The Central Intelligence Agency spied on the Senate, and CIA Director John Brennan lied about it. When the news broke, several senators, including Democrats, called for the director’s resignation.
It seems unlikely Brennan can survive. But last week President Obama gave him a vote of confidence at a brief news conference. In fact, Obama answered a shouted-out question after having already taken the “last” question, suggesting that the Brennan situation was one of the reasons he held the briefing.
So why would Obama want to go out of his way to publicly support a CIA director he may have to get rid of?
I can think of three answers.
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The least likely, and the one that would reflect worst on Obama, is that he is simply trying to do the right thing as he sees it, and that he either personally likes Brennan or doesn’t see anything wrong with what the CIA did. Even if the president was correct in those judgments, it still would be a foolish course of action. Presidents (at least most of the time) shouldn’t attempt to do the right thing; they should attempt to do whatever is healthiest for their presidencies. I don’t think that’s what is happening here.
A second, somewhat lurid possibility is that Brennan knows too much, and it would be dangerous for Obama to make an enemy of someone who knows all the details of the president’s involvement in drone killings and other dubious adventures.
I wouldn’t rule this out, but I doubt it’s a serious element of Obama’s thinking. For one thing, it would be difficult for Brennan to leak anything about the president without implicating himself. So whether the concern is reputation or legal culpability (and the latter is mostly speculative), Brennan would have a powerful incentive to stay quiet. And that also supposes that Brennan would put revenge against the president ahead of his obligations to secrecy. It’s possible, but less than likely.
Most promising is what’s behind door No. 3: Obama is concerned – in my view, overly so – with demonstrating to the intelligence bureaucracy, the broader national security bureaucracy and the bureaucracy in general that he is on their side. The basic impulse to stand up for the people he appointed isn’t a bad one; nor is the impulse to demonstrate to the intelligence community that he is no wild-eyed peacenik softie who opposes the work they do.
For one thing, he’s more likely to effect change in national security areas if experts in the government believe he’s at least sympathetic to them as individuals and to their basic goals, even if he questions some of the George W. Bush-era (or earlier) methods. For another, the ability of bureaucrats to hurt the president with leaks doesn’t depend on the existence of deep, dark secrets. Every president is vulnerable to selective leaks and a drumbeat of steady negative interpretations from the bureaucracy.
And yet, overdoing support for the bureaucracy can have severe costs. On torture, for example, emphasizing the good intentions of those faced with difficult choices during the past decade makes sense. But failing to take action, and leaving bureaucrats with serious liabilities because the status of their past actions is unresolved, only may have made reassuring them of presidential support increasingly necessary. That’s not a healthy situation.
Again: Some of the incentive to (at least at first) stand up for presidential appointees is inherent in the presidency, and a healthy thing to do even when the president believes people have misbehaved and should go. But throughout his presidency, Obama has been overly skittish when it comes to potentially crossing his national security bureaucracy, and I strongly suspect that torture and other Bush-era abuses are both part of the original cause and will cause more of that timidity down the road.
Obama has tried to deal with this by getting the policy right. But when we learn more about the events of the past six years, I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out that getting the internal politics wrong has made it a lot harder to get the policy right.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist.