The Cable

Democratic pollsters warn: Obama losing ground on national security

Despite his decisions to surge troops to Afghanistan, delay the closure of the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay, and perhaps reverse himself by endorsing military commissions for terror suspects, President Obama is still losing ground in polls related to national security.

Such is the finding of a new major survey released Monday by leading Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, top party operative James Carville, and the folks at the progressive national security think tank Third Way, which they are framing as "a wake-up call for President Obama, his party, and progressives on national security."

"Although the public continues to give the president strong ratings on a range of national security issues -- indeed, above his overall approval rating -- there is evidence of rising public concern about the president's handing of these issues," the group said Monday, arguing that Republicans are winning ground by portraying the administration's handling of terror suspects as lenient or risky.

Obama's ratings on key national security issues were still high, according to the poll; his handling of Afghanistan (58 percent), national security (57 percent), "leading America's military" (57 percent), "improving America's standing in the world" (55 percent), fighting terrorism (54 percent), and Iraq (54 percent), were all higher than his 47 percent overall approval rating.

But those numbers were down from levels in the 60s that were recorded by the same group last May. Fewer respondents now say they view Obama's handling of national-security issues as better than that of his predecessor George W. Bush -- Obama's margin here has shrunk from 22 to just 5 percent.

The pollsters warn that Obama's declining numbers could re-open the Democratic Party's traditional vulnerability on national security, a problem dating back to the Vietnam era.

"When the questions move beyond the president to Democrats generally, we see that the public once again has real and rising doubts about the Democrats' handling of national security issues, as compared to their faith in Republicans," the survey explained.

 Regardless, the report argues that "the public resists accusations by former Vice President Dick Cheney and other Republicans that President Obama and his policies have made the country less secure." Although the report offers little to support that assertion, recent developments indicate that some leading Republicans are uncomfortable with the harshest criticisms launched by some on the right.

Several former Justice Department officials have criticized the group Keep America Safe, which is led by Liz Cheney and William Kristol, for its attacks on the department for hiring lawyers who have defended terror suspects in the past, including one particularly controversial ad calling some of them the "al Qaeda 7."

"The American tradition of zealous representation of unpopular clients is at least as old as John Adams's representation of the British soldiers charged in the Boston massacre," reads a letter organized by the Brookings Institution's Benjamin Wittes and signed by David Rivkin, Lee Casey, and Philip Zelikow, among other prominent Republican lawyers.

"To suggest that the Justice Department should not employ talented lawyers who have advocated on behalf of detainees maligns the patriotism of people who have taken honorable positions on contested questions and demands a uniformity of background and view in government service from which no administration would benefit."

AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

House appropriators threaten to intervene on Blackwater contract

Top House appropriators are promising to resist the award of a huge Afghanistan training contract to the firm formerly known as Blackwater.

In an interview before leaving on his trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Rep. James Moran, D-VA, now the third ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee, said he will lead a charge to deny the company Xe, Blackwater's new moniker, from an estimated $1 billion funds if they are somehow awarded the contract.

"There is substantial sentiment among the Democratic subcommittee members to resist if the Defense Department were to award this contract to Blackwater," Moran told The Cable. He is traveling now with new subcommittee chairman Norm Dicks, D-WA, who took over for the recently deceased John Murtha.

If Secretary Robert Gates were to allow the contract to go Blackwater, "I think the issue would just escalate," Moran said, adding, "He'd have to be political brain dead to award them this."

Moran raised the issue with Gates last week, as did Senate Armed Service Committee chairman Carl Levin, D-MI, who spent 90 minutes with Gates only days before sending him this scathing letter about the company and its prospects.

In the letter, Levin wrote that Blackwater was already performing some of the duties under a contract vehicle issued by the Counter-Narcoterrorism Technology Office, part of the Army's Space and Missile Defense Command. The use of that contract for training Afghan's police is already a violation, according to a company protesting the contract, Levin wrote.

Regardless, when the State Department transitions the mission fully over to Pentagon responsibility with the new $1 billion award, Blackwater is said to be a competitive bidder, raising concerns due to their seemingly constant string of scandals involving the use of lethal force in Iraq and Afganistan.

"It would really be a travesty if any federal agency contracted with Blackwater again," explained Moran, "They'll be seen as representing America. They don't. They're not what the American people are about."

Moran said there are several defense firms that are in competition for the contract, including Lockheed and Northrop Grumman. "The Defense Department has some fine choices available. Blackwater is not one of them."

As part of his criticism of Blackwater, Levin also wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate whether Blackwater created a shell company called Paravant, at the request of Raytheon Corporation, in order to secure government contracts without having to use Blackwater's tarnished name.

From Levin's letter to Holder:

Fred Roitz, Blackwater's Vice President for Contracts and Compliance, testified at the Committee's hearing that Blackwater had changed its name to Paravant at the request of Raytheon, the Defense Department's prime contractor.  In his interview with Committee staff, then-Paravant Vice President Brian McCracken said that Paravant was created to be a "company that didn't have any Blackwater on it ... so they could go after some [government] business that Raytheon was getting ready to hand out."