A top aide to Sen. John McCain tried to label Sen. Barack Obama as a "perfect manifestation of a September 10 mindset" yesterday as terrorism moved front and center in the campaign.
But Obama was ready with an angry retort, saying, "These are the same guys who helped to engineer the distraction of the Iraq war at a time when we could have pinned down the people who actually committed 9/11."
The debate began after Obama told ABC News that prosecuting terrorists is an effective tool and that the government can go after al Qaeda "within the constraints of our Constitution."
McCain's team launched the pre-9/11 accusation—a familiar one the GOP used throughout the 2004 and 2006 election campaigns—in a conference call. Obama "does not understand the nature of the enemies we face," McCain national security director Randy Scheunemann told reporters.
Obama wasted no time hitting back. "This is the same kind of fearmongering that got us into Iraq," he said. "It's exactly that failed foreign policy I want to reverse."
The exchange is part of a deeper debate about the U.S. effort against al Qaeda, and particularly the treatment of terrorist detainees. Both McCain and Obama have called for the U.S. military-run prison at Guantánamo Bay to be closed.
But when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that terrorist detainees in the Guantánamo Bay facility have the constitutional right to challenge their indefinite imprisonment in U.S. civilian courts, Obama praised the ruling. McCain, after first issuing a skeptical statement, sided firmly with President Bush and condemned the ruling, calling it "one of the worst decisions in the history of this country."
Obama, for his part, has linked the ruling to one of his favorite broader themes about rebuilding America's damaged image abroad. In the ABC News interview, Obama talked about how, in stark contrast to the detainees at Guantánamo, U.S. prosecutors were able to put the 1993 World Trade Center bombers on trial. "The fact that the administration has not tried to do that has created a situation where 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.' "
This morning, the McCain team enlisted former New York mayor and recent presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani to suggest that prosecuting the 1993 World Trade Center bombers was not a sufficient response. "The reality is that I think most experts on terrorism who are nonpartisan would tell you that that was a terrible mistake in not recognizing the full dimension of what we were involved with," he said. The Obama team quickly retorted that Giuliani, who was the mayor of New York at the time, had praised the verdict in 1994, saying it "demonstrates that New Yorkers won't meet violence with violence, but with a far greater weapon—the law."
More on national security and the presidential election can be found in this week's cover story: Taking On a Perilous World.