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Can the White House take a critic?


Picture this: an earnest, Harvard-trained lawyer from Texas, who goes to work in the White House for Bush I, then for Dubya during his years as Governor of Texas.

After years of service to the Bush family in various

government positions, he’s appointed to the glory post of Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security. He is tasked with looking for inefficiencies, wastes, and failures in the burgeoning HS bureaucracy to make it as lean and mean as possible.

In spite of a clear professional and personal dedication to the Bush family, the new Inspector General develops a reputation among Congressional representatives on both sides of the aisle as a fair and conscientious public servant, and even impresses top critics of the Homeland Security department. He receives letters of praise and appreciation for his work and cooperation from the ACLU, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch.

And to top it all off, he’s named after Superman.

His name is Clark Kent Ervin, and Bush just fired him.

Ervin was made acting Inspector General almost two years ago, and was “officially” installed last December, as one of Bush’s recess appointments—named to the post while Congress was out of session. This means that the new official serves in a job that normally requires congressional approval without any such hearing until the next congressional session is over.

Most recess appointees, however, are later brought up for the official nomination—it’s a sneaky tactic of making failure to approve a political appointee look like firing someone, rather than simply not hiring them, and it often works to shoehorn in appointees that wouldn’t have made it through a normal hearing. Ervin, however, made an excellent impression upon legislators of both parties, and even the Republicans who failed to hold confirmation hearings for Ervin want to distance themselves from the Bush decision to fire him. The spokeswoman for Senator Collins, who should have scheduled the hearings, told USA Today that, “The decision not to re-nominate Clark Kent Ervin was purely a White House decision.”

Why on earth would the White House discard a man who, in nearly two years of unofficially holding a position, has managed to placate, even please, scores of legislators and activists?

Because the White House and Department of Homeland Security feel, “He has not been a friend of the department.” This according to a “Former Department of Homeland Security official,” who wished to remain anonymous (small wonder,) speaking to the Government Computer News.

The Bush criticism of Ervin depends, I suppose, on how one defines “friend.”

In an interview with NPR’s Tavis Smiley, Ervin dutifully gave lip service to the White House and Homeland Security Commissar Tom Ridge, but also was brutally honest about many failings of the department and of other agencies. He discussed the teams of undercover auditors his office sent out to airports around the country, who try to sneak knives, guns, and fake bombs through airport screeners.

In later congressional testimony, he described both the private and federalized security teams in the various airports as performing “equally poorly.” He has repeatedly criticized the Department of Homeland Security for not supervising and leading a consolidation of the various “terrorist watch lists.” Department representatives whined that it was the job of the Department of Justice.

Forgive me for stating the obvious, but wasn’t this kind of buck-passing the impetus for starting a Department of Homeland Security in the first place?

Even more appalling instances of corruption that Ervin brought to the public’s attention are also excused by department spokesmen. The Transport Security Administration spent half a million dollars on an awards banquet for employees last November, and hands out executive bonuses topping that of any other federal agency. When Ervin criticized the administration, they argued lamely that he was working with “outdated information.”

But most disturbingly, even Tom Ridge seems to think that his job is to excuse and defend the honor of the Department of Homeland Security against any even perceived slights, rather than to correct its deficiencies and make America safer.

Also on NPR, (this time on Morning Edition), Ridge was asked about a report from Ervin criticizing the lack of any law enforcement presence along huge swathes of the US/Mexico border. Ridge’s response was to smarm that, “It's fascinating to me, given what we have done during less than two years with this department at our borders, to suggest that we aren't far safer than we've ever been.”

Excuse me? Ervin’s report didn’t say that the US isn’t far safer than we’ve ever been, although for the less politically-loyal among you, I think it’s a fair question. But Ervin does think that the US is safer—in the Tavis Smiley interview, he said explicitly that “We are safer.” He just added, “But we are not yet safe.” And we never will be safe if the response of the supposed leader in our efforts to make America secure reacts to a valid point of criticism with a knee-jerk, “We are TOO safer! We’re the safest safe people that were ever safe!”

Perhaps Ervin’s problem is that he, bewilderingly, is too idealistic. (Isn’t decades of service in the bureaucracy supposed to crush that out of you?) In congressional testimony, Ervin described his job as being an independent and objective “constructive critic” of the department and foolishly said that Ridge and Bush agreed with him. Ervin naively told Tavis Smiley that the President would support him calling them like he saw them, and not worrying about the political consequences.

In The Daily Show’s “America (The Book),”, the Director of Homeland Security is described as: “Came up with color-coded “terror” chart in 2002. Hasn’t done jack shit since.” Apparently that can be modified a bit: “Has attempted to ensure that the department doesn’t do jack shit either.” Because if even political appointees, given jobs that require them to investigate and criticize government agencies, are fired for doing their jobs too well, all the Bush White House accomplishes is setting up an entrenched bureaucracy of waste, and diverting more resources from protecting America.

In another deflection of Ervin’s criticisms, Ridge claimed that the department is just getting started. That precise point was brought up by Ervin, saying that he thinks that the formation of a new agency is the best time to have a fair and active Inspector General, because then bad practices aren’t woven into the very fabric of a department. Apparently Ridge thinks enshrining bad practices is A-OK, as long as it means never acknowledging a single mistake or bad judgment. So what if it also means that the terrorists will be more likely to succeed in some horrific attack on the United States? That just means another electoral “mandate” for Jeb Bush in 2008.


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