Senate Returns to Consider Nominations-in-Limbo

By Al Kamen
Monday, April 20, 2009

Looks like showdown time in the Senate this week, probably this afternoon, on the nomination of veteran diplomat Christopher Hill to be ambassador to Iraq. Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) had written President Obama to urge him to "reconsider" the nomination, saying Hill has no experience "in the Middle East and in working closely with the U.S. military in counterinsurgency or counterterrorism operations."

Hill was one of several nominees Senate Democrats were unable to confirm before the recess, but they said at the time that they had the 60 votes to overcome GOP opposition and confirm him as soon as the Senate gets back from its recess today. Democrats say they also have to votes to confirm three nominees to head Justice Department divisions. The trio -- Tony West for the civil division, Lanny Breuer for the criminal division and Christine Varney for the antitrust division -- were left dangling when the Senate left town.

If that quartet, plus up to half a dozen other nominees awaiting Senate action, are confirmed next week, that will give Obama as many as 58 confirmed nominees in the White House and Cabinet departments, according to a tally by New York University's Wagner School of Public Service. (That tally excludes judges, U.S. marshals, U.S. attorneys, ambassadors and Bush administration holdovers.)

As of Friday, Obama had 48 nominees confirmed for those jobs. On the same date eight years ago, President George W. Bush, after a transition shortened by the election recount, had 29 confirmed officials. Eight years before that, President Bill Clinton had 37 confirmed, according to the NYU tally. Obama also far outpaces his immediate predecessors in the number of nominees, which makes it more likely his lead on confirmations will increase in the near future.


Meanwhile, Loop Fans may recall a column two weeks ago noting that the Obama crowd seemed to look very much like the Clinton administration. Forty-two percent of Obama's picks for top jobs at Cabinet agencies (see Head Count at worked in the Clinton administration.

Subsequent research -- actually we came across a column from April 27, 2001 -- found that this may be the norm. More than 43 percent of Bush II's first 185 appointees (excluding just ambassadors) served under Bush I, we had written, and an additional 20 percent worked in the Nixon, Ford or Reagan administrations, bringing the total of retreads to nearly two-thirds.

Shows you that there are really not that many top government officials in Washington -- the same people just recycle themselves.


Former 15-term Iowa congressman Jim Leach, a Republican who sometimes jokingly describes himself as an ethanolist, may be edging toward the top of the ever-changing list of those being mentioned for the critical post of ambassador to China. Leach, now a visiting professor at Princeton and before that at Harvard, was a leading GOP moderate in the House and an early supporter of Obama's.

Former assistant secretary of state Wendy Sherman, who was also North Korea policy coordinator in Clinton days, has also been mentioned for China and for undersecretary for economic matters at State and for head of the Agency for International Development. Another candidate for that latter job is Frederick Barton, a highly regarded former AID official who was a member of the Obama transition review team on development assistance and chaired an Obama campaign team on post-conflict reconstruction.

Whoever takes the AID job will have to rebuild an organization that's but a shell of its former self in terms of overseeing major development programs.


The ability to redact, or edit out, sensitive information from documents about to be released seems to require extraordinary skill. And a redacting miscue last week by the Justice Department in releasing those torture memos sparked major agita in the intelligence community, revealing that a top al-Qaeda operative Hassan Ghul was one of 28 CIA detainees who had been subjected to "enhanced interrogation techniques."

President George W. Bush told reporters in 2004 that Ghul "reported directly to Khalid Sheik Mohammed" mastermind of the 9/11 attack and was captured in Iraq. The government said no more and the CIA never said it was holding him, though the 9/11 commission said he was in "U.S. custody."

But the redacting error in a 2005 memo, spotted by ProPublica reporter Dafna Linzer, says Ghul was subjected to "facial hold," "facial slap," "stress positions," "sleep deprivation" and "walling," which involves repeatedly smashing a detainee's shoulders against a wall.

The memo doesn't resolve where Ghul, who's been described as a terrorist messenger and bagman, is being held these days.


The White House on Friday announced 10 more planned nominations: Washington lawyer William J. Wilkins as assistant general counsel at the Treasury Department and chief counsel for the Internal Revenue Service; Christine M. Griffin, a member of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as deputy director of the Office of Personnel Management; Michael Nacht, formerly a top official at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and more a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, as assistant secretary of defense for global strategic affairs; and Washington lawyer Robert S. Litt, a white-collar criminal defense specialist, as be general counsel at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

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