Back to the law-enforcement model?

This doesn’t exactly come as a surprise.  After all, Barack Obama spent the entire presidential campaign criticizing George Bush’s military approach to terrorism, and once elected, his administration floated the nomenclature “overseas contingency operations”.  That didn’t stick after widespread derision, but the move back to the pre-Bush law-enforcement model of counterterrorism apparently has:

The FBI and Justice Department plan to significantly expand their role in global counter-terrorism operations, part of a U.S. policy shift that will replace a CIA-dominated system of clandestine detentions and interrogations with one built around transparent investigations and prosecutions.

Under the “global justice” initiative, which has been in the works for several months, FBI agents will have a central role in overseas counter-terrorism cases. They will expand their questioning of suspects and evidence-gathering to try to ensure that criminal prosecutions are an option, officials familiar with the effort said.

Though the initiative is a work in progress, some senior counter-terrorism officials and administration policy-makers envision it as key to the national security strategy President Obama laid out last week — one that presumes most accused terrorists have the right to contest the charges against them in a “legitimate” setting.

The approach effectively reverses a mainstay of the Bush administration’s war on terrorism, in which global counter-terrorism was treated primarily as an intelligence and military problem, not a law enforcement one. That policy led to the establishment of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; harsh interrogations; and detentions without trials.

What it does is effectively recast the problem of foreign terrorism aimed at the US from a national-security issue to a criminal activity.  It’s nothing new; the Clinton administration tried the same approach to terrorism, to no great effect.  They sent the FBI to chase down evidence and testimony after the Khobar Towers bombing, the embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, and the attack on the USS Cole, which should have triggered a military response.  Indeed, that same approach led the Clinton administration to refuse to accept an offer in the mid-1990s that would have put Osama bin Laden into our hands, because they feared they couldn’t win a prosecution against him.

Also, the LA Times is a bit disingenuous in describing the policy this replaces.  Bush figured that any trials would eventually get handled by military tribunals.  Congress twice produced tribunal systems to process the detainees at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, and the Bush administration had already started those trials when Obama stopped them in January.  Now Obama has discovered that he will have to proceed with the tribunals anyway, as the necessities of war do not lend themselves to the structure of criminal trials — the exact reason Bush opted for a military/intelligence approach to the war on terror.

Ask yourself this: between the convictions of the 1993 WTC attack and 9/11, how many al-Qaeda terrorists got convicted in American courts, and how many terrorist attacks did the law-enforcement approach prevent?