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January 18, 2010

President Obama Praised for Sticking to American Values on Counter-Terrorism

Security experts want US to better anticipate terrorist attacks

As President Obama completes his first year in office, security experts give him high marks for sticking to American values and trying to win the hearts of Muslims while taking steps to avert terrorist attacks. But they also say the U.S. must not wait to fix a weakness until after it is exposed by an attack.

"While passions and politics can often obscure the hard work before us, let's be clear about what this moment demands, we are at war," President Obama said.

And that war is against the kind of terrorism that authorities say a Nigerian man attempted when he allegedly tried to bomb a US airliner bound for Detroit on Christmas Day [December 25]. President Obama promised to use "every element of national power" to keep Americans safe.

Some security experts say that President Obama avoids comparing the war on terrorism to conventional war between nations, but he has taken several steps to contain the threat.

Clark Irwin is with the Aspen Institute:

"People don't realize that President Obama has really intensified the effort to go after al-Qaida central in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The drone strikes have really intensified under his tenure. He famously, after much deliberation, is increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan," Irwin said.

President Obama is doing something that his predecessor did not do, says Irwin.

"The struggle for the hearts and minds of the Muslim community here in the U.S. and around the world," Irwin said.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney accuses Mr. Obama of pretending not to be at war with terrorist organizations. But Jacob Shapiro at Princeton University says the use of the word "war" actually helps the terror groups.

"It plays into the narrative that they are trying to construct for the population they are appealing to of this ragged band of brave individuals fighting the mighty power that is oppressing their society. And it also helps their efforts to create fear and anxiety in our population," Shapiro said.

Paul Pillar at Georgetown University says if it is not war, then the Obama administration needs to spell out the exact nature of the struggle. The former CIA veteran says there should be an open debate about what price Americans are willing to pay for security against terrorism.

"It might be privacy, it might be personal liberty, it might be the convenience of the traveling public. It might be monetary cost, it might be cost in blood and treasure for military operations overseas, as in Afghanistan," Pillar said.

Michael German of the American Civil Liberities Union says the American public does not fully understand what is at stake in the war against terrorism.

"I think that is something that this administration needs to address immediately, and it is already a year behind," German said.

But he says the Obama administration should get credit for not giving up on American values while fighting against terrorists.

"Our policies and procedures do express American values - tolerance, transparency, respect for rule of law and due process. Those things will ultimately keep us stronger and protect us better than any sort of effort to stomp out who we perceive as the bad guys," German said.

Clark Irwin at the Aspen Institute agrees. But he says the recent failed airplane bomb attack makes clear Mr. Obama's administration must do more to combat terrorism.  Security officials have to anticipate the next attack.

"One of the things we need to start doing is to get ahead of the curve by trying to anticipate additional methods that can be used against us and closing the gaps before those gaps are exploited," Irwin said.

Security experts agree that given the number of targets and the infinite ways they can be exploited, security can never be 100 percent.  But they say that does not mean the Obama administration can lower its guard and stop working toward achieving that.