The Reckoning

Treasury’s ‘Body Count’ Dodge

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder doesn’t do body counts, either. 

Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Back in the dog days of the Vietnam War, the U.S. military decided it needed a metric to prove the worth of the casualties piling up in pursuit of our nebulous goals there. That number was dubbed “the body count” by American correspondents at the daily briefing in Saigon - the so-called “Five O’Clock Follies.”

We now know these body counts proved about as unreliable as a guide to 1960s wartime reality as the intelligence that would later “prove” Saddam Hussein was building nuclear weapons did in 2002-2003.

“We don’t do body counts” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld snapped in a television interview in 2003, early in the Iraq War, arguing that they would provide a false metric of progress. This was a highly selective absorption of ‘the lessons of Vietnam,” to be sure. But give him credit for at least that much.

Today, however, the Obama administration is channeling Rumsfeld with regard to the financial crisis. In March, Sen. Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican on the House Banking Committee, asked the Justice Department to fill in details of its recent claim that “thousands” of mortgage fraud and securities cases had been brought forward by the department. Grassely wanted to know how many board level and senior financial sector executives had actually be subject to prosecution for activities connected to the Great Recession.

The response Grassley got back this week is worthy of the Five O’Clock Follies: Justice claimed it does not keep track of the titles of those it brings charges against, “consequently, we are unable to generate the [requested] comprehensive list.” How convenient.

Thanks to Wall Street Journal reporter Jean Eaglesham for following up.

In this age of lock-step obstructionism inside his party, Grassley has stood out as a guy willing to consider compromise. (He doesn’t always get there – he flirted with support for Obama’s health reforms before voting against, and he was one of the few Republicans to vote ‘yes’ on Dodd-Frank.

Now I realize some in the Slate audience have collapsed in fits of anaphylaxis at the thought of a Slate blogger praising Rumsfeld, the Wall Street Journal and a Republican senator in the same piece - and at the expense of the Obama Justice Department, no less!

Get over it. Regardless of party or past positions, Grassley’s right on this issue: Justice is invoking the Westmoreland doctrine in its lame unwillingness to take off the gloves on 2008 abuses. More on my take here.