Let us examine the evolution of the war on terror from 1990, when Islamists were at war with us before we even knew it, to the present.
In 1990, Israeli politician Meir Kahane was assassinated by El-Sayyid Nosair while giving a speech in New York. Although the deed was treated as a lone act, and Nosair was convicted on gun charges, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing was accompanied by a demand for his release. This caused authorities to examine what we now recognize as jihadi literature seized from Nosair’s home and to realize that he and the bombers were part of a larger Islamist phenomenon.
Later plots preceding 9/11 were met with desultory responses by the United States government. Thus, criminal indictments were returned in connection with conspiracies in 1994 to blow up New York landmarks and in connection with a test run of a plan to blow up airliners over the Pacific that resulted in the death of a Japanese engineer.
A similar response greeted the near-simultaneous 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; there was no response to a 2000 attack on the destroyer U.S.S. Cole that killed 17 U.S. sailors.
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush tried to put the country on a war footing. But this was a war like no other, against an enemy that did not occupy a particular territory, and indeed prided itself on its ability to hide in civilian population centers.
It was a war in which intelligence about the enemy was virtually the only defense, and captured combatants had to be detained indefinitely and made to disclose knowledge of future terrorist plots.
Although the authorization Congress passed following 9/11 permitted the use of all appropriate force, and although intelligence gathering had long been recognized as an adjunct to the use of force, there was vigorous resistance to the notion that the executive branch could conduct electronic surveillance without a court-issued warrant.
Although the law of war had long distinguished between lawful and unlawful combatants, denying the latter legal protections, there was vigorous resistance as well to the detention of unlawful combatants at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, and to the CIA’s use of coercive interrogation techniques, referred to euphemistically by the Bush administration as “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
Notwithstanding that there was no realistic alternative to such detention, and that such techniques violated no law and yielded troves of life saving information, President Barack Obama rejected both as violations of American ideals.
On his first day in office, he signed proclamations declaring that detention at Guantanamo would end and that the CIA interrogation program would be abolished, limiting interrogation techniques to those set forth in the Army Field Manual, long available to all, including terrorists, on the Internet.
He appointed a Homeland Security secretary and an attorney general who rejected both the language and the legal norms of the war on terror.
When an army major screamed “Allahu Akhbar” before murdering 13 soldiers and wounding others, he told the country not to jump to conclusions about the man’s motivation. The attorney general announced three days later that the scheduled military trial of the planners of 9/11 would be abandoned in favor of civilian prosecution.
When a terrorist with a concealed bomb tried to blow up an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, instead of being treated as a possible intelligence asset, he was read his Miranda rights and treated as a criminal defendant.
The administration appears to be abandoning the demands of reality to the attractions of fantasy, and placing the country and its citizens at risk in the process.
Michael Mukasey was attorney general in the Bush administration. This article is excerpted from the Encounter Broadside series.