The Obama National Security Team's Civil War

Division in the national security ranks could leave the president with one more mess he doesn't need.

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By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

If the pre-election polls told us anything negative about Barack Obama, it was that the electorate harbored concerns about his experience in foreign policy and national security. After only four years in the U.S. Senate, Obama could not match—or even come close to—the public's perception of John McCain on these issues.

McCain, the voters said, possessed a level of experience commensurate with what they viewed as the demands of the job, far and away superior to his opponent's.

Obama's team dealt with this in two ways. First, it downplayed the importance of foreign policy and national security by playing up domestic and economic issues. In 2008's version of "It's the economy, stupid," Obama talked about healthcare and global warming and the economic crisis, when he talked about anything specific, that is. Mostly, he—or more correctly, his surrogates—just attacked the Republicans for attacking him for being inexperienced.

Second, and this was how Delaware Sen. Joe Biden got to be vice president instead of Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, Obama surrounded himself with people knowledgeable about foreign policy and national security to whom he could point whenever an issue arose.

Coming into office, he beefed up his team even further with heavyweights like New York Sen. Hillary Clinton at the State Department and former Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Jones, whom he picked to be his national security adviser. He tapped former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta to run the CIA and he asked former CIA director Robert Gates, whom George W. Bush had made U.S. secretary of defense, to stay on at the Pentagon.

So far, so good. But now that the president is out of town on vacation, well...

When the cat's away...

For months, reporters have downplayed the idea that there are divisions in Obama's national security team. They have failed, for example, to look too closely into the idea that General Jones has been on the receiving end of negative press, courtesy of one of his cabinet-level colleagues, who may be jealous of the national security adviser's access to the president and his senior staff. There is more than one reporter who thinks this may be the case. Now, without the president being gone from Washington even for one full day, comes a damaging leak about the CIA's Panetta, which ABC News reported involved "a profanity-laced screaming match" inside the White House over plans by Attorney General Eric Holder to open an investigation into whether agents might be guilty of acts the president has labeled as "torture."

Panetta, who has already clashed in public once with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California over the issue of what the CIA told Congress about interrogation techniques and when representatives were told, if they were told, may have his head on the chopping block. According to ABC, current and former intelligence officials say "senior White House staff members are already discussing a possible shake-up of top national security officials."

Whether or not the discord exists, someone is going to some degree of trouble to make it appear as though this is the case. The White House press office denies the shouting match took place, but the denial comes way down in the story, well below the salacious headline and provocative lead paragraph. With healthcare reform imperiled and many analysts suggesting the cap-and-trade energy tax is all but dead, division among his national security team is a diversion the president really doesn't need right now.

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