Hence, the Republican strategists are left with their last all-out gamble.
The President leads the pack with this speech on Wednesday. The main thrust of the speech was to finally identify that the CIA has held captive many suspects outside of the normal detention regime in Guantanamo. Recalling the furor over the release of this information in the press of the so-called Black Sites, it seems unusual that the Administration would now find it useful to bring these men into the limelight only two months before the Congressional mid-term elections. Yet there they were, almost three minutes into the speech:
"In addition to the terrorists held at Guantanamo, a small number of suspected terrorist leaders and operatives captured during the war have been held and questioned outside the United States, in a separate program operated by the Central Intelligence Agency. This group includes individuals believed to be the key architects of the September the 11th attacks, and attacks on the USS Cole, an operative involved in the bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and individuals involved in other attacks that have taken the lives of innocent civilians across the world."
After two, three, possibly four-plus years of interrogation they are just now ready to be exiled to Cuba to face military courts. Interesting. It will be interesting to learn in the coming year if there are CIA agents who might shed light on what really was the trigger to expedite these prisoners out of the Black Sites. Political motivations might be on the mind.
One might wonder what happens to an al Qaeda suspect captured tomorrow; three years of being ferried from Poland to Egypt to destinations unknown, only to resurface in 2009 at a U.S. military base? President Bush made no mention that the CIA program was finished, just that those in the current program would be mailed back to a place where a group like the Red Cross could see them and find out if they are being treated humanely. And it was repeated once more that the United States does not torture its prisoners, and lawyers for the CIA and Justice Department found nothing wrong with detainees treatment. It cannot be presumed that the program has been abandoned.
President Bush then places Abu Zubayda in the fray.
"Within months of September the 11th, 2001, we captured a man known as Abu Zubaydah. We believe that Zubaydah was a senior terrorist leader and a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden. Our intelligence community believes he had run a terrorist camp in Afghanistan where some of the 9/11 hijackers trained, and that he helped smuggle al Qaeda leaders out of Afghanistan after coalition forces arrived to liberate that country. Zubaydah was severely wounded during the firefight that brought him into custody -- and he survived only because of the medical care arranged by the CIA."
Ron Suskind's book One Percent Solution makes several points relating to Abu Zubayda. From his investigation, he was told that Zubayda was treated for his gunshot wounds, but only after being interrogated with the understanding that his treatment would not come until he started to give up information. More importantly, when CIA investigators opened his journal they found it surprising that he wrote in the voice of three separate and distinct people. It is not easy to trust the information of a detainee with split-personality disorder.
Beyond even this, officials disclosed to the administration that the value of Abu Zubayda was that of a lower-level al Qaeda operative who was close to logistics in terms of moving people around (thinking in terms of travel agent) more than planning operations and attacks. "We believe that Zubaydah was a senior terrorist leader and a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden," is how the President referred to him. It seems that even if Abu Zabayda was low-level he should be placed on trial for what he did (driving the car during a bank robbery is just as illegal as going into the bank and pointing a gun) and given justice as best possible. Yet he has been in custody since 2002 and is only now ready to be ushered into military courts.
The President went on to describe further links of interrogation to captures to foiled plots. They may all be true. They are certainly things that we cannot verify as a general public since Americans will not have access to interrogation records, witness accounts, nor can the veracity of these statements be corroborated by an independent actor.
"Were it not for this program, our intelligence community believes that al Qaeda and its allies would have succeeded in launching another attack against the American homeland. By giving us information about terrorist plans we could not get anywhere else, this program has saved innocent lives."
Quite difficult to disprove, yes?
Onto the timing of this release of detainees from CIA custody. These are the people most directly related to the attacks on the Twin Towers and on D.C.. September 11th has played a critical part in the role of Republicans at the national level, enabling candidates and elected officials to couch their dialogue with their consituents in a way which most of the public will agree with them. "We were attacked, and we have to be tough. We're Republicans, and we're tough." This is not so when it comes to the occupation of Iraq where the story is the United States invaded and routed the Iraqi military and won the battles, but has yet to see an advance in terms of successful occupation. Iraq is the swamp, and September 11th the gruesome reminder of stronger times.
So to take this time to remind the American public of September 11th viscerally by bringing out Arab names and linking them directly to those events is critical to get the American public away from thinking about 1.5 billion dollars a week going into Iraq's civil war. It is currently working in that lead stories are going to focus on what the President is saying lately and later provide a cursory report on what is not going well in Iraq (Soldiers and Marines being killed, sectarian-based civil war, bungled projects and little to no oversight of contractors).
Forgive the American sports analogy, but when a football team is losing and little time is left on the clock, the offense needs to execute quickly and depend on the opponent's defense to allow such short-term gains in the hope of keeping the "big play" from occurring. Hence, the Administration and the RNC are going to try and scare the public as quickly as possible with an inflated threat which harkens to the memory of the World Trade Center falling. Their hope must be that Democrats don't respond with a potent retort but keep mentioning the bad side of Iraq with a constant beat which would appear to folks as a sign that Democrats aren't caring enough to protect the country from ne'er-do-wellers.
If repetition of fear is not enough, the second to last play in the playbook is "justice". At the end of his remarks, President Bush introduced this bone for House Republicans (and to a lesser extent, Senate Reupblicans):
"... the Supreme Court's recent decision has impaired our ability to prosecute terrorists through military commissions, and has put in question the future of the CIA program. In its ruling on military commissions, the Court determined that a provision of the Geneva Conventions known as "Common Article Three" applies to our war with al Qaeda. This article includes provisions that prohibit "outrages upon personal dignity" and "humiliating and degrading treatment." The problem is that these and other provisions of Common Article Three are vague and undefined, and each could be interpreted in different ways by American or foreign judges. And some believe our military and intelligence personnel involved in capturing and questioning terrorists could now be at risk of prosecution under the War Crimes Act -- simply for doing their jobs in a thorough and professional way.
So today, I'm asking Congress to pass legislation that will clarify the rules for our personnel fighting the war on terror. First, I'm asking Congress to list the specific, recognizable offenses that would be considered crimes under the War Crimes Act ... . Second, I'm asking that Congress make explicit that by following the standards of the Detainee Treatment Act our personnel are fulfilling America's obligations under Common Article Three of the Geneva Conventions. Third, I'm asking that Congress make it clear that captured terrorists cannot use the Geneva Conventions as a basis to sue our personnel in courts -- in U.S. courts. The men and women who protect us should not have to fear lawsuits filed by terrorists because they're doing their jobs.
The need for this legislation is urgent. We need to ensure that those questioning terrorists can continue to do everything within the limits of the law to get information that can save American lives. My administration will continue to work with the Congress to get this legislation enacted -- but time is of the essence. Congress is in session just for a few more weeks, and passing this legislation ought to be the top priority."(Applause.)
The quote is edited for length, but the context remains unchanged. The President is insisting that in order to have justice against the terrorists of September 11th, he needs Congress to allow him certain things under the law. A rewording of what might constitute a war crime, a gesture to ensure that those who follow the DTA really do comply with Common Article Three of the Geneva Convention, and if an interrogator gets too rough with a suspect that the suspect cannot sue in U.S. courts. This in conjunction with any changes that might be forthcoming to FISA is sure to pin on the Democrats' lapel of "weak". Republicans in both houses can vote for this and then go to their districts and lament the failure of Democrats to mete out justice to our enemies.
So a heretofore secret program is revealed but in the context of bringing to justice the attackers of America so long as Congress with less than 20 working days can create and approve legislation permitting our President to act. It almost sounds lyrically Rovian in nature.
Has this ever been done before? The creation of the Department of Homeland Security was fought by Administration up to the point when the 2002 mid-term elections entered the equation, then suddenly that too was imperative. So imperative in fact that it also required the President to rid the Department of unionized workers which the Democrats were against. Translation: "Democrats won't protect America." That cycle also marked the debut of Iraq as a wedge issue with obvious results. Naturally 2004 faced much the same question, and even at that time there were signs that the country faced instability with the military occupation in full force.
If the Republicans wish to stave off defeat in November by playing the terror card relentlessly, then the Democrats had better come prepared. What might possibly play well is a guarantee by Congressional figures to move funds to finding bin Laden no matter where he is in the world. This reminds the public that the Adminstration left that door ajar before starting the civil war in Iraq, taking valuable time and monies from removing the head of al Qaeda. If they were to take this on with some ferocity, the public might find it much more palatable to give the Republicans a rest.
President Bush enjoys the sense of being the hero, the tough guy who is strong enough to lead Americans through these times. This myth is teetering precariously today.