Remember the scorn heaped on former President George W. Bush when, amid the Hurricane Katrina disaster, he told the head of the main federal disaster relief agency that he was doing “a heck of a job”? The reaction seemed fitting not only because Washington’s efforts to help New Orleans were so obviously failing, but because the official, Michael Brown, was so obviously unqualified for the job. Indeed, his appointment seemed like a classic example of rewarding a political crony with a fancy government title at a supposed backwater bureaucracy.
Katherine Archuleta has now quit as Director of the federal Office of Personnel Management. But given the hacking disaster she presided over – only the latest worrisome cyber-attack on his watch – why hasn’t President Obama been treated just as scornfully? The twin cyber breaches OPM has suffered are widely seen as “among the most potentially damaging cyber heists in U.S. government history” because they could pose huge threats to American national security. And although the president never personally lauded or defended Office Director Katherine Archuleta, the White House was until the last minute expressing “confidence that she’s the right person for that job.”
Yet a look at Archuleta’s bio strongly suggests that, at a time of rapidly emerging cyber insecurity, her 2013 appointment to lead OPM was arguably an even more inexcusable example of cronyism than Bush’s choice of Brown.
Two Mays ago, when Mr. Obama chose Archuleta, cyber security was amply recognized as a top policy challenge. In fact, in February, 2013, the president himself issued an Executive Order to “improve critical infrastructure cybersecurity” because “The cyber threat to critical infrastructure continues to grow and represents one of the most serious national security challenges we must confront.”
So who did he place in charge of the nation’s federal personnel records, which include detailed, sensitive information that foreign powers could use as tools for recruiting spies inside official American ranks? Someone with no apparent expertise whatever in any technology issues, much less tech-related security issues. Archuleta started her career as a Colorado school teacher – an honorable profession of course – and came to Washington through having served as a staff chief to a former Denver Democratic mayor who wound up heading two cabinet agencies during the Clinton Administration.
When she returned to Colorado when Republicans recaptured the White House, she went back to work for another Denver mayor as a “Senior Policy Advisor” before coming back to federal service for another chief of staff job – at the Labor Department.
This isn’t to say that Archuleta is a dodo – though she didn’t exactly display sterling judgment by claiming that “There is no information at this time to suggest any misuse or further dissemination of the information that was stolen from OPM’s system.” Like she would be in a position to know? Like the sky isn’t the limit over any significant stretch of time? But more important, there’s no evidence that she boasted any qualifications for protecting some of the nation’s most crucial data.
The OPM disaster could dwarf Katrina in its long-term impact. But since it lacks heart-rending visuals and patently buffoonish moments, it’s easy to see why Washington’s sensation-seeking chattering classes hasn’t zeroed in on Obama’s responsibility. From the standpoint of common sense, though, it’s hard to understand why that’s necessary.