Sunday, April 26, 2009

Why Don't We Cut Sec. Napolitano Some Slack?

Most of the blogs I read, and some House Republicans, are trashing Janet Napolitano and demanding her resignation. These are my peeps, but I think they're wrong to be doing this. Here's why.

Her sins are said to be three: refusing to talk about terrorism and instead referring to "man-caused disasters;" issuing an intel report that focuses on right-wing extremism and says that veterans are the subjects of right wing terror recruiting; and falsely saying that the 9/11 hijackers came through Canada. I don't think any of these things are the basis of a demand that she step down.

1. The man-caused disaster quote isn't easy to defend (although at least she didn't talk about "person-caused disasters"). The attention-getting awkwardness of the language could have been the result of translation issues, I suppose (she gave the quote to a German paper in Germany). But there's no doubt that she is avoiding any language that could be called fear-mongering. In so doing, she's feeding the public's reluctance to face the very real threat that's out there. The risk today is not fear and panic but self-satisfaction and torpor in the face of risk. So she deserves the criticism she's getting on this point.

At the same time, I suspect that she's constrained here by a President and a White House suffering from George Costanza syndrome ("just do the opposite of whatever the last team would have done"). She just can't sound like the last administration. Putting the best face on it, I think the serious people in the new administration are hoping to be just as effective as the last team but without the drama -- sort of the Gary Coopers of counterterrorism. Personally, I think they're kidding themselves. If elected leaders aren't candid about the threat and willing to talk about it, then people get insouciant; voters start demanding that any antiterrorism measure that's inconvenient be rolled back. And then the quiet tough Gary Coopers who thought they could do the job without the drama end up trying to do the job without any of the tools they were counting on.

So: bad idea, but not exactly a firing offense.

2. The intel report. Watch what you wish for here. The worst you can say about the report is that it wasn't written so as to avoid the possibility of giving offense. But if you believe that intelligence about possible terror threats should be sent in a timely way to local cops, who outnumber federal agents about 10 to 1 and are out on the street a lot more than federal agents, this is pretty much the kind of thing that is going to be sent.

Do you really want the intel reports sent to local cops to be written to avoid even the possibility of offense by any group that gets hold of the report, or do you want them issued quickly and written by people who are better at counterterrorism than political correctness? Frankly, the report as a whole is already so full of hedging and backfilling that its value was limited. Should it have said even less? Pretended that Timothy McVeigh wasn't a terrorist or ignored his background? By making a political issue out of an admittedly clumsy effort to survey the risk of right wing terrorism, the critics on the right have almost guaranteed that future intelligence reporting will be slower, less informative, and more politicized. And how long do you think it will be before the new PC standards are applied to other groups? Maybe the American Gangster Antidefamation League will object to the next MS-13 report, or CAIR will want to be sure that al-Qaeda is not linked to any particular religion in future reports. Like I said, be careful what you wish for.

But wait, wasn't the report the opening salvo in a Democratic war on the right? I'm sorry, I just don't see it. In fact, I'm more afraid the current flap is the beginning of an effort to galvanize conservative paranoia about antiterrorism measures: "We're out of power and now we're being disrespected and oppressed by Big Government." Talk about letting the left colonize your mind. Isn't that the netroot model -- paranoid delusions of oppression while sipping chardonnay at the Bel Air Country Club? Seriously, if the right falls into this trap, antiterrorism measures will turn into permanent partisan footballs -- necessary protections in the view whoever's in the current administration and instruments of oppression in the view of whoever's out of power. Shirts v. skins; paranoids v. authoritarians. And everyone gets to change sides every four to eight years. That's just wrong. Maybe this administration will misuse their authorities, though I'm more worried that they'll fail to use them out of political correctness, see 1. above. If DHS misuses its authority, we should call the Secretary on it, but this humdrum report is not a sign of looming oppression.

3. It's true that none of the 9/11 hijackers came through Canada, but the Secretary didn't exactly give a speech saying they did. She was misled, probably deliberately, by a Canadian reporter with an agenda and a trick question. She tried, a bit awkwardly, to turn the conversation to what she knows -- that Canada is the source of most of the border threats she sees or that we saw in the years after 9/11. That is true. So she was right directionally if not in her literal response to the gotcha question.

But let's go beyond the question to the broader agenda the question was meant to serve. The fact is that the US and Canada have different national interests at the border. That journalist's question was part of a concerted Canadian effort to roll back American border security measures by suggesting they were imposed by ignoramuses who don't even know where the 9/11 hijackers came from. That's wrong, but the fuss being raised by the right over this remark will feed the Canadian sense that they're being victimized unfairly by DHS security measures. Again, I'm surprised to see the right taking sides against their own government and in favor of Canada's media and its political class in this dispute.

4. Finally, for my fellow conservatives, who are you hoping to get at DHS if Janet Napolitano steps down? I gather there still are a few law professors who haven't been appointed to high office in this administration; want one of them? The fact is that she has delivered quietly on the substance of counterterrorism -- facing down people in her party and in Canada who tried to get her to drop the border passport requirement that will go into effect in June, keeping Secure Flight (an improved no-fly approach with privacy critics) on track, and resisting European Union efforts to undercut our existing passenger screening measures. From a substantive security point of view, you aren't going to do better, and you definitely could do worse.

I suppose it's possible to argue that nailing a scalp to the wall this early will weaken the administration and that that will slow the administration down across the board. But in my view that's not a good reason to go after the leadership at DHS -- or DOD, or the FBI, or any of the agencies that keep us safe. We worked hard in the last administration to keep DHS out of partisan games like that; it's bad for the country and it could cost lives. We shouldn't play them now that we're out of power.

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