Efforts to pass the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the comprehensive defense spending bill for the year, have been slowed by debate over controversial provisions moving most phases of terrorism prosecutions from law enforcement to the military. Yesterday, Senators Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ), the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, announced they had reached a deal to move the bill forward. Inexplicably, however, the deal did not address the concerns with the legislation that have been expressed by bipartisan national security experts, the Pentagon and other relevant security-related committees. Pentagon and outside leaders immediately noted that the "deal" fails to address ley legal and practical problems with the measure and suggested that it, in the words of NSN Senior Adviser Major General (ret.) Paul Eaton, "undermines the capabilities" of the executive branch to combat terrorism.
Security experts, policymakers and observers continue to raise concerns about pending portions of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would authorize indefinite detention, mandate military custody of terrorism suspects and impose stringent restrictions on transfer of detainees from Guantanamo Bay. A strong bipartisan consensus has formed among practitioners that, in the words of a former Bush administration official, these provisions "could actually weaken our counterterrorism efforts."
A consensus has emerged among national security, intelligence and law enforcement leaders in Congress that our nation's law enforcement needs freedom to do its job interrogating and prosecuting terrorism suspects. Experts, officials and a growing number of media outlets are speaking out about controversial proposals to authorize indefinite detention, mandate military custody of terrorism suspects and impose stringent restrictions on transfer of detainees from Guantanamo Bay. These diverse leaders believe that the extreme provisions in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) are, in the words of two retired judges and a Bush-era FBI Director, "counterintuitive and could pose a genuine threat to our national security."
Yesterday U.S. law enforcement agencies added a second counterterrorism success to the week - on the heels of the disruption of an Iranian-linked plot, "Underwear Bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab pled guilty to all eight terrorism charges. Our civilian legal system is part of a comprehensive counterterrorism policy that combines strong kinetic action, legal tools, intelligence, financial leverage and diplomatic efforts. A poll released this morning confirms again that the American people give this approach overwhelming support, with 61% approval.
Two developments today highlight the divide between overheated political rhetoric on counterterrorism and the reality of effective counterterrorism in practice. In Detroit, "Underwear Bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab begins his trial, an example of how cooperation among the civilian legal system, the FBI and the military produced both successful intelligence-gathering and a prompt day in court. Yet back in Washington, the Senate is considering controversial detainee provisions in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would remove civilian courts and law enforcement from counterterrorism, handing the military a role it does not want. Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson will voice the Defense Department's concerns today, adding to the concerns raised by Senators Reid, Feinstein and Leahy. It is strange to see these attacks on a set of tools that are core to U.S. constitutional values, proven effective, and supported by the public. As Lawrence Wilkerson writes, "the defense bill could actually weaken our counterterrorism efforts."
The death of Anwar al Awlaki shines a spotlight on Yemen's political crisis and the threat posed by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula - a threat which grows as the Yemeni state is unable to manage its own security or gain the respect of its citizens. President Ali Abdullah Saleh has used counterterrorism cooperation as a tool to try to tell the West that it's a choice between him or al Qaeda. In reality, Saleh's history of combatting terrorism is mixed, and the summer saw him refocus security forces from counterterrorism to regime protection. Washington has re-stated that Saleh must go and that counterterrorism efforts will continue with this or future governments. In the long run, solving the political crisis and addressing the needs of Yemen's citizens will prove best way to fight terrorism there.
There are confirmed reports that this morning in Yemen wanted terrorist Anwar al Awlaki was killed in a drone strike. Awlaki was a spiritual leader of the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). While the extent of his operational role is disputed, his charisma and eloquent English made him a powerful recruiter in the West, with reported ties to the Christmas Day "Underwear Bomber," the Fort Hood shooter and the attempted Times Square bomber. Awlaki's death is the most recent in a series of blows to al Qaeda. It showcases the success of the administration's counterterrorism tactics and the challenges those tactics bring with them. With al Qaeda suffering severe operational blows, and growing reliance on drone strikes and focus on individual targets, the United States not only can, but must, offer clear explanations to global publics and clear legal resolution at home of how individual targetings, particularly of American citizens, are consistent with our Constitutional values.