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Loyal hacks are root of president's problems

President Bush has slipped in one recent poll to a 29 percent approval rating. Frankly, I can't believe that. Those polls can't possibly be accurate. I mean, really, ask yourself: How could there still be 29 percent of the people who approve of this presidency?

Personally, I think the president can reshuffle his Cabinet all he wants, but his poll ratings are not going to substantially recover - ever. Americans are slow to judgment about a president, very slow. And in times of war, in particular, they are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But I think a lot of Americans in recent months have simply lost confidence in this administration's competence and honesty.

What has eaten away most at the support for this administration, I believe, has been the fact that time and time again, it has put politics and ideology ahead of the interests of the United States, and I think a lot of people are just sick of it. I know I sure am.

To me, the most baffling thing about the Bush presidency is this: If you had worked for so long to be president, wouldn't you want to staff your administration with the very best people you could find, especially in national security and especially in the area of intelligence, which has been the source of so much controversy - from 9/11 to Iraq?

Wouldn't that be your instinct? Well, not only did the president put the CIA in the hands of a complete partisan hack named Porter Goss, but he then allowed Goss to appoint as the No. 3 man at the agency - the CIA's chief operating officer - Kyle "Dusty" Foggo, whose previous position was chief of the CIA's logistics office in Germany, which provides its Middle East stations with supplies.

Foggo has spent almost his entire undistinguished CIA career in midlevel administrative jobs. He ingratiated himself with Goss during his days as a congressman by funneling inside dope about the CIA under George Tenet to Goss, Newsweek reported. When Goss was tapped by the president to head the CIA, he plucked Foggo from obscurity to handle day-to-day operations at the agency, where he immediately made his mark by purging the CIA of veteran spies and managers deemed unfriendly to the White House. I feel safer already.

Foggo resigned, along with Goss, after the CIA's chief internal watchdog opened an investigation to determine whether Foggo had helped steer a contract, apparently involving bottled water, to a company run by his old friend Brent Wilkes, a defense contractor who was identified as an unindicted co-conspirator in the case involving the corrupt San Diego congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who is now in prison. Foggo is not an expert on Iran or Iraq or Russia, but rather on Perrier, Poland Spring and Fiji water. That is the guy the Bush team chose as its chief operating officer at the CIA.

Is there no job in this administration that is too important to be handed over to a political hack? No. In his excellent book on the Iraq war, The Assassins' Gate, George Packer tells the story of how some of the State Department's best Iraq experts were barred from going to Iraq immediately after the invasion - when they were needed most - because they didn't pass Dick Cheney's or Don Rumsfeld's ideology tests. And that is the core of the matter: The Bush team believes in loyalty over expertise. When ideology always trumps reality, loyalty always trumps expertise.

Yes, Bush has seen the error of his ways and has sacked the Goss crew, but we just wasted a year and saw a number of experienced CIA people quit the agency in disgust.

It's comical to think of this administration hoping to get a popularity lift from shaking up the president's Cabinet, considering the fact that it has kept its Cabinet secretaries so out of sight - even the good ones, and there are good ones - so the president will always dominate the landscape.

When you centralize power the way Bush did, you alone get stuck with all the responsibility when things go bad. And that is what is happening now. The idea that the president's poll numbers would go up if he replaced his Treasury secretary is ludicrous. Replacing him would be like replacing one ghost with another.

I understand that loyalty is important, but what good is it to have loyal crew members when the ship is sinking? So they can sing your praises on the way down to the ocean floor? I just don't understand how a president whose whole legacy depends on getting national security and intelligence right would have tolerated anything but the very best in those areas. What in the world was he thinking?

© 2006, New York Times News Service