Trump Orders the Establishment of a National Vetting Center to “Identify Individuals Who Present a Threat”

Posted: 2:56 am ET

 

The Presidential Memorandum is titled “Optimizing the Use of Federal Government Information in Support of the National Vetting Enterprise”. On February 6, Trump ordered the establishment of an interagency National Vetting Center “to identify individuals who present a threat to national security, border security, homeland security, or public safety.”

Border and immigration security are essential to ensuring the safety, security, and prosperity of the United States. The Federal Government must improve the manner in which executive departments and agencies (agencies) coordinate and use intelligence and other information to identify individuals who present a threat to national security, border security, homeland security, or public safety. To achieve this goal, the United States Government must develop an integrated approach to use data held across national security components. I am, therefore, directing the establishment of a National Vetting Center (Center), subject to the oversight and guidance of a National Vetting Governance Board (Board), to coordinate the management and governance of the national vetting enterprise.

The National Vetting Governance Board will have the following composition:

The Board shall consist of six senior executives, one designated by each of the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Director of National Intelligence, and the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The chair of the Board will be rotational:

The chair of the Board shall rotate annually among the individuals designated from the Department of State, the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.  The director of the Center shall serve as an observer at Board meetings.

More:

(a)  The Secretary of Homeland Security, in coordination with the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, and the Director of National Intelligence, shall establish the Center to support the national vetting enterprise.

(i)    The Center shall coordinate agency vetting efforts to identify individuals who present a threat to national security, border security, homeland security, or public safety.  Agencies may conduct any authorized border or immigration vetting activities through or with the Center.  Agencies may support these additional activities, provided that such support is consistent with applicable law and the policies and procedures described in subsections (b) and (d) of this section.

(ii)   The Secretary of Homeland Security shall designate a full‑time senior officer or employee of the Department of Homeland Security to serve as the director of the Center.  The Secretary of State and the Attorney General shall detail or assign senior officials from their respective agencies to serve as deputy directors of the Center.

(iii)  The director shall lead the day-to-day operations of the Center, communicate vetting needs and priorities to other agencies engaged in the national vetting enterprise, and make resourcing recommendations to the Board established pursuant to subsection (e) of this section.

(iv)   Agencies shall provide to the Center access to relevant biographic, biometric, and related derogatory information for its use to the extent permitted by and consistent with applicable law and policy, including the responsibility to protect sources and methods.  Agencies and the Center shall, on a consensus basis, determine the most appropriate means or methods to provide access to this information to the Center.

(v)    The Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Director of National Intelligence, and the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency shall, on a continuing basis, work together to ensure, consistent with the authorities and available resources of each official’s respective agency, that the daily operations and functions of the Center, as determined by the Board, are supported, including through the assignment of legal and other appropriate personnel, and the provision of other necessary resources, consistent with applicable law, including the Economy Act (31 U.S.C. 1535).  To the extent permitted by law, details or assignments to the Center should be without reimbursement.

(vi)   The day-to-day operations of the Center shall be executed by appropriate personnel from agencies participating in the national vetting enterprise, to the extent permitted by law, in a manner that adequately facilitates active and timely coordination and collaboration in the execution of the Center’s functions.  Agencies shall participate in the Center and shall provide adequate physical presence to enable the Center to effectively accomplish its mission.  To the extent appropriate, additional agency co-location may be virtual rather than physical.  Each agency shall fund its participation in the Center, consistent with the agency’s mission and applicable law.  There shall be no interagency financing of the Center.

(vii)  The Center shall not commence operations until the President has approved the implementation plan described in subsection (g) of this section.

Deliverable:

Within 180 days of the date of this memorandum, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Director of National Intelligence, and the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, in coordination with the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, shall, through the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism and using the NSPM‑4 process, jointly submit to the President for approval a plan to implement this memorandum.

Read the full memorandum here.

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WH Dobby Devin Nunes Eyes @StateDept For Phase II of His Passion Project

Posted: 3:15 am ET

 

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@StateDept Launches New System of Records to Capture All Emails — Hunting For Leakers, Plus Other Stuff

Posted: 1:55 am ET

 

We just stumbled into a December 12, 2017 announcement on the Federal Register about a “New System of Records” signed by Mary R. Avery, the Senior Agency Official for Privacy in the Office of Global Information Services of the State Department’s Bureau of Administration. The notice says that the “purpose of the Email Archive Management Records system is to capture all emails and attachments that interact with a Department of State email account and to store them in a secure repository that allows for search, retrieval, and view when necessary.”

In accordance with 5 U.S.C. 552a(e)(4) and (11), this system of records takes effect upon publication, with the exception of the routine uses that are subject to a 30-day period during which interested persons may submit comments to the Department.

The individuals covered by this new system? All State Department folks with state.gov emails, including people with interactions to those state.gov accounts, or mentioned in those email accounts:

“Individuals who maintain a Department of State email account that is archived in the system. The system may also include information about individuals who interact with a Department of State email account, as well as individuals who are mentioned in a Department of State email message or attachment.”

“The records in this system include email messages and attachments associated with a Department of State email account, including any information that may be included in such messages or attachments. The system may also include biographic and contact information of individuals who maintain a Department of State email account, including name, address, email address, and phone number.”

The location of this new system is reportedly at the State Department or annexes and post overseas but also that information “may also be stored within a government-certified cloud, implemented, and overseen by the Department’s Messaging Systems Office (MSO.”  

Does anyone know if this new system is managed by a specific contractor or contractors, and if so, which one/s?

Note that the new system does not just capture “record” emails for federal record purposes, but “all” emails.  The hunt for leakers starts here? Although if you read carefully item #f below, it looks like emails will also be shared and screened for potential insider attacks, not just on networks, but for “for terrorist screening, threat-protection and other homeland security purposes.”

And item #h… oh, my … for people with planned or ongoing litigations!  It has always been said that employees should have no expectation of privacy when using government systems; this new system clarifies it for everyone on how the State Department intends to use and share information in its email system.

Information in this new system may be shared with the following:

(a) Other federal agencies, foreign governments, and private entities where relevant and necessary for them to review or consult on documents that implicate their equities;

(b) a contractor of the Department having need for the information in the performance of the contract, but not operating a system of records within the meaning of 5 U.S.C. 552a(m).

(c) appropriate agencies, entities, and persons when (1) the Department of State suspects or has confirmed that there has been a breach of the system of records; (2) the Department of State has determined that as a result of the suspected or confirmed breach there is a risk of harm to individuals, the Department of State (including its information systems, programs, and operations), the Federal Government, or national security; and (3) the disclosure made to such agencies, entities, and persons is reasonably necessary to assist in connection with the Department of State efforts to respond to the suspected or confirmed breach or to prevent, minimize, or remedy such harm.

(d) another Federal agency or Federal entity, when the Department of State determines that information from this system of records is reasonably necessary to assist the recipient agency or entity in (1) responding to a suspected or confirmed breach or (2) preventing, minimizing, or remedying the risk of harm to individuals, the recipient agency or entity (including its information systems, programs, and operations), the Federal Government, or national security, resulting from a suspected or confirmed breach.

(e) an agency, whether federal, state, local or foreign, where a record indicates a violation or potential violation of law, whether civil, criminal or regulatory in nature, and whether arising by general statute or particular program statute, or by regulation, rule or order issued pursuant thereto, so that the recipient agency can fulfill its responsibility to investigate or prosecute such violation or enforce or implement the statute, rule, regulation, or order.

(f) the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC), the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), or other appropriate federal agencies, for the integration and use of such information to protect against terrorism, if that record is about one or more individuals known, or suspected, to be or to have been involved in activities constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to terrorism. Such information may be further disseminated by recipient agencies to Federal, State, local, territorial, tribal, and foreign government authorities, and to support private sector processes as contemplated in Homeland Security Presidential Directive/HSPD-6 and other relevant laws and directives, for terrorist screening, threat-protection and other homeland security purposes.

(g) a congressional office from the record of an individual in response to an inquiry from the Congressional office made at the request of that individual.

(h) a court, adjudicative body, or administrative body before which the Department is authorized to appear when (a) the Department; (b) any employee of the Department in his or her official capacity; (c) any employee of the Department in his or her individual capacity where the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) or the Department has agreed to represent the employee; or (d) the Government of the United States, when the Department determines that litigation is likely to affect the Department, is a party to litigation or has an interest in such litigation, and the use of such records by the Department is deemed to be relevant and necessary to the litigation or administrative proceeding.

(i) the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) for its use in providing legal advice to the Department or in representing the Department in a proceeding before a court, adjudicative body, or other administrative body before which the Department is authorized to appear, where the Department deems DOJ’s use of such information relevant and necessary to the litigation, and such proceeding names as a party or interests:

(a) The Department or any component of it;

(b) Any employee of the Department in his or her official capacity;

(c) Any employee of the Department in his or her individual capacity where DOJ has agreed to represent the employee; or

(d) The Government of the United States, where the Department determines that litigation is likely to affect the Department or any of its components.

(j) the National Archives and Records Administration and the General Services Administration: For records management inspections, surveys and studies; following transfer to a Federal records center for storage; and to determine whether such records have sufficient historical or other value to warrant accessioning into the National Archives of the United States.

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@USAID Suspends Involvement in Tillerson’s Redesign Passion Project

Posted: 12:58 am ET

 

AND NOW THIS —

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USAID Anticipates @StateDept Hiring Freeze Will Last At Least Through End of FY2018

Posted: 1:52 am ET

 

Secretary Tillerson is scheduled to hold a Town Hall at the State Department on Tuesday, December 12, 2017, at 10:00 a.m. EST in the Dean Acheson Auditorium. According to the notice that went out, the Secretary “will provide an overview of the past year and will discuss how the Redesign will better enable you to do our job going forward.”  Questions are pre-screened. Employees interested in asking the Secretary a question, are asked to submit them by noon EST on Monday, December 11, 2017.

Employees are instructed to plan on arriving between 9:15 a.m.- 9:45 a.m. as seating in the Dean Acheson Auditorium is limited and available on a first-come, first-served basis. There will be overflow seating in the Loy Henderson Conference Room. For those unable to attend, the event will be carried live on BNET.

Meanwhile, we’ve learned that USAID had informed Congress that the State Department hiring freeze “remains in effect” and anticipates that “it will last at least until the end of Fiscal Year (FY) 2018” (end of fiscal year 2018 is September 30, 2018).

We have reported previously that USAID also told Congress that it is considering whether to seek waivers from the Secretary of State to fill additional positions “aligned with future workforce needs that are in line with the Redesign and the Administration’s policies.”  As of late November, it has yet to make a determination whether these USAID FSO positions “could qualify for an exception based on the national security criteria.” (see USAID Reinstates Pre-Employment Status of FSO Candidates After Congressional Interest).

The agency told Congress that it is authorized to employ “up to 1,850” Foreign Service officers. In 2017, it hired five (5) Payne Fellows as FSOs under the Congressionally-mandated fellowship, and filled eighteen (18) Foreign Service Limited (FSL) positions. FSL positions are non-career appointments hired for specific appointments. These are time limited and are reportedly not subject to the hiring freeze. Incumbent to these position do not receive credit toward any FS requirement if they are FSO candidates.

For context, in 2016, the USAID workforce composition is as follows:

[T]he Agency’s mission was supported by 3,893 U.S. direct hire employees, of which 1,896 are Foreign Service Officers and 253 are Foreign Service Limited, and 1,744 are in the Civil Service. Additional support came from 4,600 Foreign Service Nationals, and 1,104 other non-direct hire employees (not counting institutional support contractors). Of these employees, 3,163 are based in Washington, D.C., and 6,434 are deployed overseas. These totals include employees from the Office of Inspector General.*

In 2009, USAID also launched its Development Leadership Initiative (DLI) which created 820 positions over three years. While USAID recently told Congress that none of the DLI positions have been cancelled, we have yet to learn what kind of staff shrinkage is in the future for our country’s development professionals. Maybe Mr. Tillerson’s Town Hall will answer this and a host of other questions tomorrow.

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Related posts:

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USAID Reinstates Pre-Employment Status of FSO Candidates After Congressional Interest

Posted: 8:46 am PT

 

We previously blogged about USAID’s cancellation of all pre-employment offers for USAID Foreign Service officer positions (see USAID Marks 56th Birthday With Job Cancellations For 97 “Valued Applicants”USAID’s Job Cancellations Raise Questions About Its Staffing Future and Operations. We understand that yesterday, several USAID FSO candidates have received the message below that supersedes the job cancellation notification issued in October:

Thank you for your continued interest in the position of Foreign Service Officer at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).  We recognize that you have invested a great deal of time and effort in the application process, and we appreciate your patience.  After further review, USAID is pleased to inform you that the Foreign Service Center in USAID’s Office of Human Capital and Talent Management (HCTM) has reinstated you as an active applicant to the Career Candidate Corps (C3) Program of the USAID Foreign Service.  This letter supersedes the correspondence sent to you on October 24, 2017, regarding your pre-employment status with the C3 Program.
 
Please note that, at the direction of the Secretary of State, USAID continues to implement a hiring freeze.  The Agency is reviewing its Foreign Service Officer workforce needs in line with the Administration’s foreign policy and development objectives under our Redesign, and we cannot predict at this time when the hiring of C3 Foreign Service Officers will resume.  As stated in your pre-employment letter, this reinstatement as an active applicant for the C3 Program in no way constitutes a guarantee of employment with USAID.
 
If you have questions regarding the status of your application, please email the Foreign Service Center at XXX.

 

report from devex in late October said that 97 foreign service applicants who were already in the U.S. Agency for International Development’s pre-employment process received emails informing them that the positions they applied for no longer exist.  We’ve now learned that there were actually 178 Foreign Service candidates in the pre-acceptance stage who received cancellation notices. USAID, however, told Congress that “USAID cancelled the recruitment action, not any of the positions.”

So now USAID is notifying affected individuals that their previously cancelled FSO candidacies are active again but that their reinstatement as an active applicant “in no way constitutes a guarantee of employment with USAID.”

USAID also told Congress it is considering whether to seek waivers from the Secretary of State to fill additional positions “aligned with future workforce needs that are in line with the Redesign and the Administration’s policies.”  Apparently, it has yet to make a determination whether these USAID FSO positions “could qualify for an exception based on the national security criteria.”

A Tillerson aide has touted that the secretary of state has granted 2,300 hiring freeze exemptions. It looks like USAID was granted 25 exemptions from June to November 2017 for Foreign Service, Civil Service and Eligible Family Member posts. That’s in addition to five FSOs hired in FY17 under the Congressionally-mandated Donald M. Payne International Development Graduate Fellowship Program.

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U.S. Passport Identifiers For Registered Sex Offenders Went Into Effect on Oct 31, 2017

Posted: 1:34 pm PT

 

Via State/CA:

The passport identifier provision of International Megan’s Law to Prevent Child Exploitation and Other Sexual Crimes Through Advanced Notification of Traveling Sex Offenders (IML) (Public Law 114-119) went into effect on October 31, 2017.

The IML prohibits the Department of State from issuing a passport to a covered sex offender without a unique identifier, and it allows for the revocation of passports previously issued to these individuals that do not contain the identifier (22 USC 212b).

The identifier is a passport endorsement, currently printed inside the back cover of the passport book, which reads: “The bearer was convicted of a sex offense against a minor, and is a covered sex offender pursuant to 22 United States Code Section 212b(c)(l).”  Since endorsements cannot be printed on passport cards, covered sex offenders cannot be issued passport cards.

Only the DHS/ICE Angel Watch Center (AWC) can certify an individual as a “covered sex offender.” Therefore, any questions by the applicant about such status must be directed to and resolved by AWC.

Applicants who have questions for AWC regarding their status or believe they have been wrongly identified as a covered sex offender as defined in Title 22 United States Code 212b(c)(1) should contact AWC at DHSintermeganslaw@ice.dhs.gov.

*

On February 08, 2016, President Obama signed into law H.R. 515, the “International Megan’s Law to Prevent Child Exploitation and Other Sexual Crimes Through Advanced Notification of Traveling Sex Offenders,” which (1) authorizes the Department of Homeland Security’s Angel Watch Center and the Department of Justice’s National Sex Offender Targeting Center to send and receive notifications to or from foreign countries regarding international travel by registered sex offenders; and (2) requires the Department of State to include unique identifiers on passports issued to registered sex offenders.

According to DHS/ICE, its Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), Operation Angel Watch was initially created in 2007 and is managed by the Child Exploitation Investigations Unit of the ICE Cyber Crimes Center and is a joint effort with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the U.S. Marshals Service. Operation Angel Watch targets individuals who have been previously convicted of sexual crimes against a child and who may pose a potential new threat: traveling overseas for the purpose of sexually abusing or exploiting minors, a crime known as “child sex tourism.”

Through Operation Angel Watch, HSI uses publicly available sex offender registry information and passenger travel data to strategically alert foreign law enforcement partners through its HSI attaché offices of a convicted child predator’s intent to travel to their country. In Fiscal Year 2015, HSI made over 2,100 notifications to more than 90 countries.

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Libyan National Charged in 2012 Attack on U.S. Special Mission and Annex in #Benghazi

Posted: 2:22 am ET
Follow @Diplopundit

 

Media reports say that U.S. special forces have captured a militant who was allegedly involved in the 2012 deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound and CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya.  The suspect has been identified as Mustafa al-Imam. An unnamed official told the AP that the suspect was captured in Misrata, on the north coast of Libya and was taken to a U.S. Navy ship at the Misrata port for transport to the United States.

Per DOJ announcement:

Mustafa al-Imam, a Libyan national approximately 46 years old, has been charged for his alleged participation in the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. Special Mission and Annex in Benghazi, Libya, which resulted in the deaths of four Americans.

“The murder of four Americans in Benghazi on September 11, 2012 was a barbaric crime that shocked the American people. We will never forget those we lost – Tyrone Woods, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty and Ambassador Christopher Stevens – four brave Americans who gave their lives in service to our nation,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions.  “We owe it to them and their families to bring their murderers to justice. Today the Department of Justice announces a major step forward in our ongoing investigation as Mustafa al-Imam is now in custody and will face justice in federal court for his role in the attack.  I am grateful to the FBI, our partners in the intelligence community and the Department of Defense who made this apprehension possible.  The United States will continue to investigate and identify all those who were involved in the attack – and we will hold them accountable for their crimes.”

“The apprehension of Mustafa al-Imam demonstrates our unwavering commitment to holding accountable all of those responsible for the murders of four brave Americans in a terrorist attack in Benghazi,” said U.S. Attorney Jessie K. Liu for the District of Columbia.  “Together with our law enforcement partners, we will do all that we can to pursue justice against those who commit terrorist acts against the United States, no matter how far we must go and how long it takes.”

Mustafa al-Imam is charged in a recently unsealed three-count criminal complaint.  The complaint, which was filed under seal on May 19, 2015, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, charges al-Imam with:

  • Killing a person in the course of an attack on a federal facility involving the use of a firearm and dangerous weapon and attempting and conspiring to do the same.
  • Providing, attempting and conspiring to provide material support to terrorists resulting in death.
  • Discharging, brandishing, using, carrying and possession of a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence.Al-Imam is in U.S. custody, and upon his arrival to the U.S. he will be presented before a federal judge in Washington, D.C.

Read the full announcement here.

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U.S.Embassy Bamako: Army Green Beret Logan J. Melgar’s Death in Mali Under Investigation as Homicide

Posted: 12:33 am ET
Follow @Diplopundit

 

Media reports say that Army Staff Sgt. Logan J. Melgar was found dead in his room in embassy housing in Bamako, Mali on June 4, 2017 and that two members of the Navy’s elite SEAL Team Six are reportedly under investigation in his death. One official told ABC News that the death is being investigated by the Navy’s Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) as a homicide and that investigators are looking into Melgar’s suspected asphyxiation.

Sgt. Melgar died in Bamako far from battlefield, in an “odd event” that  requires an investigation. But the death occurred in June and even if there is an ongoing investigation, why is the public hearing about this death almost five months after the incident?  The death also reportedly occurred in an embassy housing. Since NCIS (and not Diplomatic Security) is investigating, we suspect but that these DOD members are not/not under Chief of Mission Authority (pdf) while at post but under AFRICOM.

To the inevitable next question as to what our troops are doing in Mali,  we understand that France is in the lead to counter Al Qaida/ISIS affiliates and the US military works in support of French operations in that country. It is also our understanding that there are six western hostages being held in Mali including one US citizen.

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Why bureaucrats matter in the fight to preserve the rule of law

By Melissa Lane
Ms. Lane is the Class of 1943 professor of politics and director of the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. She is the author of a number of books, including Eco-Republic (2011/2012) and The Birth of Politics (2015), and has appeared often on the ‘In Our Time’ radio broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Via Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivatives

Socrates, while serving on the Athenian Council, sought to prevent it from making an illegal decision. Martin Luther, when a council convened by the Emperor Charles V in 1521 told him to recant, is said to have declared: ‘Here I stand; I can do no other.’ The United States’ attorney general Elliot Richardson and the deputy attorney general William D Ruckelshaus both chose to resign in 1973 rather than obey President Richard Nixon’s order to fire the special prosecutor investigating Watergate. More recently, the acting attorney general Sally Yates was fired after she announced that the US Department of Justice would not cooperate in enforcing President Donald Trump’s executive order against Muslim immigrants. They all said no. Each of them, for reasons of principle, opposed an order from a higher authority (or sought to prevent its issuance). They are exceptional figures, in extraordinary circumstances. Yet most of the time, the rule of law is more mundane: it depends on officials carrying out their ordinary duties within the purposes of the offices they hold, and on citizens obeying them. That is to say, the rule of law relies upon obedience by bureaucrats, and obedience of bureaucrats – but crucially, within the established norms of the state.

The ancient Greeks made no sharp distinction between political rulers and bureaucratic officials. They considered anyone in a position of constitutional authority as the holder of an office. The ancient Greek world did not have a modern bureaucracy but they did confront the question of respect for norms of office and of obedience to office-holders. Plato addresses these questions, in both the Republic and the Laws, in relation to the danger of usurpation of democracy by a budding tyrant.

Of course, Plato was no democrat. But he did recognise the value of liberty – most explicitly in the Laws, where he posited liberty, wisdom and friendship as the three values that ought to guide the work of government. Plato wanted to balance liberty with what we would call the rule of law. For him, that included not only obedience to the law, but also obedience to the officials who have to carry it out. In the Republic’s portrait of democracy (in some ways a caricature, to be sure), he warns against drinking liberty unmixed with obedience, likening it to wine unmixed with water – a serious social solecism for the ancient Greeks. Doing so, he thinks, can lead to a deterioration of the norms of political office. Too much liberty might lead to the point that a city ‘insults those who obey the rulers as willing slaves and good-for-nothings, and praises and honours, both in public and in private, rulers who behave like subjects and subjects who behave like rulers’ (translation by G.M.A. Grube revised by C.D.C. Reeve, in John M. Cooper (ed.) Plato. Complete Works (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997)).

To insult ‘those who obey the rulers’ by calling them ‘willing slaves’ is to reject the value of a norm of obedience to state office-holders. No constitution – no organisation of power into authority – can long subsist if the authority of its officials routinely merits defiance. The resister might be heroic and her actions could sometimes be necessary, but she must be an exceptional rather than an everyday case. Officials who defy illegitimate orders must logically always be the exceptions to a general rule of obeying orders, lest the very meaning of their defiance evaporate. Any conception of liberty, or any practice of government, that rejects the need for obedience to the norms of office, will destroy itself. So Plato reaffirms in the Laws that ‘complete freedom (eleutheria) from all rulers (archōn) is infinitely worse than submitting to a moderate degree of control’.

The statebuilding efforts of medieval and early modern Europe are great and complex endeavours, with their own rich histories. In relation to the rule of law and role of the bureaucrats, we can think of their papal chanceries, state treasuries and imperial ministries as a kind of foundation on which modern reformers and rulers and revolutionaries alike would build liberalism and the rule of law. These bureaucracies constituted the tools of power for rulers. In providing the impartial officials, rule of law procedures and institutional forms of equality, bureaucracy constituted the mechanisms to vouchsafe people’s rights. Liberal reformers used these very mechanisms to try to extend wider rights and liberties to more and more groups.

Max Weber, the influential early 20th-century German sociologist, feared that bureaucracy would be part of the over-rationalisation that he described as a looming ‘iron cage’. He feared it would grow too powerful, choking off meaning, value and political responsibility in its means-ends instrumental rationality. If Weber had lived a few years longer (he died at only 56, in 1920) and had been asked to speak about the crisis of liberalism in the young Weimar Republic, I think he would have expressed the concern (already present in his last writings) that no sufficiently charismatic and powerful politicians would emerge who would be able to bring the bureaucracy to heel. He saw bureaucracy as a major threat to modern life. The fear that the bureaucracy itself was vulnerable to tyrannical usurpation would not likely have crossed his mind.

Today, the US faces the threat of what we can think of as the political iron cage breaking down – possibly from executive leadership ignorant or contemptuous of the purposes of the organisation. Though obviously it has accelerated, the threat is not entirely new with the Trump administration. When president in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan pioneered the nomination of cabinet secretaries committed to abolishing or drastically curtailing the very agencies they were named to head. President George W Bush named agency administrators such as Michael D Brown, who lacked knowledge of his area of responsibility, as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Brown’s eventual resignation in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina betokened not heroic defiance but a reaction to the storm of criticism for his lackadaisical response to the crisis. These public officials were not committed to the basic purposes and processes of the bureaucracies they were appointed to lead or serve.

To be sure, we must not be blind to the ways in which the machinery of state will remain a major resource for parties and politicians who seek to control and to advance their own ends. My point is that, while aspects of this machinery might remain intact, challenges to evidence-based reasoning, fair procedure and impartial officialdom – to the whole apparatus of bureaucratic office and the rule of law – threaten to corrode it. Whether in the long run the machinery itself can withstand this corrosion is an open question.

There is an irony here. Weber’s fear was that the iron cage of rationalising modernity, including bureaucracy, would stifle liberty, meaning and ultimate value, squeezing out responsible, charismatic politicians. Yet today, faced with the menace of charismatic, reckless politicians, what Weber feared as an iron cage appears to us to be the building block of some of history’s most hard-won rights. Plato looks more prescient: long ago he warned of both the charismatic but irresponsible politicians, and the insouciant, irresponsible officials who serve them, who risk eroding the norms of office on which the values of the rule of law and liberty rest.Aeon counter – do not remove

Melissa Lane

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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