Tilting at Windmills

How did Kyle “Dusty” Foggo–who recently left the CIA under a cloud of suspicion about his relationship with his pal Brent Wilkes, a featured player in the bribery indictment of former Congressman Duke Cunningham–impress Porter Goss enough to get himself made number three at the intelligence agency? According to The Washington Post‘s David Ignatius, who has excellent Agency sources, “Foggo is said to have endeared himself to Goss and his staff director, Patrick Murray, by facilitating trips overseas for members of the House Intelligence committee [chaired by Goss].” In other words, it wasn’t his spying skills that got him the job, but his knack for providing nice junkets.

But you can’t say that Goss wasn’t discriminating. Foggo was his second choice for the number three job. The first was Michael Kostiw, who unfortunately had to be dropped after it was revealed that he had been caught shoplifting at a Virginia supermarket.

We never tire of pointing out this administration’s chickenhawks, the men like Dick Cheney who don’t hesitate to send other Americans into war even though they themselves have been dedicated draft-evaders. So when we see an exception to the rule, we should acknowledge him. And Joel Kaplan, the White House’s new deputy chief of staff for policy, is definitely such an exception. After graduating from Harvard Law School, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and served four years as an artillery officer.

The Washington Post, which refused to do an article explaining the Medicare drug benefit to its readers, recently ran a story on its front page that strongly suggested that all was hunky-dory with the plan: “Three-quarters [of the participants] said the paperwork was easy to complete.”

My experience was different. I got steered to the wrong insurance company. The Medicare phone counselor recommended it, saying that it covered the two drugs I was taking regularly, but after I signed up, I learned that the coverage was only for thirty days, and the insurer had to be persuaded by my physician to continue. When I told Medicare of this problem, they offered another suggestion. I signed up with the new company, and took my first prescription to the drugstore. It was rejected. I found out, after a week of phone calls to the new company from my pharmacist and myself, that the reason it was rejected was that the company had changed its “formulary” so that one of my drugs was no longer covered, and that it was now necessary for my doctor to persuade them that I needed it.

My experience does not appear to be unusual, at least not according to the Government Accountability Office report cited in a recent op-ed by Paul Krugman: “[W]hen Medicare recipients asked for help determining which plans would cover their medications at the lowest cost, they were given the right answer only 41 percent of the time.”

Where do you think the 2002 baby shower for Tom DeLay’s daughter, Danielle, was held? In the home of a dear friend or relative? Guess again. It was, reports The New Republic‘s Michael Crowley, in the Washington offices of Reliant Energy, a major power company. It was attended by Jack Abramoff and organized by a friend of DeLay’s protg Rep. Joe Barton.

Barton is now chairman of the House Energy and Commerce committee. In a lovely example of the revolving door operating in reverse, he recently hired Reliant’s top lobbyist as the committee’s chief of staff.

“What Scares Doctors?” was the first half of a recent headline in Time; the second was, “Being A Patient.” The accompanying article, which struck me as a really great idea, described what worries the insiders about what could go wrong if they turned from providers to customers of the health-care system. One timely example of the lessons to be learned from the article: Don’t schedule elective surgery in July. That’s when the new doctors are just starting their internships and are most likely to screw up. Another point is that although you’re more likely to encounter a brilliant diagnostician at one of the great teaching hospitals, you will be less likely to acquire an infection at a good community hospital. The fancier the assortment of technologies the hospital employs, the more things that can go wrong.

In March, an Alabama cow was diagnosed with mad cow disease. An investigation was launched. In May, Scott Kilman of The Wall Street Journal reports, the case was closed, “without learning the animal’s origins.” They could not trace the cow to find out what other cattle it may have been in contact with and with whom it may have shared the contaminated feed that is the suspected source of the disease.

One reason officials could not find the animal’s history is that cattle owners are not required to keep records of where cows come from and where they go. National livestock identification programs do exist, reports Kilman, in “Canada, [the] European Union, and other countries that have elaborate systems to trace sick animals.” Why don’t we have such a system?

“Many ranchers oppose an identification system out of fear that liability for food-borne disease might end up on their doorsteps,” says Kilman. “Others resent what they view as government intrusion.” The best the U.S. Department of Agriculture can come up with is a voluntary system that it is pushing to implement by 2009. Mandatory systems will not be imposed until it is determined that the voluntary system is not working. By that time, one wonders just how many of our brains will have turned to Swiss cheese.

In our last issue, we criticized a sub-heading of a New York Times op-ed for saying that the hybrid Prius would not save gas, when the article itself actually only said that the Prius would not save gas on long trips. But doubt has been cast on even that claim by a subsequent experiment conducted by the staff of the “CBS Evening News.” They drove an Expedition, an Accord, and a Prius from Miami, Fla., to Boston, Mass. The cost of the gas: Expedition $348, Accord $175, and Prius $141.

Back in 1971, this magazine won its first award with an article by former Captain Christopher Pyle, exposing that the U.S. Army had been spying on domestic political groups. The article had an impact. The Army stopped spying.

Now they’re back at it. In just the month of March 2005, the Army monitored eight peace demonstrations in American cities. For example, in the weeks prior to a demonstration in Akron, Ohio, Robert Block and Jay Solomon of The Wall Street Journal report, “analysts at the Army’s 902nd Military Intelligence Group at Fort Meade, Md., were downloading information from activist Web sites, intercepting emails, and cross-referencing this with information in police databases.”

What did these military Keystone Cops do with the fruits of their espionage? They tried to make trouble for the demonstrators, sending this alert to the Akron police:

Even though the Goss gang has departed, don’t be lulled into thinking that that’s all the personnel change needed at the CIA and other intelligence agencies.

According to a recent survey of intelligence agency employees, reported by The Washington Post‘s Stephen Barr, “only 29 percent said their agencies take steps to deal with sub-par colleagues who cannot or will not improve their job performance.”

For readers who miss our retired feature, the Memo of the Month, for old time’s sake, here’s one dug up by my friend Al Kamen. It’s from the Department of Homeland Security about Janet Hale, the agency’s undersecretary for management:

“Subject: RE: Parking Space #016 Ms. Janet Hale To all, Please pass the word to all employees who have inner compound parking to refrain from parking in space #016 (Ms. Janet Hale’s parking space) located in front of the press conference building. On several occasions this week Ms. Hale’s space has been unavailable to her in the morning.”

When you wonder what Washington bigshots worry about when they clearly are not worried about your problems, you may be sure that defending or securing a privileged parking place is high on the list that arouses their deepest feelings. This is especially true of the level just below the top, where perks are less automatic and more likely to be subject to competition.

Because of Fannie Mae’s well-connected executives and board, it took years for the public to get even a hint of what Jerry Knight of The Washington Post describes as its fudged book-keeping, “stretching accounting rules like bungee cords to create fiscal fiction, deceiving stockholders, and manipulating the regulatory process.”

How big is the problem? Even Fannie Mae doesn’t know. According to Knight, to find out the facts about its finances, Fannie Mae just this year will spend $800 million.

If Fannie Mae is Frankenstein, then Sallie Mae is the Bride of Frankenstein. Created by Congress, Sallie Mae, like Fannie Mae, was founded to do good, encouraging student loans as Fannie Mae encouraged home mortgages. But like Fannie Mae, it became privatized, with shareholders who it wants to please with escalating profits.

Its stock price has gone up nearly 2000 percent since 1995, but “60 Minutes” recently asked a pertinent question: “Does Sallie Mae’s success come at too steep a cost to taxpayers and students?”

It’s a ‘can’t-lose’ business, guaranteed by you and me. “Once a student borrower goes into default, the government pays Sallie Mae all the principal and compounded interest that have accrued,” reports “60 Minutes.” “The loan then passes into collection phase. If Sallie Mae is the collector, it gets to keep up to 25 percent of whatever is recovered.”

The banks also have a can’t lose proposition because they are protected from loss by Sallie Mae. Both the banks and Sallie Mae join in efforts to sabotage the government’s direct-loan program, which was started in the ’90s to offer competition to high-interest bank loans, but now cannot offer incentives provided by Sallie Mae to schools because Sallie Mae has lobbied Congress to prevent the government program from doing so.

I did not attend the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, so I can’t speak from firsthand knowledge, but most of the people I’ve talked to who were there say that Stephen Colbert laid an egg. Since I am a Colbert fan, I was pained to hear this and questioned my informants more closely. It was conceded that by the time Colbert spoke, much of the audience was sodden with drink. I’m also sure that many more were exhausted by the hyperventilation that occurs when these reporters are in the company of the kind of celebrities attracted to the Correspondents’ Dinner.

What may not have endeared him to the White House press corps was this: “Over the last five years, you people were so good–over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out.”

I loved Esquire‘s “The More You Weigh, the More You Pay”–proposing that Americans get weighed at a federal weigh station so they can be assessed a flab tax–by Joshua Foer. It was a spoof, of course, but executed with enough wit to make a good point. It reminded me of an article Taylor Branch wrote for this magazine in 1971, proposing that we cancel the national debt.

Branch put his proposal in the form of an official memo to the secretary of the Treasury, and he did it so skillfully, that quite a few people thought it was a genuine government document.

Of course, it too was a spoof, but we had a serious point in mind. At that time, the savings bonds held by the average American paid a very low rate of interest compared to that offered on the treasury notes, bills, and long bonds, largely held by wealthy individuals and financial institutions.

We wanted to dramatize this disparity. So we proposed to exempt savings bonds from cancellation, so that the average man would be repaid. Only the affluent would suffer. Branch did his job well enough that his point got across. The interest on savings bonds was increased substantially by the Carter administration.

It’s time for another Joshua Foer or Taylor Branch to propose abolishing the payroll tax. Someone needs to dramatize how unfair and regressive this tax is, falling heaviest on working people. For those with wages or salaries of less than $70,000, it takes a bigger bite than the income tax.

Did you know about “national security letters”? I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t stuck it out to the last four paragraphs of a long article about the FBI by John O’Neil on page A23 of The New York Times. These letters, issued by the FBI to its agents, “allow agents to collect data on individuals from businesses without a court warrant.” How many were issued last year? More than 9,200.

You may recall how impressed I was by Michael Grunwald’s series on the Corps of Engineers that ran in the Post six years ago. It was the kind of reporting on a government agency that this magazine has not only sought to publish itself, but to encourage others to do.

Recently, Grunwald reviewed what had happened to the example of Corps boondoggles that he had highlighted in his story. It was a $65 million flood-control project in Missouri that would “drain more acres of wetlands than all U.S. developers do in a typical year, but wouldn’t stop flooding in the town it was meant to protect.”

Did the Corps cancel this ill-advised project? Certainly not. The only change that has occurred is in the cost. It is now going to take $112 million to complete.

Grunwald wonders how the Corps has escaped the lion’s share of culpability for Katrina. In the blame game, it ranks far behind FEMA. Yet FEMA didn’t cause the flooding. The Corps did–“a useless Corps shipping canal intensified Katrina’s surge… Poorly designed Corps floodwalls collapsed just a few feet from an unnecessary $750 million Corps navigation project, even though the Corps had promoted development in dangerously low-lying New Orleans flood plains and had helped destroy the vast marshes that once provided the city’s natural flood protection.”

The reason the Corps successfully dodged responsibility and resisted reform until accepting some blame in June is the iron triangle, composed of career Corps bureaucrats, the contractors who make millions in profits from Corps projects, however lunatic, and the members of Congress for whom the Corps projects offer some of the juiciest slices of pork available.

You will recall that the great anthrax scare happened in the fall of 2001. Now, almost five years later, we learn this from Justin Gillis of The Washington Post: “The government’s $1 billion effort to develop a new anthrax vaccine has run into difficulty, with the company in charge [VaxGen Inc.] of the project reporting failure in a major human test, and falling at least a year behind schedule.”

Many observers warned that a small company like VaxGen would not be able to meet the deadline for producing 25 million doses of vaccine by this November, but they were ignored by the Department of Health and Human Services.

During my lifetime, Republicans have been the anti-government party and Democrats the pro-government party. Mostly that’s put the Democrats on the right side. We need government to do lots of things, from controlling air traffic to protecting us against disease. The Republican attitude cost them in the case of Katrina, when their indifference to the quality of the people they hired led to a major embarrassment.

It seems to me, however, that the Democrats are also in danger. Their automatic pro-government attitude has brought them powerful allies in the government employees and teachers unions–now the strongest force in the labor movement. But these allies come at a price. They make Democrats reluctant to take on the need to improve government and reform public education, especially when these efforts involve dismissing incompetent teachers and civil servants.

The truth is that much of government cries out for major change–in policy and in personnel, and not just in personnel at the top, which is where the Democrats prefer to concentrate their efforts. We need a much better CIA, a much better FBI, and a much better Department of Homeland Security, just to name a few. And we aren’t going to have them unless we’re willing to face the fact that better people are needed throughout government. Nor are we going to have the public education to make us competitive in the 21st century without better teachers. This is not to say there are not a lot of good people in the civil service and teaching in public schools now–and they should be our friends and allies–but we must face the fact that we need many more.

Back to Porter Goss’s number three, Dusty Foggo. One of the more bizarre episodes in his colorful career occurred while he was stationed in Vienna in the ’80s. “Foggo allegedly beat an Austrian citizen with a baseball bat after the man cut him off in traffic, according to three former and current senior intelligence officials,” reports Mark Hosenball of Newsweek. “The sources say the incident was serious enough that the Austrian government lodged a complaint with the U.S. Embassy in Vienna.” Dusty claims that the report was exaggerated.

If we’re going to attract the many more good people that are needed in government, we need to do a much better job of explaining why public service can be a great career.

The Charleston Gazette recently ran an article on Silas Taylor, who has spent more than 20 years in the office of the Attorney General of West Virginia. Among other things, he has fought to protect Medicaid recipients from having their homes seized by the feds and to keep West Virginia from being used as a dumping ground for New York sewage. He says, “[W]e’ve taken on battles that couldn’t possibly be taken on in private practice…. It’s just so much fun to be involved in public policy.”

I felt the same way. I was luckier than most young lawyers in private practice in having roughly half my work be for clients with interesting and worthwhile causes, but that did leave the other half. So I felt light-years better in the months I worked in the West Virginia legislature and was able to serve the public interest every minute.

Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.