As every school kid knows, Harry Truman instituted the doctrine of ultimate responsibility. The "buck stops here" became the symbol of strong leadership from an Oval Office where the phrase was prominently displayed on the presidential desk. Truman mainly held to that approach except now and then when he relied on something we’ve come to know as "plausible deniability," as had presidents before him.
For those untutored in the ways of Washington, the policy simply means keeping potentially questionable activities away from direct presidential involvement so that he can plausibly deny any knowledge if things go wrong. More than one president in the modern era has escaped serious damage using this claim. Ronald Reagan, for instance, escaped personal harm in the Iran-Contra scandal through this disclaimer of any knowledge. John Kennedy also could blame the CIA for the Bay of Pigs fiasco, claiming his own alleged lack of input. That was plausible enough at the time although skeptics abounded in both cases. Richard Nixon tried to use it, but failed.
One wonders whether Barack Obama, by bringing interrogation of suspected terrorists dangerously close to his own doorstep, might have weakened his ability to employ this defense. For those who are puzzled, the president has announced plans to establish an elite corps of seasoned interrogators under the auspices of the National Security Council in the White House. Although this team assembled from a number of federal agencies will be housed in FBI headquarters here, the responsibility for their actions will fall directly under the president’s control.
The decision to establish the group and essentially take control of all but the most mundane questioning of suspects away from the beleaguered CIA was to avoid the kind of "harsh" practices that have become so controversial in the effort to prevent terrorist threats here and throughout the world. Presumably the members of this force would avoid the legal pitfalls that plagued the Bush administration following the Sept. 11, 2001 assault on America and are now the subject of an investigation by a special prosecutor appointed by Attorney General Eric Holder.
But it is naïve to believe that there will never be a time when even this highly talented cadre with all its moral imperatives won’t embark on a course that could bring more than a little controversy to the White House. When that happens, the ability to wall off the president will have become far more difficult. Actually setting up another intelligence group, even one just dedicated to interrogation if that is all it is, is probably not a great idea in the first place.
The creation of this newest group seems the direct result of the political pressures to overturn Obama’s promise not to pursue past mistakes but to move ahead. He obviously has capitulated to those in and out of Congress intent on further demonizing the past administration.
Every president sets the moral tone of his administration and it is enough that Obama has declared that certain practices won’t be tolerated. Also it is a near certainty that the CIA’s past methods aren’t likely to be repeated as the agency strives to ward off further embarrassment and a complete breakdown in morale. The president and his advisers should be careful that this approach doesn’t backfire and leave him vulnerable to accusations that ultimately lead to large scandals. With plausible deniability less of a possibility the damage could be serious.
The last thing Obama wants to hear are the words made famous by former Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee during the Watergate investigation: "What did the president know and when did he know it?" It was the phrase that most summed up Nixon’s dilemma and ultimately brought his resignation.
It is always better to set the guidelines and stand back ready to show great surprise when someone fails to follow them, which they always will. Under the current circumstances that may be tough. On most things, the buck does stop at the president’s desk, but there are times when it is best for the country that it stops before reaching there.
(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)aol.com.)