It wasn't really a surprise that President Obama sided with leftist lawyers in his Justice Department and released, over the objections of the intelligence community, four Office of Legal Counsel memos that concluded certain interrogation techniques used in the last several years by CIA officers on certain al Qaeda terrorists were legal. Nor was it a surprise that the presidential statement put out by the White House was a medley of preening self-righteousness and defensive disingenuousness.
What was more interesting was the accompanying statement by the Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, trying to justify Obama's decision--or at least put it "into perspective." The perspective, the context, is that in the months after 9/11, "we did not have a clear understanding of the enemy we were dealing with, and our every effort was focused on preventing further attacks that would kill more Americans. It was during these months that the CIA was struggling to obtain critical information from captured al Qaida leaders, and requested permission to use harsher interrogation methods. The OLC memos make clear that senior legal officials judged the harsher methods to be legal."
Blair continues: "Those methods, read on a bright, sunny, safe day in April 2009, appear graphic and disturbing. As the President has made clear, and as both CIA Director Panetta and I have stated, we will not use those techniques in the future. But we will absolutely defend those who relied on these memos and those guidelines."
So: We were once in danger. Now we live in "a bright, sunny, safe day in April 2009." Now, in April 2009, Obama's Director of National Intelligence seems to be saying, we're safe.
Good news, if true. And it would be an amazing tribute to the preceding administration's efforts in the war on terror--efforts that Democrats have been saying for years were making us less safe. Apparently, the old policies worked. The threat from al Qaeda has gone. We now have the luxury of "reflection," as President Obama put it in his statement, the luxury of debating and deploring what we did back in the bad old days when there was a war on. After all, "we have been through a dark and painful chapter in our history."
Leave aside how dark and painful the chapter really was. The question is, Is it over? Is the chapter in which we had to focus on preventing further attacks really through? Isn't there still a war against the jihadists on?
Of course Blair and other senior Obama officials have elsewhere suggested that the terror threat remains real, and even urgent. Why else the maintenance of the Bush era surveillance program? Why else the decision to send more troops to Afghanistan, and to deploy more Predator strikes into Pakistan?
But can we then afford Obama's "dark and painful chapter" attitude, exemplified by his forgoing certain interrogation techniques in the present and future, and his exposing and deploring what was done in the past? Can we afford an intelligence director who tries to excuse his boss by telling us we are now safe?
Are we at war or not?
William Kristol is editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.