President Obama, facing a congressional investigation of his administration's failings in Benghazi, Libya, and multiple other scandals and crises that have driven his approval rating to new lows, can again thank U.S. special operating forces for a more positive subject of public attention.
Indeed, the president did just such a subject shift this week in a statement issued by the White House after U.S. special forces took advantage of growing disorder in Libya to snatch a suspect in the Benghazi murders from his home. Mr. Obama hailed "the painstaking efforts of our military, law enforcement, and intelligence personnel" in apprehending Ahmed Abu Katallah, an alleged leader of the September 11, 2012, terrorist attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Now, however, Mr. Obama faces a dilemma posed by his opposition to treating captured terrorists as military prisoners. Under the system set up by President George W. Bush, Congress and the Supreme Court, with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., playing a major role, such prisoners may be held indefinitely in the naval prison at Guantanamo, Cuba. The goal there has been to obtain from those detainees critical information about terrorist personnel, plans, organizations and activities. While harsh techniques were used in early interrogations, they were soon discontinued, and Sen. Graham led the way in bringing the Guantanamo system into conformity with U.S. law.
But Mr. Obama used Guantanamo as a symbol to vilify his predecessor. He promised to close it, so far without success, and has declined to add to its population of captured terrorists.
Initially he also adopted a policy of providing full U.S. defendants' legal rights to captured terrorists, including the warning against self-incrimination known as the Miranda rule and the offer of free legal counsel.
His critics were quick to point out, correctly, that this policy was dangerous because it made the government forgo the possibility of acquiring useful intelligence from captured terrorists.
Since those early controversies, the administration has quietly adopted a policy that might be called "Guantanamo at sea." The New York Times reports that Mr. Khattallah is "talking freely" with FBI and intelligence community interrogators aboard the U.S. Navy cruiser New York in the Mediterranean. He will at some time in the future be brought to the United States, and only then will he be formally charged with crimes, and read his "Miranda" rights.
Civil liberties groups that were vocal critics of the lack of "due process' in the Bush administration's treatment of terrorist prisoners have largely been silent about this new approach.
Legally the Obama administration may have no other option, because the incident in Benghazi is not covered by the 2001 "Authorization to Use Military Force" that provides the basis for treating captured terrorists as "illegal combatants" under the laws of war.
It is time for Congress to revisit and revise the AUMF, taking into account rising threats in Iraq and Syria, as well as al-Qaida related activities elsewhere.
No matter how much Mr. Obama wants to disengage from the struggle with militant Islam, the threats keep coming and they must be dealt with, regardless of political considerations.