Now that opinion is increasingly turning against the NSA’s spying activities, the supposed supervisors and watchdogs of these programs in the White House and Congress are scurrying to deflect blame from themselves and we are seeing the familiar ‘rogue elephant’ theory emerging, suggesting that the NSA was doing things on its own initiative and that the policy makers at the top were unaware.
We are all familiar with this tactic that goes back at least to the CIA activities revealed after the Bay of Pigs, by the Church commission in 1975, through Iran-Contra, and to the present NSA.
But the rogue elephant theory is bogus.
John Prados, author of a new history of the era, The Family Jewels, calls the “rogue elephant” idea a “fiction.”
“That cute turn of phrase got Frank Church a lot of headlines, but it was ill-considered and created more misunderstanding than enlightenment,” he writes. “Intelligence agencies operated under presidential control at all times.” That doesn’t mean the White House knew everything the spooks were up to, of course, “but they made it clear what they wanted.”
What about today’s NSA, I asked [Peter] Fenn [who was an investigator for the Church commission] in a telephone interview this week. “Rogue elephant?”
“Rogue elephant referred to activities of the CIA, especially in the area of assassinations, with Castro in Cuba in particular,” he recalled. “In a lot of that activity, those folks were taking oral instruction and running rogue with it.”
Under the principle of “plausible denial,” the spooks left certain unsavory details, such as murder plots, unspoken in the president’s presence, he said. “A lot of it was set in motion with a wink and a nod.” (Decades later, the CIA was careful to get approval for kidnapping and torturing terrorist suspects in writing from the George W. Bush White House.)
So the question for the current president is: What did he know, and when did he know it?
“My sense is when the president gets his daily brief, it doesn’t take a mental giant to know where this [information] is coming from,” Fenn said. “I mean, it didn’t come from bar talk.”
As the proverb says, success has many fathers, failure is an orphan.