Fog of Secrecy

National security often operates in a twilight zone of intelligence, eavesdropping and spy satellites. But it's rare to find a national-security debate that lives in a twilight zone as bizarre as the National Security Agency wiretapping affair. While reporters are still trying to figure out the full extent of the NSA program, politicians are showing no hesitation before jumping feet first into their own parallel universe.

This week began with former veep Al Gore--in his now familiar (and unstatesmanlike) full-blown roar--tearing into President Bush for "breaking the law repeatedly and persistently." Irony was never one of Gore's strong points, and he seemed to miss entirely the irony of his call for a special counsel to investigate the wiretapping affair. With the help of Clinton-era attorney general Janet Reno, Gore managed to avoid no less than three Justice Department recommendations for a special counsel to investigate his fund-raising activities in 1996.

But the twilight zone hardly ends there. When Reno rejected the last call to investigate Gore, in the middle of the 2000 presidential campaign, his political opponent seized on the story. "I reiterate my call for a new tone in Washington, which is going to require a new administration in Washington," said Gov. George W. Bush. "People are sick and tired of all this stuff, and the best way to start anew is with a new administration."

While White House aides now speak privately (and anonymously) about the need to clean up Congress in the wake of lobbyist Jack Abramoff's guilty pleas in an influence-peddling scandal, there's no sense of them taking the lead on what used to be a signature issue--before they came to Washington. One reason may be their own reluctance to acknowledge their own ties to Abramoff, the one-time master of the lobbying universe. Press Secretary Scott McClellan refuses to detail what he calls Abramoff's "staff-level meetings" at the White House. McClellan concedes that Abramoff had "more a casual relationship than a business relationship" with one Karl Rove, the president's uber-strategist.

But that's where the explanation ends, in the fog of secrecy, just like the vague assertions that the NSA warrantless eavesdropping program has saved lives. Instead of changing the tone in Washington, both the Bush White House and Al Gore seem to prefer a knockdown, smashmouth exchange. While Gore was portraying Bush as a threat to the very fabric of the nation, Bush's aides were breathlessly insisting that "Al Gore's hypocrisy knows no bounds."

This is the kind of edifying debate that leads to dismal approval numbers for both parties. It also points to an election year that remains finely balanced. White House officials say they are relishing an extended debate over wiretapping because it allows them to portray the president as a defender of the homeland while suggesting Democrats are weak on national security. Yet a recent CBS News poll shows just a 1-point difference between those who approve of the warrantless wiretaps and those who disapprove. The same poll showed voters equally balanced on the question of which party has higher ethical standards. Given the closeness on those big issues of the day, don't expect anything uplifting any time soon.

For President Bush, this month's congressional recess has been anything but a vacation. With lawmakers out of town, Bush has made 19 so-called recess appointments, including several nominees whose Senate confirmations had been stalled amid protests from members of Congress and outside groups.

The list includes Julie Myers, who was appointed as head of the Department of Homeland Security's Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Myers, until recently a White House aide overseeing personnel issues, had faced strong opposition from both Republicans and Democrats who said she lacked experience in management and on immigration issues. Critics have called her appointment an example of cronyism: Myers is the niece of former Joint Chiefs chairman Richard Myers and the wife of a top aide to Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff. Bush named her and 16 other stalled nominees in a spate of recess appointments announced Jan. 4.

While Myers's nomination had been approved by the Senate's Homeland Security Committee, she faced a potentially brutal confirmation battle on the Senate floor. After Myers's appointment, Sen. Joe Lieberman, one of Bush's closest Democratic allies, criticized the president's decision, telling reporters that Myers "really was not qualified" for the job. GOP Sen. Susan Collins, who told reporters last fall that Myers "would not have been my choice," raised concerns about Bush's decision to bypass a Senate vote. Myers's appointment was also criticized by the conservative magazine National Review, which had called for someone with more experience. "For the president to entrust such a novice with the security of our borders is another sign that he should take security more seriously," the magazine says in its latest issue.

But Myers wasn't the only controversial appointee. Also on Jan. 4, Bush installed Gordon England as deputy secretary of Defense, bypassing holds that two Republican senators had put on his nomination over conflict of interest worries. England once worked for General Dynamics, a leading defense contractor. Dorrance Smith, a former ABC News producer, was named assistant secretary of Defense for public affairs over objections from Democrats who had criticized an opinion article Smith wrote in which he criticized American TV networks for airing footage from Al-Jazeera.

Ellen Sauerbrey, a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, was named assistant secretary of State for population, refugees and migration. Democrats and women's rights groups have criticized the appointment because Sauerbrey opposes abortion rights. Democrats have also objected to the naming of Hans von Spakovksy to the Federal Election Commission. Von Spakovsky, a former GOP party official, previously served as a political appointee in the Justice Department where he has been viewed as a key player in the administration's review of the Texas redistricting case. It was revealed last year that appointees in the department overruled career lawyers at the agency who objected to the redistricting plan over concerns about the effects on minority voting rights.

On Tuesday, Bush announced two more recess appointments, one of whom was C. Boyden Grey, a longtime Bush ally, as ambassador to the European Union. Grey's nomination, announced last July, had not been taken up by the Senate.

Controversial or not, Bush acted within his constitutional rights. Under the Constitution, if the Senate is in recess, the president can immediately fill a position that would normally require Senate confirmation. Historians say the rule was envisioned as something presidents would use in case of emergency, should something keep Congress from reconvening in time to deal with an appointment. Yet Bush and others have increasingly relied on recess appointments as a way to break political logjams in Washington--as was the case this time.

Defending the appointments, Press Secretary McClellan told reporters that the president felt it necessary to fill the longtime vacancies because some lawmakers have been "playing politics with the nomination process."

According to a tally by The Associated Press, Bush has made 123 recess appointments in the last five years--compared to 140 made by Bill Clinton over his two terms in office and 243 by Ronald Reagan over eight years. Like other administrations, the Bush White House has often avoided filling high-profile positions by recess appointment, largely because of the rule that such appointees can only serve until a new Congress is seated--in this case, until January 2007. One exception occurred last summer, when Bush appointed John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations after it became clear he would not be confirmed by the Senate.