US needs proactive counterterrorism program

As the pieces start to fall into place indicating Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad was not an isolated extremist or a mentally deranged person but was trained and supported by the Pakistani Taliban and might have had accomplices in the United States, it is time to carefully examine how the Obama administration handled this attack and what lessons it learned from it to protect America from future terrorism.

The initial handling of this case was poor. Administration officials at first downplayed the Times Square attack and ruled out the possibility that it could be an act of terrorism by a radical Jihadist group. This suggests Obama officials learned little from the way they mishandled the November 2009 Fort Hood Shooting and the botched Christmas Day air bombing when they also were quick to dismiss the possibility of links to terrorist groups. 

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Just as they did after the Christmas Day attack, Obama administration officials claimed victory for their counterterrorism policies after the Times Square bombing. The trouble is the outcomes of both incidents had nothing to do with successful counterterrorism policies. If Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab or Shahzad had been more competent, this would be a very different discussion. Disaster was averted in both cases because of luck.  Luck is not a counterterrorism strategy. We must assume future terrorists are just a few adjustments away from a successful deadly attack that could kill Americans. 

Despite three terrorist attacks against the U.S. homeland by radical Jihadists in the last six months and the arrest last year of two persons in the U.S. with ties to radical Jihadist groups who were planning future attacks, the Obama administration and its friends on the left are deliberately ignoring the threat our nation faces from radical Jihadist terrorism. This was crystal clear last week when Attorney General Eric Holder could not bring himself to admit to a House committee that radical Islam was behind the Times Square attack.  This is an administration so deeply in denial about the threat from radical Jihadist terrorism that it claimed the Bush administration exaggerated this threat and asserted radical Islam could be dealt with through outreach efforts and high-profile presidential speeches to the Muslim world.  

For example, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who previously tried to ban the word “terrorism” from her department and replace it with the meaningless phrase “man-caused disasters,” again proved she does not understand the nature of the threat from radical Jihadist terrorists when she said on May 2 that the Times Square bomb was an “amateurish one-off” terrorism attempt. Napolitano’s naïve comments were eclipsed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who said the bomber could have been “home-grown, maybe a mentally deranged person or somebody with a political agenda that doesn’t like the health care bill.” Mayor Bloomberg still has not apologized for these hateful comments. 

Naïve administration statements about terrorist incidents have been accompanied by a rolling back of tools needed to combat this threat. The administration ended enhanced interrogation of terrorist suspects and instead is reverting to the failed pre-9/11 law-enforcement model of focusing on the prosecution of individual terrorist suspects and reading them Miranda rights instead of intelligence collection. At the same time, Obama officials have threatened to prosecute intelligence and Justice Department personnel involved in the enhanced interrogation program.

Even worse, since last fall, the administration has prevented our intelligence agencies from using all of their collection tools and has not demonstrated any urgency in restoring them even though they are widely supported by Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

Meanwhile, the leaks about the Shahzad case and his cooperation with investigators might have tipped off his comrades and made them harder to apprehend. I fear these leaks came from an administration desperate to create the appearance that it has a real counterterrorism policy.

This is an abdication of leadership by the Obama administration of its most important responsibility: protecting the security of the American people. It also is a far cry from the aggressive counterterrorism policies of the last administration, which did everything it could to combat the terrorist threat.

Leadership means identifying a problem and taking steps to solve it.  The Obama administration cannot exercise leadership on terrorism until it faces up to the reality that radical Jihadism is a global threat that is growing more sophisticated. We are seeing new tactics from radical Jihadist groups that apparently have decided that because large-scale attacks have become more difficult to carry out due to increased security, they’ll shift their tactics to smaller attacks using difficult-to-detect attackers.  

The Times Square attack was a near miss that has given President Obama one more chance – perhaps his last chance – to exercise leadership to protect our nation with a proactive counterterrorism program that acknowledges the full scope of the terrorist threat.   Once again, we were lucky with the Times Square terrorist attack.  We can’t count on future terrorist attackers to be as incompetent as the Christmas Day or Times Square bombers. Time is not on our side.

Hoekstra is the Ranking Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.