The hell that Ken Wainstein endures is a torment of bipolar disorder. The life-affirming rush of mania: "We and our foreign partners have disrupted a number of high-profile terrorist plots," said Wainstein, President Bush’s chief aide for homeland security and counterterrorism, reflecting on seven years of counterterrorism under Bush at the Heritage Foundation this afternoon, "including a plot to destroy the library tower in Los Angeles." The soul-hollowing plunge of depression: "This is not like any of the nation’s previous wars," he added. "Al Qaeda’s power is much more diffuse, much less tangible, and therefore much more difficult to destroy." Why, it’s almost as if careening between chest-beating optimism and a sense of permanent emergency inhibits clear thinking.

Still, Wainstein thinks his boss administered just the right dosage. I asked him what mistakes he thought the administration made. (His half-hour-long lecture, for instance, never included the word "Iraq.") Guess what his answer was.

Look, one of the things that I think is clear in the process I tried to lay out here is that this has been a very deep and comprehensive time of change. We had to make a lot of decisions along the way. And when you make decisions, especially at a time of war, you’re dealing with the facts as you know them; you’re thinking about what’s good for now and what you think will be good for the future; but — until the future gets here, you don’t know exactly what the best for the future will be, but you make your best assessment of the situation and you build according to that. I think when you look at what we’ve done here — and when I say "we" I’m talking about the whole United States government — I think it’s an incredible achievement that we have not been struck in the homeland for seven years. After 9/11, I remember being at Justice, and everybody was confident that we were gonna have a second wave any day. And it didn’t come. Lotta reasons for it, but one of them is the preventative efforts that we adopt today.

Our risk process, though, has been one of constantly stepping back and looking what we’ve put into place and seeing how it can be refined and improved. And that’s critical. And one of the reasons I’m here today is, as I said at the end there, I want to explain the reasoning — or at least the reasoning as I understand it — behind all of these changes. So the next administration can come in and they can build on those changes. They can build on the foundation that we’ve left them. But also so they can adapt to new threats, new terrorist groups, new circumstances.

So the point is, this is a process that requires responsible thinking and rethinking of everything you do to make sure you’ve got it right. And I think you’ve seen that over the last seven years and I expect you’ll continue to see that.

So, no mistakes? Nothing stands out to you?

I’ve laid out the record and you can characterize the steps we’ve taken.

Don’t mind if I do. Invading Iraq was one of the greatest foreign-policy blunders in American history, compounded by the fact that it required neglecting the war against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Today, Al Qaeda has what even Wainstein conceded were safe havens in the tribal areas of Pakistan and is seeking more in Yemen and the horn of Africa. The intelligence and military apparatuses were plunged into the business of holding detainees indefinitely, with, charitably, a minimum of due process; kidnapping others; and, in many cases, either torturing them directly or by client-state intelligence services on foreign soil. Rather than collaborating with Congress and the courts to forge a stable, sensible and enduring architecture balancing liberty and security in an age of terrorism, the Bush administration publicly issued ultimatums for how such a balance would be achieved; and privately, it engaged in a campaign of blatantly illegal and unconstitutional domestic surveillance. It justified all its actions on a radical theory of unlimited wartime executive authority, something no lawyer who has not drawn a paycheck from Bush ever believed existed.

If you had even a fraction of integrity and lived through the Bush years — and especially if you had a fraction of integrity and lived through the Bush years by working for Bush — you would need a steady regimen of norepinephrine and seratonin regulation as well. The challenge is understanding when the chemicals have taken control of your senses, leaving you vulnerable to cheap distortions.

Crossposted to The Streak.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman