The Volatile Politics of Terrorism

Republicans bring it back to the center

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Since Republican Senator Scott Brown won election in Massachusetts partly by campaigning against the national security policies of the Obama administration, terror-related issues have become central to the political discourse. The civilian trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has been especially controversial.

In recent days, Counterterrorism Chief John Brennan has been embroiled in conflict with Congressional Republicans over the treatment of the failed Flight 253 attacker. The suspect's treatment as a civilian criminal rather than military detainee has drawn fire; in a recent poll, a slight majority of Americans supported military commissions, though Obama's national security approval remains moderately high. It seems that terrorism is not about to go away as a political issue. How will it be debated?

  • GOP Focus All About 2010 Elections  The New York Times's Peter Baker reports "a stark escalation in rhetoric in recent weeks as the uneasy truce on terrorism that existed at the beginning of the Obama presidency evaporated. The Republican critique of Mr. Obama as a Miranda-reading, soft-on-terror president attempts to tap into an historic vulnerability for Democrats, with midterm elections on the horizon and the president already on the defensive on a health care bill and the economy."
  • But Obama Follows Bush on National Security  The New Yorker's Jane Mayer writes that Attorney General Eric "Holder, despite the controversy he has inspired, has not actually pushed for radical change. Indeed, critics in left-leaning legal circles have complained that he has kept too many of George W. Bush’s counterterrorism policies in place." Holder tells Mayer, "There’s a desire to ignore the facts to try to score political points. It’s a little shocking."
  • 'Propoganda': Playing The Fear Card  The New York Times fumes, "Republicans are trying to scare Americans by making it appear as if the Democrats don’t care about catching or punishing terrorists. It’s nonsense, of course, but effective. The be-very-afraid approach helped former President George W. Bush ram laws through Congress that chipped away at Americans’ rights. He used it to get re-elected in 2004. Now the Republicans are playing the fear card for the fall elections." They add, "The Republican propaganda is a distraction from the real issue: that the counterterrorism system is malfunctioning more than eight years after the Sept. 11 attacks."
  • Republicans Criticize Their Own Policies  Newsweeks's Mark Hosenball scoffs that many of the national security policies Republicans are so up-in-arms about actually originated with their party. For example, Congressional Republicans have slammed Obama's use of civilian trials for terrorism suspects, but Bush oversaw hundreds of such cases to no criticism. "Maybe it's time to stop some of the name-calling over counterterrorism policy and start checking the facts," he writes.
  • Dem Policies More Effective  Legal blogger Marcy Wheeler notes that the civilian treatment of the Flight 253 has been successful, which Republican critics know. "Republicans are attacking law enforcement–even as they have succeeded in getting Abdulmutallab’s cooperation quicker than it took the torturers to get false information out of KSM–because it polls well, because Scott Brown won on a pro-waterboarding platform." She quotes Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, "You can campaign on these issues anywhere in America."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.