Obama at War: President on Offense — with Intelligence Team Out Front

By Jonathan Blakely

Feb 3, 2010 7:50am

By Rick Klein: It’s time for a little offense in the war on terror — domestic front, that is. (And the countdown is on until the first withdrawal.) Just when you thought it was the economy, because at least it wasn’t about health care, President Obama’s national security policies are getting the full Washington treatment — and the full pushback, too. Between the New York reaction to plans for Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the congressional push to shelve plans to try terror suspects on US soil, and the the severe Hill reaction to the ways in which the “underwear bomber” has been questioned — there’s no quarter for the president in this debate. But the White House is fighting back with the big weapons: Senior intelligence and military officials are leading the charge, in an unusually broad and blunt way — insulating, perhaps, the political side from some of the fallout. (A fallout that will, inevitably, involve concessions: There’s no way these funding amendments ever get to the floor in Congress.) As they have with “don’t ask, don’t tell,” with military leaders getting out further than even the president himself in explaining the rationale and the process, this is using the troops you’ve got in a high-stakes battle. Suddenly, we know an awful lot about the fact that a terrorism suspect is talking, and how he started talking again. “The Nigerian man arrested on Christmas Day for allegedly trying to explode a bomb on a plane arriving in Detroit has begun talking again to authorities, officials said Tuesday, a development that is likely to ratchet up the debate over whether he should be tried in federal court or before a military tribunal,” Richard A. Serrano and Greg Miller write in the Los Angeles Times.   “The family of the failed Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouq Abdulmuttalab, played a pivotal role in getting their son to start cooperating with federal authorities in sharing information about Al Qaeda, a senior administration official said Tuesday evening,” ABC’s Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller report. “Abdulmuttalab has been cooperating with authorities and sharing intelligence since last Thursday, another administration official told ABC News.”  “Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's cooperation could prove to be a national security victory and a political vindication for President Barack Obama, who has been under fire from lawmakers who contend the administration botched the case by giving Abdulmutallab the right to remain silent, rather than interrogating him as a military prisoner.” Matt Apuzzo and Pete Yost write for the AP.   “The revelation could deflate recent Republican attacks against the Obama administration’s decision to read Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights after he was treated for the burns he suffered when he tried to set off a bomb on Northwest Flight 243 on Christmas Day,” Politico’s Mike Allen reports.  An even starker tidbit: “America’s top intelligence official told lawmakers on Tuesday that Al Qaeda and its affiliates had made it a high priority to attempt a large-scale attack on American soil within the next six months,” Mark Mazzetti writes in The New York Times.   CIA Director Leon Panetta: “Al Qaeda is adapting its methods in ways that oftentimes make it difficult to detect.” “An attempted attack … is certain, I would say,” said Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair.  More on what the White House is pushing back against: “Two Democrats joined Republicans today introducing legislation to deny President Obama money to transport suspected 9/11 conspirators stateside and try them in civilian courts,” ABC’s Z. Byron Wolf reports. (Make it three Democrats, with Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., joining the group late Tuesday.) “I think the administration is going to retreat here,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters.  More of the pushback: “In a letter to congressional leaders sent Monday night, White House adviser John Brennan, the assistant to President Obama for homeland security and counterterrorism, argued that President Obama had made ‘significant improvements to the detainee review process’ under President Bush and pointed out that all the former detainees released or transferred who have returned to terrorist activities were released or transferred under President Bush,” ABC’s Jake Tapper reports.  Back on that other home front — in Illinois — the expected Senate matchup, a bad night for political heirs, and a battle that’s going to last right through fall. “Front-runners from the start, Democrat Alexi Giannoulias and Republican Mark Kirk scored solid primary victories Tuesday night, setting up a battle with national implications for the U.S. Senate seat whose last elected occupant was Barack Obama,” the Chicago Tribune’s John Chase and Antonio Olivo report. “In declaring victory, Giannoulias wasted little time in going after Kirk, setting the tone for the upcoming Democratic campaign by describing his Republican opponent as out of touch with Illinoisans who are struggling amid the nation's tough economy.”  In the gubernatorial primaries — this could take a while: “The races for governor went down to the wire tonight with razor-thin margins separating Gov. Pat Quinn from Comptroller Dan Hynes on the Democratic side and state Sens. Kirk Dillard and Bill Brady among Republicans,” per the Tribune. “The closeness of the contests, accentuated by a low voter turnout, meant no one declared victory on either side as trailing candidates pondered seeking an expensive and lengthy recount.” And an upset, for a big name: “State Sen. Randy Hultgren defeated attorney Ethan Hastert in the GOP primary in Illinois’ 14th district on Tuesday, and he will face Rep. Bill Foster (D) in November,” Roll Call’s Shira Toeplitz reports. “Hultgren’s victory over the son of former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) was likely the biggest Congressional upset of the night.”  Setting up for fall: “Kirk and Giannoulias start a nine-month general election campaign that will be brutal, expensive and one of the most-watched in the nation because it is for President Obama's former seat,” Lynn Sweet writes in the Chicago Sun-Times. “The Obama White House is expected to be engaged in the race — after keeping hands off during the primary.”  Bring it: The National Republican Senatorial Committee late Tuesday released a web ad targeting Giannoulias — “Making Tony Soprano Proud” — with the inevitable and soon-to-be-omnipresent Tony Rezko reference.  From the strategy memo out from NRSC executive director Rob Jesmer: “The Democrats selected Alexi Giannoulias, yet another ethically-challenged candidate who was raised in the tradition of the Chicago political machine. Giannoulias’ failed record of achievement has not qualified Illinois’ first term Treasurer to serve in the U.S. Senate, but his tainted resume hasn’t stopped the ambitious 33-year-old from seeking a promotion in November.” In Indiana, a GOP recruiting coup: a national Republican official confirms that former Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., is set to get into the race to challenge Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind. “Dan Coats, a member of Congress for 18 years and most recently a Washington lobbyist, is forming an exploratory committee to run for the Republican Senate nomination and a chance to challenge Sen. Evan Bayh,” Sylvia A. Smith reports in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. “A senior Republican official said the announcement is not likely to be made until after the Super Bowl this weekend and that the national Republican Party has promised help in getting the necessary 4,500 signatures to make him eligible for the primary ballot. He would have less than three weeks to obtain 500 signatures in each of the state’s nine congressional districts.” The president’s day — question time, the sequel? ABC’s Sunlen Miller: “Following his question and answer session with House Republican last Friday, President Obama will today speak before the Senate Democratic Caucus’ issue conference at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. The president is anticipated to take questions from the members of his own party, in similar fashion that he did leading to a lively discussion with Republicans last week.”  Just in time — liberal and conservative bloggers team up, at demandquestiontime.com: “America could use more of this — an unfettered and public airing of political differences by our elected representatives. So we call on President Barack Obama and House Minority Leader John Boehner to hold these sessions regularly — and allow them to be broadcast and webcast live and without commercial interruption, sponsorship or intermediaries.” An old new strategy? Super Bowl party and everything:”Emboldened by the response to President Obama’s face-off with House Republicans last week, the White House is intensifying its push to engage Congressional Republicans in policy negotiations as a way to share the burden of governing and put more scrutiny on Republican initiatives,” Carl Hulse and Jeff Zeleny report in The New York Times.  “The White House’s goal is to show voters that Mr. Obama is willing to engage Republicans rather than govern in a partisan manner while forcing Republicans to make substantive compromises or be portrayed as obstructionist given their renewed power to block almost all legislation in the Senate.” Also Wednesday: “President Barack Obama is meeting with governors from coal-producing states, hoping to earn their support for a languishing energy bill and to bolster his image as a leader willing to work with Republicans as well as Democrats,”the AP’s Philip Elliott reports.  Wait — did someone have an economic message to push? A sea of black ink: “Bailout recipient AIG is set to hand out around $100 million in bonuses on Wednesday, nearly one year after the insurance giant incited a public furor when it dished out $165 million in controversial retention payments,” ABC’s Matthew Jaffe reports. “But this year's payments have been reduced after the employees made concessions to help AIG fulfill oral pledges made to the government to return some of last year's bonuses.”   “This week's retention payments will go only to employees at the company's Financial Products division who agreed recently to accept 10 to 20 percent less money than AIG had initially promised them years ago. In return, they are receiving their payments more than a month ahead of schedule,” The Washington Post’s Brady Dennis reports. “The company is still scheduled to pay out tens of millions of dollars more in March, mostly to former employees who did not agree to the concessions.”  Connectivity issues: “It is a tough sell for any president who lives inside what Obama refers to as ‘the bubble,’ but tougher still for Obama,” Eli Saslow writes in The Washington Post. “His first year in office was defined in part by a paradox. He is a rare president who comes from the middle class, yet people still perceive him as disconnected from it. As he arrived in Nashua, nearly two-thirds of Americans believed that his economic policies had hurt the country or made no difference at all; almost half thought he did not understand their problems.” “The setting was reminiscent of an Obama campaign event, with supporters jamming the auditorium, thrusting their cellphones in the air to take photos, and interrupting several times with applause,” The Boston Globe’s Susan Milligan writes. “Some came to be inspired, but others said they just wanted reassurances they were being heard and legislative action would follow politicians’ words.” Off script, part one: “Every economist, from the left and the right, has said, because of the Recovery Act, what we've started to see is at least a couple of  million jobs that have either been created or would have been lost,” President Obama said in New Hampshire, per ABC’s Jake Tapper. Off script, part two: “You don't blow a bunch of cash on Vegas when you're trying to save for college,” the president said, ABC’s Karen Travers and Rachel Martin report. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., swung back, per Jon Ralston: “To truly reenergize our economy, we need people to travel to Las Vegas,” Reid wrote in a letter to the president. As for the small business lending initiative — Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., thinks it’s illegal, and Democrats are skeptical as well. “I continue to be uncertain with respect to how this new program is going to improve on two others that your department inspector general has criticized,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., per ABC’s Matthew Jaffe. On the budget: “President Barack Obama's 2011 budget got a cool — at times frosty — reception Tuesday from the lawmakers he needs most, as congressional Democrats offered a host of reasons they're skeptical of the White House plan,” McClatchy’s David Lightman reports. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D: “The president's 10-year-outlook is not a path we can take.” On health care, the new new tack: “With their sweeping health-care bill on hold, House Democrats plan to revive a sliver of the legislation as soon as next week that would repeal an antitrust exemption for insurance companies,” Janet Adamy and Patrick Yoest report for The Wall Street Journal. “After focusing intensely on health care for months, Democratic leaders have removed completion of the overhaul from their agenda indefinitely, and even talk of the subject is scarce.” “The vote is part of her new two-track strategy to tackle things that won’t be included in a more sweeping bill — if Congress ever passes one — while giving her members something politically popular to vote on,” Patrick O’Connor and Carrie Budoff Brown write for Politico. “The move also puts pressure on Republicans, the industry and wavering Democrats, who wish their leaders would abandon the push altogether.” A complication, maybe: “On a conference call with bloggers just now, Nancy Pelosi clarified a key point, saying the Senate must pass a reconciliation fix to its bill before the House passes it,” Greg Sargent writes, at The Plum Line blog. “That has the potential to create more conflict with the Senate, because Senate aides are privately claiming they are unsure whether they can pass such a fix before their bill is law. House aides dismiss this complaint.” Making Rahm’s day: “The Special Olympics announced Tuesday evening that members of the disabilities rights community will meet Wednesday afternoon with White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, after the fiery Chicagoan admitted to having referred to some liberal activists as ‘f—ing retarded,’ ” ABC’s Jake Tapper reports. It’s all bubbling up because of Sarah Palin — naturally. Making Palin’s year — a full embrace of tea parties, and an intriguing choice of venues: “I thought long and hard about my participation in this weekend's event. At the end of the day, my decision came down to this: It's important to keep faith with people who put a little bit of their faith in you,” Palin, R-Alaska, writes in a USA Today op-ed. “This weekend, it's Nashville, but in March, I'll head to Searchlight, Nev., for the kickoff rally at the Tea Party Express III.” A new Palin? John Mercurio, at National Journal: “Like moths to the flame, we return this week to the story of Sarah Palin as she generates headlines on a variety of topics. Nothing new there, perhaps. But look closer, and you'll notice a change in those headlines — and in Palin. She's becoming … a politician.” A preview of Barbara Walters’ interview with Jenny Sanford, coming Friday on ABC’s “20/20″: “South Carolina first lady Jenny Sanford recalls how she made the "leap of faith" to marry husband Gov. Mark Sanford even though the groom refused to promise to be faithful, insisting that the clause be removed from their wedding vows.” (And she knew about his affair in January 2009 — five months before the Appalachian Trail.)
The Kicker: “I was in error.” — House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., reminded that he’d promised reporters that Democrats would figure out the path forward on health care by this weekend.
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