McCain on Obama: On Terrorism, He Just Doesn’t Get It

Jun 18, 2008 7:09pm

"On the issue of national security, I believe that it’s very clear to me that it was a wrong decision of the Untied States Supreme Court," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said today in Springfield, Missouri, of the decision extending to detainees the right to challenge their detention in federal court.

McCain said, accurately, that Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, "supports that decision, to give those, the, I understand Osama bin Laden if he were captured, Habeas Corpus rights. So we have a fundamental disagreement about it. And I think (former New York) Mayor (Rudy) Giuliani who is very well qualified on this issue having been mayor of New York City in an incredible time in American history has put it very well."

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee charged that his Democratic counterpart "doesn’t have an understanding of the nature of the threat. And I’ll look forward to that debate, quite often, in the future. And I think the American people will agree with me, that these are enemy combatants, that we passed legislation with an overwhelming majority of the Congress which he opposed which set up military commissions and commissions that would address and give some rights to the enemy combatants who are being held, but certainly not in a radical departure from history and …to want to give them the same rights that…citizens have in this country."

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It’s interesting to see McCain extol Giuliani’s national security credentials, given his skepticism of same last Fall, when McCain told the New York Times about the "mayor’s leadership after 9/11" that "I don’t think it translates, necessarily, into foreign policy or national security expertise. I know of nothing in his background that indicates that he has any experience in it…"

But beyond that is a real question about the politics of this issue for Obama.

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McCain is accurate when he says that the signal from the Obama camp right now is that it would extend Habeus Corpus rights to Osama bin Laden. In a conference call today, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Mass., said this belief that Bin Laden should be given Habeas Corpus rights to challenge his detention are no big deal since "the judge would dismiss it" because the US government has "ample grounds to hold him."

Obama foreign policy advisor Greg Craig said the hypothetical question would only come up "if he’s captured alive" and "if he’s transported out of wherever he’s been captured and brought to Guantanamo….I have no doubt that there would be no problem establishing a basis, an evidentiary basis, to hold him and try him, and hold him responsible for murdering 3,000 people."

Is this conversation really one that the Obama campaign thinks helps their political chances? Regardless of the merits of the jurisprudence argument, Osama bin Laden’s rights are not a good political topic. Maybe in Foggy Bottom conference rooms or at cocktail parties at Sally and Ben’s these things can be discussed and hashed in true Socratic style.

It’s not in Obama’s hands. The Supreme Court has ruled on this. As Obama backer Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said in another Obama campaign conference call yesterday,  "The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that they have those rights. This is not Barack Obama. This is the Supreme Court of the United States. If John McCain were president, he would have to give them those rights. This is a phony argument."

Okay. But this is politics. Lots of Democratic officials are grimacing today, saying it’s hard to believe that these answers — however in compliance they may be with law — are what swing voters want to hear from presidential campaigns.

Obama himself seems to get that discussing such a hypothetical is not really the conversation he wants to be having.

Asked about this issue, Obama today noted that there’s "an executive order out on Osama bin Laden’s head, and if I’m president and we had the opportunity to capture him, we may not be able to capture him alive. I think it does not make sense for me to speculate in terms of what the best approach would be in trying him and bringing him to justice. I think what would be important would be for us to do it in a way that allows the entire world to understand the murderous acts that he’s engaged in and not to make him into a martyr and to sure that the United States government is abiding by the basic conventions that would strengthen our hand in the broader battle against terrorism."

What do you want to hear from a candidate when asked about Osama bin Laden’s rights?

- jpt

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