Debugging the Bush Administration

A famous truism from the world of open source software development is that “with enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” In other words, if you get a large enough pool of people examining a malfunctioning piece of code, there’s going to be someone for whom the solution is obvious.

A nice example of that was provided by Monday’s document dump from the Department of Justice. They released about 3,000 memos, ostensibly to show how the firings of eight US attorneys on December 7, 2007, were not improperly political in nature.

In the good old days, dumping 3,000 memos in the laps of your political opponents might have been a good way to buy some time. Your opponents would have had to read through the memos and figure out what they showed, and what was missing, and by the time they’d done all that the immediate crisis would have passed. You would have had a week or more during which you could have been out there in the media, talking to reporters and appearing on the Sunday chat shows, crowing about how you’d been so open and transparent, and the other guys would only have been able to sputter.

But these days, with folks like the good little muckrakers at Talking Points Memo on the case, it works a little differently. The documents were released late in the day on Monday. By 2:19 a.m. Tuesday, a commenter at TPM had pointed out something very interesting about the document dump: Of the 3,000 memos included, there are none from the 18 days between November 15 and December 4. In other words, during the period when we would have expected some of the most-intense discussion of the December 7 firings, there’s an 18-day gap in the memos.

D’oh!

More about this from Joshua Marshall at TPM: Shades of Rose Mary Woods? An 18 day gap?

Getting into the meat of what was released, some of the most interesting stuff concerns the brainstorming between various high-ranking Bush appointees at Justice over the reasons for the firings. Kevin Drum summarizes two key points about what the memos show:

  • The discussion all seems to be taking place after the fact. If you really did fire these people for performance reasons, shouldn’t there be some documentation of your discussing those reasons before you fired them?

  • There were eight US attorneys who were fired. In the case of Bogden, Iglesias, and Lam (and to a lesser extent Charlton and McKay), there seems to be very little substantive criticism of their performance in the after-the-fact discussion. The best they can come up with is vague stuff like “lack of energy” and “underperforming generally” (which contrasts pretty sharply with the glowing reviews these same US attorneys were getting before the firings). So why were these folks on the list? What were the actual reasons for their firing? Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but these are the same US attorneys who had been the strongest in pursuing political corruption cases — including against Republican lawmakers.

More at washingtonmonthly.com: Why were they fired?

In the face of all this, Bush tried to make a deal yesterday with Congress. He’d allow Gonzales, Rove, and others involved in the firings to talk to them. In return, Congress would have to agree to the following:

  • The talks would take place out of site of the public, and off the record. There would be no reporters, no cameras, no transcripts.
  • The officials would not testify under oath.
  • They would only talk about internal communications at the Justice Department, or between Justice and the White House, or between Justice (or the White House) and Congress. They would not talk about internal communications at the White House.
  • Congress would promise not to issue any subsequent subpoenas in the matter.

So, summing up, the deal was: No one else gets to know what we say, and we get to lie, and we don’t have to talk about the most important stuff, and you have to promise to leave us alone afterwards.

Allow me to propose the following response:

Yeah. Well, that sounds like a pretty good deal. But I think I may have a better one. How about, I give you the finger… and you give me my phone call.

Or, more specifically, “I give you these subpoenas, and you give me your testimony.”

In a way, this US attorney firing story is small potatoes. I can understand the Bush people not giving it much of their attention until recently; it’s penny ante wrongdoing compared to some of the really bad stuff they’ve done.

I was listening to Elvis Mitchell interviewing Rory Kennedy yesterday. (Kennedy is the documentary filmmaker who made Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, which is currently showing on HBO.) And then I was listening to the This American Life episode By Proxy, in which Iraqi translator Basim talked about the impact that Abu Ghraib had on Iraqi attitudes toward Americans.

It brought home to me that we are going to need something like a truth commission to undue the damage of the Bush years. Leaving aside the practical matter of cleaning up all the messes that Bush’s policies have created, we’re going to have to deal with significant collective psychological damage as a result of all the lying that’s been done. I don’t want to go over the top in the comparison, but I honestly think we’re going to need something like what South Africa did after apartheid, with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, just to try to heal some of the damage that this man’s horrible, horrible policies have done to our collective sense of what America is, and what it stands for.

The Bush administration is very badly broken code, and it’s going to take a lot of eyeballs to get the bugs out. Congress has started that job, but there’s a lot more work to do before we’re finished.

Update: Following up on the 18-day-gap thing, I found this weblog posting from Shakespeare’s Sister interesting: The hidden scandal within the prosecutor purge. It seems there’s a deliberate avoidance of using email at the highest levels of the White House, presumably to make oversight of the sort Congress is trying to do now harder to accomplish.

Later update: Joshua Marshall & Co. have now found two emails that actually appeared during the 18-day “gap”. So it’s not a complete gap, but rather just a very, very dry spell. My own sense at this point is that it might not be as sinister as their having actually held back emails from that time, but instead could simply be a reflection of the fact that, as noted above, the highest-ranking players routinely avoid the use of email, or at least of email sent through servers subject to presidential records retention policies. So things got really quiet then, at least according to the historical record, because the action had shifted to people who specifically avoid allowing their words to fall into the historical record.

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