The Magazine

Preening & Posturing

Throwing those who guard us while we sleep to the wolves.

May 4, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 31 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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"We have been through a dark and painful chapter in our history," President Obama said when he ordered the release of the Justice Department interrogation memos. Actually, no. Not at all. We were attacked on 9/11. We responded to that attack with remarkable restraint in the use of force, respect for civil liberties, and even solicitude for those who might inadvertently be offended, let alone harmed, by our policies. We've fought a war on jihadist terror in a civilized, even legalized, way. Those who have been on the front and rear lines of that war--in the military and the intelligence agencies, at the Justice Department and, yes, in the White House--have much to be proud of. The rest of us, who've been asked to do little, should be grateful.

The dark and painful chapter we have to fear is rather the one President Obama may be ushering in. This would be a chapter in which politicians preen moralistically as they throw patriotic officials, who helped keep this country safe, to the wolves, and in which national leaders posture politically while endangering the nation's security.

The preening is ridiculous, even by the standards of contemporary American politics and American liberalism. Obama fatuously asserts there are no real choices in the real world, just "false choices" that he can magically resolve. He foolishly suggests that even in war we would never have to do anything disagreeable for the sake of our security. He talks baby talk to intelligence officers: "Don't be discouraged that we have to acknowledge potentially we've made some mistakes. That's how we learn."

At the same time, Obama throws the door open to years of lawsuits and investigations that will do injustice to those who've served the country and will demoralize those still seeking to do so. As the Washington Post's David Ignatius, no defender of the Bush administration, put it, "Obama seems to think he can have it both ways--authorizing an unprecedented disclosure of CIA operational methods and at the same time galvanizing a clandestine service whose best days, he told them Monday, are 'yet to come.' Life doesn't work that way--even for charismatic politicians. Disclosure of the torture memos may have been necessary, as part of an overdue campaign to change America's image in the world. But nobody should pretend that the disclosures weren't costly to CIA morale and effectiveness."

Meanwhile, Obama's director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, acknowledges to his colleagues in the intelligence community that the coercive interrogation methods outlawed by his boss did, in fact, produce "high value information" and "provided a deeper understanding of the al Qaeda organization that was attacking this country." But, as part of the attempted infantilization of our public discourse, the DNI's conclusions about the results of coercive interrogations--in effect, that they worked--are removed from the public version of his statement.

And, Blair piously insists, "I like to think I would not have approved those methods in the past." Why not? Because while "the information gained from these techniques was valuable in some instances  .  .  .  there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means. The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us, and they are not essential to our national security."

Really? The damage "far outweighed" the benefits? Is this based on any analysis or argument? None that we've been offered.

So we appear to have a director of national intelligence whose moral vanity and political pliability lead him to make unsupported, indeed preposterous, assertions with a straight face. As Michael Hayden, the nonpartisan former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said last weekend, "the use of these techniques against these terrorists made us safer. It really did work." Now the Obama administration has forgone those techniques (and denounced their prior use) because it would like to think we don't need them.

Blair likes to think he wouldn't have authorized the enhanced interrogation techniques. We like to think it was an awfully good thing we didn't have Blair or his boss, President Obama, in charge of our national security over the last several years. We very much hope the nation pays no price for the vanity and sophistry the Obama administration is bringing to Washington. Even so, it is a dark and painful chapter in our history to have as our leaders men who, however inadvertently, make mock of the efforts of the tough and brave Americans who guard us while we sleep.

--William Kristol