Commentary Magazine


Just Don’t Tell the President

When Harry Truman was getting settled in the White House and catching up on all the information FDR kept from his vice president, his aide Harry Vaughan brought him a sampling of the FBI wiretaps in which Roosevelt indulged. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had opened something of a Pandora’s box with the wiretapping capability, which FDR utilized to spy on everyone he could–including the wife of a White House advisor, as Vaughan showed Truman.

“Tell them I don’t authorize any such thing,” David McCullough quotes Truman as responding. Truman was offended by the casual eavesdropping and the blackmail that resulted from the activity. In his diary, he compared the FBI to the Gestapo, and he determined to significantly scale back Hoover’s activities. Here’s what Truman didn’t do: he didn’t wait until the snooping was discovered and made public and then pretend he had no idea what was going on. Barack Obama would do well to read up on his Truman. Obama, as the Wall Street Journal reports, is responding to the latest NSA revelations, which allege that the U.S. listened in on the phone calls of world leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel, the same way he responds to every scandal: he claims to have no idea what is taking place within his administration. From the Journal:

Officials said the internal review turned up NSA monitoring of some 35 world leaders, in the U.S. government’s first public acknowledgment that it tapped the phones of world leaders. European leaders have joined international outrage over revelations of U.S. surveillance of Ms. Merkel’s phone and of NSA’s monitoring of telephone call data in France.

The White House cut off some monitoring programs after learning of them, including the one tracking Ms. Merkel and some other world leaders, a senior U.S. official said. Other programs have been slated for termination but haven’t been phased out completely yet, officials said.

The account suggests President Barack Obama went nearly five years without knowing his own spies were bugging the phones of world leaders. Officials said the NSA has so many eavesdropping operations under way that it wouldn’t have been practical to brief him on all of them.

If the administration thinks this is “plausible deniability,” the Obama team has lost touch with reality. Was the president briefed on national security for five years without knowing that these intelligence briefings were the result of, you know, intelligence collected by his intelligence agencies? Is the argument that the most sensitive and potentially embarrassing intelligence procedures do not require his approval? At what point does Obama think it becomes necessary for him to admit that, yes, he’s the president?

The more troubling question, however, is: Why does the president think this is an appropriate response to every controversy? The president took some criticism last week for the administration’s claim that Obama didn’t know the degree to which his signature achievement, which bears his name, was at great risk of melting down immediately upon launch.

Yet as the Journal also reported last night, the president actually does have plausible deniability on ObamaCare because no one knew who was in charge:

As it becomes clear that no single leader oversaw implementation of the health law’s signature online marketplace—a complex software project that would have been difficult under the best circumstances—the accounts of more than a dozen current and former officials show how a disjointed bureaucracy led to the site’s disastrous Oct. 1 launch.

It would be easy to blame bureaucracy again and leave it at that. But the problem is more endemic to modern liberalism’s governing philosophy. Another way of saying “plausible deniability,” after all, is “lack of accountability.” Bureaucracies are so often incompatible with healthy democracy precisely because they provide plausible deniability, which in turn incentivizes government ineptitude.

The pursuit of deniability makes bureaucracy an inviting refuge for an aspiring government official determined to shift the blame for anything that happens on his watch. It’s especially attractive to someone, like Barack Obama, who always wants to appear to be an outsider taking on the establishment. Yet that same “deep state” structure he claims to be appalled by is where he takes shelter every time there’s a controversy to disown.

Sometimes the deniability the president claims is believable, sometimes it isn’t. But it’s a poor excuse because it reveals his desperate avoidance of accountability. That the president is out of the loop is one thing; that he’s there by choice is quite another.