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White House Plays Defense On National Security

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to the media in the briefing room of the White House February 9, 2010 in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to the media in the briefing room of the White House February 9, 2010 in Washington, DC.

The Obama administration has launched an aggressive PR campaign to challenge the notion that it's soft on terrorism.

In TV interviews and op-ed columns, administration officials are fighting back against a familiar line of Republican attack that's taken on new strength in recent weeks.

Two months ago, with a lingering recession and unemployment near 10 percent, terrorism was barely a blip on voters' radar screens. That changed on Christmas Day, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly smuggled a bomb onto a Northwest Airlines jet, and tried to blow it up.

The failure of U.S. authorities to stop Abdulmutallab and the subsequent decision to treat him as a criminal suspect gave Republicans a familiar political opening. And newly elected Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, a Republican, drove a truck through it.

"And the message that we need to send in dealing with terrorists, our tax dollars should pay for weapons to stop them and not lawyers to defend them," Brown said in his victory speech last month.

This argument spans not just the decision to treat Abdulmutallab as a criminal defendant and read him his rights but the administration's plans to close Guantanamo and try the accused mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in federal court. Brown's advisers say criticizing this approach was their candidate's most potent political argument — even more than health care or the economy. And it's a lesson that's not lost on other Republicans.

Speaking to Tea Party activists over the weekend, Sarah Palin accused the president of treating terrorism as a mere law enforcement issue.

"That's not how radical Islamic extremists are looking at this. They know we're at war. And to win that war, we need a commander in chief, not a professor of law, standing at the lectern," Palin said.

Until recently, the administration paid little public attention to these criticisms. But in the last 10 days, the White House press secretary issued a point-by-point rebuttal of the GOP attacks. The administration organized a press briefing to make it clear that Abdulmutallab is cooperating with FBI investigators. And counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan went on Meet The Press to defend the White House approach.

"Quite frankly, I'm tiring of politicians using national security issues such as terrorism as a political football," Brennan said.

If this were a football game, the White House is on defense. President Obama addressed the criticisms personally in an interview with CBS.

"We're not handling any of these cases any different than the Bush administration handled them all through 9/11," Obama said in a Feb. 7 interview.

The president noted that under the Bush administration, another would-be airline bomber, Richard Reid, was read his Miranda rights, just like Abdulmutallab. Reid was also tried in civilian court, and sentenced to life in prison. In fact, every terror suspect caught inside the United States was at least initially held in criminal — rather than military — custody. Karen Greenberg, who runs the Center on Law and Security at NYU law school, says what's different about the Obama Administration is the lead role given the law enforcement in all terrorism cases.

"From day one, Attorney General Holder and the president have said the Department of Justice needs to be intimately involved in these cases," Greenberg says.

She argues that reassertion of the rule of law is completely compatible with a strong defense against terrorism. She scoffs at the notion put forward by some Republican lawmakers that using the FBI, rather than a military team, to interrogate Abdulmutallab somehow cost the U.S. valuable intelligence.

"The FBI has a tremendous track record of getting information out of these terrorists. So to think the military, just because they have the right to bear arms, would get better information, that's just not correct," Greenberg says.

Greenberg also notes that hundreds of terror suspects have already been prosecuted in civilian court, and many received much stiffer sentences than the handful who have been tried before military tribunals.

"Some sort of education needs to take place to make the case for the Department of Justice that not just can it do it, but it is the tougher system," she says.

The administration is only now beginning to make that case. Counterterrorism adviser Brennan wrote in USA Today this week, "We need no lectures about the fact that this nation is at war." But the White House was slow to join the political battle on the home front about how that war is conducted.

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