Lieberman: Trading Facts for Fear To Help McCain

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On Wednesday, Senator Joe Lieberman went on Fox News (where else?) to blast Barack Obama for sticking to what Lieberman called a policy of surrender in Iraq. And he slammed the presumptive Democratic nominee for his upcoming trip to Iraq:

He’s already decided his position. He’s not going to listen to Petraeus. He’s not going to listen to our troops. He’s not going to listen to his own eyes with what he sees there. I think that’s not the kind of leadership we need in the Oval Office.

Listen to his own eyes? It’s as if Lieberman was channeling George W. Bush. But put that aside. Lieberman was trotting out again his I-know-Iraq-best stance, as he continues to be a leading surrogate for John McCain on the war and terrorism. But why should Lieberman have any standing on these matters? He can be as uninformed about national security as McCain (who several times confused Shia and Sunni). Two weeks ago, Lieberman appeared on Face the Nation and said,

But we need a president who’s ready to be commander in chief on day one. Senator McCain is….Why? Because our enemies will test the new president early. Remember that the truck bombing of the World Trade Center happened in the first year of the Clinton administration. Nine-eleven happened in the first year of the Bush administration. John McCain is ready to take the reins on January 20th, 2009. He doesn’t need any training.

Was Lieberman right in his history? Do the evildoers really mount terrorist operations to test new presidents early in their terms? I put this question to Peter Bergen, a journalist who is an expert on al Qaeda and terrorism. (He’s written two good books on al Qaeda.) Bergen replies:

The planning cycle of these ops militate against the idea that they were planned to test the new president. 9/11 was on the drawing board in 1996 and serious planning began in 1999.

There is no doubt al Qaeda would like to test a new president with an attack but they also hoped to test President Bush in 2006 with the plan to blow up seven US and Canadian planes leaving the UK. Had it succeeded this would have been a 9/11 style event six year into Bush’s two-term presidency.

Similarly, Ahmed Ressam arrived in the United States in December 1999 from Canada, planning to blow up LAX airport in the waning days of Clintons presidency. Luckily he was arrested, but the attack was supposed to take place in the final days of the Clinton presidency, not because of presidential politics but because that was when the plotters were ready. And also Xmas in LAX probably meant more potential victims.

So the al Qaeda operations Lieberman cited were likely not planned as tests of a new president. And al Qaeda certainly did not cook up the Millennium Bomber operation as a test, given that Ressam and his comrades could have waited a few weeks and attempted to blow up the Los Angeles airport once George W. Bush was in office. Bergen also left off his list the USS Cole attack, which occurred on October 12, 2000–that is, toward the end of the Clinton presidency, rather than at the beginning of his successor’s.

Thus, by citing 9/11 and the 1993 WTC bombings as an indication that terrorist will aim to strike the U.S. soon after the next president hangs new curtains in the Oval Office, Lieberman was mangling the historical record to scare people into voting for McCain. As the chairman of the Senate homeland security committee, he should literally know better–about the planning of these al Qaeda operations. But were Lieberman to stick to established facts, he’d have a tougher time fear-mongering.


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