National Security Network

Experts Factcheck House Chairmen’s Letter

Print this page
Report 21 July 2011

Terrorism & National Security Terrorism & National Security 2012 National Defense Authorization Act terrorism

This week several House committee chairmen wrote to President Obama criticizing the decision to bring accused Somali terrorist Ahmed Warsame to New York to be tried in a federal court. Legal and military experts dispute the core claims of the letter. Its complaints come as Congress debates radical provisions in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act which would give this and future presidents fewer options, not more, to use against terrorism suspects.  They represent an odd choice for politicking, as the administration's approach to the Warsame case and counterterrorism more broadly have drawn strong support from editorial boards and public opinion.

Experts and facts refute central claims of the House letter:

"[I]ncentivizing lethal operations over law of war detention":  Brookings' Benjamin Wittes sums up the absurdity of the same leaders who have sought to limit the administration's options to detain terror suspects complaining that suspects may not be detained:  "I could not in good conscience recommend that Obama bring anyone new to Gitmo under current circumstances-not Ahmed Warsame, and not the next guy either. The reason is that Congress has made it virtually impossible for anyone ever to leave Guantanamo-either into the U.S. civilian system or abroad. And nobody who has to actually run a detention system will find attractive a site that functions as a detainee Roach Motel. A well-run military detention system is a fluid operation, with people coming in and going out as opportunities present themselves. If Congress is serious about encouraging the use of Guantanamo, it can't make the price of its use an inability of the president to maneuver." [Benjamin Wittes, 7/20/11]

"[T]he loss of critical detainee-provided intelligence": Journalists and observers have concluded the opposite, as the Washington Post editorial board explains: "A federal case against alleged terrorist Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame appears to have sprung from a successful operation that yielded valuable intelligence and actionable law enforcement information, all while providing Mr. Warsame with the protections required by international law. The Obama administration deserves credit for its handling of this case." Similarly useful intelligence was gained through the interrogation of the 2009 "Underwear Bomber," not in spite of the rule of law, but because of it. The New York Times reported at the time that, "Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man accused of trying to blow up a jetliner bound for Detroit on Dec. 25, started talking to investigators after two of his family members arrived in the United States and helped earn his cooperation, a senior administration official said Tuesday evening." [Washington Post, 7/10/11. New York Times, 2/2/10]

"[F]orcing the United States to be wholly dependent on foreign governments to hold and provide access to detainees": The origins of this concern are unclear and not supported by the facts of the Warsame case. Ken Gude, managing director of national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress, explains how the case unfolded: "Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame was reportedly seized in April onboard a ship in the Gulf of Aden between Somalia and Yemen. He is charged with conspiracy and providing material support to terrorist groups-in this case the Somali-based al-Shabaab and the Yemeni-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. The Obama administration revealed that Warsame was held on a U.S. Navy ship for two months and interrogated by the High-Value Interrogation Group, the team drawn from numerous frontline U.S. government agencies established by the Obama administration specifically to question suspected high-ranking terrorists. This produced significant information outlining a deeper connection between al-Shabaab and AQAP than previously known. U.S. officials reportedly discussed all options for Warsame's future and unanimously decided on criminal prosecution."  [Ken Gude, 7/6/11]

"[B]ringing terrorists to the United States": There are hundreds of terrorists behind American prison bars. As NSN senior advisor Major General Paul Eaton wrote in Politico in response to the Warsame case: "What are the real concerns about the administration's decisions to capture a suspected terrorist, collect valuable intelligence and place him in the venue most likely to bring him to justice? The U.S. criminal justice system has performed brilliantly - trying hundreds of terrorists and sending better than 90 percent of those tried to significant prison sentences in high and maximum security prisons... Our incarceration professionals have come on line to declare that they are more than prepared to handle the load, while our law enforcement officials and the supporting courts have displayed the resolute courage and professionalism that is, frankly, the envy of many countries." Back in 2009 former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recalled that convicting and imprisoning terrorists is nothing new: "This started 20 years ago when I was at CIA, and we captured a Hezbollah terrorist who had been involved in killing an American sailor on an aircraft that had been taken hostage in Beirut. We brought him to the United States, put him on trial and put him in prison." [Paul Eaton, 7/12/11. Robert Gates, 5/22/09]

[Letter from Buck McKeon, Lamar Smith, Mike Rogers, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Peter King, 7/19/11]

The politics of fear and overreaction play into terrorist hands. Terrorism analyst Daveed Gartenstein-Ross argues that al Qaeda  has succeed in causing an expensive and counterproductive overreaction: "I don't think it's so much al-Qaida's own virtue so much as they've had a strategy which happened to play to our own worst instincts, and they did so quite successfully... after [bin Laden] carried out 9/11, he explained what he accomplished. The very first thing bin Laden goes to is the economics of the attack. Not just the damage, but also lost work, lost productivity and ends up with an overall $1 trillion price tag. Then comes some strategic adaptations on al-Qaida's part based on what the U.S. did, including taking advantage of the invasion of Iraq, the ongoing presence in Afghanistan, to embroil the U.S. in bloody wars abroad. He urged attacks on the oil supply, initially something he said was off-limits. And finally, after the economic collapse in 2008, you have a focus on smaller but more frequent attacks that take advantage of our very expensive security apparatus and are designed to continue to drive up those security costs."

Matthew Alexander, the Air Force interrogator who led the team that tracked down the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, explains that violating our own principles plays into al Qaeda's hands: "One of al-Qaeda's goals is to prove that America does not live up to its principles. They assert that we are a nation of hypocrites... This war has two fronts - protecting our security by thwarting terrorist attacks and preserving American principles." [Daveed Gartenstein-Ross via Danger Room, 7/20/11. Matthew Alexander, 4/23/09]

Public supports the administration's counterterrorism approach. Terrorism is a surprising choice for political attacks, given an outpouring of editorial support for the Warsame case and broad public support for President Obama's handling of terrorism. Last month the Washington Post reported: "In the latest Bloomberg poll... it was his [President Obama's] stratospheric 69 percent approval on terrorism that helped his cumulative number hover near 50 percent. The June Washington Post/ABC News poll produced a similar result. Asked to name one thing that Obama had done ‘especially well as president' recently, nearly three in 10 (29 percent) cited the finding/killing of Osama bin Laden." A New York Times/CBS News poll from May found that, "Slightly more than half said they liked the way he was handling foreign policy generally, up from 39 percent in April. About six in 10 approved of his handling of Afghanistan, up from 44 percent in January. And more than seven in 10 supported his handling of the terrorism threat, up from about half in August 2010. Perhaps least surprising, more than eight in 10 said they supported his handling of the pursuit of Bin Laden." [NSN, 6/12/11. Washington Post, 6/24/11. NY Times, 5/4/11]

What We're Reading

Egypt will not allow international groups to monitor its upcoming parliamentary election, the country's military rulers announced, echoing ousted president Hosni Mubarak's argument that foreign electoral oversight would be an affront to Egyptian sovereignty.

Famine in parts of southern Somalia has killed tens of thousands of people, mostly children, the United Nations said, in an official declaration of what aid officials describe as the worst humanitarian crisis in the troubled country in two decades.

President Barack Obama and congressional leaders worked furiously to craft a compromise plan to cut federal spending dramatically while raising the nation's debt ceiling, with Obama saying he could accept a short-term deal if it's tied to a bigger agreement.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy agreed to a financial rescue plan for Greece, ahead of today's emergency eurozone summit on the ongoing sovereign debt crisis.

Syrian security forces conducted gun raids and arrested anti-government protesters in the central city of Homs, where fifty have been reported dead since the weekend.

Libya's rebels increased their offensive yesterday, pushing Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's troops into retreat in the east and preparing a fresh attack from the south of Tripoli.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has cautiously welcomed a Russian proposal for bringing Iran back to talks over its nuclear program.

A gun battle between Afghan police and anti-government fighters in the southern city of Kandahar has killed up to four police officers, including a district police chief, according to government and hospital officials.

At least eight people were killed and 44 wounded in clashes between anti-government protestors and police in Malawi's northern city of Mzuzu, hospital officials said.

Prime Minister David Cameron told a special session of Parliament that he regretted hiring a onetime editor of the News of the World as his chief communications deputy and that he would make a "profound apology" if his former aide is shown to have lied about his role in Britain's growing phone-hacking scandal.

Commentary of the Day

David Ignatius writes that the United States must work with Syrian dissidents and with Turkey and other regional powers to help create a smooth transition to a post-Assad regime in Syria.

Stephen McInerney praises the administration's willingness to think outside the box and explore all options for meeting the demand of economic assistance to the post-revolutionary regimes in the Middle East.

Andrea Stone examines the finances and current activities of The Center for Military Readiness - the leading opponent of repealing the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy and a decades-long critic of expanded opportunities for military women.