By Jennifer Rubin
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) will be appointed the next chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee today. King, who also served on the House Intelligence Committee, is known for his candor. When I met with him in his Capitol Hill office, he was hobbled by a broken foot, but his mood was buoyant on the eve of attaining a chairmanship he had long sought. And he had plenty to say. In this post he shares his thoughts on U.S. foreign policy and on this week's tax deal. In Part 2 I'll come back with his take on domestic politics -- the 2010 midterms, the 2012 race, his own political future and more.
Since WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was taken into British custody just a few hours before we spoke, I began by asking if the U.S. should seek Assange's extradition. King answered: "Well, first we have to indict him." King agrees with Senate Intelligence Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that we should bring charges under the Espionage Act. If we don't, he argues, "other countries won't take us seriously. And so, yes, we should make every effort" to bring him to the U.S. He discounted the notion that the British have not been helpful in previous extradition matters, saying, "Listen, they are a strong ally in the War on Terror." The British will be inclined to help us, he believes, because they "understand how deadly" the leaks are.
King then expressed concern about Obama administration officials' response to what he calls the "incalculable damage" caused by the massive document leak.
"Considering how fast they moved [to file a laswsuit] on Arizona's immigration law and how determined they were to move against our CIA agents... there is definitely something missing here," he asserted. He disclosed that he was involved, as a member of the House Intelligence Committee, in a briefing on WikiLeaks some time ago, and he was "shocked by the lack of urgency. We've known about this for six months, and yet we were caught flat-footed." He said that he has already spoken to his staff about hearings on the leak and on the administration's response.
As to why the administration has not more vigorously moved toward prosecution, King said he didn't want to get into "psychobabble." But he then mused that there are people in the administration who consider Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who disclosed the Pentagon papers, "a hero." King continued: "From a liberal perspective, this is a First Amendment issue. If prosecution goes forward, he asserted, "The logical result would be going after the New York Times." (Later in the day Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) made a similar suggestion.)
I asked King about the deal to extend the Bush tax cuts. "It is a very good deal," he said, perhaps not wanting to be seen gloating. The deal, he said, includes "much of what the Republicans are looking for. I didn't know what the president was going to do. But I am glad the president compromised. We'll leave it at that."
King also told me that congressional Republicans are serious about deficit control. But he contends that "defense spending shouldn't be subject to across-the-board cuts. We shouldn't spend a penny more or a penny less than we need on defense. But we ask people to put their lives on the line. Fighting a war has to be our main focus." He therefore rejects that cutting defense is equivalent to cutting domestic programs, although he says we should go after all the fraud and waste we can find in the Pentagon.
As for the war on terrorism, King said there has been a sea change in the administration's approach: "They came in here not using -- or hardly using -- the term 'terrorism'" and believing that "somehow this was all contrived by Bush and Cheney." He said that this mindset "influenced their thinking for too long." But there was a change in attitude after the Christmas Day bombing and Times Square bombing attempts. He said that he now enjoys a good relationship with both Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and terrorism advisor John Brennan (whose resignation he once called for). He said the contrast is dramatic between the present attitude and what "seemed like a mad dash to hide from the reality of Islamic terrorism" when the president first entered office.
The day before I spoke to King, a bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to the president urging that he hold firm on sanctions on the Iran. Is King worried that the administration is going wobbly? "More and more, in reading the body language, I think they are considering... that Iran is going to get the bomb," he said. He cautioned that the administration may be saying something different in private discussions, but he thinks it is quite possible, in an effort to keep the administration on course, that the House will generate a letter similar to the Senate's version.
As the conversation turned to Israel, King became animated. He reiterated that "Israel is vital" to the U.S. as an ally. But he was critical of Obama's handling of the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. (Later in the day, the administration let on that the talks were kaput.) King said: "The president created unnecessary problems for himself -- the way he went after [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu.... I don't know any ally who was treated as badly as Netanyahu. He was treated like Gaddafi or something."