• Trump and the New McCarthyism

    August 3, 2018 // 23 Comments »

    There was no explanation for what had happened, how certain victory had boiled off. Fear took over. An answer was needed, and one was created: the Russians. 1950s Cold War America? Or 2018 Trump America? Yes.

    WWII ended with the U.S. the planet’s predominant power. But instead of recognizing its strength, darker forces saw profit in creating new fears. The Soviet Union morphed from an ally decimated after losing 20 million soldiers fighting fascism to a powerful equal locked in a titanic struggle with America. How did they get so powerful so quickly? Nothing could explain this, except… traitors.

    Some realized fear was not a problem, but a tool — one could defeat political enemies simply by accusing them of being Russian sympathizers. There was no need for evidence, Americans were desperate to believe, and so assertions someone was in league with Russia were enough. Joseph McCarthy fired his first shot on February 9, 1950, proclaimed there were 205 card-carrying members of the Communist Party working for the Department of State. The evidence? Nothing but McCarthy’s assertions, but they were enough.

    Pretending to be saving America while he tore at its democratic foundations, over the next four years McCarthy made careers for those who cooperated in his accusations, such as a young red-baiting Richard Nixon, the president of the screen actors guild, Ronald Reagan, who supported the blacklisting of many artists simply by pointing a finger at them and saying “Communist”, and Roy Cohn, a vicious young attorney who ironically would later work for Donald Trump. The power of accusation was used by others as well; the Lavender Scare was an off-shoot of McCarthyism that concluded the State Department was overrun with closeted homosexuals who were at risk of being blackmailed by Moscow. By 1951, 600 people were fired based solely on evidence-free “morals” charges. All across America, state legislatures and school boards mimicked McCarthy. Thousands of people lost their jobs. Books and movies were banned or boycotted based on the “hate speech” of the day, accusations they helped promote Communism. Libraries, for example, banned Robin Hood for suggesting stealing from the rich to give to the poor. The FBI embarked on campaigns of political repression, suspecting Martin Luther King was a Communist. Journalists and academics voluntarily narrowed their political thought and tamping down criticism and inquiry in the 1950’s and beyond.

    In 2018, watching sincere people succumb to paranoia is not something to relish. But having trained themselves to intellectualize away Hillary Clinton’s flaws, as they had with Obama, about half of America truly could not believe she lost to the antithesis of what she represented to them. She was strong (they called her the most qualified candidate in history.) Every poll (that they read) said she would win. Every article (that they read) said it too, as did every person (that they knew.) Lacking an explanation for the unexplainable, they tried out scenarios that would have failed high school civics, claiming only the popular vote mattered, or the archaic Emoluments Clause prevented Trump from taking office, or that he was clinically insane and had to be carted off under the 25th Amendment.

    After a few trial balloons during the primaries where Bernie Sanders’ visits to Russia and Jill Stein’s attendance at a banquet in Moscow were used to imply disloyalty, the fearful cry the Russians meddled in the election morphed into Trump had worked with the Russians and/or (fear is flexible filling in the gaps) the Russians had something on Trump, that new Russian word everyone learned, kompromat. History may not repeat, but it often rhymes, and Donald Trump became the Manchurian Candidate, the name itself taken from a 1959 novel made into a classic Cold War movie positing an American soldier had been brainwashed by communists as part of a plot to place someone under the thumb of the Kremlin in the Oval Office. The New York Times, Vanity Fair, the New York Daily News, Salon, The Hill, the Washington Post,a nd sure, why not, Stormy Daniels’ lawyer Michael Avenatti have all claimed Trump is 2018’s Manchurian Candidate. Cynical, or prescient?

    The birth moment of Trump as a Russian asset is traceable back to MI-6 intelligence officer turned Democratic opposition researcher turned FBI mole Christopher Steele, whose “dossier” claimed the existence of the pee tape. Somewhere deep in the Kremlin is supposedly a surveillance video made in 2013 of Trump in Moscow’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel, watching two prostitutes urinate on a bed the Obamas once slept in.

    No one, not even Steele’s alleged informants, has actually seen the tape. It exists in a land of assertion-is-fact-enough alongside the elevator tape. Reporters, as well as Z-list celebrity Tom Arnold, are actively seeking a tape of Trump doing something in an elevator so salacious the video has been called “Every Trump Reporter’s White Whale.” No one knows when the elevator video was made, but a dossier-length article in New York magazine posits Trump has been a Russian asset since 1987, controlled through a set of big money deals as carrots, whose disclosure would be the kompromat of a stick.

    This is the McCarthy playbook. Trump’s victory seems inexplicable, therefore it could not have happened without outside help. The Russians were certainly sniffing around the edges of the election process, so they must have done it. Trump has done business in Russia, and, a man like him certainly could not have made his money honestly (the tax documents!) The easiest way to bring him down is to offer what his detractors would accept as a plausible explanation — the Russians did it and Trump is in on it — and answer fear with the blind certainty of assertions. As McCarthy did with homosexuality, throw in a few hints of dirty sex to keep the rubes paying attention.

    Suddenly no real evidence is necessary, because it is in front of your face. China fell to the Communists in 1949. The State Department was in charge, therefore was responsible, and therefore must be riven with traitors because why else but on purpose would they fail America? McCarthy accussed Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower of being Communists or Communist stooges. Trump holds a bizarre press conference in Helsinki and the only answer is that he is a traitor. Hillary herself asked which side Trump was on. Nancy Pelosi (“President Trump’s weakness in front of Putin was embarrassing, and proves that the Russians have something on the President, personally, financially or politically”) and Cory Booker (“Trump is acting like he’s guilty of something”) and Lindsey Graham and John Brennan and MSNBC and CNN said Trump is controlled by Russia, even as columnists in the New York Times called him a traitor. As the news did in 1954, when they provided live TV coverage of McCarthy’s dirty assertions against the Army, modern media used each new assertion as “proof” of an earlier one. If they all are saying it, it has to be true. Snowballs get bigger rolling downhill.

    When assertion is accepted as evidence it forces the other side to prove a negative to clear their name. So until Trump “proves” he is not a Russian stooge, he remains one in the eyes of his accusers, and his denials are seen as desperate attempts to wiggle out from under the evidence. Joe McCarthy’s victims faced similar challenges; once labeled a communist or a homosexual, the onus shifted to them to somehow prove they weren’t. Their failure to prove their innocence became more evidence of guilt. It all creates a sense of paranoia. The 1950’s version was well-illustrated in movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or a selection of classic Twilight Zone episodes highlighted by “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” which concludes with the chilling line “a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own.” As with McCarthy, the reaction to a threat outweighs in damage anything the threat may have ever posed.

    And so in 2018 a journalist thinks someone is sending agents disguised as Uber drivers to spy on him. Another on Twitter says she personally has hard info of Trump’s collusion with Russia and faces death threats. They hate Trump and wake up each morning hoping it is Judgment Day. When it is not, they project themselves into the center of global events hoping they personally can bring on Judgment. You could see this in earlier times in parts of the Sy Hersh story, and now so clearly with once sharp minds like Rachel Maddow (“We haven’t ever had to reckon with the possibility that someone had ascended to the presidency of the United States to serve the interests of another country rather than our own,”) and Lawrence Tribe. They struggle to resolve cognitive dissonance by imagining they will defeat Trump where Clinton failed. These same people 10 years later still mock Trump over the silly birth certificate conspiracy, yet find it perfectly normal to claim he is a Russian agent. Meanwhile, we are kept at DefCon levels with an obvious goofball like Carter Page mediaized into a linchpin while an improbable Russian student is arrested to put a sexy, red-haired face on everything.

    And yet… and yet there is no evidence of treason, of collusion, of the assertion the president of the United States, almost two years in control of America’s nuclear arsenal, is by choice or coercion acting on the orders, desires, and initiatives of Russia. None.

    The IRS and Treasury have had Trump’s tax documents for decades. If Trump has been a Russian asset since 1987, or 2013, he has done it behind the backs of the FBI, CIA, and NSA. Indictments against Russian uniformed military who will never see the inside of an American court are presented as evidence, when in fact they are simply Robert Mueller’s own uncontested assertions to sit alongside those of Anderson Cooper and Chris Matthews. With impeachment itself on the table, Mueller has done little more than issue the equivalent of a series of parking tickets against foreign nationals whom he has no jurisdiction over, that provide no link between Trump and Russia. Intelligence community summaries claim without detail the Russians meddled, but fall far short of accusing Trump of being involved. There is simply the assertion, the belief, that some outside explanation, and we seem to have settled on the Russians, is to blame for Trump.

    So we live in a state of constant tension. Fear is powerful. A sound triggers a memory that sets off involuntary, subconscious processes: the heart rate jumps, muscles twitch, higher brain functions switch to fight-or-flight. Live in this state long enough and you lose the ability to control your reaction to certain stimuli. Fear, hatred and venom are expressed through fevered calls for impeachment for not being sufficiently patriotic and for aiding the enemy. Reality is used to prove fantasy — we don’t know how Trump is helping Putin because they met in private! And anyone who questions this must themselves be at best a useful fool, if not an outright Russia collaborator (Wrote one pundit: “They are accessories, before and after the fact, to the hijacking of a democratic election. So, yes, goddamn them all.”) In the McCarthy era, the term was fellow traveler, anyone, witting or unwitting, who helped the Russians. Dissent is muddled with disloyalty.

    The burden of proof is always on the party making an accusation, yet the standing narrative in America is the Russia story must be assumed at least valid, if not true, until proven false. Joe Mccarthy was allowed to tear America apart for four years under just such standards, until finally public opinion turned against him, aided by a small handful of journalists, lead by Edward R. Murrow, brave enough to ask real questions about his factless assertions and demand answers McCarthy ultimately did not have. There is no Edward R. Murrow in 2018, simply journalists who see themselves serving as oppo researchers and adjuncts to the accusers.

    The process already 200 indictments underway — the Mueller investigation — is in Year Two. America faces a crucial set of midterms in November, and thus the need to know for the American people is established; if anyone has hard evidence, why are they waiting to show it with a Russian asset in the White House? At some point one has to account for why no one has found what they insist is there. They can cry “Just wait for Mueller!” for the same four years it took to shut down McCarthy but at some point we all have to admit no evidence has been found that pigs can fly, and thus conclude they can’t, and the collective purpose of Russiagate has shifted, as with McCarthy, from tamping down hysteria to stoking it.

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    Copyright © 2018. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

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    Posted in Democracy, Embassy/State, Trump

    John Brennan is 2018’s Poster Boy

    July 26, 2018 // 18 Comments »



    It is not a pretty face, but one scarred from an evil past, repackaged by the madness of “resistance.” Accusing Trump recklessly, implying he knows more than he lets on, leading the rubes down the path saying soon — soon! — Mueller’s redemption will be here.


    John Brennan is the face of American politics in 2018.


    Coming out of a hole as far into the Deep State as one can dwell while still having eyes that work in sunlight, Brennan burst above ground to become a Hero of the Resistance on CNN. But before all that, Brennan was Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He was Obama’s first-term counter terror advisor, the guy who helped the president decide who to kill each week with drones, including American citizens. He spent 25 years at CIA, and helped shape the violent policies of the post-9/11 Bush era. Brennan was a fan of torture and extrajudicial killing to the point where a 2012 profile was titled “The Seven Deadly Sins of John Brennan.” Another writer called Brennan “the most lethal bureaucrat of all time, or at least since Henry Kissinger.” Today a New York Times puff piece on Brennan just shushes all that away as a “troubling inheritance.”

    So in a political world overcome with madness, it is John Brennan who helps lead the resistance. On Twitter this past week Brennan cartoonishly declaimed “Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to and exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes and misdemeanors.’ It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin.”

    Because it is 2018, Brennan was never asked to explain exactly how a press conference exceeds the gray threshold of high crimes and misdemeanors the Constitution sets for impeachment of a president, nor was he ever asked to lay a few cards worth of evidence on the table showing just what Putin has on Trump. No, Brennan is a man of his times, all bluster and noise, knowing as long as he says what some significant part of the country apparently believes — the president of the United States is either willfully or via blackmail under the control of the Kremlin — he will never be challenged. So it is all maniacal calls for impeachment of a president insufficiently patriotic, wrapped with Brennan’s own unshakable belief in his own perfect righteousness.


    In that way Brennan squats alongside Nancy Pelosi and Cory Booker, both of whom said Trump is controlled by Russia, columnists Charles Blow and Tom Friedman in the New York Times who called Trump a traitor, an article in New York Magazine (which is fast headed to becoming the Zapruder film of Russiagate) speculating Trump met Putin as his intelligence handler, former counter-terrorism coordinator Richard A. Clarke speculating Trump was meeting with Putin to receive his next set of orders, and another former intelligence officer warning “we’re on the cusp of losing the American constitutional republic forever.”

    Brennan’s bleating has the interesting side effect of directing attention away from who was watching the front door as the Russians walked in to cause what one MSNBC analyst called Pearl Harbor and Kristallnacht. During the 2016 election when the Russiagate stuff was taking place, Brennan was head of the CIA. His evil twin, James Clapper, who also coughs up Trump attacks for nickels these days, was Director of National Intelligence. James Comey headed the FBI, following Last Man in the Line of Resistance Robert Mueller into the job. The noise from that crowd is loud enough to drown out any questions about where these guys were when they had the chance, sorry, the duty, to stop the Russians, out Trump as the Manchurian Candidate, and save the Republic.

    The de minimis excuse, “everybody believed Hillary would win” is a blatant example of collusion: things that now rise to treason, if not acts of war against the United States, didn’t matter then because Clinton’s victory would sweep it all under the rug. Brennan’s continued public role screams whatever the Russians did only were crimes because they contributed to Clinton’s loss. Thus only after Clinton lost did it become necessary to create a crisis that might yet be inflated big enough (it wasn’t just the Russians as originally thought, it was Trump working with them) to justify impeachment. Absent that, Brennan would have simply disappeared alongside former CIA Directors into academia, or the lucrative consulting business. Brennan is now a public figure with a big mouth because he has to be. That mouth has to cover his ass.


    Brennan’s all-impeachment, all-the-time barking is the latest chapter in a straight line of whole-of-government effort to overturn the election. Remember how recounts were called for amid (fake) allegations of vote tampering? Constitutional scholars proposed various Hail Mary Electoral College scenarios to unseat Trump. Lawsuits were filed claiming the hereto-largely unheard of Emoluments Clause made it illegal for Trump to even assume office. The media repurposed itself to the goal of impeaching the president. On cue, leaks begin pouring out implying the Trump campaign worked with the Russian government. It is now a rare day when the top stories are not apocalyptic, all unsourced, rocketed from Rawstory to HuffPo to the New York Times in the morning, the other way around for the scoop-of-the-day in the afternoon. Brennan fans the media’s flames as they do his, with a knowing wink saying “You wait and see. Soon it will be Mueller time.”

    But despite all the hard evidence of treason only Brennan and his harpy journalists seem to see, everyone is content to have a colluding Russian agent running the United States for a year and half. You’d think it’d be urgent close this case. Instead, Brennan heads an industry created to admonish us to wait out an investigative process underway through two administrations. And yet if Trump has really been a Russian asset since his 1987 trip to Moscow as many insist, why haven’t the FBI, CIA, IRS, Treasury or the NSA cottoned to that in the intervening years and now instead we’re waiting on Mueller in Year Two to prove it? At some point you might think people like Brennan would have to account for why no one has found what they insist is there. The IRS, for example, has watched Trump for decades (they’ve seen the tax docs even if Wolf Blitzer hasn’t), as have Democratic and Republican opposition researchers, the New Jersey Gaming Commission, and various New York City real estate commissions. Multiple KGB/RSS agents and others have defected, or report to us. The whole Soviet Union collapsed since some claim Trump became a Russian asset.


    If Trump is under Russian influence, he is most dangerous man in American history. Under such conditions, you’d think Brennan, et al, would show some alacrity outside Twitter and the Sunday talk shows. So why isn’t Washington on fire? Why hasn’t Mueller indicted someone for treason? If this is Pearl Harbor, why is the investigation moving at the pace of a mortgage application? Why is everyone allowing a Russian asset placed in charge of the American nuclear arsenal to stay in power even one more minute?

    You’d think Brennan would be saying it is now time to set aside chasing indictments of Russian military officers that will never see the inside of a courtroom, to stop wasting months on decades-old financial crimes unconnected to the Trump campaign, and quit delaying the real stuff over a clumsy series of perjury cases. “Patriots: Where are you???” Brennan asked in a recent tweet. If Brennan himself is a patriot, why doesn’t he leak the details, and save America?

    Because there is one step darker that some seem ready to consider. Reuters writes “Trump is haunted by the fear that a cabal of national-security officers is conspiring in secret to overthrow him… Trump has made real enemies in the realm of American national security. He has struck blows against their empire. One way or another, the empire will strike back.” James Clapper is confirming New York Times reports Trump was shown evidence of Putin’s election attacks and did nothing, even denying them. In response to Helsinki, Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen asked “Where are our military folks ? The Commander in Chief is in the hands of our enemy!”


    Treason, traitor, coup, the empire striking back. Those are just words, right? The simpler answer is probably the correct one. Maybe that is, the lessons of Whitewater and Benghazi learned, the point is a perpetual investigation, tickled to life when needed politically and then allowed to fall back to sleep between outrage sessions. Because maybe deep inside, Brennan (Clapper, Hayden, Comey, et al) really does know, knows this is all like flying saucers and cell phone cameras. At some point the whole alien conspiracy meme fell apart, because somehow when everyone had a camera with them 24/7/365, there were no more sightings and we all had to sorta admit our fears had gotten the best of us, that the threat was inside us all along.


    BONUS: This question on today’s test is an essay worth 100 points: Explain how Christopher Steele paid by the Democrats to knowingly seek a pee tape made by Russian intel as blackmail, differs from someone seeking DNC emails exposing corruption from an anon source who might be Russian intel. For extra credit, list all the ways both American presidential parties appear to have sought blackmail info from the Russians.



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    Copyright © 2018. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

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    Posted in Democracy, Embassy/State, Trump

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

    February 18, 2018 // 18 Comments »

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

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

     

    Job One: Create the Dossier

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

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

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

     

    What Does the Dossier Say?

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

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

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

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

    Job Two: Run the Info Op, Place the Dossier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Gold Medal Plus: Collaborate Your Own Information

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

    How to Steele an Election

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

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

     

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    The Media and the Myths of Trump

    December 1, 2017 // 23 Comments »


    Donald Trump’s victory was so loathsome to journalists that instead of acknowledging their cultural and partisan blindness lead to them misreport the election, they doubled down, growing two overlapping myths to delegitimize the presidency they never wanted to happen.

    The two myths are Trump did not really win the election, and that once in office Trump is so unfit to serve that he is a danger to the nation and must be removed as a people’s act of literal self-defense. Psychiatrists call this denial; political scientists may call it a kill shot to democracy.

     

    The myth Trump did not actually win exploded outward like the Big Bang from November 8, 2016. There were the Jill Stein recounts, and false claims of voter fraud, gerrymandering, and racist voter suppression that lead to an “unfair” win. This all morphed into what stands as one of the most ignorant themes ever expressed in American politics, that because Clinton “won” the popular vote she was somehow entitled to the Oval Office. Reporting on all this came close to claiming the Constitution itself conspired against Hillary. “We’re in uncharted waters,” proclaimed CNN’s Anderson Cooper; the network also featured an ex-CIA officer calling for a new election, what in CIA-speak is better known as an overthrow.

    Instead of dismissing such unconsitutional nonsense, the media featured elaborate justifications, and coined the term “Hamilton Electors” to tie the quixotic effort to one of the few Founding Fathers voters knew via song. An online petition to declare Clinton president that in normal times would have been seen as a crank call was instead promoted into gaining the largest response in Change.org history. Editorials called for the Electoral College vote to be unconstitutionally postponed. Once-cogent pundits like Lawrence Tribe and Robert Reich were handed mainstream platforms to morph themselves into human cottage industries proclaiming the impeach-ability of various Tweets and statements.
    Even today, the New York Times’ White House correspondent beats the fan fiction drum for the importance of the popular vote. Her paper continues to focus on the urgent need to do away with the Electoral College after 220 years, the system that put Obama and Clinton and Carter into office, before the next time Trump runs. In what under normal times would be dismissed as a conspiracy theory, Huffington Post features interviews saying the election may not be “legitimate,” over a year later.

     

    The efforts to somehow keep Trump from office continued right up to the swearing in ceremony, itself boycotted by Democrats who did not want to “normalize” the election.

    It was at that point the second myth came to the fore: Trump was unfit to serve. The uber-disqualification is that Trump is literally a Russian agent (“Is Donald Trump Working for Russia?” asked New York magazine, in a headline that would have made reporters blush during the McCarthy Red Scares), directly under the control of the Kremlin, who holds power over him via some sort of pornographic pee tape no one has seen, or sweetheart real estate loans no one has seen, or in return for buying Trump the election demonstrated by evidence no one has seen.

    Alongside the “Trump is a Russian agent” disqualifier are a handful of memes never before seen in American politics. Trump’s hotels make his presidency illegal under the Emoluments Clause, a Constitutional snippet that generally escaped notice for 220 years (that Obama might get a $60 million book advance to write about things he did in office but only paid out, alongside six figure speaking engagements, after he left office, or that foreign governments donated to the Clinton Foundation while Hillary was Secretary of State, are not discussed.) Trump’s tax returns, available to the IRS for decades, are a media strawman; only if the people of Twitter examine those old 1040s can democracy be saved, IRS auditors and their technical knowledge be damned. Maxine Waters, a Member of Congress, said Trump should be impeached because he is boorish and crude.

    Waters’ statements and other similar, albeit slightly more coherent ones, are addendums to the myth, the idea that Trump is on borrowed time. The media fans the flames of Mueller, expecting the smoking gun that has so far eluded the CIA, NSA, FBI, IRS, and NYT to emerge any day. The 25th Amendment, created after the Kennedy assassination to codify the line of succession should the president become incapacitated, has been crowd-sourced into some sort of psychological failsafe mechanism whereby the Vice President, et al, will wake up one morning, realize the Washington Post has been right all along, and force Trump out of office.

    Ensuring that Trump is to appear as unqualified, the media focuses on “evidence” of that. Looking at his trip to Asia, the main story out of the Japan leg was some silliness over Trump overfeeding fish, not what was discussed with the Japanese regarding North Korea. CBS News’ White House Correspondent purposefully pulled a quote about Japanese auto manufacturing out of context to make Trump appear uninformed, whereas the full statement paints the opposite picture. From China, the theme was Trump was “rolled,” cajoled into, well, something, via a VIP visit to the Forbidden City. The main point of the APEC meeting in the Philippines? A silly photo. His speech in Korea, focusing on the problems with the North, was largely reported based on a irrelevant cherry-picked sentence about a Trump golf course. Back at home, the New York Times headlined Trump taking an awkward drink of water.

     

    Running alongside such spot reporting is a steady stream of anonymous source-based predictions war is imminent in Iran or North Korea, and that DeVos, Mueller, Sessions, Kushner, Tillerson, Mattis, and Kelly will be fired or resign. That such things haven’t happened in a year is irrelevant; the media says without evidence they still might. A silly Trump tweet criticizing a reporter becomes “evidence” the President has abandoned the First Amendment. Journalists, who as a group once took pride in their objectivity, now openly proclaim their “not Trump” political allegiance.

    Routine tussles of government, the stuff of our system, are overstated to a rube-like public such that courts doing what they are supposed to do, ruling on the President’s immigration orders, are inflated into “constitutional crisis.” It’s not a crisis if the system functions as it was created to do.

    Journalistic standards of evidence, typically requiring multiple sources and/or on-the-record witnesses, are replaced by the egregious use of anonymous sources that are little more than gossip from interns. Watch the mushroom-level growth of headlines with colons, such as Revealed:, Sources: or Reported: and passive constructions such as “I’m told…” that get around the fact that the story is not really based on facts.

    Reporters compete with one another to show how aghast they are at the “latest.” Newsweek is gleeful at the possibility Trump won’t finish his term. CNN talks of deposing the president. Politico runs an innuendo-heavy but fact-free piece claiming the KGB, seeing into the future, compromised Trump in 1987.

    The sum of such snarky, non-substantive reporting is clear: America is on the lip of chaos, Trump is not leading America, he is accomplishing nothing of substance, he is unfit.

     

    But the most unprecedented element of myth is the steady stream of reporting the President of the United States is so mentally ill that his continued presence in the White House is a suicide plan for America. Never before have mainstream media so freely and casually declared the President to be medically, legally, insane, and all based on little but fear and a few Tweets. The media has normalized this into common knowledge; as an example, an article pitch I made to a global media outlet explaining why war was not imminent in Korea was rejected because I could not “prove” Trump was not insane (The American Conservative bravely published my story.)

    The myth is buttressed by medically unethical remote diagnosis, such as that of Dr. John Gartner, former assistant professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University Medical School. “I don’t think people have any idea how close we are the point of no return,” Gartner said. “I think that there is an 80% chance he’s going to push that nuclear button. Why? Number one, Trump is a malignant narcissist. As far as I know, I cannot recall a single malignant narcissist in history who did not start a major war.” Gartner concludes “the noose is tightening around their necks and unlike Richard Nixon, Trump and his cabal are not going to leave gracefully. Donald Trump is going to be really like Bonnie and Clyde; he’s going to shoot his way out.”

    Though the nation’s nuclear command and control procedures have for better or worse been left relatively unchanged since the Truman administration, it is only now, under the guise that Trump is insane, that the media and some Members of Congress are promoting the idea that change is needed. Media outlets champion the idea the military could refuse to launch missiles, advocating insubordination, essentially a coup, as the best hope our nation will survive. Such paranoia exceeds the worst of Cold War fears.

    Along the way the myths have created their own new normals; it is now perfectly acceptable to call out the President with schoolyard-taunts: Trump has small hands, a joke about Cheeto Jesus, the orange man-child, homophobic jokes about Putin and bromance, that sort of thing. Writers like Charles Blow in the New York Times build whole columns out of lists (“ignorant… churlish… tacky”) of personal insults.

     

    For the first time in our nation’s history powerful mainstream forces are trying to change the results of an election. Shocked by Trump’s victory, many in the media wanted to stop him from entering the White House. Failing that, they delegitimize the president in the manufactured-from-thin-air belief that he is such a threat that it is necessary to destroy democracy in America to save it.

    At some point Trump will leave office. CNN and others would be expected to return to their originally scheduled programming at that time. The problem is once you let the genie of trying to overturn an election loose, you won’t be able to stop it. It’s foolish to think this process won’t be used again in 2020, or 2024. The clumsiness of the Obama birth certificate conspiracy to delegitimize a president is nothing compared to the approach being tried with Trump. People are getting more skillful at the game, learning more about the tools available. A new political weapon has been unsheathed. America is playing with fire.

     

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    A Media Blacklist, Courtesy of WaPo: Now I’m Afraid for Our Democracy

    November 26, 2016 // 51 Comments »

    firstamendment_0


    In most third world societies, when people don’t like the results of an election, they take to the streets. In America, we take to the Internet.


    But the end result is the same. The system is undermined because we do not like the results it yielded. Accusations of something unfair having happened are slung around, usually either unsupported by facts, based on faux “statistical anomalies,” or via a small data set that is blown up into something general to prove “the system is unfair/corrupt/wrong/inaccurate” to people who already believe that to be true but need talking points for their Facebook pages.

    This is the thought process that is driving the wishful thinking behind the recount efforts, and campaigns to push the Electoral College into voting Hillary Clinton into the White House.

    Of course a nice tag-along is if this can all be blamed on an outside third party. Dissatisfied people have little interest in blaming themselves, their flawed candidate, or acknowledging the strengths of the opponent among a large segment of voters. Nope, easier to blame someone else. For that, a person who has been molded into a one-word symbol of, well, everything and anything Americans fear, Putin.


    And so a recent article in the Washington Post terrifies me. It is at a level of journalism that previously was reserved for conspiracy theories on Geocities’ style web sites. Here’s a selection from the article:

    The flood of “fake news” this election season got support from a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign that created and spread misleading articles online with the goal of punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy.

    Russia’s increasingly sophisticated propaganda machinery — including thousands of botnets, teams of paid human “trolls,” and networks of websites and social-media accounts — echoed and amplified right-wing sites across the Internet as they portrayed Clinton as a criminal hiding potentially fatal health problems and preparing to hand control of the nation to a shadowy cabal of global financiers.

    So: Clinton lost because Russia wanted Trump to win because Trump will favor Russia so Russia created fake news which influenced over 62 million Americans to overlook Trump’s flaws and vote for him. Got it.


    Proof? Stuff on Facebook. Main source of that proof? A group of unknown origin, financing, and makeup (“an independent team of concerned American citizens”) called PropOrNot, i.e., propaganda or not. The group also “strongly suspects that some of the individuals involved have violated the Espionage Act, the Foreign Agent Registration Act, and other related laws.”

    A second source quoted by the Washington Post is Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (which has been around in one form or another since the 1950s, dedicated to the Cold War), who says of the Russians “They want to essentially erode faith in the U.S. government or U.S. government interests.” Watts’s report on his work appeared on a blog this month as Trolling for Trump: How Russia Is Trying to Destroy Our Democracy. That piece claims without any real evidence at all that “Russia is actively trying to put Donald Trump in the White House… And the evidence is compelling.”

    I encourage everyone to read some of the linked articles. This is seriously scary Cold War paranoia stuff.


    And guess what? The ProporNot group has created a (black)list of websites that it claims are controlled/influenced by the Russians. While — dammit — this website in not included, I take some solace in noting that I have written for or been reprinted by 11 of them.

    “They use our technologies and values against us to sow doubt,” said Robert Orttung, a George Washington University professor who studies Russia, quoted in the article.

    And that sounds dangerously close to saying our First Amendment’s freedom of speech provisions seem to be the root of this threat to American democracy.



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    Acts of Quiet Desperation: Wisconsin Recount Edition

    November 23, 2016 // 21 Comments »

    trump-clinton

    It is quite sad to see so many well-meaning and otherwise intelligent Americans embarrassing and deluding themselves that Hillary Clinton didn’t lose the election held over two weeks ago.

    I hear many using words like mourning, markers of the kind of feelings that follow an actual death. If that is the case, then it is time to move on into some form of acceptance.

    In addition to the clueless bleating about the electoral vote not matching the popular vote (you win at baseball with more runs, not more hits), Hillary Clinton is now being urged by a group of prominent computer scientists and election lawyers to call for a recount in three swing states won by Donald Trump. The story, somehow, despite the scientists not speaking on record and only to the Clinton team in private, has gone viral across the same media (HuffPo, Vox, you know them) that never saw the flaws in Candidate Clinton and still doesn’t.

    The group believes they’ve found “persuasive evidence” results in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania may have been manipulated or hacked. Let’s take a look at that.


    The sole evidence presented so far, according to New York magazine, which broke the story is (emphasis added):

    In Wisconsin, Clinton received seven percent fewer votes in counties that relied on electronic-voting machines compared with counties that used optical scanners and paper ballots.

    Based on this statistical analysis [NOTE: this is not a statistical analysis, just counting], Clinton may have been denied as many as 30,000 votes; she lost Wisconsin by 27,000. While it’s important to note the group has not found proof of hacking or manipulation, they are arguing to the campaign that the suspicious pattern merits an independent review — especially in light of the fact that the Obama White House has accused the Russian government of hacking the Democratic National Committee.



    So let’s unpack that:

    — Assuming the counting is accurate, there is no known connection between the vote tally and anything else. At best this is a correlation, in likelihood it is just a tally. There is no evidence of any suspicious pattern. Ballots are not “patterns.” They’re just ballots.

    — There is no evidence of any hacking or manipulation. Even if it is true (a big if given the lack of evidence) that someone connected with Russia hacked the DNC, that does not in any way connect to a handful of voting machines in Wisconsin reviewed as a very small sample.

    — Though pitched as a “Save Hillary” effort, there is no evidence to suggest any recount would favor Clinton.

    — The reporting on this says the scientists have shared the information only with the Clinton campaign. Why not the Justice Department? If they really have something, it is evidence of a grave felony. Why not share it with the people who can really do something about that? Put up or shut up time.

    — Are these otherwise intelligent scientists really, truly, claiming that Russian hackers reached into individual voting machines in Wisconsin somewhere to throw a small number of votes Trump’s way?



    Bottom Line: Some people didn’t like the election results so they are throwing themselves on the ground like a soccer player trying to claim a faux foul.

    Disclaimer: I hate Trump. I hate racism and sexism and nazis. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a racist, or sexist, or nazi. This is not a pro-Trump article just because it criticizes Clinton in part. Stop acting like *ssholes. Please.




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    Did Russian Intelligence Hack the DNC Servers?

    July 26, 2016 // 42 Comments »

    russianbear

    Short answer: nobody knows, but the media is treating it as a fact based primarily on a single technical source employed by the Democratic National Committee. I read the source’s publically available explanation. Here’s what I found.

    A Quick Taste of Media Conclusions

    Despite a line in paragraph five saying “Proving the source of a cyberattack is notoriously difficult,” the New York Times offers the following statements.

    — “researchers have concluded that the national committee was breached by two Russian intelligence agencies;”

    — “Though a hacker claimed responsibility for giving the emails to WikiLeaks, the same agencies are the prime suspects;”

    — “Whether the thefts were ordered by Mr. Putin, or just carried out by apparatchiks who thought they might please him, is anyone’s guess.”

    — “It is unclear how WikiLeaks obtained the email trove. But the presumption is that the intelligence agencies turned it over, either directly or through an intermediary. Moreover, the timing of the release, between the end of the Republican convention and the beginning of the Democratic one, seems too well planned to be coincidental.”

    There’s more, but you get the picture. The article also quotes Clinton staffers citing unnamed experts and researchers.

    Who Are These Experts?

    The only experts cited work for a company hired by the Democratic National Committee to investigate the hack. There is no indication of any neutral third party investigation. The company, Crowdstrike, issued a publicly available report on what they found.

    The report title makes clear the company’s conclusion: Bears in the Midst: Intrusion into the Democratic National Committee.


    What Does the Report Say?

    The report has some technical explanations, but focuses on conclusions that seem to be at best presumptions, despite the media treating them as fact.

    — The key presumptive conclusion seems to be that the sophistication of the hacks points to a nation-state actor. “Their tradecraft is superb, operational security second to none and the extensive usage of ‘living-off-the-land’ techniques enables them to easily bypass many security solutions they encounter. In particular, we identified advanced methods consistent with nation-state level capabilities.”

    — The hackers, two separate entities Crowdstrike says worked independently, used techniques known to be used by Russians. Better yet, with no evidence at all presented, Crowdstrike concludes, “Both adversaries engage in extensive political and economic espionage for the benefit of the government of the Russian Federation and are believed to be closely linked to the Russian government’s powerful and highly capable intelligence services.” Also, for one of the alleged hackers, “Extensive targeting of defense ministries and other military victims has been observed, the profile of which closely mirrors the strategic interests of the Russian government.”

    — By the end of the report Crowdstrike is just plain out called the hackers “Russian espionage groups.”

    FYI: Fidelis, another cybersecurity company, was hired by Crowdstrike to review the findings. Fidelis worked exclusively and only with data provided by Crowdstrike (as did several other companies.) Fidelis They concluded the same two hackers, COZY BEAR and FANCY BEAR APT, committed the intrusion, but made no comments on whether those two were linked to the Russian government.


    Um, Valid Conclusions?

    Despite the citing with certainty of experts and researchers by the media and the Clinton campaign, the only such expert who has made any findings public has basically thrown out little more than a bunch of presumptions and unsubstantiated conclusions.

    Left undiscussed are:

    — the commonality of hackers using “false flags,” say where an Israeli hackers will purposely leave behind false clues to make it seem that a Hungarian did the work. As one commentator put it sarcastically “The malware was written in Russian? It was a Russian who attacked you.
    Chinese characters in the code? You’ve been hacked by the Peoples Liberation Army.”

    — the question of if the hackers were “Russians,” can anyone tie them to the Russian government? Joe Black Hat breaking into some system in Ireland may indeed be an American person, but it is quite a jump to claim he thus works for the American government.

    — there is also a significant question of motive. For Putin to be the bad guy here, we have to believe that Putin wants Trump in power, bad enough to risk near-war with the U.S. if caught in the hack, and bad enough to really p.o. Clinton who will be nominated this week anyway, and hoping of course that evidence of dirty tricks by the DNC released in July will be enough to defeat her in November. That’s a real s-t-r-e-t-c-h, Sparky.

    — other than those private persons who hack for their own entertainment or personal political beliefs, most work for money. They steal something and sell it. Information from the DNC system would find an easy buyer.

    — Who might be intersted in buying these emails? Along the range of actors who would benefit from exposing these emails, why would the Russians come out on top? Perhaps the Republicans? China? Pretty much any of the many enemies the Clintons have amassed over the years? Hell, even Bernie Sanders, whose complaints about the DNC were validated by the email release. The suspects based on motive alone make up a very long list.



    Learning More

    For some intelligent analysis suspicious that the DNC hack was a Russian intelligence job, try this.

    For some more technical information on one of the alleged DNC infiltrators, here you go.




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    Who Benefits from the Tragedy? Tour Sales from Russia to Egypt Down 70 Percent

    November 9, 2015 // 2 Comments »

    plane_3489909b


    One of the most basic precepts of detective work is always to first ask, “who benefits from a crime (cui bono)?” That answer will often point you toward your perp, and his motive.

    With the downing of a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai, departing one Egyptian airport bound for another, a full list of who might benefit from the tragedy is long. Depending on your politics, some of these that seem like conspiracy theories to you will be likely culprits to others:

    — the U.S. could benefit by inflaming feelings worldwide about ISIS, reinforcing the narrative of how evil they are;

    — the U.S. could also benefit by sending a message to the Russians that they have chosen to play inside a dangerous sandbox;

    — the Russians could benefit by enraging their own people, prepping them for a longer fight in the region;

    — Chechnyan terrorists could benefit by carrying on their war against Russia, having found a security weak spot inside Egypt;

    But it is ISIS, or another of the radical Muslim terror groups at war with the pro-U.S. thugs now running Egypt, that seem to benefit the most. The downing of the airplane has hit tourism to Egypt very hard, a painful blow to an unpopular government given that tourism brings in $11 billion of revenue and employs 12 percent of the Egyptian workforce. This is a clearly destabilizing situation.

    And that’s just tourism in general in Egypt. The choice to down a Russian airplane does not seem random. Egypt is the most world’s most popular warm weather holiday spot for Russians. In the first half of 2015, over one million Russians visited the country, many to the same resort area from which the doomed plane departed. A clear signal was sent: Russians (and your money) stay away.

    It seems to be working. According to the New York Times, bookings from Russia to Egypt fell 70 percent overall in the aftermath of the Metrojet plane crash. Before the crash, more than 25 flights travelled from Egypt to Russia every day. To give you a better idea of the scope of tourism, suspension of scheduled service has stranded more than 45,000 Russians in Egypt.

    So perhaps there is more than a little validity to the idea that ISIS, or another radical Muslim group, is behind the downing of the Russian plane. But not for the crude narrative reasons the United States and Britain are pushing out. This is more about Egypt than anything else, and the real weapon being used is tourism dollars (rubles?)




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    What If They Gave a War and Everyone Came?

    November 3, 2015 // 5 Comments »

    army

    What if the U.S. had not invaded Iraq in 2003? How would things be different in the Middle East today? Was Iraq, in the words of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, the “worst foreign policy blunder” in American history?

    Let’s take a big-picture tour of the Middle East and try to answer those questions. But first, a request: after each paragraph that follows, could you make sure to add the question “What could possibly go wrong?”


    Let the History Begin

    In March 2003, when the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq, the region, though simmering as ever, looked like this: Libya was stable, ruled by the same strongman for 42 years; in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak had been in power since 1983; Syria had been run by the Assad family since 1971; Saddam Hussein had essentially been in charge of Iraq since 1969, formally becoming president in 1979; the Turks and Kurds had an uneasy but functional ceasefire; and Yemen was quiet enough, other than the terror attack on the USS Cole in 2000. Relations between the U.S. and most of these nations were so warm that Washington was routinely rendering “terrorists” to their dungeons for some outsourced torture.

    Soon after March 2003, when U.S. troops invaded Iraq, neighboring Iran faced two American armies at the peak of their strength. To the east, the U.S. military had effectively destroyed the Taliban and significantly weakened al-Qaeda, both enemies of Iran, but had replaced them as an occupying force. To the west, Iran’s decades-old enemy, Saddam, was gone, but similarly replaced by another massive occupying force. From this position of weakness, Iran’s leaders, no doubt terrified that the Americans would pour across its borders, sought real diplomatic rapprochement with Washington for the first time since 1979. The Iranian efforts were rebuffed by the Bush administration.


    The Precipitating Event

    Nailing down causation is a tricky thing. But like the June 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that kicked off the Great War, the one to end all others, America’s 2003 invasion was what novelists refer to as “the precipitating event,” the thing that may not actively cause every plot twist to come, but that certainly sets them in motion.

    There hadn’t been such an upset in the balance of power in the Middle East since, well, World War I, when Great Britain and France secretly reached the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which, among other things, divided up most of the Arab lands that had been under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Because the national boundaries created then did not respect on-the-ground tribal, political, ethnic, and religious realities, they could be said to have set the stage for much that was to come.

    Now, fast forward to 2003, as the Middle East we had come to know began to unravel. Those U.S. troops had rolled into Baghdad only to find themselves standing there, slack-jawed, gazing at the chaos. Now, fast forward one more time to 2015 and let the grand tour of the unraveling begin!


    The Sick Men of the Middle East: It’s easy enough to hustle through three countries in the region in various states of decay before heading into the heart of the chaos: Libya is a failed state, bleeding mayhem into northern Africa; Egypt failed its Arab Spring test and relies on the United States to support its anti-democratic (as well as anti-Islamic fundamentalist) militarized government; and Yemen is a disastrously failed state, now the scene of a proxy war between U.S.-backed Saudi Arabia and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels (with a thriving al-Qaeda outfit and a small but growing arm of the Islamic State [ISIS] thrown into the bargain).


    Iraq: Obama is now the fourth American president in a row to have ordered the bombing of Iraq and his successor will almost certainly be the fifth. If ever a post-Vietnam American adventure deserved to inherit the moniker of quagmire, Iraq is it.

    And here’s the saddest part of the tale: the forces loosed there in 2003 have yet to reach their natural end point. Your money should be on the Shias, but imagining that there is only one Shia horse to bet on means missing just how broad the field really is. What passes for a Shia “government” in Baghdad today is a collection of interest groups, each with its own militia. Having replaced the old strongman prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, with a weak one, Haider al-Abadi, and with ISIS chased from the gates of Baghdad, each Shia faction is now free to jockey for position. The full impact of the cleaving of Iraq has yet to be felt. At some point expect a civil war inside a civil war.


    Iran: If there is any unifying authority left in Iraq, it is Iran. After the initial 2003 blitzkrieg, the Bush administration’s version of neocolonial management in Iraq resulted in the rise of Sunni insurgents, Shia militias, and an influx of determined foreign fighters. Tehran rushed into the power vacuum, and, in 2011, in an agreement brokered by the departing Bush administration and carried out by President Obama, the Americans ran for the exits. The Iranians stayed. Now, they have entered an odd-couple marriage with the U.S. against what Washington pretends is a common foe — ISIS — but which the Iranians and their allies in Baghdad see as a war against the Sunnis in general. At this point, Washington has all but ceded Iraq to the new Persian Empire; everyone is just waiting for the paperwork to clear.

    The Iranians continue to meddle in Syria as well, supporting Bashar al-Assad. Under Russian air cover, Iran is increasing its troop presence there, too. According to a recent report, Tehran is sending 2,000 troops to Syria, along with 5,000 Iraqi and Afghan Shia fighters. Perhaps they’re already calling it “the Surge” in Farsi.


    The Kurds: The idea of creating a “Kurdistan” was crossed off the post-World War I “to do” list. The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres at first left an opening for a referendum on whether the Kurds wanted to remain part of what remained of the Ottoman Empire or become independent. Problem one: the referendum did not include plans for the Kurds in what became Syria and Iraq. Problem two: the referendum never happened, a victim of the so-called Turkish War of Independence. The result: some 20 million angry Kurds scattered across parts of modern Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.

    That American invasion of 2003, however, opened the way for the Kurds to form a virtual independent statelet, a confederacy if you will, even if still confined within Iraq’s borders. At the time, the Kurds were labeled America’s only true friends in Iraq and rewarded with many weapons and much looking the other way, even as Bush administration officials blathered on about the goal of a united Iraq.

    In 2014, the Kurds benefited from U.S. power a second time. Desperate for someone to fight ISIS after Iraq’s American-trained army turned tail (and before the Iranians and the Shia militias entered the fight in significant force), the Obama administration once again began sending arms and equipment to the Kurds while flying close air support for their militia, the peshmerga. The Kurds responded by fighting well, at least in what they considered the Kurdish part of Iraq. However, their interest in getting involved in the greater Sunni-Shia civil war was minimal. In a good turn for them, the U.S. military helped Kurdish forces move into northern Syria, right along the Turkish border. While fighting ISIS, the Kurds also began retaking territory they traditionally considered their own. They may yet be the true winners in all this, unless Turkey stands in their way.


    Turkey: Relations between the Turks and the Kurds have never been rosy, both inside Turkey and along the Iraqi-Turkish border.

    Inside Turkey, the primary Kurdish group calling for an independent state is the Kurdistan Workers party (also known as the PKK). Its first insurgency ran from 1984 until 1999, when the PKK declared a unilateral cease-fire. The armed conflict broke out again in 2004, ending in a ceasefire in 2013, which was, in turn, broken recently. Over the years, the Turkish military also carried out repeated ground incursions and artillery strikes against the PKK inside Iraq.

    As for ISIS, the Turks long had a kind of one-way “open-door policy” on their border with Syria, allowing Islamic State fighters and foreign volunteers to transit into that country. ISIS also brokered significant amounts of black market oil in Turkey to fund itself, perhaps with the tacit support, or at least the willful ignorance, of the Turkish authorities. While the Turks claimed to see ISIS as an anti-Assad force, some felt Turkey’s generous stance toward the movement reflected the government’s preference for having anything but an expanded Kurdish presence on its border. In June of this year, Turkish President Recep Erdogan went as far as to say that he would “never allow the establishment of a Kurdish state in northern Syria.”

    In light of all that, it’s hardly surprising that early Obama administration efforts to draw Turkey into the fight against ISIS were unsuccessful. Things changed in August 2015, when a supposedly anti-ISIS cooperation deal was reached with Washington. The Turks agreed to allow the Americans to fly strike missions from two air bases in Turkey against ISIS in Syria. However, there appeared to be an unpublicized quid pro quo: the U.S. would turn a blind eye to Turkish military action against its allies the Kurds. On the same day that Turkey announced that it would fight the Islamic State in earnest, it also began an air campaign against the PKK.

    Washington, for its part, claimed that it had been “tricked” by the wily Turks, while adding, “We fully respect our ally Turkey’s right to self-defense.” In the process, the Kurds found themselves supported by the U.S. in the struggle with ISIS, even as they were being thrown to the (Turkish) wolves. There is a Kurdish expression suggesting that Kurds have “no friends but the mountains.” Should they ever achieve a trans-border Kurdistan, they will certainly have earned it.


    Syria: Through a series of events almost impossible to sort out, having essentially supported the Arab Spring nowhere else, the Obama administration chose to do so in Syria, attempting to use it to turn President Bashar al-Assad out of office. In the process, the Obama administration found itself ever deeper in a conflict it couldn’t control and eternally in search of that unicorn, the moderate Syrian rebel who could be trained to push Assad out without allowing Islamic fundamentalists in. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda spin-offs, including the Islamic State, found haven in the dissolving borderlands between Iraq and Syria, and in that country’s Sunni heartlands.

    An indecisive Barack Obama allowed America’s involvement in Syria to ebb and flow. In September 2013, on the verge of a massive strike against the forces of the Assad regime, Obama suddenly punted the decision to Congress, which, of course, proved capable of deciding nothing at all. In November 2013, again on the verge of attacking Syria, the president allowed himself to be talked down after a gaffe by Secretary of State John Kerry opened the door to Russian diplomatic intercession. In September 2014, in a relatively sudden reversal, Obama launched a war against ISIS in Syria, which has proved at best indecisive.


    Russia: That brings us to Vladimir Putin, the Syrian game-changer of the moment. In September, the Russian president sent a small but powerful military force into a neglected airfield in Latakia, Syria. With “fighting ISIS” little more than their cover story, the Russians are now serving as Assad’s air force, as well as his chief weapons supplier and possible source of “volunteer” soldiers. 

    The thing that matters most, however, is those Russian planes. They have essentially been given a guarantee of immunity to being shot down by the more powerful U.S. Air Force presence in the region (as Washington has nothing to gain and much to worry about when it comes to entering into open conflict with the Russians). That allows them near-impunity to strike when and where they wish in support of whom they wish. It also negates any chance of the U.S. setting up a no-fly zone in parts of Syria.

    The Russians have little incentive to depart, given the free pass handed them by the Obama administration. Meanwhile, the Russian military is growing closer to the Iranians with whom they share common cause in Syria, and also the Shia government in Baghdad, which may soon invite them to join the fight there against ISIS. One can almost hear Putin chortling. He may not, in fact, be the most skilled strategist in the world, but he’s certainly the luckiest. When someone hands you the keys, you take the car.


    World War I

    As in imperial Europe in the period leading up to the First World War, the collapse of an entire order in the Middle East is in process, while forces long held in check are being released. In response, the former superpowers of the Cold War era have once again mobilized, at least modestly, even though both are fearful of a spark that could push them into direct conflict. Each has entangling regional relationships that could easily exacerbate the fight: Russia with Syria, the U.S. with Saudi Arabia and Israel, plus NATO obligations to Turkey. (The Russians have already probed Turkish airspace and the Turks recently shot down a drone coyly labeled of “unknown origin.”)

    Imagine a scenario that pulls any of those allies deeper into the mess: some Iranian move in Syria, which prompts a response by Israel in the Golan Heights, which prompts a Russian move in relation to Turkey, which prompts a call to NATO for help… you get the picture. Or imagine another scenario: with nearly every candidate running for president in the United States growling about the chance to confront Putin, what would happen if the Russians accidentally shot down an American plane? Could Obama resist calls for retaliation?

    As before World War I, the risk of setting something in motion that can’t be stopped does exist.


    What Is This All About Again?

    What if the U.S. hadn’t invaded Iraq in 2003? Things would undoubtedly be very different in the Middle East today. America’s war in Afghanistan was unlikely to have been a big enough spark to set off the range of changes Iraq let loose. There were only some 10,000 America soldiers in Afghanistan in 2003 (5,200 in 2002) and there had not been any Abu Ghraib-like indiscriminate torture, no equivalent to the scorched earth policy in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, nothing to spark a trans-border Sunni-Shia-Kurd struggle, no room for Iran to meddle. The Americans were killing Muslims in Afghanistan, but they were not killing Arabs, and they were not occupying Arab lands.

    The invasion of Iraq, however, did happen. Now, some 12 years later, the most troubling thing about the current war in the Middle East, from an American perspective, is that no one here really knows why the country is still fighting. The commonly stated reason — “defeat ISIS” — is hardly either convincing or self-explanatory. Defeat ISIS why?

    The best Washington can come up with are the same vague threats of terrorism against the homeland that have fueled its disastrous wars since 9/11. The White House can stipulate that Assad is a bad guy and that the ISIS crew are really, really bad guys, but bad guys are hardly in short supply, including in countries the U.S. supports. In reality, the U.S. has few clear goals in the region, but is escalating anyway.

    Whatever world order the U.S. may be fighting for in the Middle East, it seems at least an empire or two out of date. Washington refuses to admit to itself that the ideas of Islamic fundamentalism resonate with vast numbers of people. At this point, even as U.S. TOW missiles are becoming as ubiquitous as iPads in the region, American military power can only delay changes, not stop them. Unless a rebalancing of power that would likely favor some version of Islamic fundamentalism takes hold and creates some measure of stability in the Middle East, count on one thing: the U.S. will be fighting the sons of ISIS years from now.

    Back to World War I. The last time Russia and the U.S. both had a powerful presence in the Middle East, the fate of their proxies in the 1973 Yom Kippur War almost brought on a nuclear exchange. No one is predicting a world war or a nuclear war from the mess in Syria. However, like those final days before the Great War, one finds a lot of pieces in play inside a tinderbox.


    Now, all together: What could possibly go wrong?




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    U.S. to Iraq: If Russia Helps You Fight ISIS, We Won’t

    October 28, 2015 // 5 Comments »

    obama-mission-accomplished

    This. Is. Hilarious.

    Honestly, I can’t stop laughing. I gotta wipe the tears out of my eyes, seriously. I feel like I need to start including the line “This is real. It is not from the Onion” as a standard disclaimer.



    But They Promised

    So it seems the U.S. has told Iraq’s leaders they must choose between American support against Islamic State and Russian support. Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Iraqis “promised” they would not request any Russian airstrikes or support for the fight against IS.

    Dunford told reporters he had laid out a choice when he met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. “I said it would make it very difficult for us to be able to provide the kind of support you need if the Russians were here conducting operations as well,” Dunford said. “We can’t conduct operations if the Russians were operating in Iraq right now.”

    He said there was “angst” in the U.S. when reports surfaced that al-Abadi had said he would welcome Russian airstrikes in Iraq. The U.S., Dunford said, “can’t have a relationship right now with Russia in the context of Iraq.”



    And Now, We Laugh

    We begin laughing in that the U.S. does not seem to have any problems with the Iranians (who are also active in Syria, supporting Assad) working out in Iraq. The Iranians overtly have special forces, leadership and trainers on the ground there, have sent in armor and by many accounts supplied limited numbers of ground troops. But that seems to be OK.

    The hilarity continues because the U.S. sort of started off welcoming the Russians into the fight against IS in Syria, at least until the U.S. realized it had been played by Putin, and that the Russians in fact did not share American goals (who would have thought it?) and instead supported Assad. I mean, Russia has been Assad’s only supporter, ally, and benefactor for decades, and the Russians maintained their only remaining overseas military base in Syria since forever, so it made perfect sense for the U.S. to believe they would not side with Assad, right?

    It is even funnier when you realize the U.S. has no real goals or business left in Iraq, except now to have hissy fits to make sure that it is Iran that retains defacto control there instead of the Russians.

    And of course, since the Iraqis “promised” not to take Russian help, well, that makes it a done deal, right?

    Plus if the Russians did step in, what would the U.S. really do? Pack everything up in Iraq and just come home? Leave the Russians to guard the American Embassy? Hah, as if the U.S. would just leave Iraq.

    But the true amusement is that if the Iraqis want the Russians to help — maybe as “volunteers” — there is not a damn thing the U.S. can do about that, other than move aside, as is happening in Syria.


    Seriously, this is what’s left of American foreign policy?




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    Shilling for a Living: Public Diplomacy in Russia

    September 6, 2013 // 5 Comments »

    Wow, Russia.

    ‘Lot going on there, Obama attending the G-20, what with Russia taking in NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, Russian support for the other side in Syria, the famous Obama-Putin sourpuss photos, why, golly, you’d figure America’s public diplomacy warriors at Embassy Moscow would be busy, busy, busy seeking out Russian hearts and minds to influence.

    Instead, those diplomatic warriors are seeking Russian stomachs to fulfill with America’s last domestically-made product, junk food. Shilling for a living, one of our best, Joseph Kruzich, is pictured to the left. He posted on his Facebook page:

    Krispy Kreme doughnuts have arrived in Moscow. We had some at the American Embassy in Moscow yesterday. Delicious!

    And oh yes, he did add the final exclamation point. Oh yes.

    Kruzich, who as a slim man makes a poor advocate for the goodness of America’s toxic junk food to the stout Russians, also apparently like potato chips. Here’s another terse Facebook post. He posted in Russian but here’s the Google version:

    Today is the birthday of potato chips! Credited with creating the popular snack is American chef George Crumb, who invented the chip this day 160 years ago. The finely chopped crisp was for a disgruntled restaurant customer at Moon’s Lake House in Saratoga Springs, who said the french fries were cut too thick.

    Nobody commented on the fact that the inventor of the potato chip was surnamed “Crumb,” so I will. Also, it is not at all certain that Crumb was even the inventor. Facts, meh, it’s social media!

    And oh yes, I did add the final exclamation point. Oh yes.

    Kruzich also seems to have a habit of reposting a lot of his boss’ stuff, but that is really just part of the overall job of a foreign service officer, so no points off for that. And to be fair, shilling for promoting American products abroad is indeed one of those things America’s diplomats are told to do, whether it is Boeing 747s or the ever-popular F-16s we sell to various thugs and dictators, for freedom.

    …or is it?

    Perhaps Kruzich is… more clever, shall we say, more cunning, than we give him credit for? While Putin plays checkers, sticking his thumb in Obama’s eye and then moving on, perhaps Kruzich is playing chess (also a Russian fave) The long game here may be to slowly choke the Russian people to death on American-infiltrated cholesterol, until, gasping with strokes and heart attacks, they realize that you just. don’t. mess. with the U.S.

    Well played young diplomat, well played.




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    Russians Understand the Hypocrisy State Department Denies

    March 20, 2012 // Comments Off on Russians Understand the Hypocrisy State Department Denies

    The article below appeared on a Russian news site. It shows the Russians, after years of autocratic governments, and after years of watching the US plead for their rights when it was politically beneficial for the US to do, understand the hypocrisy of our State Department.

    While blathering about how other governments should not stifle dissent, State claims that its “regulations” do not permit writing, speaking or blogging in a free society without the Government’s permission. The State Department can talk itself into believing there is no hypocrisy in that, but the rest of the world understands what is really going on.

    The American media, always ready to stand behind Russian whistleblowers, shows remarkably little interest in whistleblowers operating closer to home. There is a good example for that in the case of Peter Van Buren, a State Department officer, who recently received a termination notice from his employer. Obviously, the foreign service is not unhappy about Van Buren’s language skills (he speaks four languages) or lack of experience (in his 24 years of service he had been posted to a dozen of countries, including Iraq). The reason is Van Buren’s book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.

    To a Russian, this title sounds familiar, since it reminds us of the immortal formula coined by Russia’s former prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin for bungled government action: “We always mean well, but we invariably do it the usual way.”

    One could easily imagine how the American correspondents in Moscow would pounce on a similar author from some government service in Russia after the news of his receiving a termination letter. But when the “Terminator” is Mrs. Clinton, there is surprisingly little fascination about the case.

    And this is certainly an undeserved lack of attention, since Van Buren’s story has all the elements of a whistleblower drama (or shall we call it a “human rights thriller”?) Here we have the State Department’s bureaucrats moving to fire Mr. Van Buren on 8 charges such as linking his blog to the WikiLeaks site (what about access to information acts?); disclosing classified information (as if the results of George W. Bush’s action in Iraq are a secret to anyone); and publishing an unauthorized blog (what about freedom of speech?)

    The most interesting accusation, although, is the one of “bad judgment” which consisted in Mr. Van Buren’s criticism of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and some of his blogged remarks on the then-presidential candidate Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R.-Minn.). The “coup de grace” on top of it all was Van Buren’s failure to clear each blog posting with his bosses. (Never read the stories about “tight-lipped officials” in other countries, such as Russia? But even the Soviet bureaucrats did not have to “clear” their letters with their superiors.)

    So, what was so bad about Mr. Van Buren’s “judgment”? In his blog, he almost never uses previously unpublished materials, most of the space is filled with comments on the recent killing of 16 civilians by a US soldier, on failures of the American economic aid to Iraq, on the generally flawed character of American “nation building” in Moslem countries.

    “Quite obviously, the State Department is prosecuting me for exercising the right to freedom of opinion and expression. No, not really: they say they’d love for me to write stuff they don’t agree with, all I need is to ask their permission first,” Van Buren writes sarcastically in his blog.

    One cannot find any personal calumnies against Mrs. Clinton on Van Buren’s blog, there is just some pretty sound judgment on the “American empire” and its future. Here is a typical quote:

    “America faced a choice and blew it. As an empire, we either needed to take control of the world’s oil or create a more equitable and less martial global society to ensure our access to it. We did neither. We needed either to create a colonial system for adventures like Iraq or Afghanistan along the Victorian model, or to not invade and rebuild those places. We did neither. Simply pouring more and more lives and money into the military is a one-way street going in the wrong direction. We can keep spending, but when the millions of dollars spent on weapons can be deflected by acts of terrorism that cost almost nothing, we will lose.”

    Is it “bad judgment?” A lot of people, having read the stories about the “postwar” (or is it wartime?) reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan would argue that this judgment actually hits the spot. New York Times

    But, obviously, such a judgment would not get a “clearance” from the State Department’s officials. So, who is making a “bad judgment” in this case?



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