President Obama's admirers (for a handy list simply consult the White House Correspondents Association website) go into raptures about his measured, intelligent, even balanced approach to issues. Granted, he is intelligent. But measured and balanced? Hardly.
Consider his first official act. Oozing moral superiority, President Obama signed an executive order on his second day in office requiring that Guantanamo be closed within 12 months. The United States need not, he intoned, "continue with a false choice between our safety and our ideals." The president, who had declared the Bush-era military commissions to be "an enormous failure," also suspended those tribunals for four months pending a review.
This is a by now familiar Obama trope. Instead of a complicated world presenting difficult, sometimes even wrenching choices, the world is actually simple for those with the wisdom and virtue to see it Obama's way. There is no difficult choice between using tough methods to extract information from hardened terrorists or not doing so and risking terrible death to thousands. No, in Obamaland all is facile. We will be better people by foreswearing waterboarding and other ugly interrogation techniques and we will be safer as well! We'll be safer because the world, including al-Qaida, which supposedly used Guantanamo as a "recruiting tool," will like us more and be less likely to attack us. In Obamaland we need not give our domestic opponents the benefit of the doubt that they were patriotically motivated non-sadists who truly believed -- after repeatedly trying softer methods -- that mild torture was necessary in a handful of cases.
Of course, the "recruiting tool" argument was unconvincing. Al-Qaida seemed to do most of its recruiting and most of its attacking during the 1990s, before Guantanamo existed as a detention facility. Moreover, people who take pleasure in beheading their captives because they are infidels (as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed personally boasted of doing to gentle Daniel Pearl) are not likely to be motivated primarily by outraged human rights sensibilities. But never mind. The moral high was apparently irresistible and very few in the press were of a mind to question it.
Now for the fine print. You won't find it on the front pages but the Obama administration has been walking back its position on many national security questions. Attorney General Eric Holder has asserted that the U.S. has the right to hold suspected terrorists without charges. Solicitor General Elena Kagan has reiterated that position. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently told Congress that military commissions were " very much still on the table," and rumor has it that the Obama administration will soon formally reverse itself on Guantanamo. The New York Times reported that "Officials who work on the Guantanamo issue say administration lawyers have become concerned that they would face significant obstacles to trying some terrorism suspects in federal courts. Judges might make it difficult to prosecute detainees who were subjected to brutal treatment or for prosecutors to use hearsay evidence gathered by intelligence agencies." No kidding? Not only that, but not a single detainee was read his Miranda rights when he was taken into custody. Additionally, Congress is balking on letting Guantanamo's inmates anywhere near their hometowns. Sen. Dianne Feinstein even put Alcatraz off limits. "It's a national park and tourist attraction," she explained.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum, now with the Ethics and Public Policy Center, has been keeping an eye on other national security flips by the new president. Remember how Obama had lambasted the Bush administration for relying on the "state secrets" privilege? The Obama Justice Department has already invoked the doctrine twice -- most recently to defend the National Security Agency's surveillance of communications. The Justice Department explained that "attempting to address the allegations in this case could require the disclosure of intelligence sources and methods that are used in a lawful manner to protect national security. The administration cannot risk the disclosure of information that could cause such exceptional harm ..." Query to the ACLU: Does that mean the Obama administration is "shredding the Constitution?"
Similarly, a Pentagon official told Britain's Daily Telegraph that shutting down the military commissions in favor of federal trials looked easy on Jan. 20 "but having reviewed the files, it makes sense to keep some cases in the military commissions."
Is there some satisfaction in finding that the Obama administration is not utterly unmoved by national security concerns? Some. But this president has preened himself so much on his moral superiority. The words humility and Obama have probably never been found in the same sentence. But that is the very least he should demonstrate now.