Monday, March 26, 2007

Who is Stuart Bowen, and how does he fit the pattern?

Given all we have learned in recent weeks about Bush administration misbehavior - the ill treatment of wounded soldiers (Walter Reed), the inability to tell the truth (Scooter Libby conviction), the firing of eight U.S. attorneys who were not deemed to be “loyal Bushies” (as one Justice aide termed it, in an email), the president’s invoking of “executive privilege” (a bid to bar top aides from telling the truth under oath), the attorney general’s credibility woes (see Saturday’s post) – the last thing you probably want to read right now is news of yet another performance debacle.

But this one is worth noting. It surfaced briefly in the press last Thursday, but was quickly trumped by bigger stories – such as the historic House vote on Iraq, and the potential collision between the White House and Congress over President Bush’s executive privilege invocation. Here’s the gist:

The Pentagon’s own internal watchdog, Special Inspector Stuart Bowen, released a report last Wednesday that skewered the Bush war planners for screwing up the reconstruction of Iraq, mainly by failing to anticipate the potential for anti-American violence; failing to put in place any procedures that would track the billions in reconstruction money and ensure that it was well spent; and failing, above all, to set up a command structure so that everybody would know who was in charge.

Bowen told reporters: "There was a lack of clarity of roles and responsibility and a lack of effective joint-ness. By that I mean a unity of command, and that needs to be developed before we go to war…the United States government was not well poised to execute the kind of relief and reconstruction operation that was presented in Iraq after the 2003 invasion.”

It’s not exactly major news, of course, that the Bush administration seems to lack basic competence skills, and this is hardly the first time that Bowen has exposed glaring war-planning deficiencies. After all, he already has authored roughly 300 reports, tracking wasted billions and various examples of price-gouging by a well-connected contractor, Halliburton. So why do I bother taking note of his new report?
For this reason: If Bush’s enablers on Capitol Hill had had their way last winter, we would not be getting any more reports from Stuart Bowen. Because he would have been out of a job by Oct. 1 of this year. And he would have been out of job because the job itself was targeted for elimination.

Last autumn, when the GOP was still running Congress, Bush-friendly lawmakers inserted an obscure provision in a defense bill to terminate the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. The clause was inserted by Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee in a closed-door conference. The leader of this effort was panel chairman Duncan Hunter (who is now seeking the GOP presidential nomination). The maneuver was ultimately discovered by outraged lawmakers who had no advance warning that firing Bowen would be an item in the final legislation. In the end, there was a successful effort, by Democrats and some moderate Senate Republicans, to save Bowen’s job.

Can you spot the parallel to the U.S. attorney purge?

As one of those targeted federal prosecutors, John McKay, said yesterday on NBC, the job of a public servant is to “focus on the evidence and not allow politics into the work that we do.” (McKay, a Bush appointee, had refused to pursue a voter fraud case in the state of Washington, citing lack of evidence. The White House and the state GOP had wanted that case. Now he’s out of a job.) Similarly, Stuart Bowen has spent the past few years pursuing empirical facts with no regard for politics, but since those facts have repeatedly embarrassed the Bush team, he was deemed disposable.

And this is why the prosecutor purge is significant. It is merely part of a pattern, the attempted politicization of public servants who are supposed to work for the taxpayer, not for those who mistake partisan zeal for high purpose.


Speaking of partisan zeal, and the selective use of argument for partisan purposes, I bring you a senator newly returned to the GOP leadership, Trent Lott.

Here was Lott yesterday on Fox News, defending Bush’s decision to defy Congress and shield his top aides from testifying under oath about the prosecutor purge: “In my mind, I think if the President would agree for his close advisors in the White House to testify before Congress under oath, he’d be making a huge mistake. There is a thing called executive privilege.”

But here was Lott in 1998, lamenting President Clinton’s attempt to invoke executive privilege and thus shield his top aides from testifying under oath in the Lewinsky sex scandal: “(Clinton has) taken a step that really smacks of Watergate. It certainly looks bad - like there's something serious there that they're trying to hide….I think he should give up (invoking privilege). And I think he should be forthcoming. He should give us more information, not less.”

By the way, Clinton did give up. His aides did testify under oath. But when Fox host Chris Wallace pointed this out yesterday, Lott replied: “Well, yes, but that doesn't mean it was a smart thing to do, or that it should have been done.”

Wait a second….In 1998, hadn’t Lott argued in plain English that giving up the privilege claim was exactly what he thought Clinton should do?

What Lott demonstrates here is the craft of the true partisan warrior, the belief that facts are merely malleable weapons in the service of winning. (“Facts were being fixed around the policy,” as the British famously wrote in a 2002 memo about the Bush team’s decision-making style.) What apparently got most of those U.S. attorneys - and Stuart Bowen - into trouble was their inconvenient belief that the facts come first.