"We Can Absorb a Terrorist Attack"

By Benjamin Wittes
Thursday, September 23, 2010, 1:06 AM

If President Obama does not already regret saying these words to Bob Woodward for a book slated for release just before the mid-term elections, he surely will. The Washington Post reports that:

Woodward's book portrays Obama and the White House as barraged by warnings about the threat of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil and confronted with the difficulty in preventing them. During an interview with Woodward in July, the president said, "We can absorb a terrorist attack. We'll do everything we can to prevent it, but even a 9/11, even the biggest attack ever . . . we absorbed it and we are stronger."

Already, Republican political operatives are seizing on the comment. Liz Cheney's group, Keep America Safe, which was partly responsible for the sliming earlier this year of Justice Department lawyers who had previously represented Guantanamo detainees, has the quotation plastered across its home page and has the following statement from Cheney:

Americans expect our President to do everything possible to defend the nation from attack. We expect him to use every tool at his disposal to find, defeat, capture and kill terrorists. We expect him to deter attacks by making clear to our adversaries that an attack on the United States will carry devastating consequences. Instead, President Obama is reported to have said, "We can absorb a terrorist attack." This comment suggests an alarming fatalism on the part of President Obama and his administration. Once again the President seems either unwilling or unable to do what it takes to keep this nation safe. The President owes the American people an explanation.

I have the feeling that this meme will quickly become a significant election-season talking point.

Woodward's book is, as yet, not available, so I have not yet seen the comment in context. And it seems to me that how reasonable the meme will be will depend entirely on the context in which it appears in the book. The president's comments, after all, are true. We did absorb 9/11. And barring the most catastrophic sort of coordinated cyber- or WMD- attack, we will absorb the next attack too. If all Obama was saying was that our prevention efforts will not remain both lucky and effective forever, he was merely speaking a sober truth and he should be commended, not ridiculed, for doing so. On the other hand, if the sentence preceding it reads, "Obama just isn't worried about terrorism and dismisses concerns about it as overwrought," well, that would be another matter.

I suppose it's too much to expect that a group like Keep America Safe, which only recently posed the question of whose values Justice Department lawyers may secretly share, would evaluate what President Obama actually said. The rest of us, however, should wait a few days before drawing any judgments. Perhaps the Post, having put out this quotation, will give a little insight in the meantime.