Leaking Like A Sieve

We’re living in the midst of the leakiest America in history, and it’s causing lots of problems for our country.

leaky-sieveThe leakiness isn’t confined to just Washington, D.C., the Democratic National Committee, or the confused conduct of the Trump White House, where it seems as though every confidential meeting must end with a dash to the door so that everyone in attendance can call their favorite journalist and recount what just happened in excruciating detail.  Now the leak-fest is also affecting foreign affairs and criminal investigations, too.

The latest evidence of this problem involves the investigation into the horrendous suicide bombing in Manchester, England, where an Islamic extremist specifically targeted kids and their parents at a concert and killed 22 innocents and injured 64 more.  British authorities shared information about the attack, including the name of the bomber and photos of the debris being examined as part of the investigation, with an intelligence network that includes the United States.  Some unprincipled American recipient of the information then promptly leaked the information to the New York Times, which published it.

The BBC is reporting that British officials are furious about the leaks, which could affect the success of their investigation, and have stopped sharing intelligence about the attack and its investigation with American authorities.  British Prime Minister Theresa May also plans to raise the issue with President Trump at this week’s NATO meeting.  Of course, it’s not clear that Trump has any ability to stop the rampant leakiness — he can’t even get his own White House personnel to keep things confidential.

When the profound leakiness in our government invades the intelligence agencies and the criminal investigators, to the point that our allies can’t even trust us sufficiently to disclose information about terrorist attacks that are bedeviling all western countries, then we’ve got serious problems.  Obviously, we want to get whatever information we can about terrorist attacks, so we can use the information to prepare our own defenses and procedures to try to prevent future attacks.  If our allies withhold information because they’re afraid it will be leaked, that not only embarrasses America, it hurts us, too.  And if criminal investigators become as leaky as White House staffers, the confidential investigatory information they provide may help the criminal actor to avoid capture or prevent a fair trial — neither of which is a good thing, either.

The reality is that some things must be kept secret, and if the people in our government can’t keep their mouths shut about the truly secret stuff, then they aren’t qualified to serve in positions where the ability to maintain confidences is a crucial part of the job. We need to determine who is leaking intelligence and investigatory information and thereby imperiling both our relationships with our allies and our own security and replace them.  The leaks have got to stop.

The Comey Canning

As Forrest Gump might have said, any day with the Trump Administration is like a box of chocolates:  you never know what you’re going to get.  Yesterday, we got the decision from President Trump to fire the Director of the FBI, James Comey.  And, to accentuate the bizarre, bolt from the blue aspect of the decision, Comey apparently learned of the decision when the news flashed across the TV screen behind him while he was giving a speech, and he initially chuckled and thought it was a joke.

The White House says that Trump acted on the recommendation of senior officials in the Justice Department, who concluded that Comey botched the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s questionable email practices and, in the process, caused “substantial damage” to the credibility and reputation of the FBI that has “affected the entire Department of Justice.”

FILE PHOTO: FBI Director Comey testifies on Capitol Hill in WashingtonThe Deputy Attorney General, Rod J. Rosenstein, prepared a memorandum citing reasons for Comey’s discharge that stated:  “I cannot defend the director’s handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton’s emails, and I do not understand his refusal to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken. Almost everyone agrees that the director made serious mistakes; it is one of the few issues that unites people of diverse perspectives.”  Among other mistakes, Rosenstein cited Comey’s curious July 5 press conference, where Comey announced that charges would not be pursued against Clinton but then castigated her creation of the servers and her handling of confidential materials.  Rosenstein stated that Comey acted “without the authorization of duly appointed Justice Department leaders” and added: “Compounding the error, the director ignored another longstanding principle: we do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation . . . we never release it gratuitously . . . It is a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do.”

There is truth the Rosenstein’s statement about a bipartisan consensus that Comey’s handling of the email investigation involved a lot of mistakes; Comey’s actions and his decision to make an abrupt, pre-election announcement of a renewed investigation into Clinton’s email servers were criticized by former attorney generals in both Republican and Democratic administrations.  And only this week, the FBI had to correct misstatements Comey made in recent testimony to Congress about the email investigation.

But there is something very unsettling about the Trump Administration’s abrupt decision to discharge Comey for actions he took months ago, because the decision comes in the midst of an ongoing investigation into Russian influence into the last presidential election and the actions of the Trump campaign in relation to the potential Russian involvement.  Trump’s letter to Comey giving him the boot oddly acknowledged the ongoing investigation, stating:  “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.’’  And Rosenstein has only been at his Department of Justice post for two weeks, which suggests that his first job assignment in his new position was to consider whether Comey should be fired.

Not surprisingly, Democrats are up in arms about the decision, which they compare to Richard Nixon’s infamous “Saturday night massacre” of Justice Department officials, and members of Congress are calling for an investigation.  I think an investigation makes sense, but until then I’m going to reserve judgment and see what develops.  There’s no doubt that Comey had his issues, and it may well be that — unfortunate timing aside — the White House and the Department of Justice had legitimate concerns that he simply was incapable of handling the kind of highly sensitive investigations the FBI must undertake in a non-partisan way.  On the other hand, the timing is unfortunate, and naturally gives rise to suspicions about what really happened here.  A through investigation will help to establish the facts and clear the air.

A Spokesperson For The Ages

Normally, you would think that a public official would pick a spokesperson based on that person’s ability to shape and convey positive and persuasive messages that advanced the public official’s agenda.  And when the “public official” in question is the President of the United States, whose every move is put under a microscope, you would think the careful messaging requirement would be even more essential.

So how in the world did Sean Spicer end up as the White House press secretary?

trumpSpicer’s comment yesterday that suggested that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad was in some ways worse than Adolf Hitler, because “You know, you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” is unforgivably ignorant — because, of course, Hitler did use poison gas to kill millions of Jews during the Holocaust.  Children are taught that fact during their world history classes, and the national Holocaust Museum is only a mile or so away from the White House.  How can you be the press secretary for the President of the United States and not be aware of the fact of Hitler’s poison gas executions and avoid making a comment that suggests that you are a know-nothing fool?

Spicer later apologized, but the entire incident raises questions about Spicer and his staff.  Spicer’s abrasive style clearly rubs the press the wrong way, and it has been hilariously lampooned by Melissa McCarthy on Saturday Night Live.  There’s nothing wrong with having a combative press secretary if that is the President’s way of sending a message to the media, although Spicer often seems over the top for my tastes.  But you can’t have a press secretary whose behavior and comments make him the story that distracts from, and undercuts, the President’s goals.  Don’t Spicer and his staff prepare for his press conferences, and carefully consider the arguments he is going to present before he goes before the country and makes them?  If so, how could his staff not recognize the fundamental, underlying idiocy of his comparison of Assad and Hitler?  And if they don’t vet his arguments, and Spicer just “wings it,” then he’s an incompetent whose instincts are obviously ill-suited for the job, and it’s just a matter of time before he makes another thoughtless and stupid comment that sets off another firestorm or provokes an unintended international incident.

Either way, Spicer should be replaced as press secretary.  President Trump might like his two-fisted way of dealing with the press that Trump seems to hold in contempt, but he’s got to realize that Spicer is a huge liability who is just going to step into it again, and again, and again, and make the Trump Administration as a whole look like amateur hour.   That’s not the kind of messaging you want from your press secretary.

Porn On The Federal Payroll

A television station in Washington, D.C. sent a Freedom of Information Act request to 12 federal agencies.  The FOIA request, directed to the inspector generals of the 12 agencies, sought records of cases of “egregious on-the-job pornography” viewing by federal employees at the 12 agencies.

lawmaker-calls-to-block-federal-employees-porn-accessIn response, the inspector generals produced records showing that almost 100 federal employees at the 12 agencies were caught, or admitted to, watching vast amounts of porn while at work.  One employee, at the Environmental Protection Agency offices in Washington, D.C., said he had spent up to six hours a day watching porn for “several years.”  A patent and trademark employee at the Department of Commerce was found to have made 1,800 connections to pornographic websites and told investigators, by way of explanation:  “When I am working hard, I go to these images to take a mental break.”  A worker at the Federal Railroad Administration was found to have searched for porn for 252 hours in one year.  And some of the cases addressed in the inspector general records were criminal in nature, because they involved viewing child pornography.

Watching porn on the job apparently falls within the category of “computer misuse,” which is subject to different penalties at different federal agencies, with sanctions ranging from a written reprimand to suspensions and termination.  As one deputy assistant inspector general put it, the computer systems, and the employees, are supposed to be performing government work while on the job, and checking out porn instead constitutes some of the “waste, fraud, and abuse” we taxpayers often hear politicians talk about.  Notably, the TV station report provides no information on whether disciplinary action was taken against the supervisors of the employee who says he spent six hours a day watching porn on his work computer for several years without being detected, or whether the EPA concluded that his job clearly wasn’t necessary and could be eliminated.

About 100 employees out of the vast payrolls of the 12 federal agencies obviously isn’t a huge percentage; you’re going to find a few “bad apples” in just about any workplace.  But the TV station FOIA request was targeted specifically at “egregious” porn viewing, and the fact that federal employees can spend hours watching porn on the job watching pornography, undetected, just adds fuel to the budget-cutting and payroll-cutting fire.  President Trump’s budget plans already have federal employees worried that federal payrolls are going to be slashed.  Don’t be surprised if, in the debate about downsizing the federal government, bureaucratic porn-watching habits get trotted out as a talking point.

Feet Off The Furniture!

Presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway has come under fierce criticism on social media after a picture showed her perched on one of the couches in the Oval Office, with her feet tucked under her.  Close-ups showed that she was wearing shoes at the time, and her heels were digging in to the fabric.

TOPSHOT-US-POLITICS-TRUMPGasp!

Critics said she was being disrespectful of the Oval Office through her pose and her treatment of the furniture.  Conway says she meant no disrespect, and her defenders say she was just getting ready to use her phone to take a photo of President Trump meeting with leaders of historic black colleges.  They also cite pictures of President Obama with his feet up on the desk in the Oval Office.  (And, of course, it’s not just any desk, it’s the famous Resolute desk made from timbers of the British vessel  H.M.S. Resolute and presented to President Rutherford B. Hayes by Queen Victoria in 1880, and therefore presumably has a lot more history going for it than the sofa on which Conway was perched.)

Only one month or so into the new Administration, and already we’ve reached the point of arguing about treatment of furniture!  Hey, I know — let’s call it “Sofagate”!

desk1Maybe some of the angst about the furniture in the Oval Office comes from people whose parents were hyper-concerned about maintaining the condition the furniture in their home, and covered it with uncomfortable plastic slip covers for daily use so the furniture would always look brand new for company.  These were the people whose mothers were always yelling “feet off the furniture!” when you went over to their house as kids.  Other people, like the Webners, grew up in households where furniture was not viewed as a some kind of sacred item and putting your feet up on the coffee table, or stretching out on the sofa to watch TV, was a perfectly acceptable practice and a little wear and tear on the couch and chairs was to be expected.  And still other people recognize that putting your feet up on a wooden desk is different than putting shoe-clad feet up on a fabric-covered sofa.

This is a classic example of the kind of tempest in a teapot that makes Washington so baffling and weird, with people with an inside-the-Beltway mentality consciously trying to blow little things up into huge disputes.  It’s gotten worse in the social media age, where Twitter allows anyone (including our new President) to immediately make snide comments about anything and everything and create purportedly hilarious “memes.”

In the grand scheme of things, shoes with heels on an anonymous sofa, even one in the Oval Office, aren’t that big a deal.  With President Trump in office, there’s lots of meaningful, substantive stuff to argue about.  Can’t we at least focus on that, rather than feet on the furniture?

State Of The Union

Tonight President Donald Trump gives his first speech to a joint session of Congress.  It’s not being called a State of the Union speech, because by tradition a President is supposed to be in office a year before giving a State of the Union speech — but effectively, this speech is a SOTU.

gettyimages-84211317I’m trying to decide whether to watch.  As a general rule, I hate the bloviations and the planned standing ovations and the other political theater that has become part of any presidential speech to a joint session of Congress, and you’d be hard pressed to identify any SOTU speech that was especially memorable.

At the same time, even months after his election and weeks after his inauguration, I’m still having a difficult time comprehending that Donald Trump is the President.  It’s like I’m expecting that somebody else will step out from behind a curtain.  So maybe watching tonight’s speech, and seeing Trump walk down the aisle after the Sergeant at Arms of the United States House of Representatives bellows “Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States,” will help to make Trump’s status as President more real.

I don’t expect Trump to say anything particularly meaningful, because that’s not what speeches to joint sessions of Congress are all about.  Instead, they tend to be laundry lists of proposals that, for the most part, are never heard from again.  When you think about it, the rapid-fire listing of initiatives that we often hear in such speeches is a lot more in line with Trump’s approach to speech-making than, say, what we expect from an inaugural address.  He doesn’t need to try to develop flowery language or deliver memorable phrases.  The SOTU and other presidential addresses to joint sessions are more like a CEO’s speech to shareholders at an annual meeting for a corporation.

Of course, the core purpose of the State of the Union is to discuss the state of the country, and even though this speech might not technically be a SOTU, we can expect President Trump to address that topic.  Presidents tend to characterize the state of the union through their own lens, and often what they describe seems to have little to do with what many of us perceive.  President Trump probably will say that we’ve got big problems in a number of areas.  We’ll hear about immigration, and tax reform, and repealing Obamacare, and trying to keep manufacturing jobs in the United States, and the other themes that seem to be part of every Trump speech.

What do I think is the state of the union these days?  If I had to describe it in one word, that word would be “divided.”

Lessons From A Crumbling Spillway

People have been holding their breath and keeping their fingers crossed out in northern California.  Thousands of residents from a number of communities have been evacuated after a spillway from the massive Oroville dam was determined to be on the brink of failure.  As of early this morning, fortunately, it looks like the spillway will hold.

oroville-dam-side-view-associated-press-640x480The Oroville Dam story is an interesting one.  California has been struggling with drought conditions for years, but then recently got hit with lots of rain and snow that has filled its reservoirs and allowed officials to declare that drought conditions are over.  Now, though, the spillway failure raises questions about whether the state’s water control infrastructure is up to the task of dealing with water flow in non-drought conditions.

It’s a story that you probably could write about much of America’s infrastructure from the east coast to the west coast, and all points in between.  As you drive under bridges that look to be cracked and crumbling, with chunks of concrete missing and rebar exposed, travel through airports that are beat up and obviously overtaxed, and walk past retaining walls that are bowed out, you wonder about whether the folks in charge are paying much attention to the basics.  And, of course, that doesn’t even begin to address “hidden” infrastructure, like dams and reservoirs, sewer piping and spillways, electrical grids and stormwater drains, that are underground or removed from population centers.  There is a lingering sense that the concrete, steel, and piping that holds the country up has been neglected — perhaps because bridges, tunnels, dams, and reservoirs don’t vote, lobby legislators, or fill council chambers, demanding their share of tax dollars.

President Trump has talked about addressing these infrastructure issues — such as our “third world” airports — and it’s an issue about which there seems to be some consensus among both Democrats and Republicans in Washington, D.C.  But there’s more to it than that.  Not every bridge or reservoir is a federal issue that requires federal tax dollars or federal bureaucrats issuing approvals.  Local and state governmental officials need to recognize that they have responsibility, too, and they can’t continue to shortchange maintenance and improvement of core infrastructure.  Rather than just holding their hands out to Uncle Sam, they need to look to their own budgets and tax revenues to fund the repair and refurbishment effort, too.

Perhaps the Oroville Dam story will get people to start paying attention to what they should have been paying attention to all along.