Bob Woodward exposed reams of classified intelligence in his most recent book. But it was Barack Obama’s assertion of the obvious that ignited outrage among his national-security critics. The president told Woodward that “we can absorb” another terrorist attack—implying that we won’t be able to prevent every attempted act of terror. The conservative blogosphere lit up. Liz Cheney accused Obama of an “alarming fatalism” and of abdicating his paramount responsibility: to do everything in his power to protect the American people. Obama’s approach to terrorism is not immune from criticism. But he deserves credit for treating voters as grownups. After the recent series of near misses—the underwear bomber last Christmas, the Times Square attempted bombing, the “package plot”—who would bet against a terrorist getting lucky and slipping through our defenses in 2011?
The question, then, is how we would respond as a country. And that has Obama administration officials worried. There is growing consensus among counterterror experts that Al Qaeda’s leadership, based along the AfPak border, has had its ability to pull off “spectaculars” significantly degraded. But ever evolving, it has turned to franchises, like Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), to launch smaller-scale attacks against Europe and the U.S. Al Qaeda understands that in a democracy, it doesn’t take much to provoke a frenzy. In the midst of the pat-down pandemonium, AQAP bragged in its slick, English-language magazine that the package plot—“Operation Hemorrhage”—cost only $4,200: “We do not need to strike big…in such a security phobia that is sweeping America.”
Administration officials understand this at a theoretical level. But do they have the political will to resist playing into the terrorists’ hands? In early December, Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, spoke to this in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), calling on the country to respond with “quiet, confident resilience” in the wake of a future terrorist attack. John Brennan, Obama’s homeland-security adviser, has sounded this theme as well. Last May at CSIS, Brennan implored Americans to resist “a mad rush driven by fear” and instead react “in a thoughtful and reasoned way.”
These are not idle words: administration officials I’ve spoken with worry that in today’s deeply polarized political environment, they could be overwhelmed by counterproductive policies, some of which would do nothing to enhance our safety while eroding civil liberties. The threat is even greater with Republicans now in control of the House and promising to use security as a political battering ram. But it would likely be a bipartisan onslaught; Democrats, cowed by the “Mommy Party” label, are also susceptible to fear-driven legislating.
What kinds of counterterror proposals should we expect? One that Sens. Joe Lieberman and John McCain back has police-state overtones. It would require that all terror suspects, even those caught on U.S. soil, be automatically placed in military custody after arrest. Another, also backed by Lieberman, as well as Sen. Scott Brown, would mandate that terror suspects be stripped of their U.S. citizenship. Constitutionally dubious, it’s not clear what such a measure would achieve in terms of American security.
Finally, the administration has floated some proposals of its own. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. announced last spring that Obama officials were looking to expand the “public-safety exception” to the Miranda rule so that police or agents could question terror suspects at greater length before reading them their legal rights. Also, the administration has looked into whether Congress could expand the amount of time before a terror suspect would have to appear before a federal judge or magistrate. Fiddling with Miranda through legislation probably won’t pass legal muster. But Congress could amend the “presentment” requirement. It’s a good idea to give law enforcement one or two more days of questioning before a suspect gets “lawyered up.” But the White House has bottled up those proposals. Rightly, they fear that once they get behind legislation, they’ll lose control to hardliners in Congress who will push for even more draconian measures. So stymieing these initiatives seems to be the path of least resistance. Until, that is, Al Qaeda strikes the homeland.