The extent to which the Obama administration has let go of the Bush advances on executive power is debatable, but the way they communicate about terror is starkly different. For one thing, on the advice of the president's chief counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, the administration no longer "dignifies" - its word - terrorism by organizing it under a war metaphor. He has counseled the president to not use an overarching term to describe an array of different activities with different causes. Since details of the Zazi investigation broke several weeks ago, the President has deferred any extensive comments. Late Saturday night, the White House released read-outs from a telephone call he participated in with the chief of the NYPD and the director of the FBI, but has otherwise given no official attention to the matter in public.
President Obama and his top advisers have decided to communicate about the unfolding terrorism case against Denver shuttle driver Najibullah Zazi in a way that marks a significant departure from what Americans are used to: they've largely kept silent.
A senior administration official conceded it was "deliberate" to "leave enforcement matters to law enforcement, and to not let politics seep into at all." The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense have also kept quiet, leaving the FBI and the New York Police Department - two law enforcement agencies - to communicate with the public about what the government believes is perhaps the biggest foiled domestic terrorist plot since September 11, and certainly the largest potential plot since Obama became president.
The strategy testifies to the administration's core belief that domestic counterterrorism is primarily a law enforcement and intelligence community responsibility, with the emphasis placed on preventing terrorist attacks while not losing the opportunity to prosecute would-be terrorists. The focus, then, is on collaboration between the FBI, local police agencies and the intelligence community. This contrasts to the approach taken by the Bush administration, which, following September 11, conceived of the "war on terror" as the singular foreign and domestic policy challenge of its time, drew up a controversial and divisive political strategy to sell it, and regularly inflated the significance of incidents that, in retrospect, turned out not to be as dangerous. Plots, real and imagined, were conflated into a diffuse and ongoing, severe and acute terrorist threat that required constant vigilance from Americans. During the presidential campaign, Democrats charged that the Bush strategy was used to justify an unchecked expansion of executive power, to marginalize alternative viewpoints, and to pursue counterterrorism efforts that were ultimately counterproductive. Given the course change by the Bush administration in its second term, many Bush officials came to agree.
According to the White House, Obama, on the Saturday call, counseled his team on "the need to maintain vigilance and to continue the strong investigative and intelligence work that is critical to protecting the homeland from terrorist attacks."
"Simply put, this Administration's counterterrorism program is mission focused--safeguard the homeland by working closely with state and local communities, disrupt attacks with diligent investigative work and strong intelligence, and arrest, capture, or, if need be, kill terrorists," an administration official said in a statement this morning. "As the President has said to us before directly and repeatedly, 'Make doubly sure that you are doing everything possible to prevent a terrorist attack.' Thus, the counterterrorism community is too busy and consumed with doing its work to worry about heralding its accomplishments in the media."
Brennan, briefs the president daily on the progress of the investigation, and White House officials would not rule out a statement from the president in the future. But they said that one was not warranted now, especially with the investigation at a fairly early stage. Attorney General Eric Holder has also been circumspect, treating the investigation as an ordinary part of his job. He held a short press availability in Minneapolis last week when Zazi was arrested and gave an interview to CBS News.
Legislatively, the administration might benefit from using the Zazi investigation to pressure Congress to approve the reauthorization of some of the sunsetting provisions of the USA Patriot Act, to reauthorize the expansion of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or to convince the Judiciary Committee to accept its self-policing revisions to the state secrets privilege. So far, the administration has not done this.
During the first term of the Bush administration, the arrest of terrorism suspects was often accompanied by a press conference at the Department of Justice, featuring the Attorney General and top prosecutors and law enforcement officials. Often, the tenor of the press conferences outpaced the facts of the case. Though the administration won convictions of more than a dozen on terrorist-related charges, many who were swept up in those early cases were tried on lesser charges, or found not guilty, or found not to have been connected to terrorism - much less to Al Qaeda, at all. (For a good list of the plots foiled, click here): A representative bit of political humor from the era, courtesy of Craig Kilborn: "Our top story, in 'Threat Matrix Reloaded' news ... Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Muller held a press conference today to announce that Al Qaeda is planning attacks somewhere inside the United States at sometime in the future. So go about your normal lives, but with a vague sense of foreboding.")
In September, 2002, the Justice Department announced that his department had "identified, investigated and disrupted an al-Qaeda-trained, terrorist cell on American soil." But Attorney General John Ashcroft's words did not comport with what prosecutors later tried to argue in court, and none of the defendants were ever prosecuted for being so-called sleeper agents. Those found guilty were given sentences for "providing support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization."