White House to security critics: We are tough, just like Bush

As Republicans continue their unrelenting criticism of the Obama administration's national security measures, the White House points out similarities to the Bush era. But that raises Democrats' hackles.

Pete Souza/White House/AP
Response: Obama met with his security team Jan. 5 after the Christmas Day bombing attempt of an airliner. The administration, critics say, mishandled the interrogation of suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

It’s midterm election season, and Republicans are reviving a tried campaign mantra: that Democrats are weak on national security, especially terrorism.

Historically, Democrats start out at a disadvantage on this issue.

But outcries over the administration’s handling of the Christmas Day bombing attempt, proposed terrorist trials in Manhattan, and the planned closing of the Guantánamo Bay detention center have put the White House even more on the defensive.

For weeks, the attacks – including from GOP moderates who typically stay out of partisan firefights – went largely unanswered.

That’s changing. While Barack Obama campaigned to change direction on issues such as the interrogation and treatment of detainees, the response to the GOP onslaught is to highlight continuity with Bush-era practices.

“The most important thing for the public to understand is we’re not handling any of these cases any different than the Bush administration handled them all through 9/11,” President Obama told CBS News on Feb. 7.

The response poses risks for the White House that cut across the electorate. For Republicans, it’s too little, too late. For Democrats, a move to align policy with Bush-era practices doesn’t fit the promises of the 2008 presidential campaign.

“National security has been a perceived Democratic weakness for the last few decades. It hurts Obama with the right and the center,” says pollster John Zogby of Zogby International. “But on the other hand, he is now forced into a position where he is doing some things like the Bush administration. It not only hurts him with the left, but it raises the issue you’re just starting to hear: Was Bush really so bad, and if he was so bad, why are you doing things exactly the way he did?”

In fact, congressional GOP leaders publicly support broad lines of the president’s national security policy. They backed the decision to not drawn down troops in Iraq early on and to direct more resources to Afghanistan, including stepped-up deployment of unmanned drones to kill Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan – moves that alarm the left wing of the Democratic congressional delegation.

But the barely aborted Christmas bombing attempt aboard a Detroit-bound airliner set off rounds of congressional oversight hearings that revived sharp partisan differences.

The appearance of Attorney General Eric Holder before Congress next month will give lawmakers a venue to press their views of events to the public.

Here are key flash points:

Interrogation of terror suspects: Republicans charge that the Department of Justice wasted critical moments after the Christmas Day bombing attempt when FBI interrogators told terrorist suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab that he had a right to silence and to an attorney.

Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate and the top Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, called the move “irresponsible” and “dangerous.”

White House officials, speaking on background, told reporters that Mr. Abdulmutallab’s family had been brought to Washington and persuaded him to respond to questions. He was talking, they said, so no harm was done by “Mirandizing” him. A timeline of events released by the White House Sunday shows that Abdulmutullab was read his rights nine hours after being taken into custody, and for much of that time, he was in surgery.

Abdulmutallab was charged in a criminal court on Dec. 26, a move that also signaled that the Justice Department was proceeding with an understanding that the suspect had the rights of a criminal defendant.

The GOP blow back has been unrelenting. On Feb. 10, Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R) of Michigan called for chief counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to resign, after Mr. Brennan said he had consulted with GOP leaders and top intelligence officials on the decision to treat Abdulmutallab as a criminal defendant. Republican leaders say they received no details.

In a Feb. 3 letter to Senate Republicans, Mr. Holder wrote that the Bush administration used the criminal justice system to convict more than 300 people on terrorism-related charges, including attempted shoe-bomber Richard Reid (who was also Mirandized). “Those policies and practices, which were not criticized when employed by previous administrations, have been and remain extremely effective in protecting national security,” he said.

Americans favor trying Abdul-mutallab in a military court, rather than a civilian one, by a margin of 57 to 42, according to a CNN poll.

Closing of Guántanamo: On Jan. 22, 2009, as one of his first official acts as president, Obama signed an executive order to close the detention facility that year. It had been a key campaign pledge to signal a new approach to counterterrorism, but turned out to be far more difficult to pull off. Challenges included repatriating detainees cleared for release, processing those held for trial in civilian courts or military tribunals, and relocating those to be held indefinitely.

“People dismissively say that Obama is trying to curry favor with the left or the Europeans, but we can’t win this war on terrorism without close cooperation with our allies,” says Bruce Hoffmann, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. “Obama said, ‘Let’s look at the issues that have been most divisive,’ such as Guantánamo, but the president found that he has inherited a problem of great difficulty and complexity.”

Terror trials in New York: The administration’s proposal to try 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four associates in a federal court near ground zero also raised objections from New York leaders, prompting the White House to consider other options. On Jan. 27, Mayor Michael Bloomberg backed off his previous support of the trial, citing cost estimates in the hundreds of millions of dollars. In addition, the case was fraught with legal issues, including evidence Mr. Mohammed had been subjected to waterboarding at least 183 times.

On Feb. 2, a bipartisan group of nine US senators called for cutting off funding for the trials of 9/11 conspirators in civilian courts.

“Why in the world would this country take the people who planned 9/11, put them in the middle of 8 million people in New York City less than two miles from where they attacked the country, and think that’s a good thing?” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina. “That is putting the people of New York at risk for no reason, costing money for no good reason, giving the terrorists a microphone they don’t deserve. And it puts this nation at risk.”

Americans say terrorist trials should be handled by military tribunals by a 59 percent to 39 percent margin, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Feb. 10.

“Trials in New York City [were] going to be politically explosive, but the worst of all worlds is to make that decision and to back off as soon as the political heat intensifies,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey.

“The Obama administration had to be absolutely prepared politically.... Otherwise, it fits into a bigger narrative of Democrats scrambling and searching for what they are going to do on homeland security.”


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