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Inflammatory Committee Terror Report Helps McCain/Lieberman Target Obama

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An inflammatory first report on the domestic threat of "violent Islamist extremism" issued a week ago via the Senate Committee on Homeland Security turns out not to have been drafted by the Committee at all. The report was drafted solely under the direction of Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman (CT)-- a pro-war "Independent Democrat"-- and ranking Republican Susan Collins (ME). It appears that other members of the Committee, including Senator Barack Obama (D-IL), had no part in authoring the controversial document, titled: "Violent Islamist Extremism, the Internet, and the Homegrown Terrorism Threat."(PDF). "Neither Senator Obama nor his staff had any input into the report," said the spokesperson in Obama's Washington, DC, office Wednesday evening.

The international news service Reuters carried a story identifying the report as coming from the Homeland Security Committee as a whole, and the confusion is understandable. Senator Collins's office in DC, however, stressed that "It was never a full Committee report" and that the cover and inside text of the report itself made that clear. The spokesperson added that "There is a lot of cooperation on this Committee, it is very bipartisan."

Bipartisan perhaps is not the proper word to describe this report, as Lieberman, the chair, is campaigning against his former political party, the Democrats. Nor is it just an interesting anecdote that Democratic Senator and presumptive Democratic nominee for president Obama happens to sit on the Committee, since the report (and the Committee's threatened follow-up reports on "Violent Islamist Extremism") can easily be turned against Obama by his political adversaries.

It has become clear that one of the leading themes of the general election campaign being promoted by Republicans is that Obama is weak in the fight against terrorism. McCain has already personally attempted to tie Obama to the controversial Palestinian political party Hamas and President Bush yesterday in a speech to the Israeli parliament transparently likened Obama to "Nazi appeasers" for his willingness to "negotiate with terrorists and radicals." Lieberman's senate committee report, therefore, is uniquely positioned to influence the political discourse. If Obama fails to embrace the document and the hard-line national security legislation it is preparing the ground for, the case may be made that he is choosing to ignore the import of his own congressional committee's findings, that he is knowingly failing to appreciate the threat of "radical Islam" here and abroad and is therefore willfully soft on terrorism.

At least three other Democratic Senators--Daniel K. Akaka (D-HI), Thomas R. Carper (D-DE); and Carl Levin, (D-MI)--who sit on the Committee with Obama had no role in the writing of the report, according to their DC Senate office spokespeople. I placed calls to the DC offices of all members of the Committee over several days, but most had yet to return phone calls or emails sent to their press secretaries when this article was published.

"Minority staff reports" and "majority staff reports" are common enough, but this report-- coming from the ostensibly bipartisan leaders of the committee-- can leave the impression that it took into account the views of all of the committee members, which it clearly does not. Reports authored together by the majority and minority staff of a committee are not unheard of and in fact come more often than usual from the Homeland Security committee, but they are not generally common. In addition, Capitol Hill insiders say the report was primarily driven by Lieberman's staff. One Democratic Party operative grumbled that the staff didn't even send Democratic members of the Committee courtesy copies of the report before it was issued.

Lieberman is no neophyte on the political scene. He surely knows the report, its release timed as it is to coincide with the heating up of the general election campaigns, will be used for political ends-- to whiplash Barack Obama and to push both Obama and Hillary Clinton toward hard-line policy positions on the Middle East, as well as to more generally soften opposition to civil liberties abuses by the Bush Administration. More than any serious attempt to examine the serious issues it addresses, the report seems a mere election year political trick.

A spokesperson for the Senate Committee said Thursday afternoon, however, that there was "zero truth" to assertions that the report was politically motivated. "We held six hearings going back for over a year. There were multiple drafts. It was a long process. The staff worked hard on it. There was never any consideration of the political impact." She said that in an election year season when "even the weather is being interpreted through a political lens," such speculation is common but regrettable. There was "absolutely no connection to Obama" or the campaign, she continued. The report came out of Senator Lieberman's deep and sincere interest in the topic and was issued when it was finished.

The Lieberman report has been condemned by critics as based on dangerously thin analysis and so a threat to freedom of expression, civil liberties, and civil rights. The report echoes an equally flawed legislative bill stalled in Congress titled "Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007," which I criticized last November.

Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, summarized the ACLU response to the report: "Once we begin trying to regulate belief systems, we have veered perilously far from the Constitution."

The Defending Dissent Foundation (on whose board I sit) coordinated an open letter to the Senate Committee even before the report was released. According to the letter, already signed by 20 civil liberties groups:

We must be clear; the need to prevent criminal acts of violence is unquestionable. Studying and understanding the origin of terrorism and what provokes violence is an important element of prevention. But one of the greatest challenges to countering such movements is drawing the line between advocacy of ideas, including violence, and taking concrete steps toward carrying out a violent act. It is also important to distinguish between violence that injures or kills people and minor acts of vandalism that are part of an act of civil disobedience. Properly viewed, dissent can be an antidote to terrorism, not a precursor to it.

More groups are signing onto the letter, already endorsed by civil liberties activists across the political spectrum from the Republican Liberty Coalition to United for Peace and Justice.

Senator Lieberman has pushed out a report that many experts say is full of superficial stereotyping of Muslims and grade-school analysis of terrorism. It seems one more way that Lieberman, the "Independent Democrat," is campaigning for Republican candidate McCain. Kate Phillips on the New York Times Politics Blog calls their dance "the McCain-Lieberman duet."

The Democratic Party is reluctant to criticize Lieberman because the Senate is home to 49 Republicans and 49 Democrats, with two independents (Lieberman and Bernie Sanders of Vermont) who line up with the Democrats in caucus, thus giving the Democrats a voting majority and senior status on Senate Committees. If Lieberman moves to caucus with the Republicans, it would mean the Senate was evenly divided, sending more tied votes to Vice President Dick Cheney, who serves as the President of the Senate. In addition, Democrats would no longer unilaterally control the chairs of all Senate committees, and would have to negotiate a power-sharing arrangement with Republicans.

There are certainly political groups who will use the report to fire bigoted salvos on behalf of McCain, just as they used falsehoods and fabrications to sink the candidacy of John Kerry. McCain at the time called the charges against Kerry "dishonest and dishonorable." Yet McCain, who has a long track record as a militarist., is the clear beneficiary of election year fear-mongering about Islam and terrorism, and has reached out to leaders of the Christian Right who have a track record of Islamophobia.

When McCain stood before the audience of some 2000 Christian conservatives last year at the FRC Action Values Voters "Washington Briefing" conference, it was already clear that he was seeking to mend fences with the Christian Right. Now McCain has cultivated support from apocalyptic preacher John Hagee, who has stated that "Jihad has come to America. If we lose the war to Islamic fascism, it will change the world as we know it." Hagee is not just talking about "radical Islam," he also believes that the Quran itself gives Muslims a mandate to kill Christians and Jews. According to Hagee, "Well, the Quran teaches that. Yes, it teaches that very clearly."

American Muslims have launched a campaign to encourage more precise language when linking Islam and terrorism, just what the Lieberman report fails to do. According to Religion News Service:

While Muslim Americans have made this argument for years, U.S. government officials have only recently adopted it. In March, the National Counterterrorism Center drafted a memo for the State Department urging diplomats to drop words like "jihadists" or "mujahedeen" (those engaged in jihad) when describing terrorists because it "unintentionally legitimizes their actions."

In fact, in January the Department of Homeland Security suggested that "We should not concede the terrorists' claim that they are legitimate adherents of Islam," according to a memo obtained by the Associated Press. This fact has already attracted attention in the blogosphere, but mainstream media have yet to offer any meaningful coverage of this entire episode. My first report on this matter was posted on the HuffingtonPost / OffTheBus last Monday.

The group Muslim Advocates notes that "The Senate report, issued by Senators Lieberman and Collins on May 8, 2008, with bold red letters on the title and provocative graphic photos of al Qaeda overseas, insinuated that American Muslims are ripe for radicalization and present a potential 'homegrown' security threat to the nation."

A letter critical of the report and asking for a dialogue has been sent to the committee by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), and Muslim Advocates. The letter notes that "Given that only one of nineteen witnesses before the committee represented the American Muslim community, we also urge you to include representative American Muslims at future hearings on Islam or the American Muslim community." The letter suggests that the report undermines its own stated goals, and points out:

As Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff testified to the committee, in response to a question from Senator Tester, "It is very important that ...we make clear that we are not racially profiling people. We are not imputing to people that they are dangerous or threatening because they are Muslim. ... We have to continually treat every American with the same respect that our Constitution requires, regardless of their heritage, regardless of what their religion is, and when that is not honored, that actually has a counterproductive effect." Unfortunately, the committee's report undermines fundamental American values (as well as its own stated recommendations) by encouraging alienating suspicion of several million Americans on the basis of their faith. Contrary to Secretary Chertoff's recommendations, it thus exacerbates the current climate of fear, suspicion and hatemongering of Islam and American Muslims.

Fear-mongering by Republicans about terrorism, Islam, and the Middle East is ratcheting up in the campaign, and Islamophobia has consequences, as I outlined in my previous post about the firing of school principal Debbie Almontaser, Muslim bashing is the New Witch Hunt.

Lieberman has a long track record of supporting an aggressive U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East that is tilted in favor of an aggressive stance by the government of Israel. This serves to mobilize that sector of the Christian Right known as "Christian Zionists," profiled by Max Blumenthal here on HuffPost in an article and video about Christians United for Israel, which McCain endorser Hagee heads. While some critics of U.S. foreign policy slip into a stereotypical conflation of Israel, the Israeli government, Jews, Zionism, and Christian Zionism, the relationships among "Culture, Religion, Apocalypse, and Middle East Foreign Policy" are well studied. Christian Zionists help push U.S. foreign policy in a bellicose direction that undermines chances for a lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis; a matter for reflection this week, when the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel is being celebrated.

The 2008 Christian Right Values Voters Summit scheduled for September places "immigration" and "radical Islam" just after "marriage and the family" on its list of the important "highlights" of the conference. For the past two years, the Values Voters conference and "Washington Briefing" has featured a range of Islamophobic speeches and publications. If McCain moves to the Political Right to shore up the Republican voter base in the Christian Right--which trial balloons about Gov. Mike Huckabee being considered for the VP slot make more plausible--then Islamophobic and anti-immigrant rhetoric will find an eager audience. Summit co-sponsor FRC Action is already bashing Obama.

Last year on HuffPost I wrote that "A McCain-Huckabee ticket, however, could pull voters to the polls across several core Republican constituencies mobilized around the economy and immigration." I should have added Islamophobia, because it clearly is going to play a role in election 2008, no matter who ends up as the final presidential standard bearers for the Republicans and Democrats.