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The Times
  • Editorial: What in the world is everybody thinking?

  • Human beings are chemical and sometimes impulsive creatures, so their behavior can defy rational explanation. Yet three recent examples of such behavior regarding employees of the federal government have even those of us with the lowest of expectations scratching our heads and asking, "What were they thinking?"

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  • Human beings are chemical and sometimes impulsive creatures, so their behavior can defy rational explanation. Yet three recent examples of such behavior regarding employees of the federal government have even those of us with the lowest of expectations scratching our heads and asking, "What were they thinking?"
    First, Washington, D.C., is atwitter with the scandal involving the General Services Administration (GSA), which is a large agency that few outside the Beltway pay any attention to or have even heard of, for that matter. (It manages federal property and purchases, among other things.)
    Apparently some of its employees were counting on that anonymity when they went to Las Vegas in 2010 for a conference and proceeded to spend more than $820,000 in taxpayer money throwing themselves one giant cocktail party over four days at a luxury resort/spa/casino there, complete with entertainment from a clown and professional clairvoyant, $59,000 for audio-visual services, $6,325 worth of commemorative coins, $8,130 for souvenir books, $1,840 for "vests," $75,000 for a bicycle-building (aka "team-building) exercise, $7,000 for sushi rolls, and shrimp at $4 apiece. Reportedly the GSA administrator in charge of planning the affair, Jeffrey Neely - who amazingly also got a $9,000 bonus after the party - wanted something "over the top," and got it.
    Context is important, of course, and while this free-for-all on the public's dime would have been inadvisable at any time, it was especially so in 2010, with Uncle Sam spending and borrowing money with abandon and the rest of the nation still hung over from the recession of a lifetime. This puts GSA up there with AIG, the insurance giant that in 2008 treated 70 of its employees to a luxury vacation at a California coastal resort, running up a $442,000 bill not even a week after getting an $85 billion bailout from the federal government.
    Apparently, it never occurred to anybody that this might look bad, or that an audit might catch a few ... ahem, irregularities. It has certainly shone a spotlight on the agency, resulting in firings, resignations, congressional hearings, much embarrassment and now talk of a criminal investigation. This may be tip-of-the-iceberg stuff. They have all of that coming.
    Second, giving GSA a run for its money - make that our money - in the bad publicity department were those 11 Secret Service agents who allegedly decided to cavort with prostitutes while in Colombia doing advance work for President Obama's impending visit there. A dozen or so military members also are under investigation regarding what happened. Aside from the alleged misconduct and the humiliation associated with it, investigators also are looking into potential breaches of security, whether any of those alleged acts might have compromised the president's protection in a country known as a dangerous place.
    Normally one thinks of the Secret Service as those guys in crew cuts, suits and mirrored glasses who stand stoic and silent, letting nothing distract them from the mission at hand of protecting the commander in chief and other high-placed U.S. leaders. While those in the headlines here were not part of that immediate security detail, this is an enormous black eye, no question.
    Page 2 of 2 - Finally, now comes word of yet another significant lapse of judgment by American military forces in Afghanistan, with photographs being made public of U.S. soldiers posing with the severed body parts of enemy fighters, reportedly in 2010. This, of course, comes after the video showing soldiers urinating on Taliban corpses, the burning of the Korans, and the massacre of 17 sleeping Afghan civilians, including children, allegedly at the hands of Sgt. Robert Bales.
    No one underestimates the stresses in a war zone. In one of these situations - the burning of Korans - the behavior was more mindless than mean. And U.S. leaders are correct that it does not represent the "professionalism of the vast majority of U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan today" or "the core values of the United States or our military." Nonetheless, those talking points have been repeated enough now that they're getting stale, and all the apologies in the world won't undo the damage with the people whose cooperation we need to prevail, while allowing our enemies to paint a distorted picture of this nation and its citizens. It begs the question: At what point does our continued presence in Afghanistan become counterproductive to what we are trying to achieve? We may be there already. Meanwhile, this may be the age of Facebook, but is there nothing that someone won't share for public consumption?
    It is impossible to run a big organization and know everything that every employee inside it is doing, all the time. It's why it's so critical for those at the top to set a tone and establish a culture in advance so that employees tempted to fall off the balance beam think twice before they do. The above incidents feed into the worst possible narratives and suggest that there are too many who still don't get it, even as they must know, by now, that the whole world is watching.
    Peoria, Ill., Journal Star
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