Guest editorial: White House amateur hour

It’s hard to believe that anyone save the most rabid Republicans could have watched the goings on in the White House over the past few weeks and not be horribly disappointed in what has been revealed.
In less than a month, we have been informed that President Obama was unaware of the fact that the National Security Agency was listening to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone, as well as the phones of thousands and thousands of other friends and allies, or that the Affordable Care Act’s internet rollout in early October was facing crippling problems and that more related problems would be revealed almost daily thereafter.
Something is gravely wrong here. Either the President/White House is lying, or it is not in control of the executive branch of our government. Either way, the situation is unacceptable.
The Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) is President Obama’s most important legislative initiative. It may well prove to be the foundation of his presidential legacy. Given those facts plus the energy and attention he has paid to Obamacare and its implementation, the premise that he was not aware of the problems well in advance is simply unacceptable. If he was aware, then his action in going ahead with the rollout before it could be a guaranteed success was incomprehensible and inexcusable.
Of course, the other possibility is that the president’s staff did not keep him informed on the incipient problems. If that’s true, then heads should roll, but none have. How could a president sit idly by and not be intimately involved in his most important legislative initiative?
The third possibility is that the president simply does not have control over either the White House or the executive branch. That could only be explained by the White House’s lack of experience in Washington. For a president to be successful in this country he and his staff have to be on top of everything of any importance that’s going on in the government, particularly any issues that are directly threatening to the president himself.
Which brings us to Mr. Snowden, the former NSA contractor, and his revelations about American electronic intercepts. First, for those readers who see him as some sort of admirable or heroic whistle blower, it seems more likely that his efforts will prove to be highly traitorous. Only time will give us a definitive answer, but there is every likelihood that what he has done will prove to be one of the most devastating reverses ever suffered by our intelligence community. In the process of telling our enemies precisely what we do, he will aid them immeasurably in helping them defeat our efforts to protect ourselves.
The first question one must ask is how an employee of a private U.S. firm that contracted to the NSA got such incredibly broad access to extremely sensitive information. At a minimum, existing clearance and access procedures need to be carefully examined by our security experts.
The root issue here is not when the president got to know about NSA’s programs, the issue is whether or not he was ever informed at all. If he was informed, say about Chancellor Merkel, then he most certainly should have put a halt not only to that effort, but to all other efforts targeting the leadership of our important foreign allies. When it comes to risk vs. gain, there would seem to be little argument in this and other similar cases in support of gain. Only a president could make that kind of judgment.
The other possibility, however remote, is that his staff was aware of these NSA programs and chose not to inform him. If that proves to be the case, then the responsibility still lies at the feet of the president. The first question any incoming president has to ask the leaders of his intelligence community is whether or not they are doing anything at all that, if made public, could seriously damage our security or our standing in the world. At that point, risk vs. gain kicks in and any president is left with the choice of whether or not to continue the program.
In one month, we have seen two such programs, one that has damaged the president and the other our standing in the world. As the president himself has said, quoting Harry Truman, “The buck stops here.” And it really does. And in doing so, it has made the president and the White House look like amateurs.
— Haviland Smith
Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in east and west Europe and the Middle East, and as chief of the counterterrorism staff. He lives in Williston.

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