The Most Dangerous Desk Jobs In Washington

Elizabeth Birnbaum, formerly the director of the Minerals Management Service. i

Elizabeth Birnbaum, formerly the director of the Minerals Management Service, appeared May 18 on Capitol Hill. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Elizabeth Birnbaum, formerly the director of the Minerals Management Service.

Elizabeth Birnbaum, formerly the director of the Minerals Management Service, appeared May 18 on Capitol Hill.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Leading a federal agency can be a dicey proposition: You may be just one crisis away from getting the ax, even if you have a low profile. There are loads of agencies that carry out major missions but typically fly under the radar — until they find themselves in an unwelcome spotlight because of a natural disaster, say, or an unflattering report.

Last week, Elizabeth Birnbaum, director of the Minerals Management Service, became the latest in a long line of federal officials made to walk the plank after things went wrong on their watch.

Birnbaum was forced to resign in the wake of the Gulf oil spill. Last year, the top enforcement officer at the Securities and Exchange Commission stepped down after it became clear the agency had blown its chances to stop Bernard Madoff's multibillion dollar fraud. And, perhaps most famously, Michael Brown resigned as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency following Hurricane Katrina — and just a couple of weeks after President George W. Bush praised him for "doing a heckuva job."

Presidents sometimes "need to send a signal that that isn't the way they do business, and somebody has to take the fall," says David B. Thornburgh, executive director of the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania. The "most interesting question," Thornburgh suggests, is whether you "can actually predict who might be next on that hot seat."

We can't. As Thornburgh notes, three months ago, mighty few people could describe what the Minerals Management Service did, say who its director was or predict the set of circumstances under which she would have to resign.

But it's worth taking a look at a few of the little-known government officials who might feel the heat under the right (or wrong) set of circumstances.

(Just to be clear: NPR does not expect that anything unusually bad will happen within the purview of any of these government agencies in the foreseeable future. And, if something were to go wrong, we aren't suggesting they wouldn't be up to the task at hand.)

The Most Dangerous Desk Jobs In Washington

  • The Cyber Warrior

    Commander of U.S. Cyber Command Gen. Keith Alexander receives applause from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and others during the activation ceremony of USCYBERCOM at Ft. Meade, MD, May 21, 2010. (AP Photo/Department of Defense, Cherie Cullen )
    Cherie Cullen/AP

    Name: Gen. Keith B. Alexander

    Position: Commander, U.S. Cyber Command

    Why he's at risk:Alexander himself notes that the Pentagon's computers are attacked hundreds of thousands of times each day by hackers, criminals and other nations.

    Alexander is the head of Cybercom, a new command meant to safeguard the military's 15,000 computer networks, defending against cyberattacks that Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) has said could approach "weapons of mass destruction in their effects."

    That means Alexander has to get equipment, personnel and legal authority up to date to match rapidly evolving technology, all while pulling off the challenging task of coordinating with other military commands and the Department of Homeland Security.

    Defense is difficult, but Alexander's greatest vulnerability may lie in offense — where mistakes can be made that could have enormous repercussions. In addition to military targets, Cybercom may be asked to take out civilian institutions, including power grids and financial institutions. "It is difficult for me to conceive of an instance where it would be appropriate to attack a bank or a financial institution, unless perhaps it was being used solely to support enemy military operations," he wrote to senators.

  • The Meat Monitor

    Alfred V. Almanza
    Courtesy of Food Safety and Inspection Service

    Name: Alfred V. Almanza

    Position:Administrator, Food Safety and Inspection Service

    Why he's at risk: All it takes is one mad cow.

    According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 200 diseases are passed through food, and Almanza's agency is in charge of inspecting eggs, meat and poultry. There are frequent local outbreaks of E. coli, causing a few illnesses and occasional deaths. (Often, the bacterium is carried by lettuce or spinach, putting it under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration, which has ordered some 60 recalls of contaminated products since last summer.)

    A bill to strengthen federal food oversight passed the House last year but has languished in the Senate. If tainted hamburgers cause a health crisis, Almanza's job could be gone.

  • The Health Cop

    Donald Berwick
    Courtesy of Donald Berwick

    Name: Donald Berwick

    Position:Administrator, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (nominee)

    Why he's at risk: CMS oversees nearly $800 billion in spending — so fraud is always a threat. And it has a big role in making sure the health care overhaul works as intended.

    Actually, Berwick's not at risk yet — he's still awaiting Senate confirmation before he can take over CMS. The agency hasn't had a confirmed administrator since 2006 — despite the fact that it runs Medicare and oversees state administration of Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program.

    His biggest challenge will be implementing the new health care law. Medicaid alone is expected to cover 16 million more people under the law.

    That is, assuming he gets the job in the first place. Some Republicans have been attacking him for his ideas on cost control, which they say will lead to rationing. One columnist said his tenure would lead to "socialism on steroids."

    Which shows how symbolically charged even appointments to agencies you've never heard of can get.

  • The Dam Buster

    Michael L. Connor
    Courtesy Bureau of Reclamation

    Name: Michael L. Connor

    Position:Commissioner, Bureau of Reclamation

    Why he's at risk: As the old adage goes, "Whisky's for drinking, water's for fighting over."

    The Bureau of Reclamation is the largest water wholesaler in the country, supplying 31 million people and 1 out of every 5 farmers in the West.

    But the bureau is best known, by those who know it, for the construction of massive dams and reservoirs such as the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River and the Grand Coulee on the Columbia. Big dam construction, however, has mostly been halted for decades. Instead, the bureau is now taking dams down — like those on the Rogue River in Oregon, which will soon run free for the first time in more than a century.

    Not everyone is thrilled about this. The interests of fish, farmers and individual water and power users are often in conflict. If such groups feel the balance has been too greatly upset by this shift in policy, Connor could take the blame from Westerners often eager to cast aspersions Washington's way.

  • The Firefighter

    Tom Tidwell
    U.S. Forest Service / AP

    Name: Tom Tidwell

    Position: Chief, Forest Service

    Why he's at risk:When it comes to putting out forest fires, he's Smokey Bear's boss.

    Every summer brings enormous fires out West, which means that anyone in Tidwell's job could be blamed if those blazes get out of control, destroying property and costing lives.

    In fact, just a day before Birnbaum stepped down, Tidwell found himself testifying before Congress about last summer's disastrous Station blaze — the worst fire in Los Angeles County history. Some local officials and a group of former Forest Service employees have criticized the way the agency handled the fire; an internal Forest Service investigation blamed steep terrain that prevented firefighters from battling the blaze effectively.

    But with more fires sure to come, Tidwell may well end up in the hot seat again.

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