It took a while, but President Obama will make his first trip in office to the Justice Department on Friday to deliver his highly anticipated speech issuing new guidelines on government surveillance operations.
And the Justice Department is scurrying around to get ready for the big arrival, we hear, making sure the place is looking spick-and-span to watch the president take on an issue that has infuriated pretty much everyone, foe and friend alike, here and in other countries, including especially Germany and Brazil.
There’s even talk that Justice will be moving some folks around on the first and second floors, apparently for security reasons — we’re dealing with lawyers, after all, so you can never be too safe.
Obama will be speaking on the second floor in the Great Hall, home to the 12-foot “Spirit of Justice” statue of a woman (known as Minnie Lou) who stands proudly to the left of the stage — as you’re facing it. She’s wearing a toga with her right breast very exposed.
Loop Fans may recall the goofy $8,000 blue curtain that then-Attorney General John Ashcroft had put up in the Great Hall in 2002 to cover the aluminum Art Deco statue. (His successor, Alberto “Fredo” Gonzalez, took the curtain down in 2005.)
The most famous photo of the statue was taken in 1986, when photographers dived to the floor to place Minnie Lou behind shots of another attorney general, Ed Meese, holding up the report issued by his commission on pornography.
Do not be distracted, though. This surveillance stuff is serious.
Our colleague Ed O’Keefe reported this week that Congress, in its $1.1 trillion spending bill, would continue its tradition of compensating the family of a lawmaker who dies in office. “Tucked inside the legislation was a standard $174,000 bereavement payment to Beverly A. Young, the widow of C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.),” he noted.
Ben Franklin famously quipped — though he may not have been the first — that nothing in the world is certain “except death and taxes.” Maybe to that we should add these payments. But there is at least a bill in Congress to stop the payments, which we’ve always thought give off a whiff of cozy self-dealing.
The bill, introduced in November by Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), came after Congress approved paying $174,000 to the widow of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), said to have been worth about $60 million.
“The death gratuity became customary starting in 1918 before the birth of modern life insurance (1924), the creation of Social Security (1935), the establishment of civil service pensions (1942), and health benefits under Medicare (1965),” Cooper told the newspaper the Hill. “A lot has changed since 1918, and the gratuity custom should have been abandoned a long time ago. Members should choose the death benefit they want by buying life insurance like regular citizens. No special treatment for Congress.”
Maybe some budget hawk groups could score this?
Secretary of State John Kerry is feeling a bit lonely these days in Foggy Bottom.
After about a year in the job, he said in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), more than “one-third of my top leadership team, including half of my undersecretary positions, remain vacant.”
We’re talking 58 top officials, Kerry told them, including some “absolutely critical national security positions, such as under secretary for arms control and international security” to handle things like Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile and nuclear agreements.
Others include the counterterrorism coordinator, which, Kerry wrote, “means I am without my principal adviser on counterterrorism” or the assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor, where the nominee, Tom Malinowski, is “an expert on Burma” — a country with a spotty human rights record and a place that is “of profound importance to” McConnell.
The letter, sent to the senators before Kerry took off for Europe last weekend, included short handwritten notes to both men, urging their help in getting the Senate to move on the nominations.
Our sense is that’s not gonna happen in the post-nuclear Senate, where Republicans remain furious over Reid getting rid of filibusters on presidential nominees. Republicans are now thinking it’s up to Reid and the Democrats, since they can confirm nominees with just 51 votes, to let the D’s put everyone to a floor vote, a time-consuming process.
Barring some unlikely breakthrough, Kerry may be understaffed for some time.
Meanwhile, the only addition recently to Kerry’s inner circle appears to be career diplomat Tom Shannon , former assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs and ambassador to Brazil, whom Kerry has tapped to be his counselor.
Shannon’s been working most recently on issues involving the Edward Snowden disclosures of NSA spying and now becomes essentially Kerry’s primary troubleshooter. Predecessors in that post include legendary diplomats George Kennan, who in 1946 forged the U.S. Cold War strategy against the Soviets, and Chip Bohlen, who succeeded Kennan as ambassador in Moscow.
Shannon’s job does not require Senate confirmation.
The blog: washingtonpost.com/
intheloop. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.