What Obama Is Up Against
by: Russ Baker
www.truthout.org/, November 2,
The first anniversary of Barack Obama's
historic election finds many of his supporters already grousing.
Fair enough: Obama has been more vigorous in some areas than others.
But one essential question goes unasked: How much can any president
accomplish against the wishes of recalcitrant power centers within
his own government?
We Americans harbor a quaint belief that
a new president takes charge of a government that eagerly awaits
his next command. Like an orchestra conductor or perhaps a football
coach, he can inspire or bludgeon and get what he wants. But that's
not how things work at the top, especially where "national
security" is concerned. The Pentagon and CIA are powerful
and independent fiefdoms characterized by entrenched agendas and
constant intrigue. They are full of lifers, who see an elected
president largely as an annoyance, and have ways of dealing with
those who won't come to heel.
Compound that with the Bush-Cheney administration's
aggressive seeding of its staunch loyalists throughout the bureaucracy,
and you have a pretty tough situation. Obama, then, has to contend
not only with the big donors and corporate lobbies. His biggest
problem resides right inside his "team."
The internal battles between American
presidents and their national security establishments are not
much reported. But if it is an invisible game; it is also a devious
and even deadly one. Our civilian leaders end up mirroring the
chronically nervous chiefs of state of the fragile democracies
to our south.
Those who do not kowtow to the spies and
generals have had a bumpy ride. FDR and Truman both faced insubordination.
Dwight Eisenhower, who had served as chief of staff of the US
Army, left the White House warning darkly about the "military
industrial complex." (He of all presidents had reasons to
know.) John Kennedy was repeatedly countermanded and double-crossed
by his own supposed subordinates. The Joint Chiefs baited him;
Allen Dulles despised him (more so after JFK fired him over the
Bay of Pigs fiasco), and Henry Cabot Lodge, his ambassador to
South Vietnam, deliberately undermined Kennedy's agenda. Kennedy
called the trigger-happy generals "mad" and spoke angrily
to aides of "scattering the CIA to the wind." The evidence
is growing that he suffered the consequences.
In the 1950s, the late Col. L. Fletcher
Prouty, a high-ranking Pentagon official, was assigned by CIA
Director Allen Dulles to help place Dulles's officers under military
cover throughout the federal government. As a result, Dulles not
only knew what was happening before the president did, but had
essentially infiltrated every corner of the president's domain.
One Nixon-era Republican Party official told me that in the early
1970s, there were intelligence officers everywhere, including
the White House. Nixon was unaware of the true background of many
of his trusted aides, particularly those who helped drive him
from office. Remember Alexander Butterfield, the so-called "military
liaison," who told Congress about the White House taping
system? Years later, Butterfield admitted to CIA connections.
In December 1971, Nixon learned of a military
spy ring, the so-called Moorer-Radford operation, that was piping
White House documents back to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Chiefs
were wary of secret negotiations the president and Henry Kissinger
were conducting with America's enemies, including North Vietnam,
China and the USSR, and decided to keep tabs on this intrusion
upon their domain. Jimmy Carter came into office as revelations
of CIA abuses made headlines. He tried to dismantle the agency's
dirty tricks office, but wound up instead a victim of it - and
a one-term president.
Those who avoided problems - Johnson,
Reagan, Bush Sr. and Jr. - were chief executives that made no
problems for the Pentagon and intelligence chiefs. All embraced
military and covert operations, expanded wars or launched their
own. The agile Bill Clinton was a special case - no babe in the
woods, he focused on domestic gains and pretty much steered clear
of the hornets' nest.
As for the Bushes, their ascension represented
a seizure of power by the national security state itself. Their
family had profited from arms manufacturing for decades. The patriarch,
Prescott Bush, monitored US assassination plots against foreign
leaders as a senator; and records indicate that the elder George
Bush had been a secret agency operative for decades before he
became CIA director - and then, 12 years later, president.
Obama seems to understand his narrow range
of movement, and to be carefully picking his fights. He retained
many of Bush's top military brass, and even Bush's Defense Secretary
Robert Gates, who himself had served as a CIA director for Bush's
father. He has trod very carefully with the spy agency, and has
declined to aggressively investigate Bush administration wrongdoing
on torture and wiretapping. Obama's campaign rhetoric about disengaging
from Iraq seems a long time ago, and the war in Afghanistan is
taking on the hues of permanency.
The old boys' network is very much in
place, and it is hard at work to force Obama's hand, a la Vietnam.
Witness the leaking of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's supposedly "confidential
report" calling for escalation in Afghanistan. The leak was,
not surprisingly, to the reliable Bob Woodward. The reporter was
himself in Naval Intelligence shortly before he went to work at
the Washington Post, where he soon built a career around leaks
from the military and spy establishment. The White House was furious
at the McChrystal release. But what could it do? Presidents come
and go, and the security folks have ways to hasten the latter.
Covert alliances and payments to corrupt
foreign allies continue, making creative diplomacy more difficult.
In late October came a front-page story that the brother of Afghan
President Hamid Karzai, suspected of being a major figure in that
country's opium trade, has been on the CIA's payroll for eight
years. Anyone who finds this shocking should go back and read
about the CIA and the drug trade in Southeast Asia.
Throughout its six-decade history, the
CIA has resisted accountability, with even some of its own nonspook
directors kept in the dark about the agency's most troubling activities.
As for the public's elected representatives, Nancy Pelosi is the
most recent in a long line of legislators to accuse the CIA of
deliberately misleading Congressional overseers.
None of this is likely to change soon,
and not without a huge fight. Half a century after Ike's famous
admonition, conflict and intrigue remain the engine of our economy,
and everyone from private equity firms to missile makers to car
and truck manufacturers count on that to continue. The homeland
security industry, the most recent head to grow on this hydra,
is now seeking permanency.
So Barack Obama is boxed in. But so are
the American people, and so, really, is democracy itself. Bringing
this inconvenient truth out in the open is the essential first
step toward taking back control of our government - and our future.
For all the reasons laid out here, Obama will need help. He may,
in the rote formulation, hold "the most powerful office in
the world." However, the extent to which he controls the
government he heads, is another matter.
Russ Baker is an investigative journalist
and founder of the nonprofit reporting web site whowhatwhy.com.
His latest book, "Family of Secrets: the Bush Dynasty, America's
Invisible Government, and the Hidden History of the Last Fifty
Years," now available in hardcover, will be published in
paperback November 10. Gore Vidal calls it "one of the most
important books of the past ten years."