Politics & Policy

On Terrorism, Obama Is Living History

Barack Obama is the herald of the September 10 Democrats.

On Monday, Obama off-handedly reiterated his fondness for 1990s-style treatment of Islamic terrorists as if they were mere criminals to be managed by prosecution in the civilian criminal-justice system. By now, that should come as no surprise. Pressed on the subject again Wednesday, Obama insisted, “I have confidence that our system of justice is strong enough to deal with terrorists.” Top Obama backer Bill Richardson, a member of the Clinton Cabinet that delegated national defense to our system of justice while radical Islam killed Americans in New York City, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Yemen, told CNN on Wednesday that he “totally” rejected the Bush administration policy of branding jihadists as enemy combatants because doing so is somehow tantamount to “abridging our own freedoms.”

Appropriately, John McCain has slammed Obama and his fellow wishful thinkers as naïve and beholden to a “September 10th” mindset — the mindset that gave us the mass murder of nearly 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001.

The occasion for this latest dust-up was the Supreme Court’s ruling last week in Boumediene v. Bush vesting alien enemy combatants detained by our military with a constitutional right to habeas corpus — that is, to review by the civilian courts of the military’s determination that they are enemy combatants. In addition to raising the possibility that jihadists who pose a lethal threat to Americans will be released, Boumediene portends litigation chaos: The justices have dumped potentially hundreds of detainee cases on the federal district courts with no guidance about the rules and procedures that should govern those proceedings.

Naturally, this prospect has prompted intense debate. McCain called the decision one of the worst in American history. Obama, by contrast, is glowing in his praise and yearns for a return to the model of our treatment of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, when, he points out, suspects were apprehended and successfully prosecuted in the civilian courts.

Leaving aside that Obama here is once again not in command of the facts (not all of those responsible for the 1993 bombing were apprehended), the criminal-prosecution approach left America vulnerable. (For a powerful account of why, see our colleague Andy McCarthy’s book, Willful Blindness.) The civilian-justice system is incapable of apprehending and neutralizing more than a fraction of the Islamic radicals who target our country. That’s not deduction — it’s empirical fact: Major terrorists such as Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed were under indictment for over a decade even as they continued to plot and execute attacks, including 9/11, with the authorities impotent to stop them.

Because of our system’s prohibitive due-process demands — demands that are reasonable for Americans accused of crimes but out of place when the “defendants” are foreign combatants — less than three dozen terrorists could be prosecuted in the eight years between the WTC bombing and the destruction of the Twin Towers. That’s fewer enemy operatives than our military often kills or captures in a single day in Afghanistan and Iraq. The trials of the Nineties, moreover, were a treasure trove for al-Qaeda, providing it with generous discovery of our national-defense secrets as well as insight into our methods and sources for obtaining them.

Worst of all, the September 10 approach was provocatively weak. It told an enemy, so committed to killing Americans that its operatives were willing to sacrifice themselves in the effort, that the world’s only superpower would respond to atrocities with subpoenas and indictments. Without the prospect of a vigorous response to acts of war, the enemy continued to attack. The result was 9/11.

McCain has learned these lessons and maintains that we must stay on offense in the war against radical Islam. That means a real war footing: military and covert operations, aggressive collection of intelligence, and Treasury tracking of terrorism finances. The justice system has a role, but it’s a subordinate one: Instead of prosecutions after Americans have been killed, it now pursues the lower-profile but more effective task of breaking up terror cells before they can attack. Although the U.S. could be hit again at any time, it says something about the success of this approach that seven years after 9/11 we have not suffered another attack on our soil.

This aggressive post-9/11 approach is what an Obama spokeswoman has called “stupid.” The candidate himself says he’s not going be “lectured” on national security by the people responsible for the Iraq war. But he might benefit from some time listening to and learning from McCain on Iraq, since McCain advocated the surge that has beaten back al-Qaeda in Iraq while Obama wanted to pull combat troops out in what would have amounted to a surrender. This is a debate McCain should welcome, and win.


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