Monday, March 19, 2007

Hubris: a trilogy

I have three items here today, but they’re really all about the same thing: Hubris in high places.

The most substantive problem with the Bush administration’s firings of eight federal prosecutors is the well-documented fact that most of these Republican appointees were not deemed by the White House to be sufficiently zealous about bringing cases that would help Republicans at election time. And the public knows this; a new poll, released this weekend and sponsored by Newsweek, finds that 58 percent of Americans (and, tellingly, 61 percent of independents) view the firings as politically motivated.

Exhibit A is David Iglesias, a Fox News guest yesterday, who had received glowing performance ratings from his Bush overlords in Washington, but who nevertheless was dumped last December from his New Mexico job after he failed to bring any indictments against Democrats during the weeks preceding the ’06 election. Iglesias has since disclosed that two key GOP figures in New Mexico - Republican senator Pete Domenici and congresswoman Heather Wilson (who was fighting for her political life at the time) – called him last fall to ask about whether he was going to bring some indictments in a timely fashion. But, as Iglesias told Fox News, “we didn’t have evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. Prosecutors can’t just prosecute on rumor and innuendo.”

Yet, substance aside, what’s also striking about the firings (and we will surely learn more in the days ahead) are the shifting rationales invoked by the administration. President Bush and his surrogates are not necessarily wrong when they say that they wish these firings had been “handled” and “communicated” better. But the reason they didn’t explain their actions swiftly, fully, and honestly is because that kind of behavior would have been out of character. (Their first impulse – to falsely claim that all those prosecutors were dumped because of low performance ratings – was more predictably in character.) Clearly, even four months after the ’06 election, they have only begun to wake up to the factual reality that (a) the Democrats now run Congress, and (b) they will now be held accountable for their actions.

I was also struck by this passage in a Newsweek story, posted yesterday. It concerned a meeting with Bush crony/attorney general Alberto Gonzalez: “Recently, a trio of senators—Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy; Arlen Specter, the senior Republican on the committee, and Democrat Charles Schumer—sat down with Gonzales in his wood-paneled conference room to discuss the firings of the U.S. attorneys. Gonzales was initially combative and defensive. ‘Why do I have to prove anything to you?’ he demanded at one point, according to a source who was in the room…”

Why do I have to prove anything to you....Does that sound like anyone else we know?

Here’s a hint, courtesy of a quote from 2002: “I don't have to explain why I say things. That’s the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.”

In other words, the hubris starts at the top. Gonzales may soon be sacrificed in this scandal, but he and his people at Justice were merely marching to his patron’s tune.


Speaking of hubris, a fascinating admission was made by a Bush official on Capitol Hill last Friday afternoon in one of the other scandals. But first, a little context:

Back in September 2003, after it became clear that the White House had been trying to discredit Iraq critic Joe Wilson, and that some retaliatory soul had leaked Valerie Plame Wilson’s confidential CIA status, Bush was called upon to comment. He declared that he was determined to find out exactly what had happened. He said: “If there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is.” He also said: “I want to get to the bottom of this.”

Flash forward to last Friday, when Valerie Plame Wilson testified on Capitol Hill. She said under oath that her work had been compromised. Just as interesting, but underreported, was the testimony of another guest – James Knodell, director of the White House security office. He was asked about Bush’s professed determination to root out the anti-Wilson leakers.

Committee chairman Henry Waxman: “Federal regulations require that any person who has knowlege of the loss or compromise of classified information has an obligation to report to the White House Security Officer….Are you aware if there has been any investigation that ever took place in the White House about the release of this classified information?”

Knodell: “I am not…”

Congressman Elijah Cummings: “I want to make sure I heard you right. Are you saying with regard to this case that is, the outing of Valerie Plame Wilson, there is no report?”

Knodell: “Not in my office there is not.”

Cummings: “And are you also saying there was no investigation?”

Knodell: “Not by my office…”

Waxman: “Do you know whether there was an investigation at the White House after the leaks came out?”

Knodell: “I don't have any knowledge of an investigation within my office.”

Waxman: “Ever?”

Knodell: “I do not.”

Waxman: “Because the President said he was investigating this matter, was going to get to the bottom of it. You're not familiar that any, you're not aware that any investigation took place?”

Knodell: “Not within my office, sir.”

So it would appear that Bush was employing a variation of the O.J. Simpson defense (see last Tuesday’s post), vowing to hunt down a culprit, even though the culprit was in the room with him, yet failing to follow up on the vow. As press reports indicated back in September 2003, he vowed to “get to the bottom of this” during a meeting with Karl Rove – who is now known to be one of the Wilson leakers. But we learned that from the Scooter Libby case, not from any attempt by the White House to hold itself accountable. That would have been incompatible with the imperatives of hubris.


Finally, on the hubris front, I’ll reference my latest Sunday newspaper column, which deals with Bush’s executive order in November 2001 to make it far easier for presidents, vice presidents, their families, and their heirs to shield their White House documents and papers from public view and, ultimately, from the verdict of history.

Basically, his order says that ex-presidents and their families – as well as an incumbent president acting in support of the ex – can hold up release indefinitely. But as I also noted, the House last week – by a veto-proof margin – approved a bipartisan bill to bring back the 1978 open-records law that essentially ensured future release of these papers. (This development was overlooked in the press last week, amidst all the fallout from the prosecutor scandal, the Walter Reed scandal, and the Libby leak scandal).

And here's some material that I had to excise from my print column.

Many of Ronald Reagan’s papers were slated for release by the National Archives in January 2001; he had left office in January 1989, and the ’78 law had mandated a 12-year release procedure. A Reagan directive had also added one caveat to the law: It gave an incumbent president 30 days to decide whether an ex’s papers should be held up on an executive privilege claim.

So picture the scene: It's January 2001, and Bush has just become president. What do you think happened next?

On March 23, 2001, having already held up the Reagan release for more than the statutory 30 days, Bush directed an aide to write to the Archivist of the United States, and ask for a 90-day extension – but wait, that’s not quite correct. The aide wrote, “I instruct you to extend for 90 days…” (emphasis mine).

Bush got the extended extension, but 90 days came and went. So in June, the aide wrote again to the Archivist: “I am now instructing you to extend until August 31.”

Bush got the new extended extension, but 90 days came and went. So in August, the aide wrote again, “In the spirit of cooperation and collaboration…I am now formally instructing you to extend the time…” The aide asked for “several weeks,” but on Nov. 1, Bush changed all the rules anyway, trumping the ’78 law with his own executive order – and lawmakers on the Hill (including some prominent conservative Republicans) have been trying to undo his act ever since.

The aide who wrote all those memos was his faithful counsel, Alberto Gonzales.