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Accuracy questioned anti terror efforts

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Friday January 4 1:53 AM ET

Facts Altered in Anti-Terror Effort

By PAULINE JELINEK, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - In its fervor to fight terrorism, the United States may have gotten carried away. It produced two high-profile documents now being questioned for their accuracy.

Analysts and critics called the work sloppy, damaging to America's case and more worthy of the tabloids.

``There's no mystery that we are held suspect in large parts of the world,'' said Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. ``For just that reason, the U.S. government must be sure that everything it does can bear scrutiny.''

``Frankly, this is sloppy,'' he said of one of the documents. It was a State Department advertisement that ran in American newspapers and contained inaccurate information about Mohammed Atta, suspected ringleader of the Sept. 11 airplane hijackers.

The other document is a Defense Department leaflet dropped over Afghanistan to win the surrender of Taliban or al-Qaida militiamen still fighting. It includes a photo purporting to be Osama bin Laden in Western clothing and with his hair cut short and beard shaved off. It says of the terrorist leader: ``The murderer and coward has abandoned you.''

The Pentagon would not say Thursday whether the picture depicted bin Laden or was doctored.

Asked about it at a Pentagon news conference, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he wasn't aware of the leaflet with the questionable photo. He added: ``The whole premise of bin Laden's activities in the world are premised on lies.''

There have been accusations, especially in Muslim countries, that the U.S. government altered the videotape it released last month in which bin Laden talked about planning the attacks.

Rumsfeld was asked if people might see the leaflet photo as proof that the United States fabricates evidence.

``That is a possibility - that people will say something that's not true,'' Rumsfeld replied. ``There's nothing much we can do about it. We live in the world, we get up in the morning, we go about and do our business as best we can.''

Brookings' James Lindsay said the suspect photo recalls tactics used by tabloid newspapers, but he said he's not bothered greatly.

``I don't want to say all is fair in love and war, because that's not true,'' Lindsay said. ``However, it wouldn't cause me to lose any sleep, and if Mr. bin Laden doesn't like it, he could sue Uncle Sam in federal court.''

As for the State Department advertisement, officials acknowledged it gives details that are either inaccurate or describe other terror suspects.

The ad's creators ``took some liberties with some of the content,'' said a State Department official, who asked not to be identified.

A part of the ``Rewards for Justice'' program to get information about terrorists, the ad pictures Atta. Its text says he ``wanted to learn to fly, but didn't need to take off and land.''

That statement was never attributed to Atta but was widely attributed in the weeks after Sept. 11 to Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the attacks. FBI Director Robert Mueller told federal prosecutors in November that Moussaoui had aroused suspicions by saying just the opposite, that he wanted to learn only to take off and land.

The ad also suggests that Atta ``was interested in crop-dusting - an obviously risky behavior - when he couldn't even get a plane off the ground.'' Atta did make inquiries about crop-dusting in Florida, but he had a commercial pilot's license and rented and flew small planes several times in Florida and Georgia.

Charlotte Beers, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, said when the ad campaign was unveiled last month that ``we're talking about clues that might have led you to spot someone like Mohammed Atta.''

The State Department official who commented Thursday said Atta's picture was used because he was the most well known of the hijackers, but the ad's text included a composite of activities from several hijackers and Moussaoui.

Muslim Americans said playing loose with the facts hurts the government's already damaged image among Muslims.

``All of this hide-and-seek attitude really cuts into the credibility of our story, which is the strongest story,'' said Shaker Elsayed, secretary general of the Muslim American Society.

The United States has ``a great case to make. We are hurt by not speaking straightforward.''


Associated Press writer David Pace contributed to this

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