Tag: terrorism

The Red Team’s Spin on The Christmas Bomber

In recent weeks, conservatives have worked themselves into a self-righteous lather over how the Obama administration handled the would-be Christmas bomber.  It’s a complaint you could hear again and again at last weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference: Mirandizing the 23-year-old Nigerian Muslim was a big mistake, the story goes, because it denied us valuable intelligence, and it’s just so typical of Barack Obama’s callow, weak, law-enforcement-oriented approach to the terrorist threat.

As a constitutional matter, I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the Miranda decision, which smacks of judicial lawmaking, and I don’t think liberty stands or falls on whether one failed terrorist got read his rights.  In fact, I think Mirandizing Abdulmutallab was a pretty silly thing to do.  The administration could and should have continued to question him and gather intelligence (and it’s not as if you’d need his statements to convict when there were scads of witnesses aboard the plane).

Nonetheless, I still find it hard to see all the hubbub as much more than manufactured partisan outrage.

After all, Richard Reid, the failed shoebomber of December 2001, was Mirandized repeatedly by George W. Bush’s FBI, who, rather than questioning him for 50 minutes, read Reid his rights as soon as the Massachusetts staties handed him over. That was barely two months after the largest terror attack in American history, at a time when we had good reason to fear that the terrorist threat was far greater than it now appears to be.  Somehow, though, I don’t recall hearing quite as much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Right back then. Moreover, outside of the special pleading of former Bush officials, there’s little evidence that Bush would have handled the situation much differently even if it happened much later in his tenure as president.

We’re told that the Christmas Bomber’s treatment reveals Obama’s pusillanimous new paradigm for the War on Terror. But  virtually anyone who’s taken a serious look at Obama’s terrorism policies has concluded they differ from Bush’s mainly in terms of rhetoric, not substance. You can love the Bush approach or hate it, but if you’re drawing a sharp distinction between his policies and Obama’s, you’re misinformed at best.

Jack Goldsmith, the former head of the Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel, notes that the

premise that the Obama administration has reversed Bush-era policies is largely wrong. The truth is closer to the opposite: The new administration has copied most of the Bush program, has expanded some of it, and has narrowed only a bit. Almost all of the Obama changes have been at the level of packaging, argumentation, symbol, and rhetoric.

For instance, Goldsmith notes, the Obama team “has embraced the Bush view that, as a legal matter, the United States is in a state of war with al Qaeda and its affiliates, and that the president’s commander-in-chief powers are triggered.” Moreover, Obama’s Justice Department “filed a legal brief arguing that the president can detain indefinitely, without charge or trial, members of al Qaeda, the Taliban, ‘associated forces,’” et al.

The abortive plan to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed near Ground Zero has to count as Obama’s dumbest political move since he tried to strongarm the Olympic Committee.  But it hardly constitutes a repudiation of the Bush approach to terrorism. When the Bush Team was confident of winning, they tried terrorists in civilian courts – including Zacarias Moussaoui, the would-be 20th hijacker (tried and convicted in Alexandria, so horrifyingly close to the Pentagon!). And since the Obama Team continues to use military tribunals, and reserves the right to imprison KSM indefinitely in the unlikely event he’s acquitted, it’s pretty hard to see their plan for selected civilian trials as a departure from Bush-Cheney – much less an attempt to curry favor with the ACLU.

James Carafano, the Heritage Foundation’s homeland security guru, isn’t the sort of guy who carries water for Barack Obama, but he recently told the New York Times

“I don’t think it’s even fair to call [Obama’s policies] Bush Lite. It’s Bush. It’s really, really hard to find a difference that’s meaningful and not atmospheric.”

Atmospherics seem to matter a great deal to GOP partisans these days, though. Asked what specific policies Obama could adopt to reassure supposedly terrified Americans, Peter King, the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee (formerly R-Derry), could do no better than: “I think one main thing would be to — just himself to use the word terrorism more often.”

The essence of King’s complaint seems to be that, policies aside, Obama isn’t stoking fear enough, isn’t talking tough enough, and seems reluctant to act the part of “the strong father who protects the home from invaders.” Forgive me if I’m unmoved.  Thus far the discussion serves to remind one of the fact that, though Republicans talk a good game about reducing the size of government, when the rubber meets the road, they repair to reliable political gambits that allow them to duck the hard choices: flag-burning amendments, the Pledge of Allegiance, Terry Schiavo, and the like.

If you’re sincerely concerned about the best way to handle terrorist suspects in the United States, then trying to score cheap political points isn’t the best way to start the conversation.

Holder on the Hot Seat

Today Politico Arena asks:

Terror suspects: Eric Holder’s defense (nothing new here)–agree or disagree?

My response:

There’s no question that after the killings in Little Rock and Fort Hood, the decision to try the KSM five in a civilian court in downtown Manhattan, and the Christmas Day bombing attempt (the government’s before and after behavior alike), the Obama-Holder “law-enforcement” approach to terrorism is under serious bipartisan scrutiny.  And Holder’s letter yesterday to his critics on the Hill isn’t likely to assuage them, not least because it essentially ignores issues brought out in the January 20 hearings before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, like the government’s failure to have its promised High-Value Interrogation Group (HIG) in place.
 
Nor are the administration’s repeated efforts to justify itself by saying it’s doing only what the Bush administration did likely to persuade.  In the aftermath of 9/11, and in the teeth of manifold legal challenges, the Bush administration hardly developed a systematic or consistent approach to terrorism.  Much thought has been given to the subject since 9/11, of course, and it’s shown the subject to be anything but simple.  Nevertheless, if anything is clear, it is that if we are in a war on terror (or in a war against Islamic terrorists), as Obama has finally acknowledged, then the main object in that war ought not to be ”to bring terrorists to justice” through after-the-fact prosecutions – the law-enforcement approach – but to prevent terrorist attacks before they happen, which means that intelligence gathering should be the main object of this war.  And that, precisely, is what the obsession with Mirandizing, lawyering up, and prosecuting seems to treat as of secondary importance.  Intelligence is our first line of defense – and should be our first priority.

Monday Links

Machine Gun Nests in the War on Terror

Terrorism is a strategy of the weak. Without power of their own, terrorists seek to goad states into overreactions that bestow favors on their otherwise inconsequential movements and ideologies.

When a state goes to war, for example, this wastes its own blood and treasure, driving the costs of its own policies higher and weakening its own military and economy. Overreaction drives support to terrorism when innocents or perceived innocents are harmed or killed by overreacting states. And overreaction tends to energize and promote terrorism worldwide by confirming the narrative that incumbent powers are evil—the portrayal of the United States as an occupier of Muslim lands and exploiter of Muslim people is an example.

With the logic of terrorism in hand, the appropriate responses come into focus. Constant pressure on terror groups worldwide; cool, phlegmatic response to terrorist attacks; constant study of terror groups, their relationships, plans, and methods; counter-rhetoric exposing the venality and bloodiness of terror groups themselves; exploitation of fissures among the many different groups that have been drawn to the “al Qaeda” brand; and so on.

Unfortunately, many people focused intently on prosecuting the war on terror have yet to digest the nature of the challenge or orient their responses accordingly. Presuming a large, united terrorist front with substantial technical and logistical capabilities, they urge the reactions that would be appropriate for an invading state. They deride as dangerous the tailored responses dictated by sound counterterrorism strategy.

Unfortunately, they are counseling overreaction to this enemy, which is far less lethal than a state, if harder to locate and extinguish. The guns of terror warriors are the wrong caliber, and they’re pointed the wrong direction.

Daniel Popeo writes today in the Washington Examiner that legal activism aids terrorists. It doesn’t. It shows that the United States is not frightened, and is not thrown off its game, by attacks and attempts like that of December 25th. Indomitability, not ferocity, will be the hallmark of our counterterrorism success.

Review our recent forum on counterterrorism here, and our counterterrorism conference of a year ago here.

“Risk of Accidents Ameliorated!” Doesn’t Sell Papers

What a headline on the Washington Examiner today! It’s a good illustration of the propensity of media to overplay terrorism.

“Terror threat to city water,” the headline blares in large type. “Chlorine changed to protect D.C., Va. supply.”

The actual story is about the Army Corps of Engineers’ switch from chlorine gas to a liquid form of chlorine called sodium hypochlorite. Gaseous chlorine is relatively more dangerous and difficult to contain if it’s released, so the change is a prudent safety step.

It has as much to do with protecting against accidental release as any terror threat. And an accidental release is not a threat to the water supply; it’s a threat to people near the facilities or transportation corridors where cholrine gas could be released.

The idea of terrorism may have gotten the Corps moving forward, but nothing in the story says there was any specific threat by anyone to attack the D.C. water treatment infrastructure.

This is a story about risks being ameliorated, and it’s pretty boring—except for the headline!!

Weekend Links

The Buck Stops with Obama

Today Politico Arena asks:

Do you feel safer from terrorism today than you did the day before? Assess Obama’s response.

My response:

So Obama tells us that the buck stops with him.  Aides signaled that in saying that, Politico reports, the president “was consciously seeking to be the anti-Bush, airing his administration’s dirty laundry and stepping up to take his share of the responsibility.”  Yet as Arena contributor Dana Perino notes in response, with evidence in hand, they don’t even have their facts right.  Bush repeatedly took responsibility, and for good reason:  There was much to be responsible for, not least the creation of the intelligence bureaucracy that failed so clearly to connect the Christmas Day dots, as discussed in this morning’s Wall Street Journal.
 
But before we heap too much blame on the bureaucracy and those who created it, let’s recognize that this administration’s obsession with appearing “anti-Bush,” which has been its leitmotif from the start, could hardly have inspired even the most conscientious bureaucrat.  This is not the place to recount the countless ways Obama and his people have sought to downplay the terrorist threat — or “man-caused disasters” — even as no fewer than 12 terrorist incidents, including thwarted plots, were unfolding on American soil during its tenure, culminating with November’s Fort Hood murders.  Arena contributor Walter Russell Mead put it well last evening: “The narrative that a lawyer-run, PC-happy, Miranda crazed administration is coddling criminals rather than protecting the people has been gaining a kind of subterranean credibility out there past the Beltway.”  And not without reason.
 
We can hope that the administration is at last taking terrorism seriously, but there are still too many signs that it is learning on the fly, so we will have to keep reminding Obama and his people that the buck does indeed stop with them.