There are at least three currents in this Washington Post story about the Obama administration’s decision to name a prosecutor to review whether CIA agents and contractors should be prosecuted for the way they interrogated terrorists. There’s the obligatory (for the Post) Obama worship; there’s the obligatory “who’s on top” in the bureaucracy angle; and, most importantly, there’s the matter of the extent of Obama’s personal involvement in the decision.
The Obama worship (in this instance that of reporters Carrie Johnson and Anne Kornblut) is manifested in the publication of a series of quotations from people who work for Obama telling us how smart he is. For example, Johnson and Kornblut inform us that “the people who brief Obama” say “he is able to game out scenarios before the experts in the room, even on foreign policy, national security and other issues in which he had relatively little expertise before running for president.”
They also quote at length someone named John Brennan, an assistant to the president on national security and counterterrorism. According to the obsequious Mr. Brennan, Obama is approaching he issues as a game of “three-dimensional chess” not “kinetic checkers,” as was done in the past. “These are moves that are made on the chess board that really have implications, so the president is always looking at those dimensions,” Brennan gushes.
Just in case the reader hasn’t figured out that Obama is really smart, Johnson and Kornblut serve up a few more bouquets from Brennan to his boss:
The president is a very sophisticated thinker and understands the implications of these decisions and events. . .I think he is making sure he makes the best decisions and sometimes you cannot just wipe the slate clean. You have to deal with what the facts are or you have to actually try to make sure you can ascertain the facts, as opposed to some of the hyperbole that is out there.
This is the kind of “smartest guy in the room” mantra one hears about every president from his subordinates. I heard it from very intelligent people about President Bush. It may well have been true of Bush and it may well be true of Obama. But real reporters – as opposed to cheerleaders – don’t litter their news stories with such self-serving fluff.
Johnson and Kornblut may have had an ulterior motive, though. Stripped of the pap, what the Post is really saying — but may want to obscure — is that Obama ultimately made the decision to proceed against those who helped protect our country from further terrorist attacks after 9/11. This, of course, contradicts initial claims by the White House that Obama simply farmed out to the decision to Eric Holder. In reality, as a “senior administration official” puts it:
There are some things [Obama] recognizes are the attorney general’s prerogative to do, but at the same time it’s not like he just says, “well, whatever he does, he’ll do. [Obama] wants to make sure we take into account those decisions and take the appropriate steps within the White House to deal with them, particularly from the standpoint of making sure we maintain that very capable, robust counterterrorism capability.”
In short, the prior White House spin is inoperative.
Finally, as to the question of who is winning the bureaucratic battles between Holder and those charged with defending our country from attack, Johnson and Kornblut recognize the obvious – Holder is winning. And the reason is equally obvious. It’s not that Obama is deferential to the office of Attorney General; it’s because Obama agrees with Holder and disagrees with those charged with defending our country from attack.