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What Has Bush Done to the Government?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, September 24, 2007; 1:30 PM

The last two times the Pew Research Center asked people to describe President Bush in a single word, chief among the overwhelmingly negative responses was the word "incompetent."

What makes that particularly fascinating is that it's a realization that the public has reached pretty much on its own.

While there's certainly been spirited debate and extensive news coverage about the ideological merit (or lack thereof) of Bush's policies pretty much across the board, there's also a critical underlying issue: Whether those policies are being competently carried out by the people Bush has put in charge of the agencies, departments and branches of the armed forces responsible for their execution.

It's certainly hard to find anyone, even among Bush's most ardent supporters, who would argue that the war in Iraq has been carried out intelligently. As one example, there is ample evidence that many warnings from career bureaucrats about post-war challenges were blithely ignored by their political bosses.

Just this past week, stories about the unregulated conduct by employees of private security firms, a massive corruption investigation involving the Pentagon's war-zone procurement system, and yet another sudden ballooning of war costs make it clear that the competence issue in Iraq is anything but ancient history.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's tragically botched response to the catastrophe in New Orleans in 2005 briefly turned director Michael " heck of a job, Brownie" Brown into a poster-boy for incompetence, but didn't lead to any sort of rigorous administration-wide assessment.

The admission by top officials at the Department of Justice that they engaged in a systemic pattern of putting political hacks not just in the traditional appointed slots, but in senior career-level positions as well -- i.e., the places where the hard work of government traditionally gets done -- has apparently been written off as an isolated incident.

It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that the president's public acts and statements get the most attention from the media. But it's well past time to ask ourselves: What has Bush done to our government?

Bush's two top advisers -- Vice President Cheney and just-departed political guru Karl Rove -- made little secret of their desire to have the wider federal bureaucracy serve their purposes. But just how much has the exertion of absolute White House political control, through a network of loyalists put in key positions, damaged government agencies' ability to accomplish the tasks the American people expect of them?

How many long-time senior career employees have been marginalized, micromanaged or driven out of government? How low have the standards dropped for senior-level appointments amid the need to find people who would be sufficiently loyal?

David E. Lewis is a political scientist at Princeton University and author of an upcoming book, The Politics of Presidential Appointments: Political Control and Bureaucratic Performance. Over on NiemanWatchdog.org, where I am deputy editor, Lewis today raises some important questions the press should be asking about the federal government under Bush. Among them:

"Have Bush political appointees taken away hiring authority from senior-level career employees elsewhere besides the Department of Justice? Is there any evidence that those career hires have been made on a partisan basis? . . .

"Are presidential loyalists being placed in jobs with direct influence over grants, contracts, the granting of licenses, etc? If so, was there a centrally directed effort to use these powers for the benefit of Bush's reelection or the Republican Party?"

Lewis also asks: "[I]s there a competence gap developing? Have this administration's actions to politicize the bureaucracy in order to get control of the bureaucracy and satisfy patronage demands done serious damage to government competence? My research shows that politicization hurts performance. Apart from the competence gap between new hires and those departing, politicization of the bureaucracy creates systematic management problems that hurt the agencies more generally. It makes it difficult for agencies to recruit and retain high-quality civil servants; it reduces incentives for careerists to develop expertise; and it leads to increased management turnover -- three factors that can hurt performance even under the best of conditions."

I intend to keep an eye on this issue, both here and at Nieman Watchdog, with the hope that we'll see more coverage in the future. As you run across stories about federal government competence -- or if you feel like sharing your own observations -- e-mail me at froomkin@washingtonpost.com. And keep an eye on my new "Federal Government Competence Watch" feature as well.

Federal Government Competence Watch

For my inaugural entry, Ellen Nakashima and Brian Krebs write in The Washington Post: "The FBI is investigating a major information technology firm with a $1.7 billion Department of Homeland Security contract after it allegedly failed to detect cyber break-ins traced to a Chinese-language Web site and then tried to cover up its deficiencies, according to congressional investigators."

Who was supposed to be minding that particular store?

Iran Watch

Dan Ephron and Mark Hosenball write in Newsweek that "though the United States is now emphasizing sanctions and diplomacy as the means of compelling Tehran to stop enriching uranium, an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities could end up dragging Washington into a war."

I wrote about the ambiguous White House role in Israel's recent bombing raid on suspected nuclear facilities in Syria in Friday's column.

Ephron and Hosenball write: "While the Bush administration appears to have given tacit support to the Syria raid, Israel and the United States are not in lockstep on Iran. For Israel, the next three months may be decisive: either Tehran succumbs to sanctions and stops enriching uranium or it must be dealt with militarily. . . .

"In Washington, on the other hand, the consensus against a strike is firmer than most people realize. The Pentagon worries that another war will break America's already overstretched military, while the intelligence community believes Iran is not yet on the verge of a nuclear breakthrough."

That said, as Ephron and Hosenball note: "There are still voices pushing for firmer action against Tehran, most notably within Vice President Dick Cheney's office. But the steady departure of administration neocons over the past two years has also helped tilt the balance away from war. One official who pushed a particularly hawkish line on Iran was David Wurmser, who had served since 2003 as Cheney's Middle East adviser. A spokeswoman at Cheney's office confirmed to Newsweek that Wurmser left his position last month to 'spend more time with his family.' A few months before he quit, according to two knowledgeable sources, Wurmser told a small group of people that Cheney had been mulling the idea of pushing for limited Israeli missile strikes against the Iranian nuclear site at Natanz--and perhaps other sites--in order to provoke Tehran into lashing out. The Iranian reaction would then give Washington a pretext to launch strikes against military and nuclear targets in Iran."

That's a shocking and important story and it's getting quite a bit of media pickup today. But it's also old news.

Newsweek gives credit for the original reporting about Wurmser to Washington foreign-policy blogger Steven Clemons-- but suggests that Clemons first wrote about it only last week.

In fact, as I wrote in my June 4 column, Clemons first described Cheney's position in late May, and in early June, Helene Cooper of the New York Times followed up with confirmation, specifically naming Wurmser.

And back in late July, I noted that investigative reporter and blogger Robert Dreyfuss had broken the news of Wurmser's departure.

Attacking Iran -- to Vindicate Iraq?

Via Andrew Sullivan, I find Dan Friedman writing for the American Thinker: "All the damaging consequences of all the blunders the President has committed to date in Iraq are reversible in 48- to 72-hours - the time it will take to destroy Iran's fragile nuclear supply chain from the air. And since the job gets done using mostly stand-off weapons and stealth bombers, not one American soldier, sailor or airman need suffer as much as a bruised foot."

But wouldn't that backfire at least as badly as Iraq? Wouldn't the Iranians strike back?

Not at all, Friedman insists: "They would stand before mankind with their pants around their ankles, dazed, bleeding, crying, reduced to bloviating from mosques in Teheran and pounding their fists on desks at the UN. . . .

"Miracles would be seen here at home. Democratic politicians are dumbstruck, silent for a week. With one swing of his mighty bat, the President has hit a dramatic walk-off homerun. He goes from goat to national hero overnight. The elections in November are a formality. Republicans keep the White House and recapture both houses of Congress."

In Iraq, Has It Come to This?

Josh White and Joshua Partlow write in The Washington Post: "A Pentagon group has encouraged some U.S. military snipers in Iraq to target suspected insurgents by scattering pieces of 'bait,' such as detonation cords, plastic explosives and ammunition, and then killing Iraqis who pick up the items, according to military court documents."

In case the horror of this escapes you: "Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, said such a baiting program should be examined 'quite meticulously' because it raises troubling possibilities, such as what happens when civilians pick up the items.

"'In a country that is awash in armaments and magazines and implements of war, if every time somebody picked up something that was potentially useful as a weapon, you might as well ask every Iraqi to walk around with a target on his back,' Fidell said."

Not So Fast?

In the Washington Post, Walter Pincus calls attention to several indicators of wiggle room in Army Gen. David H. Petraeus's stated goal of bringing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq back down to 130,000 by July.

Much More Money

Julian E. Barnes writes in Saturday's Los Angeles Times: "After smothering efforts by war critics in Congress to drastically cut U.S. troop levels in Iraq, President Bush plans to ask lawmakers next week to approve another massive spending measure -- totaling nearly $200 billion -- to fund the war through next year, Pentagon officials said.

"If Bush's spending request is approved, 2008 will be the most expensive year of the Iraq war. . . .

"The Bush administration said earlier this year that it probably would need $147.5 billion for 2008, but Pentagon officials now say that and $47 billion more will be required. . . .

"When costs of CIA operations and embassy expenses are added, the war in Iraq currently costs taxpayers about $12 billion a month, said Winslow T. Wheeler, a former Republican congressional budget aide who is a senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information in Washington.

"'Everybody predicts declines, but they haven't occurred, and 2008 will be higher than 2007,' Wheeler said. 'It all depends on what happens in Iraq, but thus far it has continued to get bloodier and more expensive. Everyone says we are going to turn the corner here, but the corner has not been turned.'"

The Oilman

Richard Wolffe and Gretel C. Kovach write in Newsweek about Jay Hunt's ambiguous role in Iraq. The longtime Bush friend and benefactor's oil company "announced this month that, after secret negotiations, it had struck a deal with leaders in the country's Kurdish-controlled north to explore for oil in the Dahuk region near the Turkish border." The move threatens "to disrupt already fragile talks over a critical benchmark for peace: an agreement among the Sunni, Shiites and Kurds to share profits from the country's bountiful oil supply. . . .

"White House officials may not have helped Hunt put together the deal, but that doesn't mean they're not doing their best to portray Hunt's project as a sign of progress. 'It's positive that a firm would choose to invest in Iraq--whether an American firm or not,' says spokesman Tony Fratto."

But consider this: "At least one top White House official was willing to express some skepticism. Asked by Newsweek about the controversy at last Thursday's news conference, President Bush said, 'I knew nothing about the deal. I need to know exactly how it happened. To the extent that it does undermine the ability for the government to come up with an oil revenue-sharing plan that unifies the country, obviously if it undermines it, I'm concerned.'"

Mukasey Watch

Michael Isikoff writes in Newsweek about some of the conservatives who were summoned to the White House to be won over by Michael Mukasey before Bush announced his nomination as attorney general. Among them: Federalist Society executive Leonard Leo and former A.G. Edwin Meese.

Writes Isikoff: "According to three sources, who asked not to be named discussing the private meetings, Mukasey said that he saw 'significant problems' with shutting down Guant¿namo Bay and that he understood the need for the CIA to use some 'enhanced' interrogation techniques against Qaeda suspects. Mukasey also signaled reluctance with naming a special prosecutor to investigate Bush-administration misconduct, according to one participant. 'Gosh, I'm a little worried that the Democrats might have problems with him,' said one well-connected conservative after being briefed on Mukasey's responses."

Philip Shenon in the New York Times describes Mukasey's cavalier attitude toward the indefinite detention of Arab men after 9/11 -- including one college student who complained of being beaten in the federal detention center in Manhattan.

"As far as the claim that he was beaten, I will tell you that he looks fine to me," Mukasey said of the man whose prison jumpsuit covered the bruises he had across his body.

Writes Shenon: "Although Mr. Mukasey is otherwise widely admired by prosecutors and defense lawyers alike in New York, his handling of the cases of Mr. Awadallah and other material witnesses taken into custody in terrorism investigations after Sept. 11 produced some rare, sharp criticism of his performance on the bench and raised concern among civil liberties groups. Senate Democrats have suggested they will focus on the issue when Mr. Mukasey is questioned at his confirmation hearings."

Richard B. Schmitt and Richard A. Serrano write in the Los Angeles Times that "if confirmed as attorney general, his independent streak could pose problems for President Bush.

"With his reputation already well-established and a gig at the Justice Department expected to last no more than a year or so, Mukasey, at 66, has little to lose. As a result, observers think he'll view his role much differently than did his predecessor as attorney general, Alberto R. Gonzales, who developed a reputation as a loyal advocate for administration legal positions and policies."

The Los Angeles Times editorial board warns, however, that "the Senate should carefully question even as impressive a candidate as Mukasey about his plans and his philosophy, particularly regarding the legal basis for the war on terror. If that requires postponing a vote until after the recess, so be it."

Budget Watch

Robert Pear writes in the New York Times: "With the new fiscal year just a week away, President Bush and the Democratic-controlled Congress are far from agreement on the proper level of spending for myriad federal programs, and the two sides have not even begun negotiations to resolve their differences. . . .

"Mr. Bush's public comments suggest he is determined to veto one or more appropriations bills, to highlight what he describes as excessive spending. But neither side has a postveto strategy.

"Democratic leaders in Congress say they have yet to resolve the most basic strategic question: Should they negotiate with the president or just send him bills reflecting their priorities and wait to see what happens? . . .

"Representative David R. Obey, the Wisconsin Democrat who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee . . . said the differences with Mr. Bush could be easily resolved if the United States were not in the middle of 'that stupid war in Iraq, the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of the Republic.'

"'The White House is looking for a fight,' Mr. Obey said. 'The president is in trouble across the board, and he's looking for some way to shore up his political base. I think he is trying to reclaim the mantle of fiscal responsibility on the cheap.'"

Here are Bush's brief remarks today about the budget -- and Congress: "If they think that by waiting until just before they leave for the year to send me a bill that is way over budget and thicker than a phone book, if they think that's going to force me to sign it, it's not."

Key Players

William Douglas writes for McClatchy Newspapers that even some of the administration's harshest critics have some nice things to say about White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten.

"Since he replaced Andrew Card as chief of staff in March 2006, Bolten, 53, has methodically gone about trying to change how the White House operates and shift its reputation to a place where pragmatism and dissent aren't viewed as disloyalty.

"Even while praising Bolten, critics say he still has a ways to go.

"'I think that the test of a good chief of staff is if the White House is getting its act together and producing policy and getting done what the president wants to do,' said Leon Panetta, who whipped President Bill Clinton's undisciplined first-term administration into shape as his second chief of staff.

"'If you look at that, the results are mixed.'"

Dave Montgomery writes for McClatchy Newspapers about Clay Johnson III, "one of the few remaining members of a Texas cadre that followed Bush from the statehouse in Austin to the White House in Washington.

"As deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, Johnson is hardly a staple on the Sunday talk shows. He's always been far less visible than now-departed members of Bush's Texas entourage, such as political guru Karl Rove and former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

"But the Fort Worth native's unglamorous title and self-imposed low profile mask what Bush insiders describe as Johnson's influential relationship with the president, built largely on the friendship that started in 1961 at one of the country's most prestigious boarding schools."

Book Watch

Roger Lowenstein writes in the New York Times Book Review: "Five years into the Iraq war, it is hard to remember that George W. Bush once was controversial for something that had nothing to do with terrorism or the Middle East. But in 'The Big Con,' Jonathan Chait reminds us that Bush will also leave an economic legacy, and it is as radical and, he argues, as wrongheaded as anything his administration has managed overseas.

"Chait, a senior editor at The New Republic who writes the magazine's TRB column, argues that a band of ideological zealots succeeded in capturing first the Republican Party and then, by poisoning the political process, Washington itself. Though their true agenda, tax cuts for the rich, was both economically unsound and politically unpopular, Chait writes, Bush and his conservative foot soldiers deceived the public and the press before pushing their policy -- four huge tax cuts in six years, in case you lost count -- on an enfeebled and corrupted Congress. . . .

"Since tax cuts tilted toward the rich were unpopular, George W. Bush and his supporters had to argue that the rich were not in fact the main beneficiaries. Thus, under Bush, dishonesty became 'integral to the Republican economic agenda.' As Chait baldly puts it, 'Lying has become a systematic necessity.' . . .

"Chait is particularly good in describing how the press, wary of seeming partisan, simply reported the claims on each side rather than analyzing them. The problem with this approach, he argues, is that the relationship of the two political parties is no longer symmetric. Democrats do not patrol their ranks for heretics or force them to sign no-tax pledges; liberal think tanks like the Brookings Institution are not devoted to a single view of taxes, as is the conservative Heritage Foundation; and liberal newspapers are far more balanced than, say, Fox News. . . .

"[Splitting the difference] is the approach, he ruefully observes, of most of the Washington press corps, and it is one of the secrets of the Republicans' success. Reporters mechanically grope for the 'middle,' but when one party is veering rightward, the middle is, too."

Here is Chait's first chapter.

Bush's Political Prognostication

Peter Baker blogged for washingtonpost.com on Friday that Bush isn't betting against Hillary Clinton: "At an off-the-record lunch a week ago, Bush expressed admiration for her tenacity in the campaign. And he left some in the room with the impression that he thinks she will win the election and has been thinking about how to turn over the country to her.

"The topic came up when Bush invited a group of morning and evening news anchors and Sunday show hosts to join him in the executive mansion's family dining room a few hours before he delivered his nationally televised address on Iraq last week. Bush made no explicit election predictions, according to some in the room, but clearly thought Clinton would win the Democratic nomination and talked in a way that seemed to suggest he expects her to succeed him - and will continue his Iraq policy if she does. . . .

"For a guy who says he doesn't want to dissect the campaign, Bush sounded a little like he was auditioning for a pundit job after his term ends."

The audition continues today. Bill Sammon writes in the Washington Examiner: "President Bush, for the first time, is predicting that Hillary Rodham Clinton will defeat Barack Obama in the Democratic presidential primaries. 'She's got a national presence and this is becoming a national primary,' Bush said in an interview for the new book, The Evangelical President. 'And therefore the person with the national presence, who has got the ability to raise enough money to sustain an effort in a multiplicity of sites, has got a good chance to be nominated.'"

Bush told Sammon: "I will work to see to it that a Republican wins and therefore don't accept the premise that a Democrat will win. I truly think the Republicans will hold the White House."

And here, from Sammon, is pundit Cheney's view: "The election 'could go either way,' Vice President Dick Cheney told The Examiner in his West Wing office. 'Right now, we're sort of in the area where we're pretty evenly balanced on both sides.'"

Bush's National Guard Service

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column about Dan Rather's lawsuit against his former bosses at CBS: "Rather's lawsuit gives his account of how he came to report on the since-discontinued '60 Minutes II' that a young George W. Bush not only relied on political connections to get into the Texas Air National Guard -- which allowed him to avoid serving in Vietnam -- but also got special treatment while he served. Bush escaped punishment for infractions and indiscipline that could have landed a less well-connected guardsman in the brig, the story said.

"The story was based in part on a batch of Nixon-era documents. When Internet bloggers noticed that the documents didn't look as if they had been produced by Nixon-era technology -- that in fact they looked as if they might have been written using Microsoft Word software -- the story, and Rather's career, started to fall apart. . . .

"The lawsuit says that Rather still believes the documents are probably genuine. I'm not sure about that -- come on, Dan, they're 'shakier than cafeteria jello' -- but I do think he makes a valid argument about the larger issue: The point of the story, that Bush got kid-gloves treatment while he was avoiding Vietnam in the Air National Guard, didn't rest entirely on the disputed documents. But CBS never tried to defend the story's central thrust. The network backed off, ordered Rather to apologize on the air, eventually fired him as anchor of the 'CBS Evening News,' restricted his airtime on '60 Minutes' and finally let his contract expire."

By contrast, Washington Post editorial-page staffer Charles Lane writes on the very same page that "no one in his right mind would keep insisting that those phony documents are real and that the Bush National Guard story is true."

Movie Night

Ken Herman of Cox News Service, who attended a White House screening of "The Kite Runner" on Sept. 16, resolves the conundrum of whether the event was on or off the record by imagining what such a night might be like:

"The evening might begin with hallway chit-chat that would include extended banter with a former Austinite now living in his dad's former place on Pennsylvania Avenue. A little baseball, a little current events and a lot of artful dancing about whether the next morning would bring an announcement about the selection of a new attorney general. . . .

"[T]hrough luck of the draw, perhaps former presidential aide Karl Rove would be seated directly behind you. And maybe Rove would introduce you to the man seated next to you as 'the most cynical' reporter in the White House press corps. . . .

"And then maybe Rove would evidence his 'inexhaustible good cheer' by kicking the back of your chair throughout the opening credits. . . .

"At one point, there might be the unmistakable sound of the president's trademark chuckle during a part of the movie that did not seem intended to produce chuckles. Might have been a front-row, highly classified inside joke. . . .

"Thanks, you might say to the president, joking that you are looking forward to coming back again next Sunday.

"And maybe he would respond by joking that next week's movie is 'Revenge of the Nerds.'"

Freepers at the White House

What does the White House consider a "military support organization"?

Via Americablog, I see that members of the D.C. chapter of Free Republic, a notoriously vitriolic right-wing Web site, were invited to the White House last week for an event where Bush thanked the attendees for their "steadfast resolve," and their "support of those brave souls who have volunteered in the face of the danger."

Cartoon Watch

Signe Wilkinson on Bush's longtime companion.

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