President Obama: Incompetent or Liar?

Without Snowden leaks, the president wouldn’t even know that the NSA spies on world leaders.

Steven Hill

How could it possibly make national security sense that the man in the Oval Office did not have to be informed about a decision on bugging the phones of most of the free world’s leaders? (Nick Knupffer / Flickr / Creative Commons)

What did he know, and when did he know it?” A firestorm is gath­er­ing under the Oba­ma pres­i­den­cy that imper­ils its future. First there was the fias­co over his Health​Care​.gov web site — which the pres­i­dent was unaware of until after its launch, it has been claimed. Now the most recent case of not in the loop-itis” is over the rev­e­la­tion that the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Agency has been spy­ing on the tele­phones of Ger­man Chan­cel­lor Angela Merkel and 34 oth­er world leaders.

If what they are saying is true, then President Obama is either lying or his top aides did not inform him and they are not stepping forward to take responsibility.

This is in addi­tion to pre­vi­ous leaks that the U.S. gov­ern­ment spies on the phone logs, Inter­net activ­i­ty and cred­it card trans­ac­tions of vir­tu­al­ly every U.S. cit­i­zen, of Span­ish and French cit­i­zens, and that the Unit­ed States has bugged Euro­pean Union offices as well as the Unit­ed Nations and world lead­ers at inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ences of the G‑20.

It is a star­tling admis­sion to say that Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma was in the dark on this one. If that’s true, does he real­ize that means that even the Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States need­ed leaks from whistle­blow­er Edward Snow­den in order to know what his own top spies are doing?

But hold on — cur­rent and for­mer U.S. intel­li­gence offi­cials are say­ing that, in fact, top-ranked offi­cials in the White House and State Depart­ment signed off on the sur­veil­lance of phone con­ver­sa­tions of friend­ly for­eign lead­ers. If what they are say­ing is true, then Pres­i­dent Oba­ma is either lying or his top aides did not inform him and they are not step­ping for­ward to take respon­si­bil­i­ty. It also rais­es trou­bling ques­tions about how hon­est — or informed — Oba­ma has been in his pre­vi­ous defens­es of the sur­veil­lance state.

So while the chief exec­u­tive and the nation’s top spies engage in a he said, she said” spat over who knew what when, the rest of the nation is left puz­zling over whether their pres­i­dent did­n’t know what he should have known, or is lying. No mat­ter how one answers that ques­tion, it reflects bad­ly on Oba­ma. And for U.S. stature on the world’s stage.

Upping the ante, the Wash­ing­ton Posts Dana Mil­bank has invoked that noto­ri­ous echo of Water­gate, What did Pres­i­dent Oba­ma know, and when did he know it?” Because it’s just not cred­i­ble to claim, as White House offi­cials are try­ing to do, that the NSA has so many eaves­drop­ping oper­a­tions under way that it wouldn’t have been prac­ti­cal to brief the pres­i­dent on all of them. How could it pos­si­bly make nation­al secu­ri­ty sense that the man in the Oval Office did not have to approve or at least be informed about a deci­sion on bug­ging the phones of most of the free world’s leaders?

But let’s keep our baf­fle­ment bipar­ti­san, shall we? Thanks again to the whistle­blow­er Snow­den, it was report­ed in the Ger­man pub­li­ca­tion Der Spiegel that the mon­i­tor­ing of Merkel’s cell phone began back in 2002, when Pres­i­dent George W. Bush was chief of the spies. What did he know, and when did he know it?

Con­gres­sion­al Dimwit of the Sea­son” award has to go to U.S. Sen­a­tor Dianne Fein­stein. As chair­woman of the Sen­ate Intel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, which was estab­lished in 1976 as a result of the Church Com­mit­tee inves­ti­ga­tion into CIA abus­es to pro­vide over­sight and serve as a restraint on such espi­onage activ­i­ties, Fein­stein has been chief Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty cheer­leader of the nation­al secu­ri­ty state. She has pre­vi­ous­ly insist­ed that the NSA is sub­ject to strin­gent con­gres­sion­al over­sight and mon­i­tor­ing from the exec­u­tive branch.

Yet now even she’s back­track­ing. Recent­ly she stat­ed, It is abun­dant­ly clear that a total review of all intel­li­gence pro­grams is nec­es­sary. … It is clear to me that cer­tain sur­veil­lance activ­i­ties have been in effect for more than a decade and that the Sen­ate Intel­li­gence Com­mit­tee was not sat­is­fac­to­ri­ly informed.”

This is the same clue­less Sen­a­tor from my home state of Cal­i­for­nia who in June con­demned Snow­den as a trai­tor, say­ing, I don’t look at this as being a whistle­blow­er. I think it’s an act of trea­son. … He vio­lat­ed the law. It’s trea­son.” And yet if it was­n’t for his trea­so­nous” acts, Chair­woman Fein­stein would still be clueless.

So flip a coin: heads Oba­ma is incom­pe­tent, tails he’s a first-rate liar. My coin flip says he’s incom­pe­tent, but he also has ter­ri­ble judg­ment over the dan­ger posed by his nation­al secu­ri­ty poli­cies and pri­or­i­ties. He’s advanc­ing the instru­ments of sur­veil­lance that future pres­i­dents will use. Imag­ine a Dick Cheney in the Oval Office, with an even more devel­oped nest of zeal­ous spies. The cur­rent moment has some of the same feel as the out-of-con­trol days dur­ing the Rea­gan admin­is­tra­tion, when Lt. Col. Oliv­er North and his accom­plices ran gun- and drug-run­ning oper­a­tions to sup­port the Con­tras in Nicaragua, and co-authored with Attor­ney Gen­er­al Edwin Meese a plan for impos­ing mar­tial law dur­ing nation­al emer­gen­cies, called Rex 84 (Readi­ness Exer­cise 1984). It seems the off-the-shelf rogues, goons and spooks are back. Regard­less of which par­ty has the pres­i­den­cy, they lurk in the White House base­ment, mak­ing vital deci­sions regard­ing the nation’s for­eign pol­i­cy and remain­ing unac­count­able to the nation’s elect­ed lead­ers. The promise of Obama’s elec­tion in 2008 has been replaced by Yes We Scan.”

If Oba­ma tru­ly wants to regain his foot­ing, he must reverse not just spe­cif­ic poli­cies but also his direc­tion. He can par­tial­ly redeem his tat­tered rep­u­ta­tion by fir­ing whichev­er of the head spooks that gave these orders. But that seems unlike­ly. White House spokesman Jay Car­ney has said that the pres­i­dent has full con­fi­dence in Gen­er­al [Kei­th] Alexan­der and the lead­er­ship at the NSA.”

It’s hard to see how Oba­ma comes out of this with­out a loss of stature, both in the U.S. as well as abroad. Either the world’s most pow­er­ful leader was in the dark about a mat­ter of grave nation­al secu­ri­ty, or he knew about the sur­veil­lance of glob­al lead­ers and, as Har­ry Tru­man once said about Richard Nixon, He can lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time.”

Amer­i­can offi­cials have crit­i­cized right­ly China’s Orwellian tac­tics, and urged Bei­jing to become, well, more like the West. But behind closed doors, the Unit­ed States is becom­ing more like Chi­na. And the Unit­ed States is fast los­ing all cred­i­bil­i­ty to crit­i­cize Chi­na for any of its domes­tic and inter­na­tion­al sur­veil­lance activities.

Increas­ing­ly, the hero in all of this is look­ing like that trai­tor,” Edward Snow­den. Pres­i­dent Oba­ma and Sen. Fein­stein, have your eyes been opened enough to allow you to pin a Pres­i­den­tial Medal of Free­dom on Mr. Snowden’s lapel?

Steven Hill is co-founder of Fair­Vote and the author of sev­en books, includ­ing10 Steps to Repair Amer­i­can Democ­ra­cy” and Fix­ing Elec­tions: The Fail­ure of America’s Win­ner Take All Pol­i­tics”. His opin­ions are his own.

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