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Transitional Rot

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Let’s start with a spot of good news: the Biden administration has already fired Michael Pack. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, he’s the partisan hack who wanted to tern the Voice of America, RFE/RL, and other government overseas news services into right-wing propaganda outlets.

I’ve occasionally blogged about Pack’s corrupt, dangerous efforts to transform the U.S. Agency for Global Media into the kind of “state media” we associate with other deconsolidating democracies, such as Poland and Hungary. Even if such a lofty goal remained beyond his grasp, there’s no question that Pack was on track to destroy the credibility of constituent units as independent, accurate sources of news.

Pack is quite the scumbag. He fired long-term – and often mission-critical – non-citizen employees. Only yesterday, the Washington Post reported that Pack “hired a law firm at a rate of about $500 an hour and spent $2 million in taxpayer funds to compile personnel dossiers on managers he had targeted for removal….”

I wish the news were uniformly good. But it isn’t.

Today, Politico published a closer look at the attempt by Trump loyalists in the Department of Defense to actively undermine U.S. national security.

 Pentagon officials under President Donald Trump refused to provide information about current operations, particularly in the special operations realm, because they are “predecisional.” That means the Biden team now has limited visibility into key operational issues, including what counterterrorism missions are in the works.

In one incident, the Pentagon abruptly canceled the transition team’s meeting with Gen. Scott Miller, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, which had been scheduled for just before Christmas. At the time, the acting defense secretary said both teams had agreed to reschedule all non-Covid related meetings until after the new year, but Biden officials publicly denied that claim.

The drawdown in Afghanistan, where American troops are expected to leave the country this spring under a deal between the Trump administration and the Taliban, is one of the most pressing issues Biden’s national security team will have to confront in his young presidency.

The team was eventually able to speak with the general in January. But with the Trump administration down to 2,500 troops in Afghanistan and on a path to reach zero by May, “having a multiple-week delay in gaining access to Gen. Miller was not good,” the first transition official said.


Numerous reports suggest that the Trump administration made ample use of the practice of “burrowing” to seed unqualified and under-qualified loyalists in the bureaucracy.

A third person close to Biden said officials with the incoming administration are worried that they’ll have to juggle rooting out Trump holdovers with efforts to get the new Cabinet in place and move aggressively to combat the pandemic and economic crisis.

“We’ve identified some people already, but we don’t know how many there are in total, or where exactly they’re placed,” the person said. “The incoming administration will have to evaluate it and think about alternative placements [for the burrowers], and that will take time and create more distractions and burdens for them.”

It also seems that the Trump administration finally succeed in placing Michael Ellis, a “Trump loyalist” by way of Devin Nunes, as the top lawyerl at the National Security Agency.

The Pentagon’s general counsel selected Ellis for the NSA post in November, reportedly bypassing others who were more qualified. NSA chief Army Gen. Paul Nakasone then slow-walked the appointment, until Miller ordered him over the weekend to install Ellis.

When reporters describe Ellis as a “Trump loyalist” they are not joking around. As Aaron Blake explains, Ellis shouldn’t be let anywhere near U.S. intelligence:

Ellis is notably a former aide to Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. Back in 2017, The Post, the New York Times and others reported that while serving in the White House, Ellis helped share intelligence with Nunes, who was then the committee’s chair, which showed Trump and his allies were swept up in foreign surveillance.

Nunes and the White House then used this information in an attempt to undermine the Russia investigation and to lend credence to Trump’s allegation that he and his team were spied on. This was despite them not being the targets of the surveillance. (Foreign actors are routinely surveilled, and those who speak with them can be swept up in what is known as “incidental” collection.)

Ellis’s legal instincts are also less than excellent:

According to testimony from former White House National Security Council aide Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, it was Ellis who initially proposed putting documentation of Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on a highly classified server — a decision that led to charges that the document was being hidden for political reasons.

Also:

The common thread running through the above is taking actions involving sensitive information that could be perceived as furthering Trump’s political goals. And a third event from last year very much fits the trend.

The White House fought tooth-and-nail against former national security adviser John Bolton’s decision to publish a tell-all book about his time in the administration. Ellis, once again, played a major role.

Does the Biden team have a “Lustration Czar”? It definitely needs a dedicated staffer – someone who isn’t also handling pressing policy issues – to coordinate the process of dealing with the rot left over by the Trump administration.

An important advantage of putting someone in charge of lustration: it helps ensure a transparent process with clear lines of accountability. In general, the Biden administration should avoid providing legitimacy to future Republican efforts to go after nonpolitical civil service employees under the guise of cleaning out “the Deep State.”

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