Idiocracy At The D.O.E.
My colleague Daniel Larison has written about Why The Wrecking Of The State Department Matters. If you think that’s bad, read Michael Lewis’s chilling piece about why the Trump administration’s wrecking of the Department of Energy matters. It matters. It really, really matters, more than most of us could have imagined. Excerpts:
After Pyle’s list of questions wound up on Bloomberg News, the Trump administration disavowed them, but a signal had been sent: We don’t want you to help us understand; we want to find out who you are and punish you. Pyle vanished from the scene. According to a former Obama official, he was replaced by a handful of young ideologues who called themselves “the Beachhead Team.” “They mainly ran around the building insulting people,” says a former Obama official. “There was a mentality that everything that government does is stupid and bad and the people are stupid and bad,” says another. They allegedly demanded to know the names and salaries of the 20 highest-paid people in the national-science labs overseen by the D.O.E. They’d eventually, according to former D.O.E. staffers, delete the contact list with the e-mail addresses of all D.O.E.-funded scientists—apparently to make it more difficult for them to communicate with one another. “These people were insane,” says the former D.O.E. staffer. “They weren’t prepared. They didn’t know what they were doing.”
“We had tried desperately to prepare them,” said Tarak Shah, chief of staff for the D.O.E.’s $6 billion basic-science program. “But that required them to show up. And bring qualified people. But they didn’t. They didn’t ask for even an introductory briefing. Like ‘What do you do?’ ” The Obama people did what they could to preserve the institution’s understanding of itself. “We were prepared for them to start wiping out documents,” said Shah. “So we prepared a public Web site to transfer the stuff onto it—if needed.”
But there was actually a long history of even the appointees of one administration hanging around to help the new appointees of the next. The man who had served as chief financial officer of the department during the Bush administration, for instance, stayed a year and a half into the Obama administration—simply because he had a detailed understanding of the money end of things that was hard to replicate quickly. The C.F.O. of the department at the end of the Obama administration was a mild-mannered civil-servant type named Joe Hezir. He had no particular political identity and was widely thought to have done a good job—and so he half-expected a call from the Trump people asking him to stay on, just to keep the money side of things running smoothly. The call never came. No one even let him know his services were no longer required. Not knowing what else to do, but without anyone to replace him, the C.F.O. of a $30 billion operation just up and left.
This was a loss. A lunch or two with the chief financial officer might have alerted the new administration to some of the terrifying risks they were leaving essentially unmanaged. Roughly half of the D.O.E.’s annual budget is spent on maintaining and guarding our nuclear arsenal, for instance. Two billion of that goes to hunting down weapons-grade plutonium and uranium at loose in the world so that it doesn’t fall into the hands of terrorists. In just the past eight years the D.O.E.’s National Nuclear Security Administration has collected enough material to make 160 nuclear bombs. The department trains every international atomic-energy inspector; if nuclear power plants around the world are not producing weapons-grade material on the sly by reprocessing spent fuel rods and recovering plutonium, it’s because of these people. The D.O.E. also supplies radiation-detection equipment to enable other countries to detect bomb material making its way across national borders. To maintain the nuclear arsenal, it conducts endless, wildly expensive experiments on tiny amounts of nuclear material to try to understand what is actually happening to plutonium when it fissions, which, amazingly, no one really does. To study the process, it is funding what promises to be the next generation of supercomputers, which will in turn lead God knows where.
The Trump people didn’t seem to grasp, according to a former D.O.E. employee, how much more than just energy the Department of Energy was about. They weren’t totally oblivious to the nuclear arsenal, but even the nuclear arsenal didn’t provoke in them much curiosity. “They were just looking for dirt, basically,” said one of the people who briefed the Beachhead Team on national-security issues. “ ‘What is the Obama administration not letting you do to keep the country safe?’ ”
Lewis writes that six months into Trump’s term, many key jobs throughout the federal government are unfilled — including some at DOE.
Another permanent employee, in another wing of the D.O.E., says, “The biggest change is the grinding to a halt of any proactive work. There’s very little work happening. There’s a lot of confusion about what our mission was going to be. For a majority of the workforce it’s been demoralizing.”
Over and over again, I was asked by people who worked inside the D.O.E. not to use their names, or identify them in any way, for fear of reprisal. “People are heading for the doors,” says Tarak Shah. “And that’s really sad and destructive. The best and the brightest are the ones being targeted. They will leave fastest. Because they will get the best job offers.”
Why is this a big deal? Maybe this is just draining the swamp of useless bureaucrats, right? Well, read on. Lewis sits down with John MacWilliams, who was a DOE senior administrator under Obama. He was the Chief Financial Officer. He’s a former Wall Street guy who was brought in to manage the books, but because he was so high up in the agency, he had to get a security clearance, and learn about all the things DOE does — the most important of which is managing the safety of our nuclear arsenal, and nuclear research. Excerpt:
The list of things that might go wrong inside the D.O.E. was endless. The driver of a heavily armed unit assigned to move plutonium around the country was pulled over, on the job, for drunken driving. An 82-year-old nun, along with others, cut through the perimeter fence of a facility in Tennessee that housed weapons-grade nuclear material. A medical facility ordered a speck of plutonium for research, and a weapons-lab clerk misplaced a decimal point and FedExed the researchers a chunk of the stuff so big it should have been under armed guard—whereupon horrified medical researchers tried to FedEx it back. “At D.O.E. even the regular scheduled meetings started with ‘You’re not going to believe this,’ ” says former chief of staff Kevin Knobloch.
In his four years on the job MacWilliams had come to understand the D.O.E.’s biggest risks, the way a corporate risk officer might understand the risks inside a company, and had catalogued them for the next administration. “My team prepared its own books. They were never given to anybody. I never had a chance to sit with [the Trump people] and tell them what we’re doing, even for a day. And I’d have done it for weeks. I think this was a sad thing. There are things you want to know that would keep you up at night. And I never talked to anyone about them.”
Read the whole thing. MacWilliams outlines for Lewis the top five risks that DOE manages. The fifth one is not something most of us would have thought about — I certainly wouldn’t have, anyway — but if something goes wrong there, we are in serious, serious trouble.
Whether or not you agree with a president’s policies, we all have a right to expect basic competency from any administration. We had that when Democrats were in the White House, and we had that when Republicans were in the White House. We do not have that now. The release this week of the transcripts of Trump’s phone calls with the leaders of Mexico and Australia was an outrage — whoever did that ought to be fired and charged with a crime, if possible — but it revealed once again that our president is an arrogant incompetent. The DOE story shows what happens when that Trump magic spreads throughout the government.
“But Gorsuch” is doing a lot of very heavy lifting. Populism must never, ever be a war on excellence, or even on basic competence. That’s what it has turned into, it appears. Read the story.