WASHINGTON — A defiant Barack Obama said Tuesday he would take no lectures from Republicans on which candidate would keep the U.S. safer, a sharp rebuke to John McCain's aides who said the Democrat had a naive, Sept. 10 mind-set toward terrorism.
"These are the same guys who helped to engineer the distraction of the war in Iraq at a time when we could have pinned down the people who actually committed 9/11," the presumed nominee told reporters aboard his campaign plane. "This is the same kind of fear-mongering that got us into Iraq ... and it's exactly that failed foreign policy I want to reverse."
The debate between the rival camps echoed the 2004 presidential campaign in which President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other Republicans argued that Democratic nominee John Kerry was soft on terror, a claim that resonated with voters and helped propel Bush to re-election. Democrats complained that the GOP was using the politics of fear.
The Republican argument proved less effective in 2006 when then Bush adviser Karl Rove said the Democrats had a pre-Sept. 11 view of the world and Republicans had a post-Sept. 11 terror attacks perspective. In November of that year, Democrats captured enough congressional seats to seize control of the House and Senate.
On his campaign plane, Obama told reporters that Osama bin Laden is still at large in part because Bush's strategy toward fighting terror has not succeeded.
At issue were comments Obama made in an interview with ABC News Monday in which he spoke approvingly of the successful prosecution and imprisonment of those responsible for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Obama was asked how he could be sure the Bush administration's anti-terrorism policies are not crucial to protecting U.S. citizens.
Obama said the government can crack down on terrorists "within the constraints of our Constitution." He mentioned the indefinite detention of Guantanamo Bay detainees, contrasting their treatment with the prosecution of the 1993 World Trade Center bombings.
"And, you know, let's take the example of Guantanamo," Obama said. "What we know is that, in previous terrorist attacks _ for example, the first attack against the World Trade Center _ we were able to arrest those responsible, put them on trial. They are currently in U.S. prisons, incapacitated.
"And the fact that the administration has not tried to do that has created a situation where not only have we never actually put many of these folks on trial, but we have destroyed our credibility when it comes to rule of law all around the world, and given a huge boost to terrorist recruitment in countries that say, 'Look, this is how the United States treats Muslims. ...
"We could have done the exact same thing, but done it in a way that was consistent with our laws," Obama said.
Obama agreed with the Supreme Court ruling last week that detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have a constitutional right to challenge their indefinite imprisonment in U.S. civilian courts. McCain derided the ruling as "one of the worst decisions in the history of this country."
McCain aides criticized Obama for talking about using the criminal justice system to prosecute terrorists.
"Senator Obama is a perfect manifestation a September 10th mind-set ... He does not understand the nature of the enemies we face," McCain national security director Randy Scheunemann told reporters on a conference call.
Former CIA Director James Woolsey, who is advising the McCain campaign, concurred, saying Obama has "an extremely dangerous and extremely naive approach toward terrorism ... and toward dealing with prisoners captured overseas who have been engaged in terrorist attacks against the United States."
The Obama campaign countered with its own conference call in which Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Richard Clarke, a counterterrorism official in Republican and Democratic administrations, argued the McCain campaign was emulating Rove.
"I'm a little disgusted by the attempts of some of my friends on the McCain campaign to use the same old, tired tactics ... to drive a wedge between Americans for partisan advantage and to frankly frighten Americans," Clarke said.
Kerry accused McCain of "defending a policy that is indefensible" by siding with Bush's policies, particularly with respect to the Iraq war.
Obama said Republicans could be counted on to do "what they've done every election cycle, which is to use terrorism as club to make the American people afraid to win elections." He said he didn't think it would work this time.
Republicans criticized Obama last year when he said the United States should act on intelligence about top terrorist targets in Pakistan even if President Pervez Musharraf refuses.
Beth Fouhy reported from New York.