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.
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.
That debate flared hottest after the 2001 attacks. Republicans argued that the Clinton administration had erred by not taking a more forceful military approach against al-Qaeda after a string of terrorist attacks during its tenure -- the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole.
Democrats noted that Clinton had attempted to kill bin Laden with bomb strikes, and they argued that the failure was not so much the reliance on the FBI and CIA to pursue al-Qaeda, but the failure of those agencies to do their jobs as well as they could have.
In 2004, President Bush charged that his opponent for reelection, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), was advocating a pre-Sept. 11 mind-set after Kerry compared Islamic terrorism to other global scourges such as drug trafficking and said it is "primarily an intelligence and law enforcement operation that requires cooperation around the world." The charge appeared to help Bush sway security-minded voters on his way to reelection.
But Obama has shown himself far more eager than Kerry and other Democrats to challenge the Republicans on the issue. He argues that the Bush administration's approach to fighting terrorism has been a failure, and he proposes an approach that mixes law enforcement, intelligence and military tools, including the possibility of invading Pakistan to pursue al-Qaeda if the Pakistani government does not cooperate.
As long ago as last August, he condemned the administration's legal approach to processing terrorism suspects. He argued instead for trying detainees in civilian courts or military courts operating under traditional military law, instead of the tribunals established by the Military Commissions Act that he and many other Democrats deride as kangaroo courts.
"I . . . reject a legal framework that does not work," he said in an August speech laying out his counterterrorism plans. "There has been only one conviction at Guantanamo. . . . There has not been one conviction of a terrorist act. I have faith in America's courts, and I have faith in our JAGs. . . . Our Constitution and our Uniform Code of Military Justice provide a framework for dealing with the terrorists."
Tuesday, the McCain team drew a direct line between the prosecution of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, saying that submitting the bombers to the criminal justice system was, in the words of former Navy secretary and 9/11 Commission member John Lehman, "a material cause" of the 2001 attacks. Lehman participated in the McCain conference call.
Lehman said grand jury evidence in the 1993 bombing was "put under seal" and not made available to the CIA, thus denying the agency timely access to information that "would have enabled many of the dots to be connected well before 9/11 and . . . give a good chance to have prevented" the later attack. In particular, he cited information concerning a connection between Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged ringleader of the 2001 attacks who is imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, and the bombing.
But both the report of the 9/11 Commission, which investigated intelligence failures leading to the 2001 strikes, and the prosecutor of the 1993 case disagreed with Lehman's version of history. The commission's final report, which Lehman endorsed as a member of the panel, gives no indication that any failure to share information on the bombing with the intelligence community had "significance for the story of 9/11."
Instead, the report cites political and intelligence failures to understand the scope of the terrorist threat after the 1993 attack, as well as a failure to fully analyze the implications of the available information. It also blames the FBI and the CIA for failing to effectively communicate with each other, problems that were later addressed in the USA Patriot Act and the reorganization of the intelligence community.
Grand jury secrecy "could have operated in these cases as a barrier to information flowing from law enforcement to intelligence," former U.S. attorney Mary Jo White, who successfully prosecuted six major terrorism cases including the 1993 bombing, said Tuesday. But, she added, "as a matter of fact it did not."
White and several people involved in the 9/11 Commission disputed Lehman's assertion that "the CIA was not allowed to see that evidence." Lehman also described then-CIA Director George J. Tenet as "flabbergasted at what he found in that material" once it was made available to him. But Tenet made no such claim in his 2007 book.
Far from being unknown to the intelligence community, Mohammed was indicted in January 1996 in connection with a plot to blow up transpacific airliners. The congressional joint inquiry on the Sept. 11 plot strongly suggested that the intelligence community was well aware of Mohammed's terrorist activities, but that agencies were unduly focused on apprehending him in the airline case rather than on other plots still in the planning stages.
DeYoung reported from Washington. Staff writers Alec MacGillis and Michael D. Shear and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.