JOHN CARLSON: Questioning terror measures

When the media went looking for an authority on national security after the attempted airline bombing on Christmas Day, they called a U.S. Senator from Washington. The one who’s been out of office for nine years, Slade Gorton.

At a time of virtually unparalleled partisanship in the nation’s capitol, Gorton’s voice carries weight with both parties. He distinguished himself on the 9/11 Commission, a bipartisan panel assembled to find out what went wrong in the run-up to the 9/11 attacks and to make a series of concrete suggestions to prevent it from reoccurring.

Gorton, who lives in Clyde Hill, is a clear, concise but not colorful speaker, who prefers facts and details over the “gotcha” wisecracks that dominate political debate today. As a consequence, many boring people think he is boring.

But when the TV cameras sought him out in the days following the (barely) unsuccessful Christmas Day bombing, Gorton was blunt, stating that the administration had not reacted with sufficient urgency to the attack. A longtime constitutional authority, Gorton also called for “a bit of profiling,” stating “We know that the great majority of these people are young, Muslim males from about a dozen countries in the Middle East and Africa. And it’s time to say all such people are going to go through secondary screening before they get on an airplane.”

Apparently so. President Obama has now decided that visa holders from 14 mostly Muslim countries will be automatically subjected to a second round of screening when seeking to board a U.S.-bound flight. He reiterated that the U.S. is at war with al-Qaeda and has announced that enemy combatants being held at Guantanamo Bay from Yemen – the country where the would-be airline bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was trained – would not be returned there after all.

For the president, it’s a partial about-face. He spent most of last year making one gesture after another designed to evaporate hostility toward this country from abroad. He bowed deferentially to the king while visiting Saudi Arabia. He stopped using the phrase “war on terror.” His Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano went further, replacing the term “terrorism” with the rather clunky phrase “man-caused disasters.” He held Israel at arms length and declared an open mind about pursuing criminal charges against Bush Administration officials for abusing their authority in interrogating suspected terrorists.

And it worked – with the Europeans. It even got Obama a Nobel Prize. But among the enemy whose singular goal is to kill as many of us as possible, it may have had the opposite effect, convincing them that we have softened and emboldening them to strike.

Gorton long ago recognized there is no “common ground” to be reached with al-Qaeda and its sympathizers. The aftermath of the Christmas Day attack may be pushing Obama in that direction as well. We’ll see.

As for Gorton, last week, he celebrated his 82nd birthday surrounded by two generations of friends called “The Gorton Legacy Group” (gortonlegacygroup.us). A new research center bearing his name has been established in Seattle overlooking (but not under the control of) the University of Washington. Gorton remains intellectually energetic and in no hurry to exit the public stage that he entered during his first campaign for the state legislature 52 years ago.

Good for him and good for us. The old marathon runner is still moving forward and still looking ahead.