Yesterday, Barack Obama said this:
"And it is my firm belief that we can track terrorists, we can crack down on threats against the United States, but we can do so within the constraints of our Constitution. And there has been no evidence on their part that we can't.
And, you know, let's take the example of Guantanamo. What we know is that, in previous terrorist attacks -- for example, the first attack against the World Trade Center, we were able to arrest those responsible, put them on trial. They are currently in U.S. prisons, incapacitated.
And the fact that the administration has not tried to do that has created a situation where not only have we never actually put many of these folks on trial, but we have destroyed our credibility when it comes to rule of law all around the world, and given a huge boost to terrorist recruitment in countries that say, "Look, this is how the United States treats Muslims.""
Sounds good to me. I like the Constitution. I like the idea that our government officials will obey it. Apparently, John McCain's campaign does not. Other people have noted some of the more incendiary statements made on a McCain campaign conference call. But if you listen to the audio of the McCain campaign's conference call, McCain's advisors are responding to a position that Obama does not actually hold.
The call starts with a statement by James Woolsey, who says: "I want to stress that the approach that Senator Obama is suggesting, that we do everything through the law enforcement system, is precisely what failed in the 1990s." And: "The criminal justice, totally criminal justice approach to dealing with international terrorists, particularly when they are suicidal and are able to pull off plots like 9/11, has not worked. (...) It was a miserable failure, and we need an approach that combines law enforcement where appropriate, with intelligence, with going after terrorists where they are, with an approach towards the war that we are in fact in, and not an approach that ignores that we are in a war against Islamist terrorism, sometimes suicidal, and therefore not really deterrable through normal criminal justice procedures." Kori Schake: "By favoring just one tool and neglecting others, we leave ourselves vulnerable and weak in our national effort. If the law enforcement were adequate, we wouldn't have had September 11." Randy Scheuman:
"Barack Obama's belief that we should treat terrorists as nothing more than common criminals demonstrates a stunning and alarming misunderstanding of the threat we face from radical Islamic extremism. Obama holds up the prosecution of the terrorists who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993 as a model for his administration, when in fact this failed approach of treating terrorism simply as a matter of law enforcement rather than a clear and present danger to the United States contributed to the tragedy of September 11th. This is change that will take us back to the failed policies of the past and every American should find this mindset troubling."
Does Obama have a "totally criminal justice approach" to fighting terror? No. You can read his speech on counterterror policy here. There's a lot in it about things other than law enforcement, including things like this: "I will not hesitate to use military force to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to America." Moreover, as Jonathan Chait points out, it was just a few months ago that McCain was criticizing Obama for recklessly threatening to go after terrorists in Pakistan. It's a bit odd that he is now supposed to want "to take us back to the bad old days of going after terrorists with prosecutors rather than predators."
Did Obama say, yesterday, that he favors a "totally law enforcement approach"? No. He said that we can track down terrorists "within the constraints of our Constitution," and that the prosecutions of the 1993 bombers were more successful than what we are now doing at Guantanamo. The only way you can construe his position as the McCain campaign people do in this conference call is to lie about it.