Fear is good for our current way of life, allowing your opinion and votes to be manipulated, and to make sure you’ll go along with any terrible things the government wishes to do to you (surveillance, wars, detentions, quarantines, shredding of the bill of rights…)
So, in honor of Halloween, our scariest holiday other than election day, here is the Official Government-Approved List of Fears:
1) ISIS (they’re everywhere!)
2) Ebola (it’s everywhere!)
3) Al Qaeda (still around)
4) People who tell you not to be afraid (they’re working for the terrorists)
5) Something (as in “If you see SOMETHING, say something…”)
6) For Kids: Your hippie parents and Occupy-creepy older siblings (be sure and report them to the nearest friendly Homeland Security personnel, they’ll give you tasty candies!)
7) That Leatherface guy with the chainsaw and Twisty clown from the TV (they may be ISIS)
8) The thing under your bed (could be an ISIS thing, and you’re not imagining it, we believe you)
9) The Boogie-man as you choose to believe in him/her as a higher power (he has ebola and is a Muslim)
10) People who are not like you based on skin color, preferences, religion, politics and everything else all the time everywhere forever, just to be on the safe side!
Citizens remember, fear is your only protection against the forces of whatever, evil, so just stay afraid and you’ll be safe!
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Iraq’s Sunnis won’t fight ISIS for the U.S. says NIQASH, a non-profit media organization operating out of Berlin. Without Sunni support, America’s war in Iraq cannot succeed. Here’s why.
According to NIQASH, a source at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad said there have been secret negotiations between various Sunni Muslim armed factions, via Arab and Iraqi Kurdish intermediaries, for the past three months. At the request of U.S. diplomats and military personnel, Shia officials from the Iraqi government have also been meeting with the leaders of these groups in Erbil, Kurdistan and Amman, Jordan.
At the same time General John Allen, the Obama’s appointed coordinator of U.S. efforts in Iraq, has been trying to contact the Sunni tribal leaders he worked with in Anbar during the previous war’s “Awakening.” “But it was surprising,” a NIQASH source reported, “Most of General Allen’s former allies refused to cooperate with us. And some of them are actually now living outside of Iraq because of the Iraqi government’s policies.”
Oops. With some irony, America’s failure to secure the 2006 Awakening caused those Sunnis sympathetic to America’s aims to flee Shia persecution. Those “good guys” are thus not available in 2014 to help out America in the current war.
ISIS and the Sunnis
When ISIS first took control of Sunni areas in western Iraq, anger towards the Shia government in Baghdad caused many to see them as liberators from the Iraqi army. The army, along with paramilitary police from the Interior Ministry, had engaged in a multi-year campaign of beating, imprisoning and arresting Sunnis, to the point where many felt that Baghdad was occupying, not governing, the Sunni majority areas. For the Sunnis and ISIS, the Baghdad government was a common enemy, and a marriage of convenience formed.
Recent events in Baghdad do little to assuage Sunni fears. A recent report suggests the new Iraqi Prime Minister may nominate a Shia Badr Militia leader as Interior Minister. Since the Shias took control of Iraq following the American invasion of 2003, the Interior Ministry, which controls the police and the prisons, has been a prime tool of repression and punishment.
Still, cracks in the ISIS-Sunni relationship have started to form. Many of the Sunni groups, especially those led by former Baathists, are largely secular in nature, seeing their Sunni ties more as broadly cultural than strictly religious. ISIS’ requests to pledge allegiance to its cause, coupled with demands to implement Sharia law, have created friction. Some internecine fighting has taken place. The U.S. has sought to exploit these issues to break the indigenous Sunnis away from ISIS, and ultimately to turn the Sunnis into American proxy boots on the ground as was done with the Kurds.
America’s problem is that most Sunnis are fearful about cooperating via America with the Shia government in Baghdad. They fear history will repeat itself and the Americans and the Shia government will betray them, exactly as they betrayed them only a few years ago when the Awakening movement collapsed. Quite a pickle.
The Sunnis seem to be choosing a middle ground, one which does not serve America’s interests.
According to a 1920s Revolution Brigades (Sunni militia) leader, various militias came to the decision “not to support the international coalition against ISIS. They also decided not to cooperate with ISIS either. If the [Iraqi] army or the [Shia] militias attack [Sunni] areas they control though, they will fight both groups.”
“We are against the acts of the hardline Islamic State. And we are also against bombed cars exploding randomly in Baghdad,” Abu Samir al-Jumaili, one of the Sunni Mujahideen Army’s leaders in the Anbar province, told NIQASH. “However we are also opposed to the government’s sectarian policies against Sunnis… In 2006 we cooperated with the government to expel al Qaeda from Sunni cities but the government did not keep its end of the bargain. They chased our leaders and arrested us… The ISIS group are terrorists but so are the Shia militias.”
History is a Witch
There is no way America can succeed in its goals in Iraq– repel ISIS and keep the country together– without the active participation of the Sunnis. It is very unlikely that that will happen. American strategy rests on the assumption that the Sunnis can be bribed and coerced into breaking with ISIS, no matter the shape of things in Baghdad. That’s hard to imagine. As with al Qaeda in Iraq during the American occupation years, the Islamic State is Sunni muscle against a Shia government that, left to its own devices, would continue to marginalize, if not simply slaughter, them. Starting in 2006, U.S. officials did indeed bribe and coerce some Sunni tribal leaders into accepting arms and payments in return for fighting insurgent outfits, including al-Qaeda. That deal, then called the Anbar Awakening, came with assurances that the United States would always stand by them.
America didn’t stand. Instead, it turned the program over to the Shia government and headed for the door marked exit. The Shias promptly reneged on the deal.
Once bitten, twice shy, so why, only a few years later, would the Sunnis go for what seems to be essentially the same bad deal? It appears they will not, and that by itself suggests the current Iraq war will end much the same as the previous one. It is foolish for America to expect otherwise.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
An audit shows the surveillance program is more extensive than widely known and that oversight protecting Americans is lax: 21 percent of the covers examined were approved without even the minimal required written authorization and 13 percent that did have authorization “were not adequately justified.” The Post Office has no standing review procedures.
Mail Cover is Nothing New, But…
The Post Office helping spy on Americans per se is nothing new; its program to record your mail’s “metadata,” who sent what to whom, complete with addresses and date/time stamps, has existed in the form of an overt program detailed in federal law called “mail cover” since well before the term metadata was even invented. As mail cover does not involve reading the mail’s contents, only information on the outside of the envelope or package that could be read by anyone seeing the item, it is not considered by precedent a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unwarranted searches.
Official versions of mail cover are acknowledged as far back as World War I. But like many such things– wiretapping, border detentions, searches and seizures, old Executive Orders, signing statements– its former existence, restrained in theory and often in practice in Constitutional America, is largely irrelevant now to all but historians. What has happened post-9/11 to mail covers is what has happened to America.
How Did Mail Cover Use to Work?
A mail cover has to be requested by a state or federal law enforcement agency. Following internal approval, postal workers intercept the target’s mail before delivery, and record the names, return addresses and any other information from the outside of letters and packages before they are delivered to a person’s home. The Post Office does not notify the recipient or the sender that the cover is in place.
Prior to 9/11, the process had an old-timey feel to it, almost quaint. In a 2006 leaked instruction manual, agencies seeking a mail cover were told to first fill out a paper form, the External Law Enforcement Request for Mail Cover Template. Law enforcement was reminded to include the Zip +4 for all subjects. An electronic version of the form was supposedly available, but you had to telephone the Post Office personally to get one.
The template required a paper cover letter requesting the action on agency letterhead, signed by the requesting agent’s supervisor. The form would then need to be put into an envelope marked Restricted Information, with that sealed inside a second envelope, and then snail-mailed via the regular first class, unclassified, mail system, to the appropriate section of the Post Office. Information obtained by the Post Office would be sent back on a Form 2009.
Implementation was largely also a paper process. One subject learned his mail was being covered after he received a handwritten card, apparently delivered by mistake, with instructions for postal workers to pay special attention to the letters and packages sent to his home. “Show all mail to supv for copying prior to going out on the street,” read the card. The word “confidential” was highlighted in green. Another subject was told he was being covered by his regular mail delivery person.
The standards for law enforcement to request a mail cover were low; “reasonable grounds that demonstrate the information from the mail cover is necessary to develop evidence in a criminal investigation.” Covers were not to be used as the first step in an investigation (on an honor system) and could not include attorney-client mail if the attorney of record is known (on an honor system.)
The key point is that absent a specific request to monitor a specific person, the mail was simply delivered as it had been since the time of the pony express.
Mail Isolation Control and Tracking (MICT)
Sometime after the anthrax attacks of 2001, when the mail was used to send the poison letters, and its public acknowledgement is 2013, the Post Office created the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking (MICT) system.
Under the new MICT system, an imaging tool is used to photograph of the exterior of every piece of paper mail processed in the United States. The images are kept, the Post Office says, for 30 days, allowing them to retroactively track mail at the request of law enforcement. There are no stated limits on how long law enforcement may store any information they receive from the Post Office. In addition, mail covers can be extended indefinitely, meaning a flow of data-in for years can be done if desired. MICT is the companion program to the NSA’s efforts: collect everything, store it, and then dig in retroactively. As has been said of the NSA , why look for the needle now, when you can collect the whole haystack? Collect it all, tag it, store it and later, whatever it is you want, search for it.
Like the metadata obtained from cell phone records, mail covers are “a treasure trove of information,” James Wedick, a former FBI agent, told the New York Times. “Looking at just the outside of letters and other mail, I can see who you bank with, who you communicate with, all kinds of useful information that gives investigators leads that they can then follow up on with a subpoena.”
As for those subpoenas, and any warrants thought to be needed to actually open and read mail of interest, George W. Bush asserted in a 2007 signing statement that the federal government had the authority to open mail without warrants in emergencies or in foreign intelligence cases. Others have argued such authority has existed since 1978 as part of the original FISA legislation.
It should be blindingly obvious how the mail cover system, particularly with the broad, digital sweep of MICT available, stands ready to be abused (examples of past abuses are the alternate, secret, mail cover program [HTLINGUAL] run for twenty some years by the CIA, and the FBI’s COUNTERINTELPRO work against Vietnam War opponents.) The current mail cover system operates under no judicial or outside oversight. It relies on numerous assertions, an honor system if you will, by law enforcement that the Post Office cannot verify. The system touches the mail of every American.
How many Americans have their mail subjected to this scrutiny? In 2013 alone, the Postal Office processed about 50,000 mail covers.
Abuse? A sample examined by the Postal Service Office of Inspector General (OIG) “found some controls lacking.” For example, 21 percent of the covers examined were approved without even the minimal required written authorization and 13 percent that did have paper requests “were not adequately justified.” The audit also found hundreds of mail covers in active status even though their cover periods had ended. Part of the problem is that the Post Office has no standing review procedures for its own program.
Other than the referenced OIG report, the Post Office refuses to disclose how many requests for mail covers it has received, nor will it break down the requests by local law enforcement versus federal law enforcement, nor will it specify how many requests are related to criminal investigations and how many deal with national security investigations. In fact, the Post Office has provided false information to some of those questions to the media.
On a oddly positive note, the Postal Service Office of Inspector General’s report did find handling of mail cover requests tended to be sloppy and slow, and the case management software ineffective. Such are the things that stand now between Americans and the Post-Constitutional Dark State.
While small in size compared to the global operations of the NSA, the Post Office mail cover program shares many of the same hallmarks. It grew in size, complexity and technology post-9/11 without adequate safeguards built in, and has operated without those safeguards ever since. It is a secret program affecting all Americans, only disclosed by accident, Freedom of Information Act requests and a few journalists willing to look into the government’s actions. The program moved very quickly from targeting a select few Americans to covering every one of us. Like the actions of the NSA against Americans, the mail cover program at the very least rubs rough against the edges of the Fourth Amendment’s guarantees against unlawful searches, relying on legal precedents created in another era while using secrecy to thwart new legal challenges.
There are the “it’s just metadata” faux arguments. Can’t someone look over my shoulder at the Post Office anyway? Big deal. Actually, it is a big deal. What is significant about the many disparate elements of a global surveillance system is not pieces of data in isolation (I got a letter today) but how those small elements can be combined to create a comprehensive picture of someone. Location data from phones + credit card transactions + license plate trackers + text messages sent and received + pharmacy purchases + Facebook posts + mail sent and delivered… well, you get it.
And on perhaps a more personal note, one is left thinking, aw c’mon, now the Post Office too? The Post Office used to be one of the good guys, bringing packages and Christmas cards, creating a kind of a miracle that for about half a buck, a letter with details of Aunt Tillie’s surgery could journey from Ohio to Montana in just a few days. At some level, a lot of Americans were long-suspicious of the NSA, CIA. Sadly, post-9/11, the Post Office now too is just another tool of the surveillance state.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
— U.S. Embassy Baghdad (@USEmbBaghdad) October 18, 2014
A key part of America’s strategy in Iraq is the creation of an “inclusive” government in Baghdad, one that will pull together the Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. This has been a persistent American myth since the 2003 invasion, one that is impossible realize and thus a single point of failure for Obama’s war.
History of the Myth
First, in 2003, as symbol of the democracy the U.S. sought to create in Iraq, then again in 2006 (remember the purple finger photos?) that the war was not actually already lost, and then forever after as the solution to the internecine fighting that America’s Occupation unleashed, the myth has had a long run. As you can see from Embassy Baghdad’s Tweet above, America again imagines it has achieved its interim goal of a balanced government; peace and prosperity is just around the corner.
A big part of the problem is that the United States thinks creating an Iraqi government is like picking players for a sports team. If things don’t work out, try again in next season’s draft. That was the thought behind America’s 180 on former Prime Minister Maliki. In power since 2006 with strong U.S. support, Maliki stayed in office from January to August 2014, even as ISIS had its first successes in Iraq. But as Obama launched the newest Iraq war, Maliki was out and a new player moved up the roster.
But since Haider al-Abadi, the latest prime minister and thus the great inclusivist hope, is a Shia and a former colleague of the once-anointed, now disappointed former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as well as a member of the same political party, little changed at the top. So hopes for “inclusiveness” fell to the choices to lead the key ministries of defense and the interior. Both have been tools of repression against the country’s Sunnis for years.
And now we know the winners of that odd contest.
Anti-Inclusionary Choice for Interior Ministry
A Sunni was chosen to lead Defense, a ministry currently in charge of a decrepit Iraqi Army best known for running away at first contact, leaving behind American-supplied weapons for ISIS to repurpose. Not so much joy in that job for now.
More significant choice is Abadi’s new Interior Minister, Mohammed Ghabban, a little-known Shiite politician with the Badr Organization. You remember the Badr folks, or should, because every Sunni in Iraq does. During the American Occupation, the Badr militia ran the notorious Shiite death squads, after infiltrating the same Interior Ministry it basically now heads to ensure the government would not interfere in their grim work.
Human Rights Watch quoted a doctor in the Health Ministry: “Sunnis are a minority in Baghdad, but they’re the majority in our morgue.”
Back in 2009, a SECRET Wikileaked State Department cable had this to say about the Badr militia’s leader, and the man Ghabban still answers to, Hadi al-Amiri:
Amiri is widely known to have played a leading role in organizing attacks by the Badr Corps militia (the strongest, most disciplined Shia militia at the time and precursor to the current Badr Organization) against Sunnis during the sectarian violence of 2004-2006. Sources indicate that he may have personally ordered attacks on up to 2000 Sunnis. One of his preferred methods of killing allegedly involved using a power drill to pierce the skulls of his adversaries.
Amiri was also previously rejected by Sunnis as a negotiating partner. Again, from the State Department:
Given his role in sectarian violence and prominent position in the dominant Shia coalition, it is understandable that Sunni leaders were hesitant to view him as a viable negotiating partner when he proposed a compromise parliamentary seat distribution after the November 23 Shia-Kurd backed electoral amendment was adopted.
Anti-Inclusionary Rise of the Shia Militias
The elevation of a Badr organization leader to perhaps the most significant cabinet position vis-vis the Sunnis is in line with the broader increasing influence of the Shia militias.
As much out of necessity given the limp Iraqi Army as sectarian politics, the Baghdad government has increasingly called upon Shia militias to defend the city. While they currently seem to be holding off ISIS advances past the already-Sunni controlled territory west of Baghdad Airport, Shia militias have also abducted and killed scores of Sunni civilians in recent months and enjoy total impunity for these crimes, according to Amnesty International. These attacks, as an anti-inclusionary act as can be, are apparently in revenge for Sunni support of ISIS. Scores of unidentified bodies have been discovered across the country handcuffed and with gunshot wounds to the head, deliberate execution-style killings that send a message.
“By granting its blessing to militias who routinely commit such abhorrent abuses, the Iraqi government is sanctioning war crimes and fuelling a dangerous cycle of sectarian violence that is tearing the country apart,” concluded Amnesty.
Two more points about the Badr group: They were responsible for the deaths of many American military personnel during the Occupation and they remain closely allied with Iran. There is no good news with this one.
“To give the Interior Ministry to a direct Iranian proxy is huge,” said one researcher specializing in Shiite groups. “It shows who the Iraqis are throwing their lot in with.”
The inclusionary government America’s strategy for Iraq rests on is an illusion, a governmental fantasy in 2014 as it was 2003-2011. Everyone with eyes– except the U.S. government– can see where this one ends.
Two kinds of people are interested in Laura Pointras’ new documentary, CitizenFour, about Edward Snowden’s early contacts with journalists Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill and herself. Let’s have a review of the film for each group, the Haters and the Everyone Else.
But First, a Quick Recap
Snowden worked deep inside America’s national security state. His last job was as a contract systems administrator for the NSA. Through this job he obtained a massive trove of documents which, when made public, demonstrated to the world U.S. government electronic surveillance and espionage on a scale even its worst critics had not fully described. The documents also validated the information provided by earlier NSA whistleblowers. Snowden left the U.S. for Hong Kong, where he met the journalists above, and where most of CitizenFour was filmed. Following U.S. government efforts to bring Snowden back to the U.S., he left for Moscow, likely enroute to some other place, possibly Ecuador. He instead spent weeks in suspended status at the Moscow Airport before being granted long-term residency.
With few exceptions, pretty much everyone can agree with that basic outline of the Snowden story to date, and CitizenFour does a very good job recounting most of it. It is there, however, where agreement ends. CitizenFour (the title comes from the codename Snowden choose for himself when first contacting filmmaker Pointras) cannot be understood independently from the greater Snowden story, and separate from the strong opinions of Snowden’s decisions.
Review for Real Haters
If you thought traitors like Chelsea Manning have their hate groups, they aren’t jack compared to what those on the right side (oh yes, pun intended) of the house will think of this film. To them, Pointras has created an evil-genius piece of propaganda, with the give-away starting point that she was a huge part of the Snowden story herself, throwing out any hint of objectivity. Her success at humanizing Snowden, portraying him as the amiable geek-nerd-manchild you could have a Lite beer with, is Riefenstahl-level work.
This is a celebrity “authorized biography” with all the integrity those have. Apart from making a traitor look good, they’ll say, Pointras also crudely tells only the tidy parts of the story. Snowden’s believed-espionage relationships with Russia and China are glossed over. Many details of his time in Hong Kong and sneaky flights in and out are absent. Nothing is said about why Snowden won’t return to the U.S. to defend his so-called honorable acts in court like a real man would do. Nothing is said about how the NSA keeps America safe from Americans. Snowden is a starry-eyed savior of the left who’d likely smirk from his cozy Russian lair as America is attacked again.
Review for Everyone Else
CitizenFour is impressive filmmaking. Pointras starts with the problem of telling a story most people already know, in an engaging way, trying to reach a broad audience in many cases polarized as to her subject, and her Subject. She succeeds brilliantly, and if CitizenFour is not awarded the Academy Award for Best Documentary then that award no longer is relevant.
To be fair to other films in award contention, Pointras starts from, and makes the most of, some very significant advantages. She is indeed part of the story (a fact she never hides nor diminishes) and thus enjoys a level of trust and access with her subjects almost unavailable to other documentarians. The viewer is in the room as the journalists with Snowden struggle to understand the story he is trying to tell them, working to interpret the documents he shows them and creating on the fly the most effective way to bring this information to the public. It is heady stuff.
The interplay between Snowden and the journalists is dramatic, but in the sense that it is real human stuff. When Snowden claims he does not care if he is exposed as the whistleblower– he encourages the journalists to name him– they back him off a step, and try to make sure Snowden truly knows the impact such a decision will have on him and people he cares about. Funny things happen, particularly when Snowden realizes he is explaining some technical point to people who are nowhere near his level of expertise (an exchange about password security between Snowden and Greenwald is laugh-out-loud funny.)
Pointras skillfully weaves her story, presenting it sometimes as if it was a thriller (it is), other times as a classic movie brave journalist saga (it is) and often times as a profile of a man everyone thinks they know but does not (it is that too.)
Parts of Snowden’s journey from Hawaii to Moscow are omitted. Most sentient members of the audience will understand they have to be, given the global efforts underway to nab Snowden, and the need to protect the many people who played a role who choose to or need to remain anonymous. None of that is new in a documentary– turn on the evening news and witnesses speak in shadowy profile, while most docs about the CIA or the NSA alter voices and employ false names for the same reasons. Anyone expecting Pointras’ film to be a How to Catch Edward Snowden for Dummies will indeed be disappointed.
Perhaps most powerfully, Pointras’ portrait of Snowden is of a whistleblower for a new generation. He is passionate, but in a laid-back way, confident in his actions such that his passion comes from within, maybe call it a kind of intellectual hipster patriotism. He is political, but in a small “p” way, moving through classic Left and Right into a place where many people feel more comfortable today, with a focus on issues such as privacy and authoritarianism above two sides shouting “Facist!” and “Hippie!” at each other in some news show’s clumsy attempt at their parents’ version of balance. When dealing with the older journalists in that hotel room, Snowden at times sounds like many young people do explaining how the DVR works to moms and dads dully mystified by but stuck being dependent on new technologies.
And there (partisan now, no shame) lies CitizenFour’s most long-lasting contribution. There are millions of young men and women working inside the Dark State, often times with impressive levels of access to information. Like Snowden, they have seen evidence of government wrongdoing, obscenities directed at the Constitution, harm done to ordinary citizens. Almost every one of those people will remain silent, partners to the crimes. But maybe– just maybe– one out of a million will see a role model, an example, that rings true in CitizenFour, and stand to speak.
If it was up to me, I’d have this movie play in every theatre in the Washington DC area 24/7, because s/he is out there.
New York and New Jersey this week instituted mandatory confinement for certain people exposed to ebola. Illinois announced its own mandatory quarantine, and Florida has instituted a home-quarantine version.
Is it legal for a state (or the federal) government to detain and quarantine you against your will for health reasons? Yes. Has this sort of thing been done before? Yes. Will it be effective? No. Is it just a political ploy to garner votes from a panicked public? Oh my yes.
Is it legal for a state (or the federal) government to detain and quarantine you against your will for health reasons?
Yes. The federal government derives its authority for isolation and quarantine from the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. Under the Public Health Service Act, the Secretary of Health and Human Services is authorized to take measures to prevent the entry and spread of communicable diseases.
The authority for carrying out these measures is been delegated to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Under 42 Code of Federal Regulations parts 70 and 71, CDC is authorized to apprehend, detain, and examine people arriving to the United States and traveling between states who are suspected of carrying communicable diseases.
Though the paranoid-a-sphere rediscovers these provisions on a regular basis and makes much of them, the basic idea of the government forcibly quarantining people for the sake of public health goes back into the 19th century.
That said, the power to detain and quarantine often is left to the states, and both New York and New Jersey law provide for it. New York allows the decision to be challenged in a magistrate court; New Jersey does not have a similar law, though technically any form of detention can be broadly challenged under habeas corpus. But good luck with that– the Florida Supreme Court laid down the precedent in saying “The constitutional guarantees of life, liberty and property, of which a person cannot be deprived without due process of law, do not limit the exercise of the police power of the State to preserve the public health so long as that power is reasonably and fairly exercised and not abused.”
Has this sort of thing been done before?
Yes. The Florida precedent case cited above dealt with forced quarantine of a tuberculous patient in 1952.
Just recently in Dallas, Texas, after her boyfriend was diagnosed as the first ebola case in the United States, Louise Troh and her family were asked not to leave their home. When Troh tried to leave anyway, a Dallas judge issued a confinement order, forcing a quarantine on Troh and her family. Police stationed outside of the family’s home enforced the order.
In 2007, a 27-year-old man was forcibly placed in a Phoenix hospital ward reserved for sick prisoners. The man suffered from a deadly strain of tuberculosis known as XDR-TB. Doctors say he is virtually untreatable. He has been forced to live in a hospital cell in complete isolation.
Though never implemented, in 1985 at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, a majority of Americans favored quarantine of patients, with 48 percent approving of identity cards for those who tested HIV-positive, and 15 percent of Americans even supporting tattooing those with AIDS to mark them as “dangerous.”
Further back in America’s history are multiple examples of forced quarantine, including Hawaiian leper colonies, and the isolated TB wards and Ellis Island medical isolations of the 19th century.
The record is not pretty, but the record exists.
Will it be effective for ebola?
No. The New York and New Jersey quarantine laws at present only apply to a) health care workers b) returning from African “hot zone” countries through c) only two airports, JFK and Newark who d) had contact with ebola. That’s a very select group, chosen largely because New York’s sole ebola patient fit that exact profile. Persons such as regular travelers who fit the same profile,or persons who just flew internationally with the profiled individuals, are not included.
In addition, the New York and New Jersey plans seem to rely 100 percent on individuals who fit the profile self-identifying themselves for the mandatory quarantine. Anyone who wished to avoid it, especially a health professional who knew s/he was not an active carrier based on clearly identifiable and well-known symptoms such as a high fever, could just dummy up at the airport. Alternately, s/he could route flights to land somewhere else and take the bus home to Manhattan.
What does happen when a healthcare worker enters this quarantine system? There is only one example in New Jersey so far, and it is not a pretty one. Kaci Hickox, returning from volunteer work in Sierra Leone, was detained against her will for seven hours at Newark Liberty International Airport on Friday before being forcibly transferred to a local hospital, escorted by eight police cars, where she will be held for an unspecified period of time. Hickox did not have a fever when brought to the hospital and has tested negative for ebola, yet is inside the system now and those things do not appear to matter.
Quarantining actually infectious people, who may indeed be a danger to public health is one thing. But like taking off our shoes and other security theatre that followed 9/11, the quarantine plan seems designed more for show than any hint of practicality.
Is it just a political ploy to garner votes from a panicked public?
Oh my yes. All of the state governors who pushed the plan through without the endorsement of the CDC or New York’s mayor are in election battles. The governors of New York, Illinois and Florida are up for reelection in about a week, and New Jersey governor Chris Christie is famously testing the waters for a possible 2016 presidential run. New York’s mayor is not up for reelection for years.
Fear-mongering works; ask any politician who has beaten the drum of “9/11, 9/11, 9/11″ since, well, 9/11. People are scared, mostly based on ignorance fanned by media who themselves seek to profit from fear.
That sort of disease seems more dangerous in the long run than a handful of ebola patients.
Giggling, the Chairperson of the Republican Party could barely contain himself when he learned a major hurricane was headed for the east coast of the United States. “Can anyone tell me if it’ll hit any blue states hard? We can always use some extra help I guess, but with ISIS and ebola, maybe that would be piling on. We live in great times.”
Documents show that the entire Republican midterm strategy is based on creating a perfect storm of fear in the U.S., combining over-reaction and panic over ISIS with growing fears of an apocalyptic ebola epidemic sweeping through the nation’s gun shows. “Friends,” the chair continued, “This could be like the election after Watergate, when the Dems could have run nearly anyone, even a nut job like Jimmy ‘James’ Carter, and won. We just need to tie Obama a little bit more directly to the ebola thing and we are in, control of the Senate.” The chair actually lit a comically large Cuban cigar at that point.
According to leaked documents left at a Chili’s by Edward Snowden while changing planes in Atlanta enroute from Moscow to a vacation villa outside Vladivostok, the initial Republican plan was to convince its base that ISIS operatives were everywhere. “The party must let every voter know that ISIS is dressed as terrifying clowns out there and plans to eat their dogs and behead their fat kids. That will be a money shot for November.”
But as confident as the Republicans were after encouraging Fox, then CNN and then Cartoon Network to run ISIS beheading videos 24/7 as part of the plan, even their senior leaders admit ebola was a surprise gift. “Think about it. Unlike terrorism, which has basically killed no one in the U.S. since 9/11 but still controls our daily lives, ebola is an actual thing. We don’t even have to make this one up. And, and this is the best part of all, it comes from Africa, er, you know, um, from “not white people” which speaks to our Red State voters’ most cherished beliefs. And two boneheaded nurses in Dallas can’t remember enough high school biology to even wash their hands, followed by the CDC– Obama’s CDC– telling one of them it was OK to fly. And then– praise Saint Reagan in heaven– she flew to Cleveland, in Ohio, a major contested state. It writes itself: Obama is trying to kill Ohio. Our guys are already ordering furniture for their new Senate office spaces.”
“More? Obama appoints some guy as ‘Ebola Czar” who has no medical experience. What, was Dr. Oz not taking calls? Yeppers, nothing inspires people to have faith in their leaders like choosing a bureaucrat they never heard of to save their very lives. And that bit about Secretary of State Kerry having to get involved in trying to get Belize to allow our ‘Ebola Cruise Ship’ permission to dock, and then failing? Right again, seeing old Mr. Muppet stumble makes our lives here in the Republican party easier and easier. That stuff screams incompetence. Heck, we should have carpet bombed Belize in retaliation.”
“Travel ban from Africa?” said the chairman. “Yeah, we talk a tough game but we’d be opposed to marshmallows and hot chocolate if the Democrats came out in favor. No, no, no, we don’t want a travel plan. Bring us a bunch of infected Liberians. If say a couple of thousand American get sick with the ebola, 99 percent of healthy America votes for us, fish in a barrel. Maybe we’ll get some redneck to hold a benefit concert or whatever.”
“Am I cynical? I don’t even know the meaning of that word. Fear is our best business tool, and friends, business is good. I’m seeing us ride this wave of paranoia and hysteria all the way!”
The person who shot up the Canadian Parliament had had his passport taken away by the Canadian government, ostensibly to prevent him from traveling to Syria to join ISIS
Can the U.S. government seize the passports of American citizens who it believes may travel abroad to join ISIS or other terror groups? Yep. The process is almost no-cost to the government, extra-judicial, can be made secret and requires a lengthy court process to even try to contest. No passport, no international travel, the ultimate no-fly tool against would-be jihadis. So why hasn’t this process been used more often?
Leaving aside the not-insubstantial questions about their validity, the warnings are ominous.
With some Americans seeking to join ISIS, there are fears that on their return they may commit terror in the U.S. Unlike foreign citizens, these radicalized Americans would sail through immigration checks and be able to easily disappear into a familiar society. The U.S. is seeking to tackle the problem at the supply end, preventing Americans from departing to join ISIS in the first place, as well as from the other side, blocking citizens from returning freely to the United States.
The arrest at O’Hare airport of Mohamed Khan, a 19-year-old U.S. citizen, is one example. Authorities claim the young man headed to the Middle East to join ISIS, and, citing a left-behind note explaining his choice, waited at the airport to arrest Khan on charges of attempting to provide material support for a terrorist organization. The operation involved significant law enforcement resources to stop one teenager based largely on suspicion.
Another Tool in the Box
The United States can simply seize passports from American citizens if “The Secretary of State determines that the applicant’s activities abroad are causing or are likely to cause serious damage to the national security or the foreign policy of the United States.”
The law allows this prospectively, the “or are likely to cause” part of the law, meaning the person needn’t have done anything. The government just needs to think they might.
A Judicial Watch Freedom of Information Act request revealed that prior to Obama ordering him and his 16-year-old son to be killed by a drone in 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton secretly revoked the passport of Anwar al-Awlaki, alleged al Qaeda propagandist and U.S. citizen. The two would not have been able to travel to the United States without handing themselves over to law enforcement. Indeed, a letter to that effect was allegedly sent to some address in Yemen inviting al-Awlaki to visit the American Embassy to discuss the details.
Al-Awlaki isn’t the only person in Yemen to have his U.S. passport seized.
According to information obtained through a U.S. government whistleblower involved directly with U.S.-Yemeni affairs, the American embassy in Sanaa, Yemen seized over one hundred U.S. passports from Yemeni-Americans (some place the number at 500 passports) between 2011 and 2013. Only after several legal battles did the State Department curtail its actions. Though State publicly claims the seizures were an anti-fraud measure, many in the Yemeni community saw them as a pilot program.
A similar case involved the seizure of a Moroccan-American’s passport in Kuwait.
The actions at the American embassy in Yemen may fit into a larger pattern. For example, at the same time in 2011 the U.S. was ramping up its actions against Yemeni-Americans, Australia appeared to be doing much the same thing. “Withholding passports is an important means of preventing Australians from traveling overseas to train, support or participate in terrorism,” an Australian government spokesperson said. “It may also be used to help prevent an Australian already overseas from participating in activities that are prejudicial to the security of Australia or another country.”
How are Passport Seizures Legal?
Restrictions on travel suffered under the British were part of the list of “injuries and usurpations” in the Declaration of Independence. So don’t Americans have a right to travel?
Nope. The precedent was set by infamous ex-CIA officer Philip Agee, who in the 1970′s exposed CIA officers identities. It was in Agee’s case that the Supreme Court coldly affirmed that “The right to hold a passport is subordinate to national security and foreign policy considerations.” A lower court put it even more bluntly: “The Secretary [of State] may preclude potential matches from the international tinderbox.”
The basic premise is that travel abroad (travel within the U.S. is specifically provided for in the Constitution, though the No-Fly list certainly can limit one’s options) is that it is an “aspect” of liberty subject to restraint under due process. In the 1950’s, American Communists were often denied passports if their travel abroad was believed to be in support of their political beliefs, a policy later overturned by the Supreme Court. The Court struggled to balance national security and personal liberty regarding travel through multiple cases, but has never concluded that travel– or having a passport– is a fundamental right.
The whole concept of Americans requiring passports to travel has its roots in national security restrictions. With the exception of roughly the years of the Civil War and World War I, Americans did not need a passport to enter the United States. Americans were first required as a group to hold passports at the start of the Second World War. The travel requirements instituted in the past only during times of national crisis stuck around after WWII through the present day, formalized in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. With echoes of current government actions, what was created as a wartime contingency morphed into a permanent peacetime restriction. The history of passport restrictions is not long, but does resonate into the post-9/11, Post-Constitutional era.
While no right to travel per se exists for Americans, there is a basic assumption, rooted in the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution that Americans have something between an expectation, an entitlement and an implied right to return to the United States from abroad, rooted in the concept of citizenship. The ease with which passports can be seized (or boarding an aircraft denied via the No-Fly list) is not seen in conflict; in al-Awlaki’s case, he would have been welcome to come home, albeit in leg irons en route to federal SuperMax. Time is also an issue. How long the government may make a citizen wait before allowing a return to the U.S. under some specific circumstances is not codified and thus can be used as a de facto seizure or punishment without raising a case publicly.
Why Doesn’t the Government Seize More Passports?
In short, for an American citizen to travel abroad, whether for vacation or jihad, the government’s permission, in the form of a passport, is required. So why then does the government not use such a long-tested authority to deny or seize the passports of those suspected for traveling to join terror groups?
While the real answer is obviously unknowable, several ideas may help explain this. First is that in fact such measures might be taking place. Persons who have not yet applied for a passport may find themselves denied issuance, and applications may have been denied or “in processing” without the applicant knowing the reason. The government is under no obligation to tell the person involved nor the media that national security has been invoked.
More likely however, it is a matter of legal timidity and public relations. Arresting and trying someone for material support for terrorism is something of a set-piece case for post-9/11 law enforcement. There is little legal controversy generated, and almost no danger under present circumstances of any nasty precedent being set. Wide-spread passport seizures could easily create a new chance to bring the issue before the Supreme Court, risky business for a government that much prefers to act as it wishes vis-vis American’s rights.
The other reason for restraint may simply be public relations. The public is familiar and appears supportive of arrests. Law enforcement in these circumstances are the good guys. Passport seizures sound a bit harsh, totalitarian-like, and are technically done under the authority of the Department of State, who does not enjoy the good guy reputation many attribute to the law enforcement people who “keep us safe.” It could be as simple as law enforcement not being willing to work with the State Department for bureaucratic reasons.
Regardless, these are dark seas. In a democracy, the right of citizens to depart and return should not on its face be restricted in the interest of the government. The idea of limiting an American citizen’s travel proactively, on the assumption that she or he will end up fighting with ISIS based on documents or web postings, scrapes at liberty, even if the tools are there and it is legal to use them.
The Bill of Rights was designed to protect the People from their government. That’s quite literally becoming history today as new challenges, now from local law enforcement, chip away at the Fourth Amendment’s protections of privacy. New laws and devices spread spying on Americans to the local level.
A Brief Explanation of Post-Constitutional America
The cornerstone of the Bill of Rights was that the People grant exceptions to those rights to the Government. Absent those specific exceptions, the rest of the stuff was inalienable, not up for grabs, not dependent in any way on Government’s decision to grant or withhold them. Constitutional America was clearly imperfect, but the underlying premise spoke of a striving toward an ideal.
The cornerstone of Post-Constitutional America is just the opposite. The People have what rights the Government chooses to allow them to have, such that privacy is the exception, free speech a variable, torture a tool to be used or withheld as the Government finds appropriate. It is a turning on its head of Constitutional America, back to a time when a tyrant and king (may we call old King George an “evil dictator” to use the preferred language of today?) controlled Americans’ daily lives by decree.
It should be unnecessary to have to argue the critical importance of the Fourth Amendment, but these days it seems necessary. If the First Amendment’s right to speak out publicly was the People’s wall of security, then the Fourth Amendment’s right to privacy was its buttress. Privacy is the right to think without the Government intruding. It is part of being American. If you want to personally give it away for yourself, feel free, but you are required to allow others to exercise it.
9/11 Changed Everything
Under the umbrella of post-9/11 fear, the relationship between the Government and the People of the United States changed. As early NSA whistleblowers Thomas Drake, Bill Binney, Kirk Wiebe and others made clear, within days after the attacks, the vast capability of the NSA was turned 180 degrees away from sites abroad toward a new definition of the People: we were now targets.
Such acts, along with flimsy pieces of faux-legislation such as the Patriot Act, were not only harmful to our privacy by themselves, they also sent clear signals to law enforcement at all levels that new rules applied; after all, if the federal government was spying on Americans in clear contrivance of the Fourth Amendment, then why couldn’t local law enforcement do the same? With such tacit approval, and the redefining of every person in America as a potential terrorist, it all fell into place.
So while the Snowden NSA revelations expose violations of the Fourth Amendment on the largest scale, let’s examine some examples of how those big-scale acts filter down to local levels.
In 2008 the city of Los Angeles passed municipal ordinance 41.49 requiring hotels to gather, hold for at least 90 days and make available upon request a large amount of information on their guests. The information included guests’ credit card number, home address, driver’s license information and vehicle license number. Several dozen other cities, including Atlanta and Seattle, passed similar ordinances.
Ordinarily the police would need to show probable cause, and to seek individual warrants on a person-by-person, case-by-case basis, to gather such information. The L.A. ordinance, however, allows police to simply demand it from a hotel, with no judicial or other oversight. The premise was that the information was the property of the hotel once the guest voluntarily surrendered it in order to stay the night. Personal information transformed into “business records,” L.A. argues, is inherently less “private” than personal information per se.
Similarities to how the NSA collected mountains of phone call data from places like Verizon, claiming it too was simply now part of business records routinely available per the Patriot Act, are noted.
The U.S. Supreme Court, after two opposite rulings through lower courts, has agreed to hear the case after the City of Los Angeles’ petition to do so. L.A. claims “These laws expressly help police investigate crimes such as prostitution and gambling, capture dangerous fugitives and even authorize federal law enforcement to examine these registers, an authorization which can be vital in the immediate aftermath of a homeland terrorist attack.”
In addition to the clear, broad Fourth Amendment violations, opponents cite the reality that information, once gathered, can be disseminated anywhere for any purpose. Data gathered in L.A. for a perhaps legitimate gambling investigation can go on to populate an infinite number of databases indefinitely for an undeterminable range of purposes into the future. It does not go away. It waits to be used.
And all that brings us to Virginia.
Virginia Police Collect and Share Phone Data
Five local police departments in southeastern Virginia have been secretly and automatically sharing telephone data and compiling it into a large database for nearly two years. According to a 2012 memorandum of understanding published for the first time this week by the Center for Investigative Reporting (the database had been kept secret from the public,) the police departments from Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Chesapeake, and Suffolk all participate in something called the “Hampton Roads Telephone Analysis Sharing Network.”
Those police departments “agree to share telephone intelligence information derived from any source,” including subpoenaed telephone call detail records, subpoenaed telephone subscriber information, and seized mobile devices. The telephone intelligence information will be stored in the master Pen-Link telephone database and participating agencies can make inquires of the database by either telephone or e-mail contact with a member.”
Such data transfers, the document goes on to explain, can happen automatically if the agency agrees to have certain software installed on their computer, or via e-mail or DVD. No information is available as to what, if any, data security protocols are in place.
The significance of such data transfer cannot be underplayed. The assumption by the police is that any data gathered legally– for example, under warrant, after a showing of probable cause specific to a case or incident– can then be stored, shared and repurposed forever as the police see fit. The shaky legal premise for this whole system is that once taken in via some sort of legal means (though of course there is no outside control that all of the data was gathered legally), the data becomes akin to common property, and no further justification or judicial oversight needs to be applied to its use, any use, ever, forever.
An even shakier legal premise it that a secret database of any kind can be maintained by the police: Virginia law, The Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act, specifically states “There shall be no personal information system whose existence is secret.”
Not an End in Sight
Local actions have commonalities with the larger actions the NSA has been doing. The use of the collective where the law intended the individual– a single phone call versus redefining every call as a single set of business records– is clear. The manipulation of a legal act, such as collecting information via a warrant and then repurposing it into a general pool of data in Virginia, is also a marker of modern times. The most significant commonality between local actions and federal ones is the broad contempt for civil liberties. And that describes Post-Constitutional America as clearly as anything else.
The examples above are, or likely soon will be, going to be tested in court. Other offenses to the Fourth Amendment have fallen to the People’s side: In 2012, a court ruled law enforcement authorities generally need search warrants when they attach GPS devices to a vehicle. In July 2014, the Supreme Court said that the authorities need warrants to dive into the mobile phones of people they arrest.
At the same time, the proliferation of low-cost surveillance devices, such as license plate scanners and Stingray, continue to raise new questions even as a handful of older ones are resolved. The battle against the tyrant King George continues.
Only last week, when Turkey refused to assist Kurdish fighters in the Syrian city of Kobane, even as those Kurds were losing ground to ISIS fighters, and the U.S. was directing its airstrikes against far-away targets in Iraq, Secretary of State John Kerry said while the U.S. was deeply concerned about the tragedy in Kobane, Kobane did not define the strategy for the coalition with regard to ISIS.
As the U.S. sensed Kobane would fall, it tried then to distance itself from the failure. However, after domestic media and opinion started to criticise what appeared to be a failure of the Obama plan for Iraq and Syria, air resources were suddenly shifted away from Iraq and onto Kobane. ISIS seemed to have pulled back, the Kurds seemed to have moved forward, and the U.S. began hinting at victory.
Part of the U.S. strategy has been to resupply the Kurds from the air, necessary because Turkey will not allow resupply overland across its border. Such supply drops don’t always go right, and ISIS fighters seized at least one cache of weapons airdropped by U.S.-led coalition forces that were meant to supply Kurdish militiamen. The cache of weapons included hand grenades, ammunition and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
On Tuesday, Islamic State loyalists on social media posted sarcastic thank you notes to the United States, including one image that said, “Team USA.”
And So What?
The badly-aimed weapons drop can be seen as more of a small embarrassment than any great strategic loss. True enough, but looking too closely at a single failed airdrop obscures the larger picture.
Though small in scale, the weapons ISIS received from the United States underscore that the group’s most sophisticated arms, and deadliest weapons, come from the U.S. Unless and until America can get control of the weapons it is pushing into battle (it can’t), the reality of Americans and their allies being killed by their own tools of war is not something to ignore.
Destroy Kobane to Save It
“Winning” in Kobane accomplishes nothing really. The city is nearly destroyed, reminding one of the Vietnam war-era remark that it was necessary to destroy the village of Ben Tre to “save it.” Over 200,000 refugees have left the city, with questions about how they can ever return to resume their lives given such devastation. The decision not to intervene by the Turks exposed the fragility of the hastily assembled U.S. coalition, setting up future confrontations among allies with very different goals and agendas for this war.
Meanwhile, as attention and limited resources are tied up in a battle of questionable strategic import, ISIS launched fifteen near-simultaneous attacks on Kurdish forces in northern Iraq on Monday in what Kurdish government officials said was a fierce and renewed push for territory. ISIS also launched attacks against Mosul Dam, a strategic prize, and also renewed its offensive on the Sinjar mountain range in northern Iraq. This is an organization aware of broader goals, and not focused on symbolic “victories.”
So be suspect if at some future date the U.S. declares Kobane a victory, an example of how ISIS can be beat. The city may very well end up as an example from this war, though perhaps not the one the U.S. intends it to be.
Long-time readers of this blog will remember the name Brett McGurk. Embarrassing emails he sent using a U.S. government computer system in Iraq surfaced in 2012, just as he was heading into confirmation hearings to become America’s ambassador to Baghdad. We now learn that the State Department’s efforts to investigate the incident were quashed, in part by some of the same people involved in State’s handling of the post-Benghazi fall out.
The McGurk Story
McGurk worked in Iraq under multiple U.S. ambassadors and through both the Bush and Obama administrations. He was present at nearly every mistake the U.S. made during the years of Occupation. In return for such poor handling of so many delicate issues, McGurk was declared “uniquely qualified” and Obama nominated him as America’s ambassador to Baghdad in 2012.
Unfortunately, around that same time a series of near-obscene emails appeared online, showing a sexual relationship between the then-married-to-someone else McGurk, and a then-married-to-someone else female reporter assigned to Baghdad. The emails suggested a) that official U.S. government communications were being used to arrange nooky encounters; b) that McGurk may have shared sensitive information exclusively with this one reporter as pillow talk; c) that he may have ditched his security detail to engage in his affair and d) rumors circulated that a McGurk sex tape, featuring a different woman, existed.
McGurk withdrew his nomination for ambassador and was promptly appointed by the State Department as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran, a position without the title of ambassador but one with a significant role in policy making. Conveniently, the position was not competed and did not require any confirmation process. McGurk just walked in to it with the thanks of a grateful nation.
Still, senior officials behaving poorly can damage the credibility of a nation, and so State’s Office of Diplomatic Security (DS) was asked to investigate McGurk’s actions. State’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) later stepped in to look at the question of whether or not “undue influence” was applied by senior Clinton officials to that Diplomatic Security investigation so as to allow McGurk to emerge squeaky clean.
It seems we now know what may have happened with that investigation. It was, in the words of CBS News, quashed.
The third DS internal investigation in which OIG found an appearance of undue influence and favoritism involved the unauthorized release in mid-2012 of internal Department communications from 2008 concerning an individual who was nominated in early-2012 to serve as a U.S. Ambassador. (The nominee’s name was withdrawn following the unauthorized release.) DS commenced an internal investigation related to the unauthorized release of the internal communications. The then Chief of Staff and Counselor to the Secretary of State [Cheryl Mills] was alleged to have unduly influenced that investigation.
OIG found no evidence of any undue influence by the Chief of Staff/Counselor. However, OIG did find that the Assistant Secretary of State in charge of DS [Eric Boswell] had delayed for four months, without adequate justification, DS’s interview of the nominee, and that delay brought the investigation to a temporary standstill. OIG concluded that the delay created the appearance of undue influence and favoritism. The case was ultimately closed in July 2013, after the nominee was interviewed and after DS conducted additional investigative work.
Some are More Equal Than Others
Small world: Both Cheryl Mills and Eric Boswell of the McGurk case were deeply involved in State’s post-Benghazi actions.
Now, let’s break down some important parts of the OIG report. First, Diplomatic Security commenced its work by trying to track down the person who released the naughty emails, claiming they were “internal Department communications” even though they dealt with purely personal matters. Never mind what the emails revealed, DS’ first move was to try and hunt down the whistleblower.
While OIG could not find evidence of undue influence per se, they certainly found an “appearance” of such. Finally, we learn that the center of all this, the man seeking a senior position inside State, McGurk, was never even interviewed for four months by Diplomatic Security, and no adequate reason was given for why that delay was allowed to take place. In the short-attention span of Washington and the media, four months might as well be four years.
Where are They Now?
It would be easy to dismiss all this as business as usual in Washington (it is), or sour grapes on my part (a little) or even an I-Told-You-So on my part given the role I played in seeing McGurk’s indiscretions reach a wide audience (guilty).
But this is not just about me, no matter how much that was part of my motivation to write about the topic. It is, at the end of the day, about how our nation’s policies are created, managed an enacted, because the people and systems I’ve written about here do that.
So where are they all now? McGurk, as we know, is deeply involved in America’s new war in Iraq. The reporter who appeared to have slept with her source still works for a major media outlet. Eric Boswell, who quashed the investigation into McGurk, was reassigned and then allowed to retire post-Benghazi. Cheryl Mills remains one of Hillary’s closest advisors and is expected to play a significant role in any Clinton administration.
BONUS: The OIG report cited above was first surfaced by the best State Department blog out there, Diplopundit.
You know the joke? You describe something obviously heading for disaster — a friend crossing Death Valley with next to no gas in his car — and then add, “What could possibly go wrong?”
Such is the Middle East today. The U.S. is again at war there, bombing freely across Iraq and Syria, advising here, droning there, coalition-building in the region to loop in a little more firepower from a collection of recalcitrant allies, and searching desperately for some non-American boots to put on the ground.
Here, then, are seven worst-case scenarios in a part of the world where the worst case has regularly been the best that’s on offer. After all, with all that military power being brought to bear on the planet’s most volatile region, what could possibly go wrong?
1. The Kurds
The lands the Kurds generally consider their own have long been divided among Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. None of those countries wish to give up any territory to an independence-minded ethnic minority, no less find a powerful, oil-fueled Kurdish state on their borders.
In Turkey, the Kurdish-inhabited border area with Iraq has for years been a low-level war zone, with the powerful Turkish military shelling, bombing, and occasionally sending in its army to attack rebels there. In Iran, the Kurdish population is smaller than in Iraq and the border area between the two countries more open for accommodation and trade. (The Iranians, for instance, reportedly refine oil for the Iraqi Kurds, who put it on the black market and also buy natural gas from Iran.) That country has nonetheless shelled the Kurdish border area from time to time.
The Kurds have been fighting for a state of their own since at least 1923. Inside Iraq today, they are in every practical sense a de facto independent state with their own government and military. Since 2003, they have been strong enough to challenge the Shia government in Baghdad far more aggressively than they have. Their desire to do so has been constrained by pressure from Washington to keep Iraq whole. In June, however, their military, the Peshmerga, seized the disputed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk in the wake of the collapse of the Iraqi army in Mosul and other northern cities in the face of the militants of the Islamic State (IS). Lacking any alternative, the Obama administration let the Kurds move in.
The Peshmerga are a big part of the current problem. In a near-desperate need for some semi-competent proxy force, the U.S. and its NATO allies are now arming and training them, serving as their air force in a big way, and backing them as they inch into territory still in dispute with Baghdad as an expedient response to the new “caliphate.” This only means that, in the future, Washington will have to face the problem of how to put the proverbial genie back in the bottle if the Islamic State is ever pushed back or broken.
Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and now under the control of the Islamic State, is the most obvious example. Given the woeful state of the Iraqi army, the Kurds may someday take it. That will not go down well in Baghdad and the result could be massive sectarian violence long after IS is gone. We were given a small-scale preview of what might happen in the town of Hassan Sham. The Kurds took it back last month. In the process, some Shia residents reportedly sided with their enemies, the Sunni militants of IS, rather than support the advancing Peshmerga.
Worst-case scenario: A powerful Kurdistan emerges from the present mess of American policy, fueling another major sectarian war in Iraq that will have the potential to spill across borders. Whether or not Kurdistan is recognized as a country with a U.N. seat, or simply becomes a Taiwan-like state (real in all but name), it will change the power dynamic in the region in ways that could put present problems in the shade. Changing a long-held balance of power always has unintended consequences, especially in the Middle East. Ask George W. Bush about his 2003 invasion of Iraq, which kicked off most of the present mess.
You can’t, of course, talk about the Kurds without discussing Turkey, a country caught in a vise. Its forces have battled for years against a Kurdish separatist movement, personified by the PKK, a group Turkey, NATO, the European Union, and the United States all classify as a terrorist organization. Strife between the Turks and the PKK took 37,000 lives in the 1980s and 1990s before being reduced from a boil to a simmer thanks to European Union diplomacy. The “problem” in Turkey is no small thing — its Kurdish minority, some 15 million people, makes up nearly 20% of the population.
When it comes to taking action in Syria, the Turks exist in a conflicted realm because Washington has anointed the Kurds its boots on the ground. Whatever it may think it’s doing, the U.S. is helping empower the Kurdish minority in Syria, including PKK elements arrayed along the Turkish border, with new weapons and training.
The Turkish ruling party has no particular love for those who run the Islamic State, but its loathing for Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad is such that its leaders have long been willing to assist IS largely by looking the other way. For some time, Turkey has been the obvious point of entry for “foreign fighters” en route to Syria to join IS ranks. Turkey has also served as the exit point for much of the black-market oil — $1.2 to $2 million a day — that IS has used to fund itself. Perhaps in return, the Islamic State released 49 Turkish hostages it was holding, including diplomats without the usual inflammatory beheading videos. In response to U.S. requests to “do something,” Turkey is now issuing fines to oil smugglers, though these have totaled only $5.7 million over the past 15 months, which shows the nature of Turkey’s commitment to the coalition.
The situation in the IS-besieged town of Kobani illustrates the problem. The Turks have refused to intervene to aid the Syrian Kurds. Turkish tanks sit idle on hills overlooking the hand-to-hand combat less than a mile away. Turkish riot police have prevented Turkish Kurds from reaching the town to help. Turkish jets have bombed PKK rebels inside Turkey, near the Iraqi border.
American bombs can slow IS, but can’t recapture parts of a city. Short of destroying Kobani by air to save it, U.S. power is limited without Turkish ground forces.
On the other hand, Washington’s present policy essentially requires Turkey to put aside its national goals to help us achieve ours. We’ve seen how such a scenario has worked out in the past. (Google “Pakistan and the Taliban.”) But with Kobani in the news, the U.S. may yet succeed in pressuring the Turks into limited gestures, such as allowing American warplanes to use Turkish airbases or letting the U.S. train some Syrian rebels on its territory. That will not change the reality that Turkey will ultimately focus on its own goals independent of the many more Kobanis to come.
Worst-case scenario: Chaos in Eastern Turkey’s future, while the sun shines on Assad and the Kurds. An influx of refugees are already taxing the Turks. Present sectarian rumblings inside Turkey could turn white hot, with the Turks finding themselves in open conflict with Kurdish forces as the U.S. sits dumbly on the sidelines watching one ally fight another, an unintended consequence of its Middle Eastern meddling. If the buffer zone comes to pass, throw in the possibility of direct fighting between the U.S. and Assad, with Russian President Vladimir Putin potentially finding an opening to reengage in the area.
Think of Syria as the American war that never should have happened. Despite years of calls for U.S. intervention and some training flirtations with Syrian rebel groups, the Obama administration had managed (just barely) to stay clear of this particular quagmire. In September 2013, President Obama walked right up to the edge of sending bombers and cruise missiles against Assad’s military over the purported use of chemical weapons. He then used an uncooperative Congress and a clever Putin-gambit as an excuse to back down.
This year’s model — ignore Assad, attack IS — evolved over just a few weeks as a limited humanitarian action morphed into a fight to the finish against IS in Iraq and then into bombing Syria itself. As with any magician’s trick, we all watched it happen but still can’t quite figure out quite how the sleight of hand was done.
Syria today is a country in ruins. But somewhere loose in that land are unicorns — creatures often spoken of but never seen — the Obama administration’s much publicized “moderate Syrian rebels.” Who are they? The working definition seems to be something like: people who oppose Assad, won’t fight him for now, but may in the meantime fight the Islamic State, and aren’t too “fundamentalist.” The U.S. plans to throw arms and training at them as soon as it can find some of them, vet them, and transport them to Saudi Arabia. If you are buying stock in the Syrian market, look for anyone labeled “moderate warlord.”
While the U.S. and its coalition attacks IS, some states (or at least wealthy individuals) in that same band of brothers continue to funnel money to the new caliphate to support its self-appointed role as a protector of Sunnis and handy proxy against Shia empowerment in Iraq. Vice President Joe Biden recently called out some of America’s partners on this in what was billed as another of his famous gaffes, requiring apologies all around. If you want to see the best-case scenario for Syria’s future, have a look at Libya, a post-U.S. intervention country in chaos, carved up by militias.
Worst-case scenario: Syria as an ungoverned space, a new haven for terrorists and warring groups fueled by outsiders. (The Pakistani Taliban has already vowed to send fighters to help IS.) Throw in the potential for some group to grab any leftover chemical weapons or SCUD-like surface-to-surface missiles from Assad’s closet, and the potential for death and destruction is unending. It might even spread to Israel.
Israel’s border with Syria, marked by the Golan Heights, has been its quietest frontier since the 1967 war, but that’s now changing. Syrian insurgents of some flavor recently seized border villages and a crossing point in those heights. United Nations peacekeepers, who once patrolled the area, have mostly been evacuated for their own safety. Last month, Israel shot down a Syrian plane that entered its airspace, no doubt a warning to Assad to mind his own business rather than a matter of military necessity.
Assumedly, the Obama administration has been in behind-the-scenes efforts, reminiscent of the 1991 Gulf War when Iraqi SCUDS began raining down on Israeli cities, to keep that country out of the larger fight. It is not 1991, however. Relations between the U.S. and Israel are far more volatile and much testier. Israel is better armed and U.S. constraints on Israeli desires have proven significantly weaker of late.
Worst-case scenario: An Israeli move, either to ensure that the war stays far from its Golan Heights frontier or of a more offensive nature aimed at securing some Syrian territory, could blow the region apart. “It’s like a huge bottle with gas surrounded by candles. You just need to push one candle and everything can blow up in a minute,” said one retired Israeli general. Still, if you think Israel worries about Syria, that’s nothing compared to how its leadership must be fuming over the emergence of Iran as an ever-stronger regional power.
What can go wrong for Iran in the current conflict? While in the Middle East something unexpected can always arise, at present that country looks like the potential big winner in the IS sweepstakes. Will a pro-Iranian Shia government remain in power in Baghdad? You bet. Has Iran been given carte blanche to move ground forces into Iraq? Check. Will the American air force fly bombing runs for Iranian ground troops engaged in combat with IS (in a purely unofficial capacity, of course)? Not a doubt. Might Washington try to edge back a bit from its nuclear tough-guy negotiations? A likelihood. Might the door be left ajar when it comes to an off-the-books easing of economic sanctions if the Americans need something more from Iran in Iraq? Why not?
Worst-case scenario: Someday, there’ll be a statue of Barack Obama in central Tehran, not in Iraq.
Iraq is America’s official “graveyard of empire.” Washington’s “new” plan for that country hinges on the success of a handful of initiatives that already failed when tried between 2003-2011, a time when there were infinitely more resources available to American “nation builders” and so much less in the way of regional chaos, bad as it then was.
The first step in the latest American master plan is the creation of an “inclusive” government in Baghdad, which the U.S. dreams will drive a wedge between a rebellious and dissatisfied Sunni population and the Islamic state. After that has happened, a (re)trained Iraqi army will head back into the field to drive the forces of the new caliphate from the northern parts of the country and retake Mosul.
All of this is unrealistic, if not simply unreal. After all, Washington has already sunk $25 billion dollars into training and equipping that same army, and several billion more on the paramilitary police. The result: little more than IS seizing arsenals of top-notch Americans weaponry once the Iraqi forces fled the country’s northern cities in June.
Now, about that inclusive government. The United States seems to think creating an Iraqi government is like picking players for a fantasy football team. You know, win some, lose some, make a few trades, and if none of that works out, you still have a shot at a new roster and a winning record next year. Since Haider al-Abadi, the latest prime minister and great inclusivist hope, is a Shia and a former colleague of the once-anointed, now disappointed Nouri al-Maliki, as well as a member of the same political party, nothing much has really changed at the top. Really, what could possibly go wrong?
As for the Sunnis, American strategy rests on the assumption that they can be bribed and coerced into breaking with IS, no matter the shape of things in Baghdad. That’s hard to imagine, unless they lack all memory. As with al-Qaeda in Iraq during the American occupation years, the Islamic State is Sunni muscle against a Shia government that, left to its own devices, would continue to marginalize, if not simply slaughter, them. Starting in 2007, U.S. officials did indeed bribe and coerce some Sunni tribal leaders into accepting arms and payments in return for fighting insurgent outfits, including al-Qaeda. That deal, then called the Anbar Awakening, came with assurances that the United States would always stand by them. (General John Allen, now coordinating America’s newest war in Iraq, was a key figure in brokering that “awakening.”) America didn’t stand. Instead, it turned the program over to the Shia government and headed for the door marked “exit.” The Shias promptly reneged on the deal.
Once bitten, twice shy, so why, only a few years later, would the Sunnis go for what seems to be essentially the same bad deal? In addition, this one appears to have a particularly counterproductive wrinkle from the American point of view. According to present plans, the U.S. is to form Sunni “national guard units” — up-armored Sunni militias with a more marketable name — to fight IS by paying and arming them to do so. These militias are to fight only on Sunni territory under Sunni leadership. They will have no more connection to the Baghdad government than you do. How will that help make Iraq an inclusive, unitary state? What will happen, in the long run, once even more sectarian armed militias are let loose? What could possibly go wrong?
Despite its unambiguous history of failure, the “success” of the Anbar Awakening remains a persistent myth among American conservative thinkers. So don’t be fooled in the short term by media-trumpeted local examples of Sunni-Shia cooperation against IS. Consider them temporary alliances of convenience on a tribe-by-tribe basis that might not outlast the next attack. That is nowhere near a strategy for national victory. Wasn’t then, isn’t now.
Worst-case scenario: Sunni-Shia violence reaches a new level, one which draws in outside third parties, perhaps the Sunni Gulf states, seeking to prevent a massacre. Would the Shia Iranians, with forces already in-country, stand idle? Who can predict how much blood will be spilled, all caused by another foolish American war in Iraq?
7. The United States
If Iran could be the big geopolitical winner in this multi-state conflict, then the U.S. will be the big loser. President Obama (or his successor) will, in the end, undoubtedly have to choose between war to the horizon and committing U.S. ground forces to the conflict. Neither approach is likely to bring the results desired, but those “boots on the ground” will scale up the nature of the ensuing tragedy.
Washington’s post-9/11 fantasy has always been that military power — whether at the level of full-scale invasions or “surgical” drone strikes — can change the geopolitical landscape in predictable ways. In fact, the only certainty is more death. Everything else, as the last 13 years have made clear, is up for grabs, and in ways Washington is guaranteed not to expect.
Among the likely scenarios: IS forces are currently only miles from Baghdad International Airport, itself only nine miles from the Green Zone in the heart of the capital. (Note that the M198 howitzers IS captured from the retreating Iraqis have a range of 14 miles.) The airport is a critical portal for the evacuation of embassy personnel in the face of a future potential mega-Benghazi and for flying in more personnel like the Marine Quick Reaction Force recently moved into nearby Kuwait. The airport is already protected by 300-500 American troops, backed by Apache attack helicopters and drones. The Apache helicopters recently sent into combat in nearby Anbar province probably flew out of there. If IS militants were to assault the airport, the U.S. would essentially have to defend it, which means combat between the two forces. If so, IS will lose on the ground, but will win by drawing America deeper into the quagmire.
In the bigger picture, the current anti-Islamic State coalition of “more than 60 countries” that the U.S. patched together cannot last. It’s fated to collapse in a heap of conflicting long-term goals. Sooner or later, the U.S. is likely to once again find itself alone, as it eventually did in the last Iraq war.
The most likely outcome of all this killing, whatever the fate of the Islamic State, is worsening chaos across Iraq, Syria, and other countries in the region, including possibly Turkey. As Andrew Bacevich observed, “Even if we win, we lose. Defeating the Islamic State would only commit the United States more deeply to a decades-old enterprise that has proved costly and counterproductive.” The loss of control over the real costs of this war will beg the question: Was the U.S. ever in control?
In September, Syria became the 14th country in the Islamic world that U.S. forces have invaded, occupied, or bombed since 1980. During these many years of American war-making, goals have shifted endlessly, while the situation in the Greater Middle East only worsened. Democracy building? You’re not going to hear that much any more. Oil? The U.S. is set to become a net exporter. Defeating terrorism? That’s today’s go-to explanation, but the evidence is already in that picking fights in the region only fosters terror and terrorism. At home, the soundtrack of fear-mongering grows louder, leading to an amplified national security state and ever-expanding justifications for the monitoring of our society.
Worst-case scenario: America’s pan-Middle Eastern war marches into its third decade with no end in sight, a vortex that sucks in lives, national treasure, and Washington’s mental breathing room, even as other important issues are ignored. And what could possibly go wrong with that?
“The time has come to act,” said President Obama today after previously asserting robustly that it was previously not the time to act. “And so, I have ordered airstrikes commencing immediately on ebola. We won’t stop until we have degraded, some other d-word I forgot and ultimately destroyed ebola.”
A White House source named Susan Rice, who asked not to be named because everytime she speaks on the record bad things happen to her, told members of the press Obama made the decision after conferring long into the night with his closest advisor, himself. “Barack told me that when times are tough you go with what you know, and for every crisis since near day one of this presidency, when something went wrong overseas our go-to response has been airstrikes. Libya, Iraq, Syria, wherever. OK, maybe not Benghazi. So, once we saw this piece last night on Colbert saying ebola was sort of a problem, the president ordered the attacks.”
“Not a big deal anymore really, we have an online form for it now he just fills out. Hit submit and boom, death from above b*itches! God I love it so!” said Ambassador Rice, drooling, as she was led from the room to be put down.
When asked how airstrikes would be able to defeat a virus, a White House spokesperson was quick to respond “Why’d you even ask that question– don’t you support the troops? We have been using airstrikes to defeat an idea, terrorism, and that’s worked out. I am told by experts– top men– that a virus is actually physically larger than an idea, so this should be a walk in the park for our brave military personnel.”
Other measures the president has undertaken include carpet bombing the city of Dallas, where America’s two indigenous ebola cases began. “At first I was kinda worried about dropping napalm on American folks,” said the president in an exclusive interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who repeatedly licked the soles of the chief executive’s feet during the session. “But you know, pretty much no other folks outside Texas give a crap what happens to Texas folks, so it seems to have worked out. And it’s not like the state was going to vote Democrat anyway.” Obama pointed to his own eyes, then out the window, saying aloud “I’m watching you Missouri. Clean up that Ferguson thing or we just might find us some ebola in the ash tray of your car and have to clean it up with a couple of smart bombs, ya’ hear?”
Several doctors contacted for comment expressed skepticism about the president’s plan to bomb ebola, but admitted if they could not get their own professional health staff to wash their hands and stop getting on airplanes after caring for infected patients, well, why not try it his way.
Military leaders, reached in bunkers just outside Baghdad where they were placing bets on whether they would die next week at the hands of an ISIS assault or the Iraqi Army mishandling its own weapons, simply sighed and reminded this reporter that “when that ebola thing goes south like this stupid motherf*cker of a war will, don’t you blame us.”
The ebola virus was last seen dancing a merry jig, laughing to itself about how easy it was to draw the U.S. deeper into its quagmire. “Excellent, excellent,” it was heard to mutter.
As some readers may know, I am former employee of the Department of State, and after publishing a book critical of State’s efforts in the previous Iraq War We Meant Well, I was subjected to a year of legal battles, including threat of prosecution.
But standing up for your rights is a part of having those rights. A free society is based on a marketplace of ideas, that free speech thing we all learned about in civics class. We all need to hear from all sides to become the “informed citizenry” that Thomas Jefferson said was so essential to a democracy. And who better to enlighten the public about how their government really works than former federal employees, the people who were on the inside, now private citizens?
It would be wrong then for a former employer, as codified into its agency regulations, to expect its retirees to “refrain from engaging in activities of any kind, including writing manuscripts or giving speeches, which would be prejudicial to the foreign policy interests of the United States.” But that is exactly what the U.S. Department of State does.
They even wrote it down, stating (emphasis added):
Former employees are expected to refrain from engaging in activities of any kind, including writing manuscripts or giving speeches, which would be prejudicial to the foreign policy interests of the United States.
Former employees are encouraged to make public appearances and write manuscripts for unofficial publication which constructively contribute to the interests and objectives of the Department of State and the Government.
So let’s get this straight. Private citizens, who happened to once work for the State Department in some capacity, perhaps not even one directly connected to policy issues, are expected to not say anything in a public forum against the interests of the United States? And they are encouraged to say things that contribute to the objectives of the Department of State? Just ’cause?
Though this all smacks of some sort of Orwellian attempt to coerce, er, expect, a class of private citizens to propagandize, um, engage in activities, that use their authority and reputation as former State Department employee to promote only the side of a discussion that supports the government’s position, I’ll play along. I have to right, as a Good Citizen?
But I think the problem will be in how the State Department and I might differ on just what the “interests and objectives of the Department of State and the Government” are that I am told because I once worked there I must support.
But let’s start with something we can agree on. The State Department’s Mission Statement says in part that the agency should seek to “Shape and sustain a… democratic world.” I agree.
But I disagree that admonishments to spew the government line as a private citizen, as State wants, contribute to that goal. Instead, I believe that exercising my First Amendment rights as a private citizen contribute much to democracy. Any exercise of rights strengthens a democracy, the same as any attacks on those rights diminish it. Bleating out the party line is for countries ruled by parties. Did you know that North Korea’s interests and objectives include claiming Kim Il Sung invented the television? I guess their former employees are encouraged and expected to write nice things in comments on YouTube and stuff about that.
Welcome to another episode of Post-Constitutional America, where the old rules do not apply. See something, say something, unless you used to work for the State Department and what you say does not agree with the government’s version of things.
But oh! Some feel that is too much, too dramatic. Fair enough. The whole problem is not that State can ever enforce these rules– they can’t– it is that they exist as a testament to how they think. It’s that whole idea of “loyalty” above all else, and of course the hypocrisy of saying how important dissent is while trying very hard to stifle it. At the end of the day such things erode employees. So many just kind of give up and stop caring too much about what they do and just glide through the motions.
BONUS: The same section of regulation quoted above also says “The State Department will be glad to furnish, upon request, advice, assistance, and copies of printed publications to former employees who wish to obtain information on particular subjects.” Or not. I have asked State for comment and “advice” on these regulations and have not received any response.
FYI: State has not contacted me personally about anything I have written. This article is based on State’s regulations. Whether currently enforced in some way or not, their existence is reason enough to call out.
Lovin’ It: Food Stamps
The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, the current name for food stamps) is often thought of as something for the unemployed, though nothing could be further from the truth. Actually 73 percent of those enrolled in the country’s major public benefits programs are from working families, just stuck in jobs whose paychecks don’t cover life’s basic necessities. The United States now has the highest proportion of low-wage workers in the developed world, most of whom receive only the minimum wage (the federal standard is $7.25 an hour) and typically are capped by their employers well below 40 hours a week so they won’t qualify for benefits. Hard work doesn’t always pay off. The math: even full time at $7.25 is only $290. How do you live on that?
You don’t. You turn to food stamps and other forms of public assistance to make up the gap between minimum wage and a living wage. Which is just what large minimum wage employers count on you doing.
Fast food workers claim public assistance at more than twice the rate of other employed people; McDonald’s workers alone receive $1.2 billion in federal assistance each year. About one out of every three retail workers gets public assistance. After analyzing Medicaid data, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce estimated a single 300-person Walmart in Wisconsin costs taxpayers $5,815 per associate in public assistance paid. Overall, American taxpayers subsidize the minimum wage with $7 billion in public assistance. Those dollar amounts are what low prices actually cost you.
Profits Before Poverty
Why else do many large companies like food stamps? Because poverty is big business.
Public benefits are now a huge part of corporate profits. The CEO of Kraft admitted that the mac n’ cheese maker opposed food stamp cuts because beneficiaries were “a big part of our audience,” as one-sixth of Kraft’s revenues come from food stamp purchases. Pepsi, Coke, and the grocery chain Kroger lobbied against SNAP cuts, an indication of how much they rely on the money.
Products eligible for SNAP purchases are supposed to be limited to “healthy foods.” Yet lobbying by the soda industry keeps sugary drinks on the approved list, allowing companies like Coke and Pepsi to pull in four billion dollars a year in SNAP money revenues. Yum Brands, the operator of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, tried unsuccessfully to convince lawmakers in several states to allow its restaurants to accept food stamps.
In a January 2014 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Walmart was oddly blunt about what SNAP cuts could do to its bottom line. Walmart’s business risks, the filing said, include: “changes in the amount of payments made under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan and other public assistance plans, [and] changes in the eligibility requirements of public assistance plans.”
How much profit does Walmart make from public assistance? In one year, nine Walmart Supercenters in Massachusetts received more than $33 million in SNAP dollars, more than four times the SNAP money spent at farmers’ markets nationwide. In two years, Walmart received about half of the one billion dollars in SNAP expenditures in Oklahoma. Overall, 18 percent of all food benefits money is spent at Walmart. That’s about $14 billion.
Others also profit well from food stamps. Food stamps are distributed via Electronic Benefits Transfer or EBT (some recipients claim the acronym really means “Eat Better Tonight.”) JPMorgan Chase holds the contracts in half the United States to handle the transactions. In Florida, JPMorgan’s contract is worth $83 million, and in New York, it’s worth more than $112 million. Meanwhile, until recent changes, customer service for the JP Morgan EBT program was done via offshore call centers in India and Mexico who paid far below domestic wages.
So don’t believe anyone who says raising the minimum wage will automatically drive prices up. Whatever you think you are saving at the cash register in Walmart (or at McDonald’s, KFC, Target…), you are paying in taxes to feed the woman ringing you up. If the business paid a living wage, there could a lessening in demand for public assistance. At the same, give some thought to how much tax money is ultimately finding its way into the hands of a few large corporations via SNAP sales, another form of welfare, albeit the corporate kind.
Higher prices? You’re already paying more than you think.
Luckily, if you’re among the 1 percent, you are not alone. Repeat that: YOU ARE NOT ALONE. There are people ready to help you with the complications of owning more than 99 percent of your fellow citizens.
One such resource in your time of need is Bessemer Trust, a “Private Client Wealth Management” company. As a way of reaching out, they ran this print ad in the Sunday New York Times:
At Bessemer Trust, we believe maintaining wealth from generation to generation is the true art of wealth management. So we have a team of specialists targeted at precisely that… Our client advisory team helps prepare the next generation to responsibly guide your wealth… Our tax strategists help fend off a significant threat to your wealth… Let’s face it, history is littered with family names once associated with great wealth that now are mere footnotes. Everything we do is designed to keep you from becoming one of them. Call us. Minimum relationship $10 million.
Bessemer Trust is There for You
Indeed, on the company’s website, they do warn “Ironically, the more wealth one accumulates, the more complicated life can become.” So, here are some of actual quotes from the company about easing those complications:
– “Whether you are interested in creating a Family Mission Statement, setting up trusts, or establishing a foundation, we can work with you to reflect your family’s core values in your legacy plan.”
— “Reducing the erosion of wealth by implementing planning techniques designed to minimize taxes.”
— “Raising children with the skills, knowledge, and motivation to be financially independent is a complex task for any parent, but wealthy families face a unique set of challenges… Do your children have the ﬁnancial knowledge to manage wealth? Do members understand the family’s wealth plan?”
— “Engaging and educating the next generation on wealth management issues can be a powerful way to prepare them for the challenges and opportunities life may offer.”
— ”Naming the potential risks to your family and property can be uncomfortable. But not taking the steps necessary to minimize your exposure can prove more onerous in the end.”
— “For many wealthy families, concentrated holdings are a source of pride and a symbol of success.”
The company also arranges “intimate gatherings with other families who face common issues” and has a special advisory service on Yachts and Private Aircraft to “help you understand and assess your personal travel options.” They can also “assist in evaluating the ever-increasing and complex club and resort travel programs.”
One Percent Problems
See, while you struggle with simple problems like paying the rent and scavenging dented cans of hobo beans to feed your feral children, the One Percent have real issues.
Apparently one of the most pressing issues for the wealthy, while admonishing the rest of us to work harder, stop being lazy and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, is how to make sure their money gets passed on to their kids, so those kiddies do not have to work harder, stop being lazy or pull themselves up by their bootstraps. This assures that while most of us struggle against glass ceilings of one sort or another to rise, rich kids are held safe by marble floors that prevent them from falling. And all thanks to folks like Bessemer Trust!
And kids today, amiright? While many of us hope to pass on skills to our own like how to kite a check and where to redeem aluminum cans for scrap value, the rich face the task of teaching their off-spring how to stay rich.
Another issue for the rich is making sure they and their children don’t have to actually work. That’s the whole idea cited above about “concentrated holdings are a source of pride and a symbol of success.” That means owning stuff, primarily stock. You most likely don’t have this problem, because less than half of Americans don’t own any stock at all. The wealthiest five percent of Americans meanwhile hold some 70 percent of all stock. Bump the “top” group to the wealthiest ten percent of Americans and they own over 80 percent of all stock.
However, it is Bessemer Trust’s special services that really get to the heart of why being super rich is such a grind. I mean, who really has time to personally evaluate “the ever-increasing and complex club and resort travel programs.” Daaady, can you help me with my homework? It’s not fair, I have to evaluate all these club and resort programs by tomorrow and they’re so stupid and complex!!!
I for one am glad I don’t have to deal with stuff like that, and worry about whether my kids are prepared to continue my exploitation of the workers I
own employ. What a load off.
BONUS: All of the above is what companies like Bessemer Trust say without shame in public. Imagine what goes on behind their closed doors: “Welcome Mr. Van Buren. Please just leave your satchels of bullion over there next to the complimentary blood of virgins bar. Let me introduce Klaus, who will guide you through the ever-increasing and complex programs for acquiring fresh human organs for your next transplant. Oh, and I understand your daughter would very much like to see a poor child ritually slaughtered for her eighth birthday party. That would be Marie, who sorts those things out for our clients. Refreshment? We feature today a chilled glass of orphan tears.”
While we wait on more news of now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t Kim Jong Un, let’s peek into his country. What kind of world is it when North Korean propaganda about the United States is more correct than crazy? Let’s fact-check and see how the Northerners did.
The Korean Central News Agency Schools You
North Korea isn’t known as a big internet kind of place, but they do have a propaganda/news agency in Japan that stays busy. The funny ties between North Korea and Japan are always worth a look; Japan imported vast numbers of Koreans during World War II as slave labor. Many ended up staying as the Korean War broke out, and divided themselves into groups supporting the North and South. There are now some 600,000 Koreans in Japan, many of whom are second- and third-generationals born in Japan.
So, the Korean Central News Agency, run by sympathtic Koreans working out of Japan, had some issues with the U.S., excerpted here. Let’s see what they have to say using their original English, with the fact-checking part in [brackets]:
Model for Human Rights
As the world’s worst human rights abuser, it [the U.S.] pretended to be a “model” in human rights performance. [Note: See "a shining city on a hill" claims by presidents from Obama back]
Racialism is getting more severe in the U.S. The gaps between the minorities and the whites are very wide in the exercise of such rights to work and elect. The U.S. true colors as a kingdom of racial discrimination was fully revealed by last year’s case that the Florida Court gave a verdict of not guilty to a white policeman [sic] who shot to death an innocent black boy. [Note: See Michael Brown, Donald Sterling, Trayvon Martin or this.]
At present, an average of 300,000 people a week are registered as unemployed, but any proper measure has not been taken. [Here the North Koreans are wrong; the Labor Department reported 377,000 people filed for initial unemployment benefits in the week ended January 21, up 21,000 from a revised reading of 356,000 claims the week before.]
The housing price soared 11.5 percent last year than 2012 and 13.2 percent in January this year than 2013, leaving many people homeless. [Close; prices in 20 cities rose 12.9 percent year over year.]
The number of impoverished people increased to 46.5 millions last year, and one sixth of the citizens and 20-odd percent of the children are in the grip of famine in New York City. [North Korea nailed it! In 2012, 46.2 million people in the United States lived in poverty. The nation’s official poverty rate was 15.0%. By the way according to the U.S. government, if you as a single person earn more than $11,344 you are officially not impoverished. The bar seems pretty low-- the average one-bedroom apartment rent in Tulsa, Oklahoma is about $7500 a year, leaving you as a non-poverty person with a sweet, sweet $3800 to eat, pay utilities, car, clothes, etc. Most places in America have higher costs of living than Tulsa.]
All sorts of crimes rampant in the U.S. pose a serious threat to the people’s rights to existence and their inviolable rights. [North Korea again! Here's a map showing crime in the U.S. outstrips most of its peers in Europe and elsewhere.]
The U.S. government has monitored every movement of its citizens and foreigners, with many cameras and tapping devices and even drones involved, under the pretext of “national security”. [Don't make me Google Snowden and NSA for you on this one please.]
Meanwhile, bills on easing arms control were adopted in various states of the country, boosting murderous crimes. As a result, the U.S. has witnessed an increasing number of gun-related crimes in all parts of the country and even its military bases this year. In this regard, the United Nations on April 10 put the U.S. on the top of the world list of homicide rates. [OK, the North Koreans are a little fuzzy on this one, depending on how you define homicide. For large swaths of the MidEast and the developing world, people get killed all the time, in great numbers. Here's the data. I was unable to tease out any broad statistics that separate a criminal kind of murder like on TV from war and suicide bombs kind of murder. But here's one stat that supports the North Korean assertion: in 2006 in the US, there are roughly 17,000 murders, of which about 15,000 were committed with firearms. By contrast, Britain, Australia and Canada combined saw fewer than 350 gun-related murders each year. In the year that the U.S. saw 17,000 murders overall, there were only 794 in Germany.]
The U.S. also has 2.2 millions of prisoners at present, the highest number in the world. For lack of prisons on the part of the government, individuals are providing detention facilities to make money. [Wrong! The U.S. has 2.4 million people behind bars, about one percent of our entire population. The most serious charge against 51 percent of those inmates is a drug offense. Only four percent are in for robbery and only one percent are in for homicide. Racism? Black men were more than six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated.]
Hail to the Chief
Its chief executive, Obama, indulges himself in luxury almost every day, squandering hundred millions of dollars on his foreign trip in disregard of his people’s wretched life. [Gotta call this one for the North Koreans. While the White Houses never discloses costs for trips because “so much of the money is for security,” Air Force One, the president’s personal 747, costs $228,000 an hour to operate. A typical overseas trip involves eleven or more aircraft, including C-5 transports, aerial refuelers and small passenger jets that fly along with Air Force One. The president also likely enjoys fighter air cover and AWACs support, costs unknown.
About a decade ago, the General Accounting Office released two fairly detailed reports on President Bill Clinton’s foreign travels (here and here). Secret Service costs were omitted as classified, but other government expenses were tallied up. A Clinton trip to six countries in Africa in 1998 rang up at $42.8 million, most of that for military aircraft costs. A trip to Chile came in at $10.5 million. A trip to China that year cost $18.8 million.
Details are hard to find online, but my own experience with presidential visits from 24 years in the State Department is that typically entire floors of hotels or more are booked “for security,” hundreds of local cell phones are purchased and usually the president’s food is flown in, sometimes the water he’ll drink as well. One unsubstantiated report said Obama’s party booked over 500 hotel rooms on a trip to India.
(Former Foreign Service Officer John Brown has a detailed, funny, from-the-ground account of a presidential visit)
(North Korea is an awful place with horrendous human rights abuses. This article is about the U.S., not North Korea.)
It can be hard to keep track of your money. You charge stuff and misplace the receipts, you forget to record a check written and before you know it, $12-14 billion is unaccounted for in Iraq. Even then, after one authoritative source thinks he’s found some of it, no one bothers to go get it.
Is it in Lebanon?
New information from the former Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGAR) Stuart Bowen, reported by perhaps the bravest journalist alive today, James Risen, shows that of the multi-billions of U.S. dollars cash literally shipped on pallets (pictured) to Iraq in 2003, over one billion was traced into Lebanon (the other billions remain unaccounted for.)
Risen reports that in the first days after the fall of Baghdad and continuing for over a year, American proconsul Paul Bremer, on his own, somehow ordered $12-$14 billion (note the uncertainty factor of two billion dollars, itself a crime) to be sent to Iraq in the airlift, and an additional $5 billion was sent by electronic transfer. Some sources put the total as high as $20 billion.
Dollars and Nonsense
“We did not know that Bremer was flying in all that cash,” said the head of the Treasury Department team that worked on Iraq’s financial reconstruction after the invasion. “I can’t see a reason for it.”
The cash was literally delivered shrink-wrapped, on pallets, enormous bundles of Benjamins. Exactly what happened to that money after it arrived in Baghdad became one of the many unanswered questions from the chaotic days of the American occupation. We’ll never know.
Except maybe Bowen, who claims to have tracked $1.2 billion to $1.6 billion (note the uncertainty factor of $4,000,000 dollars) to a bunker in rural Lebanon for safe keeping. An informant said the bunker also may have held $200 million of Iraqi government gold. “I don’t know how the money got to Lebanon,” Bowen said. “Billions of dollars have been taken out of Iraq over the last ten years illegally. In this investigation, we thought we were on the track for some of that lost money. It’s disappointing to me personally that we were unable to close this case, for reasons beyond our control.”
The Bush administration never investigated how that huge amount of money disappeared, even after Bowen’s investigators found out about the bunker in Lebanon. The Obama administration did not pursue that lead, either. Bowen’s team briefed the CIA and the FBI on what they found, but no one took any action. Even the Iraqi government has not tried to retrieve the money, and has kept information about the Lebanese bunker secret. When Bowen and his staff tried to move the search into Lebanon themselves, he met with resistance from the U.S. embassy in Beirut. Bowen himself was not allowed to travel to Lebanon, and two of his investigators who did travel were denied permission from the embassy to see the bunker. Bowen’s staff members instead met with Lebanon’s prosecutor general, who initially agreed to cooperate on an investigation, but later decided against it. In the words of one who has spent perhaps too much time in government, Bowen summed it all up by saying “We struggled to gain timely support from the interagency as we pursued this case.”
Of all the missing money, by 2011 the Pentagon and the Iraqi government claim to have accounted for all but $6 billion of it, as if missing the target by six billion spaces is an OK result. And even that assumes one believes the Pentagon and Iraqi audit.
How’d All That Money Go Missing Anyway?
How did all that money go missing? That, at least, is something we know. U.S. officials claimed in the early days of the war that they didn’t have time or staff to keep strict financial controls. Millions of dollars were stuffed in gunnysacks and hauled on pickups to Iraqi agencies or contractors, officials have testified. House Government Reform Committee investigators charged in 2005 that U.S. officials “used virtually no financial controls to account for these enormous cash withdrawals once they arrived in Iraq, and there is evidence of substantial waste, fraud and abuse in the actual spending and disbursement of the Iraqi funds.” Meanwhile, Pentagon officials contended for years that they could account for the money if given enough time to track down the records.
But repeated attempts to find the documentation, or better yet the cash, were fruitless. An inspector general’s report into the missing money in Iraq painted a picture of Pentagon officials digging through boxes of hard copy records looking for missing paper copies of Excel spreadsheets, monthly reports and other paper documents that should have been kept detailing what the money was spent on and why those expenditures were necessary. Apparently, there are no electronic records to back up the spending. It. Just. Went. Away.
Occam’s Bank Account
So where did all that money go? Here and there on the web you can find a conspiracy theory or two, but the obvious answer is usually the correct one. There are no doubt Dubai-based bank accounts of current and former Iraqi government officials swollen with cash, perhaps some accounts of American contractors and various U.S. officials as well. As for that bunker in Lebanon, well, your typical third world crew knows that you can only trust banks so far, and everyone needs a stash in case they have to bug out in a hurry and lay low while international terrorists hunt for you. Perhaps following a few more battlefield successes for ISIS inside Iraq?
War is Peace, Hate is Love, that kind of thing. Drone killings of wedding parties are for our freedom. NSA reading our Facebook stops terrorism. Congress cutting food stamps versus the Pentagon not being held even mildly accountable for trillions.
What? Here’s a report from Reuters:
The Pentagon is largely incapable of keeping track of its vast stores of weapons, ammunition and other supplies; thus it continues to spend money on new supplies it doesn’t need and on storing others long out of date. It has amassed a backlog of more than half a trillion dollars in unaudited contracts with outside vendors; how much of that money paid for actual goods and services delivered isn’t known. And it repeatedly falls prey to fraud and theft that can go undiscovered for years, often eventually detected by external law enforcement agencies.
Because of its persistent inability to tally its accounts, the Pentagon is the only federal agency that has not complied with a law that requires annual audits of all government departments. That means that the $8.5 trillion in taxpayer money doled out by Congress to the Pentagon since 1996, the first year it was supposed to be audited, has never been accounted for. That sum exceeds the value of China’s economic output last year.
It will be a pretty big job to sort things out and account for the odd misplaced trillion or two. Reuters tells us:
No one can even agree on how many accounting and business systems are in use. The Pentagon itself puts the number at 2,200 spread throughout the military services and other defense agencies. A January 2012 report by a task force of the Defense Business Board, an advisory group of business leaders appointed by the secretary of defense, put the number at around 5,000.
But it’s OK, taxpayers, because in 2009 Congress passed a law requiring that the Defense Department be audit-ready.
By 2017. We’re doomed.
Inspire is an English language online magazine published since 2010 by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. I just read the latest issue so you won’t get arrested doing so.
Aimed primarily at radicalizing youth audiences in the U.S. and Britain, the mag appears semi-regularly (twelve issues so far) online only, as a PDF, and is entirely in English. Graphically well-done, the editorial parts of the magazine shift among sometimes bad-English reporting, religious and jihadi-inspirational pieces, and bomb making instructions.
Yeah, bomb making instructions. That’s the part that sort of is controversial, the clear, step-by-step photo-illustrated instructions for making your own explosives using common materials, plus the encouragement to use them in crowded places.
Inspire and al-Awlaki
The magazine was once thought to be the work of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who once preached at a Northern Virginia mosque and lunched at the Pentagon, gone-bad.
Though al-Awlaki and his teenage son were assassinated by a U.S. drone in Yemen in 2011, thus ending his editorship, the magazine continues to be published. Al-Awaki’s thoughts are reprinted posthumously and still carry influence. That tells you pretty much all you need to know in two sentences about the failure of the war on terror.
Because reading/possessing Inspire may be illegal in the UK and Australia, and viewing it online in the U.S. likely to land you on some sort of watch list or another, I’ll just offer the one link here to the full text if you want to read the whole thing. For me, if I’m not on some list already I haven’t been doing my job and should just go back to my true passion, Little House on the Prairie fan fiction.
Inside the Spring 2014 Inspire Mag
Things begin straight-forward enough with a note from the editor:
The American government was unable to protect its citizens from pressure cooker bombs in backpacks, I wonder if they are ready to stop car bombs! Therefore, as our responsibility to the Muslim Ummah in general and Muslims living in America in particular, Inspire Magazine humbly presents to you a simple improvised home recipe of a car bomb. And the good news is… you can prepare it in the kitchen of your mom too.
To be fair, the kitchen of your mom has to be stocked with some pretty unusual stuff to pull this off, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
There follows some quotes by famous people on news topics, most predictable. But one by a Muslim college student in the U.S. stands out:
I remember I had one professor that said that if he was in Iraq, he’d probably be on the other side. And I remember I was just looking at him thinking I’ll be in jail if I thought that.
A quote by another leaves you with the uncomfortable impression that these guys “get it,” saying the things we just don’t hear from our own media:
If we don’t change our stupid foreign policies, there will sooner or later be many more people overseas wishing to do this country harm! We’re already the most hated country in the world and through our own stupidity that will only get worse. Moreover, we’re spending ourselves into oblivion over this!
So while there is plenty of bloody jihad stuff written in Borat-level English, it isn’t all that way in Inspire. One wonders if this approach, accidentally humorous and purposefully serious, is not actually an effective way to speak to disaffected youth.
Despite my promise to you, I did not actually read every word of articles that began “Twelve years have passed since the blessed Battles of New York, Washington and Pennsylvania…” or asked “Is the modern Buffalo soldier worth a Labrador? Would the U.S. Army at least honor them with Dickin Medals?”
I sort of can figure out without getting 800 words in what the point of a piece that asks “Isn’t it saddening that Bo, Obama’s dog, dines with the tax payers’ money on better food than that of 100 million Americans?” But hah, Inspire, got you there. A lot of lower-income Americans are forced to eat the same dog food Bo does!
And see if you can puzzle out this one:
Obama is like a very thirsty patient that suffers from high blood pressure. As he becomes thirstier he finds a cup of salty water with salt crystals visible. To make the water drinkable, he has to get rid of the salt. So he stirs the water. As he stirs, the salt begins to disappear, this makes him very happy. Yes, the salt disappeared from sight, but the taste of the water became saltier. This is exactly what Obama is doing by the use of unmanned drones.
Things alternate like that for most of the magazine, kind of thoughtful stuff, weird unintelligible stuff, sort of parable, sort of makes sense maybe stuff, a lot of anti-Semitism and rants intermingled with Quranic quotes. But things get deadly serious when the topic turns to making and employing car bombs.
The magazine explains the bomb making instructions are “open source jihad,” to allow persons via the web to “prepare for jihad,” all from the comforts of home. I am not a chemist, but the details seem easy to follow, broken down into steps with photos to illustrate. Theory is tagged on to the practical; how explosive combustion works, how pressure is measured and so forth. Different ignition switches are discussed, depending on whether you seek a timed explosion or intend a suicide attack where you’ll trip the bomb manually.
You turn away with the impression that this is something simple enough that you could probably make it work.
It is made clear the type of bomb you’ll be making is aimed at destroying people, not buildings, and advice is given accordingly.
Closing the Pages
It would be unfair to close the pages of Inspire and say I felt anything but creeped out. I’ve tried to come up with something more intelligent sounding, but what starts as a laugh ends very seriously. Someone was very effective at making me walk away thinking they want to kill me.
So when you read other versions of what’s in Inspire, most of which focus on creating their own, new levels of fear-mongering or in belittling the magazine as “clumsy,” spare a thought to what the magazine is really achieving: it makes you afraid. That’s what good propaganda does, effectively get inside your head. Inspire is good propaganda.
Please join me at The Ohio State University’s Urban Arts Space on Thursday, October 9, for an evening of reading, signing, and conversation in connection with my book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent.
The whole thing is just a small part of an exhibition called 25 ON HIGH: A Photographic Journey. My presentation, along with the exhibit, is part of Paging Columbus’ monthly reading series, which features literature about High Street and urban life. Selections for October 9 include Charles Dickens’ American Notes, Theodore Dreiser’s Jennie Gerhardt, and James Thurber’s My Life and Hard Times, read by Dale Sparlin, Tracy Zollinger Turner and Jim Coe.
The 25 ON HIGH exhibit is well-worth the trip by itself. For over a year, 25 local photographers have traversed Columbus’ main thoroughfare, High Street, documenting faces, landmarks, overlooked alcoves and affairs of the street. Marshalled by Ohio State University Associate Professor Emeritus Clay Lowe, who walked the same stretch of road with his camera 40 years ago, this team exhibition tells the unique story of High Street as it lives and shifts through this moment in history.
The event is Thursday, October 9, from 6:00pm to 8:00pm at the Urban Arts Space, 50 W. Town St., Suite 130, Columbus, OH 43215. The Space is in downtown Columbus, and not on the Ohio State campus.
Everyone is welcome and there is no charge. There will be a Q&A session where we can talk about the new book, the old book (We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People) and/or my experiences being run out of my former career with the Department of State because I wrote about their waste and mismanagement of the Iraq War reconstruction.
Since this will be my only chance to speak in Columbus, please come join me at the Urban Space!
You travel a bit, and you wonder what happened.
Streets, laid out in the 19th century, are jammed with traffic that was never anticipated. Not just more cars; Americans traveled on foot or by horse the last time these were thought through. After moving two miles in 45 minutes, we cross a bridge built in 1901.
The bridge handles the traffic decently; it was built quite wide for the trains that used to transport Americans. The over-engineering on the bridge, common in the days before computers, would prove prescient as it would be several decades before the city, the richest in America, would build modern ones, and the last of those opened in the 1960’s.
The infrastructure is old and tired but can’t be fixed it seems. Too expensive. Though the current Iraq/Syria war has already cost over one billion dollars, and the previous one over two trillion dollars, somehow there is never enough money.
The subway might be faster, but the segment I’d use for part of the journey was first opened in 1904 and is a hodge-podge of patches and repairs today. The girders holding up the street have been painted by generations of workers over the last hundred years such that when a chip appears, it is deep and noticeable, a sort of archaeological find. Theodore Roosevelt was president when the first coat of paint was applied.
The subway isn’t really an option anyway. Public transportation to the airport, one of America’s busiest, is limited to a single bus that runs irregularly, with limited space for the luggage of the poor souls who need to check something, and drops off at stops at the airport equally convenient to no one. The bus isn’t yours anyway; it is designed for persons commuting out of the areas it passes through headed to work at the airport, staffing your Cinnabon. Some smiles there that don’t reach eyes. At least remember to say thanks.
On your way you pass through their crumbling neighborhoods where the open businesses are often check cashing places, we buy gold cubbies and pawn shops. Some fast food places, who pay minimum wage in the neighborhood while exporting profits to midtown banks. You can actually see over the roofs into Manhattan where the money goes, and where the morning newspaper has an article on “affordable” condos priced at over two million dollars.
The airport, originally built in 1939 (Franklin Roosevelt was President and WWII was just starting for the Greatest Generation) and randomly added to over since, is chaotic at best. At security, foreign tourists look around for validation as they are yelled at to remove their shoes. It all seems inexplicable to many from Third World places the U.S. can’t bully into following America’s security theatre script. The floor we walk on in our socks is still a bit sticky from some spill. Everyone holds their hands over their head inside the scanner, a position of submission prisoners assume. The analogy is only slightly an analogy. But people either believe in it for their freedom as they are told, or just put up with it to avoid the bullying that follows displays of even quiet resistance. Be glad you are allowed to fly at all and have not been put without your knowledge on the No-Fly list for some Josef K. offense.
Everyone on the plane, which departs late without explanation offered to you, is sorted into class. Those with the right credit card, or those who paid more, are treated one way, right down to a silly scrap of red carpet at check-in that to be fair does seem to validate something to some of them, judging by the smiles and the glances back into the lines. The other people are pushed onto the plane in a scrum of unintelligible “groups” to struggle against one another for the limited resources of space to sit, or to store giant amounts of luggage they are forced to carry to avoid usurious fees. The fee has nothing much to do with the airline’s biggest cost, fuel, as the weight is the same in or under the plane. The fee just is there. It’s a kind of modern icon, in other places called disingenuously a “convenience fee,” a fee you pay to buy something else.
On the plane everyone speaks in a bully’s (that word again) passive-aggressive verbiage. Sit down or we won’t take off, and it’ll be your fault, and God help you if the other flyers turn on you. You can’t congregate near the restrooms, even though there is only a tiny space anyway, because supposedly 13 years ago that’s what the 9/11 hijackers did. You are not passengers, or customers. You are all potential terrorists and will be treated as such. Here’s half a Diet Coke as a reward for being compliant.
Flying over the Midwest, even at 25,000 feet midday on a Tuesday, you can’t miss the huge factories and warehouses, all surrounded by empty parking lots. No jobs it seems, even at this altitude. On the ground, in three different cities over a week, you see neighborhood after neighborhood that has been “gentrified” as part of what seems like a last gasp to salvage the hunk of America that isn’t New York, the L.A.-San Francisco corridor or wherever the federal government is still hiring.
In these neighborhoods tens of thousands of skilled blue collar jobs that once paid a living wage have been replaced by only hundreds of minimum wage, part-time jobs for baristas and waiters, many serving a few. A lot of people now in America don’t really make anything, besides a few apps maybe, so they serve a very few who only make deals. See it all the time. Did you enjoy your meal sir (please tip, I don’t get paid much)?
The people on the ground still hope it might work. They are not stupid and this is not to mock; they know they have been handed the dirty end of the stick in the long con and are trying what they hope might work, though hope takes time and that is another thing they don’t have. You don’t have to be an economist to see how it can’t really work, do the math, but you’ll enjoy a decent cup of coffee on the way down.
There are exceptions, good ones. The young mayor of Louisville has dedicated himself to attracting companies to his city. He talks like a man running for his city’s life, in about the best way you can run for your life. But it is a tough race.
Oh, these are “first world problems.” That’s the point, true to a point, but indeed America claims to be the most exceptional nation in the first world, so the problems are worth talking through. And this all isn’t nostalgia; it’s history.
America also has its third world problems– lack of equitable health care (The U.S. ranks 56th internationally in infant mortality, worse than Cuba, Poland, Bosnia, and Serbia), malnutrition among the poor (one of five kids in America is food-at-risk), homelessness, murder and drug abuse rates rivaling any outside of combat zones, the highest percentage of a population in prison in the developed world, acts of random violence in our schools and workplaces, racism and inequality that regularly erupt into violence suppressed by militarized police.
First world, third world, you see them all and you wonder what happened, now, to us.
I wanted to offer a wry chuckle before we headed into the heavy stuff about Iraq, so I tried to start this article with a suitably ironic formulation. You know, a déjà-vu-all-over-again kinda thing. I even thought about telling you how, in 2011, I contacted a noted author to blurb my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, and he presciently declined, saying sardonically, “So you’re gonna be the one to write the last book on failure in Iraq?”
I couldn’t do any of that. As someone who cares deeply about this country, I find it beyond belief that Washington has again plunged into the swamp of the Sunni-Shia mess in Iraq. A young soldier now deployed as one of the 1,600 non-boots-on-the-ground there might have been eight years old when the 2003 invasion took place. He probably had to ask his dad about it. After all, less than three years ago, when dad finally came home with his head “held high,” President Obama assured Americans that “we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.” So what happened in the blink of an eye?
The Sons of Iraq
Sometimes, when I turn on the TV these days, the sense of seeing once again places in Iraq I’d been overwhelms me. After 22 years as a diplomat with the Department of State, I spent 12 long months in Iraq in 2009-2010 as part of the American occupation. My role was to lead two teams in “reconstructing” the nation. In practice, that meant paying for schools that would never be completed, setting up pastry shops on streets without water or electricity, and conducting endless propaganda events on Washington-generated themes of the week (“small business,” “women’s empowerment,” “democracy building.”)
We even organized awkward soccer matches, where American taxpayer money was used to coerce reluctant Sunni teams into facing off against hesitant Shia ones in hopes that, somehow, the chaos created by the American invasion could be ameliorated on the playing field. In an afternoon, we definitively failed to reconcile the millennium-old Sunni-Shia divide we had sparked into ethnic-cleansing-style life in 2003-2004, even if the score was carefully stage managed into a tie by the 82nd Airborne soldiers with whom I worked.
In 2006, the U.S. brokered the ascension to power of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia politician handpicked to unite Iraq. A bright, shining lie of a plan soon followed. Applying vast amounts of money, Washington’s emissaries created the Sahwa, or Sons of Iraq, a loose grouping of Sunnis anointed as “moderates” who agreed to temporarily stop killing in return for a promised place at the table in the New(er) Iraq. The “political space” for this was to be created by a massive escalation of the American military effort, which gained a particularly marketable name: the surge.
I was charged with meeting the Sahwa leaders in my area. My job back then was to try to persuade them to stay on board just a little longer, even as they came to realize that they’d been had. Maliki’s Shia government in Baghdad, which was already ignoring American entreaties to be inclusive, was hell-bent on ensuring that there would be no Sunni “sons” in its Iraq.
False alliances and double-crosses were not unfamiliar to the Sunni warlords I engaged with. Often, our talk — over endless tiny glasses of sweet, sweet tea stirred with white-hot metal spoons — shifted from the Shia and the Americans to their great-grandfathers’ struggle against the British. Revenge unfolds over generations, they assured me, and memories are long in the Middle East, they warned.
When I left in 2010, the year before the American military finally departed, the truth on the ground should have been clear enough to anyone with the vision to take it in. Iraq had already been tacitly divided into feuding state-lets controlled by Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds. The Baghdad government had turned into a typical, gleeful third-world kleptocracy fueled by American money, but with a particularly nasty twist: they were also a group of autocrats dedicated to persecuting, marginalizing, degrading, and perhaps one day destroying the country’s Sunni minority.
U.S. influence was fading fast, leaving the State Department, a small military contingent, various spooks, and contractors hidden behind the walls of the billion-dollar embassy (the largest in the world!) that had been built in a moment of imperial hubris. The foreign power with the most influence over events was by then Iran, the country the Bush administration had once been determined to take down alongside Saddam Hussein as part of the Axis of Evil.
The Grandsons of Iraq
The staggering costs of all this — $25 billion to train the Iraqi Army, $60 billion for the reconstruction-that-wasn’t, $2 trillion for the overall war, almost 4,500 Americans dead and more than 32,000 wounded, and an Iraqi death toll of more than 190,000 (though some estimates go as high as a million) — can now be measured against the results. The nine-year attempt to create an American client state in Iraq failed, tragically and completely. The proof of that is on today’s front pages.
According to the crudest possible calculation, we spent blood and got no oil. Instead, America’s war of terror resulted in the dissolution of a Middle Eastern post-Cold War stasis that, curiously enough, had been held together by Iraq’s previous autocratic ruler Saddam Hussein. We released a hornet’s nest of Islamic fervor, sectarianism, fundamentalism, and pan-nationalism. Islamic terror groups grew stronger and more diffuse by the year. That horrible lightning over the Middle East that’s left American foreign policy in such an ugly glare will last into our grandchildren’s days. There should have been so many futures. Now, there will be so few as the dead accumulate in the ruins of our hubris. That is all that we won.
Under a new president, elected in 2008 in part on his promise to end American military involvement in Iraq, Washington’s strategy morphed into the more media-palatable mantra of “no boots on the ground.” Instead, backed by aggressive intel and the “surgical” application of drone strikes and other kinds of air power, U.S. covert ops were to link up with the “moderate” elements in Islamic governments or among the rebels opposing them — depending on whether Washington was opting to support a thug government or thug fighters.
The results? Chaos in Libya, highlighted by the flow of advanced weaponry from the arsenals of the dead autocrat Muammar Gaddafi across the Middle East and significant parts of Africa, chaos in Yemen, chaos in Syria, chaos in Somalia, chaos in Kenya, chaos in South Sudan, and, of course, chaos in Iraq.
And then came the Islamic State (IS) and the new “caliphate,” the child born of a neglectful occupation and an autocratic Shia government out to put the Sunnis in their place once and for all. And suddenly we were heading back into Iraq. What, in August 2014, was initially promoted as a limited humanitarian effort to save the Yazidis, a small religious sect that no one in Washington or anywhere else in this country had previously heard of, quickly morphed into those 1,600 American troops back on the ground in Iraq and American planes in the skies from Kurdistan in the north to south of Baghdad. The Yazidis were either abandoned, or saved, or just not needed anymore. Who knows and who, by then, cared? They had, after all, served their purpose handsomely as the casus belli of this war. Their agony at least had a horrific reality, unlike the supposed attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that propelled a widening war in Vietnam in 1964 or the nonexistent Iraqi WMDs that were the excuse for the invasion of 2003.
The newest Iraq war features Special Operations “trainers,” air strikes against IS fighters using American weapons abandoned by the Iraqi Army (now evidently to be resupplied by Washington), U.S. aircraft taking to the skies from inside Iraq as well as a carrier in the Persian Gulf and possibly elsewhere, and an air war across the border into Syria.
It Takes a Lot of Turning Points To Go In a Circle
The truth on the ground these days is tragically familiar: an Iraq even more divided into feuding state-lets; a Baghdad government kleptocracy about to be reinvigorated by free-flowing American money; and a new Shia prime minister being issued the same 2003-2011 to-do list by Washington: mollify the Sunnis, unify Iraq, and make it snappy. The State Department still stays hidden behind the walls of that billion-dollar embassy. More money will be spent to train the collapsed Iraqi military. Iran remains the foreign power with the most influence over events.
One odd difference should be noted, however: in the last Iraq war, the Iranians sponsored and directed attacks by Shia militias against American occupation forces (and me); now, its special operatives and combat advisors fight side-by-side with those same Shia militias under the cover of American air power. You want real boots on the ground? Iranian forces are already there. It’s certainly an example of how politics makes strange bedfellows, but also of what happens when you assemble your “strategy” on the run.
Obama hardly can be blamed for all of this, but he’s done his part to make it worse — and worse it will surely get as his administration once again assumes ownership of the Sunni-Shia fight. The “new” unity plan that will fail follows the pattern of the one that did fail in 2007: use American military force to create a political space for “reconciliation” between once-burned, twice-shy Sunnis and a compromise Shia government that American money tries to nudge into an agreement against Iran’s wishes. Perhaps whatever new Sunni organization is pasted together, however briefly, by American representatives should be called the Grandsons of Iraq.
Just to add to the general eeriness factor, the key people in charge of putting Washington’s plans into effect are distinctly familiar faces. Brett McGurk, who served in key Iraq policy positions throughout the Bush and Obama administrations, is again the point man as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran. McGurk was once called the “Maliki whisperer” for his closeness to the former prime minister. The current American ambassador, Robert Stephen Beecroft, was deputy chief of mission, the number two at the Baghdad embassy, back in 2011. Diplomatically, another faux coalition of the (remarkably un)willing is being assembled. And the pundits demanding war in a feverish hysteria in Washington are all familiar names, mostly leftovers from the glory days of the 2003 invasion.
Lloyd Austin, the general overseeing America’s new military effort, oversaw the 2011 retreat. General John Allen, brought out of military retirement to coordinate the new war in the region — he had recently been a civilian advisor to Secretary of State John Kerry — was deputy commander in Iraq’s Anbar province during the surge. Also on the U.S. side, the mercenary security contractors are back, even as President Obama cites, without a hint of irony, the ancient 2002 congressional authorization to invade Iraq he opposed as candidate Obama as one of his legal justifications for this year’s war. The Iranians, too, have the same military commander on the ground in Iraq, Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’s Quds Force. Small world. Suleimani also helps direct Hezbollah operations inside Syria.
Even the aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf launching air strikes, the USS George H.W. Bush, is fittingly named after the president who first got us deep into Iraq almost a quarter century ago. Just consider that for a moment: we have been in Iraq so long that we now have an aircraft carrier named after the president who launched the adventure.
On a 36-month schedule for “destroying” ISIS, the president is already ceding his war to the next president, as was done to him by George W. Bush. That next president may well be Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state as Iraq War 2.0 sputtered to its conclusion. Notably, it was her husband whose administration kept the original Iraq War of 1990-1991 alive via no-fly zones and sanctions. Call that a pedigree of sorts when it comes to fighting in Iraq until hell freezes over.
If there is a summary lesson here, perhaps it’s that there is evidently no hole that can’t be dug deeper. How could it be more obvious, after more than two decades of empty declarations of victory in Iraq, that genuine “success,” however defined, is impossible? The only way to win is not to play. Otherwise, you’re just a sucker at the geopolitical equivalent of a carnival ringtoss game with a fist full of quarters to trade for a cheap stuffed animal.
Apocalypse Then — And Now
America’s wars in the Middle East exist in a hallucinatory space where reality is of little import, so if you think you heard all this before, between 2003 and 2010, you did. But for those of us of a certain age, the echoes go back much further. I recently joined a discussion on Dutch television where former Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra made a telling slip of the tongue. As we spoke about ISIS, Hoekstra insisted that the U.S. needed to deny them “sanctuary in Cambodia.” He quickly corrected himself to say “Syria,” but the point was made.
We’ve been here before, as the failures of American policy and strategy in Vietnam metastasized into war in Cambodia and Laos to deny sanctuary to North Vietnamese forces. As with ISIS, we were told that they were barbarians who sought to impose an evil philosophy across an entire region. They, too, famously needed to be fought “over there” to prevent them from attacking us here. We didn’t say “the Homeland” back then, but you get the picture.
As the similarities with Vietnam are telling, so is the difference. When the reality of America’s failure in Vietnam finally became so clear that there was no one left to lie to, America’s war there ended and the troops came home. They never went back. America is now fighting the Iraq War for the third time, somehow madly expecting different results, while guaranteeing only failure. To paraphrase a young John Kerry, himself back from Vietnam, who’ll be the last to die for that endless mistake? It seems as if it will be many years before we know.
1) “Inclusive” Government
A cornerstone of solving Iraq, however defined, is the formation of an inclusive government, one that addresses the needs of Sunnis, Shia and Kurds, gives each a sense of substantive participation, creates safety for each and allows decision-making to take place while assuring the Shias do not slink back into dominance. Since the new prime minister, handmaiden to the U.S. and approved by Iran, is a Shia and former colleague of Maliki and member of the same political party, inclusiveness falls to appointments to key ministries and the powers delegated to those ministers.
The big ones to watch are Defense and Interior. Both ministries have been used as tools of repression against Sunnis since at least 2006. A key Sunni in one or both is good. A “for show” Sunni is bad. It is highly unlikely the U.S. will allow two Shias to be chosen, but leaving the posts empty, as they are now, is nearly as bad.
2) For-Show Sunnis
Of the many mistakes the U.S. made during the Occupation, one was the empowerment of not powerful Sunnis, many of whom were simply carpetbaggers out for a buck or a million bucks, or just lesser leaders hoping to move up with U.S. help. This undermined broader support, as the Sunni people knew who the fakes were even if the U.S. didn’t, or didn’t care. Information on individual Sunnis who come to some power will be hard to find, but look for it, as it will make clearer whether such men will add to or help mask the truth about inclusiveness.
Most gestures are just that, empty statements. Any real progress in Iraq requires concrete, substantive action by the Shia government; they have a lot of distrust to overcome among their Sunni and Kurd populations.
Simple statements, however trumpeted by the U.S. as signs of progress, typically framed as “you have to walk before you run,” are likely just propaganda. A trick employed by the Iraqi government during the Occupation was to announce one thing in English to the Western media, and say nothing, or say something quite different, in their own media. If possible, check news sources with Arabic speakers on the ground in Iraq closely. I recommend @prashantrao, @JoelWing2, @reidarvisser, @berendvh, @IraqDaily, @iraqbiznews, @tarangoNYT, @LizSly, @AJEnglish, @iraqoilreport and just for laffs, @USEmbBaghdad.
One big deal but unlikely gesture: Allow the former Sunni Vice President, Tariq al-Hashemi, now in exile under a death warrant, to return. Huge deal: give him a place in the new government. He’s no angel, but it will get the Sunnis’ attention.
Any signs that Shia militia are being reigned in off the battlefield are good. Examples of them targeting Sunnis in Baghdad or elsewhere are bad things. Examples of whatever remains of the Iraqi military proper really fighting with the peshmerga, as opposed to fighting nearby while the Americans make everyone fight nice together, are good. Sunni units fighting in one place, Shia in another and Kurds in a third are bad signs. Don’t be fooled by showcase episodes, such as when CNN just happens to be embedded just as a Shia unit happens to help out a Kurd unit.
Of course, when ISIS overruns an Iraqi Army base near Baghdad and executes 300 government troops as they did recently, and somehow U.S. airpower is unable to intervene, that is a bad turn. Same for reported ISIS bombings inside Baghdad city.
Watch claims of victory carefully. Many small towns will change hands, especially if ISIS follows Insurgency 101 tactics of just temporarily melting away when faced with bad odds. Unless and until the Iraqi government actually controls Mosul and especially Fallujah, there is still a l-o-n-g way to go in this struggle.
5) U.S. Bombing
More U.S. “successes” closer and closer to Baghdad are bad, especially south of the city where Sunni-Shia seams still exist. How the inevitable “collateral damage” and/or bombing mistake that takes out a school or hospital is handled will be very important. The Shia government has to keep a wary population at least neutral toward the Americans. There is a large group of people inside Iraq who believe ISIS is a CIA creation designed to create a causa belli for American forces to re-enter Iraq.
More war porn video of smart bombs snuffing ISIS Toyotas or individual mortars is bad, signs that there is little to blow up that makes any difference. More U.S. aircraft being based inside Iraq is a sign that the U.S. may get those permanent bases it has always wanted, and likely has little to do with the conflict per se.
Another bad news thing: basing American aircraft in-country, as is happening now near Erbil and with a small number of helicopters inside Baghdad International Airport, means a long “tail.” That tail includes U.S. maintenance and armorers on the ground, staff to feed and protect them, and shipments in of bombs and spare parts. Every persn becomes a target that can expand the conflict. Yep, it is that slippery slope thing again.
6) That Coalition
If the U.S. insists on any of its Arab “partners” doing any bombing outside western Iraq near Syria, bad news. No one inside Iraq wants Arab forces loose inside the country. The Shia government would be especially troubled, given how much of the local coalition comes from Sunni nations. It is unlikely even the U.S. is clumsy enough to push for this, but then again, you never know.
Keep an eye on Turkey, who is shaping up to really get the dirty end of the stick because of U.S. efforts. The Turks fear a powerful Kurdish entity on its disputed border with Kurdistan/Iraq, fear internal strife from its own restive Kurdish population and are wary of U.S. efforts to further arm and empower Kurds, and move them deeper into Syria as proxy boots on the ground. That would put the Kurds on two Turkish borders. The Turks are also bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis the U.S. is creating by bombing Syria. Anything the U.S. does to alleviate Turkish concerns is good, anything else is bad.
Iran of course is the place where all the lines intersect in Iraq, as well as Syria and throughout the parts of the Middle East the U.S. is most concerned about, never mind the nuclear issue.
But sticking to Iraq, watch everything Iran says, does, or has said about it. Right now, the U.S.’ influence in Baghdad is mostly being bought with “aid” money (the Kurds have more needs, primarily U.S. assurances of their de facto autonomous status vis-vis Baghdad.) The foreign power with the most influence throughout Iraq, and especially with the central government, is Iran. The prime minister and his party have deep ties to Iran, and won’t make a significant move without at least tacit approval. Iran has funded and retains connections into many Shia militias and can reel them in or push them out into the war.
Iran has overtly committed those elusive boots on the ground to the struggle. Iran, as the power that did not leave Iraq, has credibility on the ground with the Shia, and scares the sweat out of Sunnis and Kurds, who know the U.S. will again depart someday while the Iranians will share at least a border with them forever.
While there is no doubt the U.S. and Iran are speaking via some back channel, a very good sign would be overt discussions. A bad sign would be pop ups of anger over the nuclear issue. The U.S. may, for domestic political reasons, foolishly try and separate the issues of Iran-Iraq and Iran-Nukes, but inside Iran there is no such divide; both are part of the uber-issue of U.S.-Iran relations.
What Iran does will affect the struggle in Iraq as much as any other single factor. Watch for it.
“Dude, I grew up on the classic U.S. sound, you remember, democracy, equality, promotion of freedom. My favorite was ‘The Peace Corps,’ but ‘We Won’t Invade You This Month’ got me through some rough times in college. But this new stuff, meh,” said one long-time fan, sweeping aside his gray ponytail.
“We Will Bomb You, Because” opened big inside the United States, where the United States still enjoys a steady following. A recent track, “Who Cares What You Think, Featuring al Qaeda,” saw over one million downloads its first week alone. “The addition of al Qaeda to the tune pumped new life into an old franchise,” stated Rolling Stone in its review, “but subsequent attempts to roll in ISIS and Khorasan just did not work when al Qaeda balked at joining the U.S. in touring the new material. “Just isn’t the same,” said Stone. “America has gone to the well too many times with the same material. They’re just phoning this new wave of terror stuff in.”
When reached for comment, lead singer of the United States Barack Yeezus Obama remained hopeful. “Any time the group moves in a new direction, you risk losing some old time fans. We saw that just after we dropped the “NSA” album. But many times the old timers just give up and come to reluctantly accept what you are shoveling out, and of course new material also brings in new fans.”
“For example,” chimed in backup singer George The W Bush, “look at what happened with our seminal ‘It’s 9/11, Bitch’ multi-platinum work. Not only did we rope in millions and millions of fans worldwide, but after sales tapered off following the disastrous Iraq tour, our old fans sucked it up and started taking their shoes off at the airport without a complaint. We even spun off the mega-platinum group DHS from all that. And when a small group of former fans started making too many negative comments online, we just had them tortured and imprisoned indefinitely. Let’s see Beyonce do that.”
“And,” said Obama hopefully, “the recent tours in Yemen and Somalia have been huge successes. We have high hopes for Syria and the new material as well. We da’ bomb ya’all!”
The band also acknowledged the growing popularity of long-time rival group Iran, but shrugged off any notion that the United States would not continue to dominate the market in the long-run.
A spokesperson for the United States did quietly add that the group is not totally unaware of its falling image abroad. She hinted that the current tour will work in additional classic material, and a greatest hits collection will be out in time for Christmas. The United States plans also to donate a percentage of sales to the Wounded Warrior charity.
“You gotta give back,” said the spokesperson.
Barack Obama told Americans every worker deserves to know “if you lose your job, your country will help you train for an even better one.” A nice sentiment,and politically safe; it’s just the wrong answer. Those “better jobs” don’t exist, and training doesn’t create jobs. Despite all that, every year the U.S. government spends billions of dollars on job training, with little impact. What’s the right answer?
In 2007 then-candidate Obama visited Janesville, Wisconsin, location of the oldest General Motors plant in America. Echoing his current promise to support unemployed Americans with job training, Obama proclaimed “I believe that, if our government is there to support you, this plant will be here for another hundred years.” However, two days before Christmas and just about a month before Obama’s inauguration, the plant closed forever, throwing 5,000 people out of work. This devastated the town, because most residents either worked in the plant or in a business that depended on people working in the plant. Congress paid for a $2 million retraining program, using state community colleges the way the government once used trade schools, a century ago, to teach new immigrants the skills they needed to work at GM.
This time around, however, those who finished their retraining programs for the most part simply became trained unemployed people, rather than untrained ones. Having a certificate in “heating and ventilation” or training in new welding techniques did not automatically lead to a job in those fields. There were already plenty of people out there with such certificates, never mind actual college degrees (the United States graduated 1,606,000 students with bachelor’s degrees in 2014.) Of those that completed some form of training, nearly 40 percent did not find work. And those in Janesville who did find work in some field saw their take-home pay drop by 36 percent. A look at Craigslist job ads for the town shows one ad for heating and ventilation work, with a demand for three years experience. Under “General Labor” the work is for janitors, newspaper delivery and things like light manufacturing at $8.50 an hour.
Obama’s calls for job training also belies the fact that the government already spends approximately $18 billion a year to administer 47 job training programs. The actual value of those programs remains unclear. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that only five programs assessed whether people who found jobs did so because of the program and not some other cause. In addition, the GAO learned that almost all training programs overlap with at least one other training program. “Federal job training sounds like something that should boost the economy,” writes the Cato Institute, “but five decades of experience indicate otherwise.”
The panacea myth of job training crosses party lines. The GAO reported that in 2003, under the George W. Bush administration, the government spent $13 billion on training, spread across 44 programs. Job training may again be on the GOP agenda, even if the parties differ on the details. Politically, some sort of job training just sounds good. The problem is that it won’t really help America’s 10.5 million unemployed.
So the $18 billion question is: if training is not the answer, what is?
Jobs. Jobs that pay a living wage. The 2008 recession wiped out primarily high and middle wage jobs, with the strongest employment growth in the recovery taking place in low wage employment, to the point where the United States has the highest number of workers in low wage jobs of all industrialized nations.
There are many possible paths to better-paying jobs in America whose spending power can spark a “virtuous cycle.” That would mean more employment leading to more spending and more demand, followed by more hiring. One kickstarter is simply higher wages in the jobs we do have. For example, recent Department of Labor studies show that the 13 states which raised their minimum wages added jobs (at higher wages of course) at a faster pace than those that did not. On a larger, albeit more contentious scale, are options such as a WPA-like program, changes to tax and import laws to promote domestic manufacturing, infrastructure grants and the like. There’s $18 billion to work with for a start.
No matter the path forward, the bottom line remains unchanged: Training does not create jobs. Jobs create the need for training. Anything else is just politics.
My thanks to the organizers, sponsors and especially the 400-some people who came out to hear me yesterday at the Louisville Idea Festival 2014. Thanks also to Kris Kimmel for inviting me, and to Ellen McGrit for handling the Q&A.
Talking about economic disparity, the myths of our economy that encourage people to act against their own self-interest and the Great Game that allows a tiny percentage to own– and control– the remaining 99%– can be heavy going, and often less than pleasant conversation. My hat’s off to the people of Louisville for working through it with me, challenging my conclusions with good questions and most of all, hearing me out.
I hope to see you all again next year for Idea Festival 2015!
Following my discussion about Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, at the always-excellent IDEA Festival in Louisville, Kentucky for 2014, I promised links to the articles and statistics mentioned. This will allow anyone who heard my talk to fact check what I said, and comment below.
Here they are, along with the written text of the speech.
Fire Dog Lake blogger Ohio Barbarian posted this review of Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent (emphasis added).
Yes, I know this book was featured on the FDL Book Salon back in May. I didn’t read that live; only skimmed it after the comments were closed, and I probably wouldn’t have commented on it anyway, but when I saw Ghosts of Tom Joad, a Story of the #99Percent at my local public library, I thought I’d check it out.
I’m glad I did. It’s a great book and, in my ever so humble opinion, it is every bit as powerful as the classic John Steinbeck novel to which it refers.
Set in a fictional small town in Ohio, home of a shuttered glass factory and a shattered American Dream, the protagonist, Earl, is a high school football player who graduated around 1977. He’s not exactly a sympathetic character, at least not to me. He’s basically an ignorant jock who did as little school work as possible, then dropped out after he got hurt in the middle of dumb teenage jock roughhousing, couldn’t play anymore, and went to work in the same factory where his World War II vet grandpa and his Korean War vet dad had worked before him.
He starts out, at least, as the prototypical “small town small mind” my mother and then later myself always despised. By that I mean someone whose whole world is his little town, who never really wanted to go anywhere else, and was mostly incurious about the rest of the planet. Someone who just assumed if he didn’t get some miraculous football scholarship, he’d spend his life working at the factory, get married, and raise kids in the same little town just like his recent ancestors, and that was fine by him.
In other words, he’s who Nixon’s cabinet secretary Earl Butz was referring to when the latter said, “All the average American wants is cold beer in the fridge and a warm place to shit.”
Of course, being in a Rust Belt midwestern town, our Earl is laid off after just a few months, and quickly spirals down from one McJob to the next to Bullseye, a retail store clearly modeled by the author on Wal-Mart, to more McJobs to temp work to day labor to homelessness and despair.
Van Buren takes an interesting approach, making the whole story a series of flashbacks while Earl is riding on the city bus, which is sometimes real and sometimes metaphysical, or at least metaphorical.
I didn’t find most of the characters all that sympathetic or even likable, but that’s not necessary in order to empathize with them, at least not for me. Like Steinbeck did with The Grapes of Wrath 74 years ago, Van Buren creates a world where selfishness and greed on the part of a few has caused despair and sometimes sheer hopelessness on the part of the many, and he makes it real. I think it’s quite an accomplishment.
My favorite parts of the book are astute observations by various characters about the deliberate destruction of America’s social, economic, and even moral sustainability by the top 1% for fun and profit, and the often subconscious collusion they get from most of the rest of us because of how we’ve been told to think since birth. My very favorite is, “It ain’t about left and right anymore, it’s about up and down.” A close second is “This was no accident, no invisible hand…we changed from a place that made things…into a place that just makes deals. Making things creates jobs, and jobs create prosperity. Making deals just creates wealth for the dealers.”
Indeed. There’s more, much more, and the book is well-written and an easy read. I highly recommend it. In fact, it should be mandatory reading in public high schools and universities.
Note: Though I also write for the site Fire Dog Lake, I do not know the author of the review, and have never met him/her.