Home-grown terrorist attack threatens to disrupt Obama’s second-term agenda

The Boston Marathon terrorist attack allegedly hatched by two brothers from Chechnya is threatening to disrupt President Obama’s second-term agenda.

Opponents of immigration reform — the most promising priority of Obama’s second term remaining after the defeat of gun control — are already using the attack to try to slow progress on a bipartisan Senate bill.

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More broadly, the attack is raising questions about how the administration should deal with 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was captured Friday after an exhaustive manhunt in Boston, and concerns over whether the FBI was too complacent in letting his older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev out of its sight after interviewing him in 2011.

The issues are expected to create political problems and distractions for Obama, whose fight against terrorism has largely been a political success highlighted by the killing of Osama bin Laden.

It is unclear how much oxygen the issue will consume in the coming weeks, but it seems certain it will shift the political debates in Washington.



“It definitely shifts the focus away from the issues they’ve been talking about,” said one top Democratic strategist. “Part of it depends on how deep this rabbit hole goes. Were there mistakes made or weren’t there? A lot of this depends on what the facts are but it shifts people’s attention from other issues and that’s a complication.”


Added one former senior administration official: “Does this push his agenda aside? It’s hard to say but I’m sure this is something that will occupy more presidential bandwidth in the near term than anything else.”

Republicans are already raising questions about the FBI interview, though there has been no direct criticism of Obama on the issue yet.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) called the revelation of the FBI interview with Tamerlan Tsarnaev, which came after queries by the Russian government, “very disturbing” in a Friday interview with CNN.

“If he was on the radar and they let him out of their sights, that's an issue certainly for me,” McCaul said. He speculated that Tsarnaev could have been radicalized and received training during a trip to the Chechnya region.

“I'm very concerned he was out of the sights of the FBI, he went over to Chechnya and got trained and recruited and he came back and was successful in pulling off the largest terrorist operation since 9/11,” McCaul said.

Of more immediate concern to Obama is how to deal with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who GOP Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) say should be held as an enemy combatant and denied counsel.

The Tsarnaevs came to the country seeking asylum and Dzhokhar became a U.S. citizen last year. After he was captured, authorities did not read him his Miranda rights under a legal exception that allows them to first question a witness who might have information that would prevent further harm to the public.

“Under the Law of War we can hold this suspect as a potential enemy combatant not entitled to Miranda warnings or the appointment of counsel,” McCain and Graham said Friday. “Our goal at this critical juncture should be to gather intelligence and protect our nation from further attacks.”

Obama on Friday promised the administration would relentlessly pursue the facts of how two young men who grew up and studied in the U.S. turned against their adopted country.

“It’s important that we do this right,” he said in remarks late Friday night after Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s capture.

Guns, immigration reform and a “grand bargain” deal on the deficit that would include tax hikes and entitlement reforms are the president’s big agenda items this year.

But with the Senate vote seemingly taking gun control off the table and talks making little progress so far on deficit reduction, White House allies concede they must win the battle on immigration reform to prevent the second term from being in danger.

They have expressed trepidation that it could be slowed or stopped by opponents who will use the Tsarnaevs as an example of why comprehensive reform would be harmful to the nation.

“I don’t know if this has a long term effect on an immigration bill’s chances but it’s certainly inserted itself into this debate,” said one official. “It’s likely there will be questions about this in terms of that debate but it’s almost too soon to tell.”

Administration officials see some opportunities for Obama’s agenda because of the events in Boston: they say the use of guns by the two suspects, who killed a security officer while fleeing police, could strengthen Obama’s calls for stricter gun control.

The Senate on Wednesday defeated Obama-backed legislation to expand background checks on gun purchases.

“We still don’t know all the facts but this was a bill that 90 percent of Americans supported to prevent events like this from happening and keep people safe,” one official said.

Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, said the White House will do “everything in its power to limit the policy impact of the Boston bombing.”

But either way, the events in and around Boston have “the real potential to substantially reset the president’s near-term agenda,” said Ken Lundberg, a Republican strategist.

Lundberg said unforeseeable events are what happen to presidents while they’re planning their agendas.

“This is why presidents must move swiftly on their own agenda, because circumstances have a way of derailing even the best laid plans,” Lundberg said.