Obama Team Says Zazi Case Illustrates Balanced Approach to Terror Threat

By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 6, 2009

President Obama will make his first visit to the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean on Tuesday morning, telling intelligence officials that their recent successes have proved how effectively multiple agencies can perform when they work in concert.

The White House has been charting a delicate course as it attempts to turn the page on Bush-era anti-terrorism policies. Even as Obama wages a war in Afghanistan that he has called critical to curbing terrorism, his administration is trying to defend itself from criticism by former vice president Richard B. Cheney and other Republicans for casting aside what they say are critical tools for protecting the United States.

Obama aides pointed to the events leading up to the recent arrest of Najibullah Zazi as a prime example of what they say is the president's deep involvement in anti-terrorism efforts. In late August, shortly after federal agents began tracking the movements of the suspected terrorist in Colorado, senior officials added the case to Obama's daily intelligence briefing in the Oval Office.

Agents had only fragmented information about Zazi at that point, administration officials said. But the case quickly piqued Obama's curiosity and led to what aides called an intensive three-week White House focus on the case.

The 24-year-old Afghan immigrant was arrested last month, accused of seeking to build bombs on U.S. soil after attending an al-Qaeda training camp in Pakistan. Investigators think Zazi was "entering the execution phase" of a bombing plot, a senior administration official said over the weekend, possibly timed to coincide with the president's trip to New York for a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly or the anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Although they think that any threat was removed with Zazi's arrest, officials said further arrests are possible. "We're not done," a senior administration official said.

But already, Obama's approach to the first major terrorist threat made public during his presidency is becoming more clear.

In interviews, senior Obama officials stressed their efforts to set a different tone than the previous administration; the White House says it avoided trumpeting either the elevated threat level or the averted crisis, while portraying Obama as highly involved in monitoring developments. As Zazi drove across the country under heavy surveillance, John O. Brennan, Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, briefed the president three to four times a day on Zazi's activities .

Shortly after taking office, Obama discarded the term "global war on terror," along with some of its most controversial tools, and aides describe a president who has been deliberative in implementing his own security policy. He has come under fire for not abandoning some of George W. Bush's policies, such as warrantless wiretapping and rendition, and faced criticism for jettisoning others, including enhanced interrogation techniques and secret prisons.

At the same time, the Obama administration is pressing Congress to move swiftly to reauthorize three provisions of the USA Patriot Act set to expire in late December. They include the use of "roving wiretaps" to track movement, e-mail and phone communications, a tool that federal officials used in the weeks leading up to Zazi's arrest.

With the apprehension of Zazi, as well as several other covert operations at home and abroad, the Obama administration is increasingly confident that it has struck a balance between protecting civil liberties, honoring international law and safeguarding the country.

"The Zazi case was the first test of this administration being able to successfully uncover and deal with this type of threat in the United States," a senior administration official said. "It demonstrated that we were able to successfully neutralize this threat, and to have insight into it, with existing statutory authorities, with the system as it currently operates."

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