During a House floor speech just days after the Boston Marathon bombing, Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., sought to compare President Barack Obama’s record on terrorism unfavorably to that of Obama’s predecessor in the White House, George W. Bush.
"I rise today to express grave doubts about the Obama administration’s counterterrorism policies and programs. ..." Cotton said. "In barely four years in office, five jihadists have reached their targets in the United States under Barack Obama: the Boston Marathon Bomber, the Underwear Bomber, the Times Square Bomber, the Fort Hood shooter, and, in my own state, the Little Rock recruiting office shooter. In over seven years after 9/11, under George W. Bush, how many terrorists reached their targets in the United States? Zero. We need to ask: Why is the Obama administration failing in its mission to stop terrorism before it reaches its targets in the United States?"
In the Boston attack, Dzokhar Tsarnaev has been charged with carrying out the bombing with his brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed while being chased by police.
As for the other terrorist plots Cotton referenced, here are brief summaries:
Umar Farook Abdulmutallab became known as the "underwear bomber" on Dec. 25, 2009, after he tried to blow up a plane flying to Detroit using a bomb strapped to his underwear. He was convicted and is serving life in prison.
Faisal Shahzad tried to plant a bomb in New York City’s Times Square on May 1, 2010. Bystanders discovered the bomb and the police were able to keep it from going off. Shahzad pleaded guilty and is serving life in prison.
Nidal Hasan, a psychiatrist and major in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, is the only suspect in a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, that left 13 soldiers and civilians dead and more than two dozen others wounded on Nov. 5, 2009. Hasan is awaiting a military trial that could bring the death penalty. Prior to the shootings, the government intercepted at least 18 emails between Hasan and Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric tied to al-Qaida.
Abdulhakim Muhammed, a convert to Islam who was born Carlos Bledsoe, pleaded guilty to killing Pvt. William Long and wounding Pvt. Quinton Ezeagwula during a shooting outside a U.S. Army recruiting station in Little Rock, Ark., in 2009. He is now serving life in prison.
However, Cotton’s comparison requires some creative accounting. Here are some of the problems with Cotton’s claim:
• He ignores at least two post-9/11 examples of jihad-inspired terrorism under Bush that resulted in casualties. One is the July 4, 2002, incident in which Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, an Egyptian immigrant, fired on an El Al ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport, killing two. The other is the March 2006 case of Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill graduate, driving an SUV onto campus, striking nine pedestrians, resulting in injuries but no fatalities. Both cases were reportedly motivated by radical Islam.
• He uses inconsistent definitions of "reached their targets." "Reached their targets" can mean either "reach the point of carrying out an attack" or "actually carrying out an attack."
If it’s "reach the point of carrying out an attack," then Cotton is ignoring not just the two Bush-era examples above, but also the Dec. 22, 2001, "shoe-bombing" incident, in which Richard Reid was foiled trying to detonate plastic explosives packed in his shoes. It would be inconsistent for Cotton to exclude the shoe-bomber (who tried to strike during Bush’s tenure) when he includes the "underwear bomber" (whose plot came under Obama) when both were stopped before exploding their devices.
If the standard is to "reach the point of carrying out an attack," then we count three post 9/11 terrorist plots by Islamic radicals under Bush and five under Obama -- a difference, but not one as stark as Cotton’s calculation. If the standard is "actually carrying out an attack," then the count would be two under Bush and three under Obama, which is even less of a difference.
• Blaming the president for terrorist attacks on their watch has limited value. For starters, the nuts and bolts of preventing terrorist attacks is handled by career government officials in such agencies as the CIA and the FBI -- officials who are likely carrying out their duties regardless of who the president is. In addition, Cotton’s formulation doesn’t take into account plots in which arrests were made before aspiring terrorists have "reached their targets."
When we raised some of these issues with Cotton’s office, a spokeswoman provided a rebuttal from the congressman.
"Neither the Los Angeles airport shooter nor the UNC driver had a documented history of association with terrorist groups, as did the five attackers in the Obama years," the statement from Cotton said. "As for the shoe bomber, he was a foreigner screened by a foreign agency (French) without significant American assistance and with a foreign target (international waters). By contrast, the underwear bomber was screened with American input and reached his target over a major American city (Detroit)."
Cotton’s statement continued, "These three persons you cited from the Bush years hadn't been on a government list or subject to investigation, while all five attackers in the Obama years were. Finally, reaching the target means reaching the point of intended attack, not necessarily executing the attack. Counting on terrorist incompetence isn’t a sound counterterrorism strategy."
We should note that Cotton’s comments on the House floor didn’t include these kinds of qualifiers, but we decided to explore the merits of their argument anyway.
We asked Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a terrorism expert who is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, what he thought of Cotton’s arguments. He said they have at least partial merit.
As we have noted in a previous item, there are several cases under Obama in which future perpetrators of terrorists acts had already gotten themselves onto the U.S. government’s radar screen, including Muhammed, Hasan and Abdulmutallab, as opposed to none during the Bush years. Gartenstein-Ross says it’s reasonable to have greater concern about cases in which the government had looked into an individual but did not end up preventing an attack. A possible counter-argument is that the lack of a "documented history of association with terrorist groups" that Cotton cites could instead be considered a reflection of poor intelligence work.
Advance suspicion that an individual might be a terrorist could be a point of distinction between the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber, he added, since the underwear bomber’s father sent the U.S. an urgent warning and nothing equivalent happened with the shoe bomber. On the other hand, we doubt the shoe bomber, as Cotton suggests, intended to attack international waters; his target, like the underwear bomber’s, was a U.S.-based airline filled with passengers, many of them Americans.
Ultimately, Gartenstein-Ross said, it is an "appropriate question to ask" whether the Obama administration has "in some way put into place policies that hamper investigations or aggressive action." Still, he said, the congressman’s statement was, "like a lot of rhetoric, overheated."
Cotton said, "In barely four years in office, five jihadists have reached their targets in the United States under Barack Obama," compared to zero "in over seven years after 9/11 under George W. Bush." Cotton’s math is inconsistent and stacked against Obama -- and there’s a limit to how fairly a comparison like this reflects what an administration can accomplish in counter-terrorism. On balance, we rate Cotton’s claim Mostly False.