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Agent Obama

by James Lileks

Every so often you find yourself reading a gripping account of a super-secret government program designed to foil the plots of our foes, and you think: Why am I reading a gripping account of a super-secret government program designed to foil the plots of our foes? During the Bush years you could count on the New York Times to reveal any stealthy scheme, just to embarrass the cowboy-in-chief; now, during the tenure of Professor Wonderful, we get secret details to remind us what an awesome war he’s running. That Yemeni bomb-plot we foiled? Oh, we totally had a secret double agent in there, working with Saudi and Israeli intelligence! His name was Bob, and he lives with his family in Silver Spring now. Here’s his address, if you want to see the house on Google Street View.

Shut up! Shut up already! Stop telling me secret things!

Now we have details about Stuxnet, the worm that wreaked havoc on the Iranian nuclear program. The New York Times ran an excerpt of a tell-all book that says Obama approved the Stuxnet program, inasmuch as Bush started it and Obama didn’t stop it. At one point, the worm spilled into the wild and the project threatened to unravel. The story’s first quote is telling: The president frowned, looked around the room, told everyone they had 48 hours to engineer a kill switch, and said, “Gentlemen, failure is not an option.”

Just kidding! “‘Should we shut this thing down?’ Mr. Obama asked, according to members of the president’s national security team who were in the room.”

It could be worse. Given the hagiography that infuses the Left’s view of President Obama, nowadays you expect to read something like this:

The president, who has frequently cited his high-school habit of getting baked on reefer and watching Star Trek as instrumental in his intuitive understanding of computers and the complex codes that make them run, strode into the room with an unmistakable air of purpose and concern. He had found an error in line 27,394 of the code.

“There are those who say the value of this container should be two or four,” he said, “but I reject these false choices. I say it is time we try three.” The change was made, the program was recompiled, and it ran perfectly. Within a week, it had not only found Osama bin Laden by analyzing Pakistani credit-card transactions for purchases of moisturizer (bin Laden was rumored to suffer from chapped hands), it had also identified millions in savings to be had in the drone-manufacturing process, mostly by expanding the “kill list” to include workers taking a smoke break outside.

Behind the scenes, aides are often frustrated by the public’s inability to understand the president’s technical mastery. “You got Fox News out there 24/7 telling people he’s a Muslim, and people understand that Islamic mathematicians invented algebra, and they hated algebra.”

You would not be surprised to learn that the president met with Bill Gates and said he probably knew more about computers than any other president in history and his experience in Chicago gave him a keen appreciation of their strategic applications. (He played a lot of Space Invaders.) Nor would you be surprised if he told aides to let it be known he personally approved the nose-cone art for the drones, to make sure it was inclusive of all genders and body types. There might be some Pakistani villager with binoculars who suffered from poor self-image if she saw some classic cheesecake on a drone in the sky right before it blew her legs off.

You would, however, be surprised if they kept their mouths shut about these things. Key terms in the quote from the Times: “According to members of the president’s national security team who were in the room . . .” Unless a clown car pulled up and 15 guys in makeup got out, it should have been a fairly small team. So someone should be quaking about his job, right? You assume they cover this on your first day at work:

“Okay, this is a covert op. We’re in a race against time to stop Iran from getting the bomb, and in this shadow war we must never let the other side grasp the extent of our capabilities. Uh — question? There, in the back?”

“So if things go wrong and the program is discovered, can I tell a reporter about it a few years later, with gripping details about meetings with the president? I promise not to use my full name.”

“You can, but you will be stuck with a poison dart in your shin on a trip to Disney World, and we’ll make sure the death report blames ‘tertiary syphilis.’ Anyone else? Okay then.”

So you’d like to think. But the long twilight struggle has turned into standing in front of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with a megaphone, apparently. CNN recently reported: “The president himself became the first administration official to acknowledge U.S. drones were conducting attacks in Pakistan when he made a comment to a supporter in an online chat, even though officials through all the years of the program had never said publicly they were being conducted.” A comment. To a supporter. In a chat room. It’s not quite like FDR having lunch at Rudy’s Haus of Schnitzels and talking about D-day planning in a loud, confident voice, but it’s not exactly discreet.

Perhaps aides will make it easier in the future; when the president gets an online message about national security, there will be a little blue button at the bottom of the screen that says “share this on Twitter.”

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

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