• Despite Spending $81.9 Million on Incinerators, U.S. Still Using Toxic Burn Pits in Afghanistan

    March 3, 2015 // 9 Comments

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    Posted in: Afghanistan, Iraq, Military

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    American forces in Afghanistan (“The Other War, The One Not About ISIS”) produce an extraordinary amount of garbage.

    War is a Waste

    Waste, after all, is a cornerstone of the same American Way we have been trying to hammer into the Afghan’s heads now for over thirteen years. There is human waste, medical waste, food waste, chemical waste, never mind old batteries, toxic electronics and all the rest. It all has to go somewhere, and often times the easiest way to get rid of it is just to burn it all. To avoid contaminating further the entire country, never mind endangering the health of Americans and Afghans nearby, a proper incinerator is the right tool for the job. It also seems to be one of the most expensive, especially when it is not used.



    Garbage

    It is thus hard to choose which part of the latest pile of garbage to come out of Afghanistan to focus on, so here are all three:

    (A) Is it that $20.1 million was wasted because four U.S. military installations in Afghanistan never used their incinerators? Trash was merely dumped nearby, often within sight of the expensive incinerators.

    (B) Or is it that the U.S. spent $81.9 million on incinerator systems and only equipped a total of nine military installations in Afghanistan?

    (C) Or is it that despite all of the above, there are still over 200 active, open-air, burn pits in Afghanistan?

    Trick question students! The correct answer is (D), All of the Above.


    Toxic Actions

    The most recent Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report (“The Catalog of Horrors”) blithely informs us that prohibited items such as tires and batteries continue to be disposed of in open-air burn pits even after Congress passed legislation to restrict that practice. SIGAR also tells us that the Department of Defense paid the full contract amount for incinerators that were never used because they contained deficiencies that were not corrected, and that U.S. military personnel and others were exposed to the emissions from open-air burn pits that could have lasting negative health consequences.

    SIGAR also adds that a “common theme” throughout 30 inspection reports over a period of years is that contractors who installed the incinerators did not deliver according to the specified requirements but were still paid the full contract amount and released without further obligation.


    Beyond the Monetary Waste

    The saddest part of all is not the monetary waste, but the human one. The dangers of open air burning of toxic substances has long been known, and the practice outlawed, across the United States. More specifically, the effects of such practices in Iraq and Afghanistan on the soldiers ordered to carry out the burning are well-documented.

    A federal registry of U.S. troops and veterans possibly sickened by toxic smoke in Iraq and Afghanistan has gathered nearly 11,000 eligible names since it was established in 2013. The airman who inspired the registry to be created contracted constrictive bronchiolitis, a potentially progressive, terminal disease, due to burn pit exposure.

    In only one example, explored in Senate hearings on toxic burn sites, it was revealed that the carcinogen Sodium Dichromate was spread across a ruined water-injection facility in Qarmat Ali, Iraq, exposing thousands of individuals.

    So much for supporting the troops when it counts.




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  • Getting Off on War Porn

    March 2, 2015 // 9 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy, Military

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    In the age of the all-volunteer military and an endless stream of war zone losses and ties, it can be hard to keep Homeland enthusiasm up for perpetual war. After all, you don’t get a 9/11 every year to refresh those images of the barbarians at the airport departure gates. In the meantime, Americans are clearly finding it difficult to remain emotionally roiled up about our confusing wars in Syria and Iraq, the sputtering one in Afghanistan, and various raids, drone attacks, and minor conflicts elsewhere.

    Fortunately, we have just the ticket, one that has been punched again and again for close to a century: Hollywood war movies (to which the Pentagon is always eager to lend a helping hand).American Sniper, which started out with the celebratory tagline “the most lethal sniper in U.S. history” and now has the tagline “the most successful war movie of all time,” is just the latest in a long line of films that have kept Americans on their war game. Think of them as war porn, meant to leave us perpetually hyped up. Now, grab some popcorn and settle back to enjoy the show.

    There’s Only One War Movie

    Wandering around YouTube recently, I stumbled across some good old government-issue propaganda.  It was a video clearly meant to stir American emotions and prepare us for a long struggle against a determined, brutal, and barbaric enemy whose way of life is a challenge to the most basic American values. Here’s some of what I learned: our enemy is engaged in a crusade against the West; wants to establish a world government and make all of us bow down before it; fights fanatically, beheads prisoners, and is willing to sacrifice the lives of its followers in inhuman suicide attacks.  Though its weapons are modern, its thinking and beliefs are 2,000 years out of date and inscrutable to us.

    Of course, you knew there was a trick coming, right? This little U.S. government-produced film wasn’t about the militants of the Islamic State. Made by the U.S. Navy in 1943, its subject was “Our Enemy the Japanese.” Substitute “radical Islam” for “emperor worship,” though, and it still makes a certain propagandistic sense. While the basics may be largely the same (us versus them, good versus evil), modern times do demand something slicker than the video equivalent of an old newsreel. The age of the Internet, with its short attention spans and heightened expectations of cheap thrills, calls for a higher class of war porn, but as with that 1943 film, it remains remarkable how familiar what’s being produced remains.

    Like propaganda films and sexual pornography, Hollywood movies about America at war have changed remarkably little over the years. Here’s the basic formula, from John Wayne in the World War II-era Sands of Iwo Jima to today’s American Sniper:

    *American soldiers are good, the enemy bad. Nearly every war movie is going to have a scene in which Americans label the enemy as “savages,” “barbarians,” or “bloodthirsty fanatics,” typically following a “sneak attack” or a suicide bombing. Our country’s goal is to liberate; the enemy’s, to conquer. Such a framework prepares us to accept things that wouldn’t otherwise pass muster. Racism naturally gets a bye; as they once were “Japs” (not Japanese), they are now “hajjis” and “ragheads” (not Muslims or Iraqis). It’s beyond question that the ends justify just about any means we might use, from the nuclear obliteration of two cities of almost no military significance to the grimmest sort of torture. In this way, the war film long ago became a moral free-fire zone for its American characters.

    *American soldiers believe in God and Country, in “something bigger than themselves,” in something “worth dying for,” but without ever becoming blindly attached to it. The enemy, on the other hand, is blindly devoted to a religion, political faith, or dictator, and it goes without saying (though it’s said) that his God — whether an emperor, Communism, or Allah — is evil. As one critic put it back in 2007 with just a tad of hyperbole, “In every movie Hollywood makes, every time an Arab utters the word Allah… something blows up.”

    *War films spend no significant time on why those savages might be so intent on going after us. The purpose of American killing, however, is nearly always clearly defined. It’s to “save American lives,” those over there and those who won’t die because we don’t have to fight them over here. Saving such lives explains American war: in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, for example, the main character defuses roadside bombs to make Iraq safer for other American soldiers. In the recent World War II-themed Fury, Brad Pitt similarly mows down ranks of Germans to save his comrades. Even torture is justified, as in Zero Dark Thirty, in the cause of saving our lives from their nightmarish schemes. In American Sniper, shooter Chris Kyle focuses on the many American lives he’s saved by shooting Iraqis; his PTSD is, in fact, caused by his having “failed” to have saved even more. Hey, when an American kills in war, he’s the one who suffers the most, not that mutilated kid or his grieving mother — I got nightmares, man! I still see their faces!

    *Our soldiers are human beings with emotionally engaging backstories, sweet gals waiting at home, and promising lives ahead of them that might be cut tragically short by an enemy from the gates of hell. The bad guys lack such backstories. They are anonymous fanatics with neither a past worth mentioning nor a future worth imagining. This is usually pretty blunt stuff. Kyle’s nemesis in American Sniper, for instance, wears all black. Thanks to that, you know he’s an insta-villain without the need for further information. And speaking of lack of a backstory, he improbably appears in the film both in the Sunni city of Fallujah and in Sadr City, a Shia neighborhood in Baghdad, apparently so super-bad that his desire to kill Americans overcomes even Iraq’s mad sectarianism.

    *It is fashionable for our soldiers, having a kind of depth the enemy lacks, to express some regrets, a dollop of introspection, before (or after) they kill. In American Sniper, while back in the U.S. on leave, the protagonist expresses doubts about what he calls his “work.” (No such thoughts are in the book on which the film is based.) Of course, he then goes back to Iraq for three more tours and over two more hours of screen time to amass his 160 “confirmed kills.”

    *Another staple of such films is the training montage. Can a young recruit make it? Often he is the Fat Kid who trims down to his killing weight, or the Skinny Kid who muscles up, or the Quiet Kid who emerges bloodthirsty. (This has been a trope of sexual porn films, too: the geeky looking guy, mocked by beautiful women, who turns out to be a superstar in bed.) The link, up front or implied, between sexuality, manhood, and war is a staple of the form. As part of the curious PTSD recovery plan he develops, for example, Kyle volunteers to teach a paraplegic vet in a wheelchair to snipe. After his first decent shot rings home, the man shouts, “I feel like I got my balls back!”

    *Our soldiers, anguished souls that they are, have no responsibility for what they do once they’ve been thrown into our wars.  No baby-killers need apply in support of America’s post-Vietnam, guilt-free mantra, “Hate the war, love the warrior.” In the film First Blood, for example, John Rambo is a Vietnam veteran who returns home a broken man. He finds his war buddy dead from Agent Orange-induced cancer and is persecuted by the very Americans whose freedom he believed he had fought for. Because he was screwed over in The ‘Nam, the film gives him a free pass for his homicidal acts, including a two-hour murderous rampage through a Washington State town. The audience is meant to see Rambo as a noble, sympathetic character. He returns for more personal redemption in later films to rescue American prisoners of war left behind in Southeast Asia.

    *For war films, ambiguity is a dirty word. Americans always win, even when they lose in an era in which, out in the world, the losses are piling up. And a win is a win, even when its essence is one-sided bullying as in Heartbreak Ridge, the only movie to come out of the ludicrous invasion of Grenada. And a loss is still a win in Black Hawk Down, set amid the disaster of Somalia, which ends with scenes of tired warriors who did the right thing. Argo — consider it honorary war porn – reduces the debacle of years of U.S. meddling in Iran to a high-fiving hostage rescue. All it takes these days to turn a loss into a win is to zoom in tight enough to ignore defeat. In American Sniper, the disastrous occupation of Iraq is shoved offstage so that more Iraqis can die in Kyle’s sniper scope. In Lone Survivor, a small American “victory” is somehow dredged out of hopeless Afghanistan because an Afghan man takes a break from being droned to save the life of a SEAL.

    In sum: gritty, brave, selfless men, stoic women waiting at home, noble wounded warriors, just causes, and the necessity of saving American lives. Against such a lineup, the savage enemy is a crew of sitting ducks who deserve to die. Everything else is just music, narration, and special effects. War pornos, like their oversexed cousins, are all the same movie.

    A Fantasy That Can Change Reality

    But it’s just a movie, right? Your favorite shoot-em-up makes no claims to being a documentary. We all know one American can’t gun down 50 bad guys and walk away unscathed, in the same way he can’t bed 50 partners without getting an STD. It’s just entertainment. So what?

    So what do you, or the typical 18-year-old considering military service, actually know about war on entering that movie theater? Don’t underestimate the degree to which such films can help create broad perceptions of what war’s all about and what kind of people fight it. Those lurid on-screen images, updated and reused so repetitively for so many decades, do help create a self-reinforcing, common understanding of what happens “over there,” particularly since what we are shown mirrors what most of us want to believe anyway.

    No form of porn is about reality, of course, but that doesn’t mean it can’t create realities all its own. War films have the ability to bring home emotionally a glorious fantasy of America at war, no matter how grim or gritty any of these films may look. War porn can make a young man willing to die before he’s 20. Take my word for it: as a diplomat in Iraq I met young people in uniform suffering from the effects of all this. Such films also make it easier for politicians to sweet talk the public into supporting conflict after conflict, even as sons and daughters continue to return home damaged or dead and despite the country’s near-complete record of geopolitical failures since September 2001. Funny thing: American Sniper was nominated for an Academy Award for best picture as Washington went back to war in Iraq in what you’d have thought would be an unpopular struggle.

    Learning From the Exceptions

    You can see a lot of war porn and stop with just your toes in the water, thinking you’ve gone swimming. But eventually you should go into the deep water of the “exceptions,” because only there can you confront the real monsters.

    There are indeed exceptions to war porn, but don’t fool yourself, size matters. How many people have seen American Sniper, The Hurt Locker, or Zero Dark Thirty? By comparison, how many saw the anti-war Iraq War film Battle for Haditha, a lightly fictionalized, deeply unsettling drama about an American massacre of innocent men, women, and children in retaliation for a roadside bomb blast?

    Timing matters, too, when it comes to the few mainstream exceptions. John Wayne’s The Green Berets, a pro-Vietnam War film, came out in 1968 as that conflict was nearing its bloody peak and resistance at home was growing. (The Green Berets gets a porn bonus star, as the grizzled Wayne persuades a lefty journalist to alter his negative views on the war.) Platoon, with its message of waste and absurdity, had to wait until 1986, more than a decade after the war ended.

    In propaganda terms, think of this as controlling the narrative. One version of events dominates all others and creates a reality others can only scramble to refute. The exceptions do, however, reveal much about what we don’t normally see of the true nature of American war. They are uncomfortable for any of us to watch, as well as for military recruiters, parents sending a child off to war, and politicians trolling for public support for the next crusade.

    War is not a two-hour-and-12-minute hard-on. War is what happens when the rules break down and, as fear displaces reason, nothing too terrible is a surprise. The real secret of war for those who experience it isn’t the visceral knowledge that people can be filthy and horrible, but that you, too, can be filthy and horrible. You don’t see much of that on the big screen.

    The Long Con

    Of course, there are elements of “nothing new” here. The Romans undoubtedly had their version of war porn that involved mocking the Gauls as sub-humans. Yet in twenty-first-century America, where wars are undeclared and Washington dependent on volunteers for its new foreign legion, the need to keep the public engaged and filled with fear over our enemies is perhaps more acute than ever.

    So here’s a question: if the core propaganda messages the U.S. government promoted during World War II are nearly identical to those pushed out today about the Islamic State, and if Hollywood’s war films, themselves a particularly high-class form of propaganda, have promoted the same false images of Americans in conflict from 1941 to the present day, what does that tell us? Is it that our varied enemies across nearly three-quarters of a century of conflict are always unbelievably alike, or is it that when America needs a villain, it always goes to the same script?




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  • Book Review: American Ambassadors, The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Diplomats

    February 28, 2015 // 15 Comments

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    Posted in: Embassy/State

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    The micro-review of Dennis Jett’s American Ambassadors: The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Diplomats is this: Since 1960, 72 percent of America’s ambassadors to Western Europe and the Caribbean have been political appointees, their primary if often only qualification being that they donated obscene amounts of money to the guy who won the presidency. America is the only first world country that hands out ambassadorships as overt prizes of corruption. Many/most of these political ambassadors have done mediocre-to-poor jobs, and no one does much of anything about that, or even seems to care. Likely the only way to reform this sad system is to reform big money politics in America.



    Getting to Know Our Ambassadors

    Author Dennis Jett, himself a two-time career ambassador (meaning he served as a State Department diplomat, rising through the ranks to one of its highest positions) is now a professor of international relations and founding faculty member of the School of International Affairs at Penn State University. His book is one of the few (only?) volumes that parses the idea of politically-appointed ambassadors outside of a partisan rubric, and is the only one I am aware of that fully details the actual process and mechanics of becoming an ambassador. It also manages to be a quick, entertaining read, all at the same time. While Jett does not traffic in gossip, his book is filled with anecdotes and details that reveal the at times pathetic actions of America’s representatives abroad.

    How about the one whose signature accomplishment was a new mattress for her residence? The one who was absent from her assigned country almost half the time? The ones who stumbled in front of the very host country officials they were supposed to get to know? The one who insisted on singing popular tunes at all of his formal dinners, drowning out critical sidebar interactions? The one who… well, you get the idea.

    A Little History

    Professor Jett’s book begins with a history of America’s ambassadorship, noting that an early attempt to reform the spoils system so angered one job-seeker that he assassinated President Garfield. Things only went downhill from there.

    Various well-meaning moves by Presidents from Taft to Teddy Roosevelt failed to budge the spoils system through Republican and Democratic administrations. Along the way presidents stopped trying to change the system and began to openly embrace it as a tool to reward both individual donors and, the whales of any campaign, the “bundlers,” those connected individuals who not only drop off millions of their own money, but get their wealthy friends to do the same.

    It would be foolish to expect someone not to want something in return for their cash.

    The Best and the Worst

    To be fair, Jett offers his share of criticism to ambassadors in general (about 70 percent are in fact State Department careerists, though as noted, career diplomats are disproportionately assigned to hardship posts; some 14 percent of African embassies are run by career Foreign Service Officers.)

    One of the most overriding criticisms is the lack of standards and definitions of success for an ambassador. Easier to delineate are the points of failure, and Jett’s book has far too many examples for any taxpayer to be happy about. The problems range from ambassadors who seem to have little-to-no interest in the job save some social aspects and the title itself, to those who hamstring an embassy through mis- or micromanagement.

    The better ambassadors (surprise!) use the resources at hand well, rely on their career No. 2 (the Deputy Chief of Mission, or DCM) to handle most of the internal embassy management, and respect the chain of command. Add to that an ambassador who is willing to work with not only the State Department personnel under his/her direct authority, but also the many other Federal workers in a modern embassy, never mind the ever-growing military presence abroad, and you have a recipe for success. The book is clear what happens in the inverse.

    Resources

    American Ambassadors is also an excellent resource for those seeking to learn more of the inside baseball side of the American ambassador game. Jett surveys the roles of women, African-Americans and gay ambassadors, and charts the changing way race and religion have played out in assignments. Readers get to see the lengthy actual questionnaire used to vett Obama’s appointees, guidelines drawn up for successful ambassadors by informed third parties, and examples of the Letters of Instruction three presidents wrote as “marching orders” to their new envoys. These resources are likely of more use to a student, researcher or potential political appointee than a general reader, but are not uninteresting to browse.

    Reforms?

    Reform to a spoils system so deeply embedded in the way someone gets elected to the White House depends on reform of how someone gets elected to the White House. This is a task far beyond the scope of Jett’s book, though he touches on some ideas. Recent Supreme Court decisions that allow virtually unlimited corporate funds to flow nakedly into the system won’t help.

    So if you can’t do away with the spoils system, the only alternative left is to better prepare the political appointees. Making Dennis Jett’s American Ambassadors required reading for every person up for consideration would be a hell of a start.



    Full Disclosure: Like Jett, I also was a career Foreign Service Officer. Unlike Jett, I never rose beyond the middle ranks. Jett also cites my issues with the Department of State as an example of the perils of dissent inside the organization.



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  • State Department Gives 87% of Afghan Funds to Only Five Recipients

    February 27, 2015 // 10 Comments

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    Posted in: Afghanistan, Economy, Embassy/State



    The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) issued a scathing report showing the Department of State gave a staggering 87 percent of all Afghan reconstruction funds to only five recipients.

    In fact, 69 percent of all taxpayer money spent went to just one contractor.

    Much Money into Few Hands

    SIGAR tells us the top-five recipients of State Afghanistan reconstruction awards by total obligations accounted for approximately $3.5 billion, or 87 percent, of total State reconstruction obligations. State awarded the remaining 13 percent of obligations to 766 recipients, who averaged about $676,000 each in total obligations.

    Dyncorp International Limited Liability Corporation (Dyncorp) was the single largest recipient of State department funds, receiving $2.8 billion in contracts, or 69 percent of total awards. Dyncorp contracts dealt principally with training and equipping the Afghan National Police and counternarcotics forces. Dyncorp contracts included police trainers, construction of police infrastructure, and fielding police equipment and vehicles. Dyncorp played a similar role, with similar results, in the Iraq Reconstruction.

    Next in line at the trough were PAE Government Services Incorporated at $597.8 million, Civilian Police International Limited Liability Company with $53.6 million, the Demining Agency For Afghanistan at $28.3 million and Omran Consulting Company, in the number fifth slot, with only $22.8 million in taxpayer funds awarded.

    Including all the smaller awardees, between 2002 and 2013, State dropped about $4 billion on Afghan reconstruction. That sounds bad enough given the near-complete lack of meaningful progress in Iraq Afghanistan, until you realize Congress appropriated $96.57 billion in that same time period for Afghanistan reconstruction spread among the Departments of Defense, State and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

    The Bigger Picture

    The implications are three-fold.

    The smallest issue seems to be the massive hemorrhaging of money into just one corporate pocket. Given the amounts, one looks forward to future SIGAR reporting about how this came to be. How many non-competed contracts? How many insider deals? How much unaccounted for money? The appearance of corruption, as well as the opportunities for corruption, are evident.

    The next issue of course is what, if anything, was accomplished with all that taxpayer money absent enriching a few large corporations. Pick your trend line, and it is hard to find much bang for the buck(s) in Afghanistan. Here are some examples to get you started.

    Lastly, we are left with what economists call “waste and mismanagement” the concept that money spent in one way precludes other spending that might have been more beneficial. What might have happened if instead of the U.S. spending extraordinary amounts of money to hire police, build roads, schools and factories in Iraq Afghanistan, that money would have been spent here in America on roads, schools and factories?



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  • NSA Can Track You Through Your Phone’s Battery Use

    February 26, 2015 // 21 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, NSA, Police State, Post-Constitution America

    snowden hopex

    I see you out there.

    Sitting in front of your computer. I see what you’re wearing, who you are with. I know where you have been today, and who you interacted with. I know where you were last night.

    Watching You

    We are shocked on a daily basis at the degree our cell phones can be used to monitor our movements. The most basic technique is via the phone’s built-in GPS; heck, that system is actually designed to locate the phone in physical space, and can at least be turned on and off (though it appears the NSA may be able to remotely trigger the system.)

    Next up is the way that cell phones work. Your phone is constantly seeking to connect to three cell towers at once. As you move around, it drops the connection to the weakest signal, holds on to two others, and reconnects to a new third. This happens seamlessly, and so you can keep talking to your girlfriend even as you drive (don’t use your phone while driving.) Your location can be tracked fairly accurately by someone who is measuring your triangulated point among the three towers.

    And when your phone connects to a Wi-Fi signal (how’s that Starbucks latte?), your location is easily determined.

    Lastly, the NSA has access to the SIM chip in your phone, which basically opens up the basic encryption used that might have in olden days offered some modicum of privacy.

    Location via Battery Levels

    Now, here’s another way.

    A team of security researchers from Stanford and the Israeli government (!) just published the details of a technique that lets spies watch as you move around by monitoring tiny changes in your phone’s battery level. It all comes down to how hard your phone has to work to ping those three cell towers. The towers that are further away or obscured by a building or hill cause your phone to use a little bit more power. If the spies know your normal routine, they can track your movements with 90 percent accuracy. If they don’t know your routine, that accuracy drops to about 60 percent. That may still be enough to place you close enough for whatever purpose, or to find you for closer monitoring.

    This is especially concerning because there’s not really any way to protect yourself from this kind of surveillance, aside from taking out your phone’s battery. Most any app can gain access to battery usage data, so a hacker could either build a fake app to monitor that data or pull data from another app.

    Funny thing: in the Edward Snowden documentary, CitizenFour, Snowden tells reporters visiting him to remove the batteries from their phones and place everything inside the metal box of the room fridge.


    And Oh Yes, They’re Watching You

    And oh my does the NSA like tracking your phone.

    The National Security Agency is gathering nearly five billion records a day on the whereabouts of cellphones around the world, enabling the agency to track the movements of individuals — and map their relationships — in ways that would have been previously unimaginable. The records feed a vast database that stores information about the locations of at least hundreds of millions of devices 24/7.

    Sophisticated mathematical tech­niques then enable NSA analysts to map cellphone owners’ relationships by correlating their patterns of movement over time with thousands or millions of other phone users who cross their paths. So let’s also hope you don’t accidentally find yourself nearby anyone the NSA is interested in. Since the ever-hungry NSA cannot know in advance which tiny fraction of the records it may need, it collects and keeps as many as it can — 27 terabytes, by one account, or more than double the text content of the Library of Congress’ print collection.

    And for those last seven or eight people who still cling to “Hey, I’ve got nothing to hide,” good for you. You may not be an ISIS super-villain, but really, nothing to hide from your girlfriend, boyfriend, boss, creditors, stalkers, ex-spouse, creepy guy downstairs, complete strangers, nobody? Because once information is collected, it exists, and once it exists it can be hacked, shared with foreign governments, your local cops, leaked or otherwise made available.


    So smile, and speak up — somebody’s paying attention!




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  • State Department’s Top Counter-Terrorism Official Arrested in Child Sex Sting

    February 25, 2015 // 7 Comments

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    Posted in: Embassy/State

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    Who are the real terrorists threatening actual citizens?

    Daniel Rosen, the State Department’s top counter-terrorism official, was arrested Tuesday for allegedly soliciting sex from a minor. If found guilty, Rosen faces up to 30 years in prison.

    Fairfax County, Virginia law enforcement officials say Rosen, age 44, was arrested at his home after he allegedly sought sex with a minor. A female officer working in the county’s Child Exploitation Unit had been posing as the minor in online exchanges with Rosen, police said.

    The State Department’s spokeswoman said “We are aware that a State Department employee has been arrested and charges have been issued. For issues related to Department personnel and for privacy reasons, we are not able to confirm the identity of the individual or specific charges. His security clearance will be suspended and he will be put on administrative leave while this proceeds to its end through any judicial process. We are following standard procedure in this case.”

    “Administrative Leave” means that Rosen will be paid his full salary and accrue benefits for the indeterminate future.

    Fox News reports a source with Diplomatic Security, the State Department internal police force, said that law enforcement officers were “hitting [Rosen’s] phones,” meaning that a search warrant had been issued so police could examine the devices for additional evidence.

    The Los Angeles Times reports that it is unclear whether Rosen is alleged to have used personal or State Department-issued devices to troll for underage sex online.

    Rosen’s LinkedIn profile claims he is responsible for all of State’s Counter-Terrorism Bureau’s strategic planning, policy planning, program and budget planning and oversight, and legislative relations and interaction, and that he oversees a budget of $300 million per year. He is State’s primary representative on terrorism at interagency and international meetings, conferences, and Congressional briefings.

    It appears Rosen is not a career State Department employee, having been with the agency since 2008. It is unclear whether he is a Civil Servant or a political appointee. His name appears to have quickly been deleted from the State Department website.


    BONUS: Rosen joins a long list of alleged and actual State Department employees involved in sex crimes!



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  • Veterans’ Administration Secretary Straight-Up Lies

    February 25, 2015 // 3 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Military

    va


    Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Robert McDonald apologized Monday for “misstating” that he served in the military’s special forces. McDonald made the “erroneous” claim while speaking to a homeless veteran during a segment that aired last month on the CBS Evening News.


    In a statement released Monday by the VA, McDonald said: “While I was in Los Angeles, engaging a homeless individual to determine his veteran status, I asked the man where he had served in the military. He responded that he had served in special forces. I ‘incorrectly stated’ that I had been in special forces. That was inaccurate and I apologize to anyone that was offended by my misstatement.”

    Stolen Valor

    Lying or exaggerating military service is known as “stolen valor.” There are entire organizations devoted to calling out fake claims to special forces service. In the specops community, this is a big deal.

    The VA website says McDonald is an Army veteran who served with the 82nd Airborne Division. Anyone who has been in the Army knows the 82nd is not a special forces unit. That term is reserved primarily in the Army world for Green Berets. You cannot be mistaken about whether or not you have undergone special forces training and deployment.

    The White House issued a statement saying, “We take him at his word and expect that this will not impact the important work he’s doing to promote the health and well-being of our nation’s veterans.”

    President Barack Obama chose the former Procter and Gamble CEO to take over the scandal-plagued VA last year. The questions about McDonald’s service come as TV newsmen Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly have had their claims about covering foreign wars called into question.

    Thought Experiments

    So, some things to ponder.

    — Let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine you have a child. She is standing in the living room. A broken lamp is on the floor. She is holding a baseball bat with pieces of the lamp embedded in the wood. She has written on a large piece of poster board “I broke the lamp.” Would you, as the media has done in McDonald’s case, use the words “misstate,” “erroneous,” and “inaccurate” to describe her oral admonition that she did not break the lamp?

    — OK, another one. You know from my online biography that I have not served in special forces. If I write an article saying “I served in special forces,” would that be a misstatement? If, only after I have been caught dead to rights lying, I apologize to anyone “who might have been offended,” say persons who underwent the tough selection and life-threatening work of real special forces folks, or maybe a homeless veteran, does that make it OK?

    — If I worked for you and got caught lying in connection to my work and embarrassed the organization I lead, would you as my boss make a public statement of support for me?

    — But that said, let’s try it anyway. My name is not Peter. It is Rambo. Even as I type this, I am an active duty special forces operator. Please buy me drinks.

    BONUS: This is not McDonald’s first work-related lie. Obama named the clown to run the VA after veterans died awaiting care. McDonald said on NBC 60 people had been fired for their part in the misconduct, but the fact-checking website PolitiFact.com rated his statement as false, saying that fewer than 20 had been dismissed.




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  • Chicago Police Detain Americans at ‘Black Site’

    February 24, 2015 // 3 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Police State, Post-Constitution America

    homan


    One of the things I was told as a new parent that really stuck was that my kids would be watching me 24/7 for clues as to how to behave, what was acceptable, what they might get away with. People look to authorities above them to see what is current practice in the same way. Unfortunately, this is how the taint of CIA actions in the so-called war on terror have come to the Homeland, specifically sweet home Chicago.

    This is what happens in Post-Constitutional America.


    Homeland Black Site

    In an exclusive story, The Guardian, a UK newspaper, reports that the Chicago police department operates an off-the-books interrogation compound, rendering Americans unable to be found by family or lawyers while locked inside what attorneys say is the domestic equivalent of a CIA black site. The key element of a black site is the ability for an organization — CIA or Chicago PD — to hold someone outside of the law’s protections and indeed outside of any third-party knowledge. In Chicago, this includes a lack of access to legal advice during interrogation.

    The facility in Chicago is a warehouse known as Homan Square. Interviews with local attorneys and one protester who spent the better part of a day shackled in Homan Square describe operations that deny access to basic constitutional rights. Alleged police practices at Homan Square, according to those familiar with the facility who spoke to the Guardian after its investigation into Chicago police abuse, include:

    — Keeping arrestees out of official booking databases.

    — Beating by police, resulting in head wounds.

    — Shackling for prolonged periods.

    — Denying attorneys access to the “secure” facility.

    — Holding people without legal counsel for between 12 and 24 hours, including people as young as 15.

    — At least one man was found unresponsive in a Homan Square interrogation room and later pronounced dead.

    No one taken to Homan Square is said to be booked. Witnesses, suspects or others who end up inside do not appear to have a public, searchable record entered into a database indicating where they are, as happens when someone is booked at a precinct. Lawyers and relatives insist there is no way of finding their whereabouts. Those lawyers who have attempted to gain access to Homan Square are most often turned away, even as their clients remain in custody inside.

    “They Just Disappear”

    “It’s sort of an open secret among attorneys that regularly make police station visits, this place – if you can’t find a client in the system, odds are they’re there,” said one local lawyer. A Chicago civil-rights attorney said Homan Square represented a routinization of a notorious practice in local police work that violates the Fifth and Sixth amendments of the Constitution.

    Much remains hidden about Homan Square. The Chicago police department has not responded to any of the Guardian’s recent questions – neither about any aspect of operations at Homan Square, nor about the Guardian’s investigation of Richard Zuley, the retired Chicago detective turned Guantánamo Bay torturer.

    “They just disappear,” said a criminal defense attorney.



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  • State Department Still Can’t Secure Email Network Months After Attacks Began

    February 24, 2015 // 0 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State

    State Department building


    The State Department will not confirm reports that a breach of its unclassified e-mail system discovered three months ago continues today.

    “I’m not getting into that level of detail,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. “There are thousands of attacks from many sources that we deal with every single day, and a reason why I think there has been a focus on this particular incident is because of its extent and how broad it was. Obviously, we took steps to combat that, but it is something we work on every day.”

    The November Shutdown

    In November, the State Department shut down its unclassified e-mail system as a result of the hack. At the time, a senior department official said that the breach was detected in the system around the same time as a previously reported incident that targeted the White House computer network.

    The State Department, using outside contractors, has repeatedly scanned its network and continues to see signs of the hackers, the Wall Street Journal reports. Each time investigators find a hacker tool and block it, the intruders tweak it slightly to attempt to sneak past defenses.

    They Were Warned

    In January 2014, a State Department inspector general report said the integrity of the Department’s information security program is at significant risk because of recurring weaknesses the agency continues to fail to address. Among the recommendations was that the NSA conduct penetration tests on State Department systems. The State Department declined the NSA’s help, saying its own Diplomatic Security Service could conduct penetration tests.

    No Coordination

    Bruce Brody, a former Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) at both the Energy and Veterans Affairs departments, said he understands why hackers could be found lurking in systems months after their initial discovery. “Government agency networks are somewhat of a work in progress. Each agency has subordinate operating administrations, each of which has their own appropriation, and almost none of them fall under the governance of the Chief Information Officer. These networks all operate in their own way, usually with their own rules, with power and authority resembling medieval fiefdoms rather than coherent top-down management. Any bad guy can get into any government agency almost at will.”




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  • Book Review: American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity

    February 23, 2015 // 4 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Democracy, Iraq, Military

    Kim Phuc story

    Chris Appy’s American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity is a book-length essay on the Vietnam War and how it changed the way Americans think of ourselves and our foreign policy. This is required reading for anyone interested in foreign policy and America’s place in the world, showing how events influence attitudes, which turn to influence events.



    Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam

    Appy’s book is valuable to its readers in showing how Vietnam became the template for every American war since, from novelties like the invasion of Grenada to the seemingly never-ending conflicts post-9/11. But before all that, there was Vietnam, and, larger lessons aside, Appy’s book is a fascinating, insightful, infuriating and thought-provoking study of that conflict, from its earliest days when America bankrolled the French defeat, to the final, frantic evacuation of Saigon. This is a history, yes, but one where events are presented not as isolated factoids but toward building a larger argument. Drawing from movies, songs, and novels, as well as official documents, example after example shows how America was lied to and manipulated.

    We begin with Tom Dooley, a Navy physician who had one of the best-selling books of 1956, Deliver Us from Evil. Presented as fact, the book was wholly a lie, painting a picture of Vietnam as a struggling Catholic nation under attack by Communists, with only America as a possible Saviour. Despite Dooley’s garbage selling millions of copies in its day, few have ever heard of it since. It did however establish a forward-leaning pattern of lies to engage and enrage the American public in support of pointless wars.

    The Dooley line runs through the faux Gulf of Tonkin Incident to fake stories from Gulf War 1.0 of Iraqi troops throwing infants from their incubators to Gulf War 2.0’s non-existent WMDs to Gulf War 3.0’s “Save the Yazidi’s” rationale for America re-entering a war already lost twice. “Saving” things was a common sub-theme, just as Vietnam was to be saved from Communism. It was no surprise that one of the last American acts of the Vietnam War was “Operation Babylift,” where thousands of children were flown to the U.S. to “save” them.

    Vietnam as a Template

    Vietnam set the template in other ways as well.

    — The 1960’s infamous domino theory was raised from the grave not only in the 1980’s to frighten Americans into tacit support for America’s wars in Central America, but then again in regards to the 1991 model of Saddam, never mind the near-constant invocations of tumbling playing pieces as al Qaeda and/or ISIS seeks world domination.

    — Conflicts that could not stand on their own post-WWII would be wrapped in the flag of American Exceptionalism, buttressed by the belief the United States is a force for good/freedom/democracy/self-determination against a communist/dictator/terrorist evil. Indigenous struggles, where the U.S. sides with a non-democratic government (Vietnam, the Contras), can never be seen any other way, truth be damned to hell. Wars for resources become struggles for freedom, or perhaps self-preservation, as we fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.

    — A sidestory to such memes is the invocation of “Munich.” If we don’t stop _____ (Putin?) now, he’ll just go on to demand more. Better to stand and fight than commit the cardinal sin of appeasement. That “appeasement” and “diplomacy” are often confused is no matter. We are not dealing in subtleties here.

    — Killing becomes mechanical, clean, nearly sterile (remember the war porn images of missiles blasting through windows in Gulf War 1.0?) Our atrocities — My Lai in Vietnam is the best known, but there were many more — are the work of a few bad apples (“This is not who we are as Americans.”) Meanwhile, the other side’s atrocities are evil genius, fanaticism or campaigns of horror.


    No More Vietnams

    Appy accurately charts the changes to the American psyche brought on by the war. Never before had such a broad range of Americans come to doubt their government. The faith most citizens had in their leaders coming out of WWII was so near complete that the realization that they had been lied to about Vietnam represents the most significant change in the relationship between a people and their leaders America, perhaps much of history, has ever seen.

    The aftermath — No More Vietnams — is well-covered in Appy’s work. The No More Vietnam mantra is usually presented as avoiding quagmires, focusing on quick, sharp wins. Instead, Appy shows politicians have manipulated No More Vietnams into meaning greater secrecy (think Central America in the 1980’s), more over-the-top justifications (“You don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”) and an emphasis on keeping American deaths inside the acceptable limits of the day to tamp down any public anti-war sentiment.

    Throw in increasingly clever manipulation of the media (“Pat Tillman was a hero,” “Malaki/Karzai is a democratic leader with wide support”) and indeed there will be no more Vietnams per se, even as conflicts that bear all the hallmarks continue unabated. Americans may have developed an intolerance for Vietnam-like wars, but failed to become intolerant of war.



    Post-9/11

    For readers of the 9/11 era, explaining the changes America underwent because of Vietnam seems near-impossible, though American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity succeeds as well as anything else I have read.

    Before Vietnam, we accepted it all. That was the way of it. You could call it patriotism, or you could call it naivety, or even faith. We hadn’t yet realized our leaders would lie to us about things as important as war. There had been no Watergate, no fake WMDs. American Exceptionalism was not a right-wing trope twirled inside the confection of “Morning in America.” Our education was very expensive in the form of that blood and treasure commentators love to refer to.

    You finish with the feeling that Appy wishes the lesson of Vietnam would be for the American people to rise up and shout “we won’t be fooled again,” but close the book sharing with Appy the thought that we have, and will. “There remains,” concludes Appy, “a profound disconnect between the ideals and priorities of the public and the reality of a permanent war machine that no one in power seems able or willing to challenge or constrain… the institutions that sustain empire destroy democracy.”

    How did we reach such a state? Better read this book to find, in Appy’s words, what our record is, and who we now are.




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  • Family Settles Suit with City for $3.9m After Cop Walks Free in Shooting

    February 21, 2015 // 5 Comments

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

    kid


    In case you’re in a hurry, here’s the express version of this story:

    — African-American teen killed by a white cop;
    — Grand jury won’t indict, cop walks free;
    — Family wins wrongful death lawsuit;
    — Taxpayers lay out $3.9 million to pay for their killer cops on the loose.

    Read, repeat.


    And now, the details.

    The family of slain Bronx teen Ramarley Graham accepted $3.9 million in taxpayer money from the city to settle their wrongful death lawsuit.

    Police had claimed that Graham was suspected of purchasing an amount of marijuana small enough that its possession is now decriminalized in New York.

    Cops chased him into his home without a warrant. The cop who shot the teen, Officer Richard Haste, claimed that he had heard over the police radio that Graham was armed. No gun was found.

    After Graham was gunned down in his own bathroom, the cops threatened to shoot his grieving grandmother, according to the suit.

    “Why did you shoot him? Why you killed him?” the grandmother allegedly asked the officer who had just fired a fatal bullet into her grandson’s chest.

    “Get the f*ck away before I have to shoot you, too,” the suit said Haste shouted after pushing the 58-year-old grandmother backward.

    The elderly woman was detained at the local precinct for seven hours and forced to give a statement against her will.

    Officer Richard Haste, who fired the fatal shot, was initially indicted for manslaughter, but a judge threw out the case on a legal technicality.

    A second grand jury declined to indict the cop.

    “This was a tragic case,” said a spokesman for New York City.

    An ongoing federal investigation into possible civil rights violations by the NYPD moves into the third year since the killing. The lawsuit itself took two years after the teen’s death to reach settlement.


    As best I can tell Officer Haste, below, is still patrolling the streets as I write this.




    Read, repeat.

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  • Ethics? No, Thank You: Clinton Foundation Drops Ban on Foreign Government Donations

    February 20, 2015 // 11 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State

    Hillary Rodham Clintin


    During her term as Secretary of State, the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Foundation did not accept donations from foreign governments. Now, with Hillary is a pseudo-candidate for president, the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Foundation has started to accept donations from foreign governments. Still Ready for Hillary in 2016? ‘Cause here’s what you’re gonna be getting.



    Conflicts of Interest?

    According to The Wall Street Journal, the foundation has already received funding from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Australia, and Germany. A Canadian government agency that supports the Keystone XL oil pipeline has also given money to the foundation.


    No potential conflicts of interest here, right? Let’s see:

    – The Canadian Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development agency donated between $250,000 and $500,000 (the Clinton’s only report donations in such ranges.) The Journal, however, claims the exact amount of the donation was somewhere around $480,000.

    — Last year, the United Arab Emirates donated somewhere between $1 million and $5 million.

    — Saudi Arabia’s donations total between $10 million and $25 million.

    — The Australian government has given between $5 million and $10 million in 2014. It also gave in 2013, when its donations fell in the same range.

    — Qatar’s government committee preparing for the 2022 soccer World Cup gave between $250,000 and $500,000 in 2014. Qatar’s government had previously donated between $1 million and $5 million.

    — Oman, which had made a donation previously, gave an undisclosed amount in 2014. Over time, Oman has given the foundation between $1 million and $5 million.


    A Familiar Face

    But of course, the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Foundation is a stand-alone charitable organization, not a campaign PAC. Funny thing — earlier this month the Clinton Foundation’s chief development officer Dennis Cheng left the organization to serve as the finance director for Clinton’s expected presidential campaign. Since joining in 2011, Cheng raised $248 million for the foundation. He also worked as deputy chief of protocol in Clinton’s State Department and was Clinton’s New York State finance director on her 2008 campaign.



    Is it Just Me?

    The Washington Post had this to say:

    The [Bill, Hillary and Chelsea] Foundation of course provides luxury travel for Hillary Clinton and her spouse, a high-visibility platform and access to mega-donors. She is beholden in a meaningful sense to its donors. No presidential candidate can justify a conflict of interest of this magnitude; it is not merely the appearance of conflict but actual conflict of interest. (emphasis in the original)

    Travel expenses for the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation last year totaled more than $8 million, a greater amount than the nonprofit reported in previous years, according to Internal Revenue Service filings. That figure represents 10 percent of the Foundation’s total expenses.

    The travel expenses listed did not cover Hillary’s public travel for paid speeches, which were covered by the entity she was speaking to, according to contract terms.



    VOX added:

    The fact that the foundation previously stopped seeking such donations on the grounds that it would be improper given her role as Secretary of State only makes things worse… The problems with this move are so obvious that it naturally raises questions about the quality of the advice that Clinton is getting. Has she surrounded herself with people who aren’t comfortable telling her she’s making a mistake? Is she ignoring people who are raising obvious red flags? Is her husband and whoever he relies on for counsel just off the reservation? Whatever the answer, it doesn’t look good. Her 2008 campaign famously suffered from discipline and cohesion problems and this is not a great start to 2016.

    Chelsea is also pulling in significant amounts of money for not doing much. More information about Hillary’s complex finances are reported here by The New Yorker.



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  • Why Evacuating an Embassy is a Political Act

    February 19, 2015 // 14 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Military, Syria, Yemen

    -


    The American Embassy in Yemen is closed and the American staff evacuated. Houthi officials say the evacuation was unnecessary and claim it is largely a political act seeking to undermine their legitimacy. Is closing an embassy a political act? What happens when an embassy is evacuated? What happens to private Americans in-country?



    A Political Signal

    The decision to close an embassy rises to the Secretary of State for approval. An embassy evacuation really is a virtual chess match that some State Department critics say is as much about political signals as it is about the safety of America’s diplomats. In cases where the United States wants to support the host government, an embassy closure cuts off most interaction and will eliminate on-the-ground reporting. An evacuation can trigger the fall of the host government based on the perceived loss of American confidence, or may encourage rebels to attack private American citizens seen as less-protected. In that one point of having an embassy at all is symbolism, closure is without a doubt a political act. Reopening the embassy brings up all those factors in reverse.



    How Do You Close an Embassy?

    The mechanics of closing an embassy follow an established process, with only the time line varying.

    All embassies have standing evacuation procedures, called the Emergency Action Plan, that are updated regularly. A key component is the highly-classified “trip wires,” designated decision points. If the rebels advance past the river, take steps A-C. If the host government military is deserting, implement steps D-E, and so forth.

    Early actions include moving embassy dependents out of the country via commercial flights. Incoming staff can be held in Washington and existing tours cut short. Non-essential official personnel (for example, the trade attache, who won’t be doing much business in the midst of coup) are flown out. Some sort of public advisory must be issued by the State Department to private American citizens under the “No Double Standard” rule. This grew out of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing of a Pan Am flight, where inside threat info was made available to embassy families but kept from the general public.

    These embassy draw-down steps are seen as low-cost moves, both because they use commercial transportation, and because they usually attract minimal public attention.

    The next steps typically involve the destruction of classified materials. The flood of sensitive documents taken from the American embassy in Tehran in 1979 remains a sore point inside State even today. Classified materials include mountains of paper that need to be shredded, pulped or burnt, as well as electronics, weapons, encryption gear and hard drives that must be physically destroyed. Embassies estimate how many linear feet of classified paper they have on hand and the destruction process begins in time (one hopes) to destroy it all.



    Send in the Marines

    Somewhere in the midst of all this, the Marines come into the picture. Embassies are guarded only by a small, lightly armed detachment of Marines. As part of their standard Special Operation Capable (SOC) designation, larger Marine units train with their SEAL components for the reinforcement and evacuation of embassies. They maintain libraries of overhead imagery and blueprints of diplomatic facilities to aid in planning. Fully combat-equipped Marines can be brought into the embassy, either stealthily to avoid inflaming a tense situation, or very overtly to send a message to troublemakers to back off. Long experience keeps Marine assets handy to the Middle East and Africa.



    Private Americans

    What is done to support private American citizens varies considerably. Planning and putting into action support for our citizens was a major part of my work at the State Department. The rule of thumb is if a commercial means of departure exists, private citizens must utilize it, sometimes with the assistance of the embassy. Loans for tickets can be made, convoys organized and so forth. In cases where the major airlines refuse to fly but the airport is still usable, the State Department can arrange charters. In extreme cases only (Yemen is not such a case) the Marines conduct a Noncombatant Evacuation Order (NEO) to pull citizens out of the country using military assets. At times Americans are simply told to “shelter in place” and ride out a crisis. State will ask a neutral embassy in-country, such as the Swiss, to look after them to the extent possible.



    Sorry, Local Staff

    Almost always left out of the mix are the embassy local staff, the cooks, drivers, and translators. Rarely are they evacuated, and are usually left to make their own way in what can be a very dangerous environment for someone seen as an American collaborator. Some have compared this to the poor treatment military translators from Iraq and Afghanistan have received trying to secure visas and refugee status to the United States.



    We Failed

    Closing an embassy is often a tacit admission that America’s policies toward the host government failed. For example, Yemen represents the third American embassy in an Arab Spring country, following Syria and Libya, now closed. Images of an empty embassy are not what the American government looks forward to seeing spreading across social media. A closure is indeed a political act.



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  • What ISIS Gained by Burning a Man Alive

    February 18, 2015 // 5 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Iraq, Syria, Yemen

    japan isis4.jpg

    A few weeks ago, did the majority of the world know the Japanese prime minister pledged $200 million in “humanitarian aid” in the war against ISIS? Or that two Japanese citizens had been held as hostages for months? Or that ISIS also held a Jordanian pilot? Or, since 2005, Jordan had been holding a failed al Qaeda female suicide bomber on death row?

    The world knows now. With three killings, the Islamic State sent its messages viral, and watched them pay off in strategic gains.



    What ISIS Accomplished

    Last month in Iraq, 2,287 people were killed. No one knows how many died in the same time span in Syria and other “war on terror” hot spots. Little seems to have changed for it all. Yet, via skillful manipulation of the global media, here is some of what Islamic State accomplished via taking three lives in such a gruesome manner:

    – Islamic State humiliated two U.S. allies. Both sought to negotiate with the militants and both were shown to be weak and ineffectual.

    — The United States, which remained silent, absent the usual tropes about evil, was shown as ineffectual in being able to help its allies.

    — A key U.S. partner, the United Arab Emirates, announced — based on the Jordanian pilot’s capture alone — that it was suspending airstrikes unless the U.S. stationed search and rescue teams inside Iraq. The U.S. quickly announced it was doing just that, raising its on-the-ground footprint. Keeping partners in the game is crucial to maintaining the dubious claim that efforts against Islamic State are anything but an American campaign. Even with the UAE, estimates are that the U.S. conducts some 80 percent of the airstrikes itself.

    — The Japanese and Jordanian governments have vowed revenge, drawing them deeper into the conflict while bringing their domestic debates over the propriety of supporting what many see as America’s war into the open. Conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seizing this moment to try and push through a controversial change to Japan’s pacifist constitution. Blood always runs hot at first; it remains to be seen how many additional deaths of its own citizens a society will tolerate in the name of revenge. Will the hyper-macho images of Jordan’s king wearing a flight suit come to be seen in the same way that George W. Bush’s images of himself in a flight suit now are?

    — The Jordanians executed a Sunni Muslim woman, martyring her and giving new voice to her cause.

    — ISIS successfully kicked off another cycle of revenge in an area of the world where such cycles can become perpetual motion engines. America cannot help but be drawn deeper into this quagmire as it struggles to hold its limited coalition together. President Barack Obama has already announced an increase in annual aid to Jordan from $660 million to $1 billion.

    — To its core recruitment audience, who believes in violent jihad, Islamic State saw one of its most barbaric videos broadcast globally. Islamic State is far less concerned about those shocked by the video than it is about those who will join its struggle because of the video.
    War of ideas

    — Islamic State understands that it is waging a war of ideas, and that ideas cannot be bombed away. There is no victory or defeat per se in such a war, just struggle in epic terms.

    The Charlie Hebdo killers appeared to have been inspired by American citizen cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, whom the U.S. assassinated in 2011. And for all that al Qaeda has been degraded, Islamic State has arisen as its spawn. That dead men inspire living acts of horror shows that unless the fundamental ideas driving Islamic militants are addressed, there will be no end.

    The Heisenberg Effect

    Absent Jordan, the bulk of the Arab world reacted to the Islamic State video with firm statements, and no action. Somehow, that remains primarily in the hands of an America that cannot seem to understand how its very presence in the Middle East exacerbates conflict.

    Robert Pape and James Feldman, in Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It reviewed 2,100 suicide bombings in the Middle East from 1980 to 2009. They conclude most were fueled by U.S. intervention.

    And there has been plenty of fuel for those who fan the flames. Syria became the 14th country in the Islamic world that U.S. forces invaded, occupied or bombed, and in which American soldiers have publicly killed or been killed, since 1980. This history suggests what one Marine officer called in the Small Wars Journal the Heisenberg Effect, after the physics theorem that states the presence of an observer affects the event being observed.

    Any Ideas?

    America’s track record in the “war on terror” is a poor one, the ISIS video only the latest bit of evidence. You can’t shoot an idea. You defeat a bad idea with a better one. Islamic State has proven terribly effective with its bad ideas; on the American side, more than 13 years after 9/11, we need to ask, so what do you have to offer?



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  • Libya: A Perfect Storm of Interventionist Failure

    February 17, 2015 // 13 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen

    Still image from video shows men purported to be Egyptian Christians held captive by the Islamic State kneeling in front of armed men along a beach said to be near Tripoli


    Libya is the perfect storm example of the failure of U.S. interventionist policy in the Middle East.


    The Obama-Clinton Model

    In 2011, Libya was to be the centerpiece of Middle East Intervention 2.0, the Obama-Clinton version.

    Unlike the Bush model, that of Texas-sized land armies, multi-year campaigns and expensive reconstruction efforts, the Obama-Clinton version would use American air power above, special forces and CIA on the ground, and coordinate local “freedom fighters” to overthrow the evil dictator/terrorist/super-villain of the moment. “We Came, We Saw, He Died,” cackled then-Secretary of State Clinton as Libyan leader Moamar Quaddafi was sodomized by rebels on TV.

    The idea was that the U.S. would dip in, unleash hell, and dip out, leaving it to the local folks to create a new government from scratch. So how’d that strategy work out in Libya?


    Benghazi Only A Sign

    Benghazi was only a sign of the chaos to come.

    Here’s the state of Libya today. Several Islamist groups vying for control in Libya have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and carried out barbaric executions, as in Iraq and Syria. The growth and radicalization of Islamist groups raise the possibility that large parts of Libya could become a satellite of the Islamic State where one never previously existed.

    Libya’s official government, led by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni, has only tenuous authority, having been run out of Tripoli last summer amid fighting between rival militias formed during the 2011 civil war.

    The shell government Thinni leads, pathetically still recognized by the international community, operates out of the eastern city of Bayda. The Libya Dawn movement, a coalition of militias and political factions, has wrested control of the capital and established a rival government.

    Fighters who identify themselves as part of the Islamic State have killed journalists and many other civilians. They took credit for the November 13 bombings targeting the Egyptian and United Arab Emirates embassies in Tripoli. Last month, fighters linked to the Islamic State kidnapped Egyptian Coptic Christians and bombed the Corinthia Hotel in the capital, killing ten people.

    And according to the New York Times, the chaos in Libya has paralyzed the economy. The one industry that is booming is human smuggling. Taking advantage of the lawlessness, smugglers who use Libya as a way station in moving impoverished sub-Saharan Africans and Syrian refugees to Europe have become increasingly brazen and reckless in their tactics, sending hundreds to their deaths.



    Egypt Bombs Libya after 21 Beheaded

    In what is only the latest evidence of the failure of the 2011 intervention, Egyptian jets bombed Islamic State targets in Libya recently, a day after the group there released a video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians. That forced Cairo directly into the conflict across its border. While Cairo is believed to have provided clandestine support to some former-Libyan general fighting the rogue government in Tripoli with his own militia, the mass killings pushed Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi into open action.


    The Obama-Clinton Model

    While Libya is the perfect storm example of what happens when the U.S. clumsily intervenes in a Middle Eastern country, it is certainly not the only example. The evacuation of the American embassy in Yemen is the marker for America’s policy failure there. The U.S. is again at war in Iraq, trying the new interventionist model as a recipe to rescue the old one. That conflict alone threatens to inflame the entire region, pulling in Jordan, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others.

    Want to see the future? Look to the recent past. Look at Libya.




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    Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

  • Seattle Police Jail Elderly Military Veteran for Walking with a Golf Club

    February 16, 2015 // 6 Comments

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

    seattle

    Examples of police abuse of power are not hard to locate, typically involving deadly force where none is needed.

    Many of these examples appear to involve racism, white cops misusing their authority over African-Americans. Examples are often dismissed by police supporters over some ambiguity or another. What makes the following example so compelling is not the extremes of violence (none take place) but the clarity of the power dynamic, and the clarity of how easy it is for cops to misuse the power granted to them.



    Arrested for Having a Golf Club

    We learn that 70-year-old Air Force veteran (twenty years of service) and retired Seattle bus driver William Wingate had a daily habit of walking and using a golf club like a cane. He typically took a walk to pick a newspaper. Wingate was not unknown in the neighborhood. He had no arrest record. He was not using drugs. He wasn’t even wearing a hoodie. The day was sunny and clear, the video in focus and the audio clear.

    But Seattle Police Department (SPD) officer Cynthia Whitlatch pulled over her patrol car, got out, and yelled at Wingate to drop his golf club. The incident was caught on her vehicle’s dash-cam video recording system. Unlike some recorded incidents, where what happened before the encounter was not recorded, in this case we have a full 1:40 on tape of nothing happening.

    Officer Whitlatch insists that the recording instead would show Wingate swinging his golf club at her and hitting a stop sign with it. According to the Seattle Police Department, there exists no video to back up this claim.

    Nonetheless, Whitlatch, standing behind her car, shouts at Wingate to drop his golf club 17 times, and claims that “it is a weapon.”

    “You just swung that golf club at me,” Whitlatch yells.

    “No, I did not!” exclaims Wingate.

    “Right back there,” Whitlatch says back. “It was on audio and video tape.”


    The Video

    (The action begins at 1:40 on the video, but the fact that nothing happens prior to that is important to understanding how wrong this all is)

    If you don’t see the embedded video, it is also online here.



    Welcome to the Judicial System

    Eventually, she tells him he’s going to be arrested and charged with obstruction. She calls for backup. A second officer arrives and Wingate promptly hands over the golf club. Nonetheless, the officers went on to handcuff him. Police walked him down the street to the East Precinct, where the desk sergeant approved the decision to book Wingate into jail on harassment and obstruction charges.

    While still handcuffed, Wingate had difficulty stepping up and into the back of the paddy wagon. On video, an officer can be seen sliding a stool toward the back of the vehicle, using his foot. Wingate spent the night in jail.

    The next day, city prosecutors filed misdemeanor charges of unlawful use of a weapon against Wingate based solely on the arresting officer’s incident report. In that report, the officer stated she was “fearful of being assaulted by him.”

    Wingate agreed to a plea agreement after being told by a public defender “If you sign this stipulated order of continuance, it will all be over, basically.”

    Finally, a rational head entered the story. Two months after the arrest a municipal judge dismissed the case following public outcry that attracted both social media and a private lawyer.

    Maybe It Was All Just a Mistake?

    So maybe Officer Whitlatch just made a mistake. You know, pressure of the moment. Maybe on a bright sunny day she thought she saw an elderly African-American man swing a golf club at her, when no such thing happened. Maybe. But, as prosecutors say when they bring up a suspect’s past history in court, let’s look at the record.

    Officer Whitlatch was one of 126 police officers who sued the government last year, at both the federal and city level, to block the Department of Justice–ordered use of force policies. The SPD is under a federal consent decree and is being forced to address the DOJ’s concerns over racial bias and its finding that Seattle police routinely and unconstitutionally use excessive force. Officer Whitlatch and the others claimed in their suit that the new policy will result in citizens and officers being “killed.” They said the regulations require cops to “under-react to threats of harm until we have no choice but to overreact.”

    Whitlatch’s ex-girlfriend, who claims she spoke up because both she and her father were police officers, claims Whitlatch made racist comments about black people she’d encountered while on patrol and, in the spring of 2005, stole marijuana from police evidence that the couple then smoked together.

    About one month after she arrested Wingate for his golf club, Officer Whitlatch took to Facebook to share some thoughts. While protests raged in Ferguson, Missouri over the police shooting death of African-American Michael Brown, Whitlatch wrote she was tired of “black peoples paranoia” and wrote of “chronic black racism that far exceeds any white racism in this country.”

    The Next Steps

    The next part is as predictable as day following night.

    — Officer Whitlatch remains employed by the police department, albeit on desk duty. Whitlatch was not disciplined. She received counseling from her supervisor, a course of action that the department believes to be “an appropriate resolution.”

    — The Seattle Police Department insists racial bias played no role in the incident.

    — Wingate is suing the city for $750,000 claiming violations of his civil rights. Should he prevail, the taxpayers will foot the bill for the settlement.




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  • Movie Review: “Braddock America”

    February 14, 2015 // 9 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: #99Percent, Economy

    braddock-america

    If I’d made a documentary film about the scars left on America through industrialization, instead of writing Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent about it, what I would have likely ended up with is “Braddock, America.”

    History

    “Braddock, America” is a feature length documentary now in limited release set in Braddock, Pennsylvania, a former steel town now left to literally rust away to hell. Like so, so many other towns in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and throughout the Midwest, Braddock began life in the 19th century as just a place along a mighty river, surrounded by coal. Then Andrew Carnegie built a state-of-the-art steel mill. George Westinghouse followed suit and constructed his first plant in a valley adjacent to the Monongahela River. For the decades that followed, the Monongahela valley was the industrial pulse of a growing America. Most of the steel that made the United States the world’s leading industrial nation, steel for train tracks, cars, the girders of the then world’s tallest skyscrapers, was made in places like Braddock.

    Workers were granted some share of the profits, protected by the strong unions they had fought for. There was once a rough kind of social contract: work hard for the mill, and in return you’d make enough to raise a family, have health care, retire on a decent pension. The system was not perfect, but it fueled the greatest economic boom and consumer society known.

    Then, during the late 1970s and into the 1980s, everything changed. Steel was imported, manufacturing across the U.S. declined, and the unions were broken. Soon enough, the mills went away, leaving the people. The Rust Belt lost a manufacturing empire but never found a new role. Braddock is a place that capitalism discarded, a victim of America’s apartheid of dollars.

    A Well-Made Documentary

    “Braddock, America” is a well-made documentary that weaves together the past (the film begins with archive footage of the glory days), the present, and pokes at an uncertain future that haunts the whole town. There is no narrator or off-screen voice; the people left in Braddock (90 percent of the population has escaped over the years since the mills shut down) tell their stories alongside images of the near-ghost town in which they live. It is a gentle, touching portrait of good people trying to pick up the pieces, after their livelihoods were taken away by larger processes they do not even now fully understand. They display a sad stubbornness, and you watch the film both admiring them and wanting to shout at them to get out.

    One scene shows a city official walking down a deserted street designating empty homes for demolition. Another one shows kids playing in a deserted school building. The town can no longer support a grocery store. A worker looks back at the mill, and calls what he and his father did there “sacramentel.” Town officials discuss their hope that additional money will come from the state to help them demolish more derelict buildings. An outside job/career coach’s presentation falls apart when none of the people in the room have any previous work experience to cite; one asks if his labor in prison counts. Abandoned homes can be bought for $3000, unless they have already been stripped by thieves of their aluminum siding and copper wiring, in which case they are worthless.

    The image above, from the film, tells the rest of the story.

    A Few Issues

    The film suffers from a few things. Persons being interviewed are not identified, leading to some confusion. The historical clips are used in many places as filler, and disrupt the flow of the film. The film lacks a clear narrative arc; people talk– and they are interesting– and then the film ends. A touching scene in a bar where local musicians play the song “American Pie” is cut short. One key historical event discussed, a violent labor strike, appears to have taken place in nearby Homestead and not in Braddock.



    Hope is Not a Strategy

    The people of Braddock still express hope, or perhaps are left only with hope, as the only strategy for a way out. But like nearly every town in the Rust Belt that has tried to dig itself out, the optimism often seems misplaced and misguided over time. “Things got broken here,” says a two-year old ad for Levi’s also filmed in the town, “maybe on purpose, so we could get to work.” That did not happen. A New York Times video features Braddock’s then-mayor explaining how the town will “rise from the ashes.” He said that in 2009, and it did not happen. By the time this film was shot in 2012, that mayor was already gone himself.

    The filmmakers have created a sensitive memoir to a place and time that once described America to the world, and, with some irony, now, ironically, again describes America to the world.

    You can see trailer for “Braddock, America” online.




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  • Man Held 20 Hours for Asking to File TSA Complaint

    February 13, 2015 // 10 Comments

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

    vanderklok_600


    Here’s a flash in the dark peek at justice in America, all in the name of keeping us safe from terrorism by using the tools of law enforcement to terrorize us.

    If that’s not the case, then why is Charles Kieser still employed by the TSA?



    The Terrorist

    Random American Citizen Roger Vanderklok (aka “Josef K.“) had the misfortune of going through TSA Supervisor Charles Kieser’s security-screening area. Vanderklok, 57, pictured with his wife, is a Philadelphia architect who runs half-marathons. He flies around the country for weekend races.

    The TSA said it was concerned about the gear in his carry-on bag, and pulled him out of line. The items of concern turned out to be only a running watch and some Power Bars, wrapped in a small PVC pipe for protection against crushing. Nonetheless, for the next 30 minutes, screeners checked and rechecked the bag. They found nothing dangerous. Vanderklok protested that he was no threat, and that the items were of no danger to anyone, and insisted on making a complaint.

    Electronics and “organic mass” can be used to make bombs, TSA Supervisor Charles Kieser said in response to Vanderlok’s complaint. “The passenger made a bomb threat to me,” Kieser testified later according to a court transcript. “He said ‘I’ll bring a bomb through here any day that I want… and you’ll never find it.'”

    The Stormtroopers

    Kieser did not evacuate the area or follow TSA protocol to contact the FBI, as required in the face of a bomb threat. Instead, he just summoned the Philadelphia Police. Vanderklok was taken to an airport holding cell, and his personal belongings, including his phone, were confiscated while police “investigated” him. Vanderklok was detained for three hours in the holding cell, missing his plane. He was not questioned. Instead, after waiting the three hours, he was handcuffed, taken to a downtown police station and placed in another cell. He says that no one, not the police officers at the airport nor the detectives downtown, told him why he was there. He didn’t find out until he was arraigned at 2 a.m. that he was being charged with “threatening the placement of a bomb” and making “terroristic threats.” Despite all that threat stuff, he was released on bail. His wife, worried about not hearing from her husband, was never notified of his arrest until Vanderklok was allowed to phone her for bail money.

    The Trial

    When Vanderklok finally had his case brought to court, the charges were quickly dismissed. A review of airport surveillance videos showed that TSA Supervisor Kieser simply made everything up. Vanderklok made no threats. The security video shows him standing calmly with his arms in front of him holding a laptop. Prosecutors called no witnesses against Vanderklok except TSA Supervisor Kieser.

    As you may have guessed, Vanderklok has now filed a civil suit against the TSA, the Philadelphia Police Department and the Department of Homeland Security, alleging that he was willfully deprived of his liberty, and his Fifth Amendment rights were violated, by the false statements made against him. Kieser remains employed by the TSA. No charges have been filed against him for what appears to have been outright perjury in his court testimony.

    Homeland Security has made no public comment, citing the pending lawsuit. Taxpayers will of course be on the hook for any settlement coming out of the lawsuit.

    BONUS: Taxpayers, on behalf of Philadelphia Airport TSA, recently paid out a $25,000 settlement over detaining a college student for possessing Arabic language flashcards.




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  • The Seduction of Brian Williams: Embedded with the Military

    February 11, 2015 // 27 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Iraq, Military, PRT Life

    DSCN1081


    Brian Williams was seduced.

    He is a liar of course, someone who did not tell the truth no matter the reason or excuse, a bad trait for a journalist. Williams lied about being RPG’ed in a helicopter over Iraq; he did not see any variant of what you can see in the photo above. And that’s not a hard thing to “misremember.”

    But if there is any reason to forgive Williams, it was that he was seduced by both his own conflation of his sad little life as a talking head and the “brave troops,” and, more clearly, by the process of embedding with the military. I know. I saw it.



    Journalists into Liars

    What is it about the military that turns many normally thoughtful journalists into liars? A reporter who would otherwise make it through the day sober spends a little time with some unit of the U.S. military and promptly loses himself in ever more dramatic language about bravery and sacrifice, stolen in equal parts from Thucydides, Henry V, and Sergeant Rock comics.

    I’m neither a soldier nor a journalist. I was a diplomat who spent 12 months as a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) leader, embedded with the military in Iraq, and let me tell you that nobody laughed harder at the turgid prose reporters used to describe their lives than the soldiers themselves. They knew they were trading hours of boredom for maybe minutes of craziness that only in retrospect seemed “exciting,” as opposed to scary, confusing, and chaotic. That said, the laziest private knew from growing up watching TV exactly what flavor to feed a visiting reporter.

    In trying to figure out why journalists and assorted militarized intellectuals from inside the Beltway lose it around the military, I remembered a long afternoon spent with a gaggle of “fellows” from a prominent national security think tank who had flown into Iraq. These scholars wrote serious articles and books that important people read; they appeared on important Sunday morning talk shows; and they served as consultants to even more important people who made decisions about the Iraq War and assumedly other conflicts to come.

    One of them had been on the staff of a general whose name he dropped more often than Jesus’s at a Southern Baptist A.A. meeting. He was a real live neocon. A quick Google search showed he had strongly supported going to war in Iraq, wrote apology pieces after no one could find any weapons of mass destruction there (“It was still the right thing to do”), and was back to check out just how well democracy was working out for a paper he was writing to further justify the war. He liked military high-tech, wielded words like “awesome,” “superb,” and “extraordinary” (pronounced EXTRA-ordinary) without irony to describe tanks and guns, and said in reference to the Israeli Army, “They give me a hard-on.”


    Fearing the Media vs. Using the Media

    Such figures are not alone. Nerds, academics, and journalists have had trouble finding ways to talk, write, or think about the military in a reasonably objective way. A minority of them have spun off into the dark side, focused on the My Lai, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon-style psycho killers. But most spin in the other direction, portraying our men and women in uniform as regularly, daily, hourly saving Private Ryan, stepping once more into the breach, and sacking out each night knowing they are abed with brothers.

    I sort of did it, too. As a State Department Foreign Service Officer embedded with the military in Iraq, I walked in… er, deployed, unprepared. I had never served in the military and had rarely fired a weapon (and never at anything bigger than a beer can on a rock ledge). The last time I punched someone was in ninth grade. Yet over the course of a year, I found myself living and working with the 82nd Airborne, followed by the 10th Mountain Division, and finally the 3rd Infantry Division, three of the most can-do units in the Army. It was… seductive.

    The military raised a lot of eyebrows in my part of the world early in the Iraq invasion with their policy of embedding journalists with front-line troops. Other than preserving OpSec (Operational Security for those of you who have never had The Experience) and not giving away positions and plans to the bad guys, journalists were free to see and report on anything. No restrictions, no holding back.

    So, in 2003, we diplomats sat back and smugly speculated that the military didn’t mean it, that they’d stage-manage what embedded journalists would see and who they would be allowed to speak to. After all, if someone screwed up and the reporter saw the real thing, it would end up in disaster, as in fact happened when Rolling Stone’s Michael Hastings got Afghan War commander Stanley McCrystal axed as a “runaway general.”

    We were, however, dead wrong. As everyone now agrees, journalists saw what they saw and talked to whomever they chose and the military facilitated the process. Other than McCrystal (who was redeemed by the same president who fired him), can anyone name another military person whacked by reporting?

    I’m waiting.



    Embed in Action

    I saw it myself in Iraq. General Ray Odierno, then commander of all troops in Iraq, would routinely arrive at some desert dump where I happened to be, reporters in tow. I saw for myself that they would be free to speak about anything to anyone on that Forward Operating Base (which, in acronym-mad Iraq, we all just called a FOB, rhymes with “cob”). The only exception would be me: State had a long-standing policy that on-the-record interviews with its officials had to be pre-approved by the Embassy or often by the Washington Mothership itself.

    Getting such an approval before a typical reporter’s deadline ran out was invariably near impossible, which assumedly was the whole point of the system. In fact, the rules got even tougher over the course of my year in the desert. When I arrived, the SOP (standard operating procedure) allowed Provincial Reconstruction Team leaders to talk to foreign media without preapproval (on the assumption that no one in Washington read their pieces in other languages anyway and thus no one in the field could get into trouble). This was soon rescinded countrywide and preapproval was required even for these media interactions.

    Detouring around me, the reporters would ask soldiers their opinions on the war, the Army, or even controversial policies. The reporters would sit through the briefings the general received, listening in as he asked questions. They were exposed to classified material, and trusted not to reveal it in print. They would go out on patrols led by 24-year-old lieutenants, where life-and-death decisions were often made, and were free to report on whatever they saw. It always amazed me — like that scene in The Wizard of Oz where everything suddenly changes from black and white into color.


    Fear Not: The Force Is With You

    But the military wasn’t worried. Why? Because its officials knew perfectly well that for reporters the process was — not to mince words — seductive. The world, it turns out, is divided into two groups, those who served in the military and those who didn’t. For the rare journalists with service time, this would be homecoming, a chance to relive their youth filtered through memory. For the others, like me, embedding with the military felt like being invited in — no, welcomed — for the first time by the cool kids.

    You arrive and, of course, you feel awkward, out of place. Everyone has a uniform on and you’re wearing something inappropriate you bought at L.L. Bean. You don’t know how to wear your body-armor vest and helmet, which means that someone has to show you how to dress yourself. When was the last time that happened? Instead of making fun of you, though, the soldier is cool with it and just helps.

    Then, you start out not knowing what the hell anyone is saying, because they throw around terms like FOB and DFAC and POS and LT and BLUF and say Hoo-ah, but sooner or later someone begins to explain them to you one by one, and after a while you start to feel pretty cool saying them yourself and better yet, repeating them to people at home in emails and, if you’re a journalist, during live reports. (“Sorry Wolf, that’s an insider military term. Let me explain it to our viewers…”)

    You go out with the soldiers and suddenly you’re riding in some kind of armored, motorized monster truck. You’re the only one without a weapon and so they have to protect you. Instead of making fun of you and looking at you as if you were dressed as a Naughty Schoolgirl, they’re cool with it. Bored at only having one another to talk to, fellow soldiers who eat the exact same food, watch the exact same TV, and sleep, pee and work together every day for a year, the troops see you as quite interesting. You can’t believe it, but they really do want to know what you know, where you’ve been, and what you’ve seen — and you want to tell them.

    Even though you may be only a few years older than many of them, you feel fatherly. For women, it works similarly, but with the added bonus that, no matter what you look like, you’re treated as the most beautiful female they’ve seen in the last six months — and it’s probably true.

    The same way one year in a dog’s life equals seven human years, every day spent in a war zone is the equivalent of a month relationship-wise. You quickly grow close to the military people you’re with, and though you may never see any of them again after next week, you bond with them.

    You arrived a stranger and a geek. Now, you eat their food, watch their TV, and sleep, pee, and work together every day. These are your friends, at least for the time you’re together, and you’re never going to betray them. Under those circumstances, it’s harder than hell to say anything bad about the organization whose lowest ranking member just gave up his sleeping bag without prompting because you were too green and dumb to bring one with you.



    Why It Matters

    So, take my word for it, it’s really, really hard to write about the military objectively, even if you try. That’s not to say that all journalists are shills; it’s just a warning for you to take care when you’re hanging out with, or reading, our warrior-pundits.

    It is also to say that journalists who embed and do write objective pieces are to be read, revered and respected.

    And yet having some perspective on the military and what it does matters as we threaten to slip into yet more multigenerational wars without purpose, watch the further militarization of foreign affairs, and devote ever more of our national budget to the military. War lovers and war pornographers can’t offer us an objective look at a world in which more and more foreigners only run into Americans when they are wearing green and carrying weapons.

    I respect my military colleagues, at least the ones who took it all seriously enough to deserve that respect, and would not speak ill of them. Some do indeed make enormous sacrifices, including of their own lives, even if for reasons that are ambiguous at best to a majority of Americans. But in order to understand these men and women and the tasks they are set to, we need journalists who are willing to type with both hands, not just pass on their own wet dreams to a gullible public.

    Civilian control of our military is a cornerstone of our republic, and we the people need to base our decisions on something better than Sergeant Rock comic rewrites.



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  • Oh, It’s Gonna Be a Long Couple of Years

    February 10, 2015 // 16 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Democracy

    What stands out for you, young voter? Is it the sense of dynastic ascension? The air of entitlement? The We Will Rock You handclaps near the end? The tired trope of the beautiful blond woman hidden beneath the black motorcycle helmet? The fact that the whole thing looks like a pickup truck commercial? Or the cheesy glass ceiling thing?

    Please, take a moment and share your thoughts below as we all stand with Hillary.

    Jesus would want that.




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  • U.S. Dumps Massive Load, of Weapons and Ammunition, in Lebanon

    February 9, 2015 // 12 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Iran, Iraq, Syria

    howitzer


    The U.S. ambassador to Lebanon announced a new shipment of weapons and ammunition have arrived in Beirut, the latest American assistance to Lebanon’s army as it fights ISIS along its border with Syria. The Ambassador said the equipment includes more than 70 M198 howitzers and over 26 million rounds of ammunition and artillery “of all shapes and sizes, including heavy artillery.”

    “We are very proud of this top-of-the-line equipment. This is the best that there is in the marketplace. It’s what our soldiers use,” the Ambassador continued. “I know that in a matter of days it’s going to be what your brave soldiers are using in the battle to defeat terrorism and extremism.”

    Hale told reporters that Lebanon has become the fifth-largest recipient of U.S. foreign military assistance. He added that weapons worth more than $100 million were given to Lebanon last year and over a $1 billion worth in the last eight years. In November, France and Saudi Arabia signed an agreement to provide the Lebanese army with $3 billion worth of weapons paid for by Riyadh.

    So How’s that Working Out for You?

    And so, one must ask the snarky question “So how’s that working out for you?”

    The current U.S. war “against ISIS,” (aka Iraq War 3.0) has spread around like spilled paint into Syria, Iraq and threatens Turkey. It has drawn into its sucking vortex Lebanon, Jordan, Iran (a very happy participant as every victory against ISIS is a double win for Tehran), Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, Britain, France, Canada and bits and pieces overt and covert of other nations.

    In Iraq, the U.S. war has solidified Shia control of the government in general, and reestablished the Shia militias as the government’s bully boys and the vanguard of ethnic cleansing even now underway. The war midwifed an independent Kurdish nation-state in every sense but name; that toothpaste is never going back into the tube. The need to play nice with Iran inside Iraq has weakened the U.S. in nuclear negotiations. Syria’s Assad, a year and a half ago the man in America’s crosshairs for crimes against humanity, is now allowed to sit comfortably in power in Damascus, his name barely even mentioned by the White House.

    America at War!

    The move to overt combat by U.S. forces in Iraq is one incident away, assuming you don’t count defensive operations, getting mortared, and flying ground attack helicopters as “combat.” Fun prediction: some incident will indeed occur, maybe a hostage rescue scenario, right about the time the Kurds/Iraq Forces run into trouble this spring retaking Mosul from ISIS. Cynical? Remember the current round of U.S. intervention in Iraq began with a rescue mission for the Yazidi people.

    So in the shadow of all that, what possible harm could come out of sending another 26 million rounds of ammunition into Lebanon?



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  • Quotable Quotes for $100, Alex…

    February 7, 2015 // 12 Comments

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




    Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
    (How serious people’s faces have become.)
    Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
    everyone going home so lost in thought?


    Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
    And some who have just returned from the border say
    there are no barbarians any longer.

    And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
    They were, those people, a kind of solution.

    C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems.

    We must remember that the progressive debasement of international law and comity has reached such a stage that all the concepts of internal sovereignty, respect for international boundaries, and even of a formal state of war have well-nigh disappeared from the book of rules. [The situation is] now rapidly approaching comparison with the lawless era of the Thirty Years’ War.

    –Bernard Fall, Two Vietnams.


    Looking at the world as a whole, the drift for many decades has been not towards anarchy but towards the reimposition of slavery. We may be heading not for general breakdown but for an epoch as horribly stable as the slave empires of antiquity. James Burnham’s theory has been much discussed, but few people have yet considered its ideological implications — that is, the kind of world-view, the kind of beliefs, and the social structure that would probably prevail in a state which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of “cold war” with its neighbors.

    George Orwell, You and the Atomic Bomb

    The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side.

    George Orwell, Notes on Nationalism



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  • Supreme Court Rules in Favor of TSA Whistleblower Robert MacLean

    February 6, 2015 // 9 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy

    Robert MacLean


    Whistleblower laws exist because government officials do not always act in the nation’s best interests.

    The Obama administration, in its war on whistleblowers, just lost a major battle. Major in its venue — the Supreme Court — and major in its implications for future whistleblower cases.

    The Court’s decision in Department of Homeland Security v. Robert MacLean curtails the government’s manipulation of pseudo-classified information to punish whistleblowers, and strengthens the Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA).

    The Facts

    In July 2003, TSA alerted all marshals of a possible hijacking plot. Soon after, TSA sent an unclassified, open-air text message to marshals’ cell phones canceling several months of missions to save on hotel costs. Fearing such cancellations in the midst of a hijacking alert created a danger to the flying public, veteran Air Marshal Robert MacLean tried to get TSA to change its decision.

    After hitting a dead end, MacLean spoke anonymously to MSNBC, who published a critical story. Only 24 hours later, and after 11 members of Congress voiced concern, TSA reversed itself, putting marshals back on the flights. A year later, MacLean appeared on TV in disguise to criticize agency policies he felt made it easier for passengers to recognize undercover marshals. The TSA recognized MacLean’s voice and discovered he had also released the unclassified 2003 text message. He was fired in April 2006.

    MacLean discovered that months after firing him, TSA had retroactively classified as “security sensitive information” (SSI) the unclassified text message he had leaked. SSI is a designation created by TSA via administrative memo, and had no basis in law. TSA decided nonetheless that leaking a retroactively SSI-classified document was cause enough to fire a federal worker. MacLean fought back.

    In 2013, after a long series of legal wrangles, a United States Court of Appeals decided that MacLean was entitled to his old marshal job back under the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989. The act generally limits its protections to “disclosures not specifically prohibited by law.” The court said SSI information was not really “classified” at all, and thus MacLean’s disclosure was not a violation of law.

    The Department of Justice challenged the decision in front of the Supreme Court. The Supremes agreed on January 21 with the lower court’s decision, ruling in favor of MacLean and against the government.


    Significance of the Decision

    The Court made clear TSA’s self-created classification, SSI, did not have the power of law. MacLean’s disclosure of SSI material thus did not violate any actual laws making disclosure of properly classified material a crime. There were no grounds to have fired him.

    While by law the U.S. government recognizes only three basic levels of classification (confidential, secret, top secret), since 9/11 government agencies on their own have created pseudo categories of secrecy like SSI, hybrids that casually seek to incorporate the full weight of formal law. There are currently 107 designations just for “sensitive” information alone, none of which receive any review outside of the agency that created them. Allowing any part of the government to declare this or that classified under their own rules means everything can be classified, and every statement by every official potentially actionable, with no external oversight or redress possible.

    The Court also shot down government claims that a law allowing TSA to “prescribe regulations” means the agency can otherwise control disclosures with the force of law. The statute, the Court said, “does not [itself] prohibit anything; instead, it authorizes” the TSA to make choices. No one prohibited MacLean from disclosing an at-the-time unclassified text, nor would it be reasonable to assume something unclassified couldn’t be disclosed.

    The Court did agree with TSA that actions such as MacLean’s can have legitimate national security repercussions. Dealing with that issue “must be addressed by Congress or the President, rather than by this Court,” and, by extension, not by TSA acting on its own.



    Regulation is Not Law

    And as if the point was not clear enough, the Supreme Court stated “interpreting the word ‘law’ to include rules and regulations could defeat the purpose of the whistleblower statute. That interpretation would allow an agency to insulate itself… simply by promulgating a regulation that ‘specifically prohibited’ all whistleblowing.”

    The Supreme Court’s decision answers a key question regarding the scope of exemptions to federal whistleblower protection law. In a blow to the self-proclaimed “most transparent administration ever,” the Court ruled against the use of pseudo-classification as a tool to hide from the public embarrassing or even criminal information. Had the Court held otherwise, no act of whistleblowing could be considered protected. All the government would have had to do to stop an act by a conscientious employee would be to retroactively slap a self-made category of secrecy on whatever was disclosed, and wash its hands of the miscreant.

    Attorney Tom Devine,of the Government Accountability Project, was part of the team that represented MacLean. “This victory,” Devine said, “means that the cornerstone of whistleblower rights has survived — the supremacy of statutory rights passed by Congress over agency secrecy rules. If Mr. MacLean had lost, agencies could cancel those rights through internal regulations, and the Whistleblower Protection Act would have been an unenforceable honor system. In the aftermath, the WPA is alive, well and stronger than ever.”


    What About that Retroactive Classification?

    Also a part of MacLean’s firing from TSA was the issue of the agency retroactively marking the information he was punished for leaking as SSI, some time after it was sent out to all air marshals in an unclassified open text. The Court let stand this government power to retroactively classify information.

    According to MacLean attorney Tom Devine, retroactively pseudo-classifying information as SSI was not an issue in MacLean’s appeal, and should not inhibit all whistleblowing. Following MacLean’s firing, Executive Order 13556 in 2010 made clear categories such as SSI alone does not affect disclosure laws such as the Whistleblower Protection Act. In addition, the “anti-gag” provision of the later Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act already outlawed liability for disclosures involving “unmarked but classified” information. That law’s definitions require information to be specifically designated as classified, not just to deserve secret status.


    Whither MacLean?

    That’s the bigger picture. On a more personal level, what’s next for MacLean?

    “I’m a sheepdog, I fight until I’m unconscious or dead,” said MacLean. “The public paid me considerably more than most federal employees. I had the power to arrest people. I was extensively trained and gave an oath that I would risk my life engaging in firefights inside crowded missiles.”

    “I want to resume serving in law enforcement,” said MacLean. “If my country wants me back serving as an air marshal, I will serve to the best of my ability and with honor.”



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  • Defining Post-Constitutional America

    February 5, 2015 // 6 Comments

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

    diary

    As regular readers of this blog know, a central theme of mine is Post-Constitutional America, the third great era of our history.

    The Way It Was

    In the first era, the colonial years, a unitary executive, the King of England, ruled without checks and balances, allowing no freedom of speech, due process, or privacy when it came to protecting his power.

    In the second, the principles of the Enlightenment and an armed rebellion were used to push back the king’s abuses. The result was a new country and a new constitution with a Bill of Rights expressly meant to check the government’s power. As imperfect as all that was, it represented a concept of moving toward the better. Those ideas — enshrined in the Bill of Rights — are disarmingly concise. Think of them as the haiku of a genuine people’s government.


    The Way It Is

    Now, we are wading into the ever-deeper waters of a third era, a time when that government is abandoning the basic ideas that saw our nation through centuries of challenges far more daunting than terrorism.

    America has entered its third great era: the post-constitutional one. Here we have only the rights the government allows us to have. Think of it as a variable totalitarian system. Free speech is not outlawed, but can be restricted at will — a punk cop Tasers a legitimate protester, the Federal government slams a prominent journalist away. Privacy exists, but only as the government doles it out, often as a reward for not being a troublemaker, while retaining the “right” to pull it away. The Stasi and 1984‘s Big Brother sought total control over every aspect of peoples’ lives; today’s power is used as needed, though the mechanisms of broad application exist and grow.

    In a review of the new book Guantánamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, writer Mark Danner gets it. Here’s what he said:



    Not by Any Recognizable Rules

    On or about Sept. 11, 2001, American character changed. What Americans had proudly flaunted as “our highest values” were now judged to be luxuries that in a new time of peril the country could ill afford. Justice, and its cardinal principle of innocent until proven guilty, became a risk, its indulgence a weakness. Asked recently about an innocent man who had been tortured to death in an American “black site” in Afghanistan, former Vice President Dick Cheney did not hesitate. “I’m more concerned,” he said, “with bad guys who got out and released than I am with a few that, in fact, were innocent.” In this new era in which all would be sacrificed to protect the country, torture and even murder of the innocent must be counted simply “collateral damage.”

    At its root is a maddening ambiguity born of a system governed not by any recognizable rules of evidence or due process but by suspicion, paranoia and violence.


    That sums it up for me about as well as anything else I’ve been allowed by the government to read.




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  • ISIS are Barbarians for Burning That Pilot Alive, But…

    February 4, 2015 // 7 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria

    Kim Phuc story





    The picture above comes from a U.S. napalm strike on a village in Vietnam.










    This image is from a U.S. white phosphorus strike on Fallujah, Iraq.




    This image is from the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima.



    Wrongs don’t make rights, and one horror does not excuse or justify another. But do be careful slinging the term barbarian around, or decrying the murder of defenseless innocents too freely, lest it come back and bite you.



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  • Freedumb Update: Texas Lawmaker Says Muslims Should Pledge Allegiance to U.S.

    February 3, 2015 // 14 Comments

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

    molly



    …And then there are those days that challenge even a First Amendment/Free Speech absolutist like me.

    Freedom Fighter and uneducated state legislator Molly White (could her last name be any more appropriate?), pictured, couldn’t be in Austin, Texas to celebrate Texas Muslim Capitol Day. But she left instructions (on her Facebook page!) for the staff in her Capitol office on how to handle Muslim visitors, including asking them to declare allegiance to the United States:



    “I did leave an Israeli flag on the reception desk in my office with instructions to staff to ask representatives from the Muslim community to renounce Islamic terrorist groups and publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws,” she posted on Facebook. “We will see how long they stay in my office.”

    Texas Muslim Capitol Day

    Texas Muslim Capitol Day, which began in 2003, is organized by the Texas chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and brings members of Muslim communities in Houston, Dallas and other areas of the state to the Capitol to learn about the political process and meet state lawmakers. It is unclear how many risk their lives to actually attend.

    Oh, wait, we know: about 100 Muslims, mostly children brought on a school trip, showed up. Though as we know Representative Molly White didn’t drop by to hiss at the kids, they were met by 25 alleged adults outside the Capitol holding signs saying “Radical Islam is the New Nazi” and “Go Home and Take Obama With You.”

    As a small group of Muslim group held a press conference on the steps of the Capitol, one of the protesters grabbed the microphone and shouted “Islam will never dominate the United States and by the grace of God, it will never dominate Texas.” As the Muslims sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” protesters yelled “Islam is a lie!” and “No Sharia here!”

    Neither the Texas Governor nor the Lieutenant Governor had any comment on the matter.

    Good Golly Miss Molly!

    But not Molly White. She doubled-down with a follow-up Facebook post: “I do not apologize for my comments. If you love America, obey our laws and condemn Islamic terrorism, then I embrace you as a fellow American. If not, then I do not.” She later released a third statement that did not appear intentionally ironic, saying she welcomes “all of my constituents who would like to come and visit our office in the Texas State Capitol.”

    Molly’s recent statements are at least consistent with her record of hate. She had previously explained “Remember, in the Koran, it is OK to lie for the purpose of advancing Islam. Texans must never allow fringe groups of people to come here so that they can advance their own culture instead of becoming an American and assimilating into the American way of life. That, I can assure is not the intent of most Muslims who move to America.”

    As this article goes online, Texas unfortunately remains part of the United States. And yes, yes, comments people, I know parts of Austin are cool and have great music and chill bars.



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  • U.S. Says Details of Aid to Afghan Army Now a Secret, from Americans at Least

    February 2, 2015 // 6 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Military

    Operation Enduring Freedom


    The U.S. military decided it will no longer release facts and figures about America’s costly effort to assist Afghan security forces.

    (As this goes online, the military has announced, having been called out, that it is backtracking on parts of the classification)



    Information that has been made public for the past 12 years is now classified. The fact that the information has generally made the military (and the State Department, who helps spend the money) look like fools may have something to do with the decision.

    The move marks an about-face for the Pentagon, which for the past years has more or less bragged about the $65 billion program to build up the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), and the Afghan Police. The data now being withheld as classified from the American public is how taxpayers’ money has been spent and the state of the troubled forces. Presumably the Afghan side already knows.

    “The decision leaves the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) unable to publicly report on most of the taxpayer-funded efforts to build, train, equip and sustain the ANSF,” said John Sopko, the Special Inspector General.

    But What About the Troops?

    The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Campbell, defended the change, saying the information could prove helpful to Taliban insurgents and needed to be kept secret. “With lives literally on the line, I am sure you can join me in recognizing that we must be careful to avoid providing sensitive information to those that threaten our forces and Afghan forces, particularly information that can be used by such opposing forces to sharpen their attacks,” Campbell wrote.

    The now-classified data also hides the results of the $107.5 billion U.S. reconstruction program that, adjusted for inflation, has surpassed the price tag of the Marshall Plan. For example, the classified data includes the total amount of U.S. funding for Afghan forces for the current year, details of contracts for literacy training and an assessment of anti-corruption initiatives. It remains unclear how such information could endanger lives or aid the Taliban. Also, Afghan officials do not consider the information secret and have discussed it with media.

    The State Department was also not forthcoming about its aid projects when contacted by the inspector general’s office. Despite a legal obligation for federal government agencies to provide requested information to the inspector general, “the State Department did not answer any of SIGAR’s questions on economic and social-development this quarter, and failed to respond to SIGAR’s attempts to follow up.”


    What Information? You Mean, Like This?

    The possibility that the information on ANSF and police readiness might be being withheld simply because it is bad news remains.

    Afghan war blog Sunny in Kabul (which, if you have any interest at all in events in Afghanistan you should be reading) says the military isn’t hiding money, it’s hiding people. Specifically, the lack of Afghan soldiers on the job.

    Sunny in Kabul concludes “Based on the numbers publicly reported last fall, there won’t be an army left to fight the insurgency by the end of 2015. That’s not a metaphor or commentary on their professionalism. I mean there won’t be an army at all.”

    More:

    “The ANSF lost 27 percent of its fighting force to attrition from October 2011 to September 2012. For the same period the previous year, the ANSF lost 30 percent of its personnel due to attrition, which means that 57 percent of the ANA has been lost to attrition over the last two years. It gets worse: if the time period from March 2010 until September 2012 is considered, that number climbs to 72 percent. So nearly three quarters of the ANSF’s total force over the course of 31 months was lost.”

    Basically, despite extraordinary sums of money being spent to train and equip the ANSF, they are quitting, deserting, getting killed or running away.



    About That Other Stuff Being Hidden

    Despite the very clear case that all this newly-classified information is designed to hide people, not money, a compelling argument can be made that the point is to hide people AND money.

    For just a few examples, pick from this list:

    – A failed $7.3 million police headquarters;

    $700 million spent on sending Afghan jewelers on lavish “gem training” junkets to India, Paris, and Milan;

    $300 million annually for police salaries with no audits to assure the funds are going to active police personnel;

    — A five-year-old State Department effort to upgrade Afghanistan’s largest prison has been halted with only half the contracted work performed. Some $18 million was wasted on a project that will never be finished and will never serve any need.

    — For unclear reasons, the U.S. Air Force destroyed $468 million of aircraft purchased for the Afghan military by America’s taxpayers, and sold off the scrapped metal for all of $32,000.

    — The U.S. spent $34 million on a “Regional Command and Control Facility” that will never be used. The Marines this week forever abandoned/withdrew from the base that houses that facility.

    — The U.S. spent another $771.8 million on aircraft the Afghans cannot operate or maintain.

    — Some 285 buildings, including barracks, medical clinics and even fire stations built by the Army are lined with substandard spray insulation so prone to ignition that they don’t meet international building codes.

    — A USAID program designed to promote stability in Afghanistan spent its entire $47 million budget on conferences and none on grants to accomplish its aim.

    And much, much more!



    Not that anyone likely cares anymore, but all this classification seems to have as its primary goal preventing American taxpayers from drawing informed conclusions as to how their money has been spent. Whatever.



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  • Congrats America! One Out of Five of Your Kids Needs Food Stamps

    January 30, 2015 // 11 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: #99Percent, Economy, Minimum Wage, Post-Constitution America



    Data released by the Census Bureau Wednesday showing a staggering 16 million children in the U.S., about one out of five kids under the age of 18, received food stamp assistance in 2014.

    Overall, more than 46.5 million Americans were on food stamps last year, according to the Department of Agriculture. Food stamps are officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP.



    More and More Hungry Kids in America

    The census numbers show while one percent of Americans wallow in obscene, record-setting amounts of wealth, large swaths of the country remain in real trouble. In 2014 more American kids relied on food stamps than at any time since the 2008 economic crash. In raw, hungry mouth numbers, nine million children received food stamps in 2007 compared to 16 million now, and 26 million Americans of all ages received assistance compared to the 46.5 million now. It’s a new personal best, a new record and thus a new low for America.

    These statistics come from the 2014 Current Population Survey’s Annual Social and Economic Supplement, which has collected statistics on families and living arrangements for more than 60 years.


    Congress: Parents are Lazy

    “The spike in food stamp spending has caught the attention of Congress, and House Republicans tried to cut the program by around $4 billion a year in 2013,” the Associated Press reports. “In an eventual compromise, Congress agreed to cuts of around $800 million a year. The food stamp program will be under scrutiny in the new Republican Congress.”

    But really, lazy is what lazy does. Why shouldn’t we cut public assistance and force people into the job market?


    So Cut the Damn Handouts

    At some point in this kind of discussion, someone will drop the nuclear option: cut federal and state benefits and do away with most public assistance. That’ll motivate parents to find jobs or watch their kids starve. Why should tax dollars be used to give food to people who won’t work for it? “If you’re able-bodied, you should be willing to work,” former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said discussing food stamp cuts.

    The problem with such statements is 73 percent of those enrolled in the country’s major public benefits programs are, in fact, from working families — just in jobs whose paychecks don’t cover life’s basic necessities. McDonald’s workers alone receive $1.2 billion in federal assistance per year. It’s not complicated. Workers in the minimum-wage economy often need them simply to survive.



    Mother’s Day

    In Ohio, where I did some of the research for my book Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent, the state pays out benefits on the first of each month. Pay Day, Food Day, Mother’s Day, people call it. SNAP is distributed in the form of an Electronic Bank Transfer card, or EBT, which, recipients will tell you, stands for “Eat Better Tonight.” EBT-friendly stores open early and stay open late on the first of the month because most people are pretty hungry come the Day.

    A single person with nothing to her name in the lower 48 states would qualify for no more than $189 a month in SNAP. If she works, her net monthly income is multiplied by .3, and the result is subtracted from the maximum allotment. Less than fifty bucks a week for food isn’t exactly luxury fare.

    Sure, she can skip a meal if she needs to, and she likely does. However, she may have kids; almost two-thirds of SNAP children live in single-parent households. Twenty percent or more of the child population in 37 states lived in “food insecure households” in 2011, with New Mexico (30.6 percent) and the District of Columbia (30 percent) topping the list. And it’s not just kids. Households with disabled people account for 16 percent of SNAP benefits, while nine percent go to households with senior citizens.



    What’s for Dinner?

    So, to recap. In a time when some 20 percent of our own children need help just to be fed, Congress wants to cut further the thing that stands between those kids and malnutrition. Our system is trending toward asking kids (and the disabled, and the elderly) to go to hell if they’re hungry. Many are already there.

    Yep, that’s us today in America.

    BONUS! A 2013 report by the United Nations Children’s Fund, on the well-being of children in 35 developed nations, shows the United States ranks 34th of the 35 countries surveyed, above only Romania and below virtually all of Europe plus Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. We love could care about our kids!



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  • Dems: Hillary Willing to Testify on Benghazi; Here’s What to Ask Her

    January 29, 2015 // 10 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Libya



    Hillary Clinton has agreed to testify before a House committee investigating the terrorist attacks in Benghazi ahead of her expected 2016 presidential run.



    Clinton Says Yes

    Representative Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the committee, told reporters Clinton was ready, after he reached out to Clinton at the request of committee Chairman Trey Gowdy.

    Gowdy reiterated on Tuesday that he would like to hear from Clinton but said the panel needed additional documents from the State Department before he would ask her to appear. The State Department has sent the Benghazi panel more than 40,000 documents — including 15,000 never previously sent to Congress — but Gowdy and House Republicans have dozens of standing requests State hasn’t filled.



    Clinton Previously Said No

    Clinton says she won’t “be a part of a political slugfest on the backs of dead Americans” over the 2012 Benghazi attacks,” though she devotes a full chapter to the incident in her book Hard Choices, from which the quotes below are drawn.


    The Questions

    It is very, very difficult to discuss Benghazi and Clinton without almost immediately dipping deep into partisan politics, and no doubt any hearings she will testify at will be ugly and deeply partisan.

    That said, there are important questions about what Clinton’s handling of Benghazi that are relative to her desire to be president. Here are some of them.



    1) Where was Clinton?

    The Benghazi attack unfolded from about 4pm in the afternoon until very late at night, Washington time. Clinton said she was first told of the incident as it began. She has refused to be specific about her whereabouts and actions that night. Where was Clinton between 4pm and say midnight? The State Department Operations Center was on the phone live with officials in Benghazi, Tripoli or both locations and may have been monitoring live TV pictures fed to them from a drone. Was Clinton in the State Department Operations Center? If not, why not? When did she leave the State Department? Why did she leave? Did she go to the White House Ops Center, who no doubt was monitoring the situation? If not, why not?

    Senator Charles Schumer was called to the White House, from 5:30 p.m. to midnight, as the Benghazi attack unfolded. Clinton would be an unlikely source to explain Schumer’s presence, but certainly should be asked to explain her own non-presence.

    For example, the CBS timeline for the attack states that 4 a.m. Washington time Obama was told of Ambassador Stevens’ death. Where was Clinton at that time? If she was asleep, at home or elsewhere, why did she chose that over staying at the State Department?

    Clinton has refused to explain where she was the night of the Benghazi attack. CNN asked her, and here is her response:

    QUESTION: … could you tell us a little bit about what you were doing when that attack actually happened? I know Charlene Lamb, who as the State Department official, was mentioning that she back here in Washington was monitoring electronically from that post what was happening in real time. Could you tell us what you were doing? Were you watching? Were you talking with the President? Any details about that, please.

    SECRETARY CLINTON: … I think that it is very important to recognize that we have an investigation going on… So that’s what an investigative process is designed to do: to try to sort through all of the information, some of it contradictory and conflicting… So I’m going to be, as I have been from the very beginning, cooperating fully with the investigations that are ongoing, because nobody wants to know more about what happened and why than I do. And I think I’ll leave it at that.

    Why It Matters: A Commander-in-Chief is responsible for lives and decisions. She has to be present and ready to make the “hard choices” in real time. If Clinton was elsewhere and not directly monitoring Benghazi in real-time (as opposed to getting periodic “briefings” aside some other event), how will she act as president in a similar crisis?

    2) About That Anti-Muslim Video

    In her book Hard Choices Clinton states about Benghazi:

    There were scores of attackers that night, almost certainly with differing motives. It is inaccurate to state that every single one of them was influenced by this hateful video. It is equally inaccurate to state that none of them were. Both assertions defy not only the evidence but logic as well.

    What evidence can Clinton present that any Benghazi attackers were directly motivated by the video so offensive to Muslims? The attacks appear to have been well-coordinated and goal-oriented, not the faceless mobs content to tear down the American flag as seen in Cairo. Some were certainly angry about the video, but was it truly a “motivation?”

    For example, at 6:07 p.m. Washington time an alert from the State Department Operations Center stated the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli reported the Islamic military group “Ansar al-Sharia Claims Responsibility for Benghazi Attack”… on Facebook and Twitter and has called for an attack on Embassy Tripoli. It did not appear that the offensive video was cited.

    The UK’s Independent noted the Consulate attackers made off with documents listing names of Libyans who are working with Americans, and documents related to oil contracts.

    Why It Matters: If you cite evidence, put up or shut up. The president must speak precisely, both to avoid misunderstandings and to preserve her credibility.


    3) What is Responsibility?

    Clinton writes:

    As Secretary I was the one ultimately responsible for my people’s safety, and I never felt that responsibility more deeply than I did that day.

    Define “responsibility.” Many definitions imply some sort of relationship between being responsible, making decisions and accepting consequences. What decisions did Clinton make as Secretary of State vis-vis security in Benghazi? If delegated, to whom? What controls, management tools or other means did she employ to assure those delegates acted out her intentions?

    Why It Matters: As president, Clinton will need to delegate almost everything. If she is unable to manage that, simply saying she takes “responsibility” while shucking off consequences will undermine her leadership.


    4) More About Responsibility

    In Hard Choices, Clinton writes about the messages from Benghazi before the attack requesting more security:

    The cables were addressed to her as a ‘procedural quirk’ given her position, but didn’t actually land on her desk. “That’s not how it works. It shouldn’t. And it didn’t.”

    Fair enough. Obviously the Secretary cannot read even a fraction of what pours into the State Department. So, who were the highest level people to see those cables? What were their instructions on which issues to elevate to the Secretary and which to deal with themselves? Clearly the need for more security at Benghazi was not addressed. Following Benghazi, did Clinton initiate any internal review, leading to changes? Details are important here.

    Following Benghazi, no one in the State Department lost his/her job. No one was fired. Several people were placed on administrative leave, a kind of purgatory, until media attention focused elsewhere. All were eventually reinstated. The one person who claimed to have resigned actually just changed job titles, “resigning” from one to take on another.

    At the time, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said “the discipline is a lie and all that has happened is the shuffling of the deck chairs. That will in no way change [the] systemic failures of management and leadership in the State Department.”

    Why It Matters: God alone knows how much paper, how many memos and reports, arrive at the White House daily. The president must have staff and a system that filter the right things up and down. The country needs to have confidence that President Clinton will be able to handle that to prevent bad decisions that may lead to more tragedy. And when things go wrong, the president must be willing to shed ineffectual people and replace them with better ones.



    5) Leading

    Clinton writes of her non-appearance on television, with Susan Rice taking the lead:

    [People] fixate on the question of why I didn’t go on TV that morning, as if appearing on a talk show is the equivalent of jury duty, where one has to have a compelling reason to get out of it. I don’t see appearing on Sunday-morning television as any more of a responsibility than appearing on late-night TV. Only in Washington is the definition of talking to Americans confined to 9 A.M. on Sunday mornings.

    At the time, Susan Rice was America’s ambassador to the UN, what many saw as an unusual choice for a spokesperson for such a State Department-specific tragedy with little UN touchpoint.

    Clinton was Secretary of State, the leader of the State Department, which had just had one of its consulates overrun, and two of its employees killed, one an ambassador. Clinton admits she held “responsibility” for this. Why wouldn’t she be the person to speak of this to the American people? Indeed, it was Clinton, not Susan Rice, in the foreground of the serious, patriotic photos taken later at the Dover Air Force base when the remains of the dead were returned to the U.S. in their flag-draped coffins.

    Clinton went on to miss numerous opportunities to speak of her role regarding Benghazi.

    Why It Matters: The buck stops here, said president Harry Truman. The president needs to be the one who speaks to America, explains things that happened to Americans, the one who shows by example her role, her compassion, for those whom she sent into harm’s way. The president, to lead, can’t duck that.



    6) Information and Disinformation

    Clinton writes in her book:

    [There is a] regrettable amount of misinformation, speculation, and flat-out deceit by some in politics and the media, but new information from a number of reputable sources continues to expand our understanding of these events.

    Can Clinton be specific about what new information she is referring to, and from what sources? Can she explain how she determined these sources are reputable as opposed to those she characterizes as “flat-out deceit”?

    One Democratic talking point opposing additional investigation into Benghazi is that the event has been dissected fully and we know all there is to know, that a new hearing in Congress is simply partisan politics. But if there is new information, as Clinton says, it seems more investigation would be helpful.

    Why It Matters: A president’s word choice is very important. Precision is important and establishes credibility.


    7) Accountability

    Clinton writes that the Accountability Review Board (ARB), State’s after-action process following any tragedy abroad as significant as two employees being killed by terrorists, did not interview her for their report, by their own choice. She does not know why they did not call on her. The report was bland and singled out no one for discipline or sanction despite the deaths and the decisions (by someone) not to increase security as personnel on the ground demanded.

    Given the central role the Secretary of State and her office, delegates and staffers played in Benghazi before, during and after the crisis, how could this possibly be true? Assuming that the ARB truly found no reason whatsoever to speak to the head of an organization about arguably the most significant event of her term as head of that organization, why didn’t Clinton seek them out? Why didn’t she prepare a written statement, ask to add in her recollections? Get her role on record? Make sure history was recorded.

    The Accountability Review Board personnel were hand-selected by Clinton.

    And as John Kerry said (about Edward Snowden) “patriots don’t run away.”

    Why It Matters: Not participating in such a review process, and then dismissing such non-participation simply as “they didn’t ask,” even if true, raises significant credibility questions about the validity of the ARB and the leader who did not participate. Credibility to her own staff, as well as to the American people, is a critical thing for a president.

    If either lose faith in her, she cannot be effective. Leaders lead without excuses.


    Something Important

    OK, let’s get this out of the way. It is impossible to divorce an attempt at serious, dispassionate discourse about Benghazi from the political side promoted by Republicans and Democrats. And yes, of course, it is aimed at Hillary 2016.

    But Hillary 2016 is a big deal. If the election were held today, she’d likely be the next president. So maybe, albeit with some of the inevitable political mud slung alongside, we should pay attention to how she acted, if she failed to act, and whether she enjoyed some sort of cover-up/soft-sell over what really happened in Benghazi.

    To paraphrase Mrs. Clinton’s own political rhetoric as directed at then-candidate Obama, we need to know how she’ll act when that tragic 3 a.m. phone call comes through. While past performance is no guarantee of future success or failure, it is how the smart money should bet.

    What kind of president would Hillary Clinton be? Let’s ask some real questions, and hold out for real answers.




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    Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

  • Muslim Woman Sues Police For Forcing Her To Remove Hijab

    January 28, 2015 // 3 Comments

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

    kazan

    The Dearborn, Michigan area is home to one of the largest Muslim populations in the United States, so this can’t be blamed on some small-town cops ignorant of the law. Of course, since that “law” is actually the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantee of freedom of religion, even that is not much of an excuse.

    So we’re left with the “What were they thinking?” defense.

    A Muslim woman who was forced to remove her hijab by police in Michigan claims her religious rights were violated. She filed a civil rights lawsuit demanding the policy change.


    Today’s American Traffic Stops

    Malak Kazan, 27-years-old, pictured, is suing the police department and city of Dearborn Heights, a suburb of Detroit, after officers refused her request to keep her headscarf on while taking booking photos.

    Kazan was stopped for a traffic violation and arrested after the cops found her license had been suspended for outstanding traffic tickets. Fair enough. At the police station she was told to remove her headscarf. When she said that would violate her religious beliefs, the cops said there were no exceptions. A supervisor said the same thing. Kazan says she then requested a female officer take the picture, also denied. Her lawsuit says she was threatened with further detention if she didn’t comply. Kazan reluctantly removed her hijab and was photographed under protest.

    The lawsuit demands the police department change its policy to allow headgear worn for religious purposes.

    The Fake Excuse

    Dearborn Heights Police Chief Lee Gavin said his department requires individuals to remove head coverings, as they can “contain concealable items that could pose a threat or chance of injury to the cops or to themselves.” He said procedure is to have women remove hijabs in the presence of a female officer, but there aren’t always enough female officers at the station.

    The Chief did not explain why any such search was not conducted prior to the booking photo, at which time Kazan had already been in police custody for some time. Any threatening objects concealed could have long come into play at that point. Typically suspects are searched at the time of arrest, and immediately upon arriving at the police station.

    Dearborn Out of Sync

    After various legal actions, several cities, including all of Orange County, California and Washington, DC, have changed their policies to allow hijabs and other religious headgear. Generally, so does TSA. An officer may request removal of religious headgear only when a traveler is unable to pass metal detection, or after a pat down when a concern has not been resolved.

    Reminder: It will be the taxpayers on the hook for the costs of litigation, plus the inevitable settlement offered to Kazan.



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    Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

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