Divided loyalties

Posted: Aug 19, 2003 12:00 AM

A curious thing happens when conservatives are elected President of the United States -- particularly if they have the temerity to govern as conservatives: Non-trivial numbers of federal civil servants oppose the President's agenda and work to scupper it through quiet obstructionism, anonymous but highly critical press leaks and, on occasion, public disagreements over policy and programs.

 Rarely has this phenomenon been more evident than in the run-up to and aftermath of the Mr. Bush's decision to liberate Iraq.  In particular, the past few weeks have seen a number of present and recently retired government employees coming forth to castigate the President and his national security team.  The charge: selective utilization and willful distortion of intelligence about the nature and the imminence of the threat Saddam Hussein posed to the United States. 

 This gives rise to the perception, at best, of an incoherent, if not incompetent, presidency.  At worst, it strengthens the hand of other critics -- in Congress, presidential candidates, the media and the public at large -- who cite the Administration's own personnel in making their attacks on the President's integrity and judgment.

 This sort of thing seems to happen much less when Democrats are in charge of the executive branch.   At least in part, that fact is attributable to a profound difference between the parties: Governing is an avocation for Democratic partisans.  Their Republican counterparts tend to view it as a public duty, to be performed only as an interlude in a career otherwise spent in the private sector.

 Democrats consequently fare better when it comes to staffing administrations -- under GOP as well as Democratic presidents.  This is so, not least, because the latter often make a concerted effort to convert political appointees into career civil servants who then "burrow" into the permanent bureaucracy.  When GOP political appointees take over, as they did in the months after Bill Clinton left office, they often find themselves saddled with individuals of a profoundly different ideological stripe who hold senior staff positions and who, under civil service rules, cannot be easily displaced.

 Certain proclivities can greatly exacerbate this problem.  The Bush Administration decided, as evidence of its commitment to reduce the size of government, to cut the White House budget.  In order to staff the National Security Council, it was therefore compelled to rely heavily upon detailees from the State Department and CIA, organizations riddled with career civil servants whose left-of-center leanings were greatly exacerbated by hiring and promotion practices during the Clinton years.  One such loaned staffer, Rand Beers, recently left the NSC in a blaze of denunciations of the Bush team to become foreign policy advisor to presidential candidate John Kerry.

 Matters were made worse when Secretary of State Colin Powell decided to turn the vast majority of the policy-making positions in his department over to Foreign Service officers and civil servants who were recruited and/or promoted to senior posts during the Clinton Administration.  Not surprisingly, Foggy Bottom has been a hotbed of covert and occasionally overt opposition to much of President Bush's foreign and defense policy agenda.

 This has been particularly true of the Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), an organization staffed by Foreign Service officers and civil servants who do tours of duty in INR between rotations to overseas and other assignments.  Not surprisingly, this bureau's  intelligence products have tended to reflect the policy predilections of State's permanent bureaucracy, rather than the facts. 

 Two INR officials, recent retiree Greg Thielmann and his former subordinate Christian Westermann, have been among the few intelligence officials publicly to attack the integrity of the Bush Administration's case for war with Iraq.  The former reportedly fared poorly when given an opportunity to support his charges recently before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence; Senate staffers have described Westermann's charges of politicization of intelligence to be "laughable."

 Even the Defense Department -- an organization whose senior ranks have been largely populated by Donald Rumsfeld with individuals who actually support the President's security policies -- has nonetheless found its efforts to help develop and advance those policies under assault from people with "insider" credentials.  Patrick Lang, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, and Lieutenant Colonel Karen Kwiatkowski, a recently retired Air Force officer who served a tour in the Pentagon's policy shop, have leveled of late a number of charges to the effect that classified information was selectively used to justify otherwise unsupportable claims that Saddam posed a threat. 

 In fact, neither critic appears to have been directly involved in or otherwise to have first- hand knowledge of the alleged activities.  Instead, they seem to be passing on scuttlebutt whose provenance, to say nothing of veracity, seems highly questionable.  In the case of Ms. Kwiatkowski, a review of numerous screeds she has published on the Internet -- including some evidently written while on active duty -- evince an ideological hostility towards the President, the Secretary of Defense and others in her chain of command that calls into question her objectivity and the accuracy of her charges.
 The most successful U.S. administrations draw on talented personnel from both sides of the aisle and pursue policies that enjoy sustained bipartisan support.  Where federal employees -- whether civilian or military -- find themselves unable faithfully to execute a President's policies, however, the public interest will be best served if they stop pretending to work for the government.  They are welcome to join the public debate from outside but, as they do so, they should make clear the political or ideological leanings that rendered them unable to work for the incumbent and his team.