Ever since the failed Christmas bombing, Republicans have smelled blood in the political waters, and they’ve assailed President Barack Obama for his allegedly soft-on-terror policies.
This campaign is based on phony charges, and it’s a dangerous distraction from the fight for limited government.
The latest salvo is an ad impugning the patriotism of several Obama Department of Justice attorneys. Keep America Safe, an organization headed by Liz Cheney, decries the department’s recent refusal to identify “the al-Qaida 7,” — Obama officials who dared challenge President George W. Bush administration policies on terror suspects. “Whose values do they share?” the voiceover intones.
On Thursday, the Justice Department admitted that Attorney General Eric Holder should have released legal briefs he’d signed on behalf of Jose Padilla, an American al-Qaida suspect imprisoned by the Bush administration.
“We now know why Holder was stonewalling on the identities of the ‘al-Qaida 7,’” former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen says. “He was one of them!”
Yes, Holder should have disclosed the briefs. But to understand just how demented this attack is, you need to know something about the Padilla case. It centered on the claim that the president has the constitutional power to seize an American citizen on American soil, declare him an outlaw to the Constitution, and lock him up for the duration of the war on terror — in other words, perhaps forever.
That was the Bush Justice Department’s position when the president declared Padilla an “enemy combatant” in 2002 and ordered him held in a military brig without charges. He was transferred to federal prison in early 2006.
Padilla was no innocent victim: He’s a violent ex-con with ties to al-Qaida. But “the innocent have nothing to fear” is cold comfort and poor constitutional argument. Padilla got his day in court, and is now serving 17 years on terrorism-related charges.
Whose values does Holder share? In this instance, those of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote in a related case that “the very core of liberty secured by our Anglo-Saxon system of separated powers has been freedom from indefinite imprisonment at the will of the Executive.”
Yet according to Keep America Safe, if you defend that principle, you’re a terrorist sympathizer. Moreover, the premise on which this campaign is based — that Obama’s anti-terror policies are fundamentally different than Bush’s — is false.
Love the Bush approach or hate it, if you’re drawing a sharp distinction between his policies and Obama’s, you’re misinformed at best.
Our looming budget crisis is one of the biggest threats facing America today. But it’s no fun to try to get reelected by promising major cuts in middle-class entitlements. So we shouldn’t be surprised to see GOP officials embrace the group’s scurrilous charges.
Republicans talk a good game about reducing federal power, but when it comes time for the hard choices, they fall back on reliable symbolic gimmicks: flag-burning amendments, the Pledge of Allegiance and the like. Those who support smaller government shouldn’t let them get away with it this time.
Examiner columnist Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of “The Cult of the Presidency.”