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Terrorism Takes Center Stage as Obama Responds to McCain Camp's Charges

Updated 3:54 p.m.
By Alec MacGillis
It was only a matter of time, but the McCain and Obama campaigns today engaged more directly than ever before on one of the central disagreements between them -- the high stakes question of how to pursue Islamic terrorists.

This morning, McCain advisers attacked Barack Obama's comments in an interview yesterday with ABC News, calling them "dangerous." Obama had pointed to the prosecutions of the extremists involved in the 1993 World Trade Center attack as proof that the U.S. legal system was capable of bringing terrorists to justice, and the McCain camp charged that this betrayed a pre-Sept. 11 complacency and belief that terrorism could be addressed using law enforcement tools alone.

Two hours later, the Obama campaign responded that Obama's confidence in U.S. civilian or military courts to try suspected terrorists did not mean that he believed in an exclusively law enforcement-based approach to hunting terrorists. In a conference call with reporters, Sen. John Kerry (who faced the same soft on terror charges in his 2004 presidential campaign) and former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke noted that Obama is proposing a comprehensive approach that includes military measures, including a possible invasion of Pakistani border areas if the U.S. has a solid tip on Al-Qaeda whereabouts and Pakistan refuses to act.

In fact, Kerry -- who had considered McCain as a possible vice presidential runningmate in 2004 -- and Clarke noted, McCain and other Republicans had criticized Obama for that very suggestion of military action in Pakistan. And, they pointed out, Obama's call for granting habeas corpus rights to individuals held at Guantanamo Bay was upheld by the Supreme Court last week.

Kerry and Clarke went on to criticize McCain's approach to fighting terrorism as ineffective and outdated. McCain's approach, they charged, had relied too much on the military, diverted resources and attention from Al-Qaeda and aided terrorist recruitment. Meanwhile, the circumvention of the U.S. legal system in handling suspected terrorists had undermined America's standing in the Muslim world.

"This is really an important day in marking a real line between John McCain's policies and Barack Obama's," said Kerry. "The McCain campaign has defined a road to defeat and, frankly, to more disastrous policies that haven't worked... [McCain] has fully embraced, willfully and openly, the failed policy of the Bush administration of the past seven years. He is really defending a policy that is indefensible."

Kerry added: "John McCain is Washington's biggest supporter for worst foreign policy decision of our generation. He failed to learn the lesson of 9/11 and we're paying for that failure today... He is continuing a legal approach that has violated our Constitution, failed to prosecute terrorist, failed to bring them to justice, failed to have verdicts, failed to bring them to jail, and failed to lead the world. If you want to talk about going backwards... John McCain has done that."

In the McCain campaign's attack this morning, 9-11 Commission member John Lehmann argued that the 1993 trial impeded intelligence gathering by placing under seal some findings about the suspects that then-CIA director George Tenet later said would have been helpful in pursuing Al Qaeda before Sept. 11. Tenet "personally told me he did not get to see the evidence that would have linked some of the perpetrators to Khalid Sheik Mohammed," the mastermind of 9-11, Lehman said. "Dots would have been connected well before."

While not endorsing that dramatic claim, which goes beyond the findings of the 9-11 Commission's report, Clarke conceded that there "clearly was a mistake at some level" in the decision to seal evidence collected in the trial."

But, Clarke continued, future trials of terrorism suspects could easily correct for that by making certain evidence available for intelligence use. He rejected another McCain claim, that bringing terrorists captured abroad into military or civilian courts would complicate matters by requiring adherence to rules for collecting evidence and maintaining a chain of custody. "Playing by the rules can be done and has been done," Clarke said.

Notably, Clarke did appear at one point to back up a key Republican talking point, that Iraq is now the key front on terrorism. Democrats have tried to argue in recent years that many of those battling and killing Americans in Iraq are homegrown insurgents, not Al-Qaeda warriors. But Clarke said that Al-Qaeda had not attacked on American soil since Sept. 11 because it had instead decided that it was easier to attack America in Iraq: "They've killed 4,000 and wounded 25,000," he said, contradicting the Democratic case that many if not most casualties have been inflicted by non-Al-Qaeda Iraqis.

But Clarke was fully on message with his charge that McCain's attack today was a "Karl Rove strategy" and "straight out of the Republican playbook."

"I'm frankly a little disgusted by some of the attacks of some of my friends on the McCain campaign to use the same old tired tactics of the past several campaigns, trying to paint one party as weak on terrorism and completely distorting the record of pone party, to drive a wedge for partisan advantage and to frighten Americans," he said.

By Web Politics Editor  |  June 17, 2008; 2:40 PM ET
Categories:  B_Blog , Barack Obama , John McCain , On the Issues  
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