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Was It the National Security Bureaucrats Who Forced Obama to Hold on to the Torture Photos?

Politicians come and go, but the folks who actually run the government have an agenda of their own, including covering their mistakes.

Allow me to share some analysis about the way things work in Washington. President Obama's flip-flop on his agreement to turn over photographs of detainees being tortured by American soldiers is a message with broad and clear implications. Those who believe that the Obama Administration should expose and prosecute persons who committed war crimes should understand that it is not going to happen the way they would like, or as quickly, because Obama is having internal battles as well. His pullback is not occurring because he fears that Republicans will attack him (he knows they will); rather it is occurring because he needs the national security community behind him, and they fear they will be further embarrassed and humiliated if more information is revealed.

According to The Washington Post, President Obama told White House lawyers he does not "feel comfortable" releasing the photos because of the reaction they could cause against U.S. troops, and because "he believes that the national security implications of such a release have not been fully presented to the court," in responding to the ACLU's Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. [Emphasis added.]

Even before looking closely at Obama's change of mind, I understood immediately what had taken place, as soon as I heard the report on the radio. President Obama was, in fact, speaking for the national security bureaucracy in announcing his change of mind. I knew it would happen at some point. Although his first instinct had been to release the pictures, as he had released the new Justice Department torture memos, it was clear he had been turned around, and I was certain it was the work of the national security bureaucracy.

My hunch was confirmed by the AP report, which explained, "American commanders in the war zones expressed deep concern about fresh damage the photos might do, especially as the U.S. tries to wind down the Iraq war and step up operations against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan." How do the commanders know this to be the case? How do they know that it is the not the case that, to the contrary, more people around the world might admire us for openly correcting past mistakes? In fact, you can be certain "the commanders" do not truly know that the photos will harm America's image, but they do know how to protect the national security bureaucracy, after having risen to its top ranks. This is exactly what is going on here, and the explanation was pure bureaucratic excuse-making.

The National Security Bureaucracy

On average, it takes about 100 days for the great Executive Branch bureaucracy to begin to work its way and will on the new officials, and that threshold has now been crossed. If anyone believes a rookie president and his new team can take over the executive branch, and actually run it without the cooperation of the permanent people, those who remain in place as presidents and their appointees come and go, he or she does not understand how Washington really works. Political appointees come and go, but the folks who actually run the government have an ongoing agenda of trying not to let these part-time political people screw it up too badly. Nowhere are there more of these permanent career professionals than in the departments and agencies that constitute the national security community.

Few presidents have true national security experience before arriving at the White House. For example, of the last twelve presidents - Truman, Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and Obama - only Eisenhower, Nixon, and Poppy Bush truly understood national security operations when they arrived in the Oval Office. President Obama, like all the others, is getting on-the-job training. Who is doing that training? While his appointees with national security experience are playing a role, they themselves were all trained by the national security bureaucracy, and since the Democrats have been out of power for eight years, Obama's national security team is still relying heavily on the career people. It takes about 18 to 24 months for a new presidential team to get control of the national security behemoth.

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