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A Vote of Competence 

This is no time for softheaded governing. In this election, Prop. F and Dennis Herrera pass the confidence test; MUD fails completely.

Wednesday, Oct 31 2001
I was wondering: Are the rest of you feeling as confident and well-served as I am, now that Robert Mueller is head of the FBI?

Mueller was, after all, the guy credited by the local press with turning around the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Francisco, and when President Bush named him FBI director earlier this year, Mueller was almost universally described by the national press in fawning terms: Princeton grad; stalwart Marine; hard-working, apolitical straight-arrow; successful prosecutor of complex criminal cases.

But I remember the Robert Mueller who headed the Justice Department criminal division about a decade ago, when it was "investigating" an entity known as the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, almost certainly the most corrupt financial enterprise of all time. BCCI acted as a front for a multibillion-dollar variety of worldwide criminal activities, holding accounts for (as the Washington Post put it) "shady customers ranging from terrorists and spies to drug runners and dictators." Among those terrorists were the legendary Abu Nidal and, according to a number of news reports, Osama bin Laden. Some of bin Laden's wealthiest and best-connected Saudi supporters were, in fact, intimately connected to BCCI and went on, apparently, to keep him in murderous clover through the 1990s.

I remember Mueller, you see, because I remember him being trotted out before a congressional investigating panel in 1991 to claim the Justice Department had been vigorously tracking down BCCI criminals -- when I knew better.

I knew better because widely respected Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, who actually was going after BCCI, and a host of other investigators had publicly accused Justice of stonewalling the investigation into the Bank of Crooks and Criminals. I knew better because I had spoken in private with people in and around the Manhattan DA's Office and the Senate subcommittee on terrorism, narcotics, and international operations, and I knew, when these people spoke privately, that stonewalling was the nicest term they used to describe Justice's butter-soft "investigation" of BCCI.

And as I remembered Mueller back in 1991, I moved on to recall that, right here in San Francisco, he was the guy who couldn't find the sewerlike San Francisco Human Rights Commission, the reeking San Francisco Housing Authority, or the odoriferous Willie Brown doing much of anything wrong at all. And in my reverie, I began to wonder: Is Robert Mueller precisely the right person to lead the FBI in its worldwide investigation of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden?

As I mused on Mueller, I couldn't help going on to wonder ...

- whether Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who suggested that the first in the recent series of inhalation anthrax cases might have begun when the victim "drank water out of a stream," has any qualification for running our country's public health response to bioterrorism beyond an ability, as a Republican governor, to attract votes in ordinarily Democratic Wisconsin;

- if the people who directed the bombing of a clearly marked Red Cross complex in Kabul twice in 10 days, effectively cutting off humanitarian aid to that battered city, had attended the same bomb-targeting school as the officers who had NATO planes bomb the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade;

- which medical officials made the decision to test Capitol Hill bomb-sniffing dogs for anthrax exposure long before off-Hill postal workers were tested, and how those officials graduated high school, much less medical school.

Although the Bush administration has gone to great lengths to convince us we are involved in a war on terrorism, that terminology overemphasizes things military. The country is in a long-term conflict more continuously lethal than the half-century known as the Cold War, yet less all-encompassing and fiery than, say, World War II. Let us call our current situation, for the moment, the Luke War.

If anything, Luke War requires greater sophistication and competence on the part of government than either its cold or hot cousins. To have any hope of dismantling a host of well-concealed and -funded terror networks, military, diplomatic, intelligence, law enforcement, and public health/public safety measures are going to have to be well-planned, well-executed, and well-coordinated, domestically and internationally. Read that last sentence again, and think about the performance of the Bush administration over the past few weeks.

For competence to become the chief attribute by which government operates, government will have to be grabbed by the shoulders and shaken vigorously, because competence hasn't played that role in national life since George Patton led the 1st Armored Division across Europe. Niceties have to be done away with; the press needs to stop treating the government with cotton-candy gloves. All the officials responsible for the failure to quickly test postal workers for anthrax need to be cashiered -- publicly. The targeters who led our planes to bomb, a second time, a Kabul Red Cross warehouse should be demoted, as should the commanders who oversaw those targeters -- and the demotions should be announced by press release. Tommy Thompson must receive an offer of private-sector employment that he cannot refuse; leakers must put out that his resignation was forced.

This may be Luke War, but it can still be lethal to thousands, and we ought not settle for John Ashcroft (the most political and least worthy attorney general since John Mitchell) and Robert Mueller when the country really needs Eliott Ness, or at least Rudy Giuliani.

"Competence" is not a word that can accurately be used in describing the proposal, on next Tuesday's ballot, to create a municipal utility district, or MUD, that would take over the electric power system (and perhaps other utilities) in San Francisco and Brisbane. Competence doesn't apply largely because the MUD is a brainchild of San Francisco Bay Guardian Publisher Bruce Brugmann, who has given himself and his "newspaper" over to an obsessional, 30-plus-year public-power campaign that has -- by sheer repetition, an inability to distinguish wish from fact, and a refusal to conform to the ethical norms of journalism -- given the good idea of public power a bad name.

About The Author

John Mecklin


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