The Bush administration - Sinister motives, or just ‘veracity-challenged’?

  • JON MARGOLIS

  • J. Steven Griles

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One problem with environmentalists is that they tend to be reformers. They revere Good Government as much as clean air and wild land.

This is a mistake, and not only because clean air and wild land can be protected by making deals — often behind those “closed doors” reformers hate — but also because the reformist outlook encourages the zeal that assumes sinister motives behind opposing policies. This in turn encourages the impulse to criminalize partisan antagonism, an impulse that wreaked such havoc in the 1990s. Remember Whitewater?

So, we anti-reformers who favor Bad Government (log-rolling, deal-making, secret covenants) were dubious early in June, when three environmental groups and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) charged that Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles was “really working for the oil, gas and mining industries,” and called on the attorney general to appoint a special counsel to conduct a criminal investigation.

A special counsel? Have these folks forgotten the horrors of Ken Starr and Lawrence Walsh before him? True, the special counsel would not have as much power to run amok as did the late, unlamented, independent counsels. Still, it would be another effort to move politics into the docket. Let’s face it. What really galls these Greenies and Goody Two-Shoes is Griles’s ideology. Even Melanie Sloan, the CREW lawyer, acknowledges that even the most scrupulous official in this administration “possibly would make every decision the same way” as Griles. As second-in-command to Secretary Gale Norton, Griles’s determinations in favor of the mining and utility industries might be helping his friends and perhaps even securing his long-term prosperity. But they are surely in harmony with the policies of the Bush administration.

None of the accusers can point to a specific piece of evidence showing that a crime has been committed, much less that Griles committed it. The Sierra Club’s Debbie Sease says there are “some very serious appearances of conflict of interest here.” But a serious appearance is not evidence. And Sease agrees that Attorney General John Ashcroft is hardly likely to appoint a special counsel. In other words, the enviros and CREW are trying to score political points. There will be no criminal investigation. “A frivolous fishing expedition”?

And yet, even the investigation-averse have to concede that Griles’ record is cause for some concern. Closer to the center of the political spectrum, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., has asked the Interior Department’s Inspector General to examine how it enforces the ethics agreement of its top officials. Lieberman cites “troubling questions about whether (Griles) has successfully avoided conflicts of interest, or the appearance of conflicts.”

Griles has signed three different, seemingly contradictory, promises to recuse himself “in official matters dealing with my former employers and clients,” but has continued to associate with his former employers and clients (just socially, he says). Those employers are lobbying firms, and their clients are electric utility and resource extraction companies. When he took the job at Interior, he sold his share of his businesses to his partners for four annual installments of $284,000. So whenever Griles renders any decision benefiting the utility or mining industries, he enhances their ability to pay their lobbyists, who owe him money.

And he does render such decisions — notably in his determination to approve the extraction of coalbed methane gas in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. As a lobbyist, he represented the industry in its efforts to gain access to the federally owned gas under privately owned land. As second in command at Interior, he has fought hard for the project, protesting when the Environmental Protection Agency warned that the drilling might pollute groundwater.

The Interior Department has not produced all the information sought by environmentalists under the Freedom Of Information Act. A lawsuit seeks “a copy of the financial agreement by which Griles claims to have sold his ‘client list’ to his former colleagues.” Unlike the call for a special counsel, this lawsuit could have consequences. Federal judges are not part of the administration, and their instinct is to require full disclosure.

Calling the suit “a frivolous fishing expedition,” Interior Press Secretary Mark Pfeifle says the department has turned over “very detailed information on the contract,” but declines to explain why the contract itself had not been provided.

This is hardly the stuff of which criminal convictions are made, but neither does it paint the picture of a disinterested official.

Leo Strauss and the virtue of lying

The questions raised by the Griles case go beyond the Interior Department, because the ideology-dishonesty nexus of this administration deserves further attention. On taxes and Social Security, clean air and forestry, and perhaps Iraqi chemical weapons, this is a veracity-challenged administration, for which there may be an ideological underpinning. If so, the key figure is not Steven Griles, but Leo Strauss.

Several senior administration officials and their allies in academia and the media are disciples of Strauss, the University of Chicago political scientist who advocated lying. No, he didn’t call it that. Citing the teachings (as he interpreted them) of Plato and the twelfth century Jewish physician-philosopher Maimonides, Strauss held that elites could use “esoteric” language to deceive the masses while communicating covertly among themselves.

Griles (who did not respond to an invitation to comment for this article) is not known to be among the administration’s Straussians, and there is no reason to doubt that he sincerely holds that maximum energy production is wise policy. Furthermore, Strauss did not advocate deception for the purpose of getting rich. For him, the privileged were scholars, not multimillionaires. But that is a distinction easily obscured in an administration whose multimillionaires and scholars agree with Strauss that society should be less democratic, less pragmatic, and less egalitarian.

A real Good Government reformer, that Strauss.

Jon Margolis reports on Washington, D.C., from his home in Vermont.