Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.
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.”
One day he was standing next to the first lady in the VIP box at the president’s State of the Union Address. The next, he was in front of a judge facing a DUI conviction.
For former Staff Sgt. Tommy Rieman, recipient of the Silver Star for valor, who even had an action figure fashioned in his image, there was only one way, and it was up. Killing himself didn’t work—the night he was cited for DUI he purposefully rammed his car into a tree. So he was forced to live his demons: self-medicating his PTSD with booze and bills, and slowly alienating everyone around him.
He found redemption in the most unlikeliest of places: a courtroom.
But it wasn’t any courtroom, it was a Veterans Treatment Court set up in Harnett County, N.C. It is now one of 264 such courts across the country that gives veterans a chance to avoid jail and the stigma of a criminal conviction. These courts, established in 2008 and based on the Drug Court model, are being hailed today for their compassion and their commitment to vets who have lost their way. They are also part of a growing civic movement that embraces treatment over incarceration, in hopes of draining the prisons of people who do not belong there, not just veterans.
“I believe in the program whole-heartedly,” said Rieman, who graduated from the VTC in November 2014. He spent more than a year in the intensive regime that included weekly visits to a judge three hours away from his home. There was also therapy, AA meetings, and work with a veteran-mentor, a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross named “George,” who he fully credits for keeping him “on point.”
“I didn’t want to let him down,” Rieman told TAC in an interview. Like other vets in the program, he appreciated the structure of setting goals, and frankly, following orders.
As a war hero who had been feted by President Bush in 2007, and spent years after his multiple deployments traveling across the country and talking about his experiences, he didn’t want to be treated with kid gloves anymore.
“I’ve gotten away with things,” he said, because of his medals. “I needed someone to be hard on me. I didn’t need a pass. I needed structure and guidance, and they provided that.” Unlike other vets who can get their charges wiped or reduced when they graduate, Rieman’s DUI conviction stuck. But that’s okay, because his sobriety and second chance at life did too.
“I don’t think I’m going to be in that same situation any time soon,” said Rieman, now the head of a nonprofit and ambassador for Justice for Vets.
Today, when the media want to highlight the sacrifices made by recent Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, more often than not they show the wounded warrior, the individual with such severe physical injuries that he or she is fitted with an advanced prosthetic, or whose face bears the scars of a crippling bomb blast.
Less visible are those with psychological wounds, brought on by combat stress and/or traumatic brain injury (TBI). It is estimated that somewhere between 20 and 40 percent or more of recent combat veterans suffer from PTSD symptoms, which can include night terrors, flashbacks, irritability, paranoia, and anxiety. In the most recent survey of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America members, 44 percent said they had been diagnosed with PTSD. In that same survey, 18 percent said they have a mild to severe TBI from the war. That’s a big number, thanks in part to the rise of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) attacks in the recent conflicts. Symptoms of TBI can range from chronic headaches, aggressive mood swings, and changes in personality, all the way to crippling cognitive disabilities and memory loss.
Left on their own, many veterans suffering from these mentally debilitating symptoms self-medicate, or depend solely on psychotropic drugs doled out by the VA. Many sustained physical injuries in the war, too, and have been on pain medications since they were overseas. It’s hard to keep a job in this spiral, and family relationships suffer. Some eventually steal and deal to feed their habits. They get into fights, carry weapons, or drive drunk.
“The vast majority of veterans are strengthened by their military service, but not everyone’s journey is the same,” says Melissa Fitzgerald, whose own journey from Hollywood (“The West Wing”), eventually took her to Justice for Vets, the leading advocate for the Veterans Treatment Courts (VTC).
Given the odds, it’s not difficult to comprehend how veterans like Rieman end up on the wrong end of the judge’s bench, how they went from heroes to menaces to society, within years or even months of their return. While it’s difficult to ascertain how many recent vets are behind bars today, we know there were about 700,000 veterans in the correctional system in 2007, with about 230,000 of those incarcerated, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Vets accounted for nearly 10 percent of the total arrests (about 1.2 million) that year.
“All those transitions and all those traumatic experiences and we expect (soldiers) to come home and police themselves—I don’t think so,” said Rieman, who was recognized for using himself as a human shield after an attack on his convoy in Iraq in 2003. Despite getting shot twice and enduring 11 shrapnel hits, he continued to defend his position, rout the attackers, and set up a medical evacuation, according to the DoD.
The VTC formula has been deemed so successful that there are now 264 such programs operating in 37 states and Guam, helping upwards of 13,200 vets. The key: matching the vet up with another veteran, as a mentor and confidant, someone who understands the horrors of combat and the difficulties of adjusting in the civilian milieu back home. Behind them is a phalanx of representatives from the VA and veterans service organizations providing on the spot access to the panoply of services the veteran is entitled to, particularly healthcare. Beyond that, the vet is connected with any education, housing, and employment assistance they are entitled to.
“Putting them in jail won’t help their situation, it just exacerbates it,” said Gary Augustine, executive director of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) whose members across the country serve as mentors for veterans in the courts. “We do this for other segments of society—juveniles and drug offenders—why not veterans? They are going in the right direction.”
The courts are open to all vets who qualify, even those with less than honorable discharges, and in many states, unlike the drug courts, eligibility is not limited to non-violent offenses. Each vet is considered on case-by-case basis. The program can be as long as 18 months and is intense. There will always be those who backslide, but unlike regular court, the penalties are less severe. The goal, after all, is to keep these vets out of jail. One recent study found that not only did 86 percent of the veterans in a particular program stay arrest-free before graduation, they experienced “significant” improvement with their mental health and substance abuse issues.
“Not recognizing (these veterans’) actions as a result of military service-connected problems, and not treating them accordingly will only lead to more problems for the veteran, his/her family, and for society,” says veterans’ advocate Matthew Hoh, who has had his own struggle with combat stress and substance abuse since serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It is also much cheaper to treat veterans than to incarcerate them and throw them into the cycle of suffering and recidivism our justice and prison system is world renowned for.”
News reports across the country since the first VTC was established have been hailing their benefits. And why not? The success of these courts show that the legal system can martial itself with the help of non-profits (and yes, government entities like the VA) for the greater good. It’s also a plain old feel-good story.
Buffalo Judge Robert Russell helped to start the first drug courts in 1995. When a vet “turned completely around” after Russell paired him with another vet as a mentor, he knew he was onto something. He started the first VTC in 2008 and according to the most recent reports, 98 percent of the graduates in his program stay out of trouble after they graduate.
Hoh says this is the kind of compassion that is missing from the American criminal justice system.
“It is compassionate because we claim to be a moral and values based nation. To treat veterans, who we have trained and conditioned to kill and be killed, and then do nothing to accommodate them back into society, is a savage and heartless expression of a shallow and mean society,” he told TAC.
Further, the success of Veterans Treatment Courts should be utilized as a model for reformation of our criminal justice system. I don’t know, however, if our society has the minds and the hearts to implement such smart and compassionate change.
Change can start with giving vets the tools for readjustment before they get home from war. Rieman now runs the nonprofit Independence Fund, which supports veterans with catastrophic injuries. He says the military doesn’t do nearly enough.
“We spent a year training for war and what, two weeks training to reintegrate into society? There has to be cleaner hand-offs,” he said. “There needs to be a receiver, almost a sponsor, when they get back. You have sponsors when you go into the military. The whole system, it makes no sense to me and it’s so frustrating.”
Supporting the special courts is the first step, he said, noting there is no way to tell how many vets out there out of the 2.4 million who served in the recent wars are going to find themselves in court tomorrow. “These issues are not going to go away. If anything, they are going to get worse.”
There is something altogether clarifying when a beautiful Egyptian woman, her almond eyes flashing and voice smooth, stands tall in her high-heeled Roman sandals and declares, “I don’t want to be Winston Smith.”
That Dr. Sally Toma would choose the protagonist in one of the most provocative imaginings of totalitarianism in literary history—George Orwell’s 1984—says everything about how the Egyptian democracy movement views its fragile circumstances in Egypt today.
“We have the ministry of truth and the ministry of love,” she said, referring to the ironical government bureaucracies in Orwell’s dystopian classic, “and propaganda, and torture, and Big Brother.”
“I keep on hoping we don’t have the [same] end of Winston Smith,” she said. By the end of 1984, Smith, who serves as the novel’s ill-fated conscience, is psychologically tortured into submission. His transformation is as good as a lobotomy.
“We cannot scream about violations anymore because we will be beaten up,” Toma, a Christian Egyptian, told an audience assembled by Washington’s Middle East Institute on September 30. She and others do not foresee another revolt on the scale of 2011’s January 25 Revolution anytime soon.
“Maybe the only hope for civil society is to actually try and survive. Perhaps we call ourselves the keeper of the flame, but all we can do is keep it alive and going and to prepare the younger ones.”
This is a far cry from Tahrir Square, where Toma and her fellow compatriots helped to topple the dictatorial regime of Hosni Mubarak, who for three decades kept political enemies and social uprisings in check with patronage politics and dungeon-like prisons. When the Muslim Brotherhood rose to take Mubarak’s place after 2011—and began repressing non-Islamist voices with new laws that effectively killed and jailed dissidents all over again—Toma returned to the streets to help bring the new president Mohammed Morsi down.
But it was the military that lent its muscle to the 2013 coup and it came at a price: Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, now President el-Sisi, is a strongman of the Mubarek mold. Not only did he throw the democratically elected Morsi in prison, but the former president of Egypt is now facing the death penalty and is rarely seen since his arrest in 2012.
The Brotherhood, now illegal and considered a terrorist organization by the state, was driven underground, if not out of Egypt entirely. More than 1,000 unarmed Brotherhood protesters were killed by security forces during a Cairo sit-in in August 2013. Meanwhile, Toma and her friends watched as independent political parties withered, opposition was silenced, and journalists and activists were jailed for as little as an offending Facebook post. Estimates are that some 20,000 dissidents remain in prison today.
Critics say the 2014 presidential vote, which el-Sisi reportedly won by 96 percent, was a sham. For one, citizens were “threatened to be penalized if they did not go out and vote,” Toma said. Those who refused stayed far away from the voting box and and kept their mouths shut, fearing the worst if they spoke out. “It tells you something, the only box we believe in now, in terms of the revolution, is a coffin. You can’t start having votes and elections until you have democratic institutions,” she said.
“We decided to go into another box,” she said, noting the movement’s quiet shift underground.
This October, el-Sisi will preside over parliamentary elections that experts say will make great PR, but will do little to advance civil society. Independent parties like Al Dostour are boycotting, citing in part an election law they say is unfair and serves only wealthy, well-connected candidates, much like in the Mubarak era.
“The parties had separate reasons to protest,” said Gameela Ismail, a leading member of Al Dostour, who shared the stage with Toma. She was referred to often as “mother” of the 2011 democracy movement, for her passionate speeches in Tahrir, and her commitment to the embattled protesters.
She said Al Dostour at its peak boasted some 20,000 members. It is now closer to a thousand strong. “We have been targeted by detention and imprisonment,” she said. But who could protest? A decree known as the “anti-protest law” put into effect by el-Sisi after the Morsi ouster requires a protest permit be obtained by police.
“Sisi doesn’t seem interested in party building or normal politics,” said Nathan Brown, author and professor of international affairs at George Washington University, noting that the “authoritarian legal framework” in place will make parliament little more than a noisome herd of cats. El-Sisi, on the other hand, holds all the power legislatively in what Brown calls a “security-oriented regime.”
“I think politics in Egypt is dead right now,” Brown said simply. “When I went to Egypt in 2012 there was a lot of activity by young people. A lot of that has been blunted.”
As these critics assembled in Washington, el-Sisi was trying to put his best face forward for the cameras at the UN in New York. He made sure he released 100 dissidents, including two al-Jazeera reporters and two popular female activists, ahead of his arrival. Publicly, he waxes expansively about his country’s role in countering ISIS and promoting “regional stability.”
Domestically, he passed an even harsher anti-terror law in August that critics say “paves the way to impunity,” shielding law enforcement from charges of excessive force, and punishing reporters who contradict the state’s official record of events. El-Sisi says it’s necessary in order to exert control over militants in his country, but would never acknowledge that his own policies not only create the conditions for sporadic terrorist attacks in Cairo, but has breathed new life into an ongoing insurgency in the Sinai. If anything, he blames revolution—the very wave of people-power that cemented his control—for holding Egypt back.
As he told Margaret Warner on PBS when she tried to press him ahead of his speech at the United Nations on September 28:
These have been very difficult times for Egyptians. And we have 90 million people. They need to live. Egyptians want to find their basic needs provided and a better chance for life. This cannot be achieved while there is a state of chaos. The standards that you live by do not necessarily have to apply to the standards that we live in, in our own countries. We need some time in order to reach the standards that you live by.
El-Sisi—if Toma’s literary comparisons can be taken to their metaphorical conclusion—is Egypt’s Big Brother. And this Big Brother has a big sugar daddy in the United States, which recently released its hold on $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt.
The U.S. has also promised to help with escalating militant attacks in the Sinai, where the only line of defense appears to be the already stretched Egyptian security forces and a small multinational force at the northeast border (mostly Americans) put into place after the signing of the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. The Sinai insurgents, emboldened by the revolution and el-Sisi’s crushing of the Brotherhood in 2012, have now pledged allegiance to ISIS.
“To have an insurgency capable of using heavy artillery and anti-aircraft missiles and anti-tank missiles, this is all new in the country, said Omar Ashour, senior lecturer of Middle East politics and security at the University of Exeter, adding that the government in Cairo is “feeding it.”
Ashour described the policy as one of totalitarian paranoia: “if you are not with us you are against us and if you are not with us enthusiastically maybe you are against us too.” El-Sisi may like to talk about external foreign threats to distract the Egyptian people—and the international audience from the crackdowns inside his country—but “the threats are internal and it has to do with non-state actors that challenge the system.” The escalation and the failure to see why, was the “main mistake of Mubarak.”
“Yes there are security issues and we have to deal with it. Terrorism is present … no one can deny this. But to what extent,” asked Emad Awad Botross, an Al Dostour party member, in a brief interview with TAC. “We are fighting and we are at war. [El-Sisi] uses this for cover. We must choose between liberty and truth and security, and civil and social justice and security. Some of my friends went to prison just for having this book  in hand. We are living this.”
If the liberal reformers seem strident, there is a reserve of Egyptian experts tied to the Egyptian establishment and U.S. officials on the other side doing their best to temper their view. Abdel Monem Said Aly, head of the Regional Center for Strategic Studies in Cairo and former chairman of Al Ahram newspapers, widely seen as a tool of the Egyptian government, told the MEI audience that “Egypt is economically better,” today than in recent years (el-Sisi talks a great game, of course, but this remains to be seen), and that the prison system in Egypt “is much better than the United States,” pinging on the nearly 2 million Americans in jail today, and “the distribution of wealth is better than the United States.”
Speaking for the U.S. State Department at the conference, Candace Putnam, director of Egyptian Affairs, insisted that “life is returning to normal” in Cairo, but “it is a new normal.” This is diplomat-speak that means Egypt is a place where everyone is on tenterhooks, but the trains and cabs are at least moving. It was hard to tell where Putnam was coming from, much like U.S. policy on Egypt in general. “We have had four years of political upheaval and revolution and that is not finished, there is a lot of churn,” she said, sounding uncannily like el-Sisi on PBS just 400 miles away.
“You have a generational divide across all Egyptian communities … and you have the outside actors that are having an impact that you have never seen before. It is understandable that the Egyptian government sees this as their primary concern.”
When asked about human rights, Putnam said simply, “we’ve been extremely vocal,” and described continued quiet engagement “combined with public criticism.”
She said the U.S. is responding to Egyptian requests for equipment for the borders, including additional armored vehicles, parts for their Apache helicopters, and more for the Sinai. That doesn’t include troops on the ground. “They don’t want our help,” she noted.
If anything, el-Sisi is no fool. He has already embarked on what Al Jazeera calls “a fine bromance” with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and his government cemented it with remarks by Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry, following the Russian air strikes in Syria that began in late September. He refuses to call for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s ouster.
“Russia’s entrance, given its potential and capabilities, is something we see is going to have an effect on limiting terrorism in Syria and eradicating it,” Shoukry said in a televised interview.
Like Toma and 1984, Ismail likes to draw upon literary devices, but hers sound more like Jurassic Park, and if possible, are even more apocalyptic.
“The dinosaur,” she said, referring to the government, “would like to protect the state, it defends the state.” But “while it is doing this it steps on its own eggs, its own children … who want a better future.”
When Carly Fiorina told a Republican debate audience what the country needs to have “the strongest military on the face of the planet”—50 Army brigades, 36 Marine battalions, at least 300 naval ships, a rebuild of the Sixth Fleet and an upgrade of “every leg of the nuclear triad”—it sounded a bit familiar.
“These numbers seem to be pulled straight from a report released by the conservative Heritage Foundation this year,” noted The Daily Beast’s Kate Brannen, and many of them were. While analysts like Brannen were able to discount the numbers as nothing more than a wish list with a likely $500 billion price tag, Fiorina had already appeared steely and well-informed. The September 16 debate helped propel her forward, both in the polls and the eyes of the fickle media.
Republican candidates use the “super size me” rhetoric to burnish their national security credentials because it works, at least in the short term. It’s a perennial sideshow that has become more gratuitous—and less convincing—as the 9/11 attacks have receded further in the rear view. But the “more is better” argument, even in a drawdown period after two enormously expensive wars, staggers on like a zombie, reanimated by hawks like Fiorina, who often consult with think tanks funded in part by the defense industry and ex-military officers who serve on the boards of Beltway government contractors.
“And they [advisors] tell them the military is great, and that it just needs more money and people. They tell candidates what they want to hear, and you know what, it’s just going to keep producing these hollow victories at best,” said (Ret.) Army Maj. Don Vandergriff, who is now teaching leadership courses at Fort Benning, Ga., and serving on the new military advisory board at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO).
“I tell you, if you put more money, more people into the current system, it is going to break our economy and will force us to suffer defeats all over the world.”
Vandergriff’s assessment may sound extreme, but consider how the military has poured $400 billion into the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, an overly designed, technological fantasy machine that is politically insulated from annual budget cuts. Despite being the costliest weapons system in U.S. history, the plane has flight issues, can’t dogfight (according to one test pilot), and after 12 years in the making, won’t see service until 2017 at the earliest. Could that money have gone to more critical functions in U.S. counter-terrorism operations abroad? Anything seems better than a plane that won’t fly.
“Debates around the F-35 illuminate how Congress falls short in its fundamental defense role,” said (Ret.) Lt. Col. Anthony B. Carr, a former combat pilot for the U.S. Air Force, and now a law student and senior editor at Harvard University’s National Security Journal. He is also serving on POGO’s new reform team, which hopes to publicly counter the budget myths propagated by the defense establishment.
“The Air Force and Marine Corps can’t be put in a position where they see no choice but to pay for and field a program—even if it means ditching people and weapons still relevant to our defense—for lack of a suitable alternative,” he said, noting the steep personnel cuts—about 19,000 active duty Airmen—after belt-tightening measures in 2014.
If the F-35 represents everything wrong with the state of military budget and procurement, candidates like Fiorina are the perfect emissaries for this topsy-turvy world on the public stage. As she ladles billions in fictional gravy onto the budget, the Pentagon chiefs are trying to do it for real in their annual food fight on Capitol Hill. Each applause line by Fiorina or any other GOP hawk—like Rubio insisting the administration’s policies are “eviscerating” the military—is one point for the team lobbying Congress. And every rhetorical flourish counts double today as the Pentagon chiefs seek to stop congressional measures that would keep FY 2016 spending under the $499 billion sequestration caps put in place in 2010.
That dramaturgy has been on display all week, as top brass tell the press and lawmakers that the sky will indeed fall down if the military is forced to stay within this limit. The first question is whether Congress can avoid a shutdown by passing a continuing resolution by September 30. A CR could fund the defense budget at FY 2015 levels until December, paving the way for a real FY 2016 agreement. Critics are worried Congress will continue to pass CRs through the rest of the fiscal year, forcing the Pentagon to live under the $499 billion cap and the administration’s request of $535 billion.
Watch for the words “disaster” and “unacceptable,” along with “danger” and “harm” in regards to this budget scenario. Or worse. We know, according to military leaders who have been unusually accessible to press lately, that “readiness,” “modernization,” and even the nation are already at risk.
In a recent speech, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter raised the specter of Russia and China, which he claimed “have advanced their capabilities.” He continued: “What we have under sequestration or a long-term continuing resolution is a straitjacket. We would be forced to make irresponsible reductions when our choices should be considered carefully and strategically.”
Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work went further, telling Congressional Quarterly that a year-long continuing resolution would be “disastrous,” damaging new start weapons like the next-gen Air Force bomber, planned construction, and multi-year procurement programs.
“There is no organization on earth that would be able to operate under these conditions. Now the reason we do is we make compromises, and the compromises we make are not good for national security,” complained Work.
“The threats that we face are increasing,” said Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. “So this budget uncertainty exacerbates what is already a pretty challenging circumstance.”
Then there are the military associations defending the DOD’s spending interests on the outside. They include the National Defense Industries Association, led by two retired generals, which serves as a giant megaphone for defense contractors and beltway bandits whose very life depends on a steady diet of U.S. tax dollars (75 percent or more of total revenues in some cases).
“An extended CR would harm our national security and our economy,” the group said in a letter to the House and Senate leadership on September 14, asserting that “a CR makes it difficult to meet ongoing operational needs, which have only become more frequent, dangerous, and pressing since the last budget deal.”
As expected, the rending of clothes and gnashing of the teeth are well underway. While no one—even the reformers—thinks continuing resolutions and keeping to caps through indiscriminate cuts (which are really just slowing growth) are the way to go, groups like POGO continue to insist the basic priorities are all wrong. They see several issues—the military’s love affair with technology, an antiquated personnel system fraught with unaccountability and too many generals, a lack of oversight, and a global mission—all combining to form a system that runs like an all-you-can-eat buffet engineered by politics and corporate meddling. As for cuts, the Pentagon usually gets what it wants anyway, in the form of the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund.
Danielle Brian, executive director of POGO, says the establishment of a military advisory board stacked with veterans with reform experience is just one more way the nonprofit watchdog group is trying to fight hawkish politicians and ubiquitous think tank cheerleaders on their own turf.
“POGO is reviving the legacy of reform-minded military officers working alongside the Center for Defense Information to counter the fact-free rhetoric spewing from the mouths of politicians with real world experience,” she told TAC this week.
The board will be joined by Marine Capt. Dan Grazier, 37, who retired from active duty just four months ago. (Grazier is POGO’s new Jack Shanahan fellow, a position reserved for those with recent combat experience.) While many of his fellow service members might have chosen a more lucrative path in the military-industrial-congressional complex, he’s jumped right into trying to reform it.
“I was a true believer,” he told TAC about his time in Marines. “Then I learned about John Boyd.”
Boyd—a military theorist and strategist who died in 1997—remains a rock star among the close knit group of military reformers who not only founded POGO in 1981, but continue to honor Boyd’s legacy by serving as persistent critics of Pentagon programs. Boyd’s teachings emphasized decentralized, objective-driven commands over centralized, method-driven ones; the military’s over-reliance on technology; and of course, the decision cycle theory known as the OODA Loop. Grazier’s dramatic move is just one example of the way Boyd’s approach has touched and made new acolytes out of young service members.
Of course it is no coincidence that the other military advisors—Vandergriff, Carr, Gary “G.I.” Wilson, Mike Wyly, and Danny Davis—share Grazier’s enthusiasm for Boyd’s theories. They too, come up from the “Mafia Fighter” tradition that is the bedrock of POGO.
“I just hope the reform movement can get back on track,” said Wilson, a former Marine infantry officer whose military experience spans the Vietnam War area through Iraq in 2005.
“John Boyd once told me that [military] technology is supposed to be bigger, heavier and more complex because it means more money, more cost overruns and contracts in 38 different states,” said Wilson, who is teaching in California. “It’s not about winning wars, it’s about awarding contracts.”
Grazier said he is slowly encountering the entrenched corporate, political, and military relationships that bloat the budget and dictate the defense establishment orthodoxy in Washington. It’s not so hard now, he tells TAC, to see why Fiorina and others choose to bang the drum and call in the airstrikes on the debate stage.
“Political engineering—I had no idea how bad it was until I got to Washington,” he said. “The tendrils, how far they go, that’s what really surprised me.”
The woman’s voice rose higher and began to crack. It broke through the apparent frustration—and to a lesser extent, anger—which permeated the packed room at the National Press Club in Washington last week.
“We are being massacred and I don’t know how much further we can go,” she said, the tears finally coming. Murmurs and nods, then applause, rushed in with a sort of catharsis. Nahren Anweya was among friends.
An Assyrian Christian activist, Anweya says she has family living under persecution by the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq. She had taken the microphone at a press conference held in Washington by In Defense of Christians (IDC), which brings together scholars, elected officials, advocates, and clergy to discuss urgent threats to their faith in the Middle East. They meet once a year to lobby Congress, and include the most ancient of Christians—the ethnic Assyrians, who still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus—along with the Syriacs, Chaldean Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Copts, Maronites, Melkite Greek Catholic, Protestants and more.
Beyond the ongoing conflict in Iraq, which has driven tens of thousands of Christians out of the region since 2003, the issue has taken on a particular urgency as the Islamic State has accelerated brutal attacks and kidnappings of minority Christians in Iraq and Syria. Families have been sent into hiding and across borders.
The New York Times recently asked, “Is this the end of Christianity in the Middle East?” For many at the conference this week, such statements are the canary in the proverbial coal mine. To them, time is running out. The pre-2003 Christian population in Iraq numbered about 1.5 million. Today, it is less than 300,000 and shrinking rapidly. In Syria, Christians once accounted for 10 percent of the population, but today their numbers have declined to an estimated 1 million or less. ISIS and other Muslim insurgents target them not only for their faith, but for their traditional support of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has in turn insulated them. Years ago the Christians there thrived; in recent months, however, that sanctuary has proven brittle: Most recently, after a summer of kidnappings and killings, 150 Christians were taken from the town of Qaryatain after it was seized by IS soldiers from government forces in August. Word quickly spread of women and children who were raped and sold into slavery.
“The world has watched and witnessed the targeted persecution of Christians, suffering violence, displacement, rape, enslavement, and even death,” said Kirsten Evans, executive director of IDC. “Do these crimes constitute genocide under international law, and if so, what are the options the international community has in order to respond?”
The first question was rhetorical: this group is emphatic that the “G word” be used in all references to the Christian plight. They spent the rest of the week talking to no less than 250 lawmakers and urged them to support a bipartisan resolution—introduced this week by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Nebraska)—declaring the attacks to be “genocide,” and calling for international tribunals, as well as the arrest and prosecution of perpetrators wherever the crimes happen, whether in Iraq, Syria or beyond.
“What we’re seeing in Iraq and Syria today is genocide,” exclaimed former Rep. Frank Wolf, (R-Va.), whose vigorous remarks nearly blew out the speakers in the low-ceilinged space, which was standing room only.
“I visited Iraq in January of this year … going through villages to the front lines, the Peshmerga took us out, and talked to and interviewed roughly 75 people. I came back and asked, does this administration care? Does the congress care? Does the UN care, and sometimes, does the church care?”
Last year, this message was overshadowed in the media by an appearance by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Unlike the vast majority of people who attend the IDC events, Cruz is a Southern Baptist Christian and a provocative partisan who even a year ago had been identified as a potential candidate for president.
In 2014, Cruz was invited to present a keynote speech at the conference’s gala dinner, easily the most coveted slot of the three-day event. What happened next most likely had to do with a report at the Washington Free Beacon a few days before, which called the conference a hotbed of “pro-Hezbollah and pro-Assad speakers.” It alleged that major Democratic fundraiser and Lebanese businessman Gilbert Chagoury—a longtime bête noir of Republicans who love to tie him to Bill and Hillary Clinton—was funding the conference, and that key presenters, including the patriarchs of the Syriac and Maronite churches, had been rabble rousers against the state of Israel and Zionism for years. The article pointed out that members of the Hezbollah party in Lebanon, which has been part of the government there since 2005, would be in attendance. By the time Cruz stepped on the stage, the event had morphed into a “snake pit of pro-Islamists,” “Iran linked” and “an Axis of Evil” summit, according to the right wing blogosphere.
One could say Cruz made a calculated decision, but whatever it was, he came locked and loaded. He appeared to focus on devotion to Israel, not the issue of Christian persecution that had drawn the audience. After initial applause, then polite but uneasy silence, the boos came. Some Lebanese parliamentarians walked out. Then Cruz made a dramatic exit, not before announcing that “some here” are “consumed with hate.” Later on Twitter, Cruz offered one last flourish: “Anti-Semitism is a corrosive evil, and it reared its ugly head tonight.”
Former IDC executive director Andrew Doran, then still in charge, was subsequently forced to explain the audience’s behavior to National Review’s Kathryn Jean Lopez. But he stood his ground on Cruz: “It’s unfortunate that Senator Cruz was booed. But what’s more unfortunate is that he chose to make a summit of and for Middle Eastern Christians about something other than a summit about Middle Eastern Christians …” Doran concluded that Cruz’s remarks were “designed to bait the audience; sadly, some attendees took the bait.”
There were plenty of Republican members of Congress at the IDC meeting this year, but no presidential candidates courting the evangelical vote like Ted Cruz made it to the dais. During the wide-ranging press event, talk hardly meandered toward Israel, save for Wolf and others raising the horrors of the Holocaust and the price humanity pays when ignoring the warning of impending persecution and slaughter. This was met with nodding, not booing.
Instead, tensions surfaced among audience members over what motivates IS. Is it Islam? Or as Katrina Lantos Swett, the chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom suggested, it could be a totalitarian impulse akin to Stalinist communism or Nazism, albeit one informed by religion. Later on, a woman could be heard scolding the Armenian speaker for not specifically raising the plight of Assyrians in his remarks, a charge he emphatically denied.
This year, it was headlines that threatened to subsume IDC’s message. The wave of humanity flooding Europe from Syria and Iraq—in numbers that dwarf those of the Christian victims of IS attacks—was front and center. Even the Pope weighed in on Sept. 6, urging Westerners to open their doors to their Muslim brethren.
“There is no differentiation in my mind,” said Evans when asked by TAC if it might be difficult to get their issues—specific to Christians—heard among the din. She and others acknowledged that the vast number of people suffering from the onslaught of IS in the region are in fact, Muslim. She said IDC stands with all victims, “regardless of religion.”
It is a human rights crisis, she said, “and we are piece of that; we want to defend the whole pie. Absolutely all.”
The solution appears to be two pronged. First bring attention to violence against all people in the Middle East and the cause of that violence, while lobbying to get Christian minorities out of conflict zones on expedited visas. Then promote bolstered aid for those who cannot leave, and propose safe havens like the Nineveh Plains Project, which seeks to restore control of ancient lands to Assyrian Christians in the north of Iraq, an area now under siege by ISIS fighters.
Muslims, some attendees suggested, are not on the verge of annihilation in the Middle East. Others pointed out that Shia are being killed for their faith by Sunni IS. That’s genocide, too.
“Basically we have to have a legal strategy and a public relations strategy—of which this press conference is one—and everyone has to call things by their proper name,” said Robert Destro, professor of law at Catholic University. “Christians, Shia, Yezidis—all different groups—and not just in the Middle East—we have to get everyone into this and we have to call things by their proper name and calling it genocide is a good place to start.”
IDC left town a little more than a week before the arrival of Pope Francis. But the group is lobbying him, too, at a distance and through the media, to specifically mention genocide when he makes remarks about the state of the Middle East.
“I am hopeful that the pope, when he is before a joint session of congress with the House and Senate and the joint chiefs and the whole world watching, will call it genocide,” said Wolf, “and that in itself can be a game changer.”
Settling in with a coffee at Northside Social, a genial locus of suburban D.C. hipsters, earnest teleworkers hunched-over laptops, and moms in yoga pants and ball caps on break, John Kiriakou is talking about prison.
It’s a jarring juxtaposition, and a safe bet that no one else at Northside Social is talking about a recent incarceration at that very moment. Beltway culture is a bubble, and North Arlington, Va., is its own bubble-within-a-bubble. Caffeine-fueled chatter about politics and prison policy is pretty standard stuff, reliving one’s time in the pen is not.
Kiriakou, however, fits right in, looking relaxed in a comfortable green t-shirt and jeans. He addresses the baristas with a familiar wave, and they respond warmly. After all, he is a denizen of this milieu: a well-educated, professional man who lives with his family—an accomplished wife and three young children—in nearby Lyon Park, a tree-lined neighborhood filled with colorful and eclectic but expensive homes, many retrofitted in the last decade from the sturdy bones of 1920s Craftsman bungalows.
But it wasn’t always this way. After the former CIA agent was charged and convicted with leaking classified information and sent to prison in 2013, he became one of the 2.3 million Americans incarcerated by the state. It was a shock. Everything he had developed in the 40-odd years of his life—independence, dignity, strength, sense of purpose, and justice—had been challenged, as if he were suddenly a nobody, another number, or worse, a disposable man.
The entire experience changed how Kiriakou sees himself in the order of things. And it changed how he perceives the government in that order of things.
“I don’t trust the government, not a single branch of it,” he tells TAC in our interview. “I think the judicial system is broken. And I don’t think Congress has the guts or the willingness to fix it.”
His metamorphosis began in the Kafkaesque world of the federal legal system and continued through his 24 months in the Loretto Federal Correction Institution. Kiriakou, now 51, emerged from incarceration this spring not broken but “more open minded and patient,” unyielding to power, and laser-focused on changing the status quo.
“I had always just assumed that government employees, whether CIA, FBI, Justice, or whomever, mostly tried to do the right thing; that is, obey the law, serve the country, and protect Americans,” he shared.
“What I ended up seeing, though, was an ugly underbelly that included corrupt prosecutors and investigators, racism, and abuse of power. I have come to the conclusion that Ronald Reagan was right: Government is the problem, not the solution to the problem.”
In other words, he does not want to be known only for blowing the whistle on the CIA’s torture enhanced interrogation techniques, which began his long initiation into the government labyrinth over seven years ago. He wants to blow trumpets, high and clear, on the entire racket. And he wants to start with prisons, over-criminalization, and unfair sentencing.
“One of my great regrets is being known as the torture guy,” he said easily. “[That’s] something most everyone has already taken a position on.” He wants to push reform legislation now supported by both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. He wants to talk about the lack of real drug counseling and addiction services for prisoners, when statistics say more than half were likely abusers or addicts when they were incarcerated. He wants to talk about overcrowding, and neglect in the prison health care system. He wants to talk about how mental illness is treated like a behavioral problem for which solitary confinement is the standard fix.
Stunningly, Kiriakou said inmates were the only ones in Loretto teaching “classes,” in lieu of serious academic and rehabilitation programs for prisoners. “There was no incentive,” for anyone to be a better person, period, he said.
“These guys are going to get out eventually and they are going to be untrained, and they’re going to be pissed off, and they’re go straight back to their communities and they are going to have no skills—no marketable stills,” he said. “Then we wonder why there is recidivism because the system has done nothing to curtail recidivism or improve recidivism rates,” he said. A study of 30 states by the Bureau of Prisons in 2014 found that 3 out of 4 convicts returned to jail within five years of their release.
Loretto officials have long declined to speak about Kiriakou or respond to the charges he’s made publicly since his release. Nevertheless, he’s been quite candid about his time there, often speaking fondly of the other prisoners who he socialized with and helped out periodically by writing motions and letters to their attorneys. He made friends with the inmates, antagonized the guards, and survived with his CIA know-how. Much of this will be documented in a forthcoming book, Doing Time Like a Spy: How the CIA Taught Me to Survive and Thrive in Prison, along with Letters from Loretto, a collection of missives from prison originally published online by journalist Kevin Gosztola.
“When 98.2 percent of all federal cases end up in convictions, almost all of which are the result of plea bargains, there’s a problem. When prosecutors try to make a name for themselves so they can move onto multi-million dollar salaries in big law firms, there’s a problem. When hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans are serving sentences of life or nearly life for first-time, non-violent drug offenses, there’s a problem,” he said.
“And when those men and women who conceived of the torture, who approved the torture, who carried out the torture, and who destroyed evidence of the torture continue to not only walk free, but also to justify their crimes with multi-million dollar book deals, there’s a problem.”
Kiriakou is known in the activist crowd as the only member of CIA to go to jail for torture—because he exposed it. He certainly doesn’t have champions in every corner, however. Members of the CIA rank and file, in particular, have accused him of embellishment, betrayal, and self-aggrandizement, according to Steve Coll, who wrote a lengthy profile of Kiriakou’s case for The New Yorker in 2013. Though he is ready to move on, his judgments and actions on torture bought him the unique soapbox on which he stands today, albeit at great cost to himself, and his family.
Kiriakou was involved in counterterrorism operations in Pakistan after 9/11, and was part of a team that captured high-ranking al-Qaeda official Abu Zubaydah. After he resigned and was consulting with ABC News in 2007, Kiriakou was the first CIA official to confirm publicly that waterboarding had been used on detainees. He called it torture, but necessary nonetheless. Two years later, when it was revealed Zubaydah was waterboarded at least 83 times, Kiriakou denounced the practice altogether. He became a hero of the anti-torture/anti-war movement.
His growing fame garnered attention from the CIA and FBI. In 2012 he was charged with violating the Espionage Act and the Intelligence Identities Act for revealing the names of two agents, one covert, to journalists. He was also charged with making misleading statements to the CIA’s Publications Review Board while seeking clearance to publish his memoir, The Reluctant Spy. He enlisted attorney Jesselyn Radack, herself a whistleblower, and she kept light on his case. He was able to plea a deal to get all but the charge of revealing the name of one agent dropped, but he was still off to prison in February 2013, on a 30-month sentence.
He left his family behind, severely weakened by the ordeal. His wife Heather, a senior CIA analyst, was forced to resign and had no job prospects. They took out a second mortgage on the house they built and moved a street away into a smaller rental. Heather and the kids eventually went on welfare. When it came time to tell his younger children, then eight, seven, and one, where daddy was going, he told them simply that he lost the argument he was having with the FBI and his “punishment” was helping bad guys get their high school diplomas. He was only half lying—he really thought he’d be teaching GED classes at Loretto.
It would be the first of many shattered expectations, but certainly not the worst. He was supposed to be going to the low-security camp outside the prison walls. On the first day he was led inside instead, to quarters with murderers and child molesters in a rotating menagerie of cellmates. It turned out that camp was just a court “recommendation,” not an order. Instead of a teacher, he became a janitor at the chapel, which he described as a hotbed of pedophiles.
So he spent his time writing “Letters from Loretto.” With an old-school pen-to-paper urgency, his letters alternated between sad vignettes of prison life, and daily attempts by guards to break him down for a penance he knew he would never make.
“My first day I thought, holy shit, I’m in prison. What have I gotten myself into? Then I said to myself, ‘take it easy, you were trained for this stuff, this can’t be harder than Pakistan or Afghanistan,’” he recalled to TAC.
“I made a conscious decision when I got there that I would not allow myself to become institutionalized,” he added, “and I would resist their authority at every opportunity, whether it was writing ‘Letters from Loretto,’ or defending myself from abusive guards.” He wouldn’t stand “at attention” when told, he questioned silly rules, and at one point told the guards to do their worst, that they would get out eventually.
It was a gamble, but it preserved his sanity and self-respect. When his children finally learned the full truth, it was during one of their visits to the prison. His seven-year-old daughter noticed that other men in khaki jumpsuits were coming in and out of a door that read, “inmates only.”
“My son said, ‘dad are you a teacher here or are you a prisoner here?’ I said, ‘I am a prisoner, but you know buddy, I’m going to get out of here and we are going to be a family again.” In time he did, and they were.
This time, the expectations were exceeded: the Kiriakou family will be moving back to the dream house in Arlington this winter, thanks in part to Code Pink, which crowd-sourced enough cash for John and Heather to pay off the second mortgage while he was in prison. Strangers from the Greek-American community made sure he fulfilled the mandated full-time employment requirement when he was released, and sent money to his wife each month he was incarcerated. His friends and family assured the children that dad is a hero. He believes they are proud, which is more than he could ask for.
Today Heather has a new job with a defense contractor, and John has a perch at the progressive Institute for Policy Studies as an associate fellow. He will continue to write, make speeches, and do plenty of media. “Prison changes people, and John came out with a passion for prison reform,” notes IPS director John Cavanagh, who met with Kiriakou before Loretto. “It felt like an excellent fit to invite him on board.”
Above all, he’ll be enjoying life as an Arlington dad. School starts Monday, and for the first time in two years he will be there to see his kids off, then perhaps make a stop for coffee at Northside Social. Because he can.
American politics may be ideologically divided when it comes to government surveillance—there is probably no better example than Chris Christie’s emotional riposte to Rand Paul’s constitutional swipe at bulk data collection in the first primary debate—but there is one stealthy spy tool that is bringing both ends of the spectrum together in mutual shock and horror.
It’s called “Stingray,” a black box that can mimic a powerful cell tower, tricking wireless devices into communicating information to it and thus giving cops access to a specific target’s location and data. But this technology doesn’t stop there—it also exposes everyone’s devices in the vicinity of the black box, making innocent bystanders vulnerable to the eyes and ears of probing law enforcement.
Local, state, and federal police have been using this kind of technology to surreptitiously monitor the location of suspects for at least 20 years, but thanks to booster products like “FishHawk” and “Porpoise,” which are all made by the same Florida-based Harris Corporation, cops now have the ability to eavesdrop on conversations, and monitor texts as well.
According to this map by the American Civil Liberties Union, (at least) 53 local and state police departments in 21 states across the country are using Stingray technology today. In addition, the ACLU knows of at least 12 federal agencies that use it. Given the secrecy, there could be more. Law enforcement has contended Stingray is for “emergencies,” ostensibly to locate violent criminals and would-be terrorists, but the ACLU has enough documentation to show how often it is used for otherwise, even to monitor peaceful protests.
And they are doing this with or without court orders, say critics, often keeping judges and especially elected officials in the dark through an elaborate veil of vague affidavits, non-disclosure agreements that police sign with both the FBI and Harris Corporation, and appeals to domestic and national security. In other words, even law-and-order advocates and sympathetic magistrates are unsettled at how Stingray is being used right under their noses.
“They are spying on law-abiding citizens as we speak,” charged Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who has called Stingray “an abusive program,” and successfully passed an amendment to the House Commerce, Justice and Science (CJS) Appropriations Act in June that would restrict the use of the technology without a court order. An original champion of the Patriot Act who spent his four years at the helm of the House Oversight Committee investigating Benghazi, the IRS, Obamacare, and “Fast & Furious,” on this issue Issa appears four-square with the privacy advocates.
When asked by USA Today what the next step was, given that there was no similar amendment in the Senate spending bill, he said, “I will use additional opportunities to get it done. Right now law enforcement won’t tell us how many Stingrays they have. The only way to protect the American people is to change the law.”
In February, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., called out Stingray and Harris Corporation on the Senate floor for the first time—a pivotal moment, advocates say.
“Employed for a national security, for our national safety, which is the job of government, then it’s a good thing,” Nelson said. “Employed, however, for other reasons of invading our Constitutional right to privacy is another thing. It is time to stand up for the individual citizen in this country and their right to privacy.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, the new Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman, have targeted Stingray in a pair of bills demanding agents show probable cause before using any sort of GPS tracker, not just Stingray. This, they say, would affirm the Supreme Court’s view in United States v. Jones, which in 2012 said the GPS tracking of a suspect constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment. That case focused on police and a target under warrant—it did not even begin to consider the innocent bystanders who might get swept up in a Stingray dragnet.
“Right now there is no consistent legal framework in place,” Wyden spokesman Keith Chu tells TAC. “I think it’s clear that the lack of a coherent legal framework, a lack of any kind of clear rule of how this kind of technology or other tracking device takes place, is something that should concern everyone in my opinion, no matter where (on the political spectrum) you fall.”
The more one learns about Stingray the worse it seems to get. According to reports this year, this kind of technology can disrupt phone signals from other towers in the vicinity to give police a clear shot at their target, potentially putting emergency calls at risk. Furthermore, reports late last year indicate U.S. Marshals have been flying aircraft outfitted with these devices, gathering data from countless numbers of cell phones in every flight.
In a more recent report, the Associated Press said it analyzed scores of flight data and found the FBI ran more than 100 flights over 11 states over a 30-day period this spring. The 50 Cessna aircraft, whose pilots were connected to fake front companies, were equipped with heavy duty cameras, “and in rare circumstances, technology capable of tracking thousands of cellphones, raising questions about how these surveillance flights affect Americans’ privacy,” according to the AP.
The FBI confirmed their use, but said the planes were not used for mass surveillance. Furthermore, the FBI insists police always get court orders for Stingray, with of course, a number of exceptions, including its deployment in “public spaces” and for “emergencies.” Privacy experts say these loopholes are big enough to fly a Cessna through.
Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman and ranking member of the Judiciary Committee respectively, penned a lengthy letter in December to then-Attorney General Eric Holder and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, asking not only about the planes, but the “exceptions” to seeking Stingray warrants. A similar letter was signed by a group of Democratic senators, including current Democratic primary candidate Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
“The Fourth Amendment protects Americans from unwarranted searches and seizures, so we need a better understanding of how this technology is being used, including the legal authority agencies obtain prior to deploying these tools, the specific information they are giving to judges when requesting to use them, and what policies are in place to ensure the civil liberties of innocent Americans are protected,” Grassley’s office said in a statement forwarded to TAC on Aug. 14.
Clearly in response to congressional pressure—as well as mounting legal battles in a number of states—the Justice Department announced in May that it will conduct its own internal review. According to the Wall Street Journal, a Justice spokesman said the department is “examining its policies to ensure they reflect the Department’s continuing commitment to conducting its vital missions while according appropriate respect for privacy and civil liberties.”
This is nothing more than an afterthought, Neema Guliani, legislative council for the National ACLU, tells TAC. “Why are we having a conversation about whether the policies and practices are appropriate after a decade of you using them?”
The FBI might say, “trust us,” but the truth of the matter is, Stingray would be just another fish in the sea if news organizations and civil liberties advocates weren’t beating the rushes for evidence everyday. It’s been such a secret it has taken years for advocates to get a handle on it.
How? Police departments are forced to sign non-disclosure agreements with the FBI when they purchase “Stingray”—at least $400,000 a pop. This keeps the lid on how and when it is used, and in court, ACLU cites numerous examples of the government getting cases dismissed or negotiating plea deals in order to avoid talking about the Stingray on the record.
In some cases, police have purposefully concealed their use at all in official affidavits. As a result, federal judges have been hoodwinked, thinking they are being asked to sign off on routine wiretaps, rather than cell simulators. In this email thread obtained by the ACLU, a Sarasota, Fla., sergeant suggests a fellow officer mucked things up when he gave away too much about the technology investigation in a case report:
In the past, and at the request of the U.S. Marshals, the investigative means utilized to locate the suspect have not been revealed so that we may continue to utilize this technology without the knowledge of the criminal element. In reports or depositions we simply refer to the assistance as ‘received information from a confidential source regarding the location of the suspect.’ To date this has not been challenged, since it is not an integral part of the actual crime that occurred.
Some judges who have gotten wise to Stingray, however, have started imposing stricter rules for cops who want to use it. After finding out about Stingray through local news reporting, judges in Tacoma, Washington, are now forcing police to spell out what they want, and how they are going to get it without infringing on the rights of bystanders. It’s now a state law in Washington.
But while one jurisdiction seems hip to the trick, others remain ignorant, in many cases because they don’t have a choice. Harris Corporation, in conjunction with the FBI, have gagged local police departments with non-disclosure agreements that require complete silence about how Stingray and its cousins work, even during the acquisitions process.
Joe Simitian, a Clara County, Calif., supervisor, told the New York Times in March that he was floored by his sheriff’s request to buy Stingray without even the basic details of how it worked:
“So, just to be clear, we are being asked to spend $500,000 of taxpayers’ money and $42,000 a year thereafter for a product for the name brand which we are not sure of, a product we have not seen, a demonstration we don’t have, and we have a nondisclosure requirement as a precondition. You want us to vote and spend money,” he continued, but “you can’t tell us more about it.”
The Harris Corporation did not respond to a request for comment for this story. In a clarification in May, the FBI said the non-disclosure agreements do not prevent officers from revealing that Stingray has been used in an investigation and denied that cases have been dismissed before acknowledging Stingray’s use in court depositions.
Guliani doesn’t buy it. “There has been a concerted effort to hide these devices from the public and even to members of congress,” she said. “You are hiding this from people who are responsible for providing oversight and making sure they are used properly.”
For now, despite bipartisan disgust, there are no new hearings planned on the issue, and so far, the legislation championed by Wyden and Chaffetz has gone nowhere. “There are going to be new devices and new ways to track people,” insisted Chu, Wyden’s spokesman.
“Senator Wyden will keep working to move this forward.”
“We get a traitor, a no-good, rotten traitor like Bergdahl,” said Donald Trump, the current frontrunner of the GOP primary pack. “And they get five killers that they most wanted in the whole world, who are right now back on the battlefield, trying to kill everybody, including us. Okay? What kind of a deal is this?”
The case of Bowe Bergdahl, the Army sergeant retrieved in a prisoner exchange with the Taliban last year and subsequently brought up on desertion charges, has never lacked for heated rhetoric, but the coincidence of his case’s progress with the 2016 primary season has dramatically raised the volume. While Jack Nicholson’s character in the film “A Few Good Men” may have shouted “You can’t handle the truth!” the question in the Berghdahl case is whether anyone will be able to hear the truth over the noise.
Contrary to Trump’s declarations, Bergdahl has not yet been convicted of anything, much less treason, and the five prisoners (at least four of whom were political, moderate Taliban never accused of direct violence) swapped for him back in June are still on travel restriction and nowhere near “the battlefield.” Nevertheless, Trump knows such red meat, spoiled as it may be, is the coin of the realm with grassroots audiences.
Sen. Ted Cruz suggested that Bergdahl himself should feel guilty about the deal that brought him home, while Sen. Marco Rubio told Fox News back in February, “We said at the time that that swap, in and of itself, would now put a price tag on the head of every American abroad. In fact, ISIL, as we speak, is actively looking for more Westerners to kidnap, particularly Americans.”
“The story is right-wing crack,” wrote Michael Tomasky in June 2014, after he received his own tsunami of Twitter-hate for defending Bergdahl’s rescue. “And sure enough, Republicans are hitting the pipe big time.”
It is this kind of hyper-politicized atmosphere that Bergdahl’s supporters fear the most, moving into an Article 32 hearing in September to determine whether he will be tried by Court Martial.
“Due to the notoriety of this case, getting a fair trial will be difficult,” mused (Ret.) Lt. Col. Lorraine Bartlett, who served as a defense attorney with the U.S. Military Commissions at Guantanamo Bay. She senses the public is clamoring for a “red meat trial” and a Court Martial would definitely give them one. She suggests his team might plea to a lesser AWOL charge.
(Ret.) Maj. Todd Pierce, who worked with Bartlett on the commissions, says a Court Martial could taint the well further than anyone expects. “I think the militaristic Republican candidates, which means all of them with maybe only one exception, will exploit this case for the maximum political gain,” he said, “regardless of the cost to national interests. One of those costs would be to make it impossible for successful negotiations favorable to the U.S. and Afghanistan in resolving the conflict in Afghanistan.”
Bergdahl’s legal team includes civilian attorney Eugene Fidell, who teaches at Yale Law School and has a strong background in military law and litigation. He has openly questioned whether his client could get an impartial jury of his peers under the current circumstances. “His case has received a Niagara, a Niagara of vilification in the media and elsewhere,” he told PBS Newshour.
Just two weeks ago, outfits like Breitbart.com were giddily announcing “Bowe Bergdahl caught in NorCal pot farm raid.” The coverage all but suggested that not only was Bergdahl a comrade-killing commie, but a lawbreaking stoner to boot. The not-so-sexy truth was that he unexpectedly dropped by to see a friend at a Mendocino County farm that day, and was not connected to, nor detained during, the raid. The police, however, sent word to the Army, and then ran to the press.
“A number of people, many people have said the most dreadful things about my client without knowing the first thing about his actual conduct or his actual motivation,” Fidell said on PBS. “People have said he should be shot, he should hanged, he should be shot in the legs and then shot again, the most bizarre things.”
Fidell spoke briefly with TAC last week about the upcoming hearing, which will take place on Sept. 17 at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio Texas.
Bergdahl was formally charged in March with one count of desertion and one count of misbehavior before the enemy, specifically, that he endangered his fellow soldiers through “disobedience, neglect, or intentional misconduct.” The former carries with it a possible five-year sentence, the later upwards of life in a military prison or even the death penalty. Similar to a civilian Grand Jury, the September hearing could influence the disposition of Bergdahl’s case.
After listening to testimony from witnesses on both sides and reviewing evidence, the investigating officer, a JAG corps lieutenant colonel, will recommend to a non-lawyer officer how the charges should be disposed. That officer will, in turn, take the nonbinding recommendation to the Commander of U.S. Army Forces. Currently, that four-star is Gen. Mark Milley, who brought the initial charges against Bergdahl.
The hearing may result in a recommendation other than General Court-Martial: a Special Court-Martial, a recommendation that charges be amended or added, alternative dispositions such as administrative discharge, resignation, or non-judicial punishment. They could recommend the case be dropped altogether. Experts say the General Court Martial would be the harshest route for Bergdahl in that it would be like trying him on felony charges, where he’d be subjected to a jury of his peers.
“I do have some concern, given the amount of publicity that this case has generated over the time since he was liberated by President Obama that it will be very, very hard to assemble a jury, if the case ever gets to a court-martial,” Fidell told PBS.
Meanwhile, Bergdahl’s team has attempted, so far unsuccessfully, to get Milley removed from the case. The four-star has been nominated as Army Chief of Staff, and the team feels that the politicized nature of the case will have an undue influence on Milley’s ability to provide impartial judgment. Milley sat before the Senate Armed Services Committee in July and his confirmation is pending before the full Senate (which could come before the hearing anyway). The SASC is headed by Sen. John McCain, who like the other Republican members of the committee, has been publicly critical of the exchange of Guantanamo Bay prisoners for Bergdahl, calling them “hard-core jihadists who were responsible for 9/11.”
McCain is hardly the lone or the loudest voice in the din that followed Bergdahl’s release in June 2014. Criticism has been dogging Bergdahl since 2009 among soldiers who insisted he deserted. But after he was rescued, members of Bergdahl’s former unit began their ubiquitous rounds in the media, accusing Bergdahl of causing the deaths of six fellow soldiers who were looking for him in the weeks after he vanished. That their myriad appearances on television, particularly Fox News, appear to have been initially orchestrated by a Republican strategist is a detail lost on nearly everyone but Bergdahl’s most dogged defenders.
Things got out of hand quickly when when it was revealed that he was swapped in exchange for five Taliban detainees and that Congress wasn’t consulted ahead of time. Meanwhile, critics began revisiting an earlier, sympathetic profile by the late Michael Hastings in Rolling Stone that painted Bergdahl as idealistic and disillusioned with the war. Bergdahl not only became a pincushion for all the Obama hatred on the right, but a scapegoat among pro-war conservatives for everything wrong with the war under the current administration.
“The nation craves a Dolchstoßlegende, and without an active antiwar movement or a critical media, this is a tough itch to scratch. With Bowe Bergdahl, our war-lovers have a chance to blame somebody, which will add one more layer of ignorance and misunderstanding to how we think and talk about the Afghan War,” said Chase Madar, author of The Passion of Bradley Manning.
Veteran Nathan Bradley Bethea upped the ante when he wrote that, in addition to the six soldiers in Bergdahl’s unit, two more from another one were killed in an operation near the Afghanistan/Pakistan border because, he contends, critical intelligence resources were diverted to the search for Bergdahl. No one seems to remember, though, that Bethea also said he forgave Bergdahl, and acknowledged the horror he lived in for five years. He also guessed the Army would want to avoid a Court-Martial:
I believe that Bergdahl also deserves sympathy, but he has much to answer for, some of which is far more damning than simply having walked off…
…Reprimanding him might yield horrible press for the Army, making our longest war even less popular than it is today. Retrieving him at least reminds soldiers that we will never abandon them to their fates, right or wrong. In light of the propaganda value, I do not expect the Department of Defense to punish Bergdahl.
The White House was excoriated for appearing with Bergdahl’s parents in the Rose Garden to sing Bergdahl’s praises when he was finally released. National Security advisor Susan Rice drew fire for saying Bergdahl served with “honor and distinction,” a comment repeated ad nauseam by the anti-Bergdahl blogosphere almost as reason enough to let him rot in jail for the rest of his life.
Fidell’s mission is not to let that happen. In light of that task, he is doing very little press these days. He was firm in not speaking with TAC about any of the details of the case. Instead, Fidell pointed to a lengthy letter he wrote to Milley before Bergdahl was charged. It liberally quotes an unreleased report by investigating officer Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl and is informative about where the defense might go. It also teases out some conclusions by Dahl that may get in the way of the snowballing narrative threatening to collide with his client in September.
Among those conclusions number a few very important points: that Bergdahl did not go seeking the Taliban and did not harbor an intent to remain away permanently, which could set up a case of AWOL as opposed to desertion. The report also says, according to Fidell, that there is no evidence that any soldier died searching for him, and that Bergdahl’s specific intent was to bring what he thought were “disturbing circumstances” to the attention of a high-ranking officer.
That last point suggests there is much more to be revealed about the day Bergdahl left his post. Whether “the truth” will have a whit of a chance of surviving in this political atmosphere remains to be seen. For now, experts say, the Army has stayed above the fray of the lynch mob. Let’s just hope it stays there.
This spring, upwards of 22 million people—including all government workers and their families—were affected by the largest data breach of government computers ever, putting their personal histories—including information about bankruptcies, mental health issues and finances, not to mention Social Security numbers, at risk.
In a seeming moment of candor, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in July that the two separate hacks of the Office of Personnel management first discovered in June were a “wake up call” for the federal government regarding the urgency of the cybersecurity threat, and that “we need to improve out mission” to secure the nation’s networks from further harm.
“To be frank,” he said before an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the preeminent national security think tank, “our federal cybersecurity is not where it needs to be.”
The sound heard shortly thereafter was of 22 million simultaneous face palms across the bureaucratic universe.
After spending two decades and untold billions in taxpayer dollars on federal cyber priorities, not to mention the dedication of new agencies, programs, departments, task forces, a czar, and a cyber command under the U.S. military, the idea that the DHS needed an “a-ha” moment to put the threat into perspective is absurd, even bordering on cheap sentiment considering the circumstances. Perhaps Johnson, on the job for a year and a half while playing defense all the way, was just happy that it was OPM director Katherine Archuleta on the chopping block. She resigned under broad congressional pressure on July 10, just a day after Johnson declared his epiphany.
Federal workers are not buying it. The American Federation of Government Employees and National Treasury Employees Union announced they were suing OPM on behalf of its combined 450,000 members, alleging that that the agency knew for years that its network security was weak and vulnerable, but failed to do anything about it.
The two OPM hacks included the background check system database that holds super-sensitive information about government employees and contractors who have applied for clearances since 2000 (and, by extension, their friends and family members who were listed on applications, too). “It’s a treasure trove of information about everybody who has worked for, tried to work for, or works for the United States government,” FBI Director James B. Comey said in July.
One could see an attack coming down Pennsylvania Avenue in this February report by the Office of Budget and Management, which found OPM consistently at the bottom of basic security metrics. It particularly stood out in its poor authentication and remote access encryption standards. In other words, OPM set out a bright neon welcome sign for hackers.
“Since 2007, officials at OPM have been alerted to their lackluster data security policies and protocols and failed to take appropriate steps to safeguard the information,” said the AFGE leaders when they announced the suit June 29. “Although they were forewarned about the potential catastrophe that government employees faced, OPM’s data security got worse rather than better.”
How could this be? Not only has the government poured endless resources into building and rebuilding network security—a little less than $13 billion across the government in the last year alone—but entire bureaucratic infrastructures have been raised up to address this issue. Despite that, and not counting the recent OPM breach, the number of security incidents reported by federal agencies rose to 67,168 in 2014 from a low of 5,503 in 2005, according to the GAO.
More importantly, Washington is treating this as yet another war—a “cyber war”—and blaming the North Koreans and Chinese governments for the most egregious attacks. And for good reason, as we know now that foreign hackers have accessed blueprints of the U.S. military’s most advanced weapons systems over the last decade, including Patriot missile technology, the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship, the Aegis Ballistic Missile System and that albatross, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which now carries a program price tag of over $1 trillion (though the Chinese might be rethinking the value of that last hack, considering a recent flight test that found the F-35 couldn’t dogfight its way out of a open kennel).
But like all Washington wars, there is a lot of bluster and bureaucracy, even more space carved out for generals and career employees seeking advancement, and a private industry sniffing out the next money pot. The usual short shrift is given to finding a long-term, creative strategy that actually works.
“To me, the whole enterprise is troubled, risks being a boondoggle, and is riddled with failures,” said Gordon Adams, who served as a senior budget official for national security in the Clinton Administration, which, incidentally, launched the very first commission dealing primarily with cyber threats to critical infrastructure in 1996, followed by the first cyber war game (enemy: North Korea).
From there the government continually added 20 years of layer upon layer of “solutions,” mostly in the form of new programs, salaries, and government buildings, each routinely forgotten once the next shiny solution came along. Remember the National Infrastructure Protection Center? Probably not. It was created under Clinton, but eventually disbanded when it was absorbed by the bureaucratic hydra otherwise known as DHS in 2003.
Every traditional law enforcement, military and surveillance agency now has a piece of cyber, not to mention the new components that sprang up in the wake of the 9/11 attacks—like the National Counter Terrorism Center, and the Center for Cyber Security under DHS. The most recent: the Cyber Threat Intelligence Integration Center, was announced in February.
Don’t forget the parade of blue ribbon panels, with names like the Critical Infrastructure Protection Committee, Partnership for Critical Infrastructure Protection, National Infrastructure Assurance Council, and the Critical Infrastructure Partnership Advisory Council, also gobbling up funding in order to issue white papers and recommendations most assuredly gathering dust somewhere in a desk no longer used.
In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed the first “cybersecurity czar,” but after the flashy Richard Clark the post became just another mouth to feed, with negligible impact and forgettable leadership. The current czar, White House cyber security coordinator, Michael Daniel, has been called a “total n00b” (gamer speak for novice) for his complete lack of technology on his resume. He is a former OMB official.
In 2010, USCYBERCOM (U.S. Cyber Command) was created and given four-star leadership (Gen. Keith Alexander, who was also director of the National Security Agency at the time) to centralize, synchronize, and lead all of the defense department’s cyber offensive and defensive operations, with components in each branch of service. It has received more than $500 million each year since 2014 and is expected to get a little less than that in FY 2016. However, defense-wide, the Pentagon is expected to get closer to $5.5 billion in cyber funds next year.
Of course, the goal of heading off the Chinese menace was never far from the lips of USCYBERCOM’s proponents. “The Chinese are viewed as the source of a great many attacks on western infrastructure and just recently, the U.S. electrical grid. If that is determined to be an organized attack, I would want to go and take down the source of those attacks,” Alexander said at time of his four-star promotion.
The war was on, and so was the feeding frenzy. While it was well documented at the time that industry giants like Lockheed Martin and Boeing were having trouble keeping their own barn doors closed against persistent cyber espionage, the defense sector seized upon the chance to amp up their cyber portfolios for the federal round robin amid declining budgets and economic recession. When the Washington Post published “Top Secret America” in 2010, some 143 companies were getting paid to provide security services to 22 government organizations involved in “the cyber war,” the fastest growing zip code in the national security state.
Criticism abounds, and for good reason. Americans hear very little about the “offensive” side of this warfare, particularly America’s involvement in launching its own attacks to spy, steal secrets and sabotage the enemy’s capabilities.
Also, privacy advocates are rightly concerned about legislative “fixes” that would increase the information sharing between the federal government and the private sector, including the propagation of back doors and surveillance authorities like CISPA (Cyber Information Sharing and Protection Act). Given the disclosures by former Booz Allen Hamilton analyst Edward Snowden (ironically, the most profound example of the weakness of the sprawling contracting system in the cybersecurity context), there is understandable wariness over giving the government and their corporate “partners” any more access to Americans’ private data.
Finally, critics want to know much of the cyber war is hype generated to create more self-sustaining ecosystems within the government apparatus and the Military Industrial Complex. “Now that the government has decided to stimulate the cybersecurity market Washington’s perennial parasites want a piece of the action,” wrote Firedoglake’s DSWright in 2011. To be sure, the only place that so-called Beltway Bandits have been thriving in recent years has been in cybersecurity. But as the OPM disaster has shown, this hasn’t necessarily translated into success.
“The U.S government has an infinite capacity to spend money on cyber, and the road is littered with failure, both in setting up IT systems and in defending them,” Adams, now a professor emeritus at American University, noted to TAC.
The War on Drugs is a perfect example of a failed mission built on a similarly elaborate architecture of government appropriations, contractual relationships, and law enforcement authorities extending from the White House all the way down to municipal police departments and public schools. But the effort has been largely written off as one of the biggest failures in government history.
Rather than dismiss the cyber war as mere hype (Leon Panetta warning of a “cyber Pearl Harbor” is enough to get anyone’s cynicism in gear), putting cyber in the context of the Drug War could be the first step in wrapping one’s mind around this mess. There is a drug problem in this country, but the federal government has proven it cannot solve it. There are very real threats to both public and private networks and national security is indeed at stake. The further dependent we become on the grid (think: the Internet of Things) the more vulnerable the nation—its economy, its privacy, and security—becomes. But is the federal bureaucracy proving an effective leader in protection, prevention and resiliency? Not quite, not yet.
The “a-ha moment” here is not in finally recognizing the threat, but acknowledging that 20 years of evolving federal cybersecurity policy is not working. This is already morphing into another endless war the United States will never win. The time to break the cycle is now.
He bucked the generals, how bad could retirement be?
Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis served the Army for 30 years, earning a reputation in the latter stage of his career as a fierce critic of American conduct of the war in Afghanistan as well as the generals who misled Americans about their failures. Davis is leaving for the civilian asphalt jungle this summer, but finding a civilian outlet for his unyielding truth-telling could pose a challenge.
Davis will not join the officers who retire in Washington in order to belly up to the defense industry, hoping to trade their inside knowledge for an executive post or consulting gig. Instead, he’s looking to the nonprofit sector to give the civilian leadership in Washington the same treatment he gave his military superiors in the Pentagon, and to help people become better informed voters. His project is called “Democracy Awake,” though so far it has a lot more potential than resources, Davis tells TAC.
To understand Danny Davis the prospective civilian, it is vital to understand Daniel L. Davis, the Lieutenant Colonel. In 2009, Davis publicly denounced Gen. David Petraeus’s plan to implement an Iraq-style troop surge in Afghanistan, insisting that it “could actually result in a worsening of the situation.” After a 2011 tour in Afghanistan on a Ready Equipping Force, Davis was so struck by the contrast between the conditions on the ground and the sunny reports coming from the generals that he called them out to media and insiders alike for misleading the American public. His treatise went viral, and he took his case to receptive ears in Congress. He likes to say being honest is the least difficult part of his job, and for the last several years, the corruption of power in the military has stuck in his craw.
“It was the right thing to do,” he said, trying not to come off too cornpone for the room. “Not to do something would have been to endanger the lives of the soldiers. It would have been unconscionable for me to keep quiet. That’s how I want to look at everything.”
Not everyone was thrilled with Davis’ call to conscience. After going public, he was ignored in the hallways at the Pentagon, he said, though he wasn’t fired. Ironically, he was shifted to a marketing job where he helped produce slick recruitment videos, a post he very much liked and continued in until his retirement.
In the meantime, he was predictably attacked in establishment military circles, including by retired Col. Joseph J. Collins, a former assistant secretary for stability operations in Afghanistan, who called Davis’ report “a mess.” Collins suggested that Davis’ “Dereliction of Duty II” does an outright disservice to counterinsurgency idol H.R. McMasters’ 1997 book, Dereliction of Duty, which is about how the Joint Chiefs and the White House failed to provide a clear strategy for victory in the Vietnam War.
“McMaster’s book by the same title was well-researched and well-written. Davis’s work is neither. Davis’s work should be called ‘Dereliction of Civility’ or maybe, ‘Death by Semi-anonymous Anecdote,’ or ‘My Turn for Warhol-hood,’” groused Collins.
“Davis is not a hero, but he will go into the whistleblower hall of fame. If years hence, he doesn’t make full Colonel, it will be construed as punishment, but there is nothing in this report that suggests he has any such potential.” Collins’s own 2008 “pull no punches” tell-all, “Choosing War: the Decision to Invade Iraq and its Aftermath,” was published long after he and former bosses (Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld) were safely out the door, and the Bush administration itself soon to follow. Davis, on the other hand, exposed himself by pointing out his superiors’ mistakes as they were making them.
Three years after Davis’s “Dereliction,” official operations in Afghanistan have ended, but the war is hardly won. The Taliban is stepping up attacks, with numerous bombings in Kabul and Helmand province—two former U.S. military “successes.” They’ve declared Kuduz in the north their first major “foothold” since the 2001 U.S. invasion. Leading hawks like Sen. John McCain are now calling for a “reassessment” of the U.S. withdrawal timeline. Five years ago Gen. Petraeus was saying the Taliban was on the run. What happened?
“We have these PR claims of great success everyday, when the evidence overwhelmingly refutes it. Every tactical engagement you can say we ‘won’ but it doesn’t make any difference,” says Davis, noting that our “actions over the last 10 years have worsened our national security, not improved it and I have a big, big problem with that.”
“I served in the military because I love our country and wanted to serve it,” Davis tells TAC, insisting he never gave up on the Army. “The institution of the U.S. Army is fantastic, the people who fill out the ranks are beautiful people, they are true patriots who care about the country.” Unlike Collins, who wrote his books and critiques for his “soldier-scholar” peers at the National Defense University, Davis says he put pen to paper for the U.S. servicemen and women, and by extension, the American people supporting them, who he felt were being misled.
“We have become disenfranchised,” he says, turning to domestic politics in a recent interview. Ticking off stats about the influence of elite money in elections, he notes that in the 2012 election, not one House or Senate member was elected without the help of the “1 percent of the 1 percent,” the 31,385 people in the U.S. who contributed $6 billion in campaign contributions—nearly 30 percent of all (traceable) funds reported by political committees that year overall.
He says the October 2013 government shutdown that left hundreds of thousands of government workers in the lurch over pay was his epiphany.
“I saw how disastrous and horrible it was to the lives of regular people. I knew it would eventually get resolved [by lawmakers],” he says, “and then nothing was going to change. They could have resolved it on Day One, though, and not disrupted the lives of so many people. It was like they didn’t care what the shutdown was gong to do to those people, the ripple effect.”
He says elected officials on Capitol Hill operate on a pay-to-play field that, like in the case of the shutdown, offers no field time for regular people. He scoffs at a system that now lets super PACs and their hyper-wealthy donors, and their lobbyists, call the shots. Just this week, Democratic candidate and Sen. Bernie Sanders echoed this complaint, calling it a “national disgrace” and blasted his fellow candidates scrambling to raise millions before the current quarterly filing deadline.
“Ninety-nine percent have no say in who runs or who wins and have no influence on what they do when they get into office,” Davis concluded. “That is not right and it is not how the country is run.”
To some, this goal of a grassroots movement trying to do an end-run around big money in politics may seem quixotic, if not a bit Pollyannaish, particularly for a man with bills to pay. The Washington area is a most expensive place to live and he has two young sons, 13, and 9, to support. Even with retirement, the need to find a regular-paying job is inevitable. But Davis is not one to look for the easy way out.
“[Davis] embodies all those things that America is supposed to stand for,” says Matthew Hoh, who served as a Marine and a civilian in both Iraq and Afghanistan before resigning in protest of the war policy in 2009. He and others had actually counseled Davis not to go public with his takedown of the generals, fearing it would wreck his career. “He said, ‘I know what this might bring down on me and my family but it is the right thing to do,’” Hoh recalls to TAC.
Hoh isn’t surprised that Davis is trying to shift his attention towards democracy and money in campaigns. “He’s more concerned with truth and integrity than going along and getting along,” he says. But Hoh knows it won’t be easy. After making his own stand, Hoh is still struggling to resume a career. He worked for a spell in the think tank world in Washington, and for personal reasons eventually drifted back to North Carolina. He knows he has burned bridges, and that the whistleblower moniker is both badge and burden.
“Many [military retirees] want to get out and help fix whatever they see is wrong with the policy,” he says. “But no one is going to hire you for that.”
Col. Morris Davis (no relation) knows this. He retired from the U.S. Air Force in 2008 after quitting his post as Guantanamo Bay prosecutor over the use of waterboarding and torture of prisoners. He spent his time in the immediate aftermath writing op-eds, doing media, tangling with the Congressional Research Service, and teaching part-time. Now he is back working for the government, as an administrative judge for the Department of Labor. He says Davis is in “for a rude awakening” in the non-profit world, which looks attractive and clean from the outside, but is really a tangle of fundraising and forced narcissism. “I went into it naive and learned the lessons the hard way,” he tells TAC.
Morris Davis says he wishes Daniel Davis the best, but warns that money is a corrupting influence in the nonprofit world, too, and having a military background can actually hinder, rather, than help the process. Then of course, there’s that truth-telling.
“LTC Davis should understand that neither being military nor being someone who spoke out weigh in his favor,” Morris said in an email to TAC. “They’ll pat him on the back for what he did there, but they’ll be concerned that he might do it again here. In other words, they admire you pointing out someone else’s warts, but they’ll worry you might expose their theirs.”
Davis says that money—big business—is ruining the military’s vision and effectiveness. The resources poured into bad weapons systems, ships, and vehicles because one contractor dominated the process themselves create massive liabilities in the long-term. He blames the breed of yes-men at the top, and sees the same phenomenon afflicting the political scene on the civilian side of American life.
“I feel there is a small group of people who are taking the country in the wrong direction and one day it could have catastrophic consequences,” he says.
So what to do about it? A self-described conservative independent, Davis wants DemocracyAwake.org to offer an accessible online platform called a “power hub” to serve as a clearinghouse for voter information and a grassroots meeting place, for all political persuasions. He began a crowd-sourcing campaign to raise $30,000 to start building, but it’s barely simmering so he’s now adjusting that goal while looking for a job. There are soft landings in security-related positions all over the greater D.C. area, and then there is hard reality. Right now, it can go either way.
“I’m not looking to make money for myself, I’m looking to make a difference. I’m looking to at where I can use my skills and abilities,” he said. “I want a job with a purpose.”