DC Politics and the Myth of Scheming

The Chinese are hacking Washington institutions to unearth the secret plan under which the town operates.


Ezra Klein points to a WaPo report on the ubiquity of Chinese hacking of Washington institutions. In particular, he draws attention to this:

[J]ournalists, lawyers and human rights workers often have access to political actors whose communications could offer insight to Chinese intelligence services eager to understand how Washington works. Hackers often are searching for the unseen forces that might explain how the administration approaches an issue, experts say, with many Chinese officials presuming that reports by think tanks or news organizations are secretly the work of government officials — much as they would be in Beijing.

“They’re trying to make connections between prominent people who work at think tanks, prominent donors that they’ve heard of and how the government makes decisions,” said Dan Blumenthal, director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, which also has been hacked. “It’s a sophisticated intelligence-gathering effort at trying to make human-network linkages of people in power, whether they be in Congress or the executive branch.”

Klein finds this quite amusing:

What the Chinese hackers are looking for is the great myth of Washington, what I call the myth of scheming. You see it all over. If you’ve been watching the series “House of Cards” on Netflix, it’s all about the myth of scheming. Things happen because the Rep. Frank Underwood has planned for them to happen. And when they don’t happen, it’s because someone has counterplanned against him.

This is the most pervasive of of all Washington legends: that politicians in Washington are ceaselessly, ruthlessly, effectively scheming. That everything that happens fits into somebody’s plan. It doesn’t. Maybe it started out with a scheme, but soon enough everyone is, at best, reacting, and at worst, failing to react, and always, always they’re doing it with less information than they need.

That’s been a key lesson I’ve learned working as a reporter and political observer in Washington: No one can carry out complicated plans. All parties and groups are fractious and bumbling. But everyone always thinks everyone else is efficiently and ruthlessly implementing long-term schemes.

Democrats fear Grover Norquist’s Monday meetings, the message discipline across Fox News and talk radio, and Focus on the Family. Republicans believe the press corps is out to get them and Hollywood has dedicated itself to providing crucial air support. People are very good at recognizing disarray and incompetence on their side of the aisle, but they tend to think the other side is intimidatingly capable and unified and unburdened by scruples or normal human vulnerabilities.

But they’re not. This city may be rife with plans, but no plan survives first contact with Congress. Nothing will disabuse you of the myth of scheming faster than listening to key congressional staffers speculate on the future of a bill. Communication between various political actors — a crucial ingredient in any serious plan — is surprisingly informal and inadequate. Members of Congress and their staffs don’t really have access to secret, efficient networks of information. Instead, they read Roll Call and the Hill and The Washington Post and keep their televisions tuned to cable news, turning up the volume when a colleague involved in a bill they’re interested in appears on the screen. Then everyone sits around and parses what they just heard with all the intensity of a 13-year-old boy analyzing a hallway conversation with a crush.

I’m reminded of the old quote, attributed to various Soviet generals, “One of the serious problems in planning the fight against American doctrine, is that the Americans do not read their manuals, nor do they feel any obligation to follow their doctrine.” The American military, at least, has a chain of command and professional education system designed to inculcate and enforce adherence to a central plan. The American political system is quite literally designed so that nobody is in charge.

FILED UNDER: Intelligence, National Security, US Politics, , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DWB says:

    This happens in companies too. Years ago we hired a guy from one of our competitors. I was having a hallway conversation with him after he’d been with us for a while and the subject of his former employer came up. He said that inside the competitor they viewed us this super machine that was unstoppable. We always had the right product at the right time and were able to win projects that they couldn’t even begin to crack. That was why he came to work for us. He wanted to work somewhere that functioned properly.

    After a year with us he said that realized that we were just as screwed up as his former employer and that he had no idea how we got anything done at all let alone done well. I had no answer for him as I had no idea why we were even still in business let alone doing well. Twenty years later I still work at the same place and I still have no idea why we continue to do so well.

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    but they tend to think the other side is intimidatingly capable and unified and unburdened by scruples

    Wait a minute… Is he trying to say there are DC players with scruples??? That just doesn’t jibe with what I know.

  3. gVOR08 says:

    @DWB: That’s the beauty of the free enterprise system. You don’t really need to be very good at what you do; just not a lot worse than your competitors.

  4. Scot says:

    If Klien is arguing there is no conection between the networks of powerful people and money in washington and what the government decides to do. I think he is nuts.

  5. JKB says:

    Just last Wednesday’s episode of ‘The Amerikans” had a similar theme. It was based around Reagan getting shot. The KGB spies are concerned there has been a coup because that moron Al Haig was running about yelling he was in control. I’d never considered that. I remember when it happened. I was in college. No one seemed concerned the moron Secretary of State had staged a coup. Only that he was constitutionally illiterate. Of course, in the ensuing years, we’ve learned most of those in DC are constitutionally illiterate, at least willfully when it serves their purpose.

    But the dichotomy was interesting. As one of the characters points out, the USSR would lie to their people about a leaders death for weeks so they couldn’t really comprehend that Haig’s statement was pretty much met with bewilderment by US citizens mostly over how such a moron could be in such a position.

  6. James Joyner says:

    @JKB: I’ve always taken a more benign view of Haig’s remarks. I’m pretty sure he understood that the Vice President, not the Secretary of State, was next in the line of succession. He was an Army officer doing what he’d been trained to do since his days as a cadet: Take charge when he’s the senior guy in the room.

  7. JKB says:

    @James Joyner:

    The show’s demonstration of the Soviet worry is interesting, although I assume the KGB had a better understanding than that presented in the show. But perhaps not?

    I remember at the time wondering just what they used to select general officers given the way the statement was reported. But it was still a poor assertion given a Secretary of State is suppose to be cognizant of how statements and actions in the US might impact our friends and enemies in the global community. But, oh, if only he was the most recent Secretary of State to let their mouth create more harm than good. Sadly, he’s not.

    In the end, Haig undid the accolades he had earned up till then by one poor assertion in the heat of the moment. BTW, was that the moment that got Rumsfeld and Cheney the go ahead to create their shadow government?

  8. matt bernius says:

    A productive link can be drawn between Klein’s discussion of “imagined networks” and Kevin Drum’s recent article, which Dr Taylor wrote about here, on why Benghazi still captivates Right Wing Media.

    It’s easy to see how the ideas of these powerful networks (real or imagined) are themselves a powerful tool for gaining and maintaining a loyal audience. Drum points out that the very notion of the idea of a “Liberal Press” dedicated to suppressing things your believe are scandals (or the reverse, vast right wing conspiracies working to tear down a democrat), themselves motivate networks of true believers to watch your program or send your cause money.

  9. Brett says:

    @James Joyner

    I’m reminded of the old quote, various attributed to various Soviet generals, “One of the serious problems in planning the fight against American doctrine, is that the Americans do not read their manuals, nor do they feel any obligation to follow their doctrine.”

    Too true. How many do you think have actually read the National Security Strategy of the United States? I haven’t, at least not the recent one.

  10. grumpy realist says:

    This reminds me of the time I was working as a post-doc for Japan’s Space Development Agency. It was the year that in the House bill, the amount of money allocated for the International Space Station had effectively been zeroed out in a fight with HUD and the VA. The Japanese were going into a tizzy and freaking out. I had to explain to them that this was just one of the normal bits of horsetrading and don’t worry, it would be put back in the next round (especially since the Senate version had the entire amount necessary budgeted.)