Call it the "Sergeant Schultz defense." In response to almost any controversy, we are told that President Obama "knew nothing," recalling the famous line from Master Sergeant Hans Georg Schultz, the inept POW camp guard in the 60s TV sitcom, Hogan's Heroes.
Of course, the actor who played Schultz (John Banner) had a reason for feigning ignorance; he was potraying a character who was supposed to be bumbling. Mr. Banner preferred it that way; he was a Jewish refugee who fled the Nazis in the late 1930s, a path followed by co-stars Werner Klemperer and Leon Askin. All three lost family members in the Holocaust, and they found it ironic that many of their on-screen roles were Nazis or German soldiers.
So what is Mr. Obama's excuse? Pick any scandal, from Benghazi to the IRS targeting of conservative groups, and the President was out of the loop. Never mind that he participated in a White House meeting on the security of our diplomatic facilities the day before the attack in Libya (emphasis ours), or that the IRS commissioner visited 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on numerous occasions, while the agency was systematically denying tax-exempt status to various Tea Party organizations. Borrowing a line from another famous know-nothing (Vichy police Captain Louis Renault in Cascablanca), Mr. Obama must have been "shocked....shocked to learn such things were going on during his administration.
Ordinarily, such sophistry wouldn't get past the mainstream media, but with most of the press corps carrying water for the administration, they've been willing to take Mr. Obama at his word, however dubious it may be. So whenever the President runs into trouble, he simply borrows a page from the guard at Stalag 13, and feigns ignorance. Of course, it certainly helps that the mainstream media has helped sustain this charade; whenever the President claims he learned about the latest scandal in the morning paper, the stenographers in the White House press corps go to dramatic lengths to figure why he was uniformed.
Consider the latest revelations from the NSA global surveillance scandal. In recent weeks, we've learned that the agency has spied on virtually everyone, including the Pope; leaders in Brazil and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. News that NSA intercepted Ms. Merkel's cell phone conversations prompted an angry call from the German leader to President Obama. In response, we assume that he gave the same, lame explanation that he's been offering the American public. That's right, the American President had no idea that the NSA was monitoring the communications of his foreign counterparts.
Naturally, that excuse has more holes than a block of Swiss. First, isolating the phone traffic of the German Chancellor--out of billons of cell calls made daily--was a rather impressive feat of spycraft. Secondly, the contents of such conversations aren't part of the daily haul, disseminated to all consumers with access to TS/SCI information, via JWICS. If we had to guess, we'd say the Merkel conversations were part of a SAP/SAR initiative (Special Access Program/Special Access Required). That means that only a handful of individuals in the U.S. government were briefed on the material, and participants had to sign a special non-disclosure agreement for that specific program.
It's also likely that such high-value intelligence found its way into the Presidential Daily Brief on a recurring basis. So, if the reporting didn't identify Ms. Merkel by name, her identity was probably no secret, based on how the "source" was described. If one of the participants in a phone call is identified as "a foreign leader," and the conversation relates to German government business, then it's fairly easy to deduce that we were eavesdropping on Ms. Merkel, even if you're as uncurious as Barack Obama.
And if that's no enough, there are enough senior intelligence officials involved with the PDB to answer any questions about sources and methods that might arise. So far, no one in the press corps has bothered to ask if Mr Obama ever inquired about how we were getting such good information on the personal thoughts and positions of the German Chancellor.
To be fair, plausible denial is a standard tactic in the intelligence business. When the Russians shot down that U-2 flown by Francis Gary Powers in 1960, Washington first claimed that the aircraft (and its CIA pilot) were on a weather reconnaissance mission. Needless to say, that excuse didn't last very long, despite Washington's best efforts to distance the Eisenhower administration from a major intelligence embarassment. The U-2 incident reminds us that even plausible cover stories are sometime overcome by the truth, and there's a certain moment when you have to come clean. It will be curious to see how long Mr. Obama and his handlers cling to the "no nothing" defense.
Indeed, Mr. Obama's denials may be undercut by his own spooks. Intel vets basically quickly dismissed at the President's claims, according to Shane Harris and Noah Shachtman at Foreign Policy:
A former official, who served in a prior administration, said it was essentially impossible that the president wouldn't know foreign leaders were being monitored by U.S. intelligence agencies, and principally the NSA, as part of regular operations aimed at keeping him informed about diplomatic relations and negotiations. Information on foreign leaders that is based on or other signals intelligence is "unique," the former official said, and its nature is obvious to anyone reading or hearing an intelligence report or receiving a briefing.
"If you saw it, you'd know that it came out of somebody's mouth," the former official said. "I cannot believe that [Obama's national security staff] didn't brief the president on foreign leaders when he was going in to visit with them." Much of that information would have comes from signals intelligence. And the failure to inform the president that a piece of information came from spying on a leader could be a fireable offense, the former White said. "It's almost a dereliction not to tell him."
To date, no one has been dismissed from the White House staff--or the NSA--because Mr. Obama "wasn't informed" about surveillance activities directed against dozens of world leaders.
Draw your own conclusions.