‘Twilight Politics’ in the Shadow of the Blackwater Scandal

IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE TO WATCH the November 14 meeting of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform without feeling some sympathy for the State Department’s Inspector General, Howard “Cookie” Krongard.

A report prepared by the committee staff was the playbill for a Capitol Hill drama that would unfold in three acts, with intermissions for members to leave the Rayburn Building to cast votes on the House floor.

Everything, with the exception of one dramatic moment, was foreshadowed in the forty-two pages released by the majority staff. Subplots included Krongard’s failure to oversee the U.S. Embassy construction project in Baghdad; his refusal to cooperate with a Justice Department investigation of the private security firm Blackwater and its alleged smuggling of arms into Iraq; his failure to pursue fraud and bribery charges against DynCorp, which like Blackwater has contracts in Iraq; his undermining of an investigation of a scheme by the former chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Kenneth Tomlinson, to pay himself twice for work done once; a lack of independence in auditing State Department financial statements; and an abusive management style. Although it wasn’t the central plot line when the hearing began, committee investigators had suggested that Krongard’s motive for overlooking Blackwater’s violation of State Department regulations and Iraqi law had something to do with his brother Alvin “Buzzy” Krongard, who sits on the Blackwater advisory board.

BLACKWATER BOG—The hearing coincided with a New York Times report on Blackwater: the FBI had concluded that Blackwater guards were not justified in gunning down fourteen Iraqi civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square on September 16. The agency also said that the guards had violated deadly-force rules that govern State Department contractors in Iraq. (FBI agents found that there might have been some justification for use of deadly force against three other Iraqis, two of whom died in a car that continued to move after Blackwater guards ordered all traffic to stop.)

The Nisour Square killings were not related to the Blackwater weapons-smuggling investigation that Krongard is alleged to have impeded. But the page-one story in the Times refocused public attention on the company just as Cookie Krongard took his oath and set out to convince a House committee that his restraint in investigating Blackwater had nothing to do with his brother’s ties to the company. And that the other charges in the committee staff report were without merit.

Krongard is a Harvard Law graduate who has spent most of his professional life at law and accounting firms. In 2005, he left a white-shoe firm to take charge of the office that oversees U.S. embassies, State Department contractors such as Blackwater and DynCorp, and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees government-sponsored international broadcasting. Krongard was a “change agent,” said one committee member—an agent who set out to instill private-sector discipline in bureaucrats grown soft after too many years in government service.

Krongard is a corporate alpha male with a CV that includes a mix of academic and athletic successes (honors at Princeton and Harvard, basketball awards, membership in the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame) and professional distinction. He arrived at the State Department, and the Rayburn Building hearing room, with a private-sector swagger and what seemed like unassailable self-confidence—until he returned from the committee’s first recess.

Sitting before the committee chaired by Los Angeles Democrat Henry Waxman, Krongard, with a thick shock of gray hair and wearing a blue suit and red tie, was unbowed by charges leveled against him by thirteen senior members of his State Department staff and several officials from the Justice Department. He was eager to confront claims that his brother served on a Blackwater board, and that because of filial loyalty he had gone in the tank for Blackwater.

THE BOOK ON COOKIE—Henry Waxman has assembled what is perhaps the best investigative staff and legal team in Congress. The information the staff gathered on Krongard was damning.

When Justice Department investigators asked Krongard to help investigate claims that Blackwater had smuggled weapons into Iraq, Krongard “took multiple and unusual steps to impede the investigation.” IG agents, who have broad power to gather evidence, were directed to funnel everything through a Congressional and public-relations official rather than provide information to Justice Department investigators. With no warning to Justice Department attorneys, Krongard publicized the investigation, warning subjects that agents from another federal department were coming after them.

State Department investigators reported that Krongard impeded the investigation of DynCorp, a contractor engaged in security and police training in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Someone on Krongard’s staff alerted Kenneth Tomlinson, the chair of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, that a Congressional committee was investigating claims that he was collecting a salary from two government agencies, the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The leak was damaging because it included information provided by the whistle-blower, who reported what Tomlinson was up to.

Krongard is also alleged to have impeded investigations of fraud and criminal labor trafficking by the Kuwaiti contractor building the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. On one occasion he ordered his staff to “stand down and not assist” investigators from the Department of Justice. He then conducted his own personal inquiry into the human trafficking claims, flying to Baghdad and asking the contractor to send him six employees. “No translators were provided,” according to the committee report. “The interviewers made available spoke some English. No records of interviews were drafted. The only documentation of the investigation consisted of handwritten notes by Mr. Krongard. . . .”

“Nothing came to my attention evidencing any Trafficking in Persons violations or human rights abuses,” Krongard wrote, although his deputy had initiated the investigation because “complaints were coming in over the transom.”

Krongard was also charged with extending State Department audit deadlines to allow time to replace unfavorable opinions with “clean opinions.”

And he was abusive to his staff—in their words, possessed of three management styles: “diplomatic, condescending, and volcanic eruption.” Krongard openly referred to the office he took over in 2005 as “a banana republic.”

OH, BROTHER—If betrayal by subordinates and secret deals to protect a brother are the stuff of Aristotelian tragedy, Cookie Krongard’s story played as committee Kabuki, with Democrats attacking the subject and Republicans defending him in alternating five-minute rounds.

The hearing began as scripted, with the hard, partisan posturing that is pro-forma, regardless of the facts. Waxman, as chairman, read a brief opening statement describing what the committee investigators had turned up on Krongard.

Christopher Shays, the ranking Republican House member from Connecticut, responded with a spirited defense of Krongard and a criticism of committee procedure that required the marquee witness to face hostile committee Democrats while his accusers were only required to submit to questioning by staff members.

Shays decried shallow “drive-by attacks of political targets,” that, he said, distracted the committee from its larger task of promoting the efficient function of the federal government. He accused Waxman of throwing “five charges at [Krongard] at once.” Then he led the witness through a series of benign questions.

North Carolina Republican Patrick McHenry complained about Waxman’s focus on “oversight.” When Republicans were in the majority, McHenry said, the committee “was Government Oversight and Reform.” The Democratic majority changed it to “Oversight and Government Reform.”

“Just a matter of emphasis between the two parties,” he added.

In his opening statement, Waxman had said that Krongard had “concealed this apparent conflict of interest,” regarding impeding an investigation of Blackwater while his brother Buzzy served on a Blackwater board.

As soon as Krongard had the floor, he turned to Waxman. “One thing came up that really does bother me, and that was an allegation concerning my brother. I specifically asked him. I do not believe it is true that he is a member of the advisory board [of the Blackwater Corporation].”

Krongard bristled with anger when Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings referred to Alvin “Buzzy” Krongard’s position on Blackwater’s Worldwide Advisory Board. Cummings read sections of a letter from Blackwater founder and chairman Erik Prince, welcoming Buzzy Krongard onto the board. He also quoted an internal company e-mail discussing Buzzy Krongard’s compensation, and an invitation to a Blackwater advisory board meeting in Williamsburg, Va., on the same day as the committee hearing. (The e-mail also included a recommendation that Blackwater recruit “someone from big business, a successful American businessman with military background if possible and maybe a former politician, someone like Issa from California.” Daryl Issa, from California, was one of the committee Republicans defending Krongard from the dais.)

Krongard denied that Buzzy was on the Blackwater board: “Sir, I dispute that. As far as I know that is not correct,” Krongard told Cummings. “Sir, my brother served honorably as a captain in the United States Marine Corps. He served as executive director of the CIA. He has been involved in a lot of activities that involve national security. So it’s no surprise that someone like Erik Prince would invite him to continue to support security, peace, and freedom. There is nothing in there that suggests that my brother accepted that . . . invitation.”

Buzzy Krongard is a larger-than-life figure even by Washington standards, described by theWashington Post as a cigar-chomping martial arts enthusiast who enjoys recreational workouts with SWAT teams and “once punched a great white shark in the jaw.”

But Cookie Krongard demonstrated that he, too, can take a punch. He was angry and abrasive when Cummings pointed to the correspondence, in an effort to try to steer him back to Buzzy’s involvement with Blackwater. California Democrat Diane Watson told Krongard she had verified that Buzzy Krongard did attend the Blackwater meeting in Williamsburg.

“He may be there to tell them he’s not joining,” Krongard responded.

When Krongard returned to the hearing after a brief midday recess that allowed committee members to vote, he nervously asked Waxman if he could make a statement. He had called his brother during the break and was shocked to discover that he was on the Blackwater advisory board. And that he had attended the meeting in Williamsburg.

“I reached him at home,” Krongard said. “He is not at the hotel, but I learned that he had been at the advisory board meeting yesterday. I had not been aware of that, and I want to state it on the record right now that I hereby recuse myself from any matters having to do with Blackwater.”

Shays appeared stunned and barely able to remain quiet until he had the floor. “I want to say this for the record,” he said. “To have been in contact with your brother and to have your brother tell you he was not involved in Blackwater and then to find out at a hearing that he actually attended and then left, and to find out that he is connected, is a pretty outrageous thing. He has done you a tremendous damage by that. The fact that your brother would say he’s not involved.”

Shays had spent the morning covering Krongard’s back (and was even seen literally rubbing his back during the recess). And Krongard had folded. Yet when Massachusetts Democrat Stephen Lynch began looking at the dates on the e-mails and letters, and pressing Krongard about the date of the first conversation he had with his brother about Blackwater, Krongard found his voice again.

“I am not my brother’s keeper,” he said. By the end of the day, Spencer Ackerman of the Talking Points Memo blog had contacted Buzzy Krongard, who said his brother Cookie had been aware of his position on the Blackwater board.

A CULTURE OF CRONYISM—Let me demonstrate my grasp of the obvious and state that this guy is probably guilty of each of the allegations leveled at him in the majority staff reportand now perjury. As Elijah Cummings said at the conclusion of the hearing, to believe otherwise is to accept Krongard’s word and believe that thirteen State Department officials and several Justice Department officials lied under oath.

Yet Christopher Shays, one of the more intelligent and reasonable members of the Republican House Conference, couldn’t get beyond the party line. After reprimanding Krongard, Shays went back on script:

“We all make mistakes. . .” Shays said, addressing Krongard directly. “I leave this hearing thinking you are an honorable man. You have tried to be upfront with us.”

Krongard’s transgressions didn’t rise to the level of Alberto Gonzalez’s politicizing, then destroying, the credibility of the Department of Justice, then repeatedly lying to Congress, or Michael Brown’s abandoning the people of New Orleans to their own devices after the levees broke.

But this odd hearing in November was a microcosm of our national politics in the twilight of George Bush and Dick Cheney. It brought into high relief the cronyism that puts a Cookie Krongard in charge of a critical government agency, contractors battening on the body politic, the Republican Party’s contempt for government and the belief that what’s needed is brains, balls, and muscle from the private sector to make it function properly, and the Congress’s willingness to push civil servants out onto an ice floe in order to save the reputation of a political appointee.

It also illustrates what political writer Ronald Brownstein characterizes as “an age of hyperpartisanship.” The country is equally divided and governed by a formula George Bush and Karl Rove settled on after the 2000 election. In his new book, The Second Civil War, Brownstein quotes a senior Bush aide explaining the president’s philosophy of government: “This is not designed to be a 55 percent presidency. This is designed to be a presidency that moves as much as possible of what we believe into law while holding 50 plus one of the country and the Congress.”

Christopher Shays’s rejection of the preponderance of evidence, while accepting the evident perjury of a political appointee, is a grim indicator of a politics more malignant than Brownstein describes in his terrific but largely pessimistic new book.

Congress has adjourned for Thanksgiving, deadlocked on the appropriations bills that fund the government and with a skeleton crew posted in the Senate, which majority leader Harry Reid has kept in session to ensure that the president makes no recess appointments.

It will be a long December—and a longer ten years while this system sorts itself out.

In the interim, Henry Waxman has subpoenaed the brothers Krongard to appear before his committee.