The horrendous result in the trial of the al-Qaeda participant in the 1998 embassy bombings is a revelation. What it reveals is just how feckless and irresponsible the policies of this administration have proved to be in the administration of the war on terror. The fact is that, over the course of the Bush administration, a legal regime was established to govern the treatment and handling of non-Americans captured outside the United States for the commission of terrorist acts. The regime came under withering assault from liberals, but it was consistent, predictable, and had underlying logic. Now, almost certainly, we’re spinning off into complete improvisation — Gitmo remaining open when the administration has declared its intention to close it, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad about to be detained indefinitely under war terms his detainers in this administration have rejected. What the Bush people did was far more considered than it was given credit for being at the time, and now the people who claimed it was acting lawlessly are on the verge of true lawlessness — which is what law is when it is inconsistently and improvisationally applied.
Topic: Khalid Sheikh Muhammad
The foiled package-bomb plot originating in Yemen is the latest sign of how determined Islamist extremists remain in trying to strike the United States. Just in the past year, we have seen the shooting at Fort Hood, which left 13 people dead; an attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner with explosives hidden in underwear; an attempt to set off an explosion in Times Square with explosives hidden in a vehicle; and the arrest of a suspect accused of plotting to attack the Washington subway. These attacks serve as a reminder, as Andy McCarthy notes, that our homeland remains very much in danger. So why isn’t terrorism more of an election issue? Largely because this is an area where there is — mercifully — a high degree of bipartisan agreement.
That hasn’t always been the case. Barack Obama ran for president not only pledging to pull out of Iraq but also to end what he viewed as the abuses of George W. Bush’s “war on terror.” The very term “war on terror” has been banished from the Obama administration’s lexicon, but luckily, most of the practices instituted by Bush have been continued.
Obama, recall, promised to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility within a year, to try terrorists in civilian courts, to end “renditions” of terrorist suspects, to end torture, and to end or severely curtail warrantless wiretaps. What has he actually done?
He has limited the use of interrogation techniques against terrorism suspects — but they had already been curtailed by Bush, who banned the use of most “stress techniques” in his second term. But Obama hasn’t closed Gitmo, largely because of overwhelming congressional opposition. His plan to try Khalid Sheikh Muhammad in a civilian court came to naught. The military commissions are still in business. Suspected terrorists continue to be held without trial, not only at Gitmo but also in the Parwan detention facility in Afghanistan. He signed an extension of the Patriot Act, which provides most of the surveillance authorities instituted after 9/11. Renditions continue. And Obama has actually stepped up the use of drone strikes to kill terrorists, especially but not exclusively in Pakistan. He has even placed an American citizen (Anwar al-Aliki, a leader of al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch) on the list for elimination without any judicial overview. Finally, he has essentially continued the Bush policy of drawing down slowly in Iraq while building up our forces in Afghanistan.
Thus Obama has, in most important respects, essentially ratified the post-9/11 measures instituted by the Bush administration. He has not instituted a “law enforcement” approach to terrorism, as was feared by so many of his critics and expected by so many of his supporters. A Republican president might approve harsher interrogation techniques or make some other changes at the margins, but I doubt that anything very substantial will change no matter who succeeds Obama — unless there is some horrific new attack on American soil, in which case the balance will swing even more against civil liberties.
Just as we have a wide degree of agreement now on how to fight terrorism at home, so we have bipartisan uncertainty about how to fight it in countries like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. No one seriously suggests invading them barring another 9/11. The debate is mainly about how much and what kind of aid we should give to the governments in question, how much we can trust them to act on our behalf, and how many unilateral strikes we should carry out. These are not ideological questions; they are tough judgment calls on which experts of all stripes can disagree.
Obama, to his credit, hasn’t hesitated to approve drone strikes and other covert actions against terrorists in places like Somalia and Yemen, but there is a limit to what such measures can do. Defeating the terrorists who hide in these unstable areas requires improving their level of governance — a difficult, long-term project that we are attempting to undertake but without any great prospects of immediate success.
More than nine years after 9/11, we have made great strides in countering terrorism, especially in toughening up domestic security, increasing intelligence-gathering, and lowering barriers between law enforcement and intelligence. We still have more to do domestically — for instance, the latest plots highlight the need for better inspection of cargo. And there is much more to do abroad to try to root al-Qaeda out of its foreign bastions. But the greatest progress we have made is to reach a high degree of domestic consensus about what it takes to fight terrorism.
Give Obama credit for breaking his campaign pledges and essentially adopting the Bush approach. And of course, give Bush credit for weathering years of abuse from Senator Obama and other critics to hang tough and institute policies that have helped keep us safe.
In Slate, John Dickerson defends Obama from people like me who were horrified by his remark quoted yesterday that we could “absorb” another terrorist attack and come out “stronger” from it. A senior White House official told him Obama was talking to Bob Woodward about the panoply of threats:
Objectively, the president said, you would want to be able to stop every attack, but a president has to prioritize. So what does the president put at the top of the danger list? A nuclear weapon or a weapon of mass destruction. Why? Because—and here’s where the quote in question comes in—as bad as 9/11 was, the United States was not crippled. A nuclear attack or weapon of mass destruction, however, would be a “game changer”…
This line of reasoning is identical to what I heard regularly when I covered the Bush White House. Former Vice President Dick Cheney … said: “We have to assume there will be more attacks. And for the first time in our history, we will probably suffer more casualties here at home in America than will our troops overseas.”
I remember being a little shocked at how brutal the calculus was when I heard officials in Cheney’s office … say that they had to focus their energy first on “mass casualty” events. What were they talking about? The same thing the president was: a nuclear attack or one that used a weapon of mass destruction.
I generally like Dickerson’s reporting, but even if the White House official is telling the truth, and we don’t know that yet, this analysis is preposterous. I interviewed those people too, including in Cheney’s office, at the time, and I’m pretty sure there were no ”brutal” calculations about absorbing a second terrorist attack. The truth is that officials dealing with these matters were gripped with fear and anxiety about everything they were hearing and seeing in the intelligence. Every morning. For years. They were the opposite of certain that the country could absorb even a second major attack, though of course, as I said in my blog post yesterday, it could have and it can now in the narrowest possible sense. We would not roll over and die.
The last thing the Bush White House was airy and accepting about was the possibility of another terrorist attack. Why else were Bush’s critics screaming about the imposition of a fascist regime at home and a torture regime abroad? They were complaining of tactics and measures taken to interdict not only a “game changer” but anything — like the panoply of conventional attacks and ideas for them revealed to interrogators who waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and Abu Zubaydah. I know the logic of the most extreme of Bush’s critics seemed to be that the administration was doing it for sadistic kicks. But minimally rational people who strongly opposed the policy do acknowledge the fact that it arose from a true threat and that the people who instituted the policy did so out of a rational concern for preventing any conceivable attack, not just a nuclear one.
What was being sought was not only information on suitcase nukes. A colossal program of attack prevention was instituted over the objection from, among other people, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy. The United States didn’t institute Homeland Security measures in airports and ballparks and office buildings and the like because of fears of a nuclear attack. A conventional attack would suffice.
On the second day of his presidency, Barack Obama signed an executive order ending the CIA’s interrogation program. Since the White House official who talked to Dickerson told him Obama’s line — “we can absorb a terrorist attack … we absorbed it and we are stronger” — had to do with “the national security threats he faced upon becoming the president,” Obama’s quote to Woodward might prove even more damning.
In other words, it was acceptable to end the interrogation program in part because Obama had journeyed beyond the adrenalized alarm that characterized the condition of Bush national security officials for more than seven years. It was change Obama could believe in.
It’s nice to read in the Wall Street Journal that more shipping companies are embarking armed security guards to protect their ships off the coast of Somalia. That will certainly strike a blow against the pirates who had another record year in 2009. But the Journal also notes that “the majority of the international maritime community resists using lethal force because it ‘poses incredible logistical challenges, potentially violates many national and international laws, and is contrary to maritime conventions,’ says James Christodoulou, chief executive of Industrial Shipping Enterprises Corp.”
It is incumbent upon shipping companies to do more to protect their vessels. But it is also incumbent upon the world’s leading state to do more to safeguard maritime commerce. All the warships cruising off the coast of East Africa can accomplish little as long as they lack the legal authority to treat pirates as combatants rather than as potential criminal suspects. This is yet another instance where the Obama administration (like the Bush administration before it) insists on using normal legal safeguards in a situation where they don’t apply. That makes it impossible for our naval ships to blow pirates out of the water or bombard their lairs on land. Even when caught, most pirates are released because there is no desire to try them in our courts — or those of Western Europe. This would be another excellent use for the terrorist tribunals set up by Congress because pirates are, after all, another species of international rogue. Their activities are, in fact, often indistinguishable from those of terrorists, who also use criminal schemes to finance their operations. But what chance is there that we will get tough with Somalian buccaneers if we are extending the full panoply of constitutional rights even to the likes of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad?
If nothing else, the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab should remind us that the “war on terror” (oh, that now banished phrase!) was not dreamed up by some neocon conspiracy bent on curtailing Americans’ civil liberties and on colonizing poor defenseless countries. It is nothing but a simple, accurate description of the threat we face from Islamist extremists bent on mass murder to advance their deranged worldview.
It is not only luck that has kept us (relatively) safe since 9/11, aside from a few random nuts like the Beltway sniper (John Allen Muhammad) and the Fort Hood shooter (Major Malik Nadal Hasan). There has been no lack of larger plots against American targets here and abroad. A few, such as the attempted bombings by Richard Reid and Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, have been foiled by a combination of bad planning on the part of the terrorists and active resistance by airline passengers. Many more plots, such as the attempt to blow up airliners flying across the Atlantic by using liquid explosives, have been defeated by active intelligence and law enforcement work. A vital contribution to that work has been made by the Patriot Act and other post-9/11 changes, which have made it easier to wiretap suspects, share intelligence, and (don’t forget) aggressively interrogate captured terrorists and keep them in custody even if they cannot be convicted beyond a shadow of a doubt in a civil court.
Unfortunately all too many people have drawn the wrong lesson from these post-9/11 successes, concluding that we are so safe that we can go back to the pre-9/11 status quo, back when we treated terrorism as a law-enforcement problem and nothing more. This has become the conventional wisdom of the mainstream, left-wing of the Democratic Party and a tiny, right-wing fringe of the Republican Party (Ron Paul and Pat Buchanan), which see the U.S. government as the biggest threat we face—not al-Qaeda and its fellow travelers.
It would be unfair to say that President Obama has bought into this worldview. To his credit, he has continued an active program of using drones and Special Forces to assassinate terrorist kingpins from Pakistan to Somalia; has ramped up our military efforts in Afghanistan; and has continued an active program of intelligence and military cooperation designed to allow states such as Yemen and the Philippines to fight their own wars on terror. Moreover, he has signed off on wider wiretapping and intelligence-gathering authority than the ACLU is comfortable with. But there are certainly some worrisome trends evident from this administration, which insists on trying Khalid Sheikh Muhammad in a civilian court, which has banned the use of all stress techniques in interrogation, and which continues releasing detainees from Guantanamo, many of whom go right back to the sorts of activities that got them interred in the first place. And let us not forget the president’s unwillingness to get tough with Iran, whose nuclear-weapons program could before long radically increase the chances of our allies’ suffering a nuclear terrorist attack.
Obama has actually been a little tougher on terrorism (and Iraq and Afghanistan) than his record as an ultra-liberal senator would have led us to expect; certainly a lot tougher than Michael Moore or his ilk would like him to be. But not perhaps as tough as the situation demands. If there is any good that comes out of the attempted bombing of the Detroit flight, or the Iranians’ rejections of his naive overtures, it is that he may finally shed some of his remaining illusions about the world and start acting more as a wartime commander in chief should.
Have you been waiting for an American version of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich—a searing account of life in the American Gulag? Well, according to the New York Times Book Review, your wait is over. Rush right out and pick your own copy of Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak.
To be sure, the Times’s reviewer, Wellesley professor Dan Chiasson, admits that the poems may be somewhat lacking in artistic merit. But, hey, he suggests, you gotta make allowances:
It is hard to imagine a reader so hardhearted as to bring aesthetic judgment to bear on a book written by men in prison without legal recourse, several of them held in solitary confinement, some of them likely subjected to practices that many disinterested parties have called torture. You don’t read this book for pleasure; you read it for evidence. And if you are an American citizen you read it for evidence of the violence your government is doing to total strangers in a distant place, some of whom (perhaps all of whom, since without due process how are we to tell?) are as innocent of crimes against our nation as you are.
Chiasson may be carrying his anti-Bush paranoia a wee bit far, given that the Gitmo detainees now include such charming characters as Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the mastermind of the 9/11 plot. I have yet to hear even the most ardent critic of the administration suggest that KSM is actually innocent.
But Chiasson seems to be writing from an alternative reality—call it Planet Academia—where the Gitmo detainees are not the world’s most vicious terrorists but, rather, political prisoners of a repressive American regime akin to Stalinist Russia. The only thing he can’t seem to figure is why Amerika, that bastion of fascism, would allow these poor souls to publish their writings: “imagine a volume of Osip Mandelstam’s poetry released by the Soviet government in 1938, or an anthology of poems by Japanese internment prisoners released by our government during the Second World War.” He speculates, rather cunningly, that this might actually be a plot by the U.S. government “to make Guantánamo and our abuses there unfold on an abstract ‘literary’ plane rather than in real life and real time,” and thereby to lessen our horror at what is transpiring behind the prison walls.
For my part, I have trouble figuring out why the Times editors would publish what amounts to a parody of liberal antiwar hysteria. Could it be that the dictator in the White House ordered the Times to run this essay in order to confine the antiwar activists to “an abstract literary plane” and thereby to hold them up to general public ridicule?