Terrorizing an election

THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION is a past master at playing politics with terrorism, portraying critics of its various antiterrorism initiatives as naive or even accusing them, in the words of former Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, of giving “ammunition to America’s enemies.”

Vice President Dick Cheney may have provided a sneak preview of just how nasty the coming campaign will be. Speaking to reporters last week, after he learned of the British operation aimed at disrupting an alleged plot to bomb passenger planes, Cheney said that Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman’s primary loss to an opponent of the Iraq war was proof that many Democrats wanted to return to “the pre-9/11 mind-set” and that the vote would embolden “Al Qaeda types.”

Then Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman went on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to suggest that the fundamental question in the November congressional elections is: “Do you believe we’re at war?” Democrats, according to Mehlman, don’t. That’s why they “voted against the Patriot Act, against the surveillance programs similar to the kind of programs that were used in London to deal with the threat,” and why some Democrats want to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq, which is “central to the war on terror.”

For the record, the USA Patriot Act was supported by most congressional Democrats, though with changes to the administration’s original proposals that the president found acceptable. Iraq, for its part, became “central” to the war on terror only after the administration decided to invade the country and botched its occupation. Finally, it’s unclear what Mehlman had in mind when referring to surveillance programs that are legal in Britain but not in the United States. One major difference between the two legal systems is that police in Britain may hold suspected terrorists without charge for 28 days. But even Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who spoke approvingly of such laws the other day, acknowledged that they might run afoul of the Constitution.


Chertoff and other administration officials are free, once they study the British investigation, to argue that Britain’s success in disrupting this plot offers lessons for the United States. Even then, Congress is not as free to modify civil liberties as the British Parliament -- which is not constrained by a written constitution.

But Mehlman obviously was interested less in opening a discussion of comparative antiterror strategies than in pushing the idea that what Republicans call the “Democrat Party” is really the “Defeatocrat Party.” That may be election-year politics as usual, but it’s unseemly, especially when the stakes in terms of national security and civil liberties are so high. You might even be tempted to call it a pre 9/11 mind-set.