Thursday, July 22, 2010

Presidential Power, National Security, and "Top Secret America"

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.


  1. Jonathan,

    I'm not sure we disagree as much as you suggest regarding Bush's background. My point on my Presidential Power post referred primarily to the Sienna poll which rated Bush quite low in this category. In terms of biography, however, he doesn't seem any less prepared than many of those ranked higher in this category. You are pointing, I think, to a slightly different aspect of Bush: his lack of curiosity regarding the details of governing and apparent unwillingness to learn. How much of that can attributed to his background is an open question, I guess, but I'm not sure I disagree with you, although I confess I don't know as much about this aspect of Bush as I'd like. In any case it's a reminder that I should do a post comparing presidents' preparation for office. More importantly, we are in complete agreement regarding just how difficult it is for presidents of any background to manage the national security bureaucracy.

  2. Fair enough. I think this gets to one of the problems about the Siena poll which both of us have mentioned: a bunch of their categories are (at least in the summary they release) really vague. Unfortunately, as much as it would be a good thing to have better questions, it's also nice to have a series going back thirty years.

  3. And this leads back to the one huge lie that ALL presedential candidates tell on the trail, regardless of their party or position - they all in effect say that the government is a nimble little sports car that will respond instantly to the most minor twitch of the steering wheel, and all that's needed is to replace the driver in order to instantly change course. Instead, of course, the government is an enormous barge with a defective steering system.

  4. You are completely wrong about this. I don't say that lightly. You make a fundamental mistake by assuming that the president needs to control this vast bureaucracy to accomplish his goals. Think about that for a few minutes. Controlling the bureaucracy need not be a goal of any president. Suppose your goal is instituting an illegal torture program to create false intelligence to support a state of permanent war so that the presidency has (near) dictatorial powers. Only a fool would try to mobilize the entire national security bureaucracy around that goal. Instead you would give that charge to exactly two elements of the bureaucracy and make them secretly compete for policymaker attention. You would keep all the other parts of the bureaucracy in the dark. You use natural bureaucratic lethargy and gridlock to ensure that no effective opposition to your plan can be mounted until it is too late. Secrecy is essential to this plan, of course.

    National security is indeed completely different from the rest of the bureaucracy because of secrecy. Secrecy often cuts off the link between bureaucrats and their natural allies in Congress and interest groups. Secrecy allows the president to neutralize opponents in the bureaucracy by cutting them out of the process. Secrecy allows the president to spend hundreds of millions of dollars with no oversight. Secrecy allows the president commit countless illegal acts with total impunity. Explain to me how that is just like the rest of the federal bureaucracy.

  5. "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"

    Not sure that difference really matters though, at least not for the voters. We hire the President to succeed, not to have good intentions. If good intentions were enough, you'd have a much higher opinion of Jimmy Carter. :)

    "Instead, of course, the government is an enormous barge with a defective steering system. "

    To be fair, Obama used a very similar analogy. But he was probably just fine if people weren't paying attention to that.

  6. Thomas: Good point! Can't really blame them, though.


    See the linked post I wrote about advocates. But generally, I don't have any real disagreement about that. And no question -- a better president will be better at doing these things. Of course, for actual voters, well, they're going to stick with their party, since what else are you going to do?

  7. 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

    My wife is a naturalized US citizen who was born in Canada. Consequently, we have many friends and family living in the Great White North. Canadians are always sensitive to American obnoxiousness; Bush 43 was a special kind of obnoxious, even by American standards. If you are an American seeking an experience of masochism, go join a bunch of Canadians, break out the Molsons, and watch scenes like that hideous Merkel back rub, or any of several other deeply cringeworthy Bush moments. You'll get your masochism fix, trust me.

    You can imagine mine and my wife's thrill when Barack Obama became President. For his cosmopolitan nature, curiosity, and endless patience, Obama could just as well be a Canadian. For us, a funny thing happened on the way to gloating: the Canadians we know don't really like Obama that much.

    Oh they like him, as a person, just not so much as a President. This is because he is too much like a Canadian, where the arrogant, obnoxious Bush 43 approach is what they are comfortable with from their empire neighbor to the south.

    Where am I going with this? Oh yeah, maybe all great liberal democracies, once they're successful, find their way to empire, if only because people wouldn't really have it any other way. So while this vast secret edifice may be full of "inefficiency, incompetence and other problems" -

    - its vast, so it works in the popular imagination. FWIW.

  8. I think what the series demonstrates is the problem of giving agencies specified missions, telling them to try to be as successful as possible in achieving them, giving them large budgets to do so, and not putting in place constraints on how they go about pursuing those certain particular objectives. Any paths not foreclosed will be taken, unless you constrain their range of action explicitly.

    In the case of contractors, the only thing I can see that could be done short of a full freeze on new new contracts would be some type of centralized approval process for the creation of contracts for doing the things that are these agencies' stated objectives. but then imagine the amount of power that would be centralized in that process - I have ny doubts that those who find all this contracting so problematic would like that situation any better. All that is, of course, setting aside the obvious course of a major reassessment of the budget levels of all these agencies, which is not a fix that can happen anything like over night. That's a long, long fight, and there will still be lots of agencies, and (if you keep it that way), they will still control their own budgets, and private firms will still have capabilities that government will be hard pressed to keep inside their bureaucratic walls. It's a pretty fundamental problem if you're not willing to resort to the nationalization (ie drafting) of these quasi-governmental (sometimes "inherently governmental") capabilities as they develop in or migrate into the private sector.

  9. Look back four years from now, I think, hopefully, people will judge that body of work and say, 'This is a big oceanliner, it's not a speedboat. It doesn't turn around immediately, but we're in a better place'... because of the decisions that we made.''
    Obama, March 2009 press conference

    Perhaps the "barge with a defective steering system" is an even better metaphor, but Obama clearly accepts a more accurate metaphor than the sportscar/speedboat.

  10. "the Canadians we know don't really like Obama that much."

    CSH, I'm a Canadian who fits your description, except that I remain overwhelmingly impressed by Obama. I think he's already the best President you've had in a 100 years.
    I'm curious, do your Canadian relatives/friends dislike him because he has changed things too much or too little?

  11. @Johnny Canuck - thanks for engaging me, I was out of pocket the last four days (in Wasaga Beach, as it happened), so I haven't looked at this.

    We actually talked about Obama a bit up in cottage country, and per my comment above, my Canadian relatives really like Obama on a visceral level. However, they remain somewhat uncomfortable with him on an "American President" level. Said differently, their expectation of an American President is something obnoxious, domineering and emperorish - like Dubya. Though it hurt to endure watching Dubya, his attitude seemed the right fit for the job of US President. Which leads to the speculation that once the liberal democracy becomes a powerful empire, the empire meme takes over.

    I realized after posting the comment above that I don't have access to polls confirming whether my Canadian relatives/friends are a representative sample. My impression is that Obama scores quite highly on personal likeability among Canadians, perhaps not as much on Presidential timbre, though I may be projecting my own experiences?


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