- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 12, 2007

Echoing recent criticisms from Senate Democrats, Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has now called for “a new team at the Justice Department, across the board.” And Republican officials — allegedly operating at the behest of the White House — are floating names for a new attorney general, according to an earlier story.

While it’s probably good contingency planning, let’s hope it doesn’t turn out to be an exercise of the administration’s past practice of — too often — putting the wrong people in important positions.

In fact, it’s appropriate to wonder who is really making these decisions at the White House. If it really is the president, he would be better off this time deferring to those who know the turf at the Justice Department a little better.

Remember the nomination of Harriet Miers to be a Supreme Court justice? It served to highlight just one of two fundamental problems with how the administration has made some important personnel choices. In short, they have: (1) kept around an uncomfortable number of “holdovers” and (2) selected a few political and connected friends for jobs that have been over their heads.

While the Miers nomination may well have been in the second category, people in the first category have actually done the president more political damage. Here are the most troubling examples:

c Why and how George (“Slam Dunk”) Tenant — the former Democratic staff director for the Senate Intelligence Committee and Clinton administration National Security Council intelligence director — was able to hold over as CIA director is a classic story of Washington suck-up. Suffice it to say Mr. Tenant, a very skilled politico, played the Bush camp — as the career pols say. This seriously flawed selection cost the president dearly — and he’s still paying for it.

c Dick Clarke, a long-time “career” State Department employee detailed to the NSC, was not retained in the NSC anti-terrorism job that he held during the Clinton administration. But this notorious sourpuss was kept around long enough at the NSC to collect material for a tell-all book and has been a vocal administration critic ever since. This is more than a little outrageous, since Mr. Clarke had the job while at least part of the planning and preparation for September 11, 2001, was under way.

c Then there was Rand Beers, another long-time, “career” State person who followed Mr. Tenant to the NSC as intelligence director during the Clinton administration (when Mr. Tenant went on to be Mr. Clinton’s central intelligence deputy director). Mr. Beers was actually returned to the Bush NSC staff from State — until leaving again to serve as John Kerry’s national security adviser and a spokesman for the 2004 Democratic presidential campaign.

Mr. Tenant, Mr. Clarke and Mr. Beers are smart people who may serve again in government — most likely in Democratic administrations. Nevertheless, the question remains: What should have been expected when they were kept on the “inside” of a Republican administration? Surprisingly, others in this category still serve at high levels in the administration — close enough to the president to bite him.

Now, for the second category: People appointed to high-level political jobs who are simply not qualified for them is nothing new in Washington, but President Bush has appointed some “doozies.” Next to Miss Miers, perhaps the saddest example of this was Michael Brown at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Mr. Brown had little — if any — background, training or experience relevant to his responsibilities at FEMA and it cost the president dearly with key constituencies, not to mention an embarrassing “failure to launch” after Hurricane Katrina.

And, while loyalties and friendships are important in politics, the person selected must at least be able to do the job — or, there must be a skilled person they can rely on to do it for them.

For example, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales often seems oblivious to the complex responsibilities of running (or even working in) a large organization, let alone a large law enforcement agency. Most always an “in-house” counsel or a judge, he had no such leadership experience. Nor had his deputy, who was a House staffer prior to being appointed a U.S. attorney — nor had his former chief of staff, who had “checked blocks” as a White House and Senate staffer before coming to the Justice Department, nor had his counsel (the one who “took the Fifth” and resigned) who had even less relevant professional experience before going to Justice.

That these four were way over their collective heads should have surprised no one — it was a stage set for a political disaster at Justice: Mr. Gingrich perhaps described it best, as a “mishandled, artificial, self-created mess.”

So, can we hope President Bush — especially as he deals with a Democratic-controlled Senate — will choose someone to be attorney general who is actually qualified to do the job? Someone with proven leadership skills, someone who has, for example, served honorably as the head of a large department with a complex mission, as a former deputy attorney general, as solicitor general — or even as a distinguished former member of Congress?

Insisting on this level of leadership skill and professional qualification will also help assure that the nominee will be a credible member of the president’s Cabinet, and — perhaps just as important — knows how critically important it is to supervise and control the political appointees who end up at the Justice Department.

Daniel Gallington is a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies and served in senior positions at the Justice and Defense Departments.


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