Saturday, November 19, 2005


By William Fisher

Years from now, we’re likely to remember two things about Hurricane Katrina: The massive human suffering caused by the incredibly dysfunctional response from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, and President Bush’s iconic kudo to FEMA’S clueless head: “You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie!”

The ‘Brownie’ the president was referring to was, of course, Michael Brown, then FEMA’s hapless director. Days after Bush’s remark, Brownie was ordered back to Washington and later fell on his sword and resigned in disgrace (though he attempted to defend himself before a Senate hearing and remained on the payroll as a “consultant” for several more months).

But in Washington, there’s always a long line of mediocrities waiting in the wings to serve their country. And President Bush seems to have a particular knack for nominating them.

Here are three of the more recent:

Paul Bonicelli was just appointed to oversee the democracy and governance programs of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Those programs are mandated to play a central role in Bush's efforts to democratize Iraq and the broader Middle East.

Bonicelli’s background in spreading democracy and good governance? Well, his current post is dean of academic affairs at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia, whose motto is: “For Christ and Liberation”. This ultra-fundamentalist institution requires all its students to sign a "statement of faith" declaring that they believe "Jesus Christ, born of a virgin, is God come in the flesh," "Jesus Christ literally rose bodily from the dead," and "all who die outside of Christ shall be confined in conscious torment for eternity."

Bonicelli and PHC have close ties to the Bush Administration and to private right-wing religious groups who form such an important part of Bush’s base. PHC students have been chosen to serve as interns for Karl Rove and for the White House Office of Public Liaison, and students and faculty are frequently invited to White House and inaugural events. In 2002, Bush named Bonicelli along with former Vatican advisor John Klink and Janice Crouse of the ultra-conservative Concerned Women for America, to a U.N. delegation to promote biblical values in U.S. foreign policy – and sparked an outcry of protest from women’s rights advocates.

One has to wonder how Muslims will react to the news that "all who die outside of Christ shall be confined in conscious torment for eternity."

Then there’s Ellen Sauerbrey, nominated to head the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. The mission of the Bureau is to coordinate U.S. response to migration problems arising from war and natural disasters, and to work with international groups on population and reproductive-health issues. The Bureau has a budget of more than $700 million.

Sauerbrey's qualifications? Well, she ran Bush's 2000 presidential campaign in Maryland, and twice ran for governor of that state. And she served as U.S. envoy on women's issues at the United Nations, which means advocating for Bush-administration positions on abortion, abstinence, and reproductive health. Those policies have been widely criticized for frustrating family planning and failing to provide reproductive health services to refugee women.

When asked about her qualifications, Sauerbrey told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that she has a big heart: "I think most important you need to have the compassion and caring for helping to protect vulnerable people."

No doubt. But a little experience in refugee affairs wouldn’t hurt either.

Finally, there’s Julie Myers, nominated to head U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, the largest investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security and the second largest Federal investigative agency after the FBI. ICE’s mission is to deal with all Customs and Immigration violations occurring within the U.S., including drug shipments over a U.S. border and the detention and deportation of all illegal aliens involved in removal proceedings. ICE runs the largest and most secretive prison system in the U.S. and accounts for close to 80% of all arrests made within the FBI’s joint terrorism task force. It prosecutes more individuals than any other Federal agency.

Her resume? She was a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, N.Y., for two years, and for the past four years held a variety of jobs at the White House and at the departments of Commerce, Justice and Treasury. At the White House, she was a special assistant to the president for personnel issues. No doubt also helpful was her service as chief of staff to Michael Chertoff when he led the Justice Department's criminal division before he became a Federal judge and later Secretary of Homeland Security. Equally helpful was her work with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. Perhaps even more helpful: She is the niece of now retired Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

ICE is a massive bureaucracy with tens of thousands of employees and an annual budget of close to $15 billion. It has been widely criticized as dysfunctional. So one might have expected a nominee with extensive experience in management, not to mention immigration issues.

Matthew Issman, national legislative vice president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, characterized the Myers appointment most succinctly: She "just doesn't pass the smell test and is another indication that this administration created the Department of Homeland Security as window dressing and does not care whether ICE is successful”, he said, adding, "What we need is a strong, law-enforcement leader, not another inexperienced, well-connected lawyer with friends in the White House."

Washington is a town where the best and the brightest co-exist with well-connected political hacks. It defies credulity that the Bush Administration continues to shoot itself in the foot by stubbornly choosing the latter, and thereby setting itself up for another ‘Brownie’.

My shrink says they must have a death wish.