Below is superb piece of reportage by Marisa Taylor of the Washington McClatchy bureau. By a meticulous compilation of facts, Ms. Taylor has painted a detailed portrait of how this homeostatic control system protects normalcy in bureaucratic cultures. The only point I would disagree with is her characterization of this system as being “broken.” To my thinking, the system is working perfectly, and the use of the label whistleblower oils its gears.
Chuck Spinney’s lengthy comment below the line.
Why The Low Pass Filter Is NOT Broken in the Hall of Mirrors that is Versailles on the Potomac
All bureaucracies, but especially those in the Pentagon and the CIA, can be likened to low pass filters in acoustics and electrical/optical engineering. Low pass filters are conventionally thought of as a barrier that attenuates or blocks the passage of waves at higher frequencies while allowing waves at lower frequencies to pass easily through it. Everyone has experienced how a wall separating the ear from music being played on a record player in another room allows lower frequency sound waves to pass through it more easily than high frequency sounds. If one thinks of low frequency rumbling as being an indicator of normalcy in a bureaucracy and high frequency shrieking as being an indicator or warning of some kind of non-normalcy or abnormalcy, then the analogy becomes exact: Bureaucracies love normalcy and they hate abnormalcy, especially when the abnormalcy involves telling embarrassing truths to its employers, the American people.
Bureaucracies are also highly adaptable living cultural systems. Like any living system, bureaucracies maintain their cohesion in the presence of external disturbances with adaptations made through a complex network of subtle homeostatic control loops. These loops naturally evolve antibodies to guard against abnormalcy, much like the human body produces antibodies to reduce a fever. Higher frequencies (shrieking) in this analogy can be likened to fever, so bureaucracies evolve their own equivalent to antibodies to protect the smooth low frequency rumbling of normalcy, and thereby defeat shrieks for change. When old antibodies lose their punch, the bureaucracy naturally evolves powerful new ones.
To wit, consider please these two examples of antibody production, when the Pentagon has been threatened with accountability reforms:
1. Delay and Obfuscation: In 1990, Congress passed and the President signed the Chief Financial Officers Act to require the Executive Department, particularly the Defense Department, to produce auditable books. Such books would provide the information that is necessary for Congress to exercise the Title I duties assigned to it by the Accountability and Appropriations Clauses of the Constitution. The Pentagon responded to this threat by saying something akin to, “Roger, we are pressing on, but we have a few problems. We are working these problems and will begin to produce auditable books in 1996.” Today, after 24 years of delay and obfuscation, the deadline has been pushed back to 2018 or so. More importantly, the accountability issue is politically dead, in part because the Pentagon’s narrative to Congress is something like “I urge patience, we are still pressing on to solve the audit problem, but protecting the warfighter has become our top priority.” How can the Pentagon set rational priorities when it cannot account for what it is doing? That is a question left unasked by Congress which, in fact, is quite content with the money flow that is protecting the status quo of the Military – Industrial – Congressional Complex.
2. Shooting the Messenger: In 1989, the Congress passed and the President signed the Whistleblower Protection Act, a federal law that is supposed to protect government employees from retaliation when they report misconduct in the agency they work for. Misconduct is defined as evidence of (1) violation of the law, rule, or regulation; (2) gross mismanagement; (3) gross waste of funds; (4) abuse of authority; and (5) governmental actions that present a danger to public health or safety. The law set up a complex hierarchy of legal and quasi-legal agency structures to protect ‘authentic’ whistleblowers while dismissing ‘false’ whistleblowers.
But the institutional changes implied by this rational-sounding “protection” scheme opened the door for a normal bureaucratic evolution of new antibodies to quell the fever of abnormalcy. The obvious one has been to evolve a filtering policy that is prejudiced toward adjudicating faults in the whistle blower rather than faults in the bureaucracy running the agency — i.e., assuming the whistleblower is guilty of misconduct until he or she is proven innocent. That is the subject of this blaster.
Introduction to the Taylor Report
Ironically, the evolution of an upside-down protection process is made easier by the name of the act itself: The label “whistleblower” (a term I detest) has a negative connotation in the bureaucratic culture he or she inhabits. The central evolved value in any bureaucratic culture is “don’t make waves,” that you must “go along to get along.” The clear connotation is that a “whistleblower” is making waves by not “going along” with the program. When viewed through the powerful bureaucratic lens of nomalcy, the whistleblower is exhibiting a non-normal, or abnormal, or dare I say shrieking behaviour.
Why not use the label “heretic” in place of whistleblower? Simple. Heretics can be dangerous people of principle, promoting issues of substance, like Galileo or Sir Thomas More, as well as loony apostates. How about “maverick?” The problem with this label is that it implies someone who, like Colonel John Boyd, is an unorthodox independent-minded individualist who stands alone, who may be a little crazy and is a rule breaker, but has a romantic competence that is reminiscent of the loner in the mythical west who ends up always doing the hard right instead of the easy wrong.
The label “whistleblower” is obviously far more useful to a bureaucracy intent on crushing dissent: It (1) reinforces the isolation of the individual, (2) subtly implies an assumption of guilt, and (3) conveys the sense of a diminishing, dilettantish lightness of being. The label itself is an evolved antibody. It has become an integral part of the Pentagon’s and CIA’s hierarchy of low pass filters that end up treating the President, the Secretary of Defense, the Congress, and the American people like mushrooms — or in Pentagonese, “keeping them in the dark while feeding them bullshit.”
Attached is superb piece of reportage by Marisa Taylor of the Washington McClatchy bureau. By a meticulous compilation of facts, Ms. Taylor has painted a detailed portrait of how this homeostatic control system protects normalcy in bureaucratic cultures. The only point I would disagree with is her characterization of this system as being “broken.” To my thinking, the system is working perfectly, and the use of the label whistleblower oils its gears.
One final point: Long-time connoisseurs of government accountability and military reform may sniff the delicate odor of one of its quiet, unsung heroes — Dr. Root Canal — in Ms. Taylor’s slow, methodical, and painful operation. Without detracting from the larger corpus of excellent work by Ms. Taylor, they can rest assured that their olfactory organs are in good order.
ROBERT STEELE: Chuck Spinney, along with Mike Lofgren, is the “top gun” on the criminal dysfunctionality — and total lack of integrity — of the US Government, with a particular focus on the military-industrial-intelligence-congressional complex.