It is well known that Washington and its primary industry, government, have no institutional memory. This amnesia is a license for blissful inconsistencies of view and behavior, and is now so familiar as to qualify as "olds," not news, in Russell Baker's useful distinction.
Yet from time to time, institutional amnesia is so flagrant as to become news. That is surely the case with the American Civil Liberties Union's recent call for whistle-blowers within executive ranks to run and tell Mama Congress if anyone in their departments is plotting to deceive her about Persian Gulf policy.
The ACLU's view, boldly proclaimed in recent advertising, is that these lower-level officials -- presumably at the White House, State Department and Pentagon -- "have a legal right and a political responsibility" to tell their stories out of school and thus "to ensure that Congress has the information it needs to perform its constitutional duties."
ACLU officials say they were inspired to issue this summons by memories of Vietnam and Iran-contra, instances in which the executive branch slinked into unsanctioned involvement abroad. Parenthetically, it might be said that while there was some furtiveness about Iran-contra, the notion that John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson sneaked us into Vietnam is a self-serving congressional myth.
There was some sneakiness, but on the whole the United States marched to war in Vietnam with heavy tread in broad daylight. Everyone who wanted to know knew.
But the intriguing point about the ACLU's invitation to whistle-blowing is that it echoes, in an odd and ironic way, a bygone controversy that ought to be well remembered, as should be its lessons. Many years ago, the grandest of all the Washington grand inquisitors of modern times, Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-Wisc.), asserted that his spies and informers within the executive branch had every right to inform on their bosses with impunity.
McCarthy's claim was that he was protecting the American public from a conspiracy within the great departments -- especially State, that he charged with harboring Communists and fellow travelers too numerous to count. At least he had trouble counting them.
When McCarthy's charges were challenged, as they usually were with good reason, his standard retort was to growl that he had his sources, wormed away in the bureaucracy. They were exercising a higher loyalty to truth, and he would protect their identity against the vengefulness of their bosses.
For a time, this dispute over bureaucratic loyalty, when it seemed to collide with the higher patriotic truth, became the exclusive focus of the long quarrel over McCarthy and his methods. If memory serves, the most notorious of his whistle-blowers was one Otto Otepka, an otherwise obscure fellow in the State Department passport office. Otepka became the toast of all who felt, as the ACLU does now, that the executive branch is usually plotting against the public interest and that executive branch officials owe a transcendent loyalty to blow their whistles when it does.
When the State Department attempted to fire Otepka for gross insubordination, the howls were long and loud. And the case seemed to drag on as long as the one in the Dickens novel into which people are born and from which people die out.
Yes, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, and there are exceptions to every rule. One may, however, doubt the wisdom of any blanket invitation to lower-level officials in the executive branch to prefer their own speculative notion of the national safety over their expected loyalty to department and superior.
We are not dealing here, after all, with overpriced toilet seats on Air Force transport planes. As in the McCarthy days, the subject is national security. And for better or worse, the president we elect and his advisers have a claim to the more advantageous perspective.
There are dangers in presidential discretion and secrecy, but there are also dangers in encouraging all and sundry to blow their whistles on suspicion. Follow the ACLU far enough, and the result will not be good government. It will be anarchy.
That was what we very nearly got in the high old days of McCarthy and Otepka. Blunder is bad, but anarchy, hands down, is worse.