• Follow the Money? Not with Hillary, Follow Pat…

    August 28, 2015 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Embassy/State, Iraq

    pat kennedy


    The old adage, “follow the money,” is still not a bad way to suss out wrongdoing. Originated during the Watergate era, the term says if you follow the trail of money through an organization or a caper, you’ll find the guilty people at the end.

    With the State Department and Hillary Clinton, the advice should read: “Follow Pat Kennedy.”



    Meet Pat Kennedy

    The name of long-time State Department Under Secretary for Management, Patrick Kennedy, pictured, is unknown to most journalists and nearly all of the public, but he in fact is present at every significant public issue State confronts. Take a look…



    Kennedy and Manning

    Do a little Googling around, and there’s Pat helping drive nails into Chelsea Manning’s coffin, testifying at his trial about the “grave damage” done to America’s national security. Kennedy in September 2013 admitted his testimony “contained misstatements,” which he said were “inadvertent.” Kennedy also oversaw State’s internal report on Wikileaks’ impact and ran the working group that was supposed to identify people at risk because their names appeared in the State Department cables online.



    Kennedy and Benghazi

    And at the Congressional Benghazi hearings, there’s Pat testifying Clinton did no wrong, that State as an institution did no wrong, and helping throw a few lesser officials under the bus in hopes of making it all go away.

    One of those officials Pat helped deep six later came out as a whistleblower, suggesting Clinton’s staff skimmed incriminating documents off the pile turned over to Congress.

    Kennedy also was the one who hand-picked the members of State’s internal Accountability Review Board that failed in December 2012 to find any senior official at fault for any wrongdoing in the run-up to Benghazi. That Review Board chose not to interview Secretary of State Clinton about her role in Benghazi.



    Kennedy and Child Prostitution Cover-Up

    It was Pat who helped former American Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman retire in order to curtail a public investigation.

    A State Department investigator asserted Gutman solicited “sexual favors from both prostitutes and minor children.” Howard Gutman and members of Clinton’s security detail were also accused of hiring prostitutes. According to an internal memo prepared by the State Department Inspector General in October 2013, Kennedy personally called off an investigation.



    Kennedy and Iraq

    Pat was also one of the primary justifiers for the $3.5 billion spent on building America’s largest embassy in the world, in Baghdad. He oversaw parts of the Blackwater investigation and contracting.

    Kennedy was also the central figure in the First Amendment struggle over my Iraq book critical of the State Department, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People



    Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap

    There’s more, but you get the picture. When dirty deeds need to be done dirt cheap to protect Clinton and State, Pat’s your man.

    So it is little surprise that media reports now tell us that the Under Secretary Patrick Kennedy is now in charge of running interference on Capitol Hill regarding the Clinton email controversy.

    Kennedy reportedly visited lawmakers in July and argued that the Abedin email along with another one sent in 2012 by another Clinton aide, Jake Sullivan, are not classified. The Under Secretary also argued that the information in the emails was already public.

    However, one source said that it was odd that Kennedy wanted to discuss the matter in a secure facility for classified information while simultaneously arguing that the Abedin email was not classified.

    The source also said that Kennedy cited a report from the Irish Times in 2011 as evidence, but that the details were not comparable. Kennedy also said that someone from the CIA agreed with his conclusion. However, the CIA was not the agency that sent the email.



    The Fixer

    Kennedy likely has more in the fire with the Clinton emails than his usual dollops of blind institutional loyalty.

    Given his role at State, Pat Kennedy is very likely to be the most senior official below the Secretary of State’s own staff to have either signed off on Hillary’s email server or passively fended off concerns from the rank and file about it. There are no doubt interesting emails with his name on them to be FOIAed or subpoenaed about all that. Pat no doubt hopes like hell a Democrat wins the presidential election or he is toast.

    So, mark this down: when Pat Kennedy steps into the picture, State/Clinton knows it is in real trouble and is calling in its Fixer of Last Resort. Journalists would be wise to keep on eye on Kennedy’s schedule over the coming months.



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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Diversity Fail at State Department

    March 26, 2021 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Embassy/State


    Politico just revealed a dirty little secret: the U.S. State Department was a more diverse workplace in 1986 than it is today. Despite efforts to recruit a more diverse pool of diplomats, the Department has failed miserably to promote them, and ultimately to retain them, even under Bill Clinton and Obama/Hillary.

    The Politico article does a comprehensive job of describing how the agency that represents America does not look like America. Minority staff made up 12.5 percent of employees at the end of the 1980s. Today black women make up nine percent, and just three percent of the Senior Foreign Service (the military equivalent of general) is black. And don’t fooled by statistics; we’re talking here about the Foreign Service, the elites, the diplomats. State will often intermix racial data from the Washington DC-based civil service, which is mostly minority people, to confuse outsiders.

    The Politico article, however, does a poor job of answering the question of why this is. It shows its 2021 bias with one solution “for more white men to miss out on recruitment or promotion.”

    State does have a diversity problem. It just is diversity of socio-economic class, not race or gender. State rarely imposes a quality standard on its work, meaning everyone’s job description is the same: just make your boss happy. That preserves the class system, and empowers those who would harass and discriminate.

     

    As a white man I was sort of part of a diversity program when I joined the State Department in 1988 for what turned out to be a 24 year career as a diplomat. State, from Thomas Jefferson’s tenure forward, followed a simple recruitment formula of “male, pale, and Yale.” In the late 1980s they decided male and pale (white) were good, but limiting recruitment to the Ivy League schools and their equivalents like Stanford and Georgetown was the problem. Someone found me and others like me at state schools and woosh, we were diversity-forward diplomats.

    But from Day One, with little change through today, it was clear not all pigs were equal. State divides its diplomatic work force into five specialities, known as cones. Only one matters in terms of a realistic shot at senior policy making roles, the Political cone. These people do what passes as traditional diplomacy. They and their work dominate the news and thus the Secretary of State’s world. The other cones fill in gaps and get hand-me-down senior promotions which are adequate in the Economic cone, down to nearly non-existent for the proletarian Consular cone that issues visas.

    Like at Hogwarts, new diplomats are sorted on entry to a cone which is very, very hard to change (seriously, the process is called a Snape-like “conal rectification.”) Ivy Leaguers can expect Political, kids from schools with good football teams Administration or Consular. All of this excludes political appointees, friends or large donors of the president who get appointed to the highest jobs without spending any time in the diplomatic corps.

    The Political cone, a club within the club, has proved porous enough for properly educated women. The key criteria is and has always been socio-economic background anyway, usually demonstrated by an Ivy diploma, not race or gender. The little climbing room for outsiders is provided by State-sponsored mid-career education, when a chosen few are sent off to Georgetown or the Kennedy School as midwestern losers to return two years later an honorary blue blood.

    The Government Accounting Office found among junior diplomats Ivy League grads had a 23 percent higher chance of promotion than colleagues with only a standard undergrad degree. And it is not just entry level diplomats and ambassadorships. Key internal positions like political and policy Assistant Secretaries are similar. Of course good old racism is still in the game when 87 percent of senior State Department personnel are white, compared with only three percent black. And of course the restrictive policies based on race, etc., at Ivy League schools means fewer “qualified” black people are produced for State to choose from, so the classic racism argument does apply indirectly. Just ask the Jews forbidden to attend Harvard who could not get into the State Department back in the day.

    What the successful diplomats in the Political cone seem to already know from Yale is what creates the full-spectrum lack of diversity. People call it The Code. Life is not fair, so best to have an advantage. Career success depends on the people above you and your relationship to them, and “trouble maker” is a bad one. Pleasing your betters is more effective then being right at a cost. There are rules, and if you do not know them you cannot follow them. And most of all, 99 percent of what matters is never written down. You are either trusted and welcomed into the circle or you are not.

    Advantages are everywhere, but usually start with who your parents are and which brand name professors you connected with in your brand-name college. The celebrity professor at Georgetown has close friends and former students for you to meet at State. The history teacher at Montana State, no. State has an up-or-out system, meaning almost all diplomatic new hires enter at the same bottom rung, and slowly advance over their careers upward. Somebody above you when you join is thus likely to stay above you for decades. There will not be any new blood flowing in. Make someone angry in 1990 in Taiwan and they’ll still be there waiting for you in 2010 in London. The people above you will write your performance reviews, sit on your promotion panels, and decide your assignments, all in private with little accountability, and all of which determine who sinks and swims. If you’re looking for the smoking gun on State’s diversity failure, for most of the past three decades most of that power was concentrated in one man, Ambassador Pat Kennedy (white, male, Georgetown) now retired.

    Those same people learned State is a change-adverse bureaucracy that likes things that way. Change at State is externally driven and internally resisted. The attitude at the top (except for public relations appearances, like making sure a few black folks are in public-facing positions) thinks the system has no need to change, it got it mostly right the first time. The proof is they themselve were promoted, and they saw their competitors stumble. People who want to do things different, make changes, etc., are generally shunned as troublemakers. The lack of interest in change is enhanced by the fact that State does little that can be objectively measured to allow someone to jump ahead. No sales figures, items sold, or stock prices to count toward promotion. Just exist for the most part, the details matter little except what your boss thinks.

     

    Here’s how that works in practice. No one does anything substantive alone at State. Most everything is a collaborative effort controlled by the clearance process. Say you write a report on metallurgy in India. You, the lowest on the rung, are directed to do this and you do all the heavy lifting gathering info and writing. Dozens of people above you, and depending on the subject that list can include people all the way up to the Secretary of State’s staff, then have to sign off, agree with you, “clear” your work. If one guy objects and won’t clear, your work cannot pass go to the next person until he is happy.

    If your report says basically the same thing as last year’s, that is safe and people clear it (one exception is if someone in the chain wants to make a political move and then directs you to come to a different conclusion, say to justify a budget increase as “matters have gotten worse.” You’re still just doing what you are told.) If you try and write something different from what you are told to write (often told implicitly, it is a skill to figure out what’s wanted because no one will jot down “Cook the data to match last year. Hope some reporter doesn’t see this. LOL.) your boss can’t clear it. If she is also a troublemaker and does clear, your work will likely just get stopped at a higher level, and that means a more important person will think you’re a troublemaker. Good bosses will thus try and protect their underlings by not clearing, keeping your problem inside the office.

    Absent any real measure of your work, your professional success is thus controlled by what State calls unofficially “corridor reputation,” basically what the people above you think of you. Imagine high school at the DMV. Careers are made or lost by a senior diplomat telling a peer “He’s OK, I’d bring him along” or “I heard he’s a problem, didn’t work out somehow in Beijing.” The official version of this is known as “lack of suitability,” a generic term which means you do not deserve a security clearance, or just can’t be trusted with the sensitive stuff.

    People in the right socio-economic groups seem to understand this stuff intuitively and, helped by others who think the same, get promoted. People from the wrong side of the tracks no matter their color do not understand the code so readily, and often are full of ambition to “make a mark.” They self-label themselves as not being part of the club and whether they know it or not, self-select out.

    So State can recruit all the people of color they can only to watch them slowly slide down the ladder along with lots of clueless whites who no one really cares about statistically. That is why many of both groups quit, or suffer in bureaucratic place to wait out pensions, and why State recruits minorities but cannot retain them. The result is a lack of diversity that has plagued the State Department for decades, both in race, and thinking.

     

     

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  • What Will Rex Tillerson Inherit at the State Department?

    February 2, 2017 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Embassy/State, Trump


    As Secretary of State, what will Rex Tillerson inherit at the State Department?

    The media has been aflame recently trying to stretch the facts — personnel changes and some unhappy employees in the midst of a major governmental transition — to fit the narrative of a State Department on the verge of collapse. But while rumors of the State Department’s demise are largely exaggerated, the organization may yet find itself shunted aside into irrelevance.

    There has been a lot of hot-blooded talk about Donald Trump and the federal workforce. The media once claimed Trump would not be able to fill his political appointee positions, and then suggested employees might resign en masse before he even was inaugerated. Another round of stories fanned panic that Trump had dumped his existing ambassadors, when in fact it was only the Obama-appointed ones who tendered resignations by tradition, as happens every four years.

    Then only last week the Washington Post published a bombastic story claiming the State Department’s entire senior management team had resigned in protest. The real story, however, was that all/most of the six were de facto fired. Several were connected to the Clinton emails or Clinton’s handling of Benghazi. One of these people, Pat Kennedy, played a significant role in both. These were not protest resignations, they were housecleaning by the new boss in town.

    As for plunging the State Department into chaos, the loss of six employees is not going to bring on Armageddon. Reports that these people represent “senior management” at State confuse terms. Because of the odd way State is organized, four of the six work in the Management Bureau, M in State talk. Kennedy was the head of the Bureau. The four play varying roles and collectively are not the senior management of the State Department. Two work in other parts of the Department directly tied to Obama-era policies likely to change under the new administration.

    In addition, all six persons come from offices with a deep bench. It is highly unlikely that any of the work of the State Department will be impeded. This is all part of the standard transition process. The same applies to embassies overseas that lost their Obama-appointed ambassadors.

    The latest Chicken Little reporting concerns “dissent” messages circulating within the State Department, aimed at Trump’s executive order on immigration; one media outlet characterized this as a “revolt” waiting for Tillerson on his Day One.

    Such bombastic language misses the mark completely. Though State’s internal process requires a response from senior leaders, they have 60 days to provide it, it is not public, and if experience serves will almost certainly be of the “we acknowledge your concerns” content-free variety.

    Others feel that while having no practical impact on policy, such dissent measures the state of employee thought, and there may be some truth to that. The average State Department Foreign Service officer has served 12 years, meaning a large number have never worked for any president other than Barack Obama and more than half have seen only the current presidential transition.

    These employees have never had their oath of service to the Constitution, not to Barack Obama or Donald Trump, tested. Government carries out the policies of the president on behalf of the United States. It’s called public service for a reason. Those concerned because the wrong candidate won are probably simply learning they are in the wrong business. Though indelicate in his phrasing, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was actually only expressing a version of official policy when he said of those diplomats they “should either get with the program, or they can go.”

    As a reality check, out of a workforce of thousands at the State Department there were only three resignations of conscience over the 2003 Iraq War, one other related to Afghanistan. There were no publicly known resignations related to torture, Guantanamo, drone assassination or any of the other horrors of the War on Terror stretched across two administrations. The last time more than a handful of diplomats resigned in protest was at the height of the Vietnam War.

    So it is without much evidence that Rex Tillerson will walk into a State Department weakened by dissent. But what he may preside over is an institution largely devoid of relevance, and suffering budget and personnel cuts in line with that.

    The signature issues Secretaries Clinton and Kerry supported — women’s and LGBTQ rights, social media messaging, soft power, climate change — are unlikely to get much attention under the Trump administration. In addition, given State’s role in hiding Clinton’s email server for years, and then slow-walking the release of her emails until ordered by the courts to speed up, it is doubtful there is good will and trust accumulated from the campaign. Foreign policy has increasingly gravitated under Bush and Obama deeper into the military, National Security Council, and the Oval Office anyway. None of that is likely to change.

    Kerry’s original legacy issue, peace in Syria, is literally in flames. The United States was not even invited to the Russian-Turkish brokered peace talks, and there is little stomach anywhere for deposing Assad and generating more chaos. Kerry’s second shot at legacy, the Iran nuclear accords, seem destined to at best merely linger around if it does not just collapse. Iraq and Afghan policy, such as it is, appears mostly in the hands of the Pentagon, and Trump has chosen a powerful, experienced Secretary of Defense. No side sees the U.S. as an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Issues with China will fall into the lanes of trade and defense. It appears big-picture policy toward Russia, Mexico and elsewhere will be run directly out of the Oval Office.

    At the same time, Trump’s federal hiring freeze has already impacted State. Even before the freeze there were more military band members than State Department Foreign Service Officers. The whole of the Foreign Service is smaller than the complement aboard one aircraft carrier. Yet Paul Teller, Trump’s liaison to the right wing of the House Republican Party, has already spoken of cutting back further on the number of America’s diplomats. If employees do leave on their own, or, more likely, stay at their desks in zombie state waiting out their pensions, that will only make State less useful to anyone in Washington.

    What’s really left for State to do?

    Tillerson will find himself in charge of a Cabinet agency is search of a mission. He may very well end up somewhere between the traditional ceremonial role of the Vice President, attending conferences and funerals, or perhaps simply overseeing his network of embassies serve as America’s concierge abroad, providing cover stories for the intelligence community, arranging official visits for fact-finding Members of Congress, and hosting senior Washington policy makers in town to do the heavy lifting of international relations. State will still hold the monopoly inside government on things like Sports Diplomacy and paying for reality TV shows in Niger to influence those there with TVs.

    If that all doesn’t sound like a very attractive job, you’re right. It’s difficult to imagine Tillerson sticking around for four years. Who knows, the resignation out of the State Department that attracts the most attention of all might be his.




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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Those ‘Resignations’: What Really Happened at the State Department

    January 26, 2017 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Embassy/State, Trump




    Yesterday at the State Department five officials resigned or retired. Another one today.

    The media has gone near-insane, claiming State is crumbling in protest under the Trump administration. This is not true. What happened at State is very routine.

    Leaving the Department are head of the Management Bureau Pat Kennedy (above), Assistant Secretary of State for Administration Joyce Anne Barr, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Michele Bond, Ambassador Gentry O. Smith, director of the Office of Foreign Missions, arms control official Tom Countryman, and Victoria Nuland.

    Here’s the story:

    — No one at the State Dept resigned in protest.

    — No one was formally fired.

    — Six people were transferred from or retired from political appointee positions. Technically those who did not retire can be considered to have “resigned,” but that is a routine HR/personnel term used, not some political statement. The six are career Foreign Service career personnel (FSOs) They previously left their FSO job to be appointed into political jobs and now have resigned those (or retired out of the State Department) to return to career FSO jobs. A circle. They are required to submit a letter of resignation as a matter of routine when a new president takes office.

    — As for perspective: only one Under Secretary of State (Alan Larson) stayed through the transition from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush. It is routine for senior officials to leave or be reassigned.

    — Several of the six are connected to the Clinton emails and/or Clinton’s handling of Benghazi. One of these people, Pat Kennedy, played a significant role in both, as well as many other controversial issues during Clinton’s term. Sources tell me that although officially Kennedy “retired,” he was more or less required to do so by the Trump administration.

    — I have no information on the others, whether they were asked to retire, or just part of a reshuffling of positions and will routinely be reassigned. Most likely the latter, as such reshuffling is very common as administrations change. As everywhere in the government, the new administration fills its own political appointee slots.

    — Some of the six will hit mandatory retirement age on January 31 anyway.

    — Reports that these people represent “senior management” at State confuse terms. Because of the odd way State is organized, four of the six work in the Management Bureau, M in State talk. Kennedy was the head of the Bureau. The four play varying roles and collectively are not the senior management of the State Department. Two work in other parts of the Department (Countryman and Nuland) and are more directly tied to policies likely to change under the new administration.

    — All six persons come from offices with a deep bench. It is highly unlikely that any of the work of the State Department will be impeded by any of these changes. Every office has a second, third, fourth, etc., person in charge who will step up pending formal replacements to be nominated and confirmed. This is all part of the standard transition process.

    — As an example, I worked in the Bureau of Consular Affairs for most of my 24 years at State, including working with/for Michele Bond, one of the resignees. I personally know the people in the next rank below her, and all have equal experience and tenure as Bond. There will be no gap in experience or knowledge as some press reports have fretted. There will be no “void.” A slightly more dire, but responsible take, here.

    — There will very likely be more, similar, “resignations” and reshuffling at State. New political appointees will bring in their own staff, for example. But unless and until an employee holds a press conference to announce s/he is resigning out of protest, the media should take care to calm down, verify facts, and report accurately.

    — The Washington Post stated these changes were part of an “ongoing mass exodus of senior Foreign Service officers who don’t want to stick around for the Trump era.” I am not aware of any other noteworthy departures (two lesser officials left earlier this month in circumstances not clearly connected to Trump) and as stated above, the six did not resign in protest. Regardless, eight people in any context do not constitute a mass exodus.

    — The Post article is, in my opinion, grossly alarming. It reflects a reporter apparently unfamiliar with transitions at State.




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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Clinton Email Markings Changed to Block Documents’ Release

    September 3, 2015 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Post-Constitution America

    State Department building


    We’re going to get a little deeper into the way classified material and its disclosure is handled here, but stick with the details. They show the cleverness of Clinton’s people in manipulating existing processes to mask classified material contained in her emails.



    FOIA in Theory

    In theory, all U.S. government documents, including Clinton’s emails, are subject to release under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). A classified document can still be, in theory, declassified and released, perhaps after enough time has passed that the information is no longer sensitive, as in the case, for example, of WWII messages about planned invasions and the like.



    FOIA Exemptions

    However, the FOIA provides for nine specific exemptions, conditions under which information can be withheld, classified or not. The full list is here, but we’ll focus on just two in the context of the Clinton emails: B1 and B5.

    B1 is simple: the document contains properly classified material and cannot be released until the material is declassified, if ever. A no-brainer example would be a list of undercover CIA agents. That is never going to see daylight.

    B5 refers to deliberative process, the details of how the government makes policy, the back-and-forth principals receive, the “how” of how decisions are made. Such information does not necessarily have to even be classified, and marking it as B5 does not in any way imply it is classified.

    The theory behind the existence of B5 is that advisors need to be able to share advice fully and frankly, throwing out at times odd ideas, playing devil’s advocate, and the policy maker free to engage in a full discussion of options, without concern that all that messy process will become public. Some in government also feel exposing the processes by which decisions are made assists America’s adversaries.

    B5 is near-constantly misused by government to block information that should be released, but we’ll stick with theory for the time being.

    Changes in Clinton Email Exemption Categories

    Reports suggest at least four Clinton emails had their exemption markings changed to a category that shields the content from the public, in what some believe is an effort to hide the true extent of classified information on the former secretary of state’s server.

    The emails in question were originally redacted under exemption B1, meaning the information in them was withheld because that information was properly classified. The impact of that on Clinton was two-fold: it confirmed that the emails held classified contrary to her claims, and it set up release of the information simply by someone with the authority to declassify it.

    Changing the exemption to B5, which was done by State Department lawyers (more below), removed the stigma of classified material in unclassified emails. Perhaps more importantly, it placed the authority of release on State itself. The Courts have long upheld the right of agencies to withhold B5 exempted information indefinitely, meaning State could deep-six the information in those emails forever.

    See what they did there?



    The Process

    The process by which the Clinton emails were remarked, if true, speaks to additional naughty acts, centered again around State’s primary political troubleshooter, Patrick Kennedy.

    According to congressional testimony, at least one of the lawyers in the State Department’s Office of the Legal Advisor, where the changes were made, is Catherine Duval, who also handles the release of documents to the Benghazi Select Committee. She previously was the attorney in charge of the Internal Revenue Service’s email production to Congress. And small world; Duval once worked for the same firm as Clinton’s private attorney, David Kendall.

    Anyone see any pattern here?

    Fox News was told there were internal State Department complaints that Duval’s work, and that of a second lawyer also linked to Kendall, created a conflict of interest during the email review.

    The disagreement between some State employees and Duval over the changed exemption markings grew so heated that a final decision had to be kicked upstairs.



    Pat Kennedy, Again

    Now wait for it — that decision made upstairs, in favor of Clinton, the B5 exemption, was made by Undersecretary of Management Pat Kennedy, State’s own pointman briefing Congress on State’s proper handling of the entire Clinton email affair. Kennedy is also very likely the most senior State official under the secretary to have approved her use of a private email server.

    Judicial Watch is now seeking a deposition of Kennedy in a case scrutinizing Clinton aide Huma Abedin’s status as a special government employee. “All these issues fall under his responsibility,” Judicial Watch said.

    Asked to respond to the allegations, a State Department official added that the lawyers do not have the final say on the codes, emphasizing it is a “multi-step review.”

    Indeed, a multi-step review, albeit one that ends with Pat Kennedy.



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  • State Department Sleaze Accumulates without Real Response

    June 16, 2013 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Embassy/State


    Breaking Bad! Two new sleazy State Department actions– a sweetheart consulting deal for one of Hillary’s best buds and accusations of an affair and hookers for a senior State official. See below!

    Attempted suicide after a harsh interrogation? Hiring armed guys with criminal backgrounds? Senior officials having sex with subordinates, prostitutes and minors? Investigations into all of the above covered up or halted? That’s the news, not from Gitmo or some banana republic, but from your U.S. Department of State. Better get out the hand sanitizer, this blog post gets filthy fast.

    A Sad Pattern of Sleaze from America’s Diplomats

    Ever since the story broke on CBS News that the State Department covered up numerous allegations of wrong-doing to protect its public image, the details of said wrong-doing have been leaking out.

    The reasons to care about this are many, and all the Hillary-love and attempts to just call it (just) a Republican witch hunt are a smokescreen. The obvious reason to care is that these people represent America abroad, and we need to ask what image they are projecting. In addition, such crimes and personal traits as alleged below make them vulnerable to blackmail, either by other members of the USG (promote me, give me a better assignment, or else…) or foreign intelligence (turn over the secrets or the photos go to the press). The fact that the organization apparently cannot police itself internally raises questions about competence (and the former SecState saying she was wholly ignorant of all this sludge is not a defense that actually makes her look presidential), and about what if anything it is accomplishing on America’s behalf.

    Here’s a roundup to date:

    — As a special shout-out to We Meant Well regulars, USA Today claims it has a memo detailing how Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, allegedly interceded in an investigation by Diplomatic Security into an affair between failed-Iraq ambassador-designate Brett McGurk and Wall Street Journal reporter Gina Chon.

    — Cheryl Mills again: Mills, a longtime confidante of Hillary, reportedly played a key role in the State Department’s damage-control efforts on the Benghazi attack last year and was also named in accusations that department higher-ups quashed investigations into diplomats’ potential criminal activity. Cheryl Mills, who served in a dual capacity in recent years as general counsel and chief of staff to Clinton, was accused of attempting to stifle congressional access to a diplomat who held a senior post in Libya at the time of the attack.

    — U.S. ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman accused of soliciting “sexual favors from both prostitutes and minor children.” The ambassador “routinely ditched his protective security detail in order to solicit sexual favors from both prostitutes and minor children,” according to documents obtained by NBC News. State Department Undersecretary for Management Patrick Kennedy ordered an end to the investigation. “The ambassador’s protective detail and the embassy’s surveillance detection team [Note: A State Department team that conducts counterespionage surveillance, watching State Department officials to see if they are being watched by foreign spies] . . . were well aware of the behavior.”

    The ambassador explained that sometimes he fights with his wife, needs air and he goes for a walk in the park because he likes it. The Atlantic reported that the park Gutman trolled, Parc Royal Warandepark, was well-known as a place to pick up adult homosexual and adolescent boy prostitutes.

    A Belgian newspaper described the park: “I see young children go to adult waiting. Later, another adult waits, often to extort money from the victim after. I’ve been awakened by cries and my terrace, I saw someone being beaten. I had my legs were shaking. Time to call the police, I saw the victim painfully get up and go.”

    — A State Department security official in Beirut “engaged in sexual assaults” with foreign nationals hired as embassy guards. State’s former regional security officer in Beirut, Chuck Lisenbee, allegedly sexually assaulted guards and was accused of similar assaults in Baghdad, Khartoum and Monrovia. Justine Sincavage, then-director of Diplomatic Security Service, called the allegations a “witch hunt” and gave agents “only three days” to investigate, and no charges were brought, according to USA Today.

    — Members of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s security detail “engaged prostitutes while on official trips in foreign countries,” a problem the report says was “endemic.” Three members of Clinton’s security detail admitted to hiring prostitutes while on foreign trips and were given suspensions of one day. An investigator for Diplomatic Security launched an investigation into similar allegations against four other members of Clinton’s security detail but was ordered by Kimber Davidson, chief of the special investigations division, and Rob Kelty, his deputy, to shut down the investigation.

    — The State Department has hired an “alarming number of law-enforcement agents with criminal or checkered backgrounds” because of a flawed hiring process, a stunning memo obtained by The New York Post reveals. “Too many people entering the [Diplomatic Security and Information Management] communities end up as subjects of [Special Investigation Division] investigations and HR adjudications, become Giglio-impaired and can play only limited roles thereafter,” according to the memo. “Giglio” refers to a US Supreme Court case dealing with jury notification that witnesses have made deals with the government to induce testimony. Some Diplomatic Security field offices “have major problems just waiting to be discovered,” the memo adds.

    — In one case, aggressive interrogation techniques by Diplomatic Service agents “drove an employee to attempt suicide” when accused of raping his maid in Bangkok, Thailand, a memo suggests. “After “being told he would end up in a Thai prison, his wife would lose her job and his children would be pulled out of school, [the man] attempted suicide by jumping out of the 16th-story window at a hotel in Bangkok.” The guy lived, and was flown back to Washington for in-patient psychiatric care, where the agents continued to harass him. The rape charges were ultimately dropped.

    — The same Diplomatic Security memo cites eight cases involving Diplomatic Security agents who resorted to “false, misleading or incomplete statements in reports,” “privacy-act violations” or “lack of objectivity” in investigations.

    — Diplomatic security agents learned that James Combs, a senior diplomatic security agent in Baghdad and formerly of the DS Office of Professional Standards, was having an extramarital affair with a subordinate and had numerous affairs with men over a 30-year span without the knowledge of his wife. This presented “counterintelligence concerns,” but the investigation never reached a conclusion.

    — A security contractor in Baghdad died of an overdose of methadone, which he was taking to counteract an addiction to the painkiller oxycodone. An underground drug ring may have been supplying the drugs, but State’s regional security officer did not allow a special investigations agent to pursue that possibility.

    — In Miami, agents investigating a car accident by diplomatic security agent Evelyn Kittinger learned that she had been claiming full pay for several years “but had actually only worked very few hours.” State Department supervisors told the investigator to advise her to resign to avoid facing criminal charges and a major fine.

    — Another report states that a top State Department official stymied investigators trying to get to the bottom of four killings in Honduras involving DEA agents and local police. The incident ended in the deaths of two pregnant women and two men last year, after Honduran national police opened fire from a State Department-owned helicopter on a small boat. Honduran police said drugs were involved, but locals said the boat was full of fishermen.

    –ADDED: Sen. Charles Grassley is probing longtime Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin’s employment status, asking how she got a sweetheart deal to be a private six-figure consultant while still serving as a top State Department official. Abedin, one of Clinton’s most loyal aides, is of course married to former Rep. Anthony Weiner, who’s in the midst of a vigorous effort to beat off his own sexting scandal and become mayor of New York. Abedin hauled in as much as $350,000 in outside income on top of her $135,000 government salary. She was redesignated a “special government employee” who was able to haul in cash as a private contractor while still on the government dole.

    –ADDED: Consulate General Naples’ Kerry Howard says she was bullied, harassed and forced to resign after she exposed Consul General Donald Moore’s alleged office trysts with subordinates and hookers. “When our diplomats disrespect the Italians by hiring and firing them because they have seen too much — or use them for ‘sex-ercise’ — we have to question why we have diplomats abroad at taxpayer expense,” said Howard. As a senior foreign-service officer, Moore makes as much as $179,700 a year. His first office romance supposedly occurred within days of his arrival in Italy, when he allegedly bedded a consulate employee, a single mom who fell in love with him. Moore was honored as “Consular Officer of the Year” (Barbara Watson Award) in 2005.

    — A Foreign Service Officer, Michael Todd Sestak, 41, has been arrested and charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States and conspiracy to commit bribery and visa fraud. Dude was a senior visa official in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and supposedly pocketed some $2 million dollars for his work.

    It appears that Foggy Bottom has sprung multiple leaks as hard-working folks grow tired of their bosses being allowed to do just about anything without punishment. What is going on? I don’t recall this much garbage coming into the daylight ever before. I assume it was happening all the same forever, but not this much in the public eye. I think it is time for Kerry to say something about at least trying to control his organization.

    And of course someone should throw Under Secretary for Management Pat Kennedy out. He *may* be getting the message that in this internet age if you don’t give people a realistic internal avenue to fix things they’ll just go outside. That’s kinda what I did… So there is no doubt much more to come…


    State Department Responds

    The State Department spokesman said, “We hold all employees to the highest standards.” Spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki told reporters repeatedly this week that the accusations are “unsubstantiated.”

    So that’s that apparently. No reporter has seen it useful to ask why for more than four and a half years, the State Department has had no appointed inspector general, the longest such vacancy of any federal agency. Or why, during his entire time in office, Obama has not nominated anyone to fill the slot. Or why during her four years as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not demand an inspector general for her organization.

    Hillary Responds

    A spokesman said Clinton was completely unaware of any of the investigations mentioned in the Office of the Inspector General’s reports and memos, including the case involving her personal security detail allegedly soliciting prostitutes. “We learned of it from the media and don’t know anything beyond what’s been reported.”

    It means nothing that a candidate who will no doubt cite her endless efforts on behalf of women everywhere remained unaware of sex crimes occurring, well, under her.

    Opposition researchers and taxpayers alike, once again, Hillary Clinton’s defense is that she was totally unaware of what was going on in the organization she lead and managed, up to and including the actions of her own lifelong advisor and chief of staff, as well senior officials who reported directly to her. She’ll make a great president!

    Oh wait– these are just “allegations.” They need to be investigated. Well, the problem of course is that one of the allegations is that powerful trolls inside State prevented or derailed any investigations, and indeed the over-arching allegation is that Diplomatic Security, charged with investigations, is riddled with political considerations that prevent full and transparent investigations. So that’s a pretty weak excuse to blow off everything said.

    That said, maybe some are false. OK, but if even a small number of these serious accusations are true (rape, murder, minors) then even that suggests an organization operating without internal controls and the best defense its leader can come up with is her own ignorance. Not a good thing.




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  • So Who From State Will Testify Against Bradley Manning? A List.

    May 17, 2013 // 0 Comments

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

    The trial United States v. Pfc. Bradley Manning is being conducted in as much secrecy as the government thinks it can get away with. While the Center for Constitutional Rights has filed a petition requesting the Army Court of Criminal Appeals “to order the Judge to grant the public and press access to the government’s motion papers, the court’s own orders, and transcripts of proceedings,” none of these have been made.

    Except of course for Alexa O’Brien, who has amazingly sat in the limited public access area and personally written down every word said that she was allowed to listen to, effectively creating a de facto transcript.

    It is heavy legal reading, but worth your time simply to see what lengths the government is going to hang one man. Manning’s actions took place years ago, and whatever he released has been on the internet for years. Any punishment will thus have no real effect, except to commit revenge. So it is in 2013 America.

    Who Speaks?

    Deep inside the transcript is a list of upcoming government witnesses. As a public service, we present the names below as they appear, with Alexa’s comments. State Department people in BOLD that I added.

    In the government’s 15 March 2013 classified filing Supplement to Prosecution Response to Scheduling Order of 39(a) Session from Closure and Motion to Close Courtroom for Specified Testimony, the government describes the classified information it moves to elicit in closed session for the following witnesses:

    (1) Brigadier General Retired Robert Carr, DIA

    (2) Colonel Julian Chestnut, DIA

    (3) Classified Witness Entirety

    (4) Ms. Elizabeth Dibble, Department of State, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs

    (5) John Doe (Entire)

    (6) Rear Admiral Kevin Donegan, Naval Warfare Integration, Pentagon

    (7) Mr. John Feeley, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Department of State

    (8) Ambassador Patrick F. Kennedy, Under Secretary for Management, Department of State

    [Diplomatic Security Services which partnered with the Departments of Defense and Justice in the investigation of Julian Assange, WikiLeaks, and Manning report to Ambassador Patrick Kennedy. Bureau of Intelligence and Research, which created the “August 2011 draft damage assessment” also reports to Kennedy. Kennedy is the Original Classification Authority for the US State Department cables. He also testified to Congress in late November, early December of 2010, and in March 2011 about WikiLeaks. He is also responsible for the WikiLeaks Mitigation Team at the Department of State.]

    (9) Mr. John Kirchhofer, DIA

    (10) Ambassador Michael Kozak, Department of State

    (11) Classified Witness Entirety

    (12) Mr. Daniel Lewis, DIA

    (13) Mr. Randall Mcgrovey [sp.?], DIA

    (14) Mr. James McCarl, Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO)

    (15) Major General Kenneth F. McKenzie, USMC Headquarters Staff

    (16) Mr. James Moore, Department of State

    (17) Major General Michael [last name like, “Ma-guy”] McGuy, Joints Staff Pentagon

    (18) SSA [Supervisory Special Agent] Alexander Pott [sp.], FBI

    (19) Ambassador David Pearce, Department of State

    (20) Mr. Adam Pearson, JIEDDO

    (21) Mr. H. Dean Pittman, Department of State

    (22) Classified Witness in Entirety

    (23) Ambassador Stephen Seche, Department of State

    (24) Mr. David Shaver, US Department of Treasury

    (25) Mr. Catherine Stobel [sp.], CIA

    (26) Ambassador Don Yamamoto, Department of State

    (27) Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, Department of State; and

    (28) Mr. Joseph Yun, Department of State


    So Who Are These People?

    Of course we have no idea whether any of the unnamed “classified” witnesses are from State, though it is doubtful.

    Most/all of the State Department people listed head up various bureaus at State. These bureaus are the bureaucratic structures that handle say “East Asian Affairs” or “European Affairs.” Just guessing here, but the government is probably calling them to testify on behalf of their world region about all the horrible, terrible things that have happened since Manning released the documents. None of us will be allowed to hear what they have to say, but it would be safe to assume the court will listen to a lot of drama and smoke and LIONS and TIGERS and BEARS! horror-speak and very little substantive comment.

    The most interesting State witness is Patrick F. Kennedy, the Under Secretary of State for Management. Kennedy keeps popping up on this blog, in the press and in front of Congress (he was the real point man on Benghazi.) He has been around State for a very long time, and basically runs the place administratively in Washington while various important people fly around the world doing their diplomacy.

    Kennedy is officially the “original classifying authority,” the person at State who is titularly responsible for every classification decision. He may just offer up some boring testimony confirming that all the documents manning leaked labeled “Secret” were indeed classified Secret.

    Or maybe not. Kennedy also oversaw State’s internal report on the Wikileaks impact and ran the working group that was supposed to identify people at risk because their names appeared in the State Department cables online. Notice how every weird, bad or naughty thing that State does somehow involves Pat Kennedy?It would be worth serious coin to listen in on Kennedy’s testimony but alas, because this is America now, the trial is largely off limits.



    Bonus: Some earlier State Department personnel testimony about State’s internal processes surrounding the Wikileaks disclosures. Nothing earth shaking, but some interesting inside baseball stuff from Ops Center coordinator Rena Bitter about how the bureaucracy processed the new information. Short version: most of the effort was spent informing Department big shots of potentially embarrassing stuff the media caught. The Defense seems to be establishing that there was not much real-world impact from the disclosures.



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  • Today’s Benghazi Hearing: Quick Recap

    May 8, 2013 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , , , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Libya



    The State Department was beaten up pretty bad in today’s Benghazi hearing, with both Deputy Chief of Mission Greg Hicks (second in charge after the ambassador) and RSO (security guy) Ed Nordstrom from Libya contradicting earlier State Department remarks.

    Hicks in particular made it clear that there was absolutely nothing to justify Susan Rice’s September 2012 assertions that the attack had anything to do with an anti-Muslim video demonstration, and that all reporting from Libya, from the first phone call, claimed a terror attack was underway.

    Nordstrom was equally blunt that the State Department willfully understaffed security in Benghazi, and ignored evidence that the Consulate was vulnerable.

    Hicks, Nordstrom and the third witness, Mark Thompson, came off as credible, dispassionate and very serious. Meanwhile, while Republicans were accused going in of playing politics, it was the Democratic members of the committee who were shrill, crude and desperate in trying to degrade (as opposed to rebut) the witnesses.

    Most fingers pointed toward Under Secretary of Management Pat Kennedy and Hillary aid Cheryl Mills as acting as Hillary’s proxies to make the bad, tragic, decisions. Long-term fallout unclear, but a lot of angry people in Foggy Bottom right now. The State Department was portrayed as disorganized, and often far more concerned about political impressions than the safety of its people and informing the American public.

    A decent summary of what was said, from CNN.

    I live-Tweeted most of the hearing. Search Twitter for @wemeantwell or #Benghazi to review.



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  • More Benghazi: A Preview of Wednesday’s Hearing

    May 7, 2013 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Embassy/State, Libya

    See the Hearing live at 11:30 EST online

    House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa announced three witnesses will appear at a full committee hearing, “Benghazi: Exposing Failure and Recognizing Courage,” on Wednesday, May 8, 2013.

    The witnesses are Mark Thompson, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Counterterrorism, Gregory Hicks, former Deputy Chief of Mission/Chargé d’Affairs in Libya and Eric Nordstrom, Diplomatic Security Officer and former Regional Security Officer in Libya. Only Nordstrom has testified publically before, basically pointing out tactical security failures.

    “I applaud these individuals for answering our call to testify in front of the Committee. They have critical information about what occurred before, during, and after the Benghazi terrorist attacks that differs on key points from what Administration officials – including those on the Accountability Review Board – have portrayed,” said Issa.

    Gotta Be Said

    OK, let’s get this initial stuff out of the way. Yes, yes, there are lots of important things about America Congress should address, but yes, this hearing is happening, And yes, of course it is aimed at Hillary 2016.

    But to play fair, Hillary 2016 is a big deal. If the election were held today, she’d be the next president. So maybe, albeit with some political mud slung alongside, we should pay attention to how she acted, how she failed to act, and whether she enjoyed some sort of coverup/soft-sell over what really happened in Benghazi. To paraphrase Mrs. Clinton’s own political rhetoric, we need to know how she’ll act when that tragic 3am phone call comes through. While past performance is no guarantee of future success or failure, it is how the smart money should bet.

    A Preview

    So let’s preview what might happen in the upcoming hearing.

    1) Easy Stuff: Lots of shout-outs to fallen colleagues, grieving relatives, brave troops, yeah, yeah.

    2) The Basics: Lots of in-the-weeds failures to be detailed. Interesting to see if much of this will be blamed on the Libyans, who should have intervened, or soft-pedaled along the lines of “mistakes were made.” Also, budgets cut, requests ignored. At great cost. To fallen colleagues.

    Someone else has already neatly discredited the story that some sort of special ops mission could have saved lives in Benghazi, including the possible use of Avis rental cars from their Benghazi outlet. Expect a fair amount of inconclusive, uninformed speculation about what the military should or could have done, but it is likely to hover above disagreement over tactics and below some sort of conspiracy-level move.

    Not to be discussed: How Obama’s intervention created a power vacuum in eastern Libya, which eventually led not just to this attack but the sacking of Mali, which was prevented only by the French military with U.S. help, essentially a new war to fix the mistakes of the previous war.

    3) The Coverup: Expect Susan Rice to be re-thrown under the bus, then thrown again one more time for good measure. Rice, you’ll recall, pretty much got on national tee vee the Sunday after the Consulate attacks and told fibs, blaming it all on some dumb anti-Muslim movie and trying to avoid any mention of terrorism. She is widely held to have tried to soft-pedal the attack in the run-up to Obama’s re-election in November 2012. Obama was bleating about defeating al Qaeda and crushing bin Laden with his bare hands at the time, so no one wanted a “successful” terror attack on the news. Rice was the designated messenger, with Hillary’s excellent sense of avoiding trouble guiding her into not making substantive statements about her own Consulate and her own Ambassador being murdered.

    There will also be a string of sleazy emails, featuring then-State Spokesdrone Victoria Nuland trying to rewrite the talking points to protect Hillary and, if possible, Obama. Absent some real surprise, these are unfortunately business as usual in Washington now. Don’t expect any discussion on how every administration seeks to buffalo the public and the media to its own advantage. Also, drones like Nuland are trained to never mention their boss’ name– Hillary Clinton– per se in any communication. They just say things like “our leadership” or “higher authorities.” This is a clever trick to ensure no name-retrievable documents are ever created, and allows deniability over to whom she was actually referring. It’s inside Washington stuff they don’t teach you at Georgetown kids!

    After weeks of delays in late 2012, to include a self-inflicted concussion, as expected, Hillary Clinton’s perfunctory testimony on the deaths of four Americans in Libya a) took “responsibility” for Benghazi in words alone, shucking blame and (in)action onto others, b) wrapped herself in the flag to shout down her questioners and c) revealed nothing new. Always eyes on the 2016 prize, that one.

    The re-death of Rice has been clearly signaled by the former Deputy Chief of Mission in Libya, Gregory Hicks, in his leaked statements slathered all over CNN. The Republicans will go red meat crazy over all this, but they won’t find any smoking gun at the White House or from Hillary Land. Both are too clever, even if they were involved, and Rice was too gullible and too disposable. Poor Susan Rice, she even now on Twitter is just a shell of her old self. Whereas pre-Benghazi she’d often be calling for the blood and stones of some dictator, her Tweets now are just sad little acknowledgments of some International Women’s Day or the like. She’ll hang around the UN where she does not matter and is outside Washington, or drift into some make-work academic slot. Bye.

    Proof that Rice is finished? Biden just confirmed the President’s “confidence” in her, even though no one asked.



    4) The Big Money Shot: How high did State Department malfeasance for the Benghazi attack go?

    Here’s where the action is. State’s own internal review, the so-called After Action Review Board, pinged only some relative worker bees, sending them into administrative leave purgatory. The highest ranking person spanked just changed job titles. The Board, hand-selected by Hillary, never even bothered to interview Hillary. Will the hearing find a way to stick some blame on her? Expect no discussion about the After Action process itself, or why Obama has not appointed an Inspector General for the State Department, a job empty since 2008.

    Or maybe not. Hicks’ leaked statement aims a bit higher, but only it seems as high as Under Secretary for Management slug Pat Kennedy. Inside State, this is a big deal, as Kennedy effectively runs the bureaucratic, administrative and personnel sides of the State Department and is thus a very powerful man in there (Diplomatic Security reports to him.) However, outside of State (i.e., on Fox News) he is a nobody. Still, if Kennedy were encouraged to retire after this, an awful lot of garbage would go out the door at State with him, to the betterment of the organization.

    If Kennedy is as high as it goes, it goes nowhere really. Kennedy is well-known for throwing himself on his sword to save his Boss, and the likelihood of him implicating Hillary is precisely zero.

    Zero with extreme prejudice.

    And in the End?

    Prediction: Much smoke, nothing more, at least a default win for Hillary 2016, even more for her if Issa makes an idiot of himself.



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  • Did Eric Boswell Really Resign over Benghazi Fail? Define “Resign”

    March 18, 2013 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Embassy/State, Libya




    In one of her final acts as Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton accepted the “resignation” of her head of Diplomatic Security, Eric J. Boswell. Boswell was portrayed in the media as the highest ranking State Department official to lose his job over the security failures in Benghazi, Libya that lead to the deaths of four Americans. Clinton sold the resignation to Congress as a sign of accountability over decisions made and mistakes committed. Case closed, right?

    But did Boswell really “resign?” Or is he still employed by the Department of State?

    Define “Resign”

    Before his December 19, 2012 “resignation,” Boswell actually held two jobs: head of Diplomatic Security and Director of the Office of Foreign Missions (DS/OFM) at State. The former position held immediate responsibility for the safety of America’s diplomats abroad, while the latter job covered both the security and administrative needs of foreign diplomats in the U.S. As head of OFM, Boswell was responsible for the safety of say the French Embassy in Washington as well as the duty-free import of cars for the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles.

    His celebrated resignation was cleverly worded: he resigned as head of Diplomatic Security (Benghazi accountability!) only. In a December 19 statement, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she “has accepted Eric Boswell’s decision to resign as Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security, effective immediately.” When questioned about whether Boswell really left the State Department’s employ by a cowed media, State would only reissue the carefully crafted statement put out December 19. No one was interested in even a follow-up question– is Boswell still on State’s payroll?

    Where’s Boswell?

    So who is now head of the Office of Foreign Missions at State? Is it Boswell? Turns out that is a hard question to really answer.

    Let’s start with the list of senior officials on the State Department website. That page lists the position of Director of the Office of Foreign Missions as vacant. No Boswell.

    However, on the same main State Department site, a page from the Office of the Historian puts Boswell still in the job, as he has been, since 2008. Another page says he is still in the job. Hmm.

    But, the page for the actual Office for Foreign Missions lists no personnel by name. Curiouser and curiouser.

    The main State Department telephone directory lists no position at all as “Director of the Office of Foreign Missions.” That’s kind of odd, as the office should in fact have a Director, they all do, somebody. Boswell’s name also appears nowhere in the phone book. Hmmm.


    Just Call Them

    So, I just called up the Office of Foreign Missions at the number (202-647-3417) listed in that public directory for the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Foreign Missions, the titular number two person there. I spoke with someone named *****, and said I wanted to write a letter to the Director of the Office of Foreign Missions– to whom should I address it? She helpfully said “Eric Boswell.” I asked “Eric J. Boswell?” and she said yes. I asked what salutation/title I should use and she said “Director.” She then helpfully added “But Director Boswell does not often come in to the office so you should in fact contact the Deputy Assistant Secretary.” ***** would not give me her last name.

    Then a concerned citizen still working at State told me on background that Boswell, thanks to a sweetheart deal with Under Secretary for Management Pat Kennedy after the Benghazi hearings, retains his salary and title but basically delegates all of his responsibilities as Director of the Office of Foreign Missions. He did “resign” from one titled position while cleverly keeping his other position, according to my source. Ka-ching!

    Accountability for What?

    About a week after Boswell “resigned” back in December 2012, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said she could not independently confirm a New York Post report claiming Eric Boswell, the assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security, remains at the State Department.

    Ros-Lehtinen said “If these reports are correct, they’re pathetic examples of yet another ruse about the tragedy of Benghazi. State Department officials proclaimed to the world that heads would roll after the deception related to the deceitful video excuse and the non existent spontaneous protest outside the consulate. Now we see that the discipline is a lie and all that has happened is the shuffling of the deck chairs. That will in no way change [the] systemic failures of management and leadership in the State Department.”

    Ms. Ros-Lehtinen, or any journalist, why not contact the Department of State and simply ask “Who is the Director of the Office of Foreign Missions?” and/or “Is Eric Boswell still employed by the Department of State?” Depending on the answers you receive, better follow-up with this question: If indeed no one lost their jobs over the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, exactly what accountability is there?

    And do ask them how the term “resign” is actually defined at the State Department.



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  • I am Spartacus Unless I’m Not

    October 17, 2012 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Libya

    Responsibility used to work this way. When a group of us playing ball broke a neighbor’s window, the kid who took responsibility had to pay for the window. Action –> Consequence = Responsibility.

    Well, luckily we are free of such restraints in modern Washington. Indeed, over a month after the predictable and possibly preventable deaths of four Americans at the US Consulate in Benghazi, Hillary Clinton said “I take responsibility.”

    What does that mean?

    Hillary did not take responsibility on September 11 when the attacks took place. She instead made self-serving statements about bravery (of others) and sacrifice (of others).

    Between October 3 and October 12 Hillary made no public statements at all about the Libya disaster, allowing others to bleat in her place.

    Hillary did not take responsibility at recent Congressional hearings. She did not even show up. She sent others to testify. Not a one of them said Hillary was responsible, or even involved, in the deadly mistakes State made. None of them mentioned her by name.

    Hillary did not take responsibility during the Vice Presidential Debates. Blame Responsibility was assigned to the anonymous “intelligence agencies” by the Vice President and Hillary sat quiet.


    If Hillary is now indeed responsible, let’s see her resignation. Better yet, she can start to act responsibly. Let’s hear her publicly and unambiguously tell us what her role in the decision-making was. Let’s see her demand the State Department’s own Accountability Review Board, now five weeks after the attack, issue a report sometime this decade (or at least before the election.) Let’s hear her exonerate the loyal troops sent to have their heads taken off by Congress last week. Let’s have Hillary state publicly that the witch hunting and scapegoating inside Foggy Bottom will cease because she alone will take the hits, ’cause inside the building the buck isn’t stopping.

    Anything less just rubs our noses further into this craven, desperate electioneering crap.


    BONUS: State’s other Spartacus-wanna be, Pat Kennedy, told the House last week in defense of Susan Rice that “If any administration official, including any career official, were on television on Sunday, September 16th, they would have said what Ambassador Rice said,” i.e., that the attack in Benghazi was not a pre-planned terror attack but instead merely a reaction to that anti-Islamic video.

    Only Pat lied.

    On September 12 in an unclassified, half-hour conference call with staff aides to House and Senate lawmakers from relevant committees, and leadership offices, Pat said that he was convinced the assault was planned due to its extensive nature and the proliferation of weapons.

    What is Important

    Isn’t there a single reporter who will ask Hillary why only now has she determined that she is the responsible one, and challenge her that her “claim” is nothing but party politics?

    Will no one ask Obama (or Hillary) to comment on Obama’s July 2012 statement “As president of the United States, it’s pretty clear to me that I’m responsible for folks who are working in the federal government and you know, Harry Truman said the buck stops with you… one of the things you learn is, you are ultimately responsible for the conduct of your operations.”

    As for Pat Kennedy, don’t you have any shame at all? Trick question.

    Also, anybody else expecting Obama to drone kill some poor random Libyan and claim justice has been done, right before the election, in a weak attempt at an October Surprise?

    Anyway, I take responsibility for it all, what the hell, why not.




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  • Libya Just Gets Uglier and Sleazier

    October 10, 2012 // 0 Comments

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

    The evidence that State knew of the security issues in Benghazi, and ignored them, continues to accumulate.

    Word is that inside Foggy Bottom everyone is rushing around getting their ducks in line so that someone else takes the symbolic fall for the screw-ups. They’ve got time– the Accountability Review Board will certainly not release anything before the election. Look for a news dump maybe the Friday after Thanksgiving? 2015? The truth will be happily buried, but in reality should be something like this: heavy security cost too much, plus it would make the Clinton narrative that limited-scale intervention in Libya worked look really bad right when her boss is struggling in the campaign. Admitting failure in Libya would also limit options in Syria. So, try and blame it on some video, then on al Qaeda (damn, that always used to work, too) and then find some mid-level person at State to hang.

    It Was the Other Guy

    One person not allowing himself to be the sacrificial lamb is the former State security officer for Libya, Eric Nordstrom, who is running around Washington telling pretty much everyone who will listen that it was State Department official Charlene Lamb who wanted to keep the number of U.S. security personnel in Benghazi “artificially low,” according to a memo summarizing his comments to a congressional committee that was obtained by Reuters. Nordstrom has also implicated State Department management robot Pat Kennedy in the bloody decision-making. Such plain speaking will otherwise end Nordstrom’s State Department career, and so we welcome him here into liberated We Meant Well territory. Call us for recommendations for lawyers Eric.

    Kudos no doubt inside State for Susan Rice being willing to take a bullet in the early days to try and save her boss. Bot now even State is doing a little pointless damage control saying there never was a video-related protest in Benghazi. So Susan, what’s being thrown under the bus feel like?

    Whither Diplomatic Security?

    Meanwhile, attention once again focuses on State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, the bully boys who seem much better at hassling diplomats for extra-marital sex than protecting them from terror.

    Bureau of Diplomatic Security saw its budget expand about tenfold in the decade after the deadly 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Contributing to that growth were the U.S.-launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq after the September 11 attacks.

    So where’d all that money go to if not into protecting places like Benghazi? Former FSO Bill answers:

    Don’t be fooled into thinking that the increased budget went to increased personnel and better security. Most of the increased funding is dedicated to Special Agent pensions under Public Law 105-382, which establishes age 57 as the mandatory retirement age for Special Agents, and computes their annuity at 2.5% of high 3 average salary times number of years. This is far more generous, and far more expensive than pension benefits for other State employees. In the late 90s, both State and ICE scrambled to get their officers designated as Special Agents, a designation previously limited to fewer agencies. While it was a prestige and morale issue for both agencies, it has had a major impact on budget expenditures. Those who complain that military pensions are too generous should note that DS uses the same formula as the military, but DS average salaries are much higher than military salaries. Once they retire with a really good pension, they can come right back as contractors, who don’t have any requirement to retire at age 57. That’s where the money goes.


    And Hillary?

    On Wednesday, the House Oversight Committee will hold a hearing “The Security Failures of Benghazi,” featuring Pat “Blood on his Hands” Kennedy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Programs Charlene “It Wasn’t Me” Lamb, Eric Nordstrom and Lt. Col. Andrew Wood, who lead the security team in Libya until August. Be sure to set your bullshit detectors to stun.

    Expect Kennedy to say something like “who could have anticipated this?” Well, Pat old chum, in a country where you are paying staff 30% additional danger pay, it seems real to expect things.

    But where is Hillary? Turns out her last public statement on the Libya fiasco was October 3, a week ago, another empty promise that “the men and women who serve this country as diplomats deserve no less than a full, accurate accounting.”

    Despite her usual lofty rhetoric, Hillary has had nothing more to say and won’t testify before the House. As soon as the real scrutiny begins, Hillary dummies up.

    Looking ahead to the Hillary Clinton presidential run in 2016, opposition researchers, please bookmark this page.

    BONUS Editorial

    State needs to make a decision. If State wishes to populate diplomatic establishments in active war zones, it must a) wait to create a permanent secure facility; b) pay for what is needed to create an appropriate temporary facility; or c) simply accept that diplomats will die for these political decisions.

    State instead wants to fulfill the short-term political suck up goal of staffing hot spots without paying the cost of proper security. As such, it is just a matter of time and chance that more places are not overrun.

    State is trying to treat Benghazi as some grand exception/accident when in fact it is just the first of many possibles. Post 9/11 very little has changed in the internal architecture of Diplomatic Security. They are still using the pre-9/11 model of relatively low-key civilian security, host country support and on-the-cheap local guard hires.

    Instead, the nasty truth is that the new model is Baghdad– an armed camp inside hostile territory wholly independent of host government assistance, ’cause there ain’t gonna be none.

    Of course the other idea would be to abandon the wet dream that State needs to staff active war zones. What’s the point anyway? Prior to the Iraq war porn fantasy, diplomats were withdrawn until a country stabilized.




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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Billions Wasted, Again: State Likely to Give Up on Costly Efforts to Train Iraqi Police

    May 26, 2012 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq

    (This article appeared originally on the Huffington Post on May 14, 2012)

    Well, that did not take long.

    The New York Times reports that the State Department, in the face of massive costs and Iraqi officials who say they never wanted it in the first place, slashed and may soon dump entirely a multibillion-dollar police training program in Iraq that was to have been the centerpiece of post-occupation US presence in Iraq. After all of five months.

    In October I reported on my blog wemeantwell.com that the State Department was on Capitol Hill in front of the Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations, begging a skeptical Congress for more money for police training in Iraq. “Training” was again being cited as the cure-all for America’s apparently insatiable desire to throw money away in Mesopotamia. That latest tranche of taxpayer cash sought by State was one billion dollars a year, every year for five years, to pay police instructors and cop salaries in Iraq. The US has been training Iraqi cops for years. In fact, the US government has spent $7.3 billion for Iraqi police training since 2003. Ka-ching! Anybody’s hometown in need of $7.3 billion in Federal funds? Hah, you can’t have it if you’re American, it is only for Iraq!

    Ever-reliable State Department tool Pat Kennedy led the pack of fibbers in asking Congress for the cash: “After a long and difficult conflict, we now have the opportunity to see Iraq emerge as a strategic ally in a tumultuous region.” He went on (…and on) promising “robust this” and “robust that.” Best of all, Pat Kennedy also said that providing assistance to the Iraqi police and security forces “will eventually reduce the cost of our presence as security in the country improves and we can rely on Iraqi security for our own protection.” The Department spends several billion a year on private security contractors to protect the fortress-like Embassy in Baghdad (which itself carries almost a billion dollar price tag, including the indoor pool and Embassy-only bar).

    Don’t Judge Us

    Of course despite the hoary promises by Kennedy of robust oversight and management of the police training program, State blocked inspectors from the US government’s independent auditor for Iraqi reconstruction, SIGIR, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, from conducting an assessment of the Department’s multibillion-dollar effort. Kennedy said: We’re from the government, trust us.

    The inspectors had good reason not to trust Kennedy and State. Specifically, the State Department’s International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) bureau had come under fire from SIGIR for its management of the contract with DynCorp to train police in Iraq, Afghanistan and Jordan. The last SIGIR audit of the State Department’s oversight of the contract concluded that “INL lacks sufficient resources and controls to adequately manage the task orders with DynCorp. As a result, over $2.5 billion in U.S. funds are vulnerable to waste and fraud.”

    State’s track record otherwise with police training also fails severely. The State Department in 2003 was given initial responsibility for training Iraqi police. By 2004, however, State’s efforts were seen as so ineffective, even on an Iraq War scale, that police training was taken away from the suits and folded into the US military mission.

    Water Under the Bridge

    But hey, those previously wasted billions and slapdash attempts to avoid scrutiny by an outside inspector are now like water under the bridge for the State Department, as the entire program is just about ready to collapse anyway.

    The Times reports that the training cadre of about 350 American law enforcement officers was quickly scaled back to 190 and then to 100 as costs rose and Iraqi interest fell. State’s latest restructuring calls for 50 advisers, but State Department officials say even they may be withdrawn by the end of this year. Several colleagues of mine associated with the program report that they are not being asked to stay on, and in fact now rarely even leave their fortified compounds.

    It seems the Iraqis simply do not care for the training State insists they should want. Last month many of the Iraqi police officials who had been participating in the training refused to attend the presentations given by the Americans, saying they saw little benefit. The Iraqis have also insisted that the training sessions be held at their own facilities, rather than American ones (the State Department spent $343 million building the facilities the Iraqis do not want to use, apparently without asking the Iraqis. The largest of the construction projects, at Baghdad Police College, was recently abandoned unfinished after an expenditure of more than $100 million of your tax dollars). The State Department will not allow the trainers to meet regularly at Iraqi facilities out of fear of terrorist ambush and the insane costs of moving people around Iraq safely. Private security contractors have to be hired by State to escort the private police contractors hired by State.

    Failure to Ask = Failure

    That part about asking the Iraqis what they want might have been key to the State Department’s failure in Iraq police training.

    Stalwart American Ambassador to Iraq Jeffrey, who is desperately seeking to curtail his assignment if State can find a successor whom Congress will endorse, mumbled “I think that with the departure of the military, the Iraqis decided to say, ‘O.K., how large is the American presence here?’ How large should it be? How does this equate with our sovereignty? In various areas they obviously expressed some concerns.” “Some concerns” said Ambassador Jeffrey. Actually, the acting head of Iraq’s Interior Ministry questioned the wisdom entirely of spending so much on a program the Iraqis never sought, the equivalent of shouting “Don’t tase me bro!”

    It’s Always Sunny at Foggy Bottom

    The US Embassy in Baghdad released a hard-hitting reply to all of these developments, saying ““The Iraqi Government and the State Department regularly review the size and scope of our law enforcement assistance efforts to ensure that these programs best meet the needs of Iraq’s security forces… The Police Development Program is a vital part of the U.S.-Iraqi relationship.” So that’s settled.

    Thomas Nides, deputy secretary of state for management and resources told the New York Times, “I don’t think anything went wrong. The Iraqis just don’t believe they need a program of that scale and scope.” Apparently Nides, Kennedy and no one at the State Department, none of the thousands of Americans State has in the World’s Largest Embassy in Baghdad, thought to get the Iraqi opinion of the training program before committing billions of dollars. Next time I suggest think first, spend second, ‘kay?

    Note to Hillary Clinton: Before sending your drones to fib to Congress asking for money that should be spent here at home, and then wasting several billion dollars on a project in some foreign country, ask the foreigners if they actually want it first. If they do not want our help, how about returning the billions to the United States where we can sure put it to good use?

    Note to Congress: The next time State comes asking for money, check if their lips are moving. That means they are lying to you. Please cut them off; they’re like drunks loose in Vegas and can no longer help themselves. It’ll be a mercy killing at this point.




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  • Don’t Get Fooled Again

    January 5, 2012 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Embassy/State, Iran, Iraq

    State Department Undersecretary for Management guy Pat Kennedy said this recently on NPR, justifying the $3.5 billion a year maintaining the World’s Largest Embassy in Baghdad (c) costs:

    This is a democracy in the Middle East. Is it perfect? No. A lot of people think our system isn’t perfect either. But this is a major oil producer, a friend of the United States, a potential market for American goods and now, I think, a very important symbol in the Middle East of what democracy in the Middle East could be.

    Meanwhile, the US ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey said that an investigation into allegations against Iraq’s vice president appears to be proceeding fairly despite claims that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is pursuing a political vendetta against a rival.

    This statement was made despite the fact that Hashemi is so confident in the fairness of the judicial system that he sought sanctuary in semi-autonomous Kurdistan. The charges against him are based in large part on “confessions” by his bodyguards made after their “interrogations” by security forces loyal to Maliki. Hashemi’s alleged crimes, uncovered by Maliki the very day US forces withdrew in 2011, took place in 2006. Just never got around to investigating them earlier I guess.

    Meanwhile, in our universe:

    A roadside bomb targeting Shia pilgrims killed 30 people on the outskirts of the southern city of Nasiriyah on Thursday. A total of 30 people were killed and 72 wounded in the attack, which occurred just west of Nasiriyah as pilgrims were walking to the holy shrine city of Karbala for Arbaeen commemorations.

    The attack came on the same day two Shia neighbourhoods in Baghdad were targeted in bombings that left at least 23 people dead.

    At least nine civilians have been killed and 35 others injured in two successive explosions and a motorbike blast in east Baghdad’s Sadr city on Thursday morning.

    A female child has been killed and six civilians injured in five successive explosions in the city of Baaquba, the center of northeast Iraq’s Diala Province, on Wednesday morning.

    A group of unknown armed men have killed two Iraqi soldiers in southern Mosul, the center of Ninewa Province, late Tuesday night.


    We’ll assume officials like Kennedy and Jeffrey are not ignorant or uninformed. That leaves then the question as to why they would keep saying ridiculous things about Iraq, claiming it is a democracy somehow comparable to our own system, or that Maliki’s blatant power plays are following the rule of law.

    “What we’re seeing is a new era in post-Saddam politics,” said Ramzy Mardini, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “Iraq’s stability is on really weak foundation. Maliki has gone too far in his campaign against political rivals, his only option is to keep going.”

    So who are people like Kennedy and Jeffreys trying to fool?

    Either themselves, or you. The Iraqis certainly know what is going on in their own country, watching 60 of their countrypeople blown up on a single all-too-typical Thursday. Maliki and Hashemi understand the game being played out. So the disingenuous statements by State Department officials are designed either to convince themselves that they are doing a robust job, or, to convince you that after all these years, all those lives and all that money, the US invasion and occupation of Iraq was still somehow worth it.

    As the war drums beat over Iran, you decide, but don’t get fooled again.



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  • State Department Fixing the Facts Based on Policy

    December 7, 2011 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    State Department personnel in Iraq may be in danger as transition plans leave gaps in security and medical care

    (This article by me originally appeared in the Huffington Post)

    The State Department can often times be so inward looking that it fixes the facts based on the policy need, making reality fit the vision whether that naughty reality wants to or not. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it can be tragic.

    When I arrived at my second Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Iraq, we were told to call the area we worked in the “Sunni Triangle of Death.” The meme was “Look at us bad boys, reconstructing the nasty Sunni Triangle of Death. It proves State is not a sissy.” About six months later we were told to stop calling the place the “Sunni Triangle of Death,” because since we had been working for half a year, we needed to show some progress. “Triangle of Death” did not signify progress so the Embassy banned the term to fit the policy meme, even though nothing had really changed. No real harm done, I guess.

    Around election time, the initial plan was for PRT staffers to observe the March 2010 voting up close, mostly so the Embassy could claim the election was legitimate based on the happy-talk reports we understood we were to file. That was part of the warp, but the real kicker was that to show our faith in Iraqi security, we were told we were not to wear body armor at the polling stations. The Embassy felt that photos of us all geared up, as we believed we needed to be based on local security conditions, would not play well with their PR campaign that all was well. There was a lot of back channel grumbling, and a few threats to refuse to observe, and the Embassy quietly just changed plans and canceled most of the rural observations. Again, narrowly, no real harm done.

    Now, as the State Department rushes to replace all of the military support it needs to exist in still-dangerous Iraq without the Army, there are fears that the warping of reality may indeed endanger lives in Baghdad.

    What’s for Dinner?

    Currently every item of food for the Embassy, from sides of beef to baby carrots, is procured in “safe” Kuwait and convoyed up to Baghdad. It is an expensive system, one that occasionally even entails the loss of life protecting boxes of Raisin Bran, but it has ensured the safety and cleanliness of the food for almost nine years.

    The State Department, facing the crazy costs of this system without the nearly bottomless budget of the Defense Department, is once again swaying the facts to fit the policy. Undersecretary for Management Pat Kennedy told Congress in mid-November that seeking to cut costs in Iraq, State is looking to locally purchase some of the food its personnel will eat, breaking with the U.S. military’s practice of importing. Nothing has changed on the ground vis-a-vis food security, but to save money, State is warping that reality to fit its own needs.

    Physical Security for Contractors

    Security in general is subject to such warping, potentially at the cost of U.S. lives. In an anonymous email sent to numerous State Department official addresses this week, one contractor from State’s much-criticized police training program paints this picture (information deleted/changed for security purposes):

    There is an DOS policy that prevents contractors from using mission vehicles and personnel for leave rotations. Recently the climate in Iraq has become far more hostile to private companies, especially those not directly linked to the US State Department (such as our leave rotation crews). There is a current security threat briefed by DOS as “????? is actively seeking to capture personnel associated with the mission.”

    Meanwhile, the security taking contractors working for the State Department’s at ????? have recently stopped carrying weapons.

    My last trip took place at approximately 11pm. Armored cars traveling through the Baghdad red zone stopping at multiple checkpoints and opening doors at every checkpoint. The driver and TC were both Iraqi nationals speaking no English. Neither had any weapons. Neither wore their tactical body armor. Observing their behavior suggested they had no security experience.

    At the front of ????? outside the attached Iraqi compound, at the Iraqi checkpoint under an overpass at a four way intersection in the middle of Baghdad our convoy stopped outside a secure area. The Iraqi Police officers operating the checkpoint suggested that the absence of a dog created a situation where we could not be swept for bombs so we could not enter. Our driver and TC both exited the vehicle, leaving both doors open. Then we were ordered out of our vehicle (no weapons between all of us- in the presence of Iraqi officers known to be infiltrated with terrorists.) After a brief conversation and several tenuous minutes we were allowed to enter, however this scenario continues to repeat itself.

    Terrorists are not stupid. We have to assume they are actively surveilling us. We have to assume they are talking to Iraqi Police (who among other things have failed to catch two recent bombs passing through their security checkpoint).

    This policy preventing US contractors from having real security while traveling to and from ????? and ????? is the weakest link in the operation. It is reasonable to expect the US Government to value the lives of their citizens, especially those working in support of US Government operations.


    State of State’s Private Army

    Much has been made of State’s plan to hire over 5500 mercenaries as security guards for its Iraq-bound diplomats. However, while numbers do matter, the skills that those merc possess matter more. Currently in Iraq, with the US Army in place, a State Department convoy ambushed can call on a QRF, an Army quick reaction force. On standby 24/7, these soldiers are literally the cavalry that rides in to save the day.

    Needless to say, the State Department does not have such people on staff. So, State is hiring contractors, specifically an “Aviation Advisor” responsible for “Search and Rescue (SAR), medical evacuations, transporting Quick Reaction Forces (QRF) to respond to incidents, and providing air transportation for Chief of Mission personnel.”

    The problem is that the State Department put out this notice on November 4, closing a month later, only 26 days before the final withdrawal of US troops. Better hope HR is on the spot, especially given that the interviewing, vetting, hiring, travel to Iraq and initial setting up of a full SAR system will need to take place over Christmas to be in place by January 1. In other words, it won’t be there when needed.

    There remain other concerns harder to nail down in an unclassified environment — security at the Baghdad Airport once control leaves U.S. hands, availability of a blood supply (another contractor, who will have to create a logistics schema with the Armed Services Blood Program) and proper trauma care for the diplomats (yet another contractor), particularly should someone suffer the horrific burns now too common in IED attacks. Under the military system, even during an attack, an injured soldier would receive first aid from a trained buddy, be helicopter evacuated from the site within minutes, stabilized at a specialized trauma unit and on a med flight to a hospital in Germany within an hour or two. While the danger on the ground in Iraq will remain the same (if not more dangerous given the lack of American troop presence), State in no way will be able to replicate the vast resources the military can bring to bear.

    Reality – Policy = Insecurity

    The issues are not unnoticed. Some State Department officials have privately complained of becoming full-time contract managers, not practicing diplomats. One commenter lamented “Officials will be prisoners on the ridiculously large but poorly constructed compound and will be unable to leave the grounds without a security package so large and costly that being out of the Embassy will be the exception rather than the rule.” State’s own Inspector General laid out its concerns in a May 2011 report, concluding “Because of the complexity and considerable cost of construction, staffing, and logistics, there is a risk the Embassy will not have a fully operational medical system prior to the military’s departure.” Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta reminded the Hill that State will require thousands of contractors to provide security and other services that had been provided by the Pentagon. “Yes there are risks involved,” Panetta said. “Do we have any other alternatives? No.”

    State’s responses have been weak. Can’t travel safely outside the Green Zone? “The Embassy will attempt to mitigate the loss of tactical intelligence by establishing closer working relationships with the Government of Iraq.” Although Embassy medical plans do not currently include the capability for handling a mass casualty event, Embassy officials magic-wanded the problem away by stating that “even the US military’s current combat support hospital can be overwhelmed by a large enough number of casualties.” Meanwhile, State “will continue to explore possibilities for mitigating the impact of a mass casualty event.”

    In other words, again the policy seems to be warping the reality on the ground. Only this time, it’s not politics, it’s personal, or maybe, without irony, personnel, at stake.



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  • Obama to Create Thousands of Jobs: In Iraq

    October 22, 2011 // 0 Comments

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

    (Originally published on the Huffington Post)

    The US is prepared to spend up to five billion dollars to create more jobs for police officers, paying $100-$150k a year. The Government can’t find enough people to take the jobs, and is looking for recruits, no experience necessary, all training provided, right in your hometown.

    One catch: the jobs are for Iraqis, in Iraq. No Americans need apply.

    The secret mantra of the Iraq war has always been “training,” specifically the always-just-out-of-reach goal of training the Iraq security forces to take over from the US. The cry has been heard for years: George W. Bush even made “we’ll stand down as they stand up” a campaign slogan in 2008.

    Now, as the war in Iraq proceeds through its eighth year, the State Department was on Capitol Hill October 12 in front of the Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations begging a skeptical Congress for more money. “Training” is again being cited as the cure-all for America’s apparently insatiable desire to throw money away in Mesopotamia. The latest tranche of taxpayer cash is for one billion dollars a year, every year for five years, to pay police instructors and cop salaries in Iraq.

    A Long Train

    The US has been training Iraqi cops for years, under the auspices of Army and State contractors. In fact, the US government has spent $7.3 billion for Iraqi police training since 2003. Now, with the Army shifting to teaching Iraqis how to operate the hi-tech weapons they will be buying from the US, the State Department is picking up the cop training gig full-time. A job announcement last year hired contract police instructors to go to Iraq, where, under the watchful eye of State’s own internal Stasi, Diplomatic Security, they are preparing to start teaching at thirty locations around the country.

    Given that the Army and State have been teaching police work in Iraq now for several years, the student cops must either be the world’s slowest learners, or have the world’s highest job turnover. Sadly, it looks like the latter. Iraqi cops tend to have very short life expectancies and that is why, even with the healthy salary offer of $150,000 a year (the average per capita income in Iraq is only $3800; cops in the US make concededly less than what State is willing to pay in Iraq. Starting salaries run $40-65k a year), State can’t find enough, um, bodies, to fill up the recruit classes.

    The Hard, Short Life of an Iraqi Cop

    As an example of how life is for an Iraqi law officer, this week alone attacks included two suicide car bombs minutes apart at Baghdad police stations, killing at least 25 people in the capital’s deadliest day in a month. More than 70 people were wounded. In one instance, the street in front of a police station had been closed from 2004, but was reopened about four weeks ago, sadly allowing the suicide bomber to get close to the station house. In other attacks the same day, a bomb wounded a police brigadier general in north Baghdad, while two police were shot in south Baghdad.

    These attacks took place in an Iraq still occupied by some 41,000 American soldiers. Come January 2012, the US Army posture will diminish to an as yet undetermined number, likely around 5000 troops. The State Department hopes to conduct its police training under these conditions, protected by its own mercenary army of 5000 security contractors, using hand-me-down Army gear.

    Corruption, Mismanagement and Torture Play a Part

    The killing of Iraqi cops is probably the main issue holding back recruitment. However, the lack of organized control by their parent organization, the Iraqi Ministry of Interior (MOI), is another impediment to a well-run police force, regardless of how much training they receive.

    In December 2006, the Iraq Study Group reported that the Iraqi Interior Ministry was filled with corruption, infiltrated by militia and unable to control its own police. In July 2007, the Los Angeles Times reported that Iraq’s MOI had become a “federation of oligarchs” where various floors of the headquarters building were controlled by rival militia groups and organized criminal gangs. The report described the MOI as an eleven-story powder keg of factions where power struggles were settled by assassinations in the parking lot. In its September 2007 report, the congressionally-mandated Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq described Iraq’s MOI as a ministry in name only, dysfunctional, sectarian and suffering from ineffective leadership. To make matters worse, the police have been implicated in multiple incidents of torture.

    Who Will Guard the Guards?

    There remain significant questions on if State will be able to oversee the huge police training program.
    The State Department’s International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) bureau came under fire from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) for its management of the contract with DynCorp to train police. A 2010 audit concluded that “INL lacks sufficient resources and controls to adequately manage the task orders with DynCorp. As a result, over $2.5 billion in US funds are vulnerable to waste and fraud.” Most of $1.2 billion State was given to train Iraqi police remains unaccounted for. Though not directly related to police training, State’s own Inspector General just found that INL mismanaged another Dynacorp contract in Afghanistan to the tune of $940,000, in large part because of lack of staff to oversee the project.

    Following the negative report by SIGIR, State did the logical thing: they slammed the door on the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction auditors. State’s coordinator for Iraq transition, Patricia Haslach, told Congress that SIGIR has almost no jurisdiction over State Department spending in Iraq, including that five billion sought for police training. State’s reluctance to submit to the audits is understandable; SIGIR stated that 400,000 Iraqis received training and are on the force, but the “capabilities of these forces are unknown because no assessments of total force capabilities were made.”

    The Bright Side

    Undersecretary of State Pat Kennedy reminded Congress October 12 without irony that “We have a robust contracting oversight system firmly in place and being executed by our Bureau of Administration. The Bureau of Diplomatic Security is overseeing its competitively awarded security task orders using the enhanced oversight and management system put in place over the last several years.”

    Pat Kennedy also said that providing assistance to the Iraqi police and security forces “will eventually reduce the cost of our presence as security in the country improves and we can rely on Iraqi security for our own protection.”

    And it is not like State has just been sitting on its hands. In July 2011, out of Iraq’s 400,000 cops, the State Department invited nine of them to the US for three weeks with local police forces in Vermont, Pittsburgh and Denver, cities that no doubt offer a lot of points of commonality with policing in Iraq.

    With plans like that, what could go wrong?



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  • State Fumbles $172.4 Million Intended For Afghan Police Training

    July 15, 2011 // 0 Comments

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

    Some things just don’t go well together: hot dogs and ketchup, cats and dogs, and the State Department and contracting.

    Just doesn’t work.

    You’ll recall State Management Droid Pat Kennedy, back in early June, told the Commission on Wartime Contracting how the Department has increased its oversight of contractors. Among other things, State has hired 102 additional people in Washington to administer contracts.

    And then we wrote how State refused to allow the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) to audit their police training mission. The US has spent billions training Iraqi police since 2003, and little has been accomplished outside the hemorrhaging of US money into the hands of Dynacorp, the contractor designated by the USG to steal all that money. State says SIGIR jurisdiction is limited to “reconstruction” activities, as opposed to “technical assistance and capacity-building.” A fight before Congress will resolve the matter since the kids can’t settle it on their own.

    Wonder why State was so shy about allowing inspections? Maybe this will clarify things.

    A new joint audit found that State didn’t properly handle $172.4 million from funds for the training of the Afghan National Police (ANP). Additionally, the report found that some of those funds went to paying contractors for hours they didn’t work. Some of the money was improperly spent in other areas, even though it was specifically designated for training the ANP.

    The report says that the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs used $22.47 million for “a United Nations contribution, the Federal Prosecutors Program, counternarcotics personnel salaries, travel costs, and a DynCorp equitable adjustment.” Some money went towards ANP salaries but not training as it was intended.

    More than $300,000 went to travel costs from Texas to Washington for DynCorp personnel to attend weekly meetings, even though DynCorp was supposed to have employees in DC who could have attended the meetings. On top of that, the report found that the transportation, hotel and flight costs were all not in compliance with contract regulations.

    One example is of an employee purchasing a round-trip ticket for $355, but then changing his ticket so many times that it ended up costing $1,931. Some travel costs were for five-day trips, even though meetings only happened on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

    Overall, the report found that the money was misspent because “State lacked adequate procedures for obligating, monitoring, and deobligating funds for the ANP training program.”



    Meanwhile, in other fucked up contract news, State recently signed another contract, worth $8 million, with ArmorGroup to guard the Kabul Embassy.

    ArmorGroup, you’ll recall, used to hold a contract worth an estimated $189 million to protect the embassy. But that was before the Project on Government Oversight revealed in 2009 that the guard force operated a Lord of the Flies environment, complete with pictures documenting it, of guards peeing on people, eating potato chips out of ass cracks, doing vodka shots out of ass cracks, broken doors after drunken brawls, but not “jamming guys in the ass per se.”

    Onward to victory in Afghanistan!!!!!!!!!!!!



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  • Drop the Oversight, Take the Cannoli

    June 14, 2011 // 0 Comments

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

    Can’t have it both ways? Don’t tell the State Department, who wants several billion dollars to assume the role of occupier in Iraq while at the same time demanding little oversight into how it spends taxpayer money.

    In a previous post, we wrote how State refused to allow the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) to audit their police training mission. The US has spent billions training Iraqi police since 2003, and little has been accomplished outside the hemorrhaging of US money into the hands of Dynacorp, the contractor designated by the USG to steal all that money. State says SIGIR jurisdiction is limited to “reconstruction” activities, as opposed to “technical assistance and capacity-building.” A fight before Congress will resolve the matter since the kids can’t settle it on their own.

    But better move fast Congress– SIGIR is scheduled to shut down in 18 months, so all State has to do is s-t-a-l-l.

    Last week the Commission on Wartime Contracting asked State to justify in writing any decision to overturn recommendations in favor of suspending or debarring a contractor by other State Department officials, and also for the establishment of a permanent, government-wide special Inspector General for contingency operations.

    State said no. Give us the money, stuff your oversight.

    The commissioners called State’s opposition to the first recommendation–that it would be overly burdensome–“logically dubious.” After State Department management droid Pat Kennedy could not answer how often recommendations for suspension or debarment are overturned, the commissioners asked how it could be so burdensome if State didn’t even know how frequently it occurred. We hope that gets entered into his next performance review but kinda doubt it.

    The commissioners were also skeptical of State’s opposition to a permanent, government-wide Inspector General (IG) for contingency operations. They cited historical examples of State’s history with IGs to support their skepticism of State’s position. For instance, just a few days prior to the hearing, the Washington Times published a story about attempts by State to oppose an investigation by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) based on lack of jurisdiction.

    Commissioner Charles Tiefer questioned State’s will to hold its contractors accountable, citing the example of First Kuwaiti General Contracting and Trading. Tiefer noted that a 2009 audit by the State Department IG recommended that State recover $132 million from the contractor for its exceptionally shoddy work constructing the Baghdad Embassy. It has now been almost two years since the release of that report and as Kennedy acknowledged in the hearing, State still has not asked the company to pay up. We hope that also gets entered into his next performance review but again kinda doubt it.

    A full accounting of the problems found in the Baghdad Embassy is worth reading.

    To make matters worse, despite First Kuwaiti’s sad performance in Baghdad, the company continued to get work building for State in Saudi Arabia and Gabon as a subcontractor through an American company called Aurora, LLC, which some State Department officials suspect was established to serve as a front company for First Kuwaiti.

    So why worry, eh?

    Read more about the need for aggressive IG oversight at State in POGO’s November 2010 letter to President Obama.



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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • State Department has no Plan for Mercenary Management

    June 7, 2011 // 0 Comments

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

    Attention Kids: When faced with a big problem, simply saying “Hey, don’t worry, everything will be fine!” only works if you are a really sympathetic Mommy or the State Department.

    I saw Pat Kennedy at the Seven Corners Home Depot on Sunday, buying garden stuff. He looked worried so I didn’t say hello. I thought maybe he had some nasty leaf mold problems, but now I know it was more serious. Sorry Pat, I hope the flowers work out, because…

    CNN reports The State Department came under sharp criticism Monday over how it hires and monitors thousands of private contractors.

    A watchdog panel, the Commission on Wartime Contracting, has questioned whether the State Department is prepared to continue its work in Iraq once the US military withdraws. “Our concerns remain very much alive,” the commission’s co-chairman, Christopher Shays, said in his opening statement.

    Shays also focused on what he said was State Department refusal to document its rationale for not taking action against contractors officially recommended for suspension or disbarment. “That response approaches the borderline of government negligence,” Shays said.

    The sole witness appearing before the panel was Under Secretary for Management Patrick Kennedy. He described how the Department has increased its oversight of contractors. Among other things, State has hired 102 additional people in Washington to administer these contracts. Whew. 0

    In Iraq, basically the already over-worked Regional Security Officer (RSO) will oversee any whacky hijinks of the merc army. In fact, they might even do bed checks: Kennedy stated “Collocation of contractor life-support areas on Embassy, Consulate, or Embassy Branch Office compounds will enhance after-hours oversight of contractor personnel,” so it’s lights out on time guys and no doing vodka shots off each others’ butts like in Afghanistan.

    But what will cause an already busy RSO to really focus on stopping State Department-sponsored murder in Iraq? Kennedy explained “As initial steps, this summer we plan to create a Contracting Officer Representative (COR) Award to highlight contract administration achievements, and publish an article in State Magazine highlighting the importance of contract administration and the valuable role of the COR.” Magazine article, got it, feelin’ safer already.

    But what about stuff like in 2007 when State’s Blackwater mercs gunned down unarmed Iraqis in Nisour Square? Kennedy again: “Improving the image of the security footprint through enhanced cultural sensitivity: Mandatory country-specific cultural awareness training for all security contractors prior to deployment to Iraq; Revised standards of conduct, including a ban on alcohol.”

    Of course allowing the mercs to drink in Iraq (And Christ do they drink. I saw it myself. The wildest, most debauched parties, including public nudity, cross-dressing and group vomiting ever were on the security contractor compounds and I say that having gone to a football-heavy state school) from 2003 until today has worked out, so wonder why the change now Pat?

    So what about that little problem about not prosecuting mercs for murder in Iraq? Kennedy acknowledges that there really isn’t any law to cover things just right now as previous State agreements exempt mercs from Iraqi law, but “The Department of State strongly supports the legislative goal of passing a robust and comprehensive Civilian Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (CEJA) that provides clear and unambiguous jurisdiction to prosecute non-Department of Defense personnel for overseas misconduct. We look forward to working with Congress on CEJA legislation.” And in the meantime boys, its lock and load time with no bag limit on ‘dem hajiis!

    “We fully understand that we still have challenges ahead as we carry out our diplomatic missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and other locations where we rely on contingency contracting,” Kennedy said, probably wishing he worked at Home Depot.

    Bottom Line:
    A military forced into diplomacy in Iraq will be replaced by a militarized State Department equally unprepared for the task.

    Read Kennedy’s full statement if you think I am making this stuff up.

    Diplomats: Better think over who has your backs and give those bids lists one more look-over before hitting submit.



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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Bad Arguments the Left is Using to Destroy Conservative Speech

    January 14, 2021 // 0 Comments

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


     
    Some Bad Arguments the Left is Using to Destroy Conservative Speech

    The graced haiku of the First Amendment was defeated in this current age not by jack booted thugs but by Terms of Service.

    It wasn’t supposed to be this way. From 1984 through every dystopian movie, as well as the sordid history of real dictatorships past, the loss of free speech was supposed to come from the top down. A powerful man crushes the press, brown shirts take over TV stations, that sort of thing. Nobody foresaw the loss of free speech in a once great democracy would come – by popular demand – from many of The People themselves.

    But that is what is happening in these extraordinary times here in Post-Constitutional America. Before this, the other great losses of rights once confirmed in blood followed dark tradition: after killing four Americans by drone, Barack Obama’s attorney general claimed the president’s personal deliberation constituted enough due process to satisfy the Fifth Amendment. Exaggerated fear of terrorists saw the Fourth Amendment rights to privacy obliterated by the NSA and welcomed by the frightened masses.

    What Americans once saw as our highest values became luxuries that in a time of fear, first 9/11, then Trump, the country believed it could ill afford. Justice, fairness, and free speech became a risk, their indulgence a weakness.

    Among the rights lost, free speech is arguably the most dear. Without free speech people stop thinking, losing all but a narrowing band of ideas. Open discussion, debate, and argument are the core of democracy, good ideas defeating bad ones in the marketplace of the mind. Fascism seeks to close off all ideas except its own, falsely labeling dissent as disloyal, insubordinate, seditious, insurrectionist, and ultimately unlawful.

    Any discussion of free speech must acknowledge despicable people and their ideas have always existed. These people will use any freedom they have to promote the worst of ideas. Yet it is equally important to remind how at different times in our history speaking out against slavery, against war, against or for one politician or another, have all been seen as despicable. Restrictions on free speech have been used to ban great literature, books about women’s reproductive health, and photos once deemed “pornographic” now displayed as art. Someone will always find an idea or word offensive. Allowing that person to judge for all of us has never proven to be on the right side of history. The times when America stepped back from free speech – the WWI era Sedition Act, the McCarthy Years – are not the years we are proud of.

    Trumpism, neo-Nazis, alt-right, white supremacists, QAnon, Pepe, and the racists is sadly nothing new. Indeed many of those groups in different forms have been around for decades. What is new is Leftists are aggressively embracing many of the same tools once used to try and stop the anti-war movement, feminists, and other progressive groups in the past. Those tools which directly offend the Bill of Rights include violence, suppression, censorship, and twisty quasi-legal reasoning about incitement and sedition. In addition are the tools of the bully, including misuse of the No Fly List to ban pro-Trump travelers for their political beliefs, “canceling” by mustered mobs, and blacklists to bar people from earning a living due to their politics.

    But something else new turns up the dial: technology, coupled with the metastisization of new global media unabashedly willing to take advantage of not being under the control of the 1A. Combine that technological reach with liberal autocratic zeal all hidden behind the justification that Because Trump, Nazis, white supremacists, etc. the ends justifies the means and you have trouble. The justification is Everything Is Different and the old rules don’t apply. The democratic ideal of free speech is now a threat to democracy.

    The literal first shot was fired, er, thrown, at the Trump inaugural. Richard Spencer was explaining live on camera the meaning of Pepe the Frog, a silly cartoon figure somehow adopted as a mascot by the movement Spencer promoted. An anonymous black-clad antifa protester ran into the scene and sucker punched Spencer. His free speech was ended by that act of violence.

    There followed tens of thousands of comments on the YouTube videos of the attack. The standard response was “I don’t condone violence but…” and then go on to condone violence if it was directed against “Nazis.” It only got worse. In 2021 the Leftists of social media cheered the shooting death of unarmed Trump supporter Ashli Babbitt at the hands of the Capitol Police. “She earned that bullet…” read one typical remark. “Don’t forget that she was participating in a domestic terrorist attack!”

    Another popular sentiment which echoed from 2017 into 2021 is to claim violence is justified as a leftist response to hateful speech by the right, and that if perhaps more people had punched Hitler in the early days the world would be a better place. More than a few people also suggest punching someone in the head is in fact a form of protected free speech itself, and others seem to think whatever they label as “hate speech” is a crime. Others used phrases along the lines of “the end justifies the means” and “by any means necessary.” It was if half the nation had simultaneously flunked AP Government.

    Following the Spencer attack, similar violence landed at Middlebury College, then at a rally where one protester who displayed a Confederate flag was attacked, and at the University of California Berkeley (the university was ironically home to the Vietnam War protest-era Free Speech Movement.) Institutions, including Berkeley, Ohio State, Penn State, and New York University, canceled, postponed, or scheduled into dead zones speeches by conservative speakers, citing public safety concerns.

    The undergirding philosophy was in place. The stage was set for a series of arguments to sate the desire to restrict speech. Let’s look at some, and why they do or not hold up.

     

    The First Amendment Only Applies to Government

    The First Amendment only applies to government, and so corporations are free to censor, restrict or shut down speech altogether.

    Short Answer: True. The interplay between the 1A and corporations like Facebook is the most significant challenge to free speech in our lifetimes. It can only be resolved by a landmark Supreme Court challenge.

    Until very recently no entity existed that could censor at scale other than the government. The arrival of global technology controlled by mega-corporations like Twitter, Facebook, Google, and Amazon brought first the ability the control speech and soon after the willingness to do so. The rules are their rules, so we see the permanently banning the president of the United States from tweeting to his 88 million followers while allowing the Iranian and Chinese governments to speak freely to those same people. At the same time Trump was suspended from social media for inciting violence Twitter allowed the hashtag #HangMikePence to trend. Violence in one location is a threat to democracy while similar violence is valorized if under a BLM flag.

    The ability of a handful of people nobody voted for to control the mass of public discourse has never been more clear. It represents a stunning centralization of power. It is this power which negates the argument of “why not start your own web forum.” Someone did – Parler – until Amazon withdrew its server support, and Apple and Google banned the app, and silenced them. The same thing happened to The Daily Stormer, driven offline through a coordinated effort by multiple tech companies, and 8Chan, deplatformed by Cloudflare (Parler is suing Amazon under antitrust laws to regain its platform, and may seek a new provider in the interim.)

    Try an experiment. Google “Peter Van Buren” with the quotes. Most of you will see on the first page of results articles I wrote four years ago for Leftist outlets like The Nation and Salon. Almost none of you will see the scores of weekly columns I wrote for The American Conservative over the past four years. Google buries them, like they never even happened. Try the same on the tiny DuckDuckGo search engine and the conservative articles appear.

    Currently safe from the 1A as private companies, and with the legal shield of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, there is nothing to stop Twitter and the others even as new technologies create new opportunities to control speech. The election of 2020, when they hid the story of Hunter Biden’s laptop from voters, and the election’s aftermath, when they banned the president and other conservative voices, was their coming-of-age moment, the proof of concept for media giants. Many on the Left cheered the companies’ actions. No surprise. Presciently, Senator Chris Murphy, seeing the power available, had earlier demanded social media censor even more aggressively for the “survival of our democracy.”

    While there are few things to currently prevent corporate censorship, whether for their own purposes or as a proxy for the Democratic Party as Murphy demands, there are some counter-veiling legal currents which recognize the need to extend the 1A.

    One victory confirmed the status of social media, when the Supreme Court struck down a law prohibiting sex offenders from using Facebook. Justice Kennedy wrote in Packingham v North Carolina social media is now part of “the modern public square” so denying access violated the First Amendment. The Court concluded in a separate case “public access cable TV channels constituted a public forum, notwithstanding that they were operated by a private company.” Recognizing new media, even if administered by private companies, as the modern equivalent of the public square is an important step.

    The next step is recognizing the civic responsibility of those providing public forums as part of the process of chipping away at the public-private divide shielding the big media companies.

    The Supreme Court recognizes two categories of public fora: traditional and limited public forums. Traditional public forums are places like streets, sidewalks, and parks. Limited public forums are not traditionally public, but ones the government has purposefully opened to some segment of the public for “expressive activity.” By inviting the public to Facebook for comment, the government transforms a private place into a limited public forum which should be covered by the 1A. The Court only requires a “forum” for 1A purposes “to be private property dedicated to public use” or when the government “retains substantial control over the private property.” Like how the government cannot censor public library books even if the library is located in a private storefront.

    In other words, by providing a public forum Facebook, et al, assume a new role. It seems reasonable that some protections for the public speech there be offered. They may not apply to Aunt Lisa’s cat pictures but should apply to her posting in favor of some local legislation on the ballot.

    Bottom Line: Pretending a corporation with the reach to influence elections through the forum it provides is just another company that sells stuff is to pretend the role of unfettered debate in a free society is outdated. There are legal arguments to extend limited 1A protections to social media. Section 230 could be amended. However, given Democrats disproportionately benefit from corporate censorship and current Democratic control of the government, no legislative solution appears likely.

    Hope rests instead with the Supreme Court expanding the 1A to social media, as it did when it grew the 1A to cover all levels of government, down to the hometown mayor, even though the Constitution specifically only mentions Congress. The Court has long acknowledged the flexibility of the 1A in general, expanding it over the years to acts of “speech” as disparate as nudity and advertising. But don’t expect much change any time soon. Landmark decisions on speech, like those on other civil rights, tend to be more evolutionary than revolutionary.

     

    Free Speech May Provoke Violence (A Clear and Present Danger)

    Some claim conservative speakers who use anti-LGBT or racist slurs to fire up their audiences can be banned or shut down. They say such speech is the equivalent of yelling Fire! in a crowded movie theater.

    Short Answer: The standards for shutting down speech are purposefully restrictive, and well-codified. Most pundits and politicians come nowhere close. This excuse is over-used.

    The Fire! line from Supreme Court decision Schenck v. United States is often cited as justification for limiting free speech. Here’s what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote:

    “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger.”

    The full decision says the First Amendment doesn’t protect speech that meets three conditions: 1) the speech must be demonstrably false; 2) it must be likely to cause real harm, not just offense or hurt feelings, and 3) must do so immediately. Words in these decisions have hyper-specific legal meanings, often defined through multiple cases, which is why simply Googling a term and passing judgment on its vernacular via Twitter usually is wrong.

    This interpretation of the First Amendment imposed restrictions on speech. But Schenck was what jurists call bad law, in that it sought to use the Espionage Act against a Socialist pamphleteer opposing WWI to stop free speech, not protect it. The case was eventually overturned, and in truth Holmes’ statement was better understood not as a 21st century test but to simply mean that while the First Amendment is not absolute, restrictions on speech should be narrow and limited.

    It was the later case of Brandenburg v. Ohio (below) that refined the modern standard for restricting speech past Fire! But Holmes’ “fire in a crowded theater” line sticks around as a kind of inaccurate shorthand.

    Bottom Line: The Supreme Court set a very high bar against restricting speech based on the idea that what was being said leading to harm, then in a later case moved the bar even higher. Offense or general threats alone are insufficient to justify silencing someone. People who cite “fire in a crowded theater” miss the fact that a more nuanced version of restrictions followed which currently controls speech.

     

    Speech Can or Should Be Restricted Based on Content (Hate Speech)

    There are no laws against “hate speech.” A speaker can insult people by their race, sexual orientation or religious beliefs. Often words are carefully chosen to inspire and promote hate or to appeal to crude and base instincts. Indeed, that is their point.

    Short Answer: You cannot restrict hate speech. Hate speech per se does not exist in American law. Free speech means just that, with carefully limited restrictions sketched out by the Court.

    Brandenburg v. Ohio (Clarence Brandenburg was a KKK leader in Ohio who used the N-word with malice) precludes hate speech from being sanctioned as incitement to violence unless (1) the speech explicitly or implicitly encouraged the use of violence or lawless action; (2) the speaker intends their speech will result in the use of violence or lawless action, and (3) the imminent use of violence or lawless action is the likely result of the speech.

    A hostile reaction of a crowd does not automatically transform protected speech into incitement. Listeners’ reaction to speech is thus not alone a basis for regulation, or for taking an enforcement action against a speaker. The speaker had to clearly want to, and succeed in, causing some specific violent act to take place. Intent in particular is purposely hard to prove.

    The Brandenburg test is the Supreme Court’s final statement to date on what government may do about inflammatory speech that seeks to incite others to lawless action. It was intended to resolve the debate between those who urge greater control of speech and those who favor as much speech as possible before relying on the marketplace of ideas to sort things out. Yet corporate censors have simply created their own definition of incitement, with Twitter suppressing the speech of 70,000 users simply for retweeting material with “the potential to lead to offline harm” under its Orwellian named Civic Integrity Policy.

    A second type of speech is categorically excluded from First Amendment protection and often erroneously labeled hate speech: “fighting words.” This category of unprotected speech encompasses words that when spoken aloud instantly “inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace… [and is] “likely to provoke the average person to retaliation.” Offensive statements made generally to a crowd are not excluded from First Amendment protection; the insult or offense must be directed specifically at an individual.

    The law is similar for sedition. Sedition broadly refers to seeking to overthrow the U.S. government by force. It is intimately tied to the concept of free speech in that any true attempt at overthrow will need to be preceded by persuasion, rabble rousing, and the stirring up of crowds. The line between criticizing the government and organizing for it to be overthrown is a critical juncture in a democracy.

    Current law requires the government prove someone conspired to use force. Simply advocating broadly for the use of violence is not the same thing as violence and in most cases is protected as free speech. For example, suggesting the need for revolution “by any means necessary” is unlikely to be seen as conspiracy to overthrow the government by force. But actively planning such an action (distributing guns, working out the logistics, actively opposing lawful authority, etc.) could be considered sedition.

    All of this may soon change, however. Joe Biden and other Leftist thinkers have been active considering new laws against “domestic terrorism” which will likely draw from and enlarge the current definition of sedition, so expect to hear more about all this. The new laws may seek to define beliefs such as “whites are a superior race” not as bad science or an unsavory opinion but as an actual threat, an illegal thought. Proposals include prohibiting people with such beliefs from joining the military or law enforcement.

    The upshot is apart from some very narrow exceptions the obligation to free speech exists independent of the content of that speech. This is one of the most fundamental precepts of free speech in a democracy. There is no need for protection for saying things people agree with, things that are not challenging or debatable or offensive. Free speech is not needed for the weather and sports parts of the news. Instead, free speech is there to allow for the most rude, offensive, hateful stuff someone can imagine. The true tests for a democracy come at the edges, not in the middle.

    That is why it should make a college age ACLU donor proud to know her $25 contribution helps both BLM and Nazis to say what they think, but it apparently does not. Some 69 percent of American college students believe hate speech (defined as “language intentionally offensive to certain groups”) should be (unconstitutionally) banned.

    A professor at New York University wrote plainly, albeit as if he was unaware of the Constitution, “Freedom of speech means balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community. Free-speech protections — not only but especially in universities, which aim to educate students in how to belong to various communities — should not mean that someone’s humanity, or their right to participate in political speech as political agents, can be freely attacked, demeaned or questioned… [I]nvoking a pure model of free speech that has never existed, the dangers to our democracy are clear and present.”

    The good people at NYU who believe in censoring speech have some opposition. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared unpopular ideas should have their opportunity to compete in the “marketplace of ideas,” understanding free speech is not an ends but a means in a democracy. Justice Louis Brandeis held people must discuss and criticize ideas, that free speech is not only an abstract virtue but also a key element that lies at the heart of a democratic society. Even the fact that speech is likely to result in “violence or in destruction of property is not enough to justify its suppression.” Brandeis concluded “the deterrents ordinarily to be applied to prevent” violence and disruption “are education and punishment for violations of the law, not abridgment of free speech.”

    Bottom Line: There is no justification for restricting speech so that people are not offended. Speech may offend, indeed that may be its point, but bad ideas are then defeated by better ideas. It’s the law.

     

    What’s Said May Provoke Violence (Public Safety)

    The idea a university or other venue cannot assure a speaker’s safety, or that the speaker’s presence may provoke violent protests, or that the institution just doesn’t want to go to the trouble or expense of protecting a controversial speaker has become a go-to justification for canceling or restricting speech. Berkeley cited this in canceling and then de-platforming (rescheduling her when most students would not be on campus) Ann Coulter, and New York University cited the same justification for canceling a conservative speaker.

    Short Answer: Canceling a speaker to protect them or public safety is the absolute last resort, and some risk to safety is part of the cost to a free society for unfettered speech.

    The most glaring misuse of this argument is when such a justification is applied only toward one strain of speech, say unilaterally against conservative speakers and not against others. The conclusion can only be danger comes from unpopular ideas based solely on their being presented on a left-leaning campus. The argument of restricting a speaker “for their own safety” who is otherwise willing to take on certain risks to make their voice heard can thus be applied in a biased manner. Restricting speech for safety needs to be content neutral.

    Public safety has been long (mis)-used to silence otherwise protected speech. Such thinking has been used to deny permits for civil rights marches, with law enforcement saying they could not protect the black protesters from the KKK. Both sides in the abortion debate have used this argument as well outside clinics.

    While institutions do have an obligation to public safety, that obligation must be balanced against the public’s greater right to engage with free speech. The answer is rarely to ban speech outright simply to maintain order.

    One landmark case from 2015 provides some of the clearest guidance yet. The case involved a group called the Bible Believers who used crude language (“Turn or Burn”) at an LGBT gathering. The Court held:

    “When a peaceful speaker, whose message is constitutionally protected, is confronted by a hostile crowd, the state may not silence the speaker as an expedient alternative to containing or snuffing out the lawless behavior of the rioting individuals. Nor can an officer sit idly on the sidelines — watching as the crowd imposes, through violence, a tyrannical majoritarian rule — only later to claim that the speaker’s removal was necessary for his or her own protection. Uncontrolled official suppression of the privilege [of free speech] cannot be made a substitute for the duty to maintain order in connection with the exercise of that right.”

    The understanding that law enforcement, or any institution, can turn first to shutting down speech that requires physical protection, has failed the courts’ tests in cases as diverse as Occupy to a Christian group bringing a pig’s head to a Muslim Arts festival. The court has long recognized content-based regulation of speech in a public forum is permissible only when the regulation “is narrowly drawn to achieve that end.”

    Bottom Line: An institution cannot cite avoiding public disruption as the initial or sole reason to restrict speech. The problems of having an unpopular person speak are outweighed by the obligation to protect free speech. Maintenance of the peace should not be achieved at the expense of the free speech.

     

    Free Speech May Be Challenged by the Heckler’s Veto

    Another misargument is the Heckler’s Veto is in itself protected speech. Some on the Left feel while someone may have a right to speak, someone else has the right to shout them down and prevent them from being heard.

    Short answer: Free speech is not intended to mean whomever can literally “speak” the loudest. The natural end of such thinking is mob rule, online or off.

    Legitimate ways exist to challenge speakers, including engaging them or ignoring them entirely. In contrast, using a Heckler’s Veto to keep unpopular speakers from expressing their views not only stifles a particular idea, but threatens to chill public discourse generally by discouraging others with controversial ideas from sharing them. Who wants to stand up only to be shouted down by a mob, online (for example, via hacking or denial of service attackers) or offline? Protesters cannot unduly interfere with communication between a speaker and an audience. The Supreme Court concluded the government’s responsibility in these circumstances is to control those who threaten or act out disruption, rather than to sacrifice the speaker’s First Amendment rights.

    The most insidious use of the Heckler’s Veto is to have audience members create a disruptive situation that compels law enforcement to shut down a speaker for them, abusing their own freedom of speech to get the government to shut down someone else’s.

    Bottom Line: Balancing the rights of the speaker, those who wish to hear them, and those who wish to protest is complicated. But simply shutting down one party entirely, or allowing one party to block the rights of the others, is illegal.

    It is nearly professional suicide today to defend rude or racist speech on principle, that the right to speak exists almost fully independent of what one says. It is easy in divided post-Trump America to claim the struggle against fascism (racism, misogyny, white supremacy, etc.) overrules the old norms.

    But imagine your views, which today match @jack and Zuck’s, change. Imagine Zuck finds religion and uses all of his resources to ban legal abortion. Consider a change of technology which allows a Russian or Chinese company to replace Google in dictating what you can read. Instead of the outright glee the Left showed over the end of Parler and the misuse of the already evil No Fly List against Trump supporters in DC imagine the same used against something you personally believe in. Imagine the criminalization of certain thoughts and beliefs.

    There may be some hope. The American Civil Liberties Union warned the suspension of Trump’s social media accounts revealed “unchecked power.” The ACLU said the decision could set a precedent for big tech companies to silence less privileged voices if they chose. Once a leading voice for unfettered speech, the ACLU started applying a “woke” political litmus test to its chosen fights during the Trump years. It seems the organization finally figured out that censoring speech anywhere, even with Trump, is a threat to speech everywhere.

    Censorship is inherently wrong. People demand it when it supports their point of view (anything to dump Trump) but can’t seem to understand it will never stop there. As one former ACLU director explained “Speech restrictions are like poison gas. They seem like they’re a great weapon when you’ve got your target in sight. But then the wind shifts.

    Free speech protection covers all the things people want to say, from the furthest left to the furthest right. It’s messy as hell, and it is our essential defense against fascism and control, whether from the left or the right, from the government or from corporate actors.

     
     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Cleaning Up Biden’s Leadership Leftovers in Iraq

    January 9, 2021 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Iraq, Trump

    As Trump leaves office the only president to have not started a new war since WWII, and Joe Biden, who supported so many of America’s wars, including voting for and (vice-) presiding over the second and third Iraq Wars, heads into office, the talk is again what should be the most terrifying words anyone outside the U.S. could hear: American Leadership. Thing is, we haven’t really cleaned up the leftovers from the last bout of such leadership yet.

    President-Elect Biden pulls no punches about how he feels about Trump’s lack of war, saying “Trump has abdicated American leadership in mobilizing collective action to meet new threats. This is the time to tap the strength and audacity that took us to victory in two world wars and brought down the Iron Curtain.”

    ‘Merica, hells yeah! In a 2015 speech SecState-nominee Antony Blinken employed some version of the word “leadership” 16 times. Biden himself wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs titled “Why America Must Lead Again.” Last week, when he introduced his national security nominees, he said that “America is back, ready to lead the world.” Let there be no doubt in foreign policy terms leadership is the happy-talk, bipartisan, and benign euphemism for America First nationalism. And that usually means some sort of war. Biden already has his warriors in place from the Obama years: Bloody Susan Rice, Blinken at State, Lloyd Austin as Secretary of Defense. There will be others filling in the mid ranks as those principals call in their former deputies, who call theirs. Turn the leadership dial up to 11 and burn the house down!

    The problem with America’s leadership spurts is that they are often left uncompleted. They are played for U.S. domestic political consumption and thus appear in four year bursts, and leave behind a mess someone else has to clean up when those politics shift. Worst of all, no one in America seems to ask those nice foreigners overseas who are about to be freed, liberated, encouraged to revolt, or otherwise enlightened by the arrival of the American Empire if they indeed want any leadership today.

    So maybe before spewing out any new leadership, Biden could start by cleaning up some of the leadership he and others left behind. Start with Iraq.

     

    Quick, Jeopardy-style, when did the Iraq War end? Correct answer of course is “What is never.” America wrecked the place from the air in 1991, then invaded by land in 2003. Those American troops mostly left in 2010, then returned in 2014, and loiter like last year’s dropouts in the high school parking lot in unknown but relatively small numbers today. The American Embassy in Iraq, physically still the size of the Vatican and once the largest embassy in the world in diplomatic headcount, sits mostly empty with a security guard-to-diplomat ratio that would embarrass any Twitter warrior.

    You would wish that was all, but the horrors of the Iraq Wars are such that even bodies already buried find their way to the surface. Among the many U.S. atrocities few today know about (Google “Haditha Massacre,” “Mahmudiyah rape,” and if you don’t know what happened there, “Abu Ghraib torture”) loom the Nisour Square murders.
    On a hot as hell September 16, 2007, Blackwater mercenaries hired by the State Department as security killed 17 Iraqi civilians, including two children, and injured 20, in Nisour Square, central Baghdad. The U.S. lied and prevaricated for years, until finally the truth slithered out that none of the Iraqis were armed, the Blackwater guys panicked, and their so-called defensive fire was beyond any legitimate rule of war. The State Department tried to intervene, allowing the defendants to claim State’s own Diplomatic Security officers had offered them on-the-street immunity in return for later recanted testimony (Nisour Square wasn’t the only time State lied to cover for Blackwater.) It took seven full years until four Blackwater employees were convicted in a U.S. court. All four were pardoned by Donald Trump in December 2020.
    “That was years ago” say many of the same Americans willing to connect a police shooting today to the first slaves arriving on this continent in 1619. Though the average American might remember something bad happened with Blackwater, every Iraqi knows what Nisour Square stands for: American invasion, false promises of freedom, arrogant use of power. The same way Vietnamese know My Lai and thousands of other such incidents whose names never made it into the American press. Or perhaps how the remaining scraps of the Lakota people still reference Wounded Knee. No reckoning allowed save the marvelous sleight of hand of America’s fragile memory.
    I’ve been to Nisour Square. It is a giant roundabout, a confusing place made worse by the Iraqi practice of driving with total disregard for traffic laws if not physics and, at the time, the American convoy practice of never slowing and never stopping for any reason. The place smells of diesel fuel and the cheap gas the old Iraqi cars ran off. There’s a perpetual blue-gray haze over the intersection. It is so noisy there most people would not have been aware of the attack, at least until Blackwater started using grenades against civilians.
    At the very beginning of my Iraq tour with the State Department Blackwater provided my security. They were bullies. They grab-assed women. They were sloppy with their weapons. You could practically get a contact high off the steroids they used just by hanging around. Count on them to wear the most expensive sunglasses and the most unnecessary gear (gold man bracelets, tactical hair gel), a bit like Jersey Shore rejects. Aryan and dudely. In my book I called them “a frat house with guns.” It is easy to imagine how it all happened.
    The Trump pardon of Blackwater personnel for their role in the Nisour Square killing was a grotesque mistake Biden will shrug off as if he had nothing to do with it. But the absolute lack of focus on what put those Blackwater killers and their State Department charges in Nisour Square in the first place — the lust to exert some American Leadership and reform the MidEast — assures it will happen again. The rest of the world knew this was all wrong long before Trump. Does Biden?
    Biden’s foreign policy does not start at zero on Day One. All the good American leadership failed to do lingers. Even while the physical infrastructure damage from Iraq War I keeps water and sewage resources to third world standards, the Iranian-installed government which took over after the chaos of War II 2003-2010 remains in power. The anti-ISIS War III campaign of 2014 created tens of thousands of internal refugees in Iraq, mostly Sunnis the majority Shia government blames for ISIS’ initial successes, and many of them are about to die.

    Years after the destruction of ISIS at least one million Sunni civilians remain in government-run displacement camps. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, backed by Tehran, has made shutting the camps a priority. Initial closures have already left more than 100,000 people homeless as winter comes and the pandemic continues.

    The Iraqi government plans to soon close the remaining camps, forcibly return the Sunnis to their villages. It will be a bloodbath. In many cases the places they came from still resemble the ruins of Dresden; there physically are no homes. Other Sunnis already know their Shia neighbors took what property they once held and have nothing to return to. The worst off face retribution for siding with ISIS, or because rumor says they did. Memories are long in the Middle East. Revenge reaches across generations. Blood for blood. The best scenario awaiting a few is to become a permanent underclass in Shia Iraq, ripe for exploitation by whatever Sunni group replaces ISIS which replaced Al Qaeda because across three wars of leadership the U.S. never resolved the underlying core issues in Iraq and just made them worse.

    The Obama-Trump leadership strategy was medieval: kill people until there was no Sunni-supported Islamic State left inside Iraq, then allow the Iranians and Shia Iraqis to do whatever they pleased with the Sunnis in the aftermath, expedience over morality. This was the big takeaway from the Iraq War III of 2014 onward: there would be no political follow-on, no nation building. The United States would pay no mind to internal Iraqi actions. Genocidal-scale events that might have once set American front pages atwitter aren’t even worth a tweet today. Whatever happens in Iraq to the displaced persons, the U.S. is not involved.

    Americans demanded answers when Trump sent refugees back across the border to Mexico to await processing, but remain willfully ignorant of the hundreds of thousands of internal refugees created by American actions left to disappear somehow in Iraq. But in a way perhaps this is hardly worth noting. It is part of the American way of leadership, arriving unwanted in some third world nation with promises to liberate and then leaving when that war turns into an unwanted child. And so our wars leave behind the children, refugees in Iraq and elsewhere, literal unwanted kids from Vietnam. We walk away from the destruction we create, having burned out the jungles in Southeast Asia with Agent Orange and turned functioning countries like Libya, Syria, and Iraq who dare bark at the American Empire into failed states.
    When Joe Biden speaks of the need for American global leadership, perhaps he should first talk to those we have already left behind.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Requiem for the U.S. Department of State, Part II of II

    May 26, 2020 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Embassy/State, NSA

    The Department of State has been adrift for the past handful of administrations, an agency without agency, personnel, or budget, in search of a mission. It is the essential agency which does nothing that matters anymore. As seen in Part I of this article, a number of secretaries of state, from the politically royal to the politically disabled, have failed to impact diplomacy. How did this all happen?

    Traditional diplomacy began as a necessary expedient. Nations had business with one another, but messages could take weeks to travel from one capital to another. Instead, ambassadors were sent out, empowered in the case of the U.S. as the President’s personal representative to speak in his name with the full force of the United States. Heady stuff. Messages back to Washington would report final results, such Ben Franklin letting the boys at home know he’d knocked out a treaty with France against Great Britain so we might win the Revolution after all. Hundreds of year later communications improved to the point where world leaders can now text each other, but those ambassadors and embassies remain as if Ben was still out there.

    Leaders came and went. For every Abraham Lincoln there were a lot of Millard Fillmore’s and Taylor’s (John and Zach) who mattered little. With exceptions along the way (FDR stand outs), presidents did not conduct first-name diplomacy or tie themselves up with the details of foreign affairs. They had secretaries of state for that. Everything shifted under Richard Nixon, whose interest in first-person diplomacy with China and reluctant ownership of the Vietnam War sent the State Department into a supporting role.

    The change began under Nixon. Events both internal and external to the U.S., its State Department, and the world, did the rest.

     

    A Rubik’s Cube, Not a Chessboard

    The world has changed even as the State Department is still largely configured for the early 20th century. State’s primary organizational unit is the nation-state, and so it divides itself into the “China Desk” or the “Argentina Desk.” Inside that unit, it is assumed the host country has a government that works more or less like ours, with a Foreign Ministry, some rational system of sending policies up to the leader, in most cases some sort of press, that kind of thing. So inside the country desk State organizes fiefdoms along subunits of Political, Economic, Press, and Trade. New diplomats arrive in foreign capitals to go off in search of their one-to-one counterparts. Everyone at Foggy Bottom assumes the basic framework applies from Albania to Zimbabwe. Over the years State has created regional divisions (East Asia) and topical divisions (Science and Tech) but overlaid these across the geographic divisions so that ideas skitter sideways and up and down simultaneously. The result is usually paralysis when it is not confusion. The problem is not determining who is in charge per se, but that 10-12 people all think they are in charge.

    The days of seeing the world as a chessboard are over. It’s now closer to a Rubik’s Cube that Washington can’t figure out how to manipulate. In many cases no one in State can get to the policy task itself, busy as they are arguing over who has the lead on some issue. In most cases senior decision makers elsewhere in Washington leave State to its internal fussing and seek guidance elsewhere — CIA, NSC, the Pentagon.

    No one outside of official Washington can appreciate how much 9/11 altered the way the U.S. Government thinks about itself. The shock changed the posture of the government from one of at times satisfied with passivity in its more distant foreign affairs to one demanding constant action. Presidents from that day forward would probably have preferred each Federal worker go out and strangle a terrorist personally, but if that was not possible everyone was to find a way to go to war. State never really has.

    Things change slowly if at all. State has no tanks or battleships, just people as its primary way of getting things done. In 1950 State had 7,710 foreign service officers. Pre-9/11 they had 7,158. Today it’s still only about 8,000.

     

    Growing Sophistication of Foreign Actors

    The traditional image of the older gentleman from the embassy meeting with the local king is for the movies. Foreign actors have gotten much more sophisticated in their ability to demand VIPs to fly in to finalize deals, and in playing local staff off against the real decision makers scattered throughout Washington. Those foreign actors understand today State is less than a one-stop portal into the USG and more of just one player to manipulate alongside others.

    In almost every nation, smaller bureaucracies allow easier bundling/unbundling of issues, something which befuddles State — Country X says if you want that naval base you have to cut American tariffs on cinnamon imports. State throws up its hands, paralyzed, knowing their real diplomacy will involve the Pentagon and whoever the hell does spice tariffs in what, Treasury? Commerce? Senator Johnson’s office, whose district controls most cinnamon packaging? The other side is scheming clever demands while State organizes Zoom calls. The joke inside the Department is deals abroad fail on diplomatic efforts inside the Beltway.

    Similarly, in most places abroad the U.S. has three centers of representation who vie for the authority of the United States, and are played off one another by smart foreigners. The Department of Defense maintains relationships with foreign militaries. The intelligence community does the same with host country spies and cops. State tries with everyone left over. Depending on the country, the civilians State interfaces with may matter little in a power structure dominated by say the army, or the local version of the CIA. That renders the American ambassador second place on his own team, never mind in the eyes of the locals. That ambassador may not even know what his own country’s military or spies are up to, leading to naughty surprises and the loss of credibility as a hollow figurehead.

     

    Militarization

    Negotiating in Iraq with a minor tribal leader for safe passage, he asked me as the State Department representative how many goats I was offering. About five seconds into my response on the need for lasting friendships, an U.S. Army major cut me off saying “I can get goats” and I no longer mattered to the negotiation, the war, maybe the 21st century itself.

    It is all about resources. The military has more people, more hardware, and more cash. From Great Britain to some valley in Garbagestan the military can offer new friends shiny tools (Section 1206 funding: for the first time since President Kennedy signed the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, President George W. Bush allowed that the U.S. military would fund many weapons transfers directly from its own accounts, bypassing the State Department. Conspicuously absent from the debate over Section 1206 was Condoleezza Rice, America’s then Secretary of State.) State meanwhile needs a couple of days to arrange transportation to the meeting.

    Stephen Glain’s State vs. Defense: The Battle to Define America’s Empire is a sober biography of the Department since World War II. The choice of word — biography — is significant, in that traces the decline in old age of State as America’s foreign policy is increasingly made and carried out by the Pentagon. In particular Glain understands the military is organized for the new world order.

    “The yawning asymmetry is fueled by more than budgets and resources (though the Pentagon-State spending ration is 12:1), however. Unlike ambassadors, whose responsibility is confined to a single country or city-state, the writ of a combatant commander is hemispheric in scope. His authority covers some of the world’s most strategic resources and waterways and he has some of the most talented people in the federal government working for him. While his civilian counterpart is mired in such parochial concerns as bilateral trade disputes and visa matters, a combatant commander’s horizon is unlimited. ‘When we spoke, we had more clout,’ according to Anthony Zinni. ‘There’s a mismatch in our stature. Ambassadors don’t have regional perspectives. You see the interdependence and interaction in the region when you have regional responsibility. If you’re in a given country, you don’t see beyond its borders because that is not your mission.’”

    Adding to the problem is about a third of State’s ambassadors are political appointees, amateurs selected mostly because they raised big campaign bucks for the president. The United States is the only first world nation that allots ambassador jobs as political patronage.

     

    Self-Destruction

    State’s once-valued competitive advantage was its from-the-ground reporting. Even there the intelligence community has eaten State’s sandwiches with the crusts cut off — why hear what some FSO thinks the Prime Minister will do when the NSA can provide the White House with real time audio of him explaining it in bed to his mistress? The uber revelation from the 2010 Wikileaks dump of documents was most of State’s reporting is of little practical value. State struggled through the Manning trial to show actual harm was done by the disclosures. Some 10 years later there hasn’t even been a good book written from them.

    Under the Trump administration the State Department has seemingly sought out opportunities to sideline itself, now and in the future. Even before the 2016 election results were in, diplomats leaked a dissent memo calling for more U.S. intervention in Syria, a move opposed by Trump. Soon after Rex Tillerson took office, his diplomats leaked another memo very close to insubordination opposing the State Department’s role in Trump’s immigration plans. In yet another dissent memo, Foggy Bottom’s denizens claimed their boss violated a child soldier law. FYI: Nothing substantive came of any of those leaks/memos.

    Everyone in the current White House knows how many scandals of the last few years have criss-crossed the State Department: slow-walking the release of Hillary Clinton’s emails (after helping hide the existence of her private server for years), turning a blind eye to Clinton’s nepotism hiring her campaign aides as State employees (remember Huma?), the Foundation shenanigans, the crazy sorrow of Benghazi remembered, the Steele Dossier and many things Russiagate and Ukraine. Most of the impeachment witnesses were from the State Department, including one who claimed to surreptitiously listen in on phone calls with his political appointee ambassador to tell all later to Congress. That’s an awful lot of partisanship woven into an organization which is supposed to be about being non-partisan.

    Nobody trusts a snitch, Democrat or Republican. What White House staffer of any party will interact openly with his tattletale diplomats, knowing they are saving his texts and listening in on his calls, waiting? Hey, in your high school, did anyone want to have the kids who lived to be hall monitors and teacher’s pet as their lunch buddies?

     

    America’s Concierge Abroad

    What’s left is what we have, the State Department transitioned to America’s concierge abroad. It’s relevancy to top-tier foreign policy is questionable, and its work now mostly logistical. Embassies are great bases for intel work, military offices, the occasional evacuation, to grind out some visas, and for ceremonial events. Someone has to be out there to arrange VIP visits and tidy up local issues. For me, while stationed in the UK, I escorted so many Mrs. Important Somebody’s on semi-official shopping trips I was snarkily labeled “Ambassador to Harrod’s Department Store” by my colleagues. In Japan I found out my duties included re-authorizing radio certificates for American seamen under an early 20th century treaty.

    One of The Blob’s greatest accomplishments has been to convince a large number of Americans everything pre-Trump was normal and everything since is extraordinary. That sets up the idea that extraordinary means are needed to deal with unique threats, and that sets up throwing away the rules because ends justify the means. Meh. The work known as diplomacy otherwise continues in some sort, albeit done by people outside the Department of State. Future presidents will need to change that, or, if history serves, live comfortably with it.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Looking for Jim Jones Amid COVID-19

    March 30, 2020 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: 2020, Economy, Embassy/State, Post-Constitution America, Trump


     
    I’m not worried about the guy coughing next to me. I’m worried about the ones who seem to be looking for Jim Jones.
     
    Jim Jones was the charismatic founder of the cult-like People’s Temple. Through fear-based control, Jones took his followers’ money and ran their lives. He isolated them in Guyana, where Jones convinced over 900 followers to commit suicide by drinking cyanide-laced grape Kool Aid. Frightened people can be made to do literally anything. They just need a Jim Jones.
     
    So it is more than a little scary Never Trumper and MSM zampolit Rick Wilson wrote Twitter to his 753k Twitter followers “People who sank into their fear of Trump, who defended every outrage, who put him before what they knew was right, and pretended this chaos and corruption was a glorious new age will pay a terrible price. They deserve it.” The Tweet was liked over 82,000 times.

    The NYT claims “the specter of death speeds across the globe, ‘Appointment in Samarra’-style, ever faster, culling the most vulnerable.” Others are claiming Trump will cancel the election to rule as a Jim Jones. “Every viewer who trusts the words of Earhardt or Hannity or Regan could well become a walking, breathing, droplet-spewing threat to the public,” opined the Washington Post, which suggested they should be placed on hiatus. And the rest of you, drink the damn Kool Aid and join in the panic enroute to Guyana.

    In the grocery store in Manhattan just after the announcement of the national state of emergency was pure panic buying. I saw a fight broke out in one aisle after an employee brought out a carton of paper towels to restock the shelf and someone grabbed the whole carton for themselves. The police were called. One cop had to stay behind to oversee the lines at the registers and maintain order. To their credit the NYPD were cool about it. I heard them talk down one of the fighters  saying “You wanna go to jail over Fruit Loops? Get a hold of yourself.” Outside New York, sales of weapons and ammunition spiked.

    Panic seems to be something we turn on and off, or moderate in different ways. Understanding that helps reveal what is really going on.

    No need for history. Right now, in real time, behind the backs of the coronavirus, is the every-year plain old influenza. Some 12,000 people have died, with over 13 million infected from influenza just between October 2019 and February 2020. The death toll is screamingly higher (as this is printed corona has killed just 69 Americans.) One does not hear much about that. Why?
     
    Bluntly: more people have already died of influenza in the U.S. than from coronavirus in China, Iran, and Italy combined. Double in fact. To be even more blunt, no one really cares even though a large number of people are already dead. Why?
     
    The first cases of the swine flu, H1N1, appeared in April 2009. By the time Obama finally declared a national emergency seven months later, the CDC reported 50 million Americans, one in six people, had been infected and 10,000 Americans had died. In the early months Obama had no HHS secretary or appointees in the department’s 19 key posts. No commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, no surgeon general, no CDC director. The vacancy at the CDC was especially important because in the early days of the crisis only they could test for the virus; states weren’t allowed until later (sound familiar?) The politically-appointed DHS secretary, not a medical doctor, led the federal effort. Some 66 percent of Americans thought the president was protecting them. There was no panic. Why?

    Of course Trump isn’t Obama. But if you really think it is that black and white, that one man makes that much difference in the multi-leveled response of the vast federal government to a health crises you don’t know much about the federal bureaucracy. In fact, most of the people who handled the swine flu are now working the coronavirus, from rank and file at CDC, HHS, and DHS to headliners like Drs. Andrew Fauci (in government since 1968, worked Obama-ebola) and Deborah Brix (in government since 1985, prior to her current role with Trump-corona was an Obama-AIDS appointee.)

    Maybe the most salient example is the aftermath of 9/11. Those who lived through it remember it well, the color threat alerts, the sneaky Muslims lurking everywhere, the sense of learned/taught helplessness. The enemy could be anywhere, everywhere, and we had no way to fight back. We panicked like never before. But because the Dems and Repubs were saying basically the same thing, there was a camaraderie to it (lead by Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg, where are they now?), not discord. But the panic was still very real. Why?
     
    Why? We panicked when people took steps to ensure we would. We were kept calm when there was nothing to gain by spurring us to panic (the swine flu struck in the midst of the housing crisis, there was enough to worry about and it could all be blamed on the previous administration.) The aftermath of 9/11 is especially clarifying. A fearful populus not only supported everything the government wanted to do, they demanded it. Nearly everyone cheered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and not believing the government meant you were on their side, either with “us” or against us. The Patriot Act, which did away with whole swaths of the Bill of Rights, was overwhelmingly supported. There was no debate over torture, offshore penal colonies, targeted assassinations, kidnappings, and all the other little horrors. The American people counted that as competent leadership and re-elected George W, Bush in the midst. Fear and panic were political currency.

    Jump to 2020. Need an example of how to manipulate panic? Following fears of a liquid bomb, for years after 9/11 TSA limited carry-on liquids to four ounce bottles. Can’t be too careful! Yet because of corona they just changed the limit for hand sanitizer only (which with its alcohol content is actually flammable, as opposed to say shampoo) to 12 ounces. Security theatre closed down alongside Broadway tonight.

    False metrics are also manipulative because they make fear seem scientific. We ignore the low death rate and focus on the number of tests done. But whatever we do will never be enough, never can be enough, the same way any post-disaster aid is never delivered quick enough because the testing is not (just) about discovering the extent of the virus. For those with naughty motives, it is about creating a race we can’t win, so testing becomes proof of failure. Think about the reality of “everyone who wants one should get a test.” The U.S. has 331 million people. Testing 10 percent of them in seven days means 4,714,285 individuals a day for seven consecutive days while the other 90 percent of the population holds their breath. Testing on demand is not realistic at this scale. Selective decision-based testing is what will work.

    South Korea, held up as the master of mass testing, conducted at its peak about 20,000 a day. Only four percent were positive, a lot of effort for a little reassurance. Tests are valuable to pinpoint the need for social distancing but blunt tools like mass social distancing (see China) also work. Tests do not cure the virus. You can hide the number of infections by not testing (or claim so to spur fear), but very sick people make themselves known at hospitals and actual dead bodies are hard to ignore. Tests get the press, but actual morbidity is the clearest data point.
     
    There will be time for after-action reviews and arguments over responsibility. That time is never in the midst of things, and one should question the motives of journalists who use rare access to the president to ask questions meant largely to undermine confidence. If they succeed, we will soon turn on each other. You voted for him, that’s why we’re here now. Vote for Bernie and Trump wins and we all literally die. You bought the last toilet paper. You can afford treatment I can’t. You’re safe working from home while I have to go out. Just wait until the long-standing concept of medical triage is repackaged by the media as “privilege” and hell breaks loose in the ERs. We could end up killing each other long even as the virus fades.

    At the very least we will have been conditioned to new precedents of control over personal decisions, civil life, freedom of movement and assembly, whole city lock-downs, education, public information, and an increasing role for government and the military in health care. More control by authorities over our lives? Yes, please! Gee, it’s almost as if someone is taking advantage of our fears for their own profits and self-interest. Teachers who just digitized their classes at no cost to their employers and created the online infrastructure to eliminate classrooms, don’t be surprised if less of you, and fewer actual classrooms, are needed in the virus-free future.
     
    There are many reasons to take prudent action and not downplay the virus. There are no good reasons for fear and panic. The fear being promoted has no rational basis compared to regular influenza and the swine flu of 2009. We have a terrifying example in 9/11 of how easily manipulated fearful people are. Remaining calm and helping others do so is a big part of what your contribution to the disaster relief is going to be. As John Kennedy said, “We cannot expect that everyone will talk sense to the American people. But we can hope that fewer people will listen to nonsense.”
     
    That’s one way to see this. Too many right now however seem to be looking for Jim Jones.
      

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Russiagate: “Why did this ever start in the first place?”

    March 30, 2019 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Trump


     
     

    The end of the Special Counsel’s investigation into the non-existent conspiracy between Trump and the Russians has created an army of “Mueller Truthers,” demanding additional investigations. But Republicans are also demanding to know more, specifically how the FBI came to look into collusion, and what that tells us about the tension between America’s political and intelligence worlds. In Rudy Giuliani’s words “Why did this ever start in the first place?”

    The primordial ooze for all things Russia began in spring 2016 when the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee, through a company called Fusion GPS, hired former MI6 intelligence agent Christopher Steele to compile a report (“the dossier”) on whatever ties to Russia he could find for Donald Trump.

    Steele’s assignment was not to investigate impartially, but to gather dirt aggressively – opposition research, or oppo. He assembled second and third hand stories, then used anonymous sources and Internet chum to purported reveal Trump people roaming about Europe asking various Russians for help, promising sanctions relief, and trading influence for financial deals. Steele also claimed the existence of a “pee tape,” kompromat Putin used to control Trump.

    Creating the dossier was only half of Steele’s assignment. The real work was to insert the dossier into American media and intelligence organizations to prevent Trump from winning the election. While only a so-so fiction writer, Steele proved to be a master at running his information op against America.

    In July 2016 Steele met with over a dozen reporters to promote his dossier, with little success. It could not be corroborated. Steele succeeded mightily, however, in pushing his information deep into the FBI via three simultaneous channels, including the State Department, and via Senator John McCain, who was pitched by a former British ambassador retired to work now for Christopher Steele’s own firm.

    But the most productive channel into the FBI was Department of Justice official Bruce Ohr. Ohr’s wife Nellie worked for Fusion GPS, the front company for Steele, having previously done contract work for the CIA. Nellie passed the dossier to her husband, along with her own paid oppo research, so that he could use his credibility at DOJ to hand-carry the work into the FBI. Bruce Ohr, despite acknowledging it broke all rules of protocol and evidence handling, did just that on July 30, 2016. He stressed to then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe the material was uncorroborated and had been compiled by Christopher Steele, who wanted it used to stop Trump.

    The dossier landed in welcoming hands. The FBI immediately opened an unprecedented investigation called Crossfire Hurricane into the Trump campaign. It sent agents to London to meet Australian ambassador Alexander Downer, who claimed to have evidence George Papadopoulos, one of Trump’s junior-level advisers, was talking to Russians about Hillary’s emails. The FBI’s timing of the new investigation into Trump – only days after they closed their investigation into Clinton’s email server – can be considered a coincidence by those of good heart.

    Peter Strzok, the senior FBI agent managing the Crossfire Hurricane investigation, and Lisa Page, a lawyer on his team (the two were also lovers), purposefully kept investigation details from political appointees at DOJ to the extent that only five people actually knew the full measure of what was going on, ostensibly to prevent leaks.

    In fact, the point seems to have been to avoid oversight, given how weak the evidence was supporting something as grave as the Republican nominee committing treason. If you are looking behind the headlines for why Trump fired Andrew McCabe, besides his personal sympathies for Hillary, look there. Strzok and Page appear to have had an agenda of their own. In a text they wrote “Page: ‘[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Strzok: ‘No. No he’s not. We’ll stop it.’”

    With a wave of a hand the dossier the FBI was warned was partisan bunk was transformed into evidence. Steele himself morphed from paid opposition researcher to paid clandestine source for the FBI, with the fact that he had recently retired from a foreign intelligence service, British or not, ignored. It was all just an excuse anyway to unleash the vast intelligence machine against Trump, the imagined Manchurian Candidate.

    Papadopoulos, the man in London, as a linchpin was also preposterous. He was a kid on the edges of the campaign, who “bumped into” a shady Russian professor who just happened to dangle the most explosive thing ever, Hillary’s emails. Papadopoulos then met the Aussie ambassador to Britain, Alex Downer. Papadopoulos gets drunk, tells the tale, which then falls whole into the FBI’s lap. Ambassador Downer, by the way, had previously arranged a $25 million donation to the Clinton Foundation. Papadopoulos was introduced to Downer by an Australian intelligence agent who knew him through her boyfriend, stationed at the Israeli embassy as a “political officer.”

    Carter Page’s case was more of the same. Page, as a key actor in the Steele dossier, wold serve as an early excuse to get FISA surveillance eyes and ears on the Trump campaign. The FBI had a paid CIA asset, University of Cambridge professor and American citizen Stefan A. Halper, contact Page and dangle questions about access to Clinton emails.

    Halper had earlier been trying separately to entrap Papadopoulos (the professor offered the inexperienced campaign aide $3,000 and an all-expenses-paid trip to London to write a white paper about energy), and also met with Trump campaign co-chair Sam Clovis in late August, offering his services as an adviser. Clovis declined. Ultimately both Papadopoulos and Page also rebuffed Halper, though both would later encounter a young woman in London claiming to be Halper’s assistant who tried to reinterest the boys.

    Though to obtain multiple FISA warrants the FBI characterized him as an “agent of a foreign power,” Carter Page was never charged with anything. Halper dropped off the media’s radar, but is almost certainly a U.S. intelligence asset. He had earlier worked with British intelligence to pay for Michael Flynn to visit the UK. Halper’s main U.S.-based funding source is an internal Pentagon think tank. The Washington Post reported Halper had in the past worked for CIA directly. Halper was implicated in a 1980s spying scandal in which CIA officials gave inside information on the Carter administration to the GOP. Halper also married into a senior CIA official’s family.

    It is clear the FBI was desperately trying to infiltrate Halper into the Trump campaign as part of a full-blown intel op, recruiting against Trump’s vulnerable junior staff. Even though the recruitment failed, the bits and pieces learned in the process were good enough for government work. At issue was that Steele’s dossier formed a key argument in favor of a FISA warrant to spy on Trump personnel. The dossier was corroborated in part in the warrant application by citing news reports that later turned out to be themselves based on the Steele dossier. In intelligence work, this is known as cross-contamination, a risky amateur error the FBI seems to have taken a chance on hoping the FISA judge would not know enough to question it. The gamble worked.

    The FBI needed something as backup, so their investigation into Trump, now focused on the FISA surveillance, could be said not to have rested entirely on the dubious Steele dossier. Surveillance, intended and incidental, would eventually include Jeff Sessions, Steve Bannon, Carter Page, Paul Manafort, Richard Gates, Michael Cohen, and likely Trump himself.

    Had Hillary won the story would have ended there, in fact, likely would never have come to light. But with Trump’s victory, the dossier had one more job to do: prep the public for all to come.

    There has been no discussion as to why, in possession of information the FBI seemed to believe showed the Russians were running a global full-court press to themselves recruit inside Trump’s inner circle, Trump was never offered a defensive briefing. Such a warning – hey, you are in danger – is common inside government. But in Trump’s case it never happened. Instead, in echo of the dark Hoover years, the FBI used its information to try and take down Trump, not protect him.

    Though the dossier had already been widely shared inside the media, the State Department, and the intelligence community, it was only on January 6, 2017 Comey briefed it to president-elect Trump. No one really knows what was said in that meeting, but we do know after holding the dossier since summer 2016, only four days after the Trump-Comey meeting Buzzfeed published the document and the world learned about the pee tape. Many believe someone in the intel community gave “permission” to the media, signaling Brennan, Clapper, Hayden, et al, would begin making public statements the dossier “could be true.”

    John Brennan was a regular on television and other media claiming over two years there was evidence of contacts between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, pimping off his time as CIA director to suggest he had inside information. He went as far as testifying before Congress in May 2017 that there was evidence of contacts between Russian officials and Trump campaign figures, though now says he might have been given “bad information.”

    After that, no item that could link the words Trump and Russia was too small to add to the pile of pseudo-evidence.

    It would be easy to dismiss all this as a wacky conspiracy theory if it wasn’t in fact the counter-explanation to the even wackier, disproved theory Donald Trump was a Russian asset. It is possible to see Russiagate as a political assassination attempt, using law enforcement as the weapon. Someone might do well to double-check if Christopher Steele was in Dealey Plaza during the Kennedy assassination.

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  • John Kerry Is a Man of His Times (and That’s Not a Good Thing)

    January 31, 2019 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria


     

    Oh how easy it is to forget! John Kerry, fundraising for the 2020 Dems, write “Trump’s complete disregard for diplomacy has embarrassed our nation on the world stage” and “weakened the very foundation of our democracy.”

    Poor John Kerry doesn’t remember much about his own record. So, John, here’s something I wrote in 2013 to refresh your memory of what a hash you made of the world, including singing “Happy Birthday” to Vlad Putin during a USG shutdown.

    This one’s, again, for you, Johnny boyo!

     

    In the 1960s, John Kerry was distinctly a man of his times. Kennedy-esque, he went from Yale to Vietnam to fight in a lost war. When popular sentiments on that war shifted, he became one of the more poignant voices raised in protest by antiwar veterans. Now, skip past his time as a congressman, lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, senator, and presidential candidate (Swift Boated out of the race by the Republican right). Four decades after his Vietnam experience, he has achieved what will undoubtedly be the highest post of his lifetime: secretary of state. And he’s looked like a bumbler first class.  Has he also been — once again — a true man of his time, of a moment in which American foreign policy, as well as its claim to global moral and diplomatic leadership, is in remarkable disarray?

    In his nine months in office, Kerry’s State Department has one striking accomplishment to its name. It has achieved a new level of media savvy in promoting itself and plugging its highest official as a rock star, a world leader in his own right (complete with photo-ops and sophisticated image-making). In the meantime, the secretary of state has been stumbling and bloviating from one crisis to the next, one debacle to another, surrounded by the well-crafted imagery of diplomatic effectiveness. He and his errant statements have become global punch lines, but is he truly to blame for his performance?

    If statistics were diplomacy, Kerry would already be a raging success. At the State Department, his global travels are now proudly tracked by the mile, by minutes flown, and by countries visited. State even has a near-real-time ticker page set up at its website with his ever-changing data. In only nine months in office, Kerry has racked up 222,512 miles and a staggering 482.39 hours in the air (or nearly three weeks total). The numbers will be going up as Kerry is currently taking a 10-day trip to deal with another NSA crisis, in Poland this time, as well as the usual hijinks in the Middle East.  His predecessor, Hillary Clinton, set a number of diplomatic travel records. In fact, she spent literally a full year, one quarter of her four years in office, hopscotching the globe. By comparison, Cold War Secretary of State George Schultz managed less than a year of travel time in his six years in office.

    Kerry’s quick start in racking up travel miles is the most impressive aspect of his tenure so far, given that it’s been accompanied by record foreign policy stumbles and bumbles. With the thought that frenetic activity is being passed off as diplomacy and accomplishment, let’s do a little continent hopping ourselves, surveying the diplomatic and foreign policy terrain the secretary’s visited. So, fasten your seatbelt, we’re on our way!

    We’ll Be Landing in Just a Few Minutes… in Asia

    Despite Asia’s economic importance, its myriad potential flashpoints, and the crucial question of how the Sino-American relationship will evolve, Kerry has managed to visit the region just once on a largely ceremonial basis.

    Diplomatically speaking, the Obama administration’s much ballyhooed “pivot to Asia” seems to have run out of gas almost before it began and with little to show except some odd photos of the secretary of state looking like Fred Munster in Balinese dress at the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference. With President Obama then trapped in Washington by the shutdown/debt-ceiling crisis, Kerry seemed like a bystander at APEC, with China the dominant presence. He was even forced to suffer through a Happy Birthday sing-along for Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the meantime, the economy of Washington’s major ally, Japan, remains sleepy, even as opposition to the U.S.-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade pact grows and North Korea continues to expand its nuclear program seemingly unaffected by threats from Washington.

    All in all, it’s not exactly an impressive picture, but rest assured that it’ll look as fetching as a bright spring day, once we hit our next stop. In fact, ladies and gentlemen, the pilot now asks that you all return to your seats, because we will soon be landing…

    … in the Middle East

    If any area of the world lacks a single bright spot for the U.S., it’s the Middle East. The problems, of course, extend back many years and many administrations. Kerry is a relative newcomer. Still, he’s made seven of his 15 overseas trips there, with zero signs of progress on the American agenda in the region, and much that has only worsened.

    The sole pluses came from diplomatic activity initiated by powers not exactly considered Washington’s closest buddies: Russian President Putin’s moves in relation to Syria (on which more later) and new Iranian President Rouhani’s “charm offensive” in New York, which seems to have altered for the better the relationship between the two countries. In fact, both Putin’s and Rouhani’s moves are classic, well-played diplomacy, and only serve to highlight the amateurish quality of Kerry’s performance. On the other hand, the Obama administration’s major Middle East commitment — to peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians — seems destined for a graveyard already piled high with past versions of the same.

    Meanwhile, whatever spark remained of the Arab Spring in Egypt was snuffed out by a military coup, while the U.S. lamely took forever just to begin to cut off some symbolic military aid to the new government. American credibility in the region suffered further damage after State, in a seeming panic, closed embassies across the Middle East in response to a reputed major terror threat that failed to materialize anywhere but inside Washington’s Beltway.

    Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia was once nicknamed “Bandar Bush” for his strong support of the U.S. during the 1991 Desert Storm campaign and the Bush dynasty.  He recently told European diplomats, however, that the Kingdom will launch a “major shift” in relations with the United States to protest Washington’s perceived inaction over the Syria war and its overtures to Iran. The Saudis were once considered, next to Israel, America’s strongest ally in the region. Kerry’s response? Fly to Paris for some “urgent talks.”

    Meanwhile, the secretary of state has made no effort to draw down his fortress embassy in Baghdad, despite its “world’s largest” personnel count in a country where an American invasion and nine-year occupation resulted in a pro-Iranian government. Memories in the region aren’t as short as at the State Department, however, and Iraqis are unlikely to forget that sanctions, the U.S. invasion, and its aftermath resulted in the deaths of an estimated 4% of their country’s population. Kerry would be quick to condemn such a figure as genocidal had the Iranians or North Koreans been involved, but he remains silent now.

    State doesn’t include Turkey in Kerry’s impressive Middle Eastern trip count, though he’s traveled there three times, with (again) little to show for his efforts. That NATO ally, which refused to help the Bush administration with its invasion of Iraq, continues to fight a border war with Iraqi Kurds. (Both sides do utilize mainly American-made weapons.) The Turks are active in Syria as well, supporting the rebels, fearing the Islamic extremists, lobbing mortar shells across the border, and suffering under the weight of that devastated country’s refugees. Meanwhile — a small regional disaster from a U.S. perspective — Turkish-Israeli relations, once close, continue to slide. Recently, the Turks even outed a Mossad spy ring to the Iranians, and no one, Israelis, Turks, or otherwise, seems to be listening to Washington.

    Now, please return your tray tables to their upright and locked position, as we make our final approach to…

    … Everywhere Else

    Following more than 12 years of war with thousands of lives lost, Kerry was recently reduced to begging Afghanistan’s corrupt president, Hamid Karzai, to allow a mini-occupation’s worth of American troops to remain in-country past a scheduled 2014 tail-tucked departure by U.S. combat troops. (Kerry’s trip to Afghanistan had to be of the unannounced variety, given the security situation there.) Pakistan, sporting only a single Kerry visit, flaunts its ties to the Taliban while collecting U.S. aid. As they say, if you don’t know who the patsy is at a poker game, it’s you.

    Relations with the next generation of developing nations, especially Brazil and India, are either stagnant or increasingly hostile, thanks in part to revelations of massive NSA spying. Brazil is even hosting an international summit to brainstorm ways to combat that agency’s Internet surveillance. Even stalwart Mexico is now lashing out at Washington over NSA surveillance.

    After a flurry of empty threats, a spiteful passport revocation by Kerry’s State Department, a bungled extradition attempt in Hong Kong, and a diplomatic fiasco in which Washington forced the Bolivian president’s airplane to land in Austria for a search, Public Enemy Number One Edward Snowden is settling into life in Moscow. He’s even receiving fellow American whistleblowers as guests. Public Enemy Number Two, Julian Assange, continues to run WikiLeaks out of the Ecuadoran embassy in London. One could argue that either of the two men have had more direct influence on America’s status abroad than Kerry.

    Now, please return to your seats, fasten your seat belts, and consider ordering a stiff drink. We’ve got some bumpy air up ahead as we’re…

    … Entering Syrian Airspace

    The final leg of this flight is Syria, which might be thought of as Kerry’s single, inadvertent diplomatic accomplishment (even if he never actually traveled there.)

    Not long before the U.S. government half-shuttered itself for lack of funds, John Kerry was point man for the administration’s all-out efforts to attack Syria. It was, he insisted, “not the time to be silent spectators to slaughter.” That statement came as he was announcing the recruitment of France to join an impending U.S. assault on military facilities in and around the Syrian capital, Damascus. Kerry also vociferously beat the drums for war at a hearing held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

    His war diplomacy, however, quickly hit some major turbulence, as the British parliament, not eager to repeat its Iraq and Afghan misadventures, voted the once inconceivable — a straightforward, resounding no to joining yet another misguided American battle plan. France was soon backing out as well, even as Kerry clumsily tried to soften resistance to the administration’s urge to launch strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime with the bizarre claim that such an attack would be “unbelievably small.” (Kerry’s boss, President Obama, forcefully contradicted him the next day, insisting, “The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.”)

    Kerry had his moment of triumph, however, on a quick stop in London, where he famously and offhandedly said at a news conference that war could be avoided if the Syrians turned in their chemical weapons. Kerry’s own State Department issued an instant rejoinder, claiming the statement had been “rhetorical.” In practically the same heartbeat, the Russians stepped into the diplomatic breach. Unable to walk his statement back, Kerry was humiliatingly forced to explain that his once-rhetorical remark was not rhetorical after all. Vladimir Putin then arose as an unlikely peacemaker and yes, Kerry took another trip, this time to “negotiate” the details with the Russians, which seems largely to have consisted of jotting down Russian terms of surrender to cable back to Washington.

    His “triumph” in hand, Kerry still wasn’t done. On September 19th, on a rare stopover in Washington, he claimed a U.N. report on Syria’s chemical weapons stated that the Assad regime was behind the chemical attack that had set the whole process in motion. (The report actually said that there was not enough evidence to assign guilt to any party.) Then, on October 7th, he effusively praised the Syrian president (from Bali) for his cooperation, only on October 14th to demand (from London) that a “transition government, a new governing entity” be put in place in Syria “in order to permit the possibility of peace.”

    But, But…

    As for Kerry’s nine-month performance review, here goes: he often seems unsure and distracted, projecting a sense that he might prefer to be anywhere else than wherever he is. In addition, he’s displayed a policy-crippling lack of information, remarkably little poise, and strikingly bad word choice, while regularly voicing surprising new positions on old issues. The logical conclusion might be to call for his instant resignation before more damage is done. (God help us, some Democratic voters may actually find themselves secretly wondering whether the country dodged a bullet in 2004 when George W. Bush won his dismal second term in office.)

    In his nine months as secretary of state, Kerry, the man, has shown a genuine capacity for mediocrity and an almost tragicomic haplessness. But blaming him would be like shouting at the waiter because your steak is undercooked.

    Whatever his failings, John Kerry is only a symptom of Washington’s lack of a coherent foreign policy or sense of mission. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has been adrift, as big and dangerous as an iceberg but something closer to the Titanic. President Bush, the father, and President Clinton, the husband, had at least some sense of when not to overdo it. They kept their foreign interventions to relatively neat packages, perhaps recognizing that they had ever less idea what the script was anymore.

    Waking up on that clear morning of September 12, 2001, the administration of Bush, the son, substituted a crude lashing out and an urge for total domination of the Greater Middle East, and ultimately the planet, for foreign policy. Without hesitation, it claimed the world as its battlefield and then deployed the Army, the Marines, the Navy, the Air Force, growing Special Operations forces, paramilitarized intelligence outfits, and drone technology to make it so. They proved to be good killers, but someone seemed to forget that war is politics by other means. Without a thought-out political strategy behind it, war is simply violent chaos unleashed.

    Diplomacy had little role in such a black-and-white world. No time was to be wasted talking to other countries: you were either with us or against us. Even our few remaining friends and allies had a hard time keeping up, as Washington promoted torture, sent the CIA out to kidnap people off the streets of global cities, and set up its own gulag with Guantanamo as its crown jewel. And of course, none of it worked.

    Then, the hope and change Americans thought they’d voted into power in 2008 only made the situation worse. The Obama administration substituted directionless-ness for idiotic decisiveness, and visionless-ness for the global planning of mad visionaries, albeit with much the same result: spasmodic violence. The United States, after all, remains the biggest kid on the block, and still gets a modicum of respect from the tiny tots and the teens who remember better days, as well as a shrinking crew of aid-bought pals.

    The days of the United States being able to treat the world as its chessboard are over. It’s now closer to a Rubik’s Cube that Washington can’t figure out how to manipulate. Across the globe, people noted how the World’s Mightiest Army was fought to a draw (or worse) in Iraq and Afghanistan by insurgents with only small arms, roadside bombs, and suicide bombers.

    Increasingly, the world is acknowledging America’s Kerry-style clunkiness and just bypassing the U.S. Britain said no to war in Syria. Russia took over big-box diplomacy. China assumed the pivot role in Asia in every way except militarily. (They’re working on it.) The Brazilian president simply snubbed Obama, canceling a state visit over Snowden’s NSA revelations. Tiny Ecuador continues to raise a middle finger to Washington over the Assange case. These days, one can almost imagine John Kerry as the wallflower of some near-future international conference, hoping someone – anyone — will invite him to dance.

    The American Century might be said to have lasted from August 1945 until September 2001, a relatively short span of 56 years. (R.I.P.) John Kerry’s frantic bumbling did not create the present situation; it merely added mirth to the funeral preparations.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • I Sorta Know Who Wrote That Anonymous NYT Op-Ed

    September 15, 2018 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Trump

    That anonymous New York Times Op-Ed writer inside government thwarting Trump’s plans does not understand how government works. Amplified by worn accusations in Bob Woodard’s new book, the Op-Ed is nonetheless driving calls for Trump’s removal under the 25th Amendment to save America.

    But look closer: there are no patriots here, and little new; it’s all nasty politics.

     

    You don’t join government to do whatever partisan thing you think is right; you serve the United States, and take an oath to a Constitution which spells out a system and chain of command. There is no Article 8 saying “but if you really disagree with the president it’s OK to just do what you want.”

    I served 24 years in such a system, joining the State Department under Ronald Reagan and leaving during the Obama era. That splay of political ideologies had plenty of things in it my colleagues and I disagreed with or even believed dangerous. Same for people in the military, who were told who to kill on America’s behalf, a more significant moral issue than a wonky disagreement over a trade deal.

    But the only way for America to function credibly was for us to work on her behalf, and that meant following the boss, the system created by the Constitution, and remembering you weren’t the one elected, and that you ultimately worked for those who did the electing. There were ways to honorably dissent, such as resigning, or writing a book with your name on the cover (my choice) and taking your lumps.

    But acting as a wrench inside the gears of government to disaffect policy (the Washington Post warned “sleeper cells have awoken”) is what foreign intelligence officers recruit American officials to do, and that doesn’t make you a hero acting on conscience, just a traitor. It seems odd someone labeled a senior official by the New York Times would not understand the difference before defining themselves forever by writing such an article.

    So don’t be too surprised if the author turns out to be a junior official not in a position to know what they claim to know, a political appointee in a first government job reporting second- or third-hand rumors, maybe an ex-Bushie in over their head. That will raise important questions about the Times’ exaggerating the official’s importance, and thus credibility, and whether anonymity was being used to buff up the narrative by encouraging speculation.

     

    Next up to sort out are the “new” facts forming the underbelly of calls to end the Trump presidency. The Op-Ed’s release was set by the Times to perfectly dovetail with Bob Woodward’s new book, Fear (It would be interesting to know how much was created by the Times — did contact with the author cause the Times to encourage them to write? Did they have to be persuaded? How much editing was done? How far from the role of journalist into political activist did the Times stray?)

    Neither the book nor the Op-Ed breaks any new ground. Both are chock full of gossip, rumors, and half-truths present from Trump Day One and already ladled out by Michael Wolff’s own nearly-forgotten book and Omarosa’s unheard recordings: the man is clinically insane, mind of a child, acts impulsively, and is thus dangerous. Same stuff but now 18 months shinier and sexier – Woodward! Watergate! Anonymous! Deep Throat! It’s clever recycling, a way to appear controversial without inviting skepticism by telling people what they already believe because they’ve already heard it. What seems like confirmation is just repitition.

    The stuff is chock-a-block with accusations (“Trump is not smart“) denied by those quoted (Jim Mattis and John Kelly, for example.) But one new item, the claim Gary Cohn, Trump’s former economic adviser, walked into the Oval Office and snatched a letter off Trump’s desk, suggests how sloppy the reporting is. Cohn supposedly stopped Trump from pulling out of a trade agreement with South Korea by stealing an implementing letter, preventing Trump from signing it. Woodard writes Cohn did the same thing on another occassion to stop Trump pulling out of NAFTA.

    “Paper” inside government, especially for the president’s signature, does not simply disappear. Any document reaching a senior official’s desk has been tasked out to other people to work on. The process usually begins when questions are asked at higher levels and then sent down to the bureaucracy; no president is expected to know it’s Article 24.5 of an agreement that allows withdrawal. That request creates a paper trail and establishes stakeholders in the decision, for example, people standing by to implement a decision or needing to know ahead of negotiations with Seoul POTUS changed his mind.

    So paper isn’t forgotten. I know, I had a job working as the Ambassador’s staff assistant in London where most of my day was spent tracking letters and memos on his behalf. Inside the State Department an entire office known as The Line does little else but keep track of paper flowing in and out of the Secretary of State’s actual In/Out boxes. This isn’t just bureaucratic banality at work; this is how things get done in government, as documents with the president’s signature instantly turn into orders.

    So even if, playing to the public image of a dotard-in-chief, Trump didn’t remember calling for that letter on South Korea, and thus never missed it after Cohn allegedly stole it to change history, a lot of other people would have gone looking for it. Stealing a letter off the president’s desk is not the equivalent of hiding the remote to keep grandpa from changing channels. And that’s to call the claim absurd even before noting how few individuals the Secret Service allows into the Oval Office on their own to grab stuff. While the example of the stolen letter is a bit down in the bureaucratic weeds, it is important because what is being widely reported, and accepted, is not always true.

     

    The final part of all this which doesn’t pass a sniff test is according to the Op-Ed, 25th Amendment procedures to remove the president from office were discussed at the Cabinet level. The 25th, passed after the Kennedy assassination, created a set of presidential succession rules, historically used for short handovers of power when a president has gone under anesthesia. Most relevant is the never-used full incapacitation clause.

    An 2018 interpretation of that clause made popular by TV pundits is now the driver behind demands that Trump is so stupid, impulsive, and insane he cannot carry out his duties, and so power must be transferred away from him today. While the Op-Ed writer says the idea was shelved only to avoid a Constitutional crisis, in fact it makes no sense. The 25th’s legally specific term “unable” does not mean the same thing as the vernacular “unfit.” An unconscious man is unable (the word used in the Amendment) to drive. A man who forgot his glasses is unfit (not the word used in the Amendment), but still able, to drive, albeit poorly.

    The use of the 25th to get Trump out of office is the kind of thing people with too much Google time, not senior officials with access to legal advice, convince themselves is true. The intent of the amendment was to create an administrative procedure, not a political thunderbolt.

    But intent aside, the main reason senior officials would know the 25th is not intended to be used adversarially is the Constitution already specifies impeachment as the way to force an unfit president out. The 25th was not written to be a new flavor 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 25th wrote a backdoor into the Constitution allowing a group of officials, most of whom were elected by nobody, to overthrow an elected president they simply think turned out to be bad at his job.

     

    The alarmist accusations against Trump, especially when invoking mental illness to claim Americans are in danger, are perfectly timed fodder, dropped right after Labor Day into the election season, to displace the grinding technicalities of a Russiagate investigation. Political opponents of Trump had been counting on Mueller by now to hand them November amid a wash of indictments, and thus tee up impeachment with a Democratic majority in the House.

    Since Mueller, alongside economic collapse at home, trade wars everywhere, a nuclear arsenal as yet un-unleashed, war with North Korea and Iran, have all failed to materialize, and lacking much of unified theme themselves, for Democrats it’s making the midterms Trump vs. Trump, with the carefully timed help of the New York Times. The Op-Ed does indeed signal a crisis, but not a Constitutional one. It is a crisis of collusion, among journalists turned to the task of removing a president via what some would call a soft coup.

    Because it’s either that, or we’re meant as a nation to believe an election should be overturned two years after the fact based on a vaguely-sourced tell-all book and an anonymous Op-Ed.




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

    September 6, 2018 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Trump



    (This post originally ran in January, the last time “Use the 25th!” was trending.)

    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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  • 1A Victory: SCOTUS Again Confirms ‘Hate Speech’ is Protected

    August 19, 2018 // 0 Comments

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



    In the world we awoke to on November 8, 2016, a myth took hold among many progressive people that so-called “hate speech” — speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability — is not protected by the First Amendment. Even Howard Dean contributed to the falsehood.

    The Supreme Court just made it very, very clear that is wrong. Offensive and hateful speech is as protected as any other. It is vital to protect all speech, for the road of prohibiting speech one disagrees with is a slippery one. There is a right to offend; deal with it, snowflakes.




    A recent case, Matal v. Tam, focused on an all-Asian band called The Slants, who wanted to trademark their group’s name. “Slant” of course is one of a dictionary full of racist terms used to offend Asians, and the group wanted to push the word into the world’s face to disarm it, as gay men have done with the slur queer.

    The United States Patent and Trademark Office said no, the group could not trademark the name The Slants because of the disparagement clause, which denies federal trademark protection to messages that may offend people, living or dead, along with “institutions, beliefs or national symbols.” This same reasoning denied the Washington Redskins’ trademark renewal of their team name in 2014, seen as disparaging toward Native Americans.


    No more. The Supreme Court just ruled the government cannot use trademark law to stop people from promoting an (potentially offensive) name. That constitutes the government prohibiting free expression, a clear violation of the First Amendment.

    The First Amendment protects offensive speech, Justice Samuel Alito wrote in this unanimous decision. “The proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate,’” he said, quoting the classic 1929 dissent from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

    (Trump-era snowflakes usually misapply Holmes’ famous line — not shouting fire in a crowded theatre — to justify banning offensive speech by claiming it incites violence. They’re wrong; it doesn’t work that way at all. The whole thing is laid out here.)

    “The danger of viewpoint discrimination,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in The Slants’ case, “is that the government is attempting to remove certain ideas or perspectives from a broader debate. That danger is all the greater if the ideas or perspectives are ones a particular audience might think offensive, at least at first hearing. To permit viewpoint discrimination in this context is to permit government censorship.”

    The ACLU called the decision a “major victory for the First Amendment.”



    And… mic drop.

    The marketplace of ideas needs to be broad and deep, and awful people must be free to spew terrible words, into it, so they can be exposed and bad ideas shoved aside by good ones. That’s how the Founders intended the system to work, that is how it has worked through over 200 years of controversy, and the Supreme Court made it clear this week Trump, Howard Dean, Milo Yiannopoulos or your favorite nazi have no place in trying to change things.



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

    January 19, 2018 // 0 Comments

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



    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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  • Review: Ken Burns’ Vietnam

    October 2, 2017 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Iraq



    Though Ken Burns’ 10-part PBS documentary The Vietnam War doesn’t try very hard, he can’t be blamed for failing as a filmmaker even if he had. It can’t be done. There are too many Vietnam War’s to accurately portray in a documentary, even one 18 hours long. So fair enough. But Burns’ real failure is not as a documentarian per se, it is one of courage.


    Burns teases us at the beginning of the series that there will be courage here, a reckoning of sorts, riffing off the final pages of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, showing war footage in reverse, so bombs return to their mothership’s belly, rockets are sucked out of the bush back onto helicopters, and, in case the point wasn’t clear yet, the 1st Cav walks backwards onto their Huey’s and departs the rice paddy. See, it’s an antiwar movie.

    Well, not really, or maybe not also. Burns quickly moves on to the next test, getting all the greatest hits in. There’s the iconic image of a Vietcong prisoner being shot in the head, and Nick Ut’s photo of a naked Vietnamese girl running from a napalm raid, alongside that footage of bombs dropping, exploding Kodachrome orange against greener-than-green foliage. If the Rolling Stones’ Paint It Black hadn’t been written during Vietnam, it would be necessary to invent time travel to place it alongside the war. And yep, there’s Dylan, a hippie chick with flowers, grunts in the jungle, Marlboro hard packs and M-16s at the ready. Check, check, check – Oh Suzy Q!

    No, wait, it’s one of those balanced documentaries. Burns treats us to the trope-ish story of Ho Chi Minh foolishly writing fan letters to American presidents over the years, starting way back with Woodrow Wilson at the end of WWI, thinking the American love of freedom, ye olde tale o’ democracy, the experience as fellow colonialists, should in fact bond the United States to his side over the imperialist French. That didn’t happen, you see, so it’s ironic. There’s also a bunch of actual Vietnamese interviewed in Burns’ movie, albeit disproportionately far too many identified as formerly of the “South Vietnamese Army.” The ties to the CIA of several of those interviewed are also left obscured.

    For the Americans in the audience, there’s also a dollop of “Vietnam as a test of manhood/the test of manhood is actually a metaphor for broken American dreams of the 20th century.” Burns had no choice with this one, as it is required as much as the shots of Saigon whores in their tight ao dai’s. America loves the manhood story; it’s the version of Vietnam that allows us to revere a crusty old war monger like John McCain (Episode Four of Burns’ film even includes a shot of George W. Bush in the Air National Guard), and leaves people who took deferments like Donald Trump and Bill Clinton forever in shame.

    Burns does the manhood theme proud, though, slipping us both the noble grunt version via gritty personal anecdotes from guys you don’t know (though rough-and-tumble Marine guy Karl Marlantes pops up), and the Oliver Stone subreddit, where manhood is proved only after it is broken down (forget Platoon, his real telling was in Born on the Fourth of July.) Stone and his subject Ron Kovic don’t appear for Burns’ camera, but a non-celebrity grunt named John Musgrave is on camera to illustrate the journey from gungho killer to “it was all a lie, man.”

    OK, fair enough, Dad shouts at the TV screen, this is Ken Burns for heck’s sake. He does jazz, he does Americana, he gets baseball in a way that sends George Will reaching for the Viagra, of course he’s gonna go folksy. That’s why we donate and get the PBS tote bag each year. At least he filmed this one in color, all 79 individual interviews.

    But where Burns lets us down is where nearly everything that has or maybe will be written about Vietnam lets us down. He is too easy on the politicians who cynically manipulated the public, he is too easy on the bulk of the media who gleefully participated in the manipulation (everything short of proclaiming WMDs in Hanoi), too easy on individual soldiers who took advantage of lax leadership to, in historian Nick Turse’s words, kill anything that moves (My Lai was one, far from the only.)

    Burns drinks too deeply from the cup of “hate the war, not the warrior.” Deaths were committed because of a policy that demanded body counts, a number of “enemy” killed, as the borderless war’s only metric of accomplishment. As Turse writes and Burns omits, “U.S. commanders wasted ammunition like millionaires and hoarded American lives like misers, and often treated Vietnamese lives as if they were worth nothing at all.” In 2017 America, where the military is fetishized, personal responsibility is lost.

    Burns indeed lets all of us off too easy. Us, the American people, the voters, the spectators, the ones who bought the epic story that Vietnam was a struggle between two great forces for the soul of civilization, Communism versus Freedom. The American people in 1962 (or ’65, or ’68, or 1945, or 1954) were not yet cynical. They were easily convinced what was little more than a continuation of colonialism was instead a firewall of the Cold War. We had come out of WWII winners, with anything that would have made that less than the Good War hidden for another couple of generations. Vietnam was then our bad childhood, and should have left us with no such excuse for Iraq (Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya…)

    Burns lets us off too easy because he does not demand we not let it all happen again, and that is his sin, omission.

    “With knowledge comes healing,” the filmmaker told Vanity Fair about his goal, but that is not the film he made.

    We should know better but we were the ones who bought the epic story that Iraq, et al, like Vietnam, was a struggle between two greats forces for the soul of civilization, Terrorism versus Freedom (feel free to substitute in Islam and Christianity.) We had to fight them over there (the beach at Danang instead of the beach at San Diego) or we’d fight them over here, the smoking gun a mushroom cloud over Cincinnati. We let Kennedy and Johnson and Nixon lie to us about the war, then let five successive modern presidents, including a Nobel Peace Prize winner (Kissinger also won the Peace Prize for ending the war he first helped prolong) lie to us about Iraq in a spin of our illusion of invincibility and moral rightness.

    Burns tips his hand in the first minutes of his series when the narrator intones the war was “begun in good faith.” Who could have known Vietnam was a war for independence, not a civil war as sold to the American people? That Pakistan supported the Taliban with U.S. aid money? That there gosh dang it weren’t any WMDs in Iraq? Burns doesn’t tell us that Vietnam was not an exception, it was a template.

    And so we all say “thank you for your service” today with the same uninformed conviction that we said “baby killer” back then. Americans need to die for freedom, yes, that’s standard, but civilians from the other side need to die in vast, angry clouds of millions, too, for their freedom. Agent Orange in the ‘Nam to punish the next generation of slopes, depleted uranium across the Middle East for the baby ragheads. There are no names of any Vietnamese civilians on that wall in Washington DC.

    Burns tried to be all things to all people, while failing at the most important task, making history valuable to the present. He does not seem in search of lessons, only in creating a catalog of Vietnam stuff and leaving it on the table for us to poke at, historical amuse bouche. By eschewing experts from his interviews to focus on “real people” and their anecdotes, Burns by default puts himself into the expert role. He then chooses not to responsibly occupy it.

    Ken Burns had a chance to reach for a higher goal with his work on Vietnam. Instead, there is no reckoning, and it is doubtful there ever will be. You can’t close the book on Vietnam if you want to keep it open for Syria, or Iran, or wherever America again makes war on an industrial scale on nations far less advanced, and commits torture, assassinations, and mass killings all the while trying to hide its dirty hands from the American public with the media’s financially-comfortable cooperation.

    Each of these wars is not the equivalent of stepping on a Lego in a darkened bedroom. It’s the same story, the same war. It has the same ending. It serves the same purpose. It’s Vietnam. We just slog through 18 hours of Vietnam documentary because it lasts 18 hours. After the 25th similar shot of helicopters landing, you may not even be sure why you’re still watching. You want to finish Burns’ documentary with the feeling the American people will rise up and shout “we won’t be fooled again,” but instead shut off the TV knowing we have, and will.



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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.