Friday, February 13, 2009

The Attack of the Puppet People

Leon Panetta is by no means the first case, because there have been countless ones before him; but he is the most recent, and serves as a good example. The syndrome is fairly simple to describe. Someone with political experience and influence, and who is in favor with the ruling clique, will be chosen from the vast army of aspirants and granted a high government post – usually something described as being the “chief of”, “head of”, “czar”, etc. Problem is – they are not what are called “subject-matter experts”, and they do not have any technological training, background, or significant experience with the matter in question, i.e. with the stated mission of whatever agency, bureau, or task force they have been set at the head of. So immediately upon their appointment, the organization in question assigns an “advisor”, or “assistant”, or some other innocuous-sounding term. This person is supposed to fill the gap between the technical and knowledge demands of the mission and the – let's say – charisma, clout, or political connections, of the appointee (all of which are, by the way, highly valuable if we're talking about getting funding). The truth is, it is this “advisor” -- typically a high-ranking, long-time member of the organization, and someone who, by rights, should have been made head of it rather than the political hack who was – who really winds up running things. There is a saying in government, “There is no limit to what you can accomplish as long as you don't mind who gets the credit.” And the term “accomplish” has to, of course, include purposeless foreign junkets, embassy parties, Redskins tickets, and all the other vast array of “perks” that go along with political appointments in Washington. But, as if to compensate for those superficial losses, the “assistant” at least gets the gratification of knowing that he is the one who is really running things – even though he is answerable to his peers and even to some of the underlings of the nominal chief. In other words, in the internal politics of government agencies, there are many ways of getting back at someone who screws up if they are an “insider”. Political types, on the other hand, come and go – they can do great damage while they are nominally in charge, but they will never really control the organizations in question, nor will they be able to penetrate very far into the thickets and hedgerows that constitute the essential operations of the organization. They are, in other words, superficial, ephemeral, and not infrequently ridiculous, whereas the "career" types -- the "lifers" -- the entrenched bureaucrats -- are the ones who set the agenda.

So Leon Panetta, for example, is elevated to head of the CIA – an organization that prides itself on being able to keep secrets from anybody, including the president. So what are the chances that Panetta will ever get more than a thoroughly-scrubbed version of what is going on from the careerists? What are the chances that he will be able to implement any “changes” or “reforms”, even if he wants to (which is itself highly questionable)? What are the chances that he'll even ever know how many people are on his payroll (or what that payroll is)? And if he oversteps the unwritten bounds that the system imposes on people in his position, what are the chances that he won't suffer some sort of political “accident” and be forced to quit? Many better men than he have had this happen to them. The main question is not “whether” any of this is the case, but whether the person involved ever realizes it. Does it ever occur to them that, despite being nominally in charge, they are treated no better than the proverbial mushroom, i.e. kept in the dark and fed bullshit? It certainly never occurred to George W. Bush, for example – and he was the figurehead to end all figureheads.

In Leon's case, his “deputy” is going to be a dude named Steve Kappes, “a veteran of the agency's clandestine service” -- i.e. a senior spy, and it's amazing they even provide his name. All I can say is that with that kind of “help”, Leon is going to be a sock puppet and Kappes the capo. And I submit that this situation is far from beyond the ken of the average congressman, even. It's probably the worst-kept secret in Washington – which is why presidential appointees often get much less perusal than one would expect, given the alleged power of the jobs they have been nominated to fill. Everybody knows – or suspects – that they'll be no different from their predecessors, i.e. puppets, basically... so what's the harm in confirming them? Oh sure – ask a few “tough” questions – like what's the person's shoe size – just to reassure people that the candidates are being properly “vetted”. But in the long run, presidents tend to get who they want for these positions, and it's because everyone knows that the real power in the bureaucracy is _in_ the bureaucracy, not in the itinerant empty suits who float around on the surface. So at the end of the day, in a show of unity and collegiality, the person is confirmed, and as he leaves the committee room beaming from ear to ear, one can detect the rueful words “good luck” bubbling up, sotto voce, out of the crowd.

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