Both Parties Prep for Terrorism Debate

Posted February 12, 2010 at 5:31pm

Democrats and Republicans are both marching into the Presidents Day recess believing they have gained the upper hand in the debate over national security and terrorism, and both sides are preparing to continue sparring over these topics in the next several weeks.

Republicans are planning to spend much of the recess reaffirming that Democrats and the administration have mismanaged the issues of terrorism and national security — endangering Americans in the process.

In a messaging memo from the House Republican Conference, Members were encouraged to criticize the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats on a host of national security issues including the decision to read alleged “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights, the plan to close the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility and the attempt to hold civilian trials for alleged terrorists such as Khalid Sheik Mohammed in New York City rather than in military courts.

“The president’s decisions have taken us back to a pre-9/11 mentality when we treated terrorism as a law enforcement concern and failed to prevent a deadly attack,” the memo said. “Congressional Democrats are complicit in many of these decisions.”

“These political stunts by the administration will not help protect the American people,” the memo said. “We should not undermine our national security so the president can fulfill a campaign promise or appease extreme liberal activists.”

But while Republicans have sought to cast the involvement of domestic law enforcement officials as a sign of the administration’s haphazard response to terrorism, Democrats are hoping to use it to their advantage.

For instance, a set of talking points and fact sheets on national security put together by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) war room highlights the “focused and integrated counterterrorism strategy” of the Obama administration. The memos also emphasize the administration’s successes in the war on terror, including detailed examples of instances in which the administration has successfully disrupted a terrorist attack and instances in which different branches of government have worked together on the issue.

Democrats have long acknowledged that one of their key failings in the national security message war has been touting their successes and strengths. That, in turn, has forced Democrats into a constant defensive posture on terrorism and war issues. Reid’s memos are clearly designed to provide his Members with a road map for going on the offensive.

Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee and a frequent administration critic, said Republicans don’t need to play defense or offense on the national security issue.

“This administration has not gotten terrorism since day one,” Hoekstra said. “We don’t have to be on the offensive. … Every time [administration officials] open their mouths, they lose creditability.”

Michael Steel, a spokesman for Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), said, “We need to do what we’re doing: asking tough questions and not letting the White House and Congressional Democrats erode our security in order to cater to their left-wing base.”

Indeed, Republicans’ critique has shifted to the argument that Democrats are simply wrong — rather than soft — on national security.

“It’s at the core of being a Republican, so everyone is well-versed” on national security, one Senate GOP aide said, warning that regardless how much of an attack the White House mounts, Republicans will continue to push back. “We don’t select these [issues] based on a political calculation. We select them because we know we’re right. … Regardless of how much offense the White House plays on this, we’re not going anywhere,” the aide said.

Like their counterparts in the House, Senate Republicans plan to use the break to continue pressing the administration on the same three terror issues: Guantánamo Bay, the Christmas Day bombing attempt and civilian trials for terrorists.

In materials circulated to his GOP colleagues, Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) outlined talking points on these issues.

“On national security, we continue to oppose closing the facility at Guantanamo Bay without a better solution for detaining terrorists. And we have to make a distinction between an American teenager who breaks into a sandwich shop and a foreign terrorist who wants to blow up an airplane. Terrorists should be tried by military commissions,” Alexander wrote in the recess packet.

Likewise, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) used Saturday’s response to Obama’s weekly radio address to continue attacking the White House’s handling of terrorists, arguing that: “These al-Qaida terrorists are not common criminals. … Never before have we allowed noncitizen enemy combatants captured on the battlefield access to our civilian courts providing them with the same constitutional rights as American citizens.”

“Al-Qaida terrorists should not receive more rights than a Nazi war criminal. And now is not the time to go back to the pre-9/11 mentality of fighting crime instead of fighting a war. A civilian trial of hard-core terrorists is unnecessarily dangerous and creates more problems than it solves,” Graham added.

Hoekstra has engaged in an almost daily war of words with the White House over what Republican leaders were told in the hours following Abdulmutallab’s arrest for allegedly attempting to blow up a plane over Detroit.

The debate about whether Abdulmutallab should have been read his Miranda rights has become increasingly heated as the White House and Congressional Republicans continue to accuse each other of playing politics with national security.

On Feb. 7, John Brennan, one of Obama’s special assistants for counterterrorism, said Hoekstra, Boehner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) had been informed of Abdulmutallab’s arrest the day it occurred and they raised no objections at the time.

He then followed up the remarks with a Feb. 9 op-ed in USA Today that said critics of the administration’s policies were engaging in “politically motivated criticism and unfounded fear-mongering.”

A Senate GOP leadership aide said Democrats’ vigorous defense of the administration’s response to terrorism is not totally surprising.

The aide noted that following Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) loss to President George W. Bush in 2004, many Democratic strategists pinned much of the blame on Kerry’s poor handling of GOP attacks on his national security record. Since that time, the aide argued, Democrats have become increasingly concerned with the issue. Democrats “made a response to accusations that they don’t somehow get a post-9/11 world a feature” of their messaging and moved immediately to put that to rest, the aide said.

“They rightly see it as a major, major liability. There’s nothing worse when you’re a Democrat than getting type-casted as being soft on terrorism,” the aide added.

House Democrats have sought all year to characterize Republicans as fair-weather fans of national security.

Last year, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee aired several ads against Republicans who voted against a series of bills that funded troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and other defense-related projects.

Republicans defended their “no” votes on the ground that the funding bills included provisions that had nothing to do with the overarching bills.

“Republicans have spun themselves silly defending all of these positions that undermine our troops and our national security,” said Doug Thornell, a spokesman for Assistant to the Speaker Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). “At the end of the day, their hypocrisy is going to be hard to explain.”

A Democratic aide said, “I don’t think anyone is winning [the national security debate] at this point, and for Republicans that has got to be frustrating.”