- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 25, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Substantive debate on the policies that make Americans safe, not politics, should drive matters of national security. Americans understand that our counterterrorism policies are not yet what they should be, and they expect honest debate from their government officials on matters that keep our nation safe.

While the administration has taken important steps in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other trouble spots around the world, recent statements and actions by the administration raise serious concerns about its strategy to obtain intelligence from terrorists and to prevent attacks on the United States.

Americans were right to be outraged when Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan stated recently that “a 20 percent recidivism rate [for terrorists released from Guantanamo Bay] isn’t that bad” and that the 50 minutes of initial interrogation of the Christmas Day bomber suspect were sufficient to “thoroughly interrogate” him, or when Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. justified the administration’s treatment of this terrorist case on the grounds that the suspect was handled the same way as the 2001 “shoe bomber,” Richard Reid. These out-of-touch comments make it obvious there is more work to be done on the counterterrorism front.

To cite the handling of the first post-Sept. 11 terrorism case in 2001 as the model for today’s terrorism footing nine years later ignores the commissions, government reorganization, revisions to detention authorities and myriad other counterterrorism tools created since. Terrorism is not simply a law enforcement challenge facing our country. America is, as the president recently stated, at war with al Qaeda and other radical Islamists who seek to end our way of life. Recognizing this national security reality is a step, but the president needs to follow through with policy action.

The Obama administration’s latest decision is to require the Department of Justice and FBI to consult with the intelligence community - something that should have been routine - before deciding whether to read terrorists Mirandawarnings. The failure to consider the Christmas Day bomber suspect’s intelligence value, consult our intelligence chiefs or even contemplate an alternative to immediate criminal charges suggests that, after only one year, the administration has managed to undo eight years of post-Sept. 11 progress in moving the FBI away from a “law enforcement only” mentality. It also suggests that, more than one year after issuing executive orders that gutted the intelligence community’s detention and interrogation policies, this administration still has no comprehensive plan or policies in place to deal with the full range of capture and detention issues it inevitably will face in this war.

Our intelligence and law enforcement professionals must have the flexibility to deal with terrorists wherever they are captured. There must be flexibility to hold and question terrorists as enemy combatants without the need for Miranda warnings. This allows the government the flexibility to determine, at the appropriate time, whether a military commission, civilian court or indefinite detention is best for gaining intelligence, safeguarding classified information and protecting the American people.

The newly created High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group is a step in the right direction; however, as envisioned by this administration, it would interrogate only terrorists captured and held by a foreign government or by our forces in Afghanistan. There seems to be no plan in place to deal with terrorists captured overseas who cannot or will not be detained by a foreign government - but who still may possess vital intelligence.

The oft-cited idea that this administration is simply following the lead of the George W. Bush administration in prosecuting or Mirandizing terrorists is absurd. Despite requests from Congress, this administration has not released details of the 300 terrorists it says were prosecuted in the United States under President Bush; we suspect many of them were domestic terrorists or persons charged with fraud, immigration violations and making false statements - hardly the types who would have had valuable and timely intelligence on terrorist networks and future attacks, like the Christmas bomber. Moreover, the Bush administration held hundreds of terrorists at Guantanamo as enemy combatants who were questioned for their intelligence value - resulting in the dissemination of tens of thousands of intelligence reports and the uncovering of additional terrorist plots.

As members of Congress, we will work to refine our tools for counterterrorism, but those efforts mean nothing if the administration is unwilling to use the full spectrum of tools and authorities necessary to close gaps in our national security strategy. Calling on the administration to do so is not interference or partisanship; it is congressional oversight. Almost nine years after Sept. 11, it’s time to take another two steps forward, not one step back.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, is Senate minority leader, and Sen. Kit Bond, Missouri Republican, is vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

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