over bin Laden's die-hard supporters. But undercutting the Taliban's propaganda could help sow discontent against a regime that is already hated by many in the region--and at the very least keep the mullahs from having the last word.