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'Daisy' Redux

RNC ad suggests voting for Democrats carries risk of nuclear incineration.

October 20, 2006

Modified: October 20, 2006

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Summary

The Republican National Committee's latest ad - a 2006 version of  President Johnson's famous 1964 "Daisy" commercial against Barry Goldwater - invokes the threat of a nuclear attack by al Qaeda.

With no soundtrack but the tick-tick-tick of a timer, the ad shows quotes from bin Laden deputy Ayman Al-Zawahiri saying "we purchased some suitcase bombs" and that the 9/11 attacks were "nothing compared to what you will see next." That's followed by a graphic image of a rapidly expanding orange-yellow globe that looks like a nuclear fireball.

The ad accurately quotes accounts of what bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri have said. The images of al Qaeda fighters are taken from al-Jazeera broadcasts and are apparently genuine. However, by using powerful visual images, the ad invites a conclusion for which the RNC offers no proof: Voting for Democrats risks nuclear incineration. That's an appeal to fear more than reason.

Analysis

This ad first appeared Oct. 19 as an Internet-only spot on the RNC's  home page, and the party announced the next day that it would appear Oct. 22 on "national cable TV," without specifying which network or networks.

Image from RNC ad "The Stakes"

Using LBJ's tactic

The RNC ad imitates the famous LBJ "Daisy" ad, which showed a small girl counting petals as she picked them, followed by a count-down to a nuclear explosion and mushroom cloud. In that ad, Johnson's voice is heard saying "These are the stakes, to make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die." An announcer then says, "Vote for President Johnson on Nov. 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home."

RNC Ad "The Stakes"

(On Screen: “What is yet to come will be even greater”
-Osama Bin Laden, Al Jazeera, 12/26/01
“With God’s permission we call on everyone who believes in God…to comply with His will to kill the Americans.” 
-Osama Bin Laden (The World Islamic Front, Fatwa, 2/23/98)
[Text Fades: “kill the Americans”]
“They will not come to their senses unless the attacks fall on their heads and…until the battle has moved inside America.”  -Osama Bin Laden
(Interview, Al-Jazeera, 10/21/01)
[Text Fades: “inside America.”]
“We sent our people to Moscow, to Tashkent, to other central Asian states, and they negotiated.  And we purchased some suitcase bombs.” -Ayman Al-Zawahiri (“Al Qaeda: We Bought Nuke Cases,” New York Daily News, 3/22/04)
[Text Fades: “suitcase bombs.”]
“Our message is clear—what you saw in New York and Washington and what you are seeing in Afghanistan and Iraq, all these are nothing compared to what you will see next.”  -Ayman Al-Zawahiri (“Al Qaeda Threatens More UK, U.S. Attacks,” CNN.com, 8/4/05)
[Text Fades: “nothing compared to what you will see next.”]
“What is yet to come will be even greater”
These Are The Stakes. Vote November 7th.
Mehlman: The Republican National Committee Is Responsible For The Content Of This Advertising. 

That 1964 ad had only a single paid run, but has been talked about ever since. The RNC, by making only a minimal cable-TV buy, clearly hopes networks and other news media also will give this latest ad wide distribution for free.

The ad is a bit more subtle than the "Daisy" ad. It doesn't show an actual nuclear explosion. But the message is clear from words, images and that ticking clock.

The ad uses quotes (all accurately cited) from bin Laden and his top lieutenant threatening renewed attacks on the US on an even greater scale than those of 2001. The most provocative is a claim attributed to Al-Zawahiri in 2004, when he was quoted as saying that al Qaeda bought "some suitcase bombs" (presumably nuclear) after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The quote is from a 2004 New York Daily News story reporting that bin Laden's "authorized biographer" Hamid Mir was told by Al-Zawahiri that, "If you have $30 million, go to the black market in central Asia, contact any disgruntled Soviet scientist, and a lot of smart briefcase bombs are available. . . They have contacted us. We sent our people to Moscow, to Tashkent, to other central Asian states, and they negotiated. And we purchased some suitcase bombs."

Empty boast or real threat?

In fact, there is reason to believe that's just an empty boast. Laura Holgate, currently the vice president of Russia/New Independent States Programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), testified before the House Homeland Security Committee on May 26, 2005 about misplaced nukes.  During the hearing Holgate was asked specifically whether suitcase-sized nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Union could have passed through the hands of terrorists.  Holgate responded:

Holgate: I would say . . . that the suitcase nuke thing is a little bit of a red herring. The point is there may be tactical nuclear weapons missing, and those are things to worry about, but the specific scenario of the suitcase environment, for those who've looked at that research, has not turned out to be quite as stated by General Lebed in the mid '90s when that was such a scandal.

She was referring to a claim made by former Soviet General Aleksandr Lebed in 1997, when he said on CBS's 60 Minutes that the Soviet Union had created perhaps 100 portable atomic demolition munitions in the shape of suitcases, and that some were missing. When we asked Holgate if her testimony still held true today, Holgate responded:

Holgate: I stand by my 2005 testimony: it's almost certain the Soviet Union had suitcase nukes and highly likely that they were long ago destroyed. The mid-1990s hoopla created by Russian General Lebed's statements that there were dozens unaccounted for had no basis in fact.

NTI, which is devoted to keeping weapons from the former Soviet Union out of the hands of rogue nations or terrorists is headed by former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia. 

Lebed's claim was officially denied by Russian officials, and it is still not certain whether his claim is true or not. Even if it's true, however,  there are technical problems with a suitcase-sized nuclear weapon that could make it unworkable as a terrorist weapon. The San Francisco Chronicle, for example, quoted Russian nuclear experts as saying that Zawahiri was bluffing about having a workable suitcase bomb. One expert was quoted as saying suitcase nukes have a lifespan of only one to three years and become "radioactive scrap metal" if components such as batteries and conventional explosives are not regularly replaced.

While it thus appears improbable that al Qaeda or any terrorist organization actually has or could get a workable nuclear device, that possibility still remains.

Implying what can't be proved

The RNC ad isn't as blunt as LBJ was when he said "We must love each other, or we must die," implying that his opponent Barry Goldwater might touch off a nuclear holocaust. But both ads refer to "the stakes" of the imminent election, inviting the conclusion that voting the wrong way carries a risk of death in a nuclear fireball.

Whether Democrats would actually be any less zealous than Republicans about keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists is a matter of opinion which we leave to the judgment of our readers. However, we do note that this ad offers no proof of that.

by Brooks Jackson and Emi Kolawole

Sources

"U.S. Representative John Linder (R-GA) Holds Hearing on Building a Nuclear Bomb," Transcript.  Congressional Quarterly Transcriptions.  26 May 2005.

Connor, Tracy.  "Al Qaeda: We Bought Nuke Cases," Daily News (New York).  22 Mar 2004. 

"The Perfect Terrorist Weapon; A Large Number of Small Nuclear Devices in the Shape of Suitcases Appear to Be Missing from the Russian Nuclear Stockpile," 60 Minutes: CBS News Transcripts. 7 Sept. 1997