The latest attack threat from an al-Qaeda offshoot creates a political challenge for President Barack Obama, as Republicans accuse him of hyping claims to have terrorists on the run and privacy advocates say the warning may be used to justify greater government surveillance.
While Obama’s critics applauded the administration’s decision to temporarily shut down 22 U.S. embassies and consulates in predominantly Muslim countries based on threats in intercepted communications, White House press secretary Jay Carney yesterday was forced to defend the president’s past statements that al-Qaeda is “on the ropes.”
“There is no question over the past several years, al-Qaeda core has been greatly diminished, not least because of the elimination of Osama bin Laden,” Carney said in his daily press briefing. “What is also true is that al-Qaeda and affiliated organizations represent a continued threat.”
Carney also refused to address whether the revelation of the threat bolsters the justification for the National Security Agency’s surveillance of domestic telephone records and overseas Internet communication.
“I’m not going to blend those two stories or those two issues together,” he said.
The new threat to U.S. interests is prompting renewed criticism from Republicans, who accused Obama’s administration of playing politics with the battle against terrorism during the 2012 presidential campaign, including its response to the deadly attack on a U.S. outpost in Benghazi, Libya.
As his re-election drive was under way and afterward, Obama and his surrogates repeatedly cited the killing of bin Laden and the deaths of other leaders of al-Qaeda, the organization that launched the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In his February State of the Union address, Obama called the terrorist organization “a shadow of its former self.”
At the same time, he has warned that splinter groups, particularly al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula posed a new, more diffuse threat. Their growth has been fueled in part by large swaths of ungoverned territory in the region and the fall of authoritarian regimes in the wake of the Arab Spring civilian uprisings.
Congressman Ed Royce, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an opinion article in yesterday’s Washington Times that plotting by al-Qaeda affiliates in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia “runs counter to President Obama’s narrative that al-Qaeda has been decimated.”
While Obama “certainly deserves credit for taking down” bin Laden, Royce, a California Republican, said, the implication that the threat is greatly diminished is “at best, naïve.”
Michael Chertoff, homeland security secretary under President George W. Bush, said “there has been a lot of progress made” against al-Qaeda “and I think the events of the last week doesn’t change that.”
At the same time, he said, recalling some of last year’s presidential campaign rhetoric, “statements to the effect that ‘al-Qaeda is on the ropes’ are at best wishful thinking. Spiking the ball on the 30-yard line doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
“The original core is decimated,” he said. “The challenge we have is there’s a new core.”
Carney sought to make a distinction between al-Qaeda’s “core leadership” in Afghanistan and Pakistan and affiliated groups elsewhere. He said it wasn’t true that the administration has downplayed the threat.
Obama has been “clear that the threat from al Qaeda very much remains,” he said.
The decision to close the U.S. outposts through Aug. 10 and issue a worldwide travel alert was based in part on intercepted communications from the head of al-Qaeda in Pakistan, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to Nasir al-Wuhayshi, leader of al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, according to two U.S. officials who asked not to be identified discussing the sensitive intelligence. Zawahiri ordered the Yemen-based affiliate to carry out an attack, the officials said.
Amie Stepanovich, director of the Domestic Surveillance Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit research group in Washington, said while she doesn’t doubt the veracity of the threats, she’s concerned that the administration and its defenders in Congress will say “this now justifies the NSA surveillance programs that are very much being debated now.
‘‘The fact they get useful intelligence information is not really the point,’’ so much as whether there are more limited programs that can protect national security while better protecting privacy, she said.
John McLaughlin, a former acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency now at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, said while surveillance programs are controversial with Americans, the latest threat serves as a reminder of the need for such intelligence gathering.
‘‘This is not pat-a-cake,’’ he said. ‘‘You need every trick in the book.
‘‘You stop terrorist attacks by building a mosaic, a jigsaw puzzle, if you will’’ of intercepts, open source information and other resources, McLaughlin said. ‘‘So yes, I think they need this capability because it’s an important component of building a picture’’ needed to disrupt a plot.
While the U.S. has ‘‘done considerable damage to the core’’ of al-Qaeda, he said it is ‘‘myth’’ that ‘‘only al-Qaeda core can organize attacks on the United States. In truth we’ve made enormous progress against this threat. We really have. But they still have the capacity to surprise us.’’