National security sloganeering



It's no mystery why the White House sent Joe Biden to the Sunday shows. The Republicans have spent the past seven weeks sloganeering against President Obama on national security - cranking out bumper-sticker simplicities that boil down to HE WEAK! WE STRONG! - and the administration apparently felt it was time to rebut visceral falsehoods with empirical facts, difficult as that task might be in a world where the credulous swallow whoppers as if they were candy.

Starring for the Republicans was their avatar of deception, Dick Cheney; he's probably not the ideal Sunday talk show representative, given the fact that a January AP poll pegged his national favorability rating at 38 percent, but he is a former veep, after all, and most of what he intones these days is consistent with the general GOP patter.

Indeed, during his ABC appearance yesterday morning, Cheney served up the usual dependable fare, talking about the new administration's supposedly wimpy "mindset," grousing that "it is clear once again that President Obama is trying to pretend that we are not at war," and that this White House "still insists on thinking of terror attacks against the United States as criminal acts" - as opposed to the previous White House, which, in his view, treated terrorist behavior as "acts of war."

Cheney was referring, of course, to the Obama team's recent decision to process the failed underwear bomber through the criminal courts, as opposed to the military courts. The general GOP argument, apparently, is that our collective cognitive memories should be cleansed of anything that happened in real life prior to Inauguration Day 2009. If such a mind-purge were possible, we would not be compelled to remember that the Bush administration, rather than treating terrorist behavior as "acts of war," actually processed failed shoe-bomber Richard Reid through the criminal courts, and processed 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui through the criminal courts. And that was just for starters, as Joe Biden accurately pointed out yesterday on NBC:

"The Christmas Day bomber was treated the exact way that...the shoe bomber was treated, absolutely the same way. Under the Bush administration, there were three trials in military courts. Two of those people are now walking the streets; they are free. There were 300 (criminal) trials of so-called terrorists and those who had engaged in terror against the United States of America who are in federal prison and have not seen the light of day, prosecuted under the last administration."

Biden was referring to a Justice Department budget document that laid out the empircal facts: The Bush administration, using the criminal justice system, obtained 319 convictions in "terrorism or terrorist-related cases" - indeed, it obtained criminal convictions in 90 percent of its cases - and a separate study by the Center on Law and Security, based at New York University, has determined that the average sentence in those convictions runs for 16 years. (How odd. I don't ever recall the congressional Republicans wailing about the Bush team's "mindset" of treating suspected terrorists as criminals.)

Cheney was challenged on some of these points by ABC News' Jonathan Karl - who posed this question: "So was it a mistake when your administration took on the Richard Reid case? This is very similar (to the underpants bomber case). This was somebody that was trying to blow up an airliner with a shoe bomb, and he was - within five minutes of getting taken off that plane - read his Miranda rights. Four times, in fact, in 48 hours, and tried through the civilian system. Was that a mistake?"

Cheney: "Well, first of all, I believe he was not tried. He pled guilty. They never did end up having a trial."

That response didn't even qualify as deceptive sleight of hand. Cheney didn't even try to rebut the fact that Reid was repeatedly read his Miranda rights, because it can't rebutted. He tried to parry the question by pointing out that Reid pled guilty, which is irrelevent; the bottom line was, Bush's prosecutors put Reid into the criminal justice system before there was any plea at all.

Cheney then tried to argue that Reid had been placed in the criminal justice system because "we were not yet operational with the military commissions." Karl didn't buy that one; as he quickly noted, "You still had an option to put him into military custody." To which Cheney had no choice but to say, "Well, we could have put him into military custody. I don't - I don't question that."

Cheney was then confronted with some Bush administration statistics, compiled in 2005, that documented hundreds of terrorist prosecutions via the criminal courts. Cheney then offered this revealing reply:

"Well, we didn't all agree with that. We had - I can remember a meeting in the Roosevelt Room in the West Wing of the White House where we had a major shootout over how this was going to be handled between the Justice Department, that advocated that approach, and many of the rest of us, who wanted to treat it as an intelligence matter, as an act of war with military commissions. We never clearly or totally resolved those issues. These are tough questions, no doubt about it...And I do get very nervous and very upset when (criminal prosecution) is the dominant approach - as it was sometimes in the Bush administration, or certainly would appear to be at times in the new Obama administration."

Translation: Cheney admitted yesterday, arguably for the first time, that many of the Bush people were just as committed to the criminal prosecution option as many of the Obama people are today. As Cheney himself acknowledged, "These are tough questions, no doubt about it." If the Republicans really want to be honest about national security, perhaps they'll put that remark on their bumper sticker.

Meanwhile, on NBC, Biden sought to trump Cheney with this observation about the Obama administration's conduct of the war on terror: "By the way, we're pursuing that war with a vigor like it's never been seen before. We've eliminated 12 of their top 20 people. We have taken out 100 of their associates. We are making - we've sent them underground. They are, in fact, not able to do anything remotely like they were in the past. They are on the run."

Biden was referring to the administration's sharply increased use of unmanned drones to target and kill terrorists. Surely, Obama's Republican critics have no problem with that policy, right?

Wrong. A former Bush speechwriter named Marc Thiessen has posted a complaint that Obama is killing too many terrorists. I swear I am not making this up. Here's Thiessen:

"To be sure, unmanned drones are criticial in the struggle against al Qaeda...The problem is that Obama is increasingly using drone strikes as a substitute for operations to bring terrorist leaders in alive for questioning - and this is putting the country at risk."

So, to review: Cheney says that Obama is pretending not to be at war, while Thiessen says that Obama is way too much at war. I doubt that Thiessen's message would make an effective Republican bumper sticker (WE STRONG! OBAMA TOO STRONG!), but the election year is young and there's ample time left to sloganeer on national security and make the case that regardless of whether Obama is weak or strong, he's wrong.