In the late 80s, Margaret Thatcher warned George H.W. Bush “not to go wobbly” on her; in the past week both the Scottish Justice Secretary and the government of the United States have “gone wobbly” in the fight against terrorism.
Let’s review what happened on December 21, 1988. Pan Am flight 103 was en route from London’s Heathrow Airport to New York’s JFK carrying 259 people. They were citizens of 21 nations, among them students returning from study abroad, young families, honeymooners, United Nations officials, and members of the U.S. military. They all became unsuspecting victims of the most heinous terror attack prior to 9/11, their plane ripped from the sky by an explosion. The plane splintered into pieces and fiery wreckage was hurtled across over one mile of Lockerbie, Scotland killing 11 more people on the ground.
The U.K. dealt with this crime against humanity in a manner consistent with liberal democracy and the rule of law. Scottish authorities jointly investigated the bombing with the FBI, identified Abdel Basset Megrahi, tried and convicted him, and sentenced the 48-year-old to die in jail.
Last week, Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill decided to free Megrahi on compassionate grounds—this terrorist has terminal cancer—and his return to Libya was viewed on both sides of the pond as a shameful indulgence in liberal jurisprudence.
Mr. MacAskill’s decision was an affront to those who suffered this grisly fate and to a nation’s longing for justice. And contrary to what Mr. MacAskill may have imagined, those who gave Megrahi a hero’s welcome saw only weakness in the minister’s decision. This wobbliness, far from endearing us to the terrorists, only stiffens their resolve to build a world-wide Caliphate on the rubble of Western Democracy.
Mr. MacAskill’s decision, however, is an isolated one. His indulgence does nothing to undermine the United Kingdom’s or the United States’ common efforts to find, interrupt, interrogate, and occasionally—as we saw in Pakistan last week with the demise of Baitullah Mehsud—kill a terror mastermind.
The same cannot be said of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to unleash a special prosecutor on past CIA interrogation practices. Unlike Mr. MacAskill, Mr. Holder speaks for the U.S. government; his decision has game changing consequences that will affect the safety of free world.
First, the Obama Administration is going to pay a big political price for indulging the civil libertarians of their party. The American television show 24 is in its 7th season because its portrayal of a life-and-death fight against terrorism in the face of political meddling appears to most Americans—and I would add Britons—both believable and justified. When the American people find out that the real “Jack Bauers” of our government act, for the most part, according to well thought out procedures—procedures that have concretely contributed to our national security—they will draw the conclusion the Obama administration lacks the prudence and stomach for its post-9/11 responsibilities.
Second, this inquisition will have a chilling effect on our protectors. While the fictional Bauer is willing to pay the consequences of his public service, most real life operatives will likely never again attempt “enhanced” interrogation, even on the most hardened jihadists. One of the report’s findings was that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the principal architect of 9/11, proved resistant to softer techniques, but sang like a canary when waterboarded. Consider the lives saved as a result of thwarting just two of KSM’s deadlier plots: One was an attack aimed at Heathrow Airport and the other was to have hit a West Coast version of the World Trade Center, likely the Trans America building in San Francisco.
To date, the Obama administration has successfully skated a thin line between indulging its civil libertarian wing’s desire to put the Bush Administration on trial and their desire to maintain the tools that have kept America safe from terrorism for the 2907 days since 9/11. With Holder’s act of wobbliness, the administration has crossed that line. And the consequences will extend far beyond the shores of the United States.
The War on Terror is not America’s fight alone. The U.K. is shedding its blood and spending its treasure in the prosecution of what President Obama has rightly called the “war of necessity” in Afghanistan. American and European intelligence services and police agencies have been working together and sharing information. This cooperation springs from the understanding that we all share the risks of global terrorism. A safe New York means a safe London, Paris and Madrid. America’s post 9/11 security has been product of tactics that have successfully balanced our common principles and the requirements of necessity. But America might be fighting terror from here on with one hand tied behind her back. That doesn’t bode well for any of us.
Amanda Bowman, an Atlantic Council member, is the CEO of Atlantic Bridge, a policy organization that works to strengthen U.S.-UK relations. This essay was previously published as “The U.S. and U.K. Both ‘Go Wobbly’ on Terrorism” in the Wall Street Journal.