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Obama administration is tone-deaf to concerns about terrorism

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, February 2, 2010

There is almost nothing the Obama administration does regarding terrorism that makes me feel safer. Whether it is guaranteeing captured terrorists that they will not be waterboarded, reciting terrorists their rights, or the legally meandering and confusing rule that some terrorists will be tried in military tribunals and some in civilian courts, what is missing is a firm recognition that what comes first is not the message sent to America's critics but the message sent to Americans themselves. When, oh when, will this administration wake up?

Bit by bit, circumstances are forcing President Obama and his aides to come to grips with reality. The original plan to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the so-called Sept. 11 mastermind, in New York City has apparently been aborted. It finally occurred to the Justice Department that cordoning off much of Lower Manhattan and placing a security perimeter around the financial district not only would cost something like $200 million a year but also would destroy the economy of the area. A trial there would give KSM, as he is called, a second shot at devastating downtown New York.

It is amazing that no one thought this through. Published reports say that the Justice Department informed Mayor Michael Bloomberg of its plan just about the time it was announced. This alacrity was clearly the product of some excitement down at Justice -- yet another chance to show the world that George W. Bush was gone and with him the odious attempts to treat terrorists as if they were, well, terrorists. A civilian trial! Right in the heart of Manhattan! Obama ought to ask his friend Attorney General Eric Holder what in the world he was thinking -- just as we might ask Obama why he has such faith in Holder's judgment.

In a similar example of poor judgment, an undoubtedly delighted Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was told he had something called Miranda rights and could, if he so chose, cease talking about allegedly attempting to blow up a jetliner as it approached Detroit on Christmas Day. Abdulmutallab was Mirandized after just 50 minutes of interrogation and he, having probably seen more than his share of "Law & Order" episodes, promptly shut up.

Administration officials defend what happened in Detroit and assert, against common sense and the holy truth itself, that they got valuable intelligence -- and so what more would you want? But Abdulmutallab went silent before terrorism experts from Washington could get to him. It has been more than a month since he last opened his mouth, and even if he resumes cooperating -- a deal may be in the works -- he now knows just a bit more about the present-day location of various al-Qaeda operatives than does Regis Philbin.

The announced closing of Guantanamo has also suffered from a peculiar Obama-style naivete. It is now apparent that there are some bad people there who should be detained way past the time they are eligible for AARP membership. It's true that the world does not like Guantanamo, but then it's also true that the world is not an al-Qaeda target.

KSM, Abdulmutallab and other accused terrorists should be tried. But these two are not Americans, and they are accused of terrorism, tantamount to an act of war -- a virtual Pearl Harbor, in KSM's case. A military tribunal would fit them fine. If it is good enough for your average GI accused of murder or some such thing, it ought to be good enough for a foreign national with mass murder on his mind.

No doubt George Bush soiled America's image abroad with what looked liked vigilante justice and Dick Cheney's hearty endorsement of ugly interrogation measures. But more is at stake here than America's image abroad -- namely the security and peace of mind of Americans in America. Bush stands condemned by the facts for Sept. 11 -- his watch, his responsibility -- and in all likelihood he bent over backward to ensure that nothing like those attacks would happen again.

The Obama administration, on the other hand, seems to have bent over backward to prove to the world it is not the Bush administration and will, almost no matter what, ensure that everyone gets the benefit of American civil liberties. But the paramount civil liberty is a sense of security and this, sad to say, has eroded under Barack Obama. Repeatedly, the administration has shown poor judgment. Abdulmutallab's silence is a scream that something is wrong.

cohenr@washpost.com


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