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John Brennan's low blow on terrorism trials

On Dec. 7, 2001, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft aimed this memorable cheap shot at civil libertarians who criticized the Bush administration’s plan for military commission trials for alleged terrorists: “To those who pit Americans against immigrants, citizens against non-citizens, to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Today, on the op-ed page of USA Today, Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan launched an insinuation of his own against security hawks who criticize the Obama administration for not using military commissions to try terror suspects: “Politically motivated criticism and unfounded fear-mongering only serve the goals of al-Qaeda.”

I’ve taken a good, hard look at these two statements. Brennan’s assertion is shorter than Ashcroft’s, and it’s aimed in the opposite direction, politically. But as far as I can see, they are morally identical. Both men essentially accuse their opponents of sowing fear and internal dissension in bad faith and to the ultimate benefit of this country’s enemies. This is about as low as you can go in American politics.

And, no, I don’t think it’s a defense to say that Brennan’s characterization is objectively true whereas Ashcroft’s was not. When it comes to the tradeoff between liberty and security there are only opinions, no scientifically provable answers. With so much at stake, arguments about this subject are bound to become partisan and contentious.

Of course, much of the criticism of President Obama’s alleged laxity on terrorists has, indeed, been unfair, hyperbolic, even outrageous -- as was some criticism of President Bush in his day.

Civility is the only way to preserve national unity without sacrificing democratic debate. Talking heads can say what they want on cable TV, but we ought to be able to expect that leaders will resist the partisan temptation themselves -- that they will avoid responding in kind to irresponsible charges and, above all, steer well clear of questioning the patriotism of those with whom they disagree.

John Ashcroft failed that test. Now, alas, John Brennan has failed it, too.

By Charles Lane  | February 9, 2010; 5:08 PM ET
Categories:  Lane  | Tags:  Charles Lane  
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Comments

Something tells me that Brennan, merely a very senior advisor, is speaking far beyond his brief....

But that seems to be becoming a habit for many of those surrounding the President.

Posted by: Crmudgeon | February 9, 2010 5:25 PM | Report abuse

I'm curious to know then, how does politically motivated criticism HELP terrorists then?

You seem to think politically motivated speech is substantively beneficial to counter-terrorism efforts?

Such thinking is part of the problem here in DC, where shrill partisanship passes for substantive debate and therefore nothing gets done...

Posted by: HillRat | February 9, 2010 5:58 PM | Report abuse

During Barry the incompetent boob Obama's dismal first year in office there have been three (3) separate terrorist attacks by Islamic jihadists inside the borders of the United States. The first jihadist shot two army recruiters killing one. The second jihadist shot dozens at Fort Hood, Texas. Barry told us not to jump to conclusions. The third jihadist managed to sneak a bomb on a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day and set off the bomb over Detroit. Only a technical failure of the detonator caused it to burn rather than explode.

Obama did not even interrupt his golf game in Hawaii for that one. It took that headless chicken in the White House three days to even address the nation with a serious response. This is the stuff that Obama is made of.

Are we supposed to wait around for jihadist #4 to appear?

Miserable failure Obama


Posted by: screwjob2 | February 9, 2010 6:32 PM | Report abuse

The aim of terrorism is to destroy the US government from within utilizing limited resources and the advantage of psychological warfare. Within that context, define the essence of what it is that has enabled the US government to succeed.

Well, Al Queda has, and as Bush so eloquently put it, it is, in the end "our freedoms."

But when some ko0k, like Sen "Fluffy" Graham, espouses military commissions, whether out of fear or political motivations (ie, making Obama look weak on terrorism, this on the advice of some low rent, low IQ nonentity consultant like Karl Rove)he is, in fact responding to terrorism in the way Al Queda, or Russia, say, would like, that is he is undermining the Constitution, the law, the ORDER of the US while feeding the fear of those who are unable to reason why a terrorist isn't really scary at all, creating a catch 22 that will evetually break the nation, the law and the sense of order until someone smart, or the government itself says "STOP." That is what Brennan is referring to...

And if you don't get that, well, you shouldn't be fighting terrorism. And "Al Queda" counts on that -- stupid, scared people, that is, destroying their own country from within...

Posted by: thegreatpotatospamof2003 | February 9, 2010 6:36 PM | Report abuse

Very well stated by Mr Lane. I was also wondering if Brennan was going to be called on this. Either critiques, political or not, are always acceptable or they are never acceptable. If they are sometimes acceptable, how are folks to know?

Also, it seems like Brennan has been getting too big for his britches and/or Obama is using him for a talking head rather than an advisor. I say he should do more and talk less. I think policy blather should be the job of the cabinet official in charge of the matter, not Brennan. Does he have eyes on public office?

Posted by: mmherndon | February 9, 2010 6:36 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, but no dice. There is a major difference here between Brennan's comments and Ashcroft's verbal blustering. John Brennan didn't get his marching orders to vent from the President - unlike Ashcroft. As a career officer who has given his utmost to his job (unlike Ashcroft who was just another politician), Brennan is right to criticize demagogic politicians who will stop at nothing to score cheap political points. This city is full of noble and dedicated public servants who are kicked around like political footballs by people in search of the next sound bite, and its about time that the record is set straight. Americans need to have the facts, and if that means Kit Bond and Mitch McConnell are exposed for their outrageous political thuggery, so be it.

Posted by: jaysit | February 9, 2010 6:42 PM | Report abuse

"I’ve taken a good, hard look at these two statements. Brennan’s assertion is shorter than Ashcroft’s, and it’s aimed in the opposite direction, politically. But as far as I can see, they are morally identical."
************************

Respectfully, Mr. Lane, may I suggest a significant difference you've subsumed under the rubric "subjectively correct"?

Whereas Mr. Ashcroft's statement was intended to counter those who, as our conservative SCOTUS has even affirmed, challenged his narrow, illegal plan, Mr. Brennan's statement has been offered as a counter to those who would challenge his broader, perfectly legal plan.

In other words, Ashcroft was blowing off those pointing out his proposed violations of our Constitution and the Geneva Conventions.

Brennan is blowing off pure partisans who think he ought NOT be following the Constitution and international law.

Big difference, sir.

Posted by: abqcleve | February 9, 2010 7:02 PM | Report abuse

The longer Obama keeps American military personnel in Afghanistan, the more he serves the goals of al-Qaeda.

Our presence in Afghanistan increases al-Qaeda recruiting all over the world. We have spent trillions on war since the attack on the twin towers. We are a far weaker nation today.

Posted by: alance | February 9, 2010 7:14 PM | Report abuse

PotatoSpammer - "But when some ko0k, like Sen "Fluffy" Graham, espouses military commissions, whether out of fear or political motivations (ie, making Obama look weak on terrorism, this on the advice of some low rent, low IQ nonentity consultant like Karl Rove)he is, in fact responding to terrorism in the way Al Queda, or Russia, say, would like, that is he is undermining the Constitution, the law, the ORDER of the US."

Ignorant Lefty drivel. Miltary commissions & tribunals have been with us since George Washington's day. Used by the likes of Jefferson, Polk, Lincoln, Grant, McKinley, FDR, Truman.

=====================
Against Nazi saboteurs, SCOTUS ruled 9-0 that the military tribunal and the death sentences, inc. one against a US citizen-traitor, were constitutional and proper.

Posted by: ChrisFord1 | February 9, 2010 7:17 PM | Report abuse

Ignorant Lefty drivel. Miltary commissions & tribunals have been with us since George Washington's day. Used by the likes of Jefferson, Polk, Lincoln, Grant, McKinley, FDR, Truman.

------------
Right.

A lot of things have been done wrong, and hopefully, we work to correct them.

But what does this have to do with stupid right wingers who are too p*ssy to fight wars?

Did I hit a nerve, or did you answer my question?

Posted by: thegreatpotatospamof2003 | February 9, 2010 7:25 PM | Report abuse

In the end, only the smartest survive, and that mean you're game, too, you right wing tub-a-lards.

Duh.

Posted by: thegreatpotatospamof2003 | February 9, 2010 7:29 PM | Report abuse

The longer Obama keeps American military personnel in Afghanistan, the more he serves the goals of al-Qaeda.

Our presence in Afghanistan increases al-Qaeda recruiting all over the world. We have spent trillions on war since the attack on the twin towers. We are a far weaker nation today.

Posted by: alance | February 9, 2010 7:31 PM | Report abuse

I'm having trouble with the mental gymnastics required here.

So if Ashcroft was saying things that were not true and Brennan is saying things that are true, neither should say them because they are politicizing national security?

Arguendo, then, anyone can make demonstrably untruthful charges about national security for political purposes and they are wrong to do so. But if anyone points out that they are untrue, then they are just as guilty? So untrhthful statements must be left to stand because it is patriotic?

This is a hard leap to make.

Posted by: tja6789 | February 9, 2010 7:50 PM | Report abuse

In a nutshell, the right wing is saying Al Queda's attack on NY is the same as Hitler's attack on the world, and therefore military prosecutions should apply.

But we can't respond traditionally in a military sense because it's not traditional war, (and even the DUMBEST right-winger kind of gets it), yet we argue for military commissions using the example of Nazis and WW2, et al, because it's precedent, even as we argue terrorism itself is a unique situation outside traditional military parameters.

Which is it, btw? The future of the country depends on the right answer.

What it is is a manifestation of your internal chaos and your basic inability to comprehend, much less resolve, the terrorism issues facing this nation, ie, you cannot formulate much less fathom a defense, only destroy your own house -- which is the goal of terrorist, right? I'd say Obama's got you profiled, right-wing ko0ks.

But you're right -- we do whack our traitors.

I see WHY the traditional US forces, ala DC, can't respond appropriately or effectively.

HTH

Posted by: thegreatpotatospamof2003 | February 9, 2010 8:27 PM | Report abuse

Sir

i believe you are correct, accusing fellow Americans of treason simply because they disagree with you is a low blow and should not be tolerated. This is on a par with the swift boaters and the trashing of Max Clelland as weak on terrorism.

Posted by: chet_brewer | February 9, 2010 8:40 PM | Report abuse

At least one good thing has come from Lane's mental gymnastics to equate the two statements. He agrees that Ashcroft (and by logical extension, a whole host of other Bush administration officials including W and Cheney) regularly politicized terrorism to their benefit. Coming from a right wing hack that's quite an admission.

Now that we have that admission out of the way (6 years too late), it's a false equivalence as many people have pointed out. Brennan was attempting to correct the lies that Bond, Collins, McConnell and others have been putting out - he wasn't trying to stifle people who wanted the administration to adhere to the US Constitution.

Posted by: sambam | February 9, 2010 8:45 PM | Report abuse

OF COURSE, much of the criticism of President Obama’s alleged laxity on terrorists has, indeed, been unfair, hyperbolic, even outrageous -- as was some criticism of President Bush in his day.

The above is just another example of false equivalency. I was very proud that Mr. Brennan set the record straight. The screaming Republicans need to shut up. Now.

Posted by: gsross | February 9, 2010 8:48 PM | Report abuse

I don't think the author is saying anything worth wondering about, but I did see Brennan's testimony. He seems like a yes-man political weasel deflecting the questions by feigning indignation. A loyal Obamabot who didn't want to give straight answers about Mirandizing the underwear bomber. This scares me.

Posted by: allamer1 | February 9, 2010 8:50 PM | Report abuse

I've said all along the only difference between the bush administration and this administration is that Obama is more articulate. Otherwise, their policies are eerily similar.

Posted by: Ombudsman1 | February 9, 2010 9:04 PM | Report abuse

"he wasn't trying to stifle people who wanted the administration to adhere to the US Constitution."

This is the equivalent of people who start a sentence by saying "I'm all in favor of free speech, BUT..."

Well, yes, but left unsaid is that he feels he has the right interpretation. His opinion, of course, is guided by what his boss tells him his opinion is.

Posted by: Ombudsman1 | February 9, 2010 9:08 PM | Report abuse

The two comments are only equivalent if you equate the security danger posed by a marginal terrorist organization to that posed by the sacrifice of the fundamental principles of American liberty and democracy.

Posted by: bibliophile1 | February 9, 2010 9:13 PM | Report abuse

Moreover, one speaker was a cabinet official, the other is a Deputy Who?

Posted by: bibliophile1 | February 9, 2010 9:15 PM | Report abuse


Lane says "...I don't think it's fair to say that Brennan's characterization was objectively true, where Ashcroft's was not..."

In other words TRUTH DOESN'T MATTER, is immaterial and beside the point.
But then zionists don't traffic in the truth, only design and plotting.

Posted by: whistling | February 9, 2010 9:47 PM | Report abuse

Isn't it funny how only liberals are expected to keep standards of civility? Where was all this high-minded morality when Republicans were telling us that only traitors would criticize the president in war-time?

What's objectively true is that Republicans are making objectively false statements about President Obama and the arrest of the Christmas bomber. Brennan wrote his editorial because Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) made a speech stating that the bomber was only interrogated for 50 minutes, that he stopped talking after being read his rights, that he only cooperated when he was offered a plea deal, and that no one consulted with with intelligence officials about the questioning. That's four statements and four lies. If the "liberal" media could be bothered with fact-checking Republicans, the administration wouldn't have to write editorials to get the truth out there.

Ashcroft said that ANY criticism of the president helps our enemies. Brennan said that people are welcome to criticize Obama - but they have to tell the truth.

Posted by: jonmiller1 | February 9, 2010 10:01 PM | Report abuse

"Morally identical?"

Oh please.

The difference is that Ashcroft was not only right, he has been PROVEN right.

The American judicial system should not be burdened with the responsibility of trying war criminals who for the most part committed their crimes on foreign soil. It is utterly and profoundly stupid to think that these people should be integrated into the American judicial system in order to achieve justice. The way the Obama administration is handling these trials is a farce. KSM being tried in downtown Manhattan so HOlder's showboys can strut their stuff? Disgusting.

This is the most infantile and ideologically bound administration I've ever seen.

Quirin, 1943. German terrorist/saboteurs were captured in June and executed in August. KSM should have been dead a long time ago.

Grow up, liberals. Defend your country and your judicial system.

There is nothing the Obama administration has done that angers me more than the handling of these people. And they've done a lot of impenetrably stupid things.

Posted by: theduke89 | February 9, 2010 10:40 PM | Report abuse

I don't really think Al Qaeda cares much about American public opinion or the likelihood/non-likelihood that the US can be bullied into withdrawing from the Middle East. So, these discussions about "aiding the terrorists" by holding or not holding military tribunals are somewhat meaningless, from either side of the political spectrum. In my opinion, what they seek to do is influence public opinion in the Muslim world and the EU, as well as gain recruits. They'd like to see the German government follow in the footsteps of Spain's government, when Spain withdrew from the Iraq coalition after the Madrid subway attacks.

What I see as aiding the terrorists more is when the US government leaks like a sieve in having public discussions about policy on what to do with the terrorists and their Afghan and Pakistan supporters. Particularly disturbing, in my opinion, are the frequent discussions about US Special Force and CIA operations. Now that really DOES help the terrorists; to know what we intend to do in fighting them and how we intend to do it. It was bad enough when Washington Post bloggers leaked unauthorized secret information during the Bush Administration; now this seems to be done at the official behest of the Pentagon. These people must have lost their minds.

Posted by: stillaliberal | February 9, 2010 10:59 PM | Report abuse

The tragically misnamed Ombudsman1 writes:
"he wasn't trying to stifle people who wanted the administration to adhere to the US Constitution."

This is the equivalent of people who start a sentence by saying "I'm all in favor of free speech, BUT..."

Say what? That makes about as much sense as Lane's column. You're in good company.

Posted by: sambam | February 9, 2010 11:09 PM | Report abuse

The difference, Mr. Lane, you nitwit, is that Brennan is not shredding the Constitution as he does his duties.

In contrast, the Bush administration eavesdropped on AMERICAN CITIZENS without getting warrants, and illegally tortured suspects to try and get "confessions" to justify lying us into the Iraq war.

In addition, the Republicans have now, for months, been spreading lies and conspiracy theories about our president that are patently false and are ridiculous.

Posted by: losthorizon10 | February 9, 2010 11:22 PM | Report abuse

***AVOID 20% UNEMPLOYMENT*** ... ... ... ... ...President Obama: Keep COMMERCIAL REAL ESTATE FORECLOSURES from occurring and closing Small Businesses.....use 10% of the $787 Billion "JOBS" Bill our children will pay for; to AVOID 1930'S style, full-blown DEPRESSION !

Posted by: MSFT-PELOSI | February 9, 2010 11:23 PM | Report abuse

In 1943, we were at war.

We're as at war with terrorists as we are with drugs.

(Same people in many cases.)

Posted by: mason08 | February 9, 2010 11:25 PM | Report abuse

Can anyone, with a straight face, claim that the Republicans haven't been playing politics over the Christmas Day Bomber incident?

Can anyone be so breathtakingly, monumentally dim-witted and/or dishonest as to claim that people like Sarah Palin haven't been playing politics with this?

The rather obvious, indisputable, and incontrovertable facts are this, in case they need repeating. 1) This incident was handled no differently by the Obama Administration than the Bush administration handled Richard Reid. 2) John Boehner and Mitch McConnell were briefed of the procedure being followed by the FBI as it was happpening, and they raised no objections and expressed no concerns at that time. 3) There are thousands of dedicated FBI, CIA, State Department, and other counter-terrorism professionals who faithfully do their job each and every day to keep America safe: they do it regardless of who occupies the Oval Office.

Anyone who suggests otherwise is a despicable, loathesome moron.

The Republican Party has become indistinguishable from the Taliban or Hamas: lunatic fundamentalist extremists who will stop at nothing and will stoop to any depth to get their way.

Posted by: SkyBeaver | February 9, 2010 11:39 PM | Report abuse

Charles Lane writes that it's not "a defense to say that Brennan’s characterization is objectively true whereas Ashcroft’s was not," and Lane's reason is because "when it comes to the tradeoff between liberty and security there are only opinions, no scientifically provable answers."

Lane apparently believes that the current crop of congressional repubs are making these accusations against Obama's handling of the Christmas bomber out of some sincere interest in a serious dialogue about "the tradeoff between liberty and security."

That's not where they are coming from, and anyone who really thinks so is A/ a Fox News contributor or B/ drinking inside-the-beltway juice like the rest of the overpaid D.C. scribes.

Posted by: JacksonTejas | February 9, 2010 11:43 PM | Report abuse

"When it comes to the tradeoff between liberty and security there are only opinions, no scientifically provable answers."

Did I hear somebody say something about moral relativism?

Posted by: fzdybel | February 10, 2010 12:33 AM | Report abuse

"Charles Lane Low Blow on Counterterrorism Expert John Brennan"

Lane is one of the most repugnant right-wing creatures to be employed by WaPo. He is also serially wrong on everything. What a tool!

Posted by: Gatsby10 | February 10, 2010 7:02 AM | Report abuse

Sorry, but no dice. There is a major difference here between Ashcroft's comments and Brennan's verbal blustering. Ashcroft didn't get his marching orders to vent from the President - unlike Brennan. As a career partisan who has given his utmost to undermine conservative national security issues, Brennan is a hack. This city is full of noble and dedicated public servants who are kicked around like political footballs by leftists in search of the next sound bite, and its about time that the record is set straight. Americans need to have the facts, and if that means McConnell exposes the shameless behavior of the president and his team, so be it.

Posted by: shecallsmemoe | February 10, 2010 7:10 AM | Report abuse

How can we possibly take Charles Lane seriously here. He leaves out the most important point -- that Republicans are hyperbolic in their criticisms of President Obama for doing PRECISELY what George Bush did with the terrorists captured on our shores on his watch. The Richard Reid Shoe Bomber case and the Christmas bomber could not possibly be more identical, and yet the GOP is treating these identical cases in completely opposite ways. That is what distinguishes Ashcroft's remarks from Brennan's.

There is no secret what Republicans are up to, or the themes they think will work for them in 2010 and beyond. Just connect a few dots. First there is Tom Tancredo who gives an anti-immigrant racist rant to great applause at the Tea Party Nation convention last weekend in Nashville. Then there is Sarah Palin at the same event getting a Standing O when she says that what America needs is a swagger-stick carrying "commander in chief" not some Rule of Law loving "constitutional law professor" in this hour of need. Then there is Scott Brown's campaign advisor Eric Fernstrom telling the New Yorker that protests against giving terrorists "American" legal rights was the strongest issue they had in their Massachusetts upset.

It's obvious that Republicans see this kind of nativism as pure political gold.

Republican complaints are not about national security or the effectiveness of the FBI's techniques in getting actionable intelligence, or else these same Republicans would have been inflamed at George Bush for his handling of the Shoe Bomber and hundreds of identical cases. This is about the powerful subliminal message that tragically and dangerously resonates with millions of Americans who are outraged that legal traditions and guarantees that they think should be reserved for Americans only are being extended to America's enemies who don't look like us or talk like us. Scott Brown even said so: "American taxpayers should only have to pay for weapons to defeat our enemies not for lawyers to defend them."

Anyone who cares about democracy and rule of law has to be very afraid at these naked appeals to primative tribalism.

Posted by: TedFrier | February 10, 2010 7:58 AM | Report abuse

Charles Lane is showing his bias again: right-wing militancy. If it was good enough for the Bush's DoJ to try Reid and Moussaoui in civilian court, -- along with a few hundreds less public cases, all resulting in 100% convictions -- under the laws of this country, why is it wrong for Obama's DoJ to do the same thing? Because Lane' bias is so greater towards Republicans that he is actually a terrorist for ignoring the laws of our country?

Posted by: Gatsby10 | February 10, 2010 4:07 PM | Report abuse

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