In the past month, the Obama White House has found itself at the center of two new scandals. While one is being (so far) treated as a minor matter, it may later grow in importance once Republicans wake up to the political embarrassment potential for the president. The second scandal is systemic and entrenched, and is going to require a lot of drastic action to fix. How Obama reacts to both the "outing" of the C.I.A. station chief in Afghanistan and the ongoing problems at the Veterans Administration will wind up reflecting on his presidential legacy, for better or worse.
Outing a top C.I.A. spymaster
Let's examine the minor scandal first, since it is easier to see what needs to be done. What happened is not entirely clear at this point, but here are the facts as they are currently known. President Obama just completed a secret trip to visit the troops in Afghanistan over the Memorial Day weekend. The story did not leak out before the trip happened. During the trip, however, a list was prepared of the people Obama had met while in Afghanistan. The Pentagon reportedly put the list together and handed it off to the White House. The White House press office then publicly released the list to their "pool" of White House journalists.
Somehow, the name of the top American spymaster in Afghanistan was included on the list. He was supposed to be undercover, and his name was not supposed to ever become public knowledge. It was an official secret, to put it another way. He was "outed" by including his name on the list.
Now, nobody's saying that this was done intentionally. It was not a "leak" to a reporter to make any sort of point or expose any sort of story. It was an inadvertent mistake -- everyone agrees on this point, so far. But that may not matter, in the end. From the Washington Post, here is how the White House is now reacting to the scandal:
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough has instructed the president's chief counsel, W. Neil Eggleston, to examine how the C.I.A. officer's name ended up on a list of U.S. officials who met with Obama in Afghanistan, a document that was then distributed to thousands of journalists and other recipients.
Eggleston has been asked "to look into what happened and report back to [McDonough] with recommendations on how the administration can improve processes and make sure something like this does not happen again," said Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council.
The move marks an effort by the White House to assure members of the U.S. intelligence community, as well as the public, that it regards the inadvertent disclosure as a security breach serious enough to warrant attention from high-level officials.
That's all fine and good as far as it goes, but it simply does not go far enough. Revealing C.I.A. undercover officers' names to the press is not just a security breach, it is also a crime. And unless President Obama wants to be accused of brazen hypocrisy, he only has two real actions possible, when the person responsible is ultimately identified by Eggleston. Obama can either issue a blanket pardon, excusing the responsible party from prosecution, or he can hand it off to the Justice Department for prosecution to the fullest extent of the law.
This may sound harsh. After all, nobody's saying this was done intentionally. A mistake was made, that's all. But that should not matter, legally. American justice is supposed to be blind, meaning two people who committed the same crime should face exactly the same punishment. And the Obama administration has been famously tough on leakers, up to this point. Which really leaves no other option than full prosecution or a blanket pardon. Anything else is sheer hypocrisy. To say nothing of the political motivations involved.
Remember, if you will, how Democrats howled when Valerie Plame Wilson was "outed." They fully supported the prosecution of Scooter Libby (although Richard Armitage -- the guy who actually leaked her name to Robert Novak -- seemed to get a pass, somehow). Leaking a C.I.A. officer's name was seen in a different light politically, when the politics of the situation were reversed (to put it mildly). During Obama's term in office, John Kiriakou was prosecuted by the Justice Department for doing exactly the same thing the White House just did -- leaking a C.I.A. officer's name to the public. He is currently serving 30 months in federal prison.
Constitutionally, there is no difference between those two cases and what happened over the past weekend. Even if the Pentagon slipped up and included the name inadvertently, the White House press office is supposed to vet such a document before release. They didn't. Somebody didn't do their job correctly, and a C.I.A. officer's name was released as a direct result. By the letter of the law, this is criminal behavior.
So far this scandal hasn't really resonated with Republicans, but sooner or later they're going to realize the potential for embarrassing the president politically. A crime was committed -- a crime that merits jail time. Unlike all the previous "scandals" they've been chasing, this one happened within the White House itself. There is no one other than the press office to point the finger at. I expect it won't be long before there are demands for Eric Holder to bring charges.
Which is why Obama really can't brush the whole thing under the rug, with "recommendations on how the administration can improve processes and make sure something like this does not happen again." That's not good enough, in this case. Since a crime was so obviously committed (intentional or not), Obama can either hang someone out to dry in the courts, or issue a pardon. Issuing a pardon might seem extreme, but it would certainly end any talk of prosecution. Obama would have to take a political hit for issuing such a pardon, but it would be a much smaller hit than watching an inattentive press office person being tried for their inadvertent crime. Or the hypocrisy of doing nothing.
The V.A. scandal
The second big scandal isn't going to be so easy to fix, however. The Veterans Administration problems seem to go pretty deep. What is tragically ironic about the situation is that the scandal stems from a system that was put in place to identify and fix long waiting times for veterans. This system was then "gamed" by administrators, destroying its usefulness in solving the main problem.
The Veterans Administration decided to track wait times for all its facilities, because hard data was needed to discover the scope of the problem. This hard data was then supposed to be used to identify problem facilities so they could get some money and attention to improve their services. But administrators at overwhelmed facilities were fearful that their own jobs (and bonuses, reportedly) would be on the line if they showed the true extent of the problem, so they decided to go around the reporting system and keep handwritten lists. If the data isn't entered in the computer, it essentially doesn't exist, they figured. This resulted, according to an interim report issued today, in average wait times in Phoenix of 115 days (almost four months) -- which was 91 days longer than the hospital reported in their official data. The handwritten list grew to over 1,700 veterans waiting for a doctor's appointment. This is nothing short of shameful. It is a breach of the promise America made to these veterans. It needs to be fixed, obviously.
The first question to be raised is whether the current secretary of the Veterans Administration, Eric Shinseki, is the man to fix the problem. He has been tainted by this scandal, perhaps irreparably. Calls for his resignation (or firing) have been coming from politicians from both parties. So far, President Obama has stood by him. Remembering how Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was allowed to remain in her position for six months after the disastrous rollout of the Obamacare website, President Obama seems to be patient enough with his cabinet members to allow them to fix major problems before they step down. However, in this case, that may not be good enough. The Obamacare problem was immediate and new, since it dealt with launching something that had not been done before. The V.A. problem is immediate, but it is not new. It has been going on for a long time, on Shinseki's watch. This may preclude allowing him the latitude to attempt to fix the problem.
Eric Shinseki is a decorated veteran himself, and has an impressive military career behind him. He became liberals' favorite general, after he was the only military official to publicly discredit Donald Rumsfeld's predictions of how many troops would be needed to pacify Iraq (Shinseki predicted that "something in the order of several hundred thousand soldiers" would be needed in postwar Iraq, for the effort to be successful). Rumsfeld, at the time, was arguing for a much lighter footprint. So there weren't many Democrats who had a problem with Obama naming him to lead the V.A.
But, as impressive as his military credentials are, he is now so tarnished by the scandal that it is time for him to go. The Obama White House should now be (quietly) conducting a search for someone to replace Shinseki who can cope with the enormity of the problem. In fact, because the V.A. is in crisis, the criteria for the next head should hinge on credentials in hospital administration rather than the more traditional criteria of an impressive military career. The media has been disappointed in Shinseki's refusal to publicly emote about the problems, but what is needed is someone even wonkier -- someone who is not going to bang the table with a fist, but who rather knows how to clean house at a failing hospital system and get things back up and running.
When such a person can be identified, President Obama needs to make the announcement that he has reluctantly accepted Shinseki's resignation and hopes the Senate will quickly confirm a capable administrator who can bring a new era of transparency to the agency. Fixing the problem of wait times may take years (and it may take a lot of money from Congress), but fixing the confidence in the data doesn't need to take more than a few months to a year, at most.
Obama should also announce that, to further this end, he is supporting the current effort in Congress to make it easier to fire hospital administrators within the V.A. system. Furthermore, Obama should announce he will be using this new power to fire every single person he can prove was responsible for deciding to create off-the-books wait lists -- and, where appropriate, he will prosecute to the fullest extent of the law.
What these people did was, in essence, fraud. They defrauded the federal government which signed their paychecks. They knowingly sent in false data. There are reports that some administrators did so because they wanted bonuses in their paychecks, and knew they wouldn't get them if their facilities' wait times were too high. This is (or at least should be) criminal behavior.
Obama should announce that the new V.A. chief will be given instructions to start at the bottom and work their way upwards through the chain of command -- as high as the trail leads. The people doing data entry who didn't enter data correctly at least have the excuse "this is how I was told to do it." Perhaps they shouldn't be outright fired, but instead given the option of another federal job at the same pay grade but without a position of public trust -- say, counting polar bears in Alaska or working at some remote warehouse sorting military surplus items. Give them the choice of transferring to a menial position with no real responsibility, or quitting.
Further up the chain, however, people should not only be fired but also investigated for past bonuses awarded and for defrauding the government. If the decision was made by a high-ranking administrator to perpetrate this fraud, then criminally charge them and sue them in civil court to regain any such bonuses they received.
Veterans deserve no less.
Within six months to (at most) a year, mass firings will send the message to every other person working for the V.A., loud and clear: this behavior is absolutely unacceptable and there will be serious consequences. My guess is it won't even take that long for this message to sink in. The data, within a year, will begin to be trustworthy and reliable. Remember, the whole purpose of this data is to identify problem facilities in order to fix them. If you can't identify them, you're never going to be able to fix them.
At some point, a new promise also needs to be made to America's veterans. President Obama, with the new V.A. head by his side, needs to announce that every single time a veteran contacts the V.A. for any reason -- whether in person, over the phone, or in writing -- that contact will be properly logged. No matter who the veteran contacts in the entire V.A. organization, his or her file will be complete and immediately accessible via computer. If there are excessive wait time problems with any individual veteran, it will be obvious by the entries in this file. That is the absolute least that should be promised to all veterans, in fact.
This is the type of effort which pretty much demands a new hand at the helm, though. Shinseki's exit will make it possible for the clean-up to begin.
President Obama is facing two scandals right now. He needs to act, on both of them. These are not pseudo-scandals that his political opponents are ginning up in an effort to smear Obama; these are actual scandals that need to be dealt with.
The Obama administration has been one of the toughest in all of American history on leakers of secret data. To be even minimally consistent with this posture, they need to acknowledge that a crime was committed by the White House press office, no matter how inadvertent it was. The choice for action is clear. Either prosecute the person responsible, or pardon them for the crime they unintentionally committed. Anything less -- any effort to quietly sweep this under a rug -- is nothing short of hypocrisy, and a slap in the face to the concept of blind justice.
The bigger scandal at the Veterans Administration is going to last longer, due to the systemic nature of the problem (at least at some facilities). Fixing the problem needs to happen in three stages. The first is for Obama to accept Eric Shinseki's resignation, and announce a capable administrator with experience in large hospital systems will be taking his place. The second is to purge the ranks of anyone involved in defrauding the government with falsified data (including prosecutions for higher-ups, where appropriate). This will fix the data itself, and guarantee that such falsification never happens again. The third phase is the toughest, because it will require the cooperation of Congress. The data itself isn't the problem, it is the wait times that was the problem the data was created to identify. Fixing long wait times is going to require either hiring more doctors at certain facilities, or building some new hospitals within the same geographic area as the problem facilities, to better spread the load of patients. That is going to require some funding, obviously.
The president can act decisively on his own to solve the V.A.'s leadership problem and the data problem. Politically, this would do him a world of good. But Republicans, if they're smart, could benefit politically as well. Rather than the "Benghazi Summer" that House Republicans have planned, they would benefit more from an extended congressional investigation into the problems at the V.A. -- not just the falsification of data, but also the underlying problem of providing the appropriate care to our veterans. It's pretty hard to be against caring for veterans, so if Republicans emerged as the champion and savior of the Veterans Administration it would likewise do them a world of good politically.
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