A July 1, 2010 report by the US House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform questions many the president’s statements regarding federal efforts to contain the oil spill disaster that started on April 20th in the Gulf.
I also want to stress that we are working closely with the Gulf states and local communities to help every American affected by this crisis…I’m going to spare no effort to respond to this crisis for as long as it continues. And we will spare no resource to clean up whatever damage is caused… our focus now is on a fully coordinated, relentless response effort to stop the leak and prevent more damage to the Gulf. President Barack Obama, May 2, 2010.
Visits to the area and interviews with state and local officials indicate that the president and other administration officials misrepresented a number of key facts including…
A clear pattern has emerged of efforts to control and manipulate information about the oil spill and response efforts: key facts about the timeline of the spill itself have been omitted from publicly-released documents designed to describe a specific narrative of competence; resources are described as being in place when they are, in fact, absent and needed; an efficient command-and-control decision making process is publicly described, when in reality it is a dysfunctional consensus-based system that relies too heavily on BP …
The aforementioned timeline is perhaps the most damning part of the report. Published on the White House blog in the spirit of transparency so the American people can have a clear understanding of what their government has been and is doing to respond, much of it does not match the facts.
Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, and others corroborate that conclusion. “BP and the Coast Guard provided him (Nungesser),with a map of the Gulf allegedly pinpointing the exact locations of 140 skimmers cleaning up oil.” Mr.Nungesser’s requested flyover of the assets for verification was canceled three times. Finally, officials admitted that only 31 of the 140 skimmers were ever deployed. The rest were sitting at the docks. According to Mr. Nungesser, “the chart appeared to have been fabricated”.
Local officials describe White House outreach efforts as more focused on stopping bad press than on addressing the disaster at hand. This NPR news story is one of many recent reports on the government’s refusal to allow access. In some instances, equipment was grudgingly provided to quiet public criticism.
Mr. Nungesser, whose frequent appearances on local and national television irked the White House, had a visit from two White House officials on Fathers’ Day. According to Mr. Nungesser, the visit was “for the purpose of finding a way to keep him from calling attention to the lack of equipment. Specifically, they asked him, “What do we have to do to keep you off TV?” He simply replied, “Give me what I need.”
The report reveals a shocking lack of coordination between the president, his administration and local leaders that is sharply at odds with the president’s statements.
… the President stated on May 27, 2010, that the moment this disaster began, the federal government has been in charge of the response effort. In his address to the nation on June 15, 2010, he referred to the response as a ‘battle’ and his strategy as a battle plan.
Rear Admiral Jim Watson, the senior-most official at the Unified Area Command in Robert, LA, gave a different account of events on the ground. According to Watson, “It is not a war-fighting command and control structure where the Federal government is sending orders to BP. Rather the process on the ground with BP and others is ‘consensus-based’, where higher-ranking officials inject themselves to resolve differences of opinion.”
Local officials expressed similar frustration with a system they characterized as overly bureaucratic and ineffective. A St. Bernard Parish official described the “command-and-control” as lacking decisiveness. “Unlike the military”, he said, “There is no sergeant on the battlefield making decisions. This lack of decision-making authority at the lower levels has caused innumerable problems”.
The wonder is not that the president, who is often questioned on his versions of facts, should have departed from the truth. It is that he would do so on matters so easily disproved.
As John Adams reminds us,
Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence. Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials,’ December 1770
Stubborn facts got in the way of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar when he “modified” a report issued by experts who advised the president on how to deal with offshore drilling safely. After they signed the report, two paragraphs were added which misrepresented their views.
According to Salazar’s report to Obama, the experts “peer reviewed” his recommendations, which included a six-month moratorium on permits for new wells being drilled using floating rigs and an immediate halt to drilling operations.
According to 8 of the 15 experts, Salazar made it appear that they supported a six-month drilling moratorium – which they actually opposed. In fact, they said that the ban will not measurably reduce risk further and it will have a lasting impact on the nation’s economy which may be greater than that of the oil spill.
In an attachment to their June 8 letter of protest regarding the altered report, the eight experts further said,
We encourage the Secretary of the Interior to overcome emotion with logic and to define what he means by a ‘blanket moratorium’ in such a way as to be consistent with the body of the report and the interests of the nation.
Salazar apologized and took responsibility for failing to distinguish between the experts’ views and his own. It is loyal of Salazar to fall on his sword, but he obviously shaped the report to accord with the boss’s views. Besides, messengers bearing bad news have notoriously limited prospects.
The story of the altered report is emblematic of an administration that repeatedly “modifies” the truth for political ends. Such a record is not easily sanitized, even by media efforts to look the other way.
As American citizens, we shouldn’t look the other way either:
The survival of the republic requires that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom. If there be not virtue among us, he wrote, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks–no form of government can render us secure. … If there be sufficient virtue and intelligence in the community, it will be exercised in the selection of these men. So that we do not depend on their virtue, or put confidence in our rulers, but in the people who are to choose them. James Madison, Virginia Ratifying Convention, 1788
Ultimately the responsibility is our own:
The aim of every political Constitution is or ought to be first to obtain for rulers, men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous, whilst they continue to hold their public trust. Alexander Hamilton Federalist 57.
To purposefully mislead and deceive the people, by definition, is a trust betrayed.
Talents for low intrigue and the little arts of popularity may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single state; but it will require other talents and a different kind of merit to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of president of the United States. Alexander Hamilton Federalist 68
The Founders were not sanguine about the fate of the republic should the people fail to distinguish between “talents for low intrigue and the little arts of popularity” and the qualities of character required for the presidency.
The question in our time is whether the people’s lack of discernment is a temporary indisposition or a permanent, and fatal condition.