• What if Congress Doesn’t Say No to War in Syria?

    September 14, 2013 // 9 Comments »

    Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com

    Once again, we find ourselves at the day after 9/11, and this time America stands alone. Alone not only in our abandonment even by our closest ally, Great Britain, but in facing a crossroads no less significant than the one we woke up to on September 12, 2001. The past 12 years have not been good ones.  Our leaders consistently let the missiles and bombs fly, resorting to military force and legal abominations in what passed for a foreign policy, and then acted surprised as they looked up at the sky from an ever-deeper hole.

    At every significant moment in those years, our presidents opted for more, not less, violence, and our Congress agreed — or simply sat on its hands — as ever more moral isolation took the place of ever less diplomacy. Now, those same questions loom over Syria. Facing a likely defeat in Congress, Obama appears to be grasping — without any sense of irony — at the straw Russian President Vladimir Putin (backed by China and Iran) has held out in the wake of Secretary of State John Kerry’s off-the-cuff proposal that put the White House into a corner. After claiming days ago that the U.N. was not an option, the White House now seems to be throwing its problem to that body to resolve. Gone, literally in the course of an afternoon, were the administration demands for immediate action, the shots across the Syrian bow, and all that. Congress, especially on the Democratic side of the aisle, seems to be breathing a collective sigh of relief that it may not be forced to take a stand. The Senate has put off voting; perhaps a vote in the House will be delayed indefinitely, or maybe this will all blow over somehow and Congress can return to its usual partisan differences over health care and debt ceilings.

    And yet a non-vote by Congress would be as wrong as the yes vote that seems no longer in the cards. What happens, in fact, if Congress doesn’t say no?

    A History Lesson

    The “Global War on Terror” was upon us in an instant. Acting out of a sense that 9/11 threw open the doors to every neocon fantasy of a future Middle Eastern and global Pax Americana, the White House quickly sought an arena to lash out in. Congress, acting out of fear and anger, gave the executive what was essentially a blank check to do anything it cared to do. Though the perpetrators of 9/11 were mostly Saudis, as was Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda itself sought refuge in largely Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. So be it. The first shots of the War on Terror were fired there.

    George W. Bush’s top officials, sure that this was their moment of opportunity, quickly slid destroying al-Qaeda as an organization into a secondary slot, invaded Afghanistan, and turned the campaign into a crusade to replace the Taliban and control the Greater Middle East. Largely through passivity, Congress said yes as, even in its earliest stages, the imperial nature of America’s global strategy revealed itself plain as day. The escape of Osama bin-Laden and much of al-Qaeda into Pakistan became little more than an afterthought as Washington set up what was essentially a puppet government in post-Taliban Afghanistan, occupied the country, and began to build permanent military bases there as staging grounds for more of the same.

    Some two years later, a series of administration fantasies and lies that, in retrospect, seem at best tragicomic ushered the United States into an invasion and occupation of Iraq. Its autocratic leader and our former staunch ally in the region, Saddam Hussein, ruled a country that would have been geopolitically meaningless had it not sat on what Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz called “a sea of oil” — and next to that future target of neocon dreams of conquest, Iran. Once again, Congress set off on a frenzied rush to yes, and a second war commenced out of the ashes of 9/11.

    With the mighty American military now on their eastern and western borders and evidently not planning on leaving any time soon, Iranian officials desperately sought out American diplomats looking for some kind of rapprochement. They offered to assist in Afghanistan and, it was believed, to ensure that any American pilots shot down by accident over Iranian territory would be repatriated quickly. Channels to do so were reportedly established by the State Department and it was rumored that broader talks had begun. However, expecting a triumph in Iraq and feeling that the Iranians wouldn’t stand a chance against the “greatest force for liberation the world has ever known” (aka the U.S. military), a deeply overconfident White House snubbed them, dismissing them as part of the “Axis of Evil.” Congress, well briefed on the administration’s futuristic fantasies of domination, sat by quietly, offering another passive yes.

    Congress also turned a blind eye to the setting up of a global network of “black sites” for the incarceration, abuse, and torture of “terror suspects,” listened to torture briefings, read about CIA rendition (i.e., kidnapping) operations, continued to fund Guantanamo, and did not challenge the devolving wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. Its members sat quietly by while a new weapon, armed drones, at the personal command of the president alone, crisscrossed the world assassinating people, including American citizens, within previously sovereign national boundaries. As a new president came into office and expanded the war in Afghanistan, ramped up the drone attacks, made war against Libya, did nothing to aid the Arab Spring, and allowed Guantanamo to fester, Congress said yes. Or, at least, not no, never no.

    The World Today

    Twelve years later, the dreams of global domination are in ruins and the world America changed for the worse is a very rough place. This country has remarkably few friends and only a handful of largely silent semi-allies. Even the once gung-ho president of France has been backing off his pledges of military cooperation in Syria in the face of growing popular opposition and is now calling for U.N. action. No longer does anyone cite the United States as a moral beacon in the world. If you want a measure of this, consider that Vladimir Putin seemed to win the Syria debate at the recent G20 summit as easily as he now has captured the moral high ground on Syria by calling for peace and a deal on Assad’s chemical weapons.

    The most likely American a majority of global citizens will encounter is a soldier. Large swaths of the planet are now off-limits to American tourists and businesspeople, far too dangerous for all but the most foolhardy to venture into. The State Department even warns tourists to Western Europe that they might fall victim to al-Qaeda. In the coming years, few Americans will see the pyramids or the ruins of ancient Babylon in person, nor will they sunbathe, among other places, on the pristine beaches of the southern Philippines. Forget about large portions of Africa or most of the rest of the Middle East. Americans now fall victim to pirates on the high seas, as if it were the nineteenth century all over again.

    After 12 disastrous years in the Greater Middle East, during which the missiles flew, the bombs dropped, doors were repeatedly kicked in, and IEDs went off, our lives, even at home, have changed. Terrorism, real and imagined, has turned our airports into giant human traffic jams and sites of humiliation, with lines that resemble a Stasi version of Disney World. Our freedoms, not to speak of the Fourth Amendment right to privacy, have been systematically stripped away in the name of American “safety,” “security,” and fear. Congress said yes to all of that, too, even naming the crucial initial piece of legislation that began the process the PATRIOT Act without the slightest sense of irony.

    When I spoke with Special Forces personnel in Iraq, I was told that nearly every “bad guy” they killed or captured carried images of American torture and abuse from Abu Ghraib on his cellphone — as inspiration. As the victims of America’s violence grew, so did the armies of kin, those inheritors of “collateral damage,” seeking revenge. The acts of the past 12 years have even, in a few cases, inspired American citizens to commit acts of homegrown terrorism.

    Until this week, Washington had abandoned the far-from-perfect-but-better-than-the-alternatives United Nations. Missiles and bombs have sufficed for our “credibility,” or so Washington continues to believe. While pursuing the most aggressive stance abroad in its history, intervening everywhere from Libya and Yemen to the Philippines, seeking out monsters to destroy and, when not enough could be found, creating them, the United States has become ever more isolated globally.

    Our Choice

    The horror show of the last 12 years wasn’t happenstance. Each instance of war was a choice by Washington, not thrust upon us by a series of Pearl Harbors. Our Congress always said yes (or least avoided ever saying no). Many who should have known better went on to join the yes men. In regard to Iran and George W. Bush, then-candidate for president Senator Joe Biden, for instance, said in 2007, “I was Chairman of the Judiciary Committee for 17 years. I teach separation of powers in constitutional law. This is something I know. So I brought a group of constitutional scholars together to write a piece that I’m going to deliver to the whole United States Senate pointing out that the president has no constitutional authority to take this country to war against a country of 70 million people unless we’re attacked or unless there is proof that we are about to be attacked. And if he does, I would move to impeach him. The House obviously has to do that, but I would lead an effort to impeach him.”

    Only a year ago, Biden criticized Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney for being too anxious to go to war with Syria. That country, Biden said, “is five times as large geographically [as Libya], it has one-fifth the population… It’s in a part of the world where they’re not going to see whatever would come from that war. It’ll seep into a regional war… If in fact it blows up and the wrong people gain control, it’s going to have impact on the entire region causing potentially regional wars.”

    Biden has been missing from the public eye this week. His last public statement on Syria was in late August. Monday, while Susan Rice begged for war and Obama taped multiple TV interviews, the vice president was in Baltimore handing out federal grant money to improve the port. Silence in the face of a car wreck isn’t golden, it’s deadly. Good God, man, hit the brakes before we kill someone!

    What If Congress Says Yes?

    Some in Congress now are talking about a new resolution that would pre-authorize the administration to launch “fallback airstrikes” — that is, its desired attack on Syria — after some sort of deadline passed for U.N. action, Syrian action, or perhaps just another mythical red line was crossed. Should Congress say yes yet again to such a scheme or anything like it, nothing will change for the better, and much is likely to change for the worse.

    An attack on Syria will demand a response; war works that way, no matter how “surgical” the strikes may be. Other countries, and even terrorists, also tend to imagine that, in such situations, their “credibility” is at stake. Fearing reprisals, the U.S. has already preemptively withdrawn its diplomats from a consulate in Turkey near the Syrian border, and from Lebanon. Security has increased in Iraq, with the already fortress-like U.S. embassy there bracing for attacks, allegedly already being planned by Iranian-sponsored sappers.

    Be assured of one thing: bombs and missiles falling in Syria will cause “collateral damage,” newspeak for images splashed across the globe of Muslim women and children killed by American weaponry. History has ensured that borders in the Middle East are arbitrary and easily enough ignored. As the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq sparked a metastasizing regional Sunni-Shia civil war, so a new intervention in the latest version of that war will lead to further, possibly devastating, and certainly divisive consequences in Lebanon, Iraq, and elsewhere. Think of this as a grim domino theory for the new century.

    Should a desperate Assad regime in Syria, or an Iranian proxy from Lebanon, retaliate against Israel, the U.S. could wake up to find itself in the middle of a far larger war. Who knows then what a Russia already moving naval forces into the Mediterranean and with a naval base in Syria itself might do, perhaps citing the need to maintain Putin’s “credibility”?

    Even the most optimistic pundits do not believe a single set of strikes over a limited number of days will have much strategic effect. And what if, after giving up some or all of his chemical weapons, Assad just makes or buys more? The famous comment of General David Petraeus during the invasion of Iraq — “Tell me how this ends” — would need answering again. We didn’t like the answer the last time and we won’t like it this time.

    Of course, something like half of the anti-Assad rebels fight for Islamic fundamentalist outfits. If, however unmeant, the U.S. essentially becomes the air force over Syria for al-Qaeda-branded and other jihadist outfits, unleashing them to take further territory, that would undoubtedly create even more unsettled and unsettling conditions across the region. A rebel victory, aided by U.S. strikes, would certainly give al-Qaeda the sort of sovereign sanctuary the U.S. has been fighting to eliminate globally since the Clinton administration. No serious scenario has been offered in which the civil war in Syria would begin to abate thanks to U.S. bombs and missiles.

    With or without an attack, some things will remain constant. Israel destroyed Syria’s nascent attempts to build nuclear weapons and would do so again if needed. Iran has played a clever game in the regional proxy wars in Lebanon, Syria, and elsewhere — they won in Iraq — and will continue to do so. Since the 1970s, Syria has had stocks of chemical weapons that the Assad regime manufactured itself and has never used them against the United States or any other country, nor have they in 40 years transferred those weapons to any terrorists. There is no reason to believe that will change now, not even as a way to strike back should the U.S. attack first (though the fate of those weapons, should Assad fall under U.S. attacks, no one can possibly know.)

    With a U.S. president willing, for the first time in decades, to hand over some part of his decision-making powers to Congress (though he dubiously maintains that it would still be constitutional for him to launch strikes against Syria on his own), the Senate and House of Representatives have a chance to courageously re-insert themselves in war policy.  Alternatively, they can once again assure themselves of a comfortable irrelevance. On one thing Obama is certainly right: the world is indeed watching the unfolding spectacle.

    What If Congress Says No?

    If Congress says no to an attack on Syria, the U.S. may for the first time in 12 years have the chance to change the world for the better. Though this is not an overly dramatic statement, it’s also true, as every diplomat knows, that it’s easier to break things than fix them.

    The world would at least have seen Washington step back after its citizenry told their government that enough is enough. The world would see an America which, in a modest but significant way, was beginning to genuinely absorb the real lessons to be drawn from our post-9/11 actions: that endless war only fuels more war, that living in a world where foreigners are seen mainly as targets brings no peace, that lashing out everywhere means no safety anywhere.

    In the wake of a non-attack on Syria, parts of the world might be more open to the possibility that the United States could help open new paths, beginning with a tacit acknowledgement that we were wrong. Nothing can erase the deeds of the past years or those long memories common not just in the Middle East, but to humanity more generally. Certainly, what we did is likely to haunt us for generations. But when in a deep hole, the first step is to stop digging. Via Congress, the U.S. can take a small first step toward becoming an “indispensable nation” in more than our own minds.

    If Congress says no on Syria, it will, just as the president warns, also be sending a message to Iran — not, however, that the United States lacks the resolve to fight. It seems unlikely, given the past 12 years, that anyone doubts this country’s willingness to use force. A clear no from Congress would, in fact, send a message of hope to Iran.

    It was only in June that Obama claimed Iran’s election of a moderate as president showed that Iranians want to move in a different direction. “As long as there’s an understanding about the basis of the conversation, then I think there’s no reason why we shouldn’t proceed,” Obama said. “The Iranian people rebuffed the hardliners and the clerics in the election who were counseling no compromise on anything anytime anywhere. Clearly you have a hunger within Iran to engage with the international community in a more positive way.”

    Diplomacy is often a series of little gateway-like tests that, when passed, lead two parties forward. A no on Syria would be such a step, allowing Iran and the United States a possible path toward negotiations that could someday change the face of the Middle East. Only three months ago, Obama himself endorsed such a plan. If Congress says no, it won’t destroy credibility with the Iranians; it’s likely, in fact, to enhance it. This decision by Congress could empower both parties to proceed to the negotiating table in a more hopeful way. A yes from Congress, on the other hand, could sideline Iranian moderates and slam the door shut on discussions for a long time.

    It is clear that partisan politics will play a significant role in Congress’s decision. That body is fundamentally a political animal, and the House, of course, faces midterm elections in little more than a year. Still, that’s not a terrible thing. After all, for the first time in a long while, when it comes to foreign policy, House members are openly speaking about the influence that a wave of constituent opposition to a Syrian intervention is having on them. They appear to be hearing us speak, even if the impulse isn’t just to do the right thing, but to garner votes in 2014.

    Should Congress say no, it seems unlikely that a president, isolated at home and abroad, will go to war.  Some of Obama’s top aides have already been signaling that reality. Despite macho talk in the upper echelons of his administration on his right to ignore Congress, as a constitutional scholar and a savvy politician he would be unlikely to risk the demands for his impeachment and the spectacle of a Constitutional crisis by launching Syrian strikes in the wake of a no vote. All the noise about not backing down and his credibility suffering a catastrophic blow should be taken as so much pre-vote political saber rattling. The president may make foolish decisions, but he certainly is no fool.

    By saying no, not again, not this time, the current group of gray men and women who largely make up our Congress have the chance to join some of the giants who have thundered in those chambers in the past. At this moment, that body has the opportunity to choose a new meaning for future anniversaries of 9/11. It could be the day that life went on just as disastrously as previously — or it could be the day that changed everything, and this time for the better.




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

    Posted in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria

    Saying Goodbye, and Sorry We Messed This Up

    August 31, 2013 // 7 Comments »

    (Off topic here, but I wanted to say a few words after dropping my child off at college. Regular readers who hope to see evil and corruption exposed, tune in again. There’s still plenty of it out there, also in a way the topic of this essay. This originally appeared on Huffington Post)

    Mrs. We Meant Well and I sent off the last of the heirs to the We Meant Well fortune to college. She’s a good kid, smarter than me hopefully, and she should do well at school. Though she is more embarrassed than anything about half the stuff on this blog, her heart’s in the right place. It would be very odd if as a teenager she would be any different. Hell, if she was as cynical as me at her age, we’d need to have her see a doctor.

    I kept my mouth shut at the college– there are rituals to these things and dad-confessions are not among them– but I wanted to say sorry to her more than simply goodbye. My kids all grew up overseas while I served with the State Department (though they of course did not accompany me to Iraq). Despite the occasional job hassles, it was not a bad life. For most of the time the world was mostly at peace. We started the adventure around the same time that Desert Storm happened. After a week of silly paranoid concern that the Iraqi Army might somehow attack us in Taiwan, life went back to normal and continued that way until September 11, 2001. We were assigned in Japan at that time, and like all of you, watched the terrible events unfold on TV, albeit late at night because of the time zone thing. As the second plane hit the World Trade Center, I got up to make some sandwiches to bring in to work, knowing the phone would ring soon and I’d be called in to the Embassy. I remember as clear as glacier water my wife saying “Why would they call you in? That’s in New York and we’re in Tokyo!” Then the phone did ring and that was that. Forever after I would feel like a shadow looking for the sanctuary of a light.

    The world my kids grew up in no longer exists. We destroyed it. In reaction to the terror attack, we set the Middle East on fire (still burning), nearly bankrupted our own economy, turned air travel into a form of bondage play, and did away with our democracy in return for a security state that exists only to keep us perched on the edge of fear. Nothing pressed us into these actions; we did them all on our own, the Patriot Act, Guantanamo, the NSA amok, all that.

    That night twelve years ago in Tokyo, when I was called in to the Embassy after midnight? As I approached the gate, I could see a large crowd gathered, not usual for after midnight and certainly not usual in calm-as-dust Tokyo. About a hundred Japanese had spontaneously gathered there, some with flowers bought who-knows-where at that time of night. They clapped for us as we walked in to work. They wanted to touch us as we walked by. It did not last long. Fast forward to March 2003 and a larger crowd gathered to protest the invasion of Iraq, and protest calls blew out the switchboard. Our security people let us out a back gate, saying it wasn’t safe to exit through the front door. In Tokyo. One bomb threat and false positive al Qaeda warning after another followed, hitting a low point when, after weeks of denying it, the State Department admitted that they had shipped diplomatic pouches into our Embassy that might have been infected by the anthrax that was in the U.S. mail system at the time. My office was near the pouch mail room and I had to take Cipro as a precaution and wonder if anything got into my home and my kids’ room off my clothes. Threats and terror alerts became a daily part of our new normal, there and in the U.S.

    So I wanted to say I was sorry to my child. Sorry we messed up the world for you. Sorry for, what, how many dead? Sorry countries where Americans used to be at least tolerated with our awkward shorts and sandals ‘n socks are now too dangerous to even visit. Sorry you’ll never see the ruins of Babylon in Iraq, or the Pyramids, unless you join the Army. Sorry you will never know what privacy is. Sorry that you, and your children, will live in an America that exists in a constant state of low-fever war. Sorry you will never know peace. Sorry that we not only did not defeat the terrorists but, by our actions, gave their cause new life and seemingly endless new recruits. Sorry you will never enjoy an airplane trip, sorry you will never trust your government, sorry you will always have that tiny glint of reservation when you hear the anthem, read the Constitution or wonder what happened. And while I am sorry that you’ll blame us, you are right to do so. We did it. Some of us actively participated, some passively let it happen. Some that tried to make changes failed to make them significant enough to hold back even some of the water coming over the levies. Sorry, but if anyone is going to fix this, it is going to have to be you. Do a better job than we did if you want to really find a way to say thanks for the piano lessons and ballet lessons, the puppy, for using the car, for me not being too mad when you violated curfew to spend more time with that boy, for the college tuition.

    Funny, but I also just sent my last draft for the new book off to the editor. He’ll make it much better and I know that, but I have given up something that used to be all mine at the same time. It’ll come back different.

    We sent my daughter off to college this weekend and while my wife cried about 99% of the time, I held back some tears until the very end. While some kid my daughter had never met before said “C’mon, we’re going out with the guys from the next quad!” I stood there hugging her not in that room but in a million places where she had fallen down or asked for ice cream or needed a diaper changed or the causes of World War I explained. I didn’t hug an 18 year old woman but a six year old, a 13 year old, an infant in diapers, a two year old angry about being wet in the snow.

    And despite my need to hold on to her for just that much more she felt closer in that moment to the anonymous roommate demanding she go out the door with her than to me and I knew simultaneously how I hurt and how right she was to need to leave. The space between us was a fraction of an inch but it was a distance I would never cross.

    Back home it was quiet. Just my wife and the stupid, now old dog. I walked outside and saw the trees were still an unbelievable green, but just a hint of yellow, almost too little to really see, more of a feeling. There were nine empty beer cans in the recycling bin and I could hear cicadas. I swacked a mosquito. I’m gonna really miss summer.



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

    Posted in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria

    Homeland Insecurity: Robert MacLean and TSA

    June 1, 2013 // 15 Comments »

    Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com

    What do words mean in a post-9/11 world? Apart from the now clichéd Orwellian twists that turn brutal torture into mere enhanced interrogation, the devil is in the details. Robert MacLean is a former air marshal fired for an act of whistleblowing.  He has continued to fight over seven long years for what once would have passed as simple justice: getting his job back. His is an all-too-twenty-first-century story of the extraordinary lengths to which the U.S. government is willing to go to thwart whistleblowers.

    First, the government retroactively classified a previously unclassified text message to justify firing MacLean. Then it invoked arcane civil service procedures, including an “interlocutory appeal” to thwart him and, in the process, enjoyed the approval of various courts and bureaucratic boards apparently willing to stamp as “legal” anything the government could make up in its own interest.

    And yet here’s the miracle at the heart of this tale: MacLean refused to quit, when ordinary mortals would have thrown in the towel.  Now, with a recent semi-victory, he may not only have given himself a shot at getting his old job back, but also create a precedent for future federal whistleblowers. In the post-9/11 world, people like Robert MacLean show us how deep the Washington rabbit hole really goes.


    The Whistle Is Blown

    MacLean joined the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) in 2001 after stints with the Air Force and the Border Patrol. In July 2003, all marshals received a briefing about a possible hijacking plot. Soon after, the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA), which oversees FAMS, sent an unencrypted, open-air text message to the cell phones of the marshals cancelling several months of missions for cost-cutting reasons. MacLean became concerned that cancelling missions during a hijacking alert might create a dangerous situation for the flying public. He complained to his supervisor and to the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, but each responded that nothing could be done.

    It was then that he decided to blow the whistle, hoping that public pressure might force the TSA to reinstate the marshals’ flights. So MacLean talked to a reporter, who broadcast a story criticizing the TSA’s decision and, after 11 members of Congress joined in the criticism, it reversed itself. At this point, MacLean had not been identified as the source of the leak and so carried on with his job.

    A year later, he appeared on TV in disguise, criticizing the TSA dress code and its special boarding policies, which he believed allowed marshals to be easily identified by other passengers. This time, the TSA recognized his voice and began an investigation that revealed he had also released the 2003 text message. He was fired in April 2006. Although the agency had not labeled that message as “sensitive security information” (SSI) when it was sent in 2003, in August 2006, months after MacLean’s firing, it issued a retroactive order stating that the text’s content was indeed SSI.


    A Whistleblower’s Catch-22

    That disclosing the contents of an unclassified message could get someone fired for disclosing classified information is the sort of topsy-turvy situation which could only exist in the post-9/11 world of the American national security state.

    Under the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA), a disclosure prohibited by law negates whistleblower protections. That, of course, makes it in the government’s interest to define disclosure as broadly as possible and to classify as much of its internal communications for as long as it possibly can. No wonder that in recent years the classification of government documents has soared, reaching a record total of 92,064,862 in 2011.

    Officially, the U.S. government recognizes only three basic levels of classification: confidential, secret, and top secret. Since 9/11, however, various government agencies have created multiple freestyle categories of secrecy like “SSI,” “Law Enforcement Sensitive,” “Sensitive But Unclassified,” and the more colorful “Eyes Only.”  All of these are outside the normal codification system; all are hybrids that casually seek to incorporate the full weight of the formal law. There are currently 107 designations just for “sensitive” information. In addition to those labels, there exist more than 130 sets of extra “handling requirements” that only deepen the world of government secrecy.

    At issue for MacLean was not only the retroactive classification of a text message already in the public domain, but what classified could possibly mean in an era when everything related to the national security state was slipping into the shadows. Such questions are hardly semantic or academic. MacLean’s case hinges on how they are answered.

    The case against Army Private Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks is, for example, intimately tied up in them. The military hides behind classification to block access to Manning’s “public” trial. With WikiLeaks, despite more than 100,000 U.S. State Department diplomatic cables being available to anyone anywhere on the web, the government continues to insist that they remain “classified” and cannot even be rereleased in response to requests. Potential federal employees were warned to stay away from the cables online, and the State Department even blocked TomDispatch from its staff to shield them from alleged WikiLeaks content (some of which was linked to and discussed, but none of which was actually posted at the site).

    With author Tony Shaffer, the government retroactively classified its own account of why he was given the Bronze Star and his standard deployment orders to Afghanistan after he published an uncomplimentary book about American actions there. The messy case of alleged “hacktivist” Barrett Brown includes prosecution for “disclosing” classified material simply by linking to it at places where it had already been posted online; and, while still at the State Department, I was once accused of the same thing by the government.

    In MacLean’s case, over a period of seven years, the legality of the TSA firing him for using an only-later-classified text was upheld. Legal actions included hearings before administrative judges, the Merit Systems Protections Board twice, that interlocutory appeal, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The sum of these decisions amid a labyrinth of judicial bureaucracies demands the use of the term Kafkaesque.  MacLean, so the general judgment went, should have known that the text message he planned to leak was a classified document, even when it wasn’t (yet). As a result, he should also have understood that his act would not be that of a whistleblower alerting the public to possible danger, but of a criminal risking public safety by exposing government secrets. If that isn’t the definition of a whistleblower’s catch-22, what is?

    What such a twisted interpretation by the various courts, boards, and bodies meant was chillingly laid out in an amicus brief on behalf of MacLean filed by the United States Office of Special Counsel (a small, lonely U.S. government entity charged with protecting whistleblowers):

    “Whistleblowers should not have to guess whether information that they reasonably believe evidences waste, fraud, abuse, illegalities or public dangers might be later designated as SSI [unclassified sensitive security information] and therefore should not be disclosed. Rather than making the wrong guess, a would-be whistleblower will likely choose to remain silent to avoid risking the individual’s employment.”


    Seven Years Later…

    In 2011, five years after he had been fired as an air marshal, MacLean’s case finally reached the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Two full years after that, in April 2013, the court handed down a decision that may yet provide justice for Robert MacLean — and for future whistleblowers. While awkwardly upholding previous decisions that the government can indeed retroactively classify information, even documents in categories like SSI that exist outside the government’s official framework for classification and secrecy, the court tackled a more basic question: Was Robert MacLean a whistleblower anyway, entitled to protection for his act of conscience?

    Here lies the conflict at the heart of just about every whistleblower case — between the public’s right (and need) to know and the (at times legitimate) need for secrecy. The government typically argues that individuals should not be allowed to decide for themselves what remains secret and what doesn’t, or chaos would result. At the same time, in a post-9/11 world of increasing secrecy, the loss of the right to know, and the massive over-classification of documents, the “conflict” has become ever more one-sided. If everything can be considered a classified secret document too precious for Americans to know about, and nothing classified can be disclosed, then the summary effect is that nothing inside the government can ever be shown to the public.

    The court found that while the Transportation Safety Administration could legally apply any classification it wanted to information any time it wanted, even retroactively, simply slapping on such a label did not necessarily prohibit disclosure. Absent an actual law in MacLean’s case mentioning SSI, a term created bureaucratically, not congressionally, there could be no Whistleblower Protection Act-excepting prohibition. In other words, MacLean could still be a whistleblower.

    One of MacLean’s lawyers, Tom Devine, told me the decision “restored enforceability for the Whistleblower Protection Act’s public free speech rights. It ruled that only Congress has the authority to remove whistleblower rights. Agency-imposed restraints are not relevant for WPA rights.”

    “With this precedential decision,” MacLean explained to me, “agencies can no longer cancel out Whistleblower Protection Act rights with their semi-secret markings like SSI, Law Enforcement Sensitive, etcetera.”

    In a concurring opinion, United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit Judge Evan Wallach was even clearer: “Mr. MacLean presented substantial evidence that he was not motivated by personal gain but by the desire to protect the public… I concur to emphasize that the facts alleged, if proven, allege conduct at the core of the Whistleblower Protection Act.”

    MacLean’s case now returns to the Merit Systems Protection Board. The board is a complex piece of bureaucracy inside the already complicated federal government personnel system. In simple terms, it is supposed to be a place to appeal personnel actions, such as alleged unfair hirings and firings. It thus serves as a kind of watchdog over the sprawling federal human resources empire. The Board now has the court-ordered specific charge to “determine whether Mr. MacLean’s disclosure qualifies for WPA protection.”

    Note as well that this case could continue without end for years more, traveling on “appeal” back through the federal judicial bureaucracy and the courts. And remember that this, too, is an advantage to a government that wants ever less known about itself. If, as a federal employee, you are watching a case like MacLean’s (or Thomas Drake’s, or Franz Gayle’s, or Morris Davis’s, or John Kiriakou’s, or even my own small version of this), then you can’t help noticing that the act of whistleblowing could leave you: a) out on your ear; b) prosecuted for a criminal act and/or c) with your life embroiled for years in the intricacies of your own never-ending case. None of this is exactly an encouragement to federal employees to blow that whistle.


    Whistleblowers and Secrecy

    Threats to whistleblowers abound, so any positive step, however minimalist or reversible, is important. Entering the White House pledging to head the most transparent administration in history, Barack Obama has, in fact, gone after more national security whistleblowers, often using the draconian Espionage Act, than all previous administrations combined.

    His Justice Department has repeatedly tried to prosecute whistleblowers, crudely lumping them in with actual spies and claiming they endanger Americans (and sometimes “the troops”) by their actions. In addition, through the ongoing case of Berry v. Conyers, Obama has sought to expand the definition of “national security worker” to potentially include thousands of additional federal employees. Many employees who occupy truly sensitive jobs in the intelligence community (for example, real-world spies at the CIA) are exempt from being granted whistleblower status. They also cannot appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board if fired. By seeking to expand that exemption to a significantly larger group of people who may work at some federal agency, but in non-sensitive positions, Obama is also functionally moving to shrink the pool of potential whistleblowers. In Berry v. Conyers, for example, the persons Obama seeks to exempt as occupying sensitive jobs are merely an accounting technician and a commissary worker at an Air Force base. Neither of them even hold security clearances.

    What happens with MacLean’s case potentially affects every future whistleblower. If the mere presence of a pseudo-classification on an item, even applied retroactively, negates whistleblower protections, it means dark days ahead for the right of the citizenry to know what the government is doing (or how it’s misbehaving) in its name. If so, no act of whistleblowing could be considered protected, since all the government would have to do to unprotect it is classify whatever was disclosed retroactively and wash its hands of the miscreant. Federal employees, not a risk-taking bunch to begin with, will react accordingly.

    This is what gives MacLean’s case special meaning. While the initial decision on his fate will occur in the bowels of the somewhat obscure Merit Systems Protections Board, it will set a precedent that will surely find its way into higher courts on more significant cases. Amid a lot of technical legal issues, it all boils down to something very simple: Should whistleblower protections favor the conscience of a concerned federal employee willing to risk his job and the freedom to inform the public, or should they dissolve in the face of an unseen bureaucrat’s (retroactive) pseudo-classification decision?

    Procedurally, there are many options ahead for MacLean’s case, and the government will undoubtedly contest each tiny step. Whatever happens will happen slowly. This is exactly how the government has continually done its dirty work post-9/11, throwing monkey wrenches in the gears of the legal system, twisting words, and manipulating organizations designed to deliver justice in order to deny it.

    MacLean smiles at this. “I did seven years so far.  I can do seven more if they want. There’s too much at stake to just give up.”




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    Get Over it New York

    March 30, 2013 // 7 Comments »

    Just to get ahead of things, a few announcements before we begin. If you plan to send hate mail or death threats after this blog post, please include the key word “HATE” in the subject line to assist me in sorting things. Also, I grieve for all those lost on 9/11. It was a terrible tragedy. None of this is intended to dispute that, but…

    Get over it New York.

    I had the pleasure of a few days in New York City, all for the good. People were themselves, food great, subways running smoothly post-Sandy. But it seems that official New York can’t seem to get past 9/11. On Monday the cops in the subways switched from their weekend soft caps and 9mm pistols to helmets, body armor and M-4s with the long clips. Armed National Guard paroled the Port Authority terminal, literally outfitted for war. Both the cops and the Guard carried milpsec gas masks ready to protect against anthrax and a host of other militarized biochem things. C’mon guys, 9/11 was almost twelve years ago. In the subway, with its low ceilings, packed-to-the- edges crowds and hard surfaces, exactly what are you going to do with a machine gun? Can you sketch out a scenario where the NYPD is going to be exchanging a couple of hundred armor piercing rounds underground where they won’t be killing more people than the bad guys?

    The subways are noisy enough without the endless recorded admonitions to “see something, say something” and report suspicious packages to the proper authorities. No one cares. The homeless guys all had bags and bags with them, maybe filled with empty 40 ouncers, maybe terror bombs, but nobody paid them any attention. I am so very sorry about those who lost their lives on 9/11, particularly the brave first responders. But do we really need that many murals on walls, all resplendent with gas station velvet-painting level burning Twin Towers?

    The indifference of the millions of people and the signs of official excessive panic stand in contrast. Most folks seem to have moved on. It has been almost twelve years and yet… and yet… the NYPD and others seem to want to keep everyone on edge, act as if there has been attack after attack, to keep the sore from healing. Of course some one will write in and explain to me that such vigilance is all that stands between us and the darkness, that when it is my child held in the kabob-stained hands of terror under 51st Street I’ll wish there were armed men protecting her and all that. Save your time.

    Maybe, just maybe, it makes sense to a police state to keep reminding everyone why they need to support and maintain a police state. Maybe the image of the NYPD as gruff but lovable neighborhood guys and gals isn’t enough to justify big budgets and a surveillance state.

    Maybe, just maybe, it is time for New York, officially, to get over 9/11.

    BONUS: Anyone enjoying the media these days can see a preview of the Next Enemy. Even the White House seems to be slowly walking back from Terrorism Everywhere as a justification for Everything, and is prepping us with near-daily stories about the super dangers of cyber-terrorism. Stay tuned for the change over as we head first into midterm elections next year and then as we gear up for the 2016 presidentials. The Chinese are sneaking into our Internets to take over our Facebooking!!!!!!!!



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    Happy 9/11 Day!

    September 11, 2012 // 9 Comments »

    Happy 9/11 day, our eleventh anniversary.

    We’re instituted full background checks, body scanners and cavity searches at my home for all guests, which keeps me pretty busy, so this will be a short post. You can’t be too careful! Because they hate our freedoms, we’ve taken them away for safekeeping.

    Here’s a fun thing for today while we’re all reflecting. I guess the cool political thing to do is ask “Are you better off now?” so let’s just do that:

    State of Things September 11, 2001

    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.

    Iraq had no WMDs.

    Iran’s plans were cooled by an enemy on its western border, Iraq, and one on its eastern border, the Taliban.

    Al Qaeda was active in Afghanistan.

    The Taliban controlled much of Afghanistan.

    The US 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 US had a chunky budget surplus and had not spent three trillion dollars on wars. Americans got a tax rebate we had so much cash.

    The US was not well-known among nations as a torturer, a keeper of secret prisons, an assassin with drones.

    America was represented abroad primarily by diplomats.

    Americans at home were secure, protected from abuses by their government by the First and Fourth Amendments.

    Iraq had no WMDs.

    Gas was about $1.50 a gallon in the US.


    State of Things September 11, 2012

    Iran has become a dominant power in the Middle East, with well-established ties into Iraq and Afghanistan.

    China has also made healthy economic inroads in Afghanistan, as well as Africa. They hold a good chunk of America’s debt.

    Al Qaeda is active in Afghanistan. Also Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and many other places the franchise never held ground in before 9/11.

    The Taliban control much of Afghanistan.

    The US national debt is over $16 trillion dollars and growing growing growing growing…

    The US has assets in the fight in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, all over Africa, Guatemala, Yemen, used to in Libya, probaly in Syria, and has suffered drone strikes on all sort of other places, including the Philippines.

    The US government ctively 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 US.

    The US government drone assassinates American Citizen abroad without trial.

    America is represented abroad primarily by soldiers.

    Iraq still has no WMDs. But other new places do or soon will.

    The amount of oil flowing from Iraq is about the same as it was in 2001.

    Gas is about $4.00 a gallon in the US.


    So, are you better off? The traditional anniversary gift for an eleventh anniversary is something made of silk or linen, so for you America, here is a linen hankie to cry into. Can’t afford a silk one.


    For a more sober reflection on how far we have fallen from 9/10/01, have a look at Morris Davis’ latest article.




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    Iran Guilty of 9/11; State Department Guilty of Blocking Victims’ Compensation

    August 6, 2012 // 2 Comments »

    Bet you didn’t know that it was Iran that attacked the US on 9/11? It’s true.

    Manhattan Federal Magistrate Judge Frank Maas in late July ruled in favor of the 110 survivors and 47 victims’ estates that are parties to the lawsuit. The ruling orders not just the Taliban and al Qaeda, but also the current Iranian regime, to pay $6 billion to the victims of the 9/11 attacks. In December, Federal Judge George Daniels concluded that the heinous acts of Sept. 11, 2001 were also aided by Grand Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei and, why not throw them in, Hezbollah.

    Readers are forgiven any confusion. Many may remember that George W. Bush tried very, very hard to convince people that it was actually Saddam of Iraq that committed 9/11. Clever citizens noted that most of the 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. Yet despite all this, apparently it was Iran all along. Sneaks! And this information is finally coming to light only coincidentally now that the US is preparing for some sort of October surprise Persian Gulf War-a-Polooza.

    The so-called evidence of Iranian 9/11-ism is that Federal Judge George Daniels found that Iran, its Grand Ayatollah Khamenei and Hezbollah aided the attacks. According to the unimpeachable New York Daily News, Iran concealed hijackers’ travel through the country and “could have prevented them from entering the U.S.,” while an Iranian government memo not actually cited suggested Khamenei knew of the plot in May 2001. Investigators also believe that Iran helped Al Qaeda members escape Afghanistan after 9/11.

    Collecting One’s Winnings

    Now about that $6 billion al Qaeda, the Taliban and Iran now owe the 9/11 victims’ families. There is actually a long history of victims seeking cash compensation from despots. Families of victims of Iraqi, Iranian, and Libyan terrorism spent much of the ’80s and ’90s in pursuit of justice, until Congress finally opened the courtroom door by waiving sovereign immunity for countries that sponsor terrorism (list courtesy of the State Department). The victims’ families–because of Congress’ help–started winning default judgments against the likes of Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein back in 1997. But when they went to collect on their judgments–by tapping the frozen US assets of dictators– the State Department turned around and fought the families.

    Since sponsors of terrorism tend not to respect the findings of American courts, their frozen national assets held by the U.S. government are only chance the families have to collect on the court judgments. The “compromise” position offered by State is that the families be compensated by the U.S. government, not by the regimes responsible for the terrorist attacks. Why is State so desperate to hoard the frozen assets all for itself? In a letter to the Senate, then Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage (the same guy who leaked the identity of CIA NOC officer Valerie Plame and was never punished for it) wrote, “There is no better example [of protecting national security] than the critical role blocked assets played in obtaining the release of the U.S. hostages in Tehran in 1981.” In other words, bribe money.

    The State Department also is always atwitter of the possible affect of actually helping Americans get compensation on bilateral relations. While demanding 9/11 blood money sound good when the sap is current bad guy Iran, the 9/11 families should not expect to get any money out of a Foggy Bottom ATM.

    State Department Also Blocked Victims’ Compensation to Aid Iraq Reconstruction

    State has a long, sordid history of protecting bad guys over American victims. By mid-2002, 180 persons who had been used as “human shields” by Saddam during the first Gulf War had obtained judgments totaling $94 million. On the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom, George W. authorized their payment from blocked Iraqi accounts. But the administration then transferred all remaining Iraqi funds to the Coalition Authority in Iraq instead. The Bush administration promised to “make sure that people who secure judgments find some satisfaction,” and Secretary of State Colin Powell assured Congress that his State Department would lead that effort. But for four years, the Department did nothing. Powell left office under the shame of yet another lie.

    In December 2007 Congress stepped up, passing a defense bill which contained a provision that would have enabled American victims of Saddam to obtain compensation from Iraqi money still in U.S. banks. Bush vetoed that mammoth defense bill just before the New Year and demanded that Congress re-enact it without the offending compensation language, all based on advice from the State Department that granting the compensation would hold back the reconstruction effort by draining Iraqi money.

    Bush Administration Blocked American POW’s Saddam Compensation

    Not the State Department this time, but in 2005 the Bush administration fought former U.S. prisoners of war in court, trying to prevent them from collecting nearly $1 billion from Iraq that a federal judge awarded them as compensation for their torture at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The case — Acree v. Iraq and the United States, named after then-Marine Lt. Col. Clifford Acree, happily pitted the U.S. government against its own war heroes.

    “No amount of money can truly compensate these brave men and women for the suffering that they went through at the hands of this very brutal regime and at the hands of Saddam Hussein,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters when he was asked about the case in November 2003. Government lawyers insisted, literally, on “no amount of money” going to the Gulf War POWs. “These resources are required for the urgent national-security needs of rebuilding Iraq,” McClellan said.

    And thanks for your service, suckers!



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    New York Cops

    November 29, 2011 // Comments Off on New York Cops

    Over the weekend I re-found my DVDs of the The Concert For New York City. The Concert was a benefit that took place on October 20, 2001 at Madison Square Garden in New York City in response to the September 11 attacks. It was an attempt to honor the first responders from the New York Fire and Police Departments, their families, and those lost in the attacks.

    Performer after performer singled out individual members of the NYPD to thank them, and famous rock stars competed with each other to wear police caps that were thrown on stage. It was a very warm, very moving show, as many of the performers and all of the cops lived in New York and shared a sense of tragedy, place and survival. The cops were us, we were the cops.

    Then I made the mistake of hitting the news, which showed scenes from Occupy Wall Street, where those same NYPD “heroes” from 9/11 were acting like storm troopers to clear peaceful protesters out of Zuchotti Park.

    If anyone needed an image of how far things had changed after ten years of warring, there it is.



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    Insecurity

    September 22, 2011 // Comments Off on Insecurity

    When the Green Bay Packers visited the White House a few weeks ago to celebrate the team’s Super Bowl title, linebacker Desmond Bishop wasn’t with his teammates. He had forgotten his drivers license on the plane and without ID, was not allowsed past White House security.

    Really? Through the action of refusing entry to this semi-celebrity, the president was safer?

    I write this after a bought of air travel. We lined up, took off our shoes, were chastised for not pulling a laptop out of our bag while Kindles, smart phones and all matter of electronic stuff flowed through unmolested. We watched a befuddled older woman get pulled aside for having a 4 ounce tube of lotion (3 ounces is the allowed amount) in her bag. She was searched, told she was a bad person and then allowed to travel with the evil extra ounce as some sort of benevolent gift. Others had to drink their water or have it thrown away. There was a bin full of toothpaste and sunscreen in evil amounts.

    As we pass the 10th “anniversary” of 9/11, and count our soldier deaths in the thousands, and the number of people we have killed in the hundreds of thousands, it is worth a moment’s reflection before the media hyper drive takes off to think about what we have become. It seems to be one thing to be defeated by a bad guy, another altogether to have defeated ourselves. Yeah, bin Laden’s dead, along with the ever-long list of Number 2’s and 3’s and couriers and significant Taliban commanders, but in a way, so is a piece of us. George W. Obama. It’s a mug’s deal.



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    9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11

    September 10, 2011 // Comments Off on 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11


    I remembered to be frightened and right away I was.
    – James Dickey, Deliverance

    I was planning on a self-induced coma this 9/11 Weekend, hoping to be revived after all the mad coverage. As predictable as the reviews of the Cheney book (torture good, torture bad), a terror alert was issued on Friday, just before 9/11 Weekend, whipping idiots in New York and Washington into a happy, familiar frenzy. Three men may have entered the US; they may be planning a vehicle bomb; it may be in New York, it may be in DC. Be watchful. It was implied– still gotta watch our step– that the three men are “brown,” as they reportedly came from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    Security theater was whipped into shape here in our nation’s capital. Even at my dull, suburban Virginia subway station, two local cops wearing body armor, one with a shotgun, stood guard over my commute. Should al Qaeda decide this sleepy stop on the Orange Line is the new Ground Zero, they’ll have a fight on their hands. The point is clear: Keep Fear Alive. Ten Years Means Nothing. We Can Never Be Safe Again.

    My own 9/11 memory is actually something more like a 10/25 memory. I was working at our Embassy in Japan, and charged with administering the Federal fund to the 9/11 victims’ families. To prevent everyone from suing everyone for all eternity and bankrupting the airlines, there was some US Government program whipped together to give money to the families of those who died on 9/11, American and foreign alike. New York City had not then sorted out the whole business of issuing death certificates without bodies and so documentation was lacking. The Japanese families whose husbands were trading bonds in the World Trade Center on the Day had to troop into the Embassy to fill out some forms and apply for their victim’s compensation money. The key item was “What evidence do you have that your loved one was killed in the terror acts of 9/11?”

    I’d have to interview these women about that last question, to guard against fraud I guess. The women were typically in their mid-thirties, and usually brought their one or two infant children in with them. Hubby had gone off to New York to work, and they stayed in Japan. “He called home every day. Then, no calls.” “The man he lived with missed work that day. He mailed me my husband’s neckties.” “My son cries every night because he has no father.” “A co-worker called me to say he last saw my husband on the 77th floor. I don’t feel he lied.” My Japanese is decent enough, but most of the women felt the need to speak slowly and repeat themselves to politely make sure I understood. Some felt the need to assist by using the limited English they knew, so I could not hide behind the niceties of words like “deceased” or “missing” and had to confront words like “dead” in their place. The interviews were brief, and no one seemed happy– relieved perhaps– when I signed the form and gave instructions on how to get the money sent to their bank accounts. Grief was overcome by awkwardness, but only for a moment. It returned like a draft, unwelcome but surely felt. There were strange echoes from the future, when in Iraq I’d hear from widows whose husbands were lost in the American invasion there.

    It will soon enough be Monday, and by then Anderson and Wolf will return us to our regularly scheduled diet of Perry and Obama, now already in progress.



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    Libya: Not Iraq 2.0?

    August 22, 2011 // Comments Off on Libya: Not Iraq 2.0?

    A lot of high-fives in Washington, as the flaccid American Empire got a shot of geopolitical Viagra over the weekend in Libya. This is no Iraq 2.0.

    The lessons learned are already being compiled in a recipe for future campaigns. Target someone without nukes (North Korea, Iran and Pakistan are very safe, at least from us) and who is not a nuclear threshold state (Saudis, breathe easy). Use as many US and NATO resources as possible except for “boots on the ground.” Boots on the ground these days means troops we’ll need to acknowledge, not special forces, spies and sneaky mercs who can and were deployed in great abundance but in great secrecy. Let the public face of the war be someone, anyone, who is not American. Label them generic rebels, and tone down the rhetoric of past misadventures (no “freedom fighters,” no “Mission Accomplished” photo-ops). Encourage the media-fueled “victory” announcements from Libya. Stir, chill overnight and you’ve deposed another of America’s formerly reliable despots in favor of a bunch of nobodies we hope will keep the oil tap wide open. Repeat.

    Now, my hope will be that the media will keep an eye on Libya long enough to allow us to see what happens next. The rebels will need to shift from breaking things to fixing things, the key transition that screwed up the American adventure in Iraq. Will they be able to very quickly take control of picking up trash, keeping the water and sewage plants running, funding electrical grid upgrades, making sure teachers, cops, toll collectors and tax officials all show up to work and all the rest of the day-to-day stuff of governing? Will they get sidetracking into settling scores and reprisal killings? Security, stabilization and development done sequentially take far too long in a bubbling post-conflict environment, but are very, very hard to do simultaneously (again, see Iraq).

    How conflicts like the Libya campaign will fit into the bigger US geopolitical picture will be able to be judged by the results of such mundane civil tasks. Will the US walk away from Libya in large part, the “tyrant” now gone, uncaring about what happens next as long as the oil flows? It is obvious that the US plans nothing on the scale of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) that set out to fix all those problems in Iraq and Afghanistan and failed miserably. But will the US dump “experts” and money into Libya? Doing so may or may not make things work, but will increase ownership of the problems by the US, something America would most dearly like to avoid. Doing close to nothing will likely ease Libya’s transition into a permanent semi-failed state.

    Breaking things is easy, fixing things is hard. The US has mismanaged that problem consistently since 9/11. Let’s see what the play is in Libya to see if anyone in Washington really learned any lessons.



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    US Losing Grip

    July 19, 2011 // Comments Off on US Losing Grip

    The Pakistan Observer ran an editorial today that was scary in its frankness and simplicity of tone as we approach the anniversary of 9/11 once again:

    Despite using excessive force and resorting to torture and intrigues for a decade, the US couldn’t disable Taliban power. Rather, they have become more powerful and resilient and are enjoying a military edge over the collection of most powerful armies of the world and are unprepared to negotiate with USA on its terms. With the killing of bin Laden, America is left with no excuse to prolong its stay, particularly when it claims that al-Qaida’s back has been broken. In fact it had barged into Afghanistan with the main objective of punishing al-Qaeda for its alleged role in 9/11. Ten years intense oppression and massacre of tens of thousands of Afghans and al-Qaeda operatives and death of most wanted top leader are enough to avenge deaths of about 3000 Americans.

    This amount spent in the name of insane war which has given nothing except pain and ignominy to USA is a big waste which can be profitably utilized for welfare of home public. It is ironic to see the sole super power mired in heavy debt and getting more and more dependent upon its archrival China for its sustenance.


    Read the whole article.



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    Tongue-Tied State Department Failing in its Core Mission (Part I)

    July 11, 2011 // 2 Comments »

    What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. Three languages? Trilingual. Only one language? An American.

    If you had to reduce diplomacy to a single function, it would be “talking to foreigners.” The Department of State talks to foreigners. We talk with them about nuclear treaties, we talk with them about Americans in jail abroad, we talk with them about who the President will visit with and, in Iraq, we talked with them about reconstruction. We talked about what we thought they needed, we talked with them about whose brother-in-law would get the next contract, we talked with them about not killing us at checkpoints. We talked a lot; it is what we do.

    The problem is that we talked to Iraqis almost exclusively in English, or at least we spoke English, and relied on a rogues gallery of so-called translators and interpreters (the Army called them ‘terps and therefore so did we). The fact that very, very few Americans involved in either destroying Iraq or rebuilding Iraq spoke any Arabic was a huge problem. No one will ever know how much of our failure in reconstructing Iraq was caused simply by bad translation, but it would be a decent percentage.

    This was and is a significant problem, with two nasty sides to it.

    The first side is that even now, ten years after 9/11, very few people in the Department of State speak decent Arabic. Of the approximate 7600 Foreign Service Officers, only 380 speak Arabic at a “general professional level,” a language test score of 3/3 for you Foggy Bottom insiders. This score means that the individual is “Able to speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most formal and informal conversations on practical, social, and professional topics. Nevertheless, the individual’s limitations generally restrict the professional contexts of language use to matters of shared knowledge and/or international convention.” So those folks speak Arabic pretty well, but nobody is saying fluent. In fact, in US Embassy Yemen’s example, a senior official complained that a level 3/3 proficiency in Arabic is not enough for mission officers to participate in debates about US foreign policy in Arabic.

    (How does the State Department test languages anyway?)

    However, on average, only 64 percent of FSOs are overseas at any one time, so of those 380 Arabic speakers, only 243 are outside the Beltway today. Because of State’s whacky assignments system, there is no assurance that an Arabic speaker will be assigned to an Arabic speaking country, or a Chinese speaker to China for that matter. All sorts of things can affect assignment, including that many native speakers of a language (say a naturalized Pakistani-born FSO) often are not assigned “home” for security reasons. Whatever portion of those 243 Arabic speakers who are abroad are spread across 23 posts in the Middle East. Lastly, of the subset of officers, statistically over 35 percent have less than five years of service with the Department—so-called entry level officers—and typically are assigned visa work or other junior tasks. That knocks out a few more, leaving us an estimated 130 or so FSOs who can have a semi-professional conversation in Arabic.

    No one knows the numbers, but you will need to also deduct a few for people not medically qualified to serve overseas, those in jobs that limit them to inside the Embassy and a couple who might have gotten the right test score but don’t actually speak Arabic all that well in practice, book learners.

    That latter variable is no joke—the Government Accounting Office (GAO) found substandard skills in 31 percent of the approximately 3600 FSO jobs that require a certain level of language proficiency, up from 29 percent in 2005. In Iraq, 57 percent lacked sufficient language skills. Overall, forty-three percent of officers in Arabic language-designated positions do not meet the requirements of their positions. Doh! Doh! again, however you would say it in French.

    So not very many people in the State Department can speak Arabic. In fact, on both of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) Peter led in Iraq, not a single subject matter expert, contractor or FSO spoke a word of Arabic. No one in our parent Army units did either. We all used translators, the ‘terps.

    Most Americans’ don’t speak a foreign language, and have only had their high school French or Spanish as a guide. In reality (Peter speaks Japanese and Mandarin at the general professional level), it is really freaking hard to learn a foreign language as an adult. There is something biological to all this; kids pick up languages well, but adults really sweat it out to get beyond simple greetings and memorized phrases. You can’t just order up more Arabic speakers. It works both ways, for Americans trying to learn Arabic and native speakers of Arabic who are trying to learn English (Quick test. If you think you speak a foreign language well, translate this out loud, respectfully and persuasively: “Unlike as we discussed at the council session, changes to our fiscal plans meant that the dike was be built upstream of your farm, unfortunately flooding your pasture. We are unable to pay compensation for your deceased goats.”). The very few who can really handle languages fluently get big bucks and work for the White House or the UN, not at a remote PRT, even if that’s the tip of the spear in the war on terror.

    The majority of our ‘terps were Iraqi-Americans. They had immigrated to the US and become citizens years ago. Most were from Detroit or Chicago, recruited by subcontractors for their alleged language skills. Most of our Iraqi-American translators were employees of an Alaskan Native-owned business. This business had one employee in the US, an Alaskan Native far away in Alaska, and subcontracted to some other business that recruited Iraqi-Americans in Detroit or Chicago and sent those people to us in Iraq. To help support minority businesses such as those owned by Alaskan Natives, the US government offered them an advantage in the otherwise competitive bidding process, a sort of contracting affirmative action, even as they subbed out 100 percent of the work and lent nothing to the company but their name and ethnicity. It seemed like a get-rich-quick internet scam, but this one apparently worked.

    The Iraqi-Americans made six-figure salaries, got free trips home and the sweet benefits that all contractors hauled in. Many of them had not lived in Iraq for years yet we used them as cultural advisors. Some had lived entirely within Iraqi-American communities in the US and spoke poor English, yet served as translators. Some were Kurdish and/or Christian, which no doubt impressed the Muslim Arabs we primarily interacted with. Trust and personal relationships are critical to doing things in the Middle East (as well as in Iowa, really) and we had the tools to establish neither.

    It gets worse. Most ‘terps used by the Army, and often the PRTs, were hired locally. Typically this meant a young man (most women still stayed home in free Iraq) who had learned some English somewhere who could pass security vetting. Often times the kid was good-hearted but knew relatively little English. His manners were rough and tough, making interactions with older government officials, educated sheiks and those who thought themselves important lame exercises. Between the bad English and the bad manners, very little got done.

    Though Iraqis will shout their opinions at you in the street and wave their hands like a crack-crazed aerobics teacher to make a point, it was hard for us to sort out what they said from what they meant from what was what they thought you wanted to hear. Add in a bad translator who reduced three minutes of spittle-flying speech to “He disagrees but loves all Americans and Obama President” and you often had no idea what was going on.

    Not knowing what was going on became sort of a problem in our efforts to rebuild Iraq. It meant having no way to verify what was being said around you—did your amateur translator make a grammar mistake or did he ask for a bribe? Are the frowns because your offer was too low or because the English slang ended up being mistranslated as something rude in Arabic? We did not know. We had no way to know. We just had to live with it, because there was no other way. Not to beat a dead horse, but while we meant well, we acted foolishly in a way that preordained failure.

    It had to end poorly.




    See Part II of this article…


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    Posted in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria

    We Win! Bin Laden Dead, War Over!

    May 2, 2011 // Comments Off on We Win! Bin Laden Dead, War Over!

    War is Over! With the death of bin Laden, this means that the war is over, right? The troops can all come home to a new era of peace and prosperity, and we can all leave our shoes on at the airport.

    No?

    Now, again, which ones are the insurgents, which are the rebels and which are the terrorists? Jeez, since all the 9/11 conspirators were in Pakistan just before the attacks, and now that it appears Osama was living in Pakistan literally under the eyes of the Pakistani military, I guess is it still a good idea that we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. Also that we killed another Gaddafi kid this week (we nailed one of his daughters in 1986) and the other night popped one of bin Laden’s sons, who no doubt was also resisting.

    Bad news: McDonald’s didn’t stop serving burgers when the original Ronald passed away. Damn Hamburgler!



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

    Posted in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria