When the CIA’s 1961 anti-Castro operation known as the Bay of Pigs went belly up, President John F. Kennedy, freshly inaugurated, was outraged at the fiasco. He called into the Oval Office the three top CIA officials most directly responsible for the operation—Allen Dulles, director of Central Intelligence; Lieutenant General Charles Cabell, the agency’s deputy director; and Richard Bissell, deputy director for plans (espionage and clandestine operations). He told them they would all be fired.
"Under the British system," he
The president must have known that his own actions contributed to the disaster. After U.S. warplanes had destroyed half the air force of Cuba’s communist leader, Fidel Castro, Kennedy had cancelled a second air strike designed to wipe out the remaining Castro planes, which numbered just seven and were arrayed in a highly vulnerable formation on the ground. Those planes subsequently destroyed the supply convoy of the refugee army that had landed at the Bay of Pigs, rendering it helpless in the face of Castro’s counterforce.
But, notwithstanding his own culpability, Kennedy had to establish accountability. And he was correct in saying that in a parliamentary system accountability attaches quickly to the national leader, the prime minister; whereas, in the U.S. presidential system, there is no such safety valve and the president himself must fix the blame. Thus Dulles, Cabell and Bissell, all honest and highly effective public servants, had to pay the price.
These thoughts are prompted by Monday’s Wall Street Journal report that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) ended a program of spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other world leaders after an internal administration review revealed to the White House the operation’s existence. As the Journal’s Siobhan Gorman and Adam Entous write, this revelation "suggests President Barack Obama went nearly five years without knowing his own spies were bugging the phones of world leaders."
If this account is correct and Obama really was out of the loop, then this is serious stuff on a number of levels.
First, what kind of government do we have if operatives can tap the phones of major allied leaders without the president even knowing about it? Consider the diplomatic fallout—a major U.S. embarrassment worldwide, with expressions of anger being hurled across the Atlantic and relations with Germany and France (another NSA target) in a state of deterioration. And for what? What did government officials hope to gain from such actions that would justify, upon exposure, such an outcome?
Second, given those consequences, you might think that government officials would know that they should not undertake such activities without getting clearance from higher-ups—all the way to the White House. That they didn’t (if the reports are accurate) suggests two things: an out-of-control agency and a hapless president.
And, third, if the NSA is running amok in this realm of diplomacy, what kind of mischief is it up to domestically? What kind of assurance can we assume as American citizens from an agency that pursues a program that could undermine the president’s leadership at home and abroad—without even letting him know what it’s doing?
But what is peculiar about this turn of events is the appearance that the president and his top aides don’t quite appreciate the significance of it all. When they learned about it, they sat on it, according to what we know so far. The president made no effort to get ahead of the story publicly and demonstrate to the American people that he takes it seriously. We learned about it from outside sources, not from the White House.
And what we do get, following the revelations, is bland pronouncements that lack any sense of seriousness about a matter that has embarrassed the nation and undermined its leader. NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines tells the Journal that the agency based its operations on priorities set across the U.S. government. She explains, "The agency’s activities stem from the National Intelligence Priorities Framework, which gives prioritization for the operation, planning and programming of U.S. intelligence analysis and collection."
Oh, now it makes sense. It would be interesting to inspect the language in that "Priorities Framework" that covers bugging the private telephones of the leaders of major countries that are U.S. allies. Either the NSA is taking liberties with that language or the language is part of a much bigger problem within the U.S. government. Either way, it would be nice to see some action on the part of Obama indicating he appreciates the ramifications of these unfortunate developments.
According to published reports, NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander and his deputy, John C. Inglis, are both scheduled to step down in coming months—Inglis by year’s end and Alexander at some point in the spring. Both departures are "voluntary," according to the reports. Alexander has been particularly vocal in defending his agency and his own actions as revelations of NSA activity have proliferated amid growing controversy.
Do they deserve the treatment meted out by John Kennedy in the case of Messrs. Dulles, Cabell, and Bissell? It is impossible to know based on public information thus far. But it would be reassuring to see some evidence that President Obama is bringing to this episode a clear understanding of the importance of governmental accountability.
Robert W. Merry is political editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.
Image: White House Flickr