So Now They Tell Us . . .
The recent debate over the takeover of operations at key American seaports by a government with a mixed record on terrorism highlighted, among other things, an age-old Washington tradition -- government leaders saying one thing while they're in office and the opposite the minute they leave.
The former deputy secretary of homeland security, retired Adm. James Loy, has made arguments that boil down to this: Our ports are already so vulnerable to terrorist penetration that complaining about turning port terminals over to such a government is making a mountain out of a mole hill. Laying aside the fact that it's odd for someone considered an expert on security to advocate a course of action that might make the country somewhat less safe, the most striking thing to me was his admission that our ports are already dangerously vulnerable.
I served as the inspector general of DHS during Loy's tenure as a high official there, and I do not recall a single instance of his having said anything like that. In office, he bragged about such chimerical department programs as C-TPAT (Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism), whereby shipping companies merely sign paperwork affirming that they have rigorous security measures in place in exchange for agreement from the DHS to subject them to less scrutiny.
He touted programs like CSI (Container Security Initiative) that sound great in theory, but are flawed in fact. The idea behind it is that cargo should be inspected for weapons of mass destruction at foreign ports of departure, because waiting to inspect it when it gets to a U.S. port may be too late to prevent catastrophe. But one-third of the time, foreign inspectors refuse to inspect cargo that we deem suspicious, according to congressional investigators.
Now, though, Loy acknowledges holes in port security. In a recent New York Times op-ed, he and his co-author wrote that, "Today Customs has only 80 inspectors to monitor the compliance of the 5,800 importers who have vowed to secure their goods as they travel from factories to ship terminals." They called on Congress to require that security plans developed by importers be independently audited, and lamented the "tepid interest" shown by the department in the Port of Hong Kong's ability to inspect every cargo container to ensure that the contents are harmless.
Why didn't Loy push the administration and Congress hard for more inspectors when he was in office? If having security plans independently audited is a good idea (and, of course, it is), why didn't he use his high position to do so unilaterally, without waiting for Congress to direct him? If technology to inspect 100 percent of cargo was only of tepid interest to DHS, and yet, he as deputy secretary (and, briefly, acting secretary) was for it, who exactly is the "Department of Homeland Security" and why does the No. 2 official there have so little influence?
Of course, Loy is not the only offender. Take L. Paul Bremer, head of the American occupation in Iraq for a year after the invasion. In his new book, Bremer says that he pushed Washington for more troops on the ground to secure the country against anarchy and sectarian strife. However, during his time in Baghdad, he repeatedly denied that force levels were inadequate.
To be fair to Loy and Bremer, their predecessors (including Democrats) operated in the same way -- and so, no doubt, will their successors in future administrations. High government officials serve "at the pleasure of the president, for the time being." And, as such, they have to faithfully implement and articulate the administration's positions on the issues of the day.
But it is one thing to walk the line between the administration's position on a matter and reality; it is quite another thing to toe an administration's line so closely as to defy reality altogether.
An example of someone getting this admittedly delicate balance right is former Army chief of staff Eric Shinseki. When asked in a congressional hearing how many troops would be needed to stabilize post-invasion Iraq, he famously replied, "several hundred thousand." Then-deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz called that eerily prescient estimate "wildly off the mark," and Shinseki was unceremoniously retired not long thereafter.
The reason you see more Loys and Bremers than Shinsekis is, of course, that being candid can be costly. If people are in public service simply to be something, the price of candor can be high -- it can cost them their jobs. If, on the other hand, people are in public service to do something, they can afford to risk losing their jobs because they believe that their jobs are worth having only if they can actually get things done. It's very hard to get things done in defiance of reality.
If the goal of public service is to serve the public, then surely the public is better served when officials sound the alarm and state the facts while they are in office, rather than when they are out of office and no longer in a position to do anything.
Clark Kent Ervin is director of the Aspen Institute's Homeland Security Initiative and author of the forthcoming book, "Open Target: Where America Is Vulnerable to Attack" (Palgrave Macmillan).