Politics & Policy

The Cabinet Crapshoot

OPM director Katherine Archuleta testifies about data breaches, June 2015. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
Sometimes the nominees who seem most qualified fail most disastrously.

Dr. Ben Carson is probably not the first person who came to Republican minds when they contemplated a good potential secretary of housing and urban development.

He’s a brilliant surgeon with an inspiring life story, and he seems to have a healthy perspective on the “fruit salad of life,” to use his memorable phrase. But he’s never run a government agency, and he wouldn’t boast of being a housing-policy expert.

You may have noticed a lot of Democrats insisting that Carson and most of Trump’s other cabinet nominees are unqualified for the jobs they would hold in the new administration. Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico called Rick Perry “utterly unqualified” to be secretary of energy. Senator Elizabeth Warren sneered that Betsy DeVos has “no experience with college financial aid or management of higher education.” Senator Patrick Leahy said of EPA nominee Scott Pruitt, “It’s rare that I’ve seen a nominee so totally unqualified as this man.” DNC Chair Donna Brazile called attorney-general nominee Jeff Sessions “worse than unqualified.” The Sierra Club dismissed them all as an “extremist and unqualified cabinet.”

But recent history suggests we should all have a little humility when it comes to spotting a nominee who is incapable of adequately handling his duties.

Eric Shinseki, a retired U.S. Army general, certainly seemed qualified to be secretary of Veterans Affairs; in 2009 the Senate confirmed him by voice vote. But on his watch, veterans’ care deteriorated from merely troubling to appalling; a 2014 audit found that 57,436 newly enrolled veterans faced a minimum 90-day wait for medical care; 63,869 veterans who enrolled over the past decade requested an appointment that they never got. Shinseki said he “was too trusting of some, and I accepted as accurate reports that I now know to have been misleading.” He resigned in disgrace.

Most senators thought Kathleen Sebelius, the governor of Kansas, was qualified enough to run the Department of Health and Human Service; she was confirmed 65–31. If not every last problem with Obamacare can be laid at her feet, we can certainly blame her for the decision to have the president of the United States stand in the rose garden and tell Americans to use a nonfunctioning website. The rollout of Obamacare was universally derided as “disastrous,” and Sebelius proved to be in blind denial about some problems:

In one hearing at the end of October, Ms. Sebelius declared that HealthCare.gov “has never crashed.”

“It is functional,” she added, “but at a very slow speed and very low reliability, and has continued to function.”

She made that statement even as large screens in the hearing room showed a live shot of the website with a page that said: “The system is down at the moment. We are experiencing technical difficulties and hope to have them resolved soon.”

Then there’s former Office of Personnel Management director Katherine Archuleta.

Archuleta was national political director for President Obama’s reelection campaign, served as the chief of staff to Secretary of Labor Hilda Solís, and was the City of Denver’s lead planner for the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Like President Obama, she had roots in “community organizing”: She co-founded the Latina Initiative, a Colorado organization aimed at getting more Hispanic voters involved in politics. Very little of her past work was directly tied to the human-resources and record-keeping functions OPM is supposed to serve. And she had no experience in cybersecurity, which would subsequently prove to be a problem.

But when President Obama nominated her to run the office, Senator Mark Udall introduced her and declared, “She has an impressive range of accomplishments that make her completely, totally well-qualified to be director of OPM.” It is worth nothing that no member of the Senate or press raised any significant objection to Archuleta at the time or believed that she lacked the skills to avoid disaster at OPM.

Recent history suggests we should all have a little humility when it comes to spotting a nominee who is incapable of adequately handling his duties.

All Democrats voted in favor of confirmation, along with eight Republicans, a 62-to-35 vote. Most of the Republicans who voted no said their objection was not with Archuleta herself but with the Office of Personnel Management’s deciding that members of Congress were not, in fact, required to enroll in the exchanges under Obamacare — an interpretation most Republicans saw as an unfair exemption that was contrary to the law’s text.

OPM knew as early as 2013 that “sensitive data was not secured” and “security measures were not even tested to make sure they worked.” Worse yet, the agency “was unsure even of how to fix these problems” and hadn’t fixed them as recently as this past April, years after the system had been repeatedly breached.

In March 2014, OPM became aware of a partially successful Chinese hack into its systems. On July 9, 2014, the New York Times reported that “Chinese hackers in March broke into the computer networks of the United States government agency that houses the personal information of all federal employees, according to senior American officials, targeting the files on tens of thousands of employees who have applied for top-secret security clearances.” Officials quoted in the story said the hackers gained access to some of OPM’s databases before federal authorities detected the threat and blocked them.

Archuleta was quick to downplay the breach, declaring in a July 21, 2014 interview with Washington’s ABC affiliate: “We did not have a breach in security. There was no information that was lost. We were confident as we worked through this that we would be able to protect the data.”

They weren’t able to protect the data. The result was “the greatest theft of sensitive personnel data in history,” the stealing of the “keys to the kingdom,” a “Cyber 9/11.” A review found a “culture of poor cyber hygiene” throughout OPM, one that prioritized “convenience and accessibility” over “critical security practices.” It was arguably the biggest, most basic, and most consequential failure of the federal government in years. Yet even as the scale of the crisis became clearer, Archuleta continued to defiantly deflect even basic responsibility for OPM’s failures, telling the Senate that “I don’t believe anyone (at OPM) is personally responsible.”

At least no one in the Senate thought she was “unqualified.”

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