The White House's counterterrorism chief delivered a stinging indictment of the Bush administration Thursday, saying tactics such as waterboarding "undermined our national security."
John Brennan promised a new approach to the global war on terrorism, arguing, for starters, it shouldn't be called that.
"Describing our efforts as a global war only plays into the warped narrative that al-Qaida propagates," he said. "It plays into the misleading and dangerous notion that the U.S. is somehow in conflict with the rest of the world."
It's not just the terminology that Brennan objects to.
In his speech at a Washington think tank, he said it was wrong to think military power could solve the long-term problem of global extremism, adding that President Obama was restoring perspective to counterterrorism efforts.
"The fight against terrorists and violent extremists has been returned to its right and proper place," Brennan said. "No longer defining — indeed distorting — our entire national security and foreign policy, but rather serving as a vital part of those larger policies."
The new approach is two-pronged, Brennan said: using military strikes to hammer al-Qaida, but also using economic and political tools to fight the root causes of terrorism.
How much of this strategy is actually new is open to debate; none of it will be easy.
Administration Struggles With Some Goals
The Obama administration is struggling to come up with new policies on the interrogation and detention of terrorism suspects and, Brennan acknowledged, with closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay by January.
"We are working hard to realize that vision," he said. "We are going to get there, and whether or not, you know, we come in a week or two early or right on time or whatever, there are a number of things that are — there are dependencies here."
It's notable that Brennan would not guarantee Guantanamo will close by the deadline Obama has imposed.
"I don't have a crystal ball that I can say with certainty, because at this point it is unknowable exactly how many people will be transferred in the next week, month, several months and what the conditions on the ground will be."
"It's not surprising, frankly, that they are still grappling with all of the complexities that the prior administration grappled with," said Juan Zarate, President Bush's chief counterterrorism adviser.
Zarate says he remembers wrestling with the same problems dealing with Guantanamo.
"How do you return some of these individuals to their home countries? How do you try some of these individuals either in criminal courts or military commissions? Or how do you hold people who are just too dangerous to release and cannot be prosecuted because of problems with evidence or of alleged coercion?"
Zarate says the fight against terrorism has entered a new phase since his days in the White House, and that overall President Obama is doing a good job.
What hasn't changed, he notes, is that al-Qaida is still out there, still determined to attack the United States.