Where’s Zinke? Just look for In­te­rior chief’s spe­cial flag.

The Washington Post - - POWERPOST - BY LISA REIN lisa.rein@wash­post.com

At the In­te­rior Depart­ment’s head­quar­ters in down­town Wash­ing­ton, Sec­re­tary Ryan Zinke has re­vived an ar­cane mil­i­tary ritual that no one can re­mem­ber ever hap­pen­ing in the fed­eral govern­ment.

A se­cu­rity staffer takes the el­e­va­tor to the sev­enth floor, climbs the stairs to the roof and hoists a spe­cial sec­re­tar­ial flag when­ever Zinke en­ters the build­ing. When the sec­re­tary goes home for the day or trav­els, the flag — a blue ban­ner em­bla­zoned with the agency’s bi­son seal flanked by seven white stars rep­re­sent­ing the In­te­rior bu­reaus — comes down.

In Zinke’s ab­sence, the ritual is re­peated to raise an equally ob­scure flag for Deputy Sec­re­tary David Bern­hardt.

Re­spond­ing this week to ques­tions from The Wash­ing­ton Post, a spokes­woman for Zinke, a for­mer Navy SEAL com­man­der, de­fended the Navy flag-fly­ing tra­di­tion as “a ma­jor sign of trans­parency.”

“Ryan Zinke is proud and hon­ored to lead the Depart­ment of the In­te­rior, and is restor­ing honor and tra­di­tion to the depart­ment, whether it’s fly­ing the flag when he is in gar­ri­son or restor­ing tra­di­tional ac­cess to pub­lic lands,” press sec­re­tary Heather Swift said in an email.

Zinke, a Stet­son-wear­ing for­mer Mon­tana con­gress­man who has cul­ti­vated an im­age as a rugged out­doors­man, has come un­der a harsh spot­light in re­cent weeks for be­hav­ior crit­i­cized as ex­trav­a­gant for a pub­lic of­fi­cial. The agency’s in­spec­tor gen­eral opened an in­ves­ti­ga­tion af­ter he ran up bills for travel on char­tered jets and mixed busi­ness with po­lit­i­cal ap­pear­ances, some­times ac­com­pa­nied by his wife, Lola. It’s one of five probes un­der­way of Cabi­net sec­re­taries’ travel.

Zinke up­set some of the 70,000 em­ploy­ees at the agency that man­ages pub­lic lands by stat­ing that 30 per­cent of the work­ers are “not loyal to the flag” in a speech to oil and gas ex­ec­u­tives. It is un­clear whether the ref­er­ence was lit­eral or fig­u­ra­tive. Zinke rode to work on horse­back on his first day in of­fice and dis­plays an­i­mal heads on his wood-pan­eled of­fice walls. For a while, he kept a glass-case dis­play of hunt­ing knives but was asked to re­move them be­cause of se­cu­rity risks, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the de­ci­sion.

He has com­mis­sioned com­mem­o­ra­tive coins with his name on them to give to staff and vis­i­tors, but the cost to tax­pay­ers is un­clear. Zinke’s pre­de­ces­sors and some other Cabi­net sec­re­taries have coins bear­ing agency seals, but not per­son­al­ized ones.

The flag ritual is unique in Pres­i­dent Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion. The White House does not raise the pres­i­den­tial flag when Trump alights at 1600 Penn­syl­va­nia Ave. There is no de­fense sec­re­tary’s flag atop the Pen­tagon.

Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son, like his pre­de­ces­sors, has a per­sonal flag that flies be­side the U. S. flag in front of the depart­ment’s Foggy Bot­tom head­quar­ters. But it’s there whether Tiller­son is in the build­ing or not.

“We’re talk­ing about Cabi­net mem­bers and fed­eral build­ings, not the Queen of Eng­land and Buck­ing­ham Palace,” said Chris Lu, deputy la­bor sec­re­tary in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, re­fer­ring to the Bri­tish tra­di­tion of an­nounc­ing the queen’s pres­ence by rais­ing her per­sonal heraldic flag.

“If we had a sec­re­tar­ial flag at the Obama La­bor Depart­ment, we never both­ered to lo­cate it or use it,” Lu said.

Re­tired Army Col. Steven War­ren, who ran the Pen­tagon’s press op­er­a­tion be­fore re­tir­ing this year, could not re­call the place in Wash­ing­ton hi­er­ar­chy rep­re­sented by the rais­ing of a fed­eral of­fi­cial’s per­sonal flag.

“Is he try­ing to send a mes­sage?” War­ren won­dered.

“Is he big on pomp and cir­cum­stance, or is this a case of ‘Look at me?’ ”

Per­sonal flags for fed­eral govern­ment of­fi­cials have a proud, if ar­cane, his­tory that orig­i­nated with the sec­re­tary of the Navy in 1866, to help sail­ing ships in the fleet rec­og­nize which one car­ried the naval com­man­der. The Coast Guard and sec­re­tary of war wanted one, too.

By the early 20th cen­tury, the civil­ian heads of the Trea­sury, Com­merce and La­bor de­part­ments had flags.

The first one for In­te­rior was adopted in 1917.

“If you were the sec­re­tary of agri­cul­ture, you asked your­self, ‘Hey, the sec­re­tary of war has a flag, how come I don’t have one?’ ” said Joseph McMil­lan, a re­tired De­fense Depart­ment of­fi­cial and stu­dent of flag his­tory from Alexan­dria who is pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Her­aldry So­ci­ety.

The flags pro­lif­er­ated by World War II, with ban­ners for sub­or­di­nate of­fi­cials from un­der­sec­re­taries to as­sis­tant at­tor­neys gen­eral.

Back when se­cu­rity was not a con­cern, of­fi­cial govern­ment ve­hi­cles would dis­play a high­rank­ing of­fi­cial’s per­sonal flag on its left front fen­der, with the Amer­i­can flag flank­ing the right. They were con­sid­ered pre­ten­tious, McMil­lan said, and even­tu­ally went out of fash­ion.

At Lady Lib­erty Flag and Flag­pole in Austin, one of the largest flag ven­dors for fed­eral of­fices, San­dra Dee Mer­ritt said she sells 300 to 500 depart­ment flags a year to var­i­ous In­te­rior of­fices.

Sec­re­tar­ial flags are no longer in de­mand. “I haven’t sold any of those in­di­vid­ual sec­re­tar­ial flags to any agency in for­ever,” Mer­ritt said.

Rais­ing a per­sonal flag to mark an of­fi­cial’s pres­ence re­mains a cus­tom in the mil­i­tary. Field com­man­ders of­ten dis­play their unit’s flag when they are at head­quar­ters to sig­nify that the boss is in.

But the per­sonal flag, whether be­long­ing to a gen­eral or a Cabi­net sec­re­tary, stays be­hind the desk, if it’s there at all.

By fly­ing his flag, Zinke is do­ing ex­actly what the flag was de­signed for, McMil­lan said. Yet he’s skep­ti­cal. The In­te­rior Depart­ment is not the Navy.

“I’m all about tra­di­tion,” McMil­lan said. “But I kind of have an aver­sion to mil­i­ta­riz­ing ev­ery­thing in our govern­ment. The world doesn’t need to know the sec­re­tary of the In­te­rior is in the build­ing.”

“The world doesn’t need to know the sec­re­tary of the In­te­rior is in the build­ing.” Joseph McMil­lan of the Amer­i­can Her­aldry So­ci­ety

ZACH GIB­SON/BLOOMBERG NEWS

Ryan Zinke’s spe­cial sec­re­tar­ial flag, right, is dis­played dur­ing the In­te­rior sec­re­tary’s speech at the Her­itage Foun­da­tion in Wash­ing­ton last month. The flag is hoisted atop the depart­ment’s head­quar­ters when Zinke en­ters the build­ing and is taken down when he departs.

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