Jewish World Review
April 28, 2009
/ 4 Iyar 5769
Contortion a day: Our ever flexible president
How many Barack Obamas are there, anyway?
One day Monday before last, to be specific President Obama No. 1 is telling the CIA what a terrific job it's doing. He certainly needs to, since morale in those precincts has grown shaky of late, mainly because the president has been doing the shaking.
By now his administration has revealed in detail just how the CIA interrogated high-level al-Qaida types at Guantanamo with, shall we say, less than exquisite tact. The only thing that may have been blacked out was any mention of how effective such techniques proved in preventing more terrorist attacks on these shores.
The president's own director of national intelligence, Admiral Dennis C. Blair, wrote a memo to his staff just the other day noting that "high value information came from interrogations in which these methods were used," but somehow that observation was omitted when his memo was first made public. That omission surely would have been called politicizing intelligence if George W. Bush were still president. But now not even the war on terror is called the war on terror any more but "Man Caused Disasters" and "Overseas Contingency Operations." The newspeak in Washington keeps getting thicker.
It must all be rather demoralizing if you have the misfortune to be a CIA agent in this new tell-all era. And informing the enemy how far the CIA may now go and no further when questioning suspects doesn't make its job any easier, either. Or Americans any safer.
So the president hopped across the river to CIA headquarters at Langley to buck up our terrorist-hunters. And he did. He got cheers from the assembled CIA officers when he told them he was with them all the way. ("I know the last few days have been difficult. You need to know you've got my full support.") His pep talk would have done credit to Knute Rockne at halftime. "You don't get credit when things go good," the president observed, "but you sure get blame when things don't." Truer words were seldom spoken. He said he understands why CIA agents sometimes feel they have to protect the country with one hand tied behind their backs. Of course he does, having done more than his part to tie them.
The president assured all present that he was not going to prosecute those agents who'd waterboarded three top al-Qaida prisoners, and garnered life-saving information in the process. After all, they had every reason to believe they were acting legally and properly. The Justice Department had told them so.
The president, was clear: Those lawyers in the Justice Department who reached conclusions that it's now fashionable to denounce weren't going to be penalized for expressing their honest opinions. A fair and prudent decision on the president's part: Why criminalize legal advice?
If government lawyers are going to be prosecuted for their opinions, you can easily imagine the chilling effect that would have on any government lawyers asked for their counsel in the future. Why risk offering it if you're just going to be prosecuted for it later?
But the Monday of the president's pep talk to the CIA was followed by a Tuesday, as happens with some regularity, and President Obama No. 1 was immediately replaced by President Obama No. 2, who announced that his Justice Department might just prosecute officials in the previous administration after all, including those who had advised the CIA. And who'd concluded it would be legal to use harsh measures when interrogating prisoners who might have valuable information about the next pending terrorist attack on these shores. For prime example, one Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who had organized the 9/11 attacks and boasted of having personally beheaded American reporter Daniel Pearl.
When asked when and where the next series of attacks on this country would take place, a pre-waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, less formally known as KSM, would only say, ominously: "Soon, you will know."
But the post-waterboaded KSM was a different man. He could not have been more cooperative, revealing al-Qaida's plans for a "Second Wave" of assaults that would use "East Asian operatives to crash a hijacked airliner into a building in Los Angeles." A scheme that was duly thwarted, thank goodness. All this is according to one of those revealing Justice Department memos President Obama has just released. But none of that prevented him from accusing Americans of having lost "our moral bearings" during the war on terror.
Within a day, the reasonable President Obama No. 1 had vanished, along with his promise not to start a vendetta against his own intelligence agency. In his place was President Obama No. 2, who was now washing his hands of the whole touchy question of whether to prosecute officials of the previous administration. Passing the buck to his Justice Department, he now explained that such a decision was not his responsibility; he's only president. Knute Rockne had suddenly been replaced by Pontius Pilate.
Would the real Barack Obama stand up, if there is one? Is he the stalwart leader who appeared at Langley to give his "full support" to the country's hard-pressed and much-maligned intelligence agents? Or is he just a bystander who's going to leave the really tough questions to his attorney general, or maybe the more vendetta-minded members of his party in Congress?
The CIA agents he'd bucked up the day before must have been feeling let down 24 hours later and awfully alone. They've been left to wonder how long before indictments, or at least congressional inquisitors, appear at their door.
Harry Truman used to have a sign on his desk that said The Buck Stops Here. This president is passing it like the salt and pepper. Or at least Barack Obama No. 2 is while No. 1 has disappeared.
What does Barack Obama really think, or does he just reflect the opinion of whatever audience he's addressing at the time, whether at Langley or in the leftier reaches of his own party?
There are times, like now, when our still new but not quite as young, and no longer quite as thrilling, president seems just a slighty confused, wavering young man out of his depth. Here's hoping he can decide just which Barack Obama he is, and soon. Before it gets any later. Our challenges in this dangerous world do not grow less, nor our enemies any kinder.
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