A commander in chief shouldn't try to teach a civics lesson with U.S. antiterror policy. But President Obama may well safeguard the nation better with his pledge to wield "tough and durable approaches to fighting terrorism that are anchored in our timeless ideals."
The goal should be to thwart new terror attacks without resorting to tactics that hamper bringing bad guys to justice - or make new enemies for America.
Administration officials are developing a good strategy to do just that, by giving the FBI and Justice Department a greater role in the nation's pursuit of al-Qaeda and other terror groups.
The strategy - in the planning stages - would replace post-9/11 roundups, open-ended detention, and torture-style interrogation of suspects with a law-enforcement approach to new terror plots.
FBI agents would build criminal cases untainted by suspect interrogations and other rights violations. That way, terrorists could be brought to justice in U.S. or foreign courts. The key to that strategy would be strict adherence to the legal, noncoercive interrogations that - for years prior to the 2001 attacks - had proven successful in ferreting out information that prosecutors used to take down operatives, including the culprits in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
For starters, Obama's initiative will help restore the nation's standing in the eyes of the world. That's not merely window-dressing, either, since Bush-era policies - along with the war in Iraq - worked against U.S. interests.
The CIA-led strategy of secret prisons and harsh interrogations of detainees at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, prison likely inflamed hatreds and even served as a recruiting tool for radical groups.
As long as interrogators waterboarded detainees - a practice banned by Obama - they also endangered U.S. military personnel who might be captured on a battlefield and similarly tortured.
Those antiterror tactics also left a thorny legal legacy with which the president still struggles. Because so much evidence has been tainted by torture-style interrogation, many detainees remaining at Guantanamo probably cannot be tried in federal courts.
While Obama shut down the secret prisons and ordered that interrogations conform to Army Field Manual rules, he's since hedged on his commitment to upholding civil liberties by acknowledging some suspects may have to be detained without trial. The president also signaled he may retool the discredited military tribunals for some detainees, even as he explores federal trials for others or their release.
Granting the FBI a lead role in antiterror probes won't solve the legal quandaries Obama inherited from former President George W. Bush and his chief antiterror strategist, then-Vice President Dick Cheney. But it should put the nation's terror defenses back on the sound, legal footing that's expected of a great democracy.
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