In an interview Vice President Dick Cheney remarked that the United States was less safe since Obama changed the detention and interrogation practices of enemy combatants saying that the change was a move towards treating terrorism as a law enforcement problem. Cheney argued that terrorism is a strategic threat that could only be addressed by using all wartime assets against the enemy (NY Times). During this interview Cheney draws from a background debate that few people outside of academic circles know about or the arguments for or against. This debate was over whether the “War on Terror” should be prosecuted like a war or like a crime. While Cheney’s arguments seem solid on the surface, it masks a deeper dilemma that the Bush administration and now the Obama administration will have to address.
Before 9/11, the “War on Terror” did not exist. Terrorists like the Unabomber and the Oklahoma City Bomber were submitted to a jury, and prosecuted. International terrorists elicited a broader set of counter-measures, from international man-hunts to missile strikes, but terrorism was generally not viewed as an act of war. This changed on 9/11. The attacks on the World Trade Center were so heinous that most analysts agreed that it constituted an act of war and the result was the war in Afghanistan. However, the “War on Terror” as the Bush administration constructed it was not limited to the war in Afghanistan. The “War on Terror” took a meaning something like the “War on Drugs”, a long-term struggle against an organized world structure. This began the debate over whether the “War on Terror” should be prosecuted as a war or as an international crime.
The arguments that it should be prosecuted as a war are substantive. War-time is not bound by law-enforcement standards, but instead by the only international humanitarian rights. In wartime the country can mobilize all of its resources, military arms, troops, intelligence, to defeat the enemy. It can invade a country and depose its leadership. It gives the country the right to kill or capture combatants in the field. It gives a country the right to hold combatants until the end of the war and interrogate those prisoners. War also gives the government the weight to leverage foreign governments and intelligence services. The purpose of going into a war against terrorism is to protect ones citizens from the threat of terrorism by using military means. The attacks on 9/11 were not prevented in part because the U.S. lacked powers needed, from the FBI to the CIA, to stop them.
The arguments for prosecuting terrorists as criminals are also significant and should not be overlooked. First, the act of war perpetrated by the 9/11 attackers were answered with a war, the war in Afghanistan. There is no credibility at stake in limiting the war to Afghanistan since it was the state sponsor most responsible for the attacks. Police powers also let you imprison a terrorist for longer than the end of any war, so long as they are successfully convicted. Despite the “War on Drugs,” which is less of a war than a slogan, historically there has always been a dividing line between war and peace, in which peace allows you to keep other priorities and conduct business normally, whereas in war the first priority of the country is ending the war. The “War on Terror" is a long term struggle against a tactic, namely terrorism, that has no clear purpose, objectives, or enemy. The targets of the “War on Terror” have been lumped together as “Islamo-Facist” which also does not have a meaning, but potentially any individual, and the states those individuals live in, who has any intention of committing terrorism is at war with the United States.
The Bush administration had prosecuted this “War on Terror” as something in between a war and a crime, but also goes further, inventing new powers applicable to terrorists. Questions were