The Corner

From Killing Terrorists to ‘Ameliorating Upstream Factors’

Earlier this week, the Obama administration released its much-anticipated “Lockerbie Letter,” in which, conservative critics charge, President Obama acceded to a decision by the United Kingdom to release the man responsible for murdering everyone on board Pan Am Flight 103.

The accusation was simple: Last August, Team Obama exerted pressure — allegedly at the same time as British Petroleum, though for other reasons — to have Lockerbie bomber Adbelbasset al-Megrahi released on grounds of compassion. Megrahi had been held by Scottish authorities since his conviction for the murder of 259 airline passengers and 11 bystanders, when Flight 103 exploded in December 1988. After delays and denials, the powers that be finally released an August 2009 letter from our embassy in London to the Scottish Ministry of Justice.

It was not the smoking gun some had hoped for, as the letter expressly states, in the words of the U.S. chargé d’affaires, that “the United States is not prepared to support Megrahi’s release on compassionate release or bail.” In the light of the heinous nature of his crime, the letter continues, “it would be most appropriate for Megrahi to remain imprisoned for the entirety of his sentence.”

Case closed? Not quite.

Unfortunately for the White House and the State Department, which perhaps saw the release as inevitable after former prime minister Tony Blair made efforts to negotiate a prisoner swap with Libya, the letter also states that the “U.S. position is that conditional release on compassionate grounds would be a far preferable alternative to prisoner transfer, which we strongly oppose.”

Not surprisingly, this sentence has set the blogosphere alight, with accusations from the right that the administration is soft on terrorism not only in rhetoric but in action. In response, the Democratic faithful — notably Media Matters’s Ben Dimiero, who accuses “unhinged” conservative commentators of writing “inane screeds” — claim that their foes suffer from paranoid delusions, citing the first half of the letter as proof that Team Obama is just as manly as its predecessor.

Now that the text of the letter is out, what does it tell us about how the Obama White House understands mass-murder terrorism and what it proposes to do about it?

A large and growing body of evidence shows that the Obama administration is “half-pregnant” when it comes to counterterrorism. The letter is a perfect example of its confused state. Either Megrahi’s crime is evil and he should rot in prison for the lives he took and the immense suffering he caused, or he should be released.

The text of the Lockerbie Letter is symptomatic of the confusion of Obama’s administration when it comes to dealing with the realities of the post-9/11 world. On the one hand, Obama has continued “hard-line” Bush-era policies. In some cases — such as the drone strikes that kill targeted terrorists in Pakistan — we have seen a drastic increase in and reaffirmation of such measures. At the same time, Obama has taken a bewilderingly soft line. From his decision to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay to trying al-Qaeda prisoners in civilian courts, the administration demonstrates a belief that nothing changed on 9/11, and terrorism is just another crime.

The president’s assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism, John Brennan, offered the best and fullest evidence of this worldview in a speech last week at CSIS. Informed observers see Brennan as the most influential person in the White House when it comes to America’s approach to al-Qaeda. As such, it should give all Americans pause when he introduces the concept of “upstream factors.”

This phrase refers to what social and political scientists used to call “root causes,” such as poverty, undereducation, and unemployment. According to Brennan, the United States must address these root causes and “ameliorate” them. If no one is poor, if all are well-educated and have jobs, goes the logic of his speech, then we will be safe. This despite that fact that all of the most dangerous terrorists we face, from bin Laden himself to the Nigerian underwear bomber, were rich, educated members of local elites. (For an exhaustive empirical study of this flawed theory, see former CIA counterterrorism officer Marc Sageman’s book Understanding Terror Networks.)

So which is it? Let mass murderers die in prison, or let them out? Kill members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, or prosecute them in federal courts in Manhattan? Surge troops into Afghanistan, or feed all the world’s poor?

The Lockerbie Letter scandal will soon fade away, but the incoherence of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism policy will not. Hopefully it won’t take another attack on the American mainland to cure the administration of its schizophrenia.

Sebastian L. Gorka is military-affairs fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracy and contributing author and co-editor of Toward a Grand Strategy against Terrorism (McGraw-Hill 2010).

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