February 4, 2008—As Campaign 2008 reaches a critical point, George W. Bush’s top intelligence officials are raising new alarms about a revitalized al-Qaeda recruiting Westerners, possibly including Americans, to carry out terror attacks inside the United States.
In a later interview with the New York Times, an unnamed “senior intelligence official” added that these Westerners – “most likely including American citizens” – were undergoing training at al-Qaeda camps in Pakistan, though the official added there was no evidence that the operatives had yet reached the United States. [NYT, Feb. 6, 2008]
These warnings of a worsening al-Qaeda threat coincide with key congressional votes on whether to restrict the Bush administration’s claimed authority to conduct warrantless wiretaps of Americans and to subject prisoners to “coercive interrogation techniques,” which have included simulated drowning from “waterboarding.”
One administration goal appears to be to soften up Democrats with the suggestion that they are going “soft on terror” if they try to impose some court oversight of Bush’s wiretapping or if they prohibit interrogation tactics that may cross the line into torture.
Already, some Democrats have joined Republicans in transforming a bill designed to put some constraints on Bush’s wiretapping authority into legislation that gives Bush another major concession, legal immunity for U.S. telecommunications companies that cooperated with Bush’s earlier warrantless wiretapping.
Administration officials also are making clear to Congress that limiting CIA interrogations to standards set for the Army and the FBI could leave the United States more vulnerable in a future crisis.
At the Intelligence Committee hearing, CIA Director Michael Hayden stated publicly for the first time that waterboarding had been used against three senior al-Qaeda suspects in 2002 and 2003 – and that aggressive techniques were employed against about 30 detainees in total.
Though Hayden did not spell out these additional techniques, they are known to include forced nudity, putting detainees in painful “stress positions,” subjecting detainees to extremes of hot and cold, long-term sensory deprivation and denial of sleep.
Hayden told the senators that if they prohibited the CIA’s harsh tactics, interrogators would not risk violating the congressionally approved standards, whatever the future emergency.
“We will play to the edges of the box that the American political process gives us,” Hayden said. “If the American political system draws the box making it equivalent to the Army Field Manual [prohibiting abusive interrogations], we will play inside the box. …
“One should not expect them [CIA interrogators] to play outside the box because we’ve entered a new period of threat or danger to the nation. There’s no wink and nod here. If you create the box, we will play inside the box, without exception.”
This revived specter of a worsening U.S. vulnerability to a major terrorist attack will surely hover over the congressional debate on reining in Bush’s assertion of unlimited presidential authority, but it may well spook the presidential campaign, too.
On the Republican side, as frontrunner John McCain begins to position himself for the November general election, the terror fear should help him since he has embraced Bush’s Iraq War even if the U.S. occupation of Iraq lasts 100 years or more. The Arizona senator also has vowed to wage an open-ended war against Islamic militants, calling it the key “ideological struggle” of this era.
So, assuming that Americans still take Bush's terror warnings seriously, McCain could get an advantage. However, the administration’s stoking up fears about another 9/11 represents a more difficult challenge to Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
Both Democrats have argued that Bush’s diversion of U.S. forces from the Afghanistan theatre to Iraq contributed to the continued U.S. vulnerability to al-Qaeda’s terrorism and they have advocated direct military retaliation against al-Qaeda. But they have differed significantly in their personal reactions to Bush's “war on terror.”
Sen. Clinton generally has finessed Bush’s bellicosity rather than challenge the premises of his arguments. Her desire to “look tough” often has drawn her into political alliances with congressional neoconservatives like Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Connecticut.
In 2007, for instance, Clinton voted for a Lieberman-sponsored resolution calling on Bush to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a “terrorist” organization. Her vote drew criticism from other Democratic presidential hopefuls as indicating that she had not learned much from her 2002 vote to authorize Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
Many Clinton critics suspect that if she secures the Democratic nomination, she would start tacking again toward a neocon-lite position on national security, and that if she wins the White House, she would pursue a foreign policy course not that much different from the belligerent one that Bush has followed. She would never want to look “weak.”
For Sen. Obama, the administration’s ramped-up rhetoric about an impending terrorist threat on U.S. soil represents a different kind of challenge. He has argued for a revolutionary rethinking of how the United States conducts its foreign policy – and might have to defend that position amid a climate of fear.
“I don’t want to just end the war” in Iraq, Obama said at the Jan. 31 debate in Los Angeles. “I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place.”
Obama’s reference was to his advocacy of unconditional negotiations with enemies, as opposed to Bush’s approach of issuing ultimatums to unfriendly states and demanding major concessions before negotiating with them.
If Obama means what he says, he would be pointing the way toward a very different kind of U.S. foreign policy, one that relies more on American “soft power” influence than on “hard power” military might.
While sounding fairly radical after nearly three decades of escalating military buildups -- and neoconservative dreams of permanent U.S. hegemony around the globe -- Obama’s position actually harkens back to presidential goals from the early 1960s.
Obama is echoing Dwight Eisenhower’s warning about the undue influence of the “military-industrial complex” as well as John F. Kennedy’s appeal for a world peace that is “not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war.” [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Where Would Obama Take the Nation?”]
But that could be a tough sell if Americans are fearful again about another 9/11. Already, Hillary Clinton has mocked Obama’s call for direct talks with enemy states as naïve and proof of his inexperience.
Should the new terror warnings gain traction with the American public, Obama’s reaction could be a test of his mettle, whether he can stand up to the extraordinary pressures – sometimes bordering on hysteria – that have dominated the U.S. political process since the late summer of 2001.
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This story was published on February 7, 2008.