Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.
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.
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.
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.
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.
WASHINGTON—The documentary played over the large projection screen at the head of the room. From a distance it was like the chronology of any other military battle: A narrative with an auspicious beginning, unsung heroes, stubborn enemy, and a prize.
But in this case it was the intramural service fight in the Pentagon to get a particular tactical aircraft, the A-10, off the ground in the Pentagon. The prize was keeping the Air Force from retiring the plane after what seemed to be a 40-year effort to do so. The heroes were the guys who envisioned, built, and protected it from the boneyard all these years.
When Chuck Myers’ face first appeared on the screen there was a slight but palpable shift in the air hovering over the darkened conference room at the DC offices of the Project for Government Oversight. Myers was what Hollywood movies would call an irreplaceable member of the A-Team, known in this case as the “Fighter Mafia.” He passed away in May at age 91, and for some in the room earlier this month, it was the first time they’d seen his face since some of their previous conclaves there or at the Officers Club at Fort Myer.
There he was, a wizened WWII and Korean War combat flier, former test pilot, “bureaucratic guerilla warrior,” and A-10 godfather. Myers had done many, many rounds with the other services, particularly the Air Force, in defense of the close air support combat planes and lightweight fighters like the F-16 and F-18. He never retired from this mission. The film screened earlier this month, Against All Odds: The Story of the A-10, doesn’t capture all of the wonderful facets of Myers, but it provides a worthy entrance into the life of a man who long ago took the path of productive dissension within the military, and found comfort in his own skin doing so.
“He was a just a very dedicated person and he had enormous stamina. Physically and mentally, he was intense—I mean I talked to Chuck a maybe a week before he died, and this was before he had any sign of going into the hospital—and we were talking all about the military’s problems,” said James P. Stevenson, author of several books on fighter aircraft and the bureaucratic food fights around them. In The Pentagon Paradox: The Development of the F-18 Hornet, he introduces the Fighter Mafia, which also included math whiz and Pentagon analyst Tom Christie, aeronautics specialist Pierre Sprey, test pilot Col. Everest Riccioni, and strategist John Boyd, whose OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) Loop has made him a cult figure in a tightly bound community of scrappy Pentagon reformers.
“They had a moral compass that was always pointed at true north,” Stevenson added. “But with respect to spending taxpayers’ money, with respect to doing the best job to defend the United States, they are immovable. You could drop a million dollars in front of them and they would say, ‘get out of my way.’”
Two things appeared to motivate Myers and the rest of the Fighter Mafia crew, and they were not mutually exclusive: Keeping close air support programs like the A-10 alive, and keeping Pentagon procurement and acquisitions honest. They believe the “grunts on the ground,” need to be protected in combat, and they have always discerned, from the very beginning, an almost unholy alliance between the military bureaucracy and defense contractors to make costly planes and weapons systems at the expense of safety and tactical effectiveness. Not everyone agrees with them of course, and for some time the Air Force has been attempting to retire the A-10 (so far, unsuccessfully) in favor of its more all-purpose fighter, the F-35. But these guys have been rallying for the underdogs in such a methodical, relentless manner, that they have become unlikely icons of a much larger narrative.
“They are all superstars as far as I’m concerned,” Stevenson told TAC. Myers, he said, had a particular disdain for how the sausage was made, at one point likening contractors to prostitutes. “What is the difference between a prostitute and contractor?” he asked. “For one thing, a prostitute can do all the things contractors can’t deliver.”
For Myers, the fight for close air support for was born out of his own experience as an Army Forces fighter pilot during World War II. At the young age of 19 he flew B-25s in low-level attack missions against the Japanese. During the Korean War he flew F9F Panther jets for the Navy.
“From [WWII] on, Chuck always felt that the fighting guy on the ground was getting screwed and he was seeing the fighter pilots were being screwed from bad airplanes in the air. It was solidarity with the pilots and grunts—it was that simple,” offered Pierre Sprey.
Sprey was one of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s “whiz kids” who eventually became a self-described subversive in the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s systems analyses realm. Along with Christie and Boyd, he met Myers sometime around 1964, before Myers worked in the Pentagon.
“He was one of the earliest proponents of what we were doing with the lightweight fighter,” Sprey told TAC. He said in those early years, when Myers was working for Lockheed, he “had an interesting way of not becoming a complete shill.”
Of course, as a former test pilot, Myers was the only flier in the group, and brought with him access to an entire culture of experienced pilots and practical knowledge of air combat. Myers went to Navy Test Pilot School after Korea and graduated in 1954 in a class that included future astronaut John Glenn. He made his mark by setting the world record in 1960 for flying a Delta Dart 1,544 miles an hour, and later helped form the the Society of Experimental Test Pilots.
“He had an extraordinarily interesting group of test pilot friends with combat backgrounds,” Sprey recalled, all of whom were working either in the Pentagon or the aerospace industry at the time.
“He was full of endless war stories, all of which were true,” said Sprey, who recalled how, when selling his concepts, Myers would take people out on an aerobatic airplane on his 600-acre Flying M Stock Farm in Gordonsville, Va.
“He’d show them what the ground looked like from the sky, he’d show them how hard it was to see anything from an airplane,” he said, noting the many “convivial seminars” they’d have out on the working farm.
“I was always much more confrontational,” he added, “but Chuck had a nice way of reaching out to people and getting his points across.”
After he left private industry to start his own consulting business in the late 1960s, Myers had the opportunity to join the Pentagon ranks and make a real difference in the services’ thinking about close air support and mission-specific aircraft. He was offered the position of Director of Air Warfare in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD procurement) in 1973. With his comrade in arms Christie in the TacAir shop (systems analysis) in the OSD, they had the ear of the secretary and the ability to get things done.
“Chuck and I teamed up to keep close watch on budget preparation and execution processes, stepping in to restore funding when the Air Force and their allies” attempted to remove it from their lightweight fighter and the A-10 prototype (A-X) programs, Christie told TAC.
“Chuck was critical in these continuing fights,” he noted. “If he had not been in that position … during those critical years between late 1973 and 1975, I am convinced we would have seen the LWF bite the dust and the A-X go down the tubes. He had the complete trust of (then Secretary) Jim Schlesinger, which did not endear him to” the Air Force leadership or many of his colleagues.
“He was a pretty much a maverick,” but he had the ability to make allies and sell these programs inside the establishment, said Sprey. “Chuck was staunch on these concepts,” but “in his nice, non-confrontational way, he got people in R&D on board who would normally be against it.”
After Schlesinger left the “long knives” came out for the A-10 and the F-16, but by that time both programs were well on their way to reality. Myers also left his mark on the future F-18.
That was the mid-70s—a generation ago. But Myers and his “cabal” continued for four decades to protect the A-10 and help build better planes aligned with their core interests—which became more and more divergent from that of the services. Amazing advances in radar communications and weapons systems have made planes more technical, all-purpose, and complex—and more expensive. They like to point to the troubled F-35 as a prime example.
During this time, Myers embarked on many personal projects and worked with Air Force and Marine officers who follow the Fighter Mafia code and John Boyd’s philosophies. The group, now far from the Mad Men days, are tight as ever, meeting in Arlington in the shadow of the Pentagon, and, until his death, at Myers’ farm where he lived with his wife of many years, Sallie.
But now they have acolytes: Vietnam, Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan War veterans, as well as active duty and reserve officers and pilots. To see the reverence of the younger men and women in the room at the recent movie screening indicates that the message of that cabal has maintained its salience as the services fight over billions in defense dollars today.
“I don’t know anywhere else to go to find a group more dedicated to making things better,” Myers told this reporter a little more than three years ago.
“He was just a special person,” said Stevenson, who was bequeathed the gold watch Myers got from Convair when he beat the world record for a single-engine jet aircraft with the Delta Dart. The Air Force gave the official recognition to a service pilot who fell slightly short of Myers’ speed because during the Cold War, a uniformed officer made for a better story. Over the years, that watch had become a metaphor for hand-in-glove cynicism, where the military and the defense industry worked together to advance themselves, often at the expense of merit and the truth.
Chuck Myers “was primus inter pares,” said Stevenson, “first among equals.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, DC-based freelance reporter.
WASHINGTON—Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has asserted several times, and quite vociferously, that there will be “no American ground troops in Syria” if she is elected president in November.
While the definition of “ground troops” is flexible, there is a second reality that very few people are talking about in Washington today.
Not unlike the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—where private military contractors fed, trained, equipped, and protected U.S. military forces “on the ground” in unprecedented numbers—an escalation of hired security forces in a hot spot like Syria would likely boost the presence of U.S. “boots” without causing the political heartburn of putting more actual soldiers and Marines in harm’s way.
In fact, it may already be happening.
Over the summer, a no-bid contract was reportedly awarded to Six3 Intelligence Solutions, a company based in McLean, Va., which in 2014 was acquired by major defense-industry player CACI International. The $10 million award, according to an otherwise pedestrian Pentagon notice, was for “intelligence analysis services” to be performed “in Germany, Italy, and Syria.” It was probably the first sliver of proof that U.S. contractors are actually operating there, despite persistent evasions by military officials.
“I don’t know if there are any contractors in Syria but I suspect there are a lot. We just can’t sustain military operations today without the private sector. We are strategically dependent on the private sector,” said author Sean McFate, also an Army special-forces veteran and assistant professor at the National Defense University.
When asked about the Six3 contract—what it’s for, how many contractors would be in Syria working under it—Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. David S. Hylton said the Syria part of the notice was “a mistake” and has been since amended.
“The Performance Work Statement (PWS) for the contract states that ‘support is required at multiple locations to include fixed sites in Central Europe (Germany and Italy), possible future fixed sites in Eastern Europe (e.g., Bulgaria, Romania, Poland), in deployed contingency operations areas to include the Balkans, and other contingency areas,’” said Hylton. The contract is on on behalf of U.S. Army Europe and “intended to provide … intelligence analysis, operations and planning, security support, and information systems operation, maintenance and sustainment.”
“The PWS does not contain the word Syria, nor does it make any reference that would directly lead to Syria, e.g., the Levant, counter-ISIL, Assad,” Hylton added.
McFate said he was told by other reporters about the “error” in the notice. “I’ve been watching these things for 20 years—I’ve never seen a ‘mistake’ like this.”
The Pentagon did provide quarterly numbers on the private forces currently in Afghanistan and Iraq, but when asked how many, if any, contractors are in Syria at this time, officials did not respond.
Meanwhile the White House has authorized the deployment of 300 U.S. Special Operations Forces to Syria, 40 of which were reportedly sent to Northern Syria with Turkish troops and “vetted Syrian opposition forces” on an ISIS clearing mission in September.
“Operation Noble Lance,” as it has been dubbed, would continue the ongoing “advising, assisting and training” mission the U.S. has conducted with so-called moderate Syrian rebel forces and anti-ISIS Kurdish and Arab fighters, according to the Pentagon.
But it appears, according to The Hill, that we don’t really know how many troops are really there either, or even in Iraq right now.
Secretary of State Ash Carter announced the addition of 600 more troops to Iraq in September, bringing the official number there up to about 5,000. However, that doesn’t count the “temporary” forces that may drift in and out of the Area of Operations (AOR), and it certainly doesn’t include contractors, writes reporter Kristina Wong.
“The issue has become a sticking point, with critics pressing the Pentagon for more transparency,” said Wong, who was told there were upwards of 900 additional “temporary” troops on the ground in Iraq that “tend to run around.” There is no clue on how many temps are “running around” Syria at this time.
“Some worry that officials are hiding the deepening U.S. involvement in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” she added, quoting an Army colonel who cited “orders” for not giving out anything beyond the official “force management” figures.
“There’s been a decision made not to release that number,” said spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren, back in March. “The number that we release is our force management level. … I don’t have a reason for not releasing this number other than it’s the orders that I’m under.”
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr. tried to soften those words a bit later, saying the military wasn’t reluctant to release more, but has done things this way for 15 years.
If nailing down the number of troops is hard, the extent of the contractor force may never be known, particularly in Syria.
But if recent history is any indication, as the footprint grows, so will the private shadow army, said McFate. His book, The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What they Mean for World Order, argues that a global industry has been unleashed by the American reliance on the hired guns overseas since 9/11. It is unstoppable, partly because militaries like the U.S.’s have become so dependent on it. Private contractors also offer a cloak of deniability, and frankly, the ability to operate outside of institutional laws and boundaries.
“There is no oversight, no tracking mechanisms,” said McFate. “Obama pledged to hold this industry accountable, and did nothing about it—the lack of response is a story in itself.”
In fact, Foreign Policy writer Micah Zenko argued, the rise of the contractor to wage America’s military operations is Obama’s silent national-security legacy, with more dead contractors on his watch (1,540 as of March) and little or no transparency about who these contractors are and what they do.
He scoffed at Obama’s insistence that he has pursued a “light U.S. footprint” across these conflict zones. “Were it not for these contractors, Obama’s ‘light footprint’ would suddenly be two or three times as large,” Zenko wrote.
Neil Gordon, a contracting expert for the Project on Government Oversight, agrees. “It’s the classic dodge—here we are shrinking the size of the government when in reality it is all being made up by contractors.”
Meanwhile, McFate likes to describe it as a largely unregulated, Wild West atmosphere in which soldiers of fortune for both Uncle Sam and private corporations protecting interests intermingle in hot zones like Iraq.
“We have contractors and mercenaries all over Northern Iraq, operating out of Erbil, some doing oil protection, others training with Peshmerga, some are basically adventurists trying to do their own thing out there,” McFate said. “Erbil is sort of like that bar in Star Wars, the Mos Eisley Cantina; it’s on the edge of civilization, it’s full of weird people, and a lot of them are armed.”
CACI did not return a request for comment about its work in Syria or otherwise. We do know from a Bloomberg business snapshot that Six3 provides, in part, “identity intelligence and biometrics, forensics and analysis, counterintelligence operations support, HUMINT operations support, anti-terrorism and force protection, diplomatic security support, consulting and policy development, and analytic transformation.”
McFate, who after leaving the Army worked for DynCorp International—helping raise an army for Liberia in 2004 and other missions—has some idea of what they might be doing if they are indeed in the war zone. “They are probably conducting HUMINT, which means interrogation support,” he said, pointing out CACI’s role in the interrogations at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. (CACI has fought back against lawsuits, but its connection remains part of the sordid story.) “Or they are facilitating on-the-ground intelligence.”
In addition, no one knows how many contractors might be working for the CIA in Syria or anywhere else, because that information is classified.
We do know that the number of private military contractors in Iraq has soared since 2015. At the beginning of the year there were 250, according to CENTCOM data. (CENTCOM, which covers the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, is the only geographic command that currently releases such data.) As of July of this year there were 2,485.
In Afghanistan, where there are supposedly around 9,800 U.S. military left in the country, there were 26,435 contractors as of July, nearly three times as many “boots on the ground.” Of that number, 8,837 were listed as U.S. citizens, 5,774 as third-country nationals, and 11,824 as Afghans.
In Iraq, 1,605 of the contractors were American in July; 528 were third-party nationals, and 352 were Iraqis.
In addition to Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. deployed 13,774 contractors in “other CENTCOM locations.”
According to a report by Defense One earlier this year, there were an additional 5,800 contractors working in Iraq for other agencies, including the State Department, as of February.
Of course, not all contractors are hired guns. The majority in Iraq as of this summer, for example, were logistics and maintenance contractors, followed by translators, construction, transportation, and management, and then security professionals—of which there were 142. “Intelligence services” weren’t listed, but there were 62 people categorized under “other.”
But what the breakdown shows—and it is similar for Afghanistan—is that nearly every level of what we would consider military operations has been farmed out. “I think that is the model … all roads lead to contracting,” said McFate, “because ultimately, you have these very ambitious strategic objectives, and you have American people who want to achieve, but they don’t want to bleed.”
Choosing to use contractors to stave off the difficult decision to put troops in harm’s way “circumvents democratic accountability of the armed forces,” he charged.
Ironically, Russia has also been suspected of using private forces to advance the war against anti-Assad rebels in Syria. According to Mark Galeotti in War on the Rocks back in April, “Much of the confusion about the scale and nature of Russia’s direct commitment on the ground probably reflects the presence of both state and private forces, with each having their own deniable components.”
Sounds familiar, said McFate. “We launched this,” he said, calling it a global, “subterranean trend.”
“A lot of the insiders in Washington are in denial about this. They think private contracting ended with the wars, but they are deeply ignorant about what’s going on.”
The key is to watch how the next president deals with the pressure to get more involved in Syria come next year. Continue to keep an eye on the quarterly reports from DoD and press for the full story, he said, guessing the number of contractors would be rising steadily.
Contractors don’t count as “boots on the ground,” he reminded this reporter. “Americans don’t care about dead contractors the way they do about dead soldiers.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, DC-based freelance reporter.
WASHINGTON—After the June 28 attack that killed 45 people at Turkey’s Ataturk airport in Istanbul, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, never afraid to take his rhetoric up a notch, reiterated his call for torturing suspected terrorists. “We’re going to have to do things that are unthinkable almost,” he told a New Hampshire television reporter.
This came after he had suggested in March—before reversing himself—that families of terrorists might be tortured, too. Following a backlash in the press, Trump assured voters during the contentious Republican primaries that he would not ask anyone to break the law in order to torture. But he also said he would “strengthen the laws so that we can better compete” with the tactics of the Islamic State.
Then, just after the attack in Turkey, Trump said in an Ohio campaign appearance that eliminating practices like waterboarding—which President Obama did when he strengthened the ban on torture in 2009, and which Congress reinforced in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2016—was a sign of weakness: “Can you imagine [ISIS fighters] sitting around the table or wherever they’re eating their dinner, talking about the Americans don’t do waterboarding and yet we chop off heads? They probably think we’re weak, we’re stupid, we don’t know what we’re doing, we have no leadership. You know, you have to fight fire with fire.”
He told CNN around the same time that he intended to “change our law on, you know, the waterboarding thing,” in order to “be able to fight at least on an almost equal basis.”
On this front, the American people appear to be with Trump. In March, amid terrorism attacks in Europe, and with the San Bernardino massacre still fresh on everyone’s minds, two-thirds of respondents in a Reuters/Ipsos poll said that torturing suspects could be justified “to obtain information about terrorism.” Some 82 percent of Republicans agreed; 53 percent of Democrats, too. Only 15 percent of respondents said torture was never justified.
This follows years of similar polling in which Americans have signaled their approval of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including methods such as waterboarding. But it wasn’t always that way. In polling conducted in 2005, Americans had reservations about specific practices—including waterboarding—and disapproved in much greater numbers, according to Gallup.
“The public polling depends very heavily on the way the question is phrased,” says Katherine Hawkins, senior counsel at the Constitution Project, which has been on the forefront of the legal fight against detainee torture and abuse. Yet lately “there have been some polls that show pretty disturbingly high levels of support for torture.”
So the stage is set as the country prepares to turn the White House over to a new commander in chief in January. Trump clearly thinks that current events bolster his tough talk on the campaign trail. “I am the law-and-order candidate,” he insisted at one press event. He toggles easily between threats: ISIS terrorists, undocumented Hispanic criminals, lone gunmen picking off police in the streets. Trump will deal with them all with a swift blow of force. Strength, he has said numerous times, is the only language the enemy knows. And for ISIS, waterboarding is “not nearly tough enough, okay?”
If this is more than red meat for the base—if Trump is serious about turning back time to the days after 9/11, when White House lawyers wrote the infamous “torture memos” to help ensure government officials could not be charged with war crimes for the way they were interrogating detainees—then he better prepare for some real bureaucratic resistance, Beltway-style. He’ll find a much more complicated landscape in official Washington today, one filled with lawsuits, never-ending investigations, a number of high-level military and CIA officials wary of scrutiny, and political winds in the nation’s capital that appear—at least for now—to favor keeping things the way they are.
“You have serious players like [CIA Director] John Brennan saying that if they got orders to re-institute torture policies then they would refuse to follow them,” notes John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer who turned against waterboarding and paid the price. Kiriakou went to prison for two years for confirming to a journalist the name of an agent who was involved with torture. Today he is an outspoken critic of the CIA’s role in employing enhanced interrogation techniques during the War on Terror.
Brennan has said publicly that there will be no more waterboarding under his watch. Former CIA Director Michael Hayden has taken the same line, telling the media: “If any future president wants CIA to waterboard anybody, he better bring his own bucket, because CIA officers aren’t going to do it. Multiple investigations, grand juries, presidential condemnations, and congressional star chambers have a way of doing that to you.”
Also opposing a return to torture is former CIA Director David Petraeus, who ironically was a commander of the multinational forces in Iraq during the period in which Joint Special Operations Command was operating its own secret interrogation sites, including the infamous Camp Nama. Petraeus has pointed to blowback against the interrogation techniques used in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, techniques that went beyond what is sanctioned in the Army Field Manual, which bans “use of force, mental torture, threats, insults, or exposure to unpleasant and inhumane treatment of any kind.” (These restrictions were extended to the rest of the government, including the CIA, under President Obama’s 2009 Executive Order 13491, which requires that all U.S. policy and practice be consistent with these standards, as well as those outlined in other federal laws and under the Geneva Convention.)
“It is nonbiodegradable. It took place there. It is never going away,” Petraeus said of Abu Ghraib in 2014. “It’s always on the Internet and it causes problems to this day.” He has also stood squarely with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former POW, against waterboarding.
So has retired Marine Gen. James Jones, a former Marine Corps commandant, who came out against the practice for the first time after Trump repeated his desire to see it reinstituted. “There is such a thing as an illegal order, and I deeply believe in the Geneva Conventions,” he said at the Bipartisan Policy Center in late June.
Though he doesn’t trust the system, Kiriakou guesses that the security establishment is as wary of Trump’s exhortations on the campaign trail as he is himself. “Maybe they would refuse to [torture] for altruistic reasons, but more likely they would refuse to do it because they are students of history. They won’t want to have to take the fall.”
“Within the CIA, there are still many people who participated in and continue to defend the torture program—but there may at least be a sense that the risks of disclosure and investigation outweigh the benefits,” added the Constitution Project’s Hawkins.
The Senate, led in part by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, has engaged the CIA in a rigorous, years-long inquiry into the agency’s practices after the 9/11 attacks, culminating in a 6,700-page report completed in 2014. The 525-page executive summary—the only part of the report that has been released publicly—reveals a shocking degree of what could only be described as torture by the CIA. Furthermore, it concludes that such practices did not elicit any actionable intelligence that could not have been gleaned through other, less coercive means.
The summary describes beatings, sexual threats, intense waterboarding, black sites, and, yes, “rectal feeding.” The committee concluded that this was going on under the noses of Congress, the Justice Department, the White House, and cabinet heads. According to the report, the CIA lied to each of these authorities about what it was doing and about how ineffective enhanced interrogation techniques were overall.
The full report has yet to be made public, despite Freedom of Information Act requests. It was sent to all pertinent agency heads, including the White House and the CIA, but no one knows who, if anyone, has actually read the entire thing. This spring, it was reported that the CIA inspector general’s copy had been “mistakenly” destroyed. This came on the heels of a year-long fight between Feinstein and Brennan over the CIA’s spying on Senate computers, and counterattacks by the CIA that the committee had grabbed material out of the agency’s own files.
The back-and-forth may have sucked the life out of the real issue—torture—but Hawkins says the committee is still working on the fight, and groups like her own and the American Civil Liberties Union keep pushing for more of the report to be released.
“It was definitely helpful,” says Marcy Wheeler, an independent national-security journalist who runs the popular blog Emptywheel, in an email interview. “Even just the details, like introducing ‘rectal feeding,’ revealed new details about how sadistic and wanton the program was.” Yet so much more has been held back, including documents that might have implicated the presidency. “Without more transparency on that, we won’t really be able to prevent the return of torture,” she charges.
Still, the release of the summary emboldened bipartisan critics and sparked legislative action in the typically gridlocked Congress. Senator McCain said at the time of its release that the report confirmed much of what he always believed was American “torture” policy, but he was particularly enraged that the CIA was holding back on the plain truth, that enhanced interrogation techniques were never that effective.
“What might come as a surprise, not just to our enemies, but to many Americans, is how little these practices did to aid our efforts to bring 9/11 culprits to justice and to find and prevent terrorist attacks today and tomorrow,” he said in a Senate floor statement in December 2014. “That could be a real surprise, since it contradicts the many assurances provided by intelligence officials on the record and in private that enhanced interrogation techniques were indispensable in the war against terrorism.”
He and Senator Feinstein proposed, and easily passed, an amendment to the NDAA that limits all interrogation techniques by anyone in the U.S. government to what is already outlined in the Army Field Manual. It was signed by the president last year.
Without perpetrators actually being punished for torture, there is always a danger of it sneaking back into policy, warns Kiriakou. “I think everybody got a pass and I think we’re past the Bush torture program, I don’t think anyone is going to take the fall,” he says.
There have been incremental steps toward justice. Beyond the Senate’s torture report, more recently a federal court has allowed a landmark lawsuit to proceed against two psychologists who were contracted by the CIA to implement its torture program. The ACLU has brought the suit on behalf of two survivors of the program and the family of another man who died at a CIA black site.
The two former military psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, recently admitted in court filings that they administered techniques such as “walling”—grabbing someone by the collar and slamming him into a wall—facial and abdominal slaps, facial holds, sleep deprivation, and waterboarding to the CIA’s first high-profile detainee, Abu Zubaydah, whom we know from the Senate’s report was waterboarded a total of 83 times in one month. The men also admitted to confining him to a box the size of a coffin. This was the first time that individuals connected to the CIA program were forced to reveal their actions in court. They admit they were paid a total of $81 million by the agency for the work.
But those who follow the torture issue aren’t so naïve as to think the government has fully learned its lessons. Abuses continue. As Hawkins points out, Obama’s 2009 directive ended the CIA’s secret prisons overseas, otherwise known as black sites, but it did not legally address the practice of handing over prisoners to other countries for interrogation, which is known as rendition. “Under the Obama administration, transfers of detainees to countries with poor human-rights records have continued, largely under the radar,” she says. “There have been some attempts to obtain meaningful assurances of humane treatment and monitor compliance, but these have been uneven, and a future administration seeking torture loopholes could easily abandon them.”
Which brings us back to Trump’s vow to “strengthen the laws so that we can better compete” with ISIS’s brutal tactics. Right now, the letter of the law is against torture, and Congress does not seem inclined to loosen restrictions explicitly. But as we saw with the parsing of language during the Bush administration—i.e., the John Yoo memos—eager officials often see the law as pliable.
“Consider how few people realize that near-drowning was also used by CIA, dubbed ‘dousing,’ and achieved roughly the same effect” as waterboarding, says Wheeler. “They could do it pretty easily. Just name it something different.”
When asked about Hillary Clinton, who is known as a hawk in the realm of war and counterterrorism, Wheeler says the Democratic nominee would “be every bit as fond of covert operations—if not more so, because she knows more about past ones—as Trump. And those tend to lead to dark places and proxy horrors.”
“Will that include stuff called torture?” Wheeler asks. “Probably, though remotely distanced from U.S. actions.”
Kiriakou says he fails to see hope for much change on the horizon for counterterrorism policy overall: “I’ve always believed that the Obama military and national-security policy was just an extension of the Bush policy, and either Clinton or Trump will simply be a continuation of Obama.” But the CIA interrogation program the way he knew it in the early days following 9/11? That, he believes, might be a bridge too far for even the loudest chest-thumpers.
“I can’t help think that Trump is smarter than [his torture rhetoric], that he is just doing it to appeal to his base,” Kiriakou says. “He’s just too smart to reinstitute a failed and illegal policy.”
Only time, and the outcome of the election, will tell.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, DC-based freelance reporter.
According to evolving campaign lore, Donald Trump’s son called failed Republican candidate John Kasich ahead of Trump’s VP pick in July and told him he could be “the most powerful vice president” ever—in charge of foreign policy, and domestic too—if he agreed to come on board.
While Trump’s people have denied such a lavish entreaty ever occurred, it has become a powerful political meme: the Republican nominee’s lack of experience would force him to default to others, particularly on the international front, which is a never-ending series of flash points dotting Europe, Asia, and the Middle East like a child’s Lite Brite.
On the Democratic side there is no such concern—Hillary Clinton has plenty of experience as a senator and secretary of state, and was a “two-for-one” first lady who not only took part (unsuccessfully) in the domestic health-care debate, but passionately advocated (successfully) for the bombing campaigns in Bosnia and Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
So what of Trump and Clinton’s vice-presidential picks? For starters, they are both hawkish.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence was an apt pupil of Bush and Cheney during the neoconservative years, voting for the Iraq War in 2002 and serving as one of David Petraeus’s cheerleaders in favor of the 2007 surge. He has since supported every intervention his fellow Republicans did, even giving early praise to Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration for the 2011 intervention in Libya.
On the other side, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine is as far from the Bernie Sanders mold as they come: a centrist Democrat who supports a muscular, liberal-interventionist foreign policy, and who has been pushing for greater intervention in Syria, just like Hillary Clinton.
If veeps do matter—and as we saw with Dick Cheney, in many ways they can, bigtime—the non-interventionists can expect nothing but the status quo when it comes to war policy and the war machine at home for the next four years. Under the right conditions, Pence would help drag Trump to the right on war and defense, and Kaine would do nothing but bolster Clinton’s already hawkish views on a host of issues, including those involving Syria, Russia, the Middle East, and China.
If anything, Pence could end up having more influence in the White House, said Bonnie Kristian, a writer and fellow at Defense Priorities, in an interview with TAC. “With these two campaigns, I would predict that Pence would have more of a chance of playing a bigger role [in the presidency] than Tim Kaine does,” she offered. Pence could bring to bear a dozen years of experience as a pro-war congressman, including two years on the foreign-affairs committee. “He’s been a pretty typical Republican on foreign policy and has a lot of neoconservative impulses. I don’t think we could expect anything different,” she added.
For his part, Trump “has been all over the place” on foreign policy, she said, and while his talk about restraint and Iraq being a failure appeals to her and others who would like to see America’s overseas operations scaled back, his bench of close advisors is not encouraging. Walid Phares, Gen. Michael Flynn, Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani: along with Pence, all could fit like neat little pieces into the Bush-administration puzzle circa 2003, and none has ever expressed the same disregard for the Bush and Obama war policies as Trump has on the campaign trail.
“On one hand, [Trump] has referred to the war in Iraq and regime change as bad and nation-building as bad, but at the same time he has no ideological grounding,” said Jack Hunter, politics editor at Rare. If Trump leaves the policymaking up to others, including Pence, “that doesn’t bode well for those who think the last Republican administration was too hawkish and did not exhibit restraint.”
Pence, Kristian reminds us, gave a speech just last year at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in which he called for a massive increase in military spending. “It is imperative that conservatives again embrace America’s role as leader of the free world and the arsenal of democracy,” Pence said, predicting then that 2016 would be a “foreign-policy election.”
“He embraces wholeheartedly a future in which America polices the world—forever—refusing to reorient our foreign policy away from nation-building and toward restraint, diplomacy and free trade to ensure U.S. security,” Kristian wrote in The Hill back when Pence accepted his place on the Trump ticket in July. Since then, he has muted his support for Iraq (Trump has said Pence’s 2003 vote doesn’t matter, even calling it “a mistake”). Clearly the two men prefer to meet on the issue of Islamic threats and the promise of “rebuilding the military,” areas where they have been equally enthusiastic.
Meanwhile, former Bernie Sanders supporters should be rather underwhelmed with Kaine on national-security policy. On one hand, writers rush to point out that Kaine split with President Obama and Hillary Clinton just a few years ago, arguing the administration could not continue to use the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria. He also proposed legislation with Sen. John McCain to update the War Powers Act; the bill would have required the president to consult with Congress when starting a war, and Congress to vote on any war within seven days of military action. That would tighten the constitutional responsibilities of both branches, the senators said in 2013.
On the War Powers Act, Kaine gets points with constitutionalists like University of Texas law professor Steven Vladeck, who said Kaine’s effort “recognizes, as we all should, the broader problems with the War Powers Resolution as currently written—and with the contemporary separation of war powers between Congress and the executive branch.” But on the issue of the AUMF, Vladeck and others have not been so keen on Kaine.
Kaine has made two proposals relating to the AUMF, and both would leave the door open to extended overseas military combat operations—including air strikes, raids, and assassinations—without a specific declaration of war. The first directs the president to modify or repeal the 2001 AUMF “by September 2017”; the second, authored with Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, keeps the 2001 AUMF but updates the 2002 AUMF used to attack Iraq to include ISIS.
A revised AUMF is likely to do precisely what the Bush administration sought to do in the run-up to the Iraq War: codify a dangerous unilateral theory of preemptive war, and provide a veneer of legality for an open-ended conflict against an endlessly expanding list of targets.
While he might be applauded for trying to strengthen “the rule of law on foreign policy,” said Kristian, it’s not clear he wants to do it “to scale back these interventions.” As a member of both the armed-services and foreign-relations committees, he has already argued for greater intervention in Syria, calling for “humanitarian zones”—which, like “no-fly zones” and “no-bombing zones,” mean the U.S. better be ready to tangle with the Syrian president and Russia as well as ISIS.
Plus, when Kaine was running for his Senate seat in 2011, and Obama—with Clinton’s urging—was in the midst of a coalition bombing campaign in Libya, Kaine was much more noncommittal when it came to the War Powers Act, saying Obama had a “good rationale” for going in. When asked if he believed the War Powers Act legally bound the president to get congressional approval to continue operations there, he said, “I’m not a lawyer on that.”
If anything, Kaine will serve as a reliable backup to a president who is perfectly willing to use military force to promote “democracy” overseas. He neither softens Clinton’s edges on military and war, nor is necessary to sharpen them. “Does Tim Kaine change [any dynamic]? I don’t think so,” said Hunter, adding, “I can’t imagine he is as hawkish as her on foreign policy—she is the worst of the worst.”
So when it comes to veep picks, the value is in the eye of the beholder. “If you are a conservative and you don’t think Trump is hawkish enough, you will like it that Pence is there,” notes Hunter. On the other hand, if you like Trump’s attitude on the messes overseas—preferring diplomacy over destruction, as he said in his speech Wednesday—Pence might make you think twice, added Kristian. “I’m not sure Pence is going to further those inclinations, if indeed they do exist.”
To make it more complicated, the American public is unsure how it wants to proceed overseas anyway. While a majority favor airstrikes and sending in special-operations groups to fight ISIS in Syria, only a minority want to insert combat troops or even fund anti-Assad groups, according to an August poll. A slim majority—52 percent—want to establish no-fly zones. Yet only 31 percent want to see a deal that would keep Bashar Assad in power.
A tall order for any White House.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter.
In a seemingly full-throated promise to voters in Scranton, Pa. on Monday, Hillary Clinton said adding “American ground troops” in the war against ISIS in Syria “is off the table.”
But every message coming from her surrogates in the media and in the Washington defense establishment has been that she will “lean in” harder in Syria, and whether you want to call it “added ground troops” or something else, everyone in her orbit is calling for expanded U.S. intervention—including personnel and firepower—in the region, even at the risk of confrontation with Russia.
For weeks, a parade of high-stepping national-security officials—some barely out of government service—have been rattling their sabers passionately for a Hillary Clinton presidency. From Michael Vickers, a former intelligence official most celebrated for his promotion of hunt-to-kill operations in the War on Terror, to (Ret.) Gen. John Allen and ex-CIA Chief Mike Morrell, there is a growing backbench of Washington establishment macho men—and women—who testify to Clinton’s “run it up the gut” security chops, and more than one has noted her well-publicized break with President Obama on Syria. She, of course, having been more hawkish than the other from the start.
Her advisors say Syria will take top priority in her first days in office, and, in addition to ISIS, President Bashar Assad must go. So it is important to examine what a real Clinton Syria policy might look like despite her rhetoric on the campaign trail.
There are three things to look at:
1 . What Clinton’s shadow national-security team—specifically her likely defense secretary, Michele Flournoy, and the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), which was founded in anticipation of Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid—have said on the subject.
2 .What Clinton’s campaign and foreign-policy surrogates are saying.
3. The neoconservative refugees from the Republican Party who have thrown their influence behind Clinton.
Flournoy is no stranger to the national-security establishment. Harvard-educated, she went from the ivory tower to Bill Clinton’s first-term administration, where she served in strategic-policy roles in the Pentagon. During the Bush administration, she toiled in the National Defense University as an instructor and entered the think tank world before launching CNAS with Kurt Cambpell. With CNAS, she hoped to advance Clinton’s candidacy around the idea that the flagging war in Afghanistan could be turned around with the same counterinsurgency (COIN) policies that Gen. David Petraeus had “successfully” executed in Iraq.
When Obama won the Democratic nomination instead, the think tank deftly adjusted. Flournoy and Campbell eventually scooped up key posts in the Pentagon and State Department. She was the third-highest-ranking civilian in the Pentagon before leaving service in 2012. COIN withered on the vine as Afghanistan became a greater quagmire.
Flournoy took herself out of the running to replace retiring Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in 2014. Speculation abounds, but most believe she was keeping her powder dry for Clinton.
Flournoy now wears many hats, and one of them is as a national-security advisor to Clinton. And whatever she may have said to the contrary, the CNAS reports she helps to cultivate specifically advocate additional U.S. personnel in the region for combat purposes, in addition to new airstrikes and direct conflict with Assad forces as well as ISIS.
To be exact: “Military commanders on the ground should be authorized to conduct direct-action raids in Iraq and Syria in order to degrade ISIS’ ability to plot external attacks, and sufficient resources should be authorized to carry out and support these operations.” The report that sentence comes from, released in June, was written by a CNAS study group headed by Flournoy. It calls not for a “fundamental shift in current U.S. strategy,” but “some course corrections.” “Most importantly, it means a willingness to lean further forward in the types of military action the United States would take in this territory,” it explained.
While the emphasis is on arming and training local opposition forces (a strategy that was proposed but did not work so well in Afghanistan, and ultimately also Iraq), it calls for the creation of “no bomb zones” in opposition-held parts of Syria to protect them from pro-Assad airstrikes. This is in line Clinton’s public position, too, according to her campaign website.
But the CNAS strategy is much more explicit: While working with the coalition partners who will somehow emerge in 2017, the U.S. will add more boots on the ground. The report asserts at the start that this would not mean “conventional forces,” but then goes on to say the strategy would require “quick reaction forces, logistics, intelligence, force protection (e.g., base security), fire support, medical evacuation support and air support,” in addition to advisors and “counter network” personnel.
The report also calls for “an expanded campaign of intelligence collection, airstrikes, and direct-action raids” to “further degrade ISIS’ capabilities.” On the no-bombing zones, the report says the U.S. would retaliate against Assad assets if necessary. It acknowledges the risks of inflaming tensions with Russia, which is employing its own airstrikes on behalf of Assad, but there seems to be hope of a “power sharing” agreement down the road.
“Establishing a no-bombing zone would risk escalation with Russia, but this concern is manageable given that neither side wants to enter a direct conflict and the United States needs to exert some military pressure if it wishes to change Russian and regional calculus and empower more acceptable actors on the ground,” the report states.
When Defense One published a straightforward piece making many of these points, Flournoy was quick to respond, saying while she advocates all of the above regarding the no-bombing zones and airstrikes, she does “NOT advocate putting U.S. combat troops on the ground to take territory from Assad’s forces or remove Assad from power.”
Defense One appended Flournoy’s letter to the story, but it didn’t issue a correction. The piece’s author, Patrick Tucker, told The Intercept that “Strike weapons at standoff distance is troops.” He continued: “Those are military personnel. That is U.S. military power—at war with the Assad regime. There is just no way around it.”
Bottom line: the CNAS authors are calling for increased U.S. military operations in Syria. “I can’t think of another instance in which a U.S. presidential candidate was actually planning, via advisors who had drawn up detailed plans, a new war, to actually start an additional war that didn’t exist before,” said writer Gareth Porter, who recently penned “Hillary Clinton and Her Hawks.”
“That is even more dangerous and more reckless, because even the authors of the CNAS report acknowledge there is a serious risk of coming into direct conflict with Russian forces in Syria. It’s really quite an astonishing turn of events when you think about it,” Porter added.
But the CNAS report and Flournoy’s op-eds are pretty tame to what Clinton’s surrogates have been saying to the media more recently.
Reporting from the Democratic National Convention, the Telegraph got some choice quotes from Clinton advisor Jeremy Bash, a former Pentagon official who founded Beacon Strategies, a “strategic advisory firm” that includes Morell, career bureaucrat and Clintonista Leon Panetta, and Clinton media operative and fixer Phillipe Reines, among others.
Bash was unequivocal about Clinton’s Syria “reset,” which would focus not only on ISIS but also on bringing down President Bashar Assad. “A Clinton administration will not shrink from making clear to the world exactly what the Assad regime is,” he said in interview with The Telegraph. “It is a murderous regime that violates human rights; that has violated international law; used chemical weapons against his own people; has killed hundreds of thousands of people, including tens of thousands of children.”
It is no secret that Clinton has supported removing Assad from the start and had a famous break with President Obama over arming the opposition and establishing so-called no-fly zones. While the White House has focused more on pushing back ISIS’s advances in the region, Clinton and her advisors have made it clear they disagree and that the removal of Assad won’t be off the table.
Meanwhile, Morrell says he was “non-partisan” before endorsing Clinton this summer, but in reality he joined Beacon, which is run by longtime members of Clinton’s inner circle, after leaving the CIA in 2013 instead of going to a national-security think tank or an academic perch. That he suddenly became a Clinton champion out of a noble concern for the country, which is the lazy media narrative, is a bit hard to swallow.
Morrell told Charlie Rose in August (starting at the 30-minute mark) that U.S. policy should be to make Russians and Iranians “pay a price” for being there, including killing Russians “covertly” and helping to initiate the bombing of Syrian government buildings and installations to “scare” Assad before he is ultimately “transitioned out” of power. In July, Panetta all but said the same thing to CBS’s Margaret Brennan. He also hinted at the possibility of putting more U.S. troops on the ground:
I think the likelihood is that the next president is gonna have to consider adding additional special forces on the ground to try to assist those moderate forces that are taking on ISIS, and that are taking on Assad’s forces. And we have to increase our air strikes. We’ve got to do all of those things in order to put increasing pressure on ISIS but also on Assad. We can’t surrender one objective for the other. We’ve gotta continue to press on both fronts.
“I think the three of them [Bash, Morrell, and Panetta] provide a very clear window into the type of foreign policy one can expect under a Clinton administration,” says Christopher Coyne, an associate professor of economics at George Mason University who has written about military interventions. “A policy that entails a proactive use of the military to attempt to address a wide range of issues around the world.”
“I would say the majority of people in my circle will vote for Hillary.” So says Robert Kagan, one of the most influential neoconservatives in Washington, as well as an astute foreign-policy player who has positioned himself among both Republican and Democratic national-security literati as a grand strategy thinker. His last book, The World America Made, is an unabashed paean to American hegemony and interventionist posture, and his made-for-Barnes & Noble books are much admired by Obama. His wife is Bush-Obama State Department official Victoria Nuland, a potential secretary of state in a new Clinton administration. TAC’s Phil Giraldi has called Nuland “Hillary’s Hawk in Waiting,” blaming her interference in Ukraine for escalating a crisis with Russia in the region.
Kagan was recently featured in an article by Intercept writer Rania Khalek, who covered a recent “foreign policy professionals for Hillary fundraiser.” The event raised $25,000 for Clinton but also raised eyebrows about which members of Kagan’s “circle” would support her.
It’s not hard to start counting. Some of them, like Eliot Cohen, who supported the war in Iraq from his perch at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, have said Clinton is the “lesser evil.” Max Boot, a hardliner if there ever was one, took the step of declaring a break from Republicanism and his endorsement of Clinton in the Los Angeles Times, noting she would be more hawkish than Obama. Jamie Kirchick, another familiar neoconservative stalwart, recently penned an article endorsing Clinton entitled, “Hillary Clinton Is 2016’s Real Conservative—Not Donald Trump.”
Kagan is the most open about his common ground with Clinton, telling the New York Times in a 2014 interview that he is “comfortable” with her foreign policy. No doubt. He and his circle consider Obama’s foreign policy in Syria to be woefully passive. Regime change is again in the air, and Clinton’s left and right flanks are ready to see it through.
It is “something that might have been called neocon,” Kagan said of Clinton’s views, “but clearly her supporters are not going to call it that; they are going to call it something else.”
Whether additional U.S. forces on the ground will remain “off the table” will be an early test of rhetoric versus reality. They may just call that something else, too.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter.
The liberation last month of the Sunni city of Fallujah from a two-year ISIS stranglehold was celebrated as a rare victory by Iraqi forces and their U.S. backers amid a summer of bloody terror attacks across the Middle East and Europe.
But as the first “post-liberation” cameras broadcast images on June 26 from inside the city—fighters with their rifles raised in triumph, smiles and selfies all around as important-looking people (including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi) exited utility vehicles and gave interviews to reporters—something seemed off.
The city, for one, was ravaged. Most say it’s not as bad as Ramadi, but that city was completely destroyed during May’s liberation from ISIS, so that’s not saying much. Fallujah looks post-apocalyptic. Second, the only people in Fallujah right now are fighters. Shia fighters. And not just Iraqi forces, but non-uniformed Shiite militia raising their own flags in the city.
Meanwhile, everyone else—more than 80,000 Fallujans driven from their homes by ISIS and the ensuing battles—are languishing in sprawling desert refugee camps with not enough shelter or food or mattresses.
Worse, they are considered the lucky ones. According to reports, some 9,000 Fallujah men and boys are still being detained by Iraqi forces for suspected ISIS collusion, leaving tens of thousands of women and children to fend for themselves in the camps. Those camps are less than a hour away from Baghdad, but as recent reports indicate, the government is restricting Sunni access there, concerned that terrorists may slip through with the needy. Most would say they have cause for caution — an ISIS suicide bomber set off a truckload of explosives in a Baghdad market on July 3, killing close to 300 people.
So for now, it seems, the very people the U.S. helped to liberate are being abused all over again, stuck between a city now crawling with the celebratory Shia who despise them and a Shia- dominated—and some say pro-Iranian—capital city that wants them to stay as far away as possible.
This, says longtime foreign policy reporter Nancy Youssef, is nothing more than striking a match over a pool of gasoline. She and her Daily Beast colleague Jonathan Krohn reported that at least 50 men were killed by Shia paramilitary groups and hundreds more simply vanished. Claims of brutality by the government’s “Popular Mobilization Units,” which serve as an umbrella group of militias working with Baghdad, abound, and the finger-pointing has already begun.
“What I see is you’re laying the groundwork for the next iteration of an ongoing sectarian conflict,” Youssef told TAC in an interview. “The people didn’t trust ISIS and they don’t trust the Shia-led government.”
Youssef and Krohn referred to this report from the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, which said thousands of refugees from one village just outside Fallujah fell into a trap, approaching what appeared to be government forces only find members of the notorious Shia militia Kataaib Hezbollah—which was once considered a terror group by the U.S. but is now fighting to oust ISIS alongside the Iraqi government—waiting for them. The boys and men were separated from the women, and a large group of 900 men are still missing and now feared dead.
Kali Jessica Rubaii, of the Islah Reparations Project, a U.S.-based group established in 2008 to help funnel aid and resettle displaced Iraqis, said her organization is hearing the same stories from its people on the ground. “Reports of people being kidnapped, killed prima facia, and physically abused are widespread, and there is a sentiment among Fallujans that they are being abused because they are Sunni,” she told TAC.
“People feel they are ignored by the government. In reality I cannot say to what degree the Iraqi government is providing for displaced people from Fallujah,” she added. “People are trapped between the anvil and the hammer, between their own government and Daash [ISIS].”
Can Fallujah Ever Recover?
To watch young amputee Mustafa Ahmed swing from his crutches into a dirty tent in the middle of the desert—no clean water or food, no mattress to sleep on—is to see the failure of U.S. policy in Iraq.
According to a grim report on PBS Newshour by foreign correspondent Jane Arraf, Ahmed lost a kidney and his leg when he was a baby during an American airstrike in Fallujah in 2004. (She doesn’t say whether it was during the first Battle of Fallujah or the second.) Now a handsome yet serious-faced child of 12 or 13, he has fled his city on crutches for eight miles before becoming trapped in one of the desperate camps outside.
He told Arraf he once had a prosthetic leg, fitted for him in Oregon—likely as a form of restitution for being collateral damage. But he has since outgrown it. Now he doesn’t even have catheter tubes. He couldn’t even get one of the free mattresses being distributed by the Norwegian Refugee Council, one of the few aid groups on the ground there today.
“These last few weeks I’ve been shocked and heartbroken at how little humanitarian aid has been made available to Fallujah residents fleeing the Islamic State,” said Donna Mulhearn, an Australian human-rights activist who made several trips to Iraq before, during, and after the war. She listened to the parents and doctors who raised alarms about the growing number of horrific birth defects in post-war Fallujah in 2012. She held the babies. She wonders where they are now.
“Everyone knew the siege would occur and that there were around 85,000 civilians trapped and already starving,” she told TAC in an email. “Why were camps for those displaced not set up and resourced beforehand, or as the campaign was going on?”
There was a three-month siege before U.S. airstrikes aided the final routing of ISIS in mid-June. At least 30,000 Fallujans were trapped there with no food and used by ISIS as human shields until the very end, when they started pouring into the camps en masse. Rubaii, whose group is gathering supplies for the camps, said she has heard horror stories of people who were forced to eat garbage before fleeing Fallujah, of babies miscarried, and others shot and killed by Shia militias when the siege was over and the battles began. Reports are widespread that civilians were killed by ISIS while trying to escape.
One report suggests that Baghdad underestimated the number of people who would flee as the battle turned and more residents were able to escape. In mid-June, when the camps began overflowing, al-Abadi said the government would begin building 10 more camps, but as of this writing there are still only four, and they are overwhelmed with no electricity, running water, or sanitation.
When asked what kind of humanitarian response the military has promoted, Youssef, who reports the Pentagon, shrugged. “They say they are monitoring it,” she said. Meanwhile, the U.S. is sending 560 additional American troops to help the Iraqi government take Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, back from ISIS. But the Sunnis there are already wary that Shia paramilitary units working with the Iraqi government are coming to sack their city, too. “It’s heartbreaking because you know there is no end in sight,” Youssef said of the sectarian cycle of violence and mistrust.
The State Department, on the other hand, said it was sending $20 million in additional aid for the ground efforts there as part of a larger package to be announced “later this year.”
When asked about the reports of brutalization by Shia militias in a June 3 briefing, the State Department said they were “very concerned,” and that they were raising those concerns with the Iraqi government directly. “But the Iraqi government has made every commitment—or rather, committed to make every effort—to avoid civilian casualties and has issued clear instructions to Iraqi Security Forces [to give safe passage to Sunni], and we obviously support them in this position,” said spokesman Mark Toner. As for the “Iranian thumbprint” on the operations, he added, “Well, of course, we’re concerned about sectarian tensions and any actions that could heighten those tensions.”
Ben Irwin of the Preemptive Love Coalition, one of the few aid groups active in Fallujah from the start of the battle in May, said they’ve been delivering food, water, hygiene packs, and cooking stoves directly to families there. They do not get U.S. government assistance, nor do they seek it.
“It seems like every aspect of this response [to take back Fallujah] was overlooked, under-planned, or deployed too late,” he tells TAC. “Fallujah was held by ISIS for more than two years. Its families were starving for months. Officials knew this was coming. Why weren’t the camps already supplied, waiting in the desert beforehand? Why is the world scrambling to catch up, spending a pittance on the humanitarian response in Fallujah, compared to the massive amount of spending and planning that went into the military campaign?”
Fallujans were out of favor with the West from the start. A center of institutional and political support for Saddam Hussein, it was a hotbed of insurgency after the U.S. invasion, and after the killing of four U.S. contractors there in 2003, it became the target of two of the Iraq War’s major battles. The second leveled tens of thousands of the city’s mosques, homes, and public buildings.
Later, after the much-vaunted “Anbar Awakening” drove the al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) insurgency into hiding, Fallujah suffered like much of the Sunni province. Men who had helped fight the insurgency were promised work with the Iraqi police and military, but the work never came. Meanwhile, Gen. Ray Odierno left then-Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki with a parting gift of iris scans of former U.S.-sponsored “Sons of Iraq.” The Sunnis were marginalized, arrested, abused. When they tried to protest during the Arab Spring, they were shut down violently.
As a result, weakened Sunni Iraq was ripe for ISIS, which rose out of the ashes of AQI, and cities like Ramadi and Fallujah paid the price. Those who did not die in retributive attacks weren’t strong enough to kick ISIS out once the fighters started seizing property, executing rivals, and creating an atmosphere of paranoia and deceit.
“Maliki’s out-of-control campaign of terror against Fallujah ultimately led to the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and the rest is history,” charged Mulhearn, who fears that after this last siege, “the social fabric of Fallujah has been irreparably torn.”
Or is it? While the U.S. picked its horse in the race long ago, that doesn’t mean it should stand aside while the city falls prey to another hostile sectarian power play. If anything, further violence and abuse will only create conditions for another insurgency.
“This is where we will either sow the seeds of the next conflict or begin unmaking years of violence through our acts of love,” offered Irwin. “We can turn our backs on Fallujah—and consign its people to more violence, more instability, more terror. Or we can show up in the hard places and love anyway, treat Fallujah’s people with the dignity they deserve, and maybe start writing a new future together.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter.
WASHINGTON—Like all special interests in the nation’s capital, the defense industry is spending millions of dollars this election season to ensure a front-row spot at the federal trough—and in the case of the most powerful military-industrial contractors, a chance to influence the national-security policies that will keep production lines humming and profit margins growing.
Defense contractors took a keen interest in the Republican and Democratic primaries, backing candidates for reasons both ideological and commercial. How they will divide their dollars between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the general election remains to be seen, though there are reasons to think one of the major-party nominees will be especially receptive to industry support. For the military-industrial complex, however, the race for the White House is not the whole story—and in the ways that matter most, this year’s elections mean business as usual.
By April 30, the defense sector had given more than $1.6 million to the broad field of presidential candidates. Among all the 2016 hopefuls, Ted Cruz was the recipient of the most defense-industry dollars, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Cruz received a total of $343,000, followed—perhaps surprisingly—by Bernie Sanders with $323,000, and then Hillary Clinton with more than $273,000.
Sanders’s place at the top of the Democratic heap in terms of defense-sector support may seem odd for a man who attacked Clinton’s support for overseas military interventions. But it’s not so strange at all when one considers that the controversial F-35 Joint Strike Fighter—the most expensive aircraft in U.S. history, and more than a decade overdue—underwent development in Sanders’s home state of Vermont.
Lockheed, the maker of the F-35 and the biggest recipient of Pentagon contracts in 2015, gave Sanders $36,600 through March. He also got more money from Boeing than Clinton—nearly $46,000 in that period, according to Alexander Cohen of the Center for Public Integrity.
Meanwhile, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings, Donald Trump, by then already the presumptive Republican nominee, had received only $17,818 as of May. Republican dropouts Jeb Bush ($212,108) and Lindsey Graham ($135,925) filled out the top five this spring, under Cruz, Sanders, and Clinton.
While the total figure for defense corporations’ giving directly to presidential candidates was just $1.65 million as of the end of April, that number does not count the companies’ political action committees, which pour cash into presidential coffers and, even more so, those of congressional candidates and party committees. Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman have PACs that rank among the wealthiest in the industry. Lockheed’s PAC, which spread around over $1.6 million for federal candidates this spring, had given $10,000 to Cruz by the end of March. Northrop Grumman’s PAC, on the other hand, gave all of its $1.5 million as of March to House and Senate candidates—mostly Republicans.
Over and above ordinary PAC spending, the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision allows for unlimited contributions to super PACs from corporations. “Now [that special interests] can spend as much money as they want, I think you will find more lopsided contributions,” notes Pierre Sprey, a defense analyst and critic who spoke with TAC. “This is a huge sword hanging over the heads of the candidates.” And although Super PACs must ultimately disclose their donors to the FEC, issue-oriented nonprofits need not do so, and they too can be tools of defense-industry influence on public opinion. The overall picture of how defense dollars shape politics is shadowy—but what we can see is telling.
Now that the primaries are over, the question is whether defense dollars will favor Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. In recent cycles, Republican nominees have received more contributions from the sector than Democrats have. That might change this year, both because Trump has been slow to build a fundraising base among special interests—whose money he turned down during the primary season—and because Clinton has a candidate profile that seems like an especially good fit for military industries.
When asked this spring about the campaign by ABC’s Martha Raddatz, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said of Clinton, with classic understatement, “I think that she probably would be somewhat more hawkish than President Obama.”
As secretary of state, Clinton worked with Gates and David Petraeus, the director of the CIA at the time, to push for more aggressive intervention against the Assad government in Syria. She led the charge into Libya—now a roiling mess of dysfunction and a waystation for many Islamic fighters in the region. Clinton’s support for military intervention goes much farther back than that, however. History has her behind the scenes in her husband Bill Clinton’s administration, along with then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, pressing for an early bombing campaign in Bosnia in 1993.
“Hillary Clinton has been part of the Washington establishment for a quarter century. I think the defense contractors likely view her as a known quantity,” says Dan Grazier, retired Marine Corps captain, Iraq veteran, and now a senior military analyst at the Project for Government Oversight. “And she does have a hawkish reputation, which is obviously good for their bottom line.”
In a New York Times story titled “How Hillary Became a Hawk,” correspondent Mark Landler described the occasion when Gates and Pacific Commander Adm. Robert Willard were pushing for the USS George Washington to steer an aggressive course into the Yellow Sea after the North Koreans torpedoed a South Korean ship in 2010, killing 46 on board. “We’ve got to run it up the gut!” Clinton reportedly said in agreement, getting an admiring chuckle from her staff for the quick football analogy. Obama chose not to take her advice. Nor did he take it when she had recommended a year earlier that he approve Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request for 40,000 more troops in Afghanistan.
As Landler’s story makes clear, Clinton has had an unusually accommodating relationship with generals and top civilian brass. She has always been portrayed as a sympathetic partner, an enabler-in-waiting. To the wider national-security establishment, she is clearly “of the body.”
“She believes, like presidents going back to the Reagan or Kennedy years, in the importance of the military—in solving terrorism, in asserting American influence,” Vali Nasr, Clinton’s former advisor at the State Department, told Landler.
So she naturally ranks high with the military-industrial complex too. Not only does she represent the status quo—or something more than the status quo—with respect to military spending and operations, she has been favored by the political class to win from the beginning. “In that, the contractors probably view their contributions to her campaign as a safe bet,” Dan Grazier told TAC.
Trump, on the other hand, is an unknown quantity who until recently eschewed special-interest funding, and his take from the defense industry during the primaries was correspondingly paltry. But that may change.
After all, with billions at stake, defense companies have incentives to hedge their bets. According to the website Defense News, the Pentagon’s top 100 contractors brought in a total of $175.1 billion in 2015. Lockheed Martin was the largest single contractor for the U.S. government last year, raking in $36.2 billion in federal contracts, followed by Boeing at $16.6 billion, General Dynamics with $13.6 billion, Raytheon with $13.1 billion, and Northrop Grumman with $10.6 billion.
But if the defense industry has to “give a little to get a little”—or give a lot to get a lot—contributions to presidential candidates aren’t necessarily what deliver the most bang for the military-industrial buck.
The defense industry is in fact a relatively marginal player in the presidential contest, at least from what the visible paper trail shows. Hillary Clinton is far more reliant on resources from the securities and investment industry. The war machine doesn’t even crack her top-20 list of contributors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
That’s because the defense sector spends its money elsewhere. By putting their cash into Congress, defense industries can elect and influence legislators who will remain in Washington far longer than any president. Congress is where the action is: defense executives and their lobbyists work with the elected officials beholden to them to write bills, pad budgets, and shift contract work into specific legislators’ districts to ensure that projects will be funded and otherwise supported over the long haul.
“The arms manufacturers are putting a lot of money” into presidential candidates, says Pierre Sprey, “but it’s nothing compared to the day-in, day-out money they’re giving to Congress.” Simply put, Congress is a better investment.
“Congress can undo any administration decision that Boeing or Lockheed doesn’t like,” Sprey observes. “Defense contractors have enormous influence in shaping the secretary of defense’s decisions, but if the secretary happens to do something that displeases the industry, they will get Congress to undo that too, taking advantage of the broad leverage the companies have bought by spreading subcontracts across 48 states, by contributing generously to key committee congressmen, and by unleashing armies of lobbyists and paid-for think-tank pundits.”
Government watchdogs who spoke with TAC say that the defense contracting community focuses about as much of its attention on the authorizers—the Senate and House Armed Services Committees—as on the appropriators. That’s because the real payoff for defense contributions is in getting programs—weapon systems, vehicles, aircraft, ships, drones, nuclear armaments and all of the requisite technology—approved in the defense policy bills each year.
“As authorizers, they have a lot of capacity to at least start making the arguments [on behalf of defense contractors], even if they can’t necessarily put the money into the account,” says Mandy Smithberger, military-reform analyst for the Project for Government Oversight.
So far in the 2016 cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Government, the defense sector spent over $17 million, the vast majority going to House and Senate candidates and party committees. The split is pretty uneven—63 percent of the cash goes to Republicans, 36 percent to Democrats—largely because the Republicans are in charge of both the House and Senate.
The top of the list? Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), new chair of the House Armed Services Committee, who had received at least $308,000 as of April. According to the Center for Public Integrity’s Alexander Cohen, Thornberry—who has been in office 21 years—received a total of $933,415 from the largest 75 defense companies over his last decade on the committee.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, comes in third on the list, with $265,450 as of this writing. The next Republican after him is a top F-35 proponent, Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), chairman of the HASC Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, who raked in $181,950. He’s followed by Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), chair of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, with $166,700.
They may not all be household names, but to the defense sector they are veritable golden geese.
Cohen says the defense sector sprinkles plenty of green on members who sit on the joint House-Senate conference committee, too. This panel hashes out the final details of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), and its 48 members—34 of them from the HASC and SASC—got, in all, no less than $20.6 million in contributions from defense contractors and their employees between 2003 to 2014, four times as much as members of the Armed Services committees who were not appointed as conferees.
The HASC recently passed its 2017 NDAA, calling for a $583 billion hike in spending, including such line items as 11 more F-35s and a $2 billion boost to the Navy’s shipbuilding budget. According to an Associated Press report, the committee members calling for this $18 billion increase have received $10 million over the course of their careers from defense contractors who “would benefit from higher levels of military spending.” The House Appropriations Committee sent a lower budget figure, $575.5 billion, to the floor in May, but critics warn of tricky accounting: the House Appropriations plan uses wartime contingency funds to get around funding caps for baseline budgeting.
Defense contractors and their surrogates—who include not only lawmakers but also lobbyists and analysts from think tanks that represent the industry on Capitol Hill—say the big fight in 2017 will be getting rid of those spending caps, which were put into place under the Budget Control Act (BCA), the “sequester” of 2011.
“Absolutely,” says Dave Deptula, executive director of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, a nonprofit think tank that advances Air Force interests, including the F-35, in Washington. The BCA, he says, “is undercutting our capabilities and should be eliminated.” He contends that readiness and capital projects have been sacrificed under the caps. “What we did to our Air Force and our military writ large was what our enemies could only hope to achieve.”
Mandy Smithberger replies that industry backers like Deptula overstate the austerity imposed by the budget controls. Such friends of the industry, she contends, demand gold-plated programs that actually divert money away from less expensive and more capable alternatives.
“Lockheed’s investments [in Congress] have definitely paid off when it comes to F-35 in the defense bill every year,” says Smithberger. The company, which has contributed over $15 million to congressional races since 2006, ensures that the F-35 dollars keep coming by splitting up subcontracts—with each subcontractor responsible for making a different piece—across hundreds of congressional districts. Jobs in those districts are leverage for Lockheed Martin. “The F-35 is in 46 different states and 350 districts,” Smithburger says. “That is a lot of political support for one program.”
Even when the Department of Defense asks for something else, lawmakers in the pocket of contractors make sure the companies’ pet projects are funded anyway. And the corruption is getting worse.
“It used to be that members of congress would pork themselves up only for contracts that had a significant impact in their state or district,” says defense analyst and former GAO researcher Winslow Wheeler. “That day is long gone. Members squabble for ‘credit’ even for the tiniest level of spending in their political jurisdiction, to say nothing of going along with anything produced anywhere by anyone if there is the slightest prospect—always rewarded—of a contribution.”
Because of this entrenchment, little will change next year no matter who wins the White House, says Dan Grazier. “My natural cynicism is telling me there won’t be any difference between this year and the next.” That’s what the industry is counting on.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter.
It’s been two generations since “your number is up” meant anything but relief at the DMV or a one-way ticket to the pearly gates.
But for any man older than 65, it once meant something entirely different. It was your draft number, whether it be your birthday (Vietnam) or your district number (WWII). The information was pushed into a capsule no bigger than a cyanide pill, which was tossed into a fishbowl filled with hundreds or thousands of other tiny blue orbs. On “lottery day,” one capsule was plucked from the others. When a man’s number was “up,” he reported to the draft board and, if deemed fit for duty, was thrown into war.
Those were all the able-bodied men in a certain age range. Now imagine young women sitting in front of their televisions, or glued to their mobile devices, waiting to see if their numbers are up. It seems fantastical, 40 years after the draft was ended and with an all-volunteer force now filling the ranks for war. But the issue of whether to open the Selective Service to women—all men 18-25 are still required to register—is very much a debate on Capitol Hill today.
In fact, such a change could be included in the next major defense budget authorization bill.
Despite the unlikely nature of a draft, it is a salient issue that has split both Democrats and Republicans. It’s shaken their political sensibilities around and settled them down on either side in unlikely alliances. Presidential candidates have even had to address the question in primary debates.
In one corner, there are champions of women in the military, where the ranks have recently opened combat roles to female soldiers. For them, equality is a goal that cannot and should not be deterred by something as unpopular or archaic as the draft. If women want parity in the military, it starts here. It’s symbolic.
On the other side, there are two factions. One thinks women should not be in combat and therefore would overburden a draft board with deferments and disqualifications—a silly, bureaucratic nightmare born out of political correctness. The other school thinks the draft should be eliminated entirely, and lining up women to serve it, no matter how symbolic, is an anathema. Let the volunteer force—whether it be men or women—fight, if the country must defend itself.
Military historian Andrew Bacevich calls it a “tempest in a canteen cup,” and he is probably right: The draft was eliminated in 1973 for a reason. Despite the fact the Vietnam War was winding down, he writes, it was the conscription of tens of thousands of young men during that conflict that “spurred anti-war sentiment and benefited no one—apart perhaps from Canada, favored destination of many thousands of draft evaders.”
That may be, but how we came to be talking about opening the Selective Service to women today is significant in itself, and probably speaks about heightened tensions involving women in combat more than anything else.
It began when Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), an Iraq War veteran, first proposed an amendment in April opening the draft to women in the House National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The move came not as a symbol of women’s growing equality in the forces, mind you, but as a “gotcha,” according to Politico. He wanted to underscore the problematic nature of that newly enforced equality.
“In a marathon session to craft a new defense policy bill, the panel backed Rep. Duncan Hunter’s amendment by a 32-30 vote,” reporter Connor O’Brien wrote on April 28. But “by his own admission, however, the California Republican does not actually intend to include women in a draft and voted down his own amendment.” He opposed opening up all combat units to women and was clearly using the amendment to show that “colleagues have failed to fully account for the implications of the shift.”
“I’ve talked to coffeehouse liberals in San Francisco and conservative families who pray three times a day,” Hunter said during the markup of the NDAA. “And neither of those groups want their daughter to be drafted.”
He is right, of course, but he failed to note that there are also stalwart constituencies for drafting women, including the Pentagon brass. Both Army Chief of Staff Mark A. Milley and Marine Corps Commandant Robert Neller have said publicly that if women are in combat, women must be in the draft. While this may not sound like a rousing endorsement (the Marines, after all, were the last to come around to the changes), their backing has ignited support among the hawks on the Hill.
That includes head hawk Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is typically considered one of the the most pro-military (if not pro-war) members of Congress. He offered his own amendment drafting women for the Senate version of the NDAA on May 10.
“As women serve in more roles across the armed forces, I support the recommendation of the Army Chief of State and the Commandant of the Marine Corps that women should register for Selective Service,” McCain said in a statement to Roll Call on May 12. “It is the logical conclusion of the decision to open combat positions to women.”
He is joined by fellow hawk Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), who in February said that after hearing from military officials, she too was convinced that “it makes sense that … women would also register for the Selective Service.” Her colleague Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) expressed the same sentiment during a New Hampshire presidential primary debate. “I have no problem whatsoever with people of either gender serving in combat so long as the minimum requirements necessary to do the job are not compromised,” he said. Having gained access to combat, “I do believe that Selective Service should be opened up for both men and women in case a draft is ever instituted.” (He flip-flopped almost immediately.)
Now, these Republicans may be exhibiting the same kind of cynicism as their colleague Duncan: Everyone knows the draft itself is as unpopular as a skunk at a picnic, and that we will likely never see the likes of it again—so why not support opening the Selective Service to women on the merits of the idea, at least winning points with the millions of women who support it?
Or perhaps it is just a subtler form of the answer military writer Michael Yon gave TAC when we asked him.
“This is a no-brainer. If women wish to try out for Rangers, SEALS, Green Berets, they wish for equality,” said Yon, who served in special forces in the 1980s. “Draft them if needed. Put up or shut up.”
But such condescension isn’t likely to thwart the women who are already expressing an interest in “putting up,” and unlike Duncan, they aren’t bluffing. And they are backed by Democrats like Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who is usually on the other side of McCain when it comes to military issues.
“The fight for equality and treatment must also include equality in obligation. As we move towards a formalized role for women in combat arms, this is a necessary progression,” said Tyler Gately, a spokesperson for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), which “applauds” the House and Senate for taking up the issue.
“I’m in favor of drafting women. As a female veteran who voluntarily enlisted, I see the importance of civic duty and giving back to our country. Freedom is not free,” says IAVA member De’Cha LeVeau, in an email to TAC. “As women we must step up to the plate, per se. If we are expecting equality; this equality comes with added responsibility.”
Those who have been against women in combat from the beginning—and this fight has been ongoing for decades—have seen enormous changes over the last few years, including special-forces roles opening to both genders. In fact, after passing the grueling trials, three women were the first to earn their U.S. Army Ranger tabs last fall.
But critics insist women do not have the physical capacity to join their male counterparts on the front lines. To achieve parity, the warning goes, women will likely be held to different standards, and this will hurt unit cohesion and readiness. Many of these critics are also social conservatives who blame feminism and political correctness for the drive to include women in the combat ranks in the first place.
“Political correctness is dangerous, and the idea that we would draft our daughters, to forcibly bring them into the military and put them in close contact—I think is wrong, it is immoral, and if I am president, we ain’t doing it,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) charged in February, when he was still on the campaign trail.
Meanwhile, a contingent of military women backed by longtime critic Elaine Donnelly at the Center for Military Readiness, are standing firm against what they are calling Duncan’s folly.
“Military women average two to ten times men’s injuries—this means an even higher turnover where the physical demand and intensity is much, much greater, in combat units during war time,” said Jude Eden, an Iraq War Marine Corps veteran, who cited a nine-month study by the Marines released in September.
“Because of these greater liabilities, drafting women will result in more lives being lost unnecessarily when they’re actually replacing infantrymen in a national emergency,” said Eden, who has written extensively on the subject. “The draft isn’t to collect people for desk jobs to ‘free a man to fight,’ it’s to replace the men dying at the front of the fight.”
But there is also the question over whether not opening the draft to women is even legal. In 1981, several men filed lawsuits alleging that the Military Selective Service Act violates the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment because it requires only men, not women, to register. The Supreme Court upheld the act, but gave women’s exclusion from combat roles as the reason for doing so. The ruling may no longer apply now that all the barriers are down.
The wheels of the justice are already turning on the subject: The National Coalition of Men, which has launched a lawsuit similar to the one filed more than 30 years ago, won a recent victory. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said their challenge against the Selective Service could go forward, mainly because the changes in policy in Washington made it “ripe for adjudication.”
So why not just get rid of Selective Service altogether? There is a bipartisan group of lawmakers trying to do that, too.
“Not only will abolishing the Selective Service save the U.S. taxpayers money, it will remove an undue burden on our nation’s young people,” Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), said in a statement as he and others introduced a bill to end Selective Service in February. “We need to get rid of this mean-spirited and outdated system and trust that if the need should arise Americans—both male and female—will answer the call to defend our nation.”
After the initial dust up, the House Rules Committee ended up pulling Duncan’s draft amendment from the draft NDAA last week. But the Senate continues to contemplate it as final legislation goes forward, folly or no folly.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.
In no place in America are the abrupt changes in the nation’s security posture so keenly reflected in real estate and lifestyle than the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. In the decade after 9/11, it has grown into a sprawling, pretentious representation of the federal government’s growth, vices and prosperity, encompassing the wealthiest counties, the best schools, and some of the highest rates of income inequality in the country.
“People hate Washington but they don’t really know why,” says Mike Lofgren, a longtime Beltway inhabitant and arch critic of its culture. But show them what is underneath the dignified facades—particularly the greed and excess financed by the overgrown military-industrial complex—and the populist resentment recently harnessed by insurgent candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders just might have a concrete grievance that can drive real change.
For Lofgren, “Beltwayland” is perhaps best described as analogous to the Victorian novel the Picture of Dorian Gray—a rich, shimmering ecosystem in which all of the ugly, twisted aberrations are hidden away in an attic somewhere, or rather sadly, in the poverty-blighted wards and low income zip codes of “the DMV” (The District, Maryland, and Virginia).
Oscar Wilde might have seen a bit of his Victorian England in Washington’s self-indulgent elite, but unlike the gentry of Dorian Gray, men and women here see not leisure, but amassing personal wealth through workaholism, as a virtue of the ruling class. For them, a two-front war and Washington’s newly enlarged national-security state, much of which is hidden in plain sight, have ushered in a 21st-century gilded age only replicated in America’s few, most privileged enclaves. As Lofgren explains:
It is common knowledge that Wall Street and its inflated compensation packages have remade Manhattan into an exclusive playground for the rich, just as tech moguls have made San Francisco unaffordable for the middle class. It is less well known that the estimated $4 trillion spent since 9/11 on the war on terrorism and billions spent on political campaigns ($6 billion on the 2012 elections alone) have trickled down so extravagantly to the New Class settled around Washington’s Beltway that they have remade the landscape of our capital.
The perfect storm—hundreds of billions in federal procurement dollars flooding into the area after 9/11, along with the easing of corporate campaign fundraising thanks to the now infamous Citizens United decision—has deepened the trough for lawyers, lobbyists, consultants, developers and contractors.
“The federal government is a $3.6 trillion beast in the district’s backyard that keeps the lights burning and the paychecks printing from government office buildings on Capitol Hill down along the Dulles Toll Road to the tech consulting firms in Virginia,” wrote Derek Thompson in The Atlantic in 2011, when the area was growing at three times the rate of the rest of the country in its post-recession years.
“Uncle Sam directly employs one-sixth of the district’s workforce and indirectly pays for much more.” It is the “much more” that Lofgren likes to focus on, pointing out that government workers, who might enjoy more job security and pensions, actually have a cap on annual salaries and benefits. It’s the private class that has remade the landscape, the worst characterized by “the K Street lawyers, political consultants, Beltway fixers and war on terrorism profiteers who run a permanent shadow government in the nation’s capital,” he writes.
So where do they live? D.C. proper has transmogrified into an almost unrecognizable state with former badlands like the Navy Yard, U Street, Downtown, and Capitol Hill, joining the vanguards of wealth in old Georgetown, Northwest D.C. Just over the state line in Chevy Chase and Bethesda, Maryland, real estate and especially rents have skyrocketed as baby boomers with fat retirements have joined the yuppie migration to luxury living in urban centers.
Travel out of what Lofgren calls the Imperial City, over the Potomac River on I-395 into Virginia and there you will see the first of many rings of the military-industrial complex, with major defense contractors cheek by jowl with government satellite offices in Crystal City. Just beyond is what remains of the more modest post-WWII boom neighborhoods (which include, believe it or not, remnants of a once agrarian culture) in Arlington, Virginia.
These neighborhoods, especially those north of Route 50, are cluttered now with condos, single family ramblers, bungalows, Cape Cods, and brick box homes selling for $900,000 or more depending on the upgrades inside and out. Interspersed, like golden cohorts in a mouthful of well-maintained but otherwise white teeth, are blown-out, mostly neo-craftsman style rehabs, and completely new McMansions sometimes three times the size, looming often awkwardly, and squeezed into fenced-off, quarter-acre lots.
These formerly modest zip codes are inhabited by a boom of singles and families with enough money to finance home improvements in a building market that’s jacked up its prices to accommodate demand. This is not the sport for the faint of heart, but of a proto-elite with expanding incomes and guilt-free debt.
Further out, there are the rooted, old-money neighborhoods of North Arlington, McLean, and Potomac in Maryland, where the Washington establishment began migrating in the 1970s, and now overloaded with “the better heeled sort”—government executives, surgeons, politicians, venture capitalists, think tankers, lobbyists, and fundraisers who have made it. Just outside the Beltway are places like Great Falls, where the median home price is $1.3 million. In 2011, according to a Washington Post feature about the rewards of the contracting boom, 16 percent of Great Falls households were earning $500,000 or more a year and at least more than half made $250,000.
In his latest book, The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, Lofgren ponders this explosion of wealth, but goes well beyond the Beltway border into the exploding developments along the Dulles technology corridor, Tysons Corner, the newer “Mosaic District” supplanting a once desolate strip mall existence in Fairfax County, all the way out in the more rural, former Virginia Hunt country of Loudoun County. Here new “structures resemble the architecture of Loire Valley, Elizabethan England, or Renaissance Tuscany as imagined by Walt Disney, or Liberace.” He says even more than the strivers of Arlington, and the settled elite of the inner burbs, this metamorphosizing sprawl represents everything that is perverse about the last 15 years—the war machine, the big money politics, the hubris of the one-percent, and the brutality of losing, as professions that did not so easily escape the recession, left people unemployed, foreclosed, and priced out of an area they once called “home.”
“Loudoun is per capita the richest county in the country as well as one of the most Republican and is something of a world headquarters of the McMansion as a lifestyle statement,” Lofgren writes. Living in these totems of new wealth, he says are “executives of Beltway Bandit firms, totally dependent on the federal government for their livelihoods,” pretending “to lead the life of a free Jeffersonian squirearchy.”
Consider this: From 2009 to 2015, Virginia received $295 billion in federal contracting dollars. That’s more than the annual budgets of entire countries, including Saudi Arabia, Belgium, and Sweden. This has resulted in not only an exploding real estate market, but the wealthiest counties in the country, year over year.
Meanwhile, the spirit of competition has created a lifestyle of high-end consumption, helicopter parenting, over-achieving and stressed out kids, and a pampered millennial class pushing the poor out of entire neighborhoods in the DMV.
Lofgren takes particular aim at “The McMansion as symbol of the Deep State,” which he describes in his book as the Washington’s power elite, “the red thread that runs through the war on terrorism and the militarization of foreign policy, the financialization and deindustrialization of the American economy, the rise of the a plutocratic social structure that has given us the most unequal society in almost a century and the political dysfunction that has paralyzed day-to-day governance.”
If Lofgren sounds ticked off, it’s because he is. Living in the Fort Hunt area of Alexandria (close to the Potomac, near Mount Vernon and the Army’s Fort Belvoir) for more than three decades, he sees firsthand the razing of modest abodes once “good enough” for Washington’s commuter class. He worked on Capitol Hill before and after 9/11, and knows how the business of government changed along with national security and political trends. He has charted the disconnect with the rest of the country and the Republic as envisioned by the country’s founders, and senses that this Deep State is not working for us—but to sustain the power, privilege and lifestyle he sees right outside his window.
Sure, Washington is rich and greedy. It’s disdainful of “flyover country,” and is filled with the ugly people depicted in Mark Leibovich’s This Town in 2013. His Deep State, Lofgren explains, “is like that [book], but it’s more than that.”
“It’s not all about money—though the money comes to them,” he says. It’s about ideology. Liebovich “failed to improve our understanding of what is the ideological, the underlying structures that emanate from Washington and into the country. He depicts people leaving Capitol Hill and going into lobbying for corporations. But he leaves off what it means for the Average Joe. It means there is this seamless web of connections between the government and Wall Street that dictates the laws we live under.”
In Lofgren’s view, there appears to be no end to the madness, especially with the amount of money fueling the presidential election, the end of federal budget sequestration, and a renewed interest in building up U.S. defense interests overseas. And wealth inequality rates continue to be the starkest here than anywhere else, showing that the prosperity doesn’t trickle down to everyone.
“There is a lot more money and perverse incentives” to push for more war, more tax and economic policies that benefit this upper strata, sustaining the status quo culture in Washington, he says.
“The incentives are positive for those engineering it all because they will get the promotions, the jobs, the contracts,” Lofgren adds, “even though it might be hurting the broad mass of people everywhere else.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.
President Obama’s pick to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court is, perhaps surprisingly, a consensus candidate who up until now has enjoyed strong support from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. But constitutional scholars say behind Merrick Garland’s centrist profile is a pattern of reinforcing government and police powers that civil libertarians may find a bit difficult to live with.
“His record on the DC Circuit suggests he is highly deferential to administrative agencies and possibly overly pro-government when it comes to the rights of criminal defendants,” said George Mason University School of Law professor Ilya Somin. “These latter two issues are ones that divide both liberals and conservatives internally as much as they are a right-left divide.”
In other words, while both liberals and conservatives (including the late conservative icon, Scalia) may applaud Garland’s tendency to side with the government on national security and law enforcement powers, limited government types may have much less to celebrate with him on the bench.
“The guy is clearly in the pocket of the executive branch,” offered constitutional lawyer Bruce Fein, a bit more bluntly. “He hasn’t written anything that suggests he has ever dissented from this inclination, from being entrenched with the executive on all issues of foreign policy.” To think one can separate post 9/11 domestic surveillance and counterterrorism from foreign policy, Fein added, “is ridiculous.”
Through the lens of presidential politics, President Obama’s nomination of Garland is at best, a clever attempt to squeeze one last justice on the bench before he leaves office, at worst, the old story of the sacrificial lamb.
More astute observers have already settled on the latter, comparing the impeccably qualified Garland, who is the Chief Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, to Reagan nominee Robert Bork, then-D.C. Circuit chief, on President Reagan’s way out in 1987. After that dark hour in political theater, the verb “to Bork” has forever become synonymous with the full-on obliteration of a nominee by the opposing party in power.
Otherwise, conventional wisdom holds Garland up as a moderate liberal standard bearer with stalwart legal credentials—right out of “central casting,” as the Washington Post puts it—which includes Harvard Law, two clerkships—one with conservative federal circuit court judge Henry Friendly and the other with Supreme Court justice William Brennan—and a successful U.S. Justice Department career in which he prosecuted two of the most hated domestic terrorists in modern U.S. history—Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and the Ted Kaczynski, also known as “the Unabomber.”
Garland, 63, who has been on the D.C. Circuit—known for being one of the more conservative of the federal appeals courts in the system—for 19 years, is described as the embodiment of bipartisan judicial restraint. Long before now, he was embraced by Republicans as a “consensus pick.” Observers say he would occupy the middle in the mold of Justice Anthony Kennedy, and with his conciliatory temperament and centrist, case-by-case adjudication, could provide the level-headed swing vote on some of the most highly politicized cases to reach the court, said Steve Vladeck, law professor at American University.
But constitutional scholars who spoke with TAC, including Vladeck, warn against taking Garland’s “moderate” jurisprudence to mean that he would not defer to the executive branch, particularly on national security and criminal cases. Nearly two decades of rulings on federal law enforcement cases and more recently, a slew of Guantanamo Bay detainee rights issues, undergird that evaluation quite soundly, said Vladeck.
“Given his experience as a prosecutor—and a terrorism prosecutor, to boot—it stands to reason that Judge Garland would be relatively sympathetic to the government’s position vis-à-vis typical domestic surveillance and other terrorism-related law enforcement issues,” said Vladeck. As for Guantanamo, Vladeck supplied for a recent JustSecurity.org piece a litany of critical cases in which Garland has taken the government’s side on jurisdiction, detainees’ appeals, and their conditions of confinement.
Moreover, Vladeck wrote, “Judge Garland was the one Democratic appointee not to dissent” from a D.C. Circuit opinion “which held that detainees had no right to notice or a hearing before being transferred to countries in which they might credibly fear torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.”
According to New York Times writer Charlie Savage, who has been dissecting Garland’s time adjudicating appeals for Gitmo detainees, from 2010 to 2012, the “appeals court systematically turned back habeas corpus cases brought by detainees, instructing lower-court judges to use more government-friendly standards for interpreting ambiguous evidence,” Savage wrote.
“Judge Garland was not on the panels that developed the early key precedents, but he embraced and applied them without objection.”
One example has been particularly troubling for civil libertarians: in a 2011 case, Garland wrote an opinion “upholding the detention of an Afghan based on evidence the government was keeping secret at the time from the detainee’s lawyers.”
Vladeck points out that one could do worse than Garland if cloning the late Antonin Scalia’s conservative voice on the bench on matters such as Guantanamo and national security is the goal. With the exception of his dissent in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, in which Scalia wrote the dissent charging that the government could not indefinitely detain an American citizen at Gitmo without criminal charging him or suspending habeas, “his rulings in this area were as ‘pro-government’ (or, at least as anti-detainee) as they come.”
The larger point here, Vladeck adds, is that the Guantanamo cases are a lens into how we might view Garland’s approach to national security cases overall. In other words, don’t expect him to lead a reexamination of the court’s role in government surveillance, the state secrets privilege, or elements of the Patriot Act that the Supreme Court has already supported with broad majorities.
Fein says Garland’s approach to these issues is indicative of his long service for the government, as judges coming from this professional, even ideological, framework, are “creatures of the executive branch.” He expects Garland’s deference to the federal government to spill over to domestic law enforcement, particularly on issues that bolster the “permanent, neverending war.”
He then called Garland “just a boring, status quo, baffling pick from a president who allegedly wants criminal justice reform to be part of his legacy.”
Nevertheless, George Washington University Law School professor Jeffrey Rosen, also the president of the National Constitution Center, penned a sympathetic profile of Garland, whom he called a longtime friend and “the embodiment of bipartisan judicial restraint,” who “sincerely believes” that a judge “must put aside his personal views or preferences, and follow the law—not make it.”
Rosen allowed, however, that Garland’s career “has been defined by deference to decisions by administrative agencies,” and “rarely voting in favor of criminal defendants’ appeals for their convictions.”
This includes siding with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in refusing to redefine marijuana as a Schedule I drug with no medical use. In 2013, in Americans for Safe Access v. DEA, in which an injured veteran petitioned the court to make medical marijuana legal, Garland asked, “Don’t we have to defer to the agency? We‘re not scientists. They are.”
However, his record siding with the government isn’t as clear cut as critics might want to make it out to be, Rosen added. For example, as The Huffington Post pointed out in a piece on March 16, Garland wrote a 39-page rejection of the Bush administration’s attempt to make Chinese Uighurs scooped up in the War on Terror and sent to Gitmo, “enemy combatants.”
“It’s hard to conclusively say he’s a pro-detainee or anti-detainee judge,” Raha Wala of Human Rights First, told Jessica Schulberg of The Huffington Post.
Rosen also points out that Garland has been less sympathetic to the government on environmental cases, and is more ambiguous in how he would rule in Second Amendment cases that come before the court.
Despite that, Somin warns that Garland would also be “problematic in the same way as most liberal judges” who favor the government on issues of “federalism, property rights, Second Amendment rights, campaign finance restrictions on freedom of speech, and the like.” Rosen points out, however, when given the opportunity to strike at the heart of Citizens United, the D.C. Circuit, with Garland’s help, instead helped to bolster it, ending individual spending limits to political committees, paving the way for today’s Super PACs.
Somin said he “hastens to add that none of Garland’s positions here are ‘out of the mainstream,’ or prove that he is incompetent or a bad person. They also don’t don’t prove he would be worse than who (Donald) Trump or Hillary Clinton are likely to give us” if the nomination is put off until after the next president is sworn in January.
“That said,” Somin added, “these issues are legitimate concerns about his judicial philosophy that should be taken into consideration in the debate over what to do with this nomination.”
Bowe Bergdahl walked off.
In the court of public opinion, this is the central fact all can agree upon—-that a 24-year-old Army private first class who had been in Afghanistan fewer than two months walked off his outpost one day and vanished.
Everything that happened between Bergdahl’s walk-off and the present moment, where he stands trial for desertion and “misbehavior before the enemy,” has formed the basis of one of the most bizarre and dramatic tales of a missing soldier in recent memory. To say this case has become a political flashpoint is an understatement.
Enter Serial, the bi-weekly podcast series now devoted to chronicling the Bergdahl case. Fresh off an award-winning first season in which journalist Sarah Koening documented—and managed to reboot—the murder conviction of Adnan Syed, the team dives headlong into the Bergdahl rabbit hole.
Koenig attempts in her now-trademark style to solve the mystery of how Bergdahl went missing (and whether he is telling the truth) and how he was eventually rescued. She talks with Bergdahl’s platoon mates, his friends back home, military officials tasked with looking for him, psychologists, diplomats, and members of the Taliban who were present when he was taken hostage.
Most importantly, Serial’s second season incorporates 25 hours of phone conversations between Bergdahl and filmmaker Mark Boal (Zero Dark Thirty, The Hurt Locker), in which, among other things, Bergdahl describes how he was beaten, cut, starved, chained spread eagle to a bed, left in a 6-by-6-foot cage, and still managed to survive for five years. As one psychologist noted, you have to go back to the Vietnam era torture tactics to find any comparison.
Meanwhile, Koenig gives a wide berth and understanding to his fellow soldiers, who searched for Bergdahl for weeks with no respite. These aren’t the kind of red meat interviews paraded on Fox News and CNN, but rather a fair insight into how Bergdahl both flummoxed and alienated his comrades, before and after his disappearance.
Through one man’s story, Serial deftly exposes the failure of the counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine that was en vogue in Washington but frustrated soldiers on the ground at the time. It also underscores the unsustainable pressure put on the armed forces to recruit and rapidly deploy and redeploy personnel on two war fronts. Furthermore, it shows, sadly, that the mantra “leave no American behind” is little more than a comforting cliche; reality is much more cynical.
Critics of Bergdahl have called the episodes “pure propaganda,” while others have questioned the agenda, given Boal’s intention of making Bergdahl’s story into a Hollywood movie. But for those of us for whom details are coin of the realm, the podcasts are a revelation. Here are three key takeaways so far:
1. Bergdahl should have never been let into the Army.
For the first few episodes we meet Bergdahl—an Idaho native who was homeschooled, spent much of his childhood alone, and escaped to the embrace of surrogate family as soon as he turned 16. Socially awkward, he was still considered a top recruit during and after boot camp because he lived, breathed, and dreamed of the life of a soldier, of adventure. He was morally and ethically driven.
But for all the advantages of Bergdahl’s unequivocal approach, there were downsides: he could be tone-deaf; he interpreted slights and judgements by leadership as “dangerous” and life-threatening to his platoon, even as his fellow soldiers were shrugging them off. He wanted to be a hero, even envisioning himself as a “Jason Bourne” who only planned to march off the outpost to get the attention he felt was necessary to right the wrongs.
“The lives of the guys next to me were literally, from what I could see, were in danger of something going wrong and somebody being killed,” Bergdahl told Boal.
Then, in Episode 7 we are brought through the details of Bergdahl washing out of Coast Guard boot camp. He was found one night in the fetal position, shaking and crying. He was given a psychological discharge following a diagnosis of “adjustment disorder with depression.” Later in the podcasts, a psychologist calls his malady “schizotypal personality disorder.”
A waiver would have been necessary for Bergdahl to re-enlist, but he got one. According to Koenig, the Army never looked at the note that said a psychological evaluation would be required before a waiver was granted. Bergdahl was upfront about what happened at the USCG, but desperate for recruits in 2008, the Army didn’t seem to care.
“Someone too mentally troubled to make it through [Coast Guard] recruit training shouldn’t have been enlisted in the Army on a waiver,” Marine Corps veteran and journalist Carl Prine tells TAC. “The Army owns a lot of this problem because if he didn’t stalk off into Talibanistan, he would’ve done something equally puzzling and self-destructive and likely to compromise a mission later.”
2. COIN Failed Everyone
In Episode 2, we get the full sense of the search for Bergdahl which began immediately after he was found missing and continued for weeks, eventually engaging the entire brigade. “We were charging in these towns … going in with our guns blazing,” said soldier Jon Thurman.
Raids were conducted day and night. They were dangerous, as commanders were often “winging it” without a game plan, pulling into unfamiliar towns and villages. There were booby traps. MRAP vehicles were blown to bits. “It became apparent to us that the Taliban, and the Haqqani, knew we were pulling out all the stops to find him and were feeding false information into our informant networks, said Major Mike Waltz, who was in charge of a special forces team conducting raids at night based on intel—often not vetted—about Bergdahl.
“You got the most advanced military in the world throwing all this effort all this expertise and technology trying to find one person,” said Koenig. “It’s really something. But then they can’t find him, and then in some instances they are being played.”
She talked to (Ret.) Lt. Col. Jason Dempsey, Iraq and Afghanistan veteran and PhD who teaches at West Point. “You’ve got this great lumbering machine moving through and it can destroy anything face to face but it has no idea on the granular level what’s going on right below it,” he said, noting that the military could target and track networks but had no idea how they interacted with each other. That knowledge was what COIN strategy was supposed to buy, but they never got it.
“We rotated a few thousand dudes through every 7 to 12 months. There is no institutional knowledge—absolutely none. We were never there long enough to have … anyone fully engaged with Afghan politics.”
On the ground, in the platoon, COIN seemed to be playing out in a similar fashion. There were mixed messages about nation and trust-building, and there was a perception that soldiers’ hands were tied. Earlier reports that Bergdahl had turned against the war seem only half-right when you listen to the podcasts. He wanted a clearer mission, the ability to help the Afghans and kill the bad guys. This appears to be corroborated by his platoon mates. “Everybody was saying this is bullshit,” Bowe said during his interview, “this whole thing is stupid … what we’re doing here.”
3. Yes, We Leave Americans Behind
In Episode 5, we meet the officials back in the U.S. tasked with leading the intelligence and diplomatic effort to get Bergdahl back. It turns out it is incredibly difficult to get people marshalled to help get Americans out of captivity—whether they are military or civilian. After the two-month search inside Afghanistan was called off, the search continued in the bureaucracy. The two women in charge of the personnel recovery office at SOCOM in Tampa said their office was underfunded and undermanned. And many officials up the chain just didn’t care.
The fact that Bowe was taken to Pakistan made things very difficult, and there were a lot of well-meaning people doing the best they could. But they “had to fight complacency [and] malaise” about all hostages, not just Bergdahl, apparently having to do with “circumstances of capture.”
“I can’t begin to tell you the amount of time I’ve heard ‘why should I care. He did that to himself, or she did that herself,’” said one of the recovery officials, who, not speaking directly about Bowe, said their job included “selling” the idea that a specific person should be rescued. This challenge was tripled, “even cubed,” in Bergdahl’s case, because to a person, it was believed that he “walked off” if not deserted, said another official.
Lt. Col. Jason Amerine, a celebrated U.S. Army soldier who led the rescue mission for Bergdahl from the Pentagon and later testified about the dysfunction in hostage recovery, told Serial how disenchanted he had become with the human and bureaucratic ambivalence in all hostage cases.
“I was in uniform for 27 years, for me the notion of not leaving a soldier behind, you know that you, internalize that. And for me it just always a false assumption that America doesn’t leave Americans behind,” he said. “I’ve never been put in this ridiculous position before, of wait, there are these Americans that no one gives a f-ck about? Nobody is doing anything to get them home. Our greater bureaucracy is treating their families horribly, telling these families to shut up and wait.”
“To me it was bordering on criminal how we are treating our common citizens.”
The political sturm und drang in Washington involving several negotiated, then failed, swap agreements ahead of Bergdahl’s eventual release in June 2014, are surprisingly left unexplored in Episode 9, which otherwise excels at highlighting the late Richard Holbrooke’s early role in Taliban reconciliation and the frustrating diplomatic fits and starts that led to Bergdahl’s release. It would be interesting to hear how detractors like Sen. John McCain might have complicated his rescue (we know how much they would like to see him back behind bars today).
They might get their wish. If convicted on the charges, Bergdahl could face life in prison.
Whether Serial will change minds in the court of public opinion is uncertain, but it has gone a long way toward showing where Bergdahl had control of his complicated surroundings, and where they got the better of him. And it’s not over. The 10th episode is expected in mid-March.
The production of plutonium pits—the fissile cores required to detonate the explosion in a nuclear weapon—is said to be the chokepoint of America’s nuclear program: when the pit assembly line shuts down, the clock on the arsenal’s shelf life starts ticking.
But there are an estimated 15,000 pits of various age in government storage, and experts insist an untold number of them have lifespans in excess of 100 years. Given that the United States has pledged to reduce its nuclear arsenal (now at 7,100 warheads, with approximately 1,635 deployed), there would appear to be no reason to re-engage the production of plutonium pits.
Just in the last few years, the Obama administration, once keen on nuclear disarmament, has instead reversed course with plans not only to maintain but to modernize the existing nuclear fleet. As the New York Times reported in 2014, the administration “is engaging in extensive atomic rebuilding while getting only modest arms reductions in return.”
This was borne out in the release of the White House budget on February 9. According to analysts, Obama is going out with a bang, proposing to build new weapon systems for each leg of the nuclear triad: allocating roughly $3.2 billion to modernize and recapitalize nuclear submarines, bombers, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, and nuclear-equipped cruise missiles, and putting nuclear weapon modernization on track for an estimated $1 trillion price tag over the next 30 years.
This has nuclear watchdogs seeing red. Instead of moving forward to reduce the arsenal from the current New START Treaty ceiling, the administration appears to be taking Russia’s aggression on the world stage (which includes bolstering its own arsenal) as an invitation to re-engage the Cold War, maintaining the nuclear status quo “in perpetuity,” according to Kingston Reif of the Arms Control Association. “[The proposals] can only be achieved in the event of substantial and prolonged increases to overall military spending over the next decade (an unlikely prospect), or if nuclear programs are funded at the expense conventional modernization or other national security programs (a reckless and self-defeating prospect),” he writes.
Critics are in ready supply. There are realists who do note that the current nuclear arsenal entered service in the Reagan administration, and to let it deteriorate further could send a dangerous signal to America’s enemies. But they also recognize that budgetary restraints will make it difficult to complete the kind of modernization envisioned—especially when the president’s budget asks for an equal investment in conventional weapons. Former Reagan defense official Lawrence Korb noted that the Pentagon’s planned upgrades would “nearly double the amount the country spends on its nuclear deterrent in the next decade compared to what it spent in the past decade.”
Then there are the nuclear reformers, who can’t reconcile the spending with present-day fiscal realities and, moreover, say the U.S. is sending the wrong signal by pursuing a $1 trillion nuclear weapons program. The U.S. and Russian arsenals already far surpass any other country in the world. At a time when America is telling other nations what nuclear facilities they can and cannot build and maintain, defending its own stockpile’s “strategic deterrence” brings hypocrisy to dizzying heights, they say.
“This administration’s proposal to renew and upgrade the entire nuclear triad as fast as possible, retiring essentially nothing and adding new capabilities as they become available, reflects a near-total absence of intellectual and moral leadership from the White House,” Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group tells TAC.
So what does this have to do with the pits? For some, the pits themselves have become a metaphor, the tell-tale heart of the nuclear age. “[The] locus of the most potential energy on earth, it’s the closest mankind has ever come to producing a devil in a bottle,” wrote Russ Wellen in 2014.
But beyond their existential implications, critics believe—much like other skeptics of the Military-Industrial Complex—that producing more pits is just make-work for the government’s nuclear labs, and big bucks for the contractors. The modernization program only exacerbates these conditions.
“We have an oversized nuclear weapons complex and to justify the budget they have to do something,” said Frank von Hippel, co-Director of Princeton’s Science and Global Security program. Watchdogs say that with interested politicians, corporations, and government in collusion, citizens are left out of the decision-making process. “People think we are out of the Cold War, at least for now, and people are thinking nukes aren’t in our everyday life any more. A lot is going on under the radar,” said Lydia Dennett of the Project on Government Oversight.
The widely known defense contractor Bechtel leads the public-private partnership now running Los Alamos National Laboratory. But the National Nuclear Security Administration (or NNSA, the semi-autonomous part of the Department of Energy that oversees the development and modernization of the nation’s nuclear warheads) announced Bechtel’s $2.2 billion contract won’t be renewed after a series of missteps, including a fire that severely burned a lab worker and possible contamination of enriched uranium stemming from two incidents in 2014. While critics cheer Bechtel’s departure, no one knows yet which new contractor-led group will take over.
Los Alamos is ground zero for the pit issue. It is the only place in the country that is equipped to make pits; it can produce about 10 a year. But politicians and bureaucrats in Washington say that is not enough, and so have engaged on an ongoing and, to some, confounding effort to pour billions of dollars into an expanded plutonium facility that could someday accommodate the production of 80 pits a year.
In 2011, TAC reported on the pitfalls of another production project at Los Alamos—the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF), a budget metastasizing plan that, while far from finished, was itself supposed to increase pit production capacity to that magic number of 80 a year.
The cost had escalated to an estimated $6 billion, and critics warned that it could be a safety and environmental disaster, as the facility was designed over seismic fault lines. After much criticism by opponents like Mello and Nuclear Watch New Mexico, CMRR-NF was abruptly dropped by the administration in late 2014.
But the party was short-lived. Using the excuse of a promised new weapon—the Interoperable Warhead—that would require a new kind of pit, Congress mandated that Los Alamos build the capacity for no less than 80 pits a year by 2026. As a result, the laboratory was given the green light in December to begin plans for an underground series of “modules”—high hazard, high security labs that would extend the life of the main plutonium facility. This, combined with the growing nuclear capacity of the recently completed Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building, should allow Los Alamos to eventually produce the 80-pit mandate.
“It was all a bait and switch,” Mello told TAC. The module plan was begun even before reformers helped to kill the CMRR-NF. He said this new facility could cost as much as $3 billion.
The NNSA’s total budget request is for $12.9 billion for FY17, an increase of $357 million above its FY16 appropriation. Of that funding, $9.2 billion is slated for upgrade and maintenance of the weapons themselves.
The NNSA would not confirm the estimated price tag for the new facility, but told TAC that it is only in its nascent stages. “Specific details about design (size, capabilities, cost, schedule, etc.) are not determined until the Analysis of Alternatives is complete and the proposal moves into conceptual design,” said spokeswoman Francie Israeli.
Israeli did not respond to questions critics have raised about the need for the pits. She indicated that the lab, which will resume developmental-level pit production in 2016, is just following congressional orders.
So how did Congress move forward with the 80-pit mandate without debate? As critics point out, the Interoperable Warhead is still just a glint in the government’s eye, as the Navy has already delayed it for more than five years. But support for increasing pit production is bipartisan.
“I strongly support efforts to strategically reduce our nuclear arsenal through international disarmament agreements,” Sen. Tom Udall, (D-New Mexico), said in a January email to the New Mexican. “But as we do so, it’s prudent to ensure the safety and security of the remaining weapons by ensuring the plutonium pits are viable.”
But even if the president’s modernization plans were eventually realized, there are enough “viable” pits in reserve to service it for decades, say critics. “We estimate that there will be on average 2.4 reserve warheads and reusable pits for every deployed warhead overall,” Mello said. “In addition to all these reserves, there are already thousands of pits in storage—it is not publicly known how many—for potential re-use across type.”
Not every member of Congress is on board with the new mandate. “I strongly disagree with ramping up plutonium pit production, no matter whether it’s at a new facility in Los Alamos or anywhere else,” said Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), who sits on the Strategic Forces subcommittee.
“Moreover, the NNSA hasn’t even told us why they feel the need to increase pit production when we already have an unused stockpile of thousands of pits,” he told TAC in a statement, noting that he unsuccessfully filed an amendment to the 2015 NDAA that would have required the NNSA report on the rationale and cost of expanding pit production.
The best one can hope for, say critics, is that the process for the renewed pit production will again be overcome by cost and bureaucratic obstacles. Despite the $2.1 billion Los Alamos is getting in the president’s budget, there is no line item for the modules, just money for “plutonium production.”
Mello said they “were pleased” that that line item would be kicked down the road, to another president. “NNSA has another year to think this through before plunking capital asset money on the table.”
Nevertheless Mello is girding for a fight—especially now that the heat is increasing on the global stage. This could mean plum times for the nuclear state, he said. “Basically, the scale of investment in the labs and in production infrastructure requires a new Cold War to justify it.”
Americans were shocked recently to find out that one by one, 14 Marines who had served together in a single unit in Afghanistan had committed suicide since returning to the states in 2008, with several more attempting to end their lives, sometimes repeatedly.
In November, TAC talked to Tommy Rieman, an Iraq War vet besieged by demons, who drove his car into a tree to end his own life. Fortunately he failed.
The first common thread in these incidents is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The second is that these vets wanted to harm themselves, not others. The third thing is they didn’t seek help earlier for fear of looking unhinged and helpless in the eyes of society.
So when Sarah Palin seemed to be blaming her son Track’s recent domestic assault charge on PTSD—and however indirectly, President Obama’s “disrespect” for the troops—veterans across the board delivered a swift and uniform rebuke. It’s probably one of the reasons why “Momma Grizzly” seems to have been packed off by Donald Trump and returned to Alaska C.O.D.
“Underneath her nonsense lies a very dangerous allegation — that all veterans are ticking time bombs, ready to brandish weapons,” tweeted Afghanistan veteran and writer Nate Bethea, who recounted his own PTSD and how, during his darkest moments, “at no point did I lash out at anyone, because that would have made me feel worse. It would have confirmed my suspicions of being defective.”
The news broke of Track Palin’s arrest the morning of her January 20 stump speech. Track allegedly punched his girlfriend in the face with a closed fist, kicked her and threatened to kill himself with an AR-15 rifle. This wasn’t the first time the 26-year-old Iraq vet had been in trouble. In 2014, Track and sister Bristol Palin were involved in a well-publicized drunken brawl involving at least 20 individuals at a Wasilla party. Palin, ever-ready to paint broad garish strokes for political expediency, attempted to foist this one over as political-personal testimonial for Trump’s candidacy:
So, when my own son is going through what he goes through after coming back, I can certainly relate with other families who kind of feel these ramifications of some PTSD and some of the woundedness that our soldiers do return with—and it makes me realize more than ever, it is now or never for the sake of America’s finest, that we have that commander-in-chief who will respect them and honor them.
After covering veterans issues for 20 years, beginning with PTSD among Vietnam veterans, then Gulf War Illness, and now a whole new war, this reporter can tell you there is nothing that provokes veterans more than politicians suggesting they are crazy and unfit for society. PTSD is a mental condition, and while tens of thousands or more of active duty military and recent veterans are suffering from it, along with other illnesses like service connected depression and anxiety, context is everything. Indulging in caricatures to make a buck (Hollywood), or to win elections (politicians), is a no-go zone for vets.
As Bethea wrote later in the New York Times:
That (healing) process begins by speaking frankly. Facing up to destructive or abusive behavior comes next, along with the assertion that we are responsible for our actions, no matter what burdens we carry. Post-traumatic stress is no excuse for violence or abuse, nor should it be considered a default association. I’d like to hope that, beneath the bluster and the political talking points, Sarah Palin understands this. I hope even more that her son seeks care and finds peace.
This is not political correctness. it is a matter of protecting everything each generation has worked for, says Hal Donahue, a Vietnam veteran and writer who focuses on veterans issues. He says it took decades, but society today is more open and welcoming to troubled veterans, and this in turn has encouraged more men and women than ever to seek help when they need it.
“We are making progress—it has been a bipartisan effort and it has been working. To damage that for political reasons is appalling,” said Donahue.
“Guys with PTSD—and I know many of them—are more likely to hurt themselves more than anyone else. She basically linked PTSD to domestic violence. It is not an image that helps veterans.”
That Palin made these assertions during a hyper-media-magnified political speech made it more unseemly because one of the loudest complaints by veterans during campaign season is that for all the tub thumping for war—particularly by Republicans—there is hardly anything left for vets when they come home, save for the “tie the yellow ribbon” platitudes and a few crumbs about funding the the VA.
“We are hearing a lot from the candidates about their plans to send our military to face the world’s threats, but little about how they plan to take care of them when they come home,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).
After dropping out of last week’s Fox-sponsored debate, Donald Trump announced he would hold his own event to compete with it, and donate the funds raised to veterans’ groups. Rieckhoff called it out as gimmickry, and said IAVA wouldn’t accept any of Trump’s money if offered.
“We need strong policies from candidates, not to be used for political stunts,” he tweeted Thursday afternoon. He told MSNBC that he hoped PTSD and veterans did not become a “chew toy” during the rest of the campaign.
Leo Shane, a writer for Military Times, illustrates the sad reality when it comes to veterans’ issues in the campaign. After 14 years of non-stop war and over 2 million men and women serving, he tweets, “veterans” were mentioned all of 10 times over the course of six GOP debates. The Democratic candidates did better with 21 mentions over six debates. Of course after Trump raised the issue Thursday in his own ringleader fashion, the Republican candidates, both in the so-called undercard debate and on stage at the main event, found their inner veterans’ advocate. But most sensed the pandering.
“The evening was the culmination of a week of political posturing with wounded service members confusingly thrust in the middle of the Republican fight,” Shane wrote afterwards.
“We are tired of being pawns in political games. We are tired of being forgotten once we serve. We are tired of being ignored in political debates by the people who would assume the role of Commander-in-Chief,” tweeted Tim Everett, who says he is a recent veteran and indie filmmaker, after the September 16 GOP debate.
“What comes after war? Peace—not a single reference to peace last night,” he continued. “What comes after war? Healing and therapy, trauma and horror. PTSD. Surgeries. Medicine. Endless waits at the VA. Not a single reference to the plight of veterans.”
Palin struck a nerve for all these reasons and more. The fact is, soldiers from the wars that Palin and others have so strenuously promoted have been coming home changed, if not damaged. Studies have indicated that yes, individuals with combat-related PTSD can be more prone to violence, including domestic abuse, than those veterans without PTSD. Much of that is fueled by substance abuse and other factors. Some vets suffering from PTSD also have a traumatic brain injury (TBI). It can be difficult to sort out all of these risk factors.
Take the “Lethal Warriors,” the name given to the Army’s 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, stationed in Fort Carson, Colorado, and the subject of a book by Colorado Gazette reporter Dave Philipps. When they returned from two bloody tours in Iraq, taking the most casualties of any Fort Carson brigade combat team, they became the most infamous group stateside. “Since 2005,” Phillips wrote in his original series, “the brigades’ returning soldiers have been involved in brawls, beatings, rapes, DUIs, drug deals, domestic violence, shootings, stabbings, kidnapping, and suicide.”
But Philipps’ in-depth interviews and research were more than just shock-doc storytelling. He wanted to convey that there are consequences when redeploying people already damaged by war (or in some cases, not psychologically fit for combat in the first place). He wanted to show that these men asked for help and did not get it. He later went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for exposing that the military was responsible for discharging thousands of soldiers without benefits for “misconduct,” many who were wounded and needed mental health care.
Sadly, an Army report released just before Philipps’ “Lethal Warriors” series showed that the base itself had failed to provide the support for returning soldiers that would help prevent the violence and self-destruction rampant at Fort Carson. Then-Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker said the risk factors (repeated high intensity deployments, PTSD, substance abuse, failures in leadership, stigma and other barriers to help) were a “toxic mix” that let to the shocking statistics there.
So it’s complicated, a mess that war promoters like Palin had a hand in making, but now want to use as a bludgeon against their political opponents. Veterans and their advocates won’t let that happen. They know PTSD is complex. Many of the veterans treatment courts popping up around the country take on violent offenders, for example, as well as DUIs and substance abusers.
Veterans know the first step is taking responsibility for their actions. They just ask that politicians like Palin do the same. And they would appreciate it if public figures would keep veterans issues out of their partisan endorsement speeches.
The Afghan military sustained twice as many losses in the last year as U.S. forces killed in the entire 13 years of war in Afghanistan. And the pace of casualties is escalating, suggesting that the Taliban is stronger than the Pentagon and mainstream media have ever let on—in fact, the Afghan security forces are a house of cards experts say is destined to fall.
Just this week, the Associated Press reported that upwards of 40 percent of Afghan security forces are “ghosts”—soldiers and police who exist on the books but are otherwise nowhere to be found. With current maps showing the Taliban holding more territory than at any time since 2001, and ISIS moving in to make a play for their turf, confidence that a “national” army can defend Afghanistan on its own is at an all-time low.
“It is not succeeding, that’s the point,” says Anthony Cordesman, senior security analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Numbers and facts on the ground, he tells TAC, are hard to come by. “There is no transparency—you can’t trust anything. There is no meaningful readiness data anymore.”
But a careful look at how these forces were trained and how it was reported in the media suggests the true picture was skewed the whole time. In fact, the effort might have been doomed from the start.
“There was gross over-assessments of success coming out of CENTCOM [Central Command]—no one bothers to go back and check,” said Cordesman. Congress, too, fell down on the job. “When they could have imposed meaningful transparency and systematic accountability, the congress never did.” The military padded its reports, blew smoke at Congress and enabled a White House in denial, he said (an investigation into how much is ongoing).
Today, the Pentagon assessments are a bit more staid. In December, the military reported to Congress that
Although the ANDSF [Afghan Security Forces] have capability advantages over the insurgent forces, they remain reluctant to pursue the Taliban into their traditional safe havens. Given the ANDSF’s current stage of development, they cannot manage the insurgency and ensure security and stability across Afghanistan without further improvement…
Larry Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan, said the situation is eerily like Vietnam. “When we left there, the millions [of South Vietnamese army soldiers] we trained looked great on paper. [But] really, they crumbled. As we know now from the archives, the North Vietnamese were surprised at how easy it was.”
When President Obama announced his intentions of keeping 9,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan through 2017, no one argued with his assertion that the more than 325,000 Afghan forces there weren’t fit to defend the country on their own.
“The bottom line is,” Obama said in October, “in key areas of the country, the security situation is still very fragile, and in some places there is risk of deterioration.”
You bet it’s fragile. When the Taliban briefly took over Kunduz in October, many of the Afghan forces reportedly ran in the face of the Taliban invasion.
Knowing nods all around. The same thing happened in Iraq over the last year and a half, when the Islamic State took over town after town and the American-trained Iraqi army evaporated like mist.
Thanks to the Pentagon shell game, it’s difficult to zero in on the numbers, but the last official count for the Afghan army released by the Pentagon in July was 176,420 and that was down from 2014, much from desertion. (Reuters just reported that a third of the Army had to be replenished in 2015 due to casualties and soldiers walking away). The police numbered 148,296. But if recent reports about “ghost soldiers” are correct, these metrics are a mirage.
Sadly, the U.S. spent $25 billion building and training the Iraqi military, and more than double that—$65 billion—doing the same thing in Afghanistan. And the money keeps pouring into the sieve. According to Stars & Stripes, the U.S. and coalition partners spent $4.1 billion on Afghan forces in 2015 alone.
“Prudence might actually counsel that Washington assume instead, when it comes to organizing, training, equipping, and motivating foreign armies, that the United States is essentially clueless,” wrote Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich in October.
Yet instead of considering whether they were chasing rainbows with nothing but an empty pot at the end, the defense establishment in Washington—whether it be the military or the web of think tanks and contractors that supported it—took great pains to convince the purse holders and American public that more resources would do the trick. As we know now, it never did.
One telling moment came in 2014, when the Pentagon announced it was destroying or breaking down into scrap much of the equipment and vehicles in Afghanistan before U.S. forces pulled out. “[The Afghans] don’t have the requisite skills to maintain these things,” noted Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, who served in Afghanistan as an Army acquisition chief from 2011-12, at the time.
Korb concurs. “If you give that stuff to the Afghan or even the Afghan Security Forces, it could still end up with the Taliban. You have to err on the side of caution.”
How Did This Happen?
A review of a decade of public reports about the training exposes how fragile these efforts were from the beginning.
As Cordesman noted, the military establishment created a Potemkin Village, playing the press and Congress like violins during hearings and visits from congressional delegations. “The Afghan National Army is making tremendous progress and is a factor on the battlefield,” boasted a Pentagon press release in 2007. “Progress” is always relative of course, and while the soldiers might be a “factor,” reports dating back a decade are typically shrewd about how they define exactly what that means.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the late Michael Hastings’ book, The Operators. In that account, then-Gen. Stanley McChrystal shared his skepticism about the war with Hastings sotto voce, while publicly—and for Washington—he promoted it. When Hastings writes about this apparent contradiction, the mainstream media pounces on him for not playing along. He devotes an entire chapter of the book to the “Media-Military Industrial Complex.”
“The unwritten rule I’d broken was a simple one,” he said. “You really weren’t supposed to write honestly about people in power,” or by extension, the war.
Meanwhile, we may never know how much and where all the money for training was spent. That’s because, as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has pointed out, much has been classified, sometimes retroactively, due to “national security” concerns.
So all we have to go on is SIGAR’s work, and bits and pieces of press releases, contract notices, and think-tank analyses. For example, a 2011 RAND white paper entitled “The Long March” shows billions appropriated for building infrastructure, as well as equipping, arming, and sustaining Afghan troops. Here too is careful massaging of the language to suggest that success was just around the corner, but “in spite of the progress made in the development of the ANA, its operational effectiveness remains very much in the balance.”
There is disappointment, too, over coalition countries dragging their feet on money and trainers. “The progress of Afghan forces is such that U.S. military officials are asking for a much larger commitment”—meaning money—“from the U.S. government to accelerate the pace of training for the Afghan National Army and to improve the Afghan army’s equipment,” the Pentagon said in a 2007 release, which featured quotes from Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, then chief of the combined forces in Afghanistan, later the U.S. ambassador there.
However, he added, “I will firmly tell you in 2007 that the Afghans want this army more than we do.”
Since then billions more were spent, much of it through contractors including infamous Blackwater (now Academi), with some hope—akin to a belief in fairies and unicorns—that the Afghan government would be able to sustain it all when the West finally pulls out.
The U.S. Institute for Peace said in 2013 that “the residual cost of sustaining the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) assistance program after 2014 is estimated at between $2 billion and $6 billion, more than the Afghan government’s annual budget.” That’s an annual cost, according to the Washington Post.
A CNAS report in January 2015 guessed the Americans would be footing most of that bill. Like most Washington assessments, however, it started off sunny:
In September 2014, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) trainers assessed 33 of 40 ANSF units to be either “capable” or “fully capable.” … Moreover, the ANSF are now “in the lead” for security operations across the country and are scheduled to be fully responsible for this mission by the end of 2014.
The rest of the report, however indirectly, describes why it won’t work. Phrases like “in the lead,” it seems, are fungible too.
More recently, CSIS pulled together a number of 2015 assessments that challenge whatever optimistic predictions CNAS had in the first place.
As for the police, U.S. contractor Dyncorp has received billions in reconstruction funds, including contracts to train security forces, since the war began. Even after the State Department was blamed for failing and the reins were turned over to the Pentagon in 2010, Dyncorp escaped scrutiny. It kept getting lucrative multi-year deals, despite falling short. In January 2015, Dyncorp won another contract for $100 million to train and mentor Afghan police and military.
Despite what the U.S. Institute for Peace calls “remarkable progress,” the police as an institution remain prone to “corruption, incompetence, abuse of power, and pervasive illiteracy.” As of May 2014, despite a total of $15 billion spent, thousands of cops on the books remained untrained. And the $300 million a year the U.S. forks over for their salaries? Much of it is unaccounted for, according to SIGAR.
“Our track record at building security forces over the past 15 years is miserable,” Eikenberry told the New York Times recently, changing his earlier tune. Today, he writes about the failures of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. As though anyone was listening.
The Afghan Local Police system, on the other hand, is a corrupt, destabilizing, dangerous hot mess, thanks in part to the U.S. military, which put ex-warlords and militiamen in control of many constabularies across the country. As always, little consideration was given to local tribal interests and communities, many of whom have since turned to the Taliban as an alternative. But this seems to be the case with the training of all security forces, with little accounting for Afghanistan’s ethnic, tribal, and sectarian culture. As a result, the Afghan resistance to the Western template has resulted in fraud, failure, and widespread mistrust between the international and Afghan forces.
“A lot of this was about imposing outside systems that in many ways do not conform to local [culture], taking existing structures and breaking them,” said Cordesman.
“The real key is that you have to be able and willing to fight and die for your country,” added Korb. But is there an Afghan “nation” that local security forces believe in enough to die for? If not, should the U.S. continue to send thousands of soldiers and contractors into harm’s way for nothing?
These are very expensive questions indeed. Most agree Washington doesn’t have 13 more years to find out.
It ain’t easy being a libertarian anti-war activist. No one trusts your motives and the scene is rife with assumption: If on the left, the heart bleeds for humanity, while libertarians want to make sure no one drops blood on behalf of the state. One is selfless, while the other is selfish. Or so the metaphors go.
But for 20 years, while some anti-war movements on the left have waned and evaporated with the changing of the guard in the White House, the libertarians and self-described paleoconservatives at Antiwar.com have endured and outlasted the suspicion and derision of the mainstream, not to mention the slings and arrows of the War Party.
They’ve outlived at least one war (Bosnia), are growing old with others (Afghanistan, Iraq), and meet each new one (Libya, Syria) with the same hard gaze and piercing reporting and commentary.
Antiwar.com has even outlasted the vitriol of its critics. David Frum—the former Bush speechwriter who coined the phrase “axis of evil”—once called Antiwar.com co-founder Justin Raimondo an unpatriotic, self-defeating, sympathizer of terror when he refused to goosestep with other conservatives behind the invasion of Iraq. Where is Frum today? After remaking himself as an establishment pundit, the Canadian-born recovering neoconservative is now furiously distancing himself from the inmates he helped take over the asylum, and chafing against any allusions to his former persona.
Meanwhile, while not rich in coin or feted among the media elite, Raimondo and co-founder Eric Garris, who conceived of the website and have been running it every day for 20 years, take satisfaction in knowing that—unlike Frum—they were right about the disastrous trajectory of the wars they opposed, and can sleep at night with a clear conscience.
“We were hard core about it and we didn’t give an inch and we were proved right,” says Raimondo, now 60-something, and though he confesses to being more “tired,” he has kept up the pace of three columns a week for over a decade. “We stood strong.”
Garris, a Los Angeles baby-boomer who cut his teeth on a civil rights march at age eight, laughs to think today how Raimondo first rebuffed his idea to take their protest of the 1995 NATO bombing in Bosnia online, calling the advent of news websites “a passing phase.” Juiced on libertarian thinkers like Randolph Bourne, Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand, and fully entrenched in libertarian grassroots politics, both soon realized the Internet provided the best space to explore and report on war from a libertarian-right perspective. They believed—and still do—that foreign policy was the “central issue of our time.”
They had already thrown their support behind then-presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, who had opposed the first Gulf War and had later co-founded TAC. They were ready to reach out to others on the right tired with the interventionist orthodoxy. “We wanted to educate why foreign policy isn’t an afterthought,” Raimondo recalled.
“In the Clinton years, it was a lonely battle because the people who you would think would be the first to respond to a website called Antiwar.com would be on the left,” he added. “Back then I was writing a column every single day including Sunday. Partly it was frustrating that we were not getting the support I thought we were going to get.” The left, particularly under a Democratic administration (recall that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke, and First Lady Hillary Clinton were the early vanguard of modern humanitarian interventionism), were knee-jerk in their suspicions of the anti-war right.
Libertarian anti-war critics faced the double duty of defending themselves against traditional hawks, too. Though it was slightly easier in a time when Republicans were opposing the NATO operations and late 1990s airstrikes in Iraq, many of course out of purely political motives. Then, as today, libertarians are considered suspect, no matter how strongly their positions on war and domestic security line up with the left or right.
Raimondo in particular has a bare-knuckled writing style that both endears and repels readers, depending on what they want to hear. An openly gay man who long eschewed the support system of the liberal San Francisco activist community he lives alongside, he’s sarcastic and doesn’t shrink from public conflicts with other writers and readers, nor is he averse to making them personal. He burns bridges, and has bad blood with people going back years. But he’s the first to admit it, and the same passion he is criticized for unleashing like a literary Smaug is what makes his columns so sharp, funny and cathartic.
“Justin Raimondo is a cross between H. L. Mencken and Gore Vidal,” offers Angela Keaton, who is the longtime director of operations at Antiwar.com and currently among its staff of seven. “His chronicling of a decaying empire is both depressing and exhilarating.”
Raimondo isn’t the only writer that has bolstered the website over two decades. Antiwar.com boasts a revolving stable of trenchant writers hailing from different spheres: journalists, academics, columnists, retired military and intelligence agents. Particularly after 9/11 put the country on a firm and forever war footing, the website drew not only a new audience and burgeoning fame in the online news media universe, but writers who wanted a say yet were rebuffed by corporate platforms uneasy with critiquing the status quo.
“We were there in terms of providing alternative ways for thinking about 9/11,” recalled Garris.
“It was interesting, we didn’t become a major site until the day after 9/11,” added Raimondo, noting the website logged some 80,000 visitors the day after the terror attacks alone (up from an average of maybe 5,000). “We started getting death threats and also media attention.” PBS NewsHour did a segment on the website; the Drudge Report included a link in his covered media roll, where it remains today.
Over the years a host of regular contributors (including this writer, far from a libertarian purist) found a welcome perch at Antiwar.com. They hailed from both the left and the right, crossing generational lines and addressing the rise of so many different elements of the growing military-industrial complex and new security state.
“One of the goals of Antiwar was to mainstream the anti-war position as opposed to pigeon-hole it into some kind of leftwing, Democrat endeavor,” said Garris. The result was that on any given day one could find writing from conservatives Patrick J. Buchanan, Jude Wanniski, Ron Paul, and the late Charlie Reese alongside leftist writers like Noam Chomsky, Gareth Porter, Andrew Cockburn, Juan Cole and Norman Solomon. Phil Giraldi and Ray McGovern have lent their long experience in the U.S. intelligence community to the cause. For a long time until his death in 2012, Jeff Huber brought his gold-standard wit and military insight to the page, coining nomenclatures like “Bullfeather Merchants” and “Pavlov Dogs of War” to describe the warmakers he despised. He gave nicknames to his favorite targets like Ray “Desert Ox” Odierno and “Uncle Leo” Leon Panetta and used his own Navy background to skewer the day’s war headlines.
Every day editors like Jason Ditz have made sure there was an updated compendium of news links and fresh stories covering current news on the war, categorized by region, conflict, and domestic security issues. Antiwar has had some of the best in the trenches and behind the scenes, including Jeremy Sapienza, Matt Barganier and John Glaser. The Scott Horton Show—now independent but still found on the site—increased reach and gave the brand a depth that went beyond just a sounding board. It was interactive.
“There is no other show like that,” said Keaton, who helps the site raise money, works conferences and exhibitions, and participates in panel discussions. “Scott opened up Antiwar to a new and younger audience.”
Of course when President Obama took office Antiwar lost some of its progressive writers and readers. But they expect the same if a Republican ever wins the White House again. “There are people who say they are anti-war but they are really only anti-a particular war,” said Garris. “They don’t care about policy, they care about power.”
Good riddance to those people, says Keaton. While it made it difficult for Antiwar’s fundraising after Obama came to wage “the good war” in Afghanistan, it has made their own movement that much stronger, she said.
“Working for Antiwar has meant absolute consistency. We are going to remain the same, respond the same way, along the same editorial lines,” she said. Thanks to the the great leadership of Garris, she said, “it is extremely cohesive. I couldn’t be prouder.”
Of course Antiwar has not been without controversy. Among its readership, the site invariably draws elements of the fringe—quite the minority—but among them are 9/11 truthers and anti-Semites, who show up from time to time in the comment fields and link back to Antiwar from their own websites and blogs. Raimondo’s regular critiques of Israel and neoconservatives, particularly during the run-up to the Iraq War, have also drawn accusations of anti-Semitism. Raimondo denies the label but considers it intimidation and hasn’t let up one inch on Bibi Netanyahu or neocons. He and Garris also drew attention from the FBI; a file, obtained through FOIA, showed federal agents were once looking at Antiwar.com as a “threat to national security,” in part because of Raimondo’s writing about Israel in the wake of 9/11 and its criticisms of the U.S. in general.
Those revelations were a mixed blessing. At first Garris thought publicizing this, particularly in the wake of Edward Snowden’s exposure of the government’s vast domestic surveillance programs, would help, but it ended up turning away prospective donors and making current ones wary. “It has hurt us—we’ve had to make cutbacks, we’ve had to cut staff,” he said. “It wasn’t the effect I was expecting.” Today, Antiwar brings in about $500,000 a year, and that goes all to annual operations, Garris said. Times are lean, but stable, he added. A presidential contest that all but promises the election of a war hawk no matter what party wins won’t hurt.
Given there is war—and more war—on the horizon, plus a national security state that makes whatever the Clinton years did to harm civil liberties look infantile in comparison, what does the team think they’ve achieved in 20 years?
“We’ve played a major part in influencing young people, people who are not necessarily left-wing but anti-war,” he said. The burst of Ron Paul mania in 2008 and 2012 comes to mind. “The Internet, it’s a young person’s game and for a significant time we have been opening people’s minds to [anti-interventionism]. Who knows who the 16-year-old of today is going to grow up to be?”
Raimondo doesn’t sugarcoat things. “I think we were the first to popularize the notion that a cabal of neoconservatives led us down a path to war,” he said. “I think that is our best achievement right there. Making known to people there was a specific group of of people and institutions that were plumbing for war and specifically a war in the Middle East.”
What next? Keeping alive the idea of non-interventionism amid the changing tides of politics, he says. Battling charges of isolationism and worse, it could be a challenge, but never unsurmountable. “We’re a rock, and the sea is rising up against us, but we endure.”
Obliterate. Destroy. Bomb them into the stone age.
After nearly 15 years of war, we are used to this kind of bombast from warhawks and Republican candidates eager to make a muscular point on the debate dias. But now, particularly after the shocking attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, calls to “unleash” the full power of the U.S. military overseas—even if that means eliminating “cumbersome” and “restrictive” rules of engagement—have taken on a more realistic, if not mainstream urgency.
Led by a vanguard of camera-ready lawmakers and armchair generals, the march to “take the gloves off” is now punctuated with language that taps into real fears over domestic terrorism, government mistrust, and the prevailing cultural divide.
This was all too apparent during Tuesday’s GOP debate. When asked about his earlier remarks about “carpet bombing ISIS into oblivion,” Ted Cruz walked it back some but not all. “You would carpet bomb where ISIS is, not a city, but the location of the troops,” he said, avoiding the obvious problem that the militants have strategically located themselves in cities. Donald Trump danced around a question about collateral damage in Syria, but when Rand Paul reminded him of the Geneva Conventions, he let it rip.
“So, they can kill us, but we can’t kill them?”
It is in this milieu that the forever war pundit, the retired Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, thrives. In fact, he was so spun up on his own bravado after San Bernardino, he compared President Obama to a woman’s private parts on live television (Fox News suspended him). Still, he knows that other kinds of dirty words, like “lawyers” and “political correctness,” always hit their mark.
Our military has the resources to shatter ISIS, but political correctness has penetrated so deep into the Pentagon that, even should a president issue the one-word order, “Win!,” our initial actions would be cautious and halting … Instead of “leaning forward in the foxhole,” our leaders lean on lawyers.
Peters and others now have their sights trained on Raqqa, a major stronghold for ISIS. The city is a particularly horrific place, as described by recent refugees and brave journalists who report on forced marriages, crucifixions, beheadings and the brutality of the religious police. The predominantly Sunni community was a center of resistance against President Bashar Assad five years ago, but ISIS methodically took it over, sending families fleeing and an untold number to an early grave. Today, no unaccompanied women under 45 are permitted to leave the city. Children are stolen and trained as fighters. It’s a cage, a ripe target for Bashar Assad’s barrel bombs, according to the journalists, and now British, French, Russian and yes, U.S. airstrikes.
“When you say ‘Raqqa,’ the first thing people think of is ISIS,” said one member of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), in a New Yorker interview. “They forget the hundreds of thousands of civilians, normal people like us. I am not a terrorist.”
But Ralph Peters thinks he is. In fact, to Peters, Raqqa is the perfect example of the rules of engagement serving as a tether on American might: “The generals who won World War II would start by leveling Raqqa, the ISIS caliphate’s capital, ” Peters blasted forth in a November op-ed. “Civilians would die, but those remaining in Raqqa have embraced ISIS, as Germans did Hitler. The jihadis must be crushed. Start with their ‘Berlin.’”
Nevermind that the strategic impact of the U.S. firebombing of German cities has been hotly contested over the decades with one consensus growing around the conclusion that its effects were exaggerated and largely inefficient—-save for killing between 400,000 to 600,000 civilians. More recent examples, including Vietnam, and later Fallujah, would suggest that bombing—whether it be the “leveling” that Peters asks for, or the “precision” kind—is not a panacea.
But Peters’ hyperbole aside, the prevailing suggestion that the military has been “restricted” in striking at ISIS targets, encumbered by meddlesome lawyers, is worth noting, and dissecting.
“We’ve had incredible restrictions on what we call rules of engagement so, as a result, it takes layers to get approval for a target, it takes too much time, the enemy gets away on us, we’re not really going after the right targets,” contends retired Gen. Jack Keane, who after steering the U.S. military “surge” in Iraq, enjoys a regular perch on Fox News and serves as the chairman of the Institute for the Study of War, an outfit run by serial interventionist Kim Kagan. So what are these “restrictions?” If they should be removed, what then? With the Department of Defense under pressure to step up its game against ISIS, TAC decided to ask several retired military officers.
“The level of aggression used by the military has consequences, for the force itself, the people with whom the military force comes into contact, and the perspective of such by the larger community receiving reports about any given action,” said Dakota Wood, a former strategist for the Marine Corps Special Operations Command who now serves as a senior defense fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
“’Loose’ or permissive ROE may enable a military force to use force/violence more freely, perhaps reducing short term risk to the units/soldiers involved but it could also increase risk and jeopardize the mission by enabling what could be perceived as ‘wanton destruction,’” he added.
“It really depends on the context and what is to be achieved.’”
The Military’s Perception
Charlie Dunlap, a highly regarded former Air Force Judge Advocate General (JAG) and head of Duke’s Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, says he’s been hearing complaints for months about restrictions on airstrikes.
As of mid-November, the U.S-led coalition has carried out more than 8,247 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, with more than three-quarters, 6,443, conducted by Americans. It is not clear whether that figure includes strikes from the separate CIA drone war in Syria, which is targeting ISIS leadership in coordination with Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) on the ground.
When Micah Zenko suggested earlier this year that the number of strikes were far below that of past U.S. operations in Iraq and even Bosnia, the response was swift and negative. Stories abounded about pilots returning from missions, their payloads intact. In response to a senator’s question December 9, Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that 40 percent of sorties were returning without having fired their weapons.
The reason why is somewhere buried in the rhetoric, say the military experts who spoke with TAC. The rules of engagement (ROE) document is classified, so no one outside those cleared to see it knows what it is. Everything is based on hearsay.
But Dunlap believes the operation in Syria has been restrained by the White House targeting policy announced amid drone war criticisms in May 2013, which is more restrictive than the standard rules of engagement under the 1949 Geneva Conventions as they relate to civilians. Under those measures, attacks are prohibited if they “may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.”
The 2013 policy standards and procedures call for “near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed.” If this supersedes international law in the Syrian campaign, Dunlap says, then it is indeed hindering the military’s ability to take out ISIS, which is largely based in population centers like Raqqa, Dunlap told TAC. “Near certainty,” he said, is impossible.
“What does seem clear is that a strategic misjudgment has been made in thinking that stricter rules than what the law requires would somehow earn support among the civilian populace in Syria and Iraq, not to mention among our European allies and even the American people,” Dunlap said. “But there is no evidence that that has happened. The reality is that civilians suffer more when ISIS’s barbarism is allowed to persist, and thoughtful people realize that.”
The Pentagon did not return calls for comment. Meanwhile, stories about pilots hemmed in by “zero civilian casualty” rules are in ready supply. Despite assurances from the White House in 2014 that the “zero” policy did not apply to Syria and Iraq, Martha Raddatz at ABC News reported in November that she was told the opposite by officers at the Combined Joint Operations Center (CJOC) in Erbil, where “strike officers” who call in the attacks from the ground are headquartered.
About that time, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said he was “prepared” to loosen the rules of engagement, much like the new freedom to hit the ISIS oil trucks and tankers, but one can only guess at what he meant.
Dunlap doesn’t think it’s “the lawyers” constraining operations, but the generals reportedly required to approve each strike. “It represents a lack of trust in subordinates, and is inevitably cumbersome because it requires the continuous presence of a flag officer,” he said.
“It is amazing that the decision has been made that even colonels are not competent to make these kinds of warfighting judgments,” he added.
Still, retired military officers like Dunlap seem uncomfortable with the bumper sticker bloviations deployed by politicians and cable news pundits. And they know that strikes are only as good as the intelligence on the ground, and right now that’s lacking, with or without strict policies from Washington.
“Lawyers advise commanders but they are not in the chain of command and do not approve or disapprove targets,” charged David Maxwell, a retired Army Special Forces colonel and professor at the Center for Strategic Studies at Georgetown. “They provide expert advice but are not the problem despite what Ralph Peters might say.”
Maxwell says common laws of war under the Geneva conventions “are absolutely necessary if we are going to be a moral nation.” Without reason and morality, he added, “we will trend toward absolute war and that is not something as Americans we want to see.”
‘Everyone is bombing Raqqa now’
After about a decade of a deep dive into Vietnam—including never before seen documents in the National Archives and myriad interviews with Vietnamese in country about their experiences living under U.S. fire—investigative reporter Nick Turse thinks he knows what the aftermath of “absolute war” looks like.
With a rush toward increasing the “body count” and pacifying a rebellion, the Vietnam-era “Operation Speedy Express” was the kind of gloves-off air and ground war that Peters talks about, and it did nothing to win the war. What it did was leave upwards of 7,000 civilians dead during a six month period in 1968 alone, according to one inspector general’s report and reporters on the ground.
“It is obvious from the evidence and records recovered that most of those killed in the Mekong Delta were civilians, because the rules of engagement were ignored,” Turse asserts. “The Delta was never pacified. The ultimate results speak for themselves — look who’s in control there today,” he added, noting the Communist government in Hanoi.
Turse and others blame “the cult of airpower” going back to the early 20th century for why the military thinks it can do better each time around. Abandoning carpet bombing for “precision strike” sounds like the modern solution, but even “smart bombs,” are a gross misrepresentation of reality, experts say. They are still vulnerable to weather conditions, jamming, and the subjectivity of the people calling in the strikes from the ground. As we saw recently with the U.S. bombing of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan, they can be deadly inaccurate.
Thinking people can disagree over how to handle ISIS. Dunlap and Maxwell say the military is in no rush for war in Syria but if they are tasked with going, they want to be able to “do it right.” Critics like Turse see intervention as provocation, the best recruiting tool ISIS could have. One thing they do agree on is that “taking the gloves off” to “level Raqqa” is the rhetoric of fools.
“Anyone who would advocate that we do not need [rules of engagement],” said Maxwell, “is not someone I would recommend quoting.”
Outside, its buildings bear the signs of the blistering sun and the sea. Inside, cell walls and “feeding chairs” trace, however invisibly, the blood and bodily fluids of men. The Guantanamo Bay detention camp is more than a memento of one of America’s darkest periods of war and insecurity—it is a living, breathing testament to it.
Year after year, President Obama has promised to close it. As he enters the last year of his final term, he may have to fight the entire Congress to get it done. It would appear he is ready: Instead of erasing GTMO from prepared remarks in Manila after the Paris attacks, he used the tragedy to stress why the notorious prison should be shuttered, calling it “an enormous recruitment tool for an organization like ISIL.”
“It’s how they rationalize and justify their sick perpetration of violence on its people,” he said on November 19. “We can keep the American people safe by shutting down that operation.”
Col. Morris Davis (Ret.), a former prosecutor at GTMO who resigned over the use of evidence gleaned through the torture of detainees there, agrees the president is on solid ground with the national security argument.
“If you need proof of whether Guantanamo helps ISIS promote its brand among those who might be susceptible to its influence, just look at the murder videos they’ve recorded and released,” Davis told TAC. “The murder victims are dressed in orange jump suits for a reason: To make them look like the Guantanamo detainees shown in the iconic Camp X-Ray pictures.”
“ISIS has been able to rationalize its brutality in the eyes of some by packaging it as a tit-for-tat for Guantanamo.”
It remains to be seen whether Obama has the political grit to follow through. He’s going to need it, and a whole lot of sass and strategery to get past Republican demagogues who suggest all Muslims, much less the ones languishing at Guantanamo Bay, are suspect. It could be the test of his presidency.
Of the 107 detainees remaining at the prison today, 48 are cleared for repatriation elsewhere. Around 50 men haven’t been charged with anything, but are deemed too dangerous for release. Just days before the Paris attacks, Obama announced the Pentagon would be releasing a plan for closing the prison and transferring those men to high security prisons in the U.S. The plan is supposed to include a list of facilities that are up to the task. The federal supermax prison in Colorado—ironically considered “the Alcatraz of the Rockies”—already holds 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaui, and is a likely place for transfer.
Even before the attacks, this drew the usual hyperbole from critics. Aside from the fear of prisoners breaking out, there’s the relatively new bugaboo that other terrorists may try to break in.
“I will not sit idly by while the president uses political promises to imperil the people of Colorado by moving enemy combatants from Cuba, Guantanamo Bay, to my state of Colorado,” Republican Senator Cory Gardner told a Capitol Hill news conference after he and 40 sheriffs signed a letter telling Obama he was “dangerously naïve not to recognize that a civilian prison with an untold number of enemy combatant inmates, located in our state, would provide a very tempting target for anyone wishing to either free these detainees or simply wishing to make a political statement.”
Shortly thereafter, the Senate passed a version of the National Defense Authorization Act that would again cut funding from any attempts to transfer detainees to domestic soil, preventing Guantanamo’s closure. The House passed the measure with a huge majority, 370-58. The Senate vote was 91-3, with the only dissenters being Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore). Wyden was the only one who cited GTMO as a reason for voting against the larger bill. Rand Paul, possibly the only other senator who might have stood against it, did not vote, and other Republican senators currently running for president were also absent.
Despite his objections, the president signed the bill Thursday. The administration has put out oblique signals, meanwhile, that it might be willing to use his executive authority to close GTMO instead. But constitutional questions aside, Obama also runs the risk of bypassing Congress while it has the ear of Americans on security.
“One of the Obama Administration’s greatest failures has been to let the other side dictate the narrative on Guantanamo,” said Davis. “Just look at some of the nonsense you see on social media about Guantanamo detainees, which is driven in part by news networks and politicians who play on feelings, not facts.”
But timing is everything, and the administration’s announcement that it was releasing five Yemeni prisoners to the United Arab Emirates just a few days after the November attacks in Paris was probably unhelpful. The word came as authorities were uncovering a nest of jihadis living in Muslim enclaves in France and Belgium. While one event had absolutely nothing to do with the other—the Yemenis, held since 2002, were never charged with anything—the optics couldn’t have been worse for a White House that has often been criticized for its tone deafness during key national moments.
The backlash was immediate. “It is clearly evident that President Barack Obama and his administration care little about reality but will push ahead with their ideological agenda,” boomed Lt. Col. Allen B. West (ret.). A former member of Congress, West was once sanctioned for putting a gun to an Iraqi prisoner’s head and threatening to kill him, and is rivaled only by Pamela Geller in rank Islamic fear mongering.
“Here we are just days after a horrific Islamic terror attack in Paris and what is the Obama administration response? They release five Yemeni detainees from Guantanamo Bay to the United Arab Emirates. I suppose it’s fair enough—seems the bad guys lost eight in Paris so it’s proper that we refill their ranks,” West charged.
“The shutdown in Guantanamo brings in the worst of the worst. I saw Khalid Sheikh Mohammad down there. Evil incarnate. Mastermind of 9/11. I don’t want him in the United States of America and I don’t think most Americans do,” said Rep. Mike McCaul, head of the House Homeland Security Committee, three days after the Paris attacks.
There is no indication that Khalid Sheikh Mohammad or his four accomplices in the 9/11 attacks—currently on trial (after a decade of fits and starts) at the Court of Military Commissions at GTMO—will be going anywhere. In fact, the trial will continue there even if the prison itself is closed down to everyone else. Congress successfully blocked the transfer of the proceedings to civilian courts three years ago.
One of the few Republicans behind closure, Senator John McCain, has not been able to get beyond his obvious dislike of the president to fully assist him in this one endeavor. His willingness to assist in the transfer of prisoners to the U.S. has been tepid at best. More recently, he openly lambasted the president when it was suggested that an executive order might be in the offing. “He lies when he says that he really wants to close Guantanamo with the cooperation of Congress, because he’s never sent over a plan,” said McCain, who voted for the NDAA with the majority of his party.
Lost in the tussle is the argument of why GTMO should be closed in the first place and immediately, said Davis. “I understand that when he took office the economic freefall and health care reform were higher priorities, but in the process it’s led to a public that is almost entirely uninformed [about GTMO],” he explained.
From the early days of Camp X-Ray, as the first Guantanamo prison was known, there have been numerous investigations, leaked reports, and personal accounts that should have sparked outrage. But the White House has made very little of the brutal interrogations, psychological abuse, suicides and attempted suicides, hunger strikes and twisted jurisprudence that have occurred there to make his case for closing it.
Just consider the financial burden, said Davis. According to the Defense Department, in 2014 the government spent nearly $400 million—more than $3 million per detainee—to maintain GTMO. Millions more are being spent today to upgrade the court facilities for “the long term.”
Is an executive order the only way to stop this mess?
“I’d like to see (Obama) issue an executive order to close it and then let the courts decide who’s right,” said Davis. “President Bush didn’t go to Congress to get their approval to open the detention camp at Guantanamo, so why does President Obama have to get their blessing to close it?”
Some conservative constitutional lawyers are warning against such a move—even those who loathe everything GTMO stands for. “No, I don’t think he as President has the authority to unilaterally overrule Congress and act in violation of prohibitions on moving Guantanamo prisoners into the U.S. which Congress may put into a veto-proof National Defense Authorization Act,” said Todd Pierce, who as a former Army defense attorney at the prison, strongly believes it should be closed. He warns that the troubles wouldn’t end with the transfer of prisoners to the U.S. “‘Indefinite detention’ with no foreseeable release is a form of torture in itself,” he told TAC.
As always, the administration has been giving out mixed signals. Former White House counsel Greg Craig recently co-authored an op-ed asserting that “the president has exclusive authority to determine the facilities in which military detainees are held. Obama has the authority to move forward. He should use it.” But when asked by the House Judiciary Committee about the op-ed, Attorney General Loretta Lynch testified that the administration has not asked the justice department for a legal opinion on the matter, and that it “would follow the law of the land” in enforcing restrictions on prisoner transfer imposed by Congress.
So either one hand isn’t talking to the other, or Craig’s op-ed was a trial balloon intended to see which way the wind is blowing. Shortly after Lynch’s rebuke, the breeze turned brittle and sour as the streets of Paris ran with blood. If closing GTMO was a difficult challenge before, it is a somewhat of a gauntlet of fire now. “The terrorist attacks in Paris will make the effort to close Guantanamo much more difficult, although the two aren’t related,” said Davis.
After Obama signed the NDAA into law, however, he also issued a signing statement making clear the tussle wasn’t over:
As I have said repeatedly, the executive branch must have the flexibility, with regard to the detainees who remain at Guantanamo, to determine when and where to prosecute them, based on the facts and circumstances of each case and our national security interests, and when and where to transfer them consistent with our national security and our humane treatment policy.
Obama is right to stand his ground on GTMO, but it will take more than a constitutional parley—he will have to convince the American people. “You have to give the credit where credit is due, and the other side has run a very effective misinformation campaign,” Davis added, “which I think at some point in the future, history will look back upon as a black mark.”