State of the Union

F-35 Strike Fighter Success: Real or Simulated?

F-35 model. (Kelley Vlahos)

WASHINGTON — They call Washington a bubble. A la-la land. Home of the “Deep State.” A long-forgotten 1980’s television series, ‘Tales of the Darkside,’ once described “a place that is just as real, but not as brightly lit” as our own world. Sounds a bit like Capitol Hill.

Nowhere was that more evident than yesterday, as defense industry giant Lockheed Martin hosted an auspiciously-timed reception on the Hill to tout its multi-billion dollar F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, which as anyone reading in this space would know has been more than 16 years in development, and plagued by everything from poor performance reviews and cost overruns, to grounding over a lack of spare parts and tussles over technical data and cybersecurity concerns.

Then there is the expense to the taxpayer, which as of June is projected to be more than $406 billion to complete, and another $1.4 trillion over the life of the program to be maintained. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) said at the time there was a 60 percent increase in the cost estimates from 2001 to 2012 due to three major restructurings of the program. But the military kept building more planes—even delivering them to partner countries—throughout the development stage, even though operational testing has yet to begin, and won’t, until late-2018, at the soonest. That’s left the taxpayer with at least $1.7 billion in retrofitting costs as plans change and more technical bells and whistles are put onto the planes. Spare parts are in short supply, and the funds to retrofit all of the older prototypes aren’t readily available. Marine Corps Capt. Dan Grazier at the Project for Government Oversight (POGO) reported in October, that may leave some 108 planes behind as “concurrency orphans,” not fit for service, ever. At more than $100 million per plane (the military has so far built more than 250), that’s a lot of coin to be left idle in a hanger.

Lockheed F-35 cockpit simulator. (Kelley Vlahos)

With all this bad news, and more throughout the month of October,  it’s probably no surprise Lockheed was in full-on marketing mode at the Rayburn House Office Building yesterday, complete with a cockpit simulator, a test pilot, and the head of the entire program available to ensure anyone who breezed through the continental breakfast reception that, contrary to everything you’ve heard, things were A-OK on the production line. In fact, at times it sounded like a victory lap.

“The jet we’re trying to get out there is out there,” said Lockheed test pilot Dan Levin, who cut his teeth on F-16s in the first Gulf War and says the capabilities of the F-35 far outstrip anything he has flown before. “It is more survivable, more stealthy, and more lethal…it’s just a more effective airplane; that’s what we want.”

But what “we want” and what exists today are two different things. As Grazier pointed out to TAC, the planned event was an exercise in the former, a carefully designed artifice that emphasized the hoped-for outcomes of the most expensive program in U.S. military history, while downplaying the very real problems as momentary turbulence. Even the simulator, the flashy draw at the corner of the room, boasted capabilities that recent reviews have said the planes don’t have quite yet.

“It was a great sales pitch, it was interesting, it was neat sitting in the cockpit,” he said afterwards. “But it was a display of the brochure promises, not the finished design. It was how they want it to perform, but not how it performs today.”

Today, Lockheed fully acknowledges there is a payload of problems. But how much damage these problems can do to the planned trajectory of the program depends on whom you talk to. On paper, at least, the outlook doesn’t look good. After Grazier’s “orphans” report, the GAO came out with another review saying 22 percent of the fleet had been grounded because of a lack of spare parts, with repair capabilities running six years behind. But even if the engineers had the parts, the DoD hasn’t written the requirements yet for repairing the planes, so there’s a lot of confusion about how and when repairs should occur.

More daunting are the issues revolving around the plane’s Autonomic Logistics Information System software (ALIS), which, as the cloud-based computer network that serves as the brain of the plane, is the very core of the F-35’s unique offerings. It is also what is making it a) behind schedule and b) most vulnerable. The GAO said ongoing costs for developing the ALIS (pronounced “Alice”) aren’t fully funded. There’s also the issue of Lockheed’s resistance to giving DoD all of the technical data necessary to getting ALIS working and maintained effectively (an issue over intellectual property and the parameters of contract rights). Holding out, coincidentally, would likely make Lockheed the sole source contractor for the program, forever.

Furthermore, since the plane’s entire functionality depends on “the cloud,” the risks of a cyberattack rendering one plane or an entire fleet, completely useless is absolutely real. “Given the jet’s low-observable characteristics, advanced defensive systems, and other sensors, a cyberattack would be an attractive option for any enemy force,” writes Joseph Trevithick, for The Warzone. “Why would an enemy use a $500,000 air-to-air or surface-to-air and put their personnel and equipment at risk in an attempt to down an F-35 when a simple worm may be able to do the same to a whole fleet of F-35s?”

When asked Thursday about these and other sticky issues, F-35 program executive vice president and general manager Jeff Babione, swung at each with relative ease. Cost? Lockheed has brought down the unit price for each plane 60 percent since the first lot and eight percent since the previous contract, delivering a “5th generation aircraft” at “4th generation cost.”

On the issue of the more than $1 trillion in lifetime costs: “It’s a world-wide program and the scope and scale has never been attempted before…with these complexities you’re going to have challenges.” However, “we’re going to take the same innovation” used to take down the per-plane expenses to “reduce the cost” of maintaining the program over time, he told TAC. Spare parts? “It’s still a relatively new airplane,” and “we’re still working with congress and the Joint Program Office” to identify the needs and make sure there is enough money for it.

“What we do know is that if you look year after year, the cost is dropping.”

The F-35 program is such a web of overlapping budgets and projections that it is difficult to tell if that is true, though the GAO’s report of 2012 to the present generally bears that out. Lockheed did get the unit costs down. Yet everything else is creeping up or open to interpretation.

Dan Grazier and a map of F-35-connected jobs and money in each state. (Kelley Vlahos)

But really, beyond the positive “update” Lockheed said it wanted to bring to Capitol Hill Thursday, what was this exhibition really about? Perhaps a little damage control, but more critically, it seems, to remind members of congress how much their own political assets are tied to this gargantuan program.

A map, generated by Lockheed and set on the table with the other handouts, shows how many suppliers and jobs—directly or indirectly—are tied to the F-35, plus economic impact, in each state. For example, in Florida alone, there are 18,480 such jobs and 98 suppliers with $2 billion impacted. The wealth, it would seem, is spread around and keeps everyone invested.

“If you start opposing the F-35 budgets your political opponent is going to say, ‘hey, I’m going to fight for those jobs,” noted Grazier. “(Lockheed) just wants to remind them of that.”

Whatever the case, this is just one more example of things not being exactly what they seem in the Beltway bubble. For a short while, in a brightly lit room at Rayburn, the F-35 was what it was promised. But, as Grazier points out, that assumption is just more than a little off the runway.

“If we can’t field a fully functioning fighter plane in less than 20 years, then there is something seriously wrong with our procurement system.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is executive editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC



Watch Full Video of TAC’s Foreign Policy Conference

“U.S. Foreign Policy in the Trump Era: Can Realism and Restraint Prevail?” was held Friday, November 3, at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Watch full video here.

WASHINGTON — What is the fate of realism and restraint in the Trump era?

The consensus among the foreign policy luminaries brought together by the American Conservative on Friday: Don’t expect much from the White House, even though global realities, i.e., the ascendency of China, may leave the old U.S. order in the dust.

If there was any hope that Trump would inaugurate a new era of restraint, or even realist thinking, it’s been pretty much overtaken by events. Or, perhaps TAC editor Robert Merry put it best:

“Realism and restraint’ in the Trump era is roughly equivalent to the gigantic ice wall in Game of Thrones after the dragon that came under the spell of the night walkers got through with it,” he said.

That certainly got a laugh from the crowd at George Washington University, but the rest of his remarks about the discrepancies between Trump’s memorable foreign policy speech during the campaign in April 2016, and what he has done so far as president, were anything but funny.

“So many Americans rallied to the Trump campaign because of his hard attacks on the status quo but it turns out he was not the leader to take on the status quo, he just nibbles at the edges of it,” Merry noted, pointing out Trump’s earlier vision about scaling back wars and blasting nation building, only to propose sending more troops to Afghanistan, which has yet to produce a victory— no strong government nor capable Afghan military—in 16 years of U.S. intervention. He also pointed out Trump’s lack of resolve regarding easing tensions with Russia, or putting more pressure on NATO (Merry specifically fingered the expansion to tiny Montenegro, which faces both a backlash here and by the Russian government).

And, “(Trump) said we should have never been in Iraq; we have destabilized the Middle East,” added Merry, “yet now he threatens a confrontation with Iran.”

Asked whether Trump has engaged new and fresh voices in this administration, the answer is decidedly no, according to Will Ruger, vice president of research and policy at the Charles Koch Institute and Cato Institute fellow.

“If you look, leaving aside the people who signed the Never Trump letter, a lot of the same people who are involved (in the administration) are the same old people with the same old ideas,” he said. “That’s the problem.” He did note, more positively, that at least Trump and his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson still talk about the sovereignty of other nations and the problems of “democracy building.”

Mark Perry, Will Ruger, Robert W. Merry, and Kelley Vlahos.

But what about the other players in the administration? Author and TAC contributor Mark Perry charged that the three generals in the Trump inner circle—Chief of Staff John Kelly, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster—were, despite being called the “adults” in the room, “out of their lane,” and not helping steer the Trump foreign policy in any meaningful way.  

“We have a civilian government for a reason. We have political people doing political jobs for a reason. I’m not sure where this leads, but I think we’ve seen over the last two or three weeks, at least since John Kelly’s press conference, that the adults in the room may be more like the president than we think. They might let us down.” Then, with the specter of the recent Niger incident in the air, and on the heels of the Afghanistan troop infusion, “they might in fact reflect the military in which they’re from, which is expeditionary.”

New low in U.S.-Russian Relations

 Some of the worst U.S. foreign policy disasters since the end of the Cold War “are obvious,” said Ted Carpenter, TAC contributing editor and Cato defense and foreign policy scholar. Those include Iraq and Libya, Afghanistan and the loss of civil liberties at home due to the War on Terror. But the “worst disaster in the last 25 years will end up being be the deterioration in relations with Russia, because that can have some catastrophic consequences.”

“We are in a new Cold War,” he declared. “The blame for this is not all on one side. But I believe the United States and its allies deserve the vast majority of the blame, somewhere in the area of 80 percent.”

Expanding NATO eastward, reneging on implicit agreement not to expand—“they led the Russians to believe that NATO’s eastern border would be at the eastern end of Germany. That didn’t happen.” NATO intervention in Balkan charged the Russian suspicion and resentment, Carpenter. It intruded into what had been Russian spheres of influence.

But what about Vladimir Putin’s aggressive policies today? “Putin started off wanting to join the West,” pointed out former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock (1987-1991). One move after another, whether it be the West’s role in the economic collapse following the fall of Communism, NATO expansion, or the U.S. involvement in the so-called “color revolutions” in former Soviet countries, Russia began to foment serious resentment against its foundling American “ally.”

“Within Russia you get a nationalist upsurge which Putin has utilized,” Matlock pointed out. “He feels, as many of his people do, that Russia has been rejected, and has been rejected (by the West) in part, by American pressure. It’s difficult to ignore the role we play in this.”

Associate Professor of International Relations Robert English said the fixation on Putin is to partially scapegoat failures in both Republican and Democratic policies with Russia. “Bush pushed NATO right up to Russia’s borders and foolishly crossed a very clear red line in pushing the Western alliance towards Ukraine and Georgia … Obama “continued to push into Ukraine and continued expansion of NATO overall.” This after the “beloved” (President) Bill Clinton sparked expansion in the first place, he concluded.

But today’s Democratic narrative over Russian meddling in the election has overtaken the historical perspective. Today, Matlock points out, “we have put our president (Trump) in a position where if he does propose something (positive in relation to Russia) they will say, ‘oh, they must have something on him!”

“I don’t care if they have anything on him,” Matlock said. “I don’t see any credible reason for us to be enemies and I can see very powerful reasons to work together.”

And they must work together, as this is no longer a world of unipolar power—namely, the U.S. as the sole leader of the geopolitical chessboard–but a world of multi-polar politics with Russia, China and India ascending, said Paul Kennedy, professor of history and director of International Security Studies at Yale University.

In the final panel of the day, The Future of Great Power Politics, the author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers said we have to “get real” and think of the world in terms of these “four big guys.” No more does America have the fiscal endurance or the long term military capacity to be the world’s police.

“The unipolar moment is over,” he said. “The question is now, how do we manage that post-unipolar world?”

Cato Institute Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies Christopher Preble pointed out that smaller powers, even non-state actors, have been able to take advantage of new technology and weapons systems to make life miserable for the old guard, including the U.S. Nowhere is this more obvious than in our current wars. “The U.S. struggles to win, it struggles to win decisively.”

Michael Desch, professor of political science at Notre Dame University, noted the “Jacksonian moment” in terms of U.S. foreign policy might have some elements of traditional realism but is “a double edged sword” in that the surge of populism and  pushback against Realpolitik are sending the Trump White House on a collision course with Iran.

John Mearsheimer, author and professor of political science at the University of Chicago, says “big power politics is back on the table” and that means realism is, too. But restraint may no longer be the partner of realism, as the U.S. pushes back against a rising China. But he warns that China, like all great powers, will expect the same privileges and liberties as the U.S. boasted when it, too, was a rising superpower.

“They’re going to project their power. You can expect more of that as time goes by. I don’t blame them a bit because this is how the world works,” he said. “If we have a Monroe Doctrine, don’t you think they will want their own Monroe Doctrine? Of course they are going to…This is nothing to do with Communism or Marxism, this is basic realpolitik. You want to be a real power, you want to dominate your region of the world.”

Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C. (Facebook/TAC)

“Give us the debate”

In his opening remarks, Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) lamented the lack of will and backbone from Congress on matters of war since 9/11. A longtime critic of the Iraq invasion and continuing war in Afghanistan, Jones told the story of a young woman he saw in the airport carrying a folded American flag in accordance with a servicemember or veteran who had died. “It was so sad for me,” he said, noting that any words he had for her seemed trite in comparison with her pain.

“Give us the debate,” he said, relating to decisions of war on Capitol Hill. He scowled at his colleagues’ lack of interest so far.  “It’s like it doesn’t matter. I don’t understand that at all.  We need to demand that the leadership of the House permit the Congress to debate war because if we don’t it’s going to be perpetual war from now on.”

“It’s time for the men and women of America to take back their constitution.”


  • Samuel Goldman, George Washington University
  • Robert W. Merry, editor, The American Conservative

Opening Remarks

  • Congressman Walter Jones, U.S. Representative for the 3rd District of North Carolina

The Fate of Realism and Restraint in the Trump Era

  • Robert W. Merry, editor, The American Conservative
  • William Ruger, Charles Koch Institute
  • Mark Perry, contributing editor, The American Conservative
  • Moderator: Kelley Vlahos, executive editor, The American Conservative

Who’s Responsible for the New Low in U.S.-Russia Relations?

  • Ambassador Jack F. Matlock, Jr., former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union
  • Ted Galen Carpenter, contributing editor, The American Conservative
  • Robert David English, University of Southern California
  • Moderator: Scott McConnell, founding editor, The American Conservative

The Future of Great Power Politics

  • John Mearsheimer, University of Chicago
  • Paul Kennedy, Yale University
  • Christopher Preble, Cato Institute
  • Michael C. Desch, University of Notre Dame
  • Moderator: Daniel McCarthy, Fund for American Studies

Afghan Soldiers Went AWOL in America for Years

The news that 152 Afghan soldiers who came to the U.S. for training went AWOL generated a bit of excitement this month—especially since 83 of them never returned and several are considered “high risk” by federal officials because of their age and military training.

That the percentage of troops who take off once they get to the U.S. is only going up—13 percent in 2016 compared to 6 percent historically—seems shocking at first. But really, what do these soldiers have to go back to? After 16 years and $70 billion of U.S. building and training, the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANDSF) Army remains corrupt, inefficient, and unable to protect large swaths of the country from the resurgent Taliban, not to mention ISIS and other terror groups reportedly gaining ground there.

“It’s not surprising given what is going on there in Afghanistan,” said Larry Korb, defense expert for the Center for American Progress, in an interview with TAC. “The security situation is not getting better, you’ve got a corrupt government—it may be better than Karzai but not a great deal—you’ve got fighting between (President) Ghani and (CEO) Abdullah Abdullah. These guys are saying, ‘do I really want to go back there?’”

Moreover, Afghan security forces in Afghanistan have been killed at rates that would be considered unacceptable if they were Americans. Nevertheless, the press here barely raised an eyebrow when it was reported that the Afghans lost more than 800 soldiers in the first six weeks of 2017 alone. (Civilian casualties rose to a record 11,418 in 2016). In an early 2017 report, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said the Afghan military lost more than twice the men in 2016 than the total number of Americans killed there over the last 15 years—more specifically, 6,785 in one year. In an incident this month, 43 were killed on their own base during a Taliban ambush. This week, the Taliban attacked two Afghan outposts, killing 13. A gun battle ensued, according to the Washington Post, and an unknown number of Taliban were supposedly killed. But when they left, according to a local leader, the insurgents “seized all the arms and ammunitions.”

The attacks on Afghan bases, the gun battles, the losses—all this rarely registers a blip in the U.S. media, but the news of AWOL Afghans got the attention of a number of major news outlets, and brought rare attention to SIGAR, which has been toiling away at damning report after damning report on the Afghanistan war and reconstruction while official Washington looks the other way. The cold truth, it seems, is rarely welcome among those pulling the strings.

According to the latest SIGAR offering, half of the international troops who have gone AWOL since 2005 were Afghans, and because of that, the U.S. has reduced the number of programs it is offering stateside for them. In 2015, the U.S. spent $34.5 billion in equipment, services, and training on foreign troops visiting from 119 countries (not including NATO members). The number of Afghans who were able to take advantage of several programs, from counter-terrorism to aviation leadership, dropped dramatically from 1,190 in 2015 to 270 in 2016 (numbers do not necessarily reflect individuals because some of them engage in more than one of the nine programs offered by the government per year).

SIGAR spoke to several Afghan trainees who described untenable circumstances back home. Five of them, for example, said their lives were in danger just because they went to the U.S. for training. One said he did not expect to have a job when he returned home (apparently there is no guarantee a soldier will be able to return to his unit after U.S. training, which sort of defeats the purpose), while four others said they would be expected to pay bribes in order to get their jobs back.

Another, a female trainee, said that after she came here the “Taliban visited her home and threatened her family because of her involvement with the U.S.” Two others received threatening letters or phone calls from the Taliban, according to the report, “and another claimed that his family had been attacked due to his training in the U.S. and eventually had to change residences.”

This report comes less than two months after President Trump announced his new Afghanistan strategy, which, as many analysts who have been through this several times have said, sounds uncannily like the old one. The thrust: He’s authorizing several thousand U.S. troops in addition to the 11,000 we have there now.

Meanwhile, training and equipping the Afghans has cost American taxpayers more or less $4 billion a year; and the total cost of maintaining our presence there is now over $12 billion (including a fresh $1 billion for the new troops) annually, according to recent estimates.

Yet when they were truly tested, the Afghan Army (about 174,000 now) has largely failed to meet the grade. Almost half the country, as of earlier this year, is under Taliban control control or influence, a slow but steady whittling away of territory as U.S. and coalition forces have turned over security operations to their Afghan partners.

In October 2016, at least 100 soldiers fled their positions during a stand-off with Taliban near the capital of Helmand Province, which remains a Taliban stronghold. The fleeing men were pursued and executed. Also that month, the Afghan Army and National Police blamed each other for what Reuters called a “shambolic surrender” of Kunduz, as troops allegedly fled the fighting and the city went under Taliban control, albeit temporarily, before the U.S. was able to help regain it for them.

While experts like Caitlin Forrest of the neoconservative Institute for the Study of War say the reason the Afghans have ceded so much to the Taliban is a lack of resources and training, Korb says it’s more complicated than that.

“You can’t have a military unless they are loyal to the government,” he noted, comparing Afghanistan to some of the persistent problems the U.S. faced in training South Vietnamese troops to square off against the communist North during the Vietnam War. “The North were loyal to Ho Chi Minh, but in the South the leaders did not have the support of all of the people. I think here you have the same thing. If people don’t want to fight and die for their country as they perceive it, it’s going to be a problem.”

A comprehensive SIGAR report released in September underscored that they are both right. While more than $70 billion has been poured into the effort over 16 years, it has been subject to waste, misdirection, and a lack of accountability, so at times vital resources like proper equipment has been lacking (though the Afghans did get $28 million worth of useless camouflage uniforms). Program models and methods have shifted wildly over the years, while basic training has fluctuated in rigor and efficacy (apparently, some troops have resorted to using sensational TV shows like COPS and NCIS to bolster their training programs). Mentors and leaders rotate in and out of the country with no consistency. Furthermore, overall efforts still do not take into account the illiteracy and ethnic differences among the fighting age population. And above all, pervasive Afghan government corruption and a lack of will to fight threatens the very integrity of the system.

Despite all of those issues, the Obama administration authorized the Afghan army to expand upwards to 179,000 in 2009. They have never achieved that, and, with the methods of assessing numbers changing all the time, it isn’t even clear that the current 174,000 number is correct. Last year, to the chagrin of the Pentagon, the Associated Press reported that 40 percent of the Afghan security forces are “ghosts”soldiers and police who exist on the books but are otherwise nowhere to be found.

At the time, SIGAR said, “neither the United States nor its Afghan allies know how many Afghan soldiers and police actually exist, how many are in fact available for duty, or by extension, the true nature of their operational capabilities.” 

It would seem that the problem of AWOL trainees in the U.S. is a relatively small one, in comparison.

When asked about the AWOL soldiers, Pentagon spokesman Thomas Crosson said the military was putting up safeguards. “We have long been aware of the challenges that SIGAR highlights in its report, and we are working in partnership with the gov ernment of Afghanistan and the U.S. interagency to continually update our policies and procedures to reduce the number of absconders.”

As for the strength of the Afghan military in Afghanistan: “The mission of the U.S. military in Afghanistan is to train, advise and assist the 300,000-strong Afghan (ANDSF), who continue to bear the brunt of the fighting and casualties,” he said in an email to TAC. “As a result of our training, equipping, and partnering, the 17,000-strong Afghan special forces are the best in the region.”

Korb isn’t fully buying it. “If this is your best and your brightest in Afghanistan and they don’t want to stay…I’d say you’ve got a problem,” he noted.

“Again, I remember when George Bush used to talk about the the women’s rights and the education and all that sounds good, but when you are not winning on the ground, and the government doesn’t have the full support of the population, that’s where it matters.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is executive editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC

Bowe Bergdahl Was ‘Guilty’ All Along

The saga of Bowe Bergdahl—the soldier who walked off his post in Afghanistan before he was captured, held, and tortured by members of the Haqqani network for five years until his rescue in 2014—may be coming to a swift, if not anticlimactic end.

His detractors—who range from Donald Trump to Rush Limbaugh and countless members of the military community in between—won’t, as they say, have Bowe Bergdahl to kick around anymore. In fact, without Bergdahl, Trump wouldn’t have had one of his most indelible schticks of 2016: pretending to shoot Bergdahl in a firing squad. “He’s a traitor, a no-good traitor, who should’ve been executed,” Trump would say while he performed the grisly pantomime.

While we may never know what was in Bergdahl’s heart, the judge in his court martial reportedly accepted his guilty plea on charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy on Monday. According to reports from the hearing, there was no pre-trial plea deal between his defense team and Army prosecutors. This “naked plea,” according to legal experts, is essentially Bergdahl throwing himself at the mercy of the judge, Army Col. Jeffrey R. Nance, who will ultimately decide Bergdahl’s sentencing after a hearing that is supposed to begin Oct. 23.

Sgt. Bergdahl, who is still in the Army working a desk job at Joint Base San Antonio in Texas, could get life in prison if the plea backfires, Eric Carpenter, former Army defense attorney and prosecutor, told Task & Purpose on Sunday. “If he doesn’t have a deal, they could go in there and enter this naked plea and come out with a life sentence.”

Bergdahl attorney Eugene Fidell declined comment for this story.

Certainly, life in prison would be seen by many as a fitting punishment for the now-31-year-old Idahoan who said he walked off his post on June 30, 2009 to bring attention to what he perceived to be poor conditions and leadership issues in his unit. That didn’t happen, and he was captured by the Taliban almost immediately instead. A massive search went on after him, with missions diverted and six servicemembers allegedly killed in the process (the government has never confirmed that anyone died looking for Bergdahl, despite persistent accusations to the contrary).

When Bergdahl was finally freed (his harrowing time with the terror group included, according to Bergdahl, being beaten, cut, starved, chained spread eagle to a bed, and locked in a 6×6 cage in complete darkness for months at a time), it was in a Taliban swap for five of their detainees at Guantanamo Bay. While initially hailed at the White House as a good thing, an avalanche of criticism came from Capitol Hill (the deal hadn’t been cleared with members of Congress first, they complained), and from media such as Fox News and right-wing radio jocks who suddenly had access (with the help of Republican operatives) to members of the Bergdahl search party and unit, all of whom were calling him a deserter and traitor.

The fact is, Bergdahl was tried and convicted–even sentenced to death—before he  entered the courtroom. While many will argue it is because he “walked off,” violating the code and forcing the U.S. military to marshal precious resources across dangerous terrain, diverting energy from critical counter-terrorism operations in southeastern Afghanistan, the political hue to the Bergdahl hate is difficult to ignore.

And we can pinpoint where it likely began: a Michael Hastings profile of Bergdahl and his family in Rolling Stone in 2012, one year before the award-winning writer of The Operatives (an excerpt of which got Gen. Stanley McCrystal fired from his command in Afghanistan) was killed in a car wreck. Hastings’ story was the first to suggest in detail that Bergdahl was disenchanted with the war in language that many critics of the Afghanistan-Iraq counterinsurgency policy would recognize. In increasingly dark emails written to his family and shared with Hastings, Bergdahl spoke openly about being deceived by his country and how he was “ashamed to be an American.”

In the second-to-last paragraph of the e-mail, Bowe wrote about his broader disgust with America’s approach to the war – an effort, on the ground, that seemed to represent the exact opposite of the kind of concerted campaign to win the “hearts and minds” of average Afghans envisioned by counterinsurgency strategists. “I am sorry for everything here,” Bowe told his parents. “These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live.” He then referred to what his parents believe may have been a formative, possibly traumatic event: seeing an Afghan child run over by an MRAP. “We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks… We make fun of them in front of their faces, and laugh at them for not understanding we are insulting them.”

Bowe concluded his e-mail with what, in another context, might read as a suicide note. “I am sorry for everything,” he wrote. “The horror that is america is disgusting.”

Bergdahl has not walked back these privately conveyed feelings, but in the intervening years it has become clear that he should have never been sent overseas with the Army to begin with. He washed out of Coast Guard training after a dramatic panic attack, which for some reason did not impede his mental health screening for the Army a few years later. It was evident he did not fit in with his unit socially, and his incongruent expectations and illusions of heroism that led to his walking off post were later diagnosed by an Army psychiatrist, who, while not trying to excuse the desertion charges, said Bergdahl was suffering from schizotypal personality disorder.

But by the time Bergdahl’s mental state, his insistence that he did not plan to desert permanently, and the revelations about the horrors he sustained as a Taliban captive, came to light, it did not matter. His failure to stay in line, his criticism of the war policy and of the military (even though they were private letters to his family) blunted any sympathy he might have earned, and by that time the politicized narrative had already had taken shape. People were forced to take sides and to many, he was the enemy. For always.

That the Obama administration had freed him and initially called Bergdahl a hero was certainly another bang of the gavel against him. As Limbaugh said Monday morning: “The Obama Administration was singing the praises—of a military deserter.” And Trump, who was calling him a traitor, turned out “to have been right from the start.”

Aside from being a tragedy—for himself, his family, and the military community that feels directly injured by his actions—Bergdahl is a symptom of the hyper-politicized culture that’s been sustaining and explaining away the failures of U.S war policy since 2002. He will likely be forgotten, but not before the war promoters and guardians of the status quo fix on some other scapegoat to divert public attention and emotion away from where it should be directed, at the U.S. government.

As defense writer David Axe said in 2014 after Bergdahl was released and the tidal wave of criticism was cresting: “We’ve got Bergdahl in our grasp. Defeated on the battlefield in two back-to-back wars, we can vent our frustrations on this sad, lonely and nearly-starved young man. … [The Taliban] beat us in a war of our choosing. Hate them for it, if you think it helps. But don’t blame their victory, and our losses, on Bergdahl.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is executive editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC.

Burn Pits’ Legacy: ‘Delay, Deny, Hope They Die’

From the film, “Delay, Deny, Hope You Die: How America Poisoned its Soldiers” (Credit: Greg Lovett)

3 One look at Brian Alvarado and you wonder how he can still be alive. Especially when you get a glimpse at his pre-deployment photograph—a Marine in his service uniform, full-faced and ready for whatever war would dish out—and think, “is this really the same person?”

Unfortunately, yes,  Alvarado served two tours 10 years ago, and for a time he patrolled “hell,” which is what the guys called the open air burn pits on major U.S. military installations like Air Base Balad in Iraq. When he got home, according to his wife, he was diagnosed with Squamous Cell Carcinoma (throat cancer) and began chemo and radiation in 2008. Today he can hardly speak and eats and drinks through a G-tube. His features are skeletal, his neck the size of man’s wrist. He is 5-foot-9 and weighs about 70 pounds.

For Alvarado and his wife Rocio, coming to terms with the cancer was one thing, but how he may have gotten it—from the burn pit itself— is another. He is one of thousands of U.S. military servicemembers and contractors who say their proximity to the pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, which burned—unregulated, in the open air—hundreds of tons of solid waste a day, have left them with progressive health conditions, including respiratory failure, debilitating nerve damage, and rare forms of cancer.

“There was no protection, no mask,” Alvadrado said through his wife, who interprets his indiscernible speech, or reads from the mini-white board he carries with him to communicate. “They gave us a gas mask, but it wasn’t for that. It was more for nuclear, biological chemicals. It was never mandatory for us to wear that.”

The veterans’ journey—from healthy soldiers to barely surviving, like Alvarado—has been captured in a new independent documentary, Delay, Deny, Hope You Die: How America Poisoned its Soldiers (the first part of that is a black slogan among vets, referring to the protracted dance with the VA over health claims), by director and producer Greg Lovett.

(Full disclosure: This writer was interviewed for the film.)

Lovett is not a veteran, health practitioner, nor is he related to anyone who has been crippled by the burn pits. But after seeing the stories about the pits and the government’s failure to take responsibility for their effects, he wanted to get the word out.

“Other than voting, this is where I can make a difference,” he told TAC. “Hopefully with knowledge comes change,” he said. “Maybe in some small way I can help.”

Lovett did not have to look far to find a full cast of veterans, contractors, doctors, and spouses who could testify about symptoms and their ongoing battle with the federal bureaucracy, which, as of today, has yet to acknowledge a direct connection between severe health injuries and the air around the pits. But if the history of Agent Orange is any guide, they may have to, eventually. The VA is still adding to the list of health conditions—including various cancers—to Vietnam veterans’ exposure to Agent Orange more than 40 years ago.

“There are real limits on what is being done and most of what is being done is outside the VA,” charged Anthony Hardie, a veteran and head of Veterans for Common Sense, in an interview with TAC. Hardie has been working as an advocate for Persian Gulf veterans suffering from Gulf War Illness, of which he is one, and burn pit victims.

“The VA has done some positive things piecemeal but overall the effort remains grossly inadequate,” Hardie said, “and as a result veterans are denied their claims (for burn pit) symptoms and are not able to get health care to deal with it.” 

Unfortunately the frustrating response from the VA (the agency was dragged kicking and screaming into setting up an official burn pit registry for vets) is really just one layer, beginning with the cover-up of the extent of the environmental dangers of the pits, the failure of incinerators to fix the problems once Congress got involved, and the pushback against emerging medical findings and ongoing studies.

“I find it amazing that the military, which has a regulation for everything, did not have a regulation in place for the burn pit operations,” said Joe Hickman, who wrote the first comprehensive book on the issue, The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers, in 2016, and was interviewed for the documentary. “And those burn pits were operating in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2002 to 2009 without any regulation at all—they did not have any regulation of where they would be built or how they would be constructed. They did not do any soil samples before, and they didn’t do any plume samples after the burn pits were operational, for many, many years.”

TAC has been following the issue since 2009, about a year after veterans began coming forward looking for answers from the VA and Pentagon. Many of them lived near or directly tended to the pits, which sat in the middle of these fortified installations, sometimes two to three football fields wide. Vets recall throwing in everything from batteries, unexploded ordnance and paint cans to medical waste (including body parts) and styrofoam, and then lighting it up with diesel fuel. The result: a raging, never ceasing black plume straight out of the hell described in biblical times.

“When we got to the work area we had an initial briefing with our superiors and we were told to keep an eye on our people, that you were going to get the ‘Iraqi crud,’ and that everyone gets sick when they come down here,” recalled Jessey Baca, who served in Iraq as an Air Force Sergeant, also interviewed in Delay, Deny, Hope You Die. “And no doubt, within a week, people were falling out, getting sick.”

But it was civilian doctors, not the VA who began putting together the symptoms of veterans they treated and followed the path to not only their service in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the burn pits. Both Drs. Anthony Szema, formerly of Stony Brook School of Medicine, and Robert Miller of Vanderbilt, studied sick veterans, finding in lung biopsies irrevocable damage caused by heavy metals and carcinogens in small particulates that could only come from breathing in toxic air.

“Humans are supposed to breathe clean air,” said Szema in the film. “Any particle in the air can trigger asthma. And when you burn particles in an open air setting at a low setting, at low temperature, low heat, it generates thousands more times the particles than when you use an incinerator. And when you burn particles, when you are burning carcinogens, it exposes a person when they eat it, inhale it, sniff it, get it on their skin…which can cause cancer.”

But it turns out the military had an inkling of what was happening as early as 2006. In 2008, Army Times reporter Kelly Kennedy unearthed what is now referred to as the “Curtis Memo,” an Air Force study of the Balad pit by Lt. Col. Darrin L. Curtis, who said one of his research mates called it “the worst environmental site I have ever personally visited.” It listed a number of possible contaminants at the site based on the trash, including arsenic, benzene, carbon monoxide, cancer-causing sulfur dioxide, sulfuric acid, formaldehyde, hydrogen cyanide, and various metals.

While burning trash in war is hardly new, the size, scope, and length of the burning in these wars was, and as Curtis wrote in 2006, “today’s solid waste contains materials that were not present in the past that can create hazardous compounds.”

“In my professional opinion there is an acute health hazard for individuals … also the possibility for chronic health hazards associated with the smoke,” Curtis concluded. “It is amazing that the burn pit has been able to operate without restrictions over the past few years, without significant engineering controls being put into place.”

The release of the Curtis memo by the press unleashed a torrent of bad publicity and Congress got involved, eventually directing the Pentagon to shut down the pits in late 2009, and imposing mandates for incinerators. While the VA and Pentagon now acknowledge the danger of breathing in fine particulate matter, they say further study is warranted before a direct connection is made between serious illnesses like cancer and the pits. Studies so far conducted by the government have been inconclusive .

But veterans continued to get sick, some even died, and they were talking to each other and advocating, particularly through groups like BurnPits360. Many had gone to Miller for diagnosis. Soon the VA stopped sending vets to Miller, as his prognoses were getting more attention in the media and on Capitol Hill. “I think Dr. Miller’s research and his study is a perfect example of the VA trying to avoid the issue and trying not to pay the compensation to the veterans that they deserve,” said Hickman. “He has everything there and they still will not address his research.”

Meanwhile, some pits continued to run unfettered even after congressional shut-down, and in some cases incinerators that were brought in either didn’t work or took longer than necessary to get online, according to an explosive report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) in 2015. He called the conditions “indefensible” and blamed the military for spending $20 million on incinerators that were never used.

A class action lawsuit and by some 800 sick veterans, blaming contractor Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR) for running the pits and delaying the incinerators, is slowly making its way through the system. So far, a lower court ruled that the contractor has immunity against such suits in wartime. That was overturned on appeal in 2014.

The latest congressional action came when U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Thom Tillis (R-NC) helped to pass language in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, which was passed by the Senate last month. The “Helping Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Act” would create a center of excellence within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to better understand the health effects and proper treatments after exposure. The measure was inspired in part by the sickness and death of Iraq vet Amie Dahl Muller, 36, who believed her cancer was linked to the burn pits. Her story, including heartbreaking footage of Muller in the hospital receiving military honors upon her death in March of this year, are included in Delay, Deny, Hope You Die.

“People are in the hospital and in some cases dying, and their families insisted I show it because they know people need to see it,” said Lovett, who wants the movie to make a shocking impression on the public.

“The people I have shown it to are mostly non-military people. They are mad and they’re shocked. People will get it when they see it.”

Delay, Deny, Hope You Die is now screening in limited cinemas across the country in hopes of finding a major distributor.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is executive editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC.

Is Tom Cotton’s Inner Realist Struggling to Get Out?

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). Michael Vadon / Wikimedia Commons

It was just a few lines in an hour-long speech before the conservative Hillsdale College annual Constitution Day dinner, but for a brief, possibly illuminating moment, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) sounded like he might be a regular subscriber to The American Conservative. 

After two years of pushing for an expansion in the drone war, staying in Afghanistan indefinitely, engaging in military action in Syria (even if that meant shooting down Russian planes), arguing to keep Gitmo open, and doing everything to maintain current, if not increased budgets for the Military Industrial Complex, the Arkansas Republican sounded like, well, a foreign policy realist, if not the majority of people in America today.

“Government now takes nearly half of every dollar our workers earn and bosses us around in every aspect of life, yet can’t even deliver services well,” Cotton declared to his audience of some 400 conservatives. “Our working class—the ‘forgotten man,’ to use a phrase favored by Ronald Reagan and FDR—has seen its wages stagnate while the four richest counties in America are all within the Washington Beltway. The kids of those forgotten men are the ones who chiefly fight our seemingly endless wars and police our streets, only to come under criticism from the very elite who sleep under the blanket of security they provide” (emphasis added).

There are a few ways to interpret this uncharacteristic blip. If Cotton has truly undergone an epiphany regarding the failed policies and powerful forces (i.e. the National Security Inc.) that have perpetuated these “endless wars” which he heretofore supported, then good for him. If, on the other hand, his reference to “endless wars” was a simple pander to the populist wave that helped to elect Donald Trump in 2016 (he began his remarks to Hillsdale Monday by saying Americans “lost their confidence in our governing class, in both its competence and its intentions”), then too bad.

Then again, there is not much evidence in the Cotton file to suggest this is a guy who has suddenly seen the light. A freshman senator at the age of 37 in 2015, Cotton is one of a small coterie of Iraq-Afghanistan combat veterans on the Hill today. But unlike those who have used their experience inside the wire to temper Uncle Sam’s interventionist impulses, Cotton has emerged as one of the biggest pro-war members of his class, a sort of junior hawk to Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

Right out of the gate, he defended the extra-judicial drone killing of Anwar Awlaki in 2011, and even called for more.  “When an American drone unexpectedly brings justice to Anwar al-Awlaki, it is a powerful reminder to all terrorists their safe haven may not be so safe after all,” said Cotton. “Far from restraining the use of drones, then, through unwise and unconstitutional mechanisms, we should continue and probably expand their use in our war against radical Islam.”

About the same time, Cotton was all over the tube calling for one intervention after the next and had already begun his crusade against the Iranian regime, which he likened to Hitler, much like his neoconservative patrons in the Washington establishment.

“We can’t win the war on Islamic terror on defense, we have to win on offense,” Cotton exclaimed on CNN. He told an audience at the Heritage Foundation the day before that the negotiations of the P5+1 (the U.S., Russia, China, the U.K., and France, plus Germany, which finally led to a deal) was akin to the appeasement of Nazi Germany.

Later, as a guest on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” he emphasized his support for fighting ISIS. “We kill them there before they kill us here, it’s very simple,” he proclaimed. “The more we bomb, if we’re killing terrorists, the safer we are.” When hearing testimony in 2015 about closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center he lambasted the Obama Administration official before him, saying, they “don’t hate us for what we do, they hate us for what we are,” and scoffed at the idea that keeping GITMO open was in essence a terrorist recruiting tool for terrorists.

“The only problem with Guantanamo Bay is that there are too many empty beds,” he charged.

While many military vets develop a healthy skepticism for government, often having seen the corruption, hubris, and limited power to reform first-hand, Cotton has used his bully pulpit to bolster the national security state when it comes under fire. This includes the NSA, playing it up as “full of career military officers who follow the law by targeting foreign terrorists to protect American citizens” when the super-secret agency was called out for spying on Americans under the guise of the War on Terror. He then broke publicly with Sen. Rand Paul and supported extending the more intrusive controversial powers of the Patriot Act.

Cotton was at the forefront of a 2015 letter sent to Iranian leaders designed to thwart the nuclear deal (the effort failed). He also supported sending troops to Syria and argued that the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Force (AUMF) was enough to justify it but could also be used to shoot down Russian planes in Syria if necessary. He supports Trump’s plan to stay in Afghanistan, and has promised to end sequestration in order to increase the defense budget beyond its ginormous $600 billion annual tab. There is where your “nearly half” to the taxman is going.

All of this sounds eerily like a game plan for those “endless wars” Cotton appears to lament in his Hillsdale speech. He may have meant that America’s enemies are forcing the U.S. into this endless cycle of conflict, in which case his statement would be more in line with his record. Or, he might be reading the tea leaves—that the only people truly pushing for war are those benefiting from it inside the Beltway.

In that case, welcome to the club.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is executive editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC.

Haley Debuts Trump’s Case for Ending Iran Nuke Deal

Amb. Nikki Haley speaking at AEI Tuesday. (Livestrem/

WASHINGTON — While UN ambassador Nikki Haley certainly didn’t come to the American Enterprise Institute Tuesday to praise the nuclear agreement with Iran, she insisted she wasn’t there to bury it either.

But we think she doth protest too much. Because that is exactly what she set out to do.

“I’m not making the case for decertifying (the agreement),” she told her rapt AEI audience. “I’m just saying if he (president) should decertify, he has the grounds.”

Haley then warned for what would not be the last time that we shouldn’t just assume that the Iranians were “doing the right thing.”

“What if they weren’t doing the right thing?” Haley presupposed, “And when that 10-year (expiration) hits … they start a nuclear war?”

Her speech, delivered at the most hawkish think tank in Washington—a nesting ground for the key architects of the Iraq War and wider Global War on Terror, not to mention nearly every anti-Iranian hardliner in town—came just five days after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) declared for the eighth time that Iran was complying with the 2015 deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.

To Haley the positive IAEA report counted very little against the much bigger, darker picture of Iranian deception, lies, and violence toward the West. “Many observers miss that point. They think, ‘Well, as long as Iran is meeting the limits on enriched uranium and centrifuges, then it’s complying with the deal.’ That’s not true. This is a jigsaw puzzle.” And the IAEA compliance a mere “puzzle piece.”

Most Americans probably believe that complying with the hard-fought pact that forced curbs on Iranian nuclear weapons development in exchange for lifting the crushing international sanctions against Iran is the official gauge that the deal is working.  As do all of the signatories to the JCPOA: France, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, Germany and the European Union, none of which seem to have any interest in breaking off the accord. But the U.S. is pushing for more inspections on additional military sites, suggesting the Iranians are hiding something. Haley all but declared in her speech that the Iranians were guilty if they weren’t rushing to open up the additional sites, and the IAEA was weak for not demanding it.

But no matter. As Haley explained, the JCPOA is just one “pillar” in three pillars of compliance that President Trump will be assessing before he decides whether to cut loose. And be assured, “the end result has to be the security of the United States…we will always look out for our interest, our security.”

She insists that the Iranians are already in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, the UN’s endorsement of the JCPOA framework, for testing ballistic missiles and engaging in other nefarious “non-nuclear” activity, including “terrorism (and) the support for murderous regimes.” (Note: the words terrorism or terrorist are nowhere to be found in the resolution.) A test of this point, of course, failed earlier this year. France, Germany, the UK and U.S. complained to the UN Secretary General this year that the Iranians were testing a ballistic missile designed to someday carry a nuclear weapon, and was therefore in violation of 2231. The Iranians denied the missile was designed to carry a nuke, and a lack of “consensus” about the testing and whether this provision in 2231 was even binding, prevented further action. An additional June 2017 allegation by the U.S. accused the Iranians of receiving a shipment of ballistic-missile technology, but so far the Secretary General has not been able to corroborate it.

Haley dismissed all this under the umbrella of UN member states falling into the trap of thinking that the Iran nuclear agreement is “too big to fail.”

“Unfortunately as happens all too often at the UN, many member states ignore blatant violations of the UN’s own resolution,” she said. “The international community has powerful incentives to go out of its way to assert that the Iranian regime is in ‘compliance’ on the nuclear side. Meanwhile, the UN is too reluctant to address the regime’s so-called non nuclear violations.”

But according to Haley, Trump will use those and any other “non-nuclear” charges to make his own case, whether or not these things are binding at the UN. Then there is a congressional role, which Haley calls the third pillar, in the form of the Corker-Cardin bill, which requires the president to “certify” the integrity of the deal to congress every 90 days. Trump reluctantly certified in July, but hinted he may not in October. If Haley’s carefully constructed (and as Daniel Larison points out, sometimes fanciful) brief against the Iranians—beginning with the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the activities of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG), its proxies in the form of Hezbollah and their all of their “tentacles” in every conflict in the world—is any indication, Trump is beginning the wind-up now. AEI host Danielle Pletka even joined in, adding the world refugee crisis to list of Iran’s current international crimes.

“We must consider not only the technical violations but also (Iran’s) violation of 2231 and its long history of aggression,” Haley declared. If Trump doesn’t certify, then Congress has 60 days to consider whether to reimpose sanctions on Iran. Of course, this would immediately break the deal and likely re-trigger the nuclear development the world was trying to stop.

That is a risk they will have to take, she said. “We should welcome a debate over whether JCPOA is in U.S. national security interests…It’s past time we had an Iran nuclear policy that acknowledged that.”

This is music to the ears of those members who forced Corker-Cardin when they were angry with the deal and wished it away in the first place. It will be music to the ears of hardliners like former UN ambassador John Bolton, who has not only been pushing to dissolve the pact but to bomb Iran. It will be a symphony to the ears of Israel, which hates the deal and has been lobbying hard for its dissolution from the beginning.

Haley misses the irony of how this elaborate case against Iran is taking place in the shadow of an ascendent nuclear power —North Korea—openly testing missiles and threatening the U.S. and its allies with nuclear annihilation. The administration’s quest to turn back time and re-litigate diplomatic labors that span both the previous Bush and Obama eras appears ideologically driven and, frankly, tone-deaf at a time of what could be real crisis on the other side of the world.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is managing editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC.

RIP Walter Becker: The Edgy, Impish Half of Steely Dan

Steely Dan performing at the Pori Jazz Festival in Pori, Finland, July 2007. From left, Walter Becker, Donald Fagen. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons.Kotivalo)

As fresh entries to Bard College in 1967, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen imagined a pulsing jam session on every dorm floor, a confluence of heady creativity enjoined by “those of my kind,” thriving in the current cultural renaissance.

Becker and Fagan, two peas in a pod sewn in the New York jazz scene since they were old enough to listen, were flatly disappointed when Bard students failed to live up to the hype. All the kids around them just wanted to loll around stoned, Fagan noted archly in his 2013 memoir, Eminent Hipsters.

So the two, together, went their own way artistically, and the music world for generations to follow, was forever grateful. They became Steely Dan, always a pair, no matter the rotating session and tour musicians who fleshed them out full measure.

Walter Becker’s death at the age of 67, announced on Sept. 3 after an illness only mentioned vaguely in news reports over the late summer, came like a hammer into the hearts of fans who know implicitly that Becker—the sotto voce half of the super-successful iconoclastic pair—had imparted much of the duo’s cynical edge and sly, introspective pathos.  

In a devastating but brief homage to his friend and musical partner for 50 years, Fagen said Becker had “a very rough childhood – I’ll spare you the details.” He went on:

Luckily, he was smart as a whip, an excellent guitarist and a great songwriter. He was cynical about human nature, including his own, and hysterically funny. Like a lot of kids from fractured families, he had the knack of creative mimicry, reading people’s hidden psychology and transforming what he saw into bubbly, incisive art.

The result, a canon of irreverent, surprising, sublime, sarcastic, opaque and always challenging songs that absolutely transcended the self-indulgent counter-culture of their time. So much that, when their peers like Jefferson Airplane/Starship went flying off-course and into the banality of the syntho-rock 80s, Becker and Fagen kept writing bad-ass music about the underdogs and degenerates, hopeful romantics,  junkies, pitiable gray-flanneled men, vampish ladies and “luckless pedestrians” on the street of life. Much of what they sang about seemed so impenetrable but the fun was in decoding the cryptic and wrapping oneself in the beautifully meticulous (and altogether singular) symphony of jazz-rock-R&B. These men were aficionados of the spirit of the age, but they were also boys whose love of sci-fi and pulp fiction and love-hate relationship with the Post-War plastic New Frontier they grew up in was never far from their ironic, comical observations. They never surrendered to the narcissistic zeitgeist, nor to the conformity of non-conformity. They were anarchists of the realm.

They won a Best Album Grammy in 2000 for “Two Against Nature,” a Becker prize in that it shook off much of the snappy nostalgia that Fagen had strung through his nonetheless brilliant “Kamakiriad” in 1993, and went right for the jugular. Songs like “Gaslighting Abbie” and “Negative Girl” are as unsettling as they are infectious.

The pair were particularly averse to overt political commentary, but on “Jack of Speed,” it shows a bit, referring to “that right-wing hooey, sure stunk up the joint.” Later, in their post-9/11 “Everything Must Go,” the two seem to lament the end of empire and God, hinting the end of the American enterprise, and in usual fashion, comparing it to the shuttering of a supermarket.

Fagen’s readily distinguishable voice, successful solo career and striking pose most certainly became the de-facto face of this enigmatic band. Most people don’t realize there are only two members of Steely Dan and even fewer could call Becker out of a line-up. But die hard fans know better. Half of this strange and peerless alchemy has been extinguished for good, at least in this world. And it will never be the same.

Here is a little peek at how the magic was made:


Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is managing editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC

Pardon Me? Rep. Rohrabacher’s Curious Visit With Assange

Julian Assange and U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) Credit: Haak78/ShutterstockCreativeCommonsFlickr/GabeSkidmore

Iconoclastic Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher confirmed that he had met Wednesday with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who still remains in his self-imposed five-year exile at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, afraid he will be subject to U.S. arrest if he leaves.

The reason for the unusual meeting (Rohrabacher claims he is the first member of congress to meet with Assange), according to Rohrabacher’s office, was to glean information from Assange on the real DNC leaker with an eye toward assisting the president in fending off charges about Russian hacking in Washington, and to help the WikiLeaks founder leave the embassy a free man.

Assange has been adamant that Russia was not the source behind the leaked Democratic National Committee emails that Wikileaks published ahead of the 2016 election.

According to Rohrabacher’s office, the two met for at least three hours. In a direct conversation with John Solomon at The Hill, the 15-term California congressman said further, “Julian also indicated that he is open to further discussions regarding specific information about the DNC email incident that is currently unknown to the public.”

Then, in a Thursday statement to the press, Rohrabacher indicated he already had information from the meeting, which he had planned to “divulge” to President Trump. He went even further with The Daily Caller Thursday, suggesting a deal might be in the making:

Rohrabacher told The Daily Caller in an exclusive interview Thursday that Assange is hoping to leave the Ecuadorian embassy in London where he is currently in asylum, and that during the meeting they explored “what might be necessary to get him out.”

The congressman told The Daily Caller that “if [Assange] is going to give us a big favor, he would obviously have to be pardoned to leave the Ecuadorian embassy.”

This was confirmed Friday by Rohrabacher spokesman Ken Grubbs, who told TAC the congressman had been thinking about Assange and “whether he could demolish the narrative that the Russians had hacked (the DNC) and he thought of speaking to Assange directly.”

Grubbs also confirmed that a pardon could be down the road—if Assange can supply the goods.

“There is nothing on the table yet.  There are possibilities; that was discussed,” he told TAC. “(Rep. Rohrabacher) does believe that if Mr. Assange comes forth with the information promised he does deserve a pardon.”

He also confirmed that Rohrabacher came back with information, “but apparently more is forthcoming.”

There is a lot to unpack here. First off Assange has been neither charged nor convicted of anything, so a “pardon” would be unusual — but not unprecedented. On Sept. 8, 1974, President Gerald Ford granted recently resigned president Richard Nixon a “full, free, and absolute pardon,” making it impossible for him to be indicted for any crimes connected to the Watergate scandal. Assange and his lawyers maintain there has been a grand jury convened that will ultimately indict him, and that charges are inevitable once he leaves the embassy. This is not paranoid delusion. President Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions said outright that there is renewed interest in Assange’s arrest for publishing stolen classified government documents via Wikileaks.

Washington’s ire against the government transparency crusader began in 2010 when Wikileaks published tens of thousands of documents relating to the Afghan and Iraq Wars, along with secret State Department cables and more, leaked by then-Private Bradley Manning (now Chelsea), and has continued through more recently, when Wikileaks published more than 8,000 pages divulging CIA spying and hacking tools that could be used against Americans. Back in April, CIA director Mike Pompeo was emphatic that Wikileaks is “a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia” and should be treated as such. 

The reason Assange fled to the embassy five years ago this month is that Swedish authorities wanted to serve him an arrest warrant on sex assault charges brought against him by two women back in that country, but he was afraid that both UK and Swedish authorities were just waiting to deliver him up to the Americans. So Ecuador gave him asylum.

The Swedes finally dropped their case against him in May, but the Brits say they are still obliged to pick him up on the lesser charge or failing to appear in court. UK officials have not commented on whether they have been working with the U.S. to arrest and extradite Assange, so the 45-year-old Australian is staying put for now and, judging from this reported conversation with Rohrabacher, perhaps trying to ensure his freedom by delivering a gift to Trump.

What twisted turns this story has taken since Wikileaks was heralded by many throughout the world for bringing to light many truths about the U.S. wars, its duplicity in foreign policy and its lack of candor with the American people about the failing military operations overseas, including unrecorded civilian deaths, and the torture and abuse of detainees in U.S. custody. Then, Assange was a hero of the left and libertarian right and labeled a dangerous provocateur and a criminal by the establishment on both sides for his willingness to break all norms in his mission to free information for all. Despite President Obama’s pardon of Chelsea Manning after seven years in military incarceration, Washington has been clear in its indictment of Assange, whom they do not see as a whistleblower but as an exploiter of illegally obtained property and secrets, and a risk to national security.

That is, until late 2016, when Wikileaks’ campaign of document dumps appeared coordinated to embarrass Democrat Hillary Clinton (no ally of Assange) in her election for president. The Russians have been accused of hacking DNC computers and handing 20,000 stolen emails to Wikileaks, which Assange has virulently denied. Another narrative that points to an inside leak as opposed to a Russian hack has bolstered Assange’s story more strongly in recent weeks.

Whether welcome or not, many of Assange’s old allies on the left have fallen away, and in their place are voices on the right like Sean Hannity, who seem all too happy to embrace Assange now that he’s ostensibly helped Trump win the presidency and bolster their own opposition to the Democratic narrative. (Trump himself has gone back and forth in his love/hate for Wikileaks.) Meanwhile, Assange has been accused of playing footsies with the Russians, sidelining their own transgressions in favor of embarrassing Clinton. Just last week, Foreign Policy published a piece accusing Assange of turning down a huge cache of Russian documents leaked from the Russian Interior Ministry during the 2016 election with information of Russian activities in Ukraine. Again, Wikileaks denied that it turned down the leaks based on the “country of origin,” but suggested leaks were rejected because they could not be verified, and these specifically had already been published by BBC and others in 2014. Assange raised this again in a Tweet Friday

Rohrabacher, who in recent years has been called “Putin’s favorite congressman” has a long history with the Russians (after initially fighting, literally, against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the late 1980’s). He has been vocally skeptical of the Democratic push on the Russian hack story. In this vein, it is not surprising that he initiated this apparent negotiation with Assange in London.

Grubbs said that Trump did not ask Rohrabacher to engage, but when the time came, he would want the information Assange is presenting, and Rohrabacher would give it to him.

“Rohrabacher more than any other member, has been clear in his belief that Russia is not involved in this hack,” said John Kiriakou, the CIA whistleblower who did two years in federal prison and is now an activist for free information and protection for government whistleblowers. He, too, does not believe the Russians gave Wikileaks the DNC emails. “[Rohrabacher] is a senior member of congress, has held multiple committee chairs, is highly respected and he can carry the political weight that would allow him to bring a deal like this.”

What is curious is the confirmation that alt-right blogger and known internet troll Chuck Johnson had been involved in setting up the Rohrabacher meeting and was in the room, according to Grubbs. There is unflattering photographic proof, blared from a critic’s blog Thursday with an accompanying headline: “Photo of the Day: GOP Rep. Rohrabacher Poses With Holocaust Denier Chuck C. Johnson at Assange Meeting.” 

What would this blogger, whose latest claim to fame is framing the wrong man as the driver of the car that plowed into a crowd and killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville on August 12, be doing setting up such a meeting? His reputation, which includes a host of false stories including  congressmen hiring prostitutes, publicly outing and shaming the wrong woman at the center of the University of Virginia rape controversy, and being banned permanently from Twitter after he asked for help to “take out” a black civil rights activist, should disqualify him from being anywhere near this delicate situation. Grubbs acknowledged Johnson’s involvement, but said he was just one of the people who emerged to help the congressman make the connections. He intimated this is a man the congressman’s office does not know well.

Maybe he came from somewhere in the White House orbit—several stories in January placed Johnson close to the transition team.

For his part, Assange emerged from all of this clear in his intention to not involve “third parties” in his quest to get out of the embassy and from under the cloud of U.S. extradition. In a statement via Wikileaks’ Facebook page, the group acknowledged the meeting with Rohrabacher, which was “at the congressman’s request” but mentioned nothing about an exchange of information or “a pardon.”

“Mr. Assange does not speak through third parties. Only statements issued directly by him or his lawyers can be considered authoritative.”

Kiriakou agrees getting Assange out of the embassy unscathed is going to be difficult considering that Pompeo, Sessions, and other Republicans have been calling for his head for years. Trump appears in no position today to be granting safe passage for a man who published the emails that are the very bone of contention in a special counsel investigation into possible collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign.

“There has been talk about a deal in some circles,” Kiriakou tells TAC. “But a lot of important people would have to be convinced. It’s going to be difficult for anybody to make a big decision like this. It’s going to be tough.”

Kelley Vlahos is managing editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC

Chinese Troops Moving Next Door to U.S. Base in Horn of Africa

Soldiers of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army 1st Amphibious Mechanized Infantry Division prepare to provide Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff a demonstration during visit to the unit in China in 2011.(DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/Released)

WASHINGTON—Djibouti, a 14,600 square mile country in the Horn of Africa, is getting a little crowded. The Chinese have forged an agreement with the local government to build a military base and have already dispatched troops there, bringing them cheek-to-jowl with the 15-year-old U.S. base at Camp Lemonnier.

It is the first time in modern history that a “peer competitor” like China has had such a close proximity to a U.S. base, and not surprisingly, American military officials are taking a territorial tone, noting the “security concerns” this raises—like they own the place.

But in a way, they are owners. In exchange for tens of millions of dollars, the Americans have maintained their permanent installation without strategic competition for so long it must seem like this “lily pad” is an American island of its own—and the Chinese, known for building their own islands, are encroaching upon it. In fact, it is their first “forward presence” in the region, and houses a reported 4,000 service members and civilians, a sophisticated intel-gathering facility, and a drone base which can launch attacks on Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen.

But wait, here come the Saudis, who are currently in negotiations to establish their own base in Djibouti, with an eye toward thwarting their Iranian-backed enemies 20 miles away across the Strait of Bab al-Mandeb Strait (“Gate of Tears” in Arabic) in Yemen. Ironically, tens of thousands of refugees have been coming across that same passage to Djibouti in rickety wooden boats to escape Saudi bombings, which have spurred mass starvation and the worst cholera epidemic on record in Yemen.

There goes the neighborhood.

Unfortunately for the Americans, the Trump Administration has chosen this very time to start chintzing on all of those neighborly things that might make life a little easier for their long beleaguered hosts, the African people—like aid to counter the horrific effects of famine, or development assistance to bolster decimated economies, or public health resources to fight raging epidemics. As of 2016, there were over 12 million people internally displaced in Africa due to war and famine—that’s 30 percent of the 65 million displaced persons worldwide. Instead of helping to address this head-on, however, the Trump administration has decided to focus on bombs over bread.

According to recent reporting, the military is getting a $52 billion boost in President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal, with an undisclosed amount headed for new AFRICOM training programs, including joint exercises with other African militaries, and more funds for counterterrorism efforts, which no doubt incorporate new infrastructure and support costs for the expanding footprint and uptick in U.S. airpower in the region. This comes on the heels of Trump relaxing the combat rules that were put in place in 2013 to protect civilians in Somalia, a failed state suffering from drought-related famine and continuing violence by the Islamist terror group Al Shabaab. Somalia has been a virtual hell hole since a power vacuum was created during the Bush Administration after 9/11, which allowed extremists to flourish as the U.S. used Somalia as both a target for its drone wars and a site for the CIA’s secret interrogation facilities. There have been two strikes against reported Shabaab targets there since the rules were relaxed in March.

According to Nick Turse, by far the most dogged reporter of the U.S. military operations in Africa, Americans are building another drone base some 2,335 miles west of Djibouti in the desert town of Agadez in Niger, which he calls “a West African paradise for people smugglers and a way station for refugees and migrants intent on reaching Europe’s shores by any means necessary.”

Meanwhile, the budget proposes cutting humanitarian and development assistance to $5.2 billion in the 2018 fiscal year from $8 billion now. This comes at a time when an estimated 26 million people in Africa are in need of food aid with famine stretching across four countries—the worst such conditions since World War II.

“Trump’s FY2018 budget slashes funding for anti-malaria programs (in Africa) by more than 40 percent. More than $1 billion for programs that provide antiretroviral drugs to people infected with HIV are slated to be cut, too,” Turse wrote TAC in a recent email. “Those and other proposed reductions in aid assure major increases in mortality.”

Ironically, the height of humanitarian focus on Africa was not during the Obama Administration, led by the first president of African descent, but President George W. Bush, who, while launching the Global War on Terror, introduced the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which provided antiretroviral treatment and care for HIV/AIDS patients and is credited with saving millions of lives. He also launched a $1.2 billion anti-malaria campaign and increased food and development aid primarily in Africa—a program also believed to have saved millions. He also increased total food and development aid by 640 percent, apparently the most of any U.S. president.

Obama’s administration, while continuing to widen the U.S. military footprint across Africa—nearly 50 outposts in more than 24 countries by the end of 2016, according to Turse—has been more lackluster in his attention to the suffering, critics say. According to Anakwa Dwamena, writing in October in The New Republic:

Nearly eight years later, there is a palpable sense that Obama’s legacy in Africa is not what it could have been. It is not only that his administration has failed to produce a single policy that could rival the success of PEPFAR; it has actually cut funding for the program, leading critics to warn that Obama may have set back progress on AIDS by years.

She goes on to say Obama waited until the end of his term to start initiating big projects and the ones he did—like Power Africa and the African Growth and Opportunity Act—have failed to meet their high expectations.

But what Trump is doing is leaving all pretense of a humanitarian balance in Africa behind. It doesn’t matter than his Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley spent last week scolding global leaders for their “collective failure” to address the famine in Africa. While the U.S. announced $466 million dollars in aid in July, this hardly squares with the slashing of the budget by billions, and what seems to be complete disinterest in confirming the Assistant Secretary for African Affairs at the State Department, which is the top U.S. envoy to the continent. In June, the White House rescinded its offer to a respected 20-year Air Force colonel for the key Africa post on the National Security Council. Meanwhile, Africa-watchers are still talking about how Secretary of State Rex Tillerson “blew off” the chairman of the African Union after inviting him to the U.S. in April.

“Which in diplomatic terms is bad. It’s insane,” noted Reuben Brigety, a former U.S. Representative to the AU, who spoke recently at an event at the Center for American Progress. He says the kind of military partnerships that have been fostered over the years with African nations “is a good thing, but it’s become problematic when there is no countervailing civilian component on the other side.” 

Stephen Morrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies was more blunt with the New York Times, saying, “we are radically narrowing the definition of why and how Africa matters to U.S. national interests, and that does not include elevating humanitarian and development there.”

This is what happens when the Pentagon is driving Africa policy, says Turse. While there are plenty of people who say the military would rather not, they are in fact doing so, and Trump appears comfortable with that approach. “What we have, instead, is a four-star general commanding U.S. Africa Command reporting to a retired four-star general (Secretary of Defense James Mattis) who reports to a commander-in-chief who has bragged about giving ‘his’ generals ‘total authorization’,” says Turse.

“As with so much else with this administration, it’s unclear exactly what it means,” Turse added. “But it sure sounds like a recipe for continuation—and most likely escalation—of a military-driven U.S. agenda in Africa.”

Meanwhile, China and Saudi Arabia are no less selfish in their interests in the continent. The Chinese want to capitalize on their resources and influence, while the Saudis want the strategic advantage in their war with Iran and its supporters. In fact, they have already convinced Djibouti to side with the the Gulf States in their growing dispute against the Qataris. But unlike the U.S., both seem at least prepared to cement these new relationships with “soft power” offerings. China has embarked on a much-lauded $60 billion capital investment program tied to local development. And according to reports, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are pouring resources into refugee relief (for a problem the Saudis caused in the first place), public works, new mosques, and other projects in Djibouti.

It’s ultimately about keeping up with the Joneses. U.S. military leaders seem to get it, but increasing reports indicate that the White House does not. Not only will it cede authority and influence to rivals, but bombs over bread will mean more violence down the road. Maybe at some point, then-Gen. Mattis’s 2013 words to Congress will finally hit their mark: “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.’’

Kelley Vlahos is managing editor of The American Conservative.

Dr. Strangelove and the Los Alamos Nuclear Fiasco

Credit: Nuclear Regulatory Commission/Creative Commons/Flickr

WASHINGTON — It’s no secret that federal bureaucracy can be inefficient, wasteful and dysfunctional, but when the cumulative effect of mistakes at a major nuclear weapons laboratory starts resembling a Three Stooges shtick, it’s anything but funny. It’s dangerous.

Despite being a major component (and birthplace) of the U.S. nuclear weapons program, the lab is not (mis)managed solely by the federal government. The longstanding problems at the New Mexico campus, which include enough safety and security lapses to make one’s hair curl, have taken place under the stewardship of a private global construction giant, Bechtel Corporation, which leads the public-private partnership called Los Alamos National Security LLC. This also includes the University of California, which botched its own 62-year management of the lab but was taken on as a partner anyway. Two other private contractors—BWX Technologies and Washington Group International (now AECOM)—form the rest of the enterprise, which beat out other major privateers, such as Lockheed Martin, for the $2.2 billion contract in 2006.

Bechtel, the largest civil engineering and construction contractor in the United States, brought in an annual revenue stream of $32.3 billion as of 2015. It raked in billions of military contracts during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, scooping up a $680 million deal to “rebuild” only a month after the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003. Despite a long record of cost-overruns, mismanagement, environmental violations, and even fraud in its many war and domestic contracts, Bechtel has soared on to bigger and better things, today holding an unprecedented $10 billion contract to build Saudi Arabia’s first underground transportation system in Riyadh, and a planet full of other projects, including those involving the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

The Los Alamos partnership is destined to be just a footnote in the company’s 120-year history, however. In fact, Bechtel’s stewardship was so bad the consortium is losing its contract in 2018 and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the semi-autonomous part of the Department of Energy that oversees the development and modernization of the nation’s nuclear warheads, officially started the bid process for the new contract in late June.

The question is if privatizing the industry proved less safe and more expensive than a government run operation, will another private contractor be any better? Furthermore, seeing how the DOE, NNSA—even the U.S. Congress—fell down in its oversight responsibilities, who can be confident that the government can turn this lab, or any other that has been farmed out to industry, around?

“The management problems at Los Alamos National Laboratory are so deep and structural, there’s a lot of blame to go around, and they won’t be fixed by picking one contractor over another. The entire contracting arrangements need to be completely rethought and congressional oversight committees need to do their duty,” says Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group, an Albuquerque-based non-profit that since 1989 has been relentless in its pursuit to cast sunlight on the lab’s activities, including its contract and program boondoggles and security breaches.

“There has been little accountability for mistakes for literally hundreds of fiascos and goofball management decisions,” Mello told TAC last week. “We have to start with parsing the elements of the mission and the presumption that a lot of people can get rich while doing very little work at a federal nuclear weapons laboratory. The culture of Los Alamos is deeply arrogant and to bring back a culture of public service and intellectual integrity will require more institutional examination than has ever happened.”

For their part the NNSA and Bechtel have played down the connection between the partnership’s well-documented safety violations and cost overruns and the loss of the contract. “This has been forecasted long ago,” NNSA spokesman Greg Wolf said in June. “This was coming and the timing is coincidental.”

But in 2015 it was made clear that the partnership did not meet expectations and per the contract, failed to secure enough “award terms” that would allow them to extend the contract beyond the time it was set to expire in FY 2017.

Mello makes no bones about the the fact he is in favor of nuclear disarmament, in part because he believes the nuclear weapons industry has become a self-perpetuating bureaucracy forever in search of “make work” to justify its increasing federal budget (President Trump has proposed a 7.8 percent increase in the NNSA budget to $13.9 billion in FY18). This is not much different than the rest of the federal bureaucracy, but unlike other agencies, the NNSA involves “the apocalyptic power of nuclear weapons” and the constant threat of war to sustain itself, says Mello.

“It’s where Dr. Strangelove lives,” he said, referring to the 1964 political satire in which weak politicians and zealous military generals, advised by a diabolical wheelchair-bound ex-Nazi played by Peter Sellers, buffoon their way into a global nuclear holocaust. “He didn’t really go away, he took a job at the (Los Alamos) weapons lab and in the upper levels of the Air Force. That’s their problem. They’re an opaque part of the military that has an outsized role in maintaining a posture that keeps the threat of nuclear annihilation alive.”

Whether you agree with disarmament supporters or come down on the side that believes the nation’s nuclear arsenal must be modernized in order to maintain the Nuclear Triad and its role as a strategic deterrent (particularly now, when tensions with the only other country that can match’s America’s nuclear stockpile, Russia, are uncomfortably high), mounting evidence that what’s going on at Los Alamos is counter-productive on any front is hard to ignore.

On the safety and security front: numerous incidents reported and cited in investigations regarding employee exposure to radioactive material, including plutonium, arsenic and beryllium. Unsafe handling of radioactive materials seems to be a chronic issue. In 2013, in order to avoid missing a deadline, the lab reportedly cut corners to ship a highly acidic batch of nuclear waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M. To get it there fast, it mixed the waste with organic kitty litter and a neutralizer, turning it into a highly volatile material akin to a plastic explosive. When it got to Carlsbad it did just that—in 2014 the buried 55-gallon drum exploded underground, exposing 20 workers and shutting the plant for two years. The clean-up cost of at least $1 billon was billed to the American taxpayer.

In 2011, workers were cited for mishandling eight plutonium rods—putting them side-by-side on a table, described as a no-no of epic proportions for its potential to “fission uncontrollably, spontaneously sparking a nuclear chain reaction.” The incident, and others, eventually led to the 2013 shutdown of plutonium handling operations at Los Alamos, known as the PF-4 facility. This, of course, has halted the controversial pit production written about in these pages here and here. It also meant the loss of an estimated $1.36 million in productivity with no end in sight. As the DOE said this year the lab did not “meet expectations” on its safety scorecard and program compliance record. The lab is still not open for full production as a result.

This June, the Center for Public Integrity released a damning report citing chapter and verse all of the safety foibles and bad reviews, including 40 reports by government oversight agencies, teams of safety experts and the lab’s own employees over the last 11 years—all under the Bechtel-led auspices. The Center for Public Integrity says safety is taking a back seat to meeting deadlines set by the private contractors. Others say the contractors have been “chasing lucrative government bonuses tied to those goals.”

But what about cost? The move toward privatization was supposed to save taxpayers money but as the watchdogs point out, it’s done anything but. As the Santa Fe New Mexican reported early this year, the management fee incurred by the government increased from $8 million in 2005 to $80 million by 2010, while the number of upper-level managers making more than $200,000 a year tripled.

Just as bad are the lab’s boondoggles. As TAC reported in 2011, a facility that was supposed to increase pit (the cores of a nuclear weapon) production to 80 pits a year (per congressional mandate) ballooned to $6 billion in projected costs and spent $500 million in the planning phase before it was cancelled amid widespread criticism. That didn’t stop the lab from embarking on a new plan, one that is expected to cost $3 billion despite all of the aforementioned safety problems that already exist and have yet to be fixed.

Lydia Dennett, an investigator with the Project on Government Oversight says she has little confidence a new contractor will do any better after the Bechtel gang leaves town. There are less than two dozen contractors in this field, and they have all worked together in some configuration or another, even on the current contract. The big ones have their lobbyists in Washington to help pull the strings. She points to Lockheed Martin, which got a mere ‘slap on the wrist’ for using federal funds to lobby Washington for no-bid contracts, which is illegal. It still manages the Sandia National Laboratory to the tune of $2.4 billion a year. (CORRECTION 7/15: Lockheed’s contract expired in April. Sandia is now run by National Technology & Engineering Solutions of Sandia (NTESS), a wholly owned subsidiary of Honeywell International.)

“I don’t see any of these concerns changing just because there is a changing of the guard,” she tells TAC. “What needs to happen is the DOE needs to get more engaged in its management and oversight role.” She said the lack of accountability has been appalling, taking nearly a decade before Bechtel was penalized. “They got a lot of leeway and a lot of chances before the government stepped in and said, ‘enough.’ How much are taxpayers paying for before the government says, ‘enough’’’?

Mello points out that without stronger government oversight, a change in the lazy, pass-the-buck culture, and a true ‘free market’ approach that breaks up the small number of contractors’ grip on the industry and makes them truly accountable, the status quo will remain.

“In the absence of such a profound self-examination the only conclusion we can make is that Los Alamos cannot be reformed, it’s just going to be a mess,” he said. “And it will be just a matter of time before there’s more accidents, more project management failures, hundreds if not billions wasted.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is managing editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC

Facing the Human Wreckage of War

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

It’s been more than 15 years since the start of the Afghanistan War and already the horrors of the ground combat there and in Iraq appear at an increasingly “safe” distance in the American psyche. Sure, on sanctioned holidays and Marine Corps Marathons the visage of the wounded warrior is wheeled—or with advanced prosthetics, marched—out to serve as a sanitized reminder. But the really dark stuff, what they did and what they’ve seen, not to mention the consequent suicides, the often irrevocable psychological damage, are receding into the past—somewhere between “don’t go there” and “already forgot about that” on our mental bookshelf of American war experiences.

Peter Van Buren, who says his own life changed forever during a stint on behalf of the State Department during the so-called reconstruction period in Iraq, has published a book on the moral injuries of war. Van Buren, who wrote the viscerally arresting The Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent, about the human wreckage left behind by the evaporation of the manufacturing economy in the Midwest, has now written a wrenching alternative history of the Pacific War, one in which entire cities including Kyoto were firebombed by invading U.S. forces.

Hooper’s War  is a series of flashbacks told through the eyes of Lt. Nate Hooper, who commands a unit as it makes its way across the countryside, eventually falling onto the blackened cinder hell that is Kyoto. It is also told through Sergeant Eichi Nakagawa on the Japanese side. Both meet because of one woman, and she decides their fates. Hooper lives to tell the tale: an aged veteran living out years of nagging regret, guilt, and the humanity he left smoldering, literally behind.

But Hooper is not an anti-war brief, nor an exercise in penance for American war crimes. Van Buren’s aim is to identify with the soldier, embracing his basic instincts for survival, petty motivations, biases, and moral flaws, along with his ability to transform, like Hooper, mid-stride. He writes like he was there, evoking the back-of-the-throat fear of the unknown, the sheer terror of losing every man around you, and following orders you know are wrong.

We talked to Van Buren, now retired from the government after a much-publicized break with the State Department. For him the past is present, as a new administration seems increasingly prepared to put more Americans into harm’s way any day now.

The American Conservative: Tell us why you took an alternate view of the Pacific War in WWII.

Van Buren:  What I learned about moral injury, and what happens to people in war, I found spilled over historical lines. To go beyond the politics, I had to put people into the “Good War,” the one war that did not have all the political baggage of post-9/11 conflicts in it, and then to take another step back from reality into a fictional situation, to get away from the politics of using the atomic bomb. I wanted to talk about the murder of civilians, innocents, but I didn’t want to get into an undergraduate poli-sci discussion of why Harry Truman should have, or shouldn’t have used the atomic bomb on Japan.… So, the setting of WWII Japan is something familiar enough to the reader but without the complications that distract from my basic story.

TAC: What is moral injury?

Van Buren: The term is fairly new, especially outside of military circles, but the idea is as old as war, that people sent into conflict find their sense of right and wrong tested. When they violate deeply held convictions by doing something—such as killing in error—or failing to do something—such as not reporting a war crime—they suffer an injury to their core being. That’s moral injury.

Think Tim O’Brien’s iconic Vietnam War book The Things They Carried, or films like William Wyler’s 1946 The Best Years of Our Lives and Oliver Stone’s 1986 Platoon. As beings with a complex sense of right and wrong, it follows that that sense can be broken.

One Marine coming out of Iraq told me simply “My guilt will never go away. There is a part of me that doesn’t believe it should be allowed to go away, that this pain is fair.”

TAC: What was the most surprising thing you learned from the elderly Japanese you spoke with for this book?

Van Buren: Things were done in Japan that turned schoolboys and farmers and merchants from neutral persons to combatants. They became radicalized. I think that was something I knew intellectually but did not understand at a gut level, how easy it is to propagandize people, especially children. Japanese kids had been propagandized from their early childhood. These kids had been taught from the first day of kindergarten that it was their hemisphere in East Asia, and they were obligated to free it from western colonization. They were taught via movies and school lessons that the Japanese were superior to Koreans and Chinese, that that was the natural order of things. Even the Japanese version of religion was better, more pure.

Sound familiar in a post-9/11 world? It was never not part of their lives. It was very easy to take that as the natural state of things, that they were going to be part of a struggle of good versus evil. The Japanese government spent a decade getting its children ready for war. I look back at my childhood and, where we said the pledge of allegiance and did not ask questions of what your government was doing. You did not ask the hard questions of what what your country was doing.

Even today we see things like like “patriotism,” that look very much what these Japanese kids were being told. The demonization of the enemy. You can take what they were told then and you could pop it out of that context and into any other context of a the War on Terror. Change the nouns, and it would translate literally, word for word, from 1930s Japan to 1960s American to modern ISIS online sessions.

I also learned the extent that hunger played in Japan in the Second World War (during the Allied siege). People eating dogs and they were eating roots and parents were making choices about which of their children to feed. That story is not told in Western media at all.

TAC:  In your last book, Ghosts of Tom Joad, you cast a glaring light on another very human experiencepoverty and loss of identitywritten through the eyes of regular Americans. How might Hooper compare to Tom Joad?

Van Buren: We find out that the main character in Hooper’s War is from the same town as the characters in Tom Joad. These stories are all connected. What happens to America at the hands and by the actions of their government is at the core of all of these stories. In Tom Joad the actions of the government destroy the midwestern way of life. In Hooper’s War there are young people who are sent off with the belief that the government is doing the right thing by them, sending them into war. That may be true in some macro sense, but the characters on the ground find nearly every situation morally ambiguous, and where there are no right or wrong answers and they are making split decisions that could harm the rest of their lives.

TAC:  How did your own experience as a boomer-generation child inform this?

Van Buren: There is a lot of me in there I’m afraid, but it’s a much older me. I grew up in the gap between the patriotism that fueled the early Vietnam generation and the new patriotism that picked up during the first Gulf War. I was in the kind of neutral period where most of us didn’t feel compelled to join the military. I knew very little about the military. My dad served in a non-combatant role in Korea, my own grandfather was disabled and not a combatant in World War II. All of that changed for me when I went to Iraq in 2009, when I was embedded in the 10th Mountain Division there as a State Department diplomat. I knew so little about the military and war and what good and bad people do in these situations. I was suddenly exposed in so many different ways to things I never thought I would experience. I was mortared. I saw the aftermath of car bombs. Two soldiers in the units I worked with committed suicide. I saw what people were like making life and death decisions under enormous stress.

At the age of 50 I was experiencing so many things that changed me as a person and sensing things I had been totally ignorant of. It changed me. I’m in the book, I’m all through the book but not in an arrogant way, but in a sense that I’m the voice that is learning all these things alongside the main character, who also enters this story clueless about what is going on.

TAC: How did your Iraq experience inform your graphic, often unsettling portrayals of battlefield combat and the daily drudgery of war?

Van Buren: I was in a very unique role in Iraq. I had my little job to do working for the U.S/ Government, and I had reason to be there but it was a small part of what my Army unit was doing, which was shooting bad guys at night and doing real soldier stuff. I was a participant, I had a role, not like a journalist or some kind of war tourist, but I also was a third-party observer for a lot of things and I took advantage of that to learn everything I could. The soldiers were very nice to let me go along on missions that I had no official business being on and experience stuff that soldiers did. My eyes kept getting wider and wider. And I was looking at this stuff in utter shock. Not everyone gets that opportunity. At the same time I was personally, emotionally struck by the suicides, I was personally, emotionally struck by the devastation. There is always a lot of down time in military operations—hurry up and wait, right?—and so I talked to everyone I could, new guys and old vets alike. I hope my book does justice to the things they shared with me, because about 90 percent of what I read elsewhere is garbage, making everyone out to be either a hero or a baby killer, depending on the political needs for the day. Nothing is straightforward like that, nothing, not in any war.

TAC: What do you want readers to take away from this?

Van Buren: I think they will enjoy that it is a good story, a good story with a conscience. There are messages here, and philosophical points to be made there, but it is also a story you can still down and enjoy.

I also hope I am bringing this concept of moral injury to a wider audience, and to people who are not familiar with it—that moral injury is a cost of war. That it is about the suicides that take place every day, it is what their husbands and wives and brothers and sisters come home with. The next goal is to understand that there are implications of war forcing us to choose between morality and expediency. It never works when you step away from the moral positions. Whether on a macro level or among individual soldiers or whatever, it is never right when you abandon morality, when it is not at the core of what you are doing it will fail.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is managing editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC

How Saudi Arabia Tricked American Veterans

WASHINGTON—The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and significant political capital trying to kill a brand-new law that would allow 9/11 survivors to sue the longstanding U.S. ally for its alleged connections to the terror attacks in domestic court. But the latest Saudi tactic—recruiting unaware American veterans to lobby their cause on Capitol Hill—crosses a line and may have run afoul of the law, say critics who have helped to expose the scheme in recent months.

“Lobbying by a foreign government is not necessarily illegal, but it is unethical and underhanded to use our nation’s heroes, our combat veterans, and turn them against the very families that you take an oath to protect,” charged Edward Vento, a Persian Gulf vet from Reno, Nev., who said he was asked “by a friend of a friend” to join a lobbying trip to Washington this winter. He declined.

According to records kept under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), multiple U.S. lobbying firms and individuals have disclosed contracts with the Saudi government to recruit veterans to spread the message on the Hill about the 2016 Justice Against State Sponsored Terrorism Act (JASTA) and its “unintended consequences,” including “potential liabilities arising for U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic personnel.”

Veterans contacted by TAC—even those who went on the fully paid trips to DC involving free hotel rooms (many at the now-legendary Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue), meals, and nights out on the town—say recruits in many cases were misinformed about what JASTA really does, and furthermore, not told at all that Saudi Arabia, the country that would currently have the most to lose if JASTA remains intact, was behind it all.

“I was blatantly lied to,” said Lorraine Barlett, a retired Army JAG officer, who said she was told “several entities” were paying for the trips she took. Barlett said the events were billed as “come support your local service members” in a notice passed along by a friend who was recruiting veterans in Augusta, Ga. She was not told Saudi Arabia was footing most if not all of the bills.

Dave Casler, an Iraq War vet from Sacramento, Calif., said something felt a bit off, but he went on a February trip anyway to “see what I could find out.” He called the experience “bat-shit crazy” with seemingly limitless funds for elaborate dinners and free booze. He told TAC the organizer of his trip, Jason Johns, told participants, unsolicited, that “this was not at all funded by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” Later, Casler recalled another coordinator, clearly intoxicated after a night of indulging, bragging that “the Kingdom” was behind it all.

Casler and others felt they were kept in the dark the whole time. “It’s multiple veterans on multiple trips who have said, ‘I wasn’t told the truth about who was paying for this,’” he said. “People don’t like being lied to or being used.” So far reporters have pieced together six or seven trips with 25–50 vets each.

9/11 Victims’ Families and Survivors United for Justice Against Terrorism—the main group pushing for JASTA legislation in hope of getting their day in court against Saudi Arabia—has formally asked the Department of Justice to investigate violations of FARA. The law, which monitors foreign lobbying, requires that American agents working on behalf of “foreign principles,” disclose all monies, missions, and materials associated with their work. The group claims there might have been hundreds of people lobbying on behalf of the Saudi Royal Family or government, including the volunteer veterans, who should have reported their activities. They said any materials given to volunteers or left with members of Congress did not disclose who paid for them. In short, they cite some 10 violations of U.S. code.

“They are going into these offices in Congress and none of them tell members of Congress that they are working on behalf of the Kingdom,” said Terry Strada, who heads the 9/11 Families organization and the Pass JASTA campaign. Her husband Thomas was a senior bond trader at Cantor Fitzgerald when he perished in the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers, leaving behind three children then aged 7, 4, and four days old.

“They had high-ranking, older vets, young vets, purple heart vets—all were misled. It’s one of the most disgusting things I’ve witnessed since 9/11.”

The complaint, sent to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, was dated March 29. When reached by TAC, the Department of Justice press office declined comment.

Meanwhile, the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington did not return a request for comment on this story. One of the Washington-based organizers for the trips, Scott Wheeler, whose FARA disclosure says his Capitol Media Group received some $365,000 from the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia to organize three veterans’ trips at a base fee of $30,000 each plus expenses to lobby against JASTA, spoke with TAC about the allegations by the 9/11 families and others.

“All of this is being turned into something that it is not,” he said. “We gave the material to the veterans to look at and they made their own determination. We did not tell them what to say. No one was misled. This is not a story.”

Wheeler, who is a veteran and longtime Republican media operative and journalist, said he never took the funds directly by the Saudi embassy, but via a Washington firm that recruited him. That firm, Qorvis MSLGroup, is one of over a dozen U.S. lobbying outfits currently on the Saudi payroll to the tune of $1.3 million a month, ostensibly to kill JASTA or at the very least render it harmless to the Kingdom. In 2004, according to reports at the time, the FBI raided Qorvis’s offices during an investigation of its lobbying campaign for Saudi Arabia, which was trying to burnish its image after 9/11.

Qorvis did not return a request for comment on this story. A spokesman for the firm told the Daily Caller, which broke the first story about this issue on February 7, that everything they were doing with the vets was “totally out in the open. This is totally transparent.” In a follow-up story on the DOJ complaint, Qorvis managing director Mike Petruzzello told Yahoo! News reporter Mike Isikoff that the veterans’ complaints that they did not know about Saudi Arabia’s backing of the project “rings hollow to me.”

Retired Air Force Col. George Risse of O’Fallon, Ill., told TAC that he was informed ahead of time that Saudi Arabia was footing the bill. The information led him to do more research on JASTA before he went to DC.

“My only concern was whether they were going to tell me what to say and they said absolutely not,” Risse said of his contacts. He ultimately went on a trip with Johns, a Purple Heart veteran and head of the No Man Left Behind Advocacy Group. Johns received a $100,000 fee from Qorvis to engage in outreach to the media, elected officials, and “influencers” against JASTA. (His memo to vets ahead of the February trip is here.)

“My experience has been they were very up front,” Risse said. “None of our allies thinks JASTA is a good idea.” Like others, he believes the trial lawyers are the only ones benefitting from it. As for Saudi Arabia being behind the trip, “I don’t consider that a problem as long as our interests are aligned.”

Do Saudis and Vets Have the Same Interests?

The Kingdom has been dogged by at least 9,000 lawsuits since 9/11 because survivors like Strada believe they can prove that elements of the government provided material support to the hijackers—15 out of 19 were Saudi—and that the state for years funded the spread the extremist ideology fueling al-Qaeda. While the U.S. government has held that there is “no smoking gun,” lawyers for the survivors believe they have identified enough evidence to let this play out in court, and the Saudis have done everything to avoid that day of reckoning.

In other words, say critics, this anti-JASTA campaign has nothing to do with troops, and everything to do with saving Saudi skins. “There are many layers of deception here, starting with giving veterans a false description of what JASTA is,” said Brian McGlinchey, who publishes the website, which plumbed FARA records showing the big money trail from the Saudis to dozens of Americans working on their behalf. He has also reached out to veterans via social media to get their stories. “That U.S. veterans could be sued and hauled into foreign courts because of JASTA is just false on the face of it.”

According to Vento, the Reno veteran who declined to participate, recruiters have been setting up shop at trade shows and other events popular with veterans across the country in states as far flung from DC as Nevada, Oklahoma, and Colorado. The pitch is simple: Help your fellow service members. In one photo snapped of a booth at a trade show a banner declares, “Protect our troops from JASTA backlash.” Recruits were told that JASTA could result in service members being sued for war crimes. Leaders tell them the bill is a creature of trial lawyers looking to cash in—that it’s about money, not justice.

“You can see what they are doing—trying to turn [veterans] against the 9/11 families. You’re taking victims of terror and what is perceived as the nation’s heroes, and turning them against each other,” said Vento.

While JASTA passed both the House and Senate last year with large, bipartisan majorities, critics—even those who voted for it—worry the principle of state sovereign immunity is now at risk. JASTA now makes it easier for terrorism-related civil suits against foreign states in domestic courts whether or not they are not on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, which Saudi Arabia is not.

Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain, as well as a slew of skeptics from both sides of the aisle, warned of a backlash from other countries that could pass their own laws allowing them to drag the U.S. into court over perceived crimes. Barlett, the former Army lawyer, believes it is “a poorly written law” that could result in “a wing ding” of  legislation by other countries in the future, “but there was no merit to the argument that it could hurt military servicemembers”—and she told that to Wheeler, the chief organizer of her two trips. She said the group continued to mislead the other veterans about the impact of the bill, which Wheeler strongly denies.

Barlett also charges that when she asked who was funding the trip, Wheeler would not give her a straight answer. She only found out the truth when the stories broke out in the news.

She said she is “embarrassed” for trusting her friend and going along. “Had I been told on the front end I would have never gone.”

Meanwhile, Tim Cord, speaking with McGlinchey for, said his entire outlook changed when he was told about the Saudis. To him, their interests are not aligned.

I’m sitting in the Trump hotel having the time of my life, and I get to the realization that, goddamn, I owe them now, and that is not a cool feeling to have. Not the Saudis, dude,” Tim Cord told McGlinchey.

A heated conversation has since ensued on Facebook, with veterans angered by the campaign arguing with those who felt their time in Washington was well spent—no matter who was paying.

“All efforts were made to be sure that the veterans knew up front that Saudi Arabia was funding the trips,” insisted Johns, a Purple Heart veteran who says he was never paid directly by the Saudis. He even disputes Casler’s recollection of events. “It is not true that I made any such unsolicited announcement about Saudi Arabia not funding the trip.”

He said his own concerns that JASTA would be harmful to the U.S. military led to his involvement in the campaign, and he doesn’t trust that bigger interests on the other side aren’t fueling these attacks on him and other vets involved. “I see trial lawyers in this.”

“Make no mistake, this has been and is all about the MONEY,” Johns wrote in an email, questioning why it’s “somehow scandalous and shady for an an ally, who has never been found culpable in the 9/11 attacks (is all conspiracy based allegations and scenarios) to facilitate honorable veterans speaking to Congress simply because our interests align?”

Vento says if it is a choice of between defending the 9/11 families or the Saudi Kingdom, the choice is clear. “I stand on the side of the 9/11 families. Period.”

Kelley Vlahos is a freelance reporter in Washington.

Cory Booker’s Challenge

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Reagan Redux at the Pentagon

Michael Hogue

WASHINGTON—Many of President Donald Trump’s personal touchstones harken back to the 1980s, when he found his financial fortune and mojo as an American celebrity. So perhaps it’s no surprise that his style and flash—including his friends and his homes—reflect the glitz and hubris of the era often named after Trump’s self-proclaimed political hero and lodestar, Ronald Reagan.

This fealty to a certain image of Reagan is evident in Trump’s recent declarations about the military budget. Last week the president announced he would ask Congress for an “historic” $54 billion increase in defense spending over 2017 levels, “to rebuild the depleted military of the United States of America,” sending a message of “American strength, security and resolve” to the rest of the world.

The White House says the $54 billion would be a 10 percent hike over the spending caps put into place by Congress in 2011. But much of this rhetoric may be misleading. As White House budget director Mick Mulvaney later pointed out, Trump’s numbers would raise the defense budget to $603 billion, just 3 percent higher than the $584 billion spent by the end of fiscal year 2017 in September, and representing an increase of just slightly more than the current 2.5 percent rate of inflation.

That’s just one of a number of baseline assumptions, says Gordon Adams, a defense budget expert and former Office of Management and Budget official in the Clinton administration. To be sure, it’s complicated. For example, the caps imposed by the Budget Control Act in 2011 (which are supposed to trigger the infamous “sequestration” cuts) have been raised for three years to accommodate past congressional spending desires, and the Overseas Contingency Operations budget has raised spending well over the caps, too. That shifts the baseline around a bit.

“The amount of increase is in the eye of the beholder,” Gordon tells TAC. No kidding: the New York Times released a “fact check” and a chart, based on numbers from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, showing that in Reagan’s first year in office (1981), he increased the budget a whopping 25 percent, far above Trump’s “historic” hike.

Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, dismissed Trump’s plans as insufficient. McCain’s own budget plan calls for $640 billion in base defense spending in FY 2018, growing to over $740 billion in FY 2022.

“It did surprise me that he didn’t want more,” noted Dan Grazier, military budget analyst for the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), which advocates for reforming the Pentagon’s annual feeding frenzy. “When people on the Armed Services Committee are complaining that it isn’t enough, that’s a hopeful sign.”

Unlike Reagan, however, Trump is disinclined to raise the national debt in order to increase defense spending. And unlike the Obama era, Trump appears prepared to eschew previous deals with Democrats in order to raise the caps and send more dollars to the Pentagon. In years past, Democrats made agreements with Republicans to increase as much of the budget on the non-discretionary domestic side as they did on the military side, said Adams.

“The dollar-for-dollar adjustment was a function of the political balance,” he pointed out. “We don’t have that political balance anymore.”

Officials with knowledge of the president’s plan said that in order to pay for this “massive buildup,” there would be severe cuts—as much as 30 percent to the State Department’s foreign aid and diplomacy budgets, including major restructuring and even elimination of programs. The Environmental Protection Agency, a big target of Trump to begin with, would also take a 24 percent cut in its $8.1 billion budget, say sources.

The United States currently spends about $50 billion annually on the State Department and foreign assistance, a shadow of what the Pentagon spends each year.

“He ran on a platform of increasing the size, but not the cost of the military,” points out Ben Friedman, defense and homeland security fellow at the Cato Institute. “He’s fulfilling his campaign promises and he’s a Republican and this is a standard Republican position, not to raise deficit spending.”

But many suggest that this scenario, in which diplomacy and foreign assistance would have to be the sacrificial lamb, almost guarantees that Trump’s budget plan will get push back from Democrats—and even a few Republicans. Some have already called it dead on arrival. But with enough Republicans in the House and Senate willing to cut other areas of the budget to increase military outlays while staying under previous caps, State Department programs may be the first to take a hit. “They don’t have lobbyists hanging around on Capitol Hill to save those bucks,” said Adams. “That’s been true for decades.”

So far the details of how Trump plans to engage in this “rebuilding” of the military are thin. The Associated Press said the boost would go to big displays of power: new ships, aircraft, and fighters. During the campaign Trump borrowed heavily from Heritage Foundation white papers (not unlike Reagan once did) and has talked about increasing the size of the Navy from 274 to 350 ships, adding 60,000 soldiers to the Army, and  allowing the Marines to expand to a wartime footing of 36 battalions. During a speech last week, he vowed to increase the current fleet of 10 aircraft carriers to a dozen.

Sources with knowledge of how these budgets work say it’s not how much is spent that matters—but how it’s spent. After all these showy, big-ticket items are paid for there will be very little money left in the president’s proposal for more immediate needs, like basic maintenance for existing ships, aircraft, and vehicles. Up to half of the current fleet of F-18 fighter planes have been grounded due to maintenance problems, for example. This might be fine if the F-35 joint strike fighter aircraft were off the ground, but with the replacement plane delayed, there are gaps in training and readiness, particularly for pilots.

Temptations of Power

Trump’s recent spending announcements, coupled with the general themes he’s hewed to during the campaign, appear to be part of an opening salvo in the coming budget fights with Congress. But there’s more to it. Trump seems to think Reagan’s own approach to facing down the Soviets and winning the Cold War—pouring money into the military industrial complex and turning around the nation’s patriotic malaise with soaring, muscular rhetoric—will work in 2017. If such a program can generate jobs and pump life into the economy, even better.

“Ronald Reagan made the argument that the only way to win the Cold War was peace through strength,” noted Gordon Adams. The phrase became a mainstay of GOP platforms with Reagan further explaining in 1983 that “to be prepared for war…is one of the most effective means of preserving peace.” Of course the now shopworn maxim has limits: as Andrew Bacevich has noted, it easily becomes “peace through war” because such a formidable posture “breeds the temptation to put that power to work.”

But Trump isn’t likely to be thinking in those terms. He is instead recalling Reagan psyching out the Russians and forcing the Soviet Union into a free fall that ended in its collapse a few years after the Gipper left office. Trump may similarly want to confront adversaries such as ISIS, Iran, North Korea, and China—and despite theories to the contrary, maybe even Putin’s Russia, too.

“Shades of Ronald Reagan—that is what I thought [when I heard his speech],” said Adams. “Because in a way this is a Reagan redux. Here we go again, as Reagan said himself, in the truest sense.”

But when Reagan came into office, the military really was in a bad state and had been—readiness and capability-wise, but especially culturally—since the end of the Vietnam War. There was a lot to do to bring it back to its proverbial glory. And unlike Trump’s vision, Reagan went into deficit spending to pay for it.

It’s “a funny irony,” says Adams. “We’re said to have ‘dismantled’ the military but it’s simply not true. The United States today has the biggest, baddest, most ready military in the world.” The military may be tired from repeated deployments and in need of the aforementioned maintenance and upgrades, but it isn’t “beleaguered,” critics of a new buildup say.

“I think he has a worldview that is not truly coherent; I guess people call it ‘Jacksonian,’” Cato’s Friedman suggested to TAC, noting that Trump’s foreign-policy positions seem to recall the seventh U.S. president, a man well prepared to defend the nation, but not interested in taking up messianic foreign adventures to spread American liberalism or seek global hegemony. “But it is militaristic. [Trump] has bragged about being militaristic. Speak loudly, carry a big stick.”

“I also think he has more of a worshipful attitude toward the military than most—until of course, [the military] conflicts with his own ego,” says Friedman.

Draining the Swamp?

Advocates of foreign-policy restraint can be pleased that Trump so far seems averse to starting wars and nation building. Yet for the military-industrial complex, staying home can also be very good news. Building up for war is just as good for business as fighting one, maybe even better.

“The whole system wants to get as much money as humanly possible,” said Grazier, who after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan retired from the Marine Corps as a captain, joined POGO in 2015. “There is a big, concerted effort not only to keep things as they are but to get more.”

That effort includes millions of dollars of political contributions and lobbying resources that big civilian contractors—including Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon—hope will start returning on investment as these budget battles begin. According to the Center for Responsible Politics, since 2009 these heavy hitters have contributed $42 million to political candidates, most of them perched on Congressional armed services and appropriations committees.

Rep. Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, for example, received $393,850 from defense interests in the 2016 election cycle, almost seven times as much as the country’s median household income. Sen. McCain, who has scoffed that Trump’s ideal military budget is too small, took $312,365 from defense interests in the last cycle.

These contributions to some of the most visible legislators represent just a small fraction of all the money flowing from defense interests—nearly $127 million in the last year alone, including 748 lobbyists representing 218 clients on Capitol Hill. It’s a swamp Trump seems unlikely to succeed in draining.

Few in Washington, besides POGO and their allies, are publicly making the case that overheated rhetoric will continue to drive irresponsible military spending. Still the president seems confident using 1980’s retro themes of bigger, bolder, and stronger, whether the spending is destined for Main Street USA or much farther away. He’ll deal with the costs—and the messy details—later.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, DC-based freelance reporter.

The New Battle for Afghanistan

U.S. Army

WASHINGTON—Despite questions about the ongoing war in Afghanistan, President Trump has so far chosen silence over substance. But perhaps it doesn’t matter, as an illuminating exchange that took place before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week all but guaranteed what his policy will be.

Trump’s approach to Afghanistan will no doubt involve more American troops, more aggressive activity on the ground, and a less definite schedule for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces. In other words, don’t expect a big shakeup of the status quo. Perhaps the most notable change is that the military won’t try to have it both ways, keeping soldiers in the country while telegraphing meaningless “timetables” for an exit.

This appears to be the result of letting those in uniform—or in the case of new Secretary of Defense James Mattis, the recently retired—make the tough calls. Mattis oversaw Afghanistan from 2010 to 2013 as the leader of U.S. Central Command, and he has already signaled he will not waver on the American commitment. The new homeland-security secretary, retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, commanded forces in Iraq and also lost his son, a Marine who died while serving his third tour in Afghanistan; he, too, obviously feels there is unfinished business there.

As for Congress, most members fall into one of two mindsets—unflinching resolve to increase the U.S. footprint, or resignation that there is no other way. And the president? While at first blush it might look like Trump only has the bandwidth for his oft-stated goal of  “eradicating radical Islamic terrorism from the face of the earth,” his generals—with the help of the most hawkish senators on Capitol Hill—are making sure that Afghanistan is considered part of that fight.

So it did not escape notice when Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, packaged the mission as an urgent priority that ultimately Trump would have to embrace. Speaking to senators last week, Nicholson said staying in Afghanistan is part of our “enduring counterterrorism platform” (a phrase he repeated several times), which “is critically important to our national security” and “the homeland.”

Leaving the country now would be folly, Nicholson argued, because without the U.S. and NATO there to finish the mission, the population would inevitably fall into the hands of extremists, heightening the risk of a domestic terrorist attack. In the words of George W. Bush, “we will fight them over there so we do not have to face them in the United States of America.”

Indeed, there were reports in January that President-elect Trump had already spoken to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and promised to consider a bump-up in troops. That conversation was never confirmed by Trump’s people. Nor was it denied. The White House said Trump spoke to Ghani last week, the same day as the Nicholson hearing, and promised him continued American support for security but offered no clarity about troop numbers. Many believe it’s a fait accompli.


According to Nicholson, Afghanistan is “a stalemate,” with no fewer than 20 different terror groups operating there now. In addition to the well-known Taliban and al-Qaeda, there is also an Islamic State franchise, IS in Khorasan Province (ISKP), which has taken responsibility for a recent spate of ruthless suicide bombings in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Without a trace of irony, the general said that after 15 years of war in Afghanistan, the country now “has the greatest concentration of terrorist organizations in the world.”

Nicholson suggested a “few thousand” more troops would be needed to continue training, advising, and filling in where private contractors are now taking up the slack. Currently there are some 8,400 U.S. troops and 26,435 U.S. contractors in Afghanistan, a country of 30 million people. Most of these personnel are in training and advisory roles, while a much smaller number are special forces dedicated to counterterrorism. Nicholson said he believed the administration was “open to a discussion of an objectives-based approach.”

But the situation is a lot uglier and more complicated than the generals readily admit. Nicholson did not deny nor rebuke senators who raised Afghanistan’s notorious corruption issues. Other enormous obstacles to progress include Pakistan’s seeming lack of interest in controlling the flow of terrorists into Afghanistan, the growth of the opium industry feeding the terror groups there, and the total cost to American taxpayers, which has now reached three-quarters of a trillion dollars.

Interestingly, Nicholson also argued that both Iran and Russia were meddling in Afghanistan, deliberately undermining U.S. and NATO efforts there. According to Nicholson, Shia Iran is supporting Sunni Taliban in Afghanistan and recruiting Shia to fight for Bashar Assad (and ultimately against U.S.-backed forces) in Syria. Russia is allegedly “legitimizing” the Taliban by suggesting they are fighting ISIS in Afghanistan, while the Afghan government is not.

During these kinds of hearings, when faced with big brass with a chest full of medals and ribbons, lawmakers of most stripes appear to have one default setting: agree to a little more time. Victory is surely right around the corner, they reason, if only we hang in there and give the Afghans the tools to fight for their country.

And even if Trump does get cold feet over troop increases, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, just itching for a blood-on-the-Senate-floor fight with Trump, are practically begging the generals to ask for more troops.

At the hearing, McCain glowered when talking about President Obama’s initial plans for withdrawal (abandoned by the end of his term) and rules of engagement he said tied soldiers’ and Marines’ hands when it came to fighting the enemy. Now the need to stay the course is even greater, McCain said, “because of the incredible rules of engagement … because of the unwarranted reduction of forces led us on the predictable path today that was predicted—predicted!—by those of us who actually know about warfare.”


Critics were disheartened after last week’s hearing. “More troops?” asked retired Army Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, now a fellow at Defense Priorities. “How would the introduction of a few thousand troops reverse the stalemate that you claim we are under and have been for 16 years? What will these new troops do? How will they reverse the situation on the ground that is currently impossible to do?”

“Thus far the government of Afghanistan has shown an utter inability to govern,” he added. “Putting more U.S. troops in to accomplish anything will be like putting a fist in a bucket of water: wherever my fist goes, the water [insurgency] is displaced; as soon as I withdraw my hand, the water comes back.”

Every single measurement suggests that the current course is not working, but thanks to the power vacuums and weak leaders pockmarking the landscape, Nicholson is right about one thing: the very worst extremists could overrun if Afghanistan if U.S. and NATO abandon it now.

“The real issue for president Trump is whether he has the strategic patience to continue U.S. military involvement until you can come up with a negotiated solution,” said Lawrence Korb, who was an assistant defense secretary under the Reagan administration. “If he doesn’t, he is going to have to decide whether he is going to try to win militarily or engage in nation building—neither of which are plausible alternatives.”

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan (SIGAR) has in recent weeks rolled out some grim metrics about the lack of progress there. In the meantime, some Democratic senators, including Elizabeth Warren, attempted to draw attention to the price of staying but stopped far short of suggesting they’d stop a mini-surge of fresh troops.

“We are now paying $13 million every day in Afghanistan; more than 2,000 [U.S. soldiers] have made the ultimate sacrifice there; more than 8,400 American servicemembers are there today,” Warren reminded Nicholson. “Our military could not and should not be there forever.”

Beyond that, SIGAR reported in January that Afghan commanders continue to pocket the salaries of “ghost soldiers,” troops who exist on the books but not in reality and could number in the “tens of thousands.” Not surprisingly, only 63 percent of the country’s districts are under government control today, with 15 percent ceded to the Taliban last year. Afghan soldiers actually on the battlefield suffered 15,000 casualties in 2016, including more than 5,600 deaths.

Meanwhile as much as half of U.S.-purchased fuel for the military is being siphoned off somewhere. Corruption is still rampant in the government, too, with myriad examples of waste, fraud, and abuse associated with the $117 billion the U.S has invested for reconstruction there. Even though the U.S and NATO have promised more than $15 billion more, who has the confidence it will go where it’s needed?

Opium production is up, even though the U.S. has committed $8 billion to counternarcotics, according to SIGAR. As much as 60 percent of the Taliban’s funding is coming from poppy production and cultivation.

And the Afghan people? Some 3,498 civilians were killed in 2016, the highest number recorded since 2009. This included a ten-fold increase in ISIS related deaths and injuries, according to the United Nations.


Korb says asking for more troops “is what generals do,” even if they have to exaggerate the threat to the homeland. But Congress is falling down on its job to engage more rigorously. Legislators should question how many troops are needed and what exactly the end-game strategy is—beyond the usual platitudes about destroying the terrorists, helping the Afghans build their government, “working with Pakistan,” enabling a “peace and reconciliation process,” and blaming the Iranians and Russians for what doesn’t work.

SIGAR official John F. Sopko appeared to say it best, addressing the words of Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford last September. “Withdraw and the democratic government may well fall,” said Sopko. “Stay, and continue to do what we have been doing, and we may be faced with what General Dunford has described as a stalemate.”

Obama was willing to risk such a draw in Afghanistan for eight years. But will Trump? Or is something worse than a stalemate on the horizon?

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, DC-based freelance reporter.

Editor’s note: A reference to Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn has been removed from this piece. His resignation was announced shortly after it was posted.

Can Bergdahl Get a Fair Trial?

WASHINGTON—Can a soldier get a fair trial if the man who is his commander-in-chief today has repeatedly condemned him as a traitor and a deserter and publicly suggested he be executed?

The defense team of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who is awaiting an April 18 court martial on charges that he deserted his Afghanistan post before he was kidnapped and spent five years in brutal Taliban captivity, has moved to dismiss the charges against him. They say their client couldn’t possibly get a fair trial with Donald Trump in the White House.

The videographic evidence is hard to ignore. The team has assembled a YouTube video consisting of 30 minutes of Trump predetermining Bergdahl’s guilt at no fewer than 65 campaign events and media appearances since 2014. Trump calls Bergdahl a “dirty rotten traitor” and a “deserter” countless times. Trump also claims that six U.S. military personnel died looking for him, which the Department of Defense has said is not true, and promises to not only review but alter the case once in office.

After at least 10 minutes of Trump calling Bergdahl a traitor and deserter, the video shifts its focus to capital punishment. Trump tells of the “good ol’ days” when they would take deserters and—here he mimicks a rifle shot—“bang!” Trump repeats this pantomime numerous times with small tweaks and embellishments for effect. He also says, “I would take that son of a bitch and drop him over the top” of Taliban territory from a plane.

“He’s a traitor, a no-good traitor, who should’ve been executed,” he says at a rally in Las Vegas.

“Before we bomb ISIS we drop Bergdahl right in the middle of it,” he says to another enthusiastic audience.

“I may have him flown back into that place, and boom, drop him … it’s cheaper than a bullet,” he says to another.

“I want to renegotiate that deal,” he says of the swap that was made for five of “the worst killers.” (At least four of the five Taliban swapped were political, moderate Taliban never accused of direct violence.)

“Send him back … I don’t want him,” he says to another rally, again to lusty cheers from the crowd. “Should we give him a parachute or not? I say no. Why waste a perfectly good parachute?”

Whatever one thinks of Bergdahl, that he was mentally unsound or a deserter or both (TAC has written extensively of the circumstances leading up to and following his disappearance in 2009), he has a constitutional right to due process. His chief defense counsel, Eugene R. Fidell, says Trump’s numerous statements, made consistently over the course of nearly two years to audiences across the country, deny him that right and also pose an “unlawful command influence,” which is prohibited in the court of military justice, even though Trump’s statements were made before he was elected president.

“The case really is unprecedented, and it poses a challenge for the military justice system. Mr. Trump can’t ignore—we can’t ignore—what he previously said like he just put on a clean shirt for the inauguration. There is history and history has consequences,” Fidell told TAC Monday.

“These weren’t generic comments, they were comments that focused specifically on [Bergdahl],” and they were never repudiated, he pointed out. “This is a person who successfully campaigned for the highest office of the country on that basis.”

Not only does it prejudice public opinion, but it prejudices the military jurors and officers who now call Donald Trump their commander-in-chief.

Lorraine Barlett, a retired Army Judge Advocate General (JAG), told TAC in an email that she “sadly agrees” with the Bergdahl team that his fair trial has been compromised:

In this political climate there well may be a case of “reverse” jury (panel) nullification, meaning, despite even a failure to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, there is likely to be a predisposition to find him guilty and HAMMER it home (call it the Trump factor, anti-Obama-ism, a backlash against the Chelsea Manning pardon, any number of possible reasons). And of course any comments by Trump concerning this case will almost certainly sway the outcome improperly—we call it “unlawful command influence.”

When asked about the motion to dismiss, a spokesman at Fort Bragg, where the general court martial is to be held starting April 18, told the New York Times that the military remained committed to “ensuring his ongoing legal proceeding’s fairness and impartiality.”

The government has five days to respond to the January 20 motion. If convicted on the charges, Bergdahl, 30, faces life in prison.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, DC-based freelance reporter.

Editor’s note: This article has been amended to reflect a change in the court-martial date, from February 5 to April 18.

Trump and Israel

Screengrab: Trump speaks before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee

WASHINGTON—There is much to learn about what Donald Trump’s foreign policy is going to look like, with one of the most anticipated issues being his approach to Israel. After eight years of the Obama administration, the relationship between the U.S. and its Middle East partner has frayed considerably over significant and seemingly insurmountable differences, those concerning the nuclear deal with Iran and the expanding settlements in the West Bank being the most consequential, if not existential.

Trump started off his campaign signaling he would be “neutral” on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but he has shifted considerably in recent weeks toward the views of the staunchest Zionists. This has included tapping a man considered to be to the right of conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as U.S. ambassador to Israel, choosing another pro-settlement Republican as his international business adviser, welcoming the heretofore marginalized Israeli ambassador into the bosom of his inner circle in Washington, and, just recently, appointing his son-in-law, who is reportedly behind bringing all these players into the fold, as a senior adviser.

Trump’s not-so-subtle slide toward the far right of the spectrum has alarmed more moderate—some would say Democratic—Jewish groups and establishment writers, who sense in this group a strong consensus against a two-state solution for Israeli Jews and Arab Palestinians. Collectively, there is more support here for expanded settlements in contested Palestinian territories, and for moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, than there has been at the levers of Washington power in a long time, if ever. If these forces have their way, an already fragile Middle East could be headed for a new regional conflagration, with the peace process turned back decades.

“It is concerning because this is an administration that seems to be backing away from a longstanding, bipartisan consensus in support of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a longstanding bipartisan U.S. foreign policy opposing actions that hurt the prospects of that two-state solution, including settlement expansion,” said Dylan Williams, vice president for government affairs for J Street—which, among other moderate stances, supports the Iran nuclear agreement.

The issue took center stage in December when, after the U.S. abstained from a UN Security Council vote calling for a halt to the settlements, Trump blasted off a series of tweets calling out the Obama administration for the nuke deal and for not vetoing the UN resolution, and then directly urging the Israeli people to “stay strong,” promising that “things will get better after Jan. 20.” This came less than a month after his senior aide Kellyanne Conway insisted that moving the embassy was “a big priority” for Trump.

“It’s definitely alarming,” said Williams. “Like so many of Trump’s tweets and remarks, it remains to be seen how much is rhetoric and how much he plans to put into action.” But a “reversal” on the two-state solution and the embassy, he added, “would be very dangerous for us, and especially for the Israeli people.”

Already, the wheels are turning. On the first day of the new congressional session, failed GOP presidential candidates Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, along with Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller, introduced legislation to declare Jerusalem the official capital of Israel and to move the embassy there from Tel Aviv. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wrote a letter to Trump warning him against the move, saying it would have “a disastrous impact” on the peace process. Going further, Jordan warned the incoming president that moving the embassy to Jerusalem would be a “red line” for Jordan and that there would be “catastrophic” consequences.

Trump’s pick for U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has only emboldened this ideological trajectory. Friedman is an Orthodox Jew and Long Island bankruptcy lawyer who co-chaired Trump’s Israel advisory committee on the campaign with longtime Trump business lawyer Jason Greenblatt, who is now special representative for international negotiations. Both men have close ties to Ivanka Trump’s husband, Jared Kushner, who reportedly helped “guide” Trump’s speech last year to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and whose appointment to the White House has been hailed as closing this powerful circle.

Friedman not only thinks the settlements are legal but has called the two-state solution an “illusion” and has promised backers on the campaign trail that Trump will do nothing to pressure Israel into negotiations. He is an active supporter of and donor to the conservative Beit El settlement in the West Bank. He has said J Street is “worse than Kapos,” referring to Jewish Nazi collaborators, and said the Anti-Defamation League critics of Trump sounded like “morons.”

Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., is reportedly frozen out of the Obama White House, but he has so far found a warm reception in this Trump confederacy. He has accused the Obama administration of colluding with the UN on the anti-settlement resolution and defended Steve Bannon and Breitbart News against charges of anti-Semitism. Dermer helped arrange for Netanyahu’s controversial speech before Congress in 2015. He has also called for the embassy move, and considers Friedman “an excellent choice” for ambassador.

For the ultra-conservative pro-Israel factions in Washington, these are welcome developments. The Republican Jewish Coalition readily endorsed Friedman.

AIPAC, however, after an embarrassing moment when Trump practically brought the house down criticizing Obama at its winter meeting in 2016, declined comment for this story. As did the American Enterprise Institute, the seat of the intellectual neoconservative policy movement in Washington. “I think these groups will embrace Trump,” guesses Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at Harvard University and coauthor of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. “The fact that Trump has been talking so starkly pro-Israel must be music to their ears.”

It’s a no-brainer for former UN ambassador and AEI scholar John Bolton, who spoke before the American Friends of Beit El last month in New York, assuring those assembled that Trump would likely move the embassy and stop U.S. opposition to the settlement. But the other prominent neoconservatives who served as President George W. Bush’s spear point on Middle East policy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are a different story. Many have reacted more tentatively, if not suspiciously, toward Trump on the Israeli issue, mostly because many of them headed “#NeverTrump” and other efforts to thwart his campaign in the first place.

“They have tended to be very pro-Israel and leaning toward the Netanyahu-Likud side of Israel politics. Most neocons have not said very much in public about a two-state solution. But they all have been very vocal in their opposition to Trump, from day one,” Walt tells TAC. “And that has yet to change.”

“I think they don’t trust his foreign policy, and are genuinely concerned about some of the anti-Semitic and racist elements embedded within the Trump movement,” Walt said.

Still they appear at least aware that he will be friendlier toward Israel’s interests, at least those interests espoused by Netanyahu and the conservative factions in the government.

Elliott Abrams, for example, is happy with the Friedman pick, and said so at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It seems very likely that under the Trump administration the United States will return to past practices and defend Israel again,” he wrote in Newsweek, referring to the settlement issue. “That would be a good start for 2017.”

Even Bill Kristol, possibly Trump’s worst critic from the right, has had a few positive words for Trump in recent days, mostly because he sees Obama’s approach to Israel as so abhorrent. “Trump will recalibrate the U.S.-Israel relationship, as he has said many times; he is much more friendly than the Obama administration has been,” he told MSNBC after the UN resolution vote.

Meanwhile, Jay Bergman, professor of Russian history at Central Connecticut State University and a contributor at the hard-right Jerusalem Post, accuses Jewish-American political interests like AIPAC of becoming too comfortable with the status quo and their access to the Washington establishment to fully endorse the radical moves that Trump and his coterie are talking about.

“The Zionist Organization of America trusts Trump, is pleased by his appointments generally, and its leaders probably find Trump’s populism preferable to the Democrats’ liberalism,” Bergman tells TAC. “Most of the others, including AIPAC, are led by Democrats who have come to value bipartisanship and the personal relations they have long enjoyed with the White House and the Congress much more than they do pursuing what they say is their sole objective, namely enhancing Israel’s security by strengthening support for it in the U.S.”

Unlike the J Street crowd, Bergman does not think that an embassy move or even a U.S. abandonment of the two-state solution would necessarily trigger a regional conflict. He believes the neighboring Arab states are more concerned about a nuclear Iran and would be more supportive of Trump’s efforts to undermine the deal spearheaded by the Obama administration.

“The Iran deal is easily the worst thing that Obama did in the last eight years,” Bergman insists. “Sunni Arabs are not dumb; they know Iran poses a far greater threat to them than Israel’s survival does, even though they can’t say so publicly.”

But no one—not Bergman on the right, J Street on the center-left, or Walt from his realist point of view—knows what Trump is really going to do, how much is bluster, or whether he will actively pursue Israel’s interests or merely pull back from a proactive negotiating role in the peace process and let both sides do their thing. Each option would have its own impact on U.S. security, and the tradeoffs are sure to spur debate in the first days of Trump’s new administration.

“We don’t have a clue yet; we don’t know how the machinery is going to work,” said Walt. “[His] was a populist campaign where he simply sold himself and hasn’t had to make decisions or choose between different options. Therefore it is hard to know which way this is going to go.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, DC-based freelance reporter.

Is Civilian Control of the Military in Jeopardy?

Screenshot: Seven Days in May

President Lyman: All right, Colonel. Let’s sum it up, shall we? You’re suggesting what?

Colonel Casey: I’m not sure, Mr. President, just some possibilities, what we call, uh “capabilities” in military intelligence …

Lyman: You got something against the English language, Colonel?

Casey: No, Sir.

Lyman: Then speak it plainly, if you will.

Casey: I’m suggesting, Mr. President, there’s a military plot to take over the government. This may occur some time this coming Sunday.

Let’s be honest, what classic-movie fan hasn’t thought once or twice about the 1964 film Seven Days in May, a brilliantly paranoid gem exploring the anatomy of an American military coup during the Cold War, since President-elect Donald Trump started announcing his plans to nominate one recently retired general after another to the highest positions of his administration?

One could argue that many elements of the movie’s plot are present today: a military infrastructure bred and fed on decades of war is suddenly threatened by a peacetime posture, defense cuts, and a deal with a rival power that’s unpopular with many in the ranks. In the movie, one general, played forbiddingly by Burt Lancaster, believes it is his duty to right the wrongs of the civilian leadership (a peace deal with the Russians) and, thanks to the size and autonomy lavished upon the post-WWII military-industrial complex, can marshal the makings of an elaborate coup right under the noses of official Washington.

Getting from real-world Trump to celluloid Seven Days is, of course, a fun exercise in hyperbole. But critics say that movies like that exist for a reason—the nation was founded on the healthy fear that unbalanced power in the hands of the military could eventually lead to dictatorship, that the military as an institution is not wired for democratic policymaking, governing, or statecraft. Its coding, rather, is to defend, deter, or kill.

In a post-Kennedy world, where Vietnam was fast becoming much more than a few advisers dropped in to help the French, war seemed an inevitable reality directed from behind the curtain of the political and military establishment. Mixed in with paranoia over fascism and a growing cultural divide, you had the makings of a great movie (writer Rod Serling took great advantage).

Today’s reality is quite different, but no less vulnerable to political manipulations and constitutional crises. It is for that reason that some political scientists and former members of the military who spoke with TAC warn against an overreliance on recently retired “military men” at the top level of the new Trump administration. While they don’t believe we are on the brink of a military takeover, they are invariably concerned with the global optics, how a brass-heavy inner circle would influence decision-making, and whether that could pave the way for a darker turn in the future.

At question: Gen. James Mattis, picked to head the Department of Defense, who will need a congressional waiver to serve;  Gen. John Kelly, selected to head of Department of Homeland Security; and retired General Mike Flynn, chosen as Trump’s national-security advisor. Trump has also tapped Montana Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke, a former Navy SEAL commander who served in the Iraq War, for the position of interior secretary.

Taken separately, nearly all engender enthusiastic respect for their skills and intellectual capabilities, especially Mattis, who by all reports is well-loved in the military community, particularly by veterans who fought under him in Iraq. Outside, he is described as a man of a forthright nature who is well-read, a good listener, and more than capable of handling the leviathan bureaucracy that is the Pentagon.

While Kelly evokes similar strains of confidence, there are rising questions over a retired four-star heading a domestic security post. And with Flynn comes a much cloudier picture: while he’s viewed as a brilliant tactician, there are growing doubts about his temperament and fitness, owing to his personal politics, as well as his reputation as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan and Iraq and as head of Defense Intelligence Agency. Unlike the others, he does not have to be confirmed by the Senate.

As a whole, experts say the problems posed by these selections are—unlike those posed by the fictional Gen. Mattoon Scott of Seven Days in May—more nuanced echos of alarm that could become full-on sirens for future administrations if left unchecked.

Loss of Civilian Control?  

While these men are currently civilians, the fact they just retired from the military (where they served in combat commissions in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars) has evoked some powerful appeals to the long-held doctrine of civilian control of the military.

The commonly held idea is that the founders did not want to replicate England’s monarchical control of the military. Chuck Cushman, a veteran and now dean of academics at the National Defense University’s College of International Security Affairs, insists the American resistance to military control dates back even further. He points to Oliver Cromwell, the successful British commander who won the English Civil War for the Parliamentarians and subsequently brought about the execution of King Charles I. Cromwell’s culminating power led to the overthrow of the ruling party, and with help from his supporters he became “Lord Protector of England” in 1653, after which he led a brutal purge of Catholics across the British Isles.

“I blame Oliver Cromwell. He is why the founders were dedicated to building the [American] constitutional structure this way”—keeping powers diluted, with the president as commander-in-chief but Congress in charge of raising, governing, and supporting the country’s defenses and declaring war, said Cushman. George Washington could have been Cromwell, having just won the Revolution, but resigned his commission, knowing full well the history, Cushman insists. The “founders looked at each other and said, he is the only one among us who is strong enough to not fall into that trap. They built this structure to avoid that trap.”

So what of the “trap” today?

“[The country] is not at risk of a military coup; it is what I call the ‘velvet militarization’ of American foreign and national security policy over the next four years,” writes Gordon Adams, professor emeritus at American University’s School of International Service and co-editor of Mission Creep: The Militarization of U.S. Foreign Policy.

Military officers, he says, “view the world differently,” in the “structured, hierarchical, strategic and operational way” that “focuses on the uses of military force.” Meanwhile, civilian analysts, strategists, and diplomats focus on statecraft, broader strategy, nuance, and knowing when to set “one sticky problem aside to make progress on another,” opined Adams. Both are needed in balance for the president to navigate the shoals of today’s security policies.

The federal government has become increasingly militarized already. Trump’s sudden reliance on these men is swinging the pendulum further in that direction, risking “cementing in place ‘the military-industrial complex’ that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of,” Adams charged.

“It’s not automatically dangerous, but, boy, I can see the red lights are turning on my warning panels, saying we got to watch this,” said Cushman, who is more concerned about the lack of foreign-policy and national-security experience among Trump’s other nominees—and Trump himself, who may too easily defer to the “can do” generals more popular with the American public. “I don’t think it would be malicious, no one is going to wake up and say, ‘This is dictator day,’ but the [military guys] may just look around and say, ‘This is not being done correctly and I know what to do.’”

“So many people that Trump’s picking who are not retired generals are not experienced in government, and they are not going to have the weight. Are they capable of looking at General Mattis and saying, ‘I disagree’? You need need someone of similar heft and similar gravitas who can serve as a civilian counterweight to what might be a very military approach to problem solving,” said Cushman.

Another View

This would not be the first time a general served so close to the president in recent times. Colin Powell was still a commissioned lieutenant general in the Army when he served as Reagan’s national-security advisor from 1987 to 1989. He retired as a four-star in 1993 and served as President Bush’s secretary of state in 2001.

Michael Desch, professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, says he is less concerned about what Trump’s generals say about the future of civilian control of the military than he is about what it says about Trump’s attitude toward the non-military talent pool.

“What I’m uncomfortable with, is the implication that that we don’t have the depth in the civilian world, in national-security experience, to fill those positions,” Desch said. Moreover, the president-elect appears to reinforcing public opinion that the military is the only branch of government that can be trusted. “What does that say about the rest of us, that only the military can save us? Then we are in more trouble than I imagine.”

“There is a degree of being star-struck by generals, not just with Trump, but with America,” points out Sean McFate, a former paratrooper and National Defense University professor who believes the four-stars will be more easily confirmed by the Senate than anyone else. With Mattis, Trump gets to bolster his own lack of military and foreign-policy experience, and position someone in the Pentagon’s plush E-Ring who won’t be swallowed whole.

“[Trump] doesn’t want to get hoodwinked, and Mattis won’t get hoodwinked by the bureaucracy. This gives Trump street cred by association,” McFate offered.

That’s good for Trump, but McFate believes stacking his inner circle with combat generals makes for “horrible” foreign-policy optics. “These are all combat-veteran military men. They have spent the last decade and a half at war. It’s not impossible that other countries make look at this in a very threatening manner, particularly the appointment of Flynn, who once called Islamism ‘a vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people’ that ‘has to be excised.’”

Is Civilian Control Any Better?

Still, McFate, Desch, and others acknowledge that civilian policymakers haven’t exactly wrapped themselves in glory over the last 15 years, throwing into question whether the civilian-control doctrine, as Georgetown University professor Rosa Brooks puts it, “has become unmoored from its original purpose.”

For one thing, today’s U.S. military has elaborate internal checks and balances and a deeply ingrained respect for democracy and the rule of law. It’s difficult to imagine any active-duty general or group of officers, no matter how popular, persuading the troops to ignore or overturn the results of an election or a properly passed law. (That’s even truer for retired military officers. Technically, they are civilians. They can still give orders if they want to, but even the lowliest private is free to tell a retired general to take a hike, subject only to the constraints of courtesy.)

Brooks goes further, saying that in these modern times with blurred lines, when civilians are prosecuting wars and the military doing civilian work, “civilian control of the military” has “become a rule of aesthetics, not ethics, and its invocation is a soothing ritual that makes us feel better without accomplishing anything of value.”

“What bad things do we imagine would be more likely to happen if retired generals make up half of the next president’s cabinet?”

It was Colin Powell, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 1993, who unsuccessfully attempted to put some brakes on military force in Bosnia. He was outnumbered by President Clinton’s civilian national-security team. Later, as secretary of state, he admitted he was railroaded into using bad intelligence screened by Vice President Dick Cheney’s office to justify invading Iraq.

“I’m much more comfortable with General Mattis for secretary of defense than I would be with a Paul Wolfowitz or some other neoconservative who certainly would continue the same sort of policies that have unfortunately come to characterize our national security strategy for the last 20 years at least,” said Desch.

Sure, says McFate, “there are problems with civilian control as a sort of religious dogma,” with the the civilian drive to war in Iraq as the perfect example. But there must be a balance. “You don’t want to set a precedent that is going to haunt you in years to come.”

Still, as some remember, in Seven Days in May, it was Col. Jiggs Casey (played by Kirk Douglas)—not a civilian—who risked everything to drop the dime on a rogue general, thwarting a coup and saving country from constitutional crisis. If reality follows fiction, such courage will be welcome, whether the official exhibiting it has stripes on their sleeve or not.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, DC-based freelance reporter.

Should the 9/11 Lawsuits Proceed?

Surviving 9/11 victims, as well as the families and loved ones of those who died that day, say they have reams of evidence linking the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the al-Qaeda hijackers—and they want their day in court, which may result in billions of dollars in damages.

In addition, proponents say such a lawsuit would finally force accountability on the kingdom, which despite being a longtime ally of the U.S. had a role in the birth of Wahhabism, the extremist cornerstone of faith that inspired al-Qaeda in the first place. Funding for the spread of that strain of Islam across the Middle East and elsewhere has been traced to members of the House of Saud for decades. So has financing for terrorism.

Up until September, the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act (FSIA) appeared to preclude civil action in U.S. courts against a foreign government for acts of international terrorism unless strict requirements were met—the toughest being that the government in question had to be on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, which Saudi Arabia is not. There were also hurdles to pass under the Anti-Terrorism Act.

Nonetheless, some 9,000 civil lawsuits were filed on behalf of 9/11 victims. Those lawsuits have been locked in a back-and-forth battle between the victims and the Saudi defendants over whether the U.S. has jurisdiction, bouncing from the U.S. District Court of New York to the Second Circuit District of Appeals for over a decade. Sometimes the 9/11 victims have had the headwinds, other times the defendants, but there seemed to be no final word on whether these cases could go forward.

Until now. The Justice Against Terrorism Act (JASTA) passed with overwhelming bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate, and it became law in September when Congress overrode the president’s veto. It gives the plaintiffs their strongest tool yet to see these cases through to a long-awaited conclusion.

But is passing a law that chisels away the last vestiges of foreign-state immunity the best way to handle the grievances of the 9/11 loved ones? Will it spur reciprocal legislation by foreign governments, which may now feel emboldened to bring Washington to court for perceived crimes, like funding militia groups or rebels that have committed violent acts, a.k.a. “terrorism,” against their people?

Skepticism for the bill seems to come from all directions—particularly among the legal establishment, former diplomats, and administration officials. Even foreign leaders have weighed in, with French parliamentarian Pierre Lellouche saying JASTA “will cause a legal revolution in international law with major political consequences.”

President Barack Obama, whose administration lobbied Congress hard against JASTA, warned in his September veto message against taking the role of fighting international terrorism out of the hands of national-security officials and putting it into the judiciary’s lap. Specifically:

Removing sovereign immunity in U.S. courts from foreign governments that are not designated as state sponsors of terrorism, based solely on allegations that such foreign governments’ actions abroad had a connection to terrorism-related injuries on U.S. soil, threatens to undermine these longstanding principles that protect the United States, our forces, and our personnel.

Other critics, including a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Chas Freeman, have ridiculed JASTA as an empty political effort to placate the 9/11 victims and assuage anti-Saudi sentiment, noting that the final bill was massaged to put more restraints on damages and allow the State Department to put a “stay” on cases indefinitely if it can certify it is in “good faith discussions” with the defendant toward a resolution.

“I think it was a cheap, political shot,” Freeman told TAC, calling the Saudi lawsuits “a witch hunt.” “This is utterly irresponsible, and it brings great discredit to the United States and does nothing to help the people it is supposed to benefit, so what’s so good about it?”

Even so, he said, the new law brings the U.S. closer to the embrace of creeping international law. “There has been a trend toward breaking down sovereign immunity on human-rights issues and subjecting states to international court’s jurisdiction, and JASTA walks right into that,” Freeman claims.

In fact, in November, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, to which the U.S. is not a party, raised the possibility that members of the U.S. armed forces and the CIA could be indicted in that tribunal based on reports of detainee torture in Afghanistan and in secret overseas prisons.

In addition to creating “an open season for lawyers to go after foreign governments for compensation for actions they might or might not have been able to control,” says former CIA foreign-service officer and TAC contributor Phil Giraldi, JASTA “raises the specter of of the U.S. again being shown to hold double standards for itself and others as the federal government has consistently blocked any recourse to our courts for people we have tortured or renditions by citing state secrets privilege.” Therefore JASTA might further encourage targeted countries to “take reciprocal action against U.S. officers and government employees.”

But for the 9/11 loved ones and their lawyers supporting the bill, these are familiar arguments that just don’t ring true.

The Case for JASTA

Terry Strada’s kids were 7, 4, and 4 days old when her husband Thomas, a senior corporate bond trader at Cantor Fitzgerald, perished in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. She filed suit against the Saudi Royal Kingdom in 2002. Since 2009 she has worked on behalf of Pass JASTA, which represents thousands of 9/11 loved ones, with a core group of 25 who’ve traveled repeatedly to Washington to lobby Congress. It was not impulsive, she insists: the bill was rigorously deliberated over the course of seven years. It was crafted by members of Congress and their staffs, aired and vetted in at least three congressional hearings, and amended before passage.

“It’s a good bill that deserved to be passed,” she told TAC in an interview. “Families deserve justice, and we deserve the opportunity to hold the bankrollers accountable, and to stem the flow of money to terrorists in the future,” she added. She hopes JASTA will serve as a deterrent to terror financing, rather than a floodgate of litigation like the naysayers contend.

She said the 9/11 cases against Saudi Arabia were launched not only because 15 out of the 19 hijackers were Saudi, but because enough evidence has been uncovered to link the Royal Family to the hijackers and their supporters in al-Qaeda. She said the infamous 28 pages publicly released this summer are “only the tip of the iceberg.”

“Someday, if the lawsuits progress, we can get this all out in a courtroom,” she said. “That’s why the Saudis are fighting this so hard.”

“This law now requires the [Saudi] Kingdom to come in and defend itself against the civil allegations in the case after years of getting away with not doing so,” says attorney Robert Haefele, whose firm Motley Rice LLC represents at least 6,000 of the 9/11-related suits.

He disputes the notion that JASTA torpedoes the longstanding doctrine of sovereign immunity, pointing to exceptions to FSIA that already allow suits against foreign states, including some alleging state-sponsored terror, to proceed. JASTA would be one more exception—and an important one, signaling that the U.S. will not stand for covert funding of terrorist groups that cause injury and death on American soil.

“The claims that JASTA represents some kind of drastic departure from long-standing or sacrosanct notions of sovereignty rely largely on fear mongering and distorting the history of the principle,” challenged Haefele.

Writing for The National Interest, former Defense Department consultant Oleg Svet says JASTA “chips a small chunk away” from sovereign immunity, but he suggests the fear of retaliatory measures by other countries is “overblown”: “JASTA provides a legal pathway for potential American victims of terrorism, and, as importantly, sends a strong message to foreign governments considering whether or not to support anti-American militant groups in the future.”

Was the Final Bill Watered Down?

Indeed, the Saudi government is already working fast and furiously to upend the new law. According to reports, the kingdom has employed no fewer than 14 Washington firms—including the Clinton-linked Podesta Group—to keep the heat on Congress to tinker with it. But some suggest JASTA has already been watered down to the point it poses no threat.

In an article entitled “The Senate Killed JASTA, Then Passed It,” University of Texas law professor Steven Vladeck argued that in order to placate the bill’s critics, sponsor Sen. John Cornyn made it “much, much weaker.” Congress raised the bar for plaintiffs to prove a foreign state’s complicity in a terror attack, he notes. More significantly, as a result of deliberations with the State Department (which was very much against JASTA from the start), lawmakers included a “stay” amendment, allowing 180-day holds on cases with limitless extensions.

“The Cornyn substitute version of JASTA conveniently arms a judge who would rather not wade into a dispute with such thorny and fraught foreign-policy implications with an easy way to put that dispute on hold indefinitely,” Vladeck writes.

A spokeswoman for Cornyn’s office acknowledged to TAC that both Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) held up the legislation until changes were made. “This legislation has been pending really since 2009, and we’ve worked through it
with a number of members,” the spokesperson said, addressing “concerns that they have expressed along the way in order to modify the legislation and build the consensus that we now have achieved.”

Graham told reporters he was satisfied JASTA would help the victims pursue the justice they were seeking without making allies like Saudi Arabia more vulnerable. That May vote was unanimous, and the Senate voted 97-1 in September to override Obama’s veto. (The House voted 378-77 to override the veto.)

“As far as I’m concerned, the stay provision does not weaken the bill,” said Strada (of Pass JASTA), adding that the State Department had the ability to stay proceedings all along. “Here, we say it has to be done in good faith” and “in the light of day.”

She said the plaintiffs and the lawyers are happy with the final version and do not see the changes as an evisceration of its original intent. Similarly, Haefele acknowledges the bill was tightened to allay fears, but says it still gives victims the tools they need to bring their cases to court.

“If you had a stay and it could be indefinite, why would the president risk his one and only veto to override it?” Strada questioned. “There is something there.”

Are U.S. Military Forces Abroad Vulnerable Now?

Once the administration and the bill’s detractors exhausted all means to defeat the bill outright and it became law, a new narrative almost immediately emerged suggesting that members had sticker shock.

When pressed after the veto by reporters about whether JASTA would open doors to retaliatory measures against U.S. troops overseas, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested “it’s worth further discussion,” according to the The Hill, which also quoted House Speaker Paul Ryan as saying, “I would like to think there would be work done” to ensure troop protection.

This had been spurred by a letter to Cornyn from none other than Graham and Corker, who said they wanted to make changes during the lame-duck session in December. There were grumblings that the bill had never been debated on the House and Senate floors.

McConnell further expressed that “it seems to be a failure to communicate early about the potential consequences of a piece of legislation [that] was obviously very popular.”

This seems on its face to be disingenuous, considering that he and his Doubting Thomases in the Senate voted for the bill in May after the question about the vulnerability of the troops had been discussed and addressed.

Cornyn’s office makes that clear. In fact, the senator told reporters at the time that the way JASTA was written protects individuals and should not inspire reciprocal legislation overseas. “I do believe that there’s going to be some saber rattling, some threats, but I think that they are hollow,” Mr. Cornyn told the New York Times.

“In most cases when you read all these articles making these broad claims, nobody is sourcing where it is coming from. That is because they can’t. When you look at the language of the bill, it addresses the immunity of a foreign state, not the immunity of any individual,” said Haefele, because diplomats, consulate offices, and troops are protected under myriad international laws and treaties, including status-of-forces agreements and the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. “There is no risk.”

The critics “are wrong,” Strada said, “and it hurts to hear them says things like that. Congress would never vote 97 to 1 for anything that would put our troops at risk.”

Who Gets the Last Word?

Right now, the 9/11 families do, unless the senators make good on their threats to reopen the debate before the close of this Congress. (The chances of that appear slimmer by the day.) Meanwhile, Haefele and his team are shepherding some 6,000 of the cases forward together on a consolidated docket and an amended case is now headed back to the U.S. District Court.

At the same time, the U.S. State Department is allegedly working with Saudi officials to help “fix” the law. The Saudis threatened to release billions in U.S. assets in the event the law passed, and it is not clear whether they will follow through. We do know they could face billions of dollars in damages if the 9/11 plaintiffs ever win in court.

“We’re not even at the discovery stage yet. There is a substantial amount of evidence out there, a huge amount of evidence connecting the Kingdom to the 9/11 attacks,” said Haefele. “If not, why is the Kingdom so upset about this bill?”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, DC-based freelance reporter.

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