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Our Oh-So-Broken Government

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, December 10, 2008 1:30 PM

President Bush has his signature failures: Iraq, the economy and Katrina, for starters. But really, his is an administration that has performed its duties poorly across the board.

The public reached this conclusion a while ago. As I wrote in a September 2007 column, when the Pew Research Center asked people to choose their own word to describe Bush in 2006 and 2007, the number one response was "incompetent."

In retrospect, this was a predictable result of the fact that Bush and Vice President Cheney intentionally put into key posts people who didn't support the traditional missions of the agencies they led. Competence or experience often weren't as important as loyalty to the White House, rigid ideological commitment to deregulation, aversion to oversight and allegiance to corporate and special interests over consumers and the general public.

Now, the Center for Public Integrity is out with a new report authoritatively chronicling the results. It's called Broken Government: An assessment of 128 executive branch failures since 2000.

The center's Josh Israel explains: "The 2008 presidential race produced its share of philosophical and political disputes, but one broad area of agreement underlined the campaigns of both nominees: The federal government is not functioning as it should. . . .

"Just how bad is this government dysfunction? In an effort to answer that question, the Center for Public Integrity embarked on an examination of the worst systematic failures of the federal government over the past eight years.

"In this, a comprehensive assessment of these failures, we found more than 125 examples of government breakdown in areas as diverse as education, energy, the environment, justice and security, the military and veterans affairs, health care, transportation, financial management, consumer and worker safety, and more -- failures which adversely affected ordinary people and made the nation a less open or less secure place to live. While some are, by now, depressingly familiar, many are less well-known but equally distressing. And though the list is diverse, it also reflects some recurring -- and troubling -- themes. . . .

"'I think we'll look back on this period as one of the most destructive periods in American public life . . . both in terms of policy and process,' Thomas E. Mann, senior fellow at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, told the Center."

Here's a quick look, by the numbers, at 40 ways in which the government failed. Consider, for instance, how 60 percent of EPA scientists report political interference with their work; how Department of Defense weapons acquisitions have gone $300 billion over budget; that 47 people died in mining accidents in 2006 blamed on lax oversight; and that Osama bin Laden has been at large for 2,640 days (and counting) since September 11, 2001 .

Here is CPI's full list.

I last wrote about the center in January, praising its database of 935 false statements by Bush, Cheney and other top administration officials hyping the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the two years after the 9/11 attacks.

EPA Watch

The Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board writes: "Under the Bush administration, the EPA became overly politicized, sided with corporate polluters, and often ignored findings and recommendations by its own scientists.

"A four-part series in The Inquirer that concludes today details many of the EPA's failings during the Bush years. Although some of the EPA's troubles have been touched on before, the series connects all the dots in one compelling compendium.

"Sadly, a similar exercise could be done examining other government agencies that have also been blatantly politicized by the Bush administration, including the Justice Department, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Interior Department.

"In the EPA series, Inquirer reporters John Shiffman and John Sullivan show how the agency charged with safeguarding the nation's health and environment systematically eroded its mission over the years."

Bailout Watch

Damian Paletta and Deborah Solomon write in the Wall Street Journal: "The panel overseeing the Treasury Department's $700 billion financial-rescue fund is expected to release a report Wednesday that is highly critical of the government's handling of the bailout, people familiar with the matter said. It will also press the Bush administration to act more aggressively to prevent foreclosures."

Peter Whoriskey writes in The Washington Post that the panel "wants to know what banks have done with their allotments, whether the public is getting a fair return on those investments and what the Treasury Department is doing to help American families.

"Ten questions, some of them implicitly criticizing the program, form the first report of the Congressional Oversight Panel for Economic Stabilization, which is expected to be released today.

"'These are the tough questions that people all over the country are asking,' said Elizabeth Warren, chairman of the panel and a law professor at Harvard University. 'We are issuing the official report asking those same questions. They are tough. This is $700 billion we are talking about. I ask tough questions when I buy a car.'"

Human Rights Watch

Former President Jimmy Carter writes in a Washington Post op-ed: "The advancement of human rights around the world was a cornerstone of foreign policy and U.S. leadership for decades, until the attacks on our country on Sept. 11, 2001.

"Since then, while Americans continue to espouse freedom and democracy, our government's abusive practices have undermined struggles for freedom in many parts of the world. As the gross abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay were revealed, the United States lost its mantle as a champion of human rights, eliminating our national ability to speak credibly on the subject, let alone restrain or gain concessions from oppressors. Tragically, a global backlash against democracy and rights activists, who are now the targets of abuse, has followed. . . .

"Today marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. With a new administration and a new vision coming to the White House, we have the opportunity to move boldly to restore the moral authority behind the worldwide human rights movement. But the first steps must be taken at home.

"President-elect Barack Obama has pledged to shut down the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and end torture, which can be accomplished by executive orders to close the prison and by enforcing existing prohibitions against torture by any U.S. representative, including FBI and CIA agents. The detention of people secretly or indefinitely and without due process must cease, and their cases should be transferred to our courts, which have proved their competence in trying those accused of terrorism. Further, a nonpartisan expert commission should be named to conduct a thorough review of U.S. practices related to unwarranted arrest, torture, secret detention, extraordinary rendition, abandonment of habeas corpus and related matters. Acknowledging to the world that the United States also has made mistakes will give credence to our becoming 'a more perfect union' -- a message that would resonate worldwide. Together, these actions will help us restore our nation's principles and embolden others abroad who want higher moral standards for their own societies.

"By putting its house in order, the United States would reclaim its moral authority and wield not only the political capital but also the credibility needed to engage in frank but respectful bilateral dialogues on the protection of human rights as central to world peace and prosperity."

Gitmo Watch

Tim Rutten writes in his Los Angeles Times opinion column: "No president ever has behaved with quite the recklessness Bush has displayed toward basic American concepts of due process, fundamental rights and basic decency -- not to mention the civilized world's prevailing standards of human rights. . . .

"Consider for a moment what happened in Guantanamo on Monday, when the five 9/11 defendants -- including the apparent mastermind, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed -- announced that they wished to dismiss their appointed military lawyers and to immediately plead guilty. . . .

"The administration's arrogance also has created a golden opportunity for these evil men, who are guilty as hell. . . . Instead of being brought to sober justice, these killers have been handed a chance to present themselves to much of the world as martyrs, victims of a vengeful and -- in international eyes -- lawless America. . . .

"The last thing these loathsome characters want is a fair trial. They want to die at the end of one of the Bush/Cheney mockeries of justice so they can win a final victory through what much of the Islamic world will regard as martyrdom -- and much of the rest of the world will regard as distasteful legal barbarism.

"It's not a victory the incoming administration should allow them."

For more, see yesterday's column, Bush's Death Wish.

Jameel Jaffer and Ben Wizner write in Salon: "The anarchic proceedings only served to underscore the makeshift nature of the military tribunals, and to remind the world of the reasons the prison should be closed.

"But even as President-elect Obama repeats his oft-made promise to shutter the prison that has so besmirched the nation's reputation, some legal experts, and not just those on the right, are talking about giving him the right to open a new Gitmo here at home. An extraordinary debate is under way about whether Congress should expressly authorize the new president to do what the outgoing president did on his own claimed authority: imprison alleged terrorists without charge or trial."

Jaffer and Wizner explain, however: "The class of people who cannot be prosecuted but are too dangerous to let go is either very small or nonexistent. To the extent that it exists at all, it is a class that was created by the administration's torture policies. To build a system of detention without trial in order to accommodate those torture policies would be a legal and moral catastrophe, a mistake of historic proportions. . . .

"It is possible, though unlikely, that one consequence of the Bush administration's criminal embrace of torture is that the United States will be compelled to release an individual who might otherwise have been prosecutable for terrorism. Were this to occur, it would not be the first time that our commitment to the rule of law has required that we let a potentially dangerous person walk free. We can accept this risk as an inherent cost of freedom, or we can diminish that freedom in a misguided -- and shortsighted -- attempt to reduce that risk. The choice we make will not determine the nation's survival. It will, however, shape its identity."

Obama Interview

Christi Parsons, John McCormick and Peter Nicholas write in the Los Angeles Times: "Barack Obama says his presidency is an opportunity for the United States to spread a message of tolerance, starting the day of his inauguration and continuing with a speech he plans to deliver somewhere in the Muslim world. . . .

"'I think we've got a unique opportunity to reboot America's image around the world and also in the Muslim world in particular,' Obama said Tuesday, promising an 'unrelenting' desire to 'create a relationship of mutual respect and partnership in countries and with peoples of goodwill who want their citizens and ours to prosper together.'

"The world, he said, 'is ready for that message.'"

Bush at West Point

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "Many of Bush's critics say his military approach has had disastrous consequences for the U.S., embroiling the U.S. in war, angering allies and running up enormous debt.

"Before Bush leaves, he is determined to tell a different story."

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush yesterday urged President-elect Barack Obama to 'stay on the offensive' against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups and said his own administration had 'laid a solid foundation' for meeting emerging threats around the world.

"Addressing cadets at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., Bush vigorously defended his performance as commander in chief, arguing that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and other operations were part of a concerted strategy to 'keep unrelenting pressure' on terrorist groups and rogue states after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. . . .

"The appearance was the latest in a series of valedictory interviews and speeches in which Bush has forcefully defended a presidency marked by war and political conflict. . . .

"The address echoed a speech Bush delivered at West Point in June 2002, when he hearkened back to the attack on Pearl Harbor to unveil a more aggressive, preemptive approach to the use of military force. 'We must take the battle to the enemy,' he said during that speech, which came about 10 months before the declaration of war on Iraq.

"Bush acknowledged yesterday that the Iraq conflict has been 'longer and more difficult than expected' but said that his decision to increase troop levels in early 2007 'set a framework for the drawdown of American forces as the fight in Iraq nears a successful end.'"

Correcting Bush

Pamela Hess writes for the Associated Press: "Gently admonishing President George W. Bush, the nation's newly retired chief intelligence analyst on Tuesday suggested that the Iraq war was as much the failure of policymakers as it was the flawed intelligence on which they relied.

"Bush told ABC News last week his biggest regret was 'the intelligence failure in Iraq.'

"'I wish the intelligence had been different, I guess,' Bush said.

"Thomas Fingar, until this week the deputy director of national intelligence for analysis, declined to directly address the president's swipe. But he said: 'I learned something a long time ago in this town. There are only two possibilities: policy success and intelligence failure.'"

Fingar acknowledged that a 2002 intelligence assessment pushed by the administration incorrectly concluded that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had an active nuclear, chemical and biological weapons program.

But: "Part of the blame goes to time pressure, Fingar said: The Bush administration ordered the report to be produced in less than two weeks. Similar intelligence estimates can take months or years.

"'It's my observation that it's very hard to dislodge a mistaken interpretation once it gets into the head of a decisionmaker who has used it in a speech, built it into a policy, conveyed it to colleagues around the world,' Fingar said. 'That puts to me an awfully high premium on taking the time to get it right.'"

What Would You Ask?

As I've been chronicling for a couple weeks now, Bush has embarked on a series of speeches and "exit interviews" in which he is trying to take credit for things that haven't happened, and refusing to take responsibility for the things that have.

Although there are a lot of tough, important questions Bush should be forced to answer, one recent interview focused mostly on Bush's family life; another on his faith.

I have a new discussion group, called White House Watchers, and I was going to ask you what questions you think reporters should be asking Bush. But since he's so adept at ducking, I've decided to ask something a little bit more fun: What questions would you most want to ask the president if he were under Pentathol?

My first choice would be: When exactly did you decide to go to war in Iraq? My second choice: How do you define torture?

If you come up with some good ones, I'll publish a top ten list here in a few days.

Bush Wins One

Christina Boyle writes in the New York Daily News: "A British language watchdog decided Bush could not leave the White House empty-handed and awarded him this year's not-so-coveted Foot in Mouth Lifetime Achievement Award.

"In handing out the title, the Plain English Campaign praised Bush for 'capturing the spirit of every true gobbledegooker' by using his unique way with words to address a wide range of subjects.

"'I hope you leave here and walk out and say, "What did he say?"' was just one of the Bushisms singled out for special praise, along with a comment he made on a visit to Rome in 2001.

"'I know what I believe. I will continue to articulate what I believe and what I believe - I believe what I believe is right,' Bush said."

Bush Library Watch

Lori Stahl writes in the Dallas Morning News: "Although the Washington, D.C., rumor mill has buzzed recently that former White House senior adviser Karl Rove is working on a 'legacy project,' library officials say he will not head the policy institute. . . .

"'It is not going to be Karl Rove,' Mark Langdale, president of the George W. Bush Library Foundation, said in a wide-ranging interview that provided the most detail yet about the plans.

"Asked what role Mr. Rove has played to date, Mr. Langdale said, 'We talk; he's a smart guy. I appreciate his advice.'. . . .

"Museum officials have identified four 'core governing ideals' they say Mr. Bush has used as guideposts in Austin and Washington. They are considering presenting key moments in the Bush presidency as case studies that relate to topics of freedom, opportunity, individual responsibility and compassion.

"'That's really the theme of what we're going to talk about with the museum,' Mr. Langdale said. 'He can explain why he decided the way he did.'"

Froomkin Watch

Want to watch Froomkin? I should be on MSNBC tonight, sometime between 6 and 7 p.m. ET, as David Schuster guest hosts 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. We'll be talking about the end days and Bush's legacy.

Cartoon Watch

Dwane Powell on Bush's legacy tour, Mike Thompson on Bush's climate-change solution, Rex Babin on Bush's library, Clay Bennett on the presidential portrait and Nick Anderson on waiting for Obama.

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