WASHINGTON — For a smart man, President Obama professes to know very little about a great number of things going on in his administration.
On Sunday night, The Wall Street Journal reported that he didn’t learn until this summer that the National Security Agency had been bugging the phones of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other world leaders.
That followed by a few days a claim by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius that Obama didn’t know about problems with the HealthCare.gov website before the rest of the world learned of them after the Oct. 1 launch.
It stretches credulity to think that the United States was spying on world leaders without the president’s knowledge, or that he was blissfully unaware of huge technical problems that threatened to undermine his main legislative achievement. But on issues including the IRS targeting flap and the Justice Department’s use of subpoenas against reporters, White House officials have frequently given a variation on this theme.
Question: What did Obama know and when did he know it?
Answer: Not much, and about a minute ago.
The Associated Press’ Josh Lederman led off Monday’s White House briefing with an obvious question: “Was the president kept out of the loop about what the NSA was doing?”
“I am not going to get into details of internal discussions,” press secretary Jay Carney replied, repeating previous promises that “we do not and will not monitor the chancellor’s communications.” This formulation conspicuously omits the phrase “did not.”
CNN’s Jim Acosta cited the HealthCare.gov rollout and the IRS targeting, which Obama said he learned about through news reports. “Is there a concern,” Acosta asked, “that the president is being kept in the dark on some of these issues?”
Carney told Acosta he had “conflated a bunch of very disparate issues.”
“Republican critics,” Acosta said, “are making the case, though, that the president appears to be in the dark about some pretty significant stories that are swirling around this White House.”
“Well, Republican critics say a lot of things, Jim,” Carney replied icily.
That’s true. But in this case, the Republicans understated the number of issues on which the president has claimed to be in the dark. A compilation by the Republican National Committee titled “The Bystander President” cited the NSA spying on Merkel, the Obamacare rollout and an investigation of the IRS’ targeting of political groups (the White House counsel knew of the inquiry but said she didn’t inform Obama). The RNC also mentioned the failure of clean-energy company Solyndra, which had received government funding (Carney had said Obama read about it in “news accounts”), and the attempts to go after reporters’ phone and email records (which the president also found out about from reading the news, Carney said).
The RNC didn’t mention that Obama had allegedly known nothing about an FBI investigation of an affair involving David Petraeus that led him to resign as CIA director. Neither did it mention two other claims that conservatives often question: Obama’s ignorance of a guns-on-the-border sting operation called Fast and Furious that went awry, and his unawareness of requests for additional diplomatic security in Libya before a U.S. outpost in Benghazi was attacked. There’s no reason Obama should have known about these two issues. But how could he not know his spies were bugging the German chancellor?
“Is it believable that the president would not know about surveillance of the head of state of a close American ally?” ABC News’ Jon Karl asked Carney. “Does that sound plausible to you?”
This finally provoked a hint from Carney that Obama did, in fact, know that the NSA was bugging Merkel. “The Wall Street Journal probably doesn’t appreciate the suggestion that their story is wrong,” he said, referring to a report that said Obama learned of the activity in the summer, “but I would say simply that we’re not going to comment on specific activities reported in the press.”
Another hint came from Carney’s assurance that “the president has full confidence in Gen. (Keith) Alexander and the leadership at the NSA.” Obama probably wouldn’t have such confidence if that leadership had kept him in the dark about something as consequential as the bugging of world leaders’ phones.
On one level, it would be reassuring, and much more credible, if the White House admitted that Obama is more in the loop than he has let on. On another level, it would be disconcerting: Is it better that he didn’t know about his administration’s missteps — or that he knew about them and didn’t stop them?
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.