The Politics of Counter-Terrorism

Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan is pushing back hard against the politicization of counter-terrorism efforts. He especially objected to the recent controversy over the handling of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the foreign national who tried to blow up a plane on Christmas Day as it landed in Detroit. Republicans have criticized the administration for "Mirandizing"Abdulmutallab, informing him of his rights and procuring a lawyer for him, although it was recently revealed that he is cooperating with authorities now. The issue became an applause line for Sen. Scott Brown in his surprise win in Massachusetts.

Brennan appeared on "Meet the Press" this past Sunday and his criticism of the politicians was straightforward: "I am just very concerned on behalf of the counter-terrorism officials throughout the government that politicians continue to make this a political football." Brennan, it should be clear, is a lifer in the intelligence business having worked most of his life for the CIA, then appointed by President George W. Bush to 2004 to be the first head of the National Counterterrorism Center, and finally appointed by President Obama to be Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security. He is not, in short, a political hack.

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The Republican attacks on the administration’s handling of the Detroit bomber have been especially obnoxious seeing as the Bush administration handled their shoe bomber in almost exactly the same fashion. Their attacks on the administration’s efforts to close Guantanamo and bring as many inmates there to justice as possible are similarly hollow when you recall that they have used civilian courts to try no less than Zacarias Moussaoui, a man who was actually complicit in the 9/11 attacks.

The Democrats, however, deserve not an ounce of pity. They have failed to erect the legal architecture that terrorism has made necessary. In this age of suicide bombers and mass murder, we need to find ways to prosecute terrorists, but we also have to find ways to protect innocents from attacks, even if that means that some of the standards of traditional jurisprudence should be set aside. The Left needs to realize that you can’t treat a terrorist like a common thief just as the Right needs to realize that the only way the Jihadists can win their war is if we abandon the standards of civilized, legal behavior that are one of the West’s most glorious achievements.

In the event, there is a blueprint for such a legal architecture. If the Democrats on the Hill or at the Justice Department would go to their local bookstore, they would easily find a copy of Ben Wittes’ "Law and the Long War: The Future of Justice in the Age of Terror." Wittes, who is a Fellow at the Brookings Institution, lays out the issues involved in prosecuting terror suspects in ways that will make both the Left and the Right uncomfortable. His book has received widespread critical acclaim across the political and ideological spectrum, but so far no one on Capitol Hill or in the Administration has championed the effort to create new laws to deal with this new threat. Instead, both parties argue for solutions that reflect their biases, but which also reflect the ways in which they fail to grasp the unique challenges terrorism presents to our legal culture.

Brennan’s interview was powerful. I hope his friends in the White House listened as intently as his critics on Capitol Hill. And, I hope he can convince them that it is time that both parties recognize that putting new wines into old juridical skins is only a recipe for the continued politicization of an issue that surely should transcend petty politics.

Michael Sean Winters

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7 years 8 months ago
I have a suggestion on how the Republicans can make more hay out of terrorism politics. Find out if the Christmas bomber was handcuffed with hands in front or in back by the FBI [read Holder]. If in front then blame Obama and then they may win the fall elections. phew.

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