Good point by Tom Nichols. Imagine the situation was reversed and the NSA had been caught lifting the personnel files of virtually every human being who works for the Chinese government. How tense would relations be with China right now? I’m thinking somewhere on the order of you-just-bombed-our-embassy tense. As it is, if there are plans afoot to retaliate, the White House is doing an uncharacteristically good job of keeping them secret so far.
True confession: I’ve grown so used to seeing U.S. officials go unpunished for gigantic mistakes that not until I read this piece by Michael Dougherty did it occur to me that no one at OPM’s been disciplined yet. It’s hard not to be complacent about unaccountability when there’s so much of it.
We presume that the NSA that keeps up to date on everyone’s smart phone metadata has better security than the OPM. But the contractors who build the digital systems for the federal government, from the OPM to ObamaCare, exist only because their business model is to serve the federal government. The primary business plan of these companies is to jump through insane bureaucratic hoops (like becoming Y2K compliant), then certifying that they have done so to get contracts. That means they are primarily creatures that exist to navigate and satisfy regulatory hurdles, not to deliver “amazing products” that “just work.” For that you have to go to Silicon Valley proper, and even they outsource much of the hard work to China.
In a sense, the data breach reveals how far American government is from republicanism in character. Republics are flinty things. Men who govern republics are supposed to find it shameful when they waste the public’s money. They are supposed to think of their failures as a kind of betrayal of the public trust. But how many people are going to get fired for this? How many will lose contracts or suffer public and professional humiliation? None is my guess.
Jim Geraghty calls the post-hack complacency a perfect symbol of the Obama era, although I’d broaden that to say it’s a perfect symbol of modern politics, period:
The story of the Obama era is the story of one colossal federal government train-wreck after another. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms shipped guns to Mexican drug cartels in Fast & Furious. Recovery.gov, allegedly designed to promote openness and accountability, ended up filled with bad data…
The president stood in front of the White House, urging the American public to use Healthcare.gov when it wasn’t working…
The Obama administration toppled the government of Libya – without any supporting act of Congress — then sent Americans there and ignored the security requests from our ambassador…
Veterans died, waiting for care, while the branch offices of the VA assure Washington everything is fine.
That’s not even half his list. Why is it, Geraghty concludes, that with a record of failure — unpunished failure, to be clear — as long as this, progressives still want the feds to have an ever greater role in American life? Let me supplement that with another question: Why is it that Obama and his inner circle seem to value loyalty, in declining to punish their hires for gross incompetence, more than they do accountability? Why shouldn’t O call a presser and stand there for 45 minutes shaking his fist that underlings ever could have allowed this to happen? John Schindler says the OPM hack amounts to nothing less than the wrecking of American espionage, a disaster arguably even bigger than Edward Snowden stealing the keys to the castle from the NSA. A rival power now has everything they need to sniff out, blackmail, frame, or spear-phish practically anyone who’s worked for Uncle Sam over the last 30 years. “This isn’t shame on China,” said former CIA chief Michael Hayden. “This is shame on us.” Right, but that’s usually the case; most major government debacles were preventable. Then someone fails to prevent them and … nothing happens. Why is that?
Part of the answer, I think, is that the age of ubiquitous media requires the White House and its deputies to be careful about alienating employees. Who knows what other scandals are known to higher-ups at OPM, or what sort of security breaches they could orchestrate if they got fired and felt disgruntled? Make enemies of them and there’s no shortage of reporters in print media, TV media, or online who’ll be happy to listen to them spill whatever they have. Unaccountability, in other words, is the price of damage control. And it’s also the price of competitive government hiring: If you can’t afford to pay a qualified applicant as much as a private-sector firm could, one way to make up for the shortfall in compensation is with job security. You can target tea-party nonprofits for special tax scrutiny, leave veterans to languish on eternal waiting lists at the VA, or get caught sleeping while China’s rifling through the federal filing cabinets, but only very rarely, when perceptions of inaction become too politically painful, will the White House move to punish employees for it. We’re all used to that. What Dougherty’s asking is why perceptions of inaction at OPM aren’t already so painful that Obama has no choice but to pull the trapdoor on someone. Ultimately it’s a critique of the public even more so than our government. Why aren’t more people demanding that heads roll at OPM?