Wiretapping, foreign and domestic
News that U.S. agents eavesdropped on International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohammed ElBaradei (specifically, his telephone conversations with officials in Iran) came as quite a shock. Not the fact itself so much, but the public announcement thereof. The Bush administration is putting pressure on him to resign, but this heavy-handed tactic may backfire unless the taped conversations reveal something very damaging about ElBaradei. Some in the Bush administration suspect that he is not seriously committed to ensuring that Iran halt its nuclear weapons program. The hardening U.S. position on Iran is probably in response to Iran's support for fundamentalist Shiite leaders who are running in the upcoming elections in Iraq. Unfortunately, France and other members of the U.N. Security Council may calculate that the risk of an Iranian bomb is outweighed by their priority of thwarting U.S. objectives in the Middle East. Donald Rumsfeld recently criticized NATO "partners" for failing to cooperate in training the reconstituted Iraqi military forces.
By coincidence, there was an update in the Post last Wednesday about the March 2002 case in which then-state GOP executive director Edmund Matricardi wiretapped Democratic officials who were conversing with Governor Mark Warner about their challenge to the Republicans' redistricting plan. Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, who is running for governor next year, alerted law enforcement officials as soon as this was brought to his attention, leading to arrests. This shows he is a principled official who puts the law above party loyalty, and he deserves credit for it. The wiretapping was a costly mistake for the Virginia GOP, however: "The state Republican Party has agreed to pay most of a $750,000 settlement in the federal lawsuit brought by the 33 Democratic lawmakers who were on the conference calls." Matricardi went to jail for it, and two others pled guilty to lesser offenses. How do people involved in politics think they're going to get away with such stupid dirty tricks? It's probably the intoxicating thrill of power.
President Bush has nominated EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt (former governor of Utah) to serve as Health and Human Services secretary, replacing Tommy Thompson (former governor of Wisconsin). Nine of the 15 department heads have announced their departure, more than in any other presidential second term since 1972. Gary Trudeau ran several "Doonesbury" comic strips last week lampooning Bush's fondness for agreeable cabinet heads, with a "Department of Toady Affairs." Ha ha.
Bush is catching a lot of flak for the failure to properly vet Bernie Kerik, the erstwhile nominee to be Secretary of Homeland Security. The fact that many House Republicans initially opposed the intelligence reform bill (see below) because it lacked provisions for guarding against illegal immigration make this case especially ironic. The rumored other factors, such as Kerik's enrichment from serving on the board of a company that makes stun guns, raise further questions about White House management. Will anyone be reprimanded for this lapse, or lose their job?
The passage of the Intelligence reform bill by the House last week is considered a political victory for Bush, but he had to spend a lot of political capital, and the benefits are murky at best. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) insisted on the armed forces retaining control over battlefield reconnaissance, and his concerns were met. Some doubted Bush's commitment to the bill, and even now it is uncertain how much of a priority it was for him. This much is certain: the bill passed because of domestic political reasons, and not many people believe that centralizing control of intelligence will accomplish much if anything. Indeed, this change might even make intelligence gathering less efficient. But the families of the 9/11 victims, bless their heavy hearts, needed some concrete sign of government action so that the deaths of their relatives will not have been in vain. This is a classic case of "Politically compelling policies," as congressional scholar R. Douglas Arnold put it. (See the newly reformatted Arnold on Congress page, which summarizes Arnold's superb, succinct analysis of how the U.S. Congress works.) The immediate necessity of winning votes in the next election (or minimizing vote losses) outweighs doubts in the legislators' minds that the bill in question will achieve the stated ends.