NSA, Watergate, Vietnam: What Should Presidents Know?

Presidents have lied about what they knew and knew too much. But there are things that a president really shouldn't know. By George E. Condon, Jr.

The Republican National Committee dismisses him as “the bystander president,” mocking the White House’s declaration that President Obama knew nothing about the NSA bugging of foreign leaders before the story hit the news. They eagerly point to previous instances over the past five years when the president publicly contended he was in the dark about actions taken under him in the government.

In his time in office, the events that the president contended he did not know about in advance are wide-ranging, from international spying to domestic intimidation, from embassy security overseas to off-note statements inside the White House. The pattern began even before he took office. In the 2008 campaign, candidate Obama was in the awkward position of having to deny he ever heard any incendiary rhetoric from his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, even though the tapes suggested this was not an infrequent habit of Wright’s. As president, he has pleaded ignorance of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s hasty firing of employee Shirley Sherrod, of the subpoenas of reporters’ phone records, of warnings from Libya about security in Benghazi and, now, of the overseas bugging.

No answers are likely to satisfy his critics. Historians are still arguing about what Franklin D. Roosevelt knew about the Holocaust and how much Warren G. Harding knew about the Teapot Dome scandal and what Bill Clinton knew about the firings of the White House Travel Office.

Obama, of course, wouldn’t be the first president to be surprised by what his underlings are doing. Nor, if Republicans are right, would he be the first to be protected by aides who isolated him from controversy.

There are presidents in the past who lied about what they didn’t know – Richard Nixon’s tapes from 1973 are filled with instances when he rehearsed aides to testify that he did not know about hush money, promised pardons or took part in the Watergate coverup. There are presidents whose management style kept them in the dark on many details of governance – Ronald Reagan once didn’t recognize a member of his own cabinet, calling him “Mr. Mayor.”

There are presidents who knew too much minutiae and lost track of the big picture – Jimmy Carter famously kept track of who was permitted to use the White House tennis courts and Lyndon Johnson personally selected targets in Vietnam. And there are presidents whose ignorance was genuine with major consequences – Warren Harding in December 1921 didn’t know what his own diplomats were saying in delicate talks in the Conference for the Limitation of Armaments and spoke off-script to reporters, sparking international repercussions, a near-break in relations with Japan, and a flurry of corrections.

There have been, as well, presidents whose mastery of their own administrations was eminently impressive, as when Franklin Roosevelt conducted his own budget briefings, something later emulated by Gerald Ford. That kind of mastery was easier, admittedly, when the government was smaller. One defense of Obama by his supporters is that no president can possibly know everything being done in his name in today’s Washington. “Part of being president,” said former presidential aide David Axelrod last week, “is there’s so much beneath you that you can’t know because the government is so vast.”

And there are things that a president really shouldn’t know. Certainly, an important lesson of Watergate is that the Justice Department should never share prosecutorial decisions with a president. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney made this point in May when critics asked why the president did not know about the Justice Department subpoenas of Associated Press phone records. “Imagine what reporters would be saying… if the president of the United States and the folks in the White House were being informed of and engaged in on a criminal investigation into a leak that presumably, because it’s a leak of classified information, has to do with a leak that emanated from somewhere within the federal government? That would be viewed as absolutely inappropriate and in past history of previous administrations, beyond inappropriate,” Carney told MSNBC. “It is entirely appropriate that we are not informed of the progress or the methods used by federal prosecutors in criminal investigations.”

But today, with European allies fuming and the White House scrambling to both insulate the president and repair the frayed trans-Atlantic ties, Washington is turning again to the enduring question first posed dramatically and repeatedly by Republican Sen. Howard Baker in the Watergate hearings: “What did the president know and when did he know it?” The Obama White House’s problem is that they don’t yet have an answer for the corollary question given voice by the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank: “How could he not know his spies were bugging the German chancellor?”

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