By Marc A. Thiessen
Thursday, January 22, 2009
When President Bush left office on Tuesday, America marked 2,688 days without a terrorist attack on its soil. There are 1,459 days until the next inauguration. Whether Barack Obama is standing on the Capitol steps to be sworn in a second time depends on whether he succeeds in replicating Bush's achievement.
As the new president receives his intelligence briefings, certain facts must now be apparent: Al-Qaeda is actively working to attack our country again. And the policies and institutions that George W. Bush put in place to stop this are succeeding. During the campaign, Obama pledged to dismantle many of these policies. He follows through on those pledges at America's peril -- and his own. If Obama weakens any of the defenses Bush put in place and terrorists strike our country again, Americans will hold Obama responsible -- and the Democratic Party could find itself unelectable for a generation.
Consider, for example, the CIA program that Bush created to detain and question senior leaders captured in the war on terror. Many of these terrorists, including Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, refused to talk -- until Bush authorized the CIA to use enhanced interrogation techniques. Information gained using those techniques is responsible for stopping a number of planned attacks -- including plots to blow up the American consulate in Karachi, Pakistan; to fly airplanes into the towers of Canary Wharf in London; and to fly a hijacked airplane into the Library Tower in Los Angeles.
During the campaign, Obama described the techniques used to prevent these attacks as "torture." He promised that if elected, he would "have the Army Field Manual govern interrogation techniques for all United States Government personnel and contractors." If he follows through, he will effectively kill a program that stopped al-Qaeda from launching another Sept. 11-style attack. It was easy for Obama the candidate to criticize the CIA program. But as president, what will he do when the next senior al-Qaeda leader -- with actionable intelligence on plots to strike our homeland -- is captured and refuses to talk? Will the president allow the CIA to question this terrorist using enhanced interrogation techniques? If Obama refuses and our country is attacked, he will bear responsibility.
Consider also the National Security Agency's program to monitor foreign terrorist communications. In the Senate, Obama voted against confirming then-NSA Director Michael Hayden to lead the CIA because, in Obama's words, Hayden was "the architect and chief defender of a program of wiretapping and collection of phone records outside of FISA oversight." In 2007, Obama voted against the Protect America Act, which temporarily authorized the NSA program. Last year, he promised to filibuster a long-term authorization but at the last minute switched his vote. He explained that he still wanted to make changes to the law, including stripping out immunity for telecommunications companies for their cooperation with the NSA -- which would effectively kill the program. And he promised that "once I'm sworn in as President . . . my Attorney General [will] conduct a comprehensive review of all our surveillance programs, and . . . make further recommendations on any steps needed to preserve civil liberties."
Now that he has been sworn in, will Obama allow the program to continue through 2012 as Congress authorized -- breaking his pledge to his liberal base? Or will he move forward with his promised review and impose new constraints on the NSA's ability to learn what terrorists are planning? If he does, what if we fail to connect the dots before the next attack?
Obama faces a similar quandary regarding Iraq. Bush left him with a stabilized Iraq, where al-Qaeda is in retreat and American forces are coming home by the end of 2011 under a policy of "return on success." Candidate Obama promised to dramatically accelerate this withdrawal and to remove American troops within 16 months. Just last week, senior Obama adviser David Axelrod declared on ABC's "This Week" that Obama intends to keep that promise. The problem is that Gen. David Petraeus and the Joint Chiefs are not likely to recommend such a rapid and irresponsible withdrawal. That leaves Obama with two choices: He can scale back his plans and continue the slower drawdown already set in motion by President Bush. Or he can overrule his military commanders -- and pursue a rapid drawdown over their objections. If he does this, he will own the potentially devastating results. In 2007, President Bush revealed intelligence that Osama bin Laden had told al-Qaeda leaders in Iraq to form a cell to conduct attacks inside the United States -- then the surge drove them from their havens and set back those plans. If Obama allows al-Qaeda to regain its Iraqi havens, and the terrorists use them to strike our country, he will not be able to blame Bush.
President Obama has inherited a set of tools that successfully protected the country for 2,688 days -- and he cannot dismantle those tools without risking catastrophic consequences. On Tuesday, George W. Bush told a cheering crowd in Midland, Tex., that his administration had left office without another terrorist attack. When Barack Obama returns to Chicago at the end of his time in office, will he be able to say the same?
The writer, who served in senior positions at the White House and the Pentagon from 2001 to 2009, was most recently chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush.