Political Hay

Know When to Holder

The president and his attorney general suddenly discover they are "now dealing with international terrorism" -- and that Miranda rights may have to wait.

By 5.10.10

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If President Obama came to the podium tonight and read -- word for word -- President Bush's 2005 speech urging Congress to reauthorize the Patriot Act, the left would applaud as vigorously as President Bush was jeered back then. On national security, it's not the substance of Obama's positions that makes the left swoon, it's how he presents it.

Take the Meet the Press interview Attorney General Eric Holder gave yesterday. The Obama administration made a huge show about Mirandizing terror suspects. This was to be a tremendous and substantive break with the Torquemada… er, the Bush administration. To show the world how civilized we really were, Obama would make sure that even super-high-ranking Al-Qaida members like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed were treated to civilian trials and lots of their little helpers would get read their rights just like your friendly neighborhood bounced-check passer.

But then came the actual capture and questioning of two high-profile terror suspects, last Christmas's underwear bomber, and the would-be Times Square bomber. Both of these terrorist wannabes were questioned for a while, read their Miranda rights, then questioned again. Yeah, the order isn't exactly how the left thought things would go in Captain Civility's administration. But even with the administration taking advantage of the Supreme Court's allowance for pre-Miranda questioning in cases of immediate threats to national security, the president wants more authority to pump suspects for information before reading them their rights.

As Holder put it in announcing the proposal yesterday, "I think we also want to look and determine whether we have the necessary flexibility -- whether we have a system that deals with situations that agents now confront.… We're now dealing with international terrorism. I think we have to give serious consideration to at least modifying that public-safety exception [to the Miranda requirements]. And that's one of the things that I think we#039;re going to be reaching out to Congress… to come up with a proposal that is both constitutional, but that is also relevant to our times and the threats that we now face."

Can you imagine the outcry from the left had John Ashcroft uttered those exact words? They would spell the immediate end of our civil liberties, and probably of baseball movies and cotton candy, too. But it's OK, Obama's the boss now. He loves civil liberties!

Amazingly, Holder was basically saying he wants a law to "close… dangerous gaps in America's law enforcement and intelligence capabilities, gaps that terrorists exploited when they attacked us."

He didn't use those precise words, though. George W. Bush did in 2005 when he urged Congress to renew the Patriot Act. But the tone and message are the same: We need new laws to explicitly give us the authority to treat terror suspects in ways that, under existing law, could arguably be considered violations of their civil liberties.

The similarity probably wouldn't be so clear had President Obama, and not Eric Holder, given the statement. It's that whole eloquence thing. The man could call your mother's reputation into question, but he'd say it so beautifully that the insult would float over your head as the earnest utterance of deeply held, universally shared moral conviction made you think, "He is so right!"

Holder actually said Congress has to pass a law to amend Americans' constitutional protection against self-incrimination because "we're now dealing with international terrorism." When put that way, what self-respecting liberal could possibly support this? Isn't this what Obama campaigned against? Isn't this the sort of thing he opposed when he promised to oppose warrantless wiretapping, when he preached that America could never compromise her principles?

Yes, it is exactly that sort of thing. But when Obama made those promises and delivered those uplifting speeches about upholding America's values even in the face of the monstrous barbarity of the terrorist onslaught, he didn't mean we would actually change any substantive policy.

Guantanamo Bay is going to be closed for good because it is a stain on America. But, uh, we're still going to hold those terror suspects indefinitely. But they'll be in Illinois! So, you know, it's cool and stuff.

And warrantless wiretapping? Yeah, we gotta keep that too. You wouldn't believe the information we get from that program! And we don't really spy on your grandma from Poughkeepsie, either. Who knew?!

Without all the flowery, perfume-scented speeches seducing our better natures, so many of Obama's national security positions would be so close to President Bush's that Obama couldn't squeeze between them if he turned sideways, dropped his pack of Marlboros and exhaled.

Of course, the complete lack of anti-administration, anti-war, pro-civil rights protests this week won't have anything to do with Barack Obama being a Democrat. When Jesse Jackson and Tim Robbins don't march on Washington demanding that the president leave our Miranda rights alone, it will only be because they deeply, achingly believe in the bottom of their hearts that giving the FBI enhanced authority to question American citizens before reading them their rights is A-OK.

Now, most Americans probably have no problem with getting a little questiony with terror suspects before reading them their rights. But the left is supposedly dead-set against that kind of behavior even if -- sometimes, especially if -- it catches bad guys. It will be interesting to see how the liberals react to Holder's attempt to get Congressional permission to expand the government's authority to question suspects before reading them their rights. After all, Bush went to Congress to get its permission for everything authorized by the Patriot Act, and even for enhanced interrogation techniques, but that didn't stop the left from saying those things were the start of a police state and the end of our civil rights.

If the Arizona immigration law initiates a police state complete with rampant racial profiling, why doesn't Holder's attempt to detain American citizens for questioning about terror-related activities without reading them their rights do the exact same thing?

Could it be that many on the left are more frightened by the notion of Republicans in office than they are by the prospect of losing their civil rights? In other words, it's OK to have a police state as long as there's a liberal in charge of it.

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Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. You can follow him on Twitter at @Drewhampshire.