Independence 5/21/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

Friday, the president announced that he will be firing Inspector General Steve Linick, the fourth Inspector General in six weeks. Serving in the State Department, my understanding is that the position is meant to be an independent bipartisan oversight position. The presumptive reason is that he began investigating the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, yet another of so many controversial moves under suspicious circumstances by the president and his staff that it’s difficult to remember them all.

The reality is that while I recall this incident, I don’t remember enough about it to comment, nor am I a constitutional scholar, so I don’t know if the president has the authority for this dismissal or not. However, what I do know something about is the importance of independent oversight. If the president does have the authority to hire or fire positions that are meant to provide oversight of the executive branch, it simply cannot be independent.

The moves by the state department in recent months shows how easily oversight is corrupted when it’s not independent. In his administration, Trump had three acting and three appointed attorney generals, starting with Lorretta Lynch appointed in 2015, Sally Yates (acting), Dana Boente (acting), Jeff sessions appointed in 2017, Matthew Whitaker (acting) and now William Barr (appointed in 2019). Prior to Barr, allegations of Russian Interference of the 2016 presidential election were investigated and had lead to a myriad of arrests of high ranking White House officials. Now, charges against Michael Flynn have been dropped, as well as charges against 13 Russian agents allegedly involved in the interference.

The president has been at the center of this whirlwind of controversy and investigations. All along, I have maintained that the president should welcome these investigations. If he’s innocent, they will exonerate him (no, he has never been exonerated), but whether he is innocent or not he is guilty, his actions call into question his innocence because of his influence. Five attorney generals have followed up on the investigations of Russian interference, even if they’ve not filed charges against the president explicitly (which is not the same as exoneration). Now, his attorney general was under investigation by the Inspector General, and the Inspector General has been dismissed. Under these circumstances, how can anyone trust the person that replaces Linick? If the attorney general, inspector general or any oversight individual can be fired for investigating the president (which is their job), how can they possibly be independent? To avoid any negative findings, all the president has to do is fire the investigators.

This hurts our constitution. Whether it is legal for him to fire these individuals or not, our government is built on the trust of the people in the government, but how can we trust a government to have oversight of itself? Our faith in the government represent the support beams for the entire government structure, and as that faith is eroded, it can only lead to a complete failure of the entire institution.

I’m so fired up about this topic that I haven’t even touched on the topic I wanted to actually blog about, namely, the independence of science.

There are some things that are critically important to maintain believable independence. You would not trust your doctor, for example, if you knew she was working for a pharmaceutical company. Unfortunately, some people believe this is actually true (and it is known that pharmaceutical companies offer incentives for prescriptions) and faith in the medical profession is on the decline. But if you don’t trust your doctor, then you are less likely to seek help when, frankly, you should.

Law enforcement and the judicial system also needs to be beyond reproach. Unfortunately, there has already been a lot of evidence of racial inequity at all levels of law enforcement, and the president loading the upper judicial system with judges that seem to have more loyalty to him than the law of the land is further damaging this institution. When faith in the judicial system fails, so goes faith in the government, and rightly so. After all, our constitution was written based on the assumption of independent checks and balances, and it’s becoming painfully obvious that the independence is gone.

Science is another area where independence is of critical importance. Unfortunately, this, too, is being influenced by politicians who hole the purse strings. As evidence of the danger of hydroxychoroquine mounts, the president (the top of our political system) continues pushing its benefits, claiming he is taking it and that his doctor has given him a prescription for it which may be true. With his power of money, which he yields with job security and funding wars against states and countries that oppose him, the independence of science is very much in question.

So where, I wonder, are the scientific communities? Every branch of science has at least one professional society (the American Chemical Society, the American Institute of Physics and the American Physics Society, the American Medical Association and so forth), but they have been oddly silent throughout this onslaught of a president out of control. Shouldn’t they be speaking up, providing the leading guidance and uniform voice for the various science disciplines? Frankly, I’m disappointed. As individual scientists are trying to speak out against the misinformation coming from the president, it’s not difficult for him to find individual voices that can be purchased to counter the protesters. This is no different from what the tobacco industry did for so many decades every time warnings of cancer arose. Are these professional science organizations afraid? Have they sold out?

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