By Alan W. Dowd 

Government Girth

The federal government is getting thicker and taller, according to a new study released by Paul Light of the Brookings Institution. Light has found that thanks to Congress and presidents, new layers “of political and career management” are being added to the federal bureaucratic hierarchy. 

In 1961, there were just 451 senior title holders in the federal bureaucracy; today, there are 2,592. There are some understandable explanations for this. Light notes that the expanding role of the federal government, embodied by the emergence of new agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, accounts for some of the growth. It can also be blamed on the use of promotions and titles rather than pay for rewards; “the effort to control the federal bureaucracy through ever-denser networks of political appointees;” and the creation of new Congressionally-mandated positions, like inspector general or chief information officer.  

The consequence of what Light calls government “thickening” is slower decision-making  because information and directives have to pass through additional layers; less effective oversight because supervisors have to peel back so many layers; and bloated support staffs. For example, Light notes, “Having a chief of staff has become a signal of one’s importance in the bureaucratic pecking order.” According to Light’s research, only one department secretary had a chief of staff in 1981. Today, all but one of the 15 department secretaries have chiefs of staff.   

Déjà Vu

The London Telegraph recently reported that Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, head of coalition forces in Iraq, ordered thousands of British troops indirectly under his command to prepare for attacks against Iranian military units that had surged into Iraq in July 2003. The British didn’t exactly follow the general’s orders, however. Instead, they deferred the problem to the foreign ministry, which worked out a solution after a week of telephone diplomacy.   

The incident, which started when Iranian border guards tried to advance their observation posts in the Basra area, calls to mind a similar dispute at the end of the Kosovo air campaign in 1999. At that time, NATO military chief Wesley Clark and NATO peacekeeping commander Michael Jackson came to verbal blows over a Russian unit’s surprise advance into Kosovo. When Clark ordered Jackson to deploy a British helicopter assault team to block the Russians at the Pristina airport, the British general answered with a terse and chilling rejoinder: "I’m not going to start World War III for you." After both men appealed to their national commanders—a practice permitted under NATO’s unwieldy war-fighting conventions—cooler heads in Washington and London concluded that NATO’s unity was more important than Kosovo’s airport. A humiliated Clark was forced to rescind his order. 

In the case of the Basra border, it doesn’t appear that Sanchez ever ordered an attack, just preparations for an attack. The British worried that engaging Iranian forces would have widened the conflict. Of course, one wonders if by dealing in such a gentlemanly manner with Iran, whether the coalition unwittingly opened the door to further Iranian interference in postwar Iraq. It is now widely confirmed that Iranian agents helped Iraqi rebel leader Moqtada al Sadr in late 2003 and 2004. Sometimes a show of force speaks louder than a phone call. 


Washington has put governments throughout Latin America on alert about a possible al-Qaeda effort to gain a toehold in the region, according to the Associated Press. US officials worry that Central America’s restive peoples, drug cartels and weak governments could provide a toxic mix for al Qaeda, making the US homeland an easy target for cross-border attacks. 

They are focusing their search on Adnan el Shukrijumah, who, like Osama bin Laden, is a Saudi ex-patriot. The Honduran government confirmed this summer that Shukrijumah was in their country, and the Panamanian government says the terror-cell leader was tracked moving through Panama prior to the 9/11 attacks.  

Whether or not al Qaeda is able to plant a cell in Central America, the threat is yet another reason why US and Mexican officials need to redouble their efforts to secure the border in a manner that preserves legal immigration and prevents illegal immigration.     

Published monthly in the American Legion Magazine, Under the Radar provides a snapshot of current challenges in international politics, U.S. foreign policy and national security.