Sex & Al-Qaida: Is Timing of Capture News Related to "D.C. Madam" Story?

Facing a mountain of bad news, the Bush administration needed some good news heading into this weekend: its "AIDS czar" abruptly resigned after admitting he used an escort service that's facing federal prostitution charges, two batches of new documents were released in the widening U.S. Attorney purge case, Condi Rice indicated she'd refuse to comply with a House subpoena to discuss Iraq War intelligence, and the president earned a career-low 28 percent approval rating in a new poll.

And they got it: one of Al-Qaida's top leaders was captured. But when Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, who is believed to have planned the July 7, 2005, subway attacks in London, was captured -- sometime last fall -- raises questions about whether the timing of the story's release was guided by newsworthiness or an effort to combat an unflattering news cycle.

A glance at newspaper headlines suggests the Pentagon's story was taken by some in the press as breaking news. The Times Online seemed to think so. It ran a present-tense headline, "7/7 'mastermind' is siezed in Iraq." "Al-Qaida aide a big catch, says Pentagon," announced the Chicago Sun Times' story, and Stars & Stripes' front page blared, "Al-Qaida leader at Gitmo after capture."

But read a bit further, and you'll discover that al-Iraqi was captured "late last year" and has been held and interrogated by the CIA since then. Not even the transfer of custody of al-Iraqi to the Department of Defense's Guantanamo Bay facility is breaking news: according to the New York Times that switch happened a week ago. ("Al-Qaeda Bigwig Transferred from One U.S. Agency to Another" doesn't have the same sensational appeal.)Perhaps the biggest story the Bush administration doesn't want you to read from this weekend is the announcement that Deputy of Secretary of State Randall Tobias was stepping down after he -- a married man who advocated being "faithful" as a way to prevent AIDS -- admitted he was a customer of an escort service that allegedly ran a prostitution ring. In what the Washington Post calls "an unusual statement issued at 5 p.m." Friday, Tobias said he'd be stepping down "for personal reasons." Within minutes of the announcement, his bio at USAID, the agency he oversaw, was erased. On Thursday, he'd admitted he'd used an escort service run by Deborah Jeane Palfrey and would call up "to have gals come over to the condo to give me a massage." He claimed there was "no sex" in said massage encounters.

While other news, from Iraq to the US Attorney's scandal, will surely have more wide-ranging effects on the world, the Tobias case could be the one Bush is more worried about. Many of the remaining 28 percent of Americans who still support Bush do so on moral grounds, citing the president's faith. The hypocrisy of Tobias, a man who along with his wife donated more than $100,000 to Republican campaigns and PACs, could do damage.

So, too, could the fact that so-called "D.C. madam" Palfrey provided ABC News with "thousands of numbers" of clients and has been perfectly clear that she'll take down any and all of her high-profile Washington customers to save her own skin. Already, she's named Harlan K. Ullman, the strategist behind the "shock and awe" military strategy, as a client.

"I'm sure as heck not going to be going to federal prison for one day, let alone, four to eight years," she told ABC, "because I'm shy about bringing in the deputy secretary of whatever."

Given that ominous "whatever," it might take more than belated news of a key Al-Qaida capture to abate Palfrey's media surge.

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