Tilting at Windmills

Who’s in charge of national security? A photo in a recent article in Newsweek about the August threat to financial institutions shows Frances Townsend, the White House’s terrorism advisor, earnestly examining a document on her desk. Looking over her shoulder is not Condoleezza Rice or Tom Ridge, but Karl Rove.

Bush’s acceptance speech was loaded with the kind of lies for which he has become infamous. A couple of examples. He said that health decisions should be made by patients and doctors, “not by bureaucrats in Washington,” falsely implying that the Washington bureaucrat is the problem instead of the real culprits in the HMOs and health-insurance companies. But the one I like the most is when he talked about the threat that lawyers pose to “small businesses.” The line won loud applause, but, if you’ve ever run a small business, as I did here for 32 years, you know that your smallness is a lovely deterrent to the litigious. Whenever we were threatened with a suit, I would mention our modest bank balance to the lawyer involved. That was usually the last we heard from him.

One thing the rest of the country thinks it knows about West Virginia is that its politics are corrupt. Actually, they’re not as corrupt as outsiders think; most precincts are clean. Alas, however, there continues to be evidence to support the conventional view. And nowhere is the evidence more evident than in Logan County. According to a recent report by the Charleston Gazette‘s Chris Wetterich, “Logan lawyer Mark O. Hrutkay paid more than $10,000 to Logan County Sheriff Johnny ‘Big John’ Menendez, in order to buy votes for his wife, delegate Lidella Wilson-Hrutkay.” The Gazette’s story reveals that, in addition to the sheriff, Logan police chief Alvin R. “Chipper” Porter Jr. was also charged with paying off voters.

Ten thousand dollars for a seat in the legislature represents a considerable inflation since my time back home, as is illustrated by my favorite Logan County story, which I assure you is not apocryphal. It seems that the Logan County boss was asked by a Kennedy operative how much money he needed to make sure that Kennedy would win the favor of the local electorate in the 1960 primary. The boss answered “35,” by which he meant thirty-five hundred dollars. The Kennedy operative, however, was from out of state, and unschooled in the fiscal standards of Logan County politics. He soon returned carrying a briefcase packed with thirty-five thousand dollars. The boss, managing to conceal his astonishment, chose not to clarify the misunderstanding.

Ralph Nader recently objected to being called a “spoiler,” according to The New York Times. He said spoiler is a “contemptuous” word. That’s right, pal.

For all of you who are disturbed by the success of Bush’s lies and the ineptitude of the Kerry campaign in dealing with them, take heart from Kerry’s ability to come through in the clutch. We saw it in Iowa, and again in the other primaries that clinched the nomination. We saw it again at the Democratic convention where he gave his best speech ever.

In the 1960 West Virginia primary, Kennedy was so far behind that even that “35” in Logan County wasn’t going to produce a statewide victory. To achieve that, Kennedy needed to reach the voters who couldn’t be bought. In the last two weeks of the campaign, he rose to the challenge, making his best speeches, even beating Hubert Humphrey in a debate when Humphrey was widely considered the party’s ablest and most articulate debater. If Kerry can come through in the same way and win at least two of the three debates, I think he’ll be elected.

My friend Mickey Kaus dismisses Kerry’s potential for coming through in the clutch by saying that he’s only done it in a general election in the largely Democratic state of Massachusetts. But, Mickey, the same could have been said of Jack Kennedy in 1960.

My son Christian teaches social studies in a public high school in San Bernardino, Calif. The school’s population is divided into thirds of black, white, and Hispanic, and tends toward the lower half of the economic scale. This summer, he polled his world history class for political preferences after Kerry’s convention speech.

The response: “White males and third-generation Hispanic males were uniformly Republican. Blacks and first- and second-generation Hispanics were uniformly Democratic. The only swing group is white girls. Half lean Republican and half Democratic, and several keep changing their minds.”

Chris’s personal observation is that this kind of split among females extends up to the age of 35. Among the older, 25-35, California members of this group with whom he is acquainted, he sees a ray of hope. Their favorite musical group is the Dixie Chicks, whose leader said George W. Bush made her “ashamed to be from Texas.”

More significantly for Kerry, Chris believes, is what he can learn from the themes of the group’s songs: “the desire for decent jobs, the desire to care for their kids adequately, and the wish that men would believe in them.” Chris thinks Kerry can appeal to them by offering “down-to-earth, practical solutions to day-to-day problems.”

This fits the advice Kerry is getting, to concentrate on domestic issues. I wish I thought it was that easy, but I don’t. I’m afraid Kerry can’t win as long as the voters think Bush will be better on national security issues. A recent article about the “persuadable” voters by the AP’s Ron Fournier cites one fence-sitter: “As far as Kerry stepping up to a tricky foreign policy situation right now, I’m not sure he’d be quite ready.”

Chris quotes one of his undecided girls, not directly on the issue of foreign policy, but on the overall feeling of security she needs to have:

“The Democrats seem kind of like boyfriends. They promise these great things and get you excited, but you never know if they really mean it. The Republicans are more like Dads. They’re all judgmental, and you don’t feel like they really understand. But on the other hand, you know they’re not going to change, and they’re always going to be there.”

The case Kerry has to make is that you don’t want them to always be there if they’re almost always wrong. The latest example of error comes from Sen. Bob Graham’s new book, Intelligence Matters, which, Knight-Ridder reports, reveals that on Feb. 19, 2002, “just four months after the invasion of Afghanistan,” Gen. Tommy Franks told Graham “that important resources–including the Predator drone aircraft crucial to the search for Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda leaders–were being shifted to prepare for the war against Iraq.” In other words, more than a year before that war actually started, the war against those responsible for 9/11 was being sacrificed to Bush’s obsession with Iraq. For more on this tragic error, see “Bush’s Lost Year” by James Fallows in this month’s Atlantic.

Michael F. Scheuer, the “anonymous” who wrote the bestselling Imperial Hubris, also wrote a letter to the 9/11 Commission that supports the position taken here last month that the commission failed to come to grips with the people problem at the CIA and other national-security agencies. He says the report “seems to deliberately ignore those who were directly culpable of negligence or dereliction…. By finding no one culpable, you will allow the mindset that got America to 9/11 to endure in whatever new security structure is established.” In other words, you can reorganize and reorganize, but nothing will change until you change people, getting rid of the incompetent and the mediocre, and replacing them with talented and dedicated people with the right skills.

There was a little zinger in Scheuer’s letter–for which, by the way, I am indebted to Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times–that will delight everyone who has seen similar behavior by the head of a government agency. George Tenet “starved…the bin Laden unit of officers,” writes Scheuer, “while finding plenty of officers to staff his personal public relations office as well as the staffs that handled diversity, multiculturalism and the employee newsletter.” Agencies that regularly complain that Congress has not given them enough money to put essential staff in the field always seem to find the funds to support a platoon of public relations experts and to staff all kinds of non-essential headquarters functions.

Back to the government’s people problem for a moment. A recent study by Earl Devaney, the Department of Interior’s Inspector General, shows that 20 percent of Interior employees do not report misconduct by colleagues because “nothing will be done by my supervisor.” That they know what they’re talking about is confirmed by the study’s finding: that 64 percent of supervisors, according to Stephen Barr’s account of the report in The Washington Post, “admit that they have not taken disciplinary action when warranted.”

The fear I mentioned in our last issue, that if you point out a colleague’s failings, he may not hesitate to call attention to yours, is also confirmed by the Interior study: 28 percent of the employees said they did not report misconduct for fear of retaliation.

On July 17, The New York Times ran an interesting story about how air marshals are required to follow a rigid dress code that demands a coat and tie at all times. This could make sense on flights largely filled with businesspeople. Suppose, however, the plane is going from Hawaii to the mainland United States and is crowded with people wearing those open-necked Hawaiian shirts. Indeed, travelers have learned to dress comfortably for all long distance flights. Even on short hauls, especially during the summer and on weekends, the tie-wearers can stand out. And if the marshals can be identified, terrorists know which planes not to hijack.

I was struck by the Times story because I had read its practically identical twin in The Washington Times of July 9. Unfortunately, the New York paper failed to acknowledge the original, written by Audrey Hudson. In August, Hudson wrote another story about marshals, reporting that they are on less than 5 percent of daily U.S. flights. I’m waiting for The New York Times‘ version to appear. Only this time I hope they give Hudson the credit she deserves.

Hudson’s latest captures the kind of revealing detail from the culture of bureaucracy that most journalists miss: “The government measures air marshal protection by the number of flights they take, as opposed to the number of miles they fly, so marshals often fly two or three legs a day, rather than long-haul flights.”

Tom Ridge’s Department of Homeland Security can thus claim, as it does, that its marshals “fly on tens of thousands of flights each month.” But how much difference do they make, if most of these flights are from Little Rock to Knoxville? In case you’ve forgotten, all of the flights used by the 9/11 hijackers were for long distances, chosen because they had large loads of fuel that made them into better flying bombs.

If that isn’t enough to make you nervous, consider that the kind of bombs apparently used for bringing down the Russian airliners in August–bombs that were strapped to the passengers or in their carry-on luggage–can not be detected by security procedures currently in place at all but a handful of U.S. airports, where special explosive detection devices are being tested. According to Alan Levin of USA Today, these are Tampa, San Diego, Providence, Rochester, and Biloxi–just the kind of airports that are already awash with U.S. marshals boarding their short-haul flights.

Back to Logan County for a moment. A recent article on workers’ compensation claims for public school employees by Josh Hafenbrack of the Charleston Daily Mail shows that, while the average county paid out $1.35 for every $100 in payroll, the figure for Logan County is $3.47. “There is a culture of abuse in some counties,” explains Greg Burton, the executive director of West Virginia’s Workman’s Compensation Commission. “You will find households with multiple people on worker’s comp. It’s a way of life in some counties.”

The municipal government of Washington, D.C., has a culture with striking similarities to Logan County’s. Recently I saw a Washington Post article about the murder of a waiter from a local restaurant, Annie’s Paramount. I read it with interest because Annie’s has long been favored by Monthly employees for its reasonable prices and friendly atmosphere. The article, in explaining the lack of police protection in the neighborhood, quoted an official as saying one factor was that so many policemen were on sick leave. How many, I wondered? Was it disproportionate, a la Logan County, to the number of employees on sick leave from comparable organizations?

My assistant, Soyoung Ho, called the police department to inquire. First they said they weren’t sure they had the figures. Then they said our request had to be submitted in writing, and referred to their legal department. We wrote the letter but haven’t received a reply. But why did we have to write? And what on earth did the legal department have to do with the matter? It’s not as if we’re asking for names.

I read a few weeks ago that the counties around Miami were complaining that the city was getting the lion’s share of the area’s homeland security money. Why shouldn’t it? It’s obviously a much more likely target than Coral Gables, or any of the other surrounding communities.

Another story about another obvious target describes how a tenant of the Empire State Building is suing its owners to get them to provide better security. This made me wonder if the security of the most conspicuous target in New York City should be left up to the owners of the building. Usually, I would be against giving public money to help a private institution, but this is such a unique case that it seems clear an exception should be made. Yet a long story in The New York Times describing this incident did not even mention the possibility of public involvement.

The media have done a terrible job of explaining Kerry’s vote on the $87 billion appropriation to fund the war on Iraq, which has now become accepted as the prime example of Kerry’s flip-flopping. Any fair-minded person who looks at the record will see that Kerry supported the appropriation if sufficient tax revenue was provided so that the war’s cost would not add to the national debt. In 1944, this was the exact stand that Wendell Willkie, who had been the Republican presidential nominee in the previous election, took when he advocated even higher taxes than those proposed by President Roosevelt. And Roosevelt’s proposals were not modest, providing for the highest level of taxes in American history. FDR even suggested limiting net income to $25,000 per year until the war ended. If a similar proposal had been on the table in 2003, does anyone think Bush and his buddies would have actually gotten us into a war that they would have had to pay for? And whatever happened to responsible Republicans like Wendell Willkie?

What ever happened to John McCain’s outrage at the Swift Boat ads and at Bush’s failure to condemn them? McCain now says “I’d like to see him go further. But I’m not making this some kind of big issue.” Was McCain bought off by the prominent speaking slot he was given at the Republican National Convention? Or was he promised a major cabinet post when Powell or Rumsfeld retires? The New Republic‘s Franklin Foer thinks it’s because McCain still harbors presidential ambitions, for which he needs to burnish his regular Republican credentials.

I really have no idea what the reason is. But McCain’s change of heart reminds me of the reaction of politicians to the threat of photos showing them accepting a satchel of cash, or occupying a bed with someone other than their spouse. The only time I can recall seeing a hero wilt before my eyes like this was when Martin Luther King emerged from J. Edgar Hoover’s office after listening to wiretaps of his sexual adventures. Instead of denouncing Hoover, as he had been doing, King praised him.

The White House says that it does not endorse the Swift Boat ads. Yet, George H. W. Bush has called them “rather compelling,” Laura Bush has said they’re “not really unfair,” and Karl Rove has said that Kerry’s anti-Vietnam War statements depicted in one of the ads “tarnished” all veterans of the war. It’s nice of Rove to be there for the veterans now. But some may wonder why he wasn’t there in Vietnam when they were being shot at.

In his acceptance speech, Bush again emphasized his dedication to cutting taxes. Voters should know, however, that this has not always been the president’s position. When he and his partners bought the Texas Rangers baseball club, they wanted a new stadium. They did not, however, want to pay for it. What was the solution? Have the local citizens pay for it, through an increase in the sales tax. Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity tells the story of how they persuaded the voters to support the higher tax by threatening to move the Rangers to another city.

The ballclub now leases the stadium with lease payments counting towards a total price of $60 million, less than half of what it cost the taxpayers. With a deal like that in their pocket, Bush and the other owners saw the value of the team rise to a point that when it was sold Bush was paid $14.9 million for an investment that had cost him $606,302. The great tax cutter had enriched himself by getting taxes raised.

Another target for Kerry is the backdoor draft Bush has instituted with his stop-loss order compelling soldiers to stay in Iraq after their term of enlistment has expired. One soldier, reports Bob Egelko of the San Francisco Chronicle, has sued in federal court to block enforcement of the order. Its injustice is revealed by his record. He has already devoted nine years to the service of his country, four in the Marines and five in the Army. Kerry should make clear that this injustice is the responsibility of the Bush administration which went to war without enough troops to win the peace.

Conservatives have conned the people they screw economically into voting Republican by using a smokescreen of “values” to conceal what they’re really doing, argues Thomas Frank in his impressive new book What’s the Matter With Kansas? To prove Frank’s case, Arkansas’ Republican governor Mike Huckabee arrived in West Virginia last month with this message, according to the Charleston Gazette: “Church leaders and religious educators should push members of their organizations to vote in this election on a candidate’s position on social issues, like gay marriage and abortion.”

One day when I was working in the government, I was chatting with a young woman who had recently left my division for another in which she headed one of the smaller units. During our conversation I was somewhat taken aback when she referred to “my deputy”–there were only three other people in her unit.

The problem this anecdote illustrates is called “layering”–and it’s getting worse, according to Paul Light of New York University and Brookings, who is the leading academic authority on the federal bureaucracy. In 1960, the government had 17 layers. Today it has 58. My favorites are the titles authorized under the Assistant Secretary level. They are Chief of Staff to the Assistant Secretary, Deputy Chief of Staff to the Assistant Secretary, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Associate Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Chief of Staff to the Deputy Assistant Secretary, Principal Deputy Deputy Assistant Secretary, Deputy Deputy Assistant Secretary, Associate Deputy Assistant Secretary, Chief of Staff to the Associate Deputy Assistant Secretary, Deputy Associate Assistant Secretary, Assistant Deputy Assistant Secretary, Principal Associate Assistant Secretary, Associate Assistant Secretary, Chief of Staff to the Associate Assistant Secretary. Deputy Associate Assistant Secretary, Principal Assistant Assistant Secretary, and Assistant Assistant Secretary.

This kind of layering causes two problems. The people at the top don’t know what’s really happening in the field or can get away with pretending they don’t–witness Abu Ghraib–because there are far too many levels of officialdom in between. And if there is one skill those in between are sure to have, it is to filter out enough bad news to avoid the usual consequences for the bearer and to endow those at the top with plausible deniability. The other problem, which is what happened at the CIA, is that if practically everyone is an administrator, or in some comfy headquarters job, there are not enough people to do the agency’s real work in the field.

“The government measures air marshal protection by the number of flights they take, as opposed to the number of miles they fly, so marshals often fly two or three legs a day, rather than long-haul flights…” But how much difference do they make if most of their flights are from Little Rock to Knoxville? In case you’ve forgotten, all of the flights used by the 9/11 hijackers were for long distances, chosen because they had large loads of fuel that made them into better flying bombs.

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Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.