Monday, September 15, 2008

Cheney and the Bureaucrats

Post has a two-part series from a book on Cheney. Today's article is focused on a story previously reported--the uproar in the Justice Department over approvals for a secret program of intelligence eavesdropping. Short summary: Cheney and David Addington, his aide, pushed through approvals, partly by severely limiting knowledge of the program. When Bush had to renew his approval, Justice personnel rebelled, came within a day of submitting mass resignations, which led to Bush reversing his decision and modifying the program.

The "rebellion", as I'm calling it, was basically among the political appointees at Justice, deputy Attorney General and below, but fed by resistance from career lawyers in the military and finally affirmed by Attorney General Ashcroft.

To me, as a Democratic ex-bureaucrat, it's a story of the good guys (career people) winning a battle with the bad guys (Cheney--boo, hiss). Looked at another way it is an example the inevitable tension between bureaucracy and political chiefs. But I also suspect it's a failure at personal politics by Cheney and Addington--more tactful and personable types who were less obsessive about secrecy might well have won the tacit consent of the bureaucracy, simply by including them from the start, infecting them with a shared concern about the grave dangers of terrorism, etc. etc. (Concerns I don't have, BTW.) In my experience, knowledge is power in bureaucracy. And when you deprive usually powerful people of knowledge, they become resentful.

Having said all that, I still think the result was right. And it's a fine example of the wisdom of the Founders--as the Federalist talked about harnessing the passions of imperfect man to check and balance power.

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