This weekend, Americans were treated to something new: Barack Obama defending his war policies by suggesting they merely continue his predecessor's practices. The defense is illuminating, not least for its implicit recognition that George W. Bush has more credibility on fighting terrorists than does the sitting president.
Mr. Obama's explanation came in an interview with Katie Couric just before the Super Bowl. Ms. Couric asked about trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York. After listing some of the difficulties, the president offered a startling defense for civilian trials:
"I think that the most important thing for the public to understand," he told Ms. Couric, "is we're not handling any of these cases any different than the Bush administration handled them all through 9/11." Mr. Obama went on to add that "190 folks"—folks presumably just like the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks—had been tried and convicted in civilian court during Mr. Bush's tenure.
Leave aside, for just a moment, the substance. Far more arresting is that Mr. Obama now defends himself by invoking a man he has spent the past year blaming for al Qaeda's growth. You know—all those Niebuhrian speeches about how America had gone "off course," "shown arrogance and been dismissive," and "made decisions based on fear rather than foresight," thus handing al Qaeda a valuable recruiting tool.
Others have happily piled on. John Brennan, a career CIA holdover, used his first public appearance last August as Mr. Obama's counterterrorism chief to declare a new dawn. No longer would America's policies serve as "a recruitment bonanza for terrorists." No longer would we be "defining and indeed distorting our entire national security apparatus" because of terrorism. Henceforth, Mr. Obama would abandon the "global war" mindset, and take care not to "validate al Qaeda's twisted worldview."
Like Mr. Obama, Mr. Brennan was singing a different tune this weekend. On NBC's "Meet the Press," a testy Mr. Brennan defended the decision that allowed Christmas bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to lawyer up by invoking—you guessed it—the Bush administration. Mr. Brennan claimed the process for reading Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights was "the same process that we have used for every other terrorist who has been captured on our soil." The FBI, he asserted, was simply following guidelines put in place by Bush Attorney General Michael Mukasey.
Mr. Mukasey begs to differ. "First, the guidelines Mr. Brennan refers to involve intelligence gathering," he told me. "They do not deal with whether someone in custody is to be treated as a criminal defendant or as an intelligence asset."
"Second, as for gathering intelligence, it begs the whole question about whether he [Abdulmutallab] should have been designated a criminal suspect. And there is nothing—zero, zilch, nada—in those guidelines that makes that choice. It is a decision that ought to be made at the highest level, and the heads of our security agencies have testified that it was made without consulting them."
Ditto for the "190 folks" Mr. Obama invoked in his interview with Ms. Couric. The figure comes from a report by Human Rights First (they actually claim 195), which ransacked the federal files to find any cases even remotely connected with terrorism. Most charges, the report concedes, involve not acts of terrorism but charges of material support. These 190 men and women may be guilty of bad things, but to suggest they are comparable with KSM is highly misleading.
Here's the bigger picture: When Mr. Obama arrived in the Oval Office his first official act was to order the closing of Guantanamo in the manner of Christ cleansing the temple. Attorney General Eric Holder soon followed by opening a criminal investigation of the CIA's interrogators. And everywhere he went, Mr. Obama told anyone who would listen that when it came to terror, he would be the anti-Bush.
Abdulmutallab's foiled attempt to blow up a Northwest flight has changed everything. The administration's misstatements and mishandling are provoking questions about its competence. The debate over Miranda rights feeds worries that Mr. Obama's security decisions have more to do with protecting terrorists' legal rights than protecting Americans. And the bomber's connections with Islamic extremists in Yemen will make it even more difficult to close Guantanamo, given the significant population of Yemenis held there.
In other words, we have what Team Obama would define as a messaging problem. So expect more presidential speeches sprinkled with tough-sounding words such as "war" and "terrorist." Maybe Robert Gibbs promising a review of policies that were themselves supposed to be revisions. And when they realize they cannot close it, perhaps a renaming of Guantanamo as our new "Caribbean House of Constitutional Correction."
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