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03.09.11

Peter King's Unlikely Ally

As the New York congressman prepares his controversial hearings on American Muslims, he’s got support from the White House, he tells Lloyd Grove—praising Obama’s war on terror and bashing birthers.

You’d think that President Obama’s White House would be keeping its distance from House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King—or at least trying to dissuade King from complicating U.S. relations with the Muslim world during this high-stakes period of extreme volatility.

After all, the pugnacious New York Republican—who has scheduled a controversial public hearing Thursday on the question of whether Muslim Americans are cooperating with law enforcement officials or deliberately hiding homegrown terrorists in their midst—has been reviled in some quarters as a modern-day Joe McCarthy who demonizes U.S. citizens who happen to practice Islam.

So it’s hardly a shock that Obama national security aide Denis McDonough—a man not known for stifling his displeasure with perceived troublemakers—phoned King this past weekend as Muslim-American outrage over the planned hearing provoked a protest on Times Square.

It is surprising, however, what the powerful White House official apparently told the 10-term GOP congressman.

“Denis McDonough called me on Friday night,” King recounts, adding that the deputy national security adviser, who is personally close to the president, wanted to alert him to a major policy speech that McDonough was planning to give at a mosque in Northern Virginia. “He told me he’d send me a copy before it was delivered, and then I was saying I felt there was a lot of common ground between me and the administration. And I started saying something about the hearings, and he said, ‘No, you should go ahead with the hearings. We favor congressional involvement.’”

In his Sunday speech to the largely Muslim audience, McDonough repeated all the usual verities in praise of patriotic Muslim Americans and the core values of tolerance and religious pluralism. But he also warned that al Qaeda was bent on radicalizing American Muslims against their own country and was finding “a minuscule but receptive audience.”

“The threat is real, and it is serious,” McDonough declared.

“I agree with everything Denis McDonough said in his speech on Sunday,” King tells me. “If I’d said it,” he adds with a chuckle, “I would have been attacked.” A White House spokesman doesn’t dispute King’s version of the phone call, and adds: “As for Rep. King’s hearings specifically, we welcome congressional interest.” “I haven’t had one bit of push-back from anybody in the administration—not even a hint or a wink or anything like that,” King says. “They realize that I’m onto something. I don’t know if they necessarily want to be identified precisely with the hearings. All I know is that Denis McDonough made the administration’s first major speech on radicalization three and a half days before my hearings” and offered no criticism of King’s extravaganza.

King—unlike many of his fellow Republicans—has positive things to say about the Obama administration’s efforts to confront the threat of terrorism on U.S. soil.

“I think they’ve come a long way,” he tells me. “Two years ago, [Homeland Security Secretary] Janet Napolitano wouldn’t use the word ‘terrorist,’ the president’s first executive order was to close Guantanamo, and [Attorney General] Eric Holder was investigating the CIA.” These days, King points out, the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is still open for business, Holder has said he loses sleep over the threat of homegrown terrorism, and Napolitano has said she considers the domestic threat posed by radicalized U.S. citizens at least as scary a national security concern as international terrorism.

“I agree with everything Denis McDonough said in his speech on Sunday,” King tells me. “If I’d said it,” he adds with a chuckle, “I would have been attacked.”

“I’m not trying to co-opt their position,” King says, “but if I had said what McDonough said, if I had said what Holder said, if I had said what Napolitano said, [the Council on American-Islamic Relations] would have been out marching around and the Washington Post would have been editorializing against me.” “Personally, I have a very high regard for President Obama,” says King, who is repelled by attempts by some members of his party to insinuate that the president was not born in the United States or might even be a closet Muslim himself. “Oh my God, all that stuff’s ridiculous,” King says. “I think it is wrong. It serves no political purpose and it just marginalizes us with the American people. We have enough honest philosophical differences with Barack Obama without getting off on that stuff.”

He adds that Obama will be a formidable candidate for reelection. “I don’t underestimate him at all,” King said. “We can’t campaign against him on the birth certificate, that’s for sure.” King, 66, has long been a political contrarian. He was a rare House Republican who voted against impeaching President Clinton, a stance that earned him the admiration and friendship of Bill and Hillary both. And he was a staunch defender of the Irish Republican Army and its sometimes lethal tactics even as he supported the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Predictably, King dismisses attempts by his detractors to tag him with hypocrisy for having embraced a terrorist organization—saying the IRA was at war with an equally violent adversary, the British Army, and ultimately played a crucial role in brokering peace. Similarly, King rejects the comparison advanced on MSNBC’s Hardball the other night by Democratic Rep. Mike Honda of California—who grew up in an internment camp during World War II—between the government’s official suspicion of Japanese-American citizens in the 1940s and what the Homeland Security Committee is doing to Muslim-Americans. “I don’t really know Mike Honda well,” he says. “I don’t know what this has to do with that.” King claims his hearings have the blessing of law enforcement types—who have complained to him, in private and off the record, about Muslim American community leaders who refused to help them root out potential terrorists. Yet nobody from the FBI or another well-placed agency is appearing Thursday to support his version of reality. The only witness sporting a badge will be Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who strongly disagrees with King’s suggestion that American Muslims have been uncooperative.

Video screenshot


Congressman Peter King on Good Morning America

“I wouldn’t put active police on the spot, but I can tell you what they tell me privately,” King says.

The son of a New York City cop—who was one of NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly’s instructors at the academy many years ago—King notes that Kelly has loaned him one of his top counterintelligence officers to serve on the committee staff. “I’ve known Ray Kelly a long time, and I certainly wouldn’t go ahead with these hearings if I thought Ray Kelly disagreed with me,” he says.

King insists he isn’t cowed by all the opprobrium being heaped on him lately by civil liberties groups, demonstrators, and newspaper editorial writers. “I consider the source,” he says. “Any time I start to get doubtful and I see the New York Times do a major editorial against me, it just boosts my spirits,” he says with a laugh. A sometime novelist—he has published three, including one inspired by 9/11 and its aftermath—King has given up his literary efforts for now. “I’m too busy doing this stuff,” he says. “Truth is stranger than fiction right now, with the life I’m leading.”

King was radicalized himself, so to speak, after the attack on the World Trade Center—shocked and angered, he says, when some of his Muslim-American friends argued that Islamic terrorists weren't to blame.

“I felt it was a breach of trust,” King says. “I was on television and radio in the days and weeks after 9/11, saying what good Americans the Muslims are, et cetera, et cetera, and then I started seeing people I knew—people who had members of their families intern in my office and everything else—saying the Jews could have done it, the CIA could have done it, and it was very disappointing—but that’s life.”

King says he has no regrets about his ending his once-warm friendship with one prominent Muslim-American activist in his congressional district, never mind that he attended his son’s wedding.

“If I saw him on the street, I wouldn’t go to turn my back on him,” King says, but says that the relationship is irretrievably lost. “I don’t lose any sleep over it. Pat Moynihan used to quote some Irish philosopher, probably himself, saying that being Irish means that somewhere, somehow, the world is going to break your heart. We expect this stuff. You’re not supposed to be happy in this world. And, unfortunately, that’s true.”

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.