The First Terror Crisis of the New Republican Congress

In the halls of Congress, the GOP revisits anti-terror themes it has promoted for years.


Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, speaks during the 31st Annual Meeting of the Bretton Woods Committee at the World Bank Headquarters in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, May 21, 2014.

Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

The new Republican majority owes some of its size and clout to voters'  worries about terrorism. North Carolina's Thom Tillis was struggling until he started attacking his opponent for missing a meeting that got into the threat of the Islamic State; he's now a Republican senator. "My boots were on the ground now held by ISIS," said Iraq veteran and new Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, who scored the year's biggest Republican upset. When Democratic Senator Mark Udall told Colorado voters that ISIS did not present an "imminent threat" to America, he was pilloried–and, ultimately, defeated.

The killings of 12 people in Paris, by people apparently targeting cartoonists who made light fun of Islam, is the first terror crisis of the new Congress. Republicans are responding by emphasizing the anti-terror strategies they've been talking about for years.

"This speaks to the vigilance we need to have," said Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, the new chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, on the way to weekly party lunches. "These incidents speak to why we need to be involved in not allowing these folks to be in the position to be able to plan these types of efforts."

Corker went on to make a subtle reference to international spying programs, the extent of which was revealed in 2013 leaks from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. In 2013 and 2014, there were protests at high levels of European government about the NSA's reach. Yet the Paris attacks, said Corker, "also speak to me to some of the national security issues we need to talk about. Certainly I want to see privacy for Americans, but I also want the intelligence community to have the tools necessary to apprehend and intercept."

"We knew for a long time about the areas outside Paris that police don't go into at night," said Arizona Senator John McCain. "We know there's a strong Islamic influence there, radical Islam. We know there are many French who are fighting in Syria."

Pressed on whether he thought ISIS was behind the attack, McCain pivoted. "You can only draw the conclusion that it's radical Islam, given the people that they attacked," he said. "We should always be concerned about an attack, because of the people fighting there, in Syria and Iraq, then coming back. It is a matter of concern for the DHS, for the FBI, and for the CIA."

Outside of Congress, the Obama administration's response to the Paris killings has been pilloried from the right. Multiple commentators have compared the president's condemnation to his response to the 2012 release of "Innocence of Muslims," an incoherent parody of Islam that was cited by protesters attacking American embassies right before the attacks on the compound in Benghazi. At the United Nations, the president insisted that "the future does not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam," and in California, the film's director was arrested on an unrelated tax charge. Charles Woods, the father of one of the Americans slain in Benghazi, spoke scornfully of the Obama administration blaming the attacks on a video instead of taking responsibility.

McCain has accused the administration of engineering a "cover-up" of Benghazi facts. On Wednesday, when asked about the Obama administration's 2012 reaction to "Innocence of Muslims" and the Paris attacks, McCain demurred. "I don't know if there's a connection," he said.

The conversation on the right has already moved beyond that. Texas Senator Ted Cruz reacted to the Paris attacks with a Facebook post, saying the United States stood with France against "radical Islamic terrorism." Some  commenters threw back the 2012 Obama "slander" quote, and asked why the administration was afraid to call terror "terror." (In his response to the Paris attacks, Obama referred to "terrorism" five times.) Meanwhile, in the Senate, Cruz told reporters that the attacks were "a reminder of the global threat we face and the enormous peril presented by radical Islamic terrorism."

Asked about the media outlets that were refusing to republish or refer to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, Cruz said it was "unfortunate to see media outlets engaging in censorship."

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