Along with the Team Bush penchant for disciplined pursuit of strategy and message came a proclivity for closed-door, closed-mouth decisions. Leaks were rare and leakers quickly found themselves on the outside looking in. There simply wasn’t a presidency in memory that managed such tight control of the decision-making process.
The secrecy of the administration’s discussions, however, sometimes caused serious problems. Amid the turmoil of the California energy crisis, Bush asked Vice President Cheney to convene a national energy policy development group. It included high-ranking members of the administration, but it met as well with several executives of major energy businesses. Reporters got wind of the group’s conversations with the energy executives and asked the White House to reveal the names of those senior managers.
After the White House refused, environmental groups filed suit. Some members of Congress asked the congressional investigative organization, the General Accounting Office, to investigate. All of them were suspicious of the plan, which urged the expansion of oil exploration and drilling and the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for energy development. They worried that the group had closeted itself in secret, listened mainly to pro-oil officials, ignored pro-conservation groups, and crafted a policy that would spoil the environment.
A federal judge, Gladys Kessler of the U.S. District Court in Washington, ordered the administration to produce some of the group’s documents. She wondered “what in the world” the Energy Department was doing in delaying a response to Freedom of Information Act requests. In her order, Kessler wrote, “The government can offer no legal or practical excuse for its excessive delay.”
When the administration refused the GAO’s request, the dispute eventually developed into a high-stakes lawsuit. For the first time in its history, the GAO filed suit against a federal official. The GAO wanted the court to order Cheney to turn over records about who the group met with, how much it spent, and where the money came from. GAO attorneys pointed to legislation that gave it the right to audit the expenditure of federal funds.
Cheney’s lawyers countered that GAO was acting beyond its authority. “They seek to compel the vice president to give up documents that would show his and his closest advisers’ decision-making,” said the principal deputy solicitor, General Paul Clement. “This is unprecedented. It would allow a revolution in the separation of powers.” The “revolutionary” language was no empty rhetoric. The stakes were huge: for energy policy, for the way the Bush administration did its business, and for the balance of power between Congress and the White House. In December 2002 a federal judge ruled that the GAO did not have standing in court to challenge Cheney, but the battle underlined the struggle that Bush’s strategy would inevitably court.
When Bush proposed the creation of a Department of Homeland Security in June 2002, it was a plan developed in greater secrecy—secret even from members of his team. It was a sweeping proposal: perhaps the greatest single reorganization in American history, bringing together more than 20 federal agencies and almost 170,000 employees, and crossing the jurisdiction of 88 different congressional committees and subcommittees.
Chief of Staff Card had led a small team that worked in secret to develop the plan. Many of the cabinet officials who would lose agencies to the new department found out about the plan only the day before the president’s speech. The speech itself was timed to derail growing congressional demands for stronger federal action. It also distracted attention from Colleen Rowley’s testimony before Congress. She was the agent in the FBI Minneapolis field office who had written a blistering memo to the bureau’s headquarters charging that pre-September 11 warnings about suspicious characters seeking flight training had been ignored.
Just as congressional attention to her memo was picking up steam, Bush’s announcement of the proposal knocked the story out of the newspapers. It was a true masterwork of strategy and timing. After having fought the creation of the new department since the attacks, the administration was losing ground quickly in the debate. The president’s proposal shifted the debate from whether—to how—the new department should be created, helping Bush regain the upper hand. His own team members were shocked to discover that they had lost agencies, budgets, and personnel—the coins of the realm in capital power circles. The quick announcement helped blunt the congressional attack, but it stirred up endless, pained questions from those affected.
Those questions about the “who” and the “how” contributed to the five-month delay in passing the bill. In the end, the Republican victories at the midterm elections helped Team Bush get more of what it wanted from Congress than might have been the case had Congress acted earlier. But the battle spelled out a warning of the debate-in-secret, decide-in-a-flash style that characterized many of the administration’s important decisions. In developing decisions among only a small circle of advisers, the administration not only risks being blindsided by unanticipated issues (see Trap 2 above). It also risks undermining its ability to gel support around the decisions it makes.