Byline: Daniel Klaidman
Bob Woodward exposed reams of classified intelligence in his most recent book. But it was Barack Obama's assertion of the obvious that ignited outrage among his national-security critics. The president told Woodward that "we can absorb" another terrorist attack--implying that we won't be able to prevent every attempted act of terror. The conservative blogosphere lit up. Liz Cheney accused Obama of an "alarming fatalism" and of abdicating his paramount responsibility: to do everything in his power to protect the American people. Obama's approach to terrorism is not immune from criticism. But he deserves credit for treating voters as grownups. After the recent series of near misses--the underwear bomber last Christmas, the Times Square attempted bombing, the "package plot"--who would bet against a terrorist getting lucky and slipping through our defenses in 2011?
The question, then, is how we would respond as a country. And that has Obama administration officials worried. There is growing consensus among counterterror experts that Al Qaeda's leadership, based along the AfPak border, has had its ability to pull off "spectaculars" significantly degraded. But ever evolving, it has turned to franchises, like Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), to launch smaller-scale attacks against Europe and the U.S. Al Qaeda understands that in a democracy, it doesn't take much to provoke a frenzy. In the midst of the pat-down pandemonium, AQAP bragged in its slick, English-language magazine that the package plot--"Operation Hemorrhage"--cost only $4,200: "We do not need to strike big--in such a security phobia that is sweeping America."
Administration officials understand this at a theoretical level. But do they have the political will to resist playing into the terrorists' hands? In early December, Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, spoke to this in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), calling on the country to respond with "quiet, confident resilience" in the wake of a future terrorist attack. John Brennan, Obama's homeland-security adviser, has sounded this theme as well. Last May at CSIS, Brennan …