A year ago in an OpEd published here, I praised Sen. Susan Collins for the independence she demonstrated in crafting and voting for the Obama recovery act. Collins’ willingness to put partisanship aside has meant tax cuts, help to our struggling state government and work-producing projects such as the recently announced extension of rail service from Portland to Brunswick.
Sadly, last week Sen. Collins allowed herself to be made a pawn of the Republican spin machine. The issue is the government’s handling of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the young man who botched an attempt to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day. The Obama administration made the decision to try Abdulmutallab in federal court. The Republicans, in an effort to convince us that Democrats are soft on terrorism, leaped on this decision claiming that because the suspect received Miranda warnings he stopped talking and America was put at risk.
Sen. Collins played her partisan role with all the finesse of an old city ward boss saying: “The Obama administration appears to have a blind spot when it comes to the war on terror. This administration cannot see a foreign terrorist even when he stands right in front of them, fresh from an attempt to blow a plane out of the sky on Christmas Day.”
Before giving in to this partisan effort to have us all act like “Chicken Little,” let’s look a little deeper. America’s response to terrorists has to balance two important objectives: keeping Americans safe and protecting the American ideals enumerated in the Bill of Rights.
This leads to some obvious questions.
Did President Barack Obama act differently from the previous administration by trying Abdulmutallab in federal court? No, the shoe bomber, Richard Reid, was tried by the Bush administration in federal court. Did Sen. Collins accuse President Bush of “not knowing a terrorist when he saw one” when Bush tried Reid in federal court? No.
Did trying Abdulmutallab in federal court result in us not getting the kind of actionable intelligence we need to track down co-conspirators? No. We now know America got valuable information, which we have been able to act upon. If we had waterboarded Abdulmutallab, would we likely have been able to get better information quicker? No. The experience of the last administration shows such torture techniques have to be done over and over and then produce suspect information.
Sen. Collins knows that far from being soft on terrorism the Obama administration has been aggressive in going after terrorists around the world. Sen. Collins knows that under Obama, the drone attacks on terrorist enclaves in Pakistan have more than doubled. Sen. Collins knows that Obama beefed up our efforts in Yemen even before the botched Christmas Day attack.
Sen. Collins knows Abdulmutallab is said to have told the FBI that in Yemen he was in contact with terrorists released from Guantanamo by the Bush administration. Sen. Collins knows that one of the tools terrorists are using to recruit young men like Abdulmutallab is America’s failure to give detainees captured abroad the benefit of trials.
Does this mean there is no room for a critical look at the administration’s handling of the Abdulmutallab affair? Not at all, but an honest inquiry would start with Collins making a statement like this: “I know trying Abdulmutallab in federal court was simply following a policy set down by the Bush administration in 2003, a policy I have not previously tried to reverse. I know the Obama administration is working on many fronts to keep this nation safe, but we should use this event to see if there is a better way to proceed in the future.” That is the approach Mainers have every right to expect from a senator who won our votes on the promise she would put our country before her party.
Phil Merrill is a former state senator who lives in Appleton.