‘I almost missed the call,” says Rep. Peter King of New York, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. “For some reason, I had left my phone on vibrate, so I didn’t hear it. Then, about ten minutes after 10 p.m., I saw the red light blinking.”
King grabbed his BlackBerry. The first message was from Michael Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center. “Leiter left me a number at the White House, but he does not work there,” he recalls. “I thought it was for some broom closet.”
Around 10:15 p.m. Sunday, King punched the number into his phone. The line rang eleven times. “Bin Laden was the farthest thing from my mind,” he says. Then he heard a voice crackle: It was the White House Situation Room.
“Pretty quickly, Leiter told me that we had killed bin Laden,” King says. “But it really didn’t hit me. I was thinking Qaddafi, or somebody coming across the border. Bin Laden was so far off my radar screen.”
“Maybe my mind is getting slower,” King chuckles. “It took me a few seconds to process the news. At any briefing that I have been to, we have been told that we do not know where he is, that he could be anywhere.”
Flabbergasted, King sat back in his chair at home, turned on his television, and, like all of us, exhaled.
For the past two years, the Long Island Republican has been one of President Obama’s leading security critics on Capitol Hill. But this week, as he has heard more details about the Navy SEALs’ mission, he has been increasingly impressed by the president’s leadership. “I think that the president handled everything very well,” King says. “Think about this: There was no direct evidence that bin Laden was in that compound. Nobody saw him.”
“It could have been anything; it could have been a set-up, full of civilians, women, and children,” King surmises. “It could have been full of weapons and explosives to blow our helicopters out of the sky. Or it could have been absolutely nothing.”
“I understand that there were a number of people in the president’s circle who were opposed to the decision,” King observes, his eyebrow raised. “But with this operation, he never flinched, he never blinked. If it went the wrong way, it would have ruined his presidency, in the same way the helicopters in the desert did to Jimmy Carter.”
At the White House on Monday night, at the bipartisan congressional dinner, King took the president aside. “I told him that I was proud that he was president, that the people of New York were gratified,” he says. “The president replied that ‘there is still a long way to go.’ At his moment of victory, he said that. I was happy to hear it.”
Despite the pleasantries, King, who recently held hearings on Islamic radicalization within the United States, will continue to press the administration on a variety of issues, including homeland security. There will be no political grace period, he says — the threats are too great.
King plans to push cabinet officials to pay close attention to domestic terror. “Al-Qaeda is committed to getting us,” he says. “We have to be concerned that al-Qaeda itself will respond.” He will also press for answers on Pakistan, asking what its government knew about bin Laden’s whereabouts.
“The enemy is now more of a threat from within than it is from overseas,” King asserts. “If they have people over here to use, they could give a signal to take action. If they have any teams in the U.S., this is the kind of thing that could make them operational. A lone wolf is another possibility.”
Still, as he pushes for increased antiterrorism efforts, King acknowledges that bin Laden’s death brings immediate gains. “Killing bin Laden is a significant victory; it’s a big propaganda victory,” he says. “In the short term, it puts al-Qaeda off stride.”
“Al-Qaeda is such a confederation of disparate ethnic groups,” he continues. “For whatever reason, bin Laden seemed to have been the only one who could hold them together. With him gone, I can see others vying for power. Hopefully, we can take advantage of the interlude.”
King notes that former president George W. Bush deserves credit for his role in shepherding the effort. “So much of this was set into motion by President Bush, including all of the interrogations and the leads,” he says. “I’ve downplayed this, because I don’t want to seem like I am begrudging Obama, but it needs to be said.”
Indeed, as he leans back in his Capitol Hill office, which is decked with memorabilia from Notre Dame, his alma mater, King underscores that Obama was “excellent” in how he led over the weekend. But he remains troubled about how Obama may address terrorism post–bin Laden.
King’s chief criticism of the president is that Obama appears to “compartmentalize” his approach to national security, taking a hard line in Afghanistan but a softer tone at home. In other words, he says, Obama is an “Ellsberg liberal here, but a Bush hawk there.”
“His training and his life experiences have been as a liberal,” King muses. “He grew up with people who saw Daniel Ellsberg and the anti-Vietnam protesters as heroes. So for him, it’s much easier to apply that kind of thinking to a domestic situation. It’s more amorphous.”
Even abroad, Obama acts less boldly when it comes to criticizing groups like WikiLeaks — an outfit, King argues, that has threatened American interests: “Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, is the 21st-century version of Daniel Ellsberg, so I think that is part of his reluctance. If Ellsberg was a hero, how do you prosecute Assange? That is the kind of question that I think they ask when approaching these issues.”
Looking ahead to the 2012 presidential campaign, King would like to see GOP candidates speak up more about terrorism. Even though Obama has seen an uptick in the polls, King says that Republicans cannot retreat. In fact, he says, they must fight with gusto.
“This has to be a dominant issue next year,” King says. “We can make all of the budget cuts we want, but if a dirty bomb goes off in Manhattan or downtown Chicago, apart from the tragic loss of human life, the effects on the economy would be terrible. We cannot lose sight of that fact.”
Presidential hopefuls should not get “caught up in side debates like whether he should have been buried at sea,” King adds. He would rather see candidates attempt to articulate a sharper, more forceful security agenda. Obama, he insists, is vulnerable on numerous issues, from the 9/11-detainee trials and the crackdown on CIA interrogations to his decision-making on Libya.
For the moment, King says with a hint of regret, he does not see any contender taking the reins. That lack of heft is leading him to look elsewhere. With the death of bin Laden, he says, Republicans must adjust and nominate someone with foreign-policy and national-security substance.
In coming days, he will urge former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani to jump into the race. Giuliani, he believes, would be able to carry a strong anti-terror message, one that could compete with Obama’s strengths.
“Giuliani is the only one capable,” King says. “He is the one who has the credibility. Rudy, on terrorism, is the full deal. He would be strong on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. He would also be strong on Guantanamo,” and on threats in “downtown New York and Minneapolis.”
“With people like Haley Barbour leaving the race, there is room for him to jump in. Someone with Rudy’s anti-terror credentials could get into this and do well. He has a cohesive, coherent view, one that would connect with voters. We need someone with a consistent theme.”
For Peter King, that has never been a problem.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.