Yesterday, in an interview with ABC’s Jake Tapper, Barack Obama reinforced the perception that as President he would return to the Clinton administration’s policy of fighting terrorism only with law enforcement tools. I think that’s a reasonably fair inference, as Obama held up the Clinton administration’s response to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center as a model:
[L]et’s take the example of Guantanamo. What we know is that, in previous terrorist attacks — for example, the first attack against the World Trade Center, we were able to arrest those responsible, put them on trial. They are currently in U.S. prisons, incapacitated.
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….
If Obama really meant to suggest that we should follow the criminal prosecution only policy in response to future terrorist attacks, it suggests an ignorance of history–very recent history–analogous to his holding up John Kennedy’s 1961 summit with Nikita Khrushchev as a model of diplomacy. The McCain campaign was quick to pounce. Earlier today, they held a telephone press conference. Jim Woolsey, who was CIA Director at the time of the 1993 bombing, said:
I want to stress that the approach that Senator Obama is suggesting, that we do everything through the law enforcement system, is precisely what failed in the 1990s.
I was director of central intelligence for the first two years of the first Clinton administration. And, of course, just a few months into that, we had the first World Trade Center bombing.
And the administration proceeded with an almost complete law enforcement focus. It did not work.
We were able, after I left in ’95, in ’96, it was at least possible to indict Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, because of his involvement with the Bojinka plot to blow up American airliners over the Pacific, and actually it also included plans to assassinate President Clinton and Pope John Paul II. But he continued to, although under indictment, to plot murder and mayhem.
And then Osama bin Laden himself was indicted in ’98. That was, however, before the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and before the bombing of the USS Cole, and before 9/11.
The criminal justice — totally criminal justice approach to dealing with international terrorists, particularly when they are suicidal and are able to pull off plots like 9/11, has not worked. It was tried for essentially eight years, from the first year of the first Clinton administration up until 9/11, during the first year of the first Bush administration.
It was a miserable failure.
The McCain campaign also pointed out that one of the conclusions of the September 11 Commission–remember the Democrats’ demands that all of the Commission’s recommendations be implemented?–was that the crime-and-punishment model was inadequate to deal with an organization like al Qaeda.
Then there were these strong words from Woolsey and former Navy Secretary John Lehman, in response to a question:
QUESTION: Good morning. This is some of the most severe language I guess we’ve heard yet describing the difference on approaches that the two candidates would take towards national security.
I’m curious, just judging from what we’ve heard from you gentlemen this morning, should we — ladies and gentlemen — should we read this to believe that, if Senator Obama were to win the presidency and implement this approach, then we should expect another terrorist attack?
LEHMAN: Could I answer that? John Lehman here.
I can’t believe that Senator Obama will not change his position on this, because it is a totally unsupportable position. It would provide such an opening for terrorism that, no matter how naive he is, he would not go forward with it, in my belief. If he did, it would certainly make it far more dangerous in the United States.
WOOLSEY: This is Jim Woolsey. I don’t say this lightly: This is an extremely dangerous and extremely naive approach toward terrorism, international terrorism and toward dealing with prisoners captured overseas who have been engaged in terrorist attacks against the United States.
Obama does have one thing going for him when he talks about scaling back our efforts against Islamic terrorists–wishful thinking. No doubt many voters would find it comforting to be told that we can go back to letting the police and the courts worry about terrorism.