Top security experts from previous administrations warn that political squabbling over counterterrorism is the "worst" in decades.
With the U.S. economy still reeling from the partisan battles over the debt deal, security experts warn that Washington's polarized political climate could have an equally dangerous impact on national security.
The national unity and "resilience" that enable Americans to cope with future terrorist attacks is "harder to achieve when we have politicized this issue," says Jamie Gorelick, former deputy attorney general under President Bill Clinton and a member of the bipartisan National Commission on Terrorist Attacks established after the Sept 11, 2001 tragedy.
Gorelick joined other senior security officials from previous administrations at the American Bar Association annual meeting in Toronto Friday in decrying what they termed the growing "politicization" of the War on Terror.
"We're seeing terrorism issues being used as a wedge issue for the far right and far left to beat up on each other," says John B. Bellinger III, who served as legal advisor to the National Security Council and the State Department under President George W. Bush.
As examples of right-wing pressure, he cited recent calls by GOP representatives to bring two Iraqi nationals arrested in the U.S. on terrorism-related charges before military courts, and to require local U.S. law enforcement to hand over any suspected terrorists to military custody.
He gave no examples of pressure from the left, but he told the panel, which was held to examine the impact of 9/11 on the U.S. legal landscape as the 10th anniversary of the attacks approaches, said the "political polarization" in Washington over responses to terrorism was the "worst I've seen."
The challenge was underlined by Ivan K. Fong, the current administration's top legal adviser to the Department of Homeland Security.
According to Fong, the number of committees and subcommittees on the Hill that deal with national security has risen from 88 to 108 since the 9/11 attacks.
"While we believe in congressional oversight, it is difficult to respond to multiple priorities and directives from Congress," he said, pointing out that the key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission to "rationalize" congressional oversight had still not been met.
All the speakers made clear that despite the political sniping on the Hill, there was now a broad consensus among security experts—regardless of their political affiliations—that the tough U.S. response to the challenge of terrorism, ranging from increased surveillance and airport checks to the harsh treatment of captured terrorists continued to be necessary.
"The threat persists, despite the killing of Osama bin Laden," said Fong. "His affiliates continue to threaten the U.S., and one of our challenges continues to be the threat from domestic homegrown terrorism."
However, John J. Sullivan, who was the top legal adsviser to the Department of Defense in 2004 before becoming deputy secretary of Commerce, said that playing politics with national security was nothing new.
"Look at what people were saying in the 1980s about Reagan's policies towards the Soviet Union," he said.
Stephen Handelman is Executive Editor of The Crime Report.