Barack Obama’s candidacy has always personified the desire among many Americans to move on from the Sept. 11 attacks and return to a time when terrorism was seen as a minor security threat.
Up until this week, Obama communicated this only implicitly, with campaign rhetoric that includes calls to “turn the page” and to end the “politics of fear.”
That all changed on Monday, when ABC News released an interview in which Obama, discussing the handling of terrorist detainees, cited as a model the catastrophic law enforcement approach to counterterrorism pursued in the 1990s.
“What we know is that, in previous terrorist attacks — for example, the first attack against the World Trade Center, we were able to arrest those responsible, put them on trial,” Obama said. “They are currently in U.S. prisons, incapacitated.”
As Andrew McCarthy, who was the lead prosecutor in the main World Trade Center case, has noted, indictments of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Osama bin Laden failed to prevent the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, the 2000 U.S.S. Cole bombing, or the Sept. 11 attacks.
But even allowing for the successes of law enforcement officials in bringing Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman and Ramzi Yousef to justice for their role in the 1993 bombing, the 9/11 Commission Report was crystal clear about the limits of the old strategy.
“An unfortunate consequence of this superb investigative and prosecutorial effort was that it created an impression that the law enforcement system was well-equipped to cope with terrorism,” read the report.
“Neither President Clinton, his principal advisers, the Congress, nor the news media felt prompted, until later, to press the question of whether the procedures that put the Blind Sheikh and Ramzi Yousef behind bars would really protect Americans against the new virus of which these individuals were just the first symptoms.”
The prosecutions, according to the report, led to “widespread underestimation of the threat.”
DESPITE THE 1,000 injuries and six deaths as a result of the attacks, we got off quite lucky. Yousef had planned to topple one tower into the other, destroying them both, and killing 250,000 people.
Yet policy makers largely ignored evidence suggesting a broader threat. The overarching problem with the 1990s approach was that it conceived of terrorist incidents as criminal matters rather than acts of war.
“The process was meant, by its nature, to mark for the public the events as finished — case solved, justice done,” the investigation concluded. “It was not designed to ask if the events might be harbingers of worse to come.”
Even though bin Laden is not believed to have been involved in the first bombing, Yousef had received training at an Al Qaeda camp, according to Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower.
Yousef also happened to be the nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who wired money to Yousef prior to the 1993 bombing. And the 9/11 Commission also reported that materials taken from Ahmad Ajaj, another conspirator, indicated the plot was devised at a training camp along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
In a conference call hosted by the McCain campaign on Tuesday, R. James Woolsey Jr., who was CIA director during the 1993 attack, said Obama was promoting “an extremely dangerous and extremely naive approach.”
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