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

    June 21, 2018 // 10 Comments »



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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    Posted in Democracy, Trump

    Moving Ahead Via the Singapore Kim-Trump Summit

    June 17, 2018 // 10 Comments »




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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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    Posted in Democracy, Trump

    Managing Expectations Over North Korea

    June 10, 2018 // 22 Comments »


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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

    A process, not an event.


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


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

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



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    Lost and Found in Iran

    May 31, 2018 // 6 Comments »


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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

    May 19, 2018 // 21 Comments »



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

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

    Seriously.

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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




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

    May 5, 2018 // 27 Comments »



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

    May 4, 2018 // 3 Comments »



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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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




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

    April 25, 2018 // 17 Comments »

    Jesus to Trump: Drop Dead

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

    April 15, 2018 // 28 Comments »

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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




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    Gina Haspel — As if Nuremberg Never Happened

    March 27, 2018 // 5 Comments »



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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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    Mike Pompeo and the Missiles of Spring

    March 24, 2018 // 11 Comments »




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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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



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    R.I.P. Rex Tillerson

    March 19, 2018 // 17 Comments »




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

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

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

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

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

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

    Good times.


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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




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    What Critics Get Wrong About Kim Meeting Trump

    March 14, 2018 // 8 Comments »



    Though a scant few months ago people were hiding under their beds certain President Donald Trump was preparing for war in Asia, criticism of the announcement Trump will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been quick. Those criticisms are easily dispelled.


    One criticism is Trump will “legitimize” North Korea. North Korea is an acknowledged nation state. Its neighbors recognize and interact with its government. The United States has negotiated with Pyongyang over some seven decades, from talks at the Demilitarized Zone, to meetings among diplomats in third countries and at the United Nations, to a visit to Pyongyang by the Secretary of State, to quasi-diplomatic visits by then-former presidents Clinton and Carter.

    Meanwhile, the Kim family, with successions from grandfather to father to son, has ruled the nation from its founding, surviving war, sanctions, famine, natural disasters, and the fall of their patron the Soviet Union. Kim is worshiped by his own people as a god, while outsiders have long-formed their opinions about him; he has no need for a propaganda coup. America has negotiated with, and even supported, evil dictators before. North Korea is already a nuclear power, whether anyone likes that or not. The criteria for “legitimacy” appears long met with or without Trump.

    The State Department is gutted, say some. The United States has no ambassador to South Korea. The Special Representative for North Korea Policy just retired. It is disingenuous to claim there is no one left to negotiate with Pyongyang simply because their names are unfamiliar to journalists.

    The current Chargé d’Affaires at the American Embassy in Seoul (“acting ambassador”) is Marc Knapper. His resume shows decades of Korea experience, including as Deputy Chief of Mission in Seoul. He has been to North Korea multiple times, speaks Korean, and is accepted by South Korea as a trusted entity. His Minister-Counselor for Political Affairs, Edwin Sagurton, has spent years on the peninsula including work in the North, and speaks Korean. A third senior American official, Busan consul general Dae Kim, has worked on Korean issues for some 20 years, has a degree in psychology, is fluent in Korean, and served alongside Madeleine Albright during her visit to Pyongyang.

    In Washington, Joe Yun, the retired Special Representative for North Korea Policy, is a loss, but acting in his capacity is Mark Lambert, his deputy. Lambert has significant Korea knowledge, including having negotiated with the North as Special Envoy for the Six-Party Talks. There are similar decades of Korean expertise at the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency, in the military, as well as among South Korean diplomats, to support Trump’s efforts. Preparation? These men and women have spent their whole careers preparing.

    It is wrong to start with a summit; Trump already gave away the big prize. This argument was old and worn when used to criticize Richard Nixon for his”opening” of China visit in 1972. In the case of North Korea, the idea of holding lower level talks leading up to a triumphant meeting between Trump and Kim is a non-starter. It is Kim who sets the direction for North Korea’s foreign relations, and it is important for him to signal this process move forward with his full approval. It is unlikely North Korea’s lower-level functionaries would be allowed to claim small victories on Kim’s behalf without his ceremonial leadership clearly demonstrated. Previous presidents have held off a summit pending progress, the result being over successive administrations no real progress occurred. North Korea is a top-down system (some say the same for Trump’s Washington), and needs to be dealt with as such.

    The other reason to begin with a summit is there is little of the connective tissue of diplomacy existing between Washington and North Korea, the important mid-level contacts and relationships which ensure the kind of details in peaceful times wedding planners sweat over can get done in the shadow of nuclear arms. Both sides also can also use the push of a summit to press their next level diplomats, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whose status is often questioned, onstage with the empowerment of their leaders.

    A final criticism is the North Koreans aren’t serious. This is all a stunt. The North signaled clearly its seriousness to negotiate by sending both Kim’s sister to the Olympics, the first time an immediate Kim family member set foot in the South (Kim’s personal approval), and by sending alongside her the 90-year-old Kim Yong Nam (showing approval by Kim’s inner circle.) Kim Yong Nam has served all three North Korean rulers, was formerly minister of foreign affairs, and as a veteran of the 1950 war, has unimpeachable credibility with the military. The United States has over the years carefully kept him off any sanctions list, ostensibly because he is not directly involved in nuclear development, meaning he is free to travel to Washington. He will be a key player going forward.

    Most of the other criticisms are the same hollow ad hominen arguments – Trump’s volatile, unprepared, unskilled – that led pundits to wrongly declare war with Korea imminent since election day.


    So what happens next? One State Department officer with extensive experience negotiating with the North characterized them as skittish cats; things seem to be going well when something our side didn’t even hear sends them hiding under the sofa. It takes time, and trust, to lure them back out. Also, Kim Jong Un, as perhaps does Trump, will need to balance conciliatory steps forward with bellicose gestures directed at a limited but important domestic hardline audience. So there will likely be tweets, and set backs.

    If the two leaders meet, expect simple things to begin, sports and academic exchanges, the return of one or more of the three Americans in jail in North Korea, an invitation to search for Allied remains north of the 38th parallel. Pyongyang may extend its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear testing while Washington agrees to limited changes in scheduled military exercises. Such small-scale wins build trust. That can lead to the kind of Cold War-style negotiations that eventually saw the United States and Soviet Union pull classes of weapons out of service to ratchet down tensions. It is foolish and ahistorical to imagine the Trump-Kim summit itself will lead anywhere near denuclearization itself.

    The United States should continue to let the South Koreans lead, as they have in bringing Kim’s offer to meet to Washington. The White House was tactically adept in allowing the announcement of Trump’s acceptance to be made by South Korean officials. Ultimate peace will be made by the Koreas; after all, who has more skin in the game than they do? Leaders on both sides include men and women who survived the Korean War. They share a mindset familiar to Holocaust survivors unknown to most Americans today. They retain strong emotional ties to one another based on the Korean sense of wuli, us versus them, with “us” being the Korean people as a whole regardless of where they live. They are facing their own mortality, and aware of their legacies. This is their generation’s now to win or lose.


    Negotiations are not always an even give and take, and that is not a sign of weakness but of strength and skill. Success on the Korean peninsula, as in the Cold War, will be slow, and measured by the continued absence of war and the continued sense war is increasingly unlikely. Those who criticize Trump’s plans to meet with Kim, and who will pick at the edges of any progress made, should remember diplomacy, the alternative to war, means the messy business of meeting with your adversaries, not ignoring them.




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    Politics, Justice, and the Surveillance State

    March 12, 2018 // 5 Comments »




    The role pervasive surveillance plays in politics today has been grossly underreported. Set aside what you think about the Trump presidency for a moment and focus instead on the new paradigm for how politics and justice work inside the surveillance state.


    Incidental collectionis the claimed inadvertent or accidental monitoring of Americans’ communications under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act. Incidental collection exists alongside court-approved warranted surveillance authorized on a specific individual. But for incidental collection, no probable cause is needed, no warrant is needed, and no court or judge is involved. It just gets vacuumed up.

    While exactly how many Americans have their communications monitored this way is unknown, a significant number Trump staffers (no evidence of incidental surveillance of the Clinton campaign exists) were surveilled by a White House controlled by their opposition party. Election-time claims the Obama administration wasn’t “wiretapping” Trump were disingenuous. They in fact gathered an unprecedented level of inside information. How was it used?

    Incidental collection nailed Michael Flynn; the NSA was ostensibly not surveilling Flynn, just listening in on the Russian ambassador as the two spoke. The intercept formed the basis of Flynn’s firing as national security advisor, his guilty plea for perjury, and very possibly his “game changing” testimony against others.

    Jeff Sessions was similarly incidentally surveilled, as was former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, whose conversations were picked up as part of a FISA warrant issued against Trump associate, Carter Page. Paul Manafort and Richard Gates were also subjects of FISA-warranted surveillance; they were surveilled in 2014, the case was dropped for lack of evidence, then re-surveilled after they joined the Trump team and became more interesting to the state.

    Officials on the National Security Council revealed Trump himself may also have been swept up in surveillance of foreign targets. Devin Nunes, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, claims multiple communications by Trump transition staff were inadvertently picked up. Trump officials were monitored by British GCHQ with the information shared with their NSA partners. Some reports claim after a criminal warrant was denied to look into whether or not Trump Tower servers were communicating with a Russian bank, a FISA warrant was issued.

    How much information on Trump’s political strategy a Democratic White House acquired via surveillance, as well as the full story of what might have been done with that information, will never be known. We do know Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats saw enough after he took office to specify the “intelligence community may not engage in political activity, including dissemination of U.S. person identities to the White House, for the purpose of affecting the political process of the United States.”

    Coats likely had in mind the use of unmasking by the Obama administration. Identities of U.S. persons picked up inadvertently by surveillance are supposed to be masked, hidden from most users of the data. However, a select group of officials, including political appointees in the White House, can unmask and include names if they believe it is important to understanding the intelligence, or to show evidence of a crime.

    Former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice told House investigators in at least one instance she unmasked the identities of Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, and Steve Bannon. Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, also made a number of unmasking requests in her final year in office.

    But no one knows who unmasked Flynn in his conversations with the Russian ambassador. That and subsequent leaking of what was sad were used not only to snare Flynn in a perjury trap, but also to force him out of government. Prior to the leak which took Flynn down, Obama holdover and then-acting attorney general Sally Yates warned Trump Flynn could be blackmailed by Moscow for lying about his calls. When Trump didn’t immediately fire Flynn, the unmasked surveillance was leaked by a “senior government official” (likely Yates) to the Washington Post. The disclosure pressured the administration to dump Flynn.

    Similar leaks were used to try to pressure Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign, though only resulted in him recusing himself from the Russiagate investigation. Following James Comey’s firing, that recusal ultimately opened the door for the appointment of Special Counsel Mueller.

    A highly classified leak was used to help marginalize Jared Kushner. The Washington Post, based on leaked intercepts, claimed foreign officials’ from four countries spoke of exploiting Kushner’s economic vulnerabilities to push him into acting against the United States. If the story is true, the leakers passed on data revealing sources and methods; those foreign officials now know however they communicated their thoughts about Kushner, the NSA was listening. Access to that level of information and the power to expose it is not a rank and file action. One analyst described the matter as “the Deep State takes out the White House’s Dark Clown Prince.”

    Pervasive surveillance has shown its power perhaps most significantly in creating perjury traps to manufacture indictments to pressure people to testify against others.

    Trump associate George Papadopoulos lied to the FBI about several meetings concerning Clinton’s emails. The FBI knew about the meetings, “propelled in part by intelligence from other friendly governments, including the British and Dutch.” The feds asked him questions solely in hope Papadopoulos would lie, commit perjury, even though there was nothing shown to be criminal in the meetings themselves. Now guilty of a crime, the FBI will use the promise of light punishment to press Papadopoulos into testifying against others.

    There is an element here of using surveillance to create a process crime out of a non-material lie (the FBI already knew) where no underlying crime of turpitude exists (the meetings were legal.) That that is then used to press someone to testify in an investigation that will have significant political impact seems… undemocratic… yet appears to be a primary tool Mueller is using.

    This is a far cry from a traditional plea deal, giving someone a light sentence for actual crimes so that they will testify against others. Mueller should know. He famously allowed Mafia hitman Sammy the Bull to escape more serious punishment for 19 first degree murders in return for testifying against John Gotti. No need to manufacture a perjury trap; the pile of bodies who never saw justice did the trick.

    Don’t be lured into thinking the ends justify the means, that whatever it takes to purge Trump is acceptable. Say what you want about Flynn, Kushner, et al, what matters most is the dark process being used. The arrival of pervasive surveillance as a political weapon is more significant than what happens to a little bug like Jared.




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    What Mueller Has, and What He is Missing

    March 4, 2018 // 22 Comments »



    Each week brings a new indictment from Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller along with the same question: when will he produce evidence that the president of the United States committed treason?

    Because that’s what this is really about; Some Russians somewhere may have meddled in the election. But what Mueller has to answer is whether Trump knowingly worked with a foreign adversarial government to help get himself elected in return for some quid pro quo. Mueller is tasked with proving the president, now in his 13th month in office, purposefully acts against the interests of the United States because of some debt to Russia. Here’s what Mueller has, and does not have, so far in his case.

    Manafort and Gates

    Last Friday saw a 32 count indictment charging Paul Manafort and Richard Gates with a variety of money laundering, tax evasion, and wire fraud crimes, going back eight years or more, all related to the men’s work Ukraine. Manafort and Gates were indicted by Mueller on similar charges in October. There’s a lot of money involved, and the details in the indictment don’t look good for Manafort.

    A day after the indictment, Gates pled guilty to the very minor charges of participating in a financial conspiracy with Manafort wholly unrealted to Trump, and lying to the FBI about the details of a 2013 meeting. An associate of Gates, Alex van der Zwaan, pled guilty earlier last week to false statements about contacts with Gates regarding Ukraine.

    Manafort’s case is complex, no trial date has been set, and it will likely take a year or more to conclude once started. That Mueller filed additional charges last week against Manafort all buts screams he has no cooperation deal, that Manafort hasn’t “flipped” to tell all about his three months running the Trump campaign.

    The Great Hope of course is Gates pleading guilty means he will testify against Manafort to pressure him to take a plea deal to testify against a Team Trump principal, all based on the overall assumption there is something to testify about of course. To date, nowhere in any of this is it shown there is any direct connection to Trump, the campaign, the DNC email hack, Wikileaks, the Russian government, Putin, or anything else Russiagate.


    The Russian Trolls

    Two weeks ago Mueller dropped a multi-part indictment against 13 Russian citizens connected with the so-called troll farm. The indictment alleges the group bought Facebook and Twitter ads, planned small rallies, and otherwise “meddled” in the U.S. election. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein made clear there was no allegation in the indictment any American — including members of the Trump campaign — “was a knowing participant in the alleged unlawful activity.” Rosenstein added “there is no allegation in the indictment that the charged conduct altered the outcome of the 2016 election.”

    Persons in Russia, even if some connection to the Kremlin can be shown (it hasn’t been and since Mueller will never take this case to court — his defendants all live in Russia — it is unlikely it ever will be) “meddling” have little to do with what Mueller is charged with finding out. There’s no link to Trump or anything else Russiagate. In fact, the social media campaign started years before Trump announced his candidacy, and about half its modest ad buys took place after the election was over. The troll farm itself was not much of a secret; the New York Times did a “look at this internet madness” profile on the place, which operates quite openly from an office in St. Petersburg, back in 2015.

    Michael Flynn
    Mueller also charged former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn with a non-material lie to the FBI (teh FBI already knew the truth from surveillence, Flynn stepped into a perjury trap set up for him. The likely sentence is a fine.) Flynn initially plead guilty, though is understood to be reconsidering and may withdraw that plea. Flynn’s lies and other accusations centers on his work as an unregistered foreign agent for Turkey, a NATO ally. Prosecutions for failing to register as a foreign agent are rare, and penalties generally light. Washington has played very loose with the Foreign Agents and Registration Act for a long time, as many former members of Congress and executive branch employees make millions working for foreign governments lobbying DC.

    Flynn also admitted he lied to the FBI about a conversation with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition period. The conversation, though not illegal, was surveilled by the NSA. Leaked information out of the Obama White House suggests the two men talked about outgoing President Obama’s executive order imposing sanctions on Russia in retaliation for its election interference. Flynn asked Russia for restraint in any planned retaliation. Critics claim this is a violation of the Logan Act, a law that has never been successfully prosecuted. Soon after the FBI interview in which Flynn falsely denied the conversation, Sally Yates, an Obama-era holdover serving as acting attorney general, warned the Trump White House Russia could blackmail Flynn over having lied. Ironically, many now believe Mueller is essentially blackmailing Flynn using that same lie, holding out a light sentence if Flynn tells all about Russiagate, again assuming there is anything tell and that Flynn knows it.

    George Papadopoulos

    Another output from the Mueller team is the guilty plea of George Papadopoulos, who may or may not have been a serious part of the Trump campaign; Sarah Sanders, the White House spokeswoman, explained Papadopoulos’s role as “a volunteer member of an advisory council that literally met one time.”

    Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to the relatively minor crime (his likely sentence is a fine) of a non-material lie to the FBI about a meeting he had in London with a Maltese professor named Joseph Mifsud, another perjury trap of Mueller’s based on intelligence data. Mifsud had made a pseudo-reputation for himself jetting around the world bragging about his connections. He supposedly introduced Papadopoulos to two other people with claimed ties to the Russian government, and sought to arrange a meeting between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. The professor said the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in “thousands of emails.” Much of this information is laced through the so-called Steele dossier paid for by the DNC and used by the FBI to later obtain a FISA warrant on one-time Trump campaign volunteer Carter Page. No meeting took place and no emails or dirt was handed over.

    The cast of characters is interesting; one might imagine their credibility testifying at an impeachment hearing. Carter Page has not been charged with anything. He has recently claimed he is near-bankrupt, doesn’t have a lawyer, and has written manifestos comparing himself to Martin Luther King, Jr. Back in 2013, when a Russian agent made a limp try at recruiting Page, he described him as too much of an “idiot” to bother with.

    Papadopoulos has in the past made big but empty claims about his connections in Russia and his role in the Trump campaign. A solid characterization, as one analyst put it, is whether the “young adviser was making plans with actual Russian officials or whether he had drifted into a fog of hucksters, tricksters, and pretenders.”

    You Got What?

    Mueller, as best we know, currently has very little regarding Russiagate. He has what appears to be solid evidence of non-Trump related financial crimes by Paul Manafort and others. Most of that seems to have come from FISA surveillance on Manafort dating back to 2014. The FBI’s investigation at that time was dropped, likely when the U.S. decided against war in the Ukraine, and it appears Mueller went into the files and revived it now that the same information could be repurposed essentially as blackmail against Manafort testifying.

    Flynn and Papadopoulos are charged with relatively minor crimes, though the potential to stack other charges against them exists. The connections to Russiagate are, however, tenuous. Flynn’s contact with the Russia ambassador can be seen as a lot of uncomplimentary things, but it does not appear to be a crime. Page and Papadopoulos would be very weak witnesses. There may be a “conspiracy to commit something” charge in there with some shady lawyering, but it seems little more.

    What Mueller’s Missing

    That’s what Mueller has. Here’s what he is missing.

    The full force of the U.S. intelligence community has been aimed at finding evidence of Russian government interference in the 2016 election (still largely undemonstrated) for some 18 months, and the Comey/Mueller team aimed at finding evidence of Trump’s collusion with Russia for about a year. It is reasonable to conclude they do not have intelligence that would form a smoking gun, no tape of a high-ranking Trump official cutting a deal with a Russian spy. If such information existed, there would be no need for months of investigation. Same for the Steele dossier, and its salacious accusations. If there was proof any of it was true, we’d be hearing it read aloud during impeachment hearings.

    What’s left is the battle cry of Trump opponents since election day: just you wait. The recount will show Hillary won. The Electoral College won’t select Trump. The Emoluments Clause will take Trump down. Or his tax returns. Or the 25th Amendment. Mueller will flip _____. The shoe will drop. Tick tock. And anything that looks like a weak move by Mueller is only an example we don’t yet understand of his keen judicial kung fu.

    No one knows the future. But so far the booked charges against Flynn and Papadopoulos, and the guilty pleas of others, point toward minor sentences to bargain over (never mind the possibility of a presidential pardon if it came to that), assuming they have relevant information to share in the first place. Manafort says he’ll go to court an defend himself. Mueller has produced nothing that has touched Trump, nothing connecting any meddling to a deal between Trump and Putin.

    The core task is not to prove some Russians, or even the Russian government, meddled in the election. A limping to the finish line conclusion to Mueller’s work just ahead of the midterm elections that Trump somehow technically obstructed justice without a finding of an underlying crime would tear the nation apart. Mueller is charged with nothing less than proving the president knowingly worked with a foreign adversarial government, receiving help in the election in return for some quid pro quo, an act that can be demonstrated so clearly to the American people as to overturn an election well-over a year after it was decided.

    It is a very dangerous thing to see the glee so many display hoping Trump will be found to be a Russian agent. That pleasure in hoping the U.S. is controlled by a foreign power because it means Trump will leave office early is not healthy for us. Mueller can fix that, but so far the bar is still seemingly pretty high above him. Given the stakes — a Kremlin-controlled man in the Oval Office — you’d think every person in govt would be on this 24/7 to save the nation, not just a relatively small staff of prosecutors ever-so-slowly filing indictments that so far have little to do with their core charge.



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    How Security Clearances Work, and Fail, for Trump

    February 25, 2018 // 11 Comments »



    Over five million Americans, more than the population of Costa Rica, Ireland or New Zealand, hold a security clearance. These clearances are issued by the U.S. Government (via the Department of Defense, CIA, the State Department, etc.) and say as a result of an investigation the holder can be trusted to handle sensitive documents and duties.

    Of all those cleared people, some three dozen White House staffers, including the recently-resigned Rob Porter, have only “interim” security clearances. How does an interim clearance differ from a full one, how do you get cleared, and how did accused spouse abuser Porter stay on the job even after his past came to light?

    “Getting cleared” involves two broad steps, investigation and adjudication. Cases like Rob Porter’s expose the gap between the two, and the danger of using interim clearances as more than a temporary expedient for an often times slow process.


    Most everyone seeking a clearance begins at the same place, Standard Form 86, Questionnaire for National Security Positions. The SF-86 is a very detailed autobiography, raw material that fuels the rest of the process. Young people filling out their first SF-86 invariably end up on the phone to mom, gathering old addresses, birthdays of disconnected relatives, foreign countries visited on family trips and more, a lot more: the SF-86 runs some 133 pages. After the names and dates, the SF-86 dips into tough questions about financial problems, drugs, gambling, drinking, and mental health.

    Every applicant then gets run through a variety of databases. The goal is to verify quickly as much of the SF-86 as possible while at the same time skimming off the low-hanging fruit of obviously unqualified people. Checks are also run through various intelligence files (“National Agency Check.”) That all typically screens out 20-30% of candidates. It is likely it would have been at this point Rob Porter’s spousal abuse allegations would have come to light, as they were listed in easily accessible public records. He was not screened out.

    For some low-level clearances, the process can conclude there with a decision. For higher level clearances which will take additional time to complete, like Porter’s, an interim clearance up to the Top Secret level can be granted if the person needs to start work. There is no government-wide rule regarding interim clearances; they’re issued on a case-by-case basis.


    To secure a full high level clearance, next is a field investigation. Investigators (in the case of the White House, the FBI; agencies like State and CIA have their own teams) will visit an applicant’s old teachers, his neighbors, parents, and almost certainly the local police force to ask questions. This is old fashioned detective work, knocking on doors and eyeballing people who know the applicant. If an applicant lived abroad, the process is tasked out through the appropriate U.S. Embassy. Field investigations typically take at least a year, much longer for those with significant foreign contacts.

    Finally, for many positions, including those at the CIA and NSA, but usually not those at the White House, is the polygraph, the lie detector. The federal government polys about 70,000 people a year in connection with security clearances. In some instances, only a limited polygraph will be conducted, as opposed to a full-lifestyle test. In a “coordination of expectations” review, used in many military and update situations, only limited questions will be asked. Sometimes the subject will even know them in advance, such as “Have you transferred classified information without authorization?”

    No matter the technique, the point is the same: identify vulnerabilities to recruitment. Unlike in the high-tech world of the movies, most really useful information is obtained from people who hand it over to a foreign intelligence officer in return for something. The most common vulnerability is money, which is why persons with significant debt, bad credit, or gambling problems make poor security risks. “Foreign preference” plays a big role, especially for so-called hyphenated Americans (Greek-Americans, Chinese-Americans, etc.) who can be made to believe they are simply helping “the old country,” not hurting the U.S. Blackmail plays a role in fewer cases than commonly held; persons coerced into cooperating want nothing more than to escape their predicament. Persons cooperating for money want to cooperate more, for more money.


    Few people are perfect, few are really bad. Many hold great affection for their parents’ native land, but will it drive them to treason? People have debt, or drink, or cheat on their spouses, but is it “too much?” Someone has to make a decision. That decision – an adjudication – relies on human judgment applying agreed upon standards.

    Adjudication standards evolve with society. Once, any illegal drug use was a near-automatic rejection. Now most agencies use “The Obama Rule,” where limited youthful experimentation is generously taken in context. The watchword is mitigation, good things in someone’s record (such as the passage of time) that lessen the impact of bad ones. As student debt has risen, how much money a 22-year-old owes is seen differently today than it was in an era when more parents were able to pay for their kids’ education. One of the biggest changes has to do with LGBTQ applicants; gay men were once automatically labeled blackmail targets. The basics are online. Drugs? Right here.

    Yet for all the apparent clarity, the adjudication process often becomes entangled with the question of suitability (also called fitness), which is where the Rob Porter case crashed and burned. Just because someone is not vulnerable to recruitment doesn’t mean they are suitable. For example, a candidate who smoked a little weed in college isn’t likely to be turned by the Russians, but still might be unsuitable for an administration taking a hard line on drugs. At the same time, the process can be twisted so someone with a history of spousal abuse might still be seen suitable to work beside the president.

    In most agencies, particularly in the intelligence community, the agency itself investigates and adjudicates. In the case of the White House, however, the FBI does not determine whether someone receives a clearance; it only conducts the investigation. The adjudication is made by officials in the Executive Office of the President. Politics plays a role.


    In Porter’s case, adjudicating officials (suspicion focuses on chief of staff John Kelly) were aware of the spousal abuse allegations. They concluded he was not vulnerable enough to blackmail to prevent an interim clearance. Those same officials then applied a suitability standard wholly at odds with what the majority of society thinks to determine Porter, despite his history, was fit to work in the White House. Someone misplayed a process that was supposed to resolve Porter’s fitness to see classified material as also determining his broader responsibility for previous behavior.

    Those same officials understood Porter’s case would never pass the published standards for a full clearance, and hid their decision behind what appears to have been intended to be a forever interim clearance (the White House has since announced it will not issue interim clearances in most cases going forward.)

    This is not a system breakdown. It is a failure of one or more individuals to uphold the standards of the system. That is a topic very much worthy of Congressional investigation.




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    Posted in Democracy, Trump

    Christopher Steele’s Other Job: He Ran an Info Op Against the United States (How to Steele an Election)

    February 18, 2018 // 18 Comments »

    Christopher Steele did far more than simply provide an opposition research dossier to the Democratic National Committee, his Job One. As a skilled intelligence officer, Steele ran a full-spectrum information operation against the United States, aided either willingly or unwittingly by the FBI. His second job was the more important one: get his information into the most effective hands to influence the United States in the most significant way.

    To understand how effective Steele has been in his op, we need to understand he had two jobs. The first was to create the dossier. The second job was to disseminate the dossier. Steele had to get the information into the most effective hands to influence the United States in the most significant way.

     

    Job One: Create the Dossier

    Job One was to create the opposition research. “Oppo” is not a neutral gathering of facts, but a search for negative information that can be used against an opponent. The standards — vetting — vary with the intended use. Some info might be published with documents and verification. Some leads discovered might be planted in hopes a journalist will uncover more “on her own,” creating credibility. Some likely near-falsehoods might be handed out to sleazy media in hopes more legit media will cross report — the New York Times might not initially run a story about a sexual dalliance itself, but it will run a story saying “Buzzfeed reports a sexual dalliance involving…”

    Oppo research follows no rules; this is not peer-reviewed stuff that has to pass an ethics board. One goes out with bags of money shouting “Anyone got dirt on our opponent? We’re paying, but only for dirt!” You look for people who didn’t like a deal, people with an axe to grind, the jilted ex-wife, not the happy current one. So to say oppo research might be biased is to miss the point.

    You’re not required to look too far under a rock that hides something naughty — stop when you’ve got what you came for. It all depends how the information will be deployed. The less sure you are about the veracity of the information you acquire the more you need that info to be inherently palatable; it has to feel right to the intended audience. The old political joke is you need to find a live boy in bed, or a dead girl, to really smear an opponent with a sex scandal. So if you’re going to run with info that supports what the public already sort of believes, the standards are lower.

     

    What Does the Dossier Say?

    Turning to Christopher Steele’s dossier, it looks like he read the same espionage textbook as everyone else. So while it would have been a game-changer had Steele found unambiguous evidence of financial transactions between Trump and the Russian government, that would have required real evidence. Steele’s sources claim money changed hands, but never provide him with proof. On dossier (page 20) one source goes as far as to say no documentary evidence exists.

    That means instead of the complex financing scams you might expect out of Trump, the big takeaway from the dossier is the pee tape, sources claiming the Russians have video to blackmail Trump at any moment. The thing reaches almost the level of parody, because not only does the dossier claim Trump likes fetish sex, the fetish sex occurred in the context of an anti-Obama act (Trump supposedly for his pleasure employed prostitutes to urinate on a bed Obama once slept in.) As for other sex parties Trump supposedly participated in, the dossier notes all direct witnesses were “silenced.” You couldn’t do better if you made it all up.

    In fact, the thing reads very much like what lay people imagine spies come up with. In real intelligence work, documents showing transactions from cash to commercial paper to gold run through a Cayman Islands’ bank are much more effective than dirty video; the latter can be denied, and may or may not even matter to a public already bored by boasts of pussy grabbing and rawdog sex with porn stars. The former will show up in court as part of a racketeering and tax evasion charge that dead solid perfect sends people to jail. Intelligence officers who pay out sources maintain meticulous receipts; you think their own agencies trust them with bags of cash? And in the dark world, prostitutes don’t need to be “silenced.” They have no credibility in most people’s’ minds to begin with, and a trail of bodies just attracts attention. And unlike Steele’s product, real intel reporting is full of qualifiers, maybes, liklies and so forth, not a laundry list of certainties, because you know your own sources have an agenda. The dossier is also short of the kind of verifiable details of specific dates and places you’d expect. It is a collection of unverifiable assertions by second-hand sources, not evidence. Steele is a smart man, an experienced intelligence officer, who knew exactly what he was writing — a dossier that will read true to the rubes.

    So it is not surprising to date there has been no public corroboration of anything in the dossier. If significant parts of the dossier could be proven, there would be grounds for impeachment with no further work needed. At least one fact has been disproven –Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, produced his passport to rebut the dossier’s claim that he had secret meetings in Prague with a Russian official.

    Job Two: Run the Info Op, Place the Dossier

    Steele excelled at turning his dossier into a full-spectrum information operation, what some might call information warfare. This is what separates his work creating the dossier (which a decent journalist with friends in Russia could have done) from his work infiltrating the dossier into the highest reaches of American government and political society. For that, you need a real pro, an intelligence officer with decades of experience running just that kind of op. You want foreign interference in the 2016 election? Let’s take a closer look at Christopher Steele.

    Steele’s skill is revealed by the Nunes and Grassley memos, which show he used the same set of information in the dossier to create a collaboration loop, every intelligence officer’s dream — his own planted information used to surreptitiously confirm itself, right up to the point where the target country’s own intelligence service re-purposed it as evidence in the FISA court.

    Steele admits he briefed journalists off-the-record starting in summer and autumn 2016. His most significant hit came when journalist Michael Isikoff broke the story of Trump associate Carter Page’s alleged connections to Russia. Isikoff did not cite the dossier or Steele as sources, and in fact denied they were when questioned.

    Isikoff’s story didn’t just push negative information about Trump into the public consciousness. It claimed U.S. intel officials were probing ties between a Trump adviser and the Kremlin, adding credibility; the feds themselves felt the info was worthwhile! Better yet for Steele, Isikoff claimed the information came from a “well-placed Western intelligence source,” suggesting it originated from a third-party and was picked up by Western spies instead of being written by one. Steele also placed articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, New Yorker, Mother Jones, and others.

    At the same time, Steele’s info reached influential people like John McCain, who could then pick up a newspaper and believe he was seeing the “secret” info from Steele confirmed independently by an experienced journalist. And how did McCain first learn about Steele’s work? At a conference in Canada, via Andrew Wood, former British Ambassador in Moscow. Where was Wood working at the time? Orbis, Christopher Steele’s research firm.

    A copy of the dossier even found its way to the State Department, an organization which normally should have been far removed from U.S. election politics. A contact within State passed information from Clinton associates Sidney Blumenthal and Cody Shearer (both men played also active roles behind in the scenes feeding Clinton dubious information on Libya) to and from Steele. The Grassley memo suggests there is was a second Steele document, in addition to the dossier, already shared with State and the FBI but not made public.

    The Gold Medal: Become the Source of Someone Else’s Investigation

    While seeding his dossier in the media and around Washington, Steele was also meeting in secret with the FBI (he claims he did not inform Fusion GPS, his employer), via an FBI counterintelligence handler in Rome. Steele began feeding the FBI in July 2016 with updates into the fall, apparently in the odd guise of simply a deeply concerned, loyal British subject. “This is something of huge significance, way above party politics,” Steele commented as to his motives.

    The FBI, in the process of working Steele, would have likely characterized him as a “source,” technically a “extra-territorial confidential human source.” That meant the dossier’s claims appeared to come from the ex-MI6 officer with the good reputation, not second-hand from who knows who in Russia (the FBI emphasized Steele’s reputation when presenting the dossier to the FISC.) Think of it as a kind of money laundering which, like that process, helped muddy the real source of the goods.

    The FBI used the Steele dossier to apply for a FISA court surveillance warrant against Carter Page. The FBI also submitted Isikoff’s story as collaborating evidence, without explaining the article and the dossier were effectively one in the same. In intelligence work, this is known as cross-contamination, an amateur error. The FBI however, according to the Nunes memo, did not tell the FISA court the Steele dossier was funded by the Democratic National Committee as commissioned opposition research, nor did they tell the court the Isikoff article presented as collaborating evidence was in fact based on the same dossier.

    Steele reached an agreement with the FBI a few weeks before the election for the bureau to pay him $50,000 to continue his “research,” though the deal is believed to have fallen through after the dossier became public (though an intelligence community source tells The American Conservative Steele did in fact operate as a fully paid FBI asset.) Along the way the FBI also informed Steele of their separate investigation into Trump staffer George Papadopoulos, a violation of security and a possible tainting of Steele’s research going forward.

    Gold Medal Plus: Collaborate Your Own Information

    The Nunes memo also showed then-associate deputy attorney general Bruce Ohr back-channeled additional material from Steele into the DOJ while working with Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and her replacement, Rod Rosenstein. Ohr’s wife Nellie worked for Fusion GPS, the firm that commissioned the dossier, on Steele’s project. Ohr’s wife would be especially valuable in that she would be able to clandestinely supply info to collaborate what Steele told the FBI and, via her husband, know to tailor what she passed to the questions DOJ had. The FBI did not disclose the role of Ohr’s wife, who speaks Russian and has previously done contract work for the CIA, to the FISA court.

    Ohr’s wife only began work for Fusion GPS in September/October 2016, as the FBI sought the warrant against Page based on the Steele dossier. Ohr’s wife taking a new job with Fusion GPS at that critical juncture screams of the efforts of an experienced intelligence officer looking to create yet another pipeline inside, essentially his own asset.

    Steele’s Success, With a Little Help From His Friends

    All talk of Russia aside, it is difficult to find evidence of a foreigner who played a more significant role in the election than Christopher Steele. Steele took a dossier paid for by one party and drove it deep into the United States. Steele’s work formed in part the justification for a FISA warrant to spy on a Trump associate, the end game of which has not yet been written.

    Steele maneuvered himself from paid opposition researcher to clandestine source for the FBI. Steele then may have planted the spouse of a senior DOJ employee as a second clandestine source to move more information into DOJ. In the intelligence world, that is as good as it gets; via two seemingly independent channels you are controlling the opponent’s information cycle.

    Steele further manipulated the American media to have his information amplified and given credibility. By working simultaneously as both an anonymous and a cited source, he got his same info out as if it was coming from multiple places.

    There is informed speculation Steele was more than a source for the FBI, and actually may have been tasked and paid to search for specific information, essentially working as a double agent for the FBI and the DNC. Others have raised questions about Steele’s status as “retired” from British intelligence, as the lines among working for MI6, working at MI6, and working with MI6 are often times largely a matter of semantics. Unless Steele wanted to burn all of his contacts within British intelligence, it is highly unlikely he would insert himself into an American presidential campaign without at least informing his old workmates, if not seeking tacit permission (for the record, Steele’s old boss at MI6 calls the dossier credible; an intelligence community source tells The American Conservative Steele shared all of his information with MI6.) It is unclear if the abrupt January 2017 resignation of Robert Hannigan, the head of Britain’s NSA-like Government Communications Headquarters, is related in any way to Steele’s work becoming public.

    As for the performance of the DOJ/FBI, we do not have enough information to judge whether they were incompetent, or simply willing partners to what Steele was up to, using him as a handy pretext to open legal surveillance on someone inside the Trump circle (surveillance on Page may have also monitored Steve Bannon.)

     

    How to Steele an Election

    The Washington Post characterized Steele as “struggling to navigate dual obligations — to his private clients, who were paying him to help Clinton win, and to a sense of public duty born of his previous life.” The Washington Post has no idea how intelligence officers work. Their job is to befriend and engage the target to carry out the goals of their employer. When they do it right, the public summation is a line like the Post offered; you never even knew you were being used. In the macho world of intelligence, the process is actually described more crudely, having to do with using enough lubrication so the target didn’t even feel a rough thing pushed up a very sensitive place.

    Steele played the FBI while the FBI thought they were playing him. Or the other way around, because everyone was looking the other way. Steele ran a classic info op against the United States, getting himself inside the cycle as a clean source. Robert Mueller should be ashamed of himself if he uses any of Steele’s dossier, or any information obtained via that dossier. That’s where our democracy stands at the moment.

     

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    Olympic Optimism from the North Korean Spy I Met

    February 12, 2018 // 17 Comments »



    Secretary of State Tillerson left open the possibility of Vice President Mike Pence meeting with North Korean officials alongside the Winter Olympic games. He would be the highest ranking American official ever, since North Korea was founded, to do so. At the same time, North Korea is to send its highest ranking official ever to the South, Kim Yong Nam, the North’s ceremonial head of state and president of the Supreme People’s Assembly. Is this a long shot at an opening?

     

    It’s easy to be cynical, but I look at this from a unique position. See, I’ve stared down the barrel of a gun with a fanatical, patriotic North Korean spy and watched her choose to blink, and you haven’t. It’s why watching the run-up to the Olympics, with levels of cooperation and kinship unseen for years between the two Koreas, I find myself allowing optimism to peek in between the shades.

    The details must remain a bit sketchy but at one point during my years working for the State Department at the American Embassy in Seoul I found myself inside a cell of a foreign intelligence organization alone with a North Korean spy. I’ll call her Ms. Park here, but I have no idea if even her “real” name was real (other identity details altered below.) She’d been arrested for espionage. She was on a hunger strike.

    I was there because Ms. Park may have acquired American citizenship along her complex life journey and one of my jobs at the embassy was to look after the welfare of incarcerated American citizens. Ms. Park was trying to starve herself to death to avoid cooperating and it was my task to provide her the same assistance I would any other American in jail. It was a long shot, but my job was to convince Ms. Park not to die.

    Over a handful of visits, with a nurse employed by the embassy now with me, I watched Ms. Park starve herself to death. She was trained to do so. She took small sips of water, she explained, to keep her higher brain functions active enough to allow her version of logic to push back against the survival instinct. She was unshakable in her loyalty to her cause. She told me she would eventually begin to give up secrets if she lived long enough, and everything she devoted her life to said she should indeed starve herself to death to prevent that.

    I did not speak about politics, and Ms. Park came not to trust me, but to at least understand my role was not to pry information from her. So we spoke of family, mine at first to fill the air, then at one point, hers. Her son liked the elites’ amusement park he once had access to. There was a day when Ms. Park bought him shaved ice, some sweet flavor that reminded her of the fruits she ate in the west but which her son never tasted in real life. Even as the embassy nurse whispered to me Ms. Park’s vital signs were reaching a critical point and that we should schedule a second visit even that afternoon “in case,” I saw Ms. Park stare down the barrel of a rifle she held herself, and understand her duty. She asked for rice.

    Ms. Park is just one person, but she is exactly the kind of person you would least expect to change. She is one of the reasons I continue to believe there is a path that will not lead to war on the Korean Peninsula.

     

    The essence of North Korea is written into the national philosophy of juche, which above all emphasizes survival. The Kim family has been remarkably good at that since 1948. They endured total war, the collapse of their patron the Soviet Union, famine, natural disasters, and decades of sanctions. North Korea exists under a survivalist philosophy, not an apocalyptic one. A senior Central Intelligence Agency official confirmed Kim Jong Un’s actions are those of a “rational actor” motivated to ensure regime survival. “Waking up one morning and deciding he wants to nuke Los Angeles is not something Kim is likely to do. He wants to rule for a long time and die peacefully in his own bed.”

    The path to some form of peaceful co-existence on the Korean Peninsula lies in understanding survival, and that means North Korea can never denuclearize, a precondition the United States has insisted on negotiating forward from. If denuclearization was ever possible, perhaps through some form of security guarantee, the chance was lessened in March 2003 when a Saddam Hussein who had lost his weapons of mass destruction found his country invaded by the United States, and then lost in December 2003 when Muammar Qaddafi agreed to eliminate Libya’s nuclear weapons program, only to find himself in 2011 deposed under American bombs.

    One Korea University professor argued Pyongyang’s leaders felt “deeply satisfied with themselves” after Qaddafi’s fall. In Pyongyang’s view, the Libyans “took the economic bait, foolishly disarmed themselves, and once they were defenseless, were mercilessly punished by the West.” Only a national leader bent on suicide would negotiate away his nukes in 2018 after that.

    The last serious attempt at finding a path forward with North Korea was in October 2000, when then Secretary of State Madeline Albright went to Pyongyang without preconditions. A flurry of quiet diplomatic activity followed (I was in the embassy in Seoul and saw it first-hand) as both sides began building the connective tissue, the working-level personal and bureaucratic ties essential to getting down to business; progress is hard to make when even small details have to rise to the national leadership. One outcome was a series of extraordinary family reunions between North and South, among relatives who had not seen each other since the 1950s. The reunions were major media events in the South.

    Enthusiasm from the American side dipped sharply after the election of George W. Bush, and the process collapsed completely in 2002 after Bush chucked North Korea into his “Axis of Evil” alongside Iraq and Iran. The last attempt to restart talks took place in February 2012, soon after Kim Jong Il passed away and Kim Jong Un, his son, took over North Korea. Washington and Pyongyang held limited discussions resulting in a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and other activities. The agreement fell apart following a (failed) North Korean satellite launch, and a later successful nuclear test in February 2013. Diplomacy has otherwise not seen much trying for the last five years.

     

    Why might there be hope now? Since 2013, North Korea’s ability to deliver more powerful weapons via more accurate missiles has grown. Through one lens, that increases the threat to the United States (Seoul, within range of overwhelming numbers of conventional weapons, is nonplussed; their destruction has been assured even prior to the North going nuclear.) Looking at the weapons development from Pyongyang’s perspective, however, offers a different picture: the more powerful weapons create a more realistic deterrent. To a regime that values survival at its core, that creates a very different starting point for negotiations than in 2000.

    The second factor is a long shot – Trump. Trump seems unworried about maintaining a consistent policy position. He favors showmanship, the Big Play. His conservative flank is covered. One can imagine Trump being convinced his legacy could be that of Nixon opening China; the tarnished president who nonetheless is remembered for changing history.

    The key lies in removing the precondition any talks be aimed at the denuclearization of North Korea, and in understanding diplomacy with North Korea is never going to be a straight line. That setbacks will occur cannot be a predetermined definition of failure. Among other complications, Kim Jong Un will need to work any progress with America past the hardliners in his government.

    Kim Jong Un is indeed the supreme ruler, but to imagine he rules without consultation from, at minimum, his generals, is simplistic. Sending the 90-year-old Kim Yong Nam as his representative to the Olympics is a significant choice; Kim has been a Communist Party member since the pre-WWII Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula, has served all three North Korean rulers, was formerly Minister of Foreign Affairs, has extensive overseas experience, and as a veteran of the 1950 war, has unimpeachable credibility inside the government. The U.S. has also carefully and quietly kept Kim Yong Nam off any sanctions list, ostensibly because he is not directly involved in nuclear development.

    Despite that level of bureaucratic protection, Kim Jong Un will still need to balance conciliatory steps forward with bellicose gestures directed at a limited but important domestic hardline audience. Perhaps not unlike Trump, who may be covering his own hand by sending Fred Warmbier, the father of student Otto Warmbier, who died after being incarcerated by Pyongyang and returning to the U.S. in a coma, to attend the Olympics alongside Pence.

     

    North Korea is a nuclear state. That is the starting point to any deconfliction on the Korean Peninsula, not the end goal. Finding peace under those conditions is a long shot, but sometimes those pay off.




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    Oh Hell Yes the Nunes Memo Matters (But Not Why You Think It Does)

    February 10, 2018 // 7 Comments »

    California Congressman Devin Nunes’ memo details how the Department of Justice secured a FISA warrant to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. Many feel the memo raises questions about bias inside the FBI, and the legal and ethical use of a Trump opposition research dossier as justification for a FISA warrant. Others claim the memo is irrelevant, a dud.

     

    When you wave away all the partisan smoke, what is deeply worrisome is the Nunes memo confirms American intelligence services were involved in a presidential campaign and remain so in the aftermath. No more conspiracy theories. So forget what you “agree” with, and focus on what happened during the 2016 campaign.

    The FBI conducted an investigation, the first ever of a major party candidate in the midst of a presidential battle, and exonerated Hillary Clinton of wrongdoing over her private email server, a government-endorsed “OK” for her expected victory. No real investigation was conducted into the vast sums of money moving between foreign states and the Clinton Foundation, dead-ending those concerns to partisan media.

    A month before voting the Obama administration accused the Russian government of stealing emails from the Democratic National Committee. The director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said the leaked emails (which reflected poorly on Clinton) “are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.” The FBI swung again and said well maybe there was something to see in Clinton’s emails, buried on Anthony Weiner’s laptop. The CIA/NSA meanwhile leaked like cheap diapers throughout the campaign. Trump owes money to Russia. Trump’s computers communicate with Russia. The Russians have sexy kompromat on Trump. That the newly-elected president is literally a tool of Russian intelligence became a common element in the national conversation (John McCain on the Nunes memo release: “We are doing Putin’s job for him.”)

    Leave aside the question of what in all of the above is actually true. Maybe Clinton’s private email server exposed no secrets. Maybe Trump’s real estate ventures have dirty Russian money in them. Or maybe not, it is doubtful any of us will ever know. What is important is each of those actions by the intelligence community affected the course of the election. They may not have always shifted votes in the intended way, or there theoretically may have been no intention per se, but the bare naked fact is unlike any previous presidential election the intelligence community played an ongoing public role in who ended up in the White House, and now, for how long the elected president remains there.

     

    And of course the intelligence community was deep in the Steele dossier, the focal point of the Nunes memo. Christopher Steele is a former British intelligence officer with a long history of close work with his American counterparts. He was commissioned first by a conservative website to develop dirt (“opposition research”) on candidate Trump. Funding swiftly shifted to Clinton surrogates, who saw the thing through to being leaked to the FBI. Steele’s product, the dossier, is a collection of second-hand gossip, dangling suggestions of entanglements between Trump and shadowy Russians, and of course, the infamous pee tape. Nothing in the dossier has been confirmed. It might all be true, or none of it. We will likely never know.

    The FBI nonetheless embraced the dossier and morphed it from opposition research into evidence. Per the Nunes memo, the Steele dossier, and a “collaborating” article actually derived from the same information leaked by Steele to the author, then became part the legal justification for a FISA surveillance warrant issued against Trump associate Carter Page. A product of unclear reliability created and promoted via the opponent’s campaign abetted by the western intelligence community justified the demand to spy on Trump campaign associate Carter Page.

    Much will be made of how influential, or not, the Steele dossier was in obtaining the original FISA warrant, and whether or not its use was legal at all. The Nunes memo states recently “retired” FBI No. 2 Andrew McCabe confirmed no FISA warrant would have been sought without the Steele dossier; McCabe denies saying that during still-classified and still-unreleased testimony. Senior DOJ officials knew the dossier’s politics but left that information off their FISA application. Does any of that matter?

    We will never know. The Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act court works in secret. The standards are secret, the results and decisions are secret. None of us knows what matters to a FISA judge in rendering a decision to spy on an American campaign associate. Someone can release the so-called “underlying documents” (they’re typically dozens of pages long) DOJ used for the FISA application but without knowledge of FISA standards, those documents won’t be of much help. The apparatus of spying in America, including the FISA court, is widely supported and authority to spy was just extended with support from both parties.

    If you want to assert the FISA warrant on Page was apolitical, issued only to collect on his possible role as a Russian agent, and no strategy, financial, or campaign information was collected, or that if it was it was simply discarded, well, that’s a beneficent view of human nature, never mind a bizarrely generous level of trust in government. Yet even if the intent was righteous and the people involved lawful, the information is stored. Which person or agency has control of it today is not necessarily who will control it in the future; information is forever.

     

    Remember, too, the Nunes memo addresses only one FISA warrant on one person from October 2016; investigations into Trump, et al, had been ongoing well before that. We do not know, for example, what information formed the basis of the July 2016 investigation into Trump staffer George Papadopoulos the Nunes memo mentions; it may have been passed from the Australians via U.S. intelligence. Michael Flynn’s conversations with Russian persons were “inadvertently” monitored and later “unmasked” (and leaked) by Obama administration officials. Jeff Session’s conversations with the Russian ambassador were collected and leaked. The Nunes memo tells us then-Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr unofficially funneled additional material from Steele into DOJ; Ohr’s wife worked for the company that first commissioned the dossier. As yet unsubstantiated reports say Trump officials were monitored by British GCHQ with the information shared with their NSA partners, a common arrangement on both sides to get around domestic laws limiting such work on one’s own citizens, such as when a FISA warrant can’t be obtained, or one does not want to leave a paper trail.

     

    If you’re fine with the U.S. government using paid-for opposition research to justify spying on persons connected to presidential campaign staff, then nothing further I can write will help you understand how worrisome this disclosure is. Except maybe this. Switch the candidate’s name you hate with the one you like. That means President Trump surveilling staff from the Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign after a dossier commissioned by the Republican party links them to China. You’d trust Trump, and every future president, with that, right?

    The involvement of the intelligence community as in the 2016 presidential campaign, clumsy and disorganized as it appears to have been, will be part of the next election, and the ones after that. If you’re in search of a Constitutional crisis, it lies waiting there. After all, when we let George W. Bush create, and Barack Obama greatly expand, the surveillance state, what did we think it would come to be used for?

     

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    What’s Next in Iraq?

    February 5, 2018 // 3 Comments »

    petraeus-crocker-sons-of-iraq

    The contours of Iraq post-Islamic State are becoming clearer. Did the strategy to defeat Islamic State succeed? Are the American wars in Iraq finally over? Who walks away the winner?


    Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over Islamic State on December 9, 2017. And while there will still be some fighting, the real war is over. Yet there were no parades, no statues pulled down, no “Mission Accomplished” moments. An event that might have once set front pages atwitter a few years ago in America wasn’t even worth a presidential tweet.

    That’s because in Washington there is little to celebrate. With the likelihood of spring elections in Iraq, what stands out is how absent American influence is. The two main candidates are current prime minister Abadi, and former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. Both come from the same Shi’ite Dawa party, and both have close ties to Iran. The names should be familiar. Maliki was the Great American Hope in 2006, and again in 2010, to unite Iraq across Sunni-Shi’ite-Kurdish lines as the bulk of American occupation forces withdrew, while Abadi was the Great American Hope in 2014 to do the same as American troops flowed back to Iraq to fight Islamic State.

    As prime minister Maliki didn’t follow-through on the Surge in the end years of the American occupation, leaving the Sunnis at the mercy of his Shi’ite supporters. Maliki’s first action post-occupation — the very day after the last American combat troops withdrew — was to try and arrest his own Sunni vice president. In 2014, Maliki unleashed his army in Sunni Anbar Province, a move which drew Islamic State in to Iraq. American manipulations then replaced Maliki with Abadi in 2014.

    Yet despite high (American) hopes, Abadi made few efforts to integrate Sunnis into the Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi judiciary, military, and police forces, the minimum groundwork for a united Iraq. He did not create economic opportunities for Sunnis or deliver public services. Instead, Abadi created new fault lines, ossified old ones by further embracing Tehran, and sent Iranian-lead Shi’ite militias numbering some 120,000 tearing through the Sunni heartlands. Both Presidents Obama and Trump worked closely with Abadi to ultimately destroy Islamic State in Iraq, at the expense of the Iraqi Sunnis.


    The Obama-Trump strategy was medieval: kill people until there was literally no Islamic State left inside Iraq, then allow the Iranians and Shi’ite Iraqis to do whatever they pleased with the Sunnis in the aftermath. This was the big takeaway from the Iraq war of 2003-2011: there would be no political follow-on this round, no nation building, between the end of the fighting and the exit. The United States would pay no mind to internal Iraqi politics, even if that meant an exclusionary Shi’ite government in Baghdad under Tehran’s wing.

    The walk-away policy was implemented, albeit less violently, to resolve for now the question of the Kurds. In September 2017, the Kurds voted for independence from Iraq, only to see their fate decided as Washington stood aside while Shi’ite militias pushed Kurdish forces from disputed regions, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. After decades of American promises of independence, the Kurds were left to salvage a small bit of pre-2003 autonomy from Baghdad where once full statehood stood within grasp. With American support, the Kurds blunted Islamic State in the darkest days of 2014. In 2018, in what some analysts call the “Twilight of the Kurds,” they no longer seem to have a place in Washington’s foreign policy.

    The American strategy against Islamic State worked. It should have; this was a war the American military knew how to fight, with none of that tricky counterinsurgency stuff. Retaking Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul were set-piece battles. City after Sunni city were ground into little Dresdens (since 2014, the United States spent more than $14 billion on its air campaign against Islamic State) before being turned over to the militias for ethnic cleansing of renegade Sunnis. The United Nations was appalled by the mass execution of Sunni prisoners and called for an immediate halt. There was no response from Washington.

    Unlike the 2003-2011 war, when it spent $60 billion on the task, the United States does not intend on trying to pay for the reconstruction of Iraq. Estimates suggest $100 billion is needed to rebuild the mostly Sunni areas destroyed, and to deal with the 2.78 million internally displaced Sunnis. Shi’ite Baghdad pleads lack of funds to help. Across two administrations Washington contributed only $265 million to reconstruction since 2014 (by comparison, America allotted $150 million in 2017 alone to financing arms sales to Iraq, one of the top ten global buyers of American weapons.) Other than plans for Kuwait to host a donors conference in February, the Sunnis are largely on their own, hanging on with the vitality of an abused shelter dog.


    President Trump is unlikely to pull troops out of Iraq entirely. A reduced force will stay to play Whack-a-Mole with any Islamic State resurgence, to act as a rear-guard against the political fallout that chased Obama in 2011 when he withdrew troops, and to referee among the disparate groups in western Iraq and Syria the United States armed willy-nilly to help defeat Islamic State. The armed groups mostly set aside differences dating from Biblical times to fight Islamic State, but with that behind them, about all they have in common is mutual distrust and lots of guns. American troops perma-stationed inside Iranian-allied Iraq are a bit of a geopolitical oddity, but one Iran has likely already at least passively agreed to. Tehran has little to gain from a fight over some American desert base real estate right now, when their prize is the rest of Iraq.


    Over five administrations and 26 years, the United States paid a high price – some 4,500 American dead and trillions of taxpayer dollars spent – for what will have to pass as a conclusion. Washington’s influence in Baghdad is limited and relations with Iran are in shambles under a Trump administration still focused backwards on the Obama-era Iran nuclear accords. The last quarter century of Iraq wars thrust the region into chaos while progressively erasing American dominance. Iran is picking up the pieces, creating a new Lebanon out of the shell of what was once Iraq. As long as the Trump administration insists on not opening diplomatic relations with Tehran, it will have few ways to exert influence. Other nations in the Middle East will diversify their international relationships (think Russia and China) knowing this.

    A long fall from the heady days of 2003, when America lit up the region like the Fourth of July to remake the Middle East. But the problems proved impossible to solve and so America washed its hands of that, for this. And if any of this does presage some future American conflict with an Iran that has gotten “too powerful,” then we shall have witnessed a true ironic tragedy.

     




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    The People v. Trump: Is There a Case for the 25th Amendment?

    January 30, 2018 // 14 Comments »


    The media is of one mind: Donald Trump is mentally incompetent and must be removed from office before he blows us all to hell. It says so on Vox, New York Review of Books, CNN, The Intercept, CNBC, The Nation, Bill Moyers, Salon, and the NYT. A new book, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, concludes “Trump’s mental state presents a clear and present danger to our nation and individual well-being.”

    The solution is in the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. The 25A creates a mechanism aside impeachment to remove an “incapacitated” president, and Trump’s mental state, some believe, qualifies him. Is there a case?


    Dr. Bandy Lee, one of the editors of The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, says yes. Her primary evidence is tweets Trump sent threatening Kim Jong Un. She really has no other ammunition: no doctor who says Trump is insane, including Lee, has examined him. No doctor that has examined him says he is insane. Third party anonymous accusations of incompetence are shot through with gossip. A book written by a Hollywood trash reporter is otherwise held up as critical evidence of the inner workings of the president’s mind.

    So is there a case without the tweets? Not really. Lee adds while Trump has not committed violent acts against himself or others, his “verbal aggressiveness, history of boasting about sexual assault, history of inciting violence at his rallies, and history of endorsing violence in his key public speeches are the best predictors of future violence” and thus concludes he will destroy the world. Lee also weakly points to Trump “being drawn to violent videos.” Oh my.

    We might instead look at the actual decisions Trump has made, and those of his predecessors. One president used nuclear weapons to decimate two cities worth of innocents, and a set of presidents squandered hundreds of thousands of American lives watering Vietnam with blood. Ronald Reagan was famously caught over an open mic saying he was going to start bombing the Soviet Union in the next few minutes. Another president lied about WMDs to launch an invasion of Iraq in part to avenge his dad. The same guy mocked North Korea’s leader as a pygmy. Obama said he “will not hesitate to use our military might” against the North, knowing that meant Armageddon. Historical psychiatrists say half of our past presidents may have suffered some sort of mental illness. If Trump is dangerous as president, he seems to have company.

    But how can we know? Trump will never voluntarily undergo a mental competency exam, though courts can order people to submit. But even Lee, who met with Congressional representatives to press the case Trump is insane, admits this is unlikely to happen. “Many lawyer groups have actually volunteered to file for a court paper to ensure that the security staff will cooperate with us,” Lee said. “But we have declined, since this will really look like a coup, and while we are trying to prevent violence, we don’t wish to incite it through, say, an insurrection.”


    There doesn’t seem much of a case. Still, people arguing Trump is insane and must be removed from office point to the 25th Amendment to the Constitution as just what the doctor ordered.

    The Constitution did not originally lay out (Article II, Section 1, Clause 6) what happens if a president dies or becomes incapacitated. It was just assumed the Vice President would serve as “Acting President.” The 25A, passed after the Kennedy assassination, created the first set of rules for this sort of situation.

    The 25A has four short subsections. If the presidency goes vacant (for example, fatal heart attack), the vice president becomes president. If the vice-presidency goes vacant, the president chooses a new VP. If the president knows he’ll be incapacitated (unable to carry out his job, for example, due to scheduled surgery), he can voluntarily and temporarily assign his duties to the vice president. If the president is truly incapacitated (unconscious after an assassination attempt) and can’t voluntarily assign away his duties, the VP and cabinet can do it for him, with a two-thirds majority confirming vote of the House and Senate.

    In the minds of the “Trump is Insane” crowd what matters most is that never-used fourth subsection, the incapacitation clause. People claim because Trump is insane he is unable to carry out his duties, and so Mike Pence, et al, must step in and transfer power away from him today. Trump would legally exist in the same status as Grandpa Simpson in the nursing home, and Pence would take over. Among other problems, this thinking imagines the 25A’s legally specific term “unable” means the same thing as the vernacular “unfit.” An unconscious man is unable to drive. A man who forgot his glasses is unfit, but still able, to drive. The 25A only refers to the first case.


    The use of the 25A to dethrone Trump is the kind of thing non-experts with too much Google time can convince themselves is true. But unlike much of the Constitution, where understanding original intent requires the Supreme Court and a close reading of the Federalist Papers, the 25A is modern legislation. We know the drafters’ intent was an administrative procedure, not a political thunderbolt. The 25A premises the president will almost always invoke succession himself, either by dying in office, or by anticipating he will be unable to discharge his duties, as in 2007 when George W. Bush went under anesthesia for his annual colonoscopy and signed things over to his vice president for a few hours.

    The reason the 25A is not intended to be used adversarially is the Constitution already specifies impeachment as the way to force an unfit president out against his will, his unfitness specifically a result of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The people who wrote the 25A did not intend it to be an alternate method of impeachment or a do-over for an election.

    It has to be so; the Constitution at its core grants ultimate power to the people to decide, deliberately, not in panic, every four years, who is president. Anything otherwise would mean the drafters of the 25A wrote a back door into the Constitution that would allow a group of government officials, many of whom in the Cabinet were elected by nobody, to overthrow an elected president who they simply think has turned out to be bad at his job.

    Accusations of mental illness are subjective, unprovable in this case, and alarmist, perfect fodder to displace the grinding technicalities of Russiagate. Denouncing one’s political opponents as crazy was a tried and true Soviet and Maoist tactic, and a movie trope where the youngsters try to get the patriarch shut away to grab his fortune. We fear the mentally ill, and psychiatric name calling against Trump invokes that fear. “The 25th Amendment would require, for mental incapacity, a major psychotic break,” said one former Harvard Law School professor. “This is hope over reality. If we don’t like someone’s politics we rail against him, we campaign against him, we don’t use the psychiatric system against him. That’s just dangerous.”


    People saying the president is mentally ill and the 25A is the cure know they have no rational basis for their position. They know the 25A is not a work-around for impeachment proceedings they are unlikely to see. They are aware they are unethically trying to medicalize bad leadership, damning it with the taint of mental illness. They know Mike Pence and Trump’s own cabinet will never sign off on a power transfer, and they don’t want Pence in the Oval Office anyway. They know this is all kabuki, liberal fan fiction, a shadow play. The talk of mental illness and the 25A is simply political sabotage ahead of the 2018 mid-term elections.

    Trump’s time in office is finite, but what happens around him will outlast his tenure. It is dangerous to mess with the very fundamentals of our democracy, where the people choose the president, replacing that with a kabal called into session by pop psychologists. This is an attack on the process at its roots; you yokels voted for the wrong guy so somebody smarter has to clean up.




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    Movie Review: The Post, or, History as 2018 Wants It to Be

    January 19, 2018 // 11 Comments »



    Steven Spielberg’s “The Post,” starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, tells the story of the Washington Post’s decision in 1971 to publish parts of the Pentagon Papers, the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War. It’s a whimper of a movie, throwing bad history on the screen to make a clumsy but ever-so 2018 political point.

    So how do you make a two hour drama out of a decision? There are only so many scenes you can shoot, though Spielberg tries them all, of The Suits saying “You can’t publish!” while Meryl and Tom emote “We must!” Well, you more or less override real history in favor of a Lesson, whitewash a decision made in part to make the Post look better against its competition of the time the Washington Star, and sideline the real hero, Daniel Ellsberg.


    A bit of history. Ellsberg first leaked the Pentagon Papers exclusively to the New York Times; despite what “The Post” claims, the Washington newspapers were far too provincial to qualify as full peers. The Pentagon Papers were a 7,000 page classified history of the Vietnam War, 1945 to 1968, prepared under the order of Kennedy-Johnson Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. We know now McNamara, while publicly supporting the war, was privately consumed by doubt, and the Papers were his act of contrition. Times’ reporters spent three months reading and verifying the documents. Simultaneously, the Times set its legal team to preparing the now classic First Amendment defense it knew would be needed.

    The risks were huge — no one had ever published such classified documents before, and the senior staff at the Times feared they would go to jail under the Espionage Act (though only Ellsberg was actually charged as such.) The Nixon administration found a court to order the Times to cease publication after an initial flurry of excerpts were printed in June 1971, the first time in U.S. history a federal judge censored a newspaper. Things got so dicey the Times’ outside counsel actually quit the night before his first appearance in court, claiming the newspaper had indeed broken the law. It was only at that point the Washington Post actually obtained an excerpt from the Pentagon Papers.


    The movie brushes past the Times’ rigorous fact checking, raw courage, and masterful First Amendment legal defense to focus on the Post’s big risk: the paper was about to offer its stock publicly, and problems with the government might hurt share prices. Nixon shut down the Post’s publishing anyway after only two days, and the paper went to court. The Post’s lawyers made no First Amendment case, more afraid of being found in contempt of the injunction against the Times than the Espionage Act. The Supreme Court rolled their briefs into the Times’ case, and the landmark victory for the First Amendment was issued as New York Times Company v. United States. The Times won the Pulitzer Prize. The Post did not.


    But hell, you’re Steven Spielberg. You have the True Guardians of Liberal-Lite, Blue America’s mom and dad, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. What does history have to do with your movie anyway? It all begs the question of why Spielberg chose to tell the story of the Pentagon Papers, which is really the story of the New York Times with its spine still in place, via a secondary player, the Washington Post?

    “The Post” has no real interest in the Pentagon Papers except as a plot device, almost an excuse needed to make this movie. “The Post” simply takes a now universally praised, and thus middle America safe (for the same reason, “Saving Private Ryan” was set in the Good War instead of god-awful Vietnam) episode of journalism as a launching point to attack what it sees as the Trump Administration’s efforts to weaken a free press. Today’s WaPo, under the ownership of one of America’s richest liberal capitalists, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, has refashioned itself as the newspaper of #Resistance, declaring in undergraduate essay level pseudo Orwellian prose its motto to be “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”

    By setting the story back in ye olde timey 1971, Spielberg can appropriate Daniel Ellsberg, instead of Obama-era whistleblowers Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, who still hover near to traitor status for many. Tom Hanks himself gave the game away, calling Ellsberg a hero in an interview while refusing to characterize Snowden at all.

    What was clearly the right thing to do to help bring down (Trump stand-in) Richard Nixon can become all morally ambiguous when Obama is in the hot seat, hence the historical setting. The Obama administration charged more people under the Espionage Act for alleged mishandling of classified information than all past presidencies combined, including Nixon’s. But by more or less bypassing the core issue both whistleblowers and real journalists stare down — there are higher goals than obedience to government — Spielberg ducks the real lesson in favor of an easy shot at the current administration.

    “I think our country has a love-hate relationship with whistleblowers,” attorney Jesselyn Radack, who helped represent Manning, Snowden and, full disclosure, me, told The American Conservative. “I wish I could be optimistic about ‘The Post’ shifting the needle of public opinion. However, it’s a hopelessly mismatched tug of war when the entire apparatus of the U.S. government — whether led by Obama or Trump — holds one end of the rope.”


    Using the old Washington Post as the launching point for what is essentially just a trope-ish Op-Ed (Freedom of the Press, good! Republican Presidents, bad! Journos, Indiana Jones!) also allows Spielberg to show 1971 exactly as 2018 wants to remember it. Meryl and Tom, playing Katherine and Ben, are perfect role models for how men and women should work together, respectful and considerate, with no mansplaining or inappropriate remarks to be found.

    Meanwhile, the newsroom is era-appropriate white and male, but everyone is on their best behavior for the camera; no fanny slapping, no one addressing the clerical staff as “honey” or demanding coffee. The New York Times of 1971 was too male, and even Spielberg couldn’t shoe horn a female protagonist into that picture, never mind create a hit-you-over-the-head subplot of Katherine Graham morphing from Betty Crocker into a fierce, persistent 2018 role model for all women and girls (one of the later shots in the film shows Streep leaving the Supreme Court to gently part a crowd of adoring young women, adream in halo-like glow at her proto-feminism). There is no subtlety to the message. Spielberg might as well have costumed Streep wearing a pink pussy hat in the boardroom scenes.


    Nobody expects movies to be 100% historically accurate, but “The Post” twists facts to present a battle that really wasn’t fought this way at all. The film is an effective piece of polemic, taking full advantage of the skills of some of America’s most talented practitioners, who one imagines believe they made a Movie That Matters For Our Times. Spielberg, Streep, and Hanks, all supporters of Hillary Clinton, couldn’t get her elected, so they did the next best thing. They created a little confection likely to win multiple Oscars and play forever on Amazon Prime beating up the guy she lost to.



    Full Disclosure: Dan Ellsberg is a hero of mine.

     

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    Martin Luther King Day: Lady Liberty is Black

    January 15, 2018 // 42 Comments »



    The United States will release released a gold coin featuring Lady Liberty as a Black woman on this day in 2017, the first time she has been depicted as anything other than white on the nation’s currency.

    “Part of our intent was to honor our tradition and heritage,” stated a spokesperson from the Mint. “But we also think it’s always worthwhile to have a conversation about liberty, and we certainly have started that conversation.”

    Good for everyone. Only the most dark hearted could be upset that a fictional character is represented in any particular way. This can’t be bad.


    …Unless we acknowledge that America is apparently satisfied with “having conversations,” raising awareness about race, and various other symbolic gestures. The Academy Awards are again coming up, and the Golden Globes just passed, and lots of people will be keeping track of how many are given out to non-white men and making much of the tally, their “much” depending on which side the scale tips. Gestures of all types are all good enough on their own, but they never really affect much. The issues of race stretch back to the Founders, well before we elected a Black president and then elected one who throws racist statements around on Twitter. We’re still dealing with the same questions.


    The same day the new liberty coin was announced in 2017, the Department of Justice released a terrifying report describing the failures throughout the Chicago Police Department, saying excessive force was rampant, rarely challenged and chiefly aimed at African-Americans and Latinos. The report was released as Chicago faces skyrocketing violence, with murders are at a 20-year high, and a deep lack of trust among the city’s Black and white residents. And yeah, of course, the police force is very, very white.

    Where was this report a year ago, or eight years ago, or ten years ago? Because the implication here is that the Obama administration issued this in its final days, allowing it (and not any solution or progress) to be part of his legacy. Suspecting Trump will not make dealing with these issues a priority, Obama’s DOJ can take credit for “starting a conversation” about Chicago while walking away from the heavy lifting of helping fix it. DOJ might as well have issued a commemorative coin in lieu of the report.


    We all know the rest: 1 in every 15 African American men are incarcerated in comparison to 1 in every 106 white men. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, one in three Black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. Once convicted, Black offenders receive longer sentences compared to white offenders. You can find similar numbers for poverty (nearly a quarter of blacks are living in poverty, almost the same as in 1976), unemployment (double that of whites), life expectancy, and voter disenfranchisement.

    Clearly over the last seven decades somebody could have fixed some of that. It can’t all be impossible.

    Now, there has been some progress. America wrapped up formal slavery in 1865, only 76 years after the Bill of Rights. And then it was only another 100 some years before the Civil Rights laws tried hard to grant Blacks the rights the 1865 victory gave them. We don’t have lynchings and killings much anymore (though the Chicago PD keeps its hand in) and places that wish to discriminate against Blacks have to do it much more subtlety.

    I’m not making light of suffering, but I am using sarcasm to show how angry I am about lack of real progress. We seem content to see presence as progress — first Black major leaguer, first Black Supreme Court Justice, first Black _____, first Black president. Again, there is nothing bad there, but now that the top box has been checked, what happens next?

    In other words, we get Martin Luther King day as a Federal holiday while at the same time we don’t get the values King embodied. There you go. As one person put it “The Dr. King we choose to remember was indeed the symbolic beacon of the civil rights movement. But the Dr. King we forget worked within institutions to transform broken systems.” Change is not organic; it must be made to happen.

    It is hard to come to any conclusion other than we as a society just don’t care. There are so many excuses (he was blocked by the Republicans, they’re still a tiny minority in Congress, the media, etc.) but even America’s Black president failed hard to make much of a real difference. We seem satisfied with symbolic gestures, blowing them out of proportion while the real problems sit in plain sight, unattended. What people will characterize over the next four years as sliding backwards on racial progress seems more like business as usual, albeit without the eloquent speeches.




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    Here’s Some Cocoa, America. Tell Me What You’re So Afraid Of.

    January 14, 2018 // 13 Comments »



    Here’s what I’m afraid of. While fear has always been a tool of the vested interests to retain power, make money, and keep us under control, things may be slipping off the rails. The basic political post-war strategy of the United States power block has metastasized. The old fears deployed – the Commies, the Terrorists – were reliably a fire only a few key people could easily feed fuel into, or cool down, as needed. There was an element of control, evil and insidious, but one that maintained a balance. After all, you want enough fear to make people compliant but no so much that they end up chasing each other with pitchforks. Or driving cars through crowds of protesters.

    It is too easy now for too many people to put fuel into the fire. The establishment media, which once thrived on trading information for viewers, now trades on promoting anxiety. Confirmations of our fears no longer show up in scratchy black and white only when the president addresses the nation. They rocket 24/7, unfiltered and unfettered, tailored to match what scares us most. Then we retweet them to like-minded others, to validate our fears and form bonded communities. These are deep waters; imagine an episode of Black Mirror where a device that algorithmically learns your deepest fears falls into the wrong hands.

    There’s a history to all this. We first got really scared just as we were emerging as the predominant power on the planet, armed with the world’s only atomic bomb. It seems an odd set of circumstances to have been frightened in, more like one where we would have sat back and enjoyed ourselves. Yet we near-demanded a succession of presidents build the most massive national security state ever known to make us feel safe.

    We were instructed to be afraid of all sorts of stuff — communists in government and Hollywood, domino theories, revolutionary movements, a whole basket of Bond villains. Those who supported peace were labeled as working for the enemy. Pretty much anything the people in charge wanted to do — distort civil liberties, raise taxes to pay for weapons, overthrow governments, punish Americans for things they wrote or said — was widely supported because we were afraid what might happen otherwise. Most people now realize the fear was overblown. Almost every American who died from the Cold War died in a fight we picked, inflamed, or dove blindly into. Cancer and car accidents took more lives than Dr. Strangelove. Fear justified terrible actions in our name.

    Then we got really scared following September 11, 2001, more than we ever were of the Russians. The terrorists lived among us. They were controlled by masterminds, simultaneously unpredictable and devious plotters playing the long game. They could turn our children into jihadis via MySpace. Pretty much anything the people in charge wanted to do — distort civil liberties, raise taxes to pay for weapons, overthrow governments, punish Americans for things they wrote or said — was widely supported because we were afraid what might happen otherwise. Some people now realize the fear was overblown. Diabetes and ladder falls took more lives than Bin Laden.

    For a long time we’ve been acting like a shelter dog when the Bad Man comes into the room. The difference is that we were mostly afraid of the same thing, a mass driven by anxiety more or less in the same direction, a straight line that could not be anything but purposeful.

    The nasty twist for 2018 is we live in a world of mainstream media with barely screened ideological bias, backed up by social media of barely contained mental stability. At the same time, we are ever more diverse and equally ever more separated, divided into a thousand incommunicado sub-reddits. It isn’t practical anymore for us to have common fears.

    Fear is powerful. A sound triggers a memory that sets off involuntary, subconscious processes: the heart rate jumps, muscles twitch, higher brain functions switch to fight-or-flight. Exist in this state long enough and you end up with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, the inability to control your reaction to certain stimuli. Imagine a whole country that way trying to make good decisions, where fear trumps rational thinking.

    Looking at a blog post from a few years ago about what we were afraid of then, there are some familiar names. Putin was going on to invade Europe and Kim Jong Un was going to start a war over a Seth Rogin comedy called The Interview. But there were no mainstream claims the president was unfit at his core; people who feared that were pushed aside as conspiracy theorists, crazy themselves, and made fun of as “birthers.” There was no widespread anxiety democracy was teetering; people who talked about coups and the Reichstag burning were mocked on reality TV as preppers. There was a kind of consensus on what to be afraid of we subscribed to in various degrees of earnestness.

    Now there is a fear for everyone. We’re afraid Trump’ll start a war with North Korea (Kim is the sane one). We’re also afraid he won’t start a war and they’ll get us first (Kim is the crazy one.) We’re afraid Trump’s a Russian spy slipped into the White House (end of democracy) and we’re afraid the Democrats are using Mueller to overturn a legitimate election (end of democracy.) We’re worried the fascist government is taking away free speech and we’re worried the government isn’t doing enough to suppress free speech to stop hate. There are too many guns for us to be safe and not enough guns to protect us. Elect more women or women’s rights are finished. If we do elect more women (or POC, LGBTQ) the rest of us are finished.

    Bad things no longer just don’t happen, they just haven’t happened yet, and there is never a time when we can exhale. So while the story used to be the tamping down of tensions on the Korean peninsula, the headline now is a mentally ill Trump might just push the nuclear button anyway, maybe even tonight (better check Twitter.) Whatever matters to you — transgender toilet rights, abortion, guns, religion — is under lethal attack and you are not just to help decide how we live in a plurality, but to determine whether we survive at all. It is always condition yellow, fight or flight. Fear is primitive; it doesn’t matter what we fear, as long as we remain afraid.

    Trump is not the demagogue you fear, just a cruder version of what has been the norm for decades. The thing to be scared of is what emerges after him. As such, there is still time. His bizarre ascension to the world’s most powerful office could become the argumentum ad absurdum that pulls the curtain back, Oz-like, on the way fear has been used to manipulate us. The risk is Trump may also represent a wake up call of a different sort, to even worse and much smarter people, who will see the potential to cross the line from manipulation into exploitation (the real burning of the Reichstag scenario), from gross but recognizable stasis into chaos.

    Frightened enough, people will accept, if not demand, extreme and dangerous solutions to problems whose true direness exists mostly within their anxieties – remember the way fear of invasion following Pearl Harbor led us to unlawfully imprison American citizen shopkeepers and farmers of Japanese origin? Now that’s something to really be afraid of.

     

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    Iraq War 3.0, the War to End All Wars, is Over

    January 2, 2018 // 66 Comments »



    America’s serial wars in Iraq are ending with a whimper, not a bang. And in the oddest of ironies, it may be President Donald Trump, feared as a war monger, the fifth president to make war in Iraq, who has more or less accidentally ended up presiding over the end.

    Here’s how we ended up where we are, and how a quarter century of American conflict in Iraq created the post-Vietnam template for forever war we’ll be using in the next fight.


    Iraq War 1.0+ The Good War

    The end of the Soviet Union transitioned the Middle East from a Cold War battleground to an exclusive American sphere of influence. George H. W. Bush exploited the new status in 1991 by launching Iraq War 1.0, Desert Storm, reversing decades of U.S. support for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

    Prior to the ‘Storm, the U.S. supplied weapons to Iraq, including the chemicals Saddam used to gas his own people. The American goal was more to bleed the Iranians, then at war with Iraq, than anything else, but the upshot was helping Saddam stay in power. The more significant change in policy Iraq War 1.0 brought was reversing America’s post-Vietnam reluctance to make war on a large scale. “The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula. By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all,” the elder Bush said, in what the New York Times called “a spontaneous burst of pride.” There was even a victory parade with tanks and attack helicopters staged in Washington. America was back!

    Bill Clinton took office and kept the fires burning, literally, inside Iraq, in what might be called Iraq War 1.5. Clinton, following the brush back pitch of the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia, decided maybe some Vietnam-era reluctance to send in troops wasn’t all that bad an idea, and instead embarked on an aerial campaign, with U.S. imposed no-fly zones, over Iraq. By the time Clinton’s tenure in the White House ended, America was bombing Iraq on average three times a week. In 1999, the U.S. dropped about $1 billion worth of ordnance, scaling up to $1.4 billion in the year ending around the time George W. Bush took office. It would be that Bush, in the hysteria following the 9/11 attacks, who would shift the previous years of war on Iraq into something that would change the balance of power in the Middle East: Iraq War 2.0, full-on regime change.


    Iraq War 2.0, The Bad One

    On the flimsiest excuse, non-existent weapons of mass destruction, fueled by the media and America’s own jihadistic blood thirst, George W. Bush invaded a nation to change its government to one preferred by the United States.

    Though often presented as a stand-alone adventure, Bush’s invasion was consistent with the broader post-WWII American Empire policy that fueled incursions in South East Asia and coups across South America when Washington decided a government needed to be changed to something more Empire-friendly. Many believe Iraq was only the first of Bush’s planned regime changes, his war cabinet having their eye on Syria, Lebanon, perhaps even Iran. After a heady start with the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 (“shock and awe”) Bush declared victory for the first time — Mission Accomplished! — only to see the war drag on past his own time in office.

    It is a type of macabre parlor game to pick the moment when things might have been turned around in Iraq, when chaos and disaster might have been averted. Over drinks in some Georgetown salon it might be agreed the tipping point was the decision to disband the Iraqi military, police, and civil service in 2003. Others might point to the 2006 bombing of the al-Askari Golden Mosque, which drove the next decade of Sunni-Shia fighting. The American military insists they had a chance right up through the Surge in 2008, the State Department imagines it almost turned the corner with reconstruction in 2010, and Republican revisionists prefer to mark the last chance to fix things as the day before Obama’s decision to withdraw American combat troops in 2011.


    Iraq War 3.0, Made in America, Fought in Iraq

    Who now remembers President Obama declaring pseudo-victory in Iraq in 2011, praising American troops for coming home with their “heads held high”? He seemed then to be washing his hands forever of the pile of sticky brown sand that was Bush’s Iraq, the better to concentrate on a new Surge in Afghanistan. Trillions had been spent, untold lives lost or ruined, but the U.S. was to move on and not look back. So much for Pax Americana in the Middle East, but at least it was all over.

    Until Obama went back. Obama turned a purported humanitarian mission in August 2014 to save the Yazidi people few Americans had ever heard of from destruction at the hands of Islamic State into a full-scale bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq. A coalition of 73 nations and organizations (including Chad and Ireland, the vestigial list is still online) was formed to help, even though no one ever heard of them again absent a few bombing runs by the Brits. It was as if the events of 2003-2011 had never happened; Barack Obama stepped to the edge of the Iraq abyss, peered over, and shrugged his shoulders.

    The Iraq of 2014 was all Made in America, and due to low oil prices, much of it was also paid for by America, via subsidies and foreign aid to replace the petroleum revenues that never came.

    The gleefully corrupt Baghdad authorities of 2014 held little control over most of the nation; vast areas were occupied by Islamic State, itself more or less welcomed by Iraqi Sunnis as protection against the genocide they feared at the hands of the Iranian puppet Shia central government. That government had been installed by Iran out of the mess of the 2010 elections the U.S. held in hopes of legitimizing its tail-tucked exit from Iraq. The Sunnis were vulnerable because the American Surge of 2008 had betrayed them, coercing the tribes into ratting out al Qaeda with the promise of a role in governing a new Iraq that never happened once the Iranian-backed Shia Prime Minister al-Maliki took power.

    Initially off to the side of the 2014-era Sunni-Shia struggle but soon drawn in by Islamic State’s territorial gains were the Iraqi Kurds, forever promised a homeland whenever the U.S. needed them and then denied that homeland when the U.S. did not need them to oppose Saddam in Iraq War 1.0, help stabilize liberated Iraq in War 2.0, or defeat Islamic State in Iraq War 3.0.


    We Won! Sort of.

    Obama’s, and now Trump’s, Iraq War 3.0 strategy was medieval, brutal in its simplicity: kill people until there was literally no Islamic State left inside Iraq. Then allow the Iranians and Shia Iraqis to do whatever they pleased in the aftermath.

    The United Nations said earlier this month it was appalled by a mass execution of Sunni prisoners in Iraq and called for an immediate halt. There was no response from the United States. As in Iraq War 1.0, when the U.S. abandoned the Kurds and their desire for a homeland, and stood back while Saddam crushed a Shia uprising the U.S. had helped provoke, internal Iraqi affairs were just too messy to be of lasting concern; that was one of the big takeaways from Iraq War 2.0 and all that failed nation building. Do what we’re good at, killing, and then walk away.

    The outcome of Iraq War 3.0 was never really in doubt, only how long it might take. With the semi-allied forces of the United States, Iran, the Kurds, and local Shia militias directed against them, Islamic State could never hold territory in what was a struggle of attrition.

    This was finally a war the U.S. knew how to fight, with none of that tricky counterinsurgency stuff. Retaking Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul were the same set-piece battle the American army first fought in Vicksburg in 1863. City after Sunni city were ground into little Stalingrads by air power and artillery (since 2014, the United States spent more than $14 billion on its air campaign against Islamic State) before being turned over to the Shia militias for the ethnic cleansing of renegade Sunni elements. There are no practical plans by the Iraqi government to rebuild what was destroyed. This time, unlike in Iraq War 2.0, there will be no billions of U.S. tax dollars allotted to the task.

    The end of War 3.0 came almost silently. There was no “Mission Accomplished” moment. No parades in Washington, no toppling of giant Saddam statues in Baghdad. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi simply on December 9, 2017 declared the war which essentially started in 1991 over. It barely made the news, and passed without comment by President Trump. What used to matter a lot in the end did not matter at all.


    The Price We Paid in Iraq

    Tweetable version: The last quarter century of Iraq Wars (from Desert Storm 1991 to the present) thrust the region into chaos while progressively erasing American dominance. Iran is picking up the pieces. As long as the U.S. insists on not opening diplomatic relations with Tehran, it will have no way short of war to exert any influence, a very weak position. Other nation-states in the Middle East will move to diversify their international relationships (think Russia and China) knowing this. Regional politics, not American interests, will drive events.

    After five administrations and 26 years the price the United States paid for what will have to pass as a victory conclusion is high. Some 4,500 American dead, millions killed on the Iraqi side, and $7.9 trillion taxpayer dollars spent.

    The U.S. sacrificed long-term allies the Kurds and their dreams of a homeland to avoid a rift with Baghdad; the dead-end of the Kurdish independence referendum vote this autumn just created a handy date for historians to cite, because the Kurds were really done the day their usefulness in fighting Islamic State wrapped up. Where once pundits wondered how the U.S. would chose a side when the Turks and Kurds went to war both armed with American weapons, it appears the U.S. could care less about what either does over the disputed borderlands they both crave.

    The big winner of America’s Iraq War is Iran. In 2017, Iran has no enemies on either major border (Afghanistan, to the east, thanks again to the United States, is unlikely to reconstitute as a national-level threat in anyone’s lifetime) and Iraq is now somewhere between a vassal state and a neutered puppet of Tehran.

    About their rivals in Saudi Arabia, again there is only good news for Iran. With the Sunnis in Iraq hanging on with the vitality of an abused shelter dog (and Iranian-supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad apparently to remain in power), Saudi influence is on the wane. In the broader regional picture, unlike the Saudi monarchs, Iran’s leaders do not rule in fear of an Islamic revolution. They already had one. With its victory in Iraq, stake in Syria, and friends in Lebanon, Iran has pieced together a land corridor to the Mediterranean at very low cost. If it was a stock, you’d want to buy Iran in 2018.


    The War to Make All Wars

    Going forward, Trump is unlikely to pull many troops out of Iraq, having seen the political price Obama paid for doing so in 2011. The troops will stay to block the worst of any really ugly Shia reprisals against the Sunnis, and to referee among the many disparate groups (Peshmerga, Yazidi, Turkmen, the Orwellian-named/Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces, along with animated militias and factions of all flavors) who the U.S. armed willy-nilly to defeat ISIS.

    The U.S. put a lot of weapons on to the battlefield and a reckoning is feared. The armed groups mostly set aside differences dating from Biblical times to fight ISIS, but with that behind them, about all they still have in common is mutual distrust. There is zero chance of any national cohesion, and zero chance of any meaningful power-sharing by Baghdad. U.S. goals include keeping a lid on things so no one back home starts looking for someone to blame in the next election cycle, wondering what went wrong, “Who lost Iraq?” and asking what we should be doing about it. How well the U.S. will do at keeping things in line, and the long term effects of so many disparate, heavily-armed groups rocketing around greater Mesopotamia, will need to be seen.

    U.S. troops perma-stationed in Iraq will also be a handy bulwark against whatever happens next in Syria. In addition, Israel is likely to near-demand the United States garrison parts of western Iraq as a buffer against expanding Iranian power, and to keep Jordan from overreacting to the increased Iranian influence.

    Iran has already passively agreed to most of this. It has little to gain from a fight over some desert real estate that it would probably lose to the Americans anyway, when their prize is the rest of Iraq. And if any of this does presage some future U.S. conflict with an Iran that has gotten “too powerful,” then we shall have witnessed a true ironic tragedy and a historic waste of American blood and resources.


    Empire

    In the longer view, the Iraq Wars will be seen as a turning point in the American Empire. They began in 1991 as a war for oil, the battle to keep the pipelines in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia open to the United States’ hungry mouth. They ended in 2017 when Persian Gulf oil is no longer a centerpiece of American foreign policy. When oil no longer really mattered, Iraq no longer really mattered.

    More significantly, the Iraq Wars created the template for decades of conflict to come. Iraq was the first forever war. It began in 1991 with the goal of protecting oil. The point of it all then shape-shifted effortlessly to containing Saddam via air power to removing weapons of mass destruction to freeing Iraq from an evil dictator to destroying al Qaeda to destroying Islamic State to something something buttress against Iran. Over the years the media dutifully advised the American people what the new point of it all was, reporting the changes as it might report the new trends in fashion — for fall, it’s shorter hemlines, no more al Qaeda, and anti-ISIS, ladies!

    The Iraq Wars changed the way we look at conflict. There would never again be a need for a formal declaration of war, such decisions now clearly were within the president’s whims and ordinations. He could ramp things up, or slow things down, as his mind, goals, temperament, and often domestic political needs, required. The media would play along, happily adopting neutral terms like “regime change” to replace naughty ones like “overthrow.” Americans were trained by movies and NFL halftime salutes to accept a steady but agreeably low rate of casualties on our side, heroes all, and be hardened to the point of uncaring about the millions of souls taken as “collateral damage” from the other. Everyone we kill is a terrorist, the proof being that we killed them. Play a loud noise long enough and you stop hearing it.


    The mistakes of the first try at a forever war, Vietnam, were fixed: no draft, no high body counts for Americans, no combative media looking for atrocities, no anguish by the president over a dirty but necessary job, no clear statement of what victory looks like to muddle things. For all but the most special occasions the blather about democracy and freeing the oppressed was dropped.

    More insidiously, killing became mechanical, nearly sterile from our point of view (remember the war porn images of missiles blasting through windows in Iraq War 1.0? The hi-tech magic of drone kills, video game death dispensed from thousands of miles away?) Our atrocities — Abu Ghraib is the best known, but there are more — were ritualistically labeled the work of a few bad apples (“This is not who we are as Americans.”) Meanwhile, the other side’s atrocities were evil genius, fanaticism, campaigns of horror. How many YouTube beheading videos were Americans shown until we all agreed the president could fight ISIS forever?

    Without the Iraq Wars there would be no multi-generational war in Afghanistan, and no chance of one in Syria. The United States currently has military operations underway in Cameroon, Chad, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia, Uganda, and Yemen. Any one will do of course, as the answer to one last question: where will America fight its next forever war, the lessons of Iraq well-learned, the presidents ready?




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    Almost a Year of Trump: Where Things Stand

    December 27, 2017 // 27 Comments »



    I awoke this morning to find it was not Judgement Day but simply morning.


    A little cloudy, might have some snow later. Things looked pretty normal. I ran the usual checks to make sure I hadn’t awoken in some alternate reality, that I had not slept through a time vortex and risen in a world run by super-intelligent apes, that sort of thing. Nope, regular everything. The milk in the fridge that was a little on edge yesterday morning was kinda ripe today.


    Trump’s been in office for six almost a year and everything is… sorta normal. He’s a crappy president, pretty much as we expected. I don’t see he’s done much good, but on the other hand looking over what the media, academics, and those who speak for us all, Colbert, Meyers, Samantha Bee, and George Takei have been predicting would have gone down by now, all and all things are not so bad.


    — No nuclear wars.

    — No wars with China, Russia, Iran or North Korea. Same wars Bush and Obama started or escalated still going strong.

    — No diplomatic breakdown because of Taiwan. No change in U.S. “Two China Policy.”

    — NATO and alliances with Australia, Japan, etc., intact.

    — No mass resignations among government employees. CIA, NSA, and State Department still open for business.

    — The people the media has been non-stop predicting would be fired/quit/indicted — Reince, McMaster, Mattis, Spicer, Ivanka, DeVos, Kushner, Mueller, Sessions, Tillerson, et al — are all mostly still around.

    — Trump has not annexed the Sudetenland.

    — No coups.

    — 1st Amendment, and others, still nicely in place.

    — No impeachment, no invocation of Emoluments Clause, no use of the 25th Amendment, no formal charges of treason.

    — No roundups of POC, women, journalists, or LGBTQ people. Deportations are still below Obama-era headcount of 2.5 million deported, highest under any presidency.

    — Stock market did not crash. Doing well, actually.

    — No psychological break down by Trump leading to anarchy, war, etc.

    — No signs of capitulation to Putin. We still own Alaska.

    — U.S. justice system and courts still open and functioning.

    — Absolutely nothing has changed regarding abortion rights, whatever the f*ck our healthcare system is, marriage equality… nope, steady state.


    In the interest of presenting a balanced view of events, here is a hysterical rebuttal to the points made above:

    It’s too early! OMG, it has only been six about a year. How’s the Kool-Aid nazi lover? As a white man of privilege who isn’t gay what do you know anyway about suffering, so f*ck you. The Resistance has held Trump back for now by posting on Facebook, but what about tomorrow?!? Luckily we marched with pussy hats or things would have been worse. You don’t know how bad it is because most of the changes are hidden. America’s prestige abroad is trashed and Angela Merkel is leading the Free World! Putin’s playing 3-D chess and just waiting to make his move. Any day now Robert Mueller is going to announce ____ and the sh*t will come down. We are nasty, fierce, persistent, and have excellent vocabularies. And did you see what anonymous sources told the NYT today? At least Dr. Who is a woman, so that means Hillary really won, doesn’t it?




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    More Reasons Why There Will Not Be War with North Korea

    December 26, 2017 // 16 Comments »



    Three days after offering to talk to North Korea without preconditions, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reversed course, insisting – as President Donald Trump has – the North must first stop its nuclear threats. As he backs away from the table, are we closer to war?


    Trump speaks of “fire and fury.” National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster says the North’s nuclear program is “the most destabilizing development in the post-World War II period.” John Brennan, the former CIA director, estimates the odds of war at 25%. Senator Lindsey Graham says there’s a 30% chance the U.S. will launch a nuclear first strike. The Council on Foreign Relations sees it closer to 50%.

    The idea that war with North Korea is a near-term inevitability is normalized for many. But exactly what calculus is necessary to take Trump, et al, at face value and believe war is coming? On the other hand, what line of thinking suggests the threats are merely a blowhard throwing some Grade-A tough guy meat to his base?

    If one believes North Korea holds nuclear weapons simply as a deterrent, a defense against attack by the United States as happened with Iraq and Libya after they denuclearized, there is no need for America to go to war. The North Koreans won’t use theirs unless we use ours first. It is a classic example of what kept the Cold War from going full-hot.

    The history of North Korea, embodied in its national philosophy of juche, is about survival, keeping the regime alive. The Kim family has been remarkably good at doing just that since 1948. Unlike Cuba, they economically survived the collapse of the Soviet Union. They suffered total war, famine, natural disasters, and decades of sanctions. They haven’t sought reunification by force with the South since 1950, even as stronger and weaker American presidents came and went.

    There is no rational argument why North Korea would destroy itself with the pointless first-use of nuclear weapons against the overwhelming power of the U.S.. If you were the general briefing Kim Jong Un on the risk versus gain of the offensive use of nukes, try and figure out how you’d pitch national suicide as a possible up side. The weapons are defensive. North Korea can’t be the one that starts the war.


    Over in Washington, the only way to believe Trump’s threats are real is to believe the North, in spite of everything you just read, would somehow see its way to using its weapons offensively, i.e., to attack South Korea as part of an attempt at reunification. Only then is a pre-emptive strike justified as self-defense. As part of America’s act of self-defense, potentially millions of Koreans, alongside hundreds of thousands of Japanese, as well as persons on Guam, maybe Hawaii, would die.

    And the strike by America would need to come soon, before they get us first. Sound familiar? This was the rationale used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq — Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, we were told, and it would be fatal to wait for him to use them against us. “Who wants the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud?” then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice warned in 2002. “How long are we going to wait to deal with what is clearly a gathering threat?”

    The trick was that it was almost certain the Bush administration knew Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction in 2002, and they definitely knew even during Iraq War 1.0, Desert Storm in 1991, Saddam did not use his chemical or biological weapons.

    It is the latter point that’s worth exploring. Saddam didn’t use his chem/bio weapons because the other side would then have no option but to retaliate in kind. In the case of Saddam, as with North Korea, the disparity in firepower with the United States meant total destruction. The only way to win – survive – is not to play the game.


    For the United States to decide on a first strike against North Korea the risk is beyond disproportionate to any possible gain. In a “miracle strike” every U.S. weapon would land perfectly on top of every North Korean target, including the American nukes needed to reach deep into the living rock of the mountains that protect the most important sites. This best case scenario would still leave North Korea under a radioactive cloud, which, given predictable weather patterns, would spread to Seoul and Tokyo. North Koreans not killed outright would trigger a humanitarian crisis unheard of in modern times. And the 1950’s Korean War offers a clear indication of how China would have to respond to an attack near its border, never mind a zombie apocalypse in the form of millions of starving North Koreans.

    And even that best case scenario is fully theoretical, because as any military planner will tell you, a “perfect” strike is impossible. Any American first-use plan includes at least a handful of lucky shots by the North (imagine one of those doomsday shots landing in Los Angeles), plus the activation of sleeper cell special forces almost certainly already in place in South Korea, Japan, and elsewhere.

    On top of the actual destruction, it is unclear if the global economic system would survive nuclear war, if South Korea and Japan could remain American allies if Seoul and Tokyo are aglow, if China would blithely continue to hold their American government debt and not purposefully trigger a crisis on Wall Street, or if any president, especially one already hated by about half the country, could explain away a radioactive Los Angeles was the price of safety from an even worse possible North Korean attack of the future. And those thousands of American troops immolated on their bases in Korea and Japan, sorry about that, hope that won’t negatively influence any votes in 2020.

    If you were briefing the president, could you find the gain in that Strangelovian scenario to balance the risk? We’d certainly get more than our hair mussed up. You’d probably instead say what one person who might actually talk with the president really did say. Rear Admiral Michael Dumont, the vice-director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained “There are no good military options for North Korea. Invading North Korea could result in a catastrophic loss of lives for U.S. troops and U.S. civilians in South Korea. It could kill millions of South Koreans and put troops and civilians in Guam and Japan at risk.”

    Boom.


    To believe the U.S. is headed toward war requires belief that one or more national leaders would destroy themselves and much of their country for no gain whatsoever. Imagine what you want about madmen, but leaders and politicians just don’t think that way.

    Still, anyone can ignore whatever facts they like, and believe whatever they want to believe. After all, some people still believe a fat guy in a red suit is going to come down the chimney later this month; try and persuade them that isn’t true…



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    Why Leave Well Enough Alone in Jerusalem?

    December 13, 2017 // 39 Comments »


    “Today we finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital,” President Donald Trump said. “This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality.” Trump’s formal recognition of Jerusalem as the capital, reversing some seven decades of American policy, is arguably the most unnecessary decision of his time in office, and the clearest one to date to have consequences that will linger far past his tenure. The decision may yield some domestic political advantage for the president, but at irrational expense globally.
    Apart from the short-term violence likely to ensue, understanding the depth of Trump’s mistake requires digging a bit into how diplomacy works. There are many facets (I served as a diplomat with the United States Department of State for 24 years) that can seem almost silly to outsiders but are in fact a very necessary.

    Jerusalem is where Israel’s President presides, and where the Parliament, Supreme Court, and most government ministries are located. In practical terms, the capital. Unlike in nearly ever other nation, however, the United States maintains its formal embassy elsewhere, in the city of Tel Aviv. It keeps a consulate in West Jerusalem, claimed by Israel since 1948, a consular annex in East Jerusalem, the Old City annexed by Israel in 1967 and sought by many Palestinians as the future site of their own capital, and an office in the neighborhood between East and West Jerusalem, directly on the so-called Green Line, the 1949 armistice line between Israel and Jordan. Diplomats from all nations, as well as Israeli officials, understand that in formal terms an embassy is the head office located in the capital, and a consulate is a kind of branch located outside the capital. But they also know from experience in Israel which door to knock on when you need to get business done, regardless of what the nameplate reads out front.

    And to an outsider that might seem like a lot of wasted effort. But diplomats are required to represent the position of their country, and to place that at times in front of “reality” itself. If the sign on the door in Jerusalem says “embassy” then the reality is everyone must slam on the brakes. Everything else may need to wait while the big picture is settled. But as long as the sign says “consulate,” well, we can agree this business about where the capital of Israel is located is complex, but anyway, there are some important matters that need to be discussed…
    This kind of thing is not unique to Israel. A similar system has been in place in Taiwan since 1979 and has kept the peace there.

    In 1979 the United States recognized the reality of the People’s Republic of China, with Beijing as its capital, and shifted formal relations from Taiwan. Instead of an embassy in Taipei, the United States established the American Institute in Taiwan, officially not a part of the American government. An actual registered non-governmental organization, with offices in a nondescript office building in Virginia, the Institute benefits from the Department of State “ providing “a large part of funding and guidance in its operations.”

    Because United States policy is there is only one China and that Taiwan is a part of it, there is no ambassador at the Institute; the chief representative is called the director. People who work for what anyone else would call the Taiwan government are “authorities,” not “officials.” A whole sitcom worth of name changes and diplomatic parlor tricks keeps the enterprise in Taipei not an embassy of the United States.

    But what seems childish actually allows all sides — Washington, Taipei, and Beijing — to focus on the practical, day-to-day work of relations without having to address the never-gonna-resolve-it-in-our-lifetimes geopolitical questions first. That’s why these things matter. They matter because appearance and symbols matter, in East Asia, and especially in the Middle East. That’s why Trump’s decision to officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and potentially relocate the embassy pulls down the curtain, turns on the lights, and spray paints day-glo yellow the 500 pound gorilla in the room. It will vastly complicate nearly everything.

     

    In the case of the United States and Jerusalem, the kabuki which has more or less maintained the status quo is the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995. That law required the United States to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem no later than May 31, 1999, and said Congress would withhold 50 percent of the funds appropriated to the State Department for overseas building operations if the deadline wasn’t met. The Act also called for Jerusalem to be recognized as the capital.

    The thing is that the Act left open a politically-expedient loophole, allowing the president to repeatedly issue a waiver of the requirements every six months if he determines that is necessary for national security. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama dutifully issued the waiver. Trump also reluctantly did it a few months ago, and then again just after announcing his recognition of Jerusalem to give the State Department some bureaucratic breathing room. Though as stated by the mayor of Jerusalem, “They just take the symbol of the consulate and switch it to the embassy symbol — two American Marines can do it in two minutes.” That would make the American Embassy the only embassy in Jerusalem. Reports say Trump will not designate an existing facility as the embassy and instead plans to build a new structure somewhere in Jerusalem, a process that will take years.

    Under the Jerusalem Embassy Act, the American embassy stayed in Tel Aviv, business was done in Jerusalem as needed, and everyone with a hand in the complex politics of the Middle East could look the other way, whichever other way best fit their needs. It was an imperfect solution, not the failed plan that did not lead to formal peace between the Palestinians and Israel as Trump characterized. The shadowplay status of Jerusalem worked.

     

    No more. Trump’s action in recognizing Jerusalem demands all of the players set aside whatever other issues they have in Israel, not the least of which is the Palestinian peace process, and now take a stand on America’s changed position.

    Of immediate concern will be America’s relationship with Jordan. Jordan has thrown in heavily with the United States, allowing its territory to be used as an entry point into Syria for American aid. The United States and Jordan more broadly have a robust and multi-layered security relationship, working well together in the war on Islamic State and in the peace process. It has been a steady relationship, albeit one based on personal ties more than formal agreements.

    Yet following Trump’s announcement, Jordanian King Abdullah bin Al-Hussein warned of “dangerous repercussions on the stability and security of the region.” Beyond modern geopolitics, the issue of Jerusalem runs deep in Jordan: it was Abdullah’s father, King Hussein bin Talal, who lost the city to Israel in the 1967 war, and Abdullah himself is officially the custodian of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. Even as protests broke out in areas of Jordan’s capital inhabited by Palestinian refugees, American diplomats working in Amman will find every facet of the relationship colored and their skills tested — no Arab ruler can be seen being publically pushed around, perhaps humiliated, by the United States.

     

    A second body blow could come in America’s relationship with Egypt. Even more so than Jordan, Egypt’s rulers must act in awareness of public opinion, with memories of the Arab Spring still fresh. In response to Trump’s announcement, Egyptian parliamentarians called for a boycott of American products, including weapons. Egypt is also no stranger to the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism, and one Egyptian minister warned Trump’s decision would shift focus from fighting terrorists to inflaming them; the symbolic role retaking Jerusalem places in the radical Islamic canon cannot be under estimated. All of this comes at a sensitive time: Cairo, for the first time since 1973, has reached a preliminary agreement to allow Russian military jets to use Egyptain airspace and bases.
    In the coming days there will very likely be acts of violence, street protests, and announcements globally condemning Trump’s decision. But long after the tear gas clears from Cairo’s side streets or Amman’s public squares, American diplomats will find themselves hamstrung, entering negotiations on a full range of issues having to first somehow address the action taken by President Trump. This one was not an unnecessarily bombastic tweet that runs off the bottom of the page, or a crude remark likely to fade with the next news cycle: this time the president overturned an American policy of nearly seven decades’ standing which will have consequences far beyond his own tenure.

     

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    Ken Marcus Will Save Israel Using the Full Power of the U.S. Government

    // Comments Off on Ken Marcus Will Save Israel Using the Full Power of the U.S. Government


    On Wednesday, December 13, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions will most likely make the wrong decision on Kenneth Marcus.

    Marcus is Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Education. Among other things, the office decides education-related complaints under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. At his confirmation hearing on December 5, Senators from both parties ignored Marcus’ record of trying to misuse the Civil Rights Act in defiance of the First Amendment to stymie the campus boycott, divest, and sanction (BDS) movement against Israel. On Wednesday the same committee is expected to rubber-stamp Marcus’ nomination and send it forward for full approval. The head of the Office of Civil Rights will then be a man who has spent years of his life trying to stomp on the rights of university students in his support of Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. He’ll head the office that will hear the next round of similar challenges. And nobody, Democrat or Republican, even brought the issue up. Nobody asked him about Israel.

    The 1964 Civil Rights Act, created to give the federal government a powerful tool to force desegregation on local school districts, allows under its Title VI and Title IX provisions for the withholding of federal funds from any school, program or activity which violates the Act by discriminating based on race, color, national origin, or sex. Complaints filed against a school go to the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education (a court challenge is also possible) for a ruling. OCR holds the power to put most schools out of business financially if they rule discrimination has taken place, and schools work hard to stay within boundaries OCR sets through written guidance (so-called “Dear Colleague” letters) and precedent. If the Senate approves him, Ken Marcus will be in charge of all this.

     

    At his nomination hearing, the Senators asked a fair number of questions about Title VI, demanding assurances Marcus would uphold the law regarding equal treatment of white and African-American students, for example. More pointed questions followed from the Democratic Senators about Title IX; Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is looking into changing her agency’s guidance on sexual assault on college campuses. Proponents say her plans will increase due process for the accused, while opponents claim it will weaken the new protections offered since the Obama administration for victims.

    Worthy questions for the future head of the Office of Civil Rights. But what was not brought up was a troubling pattern of Title VI complaints and court challenges Ken Marcus has brought over the years that will soon be just the kind of cases he’ll be helping to decide.

     

    A driven man, as head of his own Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, Ken Marcus maintains persons who support the boycott, divest, and sanction movement against Israel are engaged in inherently discriminatory, anti-Semitic activity. In its mission statement, Marcus’ Center says “The leading civil and human rights challenge facing North American Jewry is the resurgent problem of anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism on university campuses.” Marcus believes opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands on university campuses violates the civil rights of Jewish students, citing an Obama-era 2010 decision to extend the race or national origin clause of Title VI to Arab Muslim, Sikh, and Jewish students based on their “shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics.”

    The short version: Ken Marcus the man believes any campus that allows its students to voice opposition to the Israeli occupation should lose its federal funding. Ken Marcus as head of the Office of Civil Rights will adjudicate complaints demanding just that same thing.

     

    Marcus’ new role as adjudicator couldn’t come at a better time, at least for Ken Marcus, in that he has been wholly unsuccessful in getting the Office of Civil Rights he’ll soon run to agree with him to date: every one of Marcus’s Title VI complaints and suits has been thrown out, closed, denied, or otherwise turned down by both OCR and the courts. Despite Marcus’ dubious assertion students on American campuses speaking their minds about the actions of a foreign nation constitute a violation of the civil rights of all Jewish students, both the Office of Civil Rights and the courts at various levels maintain the First Amendment rights of the protestors far outweigh any discrimination. The dean of the School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley and First Amendment scholar said plainly “any administrator in a public university who tried to follow Professor Marcus’s approach would certainly be successfully sued for violating the First Amendment.”

    Yet despite his perfect record of losses, Marcus has done much damage, because winning against Marcus comes at a price. Faced with the possibility of an expensive defense, some schools appear to have chilled anti-Israel free expression as a thrifty expedient, the same way schools have chosen to not invite controversial speakers to avoid high security costs.

    Marcus knows exactly how well this chilling effect works. As he wrote in the Jerusalem Post, “These cases — even when rejected — expose administrators to bad publicity… Israel haters now publicly complain that these cases make it harder for them to recruit new adherents… If a university shows a failure to treat initial complaints seriously, it hurts them with donors, faculty, political leaders and prospective students.”

     

    Ken Marcus’ intent to protect Israel using the Office of Civil Rights to twist the noble intentions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to deny the First Amendment rights of students in America is plain enough. Yet at his confirmation hearing not one Senator, including Democrats Elizabeth Warren and Al Franken, asked a single question about how Marcus’ pro-Israeli beliefs might influence his decisions as head of the Office of Civil Rights. Senator Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential running mate, praised Marcus’ Brandeis Center for outing what he described as a white supremacist teaching at Virginia Tech. Senator Susan Collins referred to attacks against synagogues, and then tossed Marcus a softball question about whether he will protect all persons’ rights (he said yes.) And despite receiving a letter signed by 200 academics and a similar letter from the Arab American Institute asking her to look into Marcus’ objectivity regarding Israel, Senator Patty Murray did not.

    Installing Marcus as head of the Office of Civil Rights is in line with multiple actions aimed at silencing opposition to Israel. The ACLU on Thursday challenged an Arizona law requiring state contractors to promise they won’t boycott Israel. In October, the ACLU filed a challenge to a similar law in Kansas. More than 20 states have adopted measures to restrict the BDS movement. Congress is considering the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which would impose fines and possibly even prison on companies which support boycotts. The Act has 266 sponsors, Republicans and Democrats, in the House and 50 in the Senate.

     

    None of this came up at Ken Marcus’ confirmation hearing. As a private citizen Marcus accomplished a lot on behalf of the State of Israel. In his new job at the Office of Civil Rights, Marcus will be able to drive his agenda against the rights of Americans with the full power of the federal government behind him. Ask Congress; they’ll tell you Ken Marcus is a man of his times.

     

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