NYT on DHS Revolving Door: If You Build It, They Will Come. And Go.

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June 17, 2006 8:06 p.m.

The New York Times is still capable of bravery.

Eric Lipton’s piece in today’s paper is evidence of this. In it, he “outs” over 90 former Homeland Security officials who left the Bush administration, mostly to cash in on their experience with lucrative lobbying gigs, cushy seats on corporate boards and other velvety-soft landing spots, in many cases earning multiples of what they made in government.

It’s a good story. And a big one: because homeland security is such a new field, and it’s had so much money dumped on it, Washington got turned upside down for a few years by people trying to make their millions on the phenomenon. And DHS has seen such incredible turnover, a huge chunk of its institutional memory now resides in the plush offices of private consulting firms, tech companies and lobby groups.

That means the men and women who were once charged with protecting you (and you can see how well that’s worked out) are now facilitating the transfer of billions of dollars to private pockets.

I covered DHS for two-plus years, and I watched it happen. Many reporters did. The story’s been practically crying out to be written. But no one (to my knowledge) has had the guts to do it comprehensively until now.Why was writing it such an act of bravery? Because for a beat reporter like Lipton it could be, if not a suicidal act, at least a self-mutilative one. For the scribblers who cover an agency day in and day out, one’s career is won or lost on the quality of one’s rolodex (or one’s Contacts folder, if he’s savvy). Lipton just dumped his on the sidewalk and lit it on fire.

That may be a bit of an overstatement. I’m sure Lipton has good sources inside DHS. And I’m sure he has good sources who have never worked there, but deal with the department from their seats on Capitol Hill, in the Pentagon and elsewhere. But the best, most reliable tips and guidance come straight from the phones of former officials (preferably the recently-departed ones) who once held the positions a beat reporter is assigned to cover.

The reason is simple: they stay in touch with the folks they left behind. Usually, their new career depends on those inside connections. And now that they’re outside government, they’re free to chatter away to reporters, and often do. They use their inside knowledge to settle scores with their old agency nemeses; to play armchair quarterback; and to defend their legacy.

All they ask in return is, don’t shit on them. Don’t shine a light on what they’re up to now. Don’t expose them to the kind of scrutiny they long avoided as public officials. Keep focused on the story, and the story is what’s happening in government.

Except now, of course, it isn’t. It’s about how the private sector is making billions of dollars on dubious homeland security efforts — with the aid of the men and women who were once charged with protecting us. Lipton knew it, and he researched it, and he wrote about it.

In doing so, Lipton broke all those rules. He burned his sources. And good for him. But it’ll hurt: first, he’ll probably get a few indignant voice mails from names mentioned in the story. He’ll get a handful of threats to never talk again, perhaps some sharp insults. If he’s lucky, he’ll get a threatened lawsuit from someone who believes his career has been irreparably harmed. But then, the worst comes: a lot of silence and unreturned phone calls.

To make the pain of that silence more acute, he will know that all those sources who cut him off are now easily locatable by other reporters, thanks to his article and its accompanying PDF list of all 94 identified former officials. If any competing journalists didn’t know where to find a former official, they do now.

Eric Lipton’s a vet — he knew the price of writing a story like this, and he did it anyway. So, my hat’s off. Here’s to Lipton and the New York Times. Good work today, guys.

Update: An earlier, pre-caffeinated version of this post referred to Eric Lipton as “Scott Lipton.” We regret any confusion.

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