Here’s an excerpt from a new book, Hopeless but Optimistic: Journeying through America’s Endless War in Afghanistan, by Douglas Wissing. The passage deals with the unnecessary death of State Department diplomat Anne Smedinghoff at age 25. Anne gave her life for a needless PR stunt as part of America’s failed reconstruction project in Afghanistan. It could have been any of us.
ANNE SMEDINGHOFF IS A RISING 25-year-old diplomat, an assistant information officer in the Kabul embassy. She’s my minder, assigned to escort me to an interview with a Justice Department official who is heading up the Afghan Threat Finance Cell (ATFC) that is charged with finding and disrupting sources of Taliban funding.
In many ways, Smedinghoff is representative of many young American women working in Afghanistan, where they can combine adventure with a career-enhancing posting and hefty paychecks plumped with danger pay. As we walk to the meeting room, Smedinghoff quizzes me about life outside the embassy compound, as the staff is trapped inside.
When I mention some of the Kabul restaurants, she tells me the State Department banned dining at most places outside the embassy. She longs for a good pizza. I ask about her path from her home in the Chicago suburbs to this Kabul powder keg. Catholic high school, Johns Hopkins international studies, then the State Department. An interesting post in Venezuela. Then on to Afghanistan. Anne Smedinghoff is lively, bright, educated and funny; poised and gracious in a natural way. Brimming with youthful vitality, accomplishments and promise, she is the daughter any parent would be proud to have.
We talk about my embeds in Zabul and Helmand, and she tells me in Venezuela she could explore the hinterlands when not working. But here in Afghanistan, she’s penned up like most foreign service officers. She tells me she wants to “break the wire” in the worst way. “On a good day, this is a like a small liberal arts college,” she laughs. “On a bad day it’s like a maximum security prison.”
Smedinghoff’s career continued to go well after I left Kabul. She was a comer. Her colleagues started calling her Ambassador Anne. When Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Kabul in late March for an official visit, the embassy assigned Smedinghoff the plum job of escorting him. She was his control officer. As with other people, she made an impression on her big boss.
Anne Smedinghoff did eventually get to break the wire — and in the worst way.
A few weeks after the successful Kerry visit, she escorted a group of Afghan journalists on a media day down to Qalat City, the capital of Zabul, the Taliban-controlled province that so interested her when we met. It was one of those winning-hearts-and-minds missions, in this case to distribute school books that the US corporation, Scholastic, Inc., had donated to My Afghan Library, an aid program jointly run by the State Department and the Afghan Ministry of Education. Scholastic, Inc. wanted some good press for their donation.
An email from the embassy public relations office stated, “Scholastic would like to see more media reporting.” So the mission was a WHAM photo op to get some press for an American corporation, while pretending Zabul was secure and still receiving U.S. aid. “A media extravaganza,” a military briefing called it. “Happy snaps,” the security grunts derisively termed these PR events that they hated to guard.
In my experience there, Qalat City was a wild and wooly ambush-prone place, where the military units took extraordinary security precautions before venturing from the tightly guarded US compounds. To travel two miles across Qalat City, we had to drive in a convoy of five armored MRAPs accompanied by a heavily armed security platoon.
So I was stunned to later learn that Anne Smedinghoff and a group of journalists were walking around Qalat City—lost. That seemed insane. Taliban suicide bombers detonated their explosives near them, killing her and four other Americans, including three soldiers and an interpreter. Other Americans were grievously wounded. It was an egregious breakdown in operational security. An Army report stated the mission “was plagued by poor planning that failed at all levels.” And it was a great loss.
I exchanged emails of condolences with the embassy public relations officer, who was a great friend of hers. I saw heart-wrenching tributes to Anne Smedinghoff posted on-line. Secretary Kerry eulogized Anne Smedinghoff, praising her idealistic commitment to “changing people’s lives.” He noted the “extraordinary harsh contradiction” of her being killed while carrying books to a school. He described the Zabul media event was “a confrontation with modernity,” and said Smedinghoff embodied “everything that our country stands for.” It did little to salve my dismay that yet another promising American had been lost for such a dubious, failed cause. I thought of the remarks Kerry made on Capitol Hill in 1971, when he was a young, anti-war Vietnam vet.
The then 27-year-old John Kerry poignantly asked America, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Senior government leaders are often called on to be in more than one place at a time. They make choices. Not everyone agrees with those choices. Sometimes deputies go instead. This happens to every country; the more global a nation’s interests, the more it happens. None of this is new.
Yet a decision to have Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attend a meeting between President Trump (Tillerson’s boss) and Chinese President Xi rather than a NATO ministers gathering (i.e., Tillerson’s peers) in early April has been blown up into yet another end-of-the-world scenario. The fact that Tillerson will attend an event in Russia weeks later was somehow thrown into the mix and the resulting cake was pronounced proof that the U.S.-NATO relationship is in tatters.
It is fully reasonable to debate which event, meeting with Xi or NATO, is the best use of Tillerson. It’s just not a hard debate to resolve.
“Skipping the NATO meeting and visiting Moscow could risk feeding a perception that Trump may be putting U.S. dealings with big powers first, while leaving waiting those smaller nations that depend on Washington for security,” two former U.S. officials said.
Bigger stuff over smaller stuff, who could imagine?
Despite much rhetoric, NATO has been a stable, predictable relationship for the United States over decades. Tillerson, and the U.S., will be represented at the April event by the familiar (he’s worked for State since 1984) and competent Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Shannon. Tillerson may be skipping the event; the United States is not. And FYI, Colin Powell skipped the same meeting once as Secretary of State.
Meanwhile, Trump is set to attend a NATO summit in Brussels in May. Tillerson met his NATO counterparts at an anti-ISIS conference on March 22. State is proposing other dates for NATO’s foreign ministers to gather. State Department spokesperson Mark Toner stated in the midst of all this “the United States remains 100 percent committed” to the alliance.
NATO is covered.
China meanwhile is dead center on action. China will play a significant role in anything to do with North Korea. China and U.S. allies Japan and South Korea face continued friction in the South China Sea, with the U.S. involved as well. China is one of America’s most significant trading partners, and holds considerable U.S. Treasury debt. Weigh all that against sending a signal to NATO about a problem in the alliance that sort of doesn’t even exist outside the self-created media spectacle.
And the same people criticizing Tillerson for attending the meeting between Trump and Xi have only recently criticized Tillerson for not attending meetings between Trump and other world leaders.
Problems with Tillerson’s plan to go to Russia weeks after the missed NATO meeting are just conflation. Tillerson will be doing all sorts of things following the NATO meeting and simply throwing Russia into this NATO story is pure sensationalism, a desperate attempt to get the news hook of the moment, Putin, into the headlines and imply more diplomatic naughtiness on the part of Trump.
Much of the can’t-win-either-way positions taken on Tillerson flow from two interlocking issues.
The first is the trope that basically anything the Trump administration does is wrong, dangerous, and reckless. Politico comes out with it, saying “Two months and a string of eyebrow-raising decisions later, people in and outside the State Department wonder if there’s any tradition Tillerson thinks is worth keeping.” Suggest negotiations and you’re too soft. Rattle the saber and you’re tempting Armageddon.
The second is Tillerson’s disdain for the media. The media as a rule is nothing but self-righteous and jealous, ready to wave the flag, wrap themselves in it, then throw themselves writhing to the ground claiming they alone stand between The People (who no longer trust them) and the abyss. Tillerson didn’t take a press pool with him to Asia, and this set of the latest round. Left out of course is that the press could and did travel commercially to Asia longside Tillerson and missed out only on the possibility of some back-of-the-official-plane leaking.
This will become a self-licking ice cream cone, as 24/7 press criticism of Tillerson makes him even less likely to engage with a press that will seize on his comments to criticize him further.
It is also deeply amusing to watch the press decry the lack of official State Department briefings that they for years criticized as being content free and little more than propaganda. It reminds of an old joke — Q: How was the food on your vacation? A: Terrible! And such small portions!
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
What if it’s not incompetence? What if it is by design? What if President Donald Trump has decided American doesn’t really need a Department of State and if he can’t get away with closing it down, he can disable and defund it?
The only problem is Trump will quickly find out he’ll have to reluctantly keep a few lights on at Foggy Bottom.
Things do not look good for State. There were no press briefings between Trump taking office on January 20 and some irregular gatherings beginning in early March. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wasn’t seen at several White House meetings where foreign leaders were present, and has taken only two very short trips abroad. Of the 13 sets of official remarks he has given, 10 have been perfunctory messages to countries on their national days, with one speech to his own employees. Sources inside State say he is nowhere to be seen around the building, either in person or bureaucratically via tasking orders and demands for briefings.
Meanwhile, President Trump has proposed a devastating 37% cut to State’s tiny budget, already only about one percent of Federal spending.
And as if that isn’t bad enough, the Trump administration has left a large number of the 64 special representative and other “speciality” positions empty. Tillerson already laid off a number of his own staff. Add in a Federal-wide hiring ban, and the only good news at Foggy Bottom is that it’s no longer hard to find a seat in the cafeteria.
The original concerns around State that Trump’s transition was in chaos seem sadly mistaken; there are too many empty slots for this to be anything but purposeful. As for Tillerson himself “Either he’s weak or he’s complicit,” one State Department official said. Neither option bodes well.
Alongside Trump himself, State is its own worst enemy. Team Trump no doubt took careful note of the Department’s slow-walking the release of Hillary Clinton’s emails (after helping hide the existence of her private server for years), and the organization’s flexibility in allowing aide Huma Abedin to simultaneously occupy jobs inside and outside of the Department, alongside alleged quid pro quo deals related to the Clinton Foundation. Senior State officials purged in late January were closely associated with Hillary Clinton. Happens when you back the wrong horse.
The already open wound of Benghazi festered just a bit more when a post-election Freedom of Information Act release revealed State covered up the fact the assault on the Consulate was not “under cover of protest” as the Obama administration claimed but was, in fact, “a direct breaching attack.” Never mind the leaked dissent memo aimed at Trump’s so-called Muslim ban, and the leaked memo admonishing State staffers to stop leaking.
And what has been one of State’s public actions this February? Dropping $71,000 on silverware to entertain foreign dignitaries. An organization that will be missed by the bulk of Trump supporters this is not.
So is this it? The end of the United States Department of State, founded alongside the republic in 1789, with Thomas Jefferson himself as its first leader?
Maybe not. Trump will quickly find that there are several State Departments, and he’ll need to hang on to a couple of them, even if he sidelines the others.
Most of the actions described above refer to the political State Department, the traditional organ of diplomacy that once negotiated treaties and ended wars, but more and more since 9/11 (maybe earlier) has been supplemented if not left behind by modern communications that allow presidents and other Washington policymakers to deal directly with counterparts abroad. Throw in the growing role of the military, and you end up with far too many State staffers having a lot of time on their hands even before Trump came along. The Wikileaks cables, years of State Department reporting from the field, contained as much filler and gossip as they did cogent policy advice.
Trump can make his deep cuts in that part of State’s work and few will even notice. In some ways, no one yet has; as far back as 2012, more than one fourth of all State Department Foreign Service positions were either unfilled or filled with below-grade employees. The whole of the Foreign Service diplomatic corps is smaller than the complement aboard one aircraft carrier, and has been for some time.
There’ll be a few functions that may need to be rolled into other parts of the government if most of State fades away: whatever refugee processing Trump allows to DHS, trade promotion to Commerce, foreign aid to perhaps DOD, all have ready homes waiting if necessary. Trump’ll need to have ambassadors abroad, not the least of which is because 30-50% of those positions are routinely handed out to rich campaign donors, banana-republic style.
So what is left at State Trump will need to hold on to?
Those 294 embassies and consulates abroad State operates serve a function as America’s concierge that cannot be easily replaced, and will have to be funded at some level whether Trump likes it or not.
Dozens of other U.S. government agencies rely on State’s overseas real estate for office space and administrative support to keep their own costs down. American government VIPs traveling need someone to arrange their security, get their motorcades organized, and their hotels and receptions booked. Meetings with local officials still require on-the-ground American staff to set up. Supporting CODELS (Congressional Delegations’ visits to foreign lands) is a right of passage for State Department employees, and every Foreign Service Officer has his/her war stories to tell. While stationed in the UK, I escorted so many Important Somebody’s on shopping trips that I was snarkily labeled “Ambassador to Harrod’s Department Store” by my colleagues. Others will tell tales of pre-dawn baggage handling and VIP indiscretions that needed smoothing over.
Never mind the logistics for a full-on presidential visit to a foreign country. No, Trump will need this side of State to stay on the payroll.
The last part of the State Department Trump will need around one way or another is the Bureau of Consular Affairs. Consular performs the traditional government functions of assisting Americans overseas when they’re arrested, caught up in a natural disaster, or just need help with social security or a new passport.
The big swinging bat, however, is visa issuance. Visas are what fills the American economy with tourists, Silicon Valley with engineers, and universities with foreign students. Visas are the State Department’s cash cow: in 2016 close to 11 million tourist, worker, and student visas were issued at an average fee collected of $160. That’s well over $1.7 billion in revenue in addition to the budget Congress allots State. The Bureau of Consular Affairs holds a budget surplus in reserve whose dollar amount is one of the most closely held non-national security secrets inside government.
But in a Trumpian state of mind, what looks like a strength at Foggy Bottom might turn out to be a weakness. State fought viciously after 9/11 to hold on to consular work, even as the Bush administration sought to consolidate the consular function into the then-new Department of Homeland Security.
State won the bureaucratic fight in 2001, but if the Trump administration really wanted to effectively wipe away most of the State Department proper, it might need to do little more than kick out the strongest (and most profitable) leg holding up the whole edifice. Like a jenga tower, Trump can pick away at the top positions for media and political points, but if he really wants to see it all fall down, he’ll attack the bottom. Watch for it; it’ll tell you how serious this fight really is.
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Here’s a NYT article that goes out of its way trying to tie the lack of Afghan Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs; for former U.S. military translators) to the Trump travel ban executive order.
The two are not related, and it would have taken the New York Times exactly one Google worth of journalism, or even reading elsewhere on their own website, to understand that instead of publishing a misleading piece. For a newspaper claiming its work stands between us and fake news, this is just sad.
The article includes these lines:
— Afghans who worked for the American military and government are being told that they cannot apply for special visas to the United States, even though Afghanistan is not among the countries listed in President Trump’s new travel ban.
— It was unclear if the visa suspension was related to the president’s new ban.
— Officials at the International Refugee Assistance Project… said “Our worst fears are proving true.”
— It is unclear whether the reported suspension of new applications was related to the number of available visas or to the president’s order reducing refugee intake generally, or to a combination of the two factors.
— Afghanistan was not included in either of the president’s travel bans, but his decision to reduce the overall number of refugees accepted by the United States would affect Afghans as well.
To be clear, the Trump travel ban and visas for Afghan translators have absolutely no connection. None.
Afghanistan is not included in Trump’s travel ban at all. Afghans translators are not refugees under the law. Like its now-defunct sister program for Iraqi translators, the Special Immigrant Visa Program (SIV) was set up to provide immigrant visas (Green Cards) to Afghans who helped U.S. forces. Congress, not the president, sets numerical limits on how many of these visas are to be made available each year. When the limit is reached, the program goes on hiatus until next year. Congress is free at any time to expand the number of these visas available. That’s it.
Now, how could the Times have uncovered these facts? Journalism.
The Times could have Googled Afghan Special Immigrant Visas. That would have shown them a State Department page explaining things.
The Times could have contacted any number of advocacy groups that also have online explainers about all this. Most competent immigration lawyers would know, too.
The Times could have looked at its own archives from 2011.
Or, the Times reporters on this story could have read their own website. Because elsewhere in the Times was reprinted a Reuters story that pretty much accurately explains the problem.
That’s it, that’s really all that was necessary to publish an accurate story. But that accurate story would not have included the attempts to link the Afghan problem to Trump, which is the takeaway rocketing around the web.
And for the haters, my own article here is not “pro-Trump.” The reason? Because the Afghan story has nothing to do with Trump.
As Trump issues a revised Executive Order on immigration, the media is almost certain to get many things wrong in its reporting; they did with the earlier order in late January. After 24 years of doing visa and immigration work for the Department of State,
Short version: most of what people will be very upset about this week has been U.S. policy for some time and is actually unrelated to the Trump Executive Order.
1. The Executive Order (EO) is invalid because the United States cannot discriminate based on national origin.
False. 8 U.S.C. 1152 Sec. 202(a)(1)(A) makes it unlawful only to ban immigrants (Legal Permanent Residents, green card holders) because of “nationality, place of birth, or place of residence.” The law however is silent on banning non-immigrants such as tourists or students, as well as refugees, for those same reasons. Including green card holders was one of the major errors committed by Trump in the January EO. The new EO excludes them.
2. The six countries affected by the new EO are being unfairly singled out. There’s no evidence the nationals from those countries pose any threat.
The countries affected by Trump’s executive order – Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen – have been singled out under American immigration law since the days following 9/11.
For example, the six are included in a 2015 law signed by President Obama, 8 U.S.C. 1187(a)(12). The list thus has nothing to do with any of Trump’s business interests. He did not create it, nor is he the first American president to omit Saudi Arabia from post-9/11 scrutiny. That 2015 list, part of the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act, disallows use of America’s visa-free travel program to foreigners who even once visited the targeted nations. So, for example, British citizens otherwise eligible to enter the United States without a visa must instead appear for questioning and be individually approved for an actual printed visa in their passport at an American embassy or consulate abroad.
The six countries are also included in a special vetting process in place since the George W. Bush administration, continued under Barack Obama, and still operating today. Simply called “administrative processing,” people from these nations and others go through an alternate visa procedure that delays their travel as they wait to be vetted by various intelligence agencies. Some applications are left to pend indefinitely as a way to say no without formally saying no in a way that invites challenge.
Lastly, three of the six nations included under Trump’s EO — Iran, Sudan, and Syria — have been designated for years by the State Department as state sponsors of terrorism.
As for the numbers, in FY2015, 27,751 tourist visas were issued to Iranians, Sudan 3,647, Syria 8,419, Libya 1,374, Somalia 185 and Yemen 3007. All of those people may still travel under the new EO, but the number are illustrative of the relatively small scale of the EO; in that same year, the United States issued almost 11 million visas worldwide.
3. But some people with valid visas are being refused entry into the U.S.
Yes, and they always have, long before Trump. Unlike many nations, the U.S. uses a two-tiered system for immigration. Visas are issued abroad by the Department of State, and represent only permission to apply to the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at a U.S. entry port for admission. A traveler can have a valid visa and for a variety of reasons still be denied entry into the U.S.
4. Travelers have other rights that are being denied.
Foreign persons outside the United States are not protected by the Constitution. U.S. courts have also ruled continuously over time that decisions to issue or refuse visas abroad are not subject to judicial review.
Non-citizens without green cards generally do not have the right to an attorney at an airport, except if questions relate to something other than immigration status, such as certain types of criminal charges. Non-citizens can generally be temporarily detained without formal due process. In most cases the government maintains until admitted to the U.S. by CBP, a traveler is actually not “in” the U.S. with the full range of legal protections. Nothing new here specific to the Trump EO.
5. They’re deporting foreigners without due process.
Again, nothing new and unrelated to Trump’s EO. In most cases only an immigration judge can order a deportation. But if the foreign traveler waives their rights by signing something called a “Stipulated Removal Order,” or takes “voluntary departure,” agreeing to leave the country, they could be deported without a hearing. Some people choose to give up their green cards voluntarily at the airport for a variety of reasons by signing a form I-407. There are both good reasons and bad reasons for signing such documents.
That said, most people who aren’t allowed into the U.S. at the airport are not actually deported. They are removed, or denied entry. The words have specific legal meanings and trigger different levels of rights. Standard denials of entry are considered administrative actions and do not typically allow for court appearances or lawyers.
6. A traveler was denied boarding by the airline when they tried to leave a foreign country. Do the airlines enforce American law now?
Sort of. Airlines are responsible for the passengers they board. If a passenger is denied entry into the U.S. for any reason, the airline typically faces the costs of returning the passenger to a country abroad. So if someone from Syria is boarded by Lufthansa in Frankfurt and refused entry to the U.S. in Boston, Lufthansa can be held financially responsible. So, it is in the airlines’ best interests to follow U.S. immigration law.
This system is not new with Trump’s EO, though the EO does establish new criteria for the airlines to follow.
7. CBP is denying American citizens entry into the U.S.
Very, very unlikely. Absent some extremely rare and technical issues, or cases where a traveler is misidentified, American citizens are entitled to enter the United States. A person with a U.S. passport is an American citizen for the purposes of entry, even if they hold a passport from another country. Green card holders are not American citizens and remain citizens of their home country. American citizens have always been subject to questioning, temporary detention, and search when entering the U.S. CBP is authorized to conduct searches and detention in accordance with 8 U.S.C. § 1357 and 19 U.S.C. §§ 1499, 1581, 1582.
8. CBP asked a traveler about their religion, or said they were detained because they were a Muslim, or…
Anything is possible, but not everything is likely. Actions cannot be taken based on religion, though CBP has always had procedures that allow them to have a traveler remove their head covering. Most airport interactions are under surveillance. CBP officials wear badges with numbers. Asking about religion is potentially grounds for job dismissal, even a civil rights suit. Wrong things do happen, but one should be skeptical about how often it is claimed to have happened. Persons can be asked where they came from (i.e., Sudan.) Human error, or a bad CBP person of course exist, but are in isolation not signs that the “gloves have come off” or that their one-off actions are signs of impending fascism.
9. I Googled this and…
Stop. There’s a reason people go to law school. Legal practice at the border is complicated; immigration law is as complex as tax law, and based on a tangle of regulations, practices, court cases, administrative rulings, and the like. Even experienced immigration lawyers differ with one another on how some things work. Other parts of the process are subject to the judgment of CBP officials. Almost anything can be challenged in court, and courts overturn old laws from time to time. So be careful when pronouncing something “unconstitutional” based largely on a Google search, or quoting one lawyer with a client in trouble, or confusing the filing of a lawsuit, or even a temporary stay by a court, as proof of the point you’re trying to make.
10. Trump can’t do this.
The answer to this question will take a lot of legal testing to resolve. Generally, however, the Supreme Court acknowledges immigration law’s “plenary power” doctrine, leaving most discretionary decisions in the hands of the executive branch. Legal victories over the original Trump EO were only stays of actions inside American borders, and complied with by the Department of Homeland Security on an exceptional “national interest” basis, not a policy one.
Yet while precedent seems to favor the administration, there are a lot of issues and a very complex body of law in play with this EO. In particular how/if the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of religion apply is in contention. Anyone who claims this is simple on any side of the argument is misinformed. However, what is simple is that this is not a constitutional crisis. Tension between the power of executive orders and the power of Congress/the courts is nothing new, and in fact is the cornerstone of the Constitution’s system of checks and balances.
The opinions here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of the Department of State. This is not legal advice. Consult an immigration lawyer before making any immigration, travel or legal decision.
Here’s the anatomy of a fully made-up “news” story, abetted by a media that could care less to check any fact as long as the story feeds the preconceived notions of its audience.
You remember Khizr Khan (above), the guy who used his soldier son, killed in Iraq, as a prop at the Democratic National Convention to criticize Trump’s immigration policy
and help elect Hillary Clinton? Well, like all good Americans, Khan exploited his exploitation into a minor media career. He was booked to talk in Canada by a speaker’s bureau called Ramsey Talks. A decent gig — tickets ran $89 a seat.
Then Trump supposedly struck. Ramsey Talks released a statement on its Facebook page saying:
Late Sunday evening Khizr Khan, an American citizen for over 30 years, was notified that his travel privileges are being reviewed. As a consequence, Mr. Khan will not be traveling to Toronto on March 7th to speak about tolerance, understanding, unity and the rule of law. Very regretfully, Ramsay Talks must cancel its luncheon with Mr. Khan. Guests will be given full refunds.
Mr. Khan offered his sincere apologies to all those who made plans to attend on March 7th. He said: “This turn of events is not just of deep concern to me but to all my fellow Americans who cherish our freedom to travel abroad. I have not been given any reason as to why. I am grateful for your support and look forward to visiting Toronto in the near future.
A major Canadian broadcast outfit (CTV) ran the story based solely, only, 100% on that single unverified and unsubstantiated Facebook posting, saying the Trump administration interfered with Khan’s “travel privileges” to prevent him from speaking, because of some sort of revenge for Khan’s statements this summer.
The Internet then, as expected, lost its shit.
Twitter boomed, and within an hour or two the story appeared in the New York Times, LA Times, Boston Herald, CNN, Maddow, and across the globe. Every one of those stories was based on nothing but that Facebook post. Reuters, the only outfit that apparently bothered to commit a minor act of journalism and reach out to Khan, was told by him no comment. All of the web’s many experts on stuff became experts on passport law, immigration, naturalization, and visa lore. Amazingly creative theories of “denaturalization of Muslims” were concocted out of thin air.
The only problem is that none of this is true. It in fact could not be true.
The U.S. has no law that deals with reviewing or rescinding “travel privileges.” No U.S. government agency calls people at home to tell them their travel privileges are under review. If, in very, very limited specific legal instances a court has ordered someone not to travel, their passport itself can be revoked in response to that court order. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection people, the State Department, and the government of Canada all eventually denied doing anything to Khan in any way or having anything to do with this story, so please stop calling them to ask.
Khan, or Ramsey Talks, seems to have made this all up.
Now, funny thing, this made-up story about Khan being denied travel hit just as Trump’s new Executive Order (“Muslin Ban 2.0”) was announced. Gee willikers Biff, you think this tale of a Muslim patriot denied travel was timed for that news cycle? Maybe so that when Khan’s speech is rescheduled tickets will be more expensive and sell out faster? Maybe so Khan and/or Ramsey Talks could get a zillion dollars of free publicity? Hah hah, coincidence, amiright?
As I write this, not one of the media outlets that ran with the false story has published a correction, update or apology. The Washington Post has semi-backed away, but left itself plenty of wiggle room in not admitting it was wrong.
The problem is if you Google Khan’s name, the story is still flowing around the web, and is now being cited in unrelated stories as “proof” of whatever else the writer believes is fascism and the end of freedom in America.
BONUS: A source inside CBP tells me that what is most likely to have happened is that Khan’s membership in one of the expedited processing programs was set to expire. These are programs run by private companies that gather information and submit members’ names for background checks to allow them to use expedited processing lanes at the airport when re-entering the United States from a foreign country. Khan/Ramsey likely confused, by accident or on purpose, the expiration of that membership with some nefarious U.S. government action, and the media took it from there. Khan’s only privilege under fire was that of standing in a shorter line at the airport.
Some 1000 employees at the Department of State are said to have signed a formal memo sent through the “Dissent Channel” in late January, opposing President Donald Trump’s Executive Order initially blocking all Syrian refugee admissions indefinitely, delaying other refugees 120 days, prohibiting for 90 days all other travelers (diplomats excluded) from seven Muslim-majority nations, and other immigration-related issues.
What is the Dissent Channel those State employees used? What effect if any will the memo have on policy? What does the memo say to the new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about the organization he now heads, and what will he do about it?
What the State Department calls the Dissent Channel is unique inside the American government. Created in 1971 during the Vietnam War, the system allows Foreign Service officers to express their disagreement with U.S. policy directly to senior leaders. The secretary of state is obliged to read and through his staff respond to all Dissent Channel messages, normally within 30-60 days. Persons using the Channel are fully protected against retaliation. Dissent messages are intended to foster internal dialogue within the State Department, and are never intended for the public.
The issues surrounding the most recent dissent memo begin where that previous sentence ends.
What was once understood to be a way to foster internal dialogue is in this case playing out more like an online petition. Multiple versions of the memo circulated within the State Department globally, with persons adding their signatures and making edits as they opened their email. Someone (no one seems to know exactly who) later allegedly melded the multiple versions into the one that was submitted, meaning some signers did not see the final text until it was leaked.
That leak changed everything, making the exercise less an expression of policy dissent than an anonymous press release sent out from a bureaucratic safe place. The intent in going public seems to be a combination of whining about, provoking, and embarrassing the administration. It is unclear anyone could feel that going to the press would foster greater discussion; actually, the opposite – many diplomats hoping to open a channel for discussion were deeply dismayed the memo went public, followed by anonymous interviews.
As one career ambassador stated regarding another dissent message quickly leaked to the media, State Department officers’ “oath of office is to protect and defend the Constitution, but they are not free to debate publicly with their president… If they want to go public they should resign.”
And indeed that sentiment appeared to be contained, albeit indelicately, in the White House’s initial reaction to the memo. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said of those diplomats who signed that they “should either get with the program, or they can go.”
Spicer, and the ambassador above, touch on a more fundamental issue underlying the dissent memo.
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 not experienced a presidential transition. These employees have never had their oath of service to the Constitution – not to George W. Bush or 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 may be learning they are in the wrong business.
That sense of frustration as much with the man in the Oval Office as with his policy appears evident in the text of the dissent memo, which is long on emotional (core values, nation of immigrants, shame of Japanese-Internment camps, yada-yada), and short on concrete policy other than “we shouldn’t do what the Executive Order says” and suggestions for more vetting and social media monitoring. Potential lost revenue figures are mostly global, not limited to the seven countries, and presume none of the people denied entry will visit another time to spend their money.
There is an extraordinary amount of high-caste rhetoric in the memo that appears to describe a situation that many Middle East travelers might not recognize: the welcoming atmosphere of the United States (as if long waits to pay $160 to apply for a visa, two year or more invasive vetting for refugees stuck abroad, and crude TSA treatment did not previously exist.) The memo speaks of souring relations with Middle Eastern nations, increased anti-American sentiment, and creating the impression of a war based on religion, while somehow overlooking that 15 years of the horrors of the War on Terror (torture, drone kills, wedding parties blown up, Guantanamo) have already accomplished those sordid tasks.
The memo also somewhat dramatically raises the specter of humanitarian issues, a child denied medical care in the U.S. for example, when the Executive Order in Section 3(g) clearly allows for such exceptions to be made on a case-by-case basis. The memo brushes that process off as unworkable, when in fact such exceptional processes exist throughout U.S. immigration law and work just fine – it has been the State Department who has in fact implemented them.
Left unsaid is any commentary on pre-Trump U.S. refugee policy. Since 1980, the United States has accepted fewer than two million refugees overall, and 40 percent of those were simply children accompanying their refugee parent(s). By contrast, though not limited to refugees, the Obama administration alone deported 2.5 million people. The FY2016 American quota for Syrian refugees was 10,000. In contrast, Canada in 2016 took in 25,000. Germany admitted 300,000 refugees from various nations in 2016, following close to one million in 2015.
No dissent memos were publicly released about any of that; while the State Department drafters may not even have been aware of the crude reality of pre-Trump policy as they wrote of a welcoming America, one can bet persons in the Middle East affected by those policies are. Same for the Obama-era illegal and unconstitutional denial of passports to Yemenis. Those actions ended up crushed in Federal court, but received no public dissent from inside State.
The memo concludes with an erroneous statement that Federal employees take an oath to whatever “core American and Constitutional values” are. Sources state the memo was drafted largely by persons new to the State Department, and that clearly shows.
(Of ancillary interest, the memo, written by people who work with the nuts and bolts of visa and immigration law daily, makes no assertions that Trump’s executive order is illegal or unconstitutional, just bad policy.)
So what happens next?
Rex Tillerson’s staff owe the signatories a response. Past experience suggests, and the near-certainty that the response will be leaked within minutes assures, that the reply will be of the “we acknowledge your concerns,” content-free variety. It is possible the response could be delayed until near the actual end of the legal wrangling, long after the media have forgotten the dissent memo ever existed.
In characterizing the dissent memo as unprecedented (it is in the number of signatories, claimed to be 1000, albeit out of a workforce of close to 19,000), many media outlets have raised the question of resignations. Will Tillerson one day find himself in a State Department without diplomats?
Experience suggests no.
There were no known State Department resignations of protest during the 15 years of atrocities known as the War of Terror (as well as no publicly released dissent memos.) At the State Department there were only three resignations of conscience over the 2003 Iraq War, and one other related to Afghanistan. The last time more than a handful of diplomats resigned in protest was at the height of the Vietnam War, arguably a more significant foreign policy event than a temporary visa ban aimed at a handful of countries.
That said, emotions are running high inside the State Department, and one should not be surprised by a handful of resignations (one employee announced his resignation was actually a protest 12 days after he handed in his papers and even though he will remain at work until March, saying without explanation that Trump is a “threat to the Constitution”), a few scheduled retirements mediagenically re-categorized as resignations of protest, and an overreaction to all of that. Just remember outside the Beltway there is little love, or even real knowledge of, the State Department. It is doubtful Trump’s core constituency could give a hoot what happens at Foggy Bottom.
This journalism thingie has gotten so easy, anyone can do it. Let’s play make the fake news funtime!
The elderly may remember the Old Journalism. Back in BT (Before Trump) journalists in mainstream outlets had to gather facts (i.e., true things) from sources (people with names who knew true things) that would withstand fact-checking (looking stuff up, or having a second source confirm stuff.) If you quoted something already established as a fact, you were obligated to link to it.
There were notably exceptions. For example, in 2003, the New York Times simply “believed” everything it was told about Iraq having massive destructive weapons and typed it into the paper. FYI: The Times assisted in generating enthusiasm for the Iraq invasion, helping kill 5,000 Americans and perhaps one million Iraqis! Media such as the National Enquirer and gossip blogs would just make things up, aliens and Bigfoot and all that, but it was with a wink and everyone knew it was fake and for fun.
Then Shazaam! Every media in America miscalled the election for Clinton while Trump won. Media collectively got a sad. They did not know what to do. Certainly admitting they screwed up was not in the cards, nor was accepting that Trump won and moving on. So, they invented Newer Journalism.
It works this way. A reporter, say from the Washington Post, calls up someone who works at say, the State Department, or is called by someone who wants to leak something. It is always bad news about Trump. The reporter types it up word-for-word, and then publishes it to the world as a true thing. In the story the source is anonymous, so no one knows if the reporter spoke to an intern on her third day, or just made it all up. But, and this is important, that doesn’t matter! All that matters is that it is bad news, the more bombastic the better.
From there other media simply repeat the story. But it gets better, because the next media in line says “The Washington Post reports sources inside the Trump administration say…” allowing some crappy blog to inherit whatever credibility the WaPo still clings to. But, and this is important, that doesn’t matter! Because the article will be saying something readers want to believe (“White House policy making is in disarray, everyone will resign by Thursday.”)
Now Thursday will roll around and everyone has not resigned, but, and this is important, that doesn’t matter! The media has moved on to the next story and who the hell goes back and reads last week’s Tweets anyway. Repeat.
The way Trump is being covered reminds me of so-called reporting out of North Korea, or the Cold War Soviet Union. Reporters claimed they could not reveal their sources, and every tiny scrap of an event was inflated into Deep Meaning. Every story warned of catastrophic consequences to follow, that never did. But that’s what Americans wanted to believe about those two countries, and it sold (in those days) newspapers.
So let’s try it. Keep in mind this is entirely made up, especially if you see it reprinted on Rawstory or HuffPo as fact.
Sources inside the State Department who are otherwise not authorized to speak to the media report that rank-and-file diplomats remain dismayed at the treatment given them by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Many are quietly talking about ways to resist, some even going as far as suggesting mass resignations may occur. Some liken it to a Constitutional crisis that could upset an already fragile democracy.
The diplomats — many of whom signed the recent letter of dissent over Trump’s Muslim Ban — claim that Tillerson has not held a full staff meeting since taking office, preferring to work only with a tight circle of advisors from the campaign whom he has dubbed the “Trump Centaurians.” These Centurians have been described as politically motivated, watching Tweets out of the White House for policy guidance.
“They have no idea what they are doing,” said one senior diplomat. “These are people with zero experience inside government talking down to experienced Russia hands in my office. One of these so-called Centaurians used to work for Ivanka’s clothing line. God help us, she’s now in charge of energy policy across the MidEast. It is chaos, pure chaos. Period. Full stop.”
In response to Tillerson, State Department officials have begun to slow-walk requests from the Secretary’s office, with some going as far as withholding information for fear it might be shared with the Kremlin. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see a bunch of people go critical and simply punch out one day,” stated another seasoned diplomat. “And I’m hearing the same thing from friends inside the NSC. I’ve never seen it this bad before, and it’ll get worse.”
Tillerson’s office did not immediately return a request for comment.
See? That took me about ten minutes to crank out. Lunchtime.
Please come join me for a bit of speaking and discussion at Yale University on February 7. The event is free and open to the public.
My speech is part of Yale’s Macmillan Center for Global Justice Program, and I’ll kick off this semester’s slate of speakers. The event will be held in the ground-floor seminar room at 230 Prospect Street beginning at 4:30 pm. No advance tickets or reservations needed.
I’ll offer some thoughts on whistleblowing, my own case as well as those of Manning and Snowden, leading into wider reflections on Iraq, the First Amendment, and what options exist from inside government when one deeply disagrees with specific policies.
Kinda timely stuff.
There will be open discussion and plenty of time for questions. Those who oppose free speech are also welcome to come and punch me in the head.
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.
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.
A report, “Lessons From the Coalition,” emerged from a conference co-hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace (yes, we have one, it is part of the State Department and doesn’t do much but organize events in Washington.) The conference brought together representatives from eleven major donor nations, the EU, UN, World Bank, and NATO to share common experiences and lessons from the Afghan reconstruction effort.
Here’s what they concluded:
— The confluence of conflicting goals and divided actors led to a situation in which countries were often pursuing disparate and sometimes ill-defined missions in Afghanistan. In fact, many nations were unclear as to what they were trying to achieve in Afghanistan.
— Many countries were primarily motivated by their alliance commitments to the United States, rather than specific strategic goals related to Afghanistan, and were often more focused on what was happening in Washington than in Kabul.
— Conference participants were critical of instances when military forces undertook development work, indicating their efforts often ended up costing more and being less effective than those of their civilian counterparts.
— Inability to understand the local context led to projects that unintentionally benefited corrupt officials, threatened local governance, led to escalating violence, sabotage of the project itself, and wasted resources.
— Development projects did not buy security. Participants believed that when development projects occurred in insecure places, the projects either benefited the insurgency or insurgents increased violence to counteract any potential gains.
— One participant referred to the regular turnover of personnel as an “annual lobotomy.”
— Conditions placed on funds were often not credible, as donors were ultimately unwilling to withhold funds that were essential to preventing the collapse of the Afghan government. Afghan officials were aware of these limitations and were able to call donors’ bluffs. When faced with a donor’s conditions, Afghan officials could often obtain funding from another donor.
But, hey, I’m sure they all meant well in their efforts. Hell, someone should write a book about that so no one repeats the same mistakes in the next war.
History loves little markers, tidy packages of symbolism that wrap up a big, complex thing.
You know, the helicopter on the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon standing in for years of failed war, the Berlin Wall being knocked down to visually note the end the Cold War, that sort of thing.
Well, the never-ending-gobsmacker of the Afghan War may have gotten its iconic moment.
Crash and Burn
Afghanistan’s first fixed wing female pilot, Captain Niloofar Rahmani, above, has applied for asylum in the U.S., citing worsening security conditions, and harassment by male colleagues. Rahmani says her family faces serious death threats from the Taliban and her father has had to go into hiding to avoid being killed. The Afghan government even stopped paying Rahmani’s salary, despite earmarks from the U.S. government for funding.
Captain Rahmani noted, as something as an afterthought, the Taliban also continue to make gains across her country even as America’s War for Freedom enters its 16th year of freeing Afghanistan.
Being a Propaganda Tool is Hard Work
As icons went, America loved Rahmani.
Rahmani was once widely hailed in Washington, D.C., where she received the Woman of Courage award from the State Department in 2015 and was personally praised by First Lady Michelle Obama. Rahmani was rolled into an Obama policy move to focus greater attention and resources on adolescent girls through the Let Girls Learn initiative which no one ever heard from again.
The Afghan pilot was even celebrated as a “woman who builds peace, prosperity, and stability,” which just happened to also be a U.S. propaganda slogan for the Afghan war. And sure, what the hell, the State Department threw in that “she will not be intimidated and she will not be silenced.”
Rahami also had her own Twitter, in English of course, but not updated in over a year. “Her” last tweet– “#Salute to the #daughter of nation #Flying #Officer #Marium embraced $shahadat today #Mianwali The few the proud…” And that Rahami was photogenic by coincidence was not unnoticed.
The Captain summed it all up — her femaleness represented American goals of empowering women, her chosen career as a killer was in line with U.S. plans to destroy the Taliban, and her being in the Afghan Air Force seemed to justify the $3.7 billion U.S. tax dollars expended to create an indigenous Afghan fighting force.
So it’s just a neat kick in the Uncle Sam ass for Rahmani, in the United States for all sorts of expensive training, to bail out and request asylum after 15 months in America training via photo ops and not fighting any Taliban. Why, it’s as if the entire war in Afghanistan itself was merely a lengthy exercise in Potemkin foreign policy…
BONUS: Here’s George W. Bush posing with some Iraqi women of courage or whatever from that war. I love that photo.
The Washington Post, quickly followed by the New York Times and NPR and many others, headlined a story that Trump’s transition team asked the State Department for a list of programs and jobs aimed at promoting gender equality.
Rattled and Freaked Out!
The Times, citing anonymous sources, claimed the request “rattled State Department employees concerned that the incoming administration will roll back a cornerstone project of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.”
The Los Angeles Times quoted an anonymous senior State Department official as saying “People are freaked out.”
The Washington Post reported another anonymous source (as these all the same person?) as saying the request is “stoking fears of another witch hunt.” The Post did not detail where the earlier witchhunt had taken place to make this one “another.”
Reality: It’s Routine, Folks
The tone of the articles was bombastic, and implied something unique and insidious was going on. By itself, the request means nothing. But in reality, the request is normal and routine.
Every party transition in Washington includes information gathering; how else would the incoming staff know what they have ahead of them? Offices across the State Department (as well as every other cabinet agency) are flooded with demands for program and budget information, position lists, endless emails asking “Who handles this issue?” and “Where do things stand on Programs X and Y?”
It is thus absolutely no surprise, and certainly not news, that an email went out to relevant offices in State asking about “existing programs and activities to promote gender equality, such as ending gender-based violence, promoting women’s participation in economic and political spheres, entrepreneurship, etc.”
The email also requested a list of positions “whose primary functions are to promote such issues,” though not the names of people in those positions.
There are likely hundreds of identical requests, on different subjects, now circulating within State. I joined the State Department in 1988 and was employed through the transitions from Reagan to Bush to Clinton to Another Bush to Obama, and helped respond to such requests for information myself. In well-prepared offices, knowing such requests are routine and expected, the basic information would have been gathered even as the election was taking place. Somebody was going to ask.
So Why is the Media Reporting Inaccurately?
Assuming the anonymous sources cited by the media include someone other than a former intern’s roommate a reporter met on Tinder, why might the State Department people be “rattled and freaked out” by something so routine?
The simplest answer is about half of the Foreign Service Officer corps has been with State for less than eight years, meaning they have never experienced a party transition, and have served only under the Obama administration. They have no experience with any of this, and likely have bosses with at best one transitional experience. Most of these people have never had their commitment to serving the executive branch, no matter who is in the White House, tested. And senior management not communicating with the lower ranks is a long-standing State Department issue.
But the deeper explanation touches on the levels of hysteria across America following the failure of Hillary Clinton to get herself elected president.
As an organization, the State Department went all-in supporting Hillary Clinton, slow-walking the release of her emails, using Freedom of Information Act and classification games to redact significant content, and generally doing everything it could to protect the former Secretary of State. Many of State’s gender-based program were signature initiatives of Clinton, and track with the personal politics of many State employees. They are (correctly) certain they and these programs are unlikely to find many new friends in the incoming administration.
Bad Reporting With an Impact Far Beyond the State Department
Nonetheless, the impact of the sadly low-level of mainstream reporting on details of the transition is serious.
The seasoned reporters and editors at places like the New York Times know damn well what is and is not routine in a transition. Yet they reported inaccurately and bombastically nonetheless.
The media is speaking to an audience predisposed to believe every panicky story that can be shoveled out (remember the apocalyptic tales from early November that Trump would never be able to fill his political appointee positions, or that the transition was fatally behind schedule? The unfounded rumors of mass resignations inside the Federal government?)
The media’s near-obsession with inaccurate reporting on all things Trump, seeking to paint every detail of the president elect as not only negative, but pernicious, is in part what lead to the breakdown of accurate predictions right into election evening, and loss of credibilty by the media.
More significantly, some notable portion of those who voted for Trump did so out of a sense of disenfranchisement, a disconnection between themselves and Washington DC. In the Internet age, debunking of inaccurate and/or misleading reporting, such as with the routine request for information above, are more widely available than ever.
Thus, outside the Clinging-to-Clinton bubble, more people than ever have such resources available to them, and can thus more readily see through stories whose purpose is to tell “deplorables” that they voted wrong.
For those Democrats and Progressives hoping not to repeat the election disaster of 2016 in the 2018 midterms, or heaven forbid, in 2020, such media coverage is excessively harmful. Like full fat ice cream, it sure tastes good now, but boy is it bad for you in the long run.
Don’t believe me about the routine nature of the Trump administration’s request for information out of State? Believe this site instead.
So what better use of taxpayer money and time than for your State Department to make idiotic holiday videos?
Acting like an asshat is something of a State tradition year-round, but these annual videos seek to memorialize it. The very broad theory is that these things “humanize” American foreign policy in a way drones do not, and because they get lots of “clicks,” prove those foreigners really do love us after all. Of course, lots of people slow down for gory car wrecks, too.
A theme this year is American Embassy staff acting wacky and speaking their host country’s languages poorly, and thinking that is hilarious. Why, those goofy foreign words! Good thing everybody overseas speak English, amiright? Can anyone imagine a foreign ambassador in the United States going on YouTube and speaking sad, broken English like he’s Sasha Baron Cohen? Hah, the comedy Christmas Americanski joking time!
Anyway, it’s social media and that’s a good thing, right?
Those who are worried about the loss of respect for America under the coming administration should console themselves knowing there is little left to lose.
The loquacious American ambassador in Seoul:
Tokyo, featuring the ambassador dressed as Santa:
And here’s the U.S. Embassy crowd in Manila (skip ahead to about 1:00 for wacky funs)
Well, sure, it is an extreme course of action, and not one to be considered with the same hangover I have this morning, you may want to keep your options open. So, here is a basic guide to renouncing your American citizenship.
It seems like the most basic of things: the ability to give up one’s American citizenship. But it’s not; the American government must approve your renunciation of citizenship and can say NO, no matter how loudly you say YES. Of course, there are forms to be filled out.
And taxes. Potentially lots of taxes.
The Very Basics
You have to be an American citizen. If you only think you might be, no matter that the Swiss authorities say you are, or what grandma told you, you have to be a full-fledged, documented American, or the renunciation process stops. You can only renounce while overseas. You must have another nationality, and be able to prove it, because the U.S. government will not take part in something that will render you stateless. Only an adult can renounce, and no one can renounce on behalf of someone else, including children.
You can’t renounce your citizenship for the explicit purpose of avoiding U.S. taxes, or to try and skip on an arrest warrant, go AWOL from the military, or otherwise evade the law. You also can’t be of unsound mind.
The Other Basics
Despite what you may see on TV or in the movies, there is only one way to voluntarily renounce citizenship. You can’t do it by tearing up your American passport, or writing a manifesto. It’s done by appointment only.
You start by making an appointment at the nearest American embassy or consulate. You technically can complete the renunciation procedures anywhere a properly-empowered American diplomat will meet you abroad, but in reality it is unlikely s/he will drop by your villa, or come by your prison cell.
At the embassy (the rules are the same at a consulate) you’ll fill out some forms. You can Google and complete, but not sign them, ahead of time if you wish: DS-4079, DS-4080, DS-4081, and DS-4082. Have a look; most of the requested information is pretty vanilla stuff, and is largely to make sure you understand what you are doing and the consequences of doing it.
The reason for making sure of all that making sure stuff is two-fold.
One, the State Department, who handles all this, has been sued by people in the past who claim they were tricked or mislead and did not know what they were doing, and want their citizenship back. The other reason is that barring certain highly-specific situations, renouncing citizenship is a one-way street. The U.S. government considers it a permanent, unrecoverable, irrevocable, decision. You gotta get it right the first time.
At the embassy, one or more staff will go over everything with you, you’ll swear to everything and sign everything. You can usually (but not always, practices vary from embassy to embassy) have a lawyer with you, but often all of the interaction is between you and the embassy people, and is pretty straightforward.
At larger embassies, particularly at the American embassies in places like Canada and the UK, renunciations are frequent, regular parts of a day’s business, and are handled in most cases almost mechanically. Expect them to have to look stuff up and maybe call you back the next day if you try this in some remote African post.
That’s why some Americans suggest more cumbersome processing has taken place at smaller consulates unfamiliar with the process. Persons far from home, such as an American resident in Japan seeking to renounce in Portugal while on vacation, may encounter difficulties. The overall feeling most renunciants encounter is that of a bureaucrat more concerned with getting his paperwork in order than really caring about your life-altering decision. It is rare that the embassy official will actively try to dissuade you, though some may poke at it. Just smile and say thanks.
After your brief appointment at the embassy, all the paperwork goes off to Washington, where your renunciation is approved or denied. The embassy can but is not required to write a memo regarding your case. Those memos, when written, usually argue against approval. In an extreme version, such a memo might say “Mr. Roberts appeared unorganized in thought, and was unable at times to focus on the documents in front of him. He referred often to a Swedish dog who was guiding his actions, and stated his goal in renunciation was to assume the Swedish throne.” It happens.
No one at the embassy can approve or deny your application to renounce. That is done by someone you will never meet, located in Washington, DC. Without that approval, you remain an American citizen. Approval is formally made by issuing a DS-4083, called the CLN, Certificate of Loss of Nationality. Think of this document as an “un-birth certificate.”
CLNs are processed slowly; it can several months or more for yours to be approved or denied. They are usually mailed out to you.
Oh, yes, one more thing.
You have to pay a fee for all this. Note it is a “processing fee,” meaning you pay it whether or not your renunciation is ultimately approved. As the world’s exceptional nation, the U.S. also has the highest fees in the world to renounce citizenship, a cool $2,350 per case, with no family discounts. By comparison, Canada charges it’s soon-to-be-former citizens only $76; for the Japanese and Irish it is free.
Despite these hurdles and costs, in 2015, 4,279 Americans bid Uncle Sam farewell, up 20% from 2014. That’s the third year in a row that’s set a new record. While the U.S. government generally states that every case is a unique, heartfelt choice, the not-so-secret reason behind most renunciations is America’s rapacious tax laws.
Taxes, Taxes, Taxes
If you are a high-wealth individual, this stuff gets complicated, and expensive, very quickly.
After losing your American citizenship, you file a final tax return for your time as a citizen for the period January 1 through the day your renunciation is approved. In addition to all the other tax forms needed for your situation, you must also include IRS Form 8854, the Expatriation Information Statement, otherwise known as the exit tax form. Almost no one files this without help from a tax professional.
Form 8854 is targeted at “covered expatriates,” former American citizens who have a large net worth, certain tax burdens or owe back taxes. The numbers vary from year-to-year and are subject to all the manipulations the U.S. tax code is full of, so actual figures can be slippery. As a very rough guide, while net worth for this purpose is measured in the millions, a yearly tax burden of about $160,000 can trigger things.
There are many, many websites and forums discussing taxes for former American citizens. Many of those sites are well-meaning, some even accurate to an extent. One of the oldest is run by the non-profit group American Citizens Abroad.
But taxes in the American scheme are very much based on an individual’s personal situation, so anything short of specific advice from a competent tax professional is sort of just a way to pass time waiting for your CLN to arrive.
A good way to think of the process of renunciation is that you need to exit two American systems — passports and taxes — and join another set of foreign ones. Miss a step and trouble will follow. This is not a quick process. Patience and good legal/tax advice are requirements.
After you have successfully renounced your American citizenship, you are, well, no longer an American.
That means (for example) as Swede you must follow all the U.S. immigration laws applicable to Swedes visiting, working or otherwise in the U.S. You suddenly become a Swede in the eyes of wherever in the world you do live, whatever that means for say, a Swede living in Mongolia. So if your working visa for Mongolia was in your U.S. passport, you may not have a valid visa anymore. Some former Americans instantly become eligible for a military draft in their “new” country.
And dammit, you may still have tax obligations in the U.S. depending on what you own there in terms of investments and property and…
Renunciation of citizenship is an extremely significant decision, with life-changing social, economic and other considerations. This article is for general information purposes only, and is not legal advice. Persons considering renunciation should consult an attorney and financial-tax planner. Any opinions expressed here are the author’s personal beliefs and do not represent those of any former employer.
There are many reasons why Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey is interested in the emails on Anthony Weiner’s home computer, emails which may include United States government information pertinent to Hillary Clinton or those communicating with her.
The majority of those reasons for Comey’s involvement, for good or for bad depending on your political position, have been laid out across the media spectrum.
But there may be one more reason not yet discussed. Since we seem to be spending so much time this election cycle on the Russians this year, let’s think like Russian intelligence officers. Comey may be looking at an intelligence operation.
Professional intelligence officers do not risk international incidents to play the equivalent of pranks on nation states, say by embarrassing the Democratic National Committee with leaked documents months before the election. That’s Wikileaks level stuff. No, when you want to rig an election, you rig an election. Have a look at the way the CIA historically manipulated elections — assassinations, massive demonstrations, paid off protesters and journalists, serious stuff that directly affected leaders and votes. You don’t mess around with half-measures.
Now have a look at the Edward Snowden documents, and the incredible efforts the National Security Agency went to to gather information, and then let’s think like intelligence officers. The world of real “spies” is all about “the take,” information. Putin (or Obama, or…) doesn’t likely have on his desk a proposal to risk cyberwar to expose a CNN contributor for handing over debate questions. He wants more of hard information he can use to make decisions about his adversary. What is Obama (or Putin, et al) thinking, what are his plans, what are his negotiating points ahead of the next summit… information at a global strategic level.
That’s worth risking retaliation, maybe even a confrontation, for. So let’s think like intelligence officers. How do you get to that kind of stuff?
How the great game of intelligence gathering works is in the end very basic: who has access to the information you want, what are their vulnerabilities, and how do you exploit those vulnerabilities to get to the information. What do they want and how can you give it to them?
Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State had access to extraordinarily sensitive information, both classified and unclassified. Huma Abedin is arguably the most powerful person in Clinton’s circle, and had access to much or all of that pool of information. What Huma knows would be of great interest to Moscow.
How to get the info? Huma’s husband is a publicly outed sexual predator. Everyone in the world knows he sexts, trolls online message boards, and seemingly does little to hide his identity while doing it all. He is a target, the kind of dream package of vulnerabilities an intelligence officer waits a whole career to have fall into their lap.
Baiting the trap appears to be easy. As recently as August Weiner was in a flirty chat with someone he thought was a young woman named Nikki, but was actually Nikki’s male, Republican friend using the account in order to manipulate him (Weiner later claimed he knew he was being set up.)
So perhaps for the Russians, contacting Weiner would have been as easy as posting a few fake sexy photos and waiting for him to take a bite. Placing malware on his computer to see what was there was as easy as trading a few more sexy photos with him. He clicks, he loads the malware, NSA 101 level stuff. An intelligence officer then has access to Weiner’s computer, as well as his home wireless network, and who knows what else. An Internet-enabled nanny cam? A smartphone camera? Huma’s own devices?
To be fair, I doubt any intelligence agent could have believed their own eyes when they realized Weiner’s computer was laden with (presumably unencrypted) official U.S. government documents. Depending on the time period the documents covered, it is possible the Russian intelligence could have been reading Clinton’s mail in near-real time. Somebody in Moscow may have gotten a helluva promotion this year.
If I was a sloppy journalist these days, I guess I could package all this for you by claiming it came from “several anonymous government officials. Instead, you know it’s all made up. Just like a spy novel. Because no real intelligence agent could have put these pieces together like this.
The U.S. spends spends $5 billion of your tax money a year in “aid” to Afghanistan, plus billions more for the cost of the thousands of American troops and Pentagon-sponsored military contractors there.
An “Epidemic of Graft”
One of the (many) reasons why all that money has accomplished close to jack squat in 15 years of war is corruption. Extraordinary amounts of U.S. money simply disappears, siphoned off at high levels, passed on as bribes to suppliers and Taliban hustlers at the lower levels. It is, according to one study, an “epidemic of graft.”
Transparency International ranks Afghanistan as one of the top five most corrupt countries in the world (Iraq, another U.S. project, is also in the top tier.) The UN says half of Afghans paid a bribe in 2012; that figure was as high as 70 percent in some areas of the country. The same survey found that corruption was roughly tied with security as the issue of greatest concern to Afghans.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) assessed corruption in Afghanistan “has become pervasive, entrenched, systemic, and by all accounts now unprecedented in scale and reach.” The U.S. Department of Defense Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote, “corruption alienates key elements of the population, discredits the government and security forces, undermines international support, subverts state functions and rule of law, robs the state of revenue, and creates barriers to economic growth.”
Of course USAID and the Department of Defense are who spends that $5 billion a year in Afghanistan that drives the corruption.
Afghanistan’s High Office of Oversight
So to get this all cleaned up, the U.S. helped birth Afghanistan’s High Office of Oversight (HOO), a big deal part of the Made in America Afghan government stuck together like very expensive Legos to create democracy. And since the U.S. sort of made/paid for the HOO, it was somebody’s idea (the Special Inspector for Afghan Reconstruction, SIGAR) to inspect the HOO.
Here’s what they found:
— The HOO suffers from a lack of independence and authority to fulfill its mandate, lacks enforcement power, and has failed to register and verify asset declarations of senior politicians. An HOO advisor said “the HOO was never anything more than window dressing designed to keep the international community happy.”
— Of the 47 Afghan officials who left office between 2008 and 2014, only eight complied with the Afghan constitutional mandate to submit an asset declaration form.
— Further stymying enforcement efforts was the unwillingness of the Afghan Attorney General’s Office to investigate corruption cases. Some of those cases referred involved embezzlement, bribery, and forgery ranging as high as $100 million.
— Although former President Karzai declared cash in two German bank accounts, he did not provide the bank account numbers for verification. Additionally, he declared personal effects in the form of jewelry but did not provide the owner’s name, the purchase cost, or the date of purchase.
— Second Vice President Mohammad Karim Khalili stated he had no cash nor any personal effects.
— SIGAR reviewed 27 top officials under the current administration who were required to submit asset declaration forms to the HOO for verification. As of March 2016, the HOO reported that it verified one asset declaration form.
The war in Afghanistan is ready to enter its 16th year (if it was a kid it’s be ready to start driving) and by most definitions is pretty much a bust.
Despite that, both mainstream candidates have made it clear in public statements they intend to continue pouring money — and lives — into that suppurating sore of American foreign policy. Despite that, there has been no mention of the war in two debates.
Anyway, while we worry a lot about who call who naughty names in the final presidential debate, can you check around where you live and let me know if your town could use a new hospital, all paid for by someone else’s tax dollars, you know, free to you? ‘Cause that’s the deal Afghanistan got from the USG, only even that turned into a clusterfutz when no one paid much attention to how the facility was thrown together.
There’s a photo, above, of the actual $14.6 million hospital. Seriously.
And so again we turn to the latest reporting from the saddest people in government, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR). SIGAR just slit its wrists in depression after publishing an inspection report on the $14.6 million U.S.-funded Gardez Hospital.
The inspection notes:
— USAID, through one of its partners, awarded a $13.5 million contract to construct the 100-bed hospital by 2011. About five years after that deadline passed and after a cost increase to $14.6 million, the Gardez hospital is mostly complete.
— SIGAR found deficiencies with the hospital’s fire safety system, including a lack of emergency lighting system, exit signs pointing in the wrong direction, and missing fire alarms.
— And although the International Building Code requires hospitals to have full automatic fire suppression sprinkler systems, no one required the contractor to install any. Instead, the contract required it somehow only install the pipes, valves, fittings, and connections for the system, but not the water pump, nozzles, and several other parts to provide a complete and workable system.
— Poor workmanship includes cracks in the roadways and parking areas, crumbling sidewalks, leaking roofs, cracked exterior plaster, peeling paint, and rusted hardware on the security gates. SIGAR brought a total of 42 deficiencies involving poor workmanship to USAID’s over a year ago. Only 13 have been fixed.
— The hospital’s steam boiler system had not been installed correctly and had missing and damaged parts, a situation described as “dangerous.”
— The Afghan government estimates it will cost $2.3 million annually to operate and maintain the 100-bed Gardez hospital, which is almost four times the cost to operate the 70-bed hospital that it is replacing. SIGAR found no evidence that USAID had conducted any analysis to determine whether the ministry had the ability to operate and maintain the new health facility, but just built it anyway.
Social Media Uber Alles
Despite the reality that propaganda in wartime is as old as dirt, America collectively is freaking out because a lot of ISIS’ takes place on social media. The elderly and feeble who run our government do not understand The Online gizmos and thus are terrified of them and declare they must be turned off with a big switch somewhere.
The young who serve them and understand little outside their own online bubbly life, all want to get ahead and so are eager to “engage” in online warfare with ISIS as if it was all just a cooler version of Pokemon Go.
So it was without meaning or surprise that the Obama Administration announced that Twitter traffic to pro-ISIS accounts has fallen 45 percent in the past two years.
American Strikes Back in the Twitter Wars
See, two years ago the administration put together an international coalition that’s mostly just America to fight ISIS, with one of the goals being to discourage the popularity of the group online. The “coalition” has been unsuccessful, making “gaffes” that seem, um, amateur. For example, a lot of the content was written solely in English, which sort of didn’t help in that a lot of ISIS people read only Arabic or whatever Chechens speak.
The State Department, who is in charge of all this media-ing, also spent $1.5 million of your taxpayer money earlier this year making a TV drama for Afghans saying ISIS is bad. Silicon Valley executives even met with top government officials to “game out” strategies to counter Islamic State online.
There’s been ever so much “messaging” over the last two years. One example is that in honor of #HumanRightsDay 2015, the State Department’s “Think Again Turn Away” program Twittered and Facebooked out the message of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a discredited Islamophobe who says things like Islam itself is a death cult. In 2007, she called for the west to destroy Islam using military force.
Also, in a whole-of-government effort, everyone calls ISIS “Daesh,” which supposedly is a meany word in Arabic. I guess the idea is that in a war for minds, sending every ISIS fighter to bed angry at being called a name by the Secretary of State is a thing.
But It’s All Better Now
According to an Administration spokesperson, the coalition now uses “memes” — like a teddy bear that says ISIS “slaughters childhood” — written in Arabic. And Anonymous declared war on ISIS with, most recently, a member shaming ISIS by hacking their accounts and posting sexy photos of women. The same group once hacked an ISIS web site and replaced it with a Viagra ad. Laffs!
The only problem of course is that ISIS seems to have no problem recruiting people to replace those killed by the “coalition.” Could it be… that U.S. actions on the ground stomping on Muslims, and U.S. actions from the air droning women and children, and U.S. actions garrisoning Muslim lands, could possibly play more of a role in ISIS recruitment than 140 characters on Twitter?
This one’s a double play: the U.S. government is wasting your tax money on stupid videos while at the same time no doubt angering the very people they are somehow trying to impress.
So the video above was made, using your tax dollars and on official government time, by the Public Diplomacy staff at the American Consulate in Karachi, Pakistan. As you can see, a Pakistani traditional dancer was hired, and alongside him were placed various overweight American State Department officials to act like *ssclowns.
See, they can’t do the dance right, so it’s a funny! It’s on YouTube! It’s groovy social media! And it has all of 380 hits!
The saddest part is that the stated mission of Public Diplomacy staff abroad is to enhance America’s image, make us some friends, that hearts and minds stuff. So it is only in a parallel universe that the staff could imagine the video above could be helping with any of those goals. Indeed, in many parts of the world, fat American’s mocking a local tradition is not seen as funny at all, but actually as a serious insult.
Oh yeah, the Taliban are like a big problem in Pakistan and they are no doubt seriously in favor of the Americans creating their propaganda videos for them.
Maybe not in Pakistan. Maybe the Pakistanis have a wacky sense of humor roughly the same as a 28-year-old ex-sorority member now employed by the State Department who cannot conceive of how a skit that went over so well during senior year Rush Week would fail overseas.
FUN FACT: Foreign governments with offices in the U.S. do not seem to make these kinds of videos. They seem almost exclusively, uniquely, the product of American diplomacy.
We’re instituted full background checks, body scanners and cavity searches at my home for all guests and pets (can’t be too careful!), which keeps me pretty busy, so this will be a short post. Because they hate our freedoms, we’ve taken them away for safekeeping.
So here’s our fun thing for today: reflecting. So let’s get started:
State of Things September 11, 2001
— There was no Islamic State.
— Syria and Libya were peaceful places more or less.
— There was no global refugee crisis.
— There was no Saudi war ongoing in Yemen.
— Iraq opposed Iran, helping establish a balance of power in the Middle East. Any danger Saddam was worth was contained by the no-fly zones and had been, successfully, since 1991.
— Iran’s plans were cooled by an enemy on its western border, Iraq, and one on its eastern border, the Taliban.
— The Taliban controlled much of Afghanistan.
— The U.S. was not at war, and 4,486 Americans had not died in Iraq and 1,935 had not died in Afghanistan. A bunch o’ brown people were still alive. Suicide was not the most common cause of death in our military.
— The U.S. was not known as a torturer, a keeper of secret prisons, an assassin with drones.
— The Saudis were America’s friend and helped finance jihad (in Afghanistan.)
— America was represented abroad primarily by diplomats.
— Americans at home were secure, protected from abuses by their government by the First and Fourth Amendments.
State of Things September 11, 2016
— There is an Islamic State (and still an al Qaeda) that makes war across the Middle East and commits terrorism in Europe.
— Syria and Libya are failed states, at war, and sanctuaries for Islamic State and al Qaeda.
— There is a global refugee crisis that threatens the stability of Europe.
— There is a Saudi war ongoing in Yemen.
— Iran has become a dominant power in the Middle East, with well-established ties in Iraq and Afghanistan.
— The Taliban control much of Afghanistan.
— The U.S. government actively and continuously spies on Americans, particularly through electronic means. Once aimed only abroad, the NSA now devotes a substantial portion of its mighty resources inside the U.S.
— The U.S. government drone assassinates American Citizen abroad without trial.
— The Saudis were America’s friend and help finance jihad (in Afghanistan, Syria, maybe for a day in New York.)
— We’re all scared as hell about terrorism all the time.
Crystal is the traditional material of the 15th anniversary gift. Fitting, in that it breaks easily.
Last night’s MSNBC Commander-in-Chief Forum featured two candidates who couldn’t be more in love — with “The Troops.”
The troops were spoken of as if they were a they, maybe that group huddled outside smoking or something. Both Trump and Clinton made it clear they are ready to do anything to support the troops. Good, we owe the troops a lot for having to take the big hits for some dumb foreign policy decisions.
But it is only Hillary who cites her “experience,” so let’s take a look at that. Specifically, during the years she was secretary of state, how did her organization implement veterans preferences in hiring new Foreign Service Officers (FSOs; America’s diplomats)?
Bottom Line Up Front: Vets got the short end of the stick at State.
Veterans preference as we talk about it here is a set of laws and regulations within the Federal government that gives eligible veterans preference in hiring over many other applicants. In accordance with Title V, United States Code, Section 2108 (5 USC 2108), veterans’ preference eligibility is based on dates of active duty service, receipt of a campaign badge, Purple Heart, and/or a service-connected disability. It can get complicated, but the basic idea is to give vets a leg up in the hiring process over other applicants.
While most Federal agencies apply a points-based preference system to veterans right at the time of first application, where it will do the most good, Hillary’s State Department said no. Her leadership basically negated most of the preference and all of the goal, as well as maintaining several vet-unfriendly policies.
State’s FSO hiring process is slow, employing a number of steps/hurdles to thin down a large pool of wannabe-diplomats. Let’s see how it handles vets.
FSOs are not political appointees, but rather professional career positions. The steps to are pass a long written exam, then if you do that pass an essay test (“QEP”), then if you do that pass a full-day oral exam, then if you do that pass medical, security and “suitability” tests. The few applicants left at that point are placed on a register, a rank ordered list based on intended job title. So a person who makes it through all of the hurdles can end up number 23 on the list of future economic officers. If State only needs 22 people, you’re SOL my friend. Usually 18 months after entering the list, if you aren’t hired, you’re dropped and can do nothing more than start over.
In other words, the vet gets no preference for the written test, the essay test, the oral test, and the medical, security or suitability tests. During those s/he competes with the masses of college students who typically make up the applicant pool.
State’s veterans preference basically amounts to “not much.”
On November 9, 2009, Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13518, Employment of Veterans in the Federal Government, which established the Veterans Employment Initiative. The Initiative is a strategic approach to helping the men and women who have served our country in the military find employment in the Federal Government. State’s contribution? All of an aging website populated with generic links.
Oh, sorry, State also set up an online forum for vets. There are all of nine threads. To the extend that State answers inquiries, the responses are generic links or suggestions to email someone else.
As you can imagine, the process for all applicants to become an FSO takes a l-o-n-g time, 12-18 months for most. In order to have a job when s/he leaves the service, a military person has to figure out a way to do all those required steps while still in the military. Maybe not so hard if you’re stationed to a Navy facility outside Washington, DC, real hard if you’re sitting in the sh*t in Afghanistan.
And that oral exam? Needs to be done only in person on an assigned day, and almost always at a single location in Washington. College kids hop on the bus from Boston; military folks, well, hopefully First Sergeant will loan you his frequent flyer miles to get there.
State also does not offer any special credit for foreign languages earned in the service, even with a Department of Defense official score, over another applicant self-reporting her wonderfulness in Chinese. Same for any military skills, included very applicable things such as intelligence work, civil affairs, judge advocate and the like. State loves to talk about the value of leadership skills, but does not offer vets any special treatment even if they’ve lead a brigade in combat. Nope, same line for everyone, take your place in the back, soldier.
BOTTOM LINE TIME: What did Hillary do as secretary of state for the troops? Not a hell of a lot.
And here’s Hillary with some troops she really loves, Libyans:
The United States government spent over $42,000 per Afghan to create 500 jobs over there.
And that’s the good news. The ever-cheerful Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR; we have been paying to rebuild Afghanistan for the past 15 years with no end in sight) just released their inspection report on the State Department/USAID-funded Bagrami Industrial Park.
The inspection notes:
— USAID awarded a $10 million contract to Technologists, for the development of the industrial park. After modifications, the contract’s value increased to $21.1 million. So sorta more than double what it was supposed to cost you, the taxpayer.
— As a result of some missing documents, including the record of final payment, USAID could not say when Bagrami Industrial Park was “completed” or when the park was transferred to the Afghans.
— The contractor, despite doubling the cost, did not include adequate water and sewer systems. So, the Instead, the Afghan Ministry of Finance had to use additional U.S. funds to buy water from a nearby textile factory.
— Because of the lack of proper sewage systems, the park’s remaining factories release industrial contaminants into the streets. This creates ongoing health risks to workers as well as to the local residents in the surrounding neighborhood.
— In 2011 the park employed 2,200 people, still short of its 3,000 employee goal. By 2015 the number of employees had decreased to about 700. That dropped in June 2016 to about 500 workers.
Rebuttal: On its website, contractor Technologists states the Bagrami Industrial Park “is professionally managed and offers investors clear land titles, perimeter security and entry-control points, secure parking, electrical power, clean water, and wastewater removal [and] the park has already attracted almost $50 million in investments and has created more than 30,000 direct and indirect jobs.”
No details are available on the cost of the Bagrami sign, shown above.
The United States over the weekend denied travel to a former British ambassador, Craig Murray, who was also a British diplomat for some 30 years, and is the author of several books.
Murray has stood twice for election to the House of Commons. He was “honored” by being thrown out of Uzbekistan by its repressive government after risking his life to expose appalling human rights abuses there. He is not a terrorist and is not a social media jihadi. He has no criminal record, no connection to drug smuggling, and does have a return ticket, a hotel reservation and ample funds to cover his expenses.
He is however seen as a threat to the United States.
Ambassador Murray was headed to the U.S. this week to be Master of Ceremonies at an award ceremony honoring John Kiriakou, the CIA torture whistleblower. Kiriakou was the only U.S. government official to go to jail in connection with the torture program, and all he did was help expose it to the media. The event is sponsored by Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence (of which I am a member.)
Murray has also spoken in support of Wikileaks’ Julian Assange. Hmm. Might have something to do with this visa problem.
No one has told Murray why he cannot travel to the U.S., though he has been here numerous times over the past 38 years. Murray learned of his travel bar when applying for the online clearance the U.S. requires of all “visa free” travelers. Murray was electronically informed to contact the State Department to see if he might qualify otherwise.
Ambassador Murray was stopped by what the State Department and Homeland Security calls “a hit.”
What happens is dozens of American intelligence agencies pour names into a vast database, which includes everyone from Osama bin Laden (his name has allegedly never been removed in some sort of reverse tribute) to the latest ISIS thug to all sorts of others who have little or no actual reason to be there, such as Murray.
The likely salient part of the database in Murray’s case is called CLASS, part of the Consular Consolidated Database. It is the largest known data warehouse in the world. As of December 2009, the last time information was available, it contained over 100 million cases and 75 million photographs, and has a current growth rate of approximately 35,000 records per day.
When one of those persons labeled a bad guy applies for entry or a visa to the U.S., the computer generates a hit. A hit is enough to deny anyone a visa-free trip to the U.S. with no further questions asked and no information given. Technically, the traveler never even officially knows he was “a hit.”
Bang, you’re dead.
If Murray chooses to follow the process through and formally applies for a visa to the United States, the State Department in London will only then examine the hit. In 99.9999 percent of the cases, all the State Department official will see in their computer is a code that says “Contact Washington,” officially a Security Advisory Opinion, or SAO.
The State person abroad will most often have no idea why they are refusing to issue a visa, just that they can’t. They sign their name to a blank check of a refusal. They make a potentially life-altering decision about someone with no idea what the evidence against them, if any, is. The traveler of course has no chance to rebut or clarify, because they too have no idea what is being held against them. There is no substantive appeal process and of course everything in the files is likely classified.
The “contact Washington” message triggers a namecheck process in DC that rumbles around the intelligence community looking for someone who knows why the U.S. government wants to keep Murray out of the United States next week. That process can take anywhere from weeks to forever, and taking forever is one strategy the U.S. uses when it just wants some troublesome person to go away. For politically motivated cases such as Murray’s, that is what is most likely to happen: not much. Murray may thus never learn why he cannot travel to the United States.
That is what free speech (and free speech covers not only what people say, but what people, Americans in this case, in America may choose to listen to) is about in 2016.
America is now afraid of people like Ambassador Craig Murray.
BONUS: Murray has only been denied travel to one other country, Uzbekistan. Such is the company America now keeps.
MORE BONUS: Those who think this is the first time the U.S. has used a visa denial to stop free speech, please see the case of scholar Tariq Ramadan, denied the opportunity to teach at Notre Dame. There have been many more such cases, albeit less mediagenic. This is policy now for America, not an exception.
There is a nasty pattern in American political speech, going back into the 1980s at least: when a senior U.S. official labels you a thug, often times wars follow. Thug is the safest word of American Exceptionalism.
So it is with some concern that lots of folks are pushing each other away from the mic to call Putin a thug (fun fact: Putin has been in effective charge of Russia for 15 years. As recently as the Hillary Clinton Secretary of State era, the U.S. sought a “reset” of relations with him.)
While the current throwing of the term thug at Putin is tied to the weak evidence presented publicly linking a Russian hacker under Putin’s employ to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee computers, there may be larger issues in the background. But first, a sample of the rhetoric.
Putin the Thug
Obama on Putin: “a thug who doesn’t understand his own best interests.”
Mario Rubio on Putin: “A gangster and a thug.”
Paul Ryan’s spokesperson on Putin: “Russia is a global menace led by a devious thug.”
John McCain on Putin: “A bully and thug.”
And for fun, Sir Peter Westmacott, Britain’s ambassador to the U.S. in 2014, on Putin: “A thug and a liar.”
Thugs in American Military Adventurism
That word, thug, seems to be a sort of dog whistle that when blown signals Americans and their media to psyche up for a new fight. For example:
John Kerry on Bashar Assad: “A thug and murderer.”
John Kerry on Islamic State: “Daesh [ISIS] is in fact nothing more than a mixture of killers, of kidnappers, of criminals, of thugs, of adventurers, of smugglers and thieves.”
George W. Bush on al Qaeda: “If we let down our guard against this group of thugs, they will hurt us again.”
George W. Bush on Saddam Hussein: “He is a thug.”
Bernie Sanders on Gaddafi: “Look, everybody understands Gaddafi is a thug and murderer.”
But Why Putin, Now?
Perhaps what we’re seeing here is a realignment for the next iteration of America’s perpetual war. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the conclusion of the Cold War (“the end of history”, as one author called it), there was no global enemy. No big nasty to spur weapons procurement, or to justify a huge standing military with hundreds of bases around the world, or to pick fights with to allow a boring president to morph into a superhero war president.
A lot of people had a lot of power and money in play that demanded some bad guys. An attempt was made in the 1980s to make narco lords the new major bad guys, but they were too few in number and the popularity of drugs among Americans got in the way. Following 9/11, the bad guys were supposed to be “the terrorists.” The George W. Bush administration riffed off that theme, appointing Saddam a massive weapons of destruction threat and tagged on Iran and North Korea as part of an Axis of Evil, because, well, no one knows, things sound good in groups of threes.
Saddam turned out to be a bust, and the Iraq War ultimately very unpopular. Bin Laden never launched a second attack on the U.S., and the Taliban were hard to picture, coming and going as they do. The U.S. made a good faith effort trying to label all sorts of others, Gaddafi, Assad, ISIS, et al, as global enemies worthy of perpetual war but they either were defeated, or are just plain are kicking American butt. Meanwhile, the Middle East in general turned into a huge, complicated, sticky clusterf*ck quagmire.
A New Hope Emerges
Like Batman, Washington needs an Arch Enemy, preferably one poster-child kind of guy who can be shown on TV looking like a Bond villain. With actual nukes (Washington spent years trying to convince us the terrorists were a 24/7 nuclear threat [smoking gun = mushroom cloud] and the damn terrorists never complied.)
Enter Putin The Thug.
Americans are already well-prepared by the old Cold War to see Russia as an evil empire, and Putin does look the part. A new Cold War with Russia will require lots of expensive military hardware, plus a large standing army and new areas of Europe to garrison. It might breathe new life into a NATO wondering why it still exists.
For politicians, shouting about Muslim threats has proven to have a downside, as it has enflamed many Muslims and pushed them toward radicalization. It turns out also there are Muslim voters, and people who like Muslims, in the U.S. Putin doesn’t vote, only a handful of hippies think he’s a good guy, and he can be slapped around in sound bites relatively without risk.
It is a political-military-industrial complex wet dream.
And so I predict in the coming Hillary regime a tamping down of terrorism stuff and a ramping up of a new Cold War. After all, isn’t that what her mentor Henry Kissinger would do?
If you were Vladimir Putin, or President Xi of China, what would you do if you had the entire archive of Hillary Clinton’s emails, classified and unclassified, “deleted” and not, in your hands? What value to you would that be in your next round of negotiations with the president of the United States?
Hillary Clinton traveled to 19 foreign locations during her first three months in office, inlcuding China, South Korea, Egypt, Israel, Palestine, and a meeting in Switzerland with her Russian counterpart. During that period of time her email system was unencrypted. She transmitted data over wireless networks in those countries, networks almost certainly already monitored 24/7 by intelligence and security officials. To say her email was not collected is to say the Russian, Chinese, Israeli and other intelligence services are complete amateurs.
They are not complete amateurs.
A System Wide Open to Monitoring
While FBI director James Comey said his investigators had no “direct evidence” that Hillary Clinton’s email account had been “successfully hacked,” both private experts and federal investigators, according to the New York Times, “immediately understood his meaning: It very likely had been breached, but the intruders were far too skilled to leave evidence of their work.”
Comey described a set of email practices that left Clinton’s systems wide open to monitoring. She had no full-time cyber security professional monitoring her system. She took her BlackBerry everywhere she went, “sending and receiving work-related emails in the territory of sophisticated adversaries.” Her use of “a personal email domain was both known by a large number of people and readily apparent… Hostile actors gained access to the private commercial email accounts of people with whom Secretary Clinton was in regular contact.”
The FBI director was generous in his assessment. See, no hacking was really necessary.
But No Hacking was Really Needed
Online security company Venafi TrustNet has the world’s largest database of digital certificates and associated metadata, allowing it to go back in time and identify how digital certificates were used in the past, a kind of forensics capability for IT security. Here’s what they found on the clintonemail.com server, and it is not good.
Using non-intrusive Internet scanning tests routinely performed throughout by IT security teams (meaning foreign intelligence agencies have them too), Venafi learned the Clinton server was enabled for logging in via web browser, smartphone, Blackberry, and tablet. That automatically makes it vulnerable to interception, as the information Clinton was sending and receiving abroad was traveling via other nations’ web infrastructure and open-air cellular networks.
Clinton’s email log-in page was also on the web, meaning anyone who stumbled on it could try and log in, or employ the standard array of password hacking and brute force attacks against it, much like they did with your Gmail account that was hacked.
The Clinton email setup also was initially running a standalone Microsoft Windows Server, which is very vulnerable to attack, with at least 800 known trojans/spyware in existence that can steal keys and certificates. If the credentials on the server were compromised in those first three months, then the next years of encryption might have meant nothing.
How could someone have gained access to the credentials? Clinton’s most recent digital security certificate was issued by GoDaddy. Her domain’s landing page was at one time hosted by Confluence Networks, a web firm in the British Virgin Islands.
No Smoking Gun?
If anyone had picked up Clinton’s emails from the airwaves or in transit over the Internet (as we know, via Snowden, the NSA does), while they were encrypted, or had acquired the encrypted versions and used the resources of a state security apparatus to decrypt them, there would of course be no forensic evidence to find. Persons working at NSA-like levels actually breaking into systems expend significant energies hiding their intrusions, and such high level “hacks” have been known to stay hidden for years.
Sure, if the standard is a “smoking gun,” there is none. But such proof is rarely available in the world of global espionage, and decisions and conclusions are made accordingly on a daily basis.
Clinton’s email was extremely vulnerable, and her decision to run it off a private server put at significant risk the security of the United States. This is not a partisan attack or a conspiracy; it is technology.
Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey announced that his agency is recommending no charges against Hillary Clinton for her use of an unclassified personal email server while secretary of state. Comey offered that “no reasonable prosecutor” would bring a case against Clinton.
The implications of these statements, and what happened before and after the announcement, represent what most likely represent the virtual end of the 2016 election cycle. Come November votes will be counted but the single, major, unresolved issue standing in the shadows behind Clinton is now resolved in her favor.
The director of the FBI labeled the leading contender for the presidency and her staff as “extremely careless” in their use of email, and this is generally seen as positive news by her supporters, the new standard now being not under indictment. Comey also stated that some 110 emails were classified ( at least 24 as Top Secret; one was found to be marked classified on Clinton’s server) when they were transmitted and received, an action that appears to be now inconsequential under national security laws. A New York Times tally found more than 2,000 classified emails.
There was no electronic connection between the Federal government’s classified systems and Clinton’s unclassified server. This indicates that on 110 separate occasions Clinton and/or one of her correspondents retyped information from a classified format. This means any classified markings (i.e., “Top Secret”) were removed in the process. “This classified information never should have been transmitted via an unclassified personal system,” Steve Linick, the State Department inspector general, said in a statement signed by him and I. Charles McCullough III, the inspector general for the intelligence community.
The Inspectors General for the Intelligence Community have stated that some of the classified documents were marked at the highest levels to protect sources and methods used to spy on North Korea via satellite. Emails contained the names of CIA officials. There is no evidence, nor did Comey suggest, that these actions were inadvertent, accidental, occasional, incidental, or other than intentional. It was Clinton’s decision to create the email system that allowed these events to take place. Clinton herself, given her decades of experience in government, clearly could recognize highly classified material, marked or unmarked. Standard Form 312, signed by Clinton and every other security clearance holder in the government, specifically notes that the laws apply to both marked and unmarked classified material. The legality of retroactive classification has been tested at the level of the Supreme Court.)
While Director Comey maintains there was no intent, or gross negligence, by Clinton to violate the law, it is difficult to reconcile those actions and that statement.
Hillary Clinton’s earliest statements, that no classified information traversed her server, later changed to “no marked” classified information (the statement itself irrelevant) did not appear to be addressed by the FBI in the context of perjury or obstruction. In addition, Josh Rogin of the Washington Post reports Clinton’s lawyers deleted all e-mails they did not produce to the State Department and then cleaned devices in such a way to preclude forensic recovery.
The standards applied in the Clinton case are at extreme variance from how classified information violations elsewhere in the government are applied. Space precludes listing examples in detail, but the cases of CIA officer John Kiriakou (served three years in Federal prison for exposing a single, unmarked unclassified business card with the name of a CIA employee) and TSA air marshall Robert Maclean (fired for exposing a text retroactively classified) stand out. Even David Petraeus, who transmitted classified information via his Gmail account to his mistress, received some minor legal punishment and was forced to resign.
There is simply no precedent to the Clinton decision. One wonders if the millions of U.S. government civil employees, military personnel, and contractors will be held to what appear to be lesser standards than previously held. That certainly wasn’t the case of Marine Major Jason Brezler, who shared classified information with colleagues in Afghanistan in to warn them about a Taliban conspirator, and was forced out of the service in response.
Director Comey spoke broadly. He did not, for example, directly address the 18 USC 1924, which states “Whoever… becomes possessed of documents or materials containing classified information of the United States, knowingly removes such documents or materials without authority and with the intent to retain such documents or materials at an unauthorized location shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for not more than one year, or both.” This is the statute under which David Petraeus was prosecuted. It is difficult to reconcile the text of that law with the fact that classified documents resided on a server (for part of the time) at a private company, connected to the internet. A private SPAM filtering service apparently also had access to the classified emails.
An important issue not addressed by the FBI is the effect Clinton’s actions had on the Freedom of Information Act.
During her entire tenure as Secretary of State and for some time afterwards, State maintained it had no email records to produce in response to requests. Those statements — while technically true in that State did not control and could not search Clinton’s personal server — blocked journalists, activists, citizens, and for a time, Congress, from documents they were lawfully entitled to. The State Department says it will now require 75 years to release all of the documents currently under request.
The State Department’s own Inspector General found these actions to be in contravention of the Federal Records Act, and presents what might be seen as chilling preview of press relations and the public’s right to know for the next four years.
In addition, Clinton deleted about half of the emails from her personal server without oversight. It is unclear whether or not any of those would have been responsive to Freedom of Information Act requests, or contained additional classified information. The FBI did say emails it found in others’ Inboxes, ones not turned over by Clinton, the State Department, were work related. Clinton had previously claimed she turned over all work-related emails.
In the Clinton case, we are also left with unanswered questions about the timeline of events. Bill Clinton met with Attorney General Loretta Lynch on June 28, according to both, to make small talk about grandchildren. On July 1 Lynch announced she would accept Director Comey’s recommendation on the email case. On July 2 the FBI interviewed Clinton for several hours. On June 3, the New York times stated Clinton is considering keeping Lynch in her administration if she wins in November. On July 5 President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton flew together on Air Force One to their first scheduled campaign. Only hours later Comey made his announcement, meaning that whatever Clinton said on Sunday was evaluated and processed in less than two days following a year of active investigation. The appearance of impropriety alone remains damaging to the image of our nation.
Few believed, right or wrong, that Hillary Clinton would face criminal charges over her handling of classified material. Yet the many unanswered questions and issues not addressed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation remain. It seems unlikely that even if the majority of voters in November see the issue put to rest, that Republicans in Congress will feel the same come January.
Since the wave of Islamic State suicide bombings in May – killing 522 people inside Baghdad, and 148 people inside Syria – American officials have downplayed the suicide bombing strategy as defensive. Brett McGurk, the Special Presidential Envoy in the fight against Islamic State, said the group “returned to suicide bombing” as the area under its control shrinks. The American strategy of focusing primarily on the “big picture” recapture of territory seems to push the suicide bombings to the side. “It’s their last card,” stated a compliant Iraqi spokesperson in response to the attacks.
The reality is just the opposite. Just a day after the June 26 liberation of Fallujah, car bombs exploded in eastern and southern Baghdad. Two other suicide bombers were killed outside the city. An improvised explosive device exploded in southwest Baghdad a day earlier. And now the latest, with a death toll approaching 200.
Washington should know better than to underestimate the power of small weapons to shape large events. After Donald Rumsfeld labeled Iraqi insurgents as “dead enders” in 2003, they began taking a deadly toll of American forces via suicide bombs. It was the 2006 bombing of the Shi’ite al-Askari Golden Mosque in Samarra that kicked the Iraqi civil war into high gear. It was improvised explosive devices and car bombs that kept American forces on the defensive through 2011.
To believe suicide bombings represent a weakening of Islamic State is a near-total misunderstanding of the hybrid nature of the group; Islamic State melds elements of a conventional army and an insurgency. To “win,” one must defeat both versions.
ISIS differs from a traditional insurgency in that it seeks to hold territory. This separates it from al Qaeda, and most other radical groups, and falsely leads the United States to believe that retaking strategic cities like Fallujah from Islamic State is akin to “defeating” it, as if it is World War Two again and we are watching blue arrows move across the map toward Berlin. McGurk, following Fallujah, even held a press conference announcing Islamic State has now lost 47 percent of its territory. That may be true, but it also does not really matter.
Simultaneously with holding and losing territory, Islamic State uses terror and violence to achieve political ends.
Islamic State has no aircraft and no significant long-range weapons, making it a very weak conventional army when facing down the combined forces of the United States, Iran and Iraq in set piece battles. It can, however, use suicide bombs to strike into the very heart of Shi’ite Baghdad (and Syria, Jordan, Yemen, and Turkey – as Tuesday’s bombing reminds us), acting as a strong transnational insurgency.
Why does such strength matter in the face of ISIS’ large-scale losses such as Fallujah?
Violence in the heart of Iraqi Shi’ite neighborhoods empowers hardliners to seek revenge. Core Sunni support for Islamic State grows out of the need for protection from a Shi’ite dominated military, which seeks to marginalize if not destroy the Sunnis. Reports of Shi’ite atrocities leaking out of the ruins of Sunni Fallujah are thus significant. Fallujah was largely destroyed in order to “save” it, generating some 85,000 displaced persons, mirroring what happened in Ramadi. Those actions remind many Sunnis of why they supported Islamic State (and al Qaeda before them) in the first place.
Suicide strikes reduce the confidence of the people in their government’s ability to protect them; Prime Minister Abadi was ridiculed at the site of the most recent attack, and a member of his cabinet forced to resign. In Iraq, that sends Shi’ite militias into the streets, and raises questions about the value of civil institutions like the Iraqi National Police. Victories such as the retaking of Ramadi and Fallujah, and a promised assault on Mosul, mean little to people living at risk inside the nation’s capital.
American commanders have already had to talk the Iraqi government out of pulling troops from the field to defend Baghdad, even as roughly half of all Iraqi security forces are already deployed there. This almost guarantees more American soldiers will be needed to take up the slack.
Anything that pulls more American troops into Iraq fits well with the anti-American Islamic State narrative. Few Iraqis are left who imagine the United States can be an honest broker in their country. A State Department report found that one-third of all Iraqis believe the Americans are actually supporting Islamic State, while 40 percent are convinced that the United States is trying to destabilize Iraq for its own purposes.
The suicide bombings — in Iraq and elsewhere — are not desperate or defensive moves. They are not inconsequential. They are careful strategy, the well-thought out application of violence by Islamic State. The United States downplays them at great risk.
Bill Gates’ philanthropic efforts are usually greeted with near-universal praise from people who
love his money believe he is a great humanitarian, but Bill Gates knows very little about sustainable, intelligent development.
Bolivia to Bill Gates: Go to Hell and Take Your Chickens with You
The billionaire recently sought to donate 100,000 chickens to impoverished countries. The leftist government of Bolivia, one of the nations to receive the poultry, refused the donation, describing Gates’ gift as “offensive.”
“He does not know Bolivia’s reality to think we are living 500 years ago, in the middle of the jungle not knowing how to produce,” said Bolivia’s minister of land and rural development. “Respectfully, he should stop talking about Bolivia, and once he knows more, apologize to us.”
Gates announced the chicken initiative — dubbed [Honestly, I am not making this up] “Coop Dreams” — earlier this month.
“It’s pretty clear to me that just about anyone who’s living in extreme poverty is better off if they have chickens,” wrote Gates, who was born in a well-to-do suburb and has pretty much been one of the One Percent ever since. “In fact, if I were in their shoes, that’s what I would do — I would raise chickens.” He says that the animals are easy and inexpensive to raise, empower women (“because chickens are small and stay close to home”), and can help feed children in poor families.
Melinda Gates also likes chickens and women. She calls chickens “the ATM of the poor,” because they are easy to sell on short notice to cover day-to-day expenses.
What’s Wrong with Free Stuff?
So Bolivia aside, what could be wrong with free chickens?
— All countries have some sort of market economy going on. Farmers raise animals, and sell them to local people. In places without a lot of electricity and transportation, this all functions at a micro-level. There is a relationship between the economic needs and capacities of the farmer and how much food the local people want to buy. If you dump lots of free chicken into that system, the system tends to collapse. Prices can go up if people get greedy and push food out of the budgets of many, or go down because supply exceeds demand, and that can drive farmers out of business.
— The bit about “empowering women” by having them raise chickens can have the same effect as above, basically adding lots more producers into a closed system and hoping everything does not go to hell. It also ignores the question of what else those women might have to do, how many know anything about raising chickens, have space to do it and have the money needed to buy feed, veterinary services, whatever chicken raisers need.
— If the woman ends up with more chicken than her family needs, how is she to market it? Does she have access to transportation? Is there a dealer network? Most markets in the developing world are closed systems; one does not simply wander in and set up a stall.
— If a large number of women, or anybody, are raising chickens, why would others need to buy chickens? Wouldn’t they be raising their own?
— When people come to believe someone from the outside will randomly show up with free stuff, they tend to stop working very hard and just wait for the next shipment. Until it doesn’t come and then pretty much their world collapses.
— In developing economies, one does not just acquire 100,000 chickens, or import them, and drive around the countryside in four-wheel drive Ubers. One must work with the host country officials, who, sad to say, see their jobs mainly as a way to get rich off of corruption. There is a very good chance the well-meaning Gates’ will encourage host-country corruption by paying the bribes, processing fees, needed for their chickens, and there is a good chance the local officials will shake down the recipients of the charity once Bill has moved on to do good elsewhere.
— Now the reason you would donate chickens to a country is because that country lacks enough chickens. Well, you better hope that the chickens you buy somewhere else don’t bring in anything like disease or pests that the host country is not ready for.
— Bill claims most of the people he wants to give chickens to earn only $2 a day, but that the chickens sell for $5 a bird. Who will be buying up all that chicken? Maybe at some point a kind of chicken-trickle-down effect will occur?
— Bill and Melinda write about how when women in these countries become entrepreneurs with chicken, they will “have a voice.” Money certainly does talk in the world Bill and Melinda live in, but in traditional societies (for better or worse) the role of women changes very, very slowly. A few bucks made selling chickens, if that even happens, is unlikely to dent thousands of years of culture, particularly if that culture is also deeply embedded in a religion such as Islam. And some women may not really want to be entrepreneurs. The West tends to assume that all Muslim women, for example, hate the way their life works and wish to one day were mini-skirts and strappy red high heels
If you are talking about a short-term food donation to stave off hunger, such as after an earthquake, go ahead, please help. But for any long-term good to come of all this, it must respect the realities of the local market, and it must be sustainable. Free chickens are unlikely to do that.
BONUS: Now some might ask: Peter, how do you know anything about this? To which I would answer: because I watched an almost identical project fail in Iraq. The United States, in what we called Operation Chicken Run, sought to remake the local chicken market in a rural area of Iraq, and every bad thing I mentioned above actually did happen, in real time, around us. There’s a whole chapter in my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People about this, appropriately titled “Chicken Sh*t.”
DOUBLE BONUS: Bill Gates would probably improve the lives of more people by dumping 100,000 X-Boxes on them.