The President Who Demanded Stanley McChrystal’s Resignation Is Not Sheltering the NatSec Bureaucracy

As I have repeatedly noted, I think President Obama will protect John Brennan — and the CIA more generally — because of the mutual complicity built in between CIA and the White House over covert ops.

It’s not just that CIA knows the full details of the drone killings Obama authorized on his sole authority. It’s also that the CIA is still protecting the Office of the Presidency’s role in torture by withholding from the Senate documents over which the White House might — but did not formally — claim Executive Privilege. Obama did the same thing when he went to some lengths to prevent a very short phrase making it clear torture was Presidentially-authorized from being released in 2009; it wasn’t just the Finding that still authorized his drone strikes the President was protecting, but the Office that George Bush sullied by approving torture.

I also think Obama will stand by Brennan because they have worked closely so long Brennan is one of Obama’s guys.

Bloomberg View’s Jonathan Bernstein doesn’t agree, however. After dismissing Conor Friedersdorf’s version of the mutual incrimination argument, he suggests Obama is simply demonstrating to the national security bureaucracy he’s on their side.

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 last 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 been overly skittish when it comes to crossing his NatSec bureaucracy?

First, as I have already noted, Obama was perfectly happy demanding David Petraeus’ resignation for fucking his biographer. While I have my doubts whether that was really the reason — and while by firing him, Obama undercut a potential 2012 rival — he didn’t shy away from firing a man with some of the best PR in DC.

You might also ask the 19 top Generals and Admirals Obama has fired (most with the help of Bob Gates; also note the 20th on this list is Petraeus) — so many that conservatives accuse him of “purging” — whether he’s squeamish about crossing the NatSec bureaucracy. And while Micah Zenko’s comment on Twitter is correct that intelligence officials have largely escaped this treatment, Obama seemed happy to use  Michael Leiter’s National Counterterrorism Center’s failure to stop the UndieBomb attack to fire then Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair.

President Obama is not a man afraid to fire members of the national security bureaucracy.

The starkest contrast with Brennan’s treatment comes from the case of Stanley McChrystal.

Obama demanded McChrystal’s resignation not because his night raids were exacerbating extremism in Afghanistan. Not because many service members felt he had left them exposed. Not because, even then, it was clear the surge in Afghanistan was going to fail.

Obama demanded McChrystal’s resignation because Michael Hastings exposed McChrystal and his top aides (including Michael Flynn, who quit in April because of differences on policy) being insubordinate. Obama demanded McChrystal’s resignation because doing so was necessary to maintain the primacy of civilian control — like separation of powers, one of the bedrocks ensuring national security doesn’t trump democracy.

That, to me, is the important takeaway from comparing McChrystal’s fate with Brennan’s.

When a top member of the national security bureaucracy challenged the control of the civilian executive, he got canned, appropriately, in my opinion.

But when the Director of the CIA permitted his Agency to strike at the core of the separation of powers by investigating its overseers, Obama offered his support. Obama may have fired a top general for threatening Executive authority, but he has supported a top aide after he threatened Legislative authority.

You can come up with any number of explanations why Obama did that. But being afraid of taking on his National Security bureaucracy — as distinct from taking on the intelligence agencies, as Obama chose not to do when Clapper lied or when Keith Alexander oversaw the leaking of the family jewels even while getting pwned in his core cyberdefense capacity — is not the explanation.

Obama has proven to have no qualms about upsetting his national security bureaucracy. Just that part of it run covertly.

17 replies
  1. C says:

    One other way to look at it is not through incrimination but trust. I suspect that Obama, like Cheney, believes that he needs to protect the NatSec bureucracy so that they will be willing to go out on a limb for him. If you do not demonstrate to the officers that they will be protected then they won’t act for you when you direct them to do reprehensible things like torture.

    The catch is that in order to maintain the trust of the NatSec bureucracy Obama is trading away the trust of Congress, at least the Democratic part of it, the American People, and the whole world. He is, as you noted Marcy, doubling down on hard power.

    As with Cheney’s love of torture this will haunt us for some time to come.

    • bloopie2 says:

      Agreed. As Marcy noted, ‘Obama may have fired a top general for threatening Executive authority, but he has supported a top aide after he threatened Legislative authority.’

      Maybe he figures Congress at this point (partisan divisions and all) has nothing left to offer him, so he can now throw it under the bus. Nice guy, O.

  2. TarheelDem says:

    The national security bureaucracy is more than just the top guy in a particular position. It is a well-indoctrinated organizational culture that that one guy is supposed to be defending. In both DoD and the intelligence community, that culture has gone wildly off because of lack of accountability for mission, money, and integrity. Firing the top guy is a symbol of the displeasure of the public but does not fix the culture. Brennan stepped in after Petraeus left. Who knows who will step into CIA when Brennan leaves; they will nonetheless have to be part of the culture (that now embodies a tradition of torture) in order to function with the current set of relationships.

    It is the chains of command by name that are in the Senate report that are so important for accountability. And those are exactly what the White House is not wanting to give up and what the Senate must disclose. But this raises problems within the deep state relationships that infect the CIA and have been subverting normal governance since the Truman administration and are suspected to be capable of killing their colleagues in order to avoid disclosing CIA misdeeds. Exactly the concerns that most Americans have about “too much government”. But that is what must be rolled back if there is to be some semblance of civil government again.

    The temptation of an emperor-Praetorian Guard dynamic being the permanent state is what Obama is facing just as Truman and Eisenhower faced when these agencies were much more controllable. Eisenhower’s farewell address only stated that he thought that these powers were not something that John Kennedy should have. Any concerns about actually rolling them back were argued away by the Dulles brothers during his administration.

    The firing of John Brennan must be the beginning of the process not the end. Senators owe the country the leaking of the report. Want a place in history, DiFi? Leak the report.

  3. RUKidding says:

    DiFi leaking that report?

    Here’s my tip: don’t hold your breath. DiFi ain’t leaking anything. Too highly compensated (and too deeply implicated) to keep her ugly Yap shut.

  4. orionATL says:

    that the president obama is “afraid” of the nat sec bureaucracy is not an argument that i find convincing; nor do i find convincing that he is “afraid” of the nsa/cia/fbi part of the nat sec bureaucracy.

    the argument i do find very convincing is that the nat sec bureaucracy (and i emphatically do NOT mean only its most senior leaders) is president obama’s chosen constituency.

    obama does not care especially about the american citizen in general.

    he does not care about the federal judiciary.

    he does not care much about the depart of ag, interior, hud, labor, the sec, fcc, fda, va.

    he does not care much for any business except for certain large-cap industries that provide campaign money and potential republican opposition.

    however, obama does care a lot about keeping the employees of the cia, nsa, doj, and fbi happy and on his side, mostly. obama is not focused on protecting john brennan; he is focused on giving cia employees the sense he values them.

    he does this of course aware of the self-pitying rage scoundrels like cia counter-terrorism thugs, or thieving new york bankers express having been caught and exposed in their lawlessness, accompanyied by loud screams of lack of appreciation.

    obama’s natsec favoritism is probably because pseudo national security activity has been obama’s political claim to fame, and his white house staff has seemed heavily nat sec oriented.

  5. orionATL says:


    furthermore, president obama is protecting president obama in the senate report on cia torture. there is no doubt that it was obama who ok’d the “redaction ad absurdum” of the report to be made available to the senate and the public

    it would not suprise me to learn that obama authorized the cia spying, hence john the buthcher’s hysterics about congressional “spying” being accepted with presidential equinimity and the doj’s disinterest in following up on cia misconduct re ssci files.

    it was obama and his whitehouse staff who covertly supported a large expansion of the nsa’s spying on american citizens thru legislation legalizing illegal behavior. this was in support of his natsec spying constituency – nas/fbi/cia/dhs.

    citizens have to begin to understand that obama is a hard, ruthless person who approves of extended nsa domestic spying, whistleblower persecutions, and news journalist intimidation. obama likes secrecy and likes to operate in secrect. he has no qualms about bradley manning being tortured in quantico or about drone strikes.

  6. ArizonaBumblebeeper says:

    The prosecution of the war on terror is not a video game, and the Constitution isn’t just a piece of paper. Frankly, I don’t give a damn about President Obama’s motivation for protecting his CIA Director. Brennan’s fingerprints are all over the illegal torture program and the cover up that has ensued, and he clearly violated his oath of office when he attempted to thwart the oversight activities of the Senate. I thought the country had already addressed this question during the Watergate tragedy when President Nixon attempted to protect John Mitchell and John Ehrlichman. Despite Nixon’s attempt to protect both men, they eventually had to resign and were subsequently prosecuted and convicted. Mr. Bernstein’s attempt to find a rationale for President Obama’s reluctance to act against criminal malfeasance by his subordinates does not wash. Frankly, the rule of law and the Constitution are far more important to me than a president being one of the guys, a team player, or a boss who protects his subordinates. People’s lives were and are at stake in all of this. And don’t get me going about what this says about equality before the law because it isn’t pretty.

    • RUKidding says:

      Rule of Law? Why how last century of you, and what quaint notion that is.

      No offense intended. Your rant is righteous, but clearly we’ve jumped way beyond the shark that was Watergate.

      That was then. Gerald Ford pardoning Nixon was among the early steps to tearing up the Constitution and what the 1% clearly sees as the outdated notion of Rule of Law (at least for them). Rule of Law? Schmule of Law. It don’t apply to these boyz ‘n grrrlz anymore.

      Just saying… I agree with your arguments, but…

  7. GKJames says:

    Interesting question. Maybe it’s simply easier to unload generals; aren’t there lots of those? Head of the CIA is a whole different scenario. It’s just one high-profile guy, someone who’d have most of the Senate line up behind him and make Obama’s life miserable from PR and political perspectives. The overarching principle, though, is that Obama likes Brennan and how he goes about doing things. Peas in a pod. They’re both calculating, articulate, dissemblers able to dress up criminality in the rhetoric of morality. And far too many people still buy what these guys are selling.

    • wallace says:

      As provocative as each commenter’s views and observations are here, I still get that feeling that it’s an after thought after dinner. Fuck that. When are we going to get fucking pissed and tell it like it is. These motherfuckers have commandeered Murka. They torture, murder, steal, lie through their teeth on a daily basis, prosecute those who would expose their criminality, and now, have completely usurped rule of law, the Constitution, and the very edifice of American exceptionalism. Now what?

  8. Lamb Chop says:

    What Obama will and won’t do has nothing to do with his personal agency and everything to do with the vital interests of his handlers. Petraeus got purged not by Obama but in a turf war that Obama can’t begin to control. Then when Obama fired Petraeus for banging his student the patrons of Petraeus promptly installed the little swordsman as a a high-paid teacher at CCNY in an especially amusing fuck you. Hastings, not Obama, took the blame for purging McChrystal, whose contempt for his so-called commander is universal among the bureaucrats who make flag rank.

    Obama can fire anyone he wants. He’ll just be assigned a new handler. But if he tiptoes anywhere near the core issue of impunity he gets disciplined in no uncertain terms.

    • wallace says:

      quote”Obama can fire anyone he wants. He’ll just be assigned a new handler. But if he tiptoes anywhere near the core issue of impunity he gets disciplined in no uncertain terms.”unquote

      OMG, shades of Jim Garrisons assessment of CIA/DOD as our REAL government overlords. This viewpoint is becoming more and more prevalent, although living proof is still in the shadows. This whole report debacle SHOULD shed some light though. I’m still waiting to see what Wyden does. Should the Senate(Feinstein) “try” to release even the redacted version, I submit there’ll be hell to pay by someone. Either that, or there’ll be a huge battle between the Executive Branch CIA overlords and the Senate. Obama will just be a mouthpiece for CIA.

      @GKJames- Exactly.

  9. GKJames says:

    Agreed. Unfortunately, it’s stuff that the public as a whole (a) does’t care too much about, either because it’s too abstract (the rule of law) or too intricate and therefore in need of time and attention (the dragnet and the lies that go with it), which people aren’t prepared to devote; or (b) fundamentally agrees with the things that are done (rendition, torture, assassination), such that the legal details are seen either as technicalities or politics. Keep in mind that the rot goes to the bone; Bush, Obama, and their respective underlings represent the symptoms of a disease that is systemic. It’s been three-and-a-half decades — a generation, essentially — since the public good, as reflected in government action, was branded the problem, not a solution. It apparently was an effective message: we’ve got a plutocracy firmly entrenched, middle class prosperity is dwindling, the national security apparatus has taken control of the state, and the public? It spends most of its time entertaining itself to death — bread and circuses and all that.

  10. wallace says:

    quote”Obama has proven to have no qualms about upsetting his national security bureaucracy. Just that part of it run covertly.”unquote

    Like I said..shades of Jim Garrisons assessment. Your statement is now part of the record of inquiry and observation of the covert part of the IC as powerful enough to “influence” executive decisions to the point of obvious judgement impairment. I wonder if Obama squirms when Brennan walks in the room.

  11. abbadabba says:

    I like to think Petreaus was not asked to resign for fucking his biographer, but because Hillary got that dirt off that Tampa Templar’s PR gal’s Korean State Department IP registry and took him down for making her cover up his horrible security failure in Benghazi. She likes her vengeance cold plated.

Comments are closed.