National Security Network

Obama’s Counterterrorism Successes Fly in the Face of Conservative Criticism

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Report 19 February 2010

Terrorism & National Security Terrorism & National Security Afghanistan Pakistan Taliban


This week has seen a wave of successes for the Obama administration and our allies against extremists abroad.  The capture of senior Taliban leadership this week has demonstrated that Obama administration is taking the fight to the extremists, with concrete results.  These successes are part of a longer trend of recent achievements in broader counterterrorism efforts, vindicating the Obama administration's counterterrorism approach.  Despite these successes conservatives see terrorism and national security as a political opportunity not a strategy to keep America safe.

Over the last week, "wave" of successes in counterterrorism and efforts against militants. This week has seen a wave of detentions of top militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The Washington Post reports today that, "Mullah Abdul Salam, the Taliban leader in Afghanistan's Kunduz province, and Mullah Mohammad, the shadow governor in Baghlan province, were taken into custody in Pakistan about 10 days ago, according to the governor of Kunduz, Mohammad Omar, and a Pakistani security official. The two served as part of the vast network of Taliban leaders who coordinate the Afghan insurgency and oversee Taliban courts, which mete out swift and often brutal settlements for local disputes."  In addition, the New York Times reports today that, "A missile believed to have been fired Thursday from an American drone killed the younger brother of a top militant commander in the North Waziristan tribal area, according to several Pakistani security and intelligence officials, residents in Waziristan and a friend of the commander's family."

This comes at the end of a week that began with the announcement that the CIA and Pakistani authorities captured Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who the BBC says had "overseen Taliban military operations in Afghanistan, run the group's leadership council, and controlled its finances." The Post article also describes how this string of successes were handled by American officials, saying that these "detentions, which have taken place in a wave since early last week, were initially kept secret to allow intelligence operatives to use information gleaned from captures to draw additional militants into exposing their locations and movements, according to officials who discussed the ongoing operations on the condition of anonymity." [Washington Post, 2/19/10. BBC, 2/19/10]

These detentions are part of a trend of successes in the Obama administration's broader counterterrorism policy. Decisions taken by President Obama as part of the broader U.S. counter terrorism strategy have led key achievements. 

Gaining actionable intelligence without using torture.  Despite the rants from right wingers, concrete actionable intelligence was gained from the interrogation of Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab, without using torture.  As Ken Gude of the Center for American Progress writes, "As we now know, far from being wrong, irresponsible, or dangerous, the path the Obama administration chose for the interrogation of Abdulmutallab is directly responsible for him cooperating with intelligence officials and giving up fresh and actionable intelligence...The intelligence gained from Abdulmutallab has been shared widely throughout the intelligence community - and has already produced results. On January 21, Malaysian counterterrorism authorities arrested 10 suspected terrorists tied to Abdulmutallab." [Ken Gude, 2/3/10]

Building partnerships and working with allies to thwart terrorism.  The Obama administration's revamped effort to work with allies has proven fruitful.  This week, Spain announced that it will accept five Guantanamo Bay detainees, boosting the administration's efforts to close the controversial detention center.  In fact, bringing our interrogation practices in line with international increases intelligence sharing with allies.  As the Washington Post reported last year, "CIA officers acknowledged that some foreign intelligence agencies had refused, for example, to share information about the location of terrorism suspects for fear of becoming implicated in any eventual torture of those suspects." [Washington Post, 2/16/10. Washington Post, 4/24/09]

Increasing successful intelligence gathering.  Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball report this weekend that, "In late January, an Al Qaeda operative headed from Pakistan on his way to Yemen was arrested in the Persian Gulf country of Oman, a U.S. counter-terrorism official confirmed."  And as a result, "U.S. intelligence officials appear to have obtained access to what could turn out to be a significant trove of phone numbers, photographs and documents detailing the links between Al Qaeda's leaders in northwest Pakistan and the terror group's increasingly menacing affiliate in Yemen, two counter-terrorism sources tell Declassified." [Newsweek, 2/14/10]

Enhancing efforts to disrupt domestic plots.  Last year, the administration foiled a terrorism plan by Najibullah Zazi, in a case the New York Times called "the most serious in years." [NY Times, 9/24/09]

Combining judicial and intelligence work to extract information - and then pursuing a global manhunt. As the Washington Times reported earlier this week, "U.S. and allied counterterrorism authorities have launched a global manhunt for English-speaking terrorists trained in Yemen who are planning attacks on the United States, based on intelligence provided by the suspect in the attempted Christmas Day bombing after he began cooperating." [Washington Times, 2/15/10]

Despite successes of Obama administration, conservatives ignore reality and revert to national security as political strategy.  Ignoring the achievements under the Obama administration and the past policies of the Bush administration, conservatives are attempting to use our national security to gain political points.  According to Roll Call, "In a messaging memo from the House Republican Conference, Members were encouraged to criticize the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats on a host of national security issues including the decision to read alleged ‘underwear bomber' Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights, the plan to close the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility and the attempt to hold civilian trials for alleged terrorists such as Khalid Sheik Mohammed in New York City rather than in military courts... In materials circulated to his GOP colleagues, Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) outlined talking points on these issues. ‘On national security, we continue to oppose closing the facility at Guantanamo Bay without a better solution for detaining terrorists. And we have to make a distinction between an American teenager who breaks into a sandwich shop and a foreign terrorist who wants to blow up an airplane. Terrorists should be tried by military commissions,' Alexander wrote in the recess packet."

These talking points ignore reality and, instead reverting to radical policies that even the Bush administration saw as necessary.  Richard Reid, for example, "the 2001 'shoe bomber' - was read or reminded of his Miranda rights four times in two days, beginning five minutes after being taken into custody," according to Mike Allen of Politico.  In addition, the Bush administration prosecuted around 200 terrorists in civilian courts, according to its own Justice Department records.  Finally, the interrogation guidelines that Cheney conservatives knock as too soft were first implemented by Bush administration in 2008, according to John Brennan, who served in senior intelligence positions in both the Obama and Bush administrations. 

Like a broken record, conservatives attempt to politicize national security:

House Minority Leader John Boehner: "Treating terrorists like common criminals and hoping for the best is part of a Sept. 11 mentality, and I think it's a troubling pattern, pattern of dangerous decisions, that's putting the American people at risk," [John Boehner, via Politico, 2/4/10]

Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the ranking member of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence: "This administration has not gotten terrorism since day one... We don't have to be on the offensive... Every time [administration officials] open their mouths, they lose creditability." [Pete Hoekstra, via Roll Call, 2/16/10]

Rep. Aaron Schock (R-IL), the Deputy Republican Whip: "whether it's closing Guantanamo Bay and moving it to the heartland of America, whether it's the, the--trying these folks in downtown New York, whether it's Mirandizing terrorists who come to this country to attack us, the majority of Americans have not bought, do not believe that Obama and his administration is right on these policies." [Aaron Schock, Meet the Press, 2/14/10]

Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, hypocritically accused the administration of putting style over substance in his counterterrorism approach, an argument clear rebutted by recent successes: "Again and again, the administration's approach has been to announce a new policy or to change an existing one based not on a careful study of the facts, but as a way of conspicuously distancing itself from the policies of the past - even ones that worked...In short, it has too often put symbolism over security." [Mitch McConnell, Politico, 2/3/10]

[Roll Call, 2/16/10. Politico, 2/2/10. Mark Hosenball, Newsweek, 2/9/10. John Brennan, Meet the Press, 2/7/10]

What We're Reading

The sixth day of the military offensive in southern Afghanistan proved the deadliest so far as four NATO troops were killed in bombings and gun battles during the painstaking push to take back a Taliban stronghold.

President Obama's low-key visit with the Dalai Lama rankled the Chinese.

Soldiers ousted the president and suspended the constitution of uranium-rich Niger.

The United Nations' nuclear inspectors declared for the first time on Thursday that they had extensive evidence of "past or current undisclosed activities" by Iran's military to develop a nuclear warhead.

The Obama administration said that it would ask the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, more than a decade after President Bill Clinton failed to convince the treaty's opponents that the American arsenal could deter adversaries without ever setting off nuclear explosions.

Dubai's police chief said he's "99%, if not 100%" sure Israel's intelligence agency, Mossad, is behind the killing of a Hamas operative in the wealthy emirate last month.

The Obama administration has decided to give the war in Iraq a new name -- "Operation New Dawn" -- to reflect the reduced role U.S. troops will play in securing the country this year as troop levels fall.

The man accused of killing a New York City journalist who was videotaping street clashes in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2006 was released from jail after an appeals tribunal declared that there was no evidence against him.

The multi-national effort to stop piracy in the Gulf of Aden waters off the coast of Somalia is working.

Russia signed a deal to build a military base in the breakaway Georgian territory of Abkhazia, prompting strong condemnation by NATO.

Commentary of the Day

Fred Kaplan lays out why Dick Cheney should be disqualified from speaking in public, not only as an expert on the issues but also as a representative of a politically significant point of view.

Barry Blechman argues that while ratifying START would be a step in the right direction, a comprehensive, global disarmament treaty is needed.

Masha Lipman says the Kremlin is finding it increasingly tough to maintain control over Russia's population.