Unrelated News: When the city of Scranton, Pa., found itself down to its last $5,000 in the bank last week, it unilaterally cut the pay of city workers— including police officers and firefighters— to the minimum wage, just $7.25 an hour. “The teenagers who work at the ice cream stand not far from my house, they make $8.50 an hour — that’s a dollar and a quarter more than I now make,” said John Judge, a 10-year veteran firefighter.
U.S. auditors have concluded that more than $200 million was wasted by the State Department on a training program for Iraqi police that Baghdad says is neither needed nor wanted.
The Police Development Program— which was drawn up to be the single largest State Department program in the world — was envisioned as a five-year, multibillion-dollar push to train security forces after the U.S. military left last December. A report by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), released Monday, found that the American Embassy in Baghdad never got a written commitment from Iraq to participate. Now, facing what the report called Baghdad’s “disinterest” in the project, the embassy is gutting what was supposed to be the centerpiece of ongoing U.S. training efforts in Iraq.
According to the report, the embassy plans to turn over the $108 million Baghdad Police College Annex to Iraqis by the end of the year and will stop training at a $98 million site at the U.S. consulate in the southern city of Basra. Additionally, the number of advisers has been cut by nearly 90 percent — from 350 to 36.
SIGIR auditors noted that it “has clearly been difficult” for American diplomats to secure a solid commitment from Iraq’s government to participate in the training program. Still, the report concluded, “the decision to embark on a major program absent Iraqi buy-in has been costly” and resulted in “a de facto waste.”
In its last on-the-record comments about the failed police program, the State Department stated “We have no intention to cancel our police training program in Iraq… As you know, we are absolutely committed to supporting Iraqi self-reliance… And in this case, they are asking us to continue the advisory and training program but to downsize it.”
All told, SIGIR said the United States spent about $8 billion to train and equip Iraqi police since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
The Associated Press gently opined that “the findings call into question funding needs at the largest U.S. embassy in the world.”
I am not so gentle: at a time when American towns cannot afford to pay their own cops a living wage, the State Department diplomats who went ahead with a $200 million program for police in Iraq without local buy-in should be brought to trial for gross waste and mismanagement. This level of incompetence is criminal. This track record demands that State no longer be allowed to touch reconstruction money (Haiti, Afghanistan) without adult supervision. People, we need this money at home. Stop. the. waste.
Bonus: According to the most recent SIGIR report, the Department of State has 1,235 U.S. government civilian employees and 13,772 contractors (5,737 of whom were providing security services) on the payroll in Iraq.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
The Obama administration is supporting bipartisan legislation in Congress that would designate sites in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Hanford, Washington and Los Alamos, New Mexico as America’s newest national parks. They would stand alongside Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon as part of the country’s crown jewels.
Familiar names? They should be. The Hanford site produced plutonium during WWII. The Oak Ridge site enriched uranium. Workers in Los Alamos used those materials to assemble the Little Boy and Fat Man bombs dropped on Japan, killing about 200,000 civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as World War II ended. The sites were the production arms of the massive Manhattan Project that in large part created the current American Empire. Emerging from world war with the world’s largest army and only intact industrial society but also with the world’s only nuclear weapons gave the American Empire Project a kick start that is only now fading.
At the same time, war again looms as US she-devil Hillary Clinton (remember when Secretaries of State were the peace mongering part of the government?) declares “Our own choice is clear, we will use all elements of American power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
Israel denied (by which we mean, “called more attention to”) reports that Obama’s national security adviser briefed Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu on a U.S. contingency plan to attack Iran. A proxy war between the US and Iran, first on the ground in Lebanon and Iraq, now in cyberspace, waits to bubble over even as more Navy arrives in and near the Gulf in time for an October surprise (no use having a politically popular war while the Olympics dominate the media).
It is a matter of priorities. If you wanted to celebrate the justifiably awesome scientific accomplishments of the Manhattan Project, sites at Columbia or the University of Chicago where the basic research took place stand out. Designating Los Alamos and the others as national parks is a crude displacement of the ideals of the national park system and a celebration more of testosterone than science. Doing all this while at the same time risking another world war over Iranian nuclear ambitions makes far too clear the selfish, narrow and scared position the US now occupies in the world. For me, I’ll stick to Yellowstone, Boo Boo.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
(This was originally published on the Huffington Post, April 24, 2012)
Thank you for sending me copies of your books (they arrived in today’s mail), and thank you even more for writing “with admiration for your truth telling” inside the cover flap of one. I am humbled, because I waited my whole life to realize today I had already met you.
In 1971 I was ten years old, living in a small town in Ohio. The Vietnam War was a part of our town’s life, same as the Fruehauf tractor-trailer plant with its 100% union workforce, the A&P and the Pledge of Allegiance. Nobody in my house went to war, but neighbors had blue and gold stars in their windows and I remember one teacher at school, the one with the longer hair and the mustache, talking about Vietnam. It meant little to me, involved with sports and oncoming puberty, but I remember my mom bringing home from the supermarket a newsprint quickie paperback edition of the Pentagon Papers. She knew of politics and Vietnam maybe even less than I did, but the Papers were all over the news, the Lady Gaga of their day, and it seemed the thing to do to spend the $1.95. My Dad flipped through the book, pronounced it garbage and when I tried to make sense of the names and foreign places it made no impact on me.
I didn’t know then that in the years before my mom bought that paperback what you had done. I didn’t know that the US had been at war in Vietnam since the 1950’s, that it was US duplicity that divided the country into North and South, and that a series of Presidents had customarily lied to the American people about what we were doing in a third world jungle. I did not know that at the time you were working at the RAND corporation, and that a secret history of the Vietnam War, the real story of our involvement, had been commissioned. While I was in fourth grade trying to learn multiplication, you were making photocopies of these then-classified documents. As you read them, you understood that the government had knowledge early on that the war could not be won, and that continuing the war would lead to many times more casualties than was ever admitted publicly. As the New York Times was to write, the documents “demonstrated, among other things, that the Johnson Administration had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance.”
New York Times Stands
A lot of people inside the government had read those same Papers and understood their content, but only you decided that instead of simply going along with the lies, or privately using your new knowledge to fuel self-eating cynicism, you would try to persuade US Senators Fulbright and McGovern to release the papers on the Senate floor. When they did not have the courage, even as they knew the lies continued to kill Americans they represented, you brought the Papers to the New York Times. The Times then echoed with the courage of great journalists and published the Papers, fought off the Nixon Administration (New York Times v. The United States) by calling to the First Amendment and brought the truth about lies to America. That’s when my mom bought a copy of the Papers at the A&P.
You were considered an enemy of the United States because when you encountered something inside of government so egregious, so fundamentally wrong, that you risked your own freedom to make it public. You almost went to jail, fighting off charges under the same draconian Espionage Act that Obama uses today to silence others who stand in your shadow.
Fast Forward to Iraq
In 2009 I volunteered to serve in Iraq for my employer of some 23 years, the Department of State. While I was there I saw such waste in our so-called reconstruction program, such lies put out by two administrations about what we were (not) doing in Iraq, that it seemed to me that the only thing I could do—had to do—was tell people about what I saw. In my years of government service, I experienced my share of dissonance when it came to what was said in public and what the government did behind the public’s back. In most cases, the gap was filled only with scared little men and women, and what was left unsaid just hid their flaws.
What I saw in Iraq was different. There, the space between what we were doing (the waste), and what we were saying (the endless chant of success) was filled with numb soldiers and devastated Iraqis, not nerveless bureaucrats. It wasn’t Vietnam in scale or impact, but it was again young Americans risking their lives, believing for something greater than themselves, when instead it was just another lie. Another war started and ended on lies, while again our government worked to keep the truth from the people.
I am unsure what I accomplished with my own book, absent losing my job with the State Department for telling a truth that embarrassed them. So be it; most people at State will never understand the choice of conscience over career, the root of most of State’s problems. There are higher goals than obedience.
But Dan, what you accomplished was this. When I faced a crisis of conscience, to tell what I knew because it needed to be told, coming to realize I was risking at the least my job if not jail, I remembered that newsprint copy of the Papers from 1971 you risked the same and more to release. I took my decision in the face of the Obama administration having already charged more people under the Espionage Act for alleged mishandling of classified information than all past presidencies combined, but more importantly, I took my decision in the face of your example.
Thank you for the books you sent me Dan, and for the sentiments you expressed toward me inside them. Thank you for your courage so that when I needed it, I had an example to assess myself against other than the limp men and women working now for a Department of State too scared of the truth to rise to claim even a whisper of the word courage for themselves.
On April 25 a number of people will gather in Washington DC for this year’s Ridenhour Prize, which recognizes patriots who choose acts of truth-telling that protect the public interest, promote social justice or illuminate a more just vision of society. I am proud to have been nominated. One of this year’s winners is Congressman John Lewis, whose life working for social justice started when he walked alongside Dr. King. Another awardee this year is Lieutenant Colonel Danny Davis, a soldier whose leaked documents on the Afghan War revealed the same rotten lies at its heart that we saw in our previous wars. Daniel Ellsberg was the first person awarded the Ridenhour, his award simply for Courage.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
The US can’t contain its glee over the ongoing chaos and destruction in Syria. A massive bombing that killed senior officials, an act that would have instantly been labeled terrorism anywhere else, was delightfully lightly commented on by the White House. Atrocities are occurring on all sides (it is too complex to simply refer to the ongoing free-for-all as “both” sides, as if this was a sporting match) but the US seems to single out nasty things done by the government while downplaying those by the other side(s), including a growing who’s who of Middle East terror groups.
While more-or-less openly supporting chaos, the US still feels the need on a random summer Friday to play at the same tired rhetoric of “democracy and freedom” (“daf”) that it trots out now and then. Today’s trotter is US ambassador to Syria in exile Robert Ford. Ford is an old State Department hand, with plenty of mileage in the Iraq fiasco to his credit, and rumored in fact to be the next ambassador nominee to Iraq.
Ford’s address “to the Syrian people” takes place in English and on Facebook for some reason. He is not Lincoln or Pericles. While it is barely worth the effort itself of the mouse click, the comments below it, many purportedly from Syrians, are worth your time.
One writes “Our memory is LONG LONG LONG Mr. Ford, who the hell do you think you are messing with?” while another is more to the point in saying “piss off Ford.”
Read the whole thing yourself now on freaking Facebook and of course feel free to comment yourself.
Bonus: It appears that most Americans are ignoring this “address” by Ford, confusing “Syria” with Siri the Apple robot voice or Suri, Tom Cruise’s child.
Full Disclosure: Yeah, OK, I commented appropriately on Facebook. Also, Ford was Deputy Chief of Mission in Baghdad while I served in Iraq, and almost fired me over the idiotically wasteful “Sheep for Widows” project I opposed, as outlined in my book.
Here’s something genuinely different from TomDispatch.com.
In response to Nick Turse’s July 12 piece, “Obama’s Scramble for Africa,” Colonel Tom Davis, the director of the U.S. Africa Command Office of Public Affairs, wrote in disputing a number of Turse’s points. Though TomDispatch does not normally post letters to the editor or have a comments section, this seemed interesting enough to make an exception. The debate is now up at the site.
The article makes for important reading as we learn of a growing US military presence throughout Africa (Admitted: Uganda, South Sudan, Mali, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Botswana, Kenya, Burundi, Ethiopia and Djibouti, currently some 5,000 personnel), complete with complex special ops, US troops on the ground engaged in “training” and occasional combat, along with the sad, usual accidents involving prostitutes and naughty boys that follow our military worldwide, most recently in Mali.
The back-and-forth between the Army and TomDispatch lays bare their two worldviews – Washington’s urge to garrison and control the planet militarily and a critical response that calls for a major downsizing of the U.S. mission in the world. There is a lot of information in this article on a topic covered lightly if at all by most other media sources.
Bonus: While the Army took the time to read, respond and intelligently challenge TomDispatch, the web site remains blocked and unavailable to State Department employees still, due to some mysterious “Wikileaks” connection never made clear. State Department employees cannot follow this important debate, by senior management decision. Sorry, enjoy your irrelevance. Breaking: State Department people who do wish to read the article can do so on a mirror site, Salon.
Bonus Bonus: While the primary US engagement in Africa continues to morph into a military one, China’s dominant relationships on the continent are economic.
Over the course of the last year or so I have met many men and women who risked their freedom, their careers and their livelihoods to expose government waste, fraud, unconstitutional domestic spying, torture and more– “blowing the whistle” as it has come to be known.
Instead of talking about what is a whistleblower, maybe it is better to say why is a whistleblower. Some easy points: No one intends to do this, starts out with a plan, hides among unsuspecting bureaucrats for say 15-20 years waiting for the right moment to tear down the wall. No gray ponytails, no earrings or Grateful Dead tattoos among us. We’ve heard of Anonymous in the same way we’ve heard of Lady Gaga but don’t know either well.
We’re made. We’re made by what the government does, and what we witness. If government did what the founders expected it to do– public service– we would not be here, like the mushrooms that don’t pop up on the lawn. Unfortunately, it’ll be awhile before that happens.
The thing is, there should be more of us and not simply for the cheap reveal that the government does lots of naughty things. It probably does, but the reasons why there should be more whistleblowers is because so much of what we see is seen by so many. You have a right to know how your tax money is being spent. To allow more people to stand up and tell the public what is really going on inside government, whistleblowers need to be protected. There need to be meaningful protections for conscientious truth tellers in government. Otherwise you– the people– will know less and less about what your government really does behind closed doors, just the way the government would like things to be. Nice and quiet, nothing to see here, move along and enjoy your Hulu.
That is where this Open Letter from whistleblowers on the WPEA comes in. While Congress has provided credible rights for private sector whistleblowers, rights for government workers are weak.
If you’d like to learn more about or donate to organizations that work to protect whistleblowers, both the Government Accountability Project (GAP) and the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) are excellent places. I personally owe much to both groups for protecting me. While GAP and POGO support this letter, it is organized by whistleblowers Evy Brown and David Pardo.
Bonus: Since I published the letter above, US Marine Corps whistleblower Franz Gayl has also signed.
Example No. 1 was then-ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, who oversaw a good chunk of the State Department’s failed reconstruction follies in America’s longest war. Crocker had previously overseen a good chunk of the State Department’s failed reconstruction in Iraq as ambassador there. He was also recycled to be ambassador in Pakistan, where things are also going swimmingly in anticipation of someone else’s disclosure book-to-come. Why keep sending a guy who failed at leading reconstruction efforts repeatedly back to lead some more off a cliff?
The Crocker example was paired with a piece on State’s failures in post-earthquake reconstruction in Haiti, lead there by now-departing US ambassador Kenneth Merten (Merten’s departure was marked by the freakish sideshow caricature above, posted on the embassy’s official Facebook page; Crocker’s embassy staff blessed his departure by naming a hut after him. My own departure from the State Department will no doubt by marked by them simply slamming the door shut behind me).
Today we learn from Diplopundit that Merten was the recipient of the 2011 Ryan C. Crocker Award for Outstanding Leadership in Expeditionary Diplomacy, for, of course, “his extraordinary leadership of the unprecedented U.S. government response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake, which… embodies the highest virtues of public service and crisis management.”
So to sum up things at the State Department: a guy who fails at reconstruction gets chosen to do it again, then gets an award for such work named after him, and that award is given to another guy who was largely unsuccessful at the task.
Aw yes, the circle is complete. As one philosopher stated, self-love is the purest form of affection. Gotta go wash up now.
The Washington Post’s Al Kamen, reviewing Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s new book Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistanon the failure of reconstruction (and everything else) in Afghanistan, pulls out some State Department-specific highlights:
Two-thirds of the supposed nation-building civilians are camped out in Kabul and not out in the field;
Eleven Bolivian engineers were brought in to show how a U.S.-backed program there to build cobblestone roads could be repeated in Afghanistan. A short demonstration stretch was built. But the Afghans objected. They wanted gravel and asphalt. The cobblestones, they claimed, hurt their camels’ hooves.
Huge amounts of money were dumped into one district to employ lots of day laborers at good wages. Then the schools “suddenly closed.” The “teachers had become day laborers because the pay was better.”
There was the State Department official who had worked anti-narcotics in Bogota. He brought in two Colombian women for a 12-day visit to talk about their country’s reintegration of FARC rebels. “But they spoke no English,” Chandrasekaran writes, “and no Marine battalion wanted to host them.” So they were dispatched to meet with Afghan officials. A senior official listened to them talk through an interpreter for an hour. “’Our problems are very different,’ he said as he got up to leave. ’But I love to hear the sound of Spanish.’”
Kamen writes that in predictable State Department style, these disclosures have sparked a scramble in the Kabul embassy compound to compile “success stories” to counter the book’s analysis.
The same thing happened in Iraq. If you want to read now the old claims of success in Iraq, they are still, without apparent irony, online on the Baghdad Embassy web site.
(Pictured is then-ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, who oversaw the State Department reconstruction follies. Crocker had previously overseen State Department reconstruction in Iraq as ambassador there. He was also recycled to be ambassador in Pakistan, where things are also going swimmingly in anticipation of someone else’s disclosure book-to-come.)
If the definition of mental illness is doing the same thing repeatedly hoping for different results, the Department of State is clearly and simply insane as an organization.
While my book chronicled the State Department’s utter failure in the reconstruction of Iraq, and Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan details the Department’s ongoing failure in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, it is the Associated Press that shows us now how the State Department is failing in the reconstruction of Haiti.
Remember like a hundred years ago (it was two years ago) Haiti had this big earthquake and Sean Penn had to go there to fix things? Well in addition to Sean Penn (Clooney was tied up on location), the US pledged to reconstruct Haiti, under the auspices of the Department of State. We would rebuild the country.
State Tries to Hide its Failure
Of course the State Department would not tell anyone how things were going, so the AP had to pry it from them. A major frustration for watchdogs of the U.S. effort is a lack of transparency over how the millions of dollars are being spent, claims the AP, saying that from interviews to records requests, efforts to track spending in Haiti by members of Congress, university researchers and news organizations have been met with resistance and even, in some cases, outright refusals from the always polite diplomats at the State Department.
“A series of requests from journalists may come your way,” cautioned Karine Roy, a spokeswoman for USAID, in an email to about 50 humanitarian aid officials. “Wait for formal clearance from me before releasing any information.” U.S. contractors, from pollsters to private development firms, told the AP that USAID had asked them not to provide any information, and referred to publicly released descriptions of their projects.
The Real Story
However, contracts, budgets and a 300-item spreadsheet obtained by the Associated Press under a Freedom of Information Act request show why Foggy Bottom tried to hide:
Less than 12 percent of the reconstruction money sent to Haiti after the earthquake has gone toward energy, shelter, ports or other infrastructure. At least a third, $329 million, went to projects that were awarded before the 2010 catastrophe and had little to do with the recovery.
Half of the $1.8 billion the U.S. promised for rebuilding is still in the Treasury, its disbursement stymied by an understaffed U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince in the months after the quake and by a Haitian government that was barely functional for more than a year.
Despite State Department promises to keep spending public, some members of Congress and watchdogs say they aren’t getting detailed information about how the millions are being spent, as dozens of contractors working for the U.S. government in Haiti leave a complex money trail.
Of the $988 million spent so far, a quarter went toward debt relief to unburden the hemisphere’s poorest nation of repayments. But after Haiti’s loans were paid off, the government began borrowing again: $657 million so far, largely for oil imports rather than development projects.
And of Course, Contractors Profit
The single largest recipient of funding is, of course, a Washington, D.C.-area contractor named Chemonics, which has received more than $58 million, including $6.8 million to remove rubble, $7.2 million to develop a market for environmentally friendly cook stoves (a big personal Hillary issue; it was the reason she went to China recently), money for youth soccer tournaments (a popular money-waster in Iraq reconstruction as well) and “key cultural celebrations” including Flag Day and Mother’s Day. Even a Chemonics spokeswoman admits only 67 percent of the federal money went to Haitians.
Huge surprise: Chemonics also has mucho contracts for work in Afghanistan!
Meanwhile, 390,000 people are still homeless. The U.S. promised to rebuild or replace thousands of destroyed homes, but so far has not built even one new permanent house. The State Department, in response to the damning AP report sort of, kinda, maybe acknowledges that efforts to build shelters have been “slower than anticipated.”
However, on State’s own Diplonote blog, reads by dozens at State daily, it is all success baby, all golden unicorn rainbow happy time. They assure us all that “the U.S. Government is Committed to Transparency and Accountability” in Haiti. As part of that assurance the blog tries to link to the Federal Procurement Data System so you can peruse existing contracts but they have the wrong link (the correct link is here). Somewhat oddly, the blog reminds that “If you don’t look closely, numbers can be deceiving.”
Same as it Ever Was
You’d think with all this practice that State might get reconstruction at least partially right at some point, and course it is possible that snowflakes will fly out of my butt someday too. But once again, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have the same elements of failure present: big, empty promises, an understaffed embassy floundering, propaganda friendly priorities that emphasize that whatever we do is for us, not the locals and contractors sopping up the cash like the pigs at the trough that they are.
Best for Last
State’s constant failures are built around a rotten core. Lacking any objective measurement of right and wrong, good or bad– no hills to conquer, sales quotas to exceed, battles to win, soldiers to count as trained, customer lists to build– “success” inside the State Department is fully and solely dependent on one’s yearly evaluation, which is dependent on pleasing your boss’ whims, which are dependent on his/her boss’ needs. This rarely has anything to do with making life any better for the stupid Haitians.
The Associated Press illustrates this with a wonderful story.
One of State’s most tangible post-earthquake accomplishments was the construction of a bridge across the muddy Ennery River. The bridge had been down for more than a year before the 2010 earthquake, a casualty of the 2008 hurricane season. Plans had been sketched for a new bridge, but there wasn’t funding. A few days after the quake, Hillary Clinton was being driven around for some disaster tourism when her car bounced across a partially submerged temporary crossing of the Ennery River.
“USAID told me, ‘This came from Hillary Clinton herself: There must be a new bridge at Ennery,'” said engineer Larry Wright, who temporarily moved to Haiti from Wyoming to lead the $4 million project. “It’s known as the Hillary Bridge.” He said he didn’t know the funding came from earthquake reconstruction funds. “This had nothing to do with the quake,” said Wright.
Iraqis Afghans, the joke is on you. Again.
On the State Department’s Diploblog, which features heavily screened comments (don’t ask me how I know), one patriotic asshole named “Michael H.” couldn’t help but say:
I enjoy all of the State Dept. e-mails that I am registered to receive. The information from Administration to Administration has been informative and it certainly goes beyond the information that is available through news-networks.
State’s stalwart ambassador to Haiti released today an “op-ed” in the Miami Herald just plump full of happy thoughts on Haiti. Predictably, the puffy puff piece is very short on specifics; the best he could do was talk about an industrial park in the future tense, and even for that he makes no connection to anything the US may or may not have had to do with it. Lame; didn’t you people go to college?
If only the people who ordered torture as a policy of the once magnificent United States had the stones to actually get their own hands dirty, maybe– maybe– things would be different? Good God, what have we become?
(The image above floated to me from the internet. Anyone with Photoshop skills who wants to redo this with Obama and his torturous henchmen, because the use of torture by the Government of the United States continues, and because Obama has refused to investigate the horrific actions of his predecessor, is welcome to do so and send it to me to run in this space. I do not in any way let Obama off the hook. There is plenty of blood on the hands of those now in power.)
Tracking for your convenience the value of our sacrifices for a free Iraq!
January 5, 2012 – Four bombs in mainly Shi’ite Muslim areas of Iraq kill at least 73 people with about 150 people wounded. The biggest attack takes place beside a police checkpoint west of Nassiriya, where a suicide bomber targeting Shi’ite pilgrims kills 44 people.
January 14 – A suicide bomber disguised as a policeman kills at least 53 people and wounds 130 more in an attack on Shi’ite pilgrims at a police checkpoint in Basra, southern Iraq.
January 27 – A suicide bomber explodes his vehicle near a Shi’ite funeral procession in the Zaafaraniya neighbourhood of Baghdad, killing at least 31 and wounding more than 60.
February 23 – About 60 people are killed in bomb blasts across Iraq. Thirty-two people die in Baghdad where 10 explosions tear through mainly Shi’ite neighborhoods.
March 20 – At least 30 explosions strike cities and towns across Iraq, killing at least 52 people and wounding 235, despite a security clampdown for an Arab League meeting. Al Qaeda’s Iraq wing claimed responsibility.
April 19 – More than 20 bombs hit cities and towns, killing at least 36 people and wounding almost 150. In Baghdad, three car bombs, two roadside bombs and one suicide car bomb hit mainly Shi’ite areas, killing 15 people and wounding 61. Again Iraq’s al Qaeda wing claims responsibility.
May 31 – Six explosions hit neighbourhoods across Baghdad, killing at least 17 people. Attacks include a truck bomb blast at a market, a car bomb and several roadside bombs on mixed neighbourhoods.
June 4 – A suicide car bomber detonates his vehicle outside a Shi’ite religious office in central Baghdad, killing at least 22 people and wounding more than 100 more in an attack officials say bears the hallmarks of Iraq’s al Qaeda affiliate.
June 13 – More than 75 people are killed in bombings and attacks in Baghdad and other cities. At least 30 people are killed when four bombs hit pilgrims in Baghdad. Another Baghdad blast kills 16 people as pilgrims passed through a checkpoint in Karrada district. In Hilla at least 22 people are killed when two bombs explode.
June 16 – At least 26 people are killed and more than 60 wounded when double car bombs strike at Shi’ite pilgrims in Baghdad, in the third day of violence during the major religious festival in the capital.
July 3 – A bomb in a truck kills 40 people and wounds 75 others in a market in Diwaniya. The blast was near a mosque where pilgrims were gathering for a Shi’ite celebration. Another blast kills four more people near Karbala.
In an age where dissent is thought of as a form of treason, where Federal agencies spy on their own employees to prevent whistleblowing, it is important to remind ourselves that as government workers– f*ck that, public servants– we have an obligation to speak out to the people we serve.
MacBain’s piece uses the voices of Daniel Ellsberg, author Eyal Press (Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times), attorney Chase Madar(The Passion of Bradley Manning), me, and one-time Constitutional law professor Barack Obama.
Listen to it carefully, before someone switches the channel on you and
I recently wrote about the State Department’s increasing irrelevancy. About one out of every four positions are unfilled or under-staffed, while the military continues to assume a greater and greater role in America’s relations with other countries. You can read more here.
The article brought forth the usual handful of angry emails from offended Foreign Service Officers unable to cope with the cognitive dissonance of their own irrelevancy in a job they worked so hard to obtain and which constantly tells them they are some sort of elite special forces kind of thing as they file stuff in triplicate.
So let’s poke our head under the rock at Foggy Bottom and see what State did today to assert its crucial importance to anyone but itself.
The State Department issued a Worldwide Caution, nearly identical in wording to the same Worldwide Caution they have been re-issuing about every six months since the 9/11 wake up call. The purpose of this document is clear: “U.S. citizens are reminded to maintain a high level of vigilance and to take appropriate steps to increase their security awareness.”
Well now, that seems important. Let’s drill down a bit. I bet you did not know this:
Current information suggests that al-Qaida, its affiliated organizations and other terrorist groups continue to plan terrorist attacks against U.S. and Western interests in Europe. European governments have taken action to guard against terrorist attacks, and some have spoken publicly about the heightened threat conditions. In the past several years, attacks have been planned or occurred in various European cities.
Or maybe this will shock you into a higher level of vigilance:
Credible information indicates terrorist groups also seek to continue attacks against U.S. interests in the Middle East and North Africa. For example, Iraq remains dangerous and unpredictable.
Of course, not all the advice is so… generic. If you are planning a yacht trip off the coast of Somalia, the State Department quite correctly reminds you:
The U.S. government maritime authorities advise mariners to avoid the port of Mogadishu and to remain at least 200 nautical miles off the coast of Somalia. In addition, when transiting around the Horn of Africa or in the Red Sea, it is strongly recommended that vessels travel in convoys and maintain good communications at all times.
Now I bet a lot of mariners planning a casual transit around the Horn o’ Africa enroute to the spice trade would not have thought to maintain good communications. Noted!
A Safe Trip Abroad
The Worldwide Caution refers you to an online State Department pamphlet, A Safe Trip Abroad, that appears to have been written in 1955 by the Beaver’s mother. “To help avoid becoming a target, do not dress in a way that could mark you as an affluent tourist,” it scolds. “If you wear glasses, pack an extra pair.” “Bring travelers’ checks.” Do they even sell those anymore? Has anyone tried to cash a travelers’ check in this decade? “If possible, lock your luggage.” Oops, if you do that TSA will simply break the lock to inspect your underwear before you even board the plane. “Make two photocopies of your… airline tickets.” R i g h t… who out there is old enough to even remember paper aero-plane tickets?
It is not that this information has not been updated since 1989, but look at this paragraph:
Before you go, learn as much as you can about the local laws and customs of the places you plan to visit. Good resources are your library, your travel agent, and the embassies, consulates or tourist bureaus of the countries you will visit.
That is precious. Is it because most State Department offices don’t have web access yet that they still use libraries, travel agents and tourist bureaus? Do State travelers hope to pick up paper maps at local petrol stations enroute to the steamship or dirigible port?
Here ara a few things the State Department expects most Americans will take care of before that four day cruise to the Bahamas:
Have your affairs in order at home. If you leave a current will, insurance documents, and power of attorney with your family or a friend, you can feel secure about traveling and will be prepared for any emergency that may arise while you are away. If you have minor children, consider making guardianship arrangements for them.
OK honey, I have iPhone charged and loaded with the e-boarding passes. Did you construct a legal guardianship agreement for Wally and the Beaver or should I do that at the same time I incorporate us in the Caymens to avoid US taxes?
But of course, since the State Department is clearly not irrelevant, they save some of the best advice for last. Indeed, this seems to be advice that they follow themselves:
Try to seem purposeful when you move about. Even if you are lost, act as if you know where you are going.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released July 16 shows that overall more than one fourth of all State Department Foreign Service positions are either unfilled or are filled with below-grade employees. What should be staggering news pointing out a crisis in government is in fact barely worth a media mention in that State’s lack of personnel is silently tracking its increasing irrelevance to the United States, sliding into the role of America’s Concierge abroad.
Numbers are Much Worse Than at First Glance
In fact, broken down, it is much worse. At the senior levels, the alleged leaders of America’s diplomacy, the number is 36 percent vacant or filled with “stretch” assignments, people of lower rank and experience pressed into service. At the crucial midranks, the number is 26 percent. Entry level jobs are at 28 percent, though it is unclear how some of those can be filled with stretch assignments since they are already at the bottom.
In fact though, it is much worse. Within State’s Foreign Service ranks, there exists the Consular Bureau and everyone else. Consular stands quite separate from the other Foreign Service Officers in that Consular employees have very specific worker bee jobs processing passports and visas and are not involved in the “traditional” diplomatic tasks we know and love such as maintaining inter-government relations, writing reports, negotiating treaties, rebuilding Afghanistan and all that. Many of these jobs are filled because they have to be, cash cow that issuing visas is for increasingly foreign tourism dependent third world America. That means broken down by function, it is likely that there are even larger gaps in vacancies in traditional diplomatic roles than even the sad percentages suggest.
These vacancies and stretches at State are largely unchanged from the last time the GAO checked in 2008. GAO says in its report that “Although the State Department is attempting to compensate by hiring retirees and placing current civil service employees in Foreign Service jobs, it ‘lacks a strategy to fill those gaps.’”
(State has 10,490 Civil Service employees and was only able to convert four employees to the Foreign Service. That’s a 0.03813 percent conversion rate to help bridge the gap, so much for that idea. Want another perspective? Here’s why some Civil Servants might pass on the chance to become FSOs.).
In response to GAO, State said it agreed that its workforce planning should be updated to include a strategy to address staffing gaps and a plan to evaluate the strategy.
State’s somnolent response to what should be a crisis call (anyone wish to speculate on what the response might be to a report that the military is understaffed by 36 percent at the senior levels?) tells the tale. It really doesn’t matter, and even State itself knows.
What vibrant it-really-matters institution could persist with staffing gaps over time as gaping as State’s? Seriously friends, if your organization can continue to mumble along with over one out of four slots un/underfilled, that kinda shows that you don’t matter much.
And such is now the case with the US Department of State.
The Militarization of Foreign Policy
The most obvious sign of State’s irrelevance is the militarization of foreign policy. There really are more military band members than State Department Foreign Service Officers. The whole of the Foreign Service is smaller than the complement aboard one aircraft carrier. Despite the role that foreign affairs has always played in America’s drunken intercourse abroad, the State Department remains a very small part of the pageant. The Transportation Security Administration has about 58,000 employees; the State Department has about 22,000. The Department of Defense (DOD) has nearly 450,000 employees stationed overseas, with 2.5 million more in the US.
At the same time, Congress continues to hack away at State’s budget. The most recent round of bloodletting saw State lose some $8 billion while DOD gained another $5 billion. The found fiver at DOD will hardly be noticed in their overall budget of $671 billion. The $8 billion loss from State’s total of $47 billion will further cripple the organization. The pattern is familiar and has dogged State-DOD throughout the war of terror years. No more taxi vouchers and office supplies for you! What you do get for your money is the militarization of foreign policy.
As Stephen Glain wrote in his book, State vs. Defense: The Battle to Define America’s Empire, the combatant commands are already the putative epicenters for security, diplomatic, humanitarian and commercial affairs in their regions. Local leaders receive them as powerful heads of state, with motorcades, honor guards and ceremonial feats. Their radiance obscures everything in its midst, including the authority of US ambassadors.
Glain’s point is worth quoting at length:
This yawning asymmetry is fueled by more than budgets and resources [though the Pentagon-State spending ration is 12:1], however. Unlike ambassadors, whose responsibility is confined to a single country or city-state, the writ of a combatant commander is hemispheric in scope. His authority covers some of the world’s most strategic resources and waterways and he has some of the most talented people in the federal government working for him.
While his civilian counterpart is mired in such parochial concerns as bilateral trade disputes and visa matters, a combatant commander’s horizon is unlimited. “When we spoke, we had more clout,” according to Anthony Zinni. “There’s a mismatch in our stature. Ambassadors don’t have regional perspectives. You see the interdependence and interaction in the region when you have regional responsibility. If you’re in a given country, you don’t see beyond its borders because that is not your mission.”
America’s Concierge Abroad
The increasing role of the military in America’s foreign relations sidelines State. The most likely American for a foreigner to encounter in most parts of the world now, for better or worse, carries a weapon and drives a tank.
Among the many disclosures made in the alleged 250,000 alleged State Department alleged documents dumped on to Wikileaks was the uber revelation that most of State’s vaunted reporting on foreign events is boring, trivial and of little practical value (though well-written and punctuated properly). Apart from a few gossipy disclosures about foreign leaders and sleazy US behind-the-scenes-deals with crappy MidEast dictators, there were few dramatic KABOOMs in those cables. Even now State is struggling in the Bradley Manning trial to demonstrate that actual harm was done to national security by the disclosures.
Lop off a quarter or so of the Foreign Service for Consular work, which hums by more or less independent of the rest of the State Department.
That leaves for the understaffed Department of State pretty much only the role of concierge. America’s VIPs and wanna be VIPs need their hands held, their security arranged, their motorcades organized and their Congressional visits’ hotels and receptions handled, all tasks that falls squarely on the Department of State and its embassies abroad. “Supporting” CODELS (Congressional Delegations’ visits to foreign lands) is a right of passage for State Department employees, and every Foreign Service Officer has his/her war stories to tell. For me, while stationed in the UK, I escorted so many Mrs. Important Somebody’s on semi-official shopping trips that I was snarkily labeled “Ambassador to Harrod’s” by my colleagues. Others will tell tales of pre-dawn baggage handling, VIP indiscretions that needed smoothing over, and demands for this and that by so-called important people that rivaled rock star concert riders– no green M&Ms!
Best Cappuccino in Tripoli
Take another look at the photo above, of old man McCain visiting our embassy in Libya. The cut line read “US Amb. to #Libya Chris Stevens – one of America’s finest diplomats also makes one of the best cappuccinos in #Tripoli.”
McCain meant the comment as a compliment, and looking at the ambassador’s face, he is quite pleased with himself to be serving coffee to the Senator. Can anyone imagine a similar photo from Afghanistan or the Horn of Africa showing a Marine general in a similar stance?
No, you can’t.
Understaffed, with roughly a quarter of its jobs unfilled and no plan to do anything about it, fits the State Department just fine. It is, sadly, a perfect example of an evolutionary process of government right-sizing, fitting the resources well to the actual job. RIP State, you rest now, it’s almost over.
…With Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker Jim Spione, who was in Washington DC working on a film project about government whistleblowers. Jim interviewed me alongside several others, including Tom Drake, who have spoken out against government waste, fraud and abuse.
Jim’s previous film, Incident in New Baghdad, dealt with the leaked gun camera video of the massacre of unarmed Iraqi civilians. The film has played most recently on cable’s Documentary Channel and is a fascinating, horrifying look at one piece of America’s war in Iraq. I reviewed the movie previously.
We all know the feeling. You have a great time on vacation and then come home to see the Visa card bill. What were we thinking? Did we really spend that much on dinner? Who did we think we were buying drinks for the whole bar the last night?
Well, the US Department of State just had the same experience, only with the filed reconstruction of Iraq and a bill of some $55 billion.
In what it called its final audit report, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) on Friday spelled out a range of accounting weaknesses that put “billions of American taxpayer dollars at risk of waste and misappropriation” in the largest reconstruction project of its kind in US history. “The precise amount lost to fraud and waste can never be known,” the report said.
Here’s where I can help. I do know the precise amount lost to fraud and waste: all of it. Every freaking penny. Every dollar spent on Iraq that was not spent on Scranton, Detroit, Cleveland or New Orleans.
To be fair, the inspector general said that while he couldn’t pinpoint the amount wasted, it “could be substantial.”
A key weakness found by the inspectors was inadequate reviewing of contractors’ invoices. In some cases invoices were checked months after they had been paid because there were too few government contracting officers. They found a case in which the State Department had only one contracting officer in Iraq to validate more than $2.5 billion in spending on a DynCorp contract for Iraqi police training. “We found this lack of control to be especially disturbing since earlier reviews of the DynCorp contract had found similar weaknesses.”
In that case, the State Department eventually reconciled all of the old invoices and as of July 2009 had recovered more than $60 million.
$60 million out of $55 billion dollars. It’s s start right, just like jumping up brings you theoretically closer to the sun. Luckily, the over $66 billion and counting already spent on reconstruction in Afghanistan isn’t being wasted as it was in Iraq, going instead to buying chocolate unicorns and fluffy rainbows.
If you can handle it (my PTSD gets in the way), the full report is online)
(This article was originally published on the Huffington Post, June 1, 2012)
As other parts of the Federal government begin to examine their own practices toward social media and publication review, the State Department stands alone in clinging to a 19th century model emphasizing lack of transparency and message control. That State seeks this modus in a largely unclassified world and while other agencies move toward change makes even more ripe State’s policies for a judicial challenge.
Introspection at the CIA
The CIA, for example, has begun a voluntary internal investigation into whether a process designed to screen books by former employees for classified information is wrongly and unconstitutionally being used to censor agency critics. The investigation is aimed at determining whether some redactions have been politically motivated. The target of the probe is the agency’s Publications Review Board, which is supposed to focus on whether publication of material would threaten national security interests. CIA critics said the disparities in the review process are particularly apparent in books that deal with controversial subjects, including waterboarding and other forms of “authorized” torture. (The Washington Post story on the CIA’s internal reform was of course not included in the State Department’s own internal press summary of the same day’s “Federal News.”)
Embracing Social Media in the Army
The State Department’s regulations also trail behind other government agencies, particularly the military. Military regulations concerning blogging and social media are not onerous and do not involve pre-clearance requirements. The Army encourages blogging in both official and private capacities, and has published glossy brochure-ware highlighting best practices for each. Though the Army heavily regulated military blogging briefly in 2008, it quickly reversed course. Military Law statutes, regulations, and cases available do not contain any references to pre-clearance requirements.
In fact, the Army social media guidelines are all online, in a colorful, user-friendly slideshow. They begin with the stated premise that “It is important to be as transparent as possible. As communicators, we need to be the first with the truth, whether it’s good or bad.” The emphasis in the Army guidelines is on good judgement– don’t post things online that could endanger soldiers’ lives– with not a word mentioned about the need to pre-clear (indeed, the Army emphasizes the value of social media is in its immediacy) or the requirement to say only “nice things.” Indeed, the introduction to the social media guidelines emphasizes displaying the good with the bad, with “truth” as the goal. The Army guidelines provide lots of examples and include easy-to-understand (“soldier-proof”) checklists of Do’s and Don’t’s.
State Stands Alone
And then, standing alone, is the State Department.
State has its own regulations (not “guidelines”) on social media. No slick slide shows at State. The social media regs start with 15 pages of text, and begin by citing 27 Executive Orders, OMB decisions and Federal laws the user is responsible for following, including 18 U.S.C. 713 and 1017, Use of Department and Government Seals (rather than prohibiting the use of Seals and logos, as State does, the Army includes links to web-ready artwork so social media users get the images right) and whatever the Anti-Lobbying Act of 1913, is.
The secret sauce hidden in State’s hefty social media regulations is 3 FAM 4170, Official Clearance of Speaking, Writing, and Teaching. That reg is State’s requirement that all social media, even when posted as a private citizen, be pre-cleared, and that the State Department is allowed up to 30 working days to act.
That means the State Department demands of all of its thousands of employees that they seek pre-clearance for every blog post, update and Tweet, every day, 24/7. An exaggeration on my part? Sorry, no– have a look at the compliance letter I was forced to sign as a condition of employment, which specifically mentions these things even when done by an employee in his or her private capacity.
Obviously State cannot pre-clear what must add up to millions of social media utterances each week, and so it does not. In many instances when I have sought pre-clearance for a blog post on some timely matter, State simply sat on a response until, weeks later, the blog post was so irrelevant that it was not usable anymore. The law anticipated this type of government-foot-dragging-as-shadow-censorship, and in a seminal case on the free speech rights of Federal workers, stated:
But even then insistence on advance approval would raise a further question, as before-the-fact condemnation of speech raises special concerns such as undue delay-the review itself plus time needed for a speaker to secure judicial relief-and stifling of expression that in hindsight would have been viewed as harmless or not worth the enforcement effort.
Droppin’ Some Law On ‘Ya
It was actions such as this that lead the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to assert that the State Department violated my First Amendment free speech rights and acted unconstitutionally. My attempts to clear items for publication were met with lengthy delays and periods of no contact. It was indeed such actions by the Department that often lead me to publish without preclearance so that the material was relevant to breaking news.
Want some law? Specifically on the issue of foot dragging on pre-clearance as a clever technique to kill a story, in Weaver the Court noted “if the prior review were extensive, of course, it might delay constitutionally protected speech to a time when its only relevance was to historians.” In Crue v. Aiken, the 7th Circuit found a pre-clearance directive without a schedule for the review of proposed communications problematic because nothing prevented the reviewing official from delaying approval of communications until they were no longer relevant. (Crue v. Aiken, 370 F.3d 668, 679 (7th Cir. 2004)).
In Davis v. New Jersey Dept. of Law & Pub. Safety, the NJ Superior Court recognized that “before-the-fact review and approval requirements restrict employee speech—and raise special concerns such as undue delay and stifling of expression that in hindsight may be viewed as harmless or not worth the enforcement effort.” (Davis v. New Jersey Dept. of Law & Pub. Safety, Div. of State Police, 742 A.2d 619, 628-29 (Ch. Div. 1999)). Davis citing the Supreme Court in Freedman v. State of Maryland, notes that the danger present when a regulation “is made unduly onerous, by reason of delay or otherwise, to seek judicial review, the censor’s determination may in practice be final.” (Freedman v. State of Md., 380 U.S. 51, 58, 85 S. Ct. 734, 738, 13 L. Ed. 2d 649 (1965)).
I know, I know, too heavy Doc. It took the ACLU five dense pages to spell out in legal detail all the ways the State Department social media regulations were unconstitutional and violated my First Amendment free speech rights.
So it is not as simple as some claim, broadly announcing that Federal employees give up their First Amendment rights, or that social media and the responsibilities of a classified job are incompatible. Federal employees do not give up their First Amendment rights, and there is plenty of law to substantiate that.
The bottom line is this: If the hyper-classified CIA recognizes the need for an internal review of its pre-clearance process, why doesn’t the State Department? If the military, with its obvious day-to-day operational need for secrecy and its immediate impact on soldiers’ lives, can co-exist without pre-clearance restraints on blogs, why can’t State?
Given the chance to make sane, voluntary changes to an obviously out-dated social media policy that stands outside the boundaries of other Federal agencies with a whole lot more secrets to protect, State appears ready to instead insist on having those changes dictated to it by a court. That is an expensive, and in this case, unnecessary way to change out-dated regulations.
The police state developing nicely in America has no limits; once the government becomes afraid of its own people and wishes to stifle dissent, everyone is a suspect and no smidgen of dissent is to be allowed.
How might it work? Have a look at Bahrain, one of America’s happy allies in the Middle East (the US tolerates a nasty Sunni monarchy and the nasties allow the US to base the 5th Fleet there).
A Bahraini court ruled that an 11-year-old boy named Hasan, accused of taking part in anti-government protests, must be monitored by authorities. The government alleges he was involved in blocking roads three times.
So much for yer Arab Spring when children who committed the crime of blocking a road are put under government watch.
Oh wait– the future is coming in America. It seems 2,225 people are sentenced to die in US prisons for crimes they committed as minors. Forty-two states currently have laws allowing children to receive life without parole sentences. Elsewhere in the world, life sentences with no chance of parole are rare for underage offenders. Human Rights Watch estimates that only 12 people outside the United States face such sentences.
The good news for America is that our child prisoners are mostly in jail for violent crimes and are not political prisoners like the kid in sunny Bahrain. So the future is still a bit ahead of us. We’ll be waiting.
I previously featured a mini-review of Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan.
For those in the Washington DC area, author Rajiv Chandrasekaran will be speaking at the Wilson Center Public Policy near Federal Triangle Metro on July 16 at 4pm. Admission is free. Details are here, and everyone is welcome.
I hope to attend myself, so say hello if you show up. I’ll be the cynical bemused one in the back.
(For the true cynics, I have no connection to this book or its author other than I think it is about time someone wrote some truth about the disaster in Afghanistan)
My Twitter colleague and Iraqi truth-teller @LubnaNaji translates the sign as:
An Iraqi man asks his government to invalidate his Iraqi nationality because he has given up on Iraq.
On behalf of all of us, thanks George W. Bush!
Well, she sounds like a candidate. Hillary said this recently, and I could not agree with her more on priorities:
Rather than spending money on implements of war, feed your people, provide education and health care.
The problem of course was that Dear Hillary was talking through the media to the Dear Leader in North Korea. While America slides endlessly into its Wiemar state, Clinton is all full of good advice for North Korea.
The bad news is that she once again coupled her good advice with the same old passive-aggressive crap that the US seems to peddle as a foreign policy. Hils just couldn’t stop herself from adding “Kim Jung Un has a choice to make– become a transformative leader or continue the Communist nation’s existing policies, which would lead to its demise.”
Yawn. On Syria, Clinton said “Assad’s days are numbered,” and “the sand is running out of the hourglass.” With Iran, it was “We want them to take concrete steps,” and “I am convinced that one of the reasons that Iran came back to the negotiating table was because of the success of our pressure strategy.” On Libya, it was famously “We came, we saw, he died.”
We keep the old myth alive that America is some special place, but in fact we’re like some mean old man, reduced to feeling good about himself yelling at the kids to get off the lawn. In my town, that was Mr. Voriseky. He’d always be upset about anyone stepping on his grass, or a ball in his yard. Sometimes he’d come out shouting with a baseball bat, or, in some versions, a shotgun (though repeated by generations of high school kids no one ever actually saw a gun, though many older brothers’ friends’ friends did). Nobody respected old man Voriseky, even after we found out he was in the war or was some survivor of something or whatever. We stayed off his lawn because he had that bat, nothing more.
What’s so surprising is how quickly it all happened. American went from big empty space to king of the world in a handful of generations, rode the wave for only two or three and now this. The generations that lived this dream we keep hearing about could fit into a weekend family reunion but we keep talking about them like they lasted longer than the dinosaurs. People stay away because of the big bat but it isn’t respect and doesn’t last after the old man turns his back, cursing, and goes back inside to Family Feud reruns.
Hillary, haven’t you heard? No one is listening.
Sad because it chronicles the mistakes, now in Afghanistan, that crushed reconstruction in Iraq. Sad because it shows America’s worst enemy is itself, not the Taliban. Sad also because it shows the book I wrote about Iraq, and all the garbage that came long with it, including losing my career at State, didn’t matter. The same errors in Iraq are present in Afghanistan– hell, based on Little America, it even seems like many of the same people are present– and that assures that once again money and lives will be wasted and nothing good accomplished. Like Iraq, we will lose this war too.
Though I have read only the brief excerpts online and have had a limited personal conversation with Chandrasekaran about his book, once you hear familiar sounds you come to recognize the place, and the author writes of an Afghan process all too similar. Again, here are the contractors only in it for the money (many it seems holdouts from the Iraq project who just packed up and shifted locales, dragging their irrelevancy along with them), the well-meaning development professionals smothered in bureaucracy and, omnipresent in its nanny state, my own State Department.
For even in this brief excerpt State comes off more than poorly. We learn of security rules that essentially prohibit local contact on a meaningful basis, the heavy weight of State’s own incestuous need for emails, updates and talking points to justify bureaucratic “engagement” with the field and of course pompous and ignorant FSOs that allow neither characteristic to slow them down. Foreign Service personnel stumble through meetings with important Afghans and smash relations with the powerful US military by dumbass moves like refusing to share gate lock combinations.
I saw all of this in Iraq, even wrote a book about it, in hopes that maybe a tiny, tiny breath of change might blow into the mission in Afghanistan. Based on Little America, I failed, and that makes me sad. It appears that the US will again fail in reconstruction, at the waste of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, and that makes me even more sad. You probably should be sad, too.
Neil Sheehan, who wrote one of the seminal texts of the Vietnam War, A Bright Shining Lie, reviews Little America in the Washington Post, focusing on the inevitability of failure in Afghanistan due to the almost total corruption of the puppet Karzai government.
Want more? Here’s a blurb from the Amazon review:
From the award-winning author of Imperial Life in the Emerald City, a riveting, intimate account of America’s troubled war in Afghanistan.
When President Barack Obama ordered the surge of troops and aid to Afghanistan, Washington Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran followed. He found the effort sabotaged not only by Afghan and Pakistani malfeasance but by infighting and incompetence within the American government: a war cabinet arrested by vicious bickering among top national security aides; diplomats and aid workers who failed to deliver on their grand promises; generals who dispatched troops to the wrong places; and headstrong military leaders who sought a far more expansive campaign than the White House wanted. Through their bungling and quarreling, they wound up squandering the first year of the surge.
Chandrasekaran explains how the United States has never understood Afghanistan—and probably never will. During the Cold War, American engineers undertook a massive development project across southern Afghanistan in an attempt to woo the country from Soviet influence. They built dams and irrigation canals, and they established a comfortable residential community known as Little America, with a Western-style school, a coed community pool, and a plush clubhouse—all of which embodied American and Afghan hopes for a bright future and a close relationship. But in the late 1970s—after growing Afghan resistance and a Communist coup—the Americans abandoned the region to warlords and poppy farmers.
In one revelatory scene after another, Chandrasekaran follows American efforts to reclaim the very same territory from the Taliban. Along the way, we meet an Army general whose experience as the top military officer in charge of Iraq’s Green Zone couldn’t prepare him for the bureaucratic knots of Afghanistan, a Marine commander whose desire to charge into remote hamlets conflicted with civilian priorities, and a war-seasoned diplomat frustrated in his push for a scaled-down but long-term American commitment. Their struggles show how Obama’s hope of a good war, and the Pentagon’s desire for a resounding victory, shriveled on the arid plains of southern Afghanistan.
Meticulously reported, hugely revealing, Little America is an unprecedented examination of a failing war—and an eye-opening look at the complex relationship between America and Afghanistan.
Be sure to read the excerpt from Little America, now at Foreign Policy. I will do a full review once I finish the book and after dealing with the PTSD it will no doubt trigger in me.
Well, it was bound to happen, given how much time they spent together. You watch them grow, you watch them take those first steps and poof! before you know it there are phone calls and (now) texts and even though they don’t see it, you, from a distance of more than a few years, can see: they are in love.
Bittersweet, when it becomes “formal” in its awkward way, it is as inevitable as summer follows spring. And so it is with Hillary Clinton and Afghanistan, when Hills made it official by announcing, yes, the stories are true: She and Afghanistan have become officially “major non-NATO Allies.”
Frightening in that this is actually real, the Secretary has designated Afghanistan as a “major non-NATO ally,” a title the US has extended only to countries such as Australia, Egypt, Pakistan and Israel, and which gives preferential access to US arms exports and defence cooperation. Clinton did this in the face of yet another in a dreary string of “donor’s conferences,” international gatherings the US holds to pressure its so-called friends into agreeing to give money to Afghanistan. These are the equivalent of your neighbor’s kid hitting you up for a donation so she can go to summer camp with her French class.
The difference is one of scale: Afghanistan claims it needs some $4 billion a year in regular aid, on top of another $4 billion in military aid. Each year. Forever. The US can’t borrow that much green from China, and so turns to its partners, much like your neighbor’s kid extorts cash from you, to pony up. Like you, the partners can’t really say no, but will try and get away with giving as little as possible. After all, it is America’s own mess/someone else’s kid, not yours.
It can get confusing. The change in status for Afghanistan makes it easier for them to purchase US military equipment. However, it will be many years before Afghanistan is in a position to actually buy weapons for itself, relying as it does on foreign support. The change, like many promises made by young lovers, is thus primarily for show, a whispered “Sure, I’ll always love you” made in desperate haste in the back seat of someone’s car to sanctify what is going to happen next in the evolution of young love.
In fact, Clinton said “We are not even imagining abandoning Afghanistan.” Really, who could imagine pulling out when such sweet promises have been made, eh?
And yet, as Hillary strong-armed money in Tokyo, there were more signs in Afghanistan of just how cynical her actions are.
The Washington Post reports a series of attacks across Afghanistan. Six American service members lost their lives when a roadside bomb hit their vehicle in Maidan Wardak province, which lies just west of Kabul. On the same day, 23 Afghan civilians were killed by multiple blasts in Arghistan district of southern Kandahar. In another attack, five Afghan police were killed by remote-control bomb in Bamian province, regarded as “the most secure part of Afghanistan.”
As William Astore points out on Huffington Post, “Just as in Vietnam, in Afghanistan we are not winning the war, because these were and are not our wars to win. We were and are only preventing one side from losing, a side that is seemingly sympathetic to America precisely because it feeds off our largesse.”
Hillary, take note of Astore’s point: we destabilize Afghanistan with enormous sums of money and militarized “solutions” to everything.
Sorry Michelle, the contents of the pantry are now classified. I can however leak to you that I bought those garlic pickles you love, on sale, validating that I am indeed a great husband.
Um, OK, so we don’t need pickles…
Michele, I’m afraid whether we do or do not have pickles remains classified. I don’t want to invoke the Espionage Act again, but…
So, well, um, Barack, Ok, do we need milk? I get it about no pickles.
(WHOOSH sound of Hellfire missile.)
I warned you about discussing pickles.
This blog just loves Ryan Crocker, America’s ambassador to everything. The Crock is always firing off wacky statements from wherever he is ambassadoring from, be it Iraq or Afghanistan. It is what he does.
The other thing Crock likes to do is have things named after him, like droppings at each post he leads. The State Department even offers an in-house award called the Ryan C. Crocker Award for Outstanding Leadership in Expeditionary Diplomacy.
Crock’s latest North Korean-like leadership example is what appears to be a makeshift hut in Kabul that is now known as the The Ryan C. Crocker Expeditionary Production Studio, for making the teevee things that will win our war. Both Diplopundit and El Snarkistani have much more to say about all this.
For me, however, this time I want to be on the team. Thus, I am officially renaming this blog “The Ryan C. Crocker Expeditionary Blog.”
Actually, nothing will change. This is partially because changing the graphics for this blog is a hassle, and partially because in a few weeks no one will care what was named after Crocker as it was just some short-term suck up move on the part of his staff anyway.
Woooo, too much at once, like eating ice cream too fast and getting that brain freeze. So, no time to rest, here are the Tweets, now let’s break them down:
To begin: HUZZAH! Thanks to the tireless efforts of America’s diplomats, St. Lucia has become the 100th state to endorse the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). PSI participants interdict illicit transfers of weapons of mass destruction and missile-related items, and strengthen legal authorities to conduct interdictions. Now the fact that St. Lucia is a tiny island country in the Caribbean of only 238 square miles with a population of 174,000 is irrelevant. They will not be acquiring WMDs, and thus it will be unnecessary to invade them. Scratch one off the “To Do” list. And you all thought those Caribbean embassies didn’t do any work. Shame.
Slipped in between self-love Tweets by State is a note that the US has no freaking clue whatsoever about what is going on in Iraq. Though the State Department Twitterers failed to touch on the subject, the linked article notes “Despite the massive US Embassy in Baghdad, US government personnel have minimal freedom of movement due to security concerns and skyrocketing Iraqi government suspicion of any foreign information-gathering activities… US intelligence agencies in Iraq have also found themselves unable to maintain relations with the prickly and increasingly powerful civilian intelligence agencies in the country.” Oops, sorry ’bout them nine years of war and occupation Iraqis, but Happy July 4th!
But the best is always last, another round of Hillary Clinton declaring Internet freedom for everyone. Clinton must have an alarm set on her smartphone to issue such a declaration every two weeks. Even as the US summons the Hawk Men to find and render Julian Assange, Hillary can’t stop her own self-loving, claiming “The free flow of news and information is under threat in countries around the world.”
Wait, that is actually true. OK, here’s the ironical bit: “The United States was proud to work with the main sponsor, Sweden… to stand with our partners to address challenges to online freedom, and to ensure that human rights are protected in the public square of the 21st century.” Hah hah uninformed people, it’s funny because Sweden is trying to snare Assange for the US.
Meanwhile, Hillary’s running dog Alex “The Innovator” Ross is burping out positive vibe Tweets with the hash tag #netfreedom in support. We’ll add a few choice comments to the feed with that same hashtag to keep things in balance later this morning.
Whew, there you have it, one blast of Tweets to ruin your whole day. Anything new on Tom and Katie’s divorce by the way?
A few new details on the good times in Hawaii of State Department super “Special” Agent Deedy. Deedy is charged with second degree murder in Honolulu in connection with gunning down a local man. Deedy was in Hawaii as part of a State Department entourage guarding the 2012 APEC meeting. More here if you’re not up to speed on the case.
According to court documents filed by Deedy’s own defense attorney, Brooke Hart:
Deedy intervened when he sensed an altercation escalating between the shooting victim, Kollin Elderts, and a customer, Michel Perrine.
“While at the cashier counter, Elderts began to verbally harass Perrine using racial slurs,” the filing states. “Perrine asked Elderts to leave him alone, not to single him out, and stated words to the effect that he was a `local.'”
Hart’s characterization of the incident says Deedy was trying to prevent a physical attack. Elderts called the agent a “haole,” the Hawaiian term for white, in a derogatory way, he said.
“Elderts threatened Special Agent Deedy by saying, `Eh, haole, you like beef?’ or words to that effect,” Hart says in the court papers.
At one point, Elderts tried to grab Deedy’s gun, according to Hart, and the two men got physical. Deedy drew his gun and told Elderts to freeze, but he continued to advance.
“Special Agent Deedy was compelled to discharge his gun, resulting in the death of Elderts,” the court papers claim.
Somewhat oddly, Deedy’s attorney has also previously claimed the agent was acting in self-defense and/or in his lawful capacity as a law enforcement officer.
Oddly oddly, a federal judge in Virginia ruled that Deedy’s legal expenses in a wrongful death lawsuit pending against him are covered by a renter’s insurance policy issued to Deedy and his wife in Arlington, Virginia in late 2010 by Allstate. A trial in this civil case will likely not begin until after completion of the criminal case.
Deedy’s defense attorney is also trying to move the case to federal court, preferably outside of Hawaii. To keep things interesting, Honolulu Circuit Judge Karen Ahn denied a renewed push by several media outlets to make public surveillance video and other documents referenced by prosecutors and Deedy’s lawyer. The case will drag on, with the next trial action not scheduled until September 10, unless the case goes to federal court or is otherwise delayed.
Which it likely will be.
The story unfolds in a two-part series. Part One is titled “Iraq tell-all effectively ends local author’s State Department career,” with Part Two “‘We Meant Well,’ says its author, breaks ‘State Department omertà’.”
One section reveals a bit about some of my current work:
For now, Van Buren turns his sights on new opportunities. He plans to write fiction next. In the foreground, though, is his work with independent documentary film director James Spione (Incident in New Baghdad) on the documentary Silenced: America’s War on Whistleblowers. He has also met other whistleblowers that have made recent headlines, including Thomas Drake, prosecuted for exposing NSA warrantless wiretapping.
I’ll have more info on these new projects as things unfold, so stay tuned.
The problem in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan is not that COIN can’t work. The problem is that one can only counter an insurgency if a legitimate government, supported by the majority of the people but opposed by an insurgency, exists.
The governments in each of these three cases were illegitimate, created and supported by force from the United States, after which the United States had it’s creation adopt the superficial trappings of democracy in order to have some claim on legitimacy. There was not in any case a legitimate government, and thus no insurgency–legitimate government is a necessary condition for an insurgency to exist.
What existed in these cases was a legitimate government not to our liking (Vietnam), a power vacuum caused by the total destruction of the existing government (Iraq), and an illegitimate government which we toppled and replaced with another illegitimate government (Afghanistan). In none of these cases could COIN be properly executed. The conditions demanded by COIN theory simply did not exist.
Our support of Colombia’s battle with the FARC is the closest we have come to actually putting COIN theory into practice, and we and the Colombians have had some success there. This is largely due to the fact that most Colombians support the government established by the Constitution the Colombian people approved in 1991. The sad part about this success story is that there would be no insurgency and no FARC if the United States would do away with its failed policy to ban drugs.
Are the public diplomacists at the State Department getting cranky? This blog has raised questions in the past about gauging the impact of State’s Public Diplomacy and social media efforts.
The old saying, any road will get you there if you don’t know where you’re going, applies here. If I was allowed back into the building and to ask a question of someone important in Public Affairs, I’d ask this: why isn’t your whole “PD” strategy built around sending out messages in bottles dropped into the ocean? Now of course the analogy only goes so far, but just as the message in the bottle strategy can be dismissed with a quick thought experiment (who knows who reads what, and what they do after the read it), can anyone really make a different claim for the State Department’s current efforts?
One of the core problems with the State Department, and the one that most significantly contributes to the Department’s increasing irrelevance in foreign policy, is that State seems just content to “be,” to create conditions of its own continued existence. So, if social media is a new cool thing, and Congress will pay for it, then social media it is. What if instead the organization had more concrete goals? Then we could measure back from them. I’ll not trouble readers with my own list of foreign policy goals, but if the best you can come up with is something so broad as “engage the public” then you are pretty close to having no real goal at all. Best to throw notes into the ocean and hope for the best.
Um, OK. Any links to go with those? Proof? Statistics? Anything? Bueller? Need some help understanding the difference between an “assertion” and creating an “argument”?
Credibility means more than just saying something in a loud voice over and over. God help us all, these are the same people we pay money to to carry America’s message abroad.