Today White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was asked about Dick Cheney’s appearance on one of the Sunday talk shows. The colloquy that followed was one of those outer space moments for which Gibbs is rapidly becoming known:
QUESTION: One quick followup: Former Vice President Cheney was on “State of the Union” yesterday. He had a lot — a lot of criticism of this White House. To boil it down, on national security, he said the president’s policies were making the country less safe. And on the economy, he was charging that the president is taking advantage of the financial crisis to vastly expand the government in all kinds of ways — health, education, energy.
How do you respond to those kind of allegations from the former vice president?
GIBBS: Well, I guess Rush Limbaugh was busy…(LAUGHTER)… so they trotted out the next most popular member of the Republican cabal.
“Republican cabal?” Is that supposed to be a joke, or an answer? And what on earth does Limbaugh have to do with this? The reporter pressed for some kind of a response:
QUESTION: On the economy, are you trying to take advantage of this crisis?
GIBBS: I think there are — I think not taking economic advice from Dick Cheney would be maybe the best possible outcome of yesterday’s interview.
Which I guess was easier than trying to explain why what Cheney said wasn’t exactly equivalent to “Never let a crisis go to waste!” What was really bizarre about Gibbs’ response, however, was his defense of Obama’s national security policies. He appeared to suggest that by imprisoning terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, the Bush administration was not being tough enough on them:
I would say that the president has made quite clear that keeping the American people safe and secure is the job — is the most serious job that he has each and every day. I think the president saw over the past seven plus years the delay in bringing the very people to justice that committed terrorist acts on this soil and on foreign soil.
That delay in seeking swift and certain justice was what he decided to change through his executive order in changing the legal architecture by which these terrorists would finally be brought to justice.
So Obama is closing Gitmo so that he can “bring the terrorists to justice”? I would have said that they were brought to justice when they were captured, interrogated, shipped to Gitmo and dressed in orange. What more does Obama have in mind? I can only think of two alternatives: 1) shoot them, or 2) charge them with crimes.
I’m afraid Obama doesn’t mean to shoot them, but one would think that even Robert Gibbs understands that most of the Gitmo inmates have not committed crimes. American criminal law does not govern Afghanistan. It is not a “crime” to fight with the Taliban against American soldiers. These detainees are not criminal defendants whom someone forgot to charge, they are enemy combatants. Only–oops–Obama has repudiated that designation. So, does he intend to let them go? And if so, how does that constitute “bringing them to justice?”
You might wonder whether Gibbs’ answer was a slip of the tongue, but no: he repeated it several times, for example:
GIBBS: I think the American people will in this administration see those actors brought to the swift and certain justice that was not brought to them in the previous administration.
For most Gitmo detainees, there are only two forms that “swift and certain justice” can take: either move them to another location more or less like Gitmo but not in Cuba, or let them go. Time will tell which option President Obama chooses; in the meantime, his press secretary talks as though he inhabits an alternate universe. And, day by day, the public’s doubts about the competence of the Obama administration grow.
PAUL adds: Bravo, John, for trying to untangle what Gibbs said. I spent about 15 minutes scratching my head before concluding that this task was beyond my poor powers.
The only coherent, non-nonsensical explanation for what Gibbs means by “bringing the detainees to justice” consists of determining, in a proceeding that includes “proper” process, whether they actually fought with the Taliban and/or al Qaeda (or perhaps whether they fought with the Taliban and/or al Qaeda under circumstances that make them culpable — but here we’re starting to become nonsensical). In other words, “bringing them to justice” means determining whether the detainees actually were “enemy combatants” or whatever equivalent label the new administration prefers.
This, in fact, is what I think Obama has in mind. But calling this “certain justice” is absurd. No proceeding can determine with certainty whether or to what extent these guys participated in al Qaeda’s terrorist activities and planning nearly a decade ago or (if it matters) what caused them to do so. In practice, then, the extra process Obama apparently wants to provide simply means raising the military’s burden of proof [note: it might also mean increased access by defendants to information about our intelligence].
Accordingly, what Obama seems to have in mind for detainees would make us less safe, just as Cheney said. For it would increase the likelihood, already shown not to be insignificant under the current system, that committed, hard-core terrorists will be released and then will fight against or terrorize us in the future.
I suppose it’s a clever lingusitic twist to bring some sort of “not guility” finding within George W. Bush’s “cowboy” phrase “bringing ’em to justice.” But clever linguistic twists won’t keep us safe, nor will they shield Obama from the consequences of releasing more terrorists who return to the field of battle.