Three Things the New Terrorism Threat Does Not Prove

Every national security crisis is an opportunity (to push a political agenda).

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A United States flag flies behind a tall fence at the United States Consulate General building in Jerusalem, Israel, 03 Aug. 2013.

The current alert over a suspected al Qaeda terror plot, thought to originate from Yemen, has populated the television airwaves with spokesmen for various political agendas, many of them making arguments that range from tenuous to specious. Here’s a quick crib sheet on some of the most dubious claims you’re likely hearing amid the speculative chatter about what sinister plans al Qaeda may have up its sleeve:

1. The NSA’s entire surveillance program is essential. The New York Times is reporting that the current alert is based on an intercepted electronic communication between Pakistan and Yemen. On Sunday said the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee that intercept was part of the NSA’s overseas activities permitted under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. But an Associated Press story Monday evening quotes an unnamed intelligence official saying that, in the AP’s words, “the controversial NSA programs that gather data on American phone calls or track Internet communications with suspected terrorists played no part in detecting the initial tip.”

Regardless, it seems clear that the agency’s bulk collection of telephone records for every call made within the United States did not play a role here. Even if the communication was a Section 702 intercept, it’s still might not have required the kind of vast overseas data collection the NSA conducts. For now, defenders of the NSA program should stick to arguing that this alert is a reminder that al Qaeda remains dangerous and that we need to maintain strong defenses, even at some cost to civil liberties.

2. Obama’s “weakness” has emboldened terrorists. Some conservatives have argued that Obama has effectively invited this latest terrorist stirring. Former GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum says Obama has appeared “timid,” “refused to confront radical Islam” and “won’t even use the word terror.” Santorum allowed that Obama is conducting drone strikes, “but that is not a comprehensive policy against radical Islam.” Former Republican Senator Jim DeMint struck a similar note on Sunday, saying that al Qaeda may be a greater threat than it was before 9/11, in part because Obama has sought to “placate” enemies like Iran and Russia. “The perception of weakness in the administration is encouraging this type of behavior,” DeMint added.

Doubtful. Obama’s foreign policy vision has drawn credible critics and left even some allies frustrated. But chances are slim that al Qaeda really cares whether Obama tried to “reset” relations with Moscow or extend a hand to Tehran. The group’s affiliates in northern Africa and the Middle East are thriving amid the chaos of the Arab Spring, and through a smart understanding that they can be more deadly as semi-autonomous splinter groups now that al Qaeda’s group’s core leadership in Pakistan has been decimated (thanks, by the way, to Obama’s approval of a relentless–and controversial–drone campaign).

3. Obama prematurely declared the war on terror over. After Obama’s broad counter-terrorism address in May, which included modest new restrictions on U.S. drone strikes, conservatives were dismayed: “He has now declared the war on terrorism over,” groused House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon. Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton charged that Obama had admitted “defeat” in the fight against al Qaeda.

No, he didn’t. Obama’s speech actually disappointed some liberals actually might like to see Obama declare an end to the terror war–not as a matter of defeatism, but as a step towards policies that rely less on killing and more on capture and prosecution in the criminal justice system.

Instead, Obama warned that the al Qaeda threat “has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11.” As I noted on Friday, he went on to warn of more localized threats,” as he put it, “against Western diplomats, companies, and other soft targets.” In other words, exactly the kind of threat we facing today.

Perhaps overly inflated expectations with his frequent boasts during last year’s campaign about killing Osama bin Laden and putting al Qaeda “on the run.” But there’s very little sign he’s backed away from the fight against Islamic radicals. (Indeed, the U.S. carried out at least three drone strikes in Yemen late last month.) And why would he? Even if you suspect that Obama, in his gut, doesn’t like killing bad guys overseas, there’s almost nothing a rational president should fear more than presiding over a preventable terrorist attack. It’s silly for his critics to pretend otherwise.

Update: This item has been revised to reflect that the intercepted foreign communication was reportedly electronic and not a “call,” and some related language has been changed. It was further updated to reflect the AP’s subsequent reporting.