U.S. President Barack Obama applauds as former president George W. Bush arrives on stage at the dedication ceremony for the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, April 25, 2013.
Jason Reed/Reuters

The Oval Office code of silence

Updated

President Obama won’t discuss publicly the National Security Agency’s bugging of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone. He won’t even confirm that the bugging occurred, even though

a.) It apparently began under his predecessor, George W. Bush, whose brusque treatment of U.S. allies Obama turned into a campaign issue in a 2008 speech—delivered, as it happens, in Berlin;

and

b.) According to the Wall Street Journal, Obama ordered the bugging discontinued as soon as he learned about it this past summer.

The Obama administration says it’s reviewing NSA policies, but it won’t say what those policies are.  Peculiar though this reticence may seem, it’s entirely in keeping with past practice, in Democratic and Republican White Houses alike. Call it Oval Office Omertà: Presidents have always kept the secrets of their predecessors, even when circumstances appeared to warrant ratting them out.

Take Lyndon Johnson. As president, Johnson kept mum after he learned that the Central Intelligence Agency had, during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, plotted to assassinate Fidel Castro. Johnson kept this secret even though Eisenhower was a Republican and even though Johnson had reason to suspect that his political nemesis and rival, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, had participated in the foiled plots.

Johnson came to believe that John F. Kennedy’s assassination was engineered by Castro in retaliation against the CIA plots (which half a century later looks pretty unlikely). Yet Johnson still held his tongue, at least publicly, until 1973—four years after he left the White House, five years after RFK’s death, and 10 years after JFK’s death—when he famously told the Atlantic that “we had been operating a damned Murder, Inc. in the Caribbean.”

Then there was Richard Nixon. Not the most bipartisan of souls, Nixon, similarly, fought tooth and nail to prevent publication of the Pentagon Papers, the government’s secret history of the Vietnam war, even though the many lies it documented emanated not from Nixon’s own Republican administration but from Johnson’s Democratic one. (That’s not to say Nixon didn’t himself tell lies about Vietnam; merely that the Pentagon Papers were compiled before Nixon took office.)

And don’t forget President George W. Bush, who, within a year of assuming office, issued an executive order giving former presidents veto power over release of their presidential papers. This action, though aimed at preventing disclosure of Reagan-era documents, also benefited, at least theoretically, Bush’s predecessor, Democrat Bill Clinton. But Clinton made clear his opposition to the executive order, and a judge later overturned it.

Obama’s silence about the Bush administration’s bugging isn’t as bad as Johnson’s and Nixon’s stonewalling, which concerned matters of more urgent interest to the American public. And it’s not nearly as sweeping as Bush’s.

Still, it’s pretty rankling. And it would be disappointing if the president were to let stand NSA chief Keith Alexander’s cavalier answer, at an Oct. 29 congressional hearing, to a question about the Merkel bugging. “As long as I’ve been in the intelligence business, 50 years,” Alexander said, “leadership intentions in whatever form that’s expressed is a basic tenet of what we are to collect and analyze.” Alexander added that U.S. allies spy with impunity on Americans.

But surely the U.S. would be livid, and rightly so, if it discovered that, say, the United Kingdom had successfully intercepted transmissions from Obama’s Blackberry. And it’s not as if the U.S. takes it in stride when it catches allies spying here. Ask Jonathan Pollard, imprisoned since 1987 for passing classified documents to Israel.

Oval Office Omertà has some rational justifications. When presidents reveal or denounce actions taken in secret by their predecessors they risk seeing their priorities shoved aside to re-fight old political battles. They also risk going to war with their own executive-branch employees, since many of these (including Alexander) served under the predecessors. And in at least some instances, there may be real national security reasons not to reveal certain information.

But when Obama said, in his 2008 speech, that true partnership and progress required “allies who will listen to each other,” tapping cell phones probably wasn’t what he had in mind. If Obama really wasn’t told, until this summer, that his NSA was bugging Merkel, then he really needs to fire whoever it was who kept this crucial information from him. And if Obama deems it foolish and offensive to wiretap the leaders of countries with which the U.S. is closely allied—it’s hard to imagine he doesn’t—then he should say so, plainly and clearly. Even if it risks bruised feelings and loud recriminations at the next convocation of the ex-president’s club. 

NSA and Surveillance

The Oval Office code of silence

Updated