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Candidates Clash on Terrorism

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By Anne E. Kornblut and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 18, 2008

TAYLOR, Mich., June 17 -- The campaigns of Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama on Tuesday engaged in a heated exchange over the rights of terrorism suspects, with each side accusing the other of embracing a policy that would put the country at risk of more attacks in the future.

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In a Tuesday morning conference call with reporters, McCain advisers criticized Obama as "naive" and "delusional" in his approach to the handling of terrorism suspects after he expressed support for last week's Supreme Court decision granting detainees the right to seek habeas corpus hearings. Obama fired back, saying the Republicans who had led failed efforts to capture Osama bin Laden lacked the standing to criticize him on the issue.

The exchange marked the general election's first real engagement over the campaign against terrorism and demonstrated that both sides are confident that they have a winning message on the issue.

McCain's aides seized, in particular, on remarks Obama made during a Monday interview with ABC News. In it, he praised the handling of the prosecution of the 1993 World Trade Center attackers, who, with one exception, were put on trial and sent to prison.

"He's advocating a policy of delusion," Randy Scheunemann, a McCain adviser, said of Obama (D-Ill.). Former CIA director R. James Woolsey Jr. said Obama's attitude "ignores that we are in a war against terrorism."

Scheunemann described Obama as having the "perfect manifestation of a Sept. 10 mind-set," saying he "does not understand the nature of the enemy as we face it."

Separately, the McCain campaign circulated a statement by former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani that said: "Barack Obama appears to believe that terrorists should be treated like criminals -- a belief that underscores his fundamental lack of judgment regarding our national security."

Obama did not back away from the fight.

"Let's think about this: These are the same guys who helped engineer the distraction of the war in Iraq at a time when we could have pinned down the people who actually committed 9/11," Obama told reporters on his campaign plane. He said his statements about Guantanamo Bay were intended to suggest that suspects have a right to be heard, not freed, and accused McCain (R-Ariz.) of playing political games on national security.

"What they're trying to do is what they've done every election cycle, which is to use terrorism as a club to make the American people afraid," Obama said.

In the ABC interview, Obama said the perpetrators of the 1993 bombing are proof that the existing justice system can handle terrorism cases. "They are currently in U.S. prisons, incapacitated," he said. "And the fact that the administration has not tried to do that has created a situation where not only have we never actually put many of these folks on trial, but we have destroyed our credibility when it comes to rule of law all around the world and given a huge boost to terrorist recruitment in countries that say, 'Look, this is how the United States treats Muslims.' "

The debate over whether to treat terrorism primarily as a law enforcement issue or as a military issue goes back years. Some experts argue that it is inadequate to pursue and prosecute suicidal Islamic extremists as if they were typical criminals; other experts say that doing so is precisely what is needed to puncture the aura of "holy warriors" that the terrorists feed on and to deglamorize them in the eyes of other Muslims.


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