There was a segment entitled “America’s role in the world,” but neither candidate connected this theme to the battle against terrorism. They didn’t acknowledge that some U.S. counterterrorism policies have tarnished the country’s image. Or that — as General David Petraeus has often pointed out — an effective battle against terrorism depends on people around the world understanding that the United States, not its enemies, occupies the moral high ground.
Governor Romney wasn’t asked about reports that his advisors would urge him to revoke the executive order banning torture, allowing it to become U.S. policy again. It’s now possible that voters will go the polls without knowing where he stands on this crucial issue.
To watch this debate, you wouldn’t know there was a place called Gitmo. It’s out of sight and it may be out of mind for many Americans, but its existence continues to damage the credibility of the United States and therefore its national security.
The Gitmo omission would be glaring even if the most important terrorism case in U.S. history weren’t unfolding there right now. As pretrial hearings for 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four co-conspirators drag on, they reveal the arbitrariness and shakiness that have characterized the military commission system since their inception. More people have died in Gitmo (nine) than have been convicted (six) there.
Meanwhile in a federal courthouse in lower Manhattan, Al Qaeda suspect Abu Hamza al-Masri and two fellow defendants, accompanied by an experienced defense attorney, recently heard a long list of charges in an open, legally sound hearing. They will face trial next year in the federal court system, where almost 500 terrorists have been convicted.
Would Romney heed the wishes of some in his party and end federal trials for terrorism suspects? Would Obama fight to transfer Gitmo detainees to the United States for trial? We don’t know.
The debate focused on drone warfare long enough only for Governor Romney to say he supports President Obama’s approach. They didn’t discuss — and weren’t pressed to discuss — the troubling legal questions about the country’s targeted killing program or the need for oversight or the increasingly likely possibility that drone attacks are creating terrorists, not just killing them.
The candidates may be able to avoid these issues for a night, or even for the bulk of the campaign, but they aren’t going away.
Massimino is president and CEO of Human Rights First.