The Terrorism Card

Playing the terrorism card is risky: You could look desperate, and your opponent could accuse you of fear-mongering. But if your opponent brings up the subject, then you may have an opportunity.

Which is why the McCain campaign is probably sending Joe Biden a thank-you card (it doesn’t do text messages) right about now. Over the weekend, Biden suggested that Obama would face an international crisis soon after taking office: “Mark my words,” Biden said at a Seattle fundraiser. “It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy. The world is looking. … Watch, we’re gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy.”

McCain pounced on the statement, claiming that even Joe Biden agrees that Obama presidency would be dangerous. The key words, according to the McCain camp, are “generated crisis,” as if Obama’s mere presence in the Oval Office would provoke the crisis. “We don’t want a president who invites testing from the world at a time when our economy is in crisis and Americans are already fighting in two wars,” McCain said.

Today marked Phase Two of Operation Terrorism Card. The McCain campaign held a conference call in response to a Washington Post piece about commenters on al-Qaida-related message boards celebrating the U.S. financial meltdown. The gist of the piece: These al-Qaida commenters generally think the crisis is caused by the U.S. spending its resources on foreign wars, and they suggest that McCain would be more likely to continue this trend.

McCain surrogates took the opportunity to refute the article and to spin it around on Obama. McCain spokesman and blogger Michael Goldfarb said that the article, in a “rather irresponsible and rather outrageous fashion, claims that al Qaeda supports John McCain for president.” McCain Foreign Policy Adviser Randy Scheunemann then read a series of quotes—”If we’re going to talk about who has support from terrorist groups”—from Hamas leader Ahmed Yousef, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Muammar Gaddafi saying positive things about Obama. (Gaddafi has also attacked Obama .) Scheunemann said he was reading the quotes “without commentary.” Finally, former CIA director Jim Woolsey argued that one commenter’s motives are suspect: “This individual knows that the endorsement would be kiss of death, figuratively and literally. So it seems to me pretty clear that by making this statement, he is clearly trying to damage John McCain.”

As for Goldfarb’s complaint, the piece stops short of saying that al-Qaida endorses McCain or that the commenters are anything more than al-Qaida sympathizers. Adam Raisman of Site Intelligence Group, who was also quoted in the Post piece, emphasized to me that the commenter in question was “not affiliated with al-Qaeda. He doesn’t represent the group, he’s not spokesman.” Rather, he’s an al-Qaida sympathizer whose comment represents the prevailing views of other users—that McCain would keep America on its current trajectory. Raisman also dismissed Woolsey’s suggestion that the commenter was using reverse psychology to hurt McCain. “I don’t think the author wrote the message with any intention other than having like-minded individuals read it,” he told me. “I don’t think he thought he was … harming the campaign in any way.”

For weeks, the McCain camp has insinuated that Obama isn’t ready to handle crises. (Obama has said the same about McCain.) But until now it hasn’t made the explicit case that Obama would provoke and/or be unable to handle a terrorist attack. And just in time, too: With less than two weeks to go before Election Day, the McCain camp is running out of ammo. The “celebrity” angle flubbed, Ayers went nowhere , and the campaign is now mulling whether to invoke Jeremiah Wright, despite McCain’s assurances that he would not. The best part? Campaign apparatchiks can now claim it was Biden and the Washington Post who brought up terrorism—not them.