Years from now, historians are likely to look back on November 13th as the day the War on Terror died.
The Obama administration's decision, announced publicly on Friday, to bring terror mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others to New York to stand trial in federal court for the atrocities of September 11th is flawed on many levels. For one thing, it wipes away years of progress and preparation by the U.S. military in bringing Mohammed and his co-conspirators to justice by way of military tribunal. For another, as former Justice Department official John Yoo writes in the Wall Street Journal, it is a potential "intelligence bonanza" for al-Qaeda, forcing the U.S. government to publicly reveal classified sources and methods used by the intelligence community in order to ensure a conviction. Most significant of all, however, is what it tells us about the Obama administration's attitudes toward the War on Terror.
In the days after September 11th, the Bush administration correctly recognized that the attacks on Washington and New York carried out by al-Qaeda were tantamount to a declaration of war against the United States. Thereafter, terrorists captured on the battlefield in places like Afghanistan and Iraq were classified as "unlawful combatants" - a military term that explicitly put those foreign radicals outside the purview of U.S. domestic law. The Obama administration's decision to abandon that framework in favor of a civilian one that provides the 9/11 plotters with the same legal protection U.S. citizens receive puts mass casualty terrorism on the same legal footing as burglary and rape, and serves as the strongest repudiation to date of the idea that we are at actually war with the forces of radical Islam.
All of which should be deeply disheartening to Americans of all political stripes. This summer, the President's top counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, told a Washington audience that, unlike his predecessor's more ambitious plans for a "global" struggle against Islamic extremism, President Obama is focused strictly on a narrow "war with al-Qaeda." Friday's decision, however, indicates that the White House now has abandoned even that comparatively modest objective.