House Governmental Affairs and Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa
HH: Congressman Darrell Issa, an old friend, has just joined me in studio. Congressman, welcome back.
DI: Well Hugh, good to be back.
HH: It is good to see you. I have not had you…and I’ve talked to you a lot on the air, but I don’t think I’ve had you in studio since, what, ten years ago.
DI: It’s been a while. I haven’t gotten to see your Ohio plaque.
HH: Well, I’ve got all sorts of Ohio and Hillary posters and everything in there. The Hughnivision…you’ve never been to the double secret, super secret studio before. Congressman, we’ve got a lot of ground to cover, but I want to just open up with, you’ve been the chairman for, what, four months now?
DI: Five months.
HH: Five months.
DI: But it took us a month to organize, because the Democrats couldn’t figure out who to put up against me.
HH: So what do you think? How’s it going?
DI: It’s worse than we thought. As we started doing the real investigations that didn’t go on for the previous two years, and we start seeing things like fast and furious, you’re familiar with, but also just the abuses of power that have gone on, the arrogance of the FDA, and so many other agencies, that just decided they were going to act unilaterally, including move Obamacare long before there was legislation. Those things are taking a long time to push back, and this administration says well, we have a precedent of doing it without oversight. And it’s like yeah, no, that was the two years you had Democrats setting a precedent that should never be set in America.
HH: There is a long list of particular investigation subjects I want to go over with you, but I want to start with just generally your sense that the deficit is out of control, the debt ceiling is coming up, the government is unaccountable. You’ve been around politics for a while. Is there any sense of urgency in Washington, D.C. that ought to match up with the conditions that we have right now?
DI: You know, the sense of urgency should be the same sense that occurred about thirty minutes into the time after the Titanic hit the iceberg. You know, at first, they come to a stop and they start analyzing. Well, we now know we’re sinking. We now know that a collapse is imminent, and that basically, the life rafts need to be out, and we don’t have enough of them. That’s really where America is. It’s too late to back up and have it undone. It’s time to start fixing the hole or we’re sinking, and we’re going to sink to the bottom. That’s exactly the urgency you should have. And it’s not an urgency for the two of us. It’s the urgency for people that’ll come ten, twelve years after us who are going to be counting on social services that won’t be there, counting on jobs that are going to be in other countries, that are not going to be here unless we change and change now.
HH: Talk about a Titanic analogy, one of the things, I think, is rearranging deck charis, has to do with this Consumer Affairs thing. And you’re going around and around with Elizabeth Warren, who is supposed to be taking over the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Has she agreed to testify?
DI: Well, she’s supposed…well, you know, it’s amazing about Professor Warren. She came to one hour with our committee, one of our subcommittees, and promptly got up and said well, we had a deal to only be here an hour. And the independent, if you will, press noted one thing. In that hour, she hadn’t actually answered one question. She had managed to not answer questions, to essentially game the time for five minutes again and again. This is a person who should not be confirmed if put up, that under no circumstances should Republicans or Democrats trust somebody who won’t answer questions when they’re being considered for an appointment. But candidly, the President can do a recess appointment, give her one year to do it, and then she can go. Because she’s been a czar, she’s going to still be a czar as far as I can tell, because Democrats will not be well-served confirming her.
HH: Is she coming back up to the House Governmental Affairs Committee?
DI: We believe that she left without answering all the questions of the committee. Our intention is to have her back, by invitation if possible, by subpoena if necessary.
HH: Do you think this new agency is going to do anything to ameliorate the liquidity crisis, the economic conditions in which we find ourselves right now?
DI: Well, you know, there was TARP, and there was stimulus, there was Dodd-Frank. This will just be one more failed program that will cost us money and create more bureaucracy. This is our problem, is people keep having government failure, the answer be more government. We can’t do that anymore, Hugh. And that’s the lesson that’s beginning to resonate throughout the country, but hasn’t yet really caught up to anybody but our newest freshmen in Washington.
HH: What do you think Elizabeth Warren is afraid of answering, Congressman Issa?
DI: Look, I think she’s afraid that she’ll have to answer questions that will taint her actual appointment. But the other thing is she’s just so extreme in her views that she doesn’t want to answer the views. You know, this is a person who wanted to be called Professor Warren. And we don’t mind calling people by whatever title they want. But at some point, you know, demanding that title misses the whole point of you’re no longer a professor, you’re not teaching one course a semester. You’re about working for the people in government. I don’t think she has it in her DNA to do that.
HH: All right, have any of the czars willingly come and testified to your committee?
DI: It’s…it depends on how you call czars. One of the people that is often called a czar is Earl Devaney, who’s the chairman of the Recovery Board. He’s a confirmed IG, but he’s in this appointed position. He’s come, he’s not only come, but he’s come on the record, off the record. He’s been transparent in where the failures of TARP money, or, sorry, of where stimulus money went. He’s also been very helpful in trying to find ways to find money that we’ve been looking for, for a long time, like the amazing amount of fraud in Medicare. So I always tell people just because you’re a czar doesn’t mean you’re bad. On the other hand, the vast majority of czars hide behind being part of the White House, presidential executive privilege, and they do everything they can to duck. What we’ve started doing, Hugh, though, is we’ve started trying to go to the real sources, you know, in the investigation of fast and furious, the gun runner program in Arizona. We’ve gone straight to Alcohol, Tobacco and Fire agents who saw at the lowest level that the approvals were coming from the highest level, and the damage this program was doing, and we’re finding it much more rewarding than trying to get people out of the Attorney General’s office.
HH: I’ve got fast and furious down for an entire segment, because I think this is going to be an enormous story.
DI: Oh, I’ll wait on that then.
HH: Yeah, so I’m going to come back to that in a segment where we can set it up. But I do have to ask you, Eric Cantor, the leader of the Republicans today, called on Anthony Weiner to quit, said I don’t condone his activity, and I think he should resign. What’s your opinion, Darrell Issa?
DI: Well, first of all, I agree with Eric, who’s my leader, and who’s a classmate of mine and a friend. But I think Eric’s missing one point. Anthony Weiner’s not a Republican. He won’t resign. There’s a different standard between Republicans and Democrats. Yes, if he were Chris Lee, well, actually, Chris Lee did less and resigned immediately. There is a different standard that Speaker Boehner and Leader Cantor hold us to. And we should hold ourselves to it, but if we don’t, in the case of Chris Lee, who didn’t, you’re gone. They’re not doing that on the other side. As a matter of fact, for Speaker Pelosi to say let’s have an investigation, what’s left to investigate? We kind of know, he’s admitted. Now the question is, when he’s making a thirty minute call on your government paid for phone, so he can have whatever he had, does that mean he should continue to serve? Well, he is serving next to Charlie Rangel.
HH: I am wondering, we have about a minute to the break, Darrell Issa. Are you shocked? I mean, the number, the parade of horribles, and there have been Republicans as well as Democrats, is very wearying on people. Are we done with this? Or are there still other creepy, strange things going on up there in tax dodgers like Charlie Rangel, and money in the freezer, and you know, the whole nine yards?
DI: Hugh, we’re never going to be done with it. There will be human failures. Out of 435 members and six delegates and commissioners, we are going to have human failures. The question is, will we hold ourselves to the standards Republicans are being held to, or the no standards the Democrats hold themselves to?
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HH: This, you hear him mention earlier, it’s actually the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, about Fast and Furious. If you do not know this, this is going to be an enormous story. I was stopped by a young Mexican law student in Phoenix yesterday at the Alliance Defense Fund who said Professor Hewitt, what do you think is going to happen in Mexico, and I said we cannot allow a failed state to exist there. But Darrell Issa, this Fast and Furious program run by the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is just stunning. Would you explain to people what it is and what your committee is looking into?
DI: Well, Hugh, this is often called Project Gunrunner, because it was really about knowingly, deliberately letting guns be sold to straw purchasers who were going to supply them to the narco-terrorist groups on both sides of the border, and they did. And even at our discovery, our investigation, which is now, you know, 20 subpoenas, incredible amount of depositions, leading up to the office of the Attorney General, has shown us that this was authorized at the highest level. They regret that it went badly, that two American agents are now dead, and countless Mexicans are dead, and 2,000 weapons, 1,600 of them are still unaccounted for. They regret it, but they’re probably still doing similar programs. And that’s why this is such a big thing. If you think you can let guns walk in order to “lead to the bad guys”, you’re missing the whole point of law enforcement. You don’t let drugs walk, you don’t let the money walk, you don’t let guns walk. You do that, you’re part of the crime.
HH: You know, there’s a tremendous novelist, lives maybe in your district, T. Jefferson Parker, and he has written a number of books, and I’ve interviewed him about the gun trade from north to south. It’s vicious, and it’s violent. But when did this Fast and Furious program start that countenanced, basically, Americans selling guns with the effort to sting someone on the other side? When did it start?
DI: It started with this administration.
HH: It is?
DI: It started with, literally, the political appointees, many of whom had to approve specifics of this, including funding. And understand, there were agents at the ATF who have testified that they believe this was a good program. And there are agents who gave up their careers, basically, by refusing to be involved in it. So it was controversial. But it’s not about the agents in Arizona, or a similar program in Texas. It’s about the approvals all the way back in Washington. This is the Iran Contra decision. The Iran Contra decision was made by people around the President in the White House. This decision was made at least by people in the Office of Attorney General Holder. And they’re hiding behind every delay tactic they can, claiming that we’re going to interfere with an investigation. I’ve got to tell you, Hugh, I don’t want anyone to walk because of our investigation. But if some meth addict doesn’t get a strong sentence for buying guns, that’s probably not the worst damage if this kind of program continues, and we believe it continues to today.
HH: Is there any evidence that Attorney General Holder approved the selling of these guns?
DI: There is evidence all the way up to Lanny Brewer in the office, a very famous name from the past. And he is an immediate assistant of Eric Holder. President Obama, as a good lawyer, used his terms very carefully. He said neither I nor Attorney General Holder authorized this program. There’s a long way between authorized and knew.
HH: Has Attorney General Holder appeared in front of your committee yet?
DI: He has not. As a matter of fact, they have been refusing to even go through depositions voluntarily. We had a deal with them, and candidly, they reneged on it the moment my plane was off the ground. So far, we have had to issue more subpoenas on this than all others combined in all other investigations. This has been the real investigation where you can see the stonewalling, and you can see it for a reason. People got people killed, and they were people who are appointed by this President.
HH: So American agents may have been murdered as a result of this program?
DI: Their guns were found, with those serial numbers, at the scene, and by the way, long time after emails indicate that they knew this program was out of control.
HH: And so in terms of that chain of command, have you subpoenaed the Attorney General yet to come?
DI: We have not. One of the natures of this investigation is we’re going through this step by step, because we want to understand is there a problem at Alcohol, Tobacco and Fire all the way up to Washington? Is there a problem at Justice? The one thing I can tell you today is this was a joint task force operation. So DEA, Justice Department, the U.S. attorney in Arizona, all these elements had to be part of it, which is what should really tell you there’s something wrong at the highest levels, but there may be something wrong in the ability for somebody at a operative level to pull the stop cable. It doesn’t appear as though we had it. And candidly, that’s what concerns me. There should be a culture in a law enforcement that says if something’s really wrong, you don’t just obey the orders.
HH: Now…I’m talking with House Committee Chairman Darrell Issa about the Oversight and Governmental Reform Committee, and the various investigations there. The Department of Justice has been a source of a lot of surprises, Darrell Issa, in the first two and a half years of the Obama administration, including the attempt to try terrorists in New York, including the attempt at closing Gitmo. Eric Holder was not in the Situation Room the night that bin Laden was killed. Were you surprised by that, that there was no DOJ official in the Situation Room?
DI: It’s pretty obvious that this administration did a U-turn and didn’t bother to use their turn signals. Guantanamo is still open, there’s a fine dead and execute order on an American citizen who’s a radical cleric in Yemen. Many of the things that would have been absolutely rioted over under Bush are commonplace under this administration. And it’s the hypocrisy that bothers me. I supported the Bush administration, didn’t always agree with them, but at least they were honest about what they believed and what they were doing. This administration does one thing, takes the Nobel Peace Prize, and then sends a billion dollars worth of missiles raining down on other people’s heads.
HH: But is the DOJ its most radical department? Are the ideologues congregated there to a greater extent than they are elsewhere?
DI: I think to a certain extent they are, although I don’t think they hold a candle to EPA. Very clearly, though, Eric Holder, Lanny Brewer, and these other political appointees, have a strong record of having justice be whatever the President wants.
HH: Now I have a question that is more in perspetive.
DI: …and by the way, not since Nixon has someone been able to say that and had no one argue back.
HH: Yeah, well that’s, it’s, that which is obvious is not arguable. I am concerned as the redistricting maps come forward. For example, Texas passed one yesterday, and Texas has just used the partisan advantage the Republicans have to create a partisan gerrymander, and we know that that’s Constitutional, and that’s what happened, the Republicans got the short end of the stick in Illinois. It just happens. I’m concerned that this Department of Justice, though, will manipulate the Voting Rights Act in order to try and stop, halt, and throw into the courts. Does your committee have jurisdiction over such machinations?
DI: My other committee does, the Judiciary Committee, and we intend on pushing very hard. Plus, House Administration, Dan Lungren’s committee, actually has quite a bit of authority. The Voting Rights Act is an interesting situation, because it’s still evolving. When it was originally intended, we understood it was black segregation. Now, of course, it includes Hispanic and any other minority. But more importantly, back in Texas a few years ago, the court, under Bush, managed to come out with this disjointed theory that if you elected a Republican, even if it was Henry Bonilla, a Hispanic, that it couldn’t be a Hispanic district, because a Hispanic district wouldn’t elect a Republican Hispanic. And that still gnaws at me that they want an outcome, and the outcome is a Democrat if it’s a “Voting Rights” district. And that’s a problem, and this administration, I’m sure, will take an even more strident tack.
HH: So are your committees focused on DOJ and their oversight of this?
DI: We’re focused on DOJ and their misconduct on many, many levels, including the new Black Panther party. There are so many places in which this is an operational wing of the Democratic Party.
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HH: Chairman Issa, I want to turn to a proposal you made earlier this week. Three leading House Republicans unveiled the details of plans to replace every three federal employees that depart with only one new hire. Now back in the day, when I was the deputy director of OPM under Ronald Reagan, we had efforts to put hiring freezes on, and the bureaucracy always defeated us. Can you actually make this stick? Can you actually get the federal government down and skinny them by a reduction of ten percent?
DI: Hugh, I think we can get an agreement to do it. I think we can get legislation to do it. Does that mean that the moment people take their eyes off the prize they won’t undo it? No. The bureaucracy scores itself based on its growth, and based on its budget. It doesn’t, there’s no other way for them to count success but money and head count. And you served, and you know that, that that’s how people describe the department they had and so on. We have to change that. We change it first by shaming the Democrats into being part of that sort of a system, and it’s something we have to do more of in government in some areas than others. The Post Office, for example, that isn’t enough. We can’t wait for people to retire from the Post Office. We’re going to have to force the two 98 year old, I repeat, 98 year old employees who are still on the payroll, to retire.
HH: No, they’re not. Really?
DI: I kid you not. There are 7,000 or so over 70 still on the payroll. And you understand, most of them are effectively disabled, but they’re still on full payroll, because they don’t want to retire to disability pay. There are problems in the federal workforce that the more you get to know about it, the more you say it can’t be so, but it is so. Attrition, a formalized sense of attrition, is the best way to clean this up, even though it’s…in the private sector, it wouldn’t be the best way. In government, it creates a discipline, a discipline in which somebody says hey, I’ve got to find a couple of people to get rid of if I’m going to get the person I need. That’s what we need in government, is for that hiring to be so valuable that you really make the right choice, and you make hard choices on people that need to go, even if it’s just through retirement.
HH: You know, why does it take until 2015, Congressman? Why not, and I got this a lot during the continuing resolution debate, and I agreed with it. Why not pass a 10% mandatory reduction across the board, personnel and budget, or a 5%, or even a 1%, because you know and I know, every agency’s got its corners full of the walking wounded, and the people who are not at all competent to be where they are, and those who have retired in place. What do you think?
DI: You know, one of the challenges, Hugh, and you know it, is in the abstract, you’re absolutely right. We will be ridiculed the moment it starts happening. That’s why I say we can get this thing passed, and then we just have to stick to our guns when somebody’s showing a distinguished doctor that can’t get into NIH because there’s no slots, somebody shows that, well wait a second, this is quasi-related to Defense. You know, one of the problems we have, and I’m a hawk, I’m unapologetic, I’ve represented nearly 50,000 Marines at Camp Pendleton for more than ten years. But we have to have no sacred cows. That includes Department of Defense civilians. There is an incredibly bloated organization, one that continues to make decisions to insource rather than outsource. And I’m not a big outsourcer, but if an outsource can save money and reduce head count, you should be doing it. We don’t have that kind of a concept. One of the things that attrition does is it does force you to say where can we save money by outsourcing, because suddenly, you’re trading less dollars for that ability to slim down the size of the federal workforce. Reagan understood it, few presidents, including President Bush, W. Bush, understood it since.
HH: All right, now on the debt ceiling, since we’re kind of close to financial things here, because this proposal would save $127 billion, the three for one, fire three, get one new one under the Issa plan. What’s your position on the debt ceiling? Where do you think we are? You’re in the leadership. What’s going on?
DI: I’m a strong advocate that the only vote we should ever have on raising the debt ceiling is one that equals the budget vote. If I vote for a budget that spends a certain amount of money, I vote for appropriations that spends that amount of money, then I’m willing to vote for a raising of a debt ceiling that goes with that. Right now, we’re being asked to raise $2.2 trillion. That basically kicks the can on the debt ceiling down until after the 2012 election, meaning the President gets a walk on next year’s budget. He gets a walk on spending. It means that next year, he’ll be saying you’re shutting down the government if you don’t give me a ton more money on the eve of a November election. I don’t want to do that for political reasons. I also don’t want to do it for fiscal reasons. We should be looking and saying the only debt ceiling that we have to authorize is the one that we’ve agreed to spend to. Right now, we’re not agreeing to spend to even $1.5 trillion. We certainly shouldn’t be increasing by $2.2 [trillion]. And the Ryan plan begins moving us in the right direction.
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HH: Congressman, this latest story in which you’re at the center has to do with Google, the hack attack this week, which may have come out of China, and a debate that you’ve been having with Larry Page, CEO of Google, that is very obscure, but I think crucial to our understanding of where information flows are going. What’s the discussion? What do you want Google to come up with?
DI: Hugh, I want Google to come up, and by the way, I’ve also sent similar letters now to Microsoft and Yahoo. I want them to come up with how, why there were Washington members of the White House, who are not supposed to have private correspondence, their correspondence is covered by the Presidential Records Act. They’re supposed to use the system that’s in the White House. They were clearly using Google and other outside systems to communication official business. We’re looking and saying what was compromised because of this wrongful act that now has become very obvious.
HH: So if I understand it, if you’re a member of the White House staff or the federal government, you’re supposed to be using official federal government email communications systems.
DI: Government business done on government computers with government firewalls. That’s the basic thing. If you’re in the military, your official business goes through a .mil. If you’re at the White House, it’s the .gov. And the amazing thing is we’ve been uncovering this and pushing, and holding hearings. We’ve had the people in government, the archivist who is responsible for grabbing all of these presidential records at the end of an administration, saying I have no way to get the Google records, I have no way to get these other mails. That was a problem of capturing the end of this presidency, which I of course would hope to be soon, but…and holding it the way we do all the presidents in the library. But now, it’s about national security. What are they saying that now has been compromised to the Chinese? At least with the White House system, if it was breached, every single item is backed up, they know what they might have gotten. We have no idea what Google lost, or the Hotmail and the Yahoo accounts.
HH: Was it the PRC, in your opinion, that went and grabbed all the accounts?
DI: It was when we got to the bottom of the hacking of the House of Representatives. It has been, more than any other group, the ones that do it, and they do it from inside military bases in China. The Chinese government hacks us in a way that even the Russians, the Soviets, never did. I’ll give you an example. Speaker Pelosi, when she was speaker, she went to China on a goodwill tour. She made all these wonderful statements. She came back, every Blackberry on the trip had been compromised. They actually had to destroy them because they had put, the Chinese had put basically tolls, Trojans inside each of them. And it fortunately was discovered before those communications were sent once to the sender, and once to China.
HH: How confident are you, since you’ve got the oversight function here, that the .mil/.gov domains are in fact as secure as they can be, and can resist the attempts of the bandits to get in, and I mean by that the PRC?
DI: Hugh, we’re not confident. The whole cyber security initiative that I’m involved with, with other members of Congress, and with the administration, shows us that we continue to be vulnerable, and we will always be vulnerable. This is a little bit like the little boy in the story of putting his fingers in the dyke. You just need a lot of fingers, because the dyke is constantly springing leaks. What the problem is, is when you have a system, it’s not perfect, but at least you can track the failures. In this case, outside communication, when it failed, it is unlikely that we’ll ever know how much was discovered by the Chinese that we don’t know, that they should not have from the White House.
HH: How much of this are appointees who simply are lazy or concerned…I’ve been, my law firm has been asking me for years to use my email through my law firm, and of course I don’t, because I’ve got people who I’ve been dealing with since the beginning of AOL. I’m still one of the few people in the world that uses AOL, because I don’t want to go through the problem of changing.
DI: You just don’t use it on a dial up line. Tell me, Hugh.
HH: No, I’m not. No, it’s actually, we’ve got the T-1 here, so that’s good. But in terms of how much of it is, I’m going to keep stuff outside of the archives, and how much of it is I’m lazy and I don’t want to change my email?
DI: It’s almost all I’m going to keep things outside the archives, and I’ll give you an example.
DI: We had a whistleblower who came to the committee, and we live with whistleblowers. That’s really how we get our starting point on almost all investigations. He was sitting behind a prominent lobbyist at a baseball game, at a Nationals game, and he was able to observe the lobbyist texting a message to the White House, to a particular named person in the White House. And he was looking because the guy was old enough he had big font. And in it, he said blah, blah, blah, blah, check your Gmail in an official correspondence. Now the official correspondence to, on the .gov line, didn’t say what it was all about, but we know that lobbyists, when they tell you to check the Gmail, it’s probably something that in fact blends or blurs the difference between government and political fundraising and the like. That’s the kind of thing that we know exists. And we’re not following that one up, because that one might be right on the gray line. But it’s very clear if people bring their iPads into the White House, they use radio frequency communications to bypass those systems, and they do it all day long, including planning political activities. And you know, you were in the Reagan administration. We captured all the paper. And for people who get to go to the Reagan Library up in Simi Valley, what they discover is so much more about the administration, the President. And the scholars are still studying that information, not just the President, but the people around him. We’re going to be denied that. On the positive side, we won’t know that about this administration. On the negative side, we have leaks today that probably compromise safety and security of America because they’re using these non-secure systems.
HH: Darrell Issa, in this district in the southern district of California, central district of California, I had an AUSA friend who prosecuted a Chinese sleeper agent who had been in the United States for 25 years, successfully prosecuted. The PRC has been doing this. Are you concerned that these multinational companies as well, like Google, Yahoo Microsoft, are going to be penetrated from the other side through their executive ranks, into this?
DI: It’s clearly happened, and there’s no question that this kind of commercial/government or military penetrations have been a goal of the Chinese steadily from before the fall of the Soviet Union. They’ve done it. They will get two things from it. One of them is very clear. They are looking for military advantage, the ability to shoot down satellites and so on that they got, the ability to have a silent propeller on their submarines. But you know the other part of it, Hugh, is we’re in an economic war. And although China hasn’t passed us economically, China is getting huge advantages by this sort of spying. And so you have to look at both sides. It definitely happens. People at Google are concerned about it, too.
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HH: Chairman Issa, thanks. First of all, before I ask you about EPA, I just during the break got your committee’s application downloading from the Apple Store onto my iPad. It’s called GovWatch. And what’s it do for people?
DI: What it does is it lets you see the work of the committee, including YouTubes that are selected that give you and idea, both now and historically, of what the committee is doing. And the idea is a lot of people don’t want to have Gmail alerts constantly. And so what this allows you to do is go to it and look at it periodically. If you’re in the car, you’ve got a few minutes, click on it. At that point, it’s going to upload, or it’s going to update, and particularly for YouTube moments, a lot of times you don’t know what you’re looking for. In this case, if you want to see the hearings we’re having, you’re going to be able to do it. You can see Elizabeth Warren being defensive and not answering any questions.