March came in like a lion, politically. It probably won't leave like a lamb. So be it.
Friday, March 2, President Bush ordered a bipartisan panel be formed to investigate the ghastly conditions and obviously incompetent care, first exposed by the Washington Post, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. As mentioned elsewhere, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had signed off on the firing of Major General George W. Weightman - the fellow who had overseen the facility. And the Secretary of the Army had announced his replacement - Lieutenant General Kevin Kiley. Kiley had run Walter Reed before the current guy. But he had run it badly - ignoring years of complaints. As both Salon and the Washington Post had reported, Kiley was repeatedly informed of problems with patient care at Walter Reed months if not years ago. He did nothing to address them.
Then Army Secretary Francis Harvey resigned late in the day Friday - and sources told Associated Press that he was pushed out. Senior defense officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, had told the AP guy, Robert Burns, that Defense Secretary Robert Gates asked Harvey to step down because he was upset that Harvey had named Kiley as the acting commander of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. That in spite of Senator Lieberman saying of the Kiley appointment - 'It's A Good First Step'. Holy Joe is making a name for himself.
Gates didn't criticize Harvey by name in announcing his departure - but his unhappiness was pretty plain to see - "I am disappointed that some in the Army have not adequately appreciated the seriousness of the situation pertaining to outpatient care at Walter Reed."
Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill had called Thursday for Kiley's resignation, but it that just won't be necessary now. Gates said a permanent replacement for Maj. Gen. George Weightman would be announced later in the day - and the Army announced late in the day that Major General Eric B. Schoomaker will be the new commander of Walter Reed. He's safe, given his background - a fine doctor and administrator, internal medicine and hematology (internship and residence at Duke Medical Center), having run most of the Army's health units, and run them well.
Why he didn't get the job in the first place is a bit of a mystery. The Kiley thing was an embarrassment.
Steven Benan put his finger on it - "At first I thought this was somebody's poor attempt at humor. Literally yesterday, on the front page of the Washington Post, we learned that Kiley, who was head of Walter Reed through 2004, heard complaints from troops, their families, veterans' advocates, and even a member of Congress about the awful treatment of the veterans, but he chose to do nothing. Kiley lived right across the street from Building 18, where war-wounded were 'housed among mice, mold, rot and cockroaches,' but apparently didn't cross the street often."
John Aravosis had been upset - "This is a guy who only one week ago implied that the problems at Walter Reed were nothing more than a pack of lies. So he's the guy now in charge of fixing the non-existent problems."
No, he isn't. It has been fixed.
But this one won't die, as CNN's Andrea Koppel and Deirdre Walsh report - Months before media reports, a memo warned Walter Reed 'at risk of mission failure'.
What's this about a memo? It seems outpatient care had been "outsourced" to a private firm run by a guy from Halliburton - it had been privatized, as all Republicans know that when something is run for profit it is run well, as the need for making money in a competitive environment makes for efficiency and good service. You just have to do a good job.
It's a nice theory - very Adam Smith and all, with invisible hand selfish competition driving everyone to excellence.
The problem is it just doesn't work all the time -
Nearly five months before media reports detailed abysmal conditions in parts of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, an internal memo from the commanding officer expressed concern that care provided there was suffering because of the Army's decision to privatize support services.
A September 2006 memo was signed by a deputy to the medical center's commander, Maj. Gen. George Weightman, and was sent to the Army's Medical Command. A copy was obtained by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
It describes in detail concerns about the loss of "highly skilled and experienced personnel" at Walter Reed and the center's increased workload. It concludes that "WRAMC Base Operations and patient care services are at risk of mission failure."
Let that sink in. "Highly skilled and experienced personnel" at Walter Reed were let go and the contractors took over. Congressman John Tierney, a Democrat from Massachusetts - who will chair a congressional field hearing Monday at Walter Reed - told CNN Friday that the decision to outsource care from federal employees to this IAP Worldwide Services, a private contractor, could have contributed to the deteriorating conditions at the facility.
And then it gets really interesting, with the Halliburton connection -
Tierney also suggested that the decision to hire IAP, despite the company's higher bid for the five-year, $120 million contract, could have been "ideologically driven" - IAP's CEO is a former Halliburton employee.
Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-California, sent a letter to Weightman on Friday asking him to explain the 2006 memo at Monday's hearing.
It also sent a subpoena requesting him to appear, a step made necessary because Weightman was relieved of his command of Walter Reed on Thursday and, Tierney said, the committee was notified by the Army that it would no longer make Weightman available even though he briefed committee staff earlier this week.
So the contract was not awarded to company that offered the best deal, for some reason, and the Army says they won't let the guy who approved the contract speak to congress, and congress will just have to issue a subpoena to get him to talk. One can imagine some sort of legal effort to claim congress has no authority to issue such a subpoena, for some reason having to do with executive privilege and the Commander-in-Chief and all that. This could get hot.
And there are the typical outsourcing staff reductions -
Waxman's letter to Weightman stated that the committee discovered that prior to awarding IAP the contract for support services at Walter Reed there were 300 federal employees working there.
By Feb. 3, when IAP took over the facility, "the number of support personnel had dropped to under 60. Yet instead of hiring additional personnel, IAP apparently replaced the remaining 60 federal employees with only 50 IAP personnel," the letter says.
Those of us in the systems world know that drill. Win the outsourcing contract and bring in your own people, and cut the original staff to the bone, or to the marrow, if you will. You have to make money - that's the whole point. Dump the expensive people with extensive experience and years on the job - that bumped their salaries way up, after all. A few of your own folks and cheap, and green, young folks will be good enough. This is simply a matter of maximizing the profit margin on the contract - and hoping for the best. Ask anyone who has worked for or with CSC or Perot systems or EDS. We know.
Applying that model to the outpatient care of those who were grievously wounded doing their best for us all may be the real issue as this unfolds. It's good business practice, if a bit risky - things can go south in a hurry with the minimal staff, with the bare minimum of skills and experience available. The rewards, though, can be substantial.
It's just that the outpatient care of the war-wounded may not be where you want to apply this business model.
And the California congressman simply has to add another kicker in his letter to Weightman asking just what he thought he was doing. It is classic - "IAP is one of the companies that experienced problems delivering ice during the response to Hurricane Katrina."
Ouch. It all fits together.
But then it only gets better.
Speaking on Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference - where all those who want to be the Republican nominee for president in 2008 are explaining themselves - the star of the show, that "pundit" Ann Coulter said - "I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, but it turns out you have to go into rehab if you use the word 'faggot,' so I - so kind of an impasse, can't really talk about Edwards."
The audience then cheered. You can watch it here - she's basically saying the Republicans are the good guys, the Democrats fools, and one of their candidates is a flaming queer, a faggot. The word was carefully chosen. She knows what gets Republicans revved up.
Enter Andrew Sullivan - the other kind of conservative, and openly gay. He sees that the conservative cause he once enthusiastically supported has changed -
When you see her in such a context, you realize that she truly represents the heart and soul of contemporary conservative activism, especially among the young. The standing ovation for Romney was nothing like the eruption of enthusiasm that greeted her. One young conservative male told her he was single and asked for her cell-phone number. Other young Republicans were almost overwhelmed in her presence. "When are you going to get your own show?" one asked, tremulously. Then there's her insistence on Christianism as the central message for Republicans: "There are more people voting on Christian moral values than on tax cuts." This from an unmarried woman who wears dresses that are close to bikinis on the morning news. Hey, it's Democrats who are Godless.
Her endorsement of Romney today - "probably the best candidate" - is a big deal, it seems to me. McCain is a non-starter. He is as loathed as Clinton in these parts. Giuliani is, in her words, "very, very liberal." One of his sins? He opposed the impeachment of Bill Clinton. That's the new standard. She is the new Republicanism. The sooner people recognize this, the better.
People recognize that. The problem is they are pleased with her.
This presents a problem for each Republican hopeful. Do they step away from her Edwards comment and risk alienating the base, and thus lose the nomination? Do they go the other way and embrace her contention, and start saying, also, that Edwards is a flaming faggot, Hilary Clinton a lesbian bitch, and every Democrat a traitor, as she has claimed in a recent book? That has its risks with the mainstream. Or do they do the "free speech" thing - saying they'd never say such things but people have the right to say whatever they think? That third way sounds like a John Kerry way of getting out of a tight spot - the perceived deadly perception that you're a wimp who won't take a stand.
It's not much of a scandal, of course. But it is an interesting one. Each hopeful will have to say something.
The woman created a real challenge for each of them - put up or shut up. Cool. Maybe Time Magazine will put her on the cover again.
But there really are bigger things afoot, as Dahlia Lithwick explains in Royal Flush - a discussion of the recent purge of US attorneys, a story that hasn't gotten much play -
The more we learn about the purge of at least eight U.S. attorneys around the country, the bigger the mystery becomes. Not so much the "how" of it all: It's clear that GOP staffers slipped unnoticed language into the about-to-be-reauthorized Patriot Act to allow the Justice Department to fiddle with the nation's U.S. attorneys. The new language doesn't expand the attorney general's authority to fire these folks - they have always served at the president's pleasure and could always be sacked at will. But the new provision does ensure that the attorney general appoints their new "interim" replacements - that the replacements don't have to be confirmed after 120 days by the Senate, as they used to be. Nor do federal judges get to name new U.S. attorneys should the Senate fail to confirm interim candidates, as used to happen. In short, both the Senate and the judges are out.
So the "how" of it is pretty straightforward: The DOJ figured out a way to slip party loyalists into high office without having to answer for it, and they proceeded to do so with gusto, canning eight apparently competent U.S. attorneys - six in a single day! - and replacing them with folks more willing to dance to the White House pipes. Certainly the scandal has its delicious aspects: All of those ousted evidently had positive job reviews, despite Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty's testimony that they were fired for "performance" reasons. Carol Lam was let go in San Diego, allegedly because she was successfully bringing down Republicans, including former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, in a bribery scandal. David Iglesias of New Mexico claims he was fired after he refused to succumb to pressure from two GOP members of Congress to rush the indictments in a Democratic political corruption case, before last November's election.
The cherry on top was replacement of Arkansas' H.E. "Bud" Cummins with Tim Griffin, whose chief qualification as the state's new federal prosecutor is his loyal service as opposition research director for Karl Rove and the RNC. Even Deputy Attorney General McNulty has conceded that Griffin got Cummins' old job, "not connected to … the performance of the incumbent, but more related to the opportunity to provide a fresh start with a new person in that position."
She does note that this kind of purge is legal, but quite unprecedented, and cites a recent Congressional Research Service report - since 1981, no more than three United States attorneys had ever been forced out under similar circumstances. The six in one day seems a bit much, as does the hidden clause in the new legislation that says the Senate and the courts now get no say in any of this.
It is stunning -
What sort of colossal error in judgment led the DOJ to can a bunch of perfectly loyal and capable prosecutors, name permanent "interim" replacements under a sleazy legal loophole, then publicly impugn those who'd departed with the claim that they'd been fired for "performance-related" reasons? Did they really think nobody would notice? That nobody would care? Does some incredibly cunning long-term objective justify the short-term fallout? Or was this simply a case of bumbling incompetence?
Her thought is that this is a bit of both.
First she notes some analysis from the New York Times' Adam Cohen - these were rational replacements motivated by cynical administration politics. To wit -
1) cronyism (Carol Lam was let go for hurting the GOP; her replacement is a card-carrying member of the Federalist party)
2) candidate grooming (the Bush administration is grooming Republican lawyers for higher office with sweet stepping-stone jobs)
3) presidential politics (an opposition researcher gets a prosecutor's gig in Arkansas right before Hillary Clinton's run for president. Sneaky.)
She adds her own list -
1) It's a very short hop from a U.S. attorney gig to the federal bench. I wouldn't be surprised if Rove and Co. - who truly live to makeover the federal bench -were willing to suffer a little short-term political embarrassment in order to better situate some loyalists for future judgeships.
2) This administration really does see loyalty to the White House as inseparable from loyalty to the law. Historically, the frequent disputes between the DOJ and renegade U.S. attorneys were resolved through compromise. This president doesn't compromise with insubordinate subordinates. He fires them.
3) The conspiracy theorist in me cannot leave unmentioned the possibility that someone at the Bush White House - let's call him "David Addington" - does nothing all day but mark up legislation to diminish congressional and judicial oversight while increasing executive branch authority. Someone at the White House figured out that with a little Wite-Out and the distractions of the Christmas season, the president could remove both the federal judiciary and the Congress from the U.S. attorney appointments process.
Then there is Mark Follman in Salon - having lost control of Congress in November, "the White House is clinging even more desperately to the few levers of power it still holds." So there may be no specific rationale - the firing of independent-minded federal prosecutors was part of "a deliberate and cunning power grab by the White House."
That will do.
But she's not buying that. Her idea is that this was merely "a monumental screw-up" - the Department of Justice never expected all these firings to turn into a scandal. And her reasoning goes like this -
1) The DOJ is currently staffed by its C team, all of its best members having left long ago for better-paid jobs in the private sector. And C teams, particularly C teams with little political experience, make mistakes.
2) This scandal may not have gone anywhere had McNulty not testified that the U.S. attorneys were canned - with the exception of Cummins - for subpar "performance." This misstep forced Lam, Iglesias, and other very loyal Republicans to come forward and defend themselves. Had McNulty not publicly questioned their effectiveness, most would probably have packed up and left without a word.
3) The White House is unaccustomed to real oversight. It's been virtually bulletproof for so long that it has almost forgotten how to account for its blatant ideological acts of jiggery-pokery. It wasn't until control of Congress changed over in November that anyone even began to look askance at executive overreaching. As a result, this administration simply misjudged the amount of likely blowback from these firings.
That makes sense. Never assume malevolence when incompetence is far more likely -
The U.S. attorney purge probably exploded into a scandal as a result of a perfect storm that the White House never anticipated: Players at the highest levels were making strategic, ideological decisions to consolidate executive power and reward party loyalists while folks on the ground at the Justice Department bungled the firings with inflammatory comments and false ("performance-related") statements. Incumbent U.S. attorneys surprised the White House by punching back, just as a Congress under new Democratic control decided to exercise meaningful oversight.
And as for what to make of this all -
Perhaps the most important lesson to be drawn from the purge isn't that the Bush administration puts ideology above the rule of law. That isn't exactly news. The real point may be that between inexperienced fumblers at Justice, energized Democrats in Congress, and a public that seems finally to have awoken from its slumber, it's just become harder for the administration to get away with it.
That seems to be the general theme for the month of March. The month clearly won't go out like a lamb.