Investigative reporter and essayist Russ Baker is a longtime contributor to TomPaine.com. He is also the founder of the Real News Project, a new not-for-profit investigative journalism outlet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Even the most over-reported Bush Administration scandal can lead the curious to more fertile ground. Let’s take the approval of the $6.8 billion sale of a British company that manages ports in the United States to Dubai Ports World, a company owned by the United Arab Emirates. The debate has centered on whether this poses a security risk.
But there’s another matter of equal—and probably greater—import: how the approval of the ports deal fits a pattern in which federal agencies have been handed over to the inappropriate, the unqualified, the inane—and, in many cases, to the very companies the agencies are supposed to regulate.
With the ports scandal, the outlines of the decision-making process are emerging only slowly. But we do know that two key administration figures have direct ties to Dubai Ports World.
Treasury Secretary John Snow, whose department headed the panel that approved the Dubai Ports deal, came to the Bush administration from the chairmanship of CSX, a rail firm that sold its own international port operations to DP World the year after Snow joined the administration. The new head of the Maritime Administration, David Sanborn, worked for both CSX and Dubai Ports.
The incest boggles the mind. In February, 2003, the same month Bush appointed Snow, Snow’s company sold its container shipping division, CSX Lines, to the Carlyle Group. CSX Lines does substantial business with the U.S. military; Carlyle’s big shareholders include Bush’s father and family consigliere James Baker III, former British PM John Major and members of the bin Laden family.
Like Snow, Sanborn was a CSX executive—until he left to take a directorship with Dubai Ports World, where he brokered a deal in which Dubai PW bought CSX’s Asian and South American port operations.
It would be helpful to understand what Snow knew about the likelihood that he could be in a decision-making position related to DP and CSX when he agreed to join the administration. One would also wish to learn more about the specifics of the underlying relationship between DP World, CSX, the United Arab Emirates government and the Bush White House and family fortunes.
The answers—if they come—could be interesting. But whatever they are, the Dubai Ports deal is clearly another of many instances in which this White House invited either the Wily Fox or the Corrupt Klutz into Henhouse Management. From mine safety to agriculture, drug benefits to communications policy, it’s always the same with this gang: the defiling of lofty missions. Since Bush appointed and then forced out qualified and fair cabinet members like Paul O’Neill at Treasury and Christine Todd Whitman at EPA, there have been four categories of acceptable hire: political crony, industry hack, corrupt apparatchik and destruction-minded ideologue.
While presidents of both parties have long rewarded friends, donors, and allies, some positions were still reserved for experienced, skilled individuals who actually believed in the mission of their agency. Even Bush’s father occasionally appointed on merit.
With George W. Bush—in case after case—hiring practices constitute a blatant nose-thumbing at the public that put him into office. We saw that most recently with FEMA, where Bush first appointed his campaign manager, Joe Allbaugh, a man with no appropriate emergency or management experience. He then installed as his successor Michael Brown, a man who had never managed more than two people and whose career pinnacle was investigating misconduct at horse shows.
Here are just a few of the more egregious examples from the Bush record:
Bush’s first mine safety chief, David Lauriski, resigned in late 2004 after CBS' 60 Minutes revealed that his agency had improperly awarded no-bid, single-source contracts to coal industry companies to which he was tied. Lauriski also tried to push through changes in coal dust regulations that miraculously benefited only his former employer—even other mine operators were opposed.
Thomas Scully, the man who served in the Bush Administration just long enough to implement the badly-flawed Medicare Drug Benefit, came from a job with the hospital association and left directly to the drug industry.
David Safavian, the head of the White House Office of Federal Procurement Policy was a former lobbyist and Hill staffer with no prior experience in government contracting; he has since been arrested in connection with the sprawling corruption investigation surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff, an old friend and colleague. His expertise was the getting of contracts for politically powerful outfits.
As Deputy Secretary of Interior, former energy industry lobbyist J. Steven Griles pushed for the leasing of public lands for oil, gas and coal development. Griles, like Safavian an Abramoff buddy, continued to receive annual severance payments from his former firm while he was at Interior. He was investigated for arranging meetings between former clients and partners and department officials; the department’s inspector general said his behavior eroded public trust. He’s now back in the energy lobbying business.
Scott Gottlieb, a high-ranking Food and Drug Administration official, is a former harsh critic of the agency who published a Wall Street newsletter with tips on hot bio stocks; he also blogged as fdainsider.com. At the agency, Gottlieb, deputy commissioner for medical and scientific affairs, has pushed cautious subordinates to expedite product approvals.
Kenneth Tomlinson, the former chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, resigned after investigations found activities trying to influence PBS news content in a more conservative direction improper. Tomlinson himself did not work in broadcasting, though he served as a member of several Reagan-era broadcasting policy boards. His longest tenure was at Reader’s Digest.
In matters of the law, there is of course Harriet Miers , a Bush legal troubleshooter with no judicial experience who was nevertheless nominated to the Supreme Court before her name was withdrawn in response to a welter of criticism.
Less well known is Julie Myers, head of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, who also had a thin resume but is the niece of the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and had, at the time of her nomination, recently married the chief of staff of her boss-to-be, Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff. Perhaps her main credential: she had worked for the zealous Clinton-hunter Ken Starr.
With such examples in mind, one must take with a grain of salt the administration’s claim that the Dubai Ports decision was based on a “consensus of agencies with differing interests.” Whatever differing ‘interests’ the agency officials may have, it seems that none of them equate with the only interest that matters: the public interest.