Sunday, April 15, 2007

Inside the Gonzales Justice Dept. has a terrific interview with Daniel J. Metcalfe, former director of the Office of Information and Privacy at the U.S. Department of Justice. It is a must read for those interested in the current problems at the Justice department. Here are some snippets.

Under Gonzales, though, almost immediately from the time of his arrival in February 2005, this changed quite noticeably. First, there was extraordinary turnover in the political ranks, including the majority of even Justice's highest-level appointees. It was reminiscent of the turnover from the second Reagan administration to the first Bush administration in 1989, only more so. Second, the atmosphere was palpably different, in ways both large and small. One need not have had to be terribly sophisticated to notice that when Deputy Attorney General Jim Comey left the department in August 2005 his departure was quite abrupt, and that his large farewell party was attended by neither Gonzales nor (as best as could be seen) anyone else on the AG's personal staff.

Third, and most significantly for present purposes, there was an almost immediate influx of young political aides beginning in the first half of 2005 (e.g., counsels to the AG, associate deputy attorneys general, deputy associate attorneys general, and deputy assistant attorneys general) whose inexperience in the processes of government was surpassed only by their evident disdain for it...

But the process of agency functioning, however, became dramatically different almost immediately after Gonzales arrived. No longer was emphasis placed on accomplishing something with the highest-quality product in a timely fashion; rather, it became a matter of making sure that a "consensus" was achieved, regardless of how long that might take and with little or no concern that quality would suffer in such a "lowest common denominator" environment. And heaven help anyone, career or noncareer employee, if that "consensus" did not include whatever someone in the White House might think about something, be it large, small or medium-sized.

In short, the culture markedly shifted to one in which avoiding any possibility of disagreement anywhere was the overriding concern, as if "consensus" were an end unto itself. Undergirding this, what's more, was the sad fact that so many political appointees in 2005 and 2006 were so obviously thinking not much further than their next (i.e., higher-level) position, in some place where they could "max out" by the end of Bush's second term...

Yes, it became quite clear that under Gonzales, the department placed no more than secondary value on the standards that I and my office had valued so heavily for the preceding 25 years -- accuracy, integrity, responsibility and quality of decision-making being chief among them. Had I stayed as director of OIP, I might have been working for a Monica Goodling protege by now.

Q: Are there any possible benefits to this "decision-making by consensus" approach?

A: Yes, but they accrue only to the participants in the process. Indeed, by operating in this way, they manage to avoid any singular responsibility for the result, or any part of it, which is another way of saying that they see themselves as running no risk of blame if anyone beyond the group has any problem with what they've done at any point.

After all, it was "the group" that did it (whatever that might be), and they achieved presumptively benign "consensus" (at all costs) before moving forward. You can imagine how important this is to someone whose primary interest in most any government action is to make sure that it doesn't somehow get in the way of securing that next (but not necessarily last) position before the end of a presidential administration. And remember that there's little downside to operating in this way if your basic view of government (in line with your inexperience) holds little respect for it in the first place. In other words, if it doesn't really matter so much to you how well or efficiently a government activity is handled, just so long as it eventually is handled, then the thinking is: Why not handle it in the way that most effectively minimizes personal risk? What this breeds, of course, is an utter lack of individual responsibility -- the very antithesis of good government...

In my experience over 11 presidential administrations, from Nixon I to what can be called Bush III, there is an unmistakable drop-off in overall appointment quality during a second presidential term -- and this definitely is more so during a Republican administration. Perhaps this is due to there being a lower quality of political appointees in Republican administrations to begin with, given that, by and large, they give up more than Democrats do to enter government service, especially with the post-Watergate ethics restrictions that all government officials face.

This observation is nothing new, by the way; one need only look at the relative ages and experience levels of comparable appointees in successive administrations to see it. So when you enter the second term of a Republican administration, you get the worst of all possible worlds: You actually see some influential political appointees who are, to put it bluntly, too subject-matter ignorant to even realize how ignorant they are. (This is assuming that, if they knew, they'd actually care.)

And compounding this, as mentioned earlier, is the strong drive of political appointees at all levels (perhaps more so if they are attorneys, whose background is amenable to legal positions throughout the executive branch) to obtain that maximum capstone position before the second term ends. What happens to bureaucracy at such a time is that it becomes sluggish to the point of constipation, driven only by expediency as gauged from a political or personal agenda, and it sometimes yields some truly mind-boggling results, such as the current U.S. Attorney nightmare.

Speaking of which, this second-term drop-off, so to speak, has much to do with the U.S. Attorney situation, both as to the replacement decisions themselves and also how they were implemented. It is clear by now that the department -- and, perhaps more than anyone, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty -- was grossly disserved and betrayed by the relatively young aides who participated in that "consensus process" from its very beginning. To those who know the players involved, it's not hard to see how frictions could develop between such high-level Main Justice staffers and the U.S. Attorneys whom they attempted to "oversee."

On one side, you had hard-nosed prosecutors who, for the most part, already had several years' experience under their belts (with little micromanagement from Ashcroft's people) and knew what they were doing already. On the other side, you had political aides who, among other things, had precious little management experience for their positions and were not necessarily adept at playing well with others, even when those others were political appointees like themselves. One need look no further than the extensively disclosed e-mails from Kyle Sampson, Mike Elston [chief of staff to McNulty], Monica Goodling and [Deputy Associate Attorney General] Will Moschella to get a clear picture of this.

Does this mean that at least some of the eight replaced U.S. Attorneys made the list because they failed to get along in a sufficiently deferential fashion with such Main Justice appointees? I'd certainly bet the oldest of my two cars on it, perhaps even the newer one, based upon what I've seen over the years and what I've read in e-mail form more recently. And it surely follows from everything else I've observed that in such a situation, even with the presumed cover of "consensus" decision-making, such appointed aides would scramble mightily, in the most derisive of terms (captured only partially on the disclosed e-mails), to castigate the U.S. Attorney victims of their management inexperience, lest they themselves be held to blame.

And that then, with little sense (of irony or otherwise), they would proceed to publicly tarnish the reputations of several U.S. Attorneys while in the next breath redacting records based on an asserted need to "protect their (i.e., the U.S. Attorneys') privacy." Even putting such callousness and privacy violations aside, and moving swiftly past the image that they "eat their young," it is painfully clear that these political aides got carried away again and again.

This is the type of thing that a second term at its very worst can bring -- though I remember well that even the second Reagan administration, for all its flaws, was never quite as bad. And it cannot help but reflect disastrously on the person sitting at the top of that heap -- who either knew of this and at a minimum tacitly condoned it or else turned a fatally blind eye to it through overdelegation to underlings because he just didn't care (and take care) nearly as much as an attorney general should. Either way, it's hard to see how anyone could ever place trust in such a situation again...

But that strong tradition of independence over the previous 30 years was shattered in 2005 with the arrival of the White House counsel as a second-term AG. All sworn assurances to the contrary notwithstanding, it was as if the White House and Justice Department now were artificially tied at the hip -- through their public affairs, legislative affairs and legal policy offices, for example, as well as where you ordinarily would expect such a connection (i.e., Justice's Office of Legal Counsel). I attended many meetings in which this total lack of distance became quite clear, as if the current crop of political appointees in those offices weren't even aware of the important administration-of-justice principles that they were trampling.

This matters greatly to Justice Department employees of my generation. They are now the senior career cadre there, with the high-grade institutional knowledge that carries the department from one administration to the next, and when they see a new attorney general come from the White House Counsel's Office with a wave of young "Bushies" in tow and find their worst expectations quickly met, they just as quickly lose respect for nearly all of the department's political leadership, not to mention that leadership's "policy concerns." That respect is a vital thing, as fragile as it is essential, and now it's gone...

Second, candor compels me to acknowledge that there in fact was a situation in which, rather than being asked to do something for purposes of a political agenda, I surely was asked to refrain from doing something quite ordinary for a reason that I later learned (and earlier had surmised) was indeed very much a "political" type of agenda. That situation does stand apart in my government experience, but I will refrain from saying anything more about it here, other than that it did occur during the early months of 2005.


Scott said...

I was up at Third Place Books to hear Michelle Goldberg speak and read from her book Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. I hope to have a chance to read the book, her talk inspired me to get over my rage regarding my project.

Back to the point.

She was talking of how bible studies and prayer groups have become defacto mandatory part of the necessary work routine in many workplaces. Meaning while it may not be that common, when people feel pressured to participate to maintain their career there is nothing which can be done when the mandatory participation is not driven by management.

In response to a question or observation from the audience she told of someone coming up to her after another such appearance. This person told her how their work culture, where they had to go to the workplace bible and prayer meetings so they wouldn't be utterly isolated and actively hampered in their work by their peers. When asked where they worked... You got it, the Justice Department.

B.D. said...

I'm very uneasy with religious displays in the work place. It doesn't bother me if someone is wearing a cross or has some sort of portrait hanging on their wall. But it's a whole other issue for me when someone openly engages another person regarding religion. It's a very common thing in some companies and particularly some areas of the country, but I've never liked it.

My family was not particularly religious. I'm an atheist. Still, that's not what makes me uncomfortable. Rather, the root of my discomfort lies in the manner in which I was raised.

My parents grew from a midwestern, Protestant upbringing. They have a healthy skepticism of authority and government. Among the principles that I was raised with was that your religion was your private business and it was not to be brought into the work place. The idea was not just to not proselytize your co-workers, but it was also a way to protect yourself from discrimination by those who would proselytize.

By the same token, who you vote for during elections is your business. It's why we have curtains in the booth. It's no one else's concern. Until 2000, I was never certain who my father had voted for in any race. He just never discussed it. My mother was a tad more open, but that transparency didn't come until the 1990s. Again, it was to protect the individual from the wrath of others. It was also just seen as being almost uncivil to be bringing such private issues into such a public, and secular, space.

After the killings on September 11, 2001, an executive with the company that employed me sent out an email to the U.S. employees. The executive was based in Ireland. His email told us to take the day off, go home, hug the family and gather them for prayer. This religious message did not sit well with me.

I've talked with co-workers and managers about religion. As I noted, I don't have a problem with that. But don't insist that I go home and pray. It's not something I do nor do I care to do it. I shrugged off the executives words rather than send a reply. It just wasn't the battle I cared enough to take on, but to my mind it wasn't an appropriate response on his part no matter what his good intentions were.

To read that such issues are happening at Justice is sad, but not surprising. This administration has shown time and again that it doesn't care on wit about issues of privacy in any space. Why would it care about invading the privacy of individuals at work even if that space is supposed to represent our most secular institution - government?

By the by, I was at Third Place Books just yesterday, browsing around. Got a cookbook while I was there.