President Bush has dramatically enlarged the issue of terrorism in the 2006 midterm elections by revealing the names, faces and confessed plots of the Islamic radicals held by the CIA.
In a sweeping, lay-it-all-out White House address that elevated the issue of the deadly dangers Americans still face from terrorism, Bush confirmed the existence of foreign-based CIA prisons where terrorists have been secretly interrogated by intelligence agents and even disclosed some of the plots they planned to execute against the United States and our allies.
Last week's speech, part of a series of speeches to remind Americans of the increasing threat terrorism poses to this country, demonstrated several things that will have an impact in the war on terror -- and on the midterm elections. It showed how the president, despite his political weakness in the polls, can use his bully pulpit to put the spotlight on an issue -- in this case, the war on terror -- that his critics have tried to play down and diminish, but on which he and his party still command their strongest approval ratings.
Democratic leaders were caught off guard by a news-filled address that struck back at them on multiple levels.
To those who charged that the military detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba had abused prisoners and should be shut down, he said 14 "high value" terrorist prisoners would be transferred there to stand trial under a military tribunal system still to be worked out.
With one stroke of a presidential pen, Bush moved the 14 terrorists into a facility that was slated to be closed, thus turning it a temporary repository of some of the most dangerous terrorists in the world. To those who said he abused his presidential powers by allowing inhumane interrogation practices, the administration issued new rules that repudiated tactics such as forced nudity, hooding, military dogs and water-boarding. In political terms, this is the equivalent of nuking an issue while staying on offense.
To those who complained that terrorist suspects were not accorded any rights to defend themselves and that Bush's military tribunals had no basis in law -- accusations the administration denied -- Bush proposed legislation to create a new military-run judicial commission under which the detainees will be tried. It remains for Congress to sort through competing proposals and enact a bill before adjourning for the midterm elections. But the political masterstroke of Bush's speech was the decision for the first time to acknowledge the existence of the CIA prisons and the killers that were held there -- giving names, faces and murder plots to the war on terrorism that has largely become a faceless, shadowy, remote conflict in the minds of most Americans.
Those faces included Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the evil mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 hijacked airliner attacks on Washington and New York, where nearly 3,000 people perished. Bush detailed once-top-secret information that came from Mohammed and the others, "information about terrorist plans we could not get anywhere else," he said. Among the information interrogators learned: details about training to blow up skyscrapers; a foiled anthrax plot; a planned terrorist attack on a Marine camp; and the recently thwarted plot to blow up passenger jets on their way from London to the United States.
That he delivered his address before a White House audience made up of the Sept. 11 victims' families made Bush's disclosures even more dramatic and connected those disclosures to the evil results the Al Qaeda terrorists had achieved in the most devastating foreign attack on United States' soil. His address, the third in a series of national-security speeches, came in the wake of a fierce election-year offensive from Democratic leaders, led by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada who painted Bush as a failure on all fronts in the war on terror.
In a bold rhetorical counterattack, Bush reminded Americans what the war on terrorism is all about, why Guantanamo mattered and that while the Democrats were wringing their hands about according detainees their civil liberties, the people in question were bloodthirsty Islamic fanatics bent on killing innocent human beings here and abroad.
What Bush was doing last week was defining the debate over what will be the central issue of the midterm congressional elections. This was not really about civil liberties, or prison conditions or the proper procedures for trial (rights the terrorists never accorded their victims).
This was a war against a global terrorist enemy -- former Speaker Newt Gingrich appropriately calls it World War III -- that is plotting to kill as many of us as they can through whatever means they can -- chemical, biological, and other heretofore unthinkable weapons of mass destruction.
Bush's task in this election is to sound what Thomas Jefferson called "the firebell in the night," warning Americans that the enemy is real and we have to take their words and their threats seriously if we hope to thwart yet another attack that would make Sept. 11 seem tame by comparison.