Politically Incorrect With Peter KingBy Reid Pillifant
New York Observer
November 30, 2010
On Nov. 1, the eve of the midterm elections, Peter King was at his home on Long Island when his cell phone lit up with an unknown number.
"Congressman King, this is John Brennan," said the White House's deputy national security adviser, who Mr. King had been pummeling in the press for the better part of two years—repeatedly calling for Mr. Brennan to be fired, and, in February, denouncing him as an incompetent "egomaniac."
The two hadn't spoken in 14 months. But with Republicans on the verge of retaking the House, and Mr. King set to reclaim the gavel of the Homeland Security Committee, it was an opportune time to bury the hatchet.
"Whatever personal issues we had, we resolved," said Mr. King. "We agreed there's some policy differences, but we will definitely work together and not let any personal things get in the way."
Earlier this year, Mr. King had passed on rumored runs for the governor's mansion and the Senate, gambling that he might regain the Homeland Security post and prod the administration toward his own more hawkish positions.
On Nov. 2, the gamble paid off, and the next day Mr. King was awakened from a post-election nap by President Obama himself, calling to offer his congratulations.
But, notwithstanding the post-election niceties and the requisite paeans to bipartisanship, Mr. King has a backlog of security-related gripes with the administration and with the Democrats who have led the Homeland Security Committee since he handed over the gavel in 2006.
To Mr. King, the committee has strayed too far into natural disasters and diversity and immigration issues, and hasn't focused squarely enough on New York and national security. He has a more targeted, aggressive and controversial vision for the next two years, one that looks to both capitalize quickly on issues in the news and also raise the kinds of broader questions about religion and security that strike some as truth-telling and others as bigotry.
"I look at [the committee] as a legislative counterterrorism strike force," Mr. King told The Observer in a recent interview. "Go in, identify the problem and try to get it to the House floor as quickly as we can."
Mr. King was reclining in a high-backed leather chair in his Washington office, a few hours after the Republicans' first caucus meeting. New members were buzzing around the Capitol grounds, returning Republicans were just beginning to assert their nascent power in the lame-duck session, and incoming committee chairs like Mr.
King were already contemplating the next Congress, and how best to litigate their many grievances with Mr. Obama.
Mr. King recited a litany of issues he thinks have been mishandled or ignored, and which he plans to promptly address: port security, air cargo, terror trials, Guantánamo detainees and ensuring New York, as a top target, gets a commensurate share of federal money.
In the two years since Mr. Obama took office, Mr. King has very publicly challenged the administration on, among other things, the closing of Guantánamo ("It would be craven surrender to left-wing groups and uninformed, self-righteous world opinion"); waterboarding (President Bush "should get a medal"); the Christmas Day bombing ("the system did not work"); and the so-called ground zero mosque ("President Obama is wrong").
On Monday, Mr. King once again did his part to push the national conversation to the right when he made the rounds on cable talk shows to press the idea that the State Department should declare WikiLeaks a foreign terrorist organization.
As chairman, Mr. King will have broad latitude to help steer the national dialogue, and he told The Observer his plans include raising some "politically incorrect issues."
"I think there has to be an honest discussion of the role of the Muslim community—what they are doing, what they're not doing," Mr. King said. "I talk to law enforcement people across the country; they will tell me, without any equivocation at all, that Muslim leaders are not cooperating with law enforcement. They don't feel any sense of cooperation."
Mr. King said most Muslims are "not only good Americans, they're good neighbors," but that "there's something in the leadership that's not cooperating." He called it "the elephant in the room that no one talks about."
To his critics, Mr. King's skepticism of the Muslim community is worrisome.
"Whenever you have somebody who has such a bigoted view of a religious minority, it's a concern when he gets in a situation of power," said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
Mr. Hooper cited the case of five Washington-area men whose disappearance CAIR helped report to the F.B.I. last year, and said the "problem" with Muslim leadership, as described by Mr. King, "is an elephant that only he sees."
Mr. King said he fully expects CAIR and others to object to his inquiries into the Muslim community, and he has a strategy for dealing with the criticism.
"There's no margin for error," he said. "I can't be coming out and saying something I can't back up. I can't let the story get ahead of the facts. It has to be well prepared, well documented."
Mr. King—whose office wall has an old black-and-white photo of him as a young man, swinging away in a boxing ring—has never been one to let his critics subdue him. As a young congressman, he expressed sympathy for the Irish Republican Army, and, more recently, he criticized the coverage of Michael Jackson's death by recording a video in which he called the late singer a "lowlife" and a "pervert."
To his supporters, especially those in New York, Mr. King is exactly the kind of forceful, fearless advocate who can help keep the country on guard.
"I think Peter is going to be fantastic," said Chris Lee, the western New York congressman who has been Mr. King's lone companion in the Republican delegation for the past two years. "He's definitely outspoken, but I think that's what you need. Especially when you're talking about national security."
Mr. King said he received calls from Republicans across the country praising his opposition to the ground zero mosque—without, in his view, sliding into "Muslim-bashing"—and said he doesn't expect the incoming speaker, John Boehner, to meddle much in his committee affairs.
"He assured us today that committees will have more power, if you will, more influence, than they've had anytime in the last 20 years," said Mr. King, who received the same assurance from the incoming majority leader, Eric Cantor, in a private meeting later that morning.
But Mr. King will need more than the passive support of the House leadership if he wants to keep the gavel beyond 2012, when he'll need a waiver from party leaders to keep from being term-limited out of the chairmanship. (The House Steering Committee is currently considering a request that time spent in the minority shouldn't count toward the limits.)
Of course, 2012 happens to be when Senator Kirsten Gillibrand stands for reelection to a full term.
"I think about it, sure," Mr. King conceded. "When we have the State of the Union speech and all the senators come marching in—" he raised an eyebrow and cocked a half-smile.
"It's all possible," he said of a potential Senate or gubernatorial bid, before shaking his head and insisting he is fully committed to the business at hand.
"Look, I'm focusing on this," Mr. King said. "I don't want it ever to happen—I certainly don't want it to happen in the next two years—that there was an attack carried out and there was something I didn't do."