• I’m Alex Jones x Infinity Worse (on Twitter)

    August 15, 2018 // 3 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy




    Twitter just suspended Alex Jones for a week after he called on millions of people to pick up weapons to attack the press. I am still in the dark about what I said on Twitter that is x Infinity worse, as mine is a permanent suspension.


    Anyway, I hope with Alex Jones (and me) gone, your Twitter is better, kinder, more… ideologically pure. @jack seems to be on a campaign ahead of the midterms to make Twitter less politically diverse, so I hope that is good for you, not to have to block all those nasty contrary opinions and all. Soon enough it’ll be just down to what the Party wants you to read and for most people that is a comfortably numb place to be. I wish you well! You will learn, as I have, to love Big Brother. Twitter will help you learn.

    I’m tempted to create a new account and start over, but it would end up deep-sixed as quickly as Twitter could figure it out. In fact, someone would — as they did this time — go out of their way to snitch to the teacher that I am back vomiting up offensive or hate speech or that as a white male I am by definition not a person with ideas but simply a nazi misogynist racist to purge from the marketplace. The Nazis and the Soviets made excellent use of informers to enforce their ideological purity and the concept seems built into social media’s game plan as well. My kids have social media accounts — perhaps @jack could use them as informants.

    I went through this a few years ago, when the State Department tried to censor my book so you did not hear what was then a very contrary opinion, widely said to be wrong, that the U.S. had lost the Iraq war. I had a taste of the same in Iran this spring, when I was blocked by their government from using social media. So I understand where I am now, and maybe why my words seem to be so scary. Fear the silence, not the noise.

    Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis held people must discuss and criticize unpopular ideas, that free speech is not an abstract virtue but a key element at the heart of a democratic society. Even the fact that speech is likely to result in “violence or in destruction of property is not enough to justify its suppression.” Brandeis concluded “the deterrents to be applied to prevent violence and disruption are education and punishment for violations of the law, not abridgment of free speech.”

    Free speech is not an ends, it is a means, in a democracy. Shame on Twitter, et al, for treading on that mighty concept. Free speech is messy, and it is our essential defense against fascism, whether from the left or the right.

    And to quote Marx, even with a new account on Twitter, why would I want to be part of a club that’d have a guy like me as a member?




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  • Talking Twitter Censorship on FOX

    August 13, 2018 // 9 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy

    Banned from Twitter, so I found another platform. I was on Tucker Carlson tonight talking about censorship. Can you hear me @jack?






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  • Corporate Censorship Brought Us the America I Always Feared

    August 13, 2018 // 3 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America, Trump

    When I was in Iran earlier this year, the government there blocked Twitter, deciding for a whole nation what they can not see. In America, Twitter purges users, deciding for a whole nation what they can not see. It matters little whose hand is on the switch, the end result is the same. This is the America I always feared I’d see.

    Speech in America is an unalienable right, and goes as deep into the concept of a free society as any idea can. Thomas Jefferson wrote of the right flowing from his notion of a Creator, not from government. Jefferson’s 18th century invocation is understood now as less that free speech is heaven-sent and more that it is something existing above government. And so the argument the First Amendment applies only to government and not to all public speaking (including private platforms like Twitter) is thus both true and irrelevant, and the latter is more important.

    The government remains a terrifying threat to free speech. An Espionage Act prosecution against Wikileaks’ Julian Assange will create precedent for use against any mainstream journalist. The war on whistleblowers which started under Obama continues under Trump. Media are forced to register as propaganda agents. Universities restrict controversial speakers. The Trump administration no doubt will break the record (77%) for redacting or denying access to government files under the Freedom of Information Act.

    But there is another threat to freedom of speech now, corporate censorship. It is often dressed up with NewSpeak terms like deplatforming, restricting hate speech, or simply applying Terms of Service. Corporations always did what they wanted with speech. Our protection against corporate overreach used to rely on an idea Americans once held dear, enshrined as “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend your right to say it.” The concept was core to a democracy: everyone supports the right of others to throw ideas into the marketplace independent. An informed people would sort through it all, and bad ideas would be pushed away by better ones. That system more or less worked for 240 years.

    For lack of a more precise starting point, the election of Donald Trump did away with near-universal agreement on defending the right to speak without defending the content, driven by a belief too much free speech helped Trump get elected. Large numbers of Americans began not just to tolerate, but to demand censorship. They wanted universities to deplatform speakers they did not agree with, giggling over the fact the old-timey 1A didn’t apply and there was nothing “conservatives” could do. They expressed themselves in violence, demanding censorship by “punching Nazis.” Such brownshirt-like violence was endorsed by The Nation, once America’s clearest voice for freedom. The most startling change came within the American Civil Liberties Union, who enshrined the “defend the right, not the speech” concept in the 1970s when it defended the free speech rights of Nazis, and went on to defend the speech rights of white supremacists in Charlottesville.

    Not so much anymore. The ACLU now applies a test to the free speech cases it will defend, weighing their impact on other rights (for example, the right to say the N-word versus the rights of POC.) The ACLU in 2018 is siding with those who believe speech can be secondary to other political goals. Censorship has a place, says the ACLU, when it serves what they believe is a greater good.

    A growing segment of public opinion isn’t just in favor of this, it demands it. So when years-old tweets clash with 2018 definitions of racism and sexism, companies fire employees. Under public pressure, Amazon removed “Nazi paraphernalia and other far-right junk” from its online store. It was actually just some nasty Halloween gear and Confederate flag merch, but the issue is not the value of the products — that’s part of any free speech debate — it’s corporate censorship being used to stifle debate by literally in this case pulling things out of the marketplace.

    Alex Jones’ InfoWars was deplatformed off download sites where it has been available for years, including Apple, YouTube (owned by Google), Spotify, and Amazon, for promoting “hate speech.” Huffington Post wondered why more platforms, such as Instagram, haven’t done away with Jones and his hate speech.

    That term, hate speech, clearly not prohibited by the Supreme Court, is an umbrella word now used by censorship advocates for, well, basically anything they don’t want others to be able to listen to or watch. It is very flexible and thus very dangerous. As during the McCarthy-era in the 1950s when one needed only to label something “Communist” to have it banned, so it is today with the new mark of “hate speech.” The parallels are chilling — it was in the McCarthy-era Hollywood created its infamous blacklists, actors and writers who could not work because of their political beliefs.

    Twitter is perhaps the most infamous platform to censor its content. The site bans advertising from Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik. Twitter suspends the accounts of those who promote (what it defines as) hate and violence, “shadow bans” others to limit their audience, and tweaks its trending topics to push certain political ideas and downplay others. It regularly purges users and bans “hateful symbols.” There are near-daily demands by increasingly organized groups calling on Twitter to censor specific users, with Trump at the top of that list. The point is always the same: to limit what ideas you can be exposed to and narrow debate.

    Part of the 2018 problem is the trust people place in “good companies” like Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter. Anthropomorphizing them as Jeff, and Zuck, and @jack is popular, along with a focus on their “values.” It seems to make sense, especially now when many of the people making decisions on corporate censorship are the same age and hold the same political views as those demanding they do it.

    Of course people age, values shift, what seems good to block today might change. But the main problem is companies exist to make money and will do what they need to do to make money. You can’t count on them past that. Handing over free speech rights to an entity whose core purpose has nothing to do with free speech means they will quash ideas when they conflict with what they are really about. People who gleefully celebrate the fact that @jack who runs Twitter is not held back by the 1A and can censor at will seem to believe he will always yield his power in the way they want him to.

    Google has a slogan reading “do no evil.” Yet in China Google will soon deploy Dragonfly, a version of its search engine that will meet Beijing’s demands for censorship by blocking websites on command. Of course in China they don’t call it hate speech, they call it anti-societal speech, and the propaganda Google will block isn’t from Russian bots but from respected global media. In the U.S. Google blocks users from their own documents saved in Drive if the service feels the documents are “abusive.” Backin China Apple removes apps from its store on command of the government in return for market access. Amazon, who agreed to remove hateful merch from its store in the U.S., the same week confirmed it is “unwaveringly committed to the U.S. government and the governments we work with around the world” using its AI and facial recognition technology to spy on their own people. Faced with the loss of billions of dollars, as was the case for Google and Apple in China, what will corporations do in America?

    Once upon a time an easy solution to corporate censorship was to take one’s business elsewhere. The 2018 problem is with the scale of platforms like Amazon, near global monopolies all. Pretending Amazon, which owns the Washington Post, and with the reach to influence elections, is just another company that sells things is to pretend the role of unfettered debate in a free society is outdated. Yeah, you can for now still go through hoops to download stuff outside the Apple store or Google Play, but those platforms more realistically control access to your device. Censored on Twitter? No problem big guy, go try Myspace, and maybe Bing will notice you. Technology and market dominance changed the nature of censorship so free speech is as much about finding an audience as it is about finding a place to speak. Corporate censorship is at the cutting edge of a reality targeting both speakers (Twitter suspends someone) and listeners (Apple won’t post that person’s videos made off-platform). Ideas need to be discoverable to enter the debate; in 1776 you went to the town square. In 2018 it’s Twitter.

    In the run up to the midterm elections, Senator Chris Murphy, ironically in a tweet, demanded social media censor more aggressively for the “survival of our democracy,” implying those companies can act as proxies for those still held back by the First Amendment. We already know the companies involved can censor. The debate is over what happens when they do.

    A PERSONAL NOTE: Some readers are aware I have been permanently suspended from Twitter as @wemeantwell. This followed exchanges with several mainstream journalists over their support for America’s wars and unwillingness to challenge government lies. Twitter sent an auto-response saying what I wrote “harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence someone else’s voice.” I don’t think I did any of that, and I wish you didn’t have to accept my word on it. I wish instead you could read what I wrote and decide for yourself. But Twitter won’t allow it. Twitter says you cannot read and make up your own mind. They have in fact eliminated all the things I have ever written there over seven years, disappeared me down the Memory Hole. That’s why all censorship is wrong; it takes the power to decide what is right and wrong away from you and gives it to someone else.

    I lost my career at the State Department because I spoke out as a whistleblower against the Iraq War. I’ve now been silenced, again, for speaking out, this time by a corporation. I am living in the America I always feared.

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  • Behind The Scenes At The Twitter Purge – With Peter Van Buren and Scott Horton

    August 9, 2018 // 12 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy







    And more here, from Zerohedge…



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  • Consortium News Radio — Episode 1: Peter Van Buren, The Twitter Files

    August 9, 2018 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy

    In a long-form interview here with veteran journalist Joe Lauria at Consortium News Radio, I try and lay out exactly what happened on Twitter that led to me being banned.



    Also, more here.



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  • What if a #MAGA Guy Ate Twitter’s Face?

    August 8, 2018 // 4 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy




    More than a few people have cited the exchange above as justification for my forever trip down the Memory Hole, my ban from Twitter. I used to be there as @wemeantwell.

    My bad zombie joke about #MAGA, or anything else I wrote that was flippant, is not writing I’m proud of. But ask yourself if indeed what I was doing, in the words of Twitter’s auto-response to me, “harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence someone else’s voice,” or if I was just being rude and childish. Ask yourself if whatever I did means you can never read anything I’ve written on Twitter over the past seven years, if it means I should never be allowed to write there again.

    Does it justify censorship?

    Before you say yes, keep in mind that Twitter allows you to block me, mute me, never see me again. That’s your decision, and good for you, and good riddance to me. But censorship takes that decision out of your hands, and allows Twitter to make it on behalf of literally the entire planet.

    Though the “he called me human garbage first” excuse is pretty weak, it is useful to show the context of my allegedly game-changing Tweet. I think anyone who has dipped into the sticky waters of Twitter, or lived as an adult on earth, has heard much worse. I think also my line about a MAGA guy eating someone’s face can be seen by reasonable people as a rhetorical slap, not a literal invitation to zombie attack.

    Think of it like people saying “Go kiss my ass!,” or “F*ck yourself.” I don’t think in those instances anyone expects you to contort and smooch the buttocks or to perform a unilateral sex act. There’s a difference between saying “Go jump in a lake” to end an argument and an invitation to go swimming.

    But corporate censorship needs only the finest of hooks. Twitter is happy to allow calls for white genocide by New York Times editorial board member @SarahJeong, “understanding” they are not literal, while being shocked — Shocked! — to see me invoke a scene from Fear the Walking Dead.

    And anyone who thinks I was banned for simply being rude on Twitter does not understand much about the point of censorship.



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  • VIPS Asks Twitter to Restore Van Buren’s Account

    August 8, 2018 // 4 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy




    The Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity in a memo to the Twitter board of directors questions its decision to suspend the account of one of its members without due process.

    TO: Twitter Board of Directors

    FROM: Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS)

    SUBJECT: Suspension of VIPS Associate Peter Van Buren’s Twitter Account

    We at Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) are greatly disturbed by the recent decision of your management to permanently suspend the Twitter account @WeMeantWell of our colleague Peter Van Buren. Peter is a highly respected former Foreign Service Officer possessing impeccable credentials for critiquing current developments that might lead to a new war in Eastern Europe or Asia, something which we Americans presumably all would like to avoid.

    In 2011 our colleague Peter published a book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, about the poor decision- making by both civilians and military that led to the disastrous occupation and faux-democracy development in Iraq. It is Peter’s concern that our country may well be proceeding down that same path again — possibly with Iran, Syria and other countries in the Middle East region.

    It is our understanding that Peter became involved in an acrimonious Twitter exchange with several mainstream journalists over the theme of government lying. One of the parties to the exchange, reported to be Jonathan Katz of @KatzOnEarth — possibly joined by some of his associates – complained. Subsequently, and without any serious investigation or chance for rebuttal regarding the charges, Peter was suspended by you for “harass[ing], intimidate[ing], or us[ing] fear to silence someone else’s voice.” Peter absolutely denies that anything like that took place.

    We have also learned that Daniel McAdams, Executive Director of the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity and a highly respected former Congressional staffer, weighed in to defend Peter and was also suspended by you. And Scott Horton, editorial director of Antiwar.com, was suspended for use of “improper language” against Katz. Horton and McAdams cannot add new tweets while under suspension, but Peter’s “permanent” suspension included deletion of all of his seven years’ archive of tweets, so the actual exchanges leading up to his punishment cannot currently be examined.

    Your action suggests three possibilities — all of which are quite plausible given that your system for punishing users is far from transparent. First, you may be engaged in systematic manipulation if some of your users are able to complain and have their friends do likewise in order to sully the reputation of a Twitter user who is doing little more than engaging in heated debate over issues that concern all of us.

    Second, there is a distinct possibility that you are responding to either deep pocketed or particularly strident advocacy groups that may themselves have agendas to silence opposition voices. We note that Google is currently working with some powerful foundations to censor content they object to which comes up in search engine results.

    Finally – third — we also suspect a possible government hand in that companies like yours, to include Facebook, have become very sensitive to alleged “subversive” content, deleting accounts and blocking users. Kowtowing to government suggestions to silence critics of administration policies may well be considered a desirable proactive step by your management as well as by other social media companies, but censorship is censorship, no matter how you dress it up.

    We Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity believe that systematic and/or institutionalized censorship of tweets and account users is fundamentally the wrong way to go unless there are very explicit and sustained threats of violence or other criminal behavior. The internet should be free, to include most particularly the ability to post commentary that is not mainstream or acceptable to the Establishment. That is what Peter has been doing and we applaud him for it. We respectfully request that you examine the facts in the case with the objective of reconsidering and possibly restoring the suspension of Peter Van Buren’s twitter account. Thank you.


    For the Steering Group, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity:

    William Binney, former Technical Director, World Geopolitical & Military Analysis, NSA; co-founder, SIGINT Automation Research Center (ret.)

    Richard H. Black, Senator of Virginia, 13th District; Colonel US Army (ret); former chief, Criminal Law Division, Office of the Judge Advocate General, the Pentagon (associate VIPS) (@SenRichardBlack)

    Bogdan Dzakovic, former team leader of Federal Air Marshals and Red Team, FAA Security (ret.) (associate VIPS)

    Philip Giraldi, CIA, Operations Officer (ret.) (@infangenetheof)

    Larry C. Johnson, former CIA and State Department Counterterrorism Officer (ret.)

    Michael S. Kearns, Captain, USAF (ret.); Wing Commander, RAAF (ret.); former intelligence officer and master SERE instructor (@msk6793)

    John Kiriakou, former CIA Counterterrorism Officer and former senior investigator, Senate Foreign Relations Committee (@johnkiriakou)

    Linda Lewis, WMD preparedness policy analyst, USDA (ret.) (associate VIPS) (@usalinda)

    Edward Loomis, NSA, cryptologic computer scientist (ret.)

    Ray McGovern, former US Army infantry/intelligence officer & CIA analyst (ret.) (@raymcgovern)

    Annie Machon, former intelligence officer in the UK’s MI5 domestic security service (affiliate VIPS) (@anniemachon)

    Elizabeth Murray, Deputy National Intelligence Officer for the Near East, CIA and National Intelligence Council (ret.) (@elizabethmurra)

    Todd E. Pierce, Maj, US Army Judge Advocate (ret.) (@ToddEPierce)

    Scott Ritter, former Maj., USMC; former UN weapons inspector, Iraq (@RealScottRitter)

    Coleen Rowley, FBI Special Agent and former Minneapolis Division Legal Counsel (ret.) (@coleenrowley)

    J. Kirk Wiebe, former Senior Analyst, SIGINT Automation Research Center, NSA (ret.) (@kirkwiebe)

    Sarah Wilton, Commander, US Naval Reserve (ret.) and Defense Intelligence Agency (ret.)

    Robert Wing, former Foreign Service Officer (associate VIPS)


    Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) is made up of former intelligence officers, diplomats, military officers and congressional staffers. The organization, founded in 2002, was among the first critics of Washington’s justifications for launching a war against Iraq. VIPS advocates a US foreign and national security policy based on genuine national interests rather than contrived threats promoted for largely political reasons. An archive of VIPS memoranda is available at Consortiumnews.com.






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  • Twitter Suspends Me Forever

    August 7, 2018 // 26 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America



    Some readers are aware I have been permanently suspended from Twitter as @wemeantwell.

    This followed exchanges with several mainstream journalists over their support for America’s wars and unwillingness to challenge the lies of government. After two days of silence, Twitter sent me an auto-response saying what I wrote “harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence someone else’s voice.”

    I don’t think I did any of that, and I wish you didn’t have to accept my word on it. I wish instead you could read what I wrote and decide for yourself. But Twitter won’t allow that. Twitter says you cannot read and make up your own mind. They have in fact eliminated all the things I have ever written there over seven years, disappeared me down the Memory Hole. That’s what censorship does; it takes the power to decide what is right and wrong away from you and gives it to someone else.

    Hate what I write, hate me, block me, don’t buy my books, but please don’t celebrate handing over those choices to some company.

    I lost my career at the State Department because I spoke out as a whistleblower against the Iraq War. I’ve now been silenced, again, for speaking, this time by a corporation. I am living in the America I always feared.








    UPDATE: I’ve made a mistake. I was wrong to criticize the government, wrong to criticize journalists, wrong to oppose war. In fact, after much reflection, I have come to understand that I Love Big Brother.



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  • Trump and the New McCarthyism

    August 3, 2018 // 23 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy, Embassy/State, Trump

    There was no explanation for what had happened, how certain victory had boiled off. Fear took over. An answer was needed, and one was created: the Russians. 1950s Cold War America? Or 2018 Trump America? Yes.

    WWII ended with the U.S. the planet’s predominant power. But instead of recognizing its strength, darker forces saw profit in creating new fears. The Soviet Union morphed from an ally decimated after losing 20 million soldiers fighting fascism to a powerful equal locked in a titanic struggle with America. How did they get so powerful so quickly? Nothing could explain this, except… traitors.

    Some realized fear was not a problem, but a tool — one could defeat political enemies simply by accusing them of being Russian sympathizers. There was no need for evidence, Americans were desperate to believe, and so assertions someone was in league with Russia were enough. Joseph McCarthy fired his first shot on February 9, 1950, proclaimed there were 205 card-carrying members of the Communist Party working for the Department of State. The evidence? Nothing but McCarthy’s assertions, but they were enough.

    Pretending to be saving America while he tore at its democratic foundations, over the next four years McCarthy made careers for those who cooperated in his accusations, such as a young red-baiting Richard Nixon, the president of the screen actors guild, Ronald Reagan, who supported the blacklisting of many artists simply by pointing a finger at them and saying “Communist”, and Roy Cohn, a vicious young attorney who ironically would later work for Donald Trump. The power of accusation was used by others as well; the Lavender Scare was an off-shoot of McCarthyism that concluded the State Department was overrun with closeted homosexuals who were at risk of being blackmailed by Moscow. By 1951, 600 people were fired based solely on evidence-free “morals” charges. All across America, state legislatures and school boards mimicked McCarthy. Thousands of people lost their jobs. Books and movies were banned or boycotted based on the “hate speech” of the day, accusations they helped promote Communism. Libraries, for example, banned Robin Hood for suggesting stealing from the rich to give to the poor. The FBI embarked on campaigns of political repression, suspecting Martin Luther King was a Communist. Journalists and academics voluntarily narrowed their political thought and tamping down criticism and inquiry in the 1950’s and beyond.

    In 2018, watching sincere people succumb to paranoia is not something to relish. But having trained themselves to intellectualize away Hillary Clinton’s flaws, as they had with Obama, about half of America truly could not believe she lost to the antithesis of what she represented to them. She was strong (they called her the most qualified candidate in history.) Every poll (that they read) said she would win. Every article (that they read) said it too, as did every person (that they knew.) Lacking an explanation for the unexplainable, they tried out scenarios that would have failed high school civics, claiming only the popular vote mattered, or the archaic Emoluments Clause prevented Trump from taking office, or that he was clinically insane and had to be carted off under the 25th Amendment.

    After a few trial balloons during the primaries where Bernie Sanders’ visits to Russia and Jill Stein’s attendance at a banquet in Moscow were used to imply disloyalty, the fearful cry the Russians meddled in the election morphed into Trump had worked with the Russians and/or (fear is flexible filling in the gaps) the Russians had something on Trump, that new Russian word everyone learned, kompromat. History may not repeat, but it often rhymes, and Donald Trump became the Manchurian Candidate, the name itself taken from a 1959 novel made into a classic Cold War movie positing an American soldier had been brainwashed by communists as part of a plot to place someone under the thumb of the Kremlin in the Oval Office. The New York Times, Vanity Fair, the New York Daily News, Salon, The Hill, the Washington Post,a nd sure, why not, Stormy Daniels’ lawyer Michael Avenatti have all claimed Trump is 2018’s Manchurian Candidate. Cynical, or prescient?

    The birth moment of Trump as a Russian asset is traceable back to MI-6 intelligence officer turned Democratic opposition researcher turned FBI mole Christopher Steele, whose “dossier” claimed the existence of the pee tape. Somewhere deep in the Kremlin is supposedly a surveillance video made in 2013 of Trump in Moscow’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel, watching two prostitutes urinate on a bed the Obamas once slept in.

    No one, not even Steele’s alleged informants, has actually seen the tape. It exists in a land of assertion-is-fact-enough alongside the elevator tape. Reporters, as well as Z-list celebrity Tom Arnold, are actively seeking a tape of Trump doing something in an elevator so salacious the video has been called “Every Trump Reporter’s White Whale.” No one knows when the elevator video was made, but a dossier-length article in New York magazine posits Trump has been a Russian asset since 1987, controlled through a set of big money deals as carrots, whose disclosure would be the kompromat of a stick.

    This is the McCarthy playbook. Trump’s victory seems inexplicable, therefore it could not have happened without outside help. The Russians were certainly sniffing around the edges of the election process, so they must have done it. Trump has done business in Russia, and, a man like him certainly could not have made his money honestly (the tax documents!) The easiest way to bring him down is to offer what his detractors would accept as a plausible explanation — the Russians did it and Trump is in on it — and answer fear with the blind certainty of assertions. As McCarthy did with homosexuality, throw in a few hints of dirty sex to keep the rubes paying attention.

    Suddenly no real evidence is necessary, because it is in front of your face. China fell to the Communists in 1949. The State Department was in charge, therefore was responsible, and therefore must be riven with traitors because why else but on purpose would they fail America? McCarthy accussed Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower of being Communists or Communist stooges. Trump holds a bizarre press conference in Helsinki and the only answer is that he is a traitor. Hillary herself asked which side Trump was on. Nancy Pelosi (“President Trump’s weakness in front of Putin was embarrassing, and proves that the Russians have something on the President, personally, financially or politically”) and Cory Booker (“Trump is acting like he’s guilty of something”) and Lindsey Graham and John Brennan and MSNBC and CNN said Trump is controlled by Russia, even as columnists in the New York Times called him a traitor. As the news did in 1954, when they provided live TV coverage of McCarthy’s dirty assertions against the Army, modern media used each new assertion as “proof” of an earlier one. If they all are saying it, it has to be true. Snowballs get bigger rolling downhill.

    When assertion is accepted as evidence it forces the other side to prove a negative to clear their name. So until Trump “proves” he is not a Russian stooge, he remains one in the eyes of his accusers, and his denials are seen as desperate attempts to wiggle out from under the evidence. Joe McCarthy’s victims faced similar challenges; once labeled a communist or a homosexual, the onus shifted to them to somehow prove they weren’t. Their failure to prove their innocence became more evidence of guilt. It all creates a sense of paranoia. The 1950’s version was well-illustrated in movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or a selection of classic Twilight Zone episodes highlighted by “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” which concludes with the chilling line “a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own.” As with McCarthy, the reaction to a threat outweighs in damage anything the threat may have ever posed.

    And so in 2018 a journalist thinks someone is sending agents disguised as Uber drivers to spy on him. Another on Twitter says she personally has hard info of Trump’s collusion with Russia and faces death threats. They hate Trump and wake up each morning hoping it is Judgment Day. When it is not, they project themselves into the center of global events hoping they personally can bring on Judgment. You could see this in earlier times in parts of the Sy Hersh story, and now so clearly with once sharp minds like Rachel Maddow (“We haven’t ever had to reckon with the possibility that someone had ascended to the presidency of the United States to serve the interests of another country rather than our own,”) and Lawrence Tribe. They struggle to resolve cognitive dissonance by imagining they will defeat Trump where Clinton failed. These same people 10 years later still mock Trump over the silly birth certificate conspiracy, yet find it perfectly normal to claim he is a Russian agent. Meanwhile, we are kept at DefCon levels with an obvious goofball like Carter Page mediaized into a linchpin while an improbable Russian student is arrested to put a sexy, red-haired face on everything.

    And yet… and yet there is no evidence of treason, of collusion, of the assertion the president of the United States, almost two years in control of America’s nuclear arsenal, is by choice or coercion acting on the orders, desires, and initiatives of Russia. None.

    The IRS and Treasury have had Trump’s tax documents for decades. If Trump has been a Russian asset since 1987, or 2013, he has done it behind the backs of the FBI, CIA, and NSA. Indictments against Russian uniformed military who will never see the inside of an American court are presented as evidence, when in fact they are simply Robert Mueller’s own uncontested assertions to sit alongside those of Anderson Cooper and Chris Matthews. With impeachment itself on the table, Mueller has done little more than issue the equivalent of a series of parking tickets against foreign nationals whom he has no jurisdiction over, that provide no link between Trump and Russia. Intelligence community summaries claim without detail the Russians meddled, but fall far short of accusing Trump of being involved. There is simply the assertion, the belief, that some outside explanation, and we seem to have settled on the Russians, is to blame for Trump.

    So we live in a state of constant tension. Fear is powerful. A sound triggers a memory that sets off involuntary, subconscious processes: the heart rate jumps, muscles twitch, higher brain functions switch to fight-or-flight. Live in this state long enough and you lose the ability to control your reaction to certain stimuli. Fear, hatred and venom are expressed through fevered calls for impeachment for not being sufficiently patriotic and for aiding the enemy. Reality is used to prove fantasy — we don’t know how Trump is helping Putin because they met in private! And anyone who questions this must themselves be at best a useful fool, if not an outright Russia collaborator (Wrote one pundit: “They are accessories, before and after the fact, to the hijacking of a democratic election. So, yes, goddamn them all.”) In the McCarthy era, the term was fellow traveler, anyone, witting or unwitting, who helped the Russians. Dissent is muddled with disloyalty.

    The burden of proof is always on the party making an accusation, yet the standing narrative in America is the Russia story must be assumed at least valid, if not true, until proven false. Joe Mccarthy was allowed to tear America apart for four years under just such standards, until finally public opinion turned against him, aided by a small handful of journalists, lead by Edward R. Murrow, brave enough to ask real questions about his factless assertions and demand answers McCarthy ultimately did not have. There is no Edward R. Murrow in 2018, simply journalists who see themselves serving as oppo researchers and adjuncts to the accusers.

    The process already 200 indictments underway — the Mueller investigation — is in Year Two. America faces a crucial set of midterms in November, and thus the need to know for the American people is established; if anyone has hard evidence, why are they waiting to show it with a Russian asset in the White House? At some point one has to account for why no one has found what they insist is there. They can cry “Just wait for Mueller!” for the same four years it took to shut down McCarthy but at some point we all have to admit no evidence has been found that pigs can fly, and thus conclude they can’t, and the collective purpose of Russiagate has shifted, as with McCarthy, from tamping down hysteria to stoking it.

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  • John Brennan is 2018’s Poster Boy

    July 26, 2018 // 18 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy, Trump



    It is not a pretty face, but one scarred from an evil past, repackaged by the madness of “resistance.” Accusing Trump recklessly, implying he knows more than he lets on, leading the rubes down the path saying soon — soon! — Mueller’s redemption will be here.


    John Brennan is the face of American politics in 2018.


    Coming out of a hole as far into the Deep State as one can dwell while still having eyes that work in sunlight, Brennan burst above ground to become a Hero of the Resistance on CNN. But before all that, Brennan was Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He was Obama’s first-term counter terror advisor, the guy who helped the president decide who to kill each week with drones, including American citizens. He spent 25 years at CIA, and helped shape the violent policies of the post-9/11 Bush era. Brennan was a fan of torture and extrajudicial killing to the point where a 2012 profile was titled “The Seven Deadly Sins of John Brennan.” Another writer called Brennan “the most lethal bureaucrat of all time, or at least since Henry Kissinger.” Today a New York Times puff piece on Brennan just shushes all that away as a “troubling inheritance.”

    So in a political world overcome with madness, it is John Brennan who helps lead the resistance. On Twitter this past week Brennan cartoonishly declaimed “Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to and exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes and misdemeanors.’ It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin.”

    Because it is 2018, Brennan was never asked to explain exactly how a press conference exceeds the gray threshold of high crimes and misdemeanors the Constitution sets for impeachment of a president, nor was he ever asked to lay a few cards worth of evidence on the table showing just what Putin has on Trump. No, Brennan is a man of his times, all bluster and noise, knowing as long as he says what some significant part of the country apparently believes — the president of the United States is either willfully or via blackmail under the control of the Kremlin — he will never be challenged. So it is all maniacal calls for impeachment of a president insufficiently patriotic, wrapped with Brennan’s own unshakable belief in his own perfect righteousness.


    In that way Brennan squats alongside Nancy Pelosi and Cory Booker, both of whom said Trump is controlled by Russia, columnists Charles Blow and Tom Friedman in the New York Times who called Trump a traitor, an article in New York Magazine (which is fast headed to becoming the Zapruder film of Russiagate) speculating Trump met Putin as his intelligence handler, former counter-terrorism coordinator Richard A. Clarke speculating Trump was meeting with Putin to receive his next set of orders, and another former intelligence officer warning “we’re on the cusp of losing the American constitutional republic forever.”

    Brennan’s bleating has the interesting side effect of directing attention away from who was watching the front door as the Russians walked in to cause what one MSNBC analyst called Pearl Harbor and Kristallnacht. During the 2016 election when the Russiagate stuff was taking place, Brennan was head of the CIA. His evil twin, James Clapper, who also coughs up Trump attacks for nickels these days, was Director of National Intelligence. James Comey headed the FBI, following Last Man in the Line of Resistance Robert Mueller into the job. The noise from that crowd is loud enough to drown out any questions about where these guys were when they had the chance, sorry, the duty, to stop the Russians, out Trump as the Manchurian Candidate, and save the Republic.

    The de minimis excuse, “everybody believed Hillary would win” is a blatant example of collusion: things that now rise to treason, if not acts of war against the United States, didn’t matter then because Clinton’s victory would sweep it all under the rug. Brennan’s continued public role screams whatever the Russians did only were crimes because they contributed to Clinton’s loss. Thus only after Clinton lost did it become necessary to create a crisis that might yet be inflated big enough (it wasn’t just the Russians as originally thought, it was Trump working with them) to justify impeachment. Absent that, Brennan would have simply disappeared alongside former CIA Directors into academia, or the lucrative consulting business. Brennan is now a public figure with a big mouth because he has to be. That mouth has to cover his ass.


    Brennan’s all-impeachment, all-the-time barking is the latest chapter in a straight line of whole-of-government effort to overturn the election. Remember how recounts were called for amid (fake) allegations of vote tampering? Constitutional scholars proposed various Hail Mary Electoral College scenarios to unseat Trump. Lawsuits were filed claiming the hereto-largely unheard of Emoluments Clause made it illegal for Trump to even assume office. The media repurposed itself to the goal of impeaching the president. On cue, leaks begin pouring out implying the Trump campaign worked with the Russian government. It is now a rare day when the top stories are not apocalyptic, all unsourced, rocketed from Rawstory to HuffPo to the New York Times in the morning, the other way around for the scoop-of-the-day in the afternoon. Brennan fans the media’s flames as they do his, with a knowing wink saying “You wait and see. Soon it will be Mueller time.”

    But despite all the hard evidence of treason only Brennan and his harpy journalists seem to see, everyone is content to have a colluding Russian agent running the United States for a year and half. You’d think it’d be urgent close this case. Instead, Brennan heads an industry created to admonish us to wait out an investigative process underway through two administrations. And yet if Trump has really been a Russian asset since his 1987 trip to Moscow as many insist, why haven’t the FBI, CIA, IRS, Treasury or the NSA cottoned to that in the intervening years and now instead we’re waiting on Mueller in Year Two to prove it? At some point you might think people like Brennan would have to account for why no one has found what they insist is there. The IRS, for example, has watched Trump for decades (they’ve seen the tax docs even if Wolf Blitzer hasn’t), as have Democratic and Republican opposition researchers, the New Jersey Gaming Commission, and various New York City real estate commissions. Multiple KGB/RSS agents and others have defected, or report to us. The whole Soviet Union collapsed since some claim Trump became a Russian asset.


    If Trump is under Russian influence, he is most dangerous man in American history. Under such conditions, you’d think Brennan, et al, would show some alacrity outside Twitter and the Sunday talk shows. So why isn’t Washington on fire? Why hasn’t Mueller indicted someone for treason? If this is Pearl Harbor, why is the investigation moving at the pace of a mortgage application? Why is everyone allowing a Russian asset placed in charge of the American nuclear arsenal to stay in power even one more minute?

    You’d think Brennan would be saying it is now time to set aside chasing indictments of Russian military officers that will never see the inside of a courtroom, to stop wasting months on decades-old financial crimes unconnected to the Trump campaign, and quit delaying the real stuff over a clumsy series of perjury cases. “Patriots: Where are you???” Brennan asked in a recent tweet. If Brennan himself is a patriot, why doesn’t he leak the details, and save America?

    Because there is one step darker that some seem ready to consider. Reuters writes “Trump is haunted by the fear that a cabal of national-security officers is conspiring in secret to overthrow him… Trump has made real enemies in the realm of American national security. He has struck blows against their empire. One way or another, the empire will strike back.” James Clapper is confirming New York Times reports Trump was shown evidence of Putin’s election attacks and did nothing, even denying them. In response to Helsinki, Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen asked “Where are our military folks ? The Commander in Chief is in the hands of our enemy!”


    Treason, traitor, coup, the empire striking back. Those are just words, right? The simpler answer is probably the correct one. Maybe that is, the lessons of Whitewater and Benghazi learned, the point is a perpetual investigation, tickled to life when needed politically and then allowed to fall back to sleep between outrage sessions. Because maybe deep inside, Brennan (Clapper, Hayden, Comey, et al) really does know, knows this is all like flying saucers and cell phone cameras. At some point the whole alien conspiracy meme fell apart, because somehow when everyone had a camera with them 24/7/365, there were no more sightings and we all had to sorta admit our fears had gotten the best of us, that the threat was inside us all along.


    BONUS: This question on today’s test is an essay worth 100 points: Explain how Christopher Steele paid by the Democrats to knowingly seek a pee tape made by Russian intel as blackmail, differs from someone seeking DNC emails exposing corruption from an anon source who might be Russian intel. For extra credit, list all the ways both American presidential parties appear to have sought blackmail info from the Russians.



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  • American Credibility Requires a Turning Point on Trump

    July 25, 2018 // 4 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy, Embassy/State, Trump



    I remember when as an American diplomat I realized my government was no longer credible. We may be at that same point in the Trump presidency.


    My moment was in 2006, in Hong Kong, where I was assigned to the American Consulate. It had been a difficult few years as an American diplomat, as crimes against humanity under the George W. Bush administration were being talked about in government circles, even if they had not yet been acknowledged publicly. America was torturing people. American invaded Iraq under a blanket of lies. And America opened a prison at Guantanamo. It was there the United States held Omar Khadr, and the Canadians wanted him out.

    Omar Khadr was a 15-year-old Canadian grabbed off the battlefield in Afghanistan in 2002, believed to have killed an American soldier. After learning the child had been tortured, the Canadians wanted him transferred to their custody for his own safety, and in 2006 ordered their diplomats globally, to every American foreign service post, to make that demand (a demarche in diplomatic language.) I had never heard of Khadr before, but sitting there hearing from the Canadians how he had been treated I realized America had no credibility left when, among other things, it criticized Saddam Hussein for harming his own people as a secondary justification for the Iraq invasion.

    At the table in far-away Hong Kong we knew none of us were going to free Omar Khadr, but the Canadians did their job and I did mine, pre-written talking points all around. We knew each other, and our kids went to the same school. So informally I also heard “we may not be able to work with you anymore on a lot of things if this fails.” Canada had sent troops to Afghanistan, withheld them from Iraq under American criticism, but the message was now a step too far had been taken, and while routine business would continue, they were probably going to wait on any big stuff until George W. Bush was out of office (Khadr was released to Canadian custody in 2012, and freed in Canada in 2015.)


    I am hearing from former colleagues in diplomacy and intelligence Helsinki may have been a similar moment, requiring now a resolution of some sort in what is known as “Russiagate” to maintain credibility in America’s international interactions. Trump has more than two years left in office, some say six, far too long to wait out given the number of global issues requiring international cooperation.

    As a diplomat you represent your own complicated country, and all sides understand that, hence the careful use of pre-written talking points over the fate of Omar Khadr. But from the Secretary of State on down, credibility is a crucial tool in getting things down. Can you be trusted, not just personally, but to accurately convey what Washington wants to say to its allies, friends, and those it negotiates against? If you explain an American policy today, and the other side acts on that only to find the president tweeting out something else, however close your relationship may be personally with your counterparts, across the table you become a non-entity. How’s your daughter doing in school? Fine, just fine, let’s have lunch Tuesday, but please don’t ask me to support your UN resolution.

    If I was sitting in an embassy job today and was asked informally by an ally to explain the president’s remarks in Helsinki, I would stumble for coherence. I know those foreign diplomats are reading the same media I am: a columnist in the New York Times calling Trump a traitor, an article in New York Magazine speculating Trump met Putin as his intelligence handler, a call by a former Central Intelligence Director to impeach the president, former counter-terrorism coordinator Richard A. Clarke speculating Trump was meeting with Putin to receive his next set of orders, a former intelligence officer warning “we’re on the cusp of losing the American constitutional republic forever,” or maybe just the parsed criticism of Trump from within his own party.

    And alongside of all that, an indictment of Russian military personnel for hacking into the Democratic National Committee servers, the details released at a time that can only be read as as attempt to disrupt whatever initiatives Trump planned to pursue with Russia, followed by an arrest of a Russian agent timed to bookend the Helsinki summit. Some overseas will perceive those acts as a power struggle within the American government.

    There is a lot in the air. In the face of all that, after what at best can be called a bizarre performance by Trump in Helsinki, how can American diplomats assure their counterparts they know who is in charge, that what they claim is American policy actually is policy, and that… that… in some way the president of the United States is not more sympathetic to an adversary than to his allies? No American diplomat today can answer to those points. It was thus unsurprising Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had little to say in Helsinki.


    America’s global needs cannot wait out a Trump presidency, nor do they appear able to wait out whatever investigative process has been underway through two administrations. American intelligence began looking into Russiagate two years ago, with little substantive action taken by the Obama administration. The process has continued on the intelligence side undisturbed, along with new efforts by various parts of Congress, and by the Special Counsel. The multiple threads do not appear driven by a sense of crisis, and that is wrong.

    There have of course been far worse moments in American history: the presidents who watched helplessly as the storm over slavery broke into Civil War, FDR and the Japanese internment camps, Nixon bombing Vietnamese civilians and prolonging the Vietnam war to help get himself reelected, and George W. Bush setting the Middle East aflame.

    But we are here now, and Helsinki says either present the best possible evidence after two years of effort Donald Trump or his close associates actively worked with the Russian government, and thus remain beholden to it, or make it clear that is not the case. Getting things done in the world requires credibility, and it is now time to set aside chasing indictments that will never see the inside of a courtroom, those concerning financial crimes unconnected to the campaign, and a clumsy series of perjury cases. Post-Helsinki, we — America’s diplomats, its allies, its people — need to know who is running the United States.




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  • Why I Support Julian Assange (And Why You Should Too)

    July 19, 2018 // 15 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy



    This weekend I joined a number of people in an online vigil in support of Wikileaks’ Julian Assange.

    People ask why I did it; Assange is at best imperfect in who he is and what he does. But supporting him transcends him, because the battle over the prosecution of Assange is where the future of free speech and a free press will be decided. Even if you think Assange doesn’t matter, those things do.


    Assange is challenging to even his staunchest supporters. In 2010 he was a hero to opponents of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others called him an enemy of the state for working with whistleblower Chelsea Manning. Now most of Assange’s former supporters see him as a enemy of the state and Putin tool for releasing the Democratic National Committee emails. Even in the face of dismissed charges of sexual assault, Assange is a #MeToo villain. He a traitor who hides from justice inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, or a spy, or some web-made Frankenstein with elements of all of the above. And while I’ve never met Assange, I’ve spoken to multiple people who know him well, and the words generous, warm, or personable rarely are included in their descriptions. But none of that really matters.

    Support is due because Assange ends up being the guy standing at a crossroads in the history of our freedoms – specifically, at what point does the need for the people to know outweigh laws allowing the government to keep information from view? The question isn’t new, but becomes acute in the digital age, where physical documents no longer need to be copied one-by-one, can be acquired by hackers from the other side of the world, and where publishing is far removed from the traditions, obstacles, safeguards, and often-dangerous self-restraint of traditional journalism.


    A complex history precedes Assange. In 1971 Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, a secret U.S. government-written history of the Vietnam War, to the New York Times. No one had ever published such classified documents before, and reporters at the Times feared they would go to jail under the Espionage Act. A federal court ordered the Times to cease publication after an initial flurry of excerpts were printed, the first time in U.S. history a federal judge censored a newspaper. In the end the Supreme Court handed down a victory for the First Amendment in New York Times Company v. United States and the Times won the Pulitzer Prize.

    But looking at the Times case through the lens of Wikileaks, law professor Steve Vladeck points out “although the First Amendment separately protects the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press, the Supreme Court has long refused to give any separate substantive content to the Press Clause above and apart from the Speech Clause… The Supreme Court has never suggested that the First Amendment might protect a right to disclose national security information. Yes, the Pentagon Papers case rejected a government effort to enjoin publication, but several of the Justices in their separate opinions specifically suggested that the government could prosecute the New York Times and the Washington Post after publication, under the Espionage Act.”

    The Supreme Court left the door open to prosecute journalists who publish classified documents by focusing narrowly on prohibiting the government from exercising prior restraint. Politics and public opinion, not law, has kept the government exercising discretion in not prosecuting journalists, a delicate dance around this 800 pound gorilla loose in the halls of democracy. The government meanwhile has aggressively used the Espionage Act to prosecute the whistleblowers who leaked to those same journalists.


    The closest things came to throwing a journalist in jail was in 2014, when the Obama administration subpoenaed New York Times reporter James Risen. The government accused former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling of passing classified information to Risen, information it said appeared in his book State of War. After a lower court ordered Risen under threat of jail to testify and disclose his source, the Supreme Court turned down Risen’s appeal, siding with the government in a confrontation between a national security prosecution and an infringement of press freedom. The Supreme Court refused to consider whether there existed a gentlemen’s agreement under the First Amendment for “reporter’s privilege,” an undocumented protection beneath the handful of words in the free press clause.

    In the end the government, fearful of setting the wrong precedent, punted on Risen. Waving the flag over a messy situation, then-Attorney General Eric Holder announced “no reporter who is doing his job is going to go to jail.” Risen wasn’t called to testify and was not punished for publishing classified material, even as the alleged leaker, Jeffrey Sterling, disappeared into jail. To avoid the chance of a clear precedent that might have granted some form of reporter’s privilege under the Constitution, the government stepped away from the fight. The key issues now wait for Julian Assange.


    Should the government prosecute Julian Assange, there are complex legal questions to be answered about who is a journalist and what is publishing in the digital world. There is no debate over whether James Risen is a journalist, and over whether a book is publishing. Glenn Greenwald has written about and placed online classified documents given to him by Edward Snowden, and has never been challenged by the government as a journalist or publisher. Both men enjoy popular support, and work for established media. The elements of fact checking, confirming, curating, redacting, and in writing context around the classified information, were all present in the New York Times’ case with the Pentagon Papers, and are present with American citizens Risen and Greenwald. Definitions and precedent may be forming.

    Assange is an easier target. The government has the chance to mold the legal precedents with such certainty that they may seize this case where they have backed away from others in the long-running war of attrition against free speech and the press.

    Assange isn’t an American. He is unpopular. He has written nothing alongside the millions of documents on Wikileaks, has done no curating or culling, and has redacted little information. Publishing in his case consists of simply uploading what has been supplied to him. It would be easy for the government to frame a case against Assange that set precedent he is not entitled to any First Amendment protections simply by claiming clicking UPLOAD isn’t publishing and Assange isn’t a journalist. The simplest interpretation of the Espionage Act, that Assange willfully transmitted information relating to the national defense without authorization, would apply. Guilty, same as the other canaries in the deep mineshaft of Washington, DC before him, no messy balancing questions to be addressed. And with that, a unique form of online journalism would be squashed.


    And that really, really matters. Wikileaks sidesteps the restraints of traditional journalism. Remember in 2004 the New York Times held the story of George W. Bush’s illegal warrantless eavesdropping program until after his reelection. In 2006 the Los Angeles Times suppressed a story on wiretaps of Americans when asked by the NSA. Glenn Greenwald said it plainly: too many journalists work in self-censoring mode, “obsequious journalism.” Meanwhile Assange has made mistakes while broadly showing courage, not restraint, under similar circumstances. The public is better informed because of it.

    Wikileaks’ version of journalism says here are the cables, the memos, and the emails. Others can write about them (and nearly every mainstream media outlet has used Wikileaks to do that, some even while calling Assange a traitor), or you as a citizen can simply read the stuff yourself and make up your own damn mind. That is the root of an informed public, through a set of tools never before available until Assange and Internet created them.

    If Assange becomes the first successful prosecution of a third party, as a journalist or not, under the Espionage Act, the government can turn that precedent into a weapon to attack the media’s role in any national security case. On the other hand, if Assange can leave London for asylum in Ecuador, that will empower new journalists to provide evidence when a government serves its people poorly and has no interest in being held accountable.

    Freedom is never static. It either advances under our pressure, or recedes under theirs. I support Julian Assange.




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  • Julian Assange and the Future of a Free Press (Long Form)

    July 18, 2018 // 4 Comments

    Tags: , , , , , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy



    This weekend I joined a number of people including Dan Ellsberg, John Kiriakou, Scott Horton, and Caitlin Johnstone in a 38 hours online vigil in support of Wikileaks’ Julian Assange. People ask why I did it, because Julian Assange and his Wikileaks organization are at best imperfect in who they are and what they do. But those imperfections are both of interest and do not matter. Supporting him transcends him, because the battle over the prosecution of Assange is where the future of free speech and a free press in the digital age will be decided. Even if you think Assange doesn’t matter, those things do.

    Supporting Julian Assange and Wikileaks is complicated. In 2010 a hero to then-opponents of American imperialism in Iraq and Afghanistan while being labeled by others as an enemy of the state for working with whistleblower Chelsea Manning, today most of Assange’s former supporters from the left see him as a enemy of the state for allegedly working with Vladimir Putin to leak the Democratic National Committee emails. Many who opposed Assange’s work from the right now support him for helping defeat Hillary Clinton. Assange is a traitor who runs from justice, or a journalist, or a hero, or a spy, or some Frankenstein with elements of all of the above. And while I’ve never met Assange, I’ve spoken to multiple people who know him well, and the words generous, warm, or personable rarely are included in their descriptions.

    Assange’s biography is challenging to even his staunchest supporters. After Wikileaks’ release of a half million highly classified documents in 2010, including evidence of war crimes and thousands of State Department internal cables, Assange was accused of sexual assault in Sweden under ambiguous circumstances. He was questioned there, but never charged or arrested, and left for the UK. The Swedes decided to continue their investigation, but instead of exercising options via Interpol to question Assange in the UK, instead insisted their inquiries could only be made on Swedish soil and requested the UK return Assange against his will. The British arrested Assange, though he was released on bail. Fearing the whole thing was a set-up to extradite him to the U.S. via Sweden, Assange jumped bail. Fearing the same faux process would see Britain send him to the U.S., Assange then obtained asylum, and later citizenship, from the Ecuadorian embassy in London. After claiming for years they could never interview him outside of Sweden, the Swedes reversed themselves and interviewed Assange in London in 2016. They soon dropped the charges. Britain meanwhile still plans to arrest Assange for failing to appear in court for an eight year old case that basically no longer exists, and will not assure him safe passage out of the UK. Assange has been living inside the Ecuadorian embassy for over five years.

    Contrary to popular belief, embassies are not the sovereign territory of their owners. However, the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations codified a custom that has been in place for centuries when it established the “rule of inviolability.” This prohibits local police from entering an embassy for any purpose without the permission of the ambassador. This is why Assange is safe from arrest as long as he stays within the walls of the Ecuadorian embassy, and of course in their good graces.

    The idea of a lengthy stay inside an embassy for asylum is not new. The longest such episode was that of Hungarian Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, who spent 15 years inside the American Embassy in Budapest, protected from the Soviet Union. In 1978 Russian Pentecostalists broke into the American Embassy in Moscow, demanding protection from religious persecution. They lived in the embassy basement for five years before a deal sent them to Israel. In 1989, Chinese dissident Fang Li-zhi resided in the American Embassy in Beijing for a year before being allowed to travel to the United States. More recently, in 2012, blind Chinese dissident Chen Guang-cheng spent six days in the American Embassy in Beijing, before then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton negotiated his safe passage to the U.S. The irony is in all those incidents, the United States was the protector. America today instead looks petty and mean standing alongside Soviet Russia and Communist China in pressing hard against one man aside the broader wave of history.

    Should some process deliver Assange into American custody, he would be charged under the Espionage Act, a 1917 law used aggressively by the Obama administration to prosecute whistleblowers, including Chelsea Manning, and by the Trump administration to prosecute whistleblower Reality Winner. Under the Act, Assange would be prohibited from offering a “public interest” defense; his unauthorized possession of classified materials alone would ensure a guilty verdict, in that the Act does not distinguish between possession for journalistic purposes to inform the public, and possession say with the intent to hand over secrets to Russian intelligence. Assange, as with the others prosecuted under the Espionage Act (Edward Snowden would face similar circumstances on trial in America), would be found guilty and simultaneously be denied the chance to defend himself based on a free speech/public interest defense. The Espionage Act was created long before anyone coined the phrase Catch-22, but it seemed to have that spirit in mind.

    But support for Assange, as for Snowden and other whistleblowers yet unnamed, is due because the stakes go far beyond one person’s rights and freedoms. What happens to Julian Assange will set precedent regarding free speech, freedom of the press, and the publication of classified and suppressed documents in pursuit of an informed public and representative accountability for many years to come.

    The Espionage Act has a sordid history, having once been used against the government’s political opponents. Targets included labor leaders and radicals like Eugene V. Debs, Bill Haywood, Philip Randolph, Victor Berger, John Reed, Max Eastman, and Emma Goldman. Debs, a union leader and socialist candidate for the presidency, was, in fact, sentenced to 10 years in jail for a speech attacking the Espionage Act itself. The Nixon administration infamously (and unsuccessfully) invoked the Act to bar the New York Times from continuing to publish the classified Pentagon Papers.

    Assange poses a dilemma for the United States in its ongoing push-pull in balancing the power of the government to protect classified information (rightly or wrongly), the clear guarantees to free speech and a free press in the First Amendment, and the broader concept of the need for an informed populace to challenge their government and make a peoples’ democracy work in practice.

    At what point does the need for the people to know outweigh any laws allowing the government to keep it from view, such that someone may expose information, despite its classification? If punishment appears necessary, should the thief be punished, should the journalist who publishes it be punished, or should neither, or should both? The questions become acute in the digital age, where physical documents no longer need to be copied one-by-one, and where publishing is far removed from the traditions, obstacles, safeguards, backdoor pressures, self-restraint, and occasional deep subject matter knowledge of traditional journalism.

    A complex and at times ambiguous history precedes Assange. In 1971 Daniel Ellsberg leaked the classified Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. The Papers were a 7,000 page classified history of the Vietnam War prepared under the order of then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. We know now McNamara, while publicly supporting the war, was privately consumed by doubt, and ordered the Papers written as his act of contrition.

    The risks for journalists were huge — no one had ever published such classified documents before, and the senior staff at the Times feared they would go to jail under the Espionage Act. The Nixon administration found a court to order the Times to cease publication after an initial flurry of excerpts were printed in June 1971, the first time in U.S. history a federal judge censored a newspaper. Things got so dicey the Times’ outside counsel actually quit the night before his first appearance in court, claiming the newspaper, his own client, had indeed broken the law.

    Despite such pessimism, the Supreme Court handed down a landmark victory for the First Amendment in New York Times Company v. United States. The Times won the Pulitzer Prize. Ellsberg was charged under the Espionage Act, though his case was dismissed for gross governmental misconduct and illegal evidence gathering without the underlying issues being addressed, most prominently Ellsberg’s defense he was morally compelled to leak the classified information to the Times, claiming “I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public.”

    But looking at the Times case through the lens of Wikileaks, University of Texas law professor Steve Vladeck is careful to point out “Although the First Amendment separately protects the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press, the Supreme Court has long refused to give any separate substantive content to the Press Clause above and apart from the Speech Clause… The Supreme Court has never suggested that the First Amendment might protect a right to disclose national security information. Yes, the Pentagon Papers case rejected a government effort to enjoin publication, but several of the Justices in their separate opinions specifically suggested that the government could prosecute the New York Times and the Washington Post after publication, under the Espionage Act.”

    In its simplest form, the Supreme Court left the door open for the government to prosecute both the leaker who takes the documents (by dismissing the case without setting a precedent) and the journalists who publish them (by focusing narrowly on prohibiting the government from exercising prior restraint.)

    What has happened since has been little more than a very delicate dance around the 800 pound gorilla in the halls of democracy. The government has aggressively prosecuted whistleblowers under the Espionage Act (The Obama administration prosecuted eight whistleblowers under the Espionage Act, more than all previous presidential administrations combined) while choosing not to prosecute journalists for publishing what the whistleblowers hand over to them.

    In one of the first of a series of attempts to make journalists reveal their sources, former Fox News reporter Mike Levine stated the Justice Department persuaded a federal grand jury to subpoena him in January 2011. The demand was that he reveal his sources for a 2009 story about Somali-Americans who were secretly indicted in Minneapolis for joining an al-Qaeda-linked group in Somalia. Levine fought the order and the Department of Justice finally dropped it without comment in April 2012. Call it a failed test case.

    The closest things came to throwing a journalist in jail over classified information was in 2014, when Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder gave federal prosecutors permission to subpoena New York Times reporter James Risen regarding a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency. The government accused former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling of passing classified information to Risen, information it said appeared in his 2006 book State of War. Holder issued the subpoena in line with his July 2013 Department of Justice guidelines on seeking information from the news media. That guidance sought to circumvent a court precedent being set by providing limited, discretionary protection for the media in some civil and criminal proceedings following scandals involving the DOJ seizing phone records and emails of reporters from the Associated Press and Fox News.

    Risen refused to comply with the subpoena, which would have required him to disclose his source. After a lower court ordered Risen under threat of jail time to testify, the Supreme Court in June 2014 turned down Risen’s appeal. That left him facing a choice to reveal his source or go to jail. The Court’s one-line order gave no reasons but effectively sided with the government in a confrontation between securing evidence in a national security prosecution and an intolerable infringement of press freedom. The Supreme Court refused to consider whether there existed a sort of gentlemen’s agreement under the First Amendment for “reporter’s privilege,” an undocumented protection beneath the handful of words in the free press clause. By not making a new decision, the Court effectively upheld the existing decision by a federal appeals court finding that the Constitution does not give journalists special protection from the law.

    That decision was more or less in line with the ambiguous way the Supreme Court has always looked at the unwritten special protections for journalists. The only real ruling on what special rights the media may hold under the free press clause came in 1972, in Branzburg v. Hayes. The Court decided reporters were not shielded from grand jury subpoenas, asserting judges must strike a “proper balance between freedom of the press and the obligation of all citizens to give relevant testimony.” From time to time lower courts have chosen to interpret that phrase as meaning there is indeed some sort of unwritten balancing test concerning the media, while other courts have read the same words to mean media should be compelled to testify.

    In the end of the Risen case, the government, fearful of setting the wrong precedent and confident it otherwise had the evidence to convict Jeffrey Sterling, punted. Waving the flag noblely over a messy situation, Attorney General Holder announced “As long as I am attorney general, no reporter who is doing his job is going to go to jail.” Federal prosecutors asked the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia to “exclude James Risen as an unavailable witness” and said the jury “should draw no inferences, favorable or unfavorable” based on his absence as a witness.

    Risen didn’t testify, and was not punished for publishing classified material by the government’s choice to back away from his case. The alleged leaker, Jeffrey Sterling, was thrown into jail for over two years. In 2015 Google turned over the Gmail account and metadata of a WikiLeaks employee in response to a federal warrant.

    No court precedent was set. The door was left open. To avoid a clear precedent that would grant journalists a reporter’s privilege under the Constitution, the government stepped away from the fight. While the balancing question of the “public interest” has been poked at in other contexts, no one has shown where the balancing point is between the government’s need to protect information, a citizen’s right to expose information, and the media’s right to publish it. That all waits for Julian Assange.

    Should the government bring Espionage Act charges against Julian Assange, there are complex legal questions to be answered about what if any First Amendment protections if any apply. Assange is not an American citizen and was not under U.S. jurisdiction when his actions regarding classified documents occurred. Is the fact that Wikileaks’ servers reside outside the United States and thus outside the protections of the First Amendment controlling, or does cyberspace lack such boundaries? By the way they chose to bring their case, government attorneys can influence how legal precedent is set on those matters. And if the United States can prosecute someone under those circumstances, any other government could demand foreign reporters anywhere on earth be extradited for violating their laws.

    The question also exists of who is a journalist and what is publishing in the digital world where thousands of files can be uploaded to a site instead of waiting for printing presses to run off copies. There is no debate over whether James Risen is a journalist, and over whether producing a book is publishing. Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, and The Intercept, who have for years been writing about and placing online highly classified documents given to them by Edward Snowden, have never been challenged by the government as “journalists” or “publishers.” The elements of fact checking, confirming, curating, redacting, and in writing context around the classified information, were present in the New York Times’ case with the Pentagon Papers, and are present with Risen and Greenwald, et al. All involved are American citizens.

    Almost none of that applies to Assange. He has written nothing alongside the millions of documents on Wikileaks, has done no curating or culling, and has redacted information at times and not at others. Publishing in his case consists of simply uploading what has been supplied to him to a website. It would be easy for the government to frame a case against Assange that set precedent he is not entitled to any First Amendment or reporter’s privilege protections whatever they may be — clicking UPLOAD isn’t publishing and Assange isn’t a journalist. The simplest interpretation of 18 U.S.C. § 793(e) in the Espionage Act, that Assange willfully transmitted information relating to the national defense without authorization would apply. Guilty, same almost all of the leakers, whistleblowers, data thieves, hackers, and other canaries in the deep mineshaft of Washington, DC before him.

    And that really, really matters. Wikileaks sidestepped the restraints of traditional journalism to bring the raw material of history to the people. Never mind whether or not a court determined disclosure of secret NSA programs which spied on Americans disclosure was truly in the public interest. Never mind the New York Times got a phone call from the President and decided not to publish something. Never mind how senior government officials are allowed to selectively leak information helpful to themselves. Never mind what parts of an anonymous technical disclosure a reporter understood well enough to write about, here are the cables, the memos, the emails, the archives themselves. Others can write summaries and interpretations if they wish (and nearly every mainstream media outlet has used Wikileaks to do that, some even while calling Assange and his sources traitors), or you as an individual can simply read the stuff yourself and make up your own damn mind about what the government is doing. Fact checks? There are the facts themselves in front of you. That is the root of an informed public, through a set of tools and freedoms never before available until the Wikileaks and Internet created them.

    Allowing these new tools to be broken over the meaning of the words journalist and publishing will stifle all of the press. If Assange becomes the first successful prosecution of a third party under the Espionage Act, the government can then turn that precedent into a weapon to aggressively attack the media’s role in say national security leaks. Is a reporter, for example, publishing a Signal number and asking for government employees to leak to her in fact soliciting people to commit national security felonies? Will media employees have to weigh for themselves the potential public interest, hoping to avoid prosecution if they differ from the government’s opinion? The government in the case of Assange may see the chance to mold the legal precedents with such certainty that they will seize this chance where they have backed away from others. The Assange case may prove to be the topper in a long-running war of attrition against free speech.

    In mid-2004, James Risen and Eric Lichtblau uncovered George W. Bush’s illegal warrantless eavesdropping program, but the New York Times held the story for 15 months, until after Bush’s reelection. Executives at the Times were told by administration officials that if they ran the story, they’d be helping terrorists. They accepted that. In 2006 the Los Angeles Times similarly gave in to the NSA and suppressed a story on government wiretaps of Americans. Glenn Greenwald said it plainly: too many journalists have gone into a self-censoring mode, practicing “obsequious journalism.”

    Assange, and those who follow him in this new paradigm of journalism and publishing, have made mistakes while broadly showing courage, not restraint, under similar circumstances and the public is better informed because of it. In the words of one commentator, “WikiLeaks liberates the right to free speech from authorities that restrict access.” Along the way the 2007 release of the Kroll report on official corruption in Kenya affected a national election, while in 2009 Wikileaks exposed the moral bankruptcy of Iceland’s banks. A 2011 Amnesty International report pointed to the role of leaked documents in triggering revolutionary global uprisings. The BBC said Wikileaks revelations were a spark for the Arab spring.

    “This is the biggest free speech battle of our lifetimes,” said the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “This is the moment when we will see whether publishers can continue to freely distribute truthful political information online.”

    I support Assange because he is someone who fell into a place and time where crucial decisions will be made. Allowing Assange to speak now, and to travel unfettered to Ecuador and permanent asylum will allow others after him to continue to provide evidence when a government serves its people poorly and has no interest in being held accountable. Prosecution of Julian Assange can only come from a nation which fears the noise of democracy and prefers the silence of compliance.



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  • Thomas Jefferson’s Ghost Visits the White House

    July 4, 2018 // 33 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Post-Constitution America

    jefferson.resized

    (Replaying an old favorite blog post for this July 4th…)

    “Who the hell are you?” said a startled Barack Obama, clad only in his Kenyan flag boxers.

    “Easy Barack, chill. Wait, sleeping alone? Awkward. Anyway, I’m Thomas Jefferson, or at least his ghost. Every once in awhile I get bored haunting the attic at the White House and come down to visit, see how the wonderful democracy we created is doing. Add any new rights to our Bill of Rights recently?”

    “Um, it sort of hasn’t gone that way. Except maybe for the Second Amendment, lots of solid growth there,” said Obama.

    “Yes, yes, even upstairs we’ve heard the gunshots. You realize we intended that so Americans would be ready to serve as citizen-soldiers when called up to form militias, right? We never wanted a large standing army, and figured if every stout yeoman farmer retained a musket that would pretty much cover it. I’ll check my notes, but I am pretty sure we never intended the Second to end up arming unhindered homophobic maniacs, or angry white guys who hate abortion in the name of a Christian God, with bazookas.”

    “Sure, Tom, we may have made a misstep or two, but we had a couple of Democrats stage a sit in on the House floor to demand gun control,” said Obama.

    “Hmmm. Sitting down when they should be standing up for something? And why weren’t you with them, Barack?”

    “Um, I had Hamilton tickets, couldn’t make it.”

    “Oh, jeez, Hamilton, again. Where the hell’s my musical? Anyway, how are the rest of the Amendments doing?” Jefferson said.

    “Well, Tom, we had to make a few… adjustments. Time of war and all.”

    “Good God, did a foreign army invade Boston? Damned Canadian troops cross the border? British Men o’ War in New York harbor? What is this war?”

    “Well, 15 years ago some guys killed about half as many Americans who have died in the wars we started since then. That’s kinda it, really,” said Obama. “Been basically riffing off that ever since.”

    “And?”

    “And so we pretty much trashed the Fourth Amendment and now spy on all Americans 24/7. The First Amendment, especially the right to free speech part, that hasn’t held up well, either,” said Obama. “And you have to take your shoes off at the airport but none of us remember why that is anymore.”

    “But Barack, a well-informed citizenry, secure in their persons and papers, who can assemble to speak truth to their government is essential,” Jefferson said. “Actually, that’s kinda the whole thing.”

    “Sure, we have free speech zones at all the big events now, and CNN holds TV townhalls with pre-selected questions. Got that covered. But don’t ask me about due process. I kinda kill American citizens abroad with drones now. Yeah, so there’s that. You know what a mic drop is, Thomas?”

    “OK, OK, I glanced at a newspaper on my way down here, and at least there is some good news. I see that you finally corrected the biggest mistake we made with the Constitution, and got rid of slavery. Indeed, I see now that most Americans are even saying how much Black Lives Matter. That is a very nice sentiment,” Jefferson said.

    “Thomas, maybe you better sit down and I’ll explain…”

     

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  • Diplomacy 101 Case Study: Singapore Summit

    July 4, 2018 // 15 Comments

    Tags: , , , , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Trump

     

    While I can say there isn’t a formal class at the American State Department called Diplomacy 101, some training offered to new hires comes pretty close. Those basic tenets of statecraft, largely unchanged from Thucydides to Bismarck to Pompeo, are important to review in light of the widespread criticism of the Singapore Summit.

    You make peace by talking to your adversaries. Diplomacy is almost always a process and rarely a big-bang scale event. Steps backward are expected along with steps forward. Realizing America’s foreign policy goals often means dealing with bad people. As an American diplomat I purposely flattered and befriended gangsters in Japan to help American citizens in trouble, Irish Republican Army terrorists when a change in administration in Washington saw them eligible for visas, and militia leaders in Iraq who sought deals during the Surge. So has every diplomat, along with most intelligence officers and military officers. Many in the media have done exactly the same things to cultivate sources.

    The Etruscans, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Eritreans, and Everyone else from A-Z have been conducting diplomacy with adversaries of all flavors, titles, and moral standards since before the word was even invented by the French. A leader whose family has been the sole ruler of his nation for seven some decades, who controls nuclear weapons, whose nation has a seat at the United Nations and embassies in multiple countries around the world already meets any practical test of “legitimacy.” Kim’s nuclear weapons exist whether or not he meets a sitting American president, or ex-presidents Clinton and Carter, though the only chance those weapons may someday be gone rests in such meetings.

    Now protocol is always tricky. President Obama had no obligation to bow to the Emperor of Japan, but decided to convey respect; same with American male diplomats holding the hands of or exchanging kisses with their Arab counterparts; I kissed a lot of bearded men while on duty myself. Mistakes happen — Trump did not need to salute that North Korean general — but what matters most is the effect on your counterparts. No damage was done, and maybe even some additional humility was conveyed in a situation where offense could have easily derailed more important matters.

    Diplomacy 101 advises you can’t control how your adversary, or even your friends, will portray events. Signals to the international community are important, but if you get too concerned about controlling them you’ll end up advising your boss she better just stay in Washington. One expert writes, “Foreign policymaking is not an omnidirectional antenna that clearly emits messages in all directions, which are correctly interpreted and acted upon by the intended audiences. Indeed, refraining from pursuing diplomatic initiatives because of how an adversary might characterize that initiative is surely a signal of weakness. And in the case of North Korea, allowing the propaganda efforts of a totalitarian government to influence United States policy making priorities is just self-crippling.”

    It’s different with created messaging directed at your adversary, because nobody else matters. Much mockery was slathered on the video Trump played for Kim in Singapore, depicting him as a great leader facing a history-bending decision. The video was spiced full of symbols that resonate with Koreans, including sacred places and holiday images that mean little to outsiders. The audience was one man, and the video was designed to do one thing, speak to Kim in a visual language he understood. Diplomacy 101 suggests everyone else might stand aside, the way older folks should do when people say such-and-such a new dance song is good or bad, knowing they’re not the intended audience.

    Negotiations are rarely an even exchange. But how long will you sit at the table if someone else seems to win every hand? Everyone has to at least feel they can win, so they don’t have a reason to cheat, and thus stay in the game. Even when stakes are high the good news it’s hard to give away “the store.” The store in whatever form usually isn’t something that can be irrevocably stopped, boxed up for shipment, or destroyed forever. Never mind the checks, balances, and bureaucratic brakes built into something as complex as the United States government, or even what may appear to be mostly a one-man-rule system. Diplomacy 101 encourages a thoughtful approach to score keeping, knowing the score only really matters at the end anyway.

    Diplomacy 101 also reminds the most important purpose of a good first date is to make sure there’s a second. It doesn’t make sense to call it a failure if no marriage proposal follows dessert. Love at first sight is best left for the movies. A kiss goodnight is great, but international relations is a chaste process and demanding or expecting too much too early isn’t a long game strategy. Setting an artificial clock running alongside something as delicate as nuclear disarmament accomplishes nothing. Negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union sometimes spanned administrations.

    Even failures are part of the process. William Johnson, a Foreign Service Officer who served as the State Department’s political advisor on special operations to the United States’ Pacific Command, explained to me “Diplomacy is often a series of failures, and in the best case, the failures become incrementally less bad, until sometimes the least spectacular failure is declared success. Diplomacy is a game where the goalposts are supposed to move, and often, to move erratically. Trump needs a plan, with specific goals, each laid out neatly in a set of talking points, not because he will attain those goals, but because he needs to figure out how short of them he can afford to fall or how far beyond them he can push his interlocutor.”

    A future Diplomacy 101 class may examine the Singapore Summit alongside President Richard Nixon’s summit with Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung. That 1972 meeting ended over two decades of isolation between the two nuclear-armed countries, and is universally hailed as brilliant diplomacy. But looking back, the main takeaway, the Shanghai Communique, is full of vague phrases promising to meet again, to somehow make “progress toward the normalization of relations,” and “reduce the danger of international military conflict.” The status of Taiwan, which had almost brought the Americans and Chinese to war, was dealt with in almost poetic terms, able to be read with multiple meanings.

    There was no timeline for anything. No specific next steps listed, though Nixon did agree to the “ultimate objective of the withdrawal of all U.S. forces and military installations from Taiwan.” Nothing about China’s horrendous human rights situation. Few details at all, and the biggest problem was treated obliquely. It took seven more years before full diplomatic relations were restored. Yet scholars see the visit as one of the most impactful ever by an American president, to the point where the term “Nixon to China” is now shorthand for a breakthrough leaders’ meeting.

    It is of course too early to fully assess the Singapore Summit, never mind to see if it will rank anywhere near the Nixon-Mao meeting. But we do know personal diplomacy has sometimes been the right strategy, and that Americans have met with dictators, nuclear-armed and not, before. Simply amending “But Trump!” to those and other realities of diplomacy does not change them. As the United States-North Korea relationship evolves, it is important to avoid valuing the sharp elbows of partisan politics over the earned lessons of Diplomacy 101. Class dismissed — for now.

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  • Was It All Just Pilot Error? IG Report Says No Political Bias Found in FBI Investigation of Clinton Email

    June 21, 2018 // 25 Comments

    Tags: , , , , , , , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Trump



    What everyone will agree on: Comey and the FBI interfered with the election. What everyone will not agree on: Everything else.

    It will be easy to miss the most important point amid the partisan bleating over what the Department of Justice Office of Inspector General report on the FBI’s Clinton email investigation really means. While each side will find the evidence they want to find that the FBI, with James Comey as Director, helped/hurt Hillary Clinton’s and/or maybe Donald Trump’s campaign, the real takeaway is this: the FBI influenced the election of a president.

    In January 2017 the Inspector General (IG) for the Department of Justice, Michael Horowitz (who previously worked on the 2012 study of the Obama-era gun operation Fast and Furious), opened his probe into the FBI’s Clinton email investigation, including statements by Comey made about that investigation at critical moments in the presidential campaign. Horowitz’s focus was always to be on how the FBI did its work, not to re-litigate the case against Clinton. Nor did the IG plan to look into anything Russiagate.

    In a damning passage, the 568 page report found it “extraordinary and insubordinate for Comey to conceal his intentions from his superiors… for the admitted purpose of preventing them from telling him not to make the statement, and to instruct his subordinates in the FBI to do the same… by departing so clearly and dramatically from FBI and department norms, the decisions negatively impacted the perception of the FBI and the department as fair administrators of justice.” Comey’s drafting of a press release announcing no prosecution for Clinton, written before the full investigation was even completed, is given a light touch though in the report, along the lines of roughly preparing for the conclusion based on early indications. We also learned Comey ironically used private email for government business.

    Attorney General Loretta Lynch herself is criticized for not being more sensitive to public perceptions when she agreed to meet privately with Bill Clinton aboard an airplane as the FBI investigation into Hillary unfolded. “Lynch’s failure to recognize the appearance problem… and to take action to cut the visit short was an error in judgment.” Her statements later about her decision not to recuse further “created public confusion and didn’t adequately address the situation.”

    The report also criticizes in depth FBI agents Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, who exchanged texts disparaging Trump, and then moved from the Clinton email to the Russiagate investigations. Those texts “brought discredit” to the FBI and sowed public doubt about the investigation, including one exchange that read “Lisa Page: “[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Rights?! Peter Strzok: “No. No he’s not. We’ll stop it.” Another Strzok document stated “we know foreign actors obtained access” to some Clinton emails, including at least one secret message.”

    Page and Strzok also discussed cutting back the number of investigators present for Clinton’s in-person interview in light of the fact she might soon be president, their new boss. Someone identified only as Agent One went on to refer to Clinton as “the President” and in a message told a friend “I’m with her.” The FBI also allowed Clinton’s lawyers to attend the interview, even though they were also considered witnesses to a potential set of crimes committed by Clinton.

    Page and Strzok were among five FBI officials the report found expressed hostility toward Trump before his election as president, and who have been referred to the FBI’s internal disciple system for possible action. The report otherwise makes only wishy-washy recommendations, things like “adopting a policy addressing the appropriateness of Department employees discussing the conduct of uncharged individuals in public statements.”

    Attorney General Jeff Sessions indicated he will review the report for possible prosecutions. The IG previously referred former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe for possible prosecution after an earlier report found McCabe leaked to the press and later “lacked candor” when speaking to Comey and federal investigators. Sessions fired McCabe him in March 2018.

    But at the end of it all, the details really don’t matter, because the report found no political bias, no purposeful efforts or strategy to sway the election. In aviation disaster terms, it was all pilot error. An accident of sorts, as opposed to the pilot boarding drunk, but the plane crashed and killed 300 people anyway.

    The report is already being welcomed by Democrats — who feel Comey had shattered Clinton’s chances of winning the election by reopening the email probe just days before the election — and by Republicans, who feel Comey let Clinton off easy. Many are now celebrating it was only gross incompetence, unethical behavior, serial bad judgment, and insubordination that led the FBI to help determine the election. No Constitutional crisis. A lot of details in those 568 pages to yet fully parse, but at first glance there is not much worthy of prosecution (though IG Horowitz will testify in front of Congress on Monday and may reveal more information.) Each side will point to the IG’s conclusion of “no bias” to shut down calls for this or that in a tsunami of blaming each other. In that sense, the IG just poured a can of jet fuel onto the fires of the 2016 election and walked away to watch it burn.

    One concrete outcome, however, is to weaken a line of prosecution Special Counsel Robert Mueller may be pursuing. To say Comey acted incompetently during the election, albeit in ways that appear to have helped Trump, does not add to the argument he is otherwise competent, on Russia or any other topic. An FBI director willing to play in politics with an investigation is simply that, an FBI director who has abandoned the core principles of his job and can’t be trusted. Defend him because it was all good natured bad judgment doesn’t add anything healthy to the question of competency.

    Mueller has just seen a key witness degraded — any defense lawyer will characterize his testimony as tainted now — and a possible example of obstruction weakened. As justification for firing Comey, the White House initially pointed to an earlier Justice Department memo criticizing Comey for many of the same actions now highlighted by the IG (adding later concerns about the handling of Russiagate.) The report thus underscores one of the stated reasons for Comey’s dismissal. Firing someone for incompetence isn’t obstructing justice; it’s the boss’ job.

    It will be too easy, however, to miss the most important conclusion of the report: there is no longer a way to claim America’s internal intelligence agency, the FBI, did not play a role in the 2016 election. There is only to argue which side they favored and whether they meddled via clumsiness, as a coordinated action, or as a chaotic cluster of competing pro- and anti- Clinton/Trump factions inside the Bureau. And that’s the tally before anyone brings up the FBI’s use of a human informant inside the Trump campaign, the FBI’s use of both FISA warrants and pseudo-legal warrantless surveillance against key members of the Trump team, the FBI’s use of opposition research from the Steele Dossier, and so on.

    The only good news is the Deep State seems less competent than we originally feared. But even if one fully accepts the IG report’s conclusion all this — and there’s a lot — was not intentional, at a minimum it makes clear to those watching ahead of 2020 what tools are available and the impact they can have. While we continue to look for the bad guy abroad, we have already met the enemy and he is us.



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  • Moving Ahead Via the Singapore Kim-Trump Summit

    June 17, 2018 // 10 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Trump




    In the end, diplomacy works. And as it always does, it works as a process, not an event. There is no Big Bang theory of nuclear diplomacy. If absolutely no further progress is made toward peace on the Korean Peninsula, all this – the back-and-forth, the Moon-Kim meetings, the Singapore summit itself – is at worst another good start that faded. It is more likely, however, a turning point.


    Only a few months ago State Department North Korean expert Joseph Yun’s retirement triggered a round of dire claims of a “void at the head of Trump’s Korea diplomacy.” Similar predictions were made over the lack of an American ambassador in Seoul. The State Department was decimated (“The Trump administration has lost the capacity to negotiate with other countries,” wrote one journalist.) The Council on Foreign Relations assessed the chances of war on the Peninsula at 50 percent. Reviewing decades of Western political thought on North Korea, it is equally staggering how poorly those predictions have panned out. There has been no succession struggle in Pyongyang, no societal collapse, no coup, no war — and no progress. Until now.

    It is easy to announce a morning after defeat for Trump. But those critics ignore Kim’s ongoing moratorium on nuclear and ballistic missile testing, the return of American prisoners, the closing of a ballistic missile test site, and the shutting down of a major nuclear test facility without opening a new one. It is easy to forget a few months ago North Korea exploded multiple nuclear devices on a single day to spark fears of dark war. Negatively assessing Singapore in light of more detailed agreements and different efforts from the past ignores the reality that all of those past agreements failed.

    Success on the Korean peninsula, as in the Cold War, will be measured by the continued sense war is increasingly unlikely. Success in Singapore is the commitment to meet again, and again after that; the more modest 2015 Iranian Accord (which didn’t even involve actual nuclear weapons) took 20 months to negotiate. Cold War treaties required years of effort, crossing administrations in their breadth. To expect more than a commitment to the next steps (did anyone think Kim would box up his nukes post-summit and mail them off?) is ahistorical. Did none of those complaining ever go on a first date?


    Singapore also signals it is time to abandon now-disproven tropes. Trump and Kim are not madmen and their at times bellicose rhetoric is just that. Both men will need to balance conciliatory steps forward with rougher gestures directed at domestic hardline audiences. So there will be tweets and setbacks. But the idea this is a North Korean ruse is worn thin. “Small countries confronting big countries seldom bluff,” one history of the Cuban Missile Crisis explained. “They can’t afford to.”

    The pieces for progress are in place if they can be manipulated well, including a North Korea with a young, Western-educated, multi-lingual leader perhaps envisioning himself as his nation’s Deng Xiao Ping, the man who will bring the future to his isolated nation while preserving its sovereignty.We have… decided to leave the past behind,” Kim said as he and Trump signed their joint statement. There is momentum in Pyongyang, a restless and growing consumerist middle class, living in a parallel semi-market economy fueled by dollars, Chinese currency, and increasing access to foreign media. Couple that with an American president willing to break the established “rules” for (not) working with North Korea. A careful look shows the glass is more than half full. It really is different this time.

    Another important difference this time is the presence of South Korean president Moon Jae In. He was a prime mover behind the notion of any summit at all, helping convince Washington North Korea is a uniquely top-down system and needs to be dealt with as such. His April 27 meeting with Kim Jong Un established the main points to negotiate on ahead of Singapore. After Donald Trump’s May 24 initial cancellation of the Singapore meeting, Moon shuttled between Washington and Panmunjom to get the process moving again. In a climate of constant bleating about war, that was skilled diplomacy played out on a very big stage.

    No nuclear negotiations in history have had such an interlocutor. Moon’s continuing juggling of his roles — honest broker, fellow Korean nationalist with shared cultural, linguistic, historical, and emotional ties, American ally, informal advisor to Kim, informal advisor to Trump — is key to the next steps. Moon himself is the vehicle in place to resolve problems that in the past were deal-breakers.


    What didn’t happen in Singapore is also important. Trump did not give away “the store.” In fact, there is no store Trump could have given away. The United States agreed to suspend military exercises which have been strategically canceled in the past, and which can be restarted anytime. The reality point is that it’s 2018, where the real deterrent is off-peninsula anyway, B-2s flying from Missouri, and missile-armed subs forever hidden under the Pacific.

    Trump did not empower Kim. Meeting with one’s enemies is not a concession. Diplomacy is a magic legitimacy powder America can choose to sprinkle on a world leader. Singapore acknowledges the like-it-or-not reality of seven decades of Kim-family rule over a country armed with nuclear weapons.

    Trump’s decision to begin the peace process with a summit is worthy. Imagining a summit as some sort of an award America can bestow on a country for “good behavior” is beyond arrogant. Successive administrations’ worth of that thinking yielded a North Korea armed with a hydrogen bomb, missiles that reach the United States, and a permanent state of war. A top down approach (China is the go-to historical example) is a valid way forward in that light.


    The easiest thing to do now is generically dismiss Singapore; the North will cheat and Trump will tweet. The harder thing will be to parse carefully what is next.

    The United States must incentivize denuclearization. The 2015 Iran Accord is one example. Another reaches back to 1991, when Washington provided financial rewards for the inventory, destruction, and ultimately the disposal of weapons of mass destruction in Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. New jobs for the out-of-work nuclear scientists, too, to keep them from selling their skills elsewhere.

    But more than anything Trump must convince Kim to trust him, particularly in light of Iraq, Libya, and especially Iran, because the core ask here is extraordinary. Only one nation in history that self-developed nuclear weapons, South Africa, ever fully gave them up, and that was only after the apartheid regime disappeared into history and the weapons’ purpose was gone.

    If Trump followed advice from the left he would have stayed home like past presidents. If he’d listened to the right he’d have bulled into the room and said “Lose the nukes, number one and we’re done” and the process would have truly failed. North Korea developed nuclear weapons to guarantee its survival. If the United States and South Korea want the North to give up those weapons, something has to replace them as that assurance of survival. The summit created the platform. The key to what happens next is how Trump, Moon, and Kim work to resolve that issue.


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  • Managing Expectations Over North Korea

    June 10, 2018 // 22 Comments

    Tags: , , , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Iran, Trump


    There is room for concern in tripartite negotiations as complex as those about to commence in Singapore among the U.S., and North and South Korea. There is certainly cause for optimism — Kim Jong Un reportedly fired top military leaders who may have dissented over his approaches to South Korea and the United States. And the three nations’ leaders have also never before sat down together to work out issues; this is all new.


    But there is no basis for claiming anything short of a developed full denuclearization deal left neatly tied with a ribbon on June 12’s doorstep means Donald Trump, or South Korean president Moon Jae In for that matter, has failed. Diplomacy simply does not work that way.


    And never mind the silliness Kim wants to step aside from global history-influencing issues to negotiate a McDonald’s for Pyongyang. And never mind the speculative Trump-centric psychodrama that replaces geopolitical analysis with twitter-level discourse about the friction that may develop between the “freewheeling American president and a paranoid Asian dictator” (such speculation always seems to leave out the critical third-party to the talks, South Korean president Moon Jae In.)

    One of the more balanced views of the Singapore summit comes from former State Department North Korean expert Joseph Yun. Yun’s February retirement as Special Representative for North Korea Policy triggered a round of dire statements that his absence left a “void at head of Trump’s Korea diplomacy.” Similar end-of-the-world predictions were made over the lack of an American ambassador in Seoul. The Council on Foreign Relations then assessed the chances of war on the Korean Peninsula at 50 percent.

    Ambassador Yun himself is much more a realist than most others commenting on the Peninsula. Writing in Foreign Affairs, he dismisses quickly those who expect some sort of complete denuclearization deal in about a week. Instead, he suggests “success” will include memorializing North Korea’s self-imposed moratoriums on nuclear and missile tests, and opening the Yongbyon nuclear facilities to the International Atomic Energy Agency. The North will need to provide a full list of its nuclear sites and an accounting of its fissile material.

    But even Joe Yun falls victim to unrealistic expectations, suggesting success includes a timeline for full denuclearization, and the elimination of North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, all by 2020 to silence skeptics. Yun was involved in Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s visit to Pyongyang in 2000 before North Korea even had nuclear weapons, and wouldn’t have been caught dead then suggesting such unrealistic results; the modest hope those 18 years ago was for follow-on meetings leading to a someday presidential summit. Ironically, then-President Bill Clinton held off, pending more interim progress, the result being that no real progress occurred over successive administrations. It took Moon Jae In to convince Washington North Korea is a uniquely top-down system and needs to be dealt with as such.


    Managing expectations, for the public and at the negotiating table, is key. History provides examples the principals in Singapore should be reviewing. Though imperfect, the 2015 Accord with Iran is a workable model. It focused on specific actions, independently verifiable by the International Atomic Energy Agency: for example, Iran would reduce its uranium stockpile to 300 kilograms at an enrichment level of 3.67 percent. The other parties to the Accord, especially the United States, were equally committed to specific actions over a timeline that extended decades. Nobody simply hoped peace would break out. Denuclearization is far more complicated than just offering sanctions relief over tea in return for boxing up the bad bombs.

    Deeper history offers the painstakingly complex Cold War nuclear treaties with the USSR, where success was measured by the continued absence of war and the continued sense war was increasingly unlikely. In contrast, look to the example of Libya (ridiculously cited in the positive by National Security advisor John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence), which gave up a limited nuclear development program under threat; we are still watching the chaos in northern Africa unfold as the answer to how that worked out in the long run.


    Success is in the long-game, not in facile predictions of failure. William Johnson, a retired Foreign Service Officer who served as the State Department’s political adviser on special operations to the United States’ Pacific Command, explained “If ‘failed’ negotiations obviated further diplomatic options, Trump would need no ambassadors, and no advice from anyone on how to conduct diplomatic affairs. For we have failed on multiple occasions. But diplomacy is often a series of failures, and in the best case, the failures become incrementally less bad, until the least spectacular failure is declared to be success. Diplomacy is a game where the goalposts are supposed to move, and often, to move erratically. Trump needs a plan, with specific goals, each laid out neatly in a set of talking points, not because he will attain those goals, but because he needs to figure out how short of them he can afford to fall or how far beyond them he can push his interlocutor.”

    A process, not an event.


    Success in Singapore may include an agreement to formally end the Korean War (supported by some 80 percent of South Koreans. This would be a massive domestic win for Moon, himself the son of North Korean refugees, ahead of the June 13 South Korean by-elections.) Success will include humanitarian aid from the South, perhaps some modest investments from China, and scaled easing of sanctions from the American side. These are not concessions, but the give and take of negotiations, the stuff of diplomacy, where uneven forward movement can be a sign of strength and strategy. Success might be Kim formalizing the promises he has already voiced in his Panmunjom meetings with his South Korean counterpart. Success also will include keeping Moon Jae In in the center of unfolding events; no other nuclear negotiations in history have had such an interlocutor, one who shares goals near equally with both other parties, and one who can talk to each as a partner.


    If people demand Trump bull into the room and say “Nukes, number one and we’re done,” the process will indeed fail. Wipe clean the cartoon image of Kim as a madman. North Korea currently has nuclear weapons as the guarantor of its survival; that is a starting point, not a debatable one. If the United States and South Korea want the North to give up those weapons, something has to replace them as that assurance of survival. The ask here is extraordinary; only one nation in history that self-developed nuclear weapons, South Africa, ever gave them up, and that was because their purpose, the survival of the white apartheid regime, disappeared into history.

    Success in Singapore will be an agreement to meet again, and again after that; it should not be forgotten the more modest 2015 Iranian Accord took 20 months to negotiate. Success means forwarding the process of building trust and creating an infrastructure to solve the inevitable problems (sadly, yes, there will likely be tweets) that accompany the often herky-jerky path forward. Anyone demanding more than that from the June 12 meeting wants it to fail.



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  • Lost and Found in Iran

    May 31, 2018 // 6 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Iran, Trump


    I’m just back from eight days in Iran. Before my trip the United States withdrew from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear accords, and while I was in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad, officially moved the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.


    Inside Iran I spoke with fearful students, anxious Foreign Ministry officials, and clerics seemingly pleased they’d been right, Americans could not be trusted. We’ve empowered the wrong people, a perfect circle of shouting at the very folks who might have helped lower the nuclear temperature.

    Among students there is deep frustration at not participating in the world, and a desire to engage. The universities I visited had foreign students from China, but no one from the United States. One man who had never left Iran spoke English with a scarred Southern accent, admitting he got his start with an DVD of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” his father brought home from an now-ancient business trip. The Trump visa ban which meant he’d never travel, to be able to “sip the water” as he said, was a personal affront to a man who loved from afar. The students I met are not people who’ll take the streets for John Bolton, demanding regime change. Nowhere did I feel any of the sense of panic, crisis or disruption American pundits speak of. These kids want to see LA.


    People from the Foreign Ministry expressed frustration over having no Americans to talk to, unsure why the U.S. still questions the legitimacy and stability of Iran’s government. “The Americans everywhere seem to have quit trying,” one said. There was much talk about Russia and China, little confidence the Europeans would fight the American sanctions, and a sad resignation moderates would not be able to overrule the hardliners again on foreign policy for a long time. “The door you came through to Iran,” one said, “is open but it’s Russians and Chinese who seem to want to come in.”

    Trump’s terms for a new agreement – basically the old agreement plus restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missiles plus restrictions on Iran’s overseas military efforts plus extending the nuke terms indefinitely plus unlimited inspections – are the equivalent of pre-burned bridges.

    The missiles are central to Iran’s defense. Memories of the 1980s Iran-Iraq missile war, which saw devastation across multiple cities, run 9/11-deep. Detailed talk of Iran’s efforts in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and elsewhere was too much for our conversations, but the implication was there was no way to curtail such efforts while the U.S. had boots on the ground in the same places. An open-ended treaty to replace one the U.S. reneged on? Unlimited inspections in response to the U.S. breaking a deal negotiated in good faith? Who would accept such terms, the diplomats laughed.


    But my search for people empowered by American actions was not a long one. From a reception side-chat, to a fully-sanctioned speech, to a sermon at the central mosque, the clerics conveyed a single message: we told you so. We told you the Americans could not be trusted. We told you not to listen to those in Iran who sought moderation. Regime change? Why, we’re the ones who were right.

    The theocratic regime seems intellectually stronger than ever in its position. Trump’s actions frightened America’s natural friends inside Iran. His terms for “progress” are designed instead to force failure abroad to look tough at home. Instead of an era of transition (one builds on previous agreements, not trashes them), Iran may kick-start its nuclear program. Teheran’s hegemonic efforts remain untouched. Iran’s missiles still reach Jerusalem. Russia and China are teed up as the good guys. Europe is wandering circa pre-Iraq invasion 2003. In the streets of Mashhad, there seemed no way forward.

    But me, I was at the airport again. Turkish Airlines had lost my luggage, and along with a new German friend I had met at the hotel and an Iranian translator, I had a mission: find my suitcase. It’s not like I was trying to negotiate a nuclear accord or something, I just needed my boxers.

    I lost the first round of negotiations after finding Turkish Airlines had no ground staff in Mashhad and the “local” number rang through to a nightmare multilingual phone tree where, after roaming charges approaching the cost of a cruise missile strike, I was told to submit a lost luggage form from a web site I couldn’t access. Technology wasn’t the answer. I was going to have to do this with the Iranians.

    The taxi driver sluiced through an airport police checkpoint announcing he had a foreigner with lost luggage, damn the hardliners in the security booth. First stop was the wrong terminal. Most of the lights were out, but there was plenty of parking so we tried there. In fact, the airport was surrounded by miles of parking lots, enough to fill with thousands of cars but mostly filled with puddles from afternoon showers. The terminal doors were unlocked but no one was inside absent a handful of local people who might have arrived and missed their rides, or were waiting for another day, or perhaps just lived there.

    Back outside, the taxi driver explained we should try the other terminal, the one with the lights on he hadn’t driven to. It would take him some time to navigate the complex airport roads, so instead he suggested we walk there and he’d follow later in the taxi. Decouple the problems, be practical, got it. Unburdened by luggage of course, we cut across a field and yet another parking lot.

    A woman at an information counter, after reacting as if no one had ever asked her for information before, directed our inquiry down several flights of stairs. We stumbled into an office with a lone cop blasting through TV channels so quickly you’d have guessed the button pushing was responsible for keeping his heart beating. The cop paused on a Korean period drama translated into Farsi. Hands up? Nope, we were redirected to the state airline Iran Air. The bureaucrats would know.

    Under stern photos of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the current Supreme Leader, three Iran Air employees, two already grinding prayer beads while the third stubbed out a cigarette, stared me down. Tired, I ignored my German friend’s small talk to demand an answer – where the hell was my suitcase!


    I might as well have brought up Trump unilaterally pulling the United States out of the 2015 nuclear deal or moving the embassy to Jerusalem or George W. Bush lumping Iran into a made-up Axis of Evil or the support for Saddam Hussein in his missile wars against Iran or the 1988 American shoot down of a civilian Iranian airliner killing 290 passengers or the U.S. support for the Shah’s secret police or the 1953 CIA overthrow of Iran’s secular, democratically chosen leader, or…

    My German friend stopped me. With the Iran Air staff he brought up mutual goals; a lost suitcase jumbling around the airport was no good for anyone. We didn’t need to be friends, we needed to solve a problem together. There’d be other nights to figure out whose fault it was, why no one answered the phone, why the office to find suitcases was located four stories underground. Sometimes a suitcase is a suitcase and with a little goodwill we found a solution. And my boxers.

    If I had a geopolitical wish to make, it’d be that some expensive Trump luggage got misplaced in Mashhad. You can learn a lot there.


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  • Message from Iran; Mike Pompeo is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong

    May 28, 2018 // 10 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Iran



    Iran is a dangerous place these days, at least in a car. Traffic here moves like Tetris, with drivers pushing their way into any open space they think will fit. Trips begin in chaos and play out in confusion. How it ends is always up to God’s will, everyone says.

    In Iran I met with students at Mashhad University, Ferdouse University, and at a woman’s educational institute, as well as with visiting scholars from Tehran. Just before my trip the United States withdrew from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear accords, and while I was in the northeastern city of Mashhad, officially moved the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. All at the start of Ramadan. These events were tracked in Iran as closely as World Cup scores, though absent celebration.


    It was not hard to learn students’ opinions. “What does America want from us? To force us to negotiate? We did, we agreed, already, in 2015,” said one student. “Regime change — do Americans even know we vote for our government here?” said another. In answer to a question, a grad student responded “The Shah we overthrew, yes, but he was not selected by the Iranians, you installed him. Trump and Bolton (the two names are almost always mentioned in one slur of mispronunciation) want us to change our government? And why do they think we will, because you make it harder for us to purchase western goods?”

    Two American Studies students likely headed to government jobs collectively translated a local idiom into “Who can sail an ark on such waters?” when asked if perhaps smarter, more targeted sanctions might move Iran to negotiate a new accord. “Who would we send to talk? The hardliners? Trump just told them they were right in 2015 when they said not to trust America. President Rouhani? He doesn’t have the power anymore –” There was a sharp side discussion in Farsi before one student corrected his peer to say “The President doesn’t have the power under the Constitution he meant, yes.”

    People have reasonable access to information. Web tools such as VPNs get around government blocks. Instagram and Facebook are popular. You can watch the latest superhero movies on smuggled Blu-Ray. The ban on popular social media app Telegram is seen as just an inconvenience to make “old people,” perhaps a euphamism for the hardliners, feel better. But there is an absence of counter-balancing physical presence to the rhetoric, theirs from New York and ours from places like Mashhad.

    So despite the facts, conclusions are often amiss. Opening of cinemas in Saudi Arabia is the west using culture to attack morals — “Hollywoodism.” Israeli soldiers broadcast pornography into Muslim homes, and a well-known western media magnate is secretly creating child sex movies in Farsi. Israel drives American foreign policy, the group MEK (Bolton again) is behind every bush. America demands a unipolar world which excludes Iran. And it is no conincidence American decisions favoring Israel were pushed into Muslim faces at the start of Ramadan!

    There is little sense of the powerful role American domestic politics played in moving the embassy to Jerusalem, faint awareness of the evangelical voting bloc. Instead, American actions are evidence of… everything. Iran is a nation under attack. Iranian efforts to reach out to the United States are slapped down, the time between reach and slap a measure only of the degree of duplicity. The students expressed an ongoing concern the United States wants to destroy them. That America has since decades before they were born wanted to destroy them. These students are terribly familiar with the United States while terrified of it. Too many sat with me in a quiet room at a university named after a famous ancient poet and worried other Americans will someday come kill them. It is absurd to imagine these young people taking to the streets for reigime change with the immediacy you’d think they had if all you watched was cable TV news in the United States.

    Outside, in Mashhad city, there were no demonstrations, no flag burnings, and visiting the central mosque here after Friday prayers more people were interested in a selfie with a foreigner than anything else. This is a religious city, home to the sacred shrine of the Eighth Iman, but you would be wrong to think things are measured more evenly on these streets than in Tehran by everyone.

    The clerics were harsh. One looked me up and down like I was an unappealing meal before politely explaining the goal of burning the American flag is to “end the state.” On the wall behind him was a photo of the Statue of Liberty holding a Menorah, another showing Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu in jail. In a stemwinding speech, an important cleric stated the European Union is breakable by an Iran-China-Russia bloc. Zionist banks control the media. There is a dictatorship of the United Nations, Hollywood, and the International Monetary Fund.


    People from the Foreign Ministry spoke in more measured tones of a deep frustration over having no Americans to talk to, unsure why 40 years after the Revolution that created Iran’s complex democratic theocracy the United States still questions its legitimacy and stability. The anger from America, one older diplomat said, was like a phantom itch people who have lost limbs sometimes experience, left from some past, stuck in the present, an itch there is no way to make go away. “Do you want this to all fail?” he asked, sweeping the room with his arm. “The Americans everywhere seem to have quit trying.”


    Iran is an odd silk road. The air is a mix of honeysuckle, saffron, and diesel exhaust. Aside from the ubiquitous American sodas, somehow immune from sanctions (ordered here by color — red for Coke, white for Sprite, orange for Fanta), there are few products from home to crowd out the Chinese names alongside LG, Peugeot, Samsung, and Sony. Things are modern and extraordinarily clean, but at the same time worn, and when you look closely, patched and often repaired. The past, both 5,000 years ancient and in more recent images of the Revolution, is omnipresent in posters and murals.

    It would be naive to think a place as complex as Iran could reveal itself in a short visit, but the people I encountered took that as their mission. They left me anxious trying to calm the fears of aspirational people now seemingly cut off from aspiration, while bad actors in Washington and locally fill their gaps in understanding. “Our future,” said one scholar, “is already forgotten.”

    Outside several of the students piled into a taxi and dove into the mad, mad traffic. You see people off here in the hope everyone gets where they need to go, because driving is always slow and often dangerous. It’s God’s will, everyone says.


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  • Review: Michael Hayden’s “The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies”

    May 19, 2018 // 21 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: NSA, Post-Constitution America, Trump



    Former NSA and CIA head Michael Hayden’s new book The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies wants to be the manifesto behind an intelligence community coup. It ends up reading like outtakes from Dr. Strangelove.

    Hayden believes Trump cannot discern truth from falsehood, and that Trump is the product of too much fact-free thinking, especially on social media (“computational propaganda” where people can “publish without credentials”) being used by the Russians to destroy the United States. Hayden wants artificial intelligence and a media truth-rating system to “purify our discourse” and help “defend it against inauthentic stimulation.” He believes in the “fragility of civilization” as clearly as he believes there is a “FOX/Trump/RT” alliance in place to exploit it. Under Trump “post-truth is pre-fascism, and to abandon facts is to abandon freedom.” Hayden claims Trump has a “glandular aversion” to even thinking how “Russia has been actively seeking to damage the fabric of American democracy.”

    Seriously.

    Salvation depends on the intelligence community. Hayden makes clear, ominously quoting conversations with anonymous IC officers, that no one else is protecting America from these online threats to our precious bodily fluids. He warns “the structures we rely on to prevent civil war and societal collapse are under stress.” The IC on the other hand “pursues Enlightenment values [and] is essential not just to American safety but to American liberty.”

    Hayden writes he reminded a lad fresh to the IC “Protect yourself. And above all protect the institution. American still needs it.” He has a bit of advice about the CIA: “We are accustomed to relying on their truth to protect us from foreign enemies. Now we may need their truth to save us from ourselves.” The relationship between Trump and the IC is, Hayden threatens, “contentious, divisive, and unpredictable” in these “uncharted waters for the Republic.”

    The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies is blowing ten dogs whistles at once. Arise ye patriots of Langley and Fort Meade!


    Yet for all his emphasis on truth, Hayden is shy about presenting actual evidence of the apocalypse. You are left to believe because Hayden says you must. To disbelieve is to side with Putin. The best we get is executive summary-like statements along the lines of “There is clear evidence of what I would call convergence, the convergence of a mutually reinforcing swirl of Presidential tweets and statements, Russian influenced social media, alt right websites and talk radio, Russian ‘white’ press like RT and even mainstream U.S. media like Fox News.”

    With that established, Hayden informs us when the IC tried to warn Trump of the Russian plot, he “rejected a fact-based intel assessment… because it was inconsistent with a preexisting world view or because it was politically inconvenient, the stuff of ideological authoritarianism not pragmatic democracy.” Comrade, er, Candidate Trump, says Hayden matter-of-factly, “did sound a lot like Vladimir Putin.” The two men, he declaims, are “Russian soulmates.”

    Hayden figures if you’ve read this far into his polemic, he might as well just splurge the rest of his notes on you. Trump is “uninformed, lazy, dishonest, off the charts, rejects the premise objective reality even existed.” Trump is fueled by Russian money (no evidence in the book because the evidence is in the tax returns, Hayden says, as if Line 42 on Trump’s 1040 would read “Putin Black Funds $5mil” and the IRS which does have the tax returns overlooked that.) Trump is an “unwitting agent” of Putin, which Hayden tells us in Russian is polezni durak, so you can see he knows his Cold War lingo. We hear how Wikileaks worked with the Ruskies, how Trump Jr. worked with the Ruskies, about Ruskies inside Trump Tower where they could see the Big Board, how the whole brewhaha over #TakeAKnee was Russian meddling, and how Jill Stein existed to “bleed off votes from Clinton,” every Mueller fan-fiction trope tumbling from the pages like crumbs left over from an earlier reader.


    That’s what The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies reads like as a polemic. It also fails as a book.

    There are pages of filler, jumbled blog post-like chapters about substate actors and global tectonics. Hayden writes in a recognizable style that might be called Bad Military, where everything must eventually be tied to some Big Idea, preferably with classical references Googled up to add gravitas.

    So it is not enough for Hayden to state Trump is a liar, he has to actually label Trump the end of the entire body of Western thought: “We are in a post-truth world, a world in which decisions are far more based upon emotion and preference. And that’s an overturning of the Western way of thought since the Enlightenment.” Bad things are Hobbesian, good things Jeffersonian, Madisonian or Hamiltonian. People Hayden agrees with get adjectival modifiers before their names: the perceptive scholar ____, the iconic journalist _____, the legendary case officer ____. It makes for tiresome reading, like it’s Sunday night at 4am and you still have nine undergrad papers on the causes of the Civil War to grade kind of tiresome.

    Hayden is openly contemptuous of the American people, seeing them as brutes who need to be lead around, either by the Russians as he sees it now, or by the IC, as he wishes it to be. Proof of how dumb we are? Hayden cites a poll showing 83% of Republicans and 27% of Democrats don’t believe the IC analysis that Russia meddled in the 2016 election when they damn well should. Part of his proof Russian bots are at work on Twitter influencing conservative minds is the hashtags #God and #Benghazi trended together.

    In our odd times, Hayden is a Hero of the Resistance. Seemingly forgotten is Hayden, as head of the NSA, implemented blanket surveillance of American citizens in a rape of the Fourth Amendment, itself a product of the Enlightenment, justifying his unconstitutional actions with a mish-mash of post-truth platitudes and still-secret legal findings. Hayden also supported torture during the War on Terror, but whatever.

    This book-length swipe right for the IC leaves out the slam dunk work on weapons of mass destruction. Any concern about political motives inside the IC is swept away as “baseless.” Gina Haspel, who oversaw the torture program, is an “inspired choice” to head CIA. Hayden writes for the rubes, proclaiming the IC produces facts, when in reality even good intel can only be assessments and ambiguous conclusions.


    That people so readily overlook Hayden’s sins simply because he rolls off snark against Trump speaks to our naivety. In that men like Hayden retain their security clearances while serving as authors and paid commentators to outlets like CNN speaks to how deep the roots of the Deep State reach. That some troubled Jack D. Ripper squirreled deep inside the IC might take this pablum seriously is frightening.




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  • The U.S. is Playing with Fire if It Walks Away from the Iran Nuclear Deal on May 12

    May 5, 2018 // 27 Comments

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    Posted in: Iran, Trump



    A foreign policy crisis is coming May 12. President Donald Trump’s likely decision on that day to not continue waiving sanctions on Iran under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will significantly increase the chances of war.

    The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed by China, Russia, and most of western Europe requires the American president to certify every three months Iran’s nuclear program is in compliance with the deal. In return, the next quarter’s economic sanctions are waived against the Islamic Republic. Earlier this year, Trump warned he was waiving sanctions for the final time, setting a May 12 deadline for significant changes in the agreement to be made. Failing those changes, Trump’s non-signature would trigger sanctions to snap into place.

    The changes Trump is insisting on — reduce Iran’s ballistic missile capability, renegotiate the deal’s end date, and allow unrestricted inspections — are designed to force failure.

    Iran’s ballistic missile program was purposefully never part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action; as learned during the Cold War, trying to throw every problem into the same pot assured no agreement could ever be reached. Trump trying to add the missile program in three years after the agreement was signed is wholly outside the norms of diplomacy (and the art of dealmaking.) Ballistic missile capability lies at the heart of Iran’s defense. Sanctions have already kept the country from fielding any significant air force, and memories in Tehran of Iraqi air strikes on its cities in the 1980s when Iran lacked retaliatory capability lie deep. The missile program is the cornerstone of Iranian self-preservation and thus understood to be non-negotiable.

    The 2030 agreement end date is to the Trump administration a ticking time bomb; Iran will nefariously lie in wait, springing whole into nuclear status 12 years from now. Leaving aside the original agreement was negotiated with such a deadline, and American policy has generally been for presidents to honor agreements in place as they take office, the worry over an Iran of the future going nuclear is pure drama.

    Twelve years is a lifetime in the Middle East. Some 12 years ago Syria was at peace with its neighbors, and the United States happy to outsource torture to Assad as part of the War on Terror. Turkey was a democracy, Russia mostly a non-player in the region, and Iran was timidly facing the American military on two of its borders, open to broad negotiations with Washington. There is more than enough to focus on in the Middle East of 2018 than what the area might look like strategically in 2030, even assuming Iran could surreptitiously keep its nuclear development going such to pop out of the cake in 12 years with a nuclear surprise. Washington’s demand for an indefinite extension of limits on Iran’s nuclear activities is political theatre.

    As for the concern Iran is not compliant with the agreement, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations body charged with monitoring the deal, has presented no such evidence. Iran has in fact shown itself anxious to stay in compliance; in two past minor instances where the Agency noted Iran exceeded its heavy water limits, Tehran immediately disposed of the excessive amount. Trump has suggested he wants unprecedented access to any and all Iranian sites, including military sites not known to be part of any nuclear program. The United States never allowed carte blanche to the Soviets during the Cold War, no nation with the power to say no would. Following the inspections ahead of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, where intelligence officers were embedded in the process and the results politicized, American credibility for this ask is low.

    So these aren’t really negotiating points, they’re excuses for the United States itself to step out of compliance with an agreement. “President Trump appears to have presented the [Europeans] with a false choice: either kill the deal with me, or I’ll kill it alone,’ said Rob Malley, a senior American negotiator of the deal, and now head of the International Crisis Group.

    None of this is a surprise. Trump has always wanted out of what he calls the “worst deal ever.” His new foreign policy team — Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton — are also ardent opponents. While anything can happen inside a White House fueled by chaos, there is no plausible scenario that says the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will survive May 12. What happens next?

    The likely effects of walking away from the agreement are global. Iran may immediately kick start its nuclear program. Tehran’s hegemonic efforts in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria would remain untouched if not intensify in retaliation. Iran’s current missiles will still be able to reach Jerusalem and Riyadh. The odds of the North Koreans agreeing to a nuclear deal decrease; imagine being the new State Department envoy sitting across from an experienced North Korean diplomat trying to answer his question “What is to say you won’t do this to us in three years?”

    European allies will be reluctant to join in future diplomatic heavy lifting in the Middle East or elsewhere, shy to commit only to see the Americans turn up their noses following another election. Relations could easily sink to the level of 2003, when America’s bullheaded invasion of Iraq split the alliance. Russia and China, signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, will have a chance at being the “good guys,” seizing an opening to expand cooperation with Iran at a time when American diplomacy might instead be looking for ways to drive wedges among them.

    Meanwhile, the impact of renewed sanctions may be quite limited strategically. It is unclear if American pique will be followed by all of Europe falling into line with re-imposed sanctions; there is a lot of money in doing business in Iran and absent unambiguous proof Iran violated the agreement it is hard to see them going along in earnest. It is even less clear Russia and China will follow the new sanctions regime. And even if some signatories agree to reimpose sanctions, there is little to suggest Iran’s ambitions have been severely thwarted by decades of sanctions anyway. Had they been fully effective, there’d have been no need for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in the first place.

    Without the agreement, there is, to misquote Churchill, nothing left to “jaw jaw,” leaving Iran free to develop its weapons and America only the option of destroying them. It’s perhaps the dangerous scenario Washington, encouraged by an Israel who has sought the destruction of Iran’s nuclear facilities for years, wants. The Israeli air strikes which decimated Saddam’s nuclear program and Syria’s were small scale, directed against nearby, discrete targets, vulnerable above ground. Not so for Iran, whose nuclear facilities are far away, dispersed, underground, and protected by both a decent air defense system and a credible threat of conventional, terrorist, cyber, and/or chemical retaliation. And that’s all before the newly-emboldened Russians weigh in.

    The chance of terminating Iran’s nuclear program is held against the risk of full-on war in the region. The United States is playing with real fire if it walks away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on May 12.




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  • What Happens Next in North Korea? Look Back at the China Example from 1979

    May 4, 2018 // 3 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Military, Trump



    On April 27 North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and South Korean president Moon Jae-in met, ahead of a trilateral summit with President Trump in June.

    There was a lot to talk about, but the focus in the west on nuclear issues misses the real story: Kim may be seeking revolutionary economic upheaval. There are signs everything is ready to change.

    It is not hard to imagine Kim has a biography of former Chinese leader Deng Xiao-ping on his nightstand. A nuclear power since the late 1960s, China’s centrally-managed economy as Deng took power was failing to feed its people. The nation remained mostly isolated from the world, dependent on the Soviet Union. Then everything changed in 1979 when Deng secured an agreement with President Jimmy Carter that covered his security needs (no one seemed worried China had nukes), diplomatically papered over his unproductive, long-simmering political issues like the status of Taiwan, and allowed him to introduce changes that led directly to China’s economic ascendancy.

    A key sign Kim is headed the same way is the extraordinary number of concessions he has made ahead of his upcoming summits. Kim is acting like a man in a hurry.


    Kim agreed to seek a formal end to the 1950 Korean War (supported by some 80% of South Koreans, an agreement would be a massive domestic win for Moon, himself the son of North Korean refugees, ahead of the June 13 elections.) Following a visit to Beijing, signifying sign-off on what happens next from the North’s Chinese patrons (confirmed soon after when Kim received Song Tao, a key Chinese diplomat, in Pyongyang), Kim Jong-un announced denuclearization of the peninsula negotiable, while at the same time saying he no longer insists the U.S. remove its troops in the South as a precondition to discussions.

    Trump could never agree to troop reductions at this early stage, and could never move into a summit if denuclearization was non-negotiable; Kim has taken those problems off the table. Kim then announced a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests, and closed down the Punggye-ri test site. The rain of missiles which in the fall prompted Trump to issue his “fire and fury” threat simply stopped.

    Kim also announced the end of his signature domestic policy, byungjin, the parallel advance of defense and the domestic economy (Kim’s father promoted the defense-only policy of songun.) At a recent Workers’ Party meeting, Kim said it was time to focus the nation’s resources on rebuilding its economy, a clear signal to domestic elites he is aware of their desire for a better life. Throw in for good measure the reopening of the intra-Korea hotline, CIA director Mike Pompeo’s welcome in Pyongyang, the recent recognition of capitalism in North Korean law, and the stream of cultural exchanges underway, to include K-Pop shows attended by Kim himself.

    These concessions and changes are exactly the things most people would have expected to be the focus of the summits, if not the hoped-for results of months of tedious negotiations to follow. But what if Kim wants more?


    Wipe clean for a moment the cartoon image of Kim as a madman and re-imagine him as a nationalist. Kim literally grew up surrounded by westerners at boarding school in Switzerland, and speaks French, German, and some English. He knows where North Korea sits in the world. What if Kim sees himself as his nation’s Deng Xiao-ping? What if, having a crude nuclear deterrent and knowing pushing it further can only hasten his destruction, he is ready to end his nation’s isolation? What if by sweeping many of the expected short-term American goals off the table with unilateral concessions Kim wants to move directly to talking money, not just weapons? What if Kim is actually following Deng’s example?

    One of Deng’s first changes allowed farmers to sell surplus produce. Factories were told to sell production over-quota on the open market. Special economic zones designed to make money (not political showpieces such as the North-South experiment at Gaeseong) were set up, with much of the early action focused on “safe” partners like Hong Kong.

    So it may matter a lot that Seoul is already exploring ways to sell electricity to the North, and that Kim supports special economic zones. Or that there are already some 480 sanctioned (not “black”) free markets in North Korea, jangmadang, many new since Kim took power, hundreds more renovated or expanded under his hand. North Korea’s state-controlled media regularly runs pictures of Kim visiting these markets. There is a restless and growing consumerist middle class in North Korea, living in a parallel semi-market economy fueled by dollars, Chinese currency, and increasing access to foreign media, all not unknown to the Kim regime.

    “Everything about North Korea spells potential,” says one North Korean defector now at the South Korea Development Bank. Estimated to be worth six trillion dollars, North Korea’s reserves of gold, copper, zinc, and other minerals would allow Kim to diversify his sources of income if he converts his country into what Bloomberg calls a “frontier market” in the center of a booming region.

    Unlike previous negotiations with North Korea, when Kim’s father had to be bribed by the Clinton administration with a nuclear reactor to even come to the table, with the South dragged along by Washington as a neo-colonial afterthought, the current process is driven by the Korea’s (witness the low-key role America played at the diplomatic dance at the Olympics.) As one analyst put it “It is no longer where the U.S. may take the negotiating process so much as where the negotiating process may take the U.S… Those in the region now seem determined to commandeer a train the Americans have driven for 65 years.”

    To succeed, Trump need do little more than not fall prey to establishment fears, be unafraid to enable the economic opportunities he claims to understand well, and stay out of the way as the two Korea’s with their shared cultural, linguistic, and historical ties frame the issues. In this sense, the Kim-Moon summit may be more important than the Kim-Moon-Trump one. However, if Trump bulls into the room and says “Nukes, number one and we’re done” the process will stall.


    Political opponents will claim “they’ll renege, just you wait.” They will make the most of the “we beat the other guy” statements Kim (and Trump) will make for their domestic audiences. Media are teeing up denuclearization as a strawman, claiming if Trump comes home with the North retaining its weapons, he has failed. Such remarks are ahistorical nonsense, as denuclearization is a process, not an event. The Obama-era Iran accords required two years of negotiations and didn’t even involve actual weapons. U.S.-Soviet Cold War progress was measured in baby steps strung out over decades. Fast-track denuclearization has its history, too, in the failures in Libya and Iraq.

    Success will be measured as North Korea engages the international system, thus reducing the threat of war as a base for reducing the weapons. After all, decades of sanctions have yielded only a nuclear North Korea, and summit or no summit that is a starting point, not a debatable point. It is possible to imagine a future where North Korea’s nuclear stockpile erodes into the status of those in Pakistan and India, never mind China, an understood deterrent, not a threat. Focusing too much on the nukes is to ensure failure; they are part of a problem solved by a comprehensive solution that takes into account what the North is really at the table for: engagement with the world system.

    Reviewing the last ten years of western political thought on North Korea it is staggering how poorly predictions have panned out; there has been no succession struggle, no societal collapse, no coup, no war — and no progress. It is as if having painted one picture, the west is intellectually blocked from considering another. That is the most dangerous thing afoot as the 2018 summit looms.




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  • Review: A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership is Mostly About Making Jim Comey Rich

    April 25, 2018 // 17 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America, Trump

    Jesus to Trump: Drop Dead

    Despite the lofty title, in A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership James Comey comes across in turns petty, smug, sanctimonious, bitter, and most of all, pandering.


    Comey feeds the rubes exactly what they paid the carnival sideshow barker in front at Barnes and Noble to hear: the pee tape, the jokes about small hands, the comparisons of Trump to a mob boss, and enough Obama-worship to fill a week’s worth of Maddow.

    Where Comey could have shined — clarifying historical events from the Bush and Obama eras, shedding real light on the FBI’s interplay with the Clinton campaign, verifying or denouncing parts of the Russiagate narrative — he stops purposefully short. A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership is a quick grab at the money, something that in the old days would have been on pay-per-view cable or tucked away inside a second-tier men’s magazine.


    Comey tells us Trump is obsessed with the pee tape, desperate for the FBI to investigate-to-exonerate. “I’m a germaphobe,” Comey quotes Trump, emphasizing the president claimed he only used the Russian hotel room to change clothes. The then-Director of the FBI was apparently non-committal to his boss, but in his book safely removed by a year and the publishing process Comey writes “I decided not to tell him the activity alleged did not seem to require either an overnight stay or even being in proximity to the participants. In fact, though I didn’t know for sure, I imagined the presidential suite of the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow was large enough for a germaphobe to be at a safe distance from the activity.”

    Classy, and it sets the tone for the two men’s encounters over loyalty pledges, Mike Flynn, and all things Russia. Trump says something neatly packaged and impeachment-worthy, conveniently only in a conversation he and Comey are privy to. Comey, rather than seek clarification, always assumes the worst, keeps his thoughts to himself, but remembers to document every word in writing. Everything about James Comey is presented so that you get the message that everything he is — straight-arrow bureaucrat, warrior-poet of the people, apostle of law and order, defender of the Constitution — is what Trump isn’t. It’s my word against his, you know who you believe, might as well be the title of the book.

    You were expecting insight? Trump never laughs, Comey writes, a clear tell to a soul-seer POTUS harbors “deep insecurity, an inability to be vulnerable or to risk himself by appreciating the humor of others.” Comey describes Trump as shorter than he expected with a “too long” tie. The eyes, by the way, are “expressionless.” Comey says the president’s hands were “smaller than mine.” Jim, we get it — Trump is short, wears his ties long to compensate, has tiny hands — brother, just represent: I’m a bigger man than the president!


    The Clintons are always in the background. Comey teases there is classified but unverified info on Loretta Lynch that “casts serious doubt on the Attorney General’s independence in connection with the Clinton investigation” but unlike in the case of Trump, where classification and proprietary have the value of a paper bag in the rain, Comey reveals no details.

    Elsewhere, Comey creates his own standard, well outside the law, for why the investigation into Clinton’s exposure of classified material on her personal unclassified server did not lead to prosecution: she gosh golly just didn’t intend to do anything criminally wrong, he says, taking the term “willful” in the actual law and twisting it to mean “evil intent.” Comey says prosecution would have required a specific smoking gun message from someone telling Clinton sending classified material via unclassified channels was wrong. He has nothing to say about whether that message might have been in the 30,000 emails Clinton deleted, only shrugging his shoulders to say there was nothing to justify prosecution as far as anyone looked. Why, he adds, they even asked Hillary herself.

    And as long as he’s making up the law, those memos Comey wrote of conversations between two government employees, on Federal property, regarding national security-related official government business? He “regards” them as personal property, so their contents didn’t have to be classified and thus could not by definition be leaked. He did not, however, include them in his book and they remain hidden from the public.

    Comey writes he felt confident reopening the Clinton email probe days before the election because he ­assumed Clinton would win, and if the new investigation was revealed after her victory it might make her seem “illegitimate.” He says the same thing about keeping Russian meddling quiet, certain it wouldn’t matter when Hillary became his boss a few months later. The irony of Comey setting out to legitimize the expected Clinton presidency ended up hurting her aside, what is disturbing is the blatant admission a partisan calculus was part of the decision making in any way at all.


    It’s a heck of a thing to admit in writing, and shows how empty Comey’s constant claims to integrity lie. Should any serious prosecution emerge from the mess of the Trump presidency, Comey’s credibility as a witness is tainted, and his value to the American people he claims to serve thus diluted. Comey will see his testimony whittled down by defense lawyers even now cross-indexing statements in the book with the public record. And who knows what Seth and Trevor and Rachel will pull out of him?

    Most people tangled up in Washington beheadings get around these problems by waiting until after the dust has settled to write their books. That was the case for the Watergate gang, Oliver North, and Monica Lewinsky. The problem with Comey waiting is that there’s very little new here. If your impeachment fantasy includes the pee tape, or if you believe it is made-up, Comey has nothing to enlighten you either way.

    Instead, this is like reading a 13-year-old’s diary about why she hates boys, or a bunch of angry Tweets dragged out over 304 pages. Comey doesn’t appear to have any political ambitions, and he doesn’t seem to be using the book to audition for a talk show job. It’s not even good “score settling” in that it’s just mostly the same stuff you’ve heard before.


    And that’s all a shame, because there is a better book Comey could have written. Comey was witness to the legal wranglings inside the Bush administration over NSA’s illegal domestic spying on Americans, and was in the hospital room when Bush White House officials tried to bully ailing Attorney General John Ashcroft into reauthorizing the Stellar Wind surveillance program. Comey was there for the debates over torture, and under Obama, the use of the Espionage Act to punish journalists and whistleblowers. None of that was morally repugnant to him at a Trump-like level, and he never resigned in protest to protect his honor. Why, Jim?

    Bu instead of insight into all that we get a quick overview that adds little to the known facts. Comey’s narratives are designed only to show leaders in each instance acted honorably enough for Comey’s taste, as opposed to Trump. Comey’s visceral hatred of Trump as a liar and a boor prevents Comey from writing an honorable memoir of his decades inside government, and instead drives him to present a version of events where history is only of value when it can be slaved to making Trump look bad in comparison. It’s a thin shell for anyone who knows more about these events than Colbert or Meyers spoon out.

    There’s a reason why circus sideshows got out of town after a few days, before the rubes figured out the “Alien from Mars” was just a rabbit with some fake teeth glued on. It’s pretty clear Comey’s higher loyalty lies only to making a quick buck for himself with a near-substance free book, before anyone realizes it’s all a fraud.


    Update: Amazon dropped the pre-order price three bucks the day after for Comey’s book was formally released…)


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  • Trump, Privatization, and the Passion of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin

    April 15, 2018 // 28 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Other Ideas, Trump

    As some seek to further privatize veterans health care, with hundreds of billions of dollars at stake, sacrifices will have to be made. Let’s hope few fall on the veterans themselves.


    Former Veterans Affairs Secretary Dr. David Shulkin once held the title of least controversial Cabinet secretary in the Trump Administration. He was confirmed in the Senate by a vote of 100-0, and for most of his time in office enjoyed broad bipartisan support as he sought to reform veterans’ health care.

    That all changed for the lone Obama Cabinet holdover when Donald Trump sacrificed Shulkin on March 28 in favor of White House physician Rear Admiral Dr. Ronny Jackson. Though pushed out ostensibly over a damning ethics report, Shulkin’s story is really one of whether or not further privatizing health care for veterans is the right way to fix a damaged institution. Shulkin being pushed out is a big story that has been both understated and oversimplified in the press as mostly just another episode of the Trump chaos soap opera.

    Shulkin himself pulls no punches. “I believe differences in philosophy deserve robust debate, and solutions should be determined based on the merits of the arguments. The advocates within the administration for privatizing VA health services, however, reject this approach,” wrote Shulkin after his dismissal. “They saw me as an obstacle to privatization who had to be removed. That is because I am convinced that privatization is a political issue aimed at rewarding select people and companies with profits, even if it undermines care for veterans.”

    Despite the quick-fix appeal of privatization in the face of a VA clearly not meeting fully the needs of its population (Shulkin took over the VA in the wake of a report citing a “corrosive culture that has led to poor management, a history of retaliation toward employees, cumbersome and outdated technology, and a shortage of doctors, nurses and physical space to treat its patients”), is a system morphing toward “Medicare for veterans” the answer?

    In its simplest form, privatization means that instead of seeking care at a VA facility at little-to-no charge, veterans would be free to visit any health care provider in the private sector, with Uncle Sam picking up most of the tab. The VA would shift from directly providing care in its own facilities to become the insurance company of dreams. In many cases long waits to access a VA facility would diminish, veterans in rural areas would most likely have less of a travel burden, and patients could better match their needs to a provider. The latter could be especially important to LGBTQ veterans. It’s hard to argue against choice.


    The issue is money. According to one report, moving vets to private providers would double spending in the immediate term. By 2034, the cost of VA health care could be as high as $450 billion, compared to a baseline of less than $100 billion. And even those numbers may be too low; as Vietnam-era vets require more expensive end-of-life care, and as waves of veterans from the past 17 years of the War on Terror enter the system, costs will rise. The challenge is clear; between 2002 and 2013, the number of annual VA outpatient visits nearly doubled to 86.4 million. Hospital admissions — the biggest driver of costs — rose 23%.

    Under any calculus veterans health care is big money and proponents of privatization want to pull as much of it as possible into the commercial sector. But where would the money come from? Major veterans’ organizations opposing additional privatization worry disability benefits and other core VA programs such as education would be cut back. Others speculate a privatized VA system would quickly go the way of civilian insurance, with limited networks, increased co-pays, and complex referral systems, all as a way of passing increasing costs on to the patient. As for many under Obamacare, vets would be caught in the gap between being able to have insurance, and being able to afford health care. Choice can come at a price.


    The specialized needs of many veterans are part of the reason for the specialized veterans’ health care system. Despite much justified criticism, the VA serves the needs of many of its patients well. In the critical area of psychology, VA performance was rated superior to the private sector by more than 30%. Compared with individuals in private plans, veterans with schizophrenia or major depression were more than twice as likely to receive appropriate initial medication treatment. RAND concluded separately “the quality of care provided by the VA health system generally was as good as or better than other health systems on most quality measures.”

    The VA also has expertise in prosthetics, burns, polytrauma, and spinal injuries rare in civilian life. The VA has a lifetime relationship with its patients, leading to broader implementation of preventive care and better integration of records. These advantages could be lost as more choice under a largely privatized system could result in significantly less choice at the VA in areas where it matters most.

    The risk is throwing out the baby with the bathwater, as increased privatization will inevitably mean shuttering some VA facilities. The solution lies in a system which pairs the best of privatization with a reformed government-run veterans health care system. Paring off some services into the private sector while retaining those unique to the VA, all to the satisfaction of Congress, demands an administrator with extraordinary bureaucratic skills. The Trump administration was very likely wrong when it decided Shulkin was not that man.

    Though painted as a solid opponent of privatization, as he was fired Shulkin was already pushing the VA to further privatize its audiology and optometry programs. He oversaw change that led to 36% of VA medical appointments being made in the private sector. Shulkin’s Veterans Choice Program (VCP) allowed access to private doctors where the VA couldn’t provide specialized care, when wait times exceeded standards, or when travel to a VA facility represented a hardship. Shulkin was advocating for the program’s expansion when both his funding and his tenure ran out.

    The VCP program was consistently underfunded, in part due to the unpredictability of month-to-month expenses that will plague any privatized system. However, some of the underfunding was political; one holdout was Senator Jerry Moran. Moran wanted the program tapered off in lieu of his own bill calling for the greater leaps into privatization Shulkin remained skeptical of.

    As Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary, Dr. David Shulkin was an experienced medical administrator who had specialized in health care management at some of the nation’s largest hospitals. The new secretary nominee, Dr. Ronny Jackson, is a fine Navy doctor who has served two presidents, but comes to the job with no experience with an organization the size and complexity of the VA, already the government’s second-largest agency.


    Questions will be asked at what will no doubt be contentious confirmation hearings about whether Jackson can rise to the challenge, or if privatization advocates will take advantage of him to rush ahead with their own preferred changes, to their own financial gain.

    Hanging in the balance? Nine million veterans who rely on the VA for life-sustaining care in return for the sacrifices they have made.




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  • FARA: Freedom of the Press, But On the Government’s Terms

    March 31, 2018 // 21 Comments

    Tags: , , , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America



    A bipartisan group of lawmakers called for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate if Al Jazeera, the news outlet connected to the Qatari government, should register with the Justice Department as an agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA.)

    This has broad implications for our First Amendment, our access to dissenting opinions, and in how the rest of the world views us.


    The lawmakers claim Al Jazeera “directly undermines American interests” and broadcasts “anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel” material. Al Jazeera would join Russian outlets RT and Radio Sputnik, Japan’s Cosmomedia, the Korean Broadcasting System, and the China Daily in registering as foreign state propaganda outlets. DOJ has also been asked to look into a range of other Chinese media.

    Ironically, the bipartisan request to force Al Jazeera to register comes amid a controversy over the network’s filming of a documentary critical of pro-Israel lobbying in the U.S. The network used an undercover operative to secure footage revealing possibly illegal interactions between advocacy groups and lawmakers.

    The Foreign Agents Registration Act was never intended to regulate journalism. The legislation in fact includes finely-worded exemptions for approved journalists, scholars, artists, and the like, who are not required to announce themselves as “agents of a foreign principal” regardless of what they create. The law was created in 1938 in response to German propaganda, specifically Nazi officials and those they employed to make pacifist speeches in then-neutral America and to organize sympathetic German-Americans. By requiring those working for the Nazis to register, and report their finances and spending, U.S. counterespionage authorities could more easily keep track of their activities.

    FARA law doesn’t even prohibit straight up propagandizing, though it seeks to limit the influence of foreign agents by labeling their work, apparently to help out Americans who otherwise would not be able to tell the difference on their own. The law specifically says “Disclosure of the required information facilitates evaluation by the government and the American people of the statements and activities of such persons in light of their function as foreign agents.” Indeed, the Atlantic Council claims these actions “do not suppress freedom of speech; instead, it serves the First Amendment by supplementing information available to the public.”

    Here’s a use of FARA in line with the law’s original intent: the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, whose job is to lobby Americans on behalf of a foreign government, in this case, to take vacations in Abu Dhabi, is a FARA registrant. You know who is up to what when the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority says they have decent beaches you should visit. Other typical registrants might include an American lawyer hired by Saudi Arabia to lobby Congress in favor of more arms sales. Being a foreign agent is happily legal and very popular with former Congresspeople and government bureaucrats; you just need to announce your employer.


    But FARA can also serve a more nefarious purpose, as a Catch-22 prosecution (a “compliance statute”) for those the U.S. wants to declare as foreign agents but who resist; if the feds want to taint you as a foreign agent, you either agree and register, or face jail.

    That is what happened in the case of RT and Radio Sputnik. Following the 2016 election, frightened officials demanded the Russian news organizations register as propaganda agents. RT’s editor-in-chief maintained her network was an independent news outlet, but chose to comply rather than face criminal proceedings, adding “we congratulate the American freedom of speech and all those who still believe in it.” Critics then swung RT’s snarky comment on free speech into “proof” it unfairly criticizes America.

    The use of FARA to allow the government to declare which foreign media outlets produce “news” and which produce “fake news” and propaganda is “a shift in how the law has been applied in recent decades,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists. “We’re uncomfortable with governments’ deciding what constitutes journalism or propaganda.”


    As the Justice Department wields the FARA weapon against journalists, here’s what they will face.

    Designation under FARA requires a media outlet label its reporting “with a conspicuous statement that the information is disseminated by the agents on behalf of the foreign principal,” a nutritional label for journalism. It also means the outlet must open its finances to the Department of Justice. It means Americans who choose to watch that media, or participate in its talk shows, or who work legally for those outlets, open themselves to accusations of “treason” (one political staffer was fired after being interviewed by Radio Sputnik.) It adds credence to the muddy cries of “fake news” used to shut out dissenting opinions. It gives credibility to groups like PropOrNot, which lists websites it “determines” are Russian propaganda, and Hamilton 68, which does the same for Twitter.

    Subjecting journalists to FARA sends a message about America. It encourages foreign governments to impose restrictions (Russia has already passed a law requiring outlets like CNN to register as foreign agents.) It uses the full authority of the American government to declare Al Jazeera, a network which reaches 310 million people in more than 160 countries, has no equal place within a free press because its broadcasts are “anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel.” In the specific case of Al Jazeera, it seemingly extends America law to cover anti-Israeli propaganda as well. As with attempts to claim Wikileaks is espionage and not journalism, this use of FARA says the U.S. will use its laws to harass those with “un-American” opinions.

    The use of FARA to restrict foreign journalists also adds to rising sense among too many already frightened Americans that our freedoms are being used against us. “The U.S. is at a huge strategic disadvantage when it comes to the New Media Wars because our information environment is so open and rich,” said one former CIA Deputy Director of Intelligence. Perhaps too many dissenting voices isn’t a good idea. The Internet is just too much freedom for the First Amendment to responsibly allow. Maybe the government should become more involved in what we say, hear, watch, and read, as Facebook and Twitter (who banned RT from advertising) do now, you know, for our own protection. Our open society is a vulnerability, not a strength.


    The roots of our most basic rights flow from the freedom of the press written into the First Amendment. The press must be unfettered in reporting so citizens can make informed decisions when voting, protesting, and petitioning their government. Government should play no role in designating good journalists from bad, licensing who can report, or otherwise interfering with access to a broad range of ideas. Sorting out the marketplace of ideas — opposing opinions, bias exposed and hidden — is supposed to be our job as an informed citizenry anyway.



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  • Justice Stevens is Wrong: Repealing the Second Amendment in Post-Constitutional America

    March 27, 2018 // 15 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America




    It is not a healthy sign for a democracy when the people ask that rights be taken from them by the government.

    Former Justice of the Supreme Court John Paul Stevens is calling for the repeal of the Second Amendment in an Op-Ed in the New York Times. And make no mistake; the article is not for restrictions on rights (which can have their place) but for the elimination of an “inalienable” right, stripping the 2A from the Constitution. Stop what you’re about to say — this is about something more fundamental than guns alone.

    Stevens argues guns are dangerous things and the Second Amendment is, in his words, “a relic of the 18th century.” He advanced similar thoughts in 2008, when dissenting in the landmark District of Columbia v. Heller, where the Supreme Court held the Second Amendment protects the right to bear arms on an individual basis, even for those unaffiliated with a militia (thus an “individual” right not a “collective” right.) Stevens claimed in his dissent “There is no indication Framers of the Amendment intended to enshrine the common-law right of self-defense in the Constitution.”

    Justice Stevens instead sees the Second Amendment as a “propaganda weapon of immense power” for the NRA. His renewed call to repeal the 2A is based mostly what he saw on TV this weekend, a march in Washington in favor of something-something-gun control-somehow Stevens believes represents a “clear sign to lawmakers to enact legislation prohibiting civilian ownership of semiautomatic weapons.” He maintains as long as the 2A exists, the NRA will simply use its declaration of the inalienable right to bear arms to “stymie legislative debate and block constructive gun control legislation.” The bulk of the Supreme Court rejected his ideas back in 2008, when Stevens tried to vote down the right to bear arms in District of Columbia v. Heller. It doesn’t make any more sense now.


    Now of course the 2A will not be repealed; a nation that can’t make up its mind on the proper legal age to purchase a handgun will never reach a consensus to amend the Bill of Rights. People like Stevens calling for its repeal likely believe they are clever negotiators, setting a marker way out there, thinking it makes bargaining towards some middle easier. Same for using the PTSD-encrusted Parkland kids as emotional, meaty symbols, labeling those who oppose “gun control” as literal murderers, alongside members of the NRA, the Republican party, and any other politician who accepts NRA money.

    The problem is demonizing everyone who owns a gun for whatever reason is never going to promote meaningful change. Those people vote, they certainly don’t see themselves as demons or people who would condone the killing of children, and they won’t trust reforms to people who label them as demons. Under those circumstances, the only “answers” are repeal or keep things as they are, the kind of solution Prohibition failed at with alcohol.

    In the ten years since his original dissent and today’s New York Times Op-Ed, Stevens hasn’t come up any better argument other than the presence of the 2A itself enables the NRA to block incremental change. That will almost certainly drive away any gun owners who might otherwise be willing to talk about some sort of restrictions. Going to the table demanding all or nothing usually yields you nothing. Stevens has also just played directly into the hands of the NRA, who have maintained all along “reforms” are just sneaky waypoints toward banning all guns. Justice Stevens’ critique is fundamentally wrong, as its premise is that not everyone is to be allowed rights, that they are gummy, not inalienable. He argues extra-Consitutionally some choices (the Parkland ones of course) exist above rights.


    Historians may well look back on Stevens’ article as a marker the United States has entered its third great era. The first, starting from the colonists’ arrival, saw the principles of the Enlightenment used to push back the abuses of an imperial government and create the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The next two hundred some years, imperfect as they were, saw those principles progress, putting into practice what an evolving government of the people might look like. The line was steady — greater rights, more freedom, encoding away the ability of government to restrict how people could chose to live.

    We are now wading in the shallows of the third era, Post-Constitutional America, a time when we are abandoning the basic ideas that saw our nation through centuries of challenges. Those ideas — enshrined in the Bill of Rights — are disarmingly concise, the haiku of a People’s government. Now, deeper, darker waters lay in front of us, and we are drawn down into them.

    The very idea of even discussing willfully removing rights guts the heart of who we are. Rights inside our form of society are inalienable, existing organically, and are not granted by government and should not be able to be taken away. Such extraordinary privilege comes with the responsibility of tolerance; that is why the 1A protects all speech, including some quite purposely hateful and racist. It is meant to be that Americans can hate the idea of abortion, or same sex marriage, and still support someone’s else’s right to different choices with all their heart. I don’t own a gun, but you can.

    Some will argue guns are different, they kill. The same argument can be applied to abortion of course, and to speech designed to stir people to war. Some, like Stevens, say the 2A, which speaks of a “well regulated militia” the Founders intended as a substitute to a standing army is archaic language. It is. The idea a handful of people with personal weapons poses much of a tactical challenge to a standing army in the 21st century is as outdated as the Third Amendment, which prohibits the government from quartering troops in private homes.


    But the Constitution is a living document, and has changed mightly over the last two centuries to greatly expand rights implicitly and explicitly left out in the 18th century-limited minds of the men who wrote it, particularly in regards to slavery, universal suffrage, and discrimination in all its forms. “Speech” has been constantly redefined in broader and broader ways that would astound the Founders. But the broad pattern has always been toward expansion of rights carefully moderated by restrictions as limited as they must be (no shouting fire in a crowded theatre.)

    It is wrong and frightening and anti-democratic to see calls for the elimination of a full amendment from the Bill of Rights, and doubly so that such appeals resonate with so many Americans acting now out of fear and emotion. It bespeaks a fundamental change in how Americans came to be America, and opens the door wider to a Post-Constitutional United States that seems to say “You want inalienable rights? You can’t handle inalienable rights.”

    The Founders feared a King would become jealous of the People’s power and want some back. They never anticipated in 2018 the people might demand it be taken from them.




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  • Gina Haspel — As if Nuremberg Never Happened

    March 27, 2018 // 5 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America, Trump



    Nothing will say more about who we are — across three administrations, one who demanded torture, one who covered it up, and one who seeks to promote its bloody participants — than whether or not Gina Haspel becomes Director of the CIA.


    Gina Haspel tortured human beings in Thailand as the chief of a CIA black site in 2002. She is currently Deputy Director at the CIA. With current director Mike Pompeo slated to move to Foggy Bottom, President Donald Trump proposed Haspel as the Agency’s new head.

    Haspel’s victims wait for death in Guantanamo and cannot speak to us, though they no doubt remember their own screams, Haspel’s face as she broke them, what she said about freedom and America as they were waterboarded. We can still hear former CIA officer John Kiriakou say “We did call her Bloody Gina. Gina was always very quick and very willing to use force. Gina and people like Gina did it, I think, because they enjoyed doing it. They tortured just for the sake of torture, not for the sake of gathering information.”

    Kiriakou exposes the obsessive debate over the effectiveness of torture as false: torture works, just not for eliciting information. Torture and the people like Gina Haspel who conduct it seek vengeance, humiliation, and power. We’re just slapping you now, she would have said in that Thai prison, but we control you and who knows what will happen next, what we’re capable of? The torture victim is left to imagine what form the hurt will take and just how severe it will be, creating his own terror.


    Haspel won’t be asked at her confirmation hearing to explain how torture works, but these men could.

    I met my first torture victim in Korea, where I was adjudicating visas for the State Department. Persons with serious criminal records are ineligible to travel to the United States, with an exception for political crimes by dissidents. The man I spoke with said under the U.S.-supported military dictatorship of Park Chung Hee he was tortured for writing anti-government verse. He was taken to a small underground cell. Two men arrived and beat him repeatedly on his testicles and sodomized him with one of the tools they had used for the beating. They asked no questions. They barely spoke to him at all.

    Though the pain was beyond his ability to describe, he said the humiliation of being left so utterly helpless was what remained of his life, destroyed his marriage, sent him to the repeated empty comfort of alcohol, and kept him from ever putting pen to paper again. The men who destroyed him, he told me, did their work, and then departed, as if they had others to visit and needed to get on with things. He was released a few days later and driven back to his apartment by the police. A forward-looking gesture.

    The second torture victim I met while stationed in Iraq. The prison that had held him was under the control of some shadowy part of the U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces. In there masked men bound him at the wrists and ankles and hung him upside-down. He said they neither asked him questions nor demanded information. They did whip his testicles with a leather strap, then beat the bottoms of his feet and the area around his kidneys. They slapped him. They broke the bones in his right foot with a steel rod, a piece of rebar ordinarily used to reinforce concrete.

    It was painful, he told me, but he had felt pain before. What destroyed him was the feeling of utter helplessness. His strength had been his ability to control things. He showed me the caved in portion of his foot, which still bore a rod-like indentation with faint signs of metal grooves.

    Haspel blinded one of her victims. Another was broken as a human being so thoroughly he would, at the snap of his torturer’s fingers, simply lie down to be waterboarded. Haspel accused a victim of faking his psychological breakdown: “I like the way you’re drooling. It adds to the realism. I’m almost buying it.” As head of the black site Haspel had sole authority to halt the questioning but she made the torture continue.

    Gina Haspel is the same person as those who were in the rooms with the Korean, and the Iraqi.


    Gina Haspel is nominated to head the CIA because Obama did not prosecute anyone for torture; she is the future he told us to look forward toward. He did not hold any truth commissions, and ensured almost all of the government documents on the torture program remain classified. He did not prosecute the CIA officials who destroyed video tapes of the torture scenes.

    Obama ignored, as with the continued hunting down of Nazis some 70 years after their evil acts, the message that individual responsibility must stalk those who do evil on behalf of a government. “I was only following orders” is not a defense against inhuman acts. The purpose of tracking down the guilty is to punish those with blood on their hands, to discourage the next person from doing evil, and to morally immunize a nation-state.

    But to punish Gina Haspel “more than 15 years later for doing what her country asked her to do, and in response to what she was told were lawful orders, would be a travesty and a disgrace,” claims one of her supporters. “Haspel did nothing more and nothing less than what the nation and the agency asked her to do, and she did it well,” said Michael Hayden.

    Influential people in Congress agree. Senator Richard Burr, chair of the Senate intelligence committee which will soon review Haspel said “I know Gina personally and she has the right skill set, experience, and judgment to lead one of our nation’s most critical agencies.” Lindsey Graham expressed “She’ll have to answer for that period of time, but I think she’s a highly qualified person.” Bill Nelson defended Haspel’s actions, saying they were “the accepted practice of the day” and shouldn’t disqualify her.

    Dianne Feinstein signaled her likely acceptance, saying “Since my concerns were raised over the torture situation, I have met with her extensively, talked with her… She has been, I believe, a good deputy director.” Susan Collins added Haspel “certainly has the expertise and experience as a 30 year employee of the agency.” John McCain, a victim of torture during the Vietnam War, mumbled only that Haspel would have to explain her role.

    Nearly alone at present, Senator Rand Paul says he will oppose Haspel’s nomination. Senators Ron Wyden and Martin Heinrich have told Trump she is unsuitable and will likely also vote no.


    Following World War II the United States could have easily executed those Nazis responsible for the Holocaust, or simply thrown them into some forever jail on an island military base. It would have been hard to find anyone who would not have supported brutally torturing them at a black site. Instead, they were put on public trial at Nuremberg and made to defend their actions as the evidence against them was laid bare. The point was to demonstrate We were better than Them.

    We today instead refuse to understand what Haspel’s victims, and the Korean writer, and the Iraqi insurgent, already know on our behalf: unless our Congress awakens to confront the nightmare and deny Gina Haspel’s nomination as Director of the CIA, torture has already transformed us and so will consume us. Gina Haspel is a torturer. We are torturers. It is as if Nuremberg never happened.


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  • Mike Pompeo and the Missiles of Spring

    March 24, 2018 // 11 Comments

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    Posted in: Iran, Iraq, Trump




    Secretary of State-designate Mike Pompeo will walk into his confirmation hearings, and soon after that his first day of work, confronting the missiles of spring.

    In one case President Donald Trump and Pompeo signal they want to back away from an Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran, while in the other both men seem intent on securing a likely similar deal with North Korea. It will be Pompeo’s counsel to Trump which will help shape the nuclear landscape American foreign policy will move forward in.


    The shakeup at State places an ardent critic of the Iran nuclear deal as the nation’s top diplomat, alongside a president who already delivered an ultimatum to European powers in January to fix the deal’s “terrible flaws.” Absent changes western Europe (as well as China and Russia) would agree to press on the Iranians, Trump will not extend U.S. sanctions relief when the current waiver expires on May 12. That move would likely scuttle the whole agreement and spin Iran back into the nuclear development cycle.

    Trump previously singled out the Iran nuclear deal as one of the main policy differences he had with former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The new Secretary of State’s starting position on the 2015 agreement is unambiguous: “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism,” Pompeo remarked during his Central Intelligence Agency confirmation process. As director of the Agency, Pompeo likened Iran to Islamic State, and called the nation a “thuggish police state.”


    It may be as simple as that. Iran’s Javad newspaper, believed to be close to the Revolutionary Guard, said replacing Tillerson with Pompeo signaled the end of the nuclear deal. But sometimes, as the old saying goes, where you stand depends on where you sit. Pompeo will find the region more complex as Secretary of State than as Director of Central Intelligence. Pompeo will inherit a Department of State which views the Iran agreement as one of its key legacy successes. Should he seek advice from his new staff at Foggy Bottom, Pompeo will be challenged on his hardline views. Same for Pompeo’s initial calls to his counterparts in western Europe, China, and Russia. They are likely to ask for more time to work with Iran on an arrangement that allows Trump to appear to have bested the Obama deal without it falling apart and sparking a nuclear crisis in the Persian Gulf.

    As Secretary, Pompeo will become much more conscious of the powerful role Iran now plays in Iraq. While at the Agency Iran is simply known as a bad guy, over at State it is seen as an odd bedfellow, a pseudo-partner. Effectively defeating Islamic State in Iraq is a little-mentioned foreign policy success for Trump, and one due significantly to cooperation with Tehran. Tehran, with its military advisors in place, control over the Shiite militias, and influence among key politicians, holds the key to stability in Iraq. With elections for the next prime minister scheduled for May 12 in Iraq (major candidates all have ties to Iran), Tehran has some bargaining chips of its own, including threats to vulnerable American forces and diplomats in Iraq, right at the time the U.S. might reimplement sanctions.

    The good news? If his new counterparts in western Europe, China, and Russia can get Pompeo’s ear where they have failed to do so with Trump, they’ll have a strong advocate in the Oval Office. Those same counterparts, knowing Pompeo is unafraid of war with Iran, also have a new impetus to find common ground with Washington on modifying the Iran deal; even as Tillerson was being fired Tuesday his top policy aide Brian Hook frantically headed to Vienna for meetings with European allies aimed at coming up with new measures that can satisfy Trump.

    Pompeo might be persuaded, for example, to get Trump to extend his sanctions waiver on Iran into the autumn, buying time to negotiate a “soft exit” that would delay enforcement of secondary U.S. sanctions so international companies could continue trading with Iran without the threat of losing the American market. Extending the sanctions waiver into the fall would also allow Mike Pompeo to forestall a potential crisis striking the Middle East nearly to the day the president is scheduled to sit down with Kim Jong Un.


    Mike Pompeo’s most recent comments on North Korea emphasize he is now in lock step with Trump: “We’ve gotten more than any previous administration — an agreement to not continue testing nuclear weapons and their missile program, the things that would put them capable of getting across the threshold… at the same time [Kim] has agreed to have a conversation about denuclearization.” Pompeo’s move to Foggy Bottom appears timed to have him shepherd through the summit plans; one report claims the reason Trump is putting Pompeo at the State Department now was because he “wanted a strong team ready for North Korea.”

    Trump seems to want a deal with North Korea, very likely ironically similar to the one Obama made with Iran — reduced sanctions in return for progress on denuclearization. The highly-technical deal with Iran, with its tethered sanctions, inspection protocols, and multinational angle, could even serve as a quiet blueprint for what may happen with the North.

    Pompeo is well-placed to help. One of his first acts at the Agency was to revamp intelligence collection on North Korea to inform the administration’s sanctions campaign. Pompeo will be ready to suggest where sanctions can be adjusted for whatever impact Trump is seeking. And unlike others at State, whom Trump would likely fear were trying to make him look weak with their suggestions, Pompeo is trusted. Pompeo has also been in charge of a covert cyber campaign against the North, hinted at on several occasions, which can be strategically dialed up or down as appropriate.

    For Pompeo to implement his marching orders in Asia, he will need to walk back earlier comments about regime change in North Korea. Security is Kim Jong-un’s primary goal for negotiations with the U.S., and a guarantee of his own position will be non-negotiable. Trump can expect no progress on denuclearization without deflecting Pompeo’s July 2017 statement the North Korean people “would love to see” Kim removed from power, and that he remained hopeful the U.S. would figure out a way to make that happen. But it won’t be hard to sort out; the North understands well the role of bellicose rhetoric in negotiations.


    Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State stands at an important policy intersection. His relationship with Trump means overseas he will be seen as speaking with the full authority of the president. He is a true believer in Trump’s worldview, and an influential figure in a chaotic White House. How he handles the role as chief foreign policy advisor to Donald Trump will help determine whether or not the Middle East falls into a nuclear crisis even as first steps are taken to avoid one in East Asia.



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  • R.I.P. Rex Tillerson

    March 19, 2018 // 17 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Trump




    For those who decried Rex Tillerson’s 14 month tenure as Secretary of State, those who wanted a more aggressive advocate in foreign affairs, those who wanted more of the empty slots filled at Foggy Bottom, be careful what you wish for. Because you now have Mike Pompeo.

    Rex Tillerson will not, as some claim, be remembered as the worst Secretary of State in history. He made no significant blunders or gaffes, gave away nothing to the determinant of the United States. He just didn’t do much at all.

    Understanding Tillerson’s place in history requires understanding the State Department is an agency without primary agency. Under Cold War administrations it focused on arms control. During the Bush and early Obama years, State was sent off to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan. Hillary Clinton switched the organization over to “soft power” programs. John Kerry started on Syria as a signature aim but ended up focused singularly on the Iran nuclear deal. Tillerson never articulated any goals for his organization beyond some verbiage about structural reform that will never again see daylight. Tillerson will more accurately be remembered not as the worst of secretaries, but as the most pointless.

    Tillerson never understood the traditional way of engaging State’s bureaucracy is for a new secretary to fill key positions with political appointees, who will task the rank and file below them. Tillerson left too many slots vacant too long, and found himself without allies inside Foggy Bottom as his relationship with Trump failed to gel. Left on their own, his diplomats found ways to make trouble for him, including leaking dissent memos on the administration’s approach to child soldiers and Trump’s executive orders banning travelers from some Muslim countries. Alongside all that, the media offered Tillerson no rest, proclaiming in near-apocalyptic terms the end of diplomacy, the dismantling of the State Department, and announcing with dulled regularity the loss of U.S. standing in the world.

    It’s kind of amazing in a way Tillerson lasted as long as he did, though the end was the kind of inglorious mess all too common now in Washington. Tillerson was caught flat-footed with the announcement of an impending summit with North Korea, and his clumsy attempt to sound relevant commenting only handed the media another chance to claim chaos in the administration. Tillerson made his remarks in the midst of a humiliating apology tour of Africa, where he was tasked to be the punching bag for leaders on the periphery of U.S. foreign policy angry over the president calling their nations sh*tholes.

    Tillerson, his Africa trip caught short denying him even the chance to lay a wreath at the memorial to victims of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, took a final shot at Trump on his way out the door, getting ahead of the more neutral White House statement by saying the nerve agent used to poison a Russian spy and his daughter in the UK “clearly came from Russia” and the episode “certainly will trigger a response.”

    Good times.


    But as the old saying warns, be careful what you wish for. Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State will be no Rex Tillerson.

    Pompeo is a West point grad, a Tea Party pro-war conservative, a three-time Congressman from Kansas elected to the House of Representatives in 2010 with the support of Charles and David Koch. He is remembered for grilling of Hillary Clinton over Benghazi. As a member of the House intelligence committee, he supported the NSA’s bulk data collection program and opposed shutting Guantanamo. He defended the CIA alongside the Senate torture report, declaring “These men and women are not torturers, they are patriots.”

    Among Pompeo’s most significant foreign policy stances is his long-standing opposition to the 2015 agreement among the U.S., Iran, and European and Asian powers that lifted economic sanctions in exchange for Tehran accepting curbs on its nuclear program. “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism,” Pompeo said during his CIA confirmation process. As head of the Department of State, which sees as one of its few Obama-era legacy successes that nuclear agreement, Pompeo will encounter diplomats who were displeased by the bland Tillerson repelled by him. Anybody expecting the rehabilitation of the State Department is in for a long wait. A toxic relationship with the rank and file? You ain’t seen nothing yet.

    But what his diplomats think of him may not matter to Pompeo. Unlike Tillerson, who as a stranger to Washington failed to understand the need to seed the bureaucracy with allies, Pompeo is likely to move quickly to insert people who mirror his ideological stances into the State Department. His ties with conservative organizations suggest he’ll have a pool of like-minded people to draw from, and his close relationship with Trump implies he won’t run into the resistance Tillerson often did in getting his choices blessed.

    While decisions on the Iran nuclear agreement hover in the near distance, Pompeo will find the impending summit among Trump, Kim Jong-un and South Korean president Moon Jae-in as item number one on his to-do list. Absent a bit of obligatory institutional defense of the CIA’s work on Russia, Pompeo has made a point of locking his public statements in line with Trump’s. Pompeo’s most recent comments on North Korea emphasize this: “We’ve gotten more than any previous administration — an agreement to not continue testing nuclear weapons and their missile program, the things that would put them capable of getting across the threshold… at the same time [Kim] has agreed to have a conversation about denuclearization.”

    Pompeo will however need to walk back earlier remarks hinting at regime change in North Korea. Security is Kim Jong-un’s primary goal for negotiations with the U.S., and a guarantee of his own position will be non-negotiable. Trump can expect no progress on denuclearization without deflecting Pompeo’s July 2017 statement the North Korean people “would love to see” Kim removed from power, and that he remained hopeful the U.S. would figure out a way to make that happen.


    But those are details. We already know what kind of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will be. Given his firm stances on issues such as the Iranian nuclear deal, informed by a staunch political philosophy formed out of his Tea Party days, and backed up by his Washington experience and closeness to Trump, it is very unlikely Pompeo will be an inconsequential secretary in the Tillerson mold.

    The new worry is someone in a position that often served previous presidents by presenting dissenting opinions being filled by a man who will in lock-step amplify and support Trump’s own views. Don’t forget it was Pompeo who made the Sunday show rounds to defend the president’s response to the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville last August, even as other administration officials stayed silent. Critics who focused on a perceived lack of consistency in foreign policy hurting America’s global credibility will need to prepare for a policy machine that fully mirrors the intent of Donald Trump.




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