White House Homeland Security Czar Concedes Possible Delays in Closing Gitmo, Outlines New War on Al Qaeda

Aug 6, 2009 4:04pm

ABC News' Jake Tapper and Jason Ryan report:

White House Homeland Security Czar John Brennan Thursday indicated the Obama administration might not make President Obama’s January 22, 2010 deadline to close the Detainee Center at Guantanamo Bay.

"I don’t have a crystal ball,” Brennan said. “At this point it is unknowable exactly how many people will be transferred next week, month, several months and what the conditions on the ground will be on 1 January and 21 January…Everybody is doing everything possible in the administration to realize the President's goal.”

After delivering a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, in which he outlined and explained provisions of President Obama’s counterterrorism policy, Brennan – officially the assistant to President Obama for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism – took a few questions, including one about the president’s January 22, 2009, executive order to shut down the facility within one year.

"There are dependencies here,” Brennan said. “Congress can help or hinder our efforts on this. We are trying to do the right thing. We want to make sure Justice is served, the families of the victims of those terrorist attacks deserve justice and those that need to be brought to trial here  in the United States need to be brought to trial."

The main point of Brennan’s speech was to offer an explanation of the different way President Obama is fighting what President Bush called the “Global War on Terror.” Brennan served during the Bush administration as chief of staff to then-CIA Director George J. Tenet from 1999 until being named CIA deputy executive director in March 2001. He served in that post until 2003. One year later he accepted a job at the National Counter-Terrorism Center.

“Eight years ago this morning I read warnings that Osama bin Laden was determined to strike inside the U.S.,” Brennan recalled, referring to the Presidential Daily Briefing titled “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US.”

That Brennan mentioned that memo, or that he delivered the speech on this, the 8th anniversary of that infamously not-acted-upon memo, was no accident. President Bush’s National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, testified that the PDB  prompted no immediate government response because “it did not warn of attacks inside the United States,” containing "historical information based on old reporting. There was no new threat information." That’s actually not true. The PDB stated “We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as that from a [text deleted] service in 1998 saying that Bin Laden wanted to hijack a U.S. aircraft to gain the release of ‘Blind Shaykh’ “Umar” Abd-al Rahman and other U.S.-held extremists.” Another section stated that FBI information “indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks.”

Despite that warning, Brennan said today, “our government was unable to prevent the worst terrorist attack in American history.”

With that, the Homeland Security Czar discussed myriad ways in which the way President Obama is conducting counter-terrorism is superior to the way President Bush did. Interestingly, Brennan was originally considered a top contender to be President Obama’s CIA director, but withdrew his name from consideration after liberal commentators and lawmakers raised questions about his ties to controversial CIA interrogation techniques.

Speaking more affirmatively, Brennan said “the power of America’s moral example” – “the values of justice, liberty, dignity and rule of law” – are key for this struggle and he outlined a number of ways this struggle is different, as waged by President Bush’s successor. He discussed the administration's efforts to change counterterrorism policy saying that banning coercive interrogations, shutting down Guantanamo and reaching out to allies and diplomatic efforts can only aid in battling Al Qaeda and other terrorist entities.

"Tactics such as water boarding were not in keeping with our values as Americans,” Brennan said, “and these practices have been rightly terminated and should not, and will not, happen again. I believe President Obama is absolutely correct: such practices not only fail to advance our counterterrorism efforts, they actually set back our efforts. They are a recruitment bonanza for terrorists, increase the determination of our enemies, and decrease the willingness of other nations to cooperate with us. In short, they undermine our national security."

Offering a “personal observation” of President Obama’s resolve, Brennan said that “over the past six months we have presented President Obama with a number of actions and initiatives against al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.  Not only has he approved these operations, he has encouraged us to be even more aggressive, even more proactive, and even more innovative, to seek out new ways and new opportunities for taking down these terrorists before they can kill more innocent men, women, and children.” 

He rejected “inflammatory rhetoric, hyperbole, and intellectual narrowness that has often characterized the debate over the President’s national security policies,” rejecting both those who “claim that the President’s policies somehow represent a wholesale dismantling of counterterrorism policies and practices adopted by his predecessor” and those who say Mr. Obama has wholly retained his predecessor’s policies.  “Both are wrong,” Brennan said.

Without mentioning President Bush by name, Brennan rejected his approach, saying President Obama “rejects an absolutist approach or the imposition of a rigid ideology on our problems.  Like the world itself, his views are nuanced, not simplistic; practical, not ideological.” He said that “rather than looking at allies and other nations through the narrow prism of terrorism—whether they are with us or against us—the administration is now engaging other countries and peoples across a broader range of areas.”

As a sort of status report, Brennan said the Obama Administration has been aggressively moving on Al Qaeda, in its safe haven in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

While US officials rarely comment on the use of CIA Predator/Reaper UAV strikes the Obama administration has continued to use them to target Al Qaeda. According to a tally by ABC News there have been an estimated 29 drone attacks since Obama took office. There have also been instances of collateral damage, with innocent women and children being killed in some of the attacks.

"Collateral damage that did occur because their wasn’t sufficient rigor in terms of the steps that were taken before the trigger was pulled, they can be devastating,” Brennan acknowledged today. “And  I know President Obama has really wanted to make sure that we do whether it is intelligence or military…do our homework to make sure those instances, if they cannot be totally eliminated, that they be minimized  to the greatest degree."

Brennan said there have been reports of collateral damage that are not accurate, "They are way, way overboard," Brennan said. "But when there is one instance when it is accurate that it tends to then lend credence to these other [reports]. That's why we need put a premium on making sure that any action we take…that we do it with care and with great precision….there are implications…that could come back and haunt us."

He said that while Al Qaeda and its affiliates are “under tremendous pressure,…seriously damaged and forced to replace many of its top-tier leadership with less experienced and less capable individuals,” the terrorist group “has proven to be adaptive and highly resilient and remains the most serious terrorist threat we face as a Nation.”

The administration, he said, is also working to share intelligence with partner nations and to build their security forces up to combat al Qaeda in East Africa and the Trans-Sahel region he said, as well as working with the international banking community to deny the group resources.

The President’s top White House adviser on terrorism also explained some of the semantic changes the president has made when discussing this struggle. President Obama does not describe the struggle as a “war on terrorism” because “‘terrorism’ is but a tactic—a means to an end, which in al Qaeda’s case is global domination by an Islamic caliphate.  Confusing ends and means is dangerous, because by focusing on the tactic, we risk floundering among the terrorist trees while missing the growth of the extremist forest.  And ultimately, confusing ends and means is self-defeating, because you can never fully defeat a tactic like terrorism any more than you can defeat the tactic of war itself.”

Brennan said President Obama avoids the term “global war” because that “only plays into the warped narrative that al Qaeda propagates… the misleading and dangerous notion that the U.S. is somehow in conflict with the rest of the world.”

After his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, Egypt, President Obama was criticized for avoiding use of the words “terror,” “terrorism” and “terrorist.”

“This goes to the heart of his new approach,” Brennan said. “Why should a great and powerful nation like the United States allow its relationship with more than a billion Muslims around the world be defined by the narrow hatred and nihilistic actions of an exceptionally small minority of Muslims?”

-Jake Tapper and Jason Ryan

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