(This article originally appeared on TomDispatch, on June 12, 2012)
White is black and down is up. Leaks that favor the president are shoveled out regardless of national security, while national security is twisted to pummel leaks that do not favor him. Watching their boss, bureaucrats act on their own, freelancing the punishment of whistleblowers, knowing their retaliatory actions will be condoned. The United States rains Hellfire missiles down on its enemies, with the president alone sitting in judgment of who will live and who will die by his hand.
The issue of whether the White House leaked information to support the president’s reelection while crushing whistleblower leaks it disfavors shouldn’t be seen as just another O’Reilly v. Maddow sporting event. What lies at the nexus of Obama’s targeted drone killings, his self-serving leaks, and his aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers is a president who believes himself above the law, and seems convinced that he alone has a preternatural ability to determine right from wrong.
If the President Does It, It’s Legal?
In May 2011 the Pentagon declared that another country’s cyber-attacks — computer sabotage, against the U.S. — could be considered an “act of war.” Then, one morning in 2012 readers of the New York Times woke up to headlines announcing that the Stuxnet worm had been dispatched into Iran’s nuclear facilities to shut down its computer-controlled centrifuges (essential to nuclear fuel processing) by order of President Obama and executed by the US and Israel. The info had been leaked to the paper by anonymous “high ranking officials.” In other words, the speculation about Stuxnet was at an end. It was an act of war ordered by the president alone.
Similarly, after years of now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t stories about drone attacks across the Greater Middle East launched “presumably” by the U.S., the Times (again) carried a remarkable story not only confirming the drone killings — a technology that had morphed into a policy — but noting that Obama himself was the Great Bombardier. He had, the newspaper reported, designated himself the final decision-maker on an eyes-only “kill list” of human beings the United States wanted to destroy. It was, in short, the ultimate no-fly list. Clearly, this, too, had previously been classified top-secret material, and yet its disclosure was attributed directly to White House sources.
Now, everyone is upset about the leaks. It’s already a real Red v. Blue donnybrook in an election year. Senate Democrats blasted the cyberattack-on-Iran leaks and warned that the disclosure of Obama’s order could put the country at risk of a retaliatory strike. Republican Old Man and former presidential candidate Senator John McCain charged Obama with violating national security, saying the leaks are “an attempt to further the president’s political ambitions for the sake of his re-election at the expense of our national security.” He called for an investigation. The FBI, no doubt thrilled to be caught in the middle of all this, dutifully opened a leak investigation, and senators on both sides of the aisle are planning an inquiry of their own.
The high-level leaks on Stuxnet and the kill list, which have finally created such a fuss, actually follow no less self-serving leaked details from last year’s bin Laden raid in Pakistan. A flurry of White House officials vied with each other then to expose ever more examples of Obama’s commander-in-chief role in the operation, to the point where Seal Team 6 seemed almost irrelevant in the face of the president’s personal actions. There were also “high five” congratulatory leaks over the latest failed underwear bomber from Yemen.
On the Other Side of the Mirror
The Obama administration has been cruelly and unusually punishing in its use of the 1917 Espionage Act to stomp on governmental leakers, truth-tellers, and whistleblowers whose disclosures do not support the president’s political ambitions. As Thomas Drake, himself a victim of Obama’s crusade against whistleblowers, told me, “This makes a mockery of the entire classification system, where political gain is now incentive for leaking and whistleblowing is incentive for prosecution.”
The Obama administration has charged more people (six) under the Espionage Act for the alleged mishandling of classified information than all past presidencies combined. (Prior to Obama, there were only three such cases in American history, one being Daniel Ellsberg, of Nixon-era Pentagon Papers fame.) The most recent Espionage Act case is that of former CIA officer John Kiriakou, charged for allegedly disclosing classified information to journalists about the horrors of waterboarding. Meanwhile, his evil twin, former CIA officer Jose Rodriguez, has a best-selling book out bragging about the success of waterboarding and his own hand in the dirty work.
Obama’s zeal in silencing leaks that don’t make him look like a superhero extends beyond the deployment of the Espionage Act into a complex legal tangle of retaliatory practices, life-destroying threats, on-the-job harassment, and firings. Lots of firings.
Upside Down Is Right Side Up
In ever-more polarized Washington, the story of Obama’s self-serving leaks is quickly devolving into a Democratic/Republican, he-said/she-said contest — and it’s only bound to spiral downward from there until the story is reduced to nothing but partisan bickering over who can get the most advantage from those leaks.
But don’t think that’s all that’s at stake in Washington. In the ever-skittish Federal bureaucracy, among the millions of men and women who actually are the government, the message has been much more specific, and it’s no political football game. Even more frightened and edgy than usual in the post-9/11 era, bureaucrats take their cues from the top. So expect more leaks that empower the Obama Superman myth and more retaliatory, freelance acts of harassment against genuine whistleblowers. After all, it’s all been sanctioned.
Having once been one of those frightened bureaucrats at the State Department, I now must include myself among the victims of the freelancing attacks on whistleblowers. The Department of State is in the process of firing me, seeking to make me the first person to suffer any sanction over the WikiLeaks disclosures. It’s been a backdoor way of retaliating for my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, which was an honest account of State’s waste and mismanagement in the “reconstruction” of Iraq.
Unlike Bradley Manning, on trial under the Espionage Act for allegedly dumping a quarter million classified documents onto the Internet, my fireable offense was linking to just one of them at my blog. Just a link, mind you, not a leak. The document, still unconfirmed as authentic by the State Department even as they seek to force me out over it, is on the web and available to anyone with a mouse, from Kabul to Tehran to Des Moines.
That document was discussed in several newspaper articles before — and after — I “disclosed” it with my link. It was a document that admittedly did make the U.S. government look dumb, and that was evidently reason enough for the State Department to suspend my security clearance and seek to fire me, even after the Department of Justice declined to prosecute. Go ahead and click on a link yourself and commit what State now considers a crime.
This is the sort of thing that happens when reality is suspended in Washington, when the drones take flight, the worms turn, and the president decides that he, and he alone, is the man.
What Happens When Everything Is Classified?
What happens when the very definitions that control life in government become so topsy-turvy that 1984 starts looking more like a handbook than a novel?
I lived in Taiwan when that island was still under martial law. Things that everyone could see, like demonstrations, never appeared in the press. It was illegal to photograph public buildings or bridges, even when you could buy postcards nearby of some of the same structures. And that was a way of life, just not one you’d want.
If that strikes you as familiar in America today, it should. When everything is classified — according to the Information Security Oversight Office, in 2011 American officials classified more than 92,000,000 documents — any attempt to report on anything threatens to become a crime; unless, of course, the White House decides to leak to you in return for a soft story about a heroic war president.
For everyone else working to create Jefferson’s informed citizenry, it works very differently, even at the paper that carried the administration’s happy leaks. Times reporter Jim Risen is now the subject of subpoenas by the Obama administration demanding he name his sources as part of the Espionage Act case against former CIA officer Jeffery Sterling. Risen was a journalist doing his job, and he raises this perfectly reasonable, but increasingly outmoded question: “Can you have a democracy without aggressive investigative journalism? I don’t believe you can, and that’s why I’m fighting.” Meanwhile, the government calls him their only witness to a leaker’s crime.
One thing at stake in the case is the requirement that journalists aggressively pursue information important to the public, even when that means heading into classified territory. If almost everything of importance (and much that isn’t) is classified, then journalism as we know it may become… well, illegal.
Sometimes in present-day Washington there’s simply too much irony for comfort: the story that got Risen in trouble was about an earlier CIA attempt to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program, a plot which failed where Stuxnet sort of succeeded.
James Spione, an Academy Award-nominated director who is currently working on a documentary about whistleblowers in the age of Obama, summed things up to me recently this way: “Beneath the partisan grandstanding, I think what is most troubling about this situation is the sense that the law is being selectively applied. On the one hand, we have the Justice Department twisting the Espionage Act into knots in an attempt to crack down on leaks from ‘little guys’ like Thomas Drake and John Kiriakou, while at the same time an extraordinarily detailed window into covert drone policy magically appears in the Times.
Here is the simple reality of our moment: the president has definitively declared himself (and his advisors and those who carry out his orders) above the law, both statutory and moral. It is now for him and him alone to decide who will live and who will die under the drones, for him to reward media outlets with inside information or smack journalists who disturb him and his colleagues with subpoenas, and worst of all, to decide all by himself what is right and what is wrong.
The image Obama holds of himself, and the one his people have been aggressively promoting recently is of a righteous killer, ready to bloody his hands to smite “terrorists” and whistleblowers equally. If that sounds Biblical, it should. If it sounds full of unnerving pride, it should as well. If this is where a nation of laws ends up, you should be afraid.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
The New American quotes ABC News’ Jake Tapper, the reporter that raised the whistleblower cases at a White House press conference. Tapper said “it’s not like they are instances of government employees leaking the location of secret nuclear sites. These are classic whistle-blower cases that dealt with questionable behavior by government officials or its agents acting in the name of protecting America.”
The New York Times also weighed in on the issue of government retaliation against whistleblowers:
The majority of the recent prosecutions seem to have everything to do with administrative secrecy and very little to do with national security.
In case after case, the Espionage Act has been deployed as a kind of ad hoc Official Secrets Act, which is not a law that has ever found traction in America, a place where the people’s right to know is viewed as superseding the government’s right to hide its business.
Indeed, the paper noted the irony that while former CIA Officer John Kiriakou is being prosecuted aggressively merely for leaking some information about waterboarding to journalists, “none of the individuals who engaged in or authorized the waterboarding of terror suspects have been prosecuted.”
The New American adds:
The administration doesn’t always rely on prosecution to teach whistleblowers a lesson. It has other ways of retaliating against them, as Foreign Service Officer Peter Van Buren learned when he wrote the book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. Van Buren is still employed by the State Department, but he has been stripped of his security clearance, transferred to what he calls “a meaningless telework position,” threatened with prosecution, and otherwise harassed. As a result, he writes, “a career that typically would extend another 10 years will be cut short in retaliation for [his] attempt to tell the truth about how taxpayer money was squandered in Iraq.”
The story of whistleblower retaliation also was featured on the Daily Kos, which included this quote from my NPR “All Things Considered” interview:
And I find that, yes, it is worth it, it was worth it, and it will be worth it to answer that level of hypocrisy and demand from that Secretary of State, Madam, why is your institution not allowing me the same rights that you’re bleating about for bloggers around the world? Why not here at home?
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
(This piece appeared originally in the New York Times on February 9, 2012)
The State Department’s reduction of staff in Iraq is the final act of the American invasion. The war is now really over.
The U.S. has finally acknowledged that Iraq is not its most important foreign policy story.
Designed as a symbol of America the Conqueror, the United States Embassy in Baghdad included buildings for an international school that never opened. It featured apartments stocked with American-size refrigerators waiting for the first Baghdad Safeway. A lawn was planted to beautify the embassy, outdoor water misters installed to cool the air so even the stark reality of the desert was not allowed to interfere with plans.
Instead, the debris of failure to resolve the demons unleashed by the fall of Saddam crushed the U.S. Literally only days after the U.S. military withdrawal, the world’s largest embassy watched helplessly as Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki tried to arrest his own vice president, who fled to Kurdistan where Iraqi government forces are powerless to intervene. Sectarian violence came back on the boil, returning if not with 2007’s vengeance, then at least with its purpose.
The U.S. has finally acknowledged that Iraq is not its most important foreign policy story, and that America’s diplomats cannot survive on their own in the middle of a civil war. The embassy will eventually shrink to the small-to-medium scale that Iraq requires (think Turkey or Jordan). America’s relationship will wither into the same uneasy state of half-antagonistic, half-opportunistic status that we enjoy with the other autocrats in the Middle East. Maliki will continue to expertly play the U.S. off the Iranians and vice versa. U.S. military sales and oil purchases will assure him the soft landing someday of a medical visa to the United States à la Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, and not the sanctioned disposal awaiting Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
My book about the failed occupation and reconstruction of Iraq is called “We Meant Well.” Given the recent events, my next volume will be entitled “I Told You So.”
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
The New York Times reports today that “less than two months after American troops left, the State Department is preparing to slash by as much as half the enormous diplomatic presence it had planned for Iraq, a sharp sign of declining American influence in the country.”
The World’s Largest and Most Expensive Embassy will remain, in Baghdad, but mostly as a shell. The cutting in half of the Embassy staff only mere weeks after the military pulled out of Iraq can only be described as the reluctant admission by the Department of State of complete failure. Iraq spirals out of control around the Embassy, which is helpless even to send its diplomats outside the walls to see what is going on. State’s summer-long bragging about being able to assume the security and logistics duties of the departed military crumbled quickly.
Cited by the Iraqis as deal-breakers were the January arrest of Embassy mercenaries foot loose in Baghdad, and the emergency landing of an Embassy helicopter in urban Baghdad, both reported on this blog but not too many other places.
FYI, the photo above shows a piece of sculpture paid for by your tax dollars as part of a $25,000 art project the US ran in Iraq for the reconstruction effort. The failure of that reconstruction, largely because the money was wasted on idiotic crap like that eagle, explains why the State Department failed in Iraq.
War’s finally over for the US. While my book about the failure of reconstruction in Iraq was called “We Meant Well,” I think my next volume is going to be called “I Told You So.”
To the 4479 Americans who gave their lives in Iraq, and to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died during our invasion and occupation, I cannot disgrace you by saying you died in vain, so I shall only say, now, rest in peace.
Alert readers of this blog already knew that the State Department maintains its own air force at the World’s Most Expensive Embassy in Iraq, fixed wing, rotary wing and drones. The aircraft are flown by security contractors, mercenaries to the trade, and have been such an open secret that State’s own Diplomatic Security brags about them in its slick, expensive US Government-paid for propaganda, hidden away under the deceptive title “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles” next to a photo of a DS thug launching one of the little drones.
Why, US Ambassador Jeffrey even said the other day “Iraq is a sovereign democratic country. We have no role as outsiders in the democratic process other than to observe.”
The Times reports “A senior American official said that negotiations were under way to obtain authorization for the current drone operations, but Ali al-Mosawi, a top adviser to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki; Iraq’s national security adviser, Falih al-Fayadh; and the acting minister of interior, Adnan al-Asadi, all said in interviews that they had not been consulted by the Americans.”
Nice diplomatic touch: trying to obtain authorization from the Iraqis for a program already underway anyway. Nothing says f*ck you better than asking for permission after the fact. Honest, honey, I thought you were OK with that…
The Times emphasizes the Iraqis are in fact ever so upset that the US is flying drones over its “sovereign democratic country,” and rightly so. For the average Iraqi, a peace-loving State Department drone looks and sounds a lot like an Army or CIA Death from Above killer drone. The Iraqis remember that as long ago as one month, even unarmed observation drones overhead could mean an airstrike was imminent. For State to keep up the image of death from above happening at any moment = Worst Public Relations Fail Ever. In most other places, State tries hard to differentiate its diplomats from the military or the spooks, if for nothing more than their own safety. But, as we know, Iraq is complicated. Who knows, with the drones in Iraq, the US might end up as popular there as in Pakistan (“Drone Country“), where 100,000 people turned out Friday in protest.
The other issue is State trying to maintain the illusion, at least inside Foggy Bottom because I doubt anyone outside buys it, that its mission in Iraq is just another ‘ole Embassy. One wonders how the US might react if the Chinese Embassy in Washington began flying drone missions over DC, citing the high rate of homicide and street violence in our nation’s capitol.
We now also have four acknowledged agencies flying their own drones: Military, CIA, Homeland Security and the freaking State Department.
If the Chinese, or perhaps the Iranian delegation to the UN which lives in New York, do however wish to kick off their own drone program, it is easy. The helpful folks at DIY Drones can get you started. Dronepedia is also helpful for beginners.
Be sure not to leave rude remarks for the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus on Facebook about all this stuff.
Did I miss the memo announcing Judith Miller was back at work at the Times? ‘Cause today’s piece on Afghan prison conditions, and responsibility for violence therein, reads like one of her Cheney-fed propaganda loads from pre-Iraqi Invasion days. I’ll highlight some of the Miller-esque parts:
President Hamid Karzai’s denunciation last week of abuses at the main American prison in Afghanistan — and his abrupt demand that Americans cede control of the site within a month — surprised many here. The prison, at Bagram Air Base, is one of the few in the country where Afghan and Western rights advocates say that conditions are relatively humane.
Ho, ho, that’s a funny one. What constitutions “relatively humane” in an Afghan prison context? ”You don’t stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you’re making progress,” said Malcolm X. Can anyone quote one reputable Western rights advocate who would make such a statement? How could the Times even print a statement like that without explanation?
American officials, caught off guard by the president’s order, scrambled to figure out the source of the allegations.
In other words, step one was to figure out who to punish for leaking the information, not to assess the information itself.
Now they have at least part of an answer: the Afghan commission that documented the abuses appears to have focused mainly on the side of the prison run by Afghan authorities, not the American-run part, according to interviews with American and Afghan officials. Mr. Karzai was, in essence, demanding that the Americans cede control of a prison to Afghan authorities to stop abuses being committed by Afghan authorities.
And that settles it. Whatever is going on at the prison, it is the Afghans’ fault. Just like here. The Times just sat back and accepted the US spin, that this whole thing is just political wheeling and dealing. We’re done here people.
‘Times out, peace ya’ll.
According to the New York Times, Biden’s visit to Iraq was kept secret, his “itinerary cloaked in heavy security.”
The Times by the way was stuck in full-on stenographer mode, merely copying down White House talking points with phrases such as “Landing after nightfall in a military transport plane, a mode of arrival that American officials hope will soon seem like a relic of a distant era” and “Mr. Biden… developed a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of Iraq’s tribal politics and speaks with relish about its tangled feuds and rivalries.” It concludes “But it is the pageantry of the visit that will capture the most attention. On behalf of President Obama, Mr. Biden is scheduled to take part in a solemn ceremony thanking American service members for their sacrifices and saluting the Iraqi troops now responsible for safeguarding their nation’s security.”
Memo to NYT: You only embarrass yourself when you write like that. Please Google “critical thinking” and “obvious stooge-like tool” and do the former. Jeez.
Anyway, here’s the deal: No American VIP is allowed to use the words “victory,” “accomplishment” or any synonyms thereof unless s/he is willing to announce their trip to Iraq in advance and land in daylight hours. As long as the country is still so unsafe that VIP visits can’t be discussed publicly ahead of time and planes can’t land in the daytime, let’s just not talk about victory. Deal?
For those already too cynical to enjoy such sarcasm, may I propose a drinking game as a fun alternative? Between now and the end of the year, any time Obama or another Washington VIP says anything about success, victory or accomplishment in Iraq, drink grain alcohol until you fall asleep on the couch. And bring some over to my place because I’ll be drinking too.
The US ambassador to the Philippines apologised for saying that 40% of male tourists visit the country for sex. Ambassador Harry Thomas sent a text message to the Philippine foreign secretary expressing regret for his comments, which provoked an outcry among officials unhappy at their country being portrayed as a haven for sex tourists. “I should not have used the 40% statistic without the ability to back it up. I regret any harm that I may have caused,” Thomas said.
Thomas, as with any Ambassador, speaks as the personal representative of the President, and his remarks abroad constitute official statements by the Government of the United States. It looks like Thomas is off the hook with a texted (!) apology to the Philippine government. Whew.
Thomas, prior to being Ambassador to the Philippines, served as Director General of the Foreign Service, a position that, in part, made him responsible for enforcing discipline against Foreign Service Officers who displayed bad judgement and less than professional conduct.
Meanwhile, Thomas’ old office continues to prosecute me for writing this blog, for writing a book that truthfully describes State’s failings in Iraq and for speaking out.
The New York Times, in writing about my book and me, said:
He is certainly not the first diplomat to harbor doubts about the efficacy of American diplomacy, but in the cautious culture of the State Department, where every public statement is carefully “cleared,” often all the way back in Washington, airing them so starkly is simply not done.
The book and the publicity surrounding it — including an Op-Ed article by him in this newspaper — have infuriated Mr. Van Buren’s colleagues. To them, he has betrayed his loyalty to the well-traveled, multilingual, highly educated professional cadre that is the Foreign Service.
“If you feel that strongly about policies you feel are misguided and harmful, you do the honorable thing and resign before tearing your colleagues apart in public,” said a diplomat who served in Iraq, speaking, as is more typically the case, on the condition of anonymity.
Some of the earlier threats State made against me came from… you guessed it… Harry Thomas’ office.
While the Philippines is way pissed at the US over Harry’s hairy-handed remarks, and while Harry spoke with the authority of the President, and while Harry made headlines around the world, he got off (…) with a texted apology.
Thus, in the spirit of my new mentor and hero, Harry Thomas, I offer the following. I have already tried to text this to Hilary Clinton, but her mailbox is full. So, Hilary, please:
LOL, sorry for the blog + book. I didn’t call Iraq a nation of whores or make up statistics, so we Kewl now?!? TTYL, Peter
I also added a Smiley Face icon. Thanks Harry!
The New York Times has today a terrific profile piece and review of my book. The article really captures what I was trying to convey in We Meant Well:
Ample ink has been expended on the war, defending it, attacking it or just trying to understand it. What makes Mr. Van Buren’s account so striking is its gleeful violation of the spirit — and perhaps the letter — of the written and unwritten code of America’s diplomatic corps.
In anything but diplomatic language, he skewers the Army’s commanders and the Iraqis, the embassy, its staff, and even its ambassador at the time, Christopher R. Hill, though not by name. He takes sarcastic aim at the ambassador’s Sisyphean effort to grow a lawn in the sprawling embassy compound beside the Tigris River.
“No matter what Iraq and nature wanted, the American Embassy spent whatever it took to have green grass in the desert,” he writes. “Later full-grown palm trees were trucked in and planted to line the grassy square. We made things in Iraq look the way we wanted them to look, water shortages through the rest of the country be damned. The grass was the perfect allegory for the whole war.”
The New York Times today featured my Op-Ed in both its online and New York print editions.
I wrote, in part:
On Saturday, control of the United States mission in Iraq will formally pass from the military to the State Department. But after eight years of war, Iraq is still plagued by corruption, sectarianism and violence. And after a year spent in the desert outside Baghdad as the leader of two State Department Provincial Reconstruction Teams, I don’t have much faith that the department can turn things around. We closed down our operations last September as part of normalizing relations, and I am still haunted by the Iraqis we left behind. No matter the strategic value of the war, our legacy will be written in those human lives.