Two disturbing stories hit the papers today which together illustrate one of the most alarming characteristics of the Bush administration – its propensity to intimidate and silence government employees who oppose the preconceived “party line.”The first story is with respect to a NASA scientist who states that Bush political appointees have tried to keep him from openly discussing the dangers of global warming. They even tried to keep him from publicly disclosing NASA data showing that the year 2005 was the warmest year on planet earth in at least a century!
The fresh efforts to quiet him, [Dr. James E. Hansen, longtime director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies ] said, began in a series of calls after a lecture he gave on Dec. 6 at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. In the talk, he said that significant emission cuts could be achieved with existing technologies, particularly in the case of motor vehicles, and that without leadership by the United States, climate change would eventually leave the earth “a different planet.”The administration’s policy is to use voluntary measures to slow, but not reverse, the growth of emissions.
After that speech and the release of data by Dr. Hansen on Dec. 15 showing that 2005 was probably the warmest year in at least a century, officials at the headquarters of the space agency repeatedly phoned public affairs officers, who relayed the warning to Dr. Hansen that there would be “dire consequences” if such statements continued, those officers and Dr. Hansen said in interviews.
Among the restrictions, according to Dr. Hansen and an internal draft memorandum he provided to The Times, was that his supervisors could stand in for him in any news media interviews.
Mr. Acosta said the calls and meetings with Goddard press officers were not to introduce restrictions, but to review existing rules. He said Dr. Hansen had continued to speak frequently with the news media.
But Dr. Hansen and some of his colleagues said interviews were canceled as a result.
In one call, George Deutsch, a recently appointed public affairs officer at NASA headquarters, rejected a request from a producer at National Public Radio to interview Dr. Hansen, said Leslie McCarthy, a public affairs officer responsible for the Goddard Institute.
Citing handwritten notes taken during the conversation, Ms. McCarthy said Mr. Deutsch called N.P.R. “the most liberal” media outlet in the country. She said that in that call and others, Mr. Deutsch said his job was “to make the president look good” and that as a White House appointee that might be Mr. Deutsch’s priority.
What we have here is a career government employee with the highest level of expertise in his field who is being silenced and being threatened with “dire consequences” if he speaks out in a manner inconsistent with the political position staked out by non-scientist political appointees.
The second story recounts a tragedy at the Justice Department, where Justice Department lawyers who had the temerity to oppose Bush’s unprecedented executive power grab were retaliated against and denied promotions. The Justice Department lawyers were James Comey, Jack Goldsmith, Daniel Levin and Patrick Philbin. In a fine piece of investigative reporting, Newsweek recounts their internal efforts to oppose both Bush’s policies on torture and policies on NSA wiretapping. Their efforts had some small success, for which we should all be grateful as, in the process, they exposed themselves to the wrath of the vice-president’s office and effectively ended their governmental careers:
Addington was particularly biting with Goldsmith. During a long struggle over the legality of the August 2002 torture memo, Addington confronted Goldsmith, according to two sources who had heard accounts of the conversation: “Now that you’ve withdrawn legal opinions that the president of the United States has been relying on, I need you to go through all of OLC’s opinions [relating to the war on terror] and let me know which ones you still stand by,” Addington said.Addington was taking a clever dig at Goldsmith–in effect, accusing him of undermining the entire edifice of OLC opinions. But he was not making a rhetorical point. Addington began keeping track of opinions in which he believed Goldsmith was getting wobbly–carrying a list inside his suit pocket.
Goldsmith was not unmoved by Addington’s arguments, say his friends and colleagues. He told colleagues he openly worried that he might be putting soldiers and CIA officers in legal jeopardy. He did not want to weaken America’s defenses against another terrorist attack. But he also wanted to uphold the law. Goldsmith, known for putting in long hours, went to new extremes as he reviewed the OLC opinions. Colleagues received e-mails from him at all hours of the night. His family–his wife, 3-year-old son and newborn baby boy–saw him less and less often. Sometimes he would take his older boy down to the Justice Department’s Command Center on Saturdays, just to be near him.
By June 2004, the crisis came to a head when the torture memo leaked to The Washington Post. Goldsmith was worn out but still resolute. He told Ashcroft that he was formally withdrawing the August 2002 torture memo. With some prodding from Comey, Ashcroft again backed his DOJ lawyers–though he was not happy to engage in another battle with the White House. Comey, with Goldsmith and Philbin at his side, held a not-for-attribution background briefing to announce that the Justice Department was disavowing the August 2002 torture memo. At the same time, White House officials held their own press conference, in part to counter what they saw as Comey’s grandstanding. A fierce behind-the-scenes bureaucratic fight dragged on until December, when the OLC issued a new memo that was hardly to the taste of human-rights activists but contained a much more defensible (and broader) definition of torture and was far less expansive about the power of the president to authorize coercive interrogation methods. The author of the revised memo, senior Justice Department lawyer Daniel Levin, fought pitched battles with the White House over its timing and contents; yet again, Comey’s intervention was crucial in helping Levin and his allies carry the day.
By then, Goldsmith was gone from Justice. He and his wife (who is a poet) and two children had moved to Cambridge, where Goldsmith had taken a job on the Harvard Law faculty. Other dissenting lawyers had also moved on. Philbin, who had been the in-house favorite to become deputy solicitor general, saw his chances of securing any administration job derailed when Addington, who had come to see him as a turncoat on national-security issues, moved to block him from promotion, with Cheney’s blessing; Philbin, who declined to comment, was planning a move into the private sector. Levin, whose battles with the White House took their toll on his political future as well, left for private practice. (Levin declined to comment.) Comey was working for a defense contractor.
Again, what we have here is the crushing of internal dissent by threatening people’s careers. Such efforts do not occur in a vacuum. Other employees throughout the federal bureaucracy are going to observe their colleagues get manhandled when they speak up against the party line, and many are going to keep their heads down and stay silent so they can continue to make their mortgage payments and send their kids to private school. And what suffers in all of this is the quality of decision making by the executive. Having taken Congress and the Courts out of the equation, the Bush administration is trying to take internal checks within the executive branch out of the equation as well, so that Bush and his cronies can continue to formulate their policies without any of the type of scrutiny and “peer review” that corrects errors improves the decision making process.
Faced with these types of efforts, it seems likely that incompetent loyal “yes men” will be promoted over competent officials who are willing to say what they think based on their expertise and their review of the facts. The American political system has long rejected this insidious politicization of every level of the federal government, having done so as far back as 1883 with the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act:
The federal bureaucracy in the years after the Civil War was generally undistinguished, because the system of selecting officials and supervising their work was irrational. That system had evolved in the early nineteenth century, and relied on the well-known political adage, “to the victor belong the spoils.” That did not necessarily mean that bad people were appointed; many government officials were quite good, but the system itself was ill-suited to efficiency. This spoils system caused many presidents to exploit their position of power by granting ill-equipped friends to important government jobs as opposed to people of merit and qualifications.[snip]
Over the years, the flaws became more serious and obvious. Political leaders required their patronage appointees to devote time and money to party affairs. After each election winners were besieged by hungry office-seekers, and wrangling between the president and Congress over patronage became endemic.
The situation was compounded by the growth of the federal bureaucracy. In Jackson’s time there had been 20,000 persons on the federal payroll. By end of the Civil War the number had increased to 53,000; by 1884, 131,000; and by 1891, 166,000. Presidents were hounded by office- seekers. When James Garfield became president he discovered hungry office-seekers “lying in wait” for him “like vultures for a wounded bison.”
Moreover, new government jobs required special skills. The use of typewriters, introduced in the early 1880s, meant that mere literacy and decent penmanship were no longer enough for a clerk’s job. With the creation of administrative agencies like the Interstate Commerce Commission and specialized agricultural bureaus, one needed scientific expertise. The spoils system was not the way to get them. This is where the Pendleton Civil Service Act of 1883 comes into play. This act classified that government jobs were now, under this act, being applied for and given to those whose abilities fit the position best. But, with this act came two rules, they cannot tribute to campaign funds and they cannot be fired for political reasons.
Bush is once again trying to return us to the 19th Century. He is trying to return to a government of incompetent “yes men,” who toe the party line, rather than a government of competent professionals who feel comfortable providing decision makers with their best advice. This behavior will only degrade our government and lead to more fiascos such as the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina.