Hillary Clinton has a plan for defeating Islamic State in Syria. Donald Trump has one, too. With the conflict in Syria spreading beyond its borders, it’s essential to understand the new president’s strategies – and how they may need to be adjusted over the next four years.
Trump: Safe Zones
Trump has advocated for a “safe zone” for Syrians to ride out the conflict. Such a zone would be a swath of territory inside the country, where today’s refugees would reside instead of fleeing to Europe and elsewhere. Trump has offered no details on how such a zone would be created, or by whom. American support for this initiative, Trump has made clear, would be limited to some economic assistance, with the bulk of the costs borne by the Gulf States. Though Trump does not support a no-fly zone per se, it seems difficult anyone could create and protect a safe zone without a no-fly-zone.
Clinton: No Fly Zones
Clinton has also made the case for safe zones, as well as consistently proposing a no-fly zone. America, under Clinton’s plan, would make a portion of Syrian national airspace inaccessible to any but potentially its own planes. Russian strike aircraft and Syrian government helicopters would risk being shot down.
Clinton has said the no-fly zone would “create those safe refuges within Syria, to try to protect people on the ground both from Assad’s forces, who continue to drop barrel bombs, and from ISIS. And of course, it has to be de-conflicted with the Russians, who are also flying in that space.” She has also stated that “A no-fly zone would prevent the outflow of refugees and give us a chance to have some safe spaces.”
Clinton’s no-fly zone, and in practical terms, Trump’s safe zone, both open the same door to a greatly enlarged conflict.
General Martin Dempsey, the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained in 2012 imposing a no-fly zone would require as many as 70,000 American servicepeople to dismantle Syria’s air defense system, as a no-fly zone could not coexist alongside the possibility Assad might shoot down American aircraft. An attack on Assad of that magnitude would almost certainly demand a response; how would Russia come to the defense of its ally?
In addition, any no-fly zone (or safe zone for that matter) must address the near-certainty it will be challenged by the Russians; it almost has to be, given the struggle for dominance in the region. Shooting down a Russian plane would enlarge the conflict in Syria while at the same time risking a retaliatory move that could take place anywhere in the world, perhaps even in cyberspace.
The possible juice from a no-fly or safe zone just isn’t worth the squeeze of an enlarged conflict with nation-state level, global implications. President Barack Obama has rejected the idea of a no-fly/safe zone in Syria for years. Would President Clinton, or Trump, really roll the dice on possible direct military conflict with Russia when their predecessor did not?
Boots on the Ground
Another Syrian strategy option, sending in American ground forces, will also be on the table for the next president to weigh.
Trump appears to have split with running mate Mike Pence over Syria; Pence says the United States should meet Russian “provocations” with strength, backing the use of military force to do so. Trump, when asked about that statement, claimed “He and I disagree.” Though the notion of a disagreement has been walked back, the nature of a Trump administration policy towards American forces deployed in Syria remains unclear.
Despite Clinton’s assertions that her plan for Syria does not include boots on the ground, and Trump’s apparent interest in not introducing troops, the new president will inherit an evolving situation: the boots are not only already firmly on the ground, their numbers are growing. Since April President Barack Obama has overseen the largest expansion of ground forces in Syria since its civil war began, bringing the number of Special Forces deployed to about 1,500. A year ago the United States had only 50 soldiers in Syria.
Experience suggests mission creep in both scale and headcount is likely. The current fight against Islamic State in Iraq has seen American ground forces grow to some 6,000 on regular deployment, with an additional, unknown, number of Marines on “temporary duty” and not counted against the total. The mission has also expanded, from advising to direct action, including artillery and helicopter gunship ground attacks.
In Syria, the tactical picture is even tougher than in Iraq. The United States faces not only Islamic State, but also potentially troops from Russia and Syria, Iranian special forces, and/or militias professionally armed and trained by Russia, Syria, and Iran. The American side of the equation sweeps in an ad hoc collection of Syrian groups of questionable loyalty and radical ideology, Kurds who oppose Turks, Turks who oppose Kurds, and perhaps third party Arab fighters.
Any new strategy for Syria will unfold on a complex game board.
As long as Assad stays in power, even without Islamic State, the bloody civil war will continue. If Assad goes, who could replace him and not trigger a new round of civil war? Who will pay for Syria to rebuild at some point?
Enlarging the picture, how will the Kurd-Turk struggle be managed now that the genie of Kurdish independence is out of the lamp? How will the next phase of the Sunni-Shi’ite relationship in Iraq affect Syria? How will growing Iranian influence in Iraq, a likely consequence of any defeat of Islamic State there, factor in? The Russians are now on the ground again in the Middle East. What effect will that have on the broader regional and global strategic balance?
The task facing the next president is not just defeating Islamic State inside Syria, but doing so even as the local problems there have metastasized into broad issues with global consequences. President Clinton or President Trump may find their current proposed plans will run into the same vexing realities the Obama administration has struggled with for years. The candidates’ current proposed plans do not seem up to the task. The new administration will have to quickly devise strategies that have otherwise eluded America’s best strategic thinkers since the earliest days of the Syrian civil war.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
I’ll unpack the Constitutional issues in a bit, but first, the technology.
Michigan State University professor who holds six U.S. patents for fingerprint recognition technology was asked by police to help catch a murderer. The cops scans of the victim’s fingerprints and thought that unlocking his phone might provide clues as to who killed him.
The professor converted the fingerprint scans and 3D printed versions of all 10 digits. He then coated them with a micro-layer of metallic particles to mimic skin’s conductivity. The final 3D-printed fingers aren’t finished, but they’ll be ready for police to try out soon.
The potential Constitutional issues here are an amazing challenge to the Fourth Amendment’s assurances against unwarranted search, and the Fifth’s protections against self-incrimination. They don’t apply to this current case, as the prints in question comes from a dead man, but…
In in 2014 a judge controversially ruled that (living) suspects can be required to unlock a phone with a fingerprint. While the Fifth Amendment protects the right to avoid self-incrimination and makes it illegal to force someone to give out a passcode, biometric indicators like fingerprints are not covered by the Fifth Amendment, according to the ruling. So, if your phone or other device is protected with a fingerprint, the current law says cops can compel you to open it. If the phone is protected by a PIN number, the cops cannot compel you to open it.
The judge’s logic is interesting. He wrote giving police a fingerprint is akin to providing a DNA or handwriting sample, or presumably an iris scan or facial recognition, which the law permits. A pass code, though, requires the defendant to divulge knowledge, which the law protects against.
It is not hard to imagine a future court ruling that all a bunch of nonsense and (hopefully) declaring the police cannot compel you to unlock your phone for them. But of course the cops can fingerprint you, and can have those prints 3D reproduced, and might be able to open your phone that way. So is or is that not Constitutional?
And cool: if the police already have your iris scan, facial data or prints on file, they don’t even need to bother to talk to you about any of this at some point.
In the age of Snowden’s revelations, big data and all sorts of electronic spy gear we have yet to learn about or invent, has technology finally outrun the otherwise pretty good record of the Bill of Rights for keeping up with the times?
BONUS: Protect your phone with a strong PIN at the minimum.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
In the presidential debates, Trump and Clinton referenced the NAFTA and TPP trade deals. What are they and are they good, or bad, for America?
What Are NAFTA and TPP?
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which went into force in 1994, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is still pending ratification in the U.S. and elsewhere, are international trade agreements.
Trump is unambiguously, totally, absolutely, hugely opposed to both deals and any others in the future. He has held that position from Day One.
Clinton, less so. NAFTA was pushed through by Bill, and Hillary continues to defend it. As Secretary of State she strongly advocated for the TPP. She continued that advocacy during the first part of her campaign, right up until Bernie Sanders started to score points against her by opposing it. Hillary then shifted to also opposing it. No one knows what her stance will be if she is elected.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration is still hoping to force TPP through a lame duck Congress following the election. Hillary would then be free to shrug her shoulders come January and claim the TPP is not her responsibility.
The Basics Of Trade
International deals like NAFTA and the TPP are designed to promote more trade, more goods and services, and sometimes more workers, moving across borders. The deals typically reduce taxes and tariffs, change visa rules, and sometimes soften regulations that keep foreign products out. The phrase used most often is “lower the barriers.”
So, if widgets made at a higher cost in the U.S. can be made more cheaply in Vietnam and then imported into the U.S., something like TPP can facilitate that by lowering American tariffs on widgets. Meanwhile, Vietnam might be required to change its agricultural import system to allow American genetically modified fruit into Hanoi’s supermarkets.
Looking at You, NAFTA
NAFTA is a good place to start in learning more, as it involves three countries — the U.S., Canada, and Mexico — that generally get along, play reasonably fair, and already had a robust cross-border trade. Lots of non-variables there. Plus, since NAFTA’s been around for over 20 years, there should be a decent consensus on how it worked. That will provide a real world example to weigh against a newcomer like the TPP.
There are numbers. For example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says increased trade from NAFTA supports about five million U.S. jobs. Unemployment was 7.1% in the decade before NAFTA, and 5.1% from 1994 to 2007. But then again unemployment from 2008 to 2012 has been significantly higher.
You can find similar ups and downs on imports and exports, the value of goods, and the like. Some are clearer than others; since 1993, U.S. exports to Canada and Mexico have climbed 201 percent and 370 percent. The problem is trying to attribute them. Global economics is a complex business, and pointing to a singularity of cause and effect like NAFTA is tough. And NAFTA, remember, was just three countries. The TPP would draw in 12 nations.
The Latin phrase cui bono means “who benefits?,” and is used by detectives to imply that whoever appears to have the most to gain from a crime is probably the culprit. More generally, it’s used to question the advantage of carrying something out. In the case of things like NAFTA and TPP, the criminal context might be more applicable.
NAFTA made certain products cheaper for American consumers, as manufacturing costs are lower in Mexico than Idaho. American companies who found new export markets abroad also saw a rising tide of new money. That’s the good part (for a few.)
However, allowing American firms to make things abroad and import them into the U.S. free or cheap moves jobs out of the United States. A current case cited by Trump is Carrier. Carrier sent 1,400 jobs making furnaces and heating equipment to Mexico. Mexican workers typically earn about $19 a day, less than what many on Carrier’s former Indiana assembly line used to make in an hour.
Carrier will see higher profits due to lower costs. They put Americans out of work.
Economists will often claim that such job losses are part of the invisible hand, how capitalism works, duh. The laid off workers need to learn to code and build web pages, migrate to employment hot spots such as California like a modern day Tom Joads. But pay a visit to nearly anywhere in what we now blithely call America’s Rust Belt, and see how that’s working out.
Retraining industrial workers just does not happen overnight, even if there was free, quality education (there’s not.) Indeed, since the beginnings of the hollowing out of America, it has not happened at all.
The risk is also that retraining takes unemployed, unskilled people and turns them into unemployed, skilled people. Training is only of value when it is connected to a job. Remember, even if all those unemployed Carrier people somehow learn to build web pages, America’s colleges are churning out new workers, digital natives, who already have the skills. Even Silicon Valley’s needs are finite.
Everybody Wins, Except for Most of Us
Economist Robert Scott claims over the last 20 years, trade and investment deals have increased U.S. trade deficits and cost Americans their jobs. For example, the agreement allowing China into the World Trade Organization led to trade deficits that eliminated 3.2 million jobs between 2001 and 2013. Meanwhile, the United States already faces a trade deficit with countries in the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership that cost two million U.S. jobs in 2015.
In his 2008 book, Everybody Wins, Except for Most of Us, Josh Bivens showed increased global integration harms working Americans. Bivens estimated that the growth of trade with low-wage countries reduced the median wage for full-time workers without a college degree by about $1,800 per year in 2011.
A Broader View
If one is asking whether or not international trade agreements are good for America, one needs to think bigger. On a whole-of-society level, economics is about people. We all want American companies to make money. It’s also great that Walmart is full of low-cost consumer electronics from Asia, or Carrier air conditioners fresh from Mexico, but you need money — a job — to buy them.
Think broader, and you’ll see economics is about people. Let that answer the question for you about whether international trade agreements are good or bad for America.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
The U.S. spends spends $5 billion of your tax money a year in “aid” to Afghanistan, plus billions more for the cost of the thousands of American troops and Pentagon-sponsored military contractors there.
An “Epidemic of Graft”
One of the (many) reasons why all that money has accomplished close to jack squat in 15 years of war is corruption. Extraordinary amounts of U.S. money simply disappears, siphoned off at high levels, passed on as bribes to suppliers and Taliban hustlers at the lower levels. It is, according to one study, an “epidemic of graft.”
Transparency International ranks Afghanistan as one of the top five most corrupt countries in the world (Iraq, another U.S. project, is also in the top tier.) The UN says half of Afghans paid a bribe in 2012; that figure was as high as 70 percent in some areas of the country. The same survey found that corruption was roughly tied with security as the issue of greatest concern to Afghans.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) assessed corruption in Afghanistan “has become pervasive, entrenched, systemic, and by all accounts now unprecedented in scale and reach.” The U.S. Department of Defense Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote, “corruption alienates key elements of the population, discredits the government and security forces, undermines international support, subverts state functions and rule of law, robs the state of revenue, and creates barriers to economic growth.”
Of course USAID and the Department of Defense are who spends that $5 billion a year in Afghanistan that drives the corruption.
Afghanistan’s High Office of Oversight
So to get this all cleaned up, the U.S. helped birth Afghanistan’s High Office of Oversight (HOO), a big deal part of the Made in America Afghan government stuck together like very expensive Legos to create democracy. And since the U.S. sort of made/paid for the HOO, it was somebody’s idea (the Special Inspector for Afghan Reconstruction, SIGAR) to inspect the HOO.
Here’s what they found:
— The HOO suffers from a lack of independence and authority to fulfill its mandate, lacks enforcement power, and has failed to register and verify asset declarations of senior politicians. An HOO advisor said “the HOO was never anything more than window dressing designed to keep the international community happy.”
— Of the 47 Afghan officials who left office between 2008 and 2014, only eight complied with the Afghan constitutional mandate to submit an asset declaration form.
— Further stymying enforcement efforts was the unwillingness of the Afghan Attorney General’s Office to investigate corruption cases. Some of those cases referred involved embezzlement, bribery, and forgery ranging as high as $100 million.
— Although former President Karzai declared cash in two German bank accounts, he did not provide the bank account numbers for verification. Additionally, he declared personal effects in the form of jewelry but did not provide the owner’s name, the purchase cost, or the date of purchase.
— Second Vice President Mohammad Karim Khalili stated he had no cash nor any personal effects.
— SIGAR reviewed 27 top officials under the current administration who were required to submit asset declaration forms to the HOO for verification. As of March 2016, the HOO reported that it verified one asset declaration form.
I do not like Donald Trump. I don’t support what he says about women in any way. I’m not voting for him. But I am concerned about how the media is handling this election, and I am (cautiously) calling bullsh*t. So go ahead and hate me, but…
— In the week ahead of the second presidential debate, Trump threatened more than once he would bring up Bill Clinton’s infidelities.
— After sitting on the information for 11 years of Trump media attention, including during his celebrity run on his Apprentice show, Billy Bush releases the now-infamous “pussy grabbing” tape the Friday before the second presidential debate. It would have made a splashy story at many points in the past, but no one surfaced it.
— On Sunday night, 48 hours later, Clinton, aided by moderator Anderson Cooper, repeatedly brings up the tape. Cooper is, if not the first, the first mainstream voice to state Trump’s 11-year-old lewd words are in fact sexual assault. He insists Trump answer the question of whether or not he has committed a sexual assault, a first in the history of presidential questioning, a live-on-TV admission of felony guilt. Trump says no.
— A couple of days after that, the New York Times front pages a story where two women accuse Trump of sexual assault. One woman said the previously-unreported incident with Trump took place over 30 years earlier. The other woman’s accusations related to an event 11 years earlier. In their article, the Times did not interview any collaborating witnesses.
— Since those accusations, a steady stream of new accusations have come out. Any planned Trump statements about Bill Clinton’s infidelities are ripped off the media agenda.
Did none of the many, many Republican primary candidates do any opposition research about Trump during the months and months of the primary season? Given the apparent accessibility of Trump sexual assault material, how was none of this found by Trump’s earlier opponents, who were certainly digging for dirt? A Ted Cruz or a Marco Rubio could have knocked Trump out of the race in April with half this information.
Similar question; did no media investigate Trump’s background during his 18 months of candidacy?
Coincidences happen, just not as often as we’d like to believe. Was any of the timing of any of this indeed coincidental, given much of this information was never reported for decades but is now front paged a few weeks before the election?
I am well-aware of the reasons a woman might choose not to report an attack for many years. I am not calling any of the accusers liars. I am however skeptical when after 30 years, during which Trump was in the media spotlight, and then another 18 months of Trump as a leading candidate, the accusations emerge only weeks before the election, timed nearly to the day with bookended presidential debates.
And the big one.
What process did the New York Times pursue before it decided to print the stories of the two initial Trump accusers? How did the Times vett their stories? If I were to walk into the Times’ newsroom today and report that either Trump or Hillary had inappropriately touched me in 1979, what process would unfold at the Times before my statement was published?
I’m not being a smartass. I am not “victim shaming.” I do not believe asking these questions, especially the procedural questions about how the Times conducted its journalism, amounts to victim shaming. This is politics. No one is saying they are suing Trump, or engaged in a criminal case against him. None of these accusations will ever be tried before a jury or subjected to any examination other than in the media. It is at this point pure politics. We should, can, and need to talk about this.
I am talking about a series of media events that are likely to change the outcome of this election, and send one candidate to the White House out of what was 10 days ago a virtual tie of a race.
With all of the statements Russia is somehow trying to manipulate our election, it seems worthy of at least a couple of answers when it may be that the election manipulation is taking place right here at home.
NOTE: OK, so I guess we do need to go there. I do not make any of these statements lightly. A close relative of mine was the victim of unwanted sexual attention by a man in a position of power over her. She was not believed by the organization or any third party when she came forward. I watched her suffer. Justice was not done in her case. I get it. So don’t embarrass yourself by dismissing these concerns by calling me some hater name.
Protocols exist allowing the president to select American citizens, without a whit of due process, for drone killing.
Only overseas, he says, but you can almost see the fingers crossed behind his back. Wouldn’t an awful lot of well-meaning Americans have supported an aerial drone killing in San Bernardino, or at the Pulse club in Orlando? Didn’t many support using a robot to blow up a suspect in Dallas?
How soon before armed drones are over our heads?
North Dakota just legalized its police departments to equip drones with Tasers, tear gas and rubber bullets. The state legislature will push for the removal of the non-lethal force provision in 2017.
House Bill 1328 went into effect August 1. The original piece of legislation sought to ensure police obtained a search warrant to use a drone to gather criminal evidence. However, when a lobbyist with police ties was allowed to amend the bill, it was rewritten to specify that drones could carry anything except (’til next year) weapons capable of lethal force.
Of course plenty of people have died at the hands of police using so-called non-lethal weapons, Tasers in particular. But even if that is not a concern, just wait until 2017, when the police will be able to fly weaponized drones.
Over America. Or is it: Over, America?
The war in Afghanistan is ready to enter its 16th year (if it was a kid it’s be ready to start driving) and by most definitions is pretty much a bust.
Despite that, both mainstream candidates have made it clear in public statements they intend to continue pouring money — and lives — into that suppurating sore of American foreign policy. Despite that, there has been no mention of the war in two debates.
Anyway, while we worry a lot about who call who naughty names in the final presidential debate, can you check around where you live and let me know if your town could use a new hospital, all paid for by someone else’s tax dollars, you know, free to you? ‘Cause that’s the deal Afghanistan got from the USG, only even that turned into a clusterfutz when no one paid much attention to how the facility was thrown together.
There’s a photo, above, of the actual $14.6 million hospital. Seriously.
And so again we turn to the latest reporting from the saddest people in government, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR). SIGAR just slit its wrists in depression after publishing an inspection report on the $14.6 million U.S.-funded Gardez Hospital.
The inspection notes:
— USAID, through one of its partners, awarded a $13.5 million contract to construct the 100-bed hospital by 2011. About five years after that deadline passed and after a cost increase to $14.6 million, the Gardez hospital is mostly complete.
— SIGAR found deficiencies with the hospital’s fire safety system, including a lack of emergency lighting system, exit signs pointing in the wrong direction, and missing fire alarms.
— And although the International Building Code requires hospitals to have full automatic fire suppression sprinkler systems, no one required the contractor to install any. Instead, the contract required it somehow only install the pipes, valves, fittings, and connections for the system, but not the water pump, nozzles, and several other parts to provide a complete and workable system.
— Poor workmanship includes cracks in the roadways and parking areas, crumbling sidewalks, leaking roofs, cracked exterior plaster, peeling paint, and rusted hardware on the security gates. SIGAR brought a total of 42 deficiencies involving poor workmanship to USAID’s over a year ago. Only 13 have been fixed.
— The hospital’s steam boiler system had not been installed correctly and had missing and damaged parts, a situation described as “dangerous.”
— The Afghan government estimates it will cost $2.3 million annually to operate and maintain the 100-bed Gardez hospital, which is almost four times the cost to operate the 70-bed hospital that it is replacing. SIGAR found no evidence that USAID had conducted any analysis to determine whether the ministry had the ability to operate and maintain the new health facility, but just built it anyway.
There is an attempt underway for a government to take control of our election process and throw the election to Hillary Clinton. It is not the Russian government. Mark this day — it is when we came to understand that the American government decided to elect a president.
(Note: I understand in the minds of the mass media the most important issue in America today is Trump’s crude remarks, but there are indeed real things to be concerned about otherwise.)
— Two days before the second presidential debate, the government of the United States officially accused Russia of a hacking campaign aimed at interfering in the U.S. election. In a joint statement, absent any specifics or technical details, the Department of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence stated “the recent [hacked email] disclosures… are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts… based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.”
— The statement goes on to detail how only Democratic servers were attacked, meaning the American government is claiming that Russia is trying to throw the election to Donald Trump, plain and simple. It is left unsaid why the Russians would risk cyberwar with the United States to do this, as many have suggested Trump is a neocon in spirit whose loose finger will be on the nuclear button from day one. Clinton is much more of a political realist, comfortable with the business-as-usual of the past eight years that has gone in Russia’s favor in the Ukraine and Syria. She in fact seems like the stable known known, always a preference.
— Though the first “Russian” hacks were reported in July, it is only 48 hours before the second presidential debate that the statement was released. It could easily have been held until Monday, there is no national security urgency for this to come out Friday. However, with the timing, Trump, essentially tied with Clinton in the polls, will now spend much of the debate defending himself. Since the statement includes no details, only accusations, it is hard to see how anyone could defend themselves. It would be near-impossible for Trump to come out ahead Sunday night; this is a near-coup.
— Despite the certainty with which the U.S. government has accused Russia of trying to influence the election by hacking into secured email servers, the FBI maintains there is no evidence the Russians or anyone else accessed Clinton unsecured, unencrypted email server laden with actual classified materials, including during Clinton’s first trip to Moscow when she sent and received encrypted email over the Internet and WiFi.
— In the first presidential debate, Hillary Clinton broadly speculated that Donald Trump had paid no taxes. Days later, several pages of Trump’s tax returns, documents that had been sought unsuccessfully by the media for over a year, arrive at the New York Times, who front pages a story. In the Vice Presidential debate which followed, Trump’s running mate spent time on the defensive defending his boss’ deductions.
— Clinton sent and received classified material on an unsecured, classified server. That violated the most basic rule of information security. She lied about it. She deleted emails and “lost” both the majority of her devices and many, many emails. The FBI and the Department of Justice, ahead of the Democratic nominating convention, found she violated no law. The Department of Justice granted broad immunity to key Clinton staffers, and allowed two of them to destroy their devices. No further investigation will thus be possible.
— The State Department aided and abetted Clinton for over four years in hiding her private server, and avoiding her responsibilities under the Freedom of Information Act and the Federal Records Act. Only under court order has the Department stopped slow-walking its “review” process to release emails publically. There has been no investigation.
— Emails released show a tangle of interests among State Department decisions, the Clinton Foundation and access to Hillary as Secretary of State (“pay for play”). Clinton sought Pentagon and State Department contracts for Chelsea’s friend. There has been no investigation.
— The State Department and White House coordinated to “crush” Clinton’s email coverage.
If you can add it up any other way than direct interference by the White House, the State Department, the Department of Justice, the FBI and the intelligence community, it would be interesting to hear how that works. The comments are open to make a benign case for these actions.
I’ve reviewed Oliver Stone’s movie Snowden elsewhere, and it’s well worth seeing just as a movie. But of course the issues brought up by Snowden the man, and Snowden the movie, are more complex than fit into two hours.
I had this hit home in a recent discussion with a friend who keeps insisting he has nothing to hide in his emails, phone calls, social media, etc., so why should he care if the NSA looks at all that?
Friend, here’s why:
NSA surveillance is legal.
True, as was slavery in the U.S., the Holocaust under Nazi Germany, Apartheid in South Africa and so forth. Laws serve higher purposes. They can be manipulated for evil. That’s why we need checks and balances to protect us.
Well, there are checks and balances in the system to protect us.
The king of all checks and balances in this, the Fourth Amendment, has been treated by the government like a used Kleenex.
As for the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Court (FISA), set up to review government requests for wiretapping, it approved all 1,789 requests submitted to it in 2012. The FBI made 15,229 National Security Letter requests in 2012 on Americans. None of those even require FISA rubber-stamping. And here’s DOJ trying to keep classified a court ruling that says it might have acted unconstitutionally.
The first FISA ruling ever released in full came from Edward Snowden. Before that, no one outside a small circle inside the government had ever seen one.
And you know who represents the “suspect” (i.e., you) in front of the FISA court? No one. You don’t even know they’re reviewing you.
If all the NSA’s activities are legal, why not allow them to be tested openly and unambiguously in public, in front of the Supreme Court. After all, if you’ve done nothing wrong there is nothing to hide. Unfortunately, when Amnesty International tried to bring such a case before the Court, the case was denied because Amnesty could not prove it was subject to monitoring– that was a secret!– and thus was denied standing to even bring the suit.
Unfettered surveillance violates both the Fourth Amendment protections against search, and the First Amendment protections on the right to peaceably assemble, online in this instance.
Anyway, whatever, FISA. I’m not doing anything wrong, so why should I care? If you’re doing nothing wrong, then you’ve got nothing to hide!
The definition of “wrong” can change very quickly, especially if you have no way to defend yourself, or even know you’re under suspicion. Are you really, really ready to risk everything on what is right and wrong today staying that way forever? Seems like a fool’s bet, given America’s witch hunts in the 1950s for communists, and Islamophobia today. Things do change.
Well, I trust Obama on this.
Good for you. There’ll be a new president soon. You also trust him or her? How about the one after that, and the one after that? Data collected is forever. Trusting anyone with such power is foolish.
FYI, whether you trust Obama, Trump, Hillary or the next presidents, do remember your personal data is in the hands of the same people that run the TSA, the IRS and the DMV. Do you trust all of them all the time to never make mistakes or act on personal grudges or political biases? Do you believe none of them would ever sell your data for personal profit ever? That they have your information so well protected hackers will never get to it and dump it out onto the Internet?
How about other governments? The NSA is already sharing your data with, at minimum, British and Israeli intelligence. Those are foreign governments that your American government is informing on you to.
Distasteful as this all is, it is necessary to keep us safe. It’s for our own good.
The United States, upholding to our beautiful Bill of Rights, has survived (albeit on a sometimes bumpy road) two world wars, the Cold War and innumerable challenges without a massive, all-inclusive destruction of our civil rights. Keep in mind that the Founders created the Bill of Rights, point-by-point, specifically to address the abuses of power (look up the never-heard-from-again Third Amendment) they experienced under an oppressive British government.
A bunch of angry jihadis, some real and many imagined, seems a poor reason to change that system. Prior to 9/11 we did not have a mass-scale terror act (by foreigners; American Citizen Timothy McVeigh pulled one off.) Since 9/11 we have not had a mass-scale terror attack. More than 15 years in, we must accept 9/11 was a one-off, an aberration, and cannot be a justification for everything the government wishes to do.
There is also the question of why, if the NSA is vacuuming up everything, and even sharing that collection abroad, this all needs to be kept secret from the American people. If it is for our own good, the government should be proud to tell us what they are doing for us, instead of being embarrassed when it leaks.
After all, if you’re not doing anything wrong then you’ve got nothing to hide, right?
When Islamic State beheads someone it is terrorism. When an Iraqi housewife beheads an ISIS fighter and cooks his skull, it is freedom. That is the CNN doctrine.
CNN reports the story of 39-year-old Wahida Mohamed aka Um Hanadi, an Iraqi woman who supposedly leads a tribal militia force of around 70 men south of Mosul. She and her band allegedly helped “government forces” drive Islamic State out of a small town.
“I began fighting the terrorists in 2004, working with Iraqi security forces and the coalition,” she told CNN. CNN cites no other source other than Um Hanadi herself and Facebook in its coverage.
As a result, Um Hanadi said, she attracted the wrath of what eventually became al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which later morphed into ISIS. “I received threats from the top leadership of ISIS, including from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself,” she says. “I’m at the top of their most wanted list, even more than the [Iraqi] Prime Minister.”
Um Hanadi stated al Qaeda/AQI/ISIS planted car bombs outside her home in 2006, 2009, 2010, 2013, and 2014.
Along the way, her first husband was killed in action. She remarried, but ISIS killed her second husband. ISIS also killed her father and three brothers. They also killed, she added, her sheep, her dogs and her birds, and tried to otherwise assassinate her six times.
Where Has Um Hanadi Been Hiding All These Years?
Despite her claim to have worked with the U.S. coalition, to be higher on the ISIS hit list than the Prime Minister, to have been the target of multiple bombing attempts, and to be a very, very, very rare example of a Muslim woman leading Muslim men in combat, I could not find any references to Um Hanadi that predate the CNN report. Um Hanadi does have a self-created social media presence which she updates between battles.
In addition, Um Hanadi may be the luckiest person in Iraq, apparently cheating death on a near-daily basis.
CNN did not explain in its coverage how it came to locate and interview Um Hanadi amid the chaos of present-day Iraq.
Now, on to the beheadings.
CNN quotes Um Hanadi as saying of ISIS “I fought them. I beheaded them. I cooked their heads, I burned their bodies.” CNN states “She made no excuses, nor attempted to rationalize this. It was delivered as a boast, not a confession.”
“This is all documented,” she said. “You can see it on my Facebook page.”
The CNN reporter wrote that he indeed checked her Facebook page and saw photos, and though he could not verify them, still “got the point.”
This is propaganda of the worst, and most infantile, kind. In addition to the broad question of whether or not any of this is even true, the question of who set CNN up to meet with Um Hanadi is left unanswered. That CNN would run this story on its television news, and website, is a shameful descent into the decaying corpse of the First Amendment. Media around the globe, including the once venerable New York Times, have reprinted the story.
Lastly is the horrific idea that atrocities such as beheading people are somehow right when an anti-ISIS person does it, and justification for an entire undeclared war by the U.S. when ISIS does it.
CNN have you no shame? Hah, trick question, you bast*rds really don’t, do you?
Once again a story that Trump did nothing illegal is somehow front page news. His crime this time? Continuing to legally rent out office space to a bank already in a building he bought 18 years ago.
So the big news is that Donald Trump’s real estate organization rented space to an Iranian bank later linked to Iran’s nuclear program.
Bank Melli, one of Iran’s largest state-controlled banks, was already a tenant in 1998 when Trump purchased the General Motors Building, above, in Manhattan, but he kept them on for another five years, until 2003.
— There is no evidence and it is highly unlikely that Trump himself knew every one of the hundreds of tenants in a building he bought in 1998. In fact, the building occupies a full city block, with 1,774,000 net leasable square feet (the bank rented 8,000 square feet.)
— U.S. security authorities allowed Bank Melli to legally operate offices in the U.S., so renting to them is not a story.
— Bank Melli was prohibited from conducting bank transactions in the U.S., and did not conduct transactions, but kept an office in New York in hopes sanctions might one day be eased.
— Bank Melli operated fully in the open. The U.S. Department of the Treasury could have shut them down at any time, or sanctioned Trump for dealing with them if it wished. It did not.
— The bank itself (not Trump) was only sanctioned by Treasury in 2007, four years after it left Trump’s building. However, the Huffington Post helpfully notes (emphasis added) “[Unnamed] Experts told the Center for Public Integrity that the bank likely supported proliferation activity and Iran’s military years before the Treasury Department publicly condemned the bank,” something the owners of the rental building presumably should have been aware of somehow.
— The Center for Public Integrity reveals on its website that the Bank Melli “as being controlled by the Iranian government” since 1999. Actually in its own publically available history, the Bank notes it served as the nation’s central bank, issuing currency, from 1931.
While the media is enjoying this story, it ignores the broader picture. Despite sanctions and trade embargoes, over the past decade the United States government allowed American companies to do billions of dollars in business with Iran and other countries blacklisted as state sponsors of terrorism.
At the request of companies from Kraft Food and Pepsi to some of the nation’s largest banks, the Treasury Department across multiple administrations granted some 10,000 licenses for deals involving sanctioned countries.
The media is so full of sh*t on these stories their eyes are brown.
I don’t support Trump. I don’t support Clinton. But what I really don’t support is shoddy journalism, and that’s what is all awhirl regarding the leak of three pages of Trumps’ federal tax return from 21 years ago.
Trump the Tax Cheat?
The New York Times is running front-page amok (italics added here) with the exclusive that Trump declared a $916 million loss on his 1995 income tax returns, a tax deduction so substantial, the writers claim, it could have allowed him to avoid paying any federal income taxes for up to 18 years.
The Times continues “Although Mr. Trump’s taxable income in subsequent years is as yet unknown, a $916 million loss in 1995 would have been large enough to wipe out more than $50 million a year in taxable income over 18 years… [the loss] could have eliminated any federal income taxes… for each episode of The Apprentice, or the roughly $45 million he was paid between 1995 and 2009 when he was chairman or chief executive of the publicly traded company he created to assume ownership of his troubled Atlantic City casinos.”
How To Do Journalism With No Information
Let’s pause for a moment: all the Times has is three pages of Trump’s lengthy tax filing from 1995. None of the schedules are there, nothing that details the profits and losses. Everything the Times writes otherwise is speculation, extrapolation, and that word, “could,” over and over.
The newspaper even uncorks a statement that would get any undergrad booted out of her first journalism class “In the absence of any disclosures from Mr. Trump, The New York Times and other news outlets have attempted to fill in the gaps.”
Pro-Clinton Vox takes it another step, stating without any evidence “Trump still isn’t releasing his returns. And here’s what that means: whatever is in his returns is worse than what the New York Times is telling the world is in his returns. The Trump campaign has decided it prefers the picture the Times is painting — a picture where Trump didn’t pay taxes for 18 years — to the picture Trump’s real records would paint.”
Summary: in the absence of information, 2016-era journalists can just make up whatever they like.
How Taxes Work for Grownups
But all that aside, let’s go back to the shoddy journalism.
For all of the Times’ hyperbole, it seems to miss, or just not bother to state, the obvious: what Trump did, deduct business losses from gains to reduce his tax burden, and likely spread those losses over a period of years, is exactly what every business does. In fact, the tax forms even give you little boxes to insert those numbers in to take the deduction.
There is literally nothing to see here.
I know of no person who actively seeks to maximize the taxes s/he pays.
Instead, every taxpayer does what the tax laws intend, take deductions to lessen the amount they pay in taxes. I do it, you do it, the Clintons do it. There are the business loss deductions, the capital loss deductions, the business expense deductions, the mortgage interest deductions and on and on and on. If you follow the tax law, then the amount at the end of the return is what your “fair share” is.
Even the Times’ story has to sorta, kinda admit that, assuming you make it deep into the text, that “Tax experts consulted by The Times said nothing in the 1995 documents suggested any wrongdoing by Mr. Trump.”
That line seems significant, especially given what came before it on the front page.
And yep, most of these deductions are only available to the rich, at least in dollar amounts that matter. We can argue separately how messed up the tax system is (a subject the Times may consider covering at some point), but we cannot argue that what Trump did is not the way the system is. Neither can Clinton.
But the funnest of fun parts here is while the Times, and Clinton, reluctantly point out that nothing Trump did was illegal, they both make it clear they think what he did was ethically wrong, a bad thing worthy of slinging around. Given the parallels to the emails (not illegal!) and the Clinton Foundation (not illegal!), that seems thin ice to skate on.
BONUS: Coincidentally, it was only at last Monday’s presidential debate that Hillary Clinton said Trump was refusing to release his tax returns so voters would not know “he’s paid nothing in federal taxes.” Then, what do you know, a few days later an excerpt of those returns just pops into the New York Times’ Inbox. Small world.
But what I really wanted to say to her — rather than see you later, call this weekend, do you need money? — was: I’m sorry.
Like all parents in these situations, I was thinking about her future. And like all of America, in that future she won’t be able to escape what is now encompassed by the word “terrorism.”
Everything is OK, But You Should Be Terrified
Terrorism is a nearly nonexistent danger for Americans. We have more of a chance of being hit by lightning, though fear doesn’t work that way. There’s no 24/7 coverage of global lightning strikes or “see something, say something” signs that warn about reporting thunderstorms. I felt no need to apologize for lightning.
But terrorism? I really wanted to tell my daughter just how sorry I was she would have to live in what 9/11 transformed into the most frightened country on Earth.
Want the numbers? Some 40 percent of Americans believe the country is more vulnerable to terrorism than it was in 2001, the highest percentage ever.
Want the apocalyptic jab in the gut? Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley said earlier this month the threat has not lessened. “Those people, those enemies, those members of that terrorist group, still intend – as they did on 9/11 – to destroy your freedoms, to kill you, kill your families, they still intend to destroy the United States of America.”
All that fear turned us into an engine of chaos abroad, while consuming our freedoms at home. And it saddens me that there was a pre-9/11world her generation and all those who follow her will never know.
My kids grew up overseas while, from 1988 to 2012, I served with the State Department. For the first part of my career as a diplomat, wars were still discreet matters. For example, though Austria was a neighbor of Slovenia, few there worried the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s would spill across the border. Suicide bombers didn’t threaten Vienna when we visited as tourists in 1991. That a war could again consume large parts of the world and involve multiple nations would have seemed as remote to us vacationers that year as the moon.
Even the big war of the era, Desert Storm in 1991, seemed remarkably far away. My family and I were assigned in Taiwan at the time, and life there simply went on. There was no connection between us and what was happening in the sand far away, and certainly we didn’t worry about a terror attack.
It’s easy to forget how long ago all that was. Much of the Balkans is now a tourist destination, and a young soldier who fought in Desert Storm would be in his mid-forties today. Or think of it this way: either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump entering the Oval Office next January will be the fifth president in succession to bomb Iraq.
On September 11, 2001, I was assigned to Japan, and like everyone, as part of a collective trauma, watched the terrible events on TV. Due to the time difference, it was late at night in Tokyo. As the second plane hit the World Trade Center, I made sandwiches, suspecting the phone would ring and I’d be called to the embassy for a long shift. I remember my wife saying, “Why would they call you in? We’re in Tokyo!” Then, of course, the phone did ring, and I remember running to grab it not out of national security urgency, but so it didn’t wake my kids.
My daughter’s birthday falls on the very day that George W. Bush launched the invasion of Iraq. I missed her celebration in 2003 to stay at work preparing for the embassy to be overrun by al-Qaeda. I missed her birthday again in 2005, having been sent on temporary duty to Thailand to assist the U.S. Navy in setting up a short-term base facility there. When the naval officers mentioned the location they wanted to use to the Thai military liaison accompanying us, he laughed. That’s taken, he said, but you didn’t hear it from me, better ask your own people about it.
Later, I would learn the location was a CIA black site where the country I then represented was torturing human beings.
Looking back, it’s remarkable to realize that, in response to a single day of terror, Washington set the Middle East ablaze, turned air travel into a form of bondage play, and did away with the best of our democracy.
Nothing required the Patriot Act, Guantánamo, renditions, drone assassinations, and the National Security Agency turning its spy tools inward. The White House kept many of the nastiest details from us, but made no secret of its broader goals. Americans on the whole supported each step, and Washington then protected the men and women who carried out each of the grim acts it had inspired. After all, they were just following orders.
Protocols now exist allowing the president to select American citizens, without a whit of due process, for drone killing. Only overseas, he says, but you can almost see the fingers crossed behind his back. Wouldn’t an awful lot of well-meaning Americans have supported an aerial drone killing in San Bernardino, or at the Pulse club in Orlando? Didn’t many support using a robot to blow up a suspect in Dallas?
Back in the Homeland
The varieties of post-9/11 fear sneak up on us all. I spent a week this summer obsessively watching the news for any sign of trouble in Egypt while my daughter traveled there to visit some old embassy acquaintances. She had to risk her life to see a high school friend in a country once overrun with tourists.
So, I want to say sorry to my daughter and her friends for all the countries where we Americans, with our awkward shorts and sandals, used to be at least tolerated, but are now dangerous for us to visit. Sorry that you’ll never see the ruins of Babylon or the Great Mosque of Samarra in Iraq unless you join the military.
Arriving back in the U.S., my daughter called from the airport to say she’d be home in about an hour. I didn’t mention my worries that she’d be stopped at “the border,” a new name for baggage claim, or have her cell phone confiscated for having traveled to the Middle East. She was, in fact, asked by an immigration agent her purpose in going there, something that even the Egyptians hadn’t bothered to question her about. We don’t yet say “papers, please,” but we do refer to America as the Homeland.
I also wanted to apologize to my daughter because she will never really know what privacy is in our new surveillance world. I needed to ask her forgiveness for how easily we let that happen, for all those who walk around muttering they have nothing to hide, so what’s to worry about. I wanted to tell her how sorry I was that she’s now afraid of the police, not just for herself but especially for her friends of color. I wanted to tell her how badly I felt that she’d only know a version of law enforcement so militarized that, taking its cues from the national security state, views us all as potential enemies and so believes that much of its job involves repressing our most basic rights.
I’m sorry, I want to say to her, that protesting Americans can be confined in something called a “free speech zone” surrounded by those same police. I want to tell my daughter the Founders would rise in righteous anger at the idea of the police forcing citizens into such zones outside a political convention. And that most journalists don’t consider such a development to be a major story of our times.
As I sent her off to college, I wanted to say how sorry I was that we had messed up the world, sorry we not only didn’t defeat the terrorists the way Grandpa did the Nazis but, by our actions, gave their cause new life and endless new recruits. Al-Qaeda set a trap on 9/11 and we fell into it. The prison American occupiers set up at Camp Bucca in Iraq became a factory for making jihadis, and the torture chambers at Abu Ghraib remain, like Guantánamo, an infomercial inviting others to pick up a weapon.
The New Normal
My daughter is not naïve. Like most of her classmates, she is aware of most of these things, but she has no point of comparison. What fish truly sees the water around it? And it’ll be even harder for her kids to try and do so. Her adult life has been marked by constant war, so much so that “defeating the terrorists” is little more than a set phrase she rolls her eyes at. It’s a generational thing that is too damn normal, like Depression-era kids still saving aluminum foil and paper bags in the basement after decades of prosperity.
I’m truly sorry that her generation copes with this by bouncing between cynicism and the suspension of disbelief. That allows many to accept the idea that invading Iraq was a reasonable response to an attack on America by a group of Saudis funded by Saudi “charity donations.” And by now, “well, it wasn’t actually a crime” is little short of a campaign slogan for acts that couldn’t be more criminal. That’s a world on a path to accepting 2+2 can indeed equal 5 if our leaders tell us it’s true.
We allow those leaders to claim the thousands of American troops now stationed in Iraq are somehow not “boots on the ground,” or in the newest phraseology, “ground troops.” Drone strikes, we’re told, are surgical, killing only bad guys with magic missiles, and never on purpose hitting civilians, hospitals, children, or wedding parties. The deaths of human beings in such situations are always rare and accidental, the equivalent of those scratches on the car door from that errant shopping cart in the mall parking lot.
Cleaning Up After Her Dad
If anyone is going to fix this mess — I want to tell my daughter — it’s going to have to be you. And, I want to add, you’ve got to do a better job than I did, if, that is, you really want to find a way to say thanks to me for the skating lessons, the puppy, and for me not being too mad when you almost violated curfew to spend more time with that boy.
After the last cardboard boxes had been lugged up the stairs, I held back my tears until the very end. Hugging my daughter, I felt I wasn’t where I was standing but in a hundred other places; I wasn’t consoling a smart, proud, twenty-something woman apprehensive about senior year, but an elementary school student going to bed on the night that would forever be known only as 9/11.
Back home, the house is empty and quiet. Outside, the leaves have just a hint of yellow. At lunch, I had some late-season strawberries nearly sweet enough to confirm the existence of a higher power. I’m gonna really miss this summer.
I know I’m not the first parent to grow reflective watching his last child walk out the door. But I have a sense of what’s ahead of her. Fear is a terrible thing to be sorry for. And that can be scary.
(Photo is for illustration only; it is not my daughter)
Does free college threaten our all-volunteer military? That is what writer Benjamin Luxenberg, on military blog War on the Rocks says. But the real question goes deeper than Luxenberg’s practical query, striking deep into who we are as a nation.
Unlike nearly every other developed country, which offer free or low cost higher education (Korea’s flagship Seoul National University runs about $12,000 a year, around the same as Oxford), in America you need money to go to college. You need the bucks for tuition and books, and for most students, you need the bucks to not work full-time for a couple of years. Typical of America’s top end schools, Harvard charges $63,000 for tuition, room, board and fees. That’s more than a quarter of a million dollars for a degree. Even a state school wants $40,000 a year.
Right now there are only a handful of paths to higher education in America: have well-to-do parents; be low-income and smart to qualify for financial aid, take on crippling debt, or…
Or join the military.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill provides up to $20,000 per year for tuition, along with an adjustable living stipend. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Harvard is located, that stipend is $2,800 per month. There is also a books and supplies stipend. Universities participating in the Yellow Ribbon Program make additional funds available without affecting the GI Bill entitlement. Some 75 percent of those who enlisted said they did so to obtain educational benefits.
And in that vein, Luxenberg raises the question of whether the free (Bernie Sanders) or lower cost (Hillary Clinton) college education is a threat to America’s all-volunteer military. If so many people join up to get that college money, if college was free or cheaper, would they still enlist?
It is a practical question worth asking, but raises more serious issues in its trail. If people are enlisting in significant part because college tuition is not affordable, does that imply tuition costs need to stay high to help keep the ranks filled? That an unequal college costs playing field helps sustain our national defense?
Of course motivation to join the service is often multi-dimensional. But let’s look a little deeper, and ask what does it say about our nation when we guarantee affordable higher education to only a slim segment of our population. About seven percent of all living Americans were in the military at some point. Less than 0.5 percent of the American population currently serves. Why do we leave the other 99.95 percent to whatever they can or can’t scrape together on their own?
The issue of money always comes up, and was used by Hillary Clinton to knock down some of Bernie Sanders’ education proposals. Donald Trump may bring up the same question in the upcoming debates about Clinton’s more modest proposals.
Money matters, but what the country can get for its money is also important. Let’s round off the military higher education benefit, tuition and living stipend, to $53,000 a year. An F-35 fighter plane costs $178 million.
Dropping just one plane from inventory generates enough money for 3,358 years of college money. We could even probably survive as a nation if we didn’t buy four or five of the planes. A lot of people who now find college out of reach could go to school, even more if we reduced the stipend to where the difference could realistically be made up with 20 hours of minimum wage work a week.
The final question many people will be asking at this point is one of entitlement. What did those civilians do that makes it so the United States should give them college money?
Leaving aside the good idea of expanding “service” to include critical non-military possibilities, the answer is nothing. Nothing, but maybe it is more important than that.
Security is defined by much more than a standing military (and that does not even touch the question of how say an eight year occupation of Iraq made America more secure.) The United States, still struggling to transition from a soot and steel industrial base that collapsed in the 1970s to something that can compete in the 21st century, can only do so through education. More smart people equals more people who can take on the smarter jobs that drive prosperity. It is an investment in one of the most critical forms of infrastructure out there.
No one suggests veterans should have their benefits reduced. But for a nation that can clearly afford to pay for a broader base of accessible higher education, it seems very wrong to simply leave that process — or the nation’s future — to a Darwinian system of financial survival of the richest.
Don’t miss tonight’s first presidential debate, starting at 9 pm EST. Two will enter, one will emerge victorious. Who will it be?
For Hillary to win, she has to:
— More than anything, convince people she is not a liar. This is her last chance to clear the air, even a little, over the deadly, lingering doubts about her email, the Clinton Foundation, her speeches, all of it. If Hillary dismisses this pile of stuff, or otherwise panhandles her usual non-answers, she may lose. If Trump comes armed with specifics, dates, and facts, Hillary has to deal with them with specifics, dates, and facts.
— Not collapse on stage and not appear severely medicated. If she can say something convincing about her health, she can win. If the warfarin blood thinners hit her too hard tonight as they did at the 9/11 memorial, the election is over.
— Not stumble into Trump. If Hillary keeps to the high road, maybe limit herself to one burst of faux righteous anger as she did in the Benghazi hearings (“What does it even matter anymore!”) she wins. If she gets into name-calling with Trump, she loses. She cannot out-Trump Trump and should not try.
Of all of everything, it is the first item above that will sink or allow Hillary to swim on.
For Trump to win, he has to:
— Rattle Hillary. Needle her. Get her to act “unpresidential,” i.e., more like him. Her criticisms of him evaporate if she breaks character.
— Stay on the offensive. Ask her hard and if possible, fact-based questions about her email, the Clinton Foundation, her speeches, all of it. Don’t let her sidetrack this with calls for his tax returns. Take the hit on that and keep punching. She has more to hide than his tax returns.
— Not get dragged into some policy wonk discussion. That’s Clinton’s home turf.
— Be Trump, but maybe just a little less Trump. Don’t abandon what has worked and brought him to this stage, but give enough room for some undecided voters to think “Well, I’ve heard a lot of crap about this guy, but he doesn’t seem as bad as people have said.” Don’t let it look to moderates like Hillary is debating an a*shole. Use the fact that expectations are low to his advantage.
— If at all possible, a big if, show a flash or two of humor. Turn any Hillary accusation back. Let her try some sophomoric crap like calling him “Donald” and make her seem silly and childish.
— Stay away from Bill’s sexescapdes. The base knows all about them, and the undecideds don’t want to hear about it.
— Have a really good answer when Hillary attacks him on being Putin’s man. Maybe throw her love affairs with the Saudis at her.
The Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Awards were established in 1979 to honor individuals who have made significant contributions to protect the First Amendment rights of Americans. They are looking for nominees for this year’s awards, and I’d like to send them a name.
Who should it be?
Nominees traditionally come from the fields of journalism, arts and entertainment, education, publishing, and law and government. They are honored at a reception at the Playboy Mansion, and receive $5,000 to continue their work. Readers here know some of the past awardees: Whistleblowers Thomas Drake, Morris Davis, Norman Lear, Michael Moore, Bill Maher — the whole list back to 1980 is here.
I suspect Edward Snowden and those connected to him as journalists and lawyers will already have a long line of people ready to nominate them. Any would be people who deserve the honor. But let’s put our heads together and see if we can come up with someone not so much in the public eye, someone working for our rights who could really use the attention that even being nominated will bring.
Ideas? Put them in the comments. If the person is not well-known, a link would be helpful.
Busy weekend for terrorism. Nine people stabbed in a shopping mall in Minnesota (meh), and the big one in New Jersey/New York.
It was there Afghan American Ahmad Rahami made up a bunch of pipe bombs and pressure cooker IEDs, distributed them in four separate locations, and set off two explosions. The one detonation in New York’s Chelsea area injured 29 people.
What We’re Told Happened
In the 15 years since 9/11, the United States has spent trillions of dollars on security, created a new cabinet agency that memorialized an odd term of reference to America, the Department of Homeland Security, and convinced far too many Americans that they had to choose between security or freedom, safety or privacy. Along the way our air travel experience is now a form of bondage play.
And we are watched.
For example, the city of New York boasts it has more than 8,000 cameras pointed at Manhattan streets. The NYPD calls it the city’s “Ring of Steel.”
Images from those cameras feed into the Lower Manhattan Security Coordination Center. Officers there also keep track of biological, chemical, radiation, and shot-spotter sensors (which detect gunfire), throughout the city.
Data from the cameras and the detectors, as well as 911 calls, license plate readers, and crime databases is fed into a map-based Domain Awareness System, which analyzes information. The NYPD also has a “Dashboard” system that receives alerts on unattended packages, stolen vehicles crossing tunnels and bridges, and suspicious odors of hazardous materials.
In addition, the Lower Manhattan Center maintains a “vehicle of interest” listing to track vehicles utilizing license plate readers, and can go back 30 days to find suspect vehicles. More than 200 license plate readers within the city triangulate information with GPS systems.
That is a helluva lot of watching, all keeping us safe. Except it didn’t.
What Really Happened
What really happened is a guy built multiple explosive devices, and deployed them in public areas, without being detected. All that stuff above, plus the NSA, FBI, DHS, CIA, et al, missed him.
No one got killed and no one was seriously injured only because of two factors: an inept terrorist and America’s homeless.
Ahmad Rahami had a string of pipe bombs lined up along a marathon run route. One went off early (the start of the race was delayed) and the others failed to explode. If Rahami had used a command detonator triggered by the runners or himself, not a timer, and/or if all of the bombs had exploded when people were around, it would have been carnage.
One of Rahami’s Manhattan bombs failed to go off, even after two passersby shook it out of the suitcase Rahami had hid it in. His other bomb was set on a timer and randomly no one happened to be in its kill zone went it went off.
One is reminded of America’s other inept terrorists: the underwear bomber who couldn’t get his bomb to explode, the shoe bomber who couldn’t get his bomb to explode, and the Times Square car bomber who couldn’t get his bomb to explode. We’ll throw in the Minnesota mall guy, who failed to seriously injure anyone despite his multiple stabbings of unarmed people.
As for the bombs planted at a New Jersey train station, they were found by two homeless guys who were looking to steal (the media now uses the word scavenge because they’re heros) the backpack one of the explosives was tucked into.
How to Respond
The response the day after the New York bombings was swift — New York Governor Andrew Cuomo deployed an additional 1,000 New York State Police and National Guard people to Manhattan’s bus terminals, airports, and subway stations. The NYPD turned out in force in similar locations, with officials boasting Manhattan on the Monday after the weekend explosions had more security personnel on its streets than at any other time in New York history.
Of course all of the previous security did not stop the bomber, and he did not target any bus terminals, airports and subway stations. Nor has any other terrorist.
So maybe it is time for a better solution.
The homeless guys who found the bomb at the New Jersey train station were rewarded by social services finding them a place to stay and getting them signed up for food stamps. Someone set up a GoFundMe page for the two that has raised $16,000. A kind citizen even gifted both men new backpacks, as the bomb backpack was blown up by police. They are happy guys.
So why not deputize our army of zombie homeless into terrorist hunters? The poor dudes are out on the streets all the time in all sorts of weather anyway, and they’re always digging in trash cans. If the homeless know that free housing and food stamps await them if they can bring in some terrorist booty, well, the terrorists don’t stand a chance.
Social Media Uber Alles
Despite the reality that propaganda in wartime is as old as dirt, America collectively is freaking out because a lot of ISIS’ takes place on social media. The elderly and feeble who run our government do not understand The Online gizmos and thus are terrified of them and declare they must be turned off with a big switch somewhere.
The young who serve them and understand little outside their own online bubbly life, all want to get ahead and so are eager to “engage” in online warfare with ISIS as if it was all just a cooler version of Pokemon Go.
So it was without meaning or surprise that the Obama Administration announced that Twitter traffic to pro-ISIS accounts has fallen 45 percent in the past two years.
American Strikes Back in the Twitter Wars
See, two years ago the administration put together an international coalition that’s mostly just America to fight ISIS, with one of the goals being to discourage the popularity of the group online. The “coalition” has been unsuccessful, making “gaffes” that seem, um, amateur. For example, a lot of the content was written solely in English, which sort of didn’t help in that a lot of ISIS people read only Arabic or whatever Chechens speak.
The State Department, who is in charge of all this media-ing, also spent $1.5 million of your taxpayer money earlier this year making a TV drama for Afghans saying ISIS is bad. Silicon Valley executives even met with top government officials to “game out” strategies to counter Islamic State online.
There’s been ever so much “messaging” over the last two years. One example is that in honor of #HumanRightsDay 2015, the State Department’s “Think Again Turn Away” program Twittered and Facebooked out the message of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a discredited Islamophobe who says things like Islam itself is a death cult. In 2007, she called for the west to destroy Islam using military force.
Also, in a whole-of-government effort, everyone calls ISIS “Daesh,” which supposedly is a meany word in Arabic. I guess the idea is that in a war for minds, sending every ISIS fighter to bed angry at being called a name by the Secretary of State is a thing.
But It’s All Better Now
According to an Administration spokesperson, the coalition now uses “memes” — like a teddy bear that says ISIS “slaughters childhood” — written in Arabic. And Anonymous declared war on ISIS with, most recently, a member shaming ISIS by hacking their accounts and posting sexy photos of women. The same group once hacked an ISIS web site and replaced it with a Viagra ad. Laffs!
The only problem of course is that ISIS seems to have no problem recruiting people to replace those killed by the “coalition.” Could it be… that U.S. actions on the ground stomping on Muslims, and U.S. actions from the air droning women and children, and U.S. actions garrisoning Muslim lands, could possibly play more of a role in ISIS recruitment than 140 characters on Twitter?
Florida’s Orange County Public Schools announced this week students must have parental permission if they want to kneel during the national anthem at football games or otherwise silently protest, such as refusing the say the pledge of allegiance.
The move comes after students in a single school district knelt in solidarity with 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest against social injustice in America.
Exercising First Amendment rights in Florida now requires parental permission.
As Unconstitutional as They Come
The school announcement is so wholly unconstitutional as to be laughable, except that it is Florida, the state immune from reality.
Previous decisions in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals already found the portion of Florida law requiring students to “stand at attention” during the anthem violates the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has long upheld not participating in the pledge, or remaining seating during the anthem, is protected speech under the First Amendment.
West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943), was the courageous wartime decision by the Supreme Court holding that the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment protected students from being forced to salute the American flag and say the pledge of allegiance in school. The Court stated constitutional rights are to be “beyond the reach of majorities and officials.” It held that the state did not have the power to compel speech for anyone.
Barnette overruled a 1940 decision on the same issue, Minersville School District v. Gobitis, which said dissent was to try to change a school policy democratically — i.e., through the same system that imposed the restraints being challenged.
The Court has also upheld that the Bill of Rights applies to students in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969).
Officials claim they are following a state law regarding the pledge of allegiance that requires participation in patriotic gestures (they are of course following the exact law the 11th Circuit has ruled unconstitutional, which makes it not really a law anymore, but whatever, Florida uber alles.)
And so in sweaty Collier County one principal is telling students that they’ll be sent home if they don’t stand during the anthem at sporting events.
“You will stand and you will stay quiet,” Lely High School Principal Ryan Nemeth announced. “If you don’t, you are going to be sent home and you’re not going to have a refund of your ticket price.”
Ouch! No refund of the ticket price for you, commie ISIS terrorist students, unless you have a note from home.
I want to read about the first student, who, when asked for his note giving him permission to remain seated during the pledge, hands over a copy of the Bill of Rights and says f*ck you, Florida.
Both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have run their stories. You can Google them (fine, here’s one), and the articles from smaller outlets that will follow, but I can save you some reading time, because they are all basically the same:
Oh my God, the Midwest is a freaking mess. Nobody has jobs, middle-aged white people are doing heroin and meth, and everyone is on food stamps. These people are angry as hell at, well, they say the government.
Trump and Hillary have been through (name the one small town you stopped in) and promised to bring back the old industrial jobs (Trump) or some hi-tech something (Hillary.) I stopped by a (diner, bar, waffle house, VFW hall) and talked to (name of the one guy you talked to.) He told me times are tough, but these people are tough. They built the mills, they pulled America up by its bootstraps. They’ll make it. Quote some Bruce Springsteen song you heard that afternoon driving east as fast as you could. Done.
The reporter then rushes back to New York to bathe in Purell and drown his/her disgust in warm PBRs and Starbucks spiced lattes. Next story is about a new start-up in Brooklyn that is creating a social media platform for dogs or something.
Understanding the Heartland
Most reporters act shocked to find people “out there” so angry. They can’t understand why the “folks” take food stamps but think handouts are for lazy people. They can’t understand why someone without health insurance, coughing up chunks of the asbestos they breathed in every day at the factory, opposes Obamacare.
The people the reporters speak with feel they got cheated. They worked hard, they paid taxes, they sent kids off to war (every small Midwest town has a memorial stone, if not three, to the local people who died in WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq…) Then they got screwed by, well, someone. The lucky ones now work for minimum wage at a local Walmart full of junk made overseas. The rest visit the charity pantries and spend their food stamps not because they are lazy like “those people” (a code word for urban African-Americans; the few people of color in these towns tend to feel the same way), but because they are hungry. They wait like a cargo cult for the boom years to return, someday, somehow.
Trump gets this at a visceral level. He tells them it is not their fault, or his, though both share blame. It was the Japanese, or the Chinese, or some mythical Big Government, or regulations, or even the unions that gave the same workers higher pay and good benefits. It doesn’t have to make sense, it just has to play to a crowd angry and confused looking every four years for some answer, and some hope.
I Saw Them, The Ghosts of Tom Joad
I grew up in Ohio during the 1970s and 80s, and watched the industrial heartland fall apart in front of my eyes. Our town had a huge Ford plant. It was sold to Toyota, who cut jobs by half before closing it all down because they got better tax incentives in Kentucky. I don’t know what happened in Kentucky, but I can guess.
I wrote a book about all this, the last fifty years of the Midwest. When you look at it as a historical event, today’s state of things is as inevitable as sunset.
The book is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent. Close to four years ago I tried to sell it to a couple of the larger publishers in New York. No literary agent wanted it, no publisher was interested. As one put it, declining me, “You’re saying there’s poor people in Ohio?” Another was clearer: “Who wants to read a book about unemployed whites?”
The first publisher outside of New York I approached, one located in Indiana, immediately took the book.
How Trump May Win the Swing States
I fully doubt Donald Trump has read my book, or many books at all for that matter. Someone on Trump’s team, however, is very aware of the unfocused anger in the Midwest I wrote about, and is working hard to use that to get some votes. If Trump takes the swing states of Ohio and Pennsylvania, it will be because of that staffer’s insight. Maybe s/he’ll write a book about it.
Until then, here’s more about my book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent:
This one’s a double play: the U.S. government is wasting your tax money on stupid videos while at the same time no doubt angering the very people they are somehow trying to impress.
So the video above was made, using your tax dollars and on official government time, by the Public Diplomacy staff at the American Consulate in Karachi, Pakistan. As you can see, a Pakistani traditional dancer was hired, and alongside him were placed various overweight American State Department officials to act like *ssclowns.
See, they can’t do the dance right, so it’s a funny! It’s on YouTube! It’s groovy social media! And it has all of 380 hits!
The saddest part is that the stated mission of Public Diplomacy staff abroad is to enhance America’s image, make us some friends, that hearts and minds stuff. So it is only in a parallel universe that the staff could imagine the video above could be helping with any of those goals. Indeed, in many parts of the world, fat American’s mocking a local tradition is not seen as funny at all, but actually as a serious insult.
Oh yeah, the Taliban are like a big problem in Pakistan and they are no doubt seriously in favor of the Americans creating their propaganda videos for them.
Maybe not in Pakistan. Maybe the Pakistanis have a wacky sense of humor roughly the same as a 28-year-old ex-sorority member now employed by the State Department who cannot conceive of how a skit that went over so well during senior year Rush Week would fail overseas.
FUN FACT: Foreign governments with offices in the U.S. do not seem to make these kinds of videos. They seem almost exclusively, uniquely, the product of American diplomacy.
Snowden is a helluva movie, kicking an audience’s ass on a number of levels. I had a chance to see the film last night at a preview event; it opens everywhere on September 16. Go see it.
On one level the film presents Snowden’s story as a political thriller. A brave but frightened man, certain he is doing the right thing but worried if he can pull it off, smuggles some of the NSA’s most secret information out of a secure facility. He makes contact with skeptical journalists in Hong Kong, convinces them of the importance of what he has to say, and then goes on the run from a U.S. government out to arrest, or, possibly assassinate, him. In interviews Stone has made clear that he has dramatized and/or altered some events, and that his film is not a documentary. It does keep you on the edge of your beliefs, watching a story you know as if you don’t.
The next level of the film is a carefully constructed vision of the national security state, seen through Snowden’s eyes. For many Americans, this may be the first time they will react emotionally to the way our government spies on us. It is one thing to “know” the NSA can access webcams at will, it is another to watch a technician “spy” on a Muslim woman undressing in her bedroom.
When Snowden (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) slaps a piece of tape over his own webcam before an intimate moment with his girlfriend (played by Shailene Woodley), he has the wool taken from his eyes, his trust in government shattered. He is all of us.
The final level of Snowden is perhaps the most important.
Director Oliver Stone is in the business of creating counter-myths at critical points in time, and his work is best understood in that context.
Even as most Americans still believed the myth that while the Vietnam was bad, the warriors were not, Stone showed us the dark side in Platoon. In the 1980s, when making money was seen as the best of America, Stone gave us Wall Street, and turned the myth “greed is good” from an instructional line out of an MBA program to a condemnation of how we all suffered when the bubble broke in the financial markets.
And so with Snowden, which makes clear the myth of a benign national security (“nothing to hide, nothing to fear,” they’re the good guys protecting us) is anything but. The NSA and other agencies want to vacuum it all up, every communication, everywhere. They then move on to controlling our communications; the movie illustrates the depth of NSA’s penetration into the Japanese electrical grid by imagining a black out of Tokyo, and shows us how an NSA technical mistake reveals how they could shut down the Internet across the Middle East.
In what is the most Oliver Stone-like scene in perhaps any of his movies, Snowden’s CIA boss confronts him, suspicious of wrongdoing. Their video conference discussion starts with Snowden at one end of the table, the boss’ face on a monitor at the other. As the scene unfolds and the intensity increases, Snowden moves closer to the screen until his head is a small dot, and the boss’ face takes over the audience’s whole field of view. The government itself has morphed into Big Brother before your eyes.
For many aware viewers, a lot of this may seem old hat — of course the NSA is doing all that.
But imagine the impact of Snowden. Thoughts that have largely been laid out only on blogs and left-of-center, non-main stream media, are now in suburban multiplexes, all carefully wrapped inside a thriller Tom Clancy fans will enjoy.
You can’t get much more radical than that.
#NeverForget911 . Wait, did something happen yesterday besides #ClintonCollapse ? I forgot.
OK, ok, serious now. It’s been 15 years now people, so we can talk about this kind of thing, ‘kay? That’s what anniversaries are for, after all.
Peter Bergen, at CNN, who is often the sanest clown in the CNN circus, tell us that al Qaeda really blew it on 9/11.
“Like the attack on Pearl Harbor,” says Bergen, “9/11 was a great tactical victory for America’s enemies. But in both these cases the tactical success of the attacks was not matched by strategic victories. Quite the reverse.” He goes on to remind us the U.S. totally kicked Japan’s butt.
Now it can get a little fuzzy when you try to jam 9/11 and al Qaeda into the Saving Private Ryan narrative framework. So it’s important to understand what Bergen thinks al Qaeda’s goal was with the attacks 15 years ago. I’ll quote him so when I call him an idiot a bit later, you’ll understand my reasoning:
“Bin Laden believed that al Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington would result in an American withdrawal from the Middle East. Instead, the United States quickly toppled the Taliban and al Qaeda… The United States not only did not reduce its influence in the Middle East, but it also established or added to massive bases in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. And, of course, it also occupied both Afghanistan and Iraq. Bin Laden’s tactical victory on 9/11 turned out to be a spectacular strategic flop.”
Bergen is an idiot. Al Qaeda got much, much more than it ever hoped for out of 9/11, and Bergen’s silly retelling of al Qaeda’s goals is part and parcel of what drives American foreign policy off a cliff on a daily basis in the Middle East.
Japan was a nation set on territorial conquest in WWII. It bombed Pearl Harbor to destroy as much of America’s Navy as it could to buy itself as much time as it could to conquer as much as it could across the Pacific before America got back on its naval feet. Standard war as it has been since Caesar.
Terrorists fight a different war, a political one. They don’t have navies. They have guys who hijack planes.
Quite the opposite of what Bergen says, al Qaeda did not want America to withdraw from the Middle East, he wanted to pull America into a Middle Eastern quagmire as deep and sticky as possible. This would drive recruits to al Qaeda’s cause, establishing with global certainty the west was at war with Islam.
That worked; see Islamic State, and the way war and chaos has spread from edge-to-edge in the region, as well as the presence of so-called lone wolves in the U.S. and Europe. And remember, on 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and Libya were all stable countries and there were no lone wolves in California and Florida.
Bin Laden did almost blow it. He expected the west to bog down in the graveyard of Afghanistan very quickly, but that didn’t happen. The early successes that drove the Taliban out of governing and into the mountains were done with very few troops and relatively clean bombing attacks. It was after that the Afghan war grew messy, when reconstruction and democracy and all that became the new goals interlaced with the U.S. having new tolerance for the nasty bastards running Pakistan.
And, of course, the crown jewel of bin Laden’s success, the invasion of Iraq.
Bush’s invasion of Iraq was so transparently pointless to everyone but most Americans that it made concrete all the things bin Laden was saying: America was at war with Islam, America sought to conquer the Middle East, America wanted the oil, and so forth. But even bin Laden could not have hoped for the free gifts his cause got out of the invasion: the chance for al Qaeda to set up shop in Iraq, the massacre at Fallujah when the Marines reduced the city to medieval rubble, the images of torture from Abu Ghraib, the jihadi training grounds at prison Camp Bucca, and, of course, the overall Sunni-Shia clusterf*ck the invasion ended up as. You know, the one that is driving the current ISIS war today.
And never mind the U.S. destruction of the Libyan state, America’s clumsy hand in crushing the Arab Spring, the growth of Islamic State and the little wars between the Turks and the Kurds, in Yemen, and more to come. Chaos and failed states favor the terrorists.
As Canadian historian Gwynne Dyer, a guy we all should be listening to said, “It is hard enough for Westerners to recognize that their attackers actually have a coherent strategy and are not simply mad fanatics motivated by hatred. To accept that these terrorist attacks are not really about Western countries at all, but merely an attempt to use the overreaction of Western countries to create change in the Middle East, is beyond their understanding.”
What Peter Bergen cannot seem to understand himself is bin Laden was practicing a kind of tough love when he staged the 9/11 attacks, to bring the wrath of the United States down on innocent Muslims to radicalize and politicize them. It is, bin Laden (and now ISIS) believe, for their own long-term good.
We’ll need to wait longer to find out if the U.S. will ever get it. See you next year for the next anniversary of 9/11.
We’re instituted full background checks, body scanners and cavity searches at my home for all guests and pets (can’t be too careful!), which keeps me pretty busy, so this will be a short post. Because they hate our freedoms, we’ve taken them away for safekeeping.
So here’s our fun thing for today: reflecting. So let’s get started:
State of Things September 11, 2001
— There was no Islamic State.
— Syria and Libya were peaceful places more or less.
— There was no global refugee crisis.
— There was no Saudi war ongoing in Yemen.
— Iraq opposed Iran, helping establish a balance of power in the Middle East. Any danger Saddam was worth was contained by the no-fly zones and had been, successfully, since 1991.
— Iran’s plans were cooled by an enemy on its western border, Iraq, and one on its eastern border, the Taliban.
— The Taliban controlled much of Afghanistan.
— The U.S. was not at war, and 4,486 Americans had not died in Iraq and 1,935 had not died in Afghanistan. A bunch o’ brown people were still alive. Suicide was not the most common cause of death in our military.
— The U.S. was not known as a torturer, a keeper of secret prisons, an assassin with drones.
— The Saudis were America’s friend and helped finance jihad (in Afghanistan.)
— America was represented abroad primarily by diplomats.
— Americans at home were secure, protected from abuses by their government by the First and Fourth Amendments.
State of Things September 11, 2016
— There is an Islamic State (and still an al Qaeda) that makes war across the Middle East and commits terrorism in Europe.
— Syria and Libya are failed states, at war, and sanctuaries for Islamic State and al Qaeda.
— There is a global refugee crisis that threatens the stability of Europe.
— There is a Saudi war ongoing in Yemen.
— Iran has become a dominant power in the Middle East, with well-established ties in Iraq and Afghanistan.
— The Taliban control much of Afghanistan.
— The U.S. government actively and continuously spies on Americans, particularly through electronic means. Once aimed only abroad, the NSA now devotes a substantial portion of its mighty resources inside the U.S.
— The U.S. government drone assassinates American Citizen abroad without trial.
— The Saudis were America’s friend and help finance jihad (in Afghanistan, Syria, maybe for a day in New York.)
— We’re all scared as hell about terrorism all the time.
Crystal is the traditional material of the 15th anniversary gift. Fitting, in that it breaks easily.
In portraying herself as a virtual Barack Obama third term, Clinton ties herself not only to a foreign policy that continues to inflame the Middle East, but also to his domestic economic record. A key element is job creation, the cornerstone of any real growth.
For example, during her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Hillary Clinton praised Obama’s efforts to steer the nation’s recovery.
“Now, I don’t think President Obama and Vice President Biden get the credit they deserve for saving us from the worst economic crisis of our lifetimes,” she told the crowd in Philadelphia. “Nearly 15 million new private-sector jobs… And an auto industry that just had its best year ever.”
Leaving aside some fuzzy math to get to that tally of 15 million new jobs, Clinton purposefully passes off quantity with what we’ll call quality.
A quality job is one that is sustainable, with full-time status and benefits, the kind of work that both rebuilds America’s soul while at the same time makes work more profitable than unemployment benefits and aid. Most importantly for the greater economy, a quality job is one that allows the worker to put money into society. Rising tide lifting all boats.
The latest job statistics show that is not what is happening.
While the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced the U.S. added some 177,000 jobs in August, all of them were in the low-paying service industry. Fast food, store clerks, that sort of thing. Basically Americans not making anything, but simply passing existing money around in some zero-sum game. A cashier earns a dollar which she turns over to the dry cleaner who later buys a Big Mac. At some point a corporation pulls that dollar out of the hands of its workers as “profit,” perhaps to offshore it to avoid taxes.
And if the job stats reporting only new service jobs were not dismal news enough, Bureau results show that in the same time period some 2,000 construction and 5,000 goods-producing jobs evaporated. In July, mining and logging companies dumped 7,000 positions. Those thousands of workers were thrown into the pool seeking employment.
No one is saying we should revive so-called dead industries, or that America revert fully to a 1950s style heavy iron economy. But economics is about people, and those people need jobs they can earn a living doing.
BONUS: Clinton’s solution? Hillary claims during her first 100 days in office she will launch “the biggest infrastructure and jobs program that we’ve had since World War II.” That mirrors the huge stimulus program that President Obama signed into law in 2009, during his own first 100 days in office.
Clinton’s plan would see $300 billion in spending on transportation projects spread over five years, $60 billion per year. She plans to raise the money via new taxes on the wealthy that Congress is highly unlikely to agree to.
In the end, it was actually America who lost last night at the MSNBC Commander-in-Chief forum, because one of these people will be our president in a few months, and the other two will no doubt live forever on our TVs.
Hillary Clinton dug her own hole that much deeper, failing in front of a skeptical audience of mostly military veterans to push aside any of their skepticism, or ours. Given, once again, the chance to swing for the fences and put at least some of her bad decisions and scandals behind her, Clinton went for the safe grounder every time.
Clinton came off as defensive and lawyerly.
She said her vote for the Iraq War in 2003 was a mistake but would not say in front of the assembled vets the war itself was a mistake. She added a new excuse to her litany of email excuses — none of the information typed into her unclassified system had classification headings on it (like TOP SECRET), as if someone who was knowingly typing in such information would, sure, also document the felony by adding the header. She said hundreds of people at State violated classification rules with email, so presumably she was OK doing it, too. She stressed her long years of experience handling classified without mentioning that she said “I don’t know” 40 times to the FBI in answer to questions about how to handle classified information. She noted that State’s unclassified email system was hacked, while there was “no proof” hers was also broken into, a very lame defense when her communications should have been nearly 100% on a classified system to begin with.
Clinton finished her self-mutilation by telling a veteran who questioned her handling of sensitive information: “I did exactly what I should have done and I take it very seriously, always have, always will.”
Trump then came out and did Trump, all Trump, hugely Trump, I can tell you, Trump, Trump, Trumpy Trumpster. He has a plan for ISIS, but won’t tell us what it is. He doesn’t like generals who lose. He thinks Putin is a helluva leader and Obama isn’t. He insulting female combat troops in remarks about sexual assault, and corrected a veteran with an incorrect figure about soldier suicides. Trump just kept Trumping and no one was very surprised.
The major fail of the night was moderator Matt Lauer, to the point where #LaueringTheBar is trending on Twitter. Lauer tossed questions to the candidates and then took a nap as they answered, failing to follow-up or challenge most points. He was unable to control the length of answers given, and he allowed Clinton to violate her pledge to talk about herself and not use her answers to smear Trump. At one point Clinton actually stood in front of the seated Lauer, basically sending him off to bed while she handled the forum for awhile.
Lauer also spent far too much time fishing for faux-controversy and ignoring the stated point of the forum, to explore how each candidate would act as commander-in-chief. And so we heard about the emails, we heard a lot of Trump’s man-boy love for Putin, and we had Lauer try and bait Trump into revealing something, anything, he’d heard in his classified briefings. When a veteran in the audience asked Clinton to describe her plan to defeat Islamic State, Lauer interjected “to keep it brief” before the candidate even began her reply.
Last night’s MSNBC Commander-in-Chief Forum featured two candidates who couldn’t be more in love — with “The Troops.”
The troops were spoken of as if they were a they, maybe that group huddled outside smoking or something. Both Trump and Clinton made it clear they are ready to do anything to support the troops. Good, we owe the troops a lot for having to take the big hits for some dumb foreign policy decisions.
But it is only Hillary who cites her “experience,” so let’s take a look at that. Specifically, during the years she was secretary of state, how did her organization implement veterans preferences in hiring new Foreign Service Officers (FSOs; America’s diplomats)?
Bottom Line Up Front: Vets got the short end of the stick at State.
Veterans preference as we talk about it here is a set of laws and regulations within the Federal government that gives eligible veterans preference in hiring over many other applicants. In accordance with Title V, United States Code, Section 2108 (5 USC 2108), veterans’ preference eligibility is based on dates of active duty service, receipt of a campaign badge, Purple Heart, and/or a service-connected disability. It can get complicated, but the basic idea is to give vets a leg up in the hiring process over other applicants.
While most Federal agencies apply a points-based preference system to veterans right at the time of first application, where it will do the most good, Hillary’s State Department said no. Her leadership basically negated most of the preference and all of the goal, as well as maintaining several vet-unfriendly policies.
State’s FSO hiring process is slow, employing a number of steps/hurdles to thin down a large pool of wannabe-diplomats. Let’s see how it handles vets.
FSOs are not political appointees, but rather professional career positions. The steps to are pass a long written exam, then if you do that pass an essay test (“QEP”), then if you do that pass a full-day oral exam, then if you do that pass medical, security and “suitability” tests. The few applicants left at that point are placed on a register, a rank ordered list based on intended job title. So a person who makes it through all of the hurdles can end up number 23 on the list of future economic officers. If State only needs 22 people, you’re SOL my friend. Usually 18 months after entering the list, if you aren’t hired, you’re dropped and can do nothing more than start over.
In other words, the vet gets no preference for the written test, the essay test, the oral test, and the medical, security or suitability tests. During those s/he competes with the masses of college students who typically make up the applicant pool.
State’s veterans preference basically amounts to “not much.”
On November 9, 2009, Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13518, Employment of Veterans in the Federal Government, which established the Veterans Employment Initiative. The Initiative is a strategic approach to helping the men and women who have served our country in the military find employment in the Federal Government. State’s contribution? All of an aging website populated with generic links.
Oh, sorry, State also set up an online forum for vets. There are all of nine threads. To the extend that State answers inquiries, the responses are generic links or suggestions to email someone else.
As you can imagine, the process for all applicants to become an FSO takes a l-o-n-g time, 12-18 months for most. In order to have a job when s/he leaves the service, a military person has to figure out a way to do all those required steps while still in the military. Maybe not so hard if you’re stationed to a Navy facility outside Washington, DC, real hard if you’re sitting in the sh*t in Afghanistan.
And that oral exam? Needs to be done only in person on an assigned day, and almost always at a single location in Washington. College kids hop on the bus from Boston; military folks, well, hopefully First Sergeant will loan you his frequent flyer miles to get there.
State also does not offer any special credit for foreign languages earned in the service, even with a Department of Defense official score, over another applicant self-reporting her wonderfulness in Chinese. Same for any military skills, included very applicable things such as intelligence work, civil affairs, judge advocate and the like. State loves to talk about the value of leadership skills, but does not offer vets any special treatment even if they’ve lead a brigade in combat. Nope, same line for everyone, take your place in the back, soldier.
BOTTOM LINE TIME: What did Hillary do as secretary of state for the troops? Not a hell of a lot.
And here’s Hillary with some troops she really loves, Libyans:
The United States government spent over $42,000 per Afghan to create 500 jobs over there.
And that’s the good news. The ever-cheerful Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR; we have been paying to rebuild Afghanistan for the past 15 years with no end in sight) just released their inspection report on the State Department/USAID-funded Bagrami Industrial Park.
The inspection notes:
— USAID awarded a $10 million contract to Technologists, for the development of the industrial park. After modifications, the contract’s value increased to $21.1 million. So sorta more than double what it was supposed to cost you, the taxpayer.
— As a result of some missing documents, including the record of final payment, USAID could not say when Bagrami Industrial Park was “completed” or when the park was transferred to the Afghans.
— The contractor, despite doubling the cost, did not include adequate water and sewer systems. So, the Instead, the Afghan Ministry of Finance had to use additional U.S. funds to buy water from a nearby textile factory.
— Because of the lack of proper sewage systems, the park’s remaining factories release industrial contaminants into the streets. This creates ongoing health risks to workers as well as to the local residents in the surrounding neighborhood.
— In 2011 the park employed 2,200 people, still short of its 3,000 employee goal. By 2015 the number of employees had decreased to about 700. That dropped in June 2016 to about 500 workers.
Rebuttal: On its website, contractor Technologists states the Bagrami Industrial Park “is professionally managed and offers investors clear land titles, perimeter security and entry-control points, secure parking, electrical power, clean water, and wastewater removal [and] the park has already attracted almost $50 million in investments and has created more than 30,000 direct and indirect jobs.”
No details are available on the cost of the Bagrami sign, shown above.
The United States over the weekend denied travel to a former British ambassador, Craig Murray, who was also a British diplomat for some 30 years, and is the author of several books.
Murray has stood twice for election to the House of Commons. He was “honored” by being thrown out of Uzbekistan by its repressive government after risking his life to expose appalling human rights abuses there. He is not a terrorist and is not a social media jihadi. He has no criminal record, no connection to drug smuggling, and does have a return ticket, a hotel reservation and ample funds to cover his expenses.
He is however seen as a threat to the United States.
Ambassador Murray was headed to the U.S. this week to be Master of Ceremonies at an award ceremony honoring John Kiriakou, the CIA torture whistleblower. Kiriakou was the only U.S. government official to go to jail in connection with the torture program, and all he did was help expose it to the media. The event is sponsored by Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence (of which I am a member.)
Murray has also spoken in support of Wikileaks’ Julian Assange. Hmm. Might have something to do with this visa problem.
No one has told Murray why he cannot travel to the U.S., though he has been here numerous times over the past 38 years. Murray learned of his travel bar when applying for the online clearance the U.S. requires of all “visa free” travelers. Murray was electronically informed to contact the State Department to see if he might qualify otherwise.
Ambassador Murray was stopped by what the State Department and Homeland Security calls “a hit.”
What happens is dozens of American intelligence agencies pour names into a vast database, which includes everyone from Osama bin Laden (his name has allegedly never been removed in some sort of reverse tribute) to the latest ISIS thug to all sorts of others who have little or no actual reason to be there, such as Murray.
The likely salient part of the database in Murray’s case is called CLASS, part of the Consular Consolidated Database. It is the largest known data warehouse in the world. As of December 2009, the last time information was available, it contained over 100 million cases and 75 million photographs, and has a current growth rate of approximately 35,000 records per day.
When one of those persons labeled a bad guy applies for entry or a visa to the U.S., the computer generates a hit. A hit is enough to deny anyone a visa-free trip to the U.S. with no further questions asked and no information given. Technically, the traveler never even officially knows he was “a hit.”
Bang, you’re dead.
If Murray chooses to follow the process through and formally applies for a visa to the United States, the State Department in London will only then examine the hit. In 99.9999 percent of the cases, all the State Department official will see in their computer is a code that says “Contact Washington,” officially a Security Advisory Opinion, or SAO.
The State person abroad will most often have no idea why they are refusing to issue a visa, just that they can’t. They sign their name to a blank check of a refusal. They make a potentially life-altering decision about someone with no idea what the evidence against them, if any, is. The traveler of course has no chance to rebut or clarify, because they too have no idea what is being held against them. There is no substantive appeal process and of course everything in the files is likely classified.
The “contact Washington” message triggers a namecheck process in DC that rumbles around the intelligence community looking for someone who knows why the U.S. government wants to keep Murray out of the United States next week. That process can take anywhere from weeks to forever, and taking forever is one strategy the U.S. uses when it just wants some troublesome person to go away. For politically motivated cases such as Murray’s, that is what is most likely to happen: not much. Murray may thus never learn why he cannot travel to the United States.
That is what free speech (and free speech covers not only what people say, but what people, Americans in this case, in America may choose to listen to) is about in 2016.
America is now afraid of people like Ambassador Craig Murray.
BONUS: Murray has only been denied travel to one other country, Uzbekistan. Such is the company America now keeps.
MORE BONUS: Those who think this is the first time the U.S. has used a visa denial to stop free speech, please see the case of scholar Tariq Ramadan, denied the opportunity to teach at Notre Dame. There have been many more such cases, albeit less mediagenic. This is policy now for America, not an exception.
Checking out the news these days, it might seem pretty clear why the U.S. is at war in Syria: destroy ISIS. That is almost certainly the way the two main presidential candidates will see it during their upcoming first debate, in a rare point of agreement.
The funny thing is that ISIS did not become the reason for what now is a major regional war until late in the game.
If we rewind about three years, the original justification was to “rid the world of the dictator,” Syrian president Bashar Assad. The U.S. involvement was started under the pretext that Assad was using chemical weapons against the other side in what was once confined to a civil war. American declared Assad thus had to go to avoid a genocide and humanitarian disaster.
FYI: If you read no further, remember anytime a politician uses the word “genocide” these days we’re about to be dragged into another conflict that will morph into a quagmire.
So here’s a reprise of something I wrote three years ago. Let’s revisit it and see whether or not any of the current disaster, political and humanitarian, could have been anticipated.
From Three Years Ago:
As for intervening in Syria, the United Nations does not say to do it. The United Kingdom voted against it, the first time in two decades the UK has not supported U.S. military action [the UK later changed it’s policy and is now involved across the Middle East again]. The U.S. Congress will not have an opportunity to vote on it, though many members have reservations. Many in our own military have doubts. Half of all American oppose it. Why does the president insist America must attack Syria?
Obama’s reasons seem vague at best, something from the 19th century about “firing a shot across Assad’s bow” as if this is a pirate movie. Or maybe protecting the U.S., though Syria (and others) have had chemical weapons for years without threatening the U.S. Even Saddam did not use chemical weapons against the U.S. during two American-led invasions of his own country. To protect the women and children of Syria? If that is the goal, the U.S. might best send doctors and medicine to the refugee camps, and nerve gas antidotes into Syria itself.
Vagueness is a very poor basis for the U.S. entering into another war in the Middle East, throwing itself deeper into a chaotic and volatile situation it little understands.
So let’s reprise our handy questions summary:
— The U.S. is intervening in Syria’s civil war because maybe it was Assad who used poison gas.
— The poison gas killed a couple of thousand people. A horrible thing by any measure.
— Close to 100,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war to date [in 2013; the death toll is now likely in the millions].
— The U.S. is thus going to war again in the Middle East because a tiny percentage of the deaths were caused by gas instead of artillery, aerial bombs, machine guns, tanks, rockets, grenades, car bombs, mines, bad food, or sticks and stones.
Because it seems Obama is not asking himself some important questions, here’s a list he may wish to consult:
— Is it Iraq again? That went well.
— Does it have oil?
— Does it pose a direct threat to America, i.e., knife to our throat?
— Can you define specifically what U.S. interests are at stake (no fair just citing generic “world peace” or “evil dictator” or a magical “red line”)?
— Does the Chemical Weapons Treaty say it is the U.S.’ job to take punitive action against violators? [Trick question; it does not.]
— Is Syria’s evil dictator somehow super-worse than the many other evil dictators scattered across the world where the U.S. is not intervening?
— Did Syria attack any U.S. forces somewhere? Kidnap Americans? Commit 9/11?
— Does the U.S. have a specific, detailed follow-on plan for what happens if Assad departs or is killed?
— Does the U.S. have a specific plan to ensure weapons given to the rebels, some of whom are openly al Qaeda [Now ISIS], won’t migrate out of Syria as they did in Libya?
— Does the U.S. believe its secret deal with the “rebels” whoever the hell they are to hand over Syria’s chemical weapons after they take power is airtight?
— With that in mind, can the U.S. tell with accuracy the “good” rebels from the “bad” rebels?
— Has the U.S. considered in detail what affect a rebel (Sunni) victory in Syria will have on chaotic Iraq next door and the greater Middle East?
— What are the possible unintended consequences of another military strike? Are they worth whatever is hoped to be gained by the strike?
Obama, if the answer was “No” to any of the above questions, you should not intervene in Syria.
NOTE: Obama did intervene, and golly, who could have thought it, look what happened!