Tilting at Windmills

It was troubling to see Janet Napolitano and Leon Panetta be so defensive about the obvious failures of their respective agencies. Napolitano has an excellent reputation, and I have admired Panetta for years. But good people can become prisoners of their subordinates. Especially in their first year or so heading an agency, leaders are anxious to win the loyalty of their troops. In their eagerness to show that they are on the side of their subordinates, they are reluctant to face what the subordinates are doing that is wrong. After awhile what is wrong becomes part of the leaders record so that he continues to feel compelled to defend it.

The ultimate example of the “pull up the ladder syndrome” has been provided by Scott Browns campaign for the Senate. In effect he argued, “Were covered by the Massachusetts health plan, so why risk higher taxes by providing health care for other Americans?”

Goldman Sachs is “considering” expanding a program that requires executives to make charitable contributions, according to a recent report in the New York Times. What a pathetic public relations gesture from a gang I and many others consider white-collar criminals trying to avoid the prison sentences we think they so richly deserve.

Consider just one of the firms many dubious practices. It sold collateral debt obligations to institutional investors at the same time it was selling these CDOs short. In other words, it was betting against the very same instruments that it had not only sold to innocent institutional investors but had even gone so far as to persuade rating agencies to endorse.

David Brooks has cautioned the nation not to overreact to the underwear bomber. His good point, that “human institutions are always going to miss crucial clues,” is correct. But its implicationthat we should not do everything we can to prevent another terrorist attack, or attempt to improve human institutionsis terribly wrong.

Brooks ridicules the notion that changing the leader of a bureaucracy will “fix the flaws inherent in the bureaucracy.” But changing the leader may make a difference, as when James Lee Witt replaced his predecessor as head of FEMA and, even more, when Witt was replaced by Brownie. Of course, the organization may also need to change. But cultures, too, can change. The most dramatic example: the change of attitude of the U.S. Navys Pacific fleet between the disaster of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the greatest victory in American naval history at Midway, just six months later. Of course, the culture of the organization didnt change completely, or permanently. But it did enough to make a big difference in behavior at a crucial time.

Theres evidence that President Obama sees the underwear bomber as his own Bay of Pigs. Thus the Kennedyesque “the buck stops with me.” But will he go on to fire the guilty as Kennedy did, with the CIAs top leaders? And will he learn even more than Kennedy did? By that I mean that, although Kennedy became skeptical of the chain of command and brought new blood to national security decisions, he did not apply the lesson to the rest of the government.

Ive written about my concern about Obamas lack of executive-branch experience. I was pleased to see that even before the underwear bomber, he was showing some skepticism of the generals. Nows the time for him to learn that he has to organize the White House to find out what the rest of the government is doing, including how his policies are being implemented, to fix what needs fixing, and get over the tendency of the White House to live in its own bubble of preoccupation with its own agenda, and with whatever is in the news.

When it comes to fixing the bureaucracy, the tendency of most White Houses has been to punt and leave it to the next guy. The result is that the bureaucracy doesnt get better, often becomes worse, and presents the White House with nasty surprises.

A minor but telling example of Obamas failure to learn that lesson is his failure to replace Desire Rogers and the head of the White Houses Secret Service detail. Three uninvited people admitted to one White House dinner are three too many. What Rogers and the Secret Service did was think that they were too important to do the nitty-gritty of checking those entering the White House against the guest list. This is a classic bureaucratic tendency: delegate the details so you can concentrate on the big picture, and enjoy being a big shot. This can be fine, unless the details represent the essentials of your job. Rogers has described herself as a “policymaker,” and the Secret Service has been leaving some identity checking to its uniformed branch. If youre going to delegate that kind of responsibility to underlings, youd better make sure they are doing the job properly. And that is exactly what Rogers and the Secret Service head have failed to do.

I began to worry about Desire Rogers a year ago when she got herself photographed at a fashion show with the editor of Vogue and sought advice from the editors of three Washington magazines that cater to social wannabes and influence peddlers. Both her career in Chicago and in the White House suggest she is a person whose dominant motivation is networking for herself. Why then does she survive? Im told by a reliable source that her protector is Valerie Jarrett, one of the closest confidantes to Barack and Michelle Obama.

What concerns me the most about our recent intelligence failures is how anyone in his right mind could have permitted the Fort Hood shooter, Major Nidal Hassan, to remain in the military or could have recruited the Jordanian bomb-wearing informant to serve as a spy for our side. The Jordanian was a Palestinian by birth who had served as a physician in Palestinian refugee camps, which are hotbeds of hatred for the United States because of our support for Israel. His brother told the London-based Arabic daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi that the Jordanian was so infuriated by Israels offensive against Gaza, which killed about 1,300 Palestinians, that he volunteered to go treat Palestinians wounded in Gaza. That is when he was arrested by Jordanian intelligence. And, incredibly, the CIA bought the story that the Jordanians had managed, virtually overnight, to “turn” a man filled with such hatred against the United States into a willing agent for our side.

In Hassans case the problem seems to be that his fellow officers lacked the courage to rock the boat by giving an unfavorable rating. Similarly, the CIA station chief in Lagos, Nigeria, who forwarded the warning from the Nigerian father about his sons dangerous tendencies, lacked the courage and the wit, as did all those in Washington who got the information, to insist that the sons visa be withdrawn and his name be put on the no-fly list. “Its not enough to ring the bell,” former CIA Director Richard Helms once observed. “Youve got to make sure the other guy hears it.”

Risk aversion is a classic bureaucratic tendency. Many people are drawn to careers in government because government jobs are supposed to be safe and secure. They are by nature disinclined to take risks. One would think the CIA would attract the more adventurous. And clearly there have been more than a few brave men and women in its ranks, but the sad fact is that the long-term tendency of CIA culture has been toward risk aversion. Thats why not enough CIA operatives risk leaving secure bases to recruit and maintain contact with agents in the field. In Iraq they seldom left the Green Zone, and then only in easy-to-spot armored convoys.

Tim Weiner covered the CIA for the New York Times and wrote an authoritative book about it, Legacy of Ashes, in which he says that “the great majority” of the CIAs 17,000 people are “desk jockeys.” Out of “roughly one thousand people [who] worked abroad in the clandestine service perhaps two hundred were capable and courageous enough to tough it out in hardship posts in 2001,” he writes. The number is undoubtedly larger today, but still not nearly as large as most outsiders would think.

A caution to those who think reform legislation will automatically make regulatory agencies tougher: leaving the implementation of reform to old hands in these agencies means in all too many cases that reform will be watered down or evaded. The SEC is riddled with employees who have a record of indulgence in dealing with Wall Streets bad guys.

Another example is the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which has responsibility for enforcing the new credit rules. “[T]he OCC to the end fought the rule and tried to get huge exceptions, carrying water again and again for the large banks they were regulating,” an agency critic explained to Gretchen Morgenson of the New York Times. “Now they have to enforce the law that they disagreed with.”

If you have any doubts about the cruel effect of mountaintop removal, they should be ended by an article in the latest issue of Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “The scientific evidence of the severe environmental and human impact from mountaintop mining,” it concludes, “is strong and irrefutable.”

What about the mining industrys claim that the damage is minimal or that it can be reversed? One of the studys authors told the Charleston Gazettes Ken Ward Jr. that, in Wards words, “he and other authors searched for peer-reviewed scientific papers that found mountaintop removal doesnt have damaging impacts and that reclamation projects work. They simply couldnt find any.”

The intelligence agencies arent the only places where information is not shared. Consider this example from the Department of Agriculture. In 2007, a division of the department decided to exempt meat from Beef Products, Inc., the worlds leading manufacturer of boneless beef, from testing, because officials decided that the companys ammonia treatment destroyed E. coli. But since then, the division of the Agriculture Department that runs the school lunch program has repeatedly found E. coli and salmonella contamination in meat supplied by the company. But when Michael Moss of the New York Times asked top department officials about the lunch program findings, they said that “they were not aware of what their colleagues in the lunch program had been finding for years.”

Im delighted to see that Obama seems to be listening to Paul Volcker on the subject of proprietary trading by banks. As Andrew Ross Sorkin points out in his column in the New York Times, banks have been using their capital to make financial bets, which after all is what proprietary trading is, and, “as the recent crisis has shown, these bets can go catastrophically wrong and endanger the global financial system [W]hy should the taxpayer guarantee this sort of trading?”

I oppose not only the taxpayer guarantee but the banks engaging in trading at all. They should return to their traditional business of accepting deposits and making loans. Investment banks should also stop trading and return to their traditional role of raising capital for companies. At the very least our laws should discourage trading by these institutions and encourage the practices that help the economy as a whole.

I am reminded of the Wall Street activity that deserves the most encouragement, supplying venture capital, by Gregg Easterbrooks new book, Sonic Boom. He cites an estimate from the American Academy of Sciences that 85 percent of growth is produced by new ideas. In 2007 alone new enterprises supported by venture capitalists created 10.4 million jobs and revenue of $2.3 trillion.

In late December, with little notice from the mainstream media, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued his annual guidance to the U.S. military. In it he warned, “As we carry out our assigned missions and reset a tired force, we must guard against growing hollow.” Im glad to see someone in the military leadership show awareness of the danger of wearing out our troops. As I pointed out in our last issue, we have fewer than 100,000 combat soldiers and Marines.

Mullen goes on to warn, according to Bill Gertz of the Washington Times, the only reporter I know to get this story, “Current operations place at risk our ability to generate additional ground forces for another contingency, should one arise.” To put it more bluntly, by committing so much of our force to Afghanistan and Iraq, we have become a paper tiger to the rest of the world, which knows we will be helpless if confronted by the need for ground troops elsewhere.

The empty tables of the senators private dining room have become a symbol of the bitter partisanship that divides American politics. “Nobody goes there anymore,” Max Baucus recently remarked. “When I was here ten, fifteen, thirty, years ago that was the place you would go to talk to senators, let your hair down, just kind of compare notes, no spouses allowed, no staff, nobody.”

Not having been a senator, I never witnessed the camaraderie of the private dining room, but I did see many cross-the-aisle congressional friendships and know how they used to take hostility out of disagreement and facilitate at least some working together in the public interest. But since the Gingrich Congress was elected in 1994, that kind of camaraderie has practically disappeared. The last momentary revival of that spirit came during Clintons televised impeachment trial, after their former colleague Dale Bumpers had completed his eloquent defense of the president and scores of senators from both sides of the aisle lined up to shake his hand and embrace him.

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Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.