Michael Gerson

Add to this the Holderization of the war on terror. Attorney General Eric Holder began his work not with a high-profile assault on al-Qaeda but with a high-profile assault on the CIA -- making clear to every ambitious officer that counterintelligence is a dead end of recrimination and legal bills. And now both the mastermind of 9/11 and the underwear bomber are headed toward celebrity trials. According to White House terrorism adviser John Brennan, the decision to prosecute Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in civilian court was made almost immediately by the Justice Department -- though the president now concedes that "al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula trained (Abdulmutallab), equipped him with those explosives and directed him to attack that plane headed for America."

This civilian prosecution strategy would make sense if the goal is punishment for an attempted mass murderer. But it makes no sense if the goal is vigilance in the war on terror -- gaining information to prevent future attacks. Abdulmutallab evidently talked a bit with FBI investigators when first captured. But any defense lawyer -- and now he has one -- will urge him to withhold information for use in bargaining with prosecutors down the road. The reality here is simple and shocking: A terrorist with current knowledge of al-Qaeda operations in Yemen has been told he has the right to remain silent.

As a foreign terrorist, he does not have that right (as even the Obama administration has conceded by its use of military tribunals in other cases). And granting Abdulmutallab that privilege only because he tried to commit murder on American soil is an incentive of disturbing perversity.

President Obama has forbidden waterboarding. But he has not, to my knowledge, forbidden the interrogation of enemy combatants who have current information on terrorist networks.

The president has occasionally talked of a war on terror. But lip service is different from leadership. In the war on terror, 2009 was not a year of urgency and vigilance. It was a year of lullabies, hot toddies and Ambien -- though it nearly ended with a bang.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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