Presidential power, national security, and "Top Secret America"

The Washington Post's "Top Secret America" series is just fine, but we need to spread the blame

Published July 22, 2010 10:45PM (EDT)

I'm far behind in reading the big Dana Priest/William Arkin Washington Post series on what they call "Top Secret America." I am finished with the first article, and I can definitely recommend it. As Julian Sanchez says in a good post responding to it, a lot of what they found has been reported before, but having it all in one (very visible) place has a lot of value added, even beyond whatever new items they've dug up.

OK, now...not to be a jerk about this, but...last time I wrote about the limits of presidential powers, a whole bunch of people responded by asserting that, of course presidents can do whatever they want in the realm of national security. I think any fair reading of the Post series will show that much of the bureaucracy Priest and Arkin write about is beyond the immediate control of anyone -- the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), the Secretary of Defense, whoever. Any bureaucracy that size is too large and too sprawling to make direct control easy; add secrecy, and it becomes all the more difficult. Here's Glenn Greenwald (last seen in these parts chiding me for saying that Barack Obama had no magic wand that could change policy at his whim):

"We chirp endlessly about the Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, the Democrats and Republicans, but this is the Real U.S. Government: functioning in total darkness, beyond elections and parties, so secret, vast and powerful that it evades the control or knowledge of any one person or even any organization."

As much as I'd like to see Greenwald reconcile that with his penchant for ridiculing anyone who believes that presidents have limited powers, I think instead I'll just point to this excellent post by presidency and bureaucracy scholar Matthew Dickinson, and then go on to make a few points.

First, I suspect that a lot of the waste, inefficiency, incompetence and other problems that Priest and Arkin are detailing is yet another example of what a lousy president George W. Bush was. It will be years, maybe decades, before historians will be able to really sort through the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, and come to solid conclusions about what was done well, what was done badly, and what the president's role in all of it was, but from what we do know of Bush so far it would be consistent for him to have been passive, uninvolved, and far too easily manipulated by various players in the White House and the bureaucracy because he entered the White House with shockingly little knowledge or interest in government or public affairs, and then failed to realize or try to make up for that poor preparation. (And, yes, that's only based on what we know so far, and I'm open to any new evidence to the contrary. By the way, Dickinson disagrees on Bush's background. I think he's wrong, but we'll see what the evidence winds up showing).

Second, it's not just Bush who made things worse than they had to be. It was the Democrats who pushed for the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, and the 9/11 Commission that wanted the DNI. In my view, both were probably unnecessary additional layers of bureaucracy that made both the substantive problem (that is, actually keeping Americans safe from terrorism) and the procedural or democratic problem (allowing the political branches to control the bureaucracy) worse. And it's probably worth singling out the secrecy mania that most reports have attributed to Vice President Dick Cheney: secrecy is both a necessity and a problem for government coordination in national security matters, but what's been reported to be a very large bias in favor of secrecy almost certainly hurt, not helped.

Third, it's important to distinguish between things that are difficult for the president to control from things that are impossible for him to affect. In fact, all that Priest and Arkin document is the former. Presidents cannot wave magic wands and expect executive branch bureaucracies to jump when they say jump; that's not how things work. However, neither is anything in the executive branch completely beyond their ability to influence. But exercising that influence is often costly (at least in terms of presidential energy, a limited resource, and possibly in other ways). This is also why Richard Neustadt thought that presidents should try to become powerful, because only a president who maximizes his opportunities can tackle such difficult problems with any hope of success.

Fourth thing -- it's likely that outsiders don't always see much of the battle between the president and the bureaucracy in any area, and it's even more likely in national security. Thus, as I've said before, what we do see may not reflect Barack Obama's original position; it may be that on whatever issue we're talking about his original position may have been defeated by executive branch bureaucracies, and so blaming him for betraying a promise on some issue may turn out, once we know more, to be incorrect -- he may have fought for the other side, and lost. Once again -- for advocates, it still may be a good idea to focus on pressuring the president, for a variety of reasons.

Before leaving the subject for now, I do want to stress that what we see in national security probably isn't really any different from what we see in, say, the Department of Agriculture. Bureaucrats resist outside influence; they find allies in Congress or among interest groups; presidents can influence policy in the executive branch, but it's often difficult and almost never automatic. It takes what Neustadt called "persuasion", which is not so much making strong arguments as it is effective bargaining and maneuvering, finding ways to make use of the (limited but not inconsequential) resources of the presidency. I think it's wrong to perceive this as a conspiratorial "real" government, unique to national security, that is completely beyond the reach of the elected branches. What Priest and Arkin are talking about falls well within the realm of normal bureaucratic and interest group behavior. It can be fought by presidents who have incentives to do so, and by Congresses who have incentives to do so. The trick for reformers and advocates is to think of ways they can bend the interests of elected officials to make that happen.

By Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein writes at a Plain Blog About Politics. Follow him at @jbplainblog

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