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Beleaguered “Civil Servants”?

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius offers up a profoundly confused column this morning about the U.S. Attorneys scandal.

He begins by noting the extraordinary public service that many career federal workers perform for the country, and he’s absolutely right. But then he turns to accusing the Bush administration of ignoring, abusing, and demeaning such people, using as his example the e-mails sent by Justice Department political appointees regarding the eight U.S. Attorneys dismissed by the administration. Those e-mails, he argues, offer an example of political appointees disparaging civil servants.

The only problem is that the U.S. Attorneys who were the subjects of the e-mails he quotes were themselves political appointees, not career civil servants. U.S. Attorneys are appointed by the President, generally at the urging of other elected officials from the President’s party. They stay in office only as long as the President wants them to. A number of Presidents have started their terms by firing all of the nation’s U.S. Attorneys and hiring their own people in their place. (Bill Clinton did that, for instance, firing among others a U.S. Attorney investigating Clinton himself in Arkansas, as Rep. Lamar Smith points out in today’s USA Today.) So the e-mails Ignatius quotes are actually examples of politicals talking about politicals, and do nothing to make the case he wants to push. On the contrary, they show that political appointees, too, do difficult and important work for the country.

His more general point that the Bush administration is uniquely dismissive of the contributions of career civil servants is no less careless and unsupported. All you have to do is talk to a civil servant who worked, say, in the Office of Management and Budget or the Drug Enforcement Agency in the Clinton years, and you will be quickly relieved of any such notion.

There is always bound to be some friction between political appointees who work to advance the agenda of the elected President and the career civil servants who see one President or another as a temporary problem. The friction is especially great when the bureaucracy is actively opposed to the President’s agenda, as often happens for instance in the State Department during Republican administrations or the Pentagon in Democratic ones. The Bush administration has faced a particularly hostile bureaucracy in a few key agencies, including several (like the CIA) that play crucial roles in the war against Islamic radicals. The administration has, on the whole, handled it well, and has actually treated civil servants with more respect than they’re accustomed to throughout the government, appointing career staff to unusually senior positions and including them in very sensitive discussions.

Whether or not that’s the case at the Justice Department, a dispute between two groups of political appointees, as in the U.S. Attorneys scandal, is beside the point.


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