Chief of Stiff

Why Bush aides keep their bosses out of the loop.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Click image to expand.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales

If I were a chief of staff in the Bush administration, I would be worried. Of late, the line between “fall guy” and “stand-up guy” seems to be drawn at the chief of staff’s door. Two chiefs have gone down in the last two weeks. First, Vice President Cheney’s former top man, Scooter Libby, was convicted on four of five counts of perjury, obstruction of justice, and making false statements. Meanwhile, Cheney remains (no matter that the prosecutor in the case said a cloud continues to hang over the vice president). This week, Kyle Sampson resigned as chief of staff to Alberto Gonzales for not disclosing the role of the White House in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. Gonzales still has his job, and the president fully supports him (though the cloud over the attorney general could be picked up by Doppler).

The experiences of Libby and Sampson suggest that when you’re a chief of staff in the Bush administration, part of your job requires taking care of business that you’re expected not to tell your boss about. When things fall apart, you take the fall. And the boss enjoys plausible deniability.

The chief of staff is perfect for constructing this wall. He has enough power in the bureaucracy to get things done, but not so much power or prominence that he can’t be sacrificed.

When it became clear—despite the claims of Gonzales and other top Justice Department officials—that the White House was involved in an orchestrated effort to fire the U.S. attorneys, Sampson resigned. His e-mails proved that he had worked closely with White House officials. His hands-on role included planning for the political outcry that has since come, making suggestions about stonewalling Congress and even writing a  two-faced e-mail to a man he’d just helped push out of a job. “David, I am well thank you,” he wrote former New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias, who had asked if Gonzales would put in a good word for him with prospective employers. “You can list the AG as a reference—not a problem. Good luck!” (One can only imagine what Kyle’s e-mails to David would look like today).

Though Sampson was doing all of this detail work in coordination with the White House, he apparently didn’t tell his boss, Gonzales. This is a curious slip, especially for a guy who seemed concerned that everyone was in the loop. “To execute this plan properly we must all be on the same page,” he wrote White House counsel Harriet Miers, “and be steeled to withstand any political upheaval that might result.” Clearly Sampson’s boss was not on the same page. This suggests two possibilities: Gonzales is such a weightless figure that his chief of staff could plan a potentially radioactive move with the White House without fear that his boss might feel left out of the loop; or the White House wanted Gonzales out of the loop, so he could say he didn’t know what was going on. When everything blew up, that’s what Gonzales said.

Libby, in contrast to Sampson, seems to have reached a point at which he no longer wanted to play the wall. According to his grand jury testimony, he went to Cheney and “offered to tell him everything I knew” about the leaking of Valerie Plame’s identity. Yet Cheney, Libby recalled, “didn’t want to hear.”

Here’s an idea for Democrats in Congress eager to exercise oversight: Subpoena the chiefs of staff of every department. Then ask them what they haven’t told their bosses, or what their bosses haven’t let them say.