Everyone is suddenly talking about Qatar. Normally dwarfed by its neighbors Iran and Saudi Arabia, both in physical size and the energy they both consume in official Washington, the oil-rich Arab nation has in the last six months become a symbol of political martyrdom and, more recently, of Beltway intrigue.
Qatar, which sits on a tiny peninsula on the Persian Gulf, was abruptly cut off economically and diplomatically by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt in June. This meant the closing of all land, sea, and air routes for trade and travel, the expulsion of Qatari citizens from blockading countries, and an amped-up propaganda campaign against the ruling royal Qatari government, one of the United States’ staunchest allies in the region.
Led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the blockaders aimed for a righteous tone, declaring Qatar a state sponsor of terrorism. Fresh from a trip to Saudi Arabia where he joined other Gulf States in sword dances and gathered around a glowing orb of unity, President Trump at first embraced the blockade as part of his own tough posture against “radical Islamic terrorism,” calling Qatar a backer of this ideology “at a very high level.”
Any geopolitical analyst worth his salt knew the blockade and PR offensive was all a Saudi-UAE smokescreen to cover those countries’ own festering disputes with Qatar, over Doha’s funding of Al Jazeera news and its refusal to vilify Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. Deeper into the mix is Qatar’s humanitarian investments in Hamas-controlled Gaza, and its refusal to cut off the organization as a political force in the region. This has drawn the ire of the influential anti-Iran neoconservative faction in Washington, who have struck a strange alliance with the authoritarian regimes of the blockading countries.
Trump eventually dialed back his support of what TAC’s Daniel Larison has called the “punitive measures” of the blockaders in their “vendetta” against Qatar. But it’s since emerged that Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner might have helped get a White House blessing for the blockade in the first place—without first consulting his cabinet. TAC’s Mark Perry reported in late June that the now-fired secretary of state Rex Tillerson was completely “blindsided” by Trump’s initial remarks against Qatar. Sources suggested that Kushner had been influenced by close friend UAE ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba, and in turn Kushner had influenced Trump.
Now it’s come out that Special Counsel Robert Mueller, in the course of probing Russian meddling in the Trump campaign and transition, has fastened on to an aide to the UAE crown prince who may have made several trips to the White House and used Kushner to influence the president over the blockade. Meanwhile, in a blockbuster report by The Intercept, it was revealed that Kushner’s father Charles Kushner had attempted and failed to secure an investment from the Qatari royal family for his New York-based real estate company headquarters. “That 2017 effort followed previous entreaties made in the region by Jared Kushner himself,” according to The Intercept.
The blockade was announced a month after his father was reportedly rebuffed.
Now, in a statement to TAC, the Qatari ambassador to the U.S., Sheikh Meshal Bin Hamad al-Thani, says Qatar “has not been approached nor has it considered approaching the special counsel’s office or any entity within the United States government.” The embassy is clearly most interested in keeping the administration at the negotiating table and, if possible, in their corner. And it was clear, at least until Tillerson’s surprise firing this week, that the Trump administration was actively working to end the blockade, with the State Department deploying Retired General Anthony Zinni and Deputy Assistant Secretary Timothy Lenderking to the Gulf region, where, according to a statement to TAC, they’re “engaging with all parties involved to discuss potential paths toward resolving the Gulf dispute and discussing preparations for the upcoming U.S.-GCC Summit” next spring. The administration also hosted a strategic dialogue with Qatar in January, and is reportedly laying the groundwork for a potential Camp David meeting with all parties this summer.Right now, with the Saudis and UAE and Kushner looking exposed, Qatar, rather than begging for mercy, is digging in for the siege. In a wide-ranging interview at the Qatari embassy in Washington earlier this month, Ambassador al-Thani insisted that the blockading countries resented Qatar’s trajectory of democratic change over the last 20 years, with Al Jazeera the symbol of its pan-Arab outreach and free speech principles that the ruling royal families in the Gulf fear the most.
“Qatar wanted to enforce the idea that change is possible without violence. The blockading countries don’t want democratic change, they are working against it,” al-Thani told TAC.
“Many people don’t realize that Al Jazeera is part of what we are doing in our own country. In 1996 we decided to lift censorship rules, and abolished the ministry of information and planted the seeds of freedom of the press,” he said.
Al-Thani charges that the blockade was a farce from the beginning, when the Saudis used as a “red line” a news story that has now been dismissed as “fake news” and the result of a cyber attack. In that story, Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani supposedly called Iran an “Islamic power” and praised Hamas in a speech. It went viral immediately and remained in circulation on Arab television networks after the Qataris warned it was false.
“It happened in the the middle of the night. But the TV channels (Saudi/UAE) were conveniently all ready—at 12:30 a.m.—to debate this, with guests,” al-Thani said.
The UAE immediate shut down all broadcasts of Qatari media inside its borders, including Al Jazeera. Within days the blockade had begun. By July, U.S. intelligence officials confirmed that the cyberattack had been initiated at the senior level of the UAE government.
“They’re basing their aggression on a falsehood. Therefore, in my view, anything else that comes from them now is false,” al-Thani said. He also acknowledged the massive PR and lobbying campaign, which has involved high-powered American operatives who have been able to maneuver inside the power centers as close as the White House.
“The challenge here is unfortunate—you have your own neighbors putting out obstacles for you and trying to undermine the relationship between the U.S. and Qatar,” he said. “It feels like they are stabbing us in the back.”
Al-Thani said the insincerity of Qatar’s Gulf neighbors can be seen in their 13 demands, issued in June as a condition for lifting the blockade. They included shutting down Al Jazeera, cutting off all contact with the Muslim Brotherhood, scaling back Qatar’s relationships with Iran, throwing Turkish troops off Qatari soil, and opening up to “compliance” inspections.
“They were issued because they knew they would not be met. They infringe on our sovereignty,” said al-Thani. “They want to halt all of the progress we’ve made in the last 47 years.”
That progress, he says, includes a host of educational partners, including Northwestern University, Carnegie Mellon, and Georgetown University. Al-Thani says educational and social reforms undertaken in his country over the last two decades have made Qatar more competitive and attractive on an international scale, drawing business and development, and does not shy from what he calls “progress” at home. While Qatar remains an Islamic Sharia-based country, it has grown more socially tolerant than its neighbors, passing new labor and divorce laws, instituting municipal and federal (council) elections that are open to women, and implementing free press and speech reforms.
“We are far from perfect,” he noted. “We have have to work more, but we will not let anyone stop our transformation process.”
Qatar is hosting the 2022 World Cup and has drawn fire for its treatment of migrant workers who have traveled from third-world countries to build the massive soccer stadium. Rumors have been flying that FIFA might take its prestigious hosting honor away. Migrant laborers make up some 94 percent of Qatar’s workforce and have been subjected to exploitive Kalafah rules popular across the Gulf region, which tie workers to one employer and in many cases lead to horrible abuses and accusations of modern-day slavery. Recent reports say hundreds of workers die each year due to extreme heat on construction sites, including the stadiums.
Al-Thani pointed out that Kalafah was abolished in 2017 in Qatar in part as a result of the growing criticisms. The government also announced it would be issuing a minimum wage law. While some say it remains to be seen whether the abuses end, al-Thani insists Qatar is adapting, while its enemies are using the FIFA controversy to turn the world against them. “I tell the UAE and the Saudis to calm down, rest, it’s a closed matter,” he said of the World Cup. “We’re hosting.”
As for Iran, Qatar shares ownership of the South Pars/North Dome, the largest natural gas field in the world. It also supports the Iran deal that keeps the Iranian nuclear program under the inspection of the U.S. and its coalition partners. And while it joins its Gulf neighbors in regarding Iran’s activities in the region with wariness, it disagrees over how to keep them in check—particularly over the Saudi-led war on Yemen.
“We agree with the United States and the Arab countries that the behavior of Iran in the region has been destabilizing. We do not appreciate what they have been doing in Syria, Bahrain, Iraq, and Yemen,” Al-Thani noted. “At the same time, you empower Iran with every move you make—like in Yemen and Qatar, stopping food and medicine from coming in. All these impulsive policies that are just giving Iran an excuse to be active in our region.”
For the time being, Qatar is doing just fine economically, despite the embargo. As the second richest country in the world, it merely opened up new ports and air routes to get goods flowing again. If anything, the embargoes are hurting the blockading countries more. But the political rift is crippling, and the embassy points to harmful travel bans as straining families and students. It claims that there have been 26,000 cases of human rights violations filed with Qatar as a result of the blockade.
Calls and emails to Egyptian, Saudi, and UAE officials went unanswered for this story.
As for its relationship with the U.S., Qatar is hopeful that $35 billion in recent investments, its longstanding military ties (Qatar is home to the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East, the Al-Udeid Air Base, housing some 11,000 American personnel), and its other partnerships will act as an anchor during this particularly difficult time in Washington. With Tillerson out and an anti-Iran war hawk nominated to replace him, Qatar may be facing some choppy seas.
“We consider the U.S. our partner and ally. Truly,” said al-Thani. “We are proud of our relationship. We won’t let our neighbors try to undermine that relationship.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is the executive editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC.
WASHINGTON — When Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launches his tour through the United States in the coming weeks, he will be cushioned by a complacent mainstream press and his feet will pad over a lush red carpet rolled out by the White House, Congress, and foreign policy establishment in Washington.
Why not? He paid for it.
While most of the talk about the “foreign influence game” today revolves around Russia, possibly no world leader alive has the kind of elaborately engineered public relations machine laying the groundwork for his foreign visits as the Saudi prince, otherwise known as MbS. And it’s not just him, but the entire Kingdom, which over the years has benefitted from billions of dollars of investment in Washington, D.C. lobbying firms, think tanks, and universities. These institutions, each in their own way, have polished up an image of Saudi Arabia that’s not only a whitewash of reality but seeks to deflect negative news, and helps shape U.S. domestic policies in the Kingdom’s favor.
“The first year of the Trump administration has been critical for the Saudis. They’ve added several new firms to their already powerful lobby and have managed to court the Trump administration in a way they never quite could the Obama administration,” lobbying analyst Ben Freeman of the Center for International Policy told TAC.
In recent months, MbS has led a campaign of power consolidation in which he’s jailed rival princes and Saudi elites, kidnapped the Lebanese prime minister, and led a traumatizing break with and blockade of neighboring Qatar. Meanwhile, he’s attempting to “bomb and starve Yemen into submission” with a massive air campaign and blockade that’s created a catastrophic humanitarian situation there: at least 10,000 dead (numbers are still unclear), with millions more displaced, in need of food aid, and suffering from an intensifying cholera epidemic.
But ask many in Washington about Saudi Arabia and they’ll give you the mixed review, invariably mentioning Saudi women’s new license to drive, the opening of movie theaters for the first time, and the billions of aid that Saudis have been pumping into Yemen to “relieve the suffering” there.
That last one is particularly cynical because, as Irin News reports, the Saudis recruited U.S. defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton to help design the aid plan, which was announced at the same time that dozens of fresh Saudi airstrikes and more civilian deaths were reported in Saan’a on February 6.
And, as Irin reporters point out, “the [aid] plan rejects calls by the UN to lift an on-off blockade of Hodeidah port, a vital lifeline for civilians in the rebel-held north: it proposes reducing the overall flow of cargo into the city and stepping up imports into coalition-controlled areas.” As always, it’s a sleight of hand, enabled by slick PR that in this case includes the assistance of both U.S. and UK firms. This isn’t humanitarian aid; it’s a show.
Meanwhile, top establishment figures are already doing advance work for MbS. David Ignatius, in a “a wide-ranging late-night interview at his palace” in Riyadh, came to the conclusion there was a “cultural ferment” in the air:
“Women tell visitors what kind of cars they plan to buy when they’re allowed to drive in June; new gyms for women are opening; female entrepreneurs are operating food trucks; and female sports fans are attending public soccer games,” he gushed in his weekly Washington Post column, barely noting Yemen or human rights abuses there.
Dennis Ross, who served as either a Middle East envoy or counselor in every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan’s, noted in a recent Washington Post op-ed that “I just returned from my second trip to Saudi Arabia” since MbS “became the driving force for change” there. Not only is MbS trying to “transform Saudi society” into something more secular and tolerant, said Ross, he’s heralding “a new prominence of women” that is in fact a “revolution from above.” A few more encomiums like this and MbS will have Washington eating out of his hand when he arrives.
As these pages have pointed out many times before, the Saudi advantage is the Kingdom’s vast oil wealth. And money buys influence. Whether it be opposing the new U.S. law holding al Saud’s leadership accountable for 9/11 deaths, or, along with the equally shrewd United Arab Emirates, marshaling friendly think tanks to give their bullying of Qatar a scholarly sheen, Saudi Arabia is a force that either will or won’t be ignored according to its own whims and dictates. Ross may not be getting paid to say what he does, but as a fellow at the neoconservative Washington Institute for Near East Policy, he is immersed in a nexus of shared foreign policy interests with the Saudi lobby—and it shows.
“(Saudi Arabia) is arguably the biggest player in the foreign influence space,” said Freeman. “I think to understand the Saudi lobby is to understand foreign lobbying, period. And I think the public deserves to know it.”
Freeman is heading the Center’s new Foreign Influence Initiative and his first task is identifying Saudi Arabia’s American influence by scouring annual Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filings, which can provide a decent (but never complete) snapshot of a country’s lobbying here in the U.S. Not surprisingly, the American firms working for the Kingdom are many. Sifting through FARA filings from September 2016 to August 2017, the most recent available, Freeman identified 29 individual contracts by 25 different firms totaling $15.9 million.
“These are the who’s who of lobbying firms,” said Freeman. “It’s everybody—and it isn’t a partisan affair.” There’s the Podesta Group, formerly run by Clinton supporter and Democrat Tony Podesta. The outfit shut down after 30 years in late 2017, shortly after it came under scrutiny in Robert Mueller’s Russia probe as one of the firms hired by Paul Manafort to lobby on behalf of then-Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych (at the same time the Obama administration was opposing Yanukovych). Podesta signed contracts with an annual worth of $2.2 million for public relations and Capitol Hill lobbying services for the Kingdom.
Meanwhile, the high-powered firm of Squire Patton Boggs, which lists notable Republican leadership alumni like John Boehner and Trent Lott among their top lobbyists, signed a $100,000-a-month contract to advocate for the Saudi government on Capitol Hill, totaling $1.2 million. DLA Piper, which also boasts former GOP l heavyweights like former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and former Sen. Saxby Chambliss, and former Democratic Sen. George J. Mitchell, signed an additional $85,000-a-month contract “to assist the (Saudi) Ministry (of Foreign Affairs) in strengthening the ability of the United States and Saudi Arabia to advance mutual national security interests.”
Glover Park Group, founded by President Clinton’s press secretary Joe Lockhart (Democratic alumni include Dee Dee Myers and Harold Wolfson), signed their own $100,000-a-month contract in 2016 to provide legislative, policy, and media relations counsel to the Saudi government.
These are the firms that use revolving door cred for cache. And keeping them on retainer, in a way, guarantees they’ll be in pocket. There are a host of others on the list, however, who garner just as much money, if not more, but operate in a much more opaque manner. They include Qorvis MSL Group, which has been working with the Saudis since 9/11. Qorvis received some $14.7 million in 2002 alone to “educate” members of the public that the Kingdom, which is the world’s biggest exporter of Islam’s extremist Wahabbism school, had nothing to do with al Qaeda or the 19 hijackers, 15 of whom were of Saudi origin.
More recently, Qorvis was one of firms paid millions by al Saud to lobby against JASTA (the Justice Against State Terrorism Act), which was pursued by families of 9/11 victims because it would allow them to take the Kingdom to court for its alleged ties to the hijackers. JASTA was passed in 2016 but it was a watered-down version of the original. Still, the Saudi government has continued to pour money into efforts to make sure the families never see a dime in compensation. One of their most notorious schemes has been to send U.S. veterans to Washington to pressure members of Congress to modify the law. TAC reported last year that several veterans contacted after their all-expense-paid trips to D.C. (lavish dinners, accommodations at the Trump Hotel) did not know Saudi money had paid the bill. That’s because the Saudis used American interlocutors who told veterans that JASTA makes individual service-members and veterans liable for crimes overseas—which is not true.
“That was the shadiest ever,” said Freeman. He noted that tens of thousands of dollars spent by the Saudis in that 2016-2017 period was for anti-JASTA work, including placing op-eds by veterans and others in local newspapers. But while they were lobbying against the terror bill, groups like Qorvis were also trying to convince Congress and major media about the evils of Qatar and the Iranian influence in Yemen to justify the crippling war there.
Abbas Kadhim, an Iraqi-American scholar of Middle Eastern studies, is finishing up a term as a non-resident fellow at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Previously, he held positions in teaching and research at the Naval Post-Graduate School and Stanford University. He wants to stay in D.C., but is having a hard time finding a new perch. Being an independent thinker is difficult, he says, when there is so much Saudi and UAE money tied into the think tanks and universities here.
“People like me who do this kind of work…they all get money from think tanks—and universities are the same thing—all financed by the Saudis,” he told TAC.
“For me, I have a hard time with the way (Saudi Arabia) handles ‘terrorism,’” he said. He pointed to the war in Yemen and the blockade against Qatar, the latter of which has been justified in part by what the Kingdom and the UAE claim is Qatar’s support of Islamic terrorism.
“There is no amount of money that can be paid to me that would make me push a narrative for or against anybody. It doesn’t matter,” he said.
While the foreign influence in think tanks and at universities is harder to track, there have been a few data points over the years that hint at how big it’s grown. The Intercept’s Ryan Grim reported late last year that the UAE gave $20 million to the Middle East Institute from 2016 to 2017. The Emirates, according to the Associated Press, operate a network of “torture pens” in Yemen in which detainees are literally grilled alive. The UAE is part of the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis in Yemen, and the U.S. has acknowledged interrogating prisoners in these prison but denied knowledge of, or participation in, the abuses.
A New York Times expose in 2014 found that a staggering $100 million was given to Washington think tanks from foreign governments from 2011 to 2014. Interestingly, the only Gulf state it focused on was Qatar, which gave $14 million to Brookings over four years for a new center in Doha, and the UAE’s $1 million to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) to help finance its new office building. The piece did not mention Saudi Arabia once.
In 2015, Saudi and UAE sources launched their own think tank, the Arab Gulf States Institute, which serves as a full-throated propaganda machine. Qatar then launched its own Washington think tank. Meanwhile, Saudi royals and magnates have in the last 12 years given $10 million to Yale Law School and $20 million to Harvard and Georgetown Universities each, plus millions more to other U.S. colleges and universities, mostly for Arab and Islamic studies programs and centers.
Repeated attempts to reach the Saudi embassy for comment on this story were unsuccessful.
“Where the ethics break down is where people push lobbying narratives renamed as academic research,” said Kadhim. Both he and Freeman admit it’s nearly impossible to prove that research is “bought” in this way, but it’s clear the lines have been blurred considerably. In a 2016 report, The New York Times studied 75 Washington think tanks and found numerous scholars moonlighting as lobbyists for industries (all domestic).
Some of those think tank fellows were lobbying for major defense contractors, which have a stake, as we know, in the multi-billion-dollar arms deals between the U.S. and the Kingdom, as well as continued American military support of the Saudi war in Yemen.
It’s all part of a complex, sometimes nebulous network of influence in which it’s difficult to see where one relationship ends and another begins, though Freeman said some of those ties will come into better focus when MbS lands in the U.S. Who welcomes him and in what manner of luxury will be telling. So will any omission of Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses and the Yemen and Qatar crises.
“To me, it’s all about transparency,” Freeman said. “Whether it is with JASTA or it’s with Yemen, they are trying to whitewash some very bad stuff and we want the public to know exactly what they’re saying and how it’s done. Most people don’t know how big of a business this really is.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is the executive editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC.
WASHINGTON — It was nearly a decade ago that this writer started hearing the stories of strange and serious symptoms among returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans: previously young, thoroughly fit men and women now struggling like senior citizens on a mere walk to the mailbox. Skin lesions, neurological disorders, throat and lung cancer—all this pockmarked posts that flew across military and veteran blogs and websites.
The common thread: These veterans had all lived and worked around the notorious open-air pits burning thousands of tons of garbage a day across all U.S. bases, which released tremendous black plumes of toxicity into the air, a witch’s brew that cast a carbon-colored dew on everything in its path. The soldiers who worked and bunked near it had no protection as it settled inside their lungs and onto their clothes and skin.
In our first report about the burn pits in 2009, The American Conservative interviewed a veteran’s wife who said he had so much nerve damage from exposure that he had lost feeling in his feet:
After a year at Camp Taji in Iraq, (Sgt. Michael) Maynard took off his boots one night and found that a hot piece of metal had slipped inside—hot enough to tear away his skin. Somehow he hadn’t felt it.
By the time another year had passed, Maynard was back home in Indiana, confined to a wheelchair. Today, at age 49, he needs heavy braces to help him stand.
“With his muscles degenerating … he keeps falling,” his wife Maria says. “He’s a mess. I am constantly worried about him.”
The VA and Department of Defense have long denied that the burn pits have caused serious, long-term injuries to military personnel and contractors there, though mounting evidence in the medical field indicates that toxic exposure is responsible for a growing number of vets suffering from, at the very least, constrictive bronchiolitis, a disease identified by irreparable, tiny holes marking the lungs. Yet veterans are still fighting to get their injuries recognized as connected to their service so they can access health care and other benefits.
There was a small break last month, however, when the Department of Labor Workers’ Compensation Program ruled that a female contractor stationed at Mosul Air Force Base in Iraq during the war qualified for health benefits due to her deployment-related lung injuries from the burn pits.
“This case has legitimized the disease,” former contractor Veronica Landry of Colorado Springs told Fox News last week. “There are many people out there who are still not getting the treatment they need. This ruling changes that.”
Still, it’s a long way from an administrative court at the Department of Labor to legitimacy, and even more so to action in the stubborn, byzantine VA and DoD health care systems. Currently, there are some 64,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans (of the total 124,000 that includes Persian Gulf veterans as well) who have listed their symptoms on the burn pit registry that the VA reluctantly agreed to establish after a congressional mandate in 2013. Members of Congress, it turns out, have been the veterans’ best advocates on this in Washington.
The fate of their health care, plus how we got here—what the burn pits are, what makes them so toxic, why soldiers weren’t protected or veterans listened to when they came home, the current science about their long-term effects—are all part of “Delay, Deny, Hope You Die,” an independent documentary making its way through theaters today.
TAC is proud to be hosting a special free screening of this very important film on March 8 in Washington, D.C. It is open to the public, and will feature a Q&A with director Greg Lovett, veterans’ advocate and Persian Gulf vet Paul Sullivan, and veteran Jesse Baca who suffered injuries from the burn pits and is featured in the film. You can register here.
“Veterans and Americans need to know that more than 124,000 veterans signed up for VA’s burn pit registry, and many more filed claims that are too often denied by VA,” says Glenn R. Bergmann, whose firm represents veterans with VA disability claim appeals. “Veterans desperately need scientific research into toxic exposures so they can receive prompt and effective treatment and benefits.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is the executive editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC.
WASHINGTON — There’s a lot of talk today about the feebleness of Congress, whether on its inability to pass real spending budgets or confront knotty but inevitably crucial issues like immigration. But there’s nothing that gets constitutionalists more agitated than lawmakers’ seeming abdication of their war powers.
“They are the invertebrate branch,” charged Bruce Fein, a constitutional scholar who moonlights as James Madison in rotating theater performances inside and outside the Beltway. “Pure cowardice,” he adds, once or twice for good measure.
That was the upshot of a debate Thursday night between Fein and his peer John Yoo, now a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Yoo has been vocal about what he says is executive power “run amok” under President Donald Trump. That might seem the height of irony, given that Yoo’s infamous 2002 memo as deputy attorney general gave the military and the CIA license to torture countless detainees in places like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib for at least seven years until President Barack Obama ended the practice by executive order in 2009 (though even then it’s suspected that renditions to secret black sites continued well into the Obama administration).
But the question put to the two men at the event hosted by the Committee for the Republic at the Atlantic Council in D.C. wasn’t on the pusillanimity of the Congress—on that point they seemed to agree, to varying degrees. No, it was whether Congress, and only Congress, had the authority to bring the country to war, and whether presidential wars of choice, beginning with Korea, then into Vietnam, and then the various overseas conflicts today, are unconstitutional.
“The ‘declare war’ clause is unambiguous; there was no dissent,” asserted Fein. “Only the Congress can take the country from a state of peace to war. I think there cannot be any dispute.”
He said the founders did not trust the executive not to pursue “gratuitous wars” as a means of aggrandizing his power. Article 1, Section 8, Clause 11 is unequivocal, he said: “This process distinguishes us from a despotic and tyrannical government.”
The War Powers Resolution of 1972, which says the president has 60 days after initiating hostilities to get approval from Congress, was supposed to reinforce this clear power, according to Fein, though several presidents since have refused to acknowledge its legal effect.
There have only been five congressional declarations of war in the history of the United States, with the War of 1812 being the only one that was initiated by Congress. The other four—the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II—were declared after it was requested by the president in response to an attack. Every war since World War II has been conducted without a formal declaration, though with alternate congressional consent—like the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in Vietnam, or the Authorization for Use of Military Force in Iraq.
Critics of Fein’s strict constitutional view, like Yoo, believe that Article II, Section 2 invests the president with the power to wage war as commander-in-chief of the military. Yoo believes that the framers, far from equivocal during ratification, deliberately created the tension between the executive and legislative branches on the issue of war and did not restrict the president’s ability to initiate hostilities without a formal declaration. That declaration merely provides the legal framework for the war, Yoo said, dictating and establishing terms with the enemy, among other conditions. And Congress has the authority to test the president by withholding the funding for it.
“The main check is the executive and legislative branch conflict,” Yoo said, and “the power of the purse.” “I don’t know if the president has the power or resources to run a long-term war without Congress,” he added.
Fein was in complete disagreement that the framers had this baked-in “conflict” in mind, and blamed Congress for “cowardice” in hiding behind the president on issues of war.
“I’m not accusing the executive branch of usurpation; the legislative branch just throws [their power] away,” he said.
This debate has particular salience as Congress has been taking steps to check the president’s authority to continue funding military support of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.
Even Yoo admits that Congress has been funding an “offensive” not “defensive” military that allows the executive to wage hostilities all over the globe without formal declaration or even its own direct authorization. “Congress gives money, builds assets, with no restrictions,” he told TAC after the debate. “If you do it this way you are not politically responsible.”
Maybe in some way, Yoo understands that “flexibility” can have unplanned, even dangerous consequences—like his torture memo. In an interview in 2014 about the revelation of the extent of CIA torture techniques, Yoo said they “were troubling,” and if the allegations were true, “[the techniques] would not have been approved by the Justice Department.”
Generations of eager journalism students, for at least a brief moment in their budding careers—particularly during that golden window after Watergate and before Monica—wanted so desperately to be Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
No one ever wanted to be Robert Parry. But they should have.
Woodward and Bernstein made their mark in a series of Washington Post stories that eventually brought down President Nixon, even though the average American today couldn’t tell you what Watergate was really about. Nevertheless, the pair were embraced and mythologized by Hollywood and the liberal political establishment, their place in the pantheon, set. Woodward has been particularly successful, carving out a niche as an sanctioned gossip and chronicler of the Washington courtier class. But since “Deep Throat,” the closest he’s come to ripping the lid off anything in any subversive and enduring way is a cup of coffee on the set of Meet the Press. Still, Woodward’s friends at the Weekly Standard, in an oft-repeated panegyric, call him “the best pure reporter of his generation, perhaps ever.”
Not quite. Parry, who died on January 27 after a recent diagnosis of pancreatic cancer at age 68, was also a Boomer reporter who cut his teeth on the biggest scandals in recent memory. As an Associated Press journalist he broke the story of Colonel Oliver North’s involvement in the Iran-Contra affair in 1985. A year before that, he won a George Polk Award for exposing the CIA’s production of an assassination manual for the right-wing contras the Reagan administration was supporting to overthrow the elected leftist government in Nicaragua.
Author and TAC contributing editor Mark Perry, who met Bob in the mid-1980s (at the height of Iran-Contra), remembers what he describes as “Bob’s absolute laser focus on a story, on getting what no one else could.”
“I think that’s what set him apart,” he added in an email. “But it was really the short attention span of the mainstream media that I think most bothered him. He was a reporting bulldog, and he would keep at it.”
Knowing how this business works, the nearly middle-aged Parry could have taken the moment to burrow in, enjoy the warm embrace of the mainstream, even bask in the sunshine of his new celebrity. But he made the decision, and it would prove portentous, to quit AP when he felt his Iran Contra stories were being watered down and delayed due to efforts at the highest levels of the newspaper and the U.S. government to get the release of AP correspondent Terry Anderson, who had been held hostage for nearly seven years during the Lebanese Civil War.
A humble man by all appearances, and respected by those who knew him over the years, Parry was raised in a newsroom—his father was the editor of the Middlesex Daily News in Framingham, Massachusetts. “I was taught that there were almost always two sides to a story and often more. I was expected to seek out those alternative views, not dismiss them or pretend they didn’t exist,” he wrote. That’s not just quaint New England windage; it’s what most reporters are taught in Journalism 101. The difference between reporters like Parry and the jaded status seekers of his generation is that Parry never forgot. He never stopped “questioning the Official Story,” and carried a disdain for groupthink and the D.C. media hive that not only lasted a lifetime, but defined his identity. For this he was viewed by his like-minded peers throughout Washington and beyond the Beltway as a journalist of sterling integrity.
That’s far more valuable than a million bestsellers and placement on the imperial city’s social registries. However, it also can mean permanent exclusion from “the body” and all of the material blessings bestowed upon those who play the game. Parry left the AP and worked on investigative pieces for Frontline before finally, taking advantage of the new, accessible promise of the Internet, starting ConsortiumNews.com in 1995 on a shoestring budget. For the next 20 years he encouraged and aided countless writers engaged in professional, courageous journalism on issues of foreign policy, national security, and the environment. He championed tragic underdogs like Garry Webb, who was cast out of the profession after a well-orchestrated government-media blowback campaign against his 1998 series “Dark Alliance,” in which he attempted to establish CIA complicity in the rampaging crack trade in 1980s Los Angeles (Parry and fellow AP reporter Brian Barger had actually broken the first story about the CIA-Contra-cocaine matrix in 1985). Destitute, Webb committed suicide in 2004.
“To this day, none of the journalists or media critics who participated in the destruction of Gary Webb has paid a price,” Parry wrote in an exhaustive autopsy of the Webb story in October 2014, highlighting reams of new information supporting Webb that were brought to light in a 1998 Justice Department investigation.
“None has faced the sort of humiliation that Webb had to endure. None had to experience that special pain of standing up for what is best in the profession of journalism, taking on a difficult story that seeks to hold powerful people accountable for serious crimes, and then being vilified by your own colleagues, the people that you expected to understand and appreciate what you had done.”
As recently as this June, ConsortiumNews has given an annual Freedom of the Press award in Gary Webb’s name. Parry has spent the last 20 years criticizing the media’s role in the Iraq invasion, the ongoing wars overseas, and “the same terrible journalism” that allows the elite—whether in Washington or on Wall Street—to abuse the power and trust and pocketbooks of the American people. Before he died he was quite candid that these realities had only gotten worse, drawing fire from the left for questioning the political motives and machinations behind the Russian collusion investigation.
“The major Western news outlets now conflate the discrete difficulties from made-up ‘fake news’ and baseless ‘conspiracy theories’ with responsible dissenting analysis,” he wrote. “All get thrown into the same pot and subjected to disdain and ridicule.”
Investigative journalist and TAC contributor Gareth Porter, a long-time friend of Parry, was, like many of Parry’s friends, thunderstruck by the news of his illness and death last week. “Bob was absolutely unafraid of the most powerful men and institutions in this country. He was free of any ideological agenda, but he was committed to penetrating the lies that he knew were second nature to the national security state, and nothing could stop him,” Porter wrote in an email.
“He was the one editor a journalist could count on to publish articles that challenged that assault on freedom of thought in the United States,” Porter added.
As the Washington Post pretentiously promises to ensure that democracy does not “die in darkness,” we know all too well that it’s the unsung heroes like Parry who actually sacrifice everything for the cause. Perhaps someday, he and others like him will replace Woodward and Bernstein in the hopeful heads of dreaming J-school students. It would be our small contribution, as torchbearers of this profession, for all of its faults, to endeavor forthwith to make that happen.
Over the last year critics have warned of the returning neoconservative influence on the executive branch’s national security apparatus, each day a little less confident that President Donald Trump will keep to the seeming anti-interventionist impulses he demonstrated during the 2016 campaign.
News flash: We’re already there.
Of course the most garish of the pro-war set—Sebastian Gorka, K.T. McFarland, John Bolton—are easy to identify in or on the periphery of Trump’s orbit (in Gorka’s case, he was cast out of the White House, only to flak away in any media outlet that will pay attention). Meanwhile, elite neoconservative voices like Bill Kristol and Max Boot have become darlings of the “Never Trump” cadre, finding new life as conservative tokens on “Resistance” media like MSNBC.
What has been less obvious, but has become much clearer in these last few months, is that other neoconservatives are quietly filling the vacuum left by Obama’s cadre of liberal interventionists. Many of them had taken a pass on “Never Trumping” publicly, and are now popping up at the elbows of top cabinet officials.
Take Nadia Schadlow, for instance. Never heard of her? Unless you’ve been navigating the rice paddies of Washington’s post-9/11 national security enterprise for the last several years, there’s no reason you would have. But she has been at the National Security Council since last winter, and is set to replace Dina Powell as deputy national security advisor, at the right hand of NSC chief H.R. McMaster. She was also the lead on the White House National Security Strategy, released last month.
This was Schadlow’s first recent position in government.* Sources place her in the early-1990’s at the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy in the Eastern Europe, Eurasia and Russia section. Her résumé includes doctoral degrees from Johns Hopkins Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) under the tutelage of vocal Never Trumper and Iraq war promoter Eliot Cohen, who runs the largely neoconservative Strategic Studies program there, and whose last book, The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power, argued that the U.S., backed by a more robust military, must be the “guardian of a stable world order.” In that vein, Schadlow published a book last year, War and the Art of Governance, that extols the virtues of long-term military intervention for “achieving sustainable political outcomes,” requiring “the consolidation of combat gains through the establishment of stable environments.” Schadlow has repeated this for years as a mantra for reordering military strategy in the wake of the disastrous wars she and her contemporaries helped sustain, in Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere. Call it nation-building by another name.
In a 2012 Weekly Standard commentary, she criticized the Obama administration for saying “the tide of war is receding,” and exclaimed “the line of thinking that now pervades the Pentagon avoids recognizing that combat and the restoration of political order go hand and hand.” While she gives a nod to “civil-military operational planning and execution,” she never utters the words “State Department.” No surprise there, either, since her neocon friends were responsible for the long slide of Foggy Bottom’s resources and influence in favor of military leadership, beginning with the “political reconciliation” and reconstruction of Iraq, and then Afghanistan.
What is significant about Schadlow’s role in the White House—she’s reportedly a “trusted confidant” of General McMaster, who was lionized in the New Yorker for his T.E. Lawrence approach to counterinsurgency in Tal Afar in 2006—is not her bibliography, but her vast connections to Washington’s foreign policy and national security clique, especially its neoconservative elite. If one were using the metaphor of chain migration, she would have plenty of friends on either side of the Potomac to tap for high-level placement, consulting, and advice.
Why? As recent senior program director for the expansive, multi-million dollar International Security and Foreign Policy Program under the Smith Richardson Foundation, she has helped to fund and facilitate countless authors, conferences, think tanks, and university programs since 9/11, most of which hew to the doctrine of sustained military intervention towards the goal of U.S. global power and influence. That includes preemptive war strategy, counterinsurgency, democracy promotion, and the continued push for bigger military budgets and solutions to regional conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine. If there was a prominent player in the U.S. security community over the last 20 years, you can bet Schadlow and Smith Richardson were more often than not connected to him.
But it goes back so much further than that. The foundation has a rich history cleaved to neoconservative pioneers such as Irving Kristol, father of Bill, who in his own memoirs credits the philanthropic institution and its then-director Randall Richardson (heir to the Vicks fortune) with helping him jumpstart the Public Interest, known as the premier neoconservative organ, a label Irving fully embraced. The foundation also served as a key backer of Commentary magazine after Norman Podhoretz took the helm in 1960.
It is in international affairs that Smith Richardson has made some of its biggest impacts, during the anti-communist Reagan era and into the Middle East conflicts under Presidents Clinton, Bushes, Obama, and Trump. To say the foundation was involved at every level in the lobbying for and crafting of the so-called global war on terror after 9/11 would be an understatement. Example: Former Smith Richardson research director Devon Gaffney Cross became a director of the Project for a New American Century, the intellectual vehicle that drove the removal of Saddam Hussein and shaped George W. Bush’s foreign policy. In 2000, Cross was listed as one of the participants in PNAC’s seminal treatise, “Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century.” The rest of the contributors are a who’s who of Washington’s war theocracy, most of whom have benefitted from Smith Richardson support.
Meanwhile, since 1998, the foundation has given over $10 million to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI was built, literally, on Smith Richardson money), which fielded many of the Iraq war architects and promoters, including Frederick Kagan, John Bolton, former vice president Dick Cheney, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Eliot Cohen, Michael Ledeen, Joshua Muravchik, David Frum, and Danielle Pletka.
Just as telling is Smith Richardson’s continued backing of the Institute for the Study of War, headed by Kimberly Kagan, wife of Frederick, with whom she was a “de facto advisor” to General Petraeus for a year as he set about his then-vaunted COIN strategy in Afghanistan. ISW, chaired by retired General Jack Keane, known as the “godfather of the surge,” was founded in part by the generosity of Smith Richardson in 2007. It not only promoted more troops, but an extended occupation in Afghanistan, regime change in Syria, and ongoing hostilities with Iran. No surprise, then, that ISW has numerous intertwining relationships with the military and the defense industry. It received $895,000 for program work from Smith Richardson between 2014 and 2016 alone.
According to Philip Rojc of Inside Philanthropy, other recipients of Smith Richardson grants since 1998 include the the Hudson Institute ($6,032,230), the Jamestown Institute ($5,779,475), the Hoover Institution ($3,645,314), and the Center for a New American Security ($1,595,000). Totals have been adjusted to include 2016 numbers.
The last one—CNAS—is more indicative of Smith Richardson’s broader strategy, in that it doesn’t only give to hardline neoconservative outfits like, say, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (which has received no less than $500,000 since 2014 and says it helped write Trump’s new Iran policy). On the contrary, Smith Richardson has been a major patron of the conventional establishment, too, even largely Democratic think tanks like CNAS, Brookings Institute, and the Carnegie Endowment—all of which invariably host scholars and programs that promote America’s military-driven global influence, counterinsurgency doctrine (CNAS was a virtual hothouse for COIN early in Obama’s presidency), and democracy promotion in places like Russia and Ukraine, a major yet failed project of humanitarian interventionists in the Obama administration.
No surprise, then, that the worldview of people like Nadia Schadlow is no different from the wider Washington policy orbit that has enjoyed a pipeline of patronage from her former employer. She is not only affiliated with the Foreign Policy Institute, but is a full member of the Council on Foreign Relations. When she was named to the NSC staff in March 2017, along with “Kremlinologist” and former Eurasian Foundation strategist Fiona Hill, national security establishment courtier Thomas Ricks called them both “well-educated, skeptical, and informed. In other words, the opposite of the president they serve.”
You know the “right” kind of operator has arrived in the White House when establishment commentariat like Ricks and Josh Rogin get all gushy about their calming, “soft power” influence over Trump, which sounds like a lot of bunk when you consider their well-documented points of view.
Simply put, after years of cross-pollination brought on by a slush fund of wealthy private donors like Smith Richardson and an even more eager defense industry, neoconservative views are no longer distinguishable from the sanctioned goals of the Washington policy establishment. They are all working, really, as proper stewards of the military-industrial complex, which is essential for advancing their (sometimes competing) visions of world power politics and American exceptionalism. There is little room for realism and restraint, as voiced by this magazine and other critics.
That is why there seemed to be such relief upon the recent release of the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy, with Washington scribblers lauding it as “well within the bipartisan mainstream of American foreign policy” and “a well crafted document that should reassure allies and partners.”
What it actually does is to reinforce Trump’s turn towards a harder line against Iran, as evidenced in McMaster’s recent speeches. Nikki Haley, ambassador to the UN, is threatening fellow members on the Security Council, and the Trump administration is seen as taking sides with Israel in the fragile Middle East peace process (or what’s left if it). Meanwhile, the White House has just given a green light to arming Ukraine against Russia.
Call it the new “adults in the room,” if you want, or peg it as the neoconservative influence that it is. Strikingly, Dan Drezner writes that the NSS is “Straussian” in that its “subtext matters at least as much as the text.” The preeminent scholar Leo Strauss is considered one of the key founders of the neoconservative movement, a fact the Washington Post columnist should be well aware of. Like most of the elites here in Washington, however, Drezner is trying to have it both ways—calling it neocon without have the guts to say it outright.
* Story has been updated to include additional information regarding Schadlow’s experience in the Pentagon.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is executive editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Thursday he is effectively unleashing the hounds of the federal government on states that allow for the legalized sale of marijuana, ending a hands-off approach by the previous administration and ignoring promises made by his own boss, President Donald Trump.
In a 2016 interview with a local reporter in Colorado, which legalized recreational cannabis five years ago, then-candidate Trump insisted he would not allow his AG to override state law by prosecuting marijuana businesses and growers. “I’m a states person. I think it should be up to the states, absolutely,” he told Brandon Rittiman from Channel 9 News at the time.
Yet officials suggested to reporters Thursday that businesses and growers in legalized states have gotten too comfortable and that the primacy of state law means very little in Washington. Effectively, Sessions has rescinded a 2013 guidance issued by then-Deputy Attorney General Jim Cole that limited prosecutions as along as individuals and businesses were operating under their state’s laws.
“The Cole memo as interpreted created a safe harbor for the marijuana industry to operate in these states. There is a belief that that is inconsistent with what federal law says,” a senior Department of Justice official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Politico. “I can’t sit here and say whether it will or will not lead to more marijuana prosecutions,” the official continued. “We believe U.S. attorneys’ offices should be opened up to bring all of these cases that are necessary to be brought.”
What this does is create an inevitable stand-off over the 10th Amendment rights of seven states and the District of Columbia that have fully legalized cannabis, including California, which officially made pot legal on January 1.
Another 21 states have medical marijuana laws on the books, including red states like Arkansas, which passed its ballot referendum in 2016, and Florida, which put its own measure over the top by a whopping 71 percent at the polls. The tone set by Sessions today puts people in those states on notice as well.
— Brandon Rittiman (@BrandonRittiman) July 29, 2016
David Kopel, an adjunct professor of constitutional law at the University of Denver and research director of the Independence Institute, said Sessions’ announcement is sending a shock wave across Colorado, which not only changed its laws, but amended its state constitution to legalize pot. As of July, the state had brought in $505 million in cannabis-related taxes and fees since sales officially began in 2014. Altogether, marijuana sales in North America totaled some $6.7 billion in 2016. Before Sessions’ announcement, experts predicted the U.S. market might reach $50 billion by 2026. To say this is an established industry with thousands of people and livelihoods depending on it would be an understatement.
“This is a direct betrayal of President Trump’s campaign promise, which he made in Colorado,” Kopel told TAC on Thursday. He pointed to the chill this would put on businesses, landlords, and particularly banks that are still hesitant to work with cannabis clients, despite the millions of legal dollars changing hands.
While the federal government doesn’t have the resources to go after every business or cultivator, he noted, “It only takes a few prosecutions to destroy the legal industry in a given state. In fact, they don’t even need to convict, they just need to start sending threatening letters to landlords.”
Sessions drew a swift and angry response from Senator Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who said the AG was “trampling the will of the voters.” Gardner suggested Sessions had assured him of a continued “hands-off” approach during the former Alabama senator’s own nomination hearing. He threatened to play hardball, even putting a hold on all DOJ nominees, including Colorado’s interim U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer, if Sessions proceeds down this path.
“I am prepared to take all steps necessary, including holding DOJ nominees, until the Attorney General lives up to the commitment he made to me prior to his confirmation,” Gardner tweeted Thursday.
Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, whose home state of Alaska has legalized recreational marijuana, also weighed in with a statement, saying Sessions’ announcement—which she had repeatedly warned him against making—was “disruptive to state regimes and regrettable.”
It is not as if this is altogether unexpected. As Senator, Sessions was a classic law-and-order Republican, who since his confirmation as Trump’s AG, has boosted private prisons, reinstated the federal asset forfeiture program, and moved to lengthen drug sentences, all three of which have roiled civil libertarians and criminal justice reformers alike.
Still, former Republican Maryland state delegate Don Murphy, who now works in conservative outreach for the Marijuana Policy Project, said the timing of the AG’s move, presumably sanctioned by Trump, is odd considering the populist wave in favor of decriminalizing marijuana across the country—not only in blue states, but places like Arkansas, the first Bible Belt state to legalize medical marijuana, and with 53 percent of the vote. Today, 29 states have some sort of law allowing for at the very least, medical marijuana. Right now 12 are poised to consider new laws in 2018. New Jersey’s Governor Elect Phil Murphy has pledged to sign legislation legalizing adult recreational use within 100 days of his new term.
“What Jeff Sessions wants to do is roll back all of that. This is a very bad thing and it’s very unnecessary, considering what the president said publicly and that we are dealing with an opioid crisis right now,” Don Murphy, who actually served as a delegate for Trump and volunteered on his campaign, told TAC. “I want the Trump administration to stand by its promises.”
Murphy has been working on getting a federal medical marijuana bill passed since 2000. His legislation has support on both sides of the aisle, he insists, but members who oppose it have kept it from coming to a floor vote. What supporters have achieved is to pass a 2014 rider to the annual spending bill that has prevented federal funds from being used to prosecute medical marijuana cases in states that allow it. However, it is not clear whether the so-called Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment will pass in the current spending bill.
If not, that will leave even more people and businesses vulnerable. The Supreme Court, weighing in on this in 2005, ruled six to three in favor of the federal government’s ban superseding state medical marijuana laws. Congress would have to change the law for states to be entirely free of federal intervention. If not, people who have depended on cannabis and cannabis products to ease suffering—whether it be from epileptic seizures and the side effects of chemotherapy, or chronic pain and glaucoma—may soon be at risk. This includes veterans, who have been choosing cannabis over prescription pills to treat symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“What I think may happen is people who otherwise kept their heads down are going to have to stand up and speak out,” charged Murphy.
“This needs to be a state choice. The 10th Amendment says what it says,” he said, noting that as a conservative he’s been able to appeal to other Republicans on states’ rights grounds alone. “I had support from members from Kansas, from Utah… not because they were marijuana people but they were 10th Amendment people. Jeff Sessions doesn’t seem to agree with that and I think it’s all going to come to a head soon.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is executive editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC
WASHINGTON — They call Washington a bubble. A la-la land. Home of the “Deep State.” A long-forgotten 1980’s television series, ‘Tales of the Darkside,’ once described “a place that is just as real, but not as brightly lit” as our own world. Sounds a bit like Capitol Hill.
Nowhere was that more evident than yesterday, as defense industry giant Lockheed Martin hosted an auspiciously-timed reception on the Hill to tout its multi-billion dollar F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, which as anyone reading in this space would know has been more than 16 years in development, and plagued by everything from poor performance reviews and cost overruns, to grounding over a lack of spare parts and tussles over technical data and cybersecurity concerns.
Then there is the expense to the taxpayer, which as of June is projected to be more than $406 billion to complete, and another $1.4 trillion over the life of the program to be maintained. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) said at the time there was a 60 percent increase in the cost estimates from 2001 to 2012 due to three major restructurings of the program. But the military kept building more planes—even delivering them to partner countries—throughout the development stage, even though operational testing has yet to begin, and won’t, until late-2018, at the soonest. That’s left the taxpayer with at least $1.7 billion in retrofitting costs as plans change and more technical bells and whistles are put onto the planes. Spare parts are in short supply, and the funds to retrofit all of the older prototypes aren’t readily available. Marine Corps Capt. Dan Grazier at the Project for Government Oversight (POGO) reported in October, that may leave some 108 planes behind as “concurrency orphans,” not fit for service, ever. At more than $100 million per plane (the military has so far built more than 250), that’s a lot of coin to be left idle in a hanger.
With all this bad news, and more throughout the month of October, it’s probably no surprise Lockheed was in full-on marketing mode at the Rayburn House Office Building yesterday, complete with a cockpit simulator, a test pilot, and the head of the entire program available to ensure anyone who breezed through the continental breakfast reception that, contrary to everything you’ve heard, things were A-OK on the production line. In fact, at times it sounded like a victory lap.
“The jet we’re trying to get out there is out there,” said Lockheed test pilot Dan Levin, who cut his teeth on F-16s in the first Gulf War and says the capabilities of the F-35 far outstrip anything he has flown before. “It is more survivable, more stealthy, and more lethal…it’s just a more effective airplane; that’s what we want.”
But what “we want” and what exists today are two different things. As Grazier pointed out to TAC, the planned event was an exercise in the former, a carefully designed artifice that emphasized the hoped-for outcomes of the most expensive program in U.S. military history, while downplaying the very real problems as momentary turbulence. Even the simulator, the flashy draw at the corner of the room, boasted capabilities that recent reviews have said the planes don’t have quite yet.
“It was a great sales pitch, it was interesting, it was neat sitting in the cockpit,” he said afterwards. “But it was a display of the brochure promises, not the finished design. It was how they want it to perform, but not how it performs today.”
Today, Lockheed fully acknowledges there is a payload of problems. But how much damage these problems can do to the planned trajectory of the program depends on whom you talk to. On paper, at least, the outlook doesn’t look good. After Grazier’s “orphans” report, the GAO came out with another review saying 22 percent of the fleet had been grounded because of a lack of spare parts, with repair capabilities running six years behind. But even if the engineers had the parts, the DoD hasn’t written the requirements yet for repairing the planes, so there’s a lot of confusion about how and when repairs should occur.
More daunting are the issues revolving around the plane’s Autonomic Logistics Information System software (ALIS), which, as the cloud-based computer network that serves as the brain of the plane, is the very core of the F-35’s unique offerings. It is also what is making it a) behind schedule and b) most vulnerable. The GAO said ongoing costs for developing the ALIS (pronounced “Alice”) aren’t fully funded. There’s also the issue of Lockheed’s resistance to giving DoD all of the technical data necessary to getting ALIS working and maintained effectively (an issue over intellectual property and the parameters of contract rights). Holding out, coincidentally, would likely make Lockheed the sole source contractor for the program, forever.
Furthermore, since the plane’s entire functionality depends on “the cloud,” the risks of a cyberattack rendering one plane or an entire fleet, completely useless is absolutely real. “Given the jet’s low-observable characteristics, advanced defensive systems, and other sensors, a cyberattack would be an attractive option for any enemy force,” writes Joseph Trevithick, for The Warzone. “Why would an enemy use a $500,000 air-to-air or surface-to-air and put their personnel and equipment at risk in an attempt to down an F-35 when a simple worm may be able to do the same to a whole fleet of F-35s?”
When asked Thursday about these and other sticky issues, F-35 program executive vice president and general manager Jeff Babione, swung at each with relative ease. Cost? Lockheed has brought down the unit price for each plane 60 percent since the first lot and eight percent since the previous contract, delivering a “5th generation aircraft” at “4th generation cost.”
On the issue of the more than $1 trillion in lifetime costs: “It’s a world-wide program and the scope and scale has never been attempted before…with these complexities you’re going to have challenges.” However, “we’re going to take the same innovation” used to take down the per-plane expenses to “reduce the cost” of maintaining the program over time, he told TAC. Spare parts? “It’s still a relatively new airplane,” and “we’re still working with congress and the Joint Program Office” to identify the needs and make sure there is enough money for it.
“What we do know is that if you look year after year, the cost is dropping.”
The F-35 program is such a web of overlapping budgets and projections that it is difficult to tell if that is true, though the GAO’s report of 2012 to the present generally bears that out. Lockheed did get the unit costs down. Yet everything else is creeping up or open to interpretation.
But really, beyond the positive “update” Lockheed said it wanted to bring to Capitol Hill Thursday, what was this exhibition really about? Perhaps a little damage control, but more critically, it seems, to remind members of congress how much their own political assets are tied to this gargantuan program.
A map, generated by Lockheed and set on the table with the other handouts, shows how many suppliers and jobs—directly or indirectly—are tied to the F-35, plus economic impact, in each state. For example, in Florida alone, there are 18,480 such jobs and 98 suppliers with $2 billion impacted. The wealth, it would seem, is spread around and keeps everyone invested.
“If you start opposing the F-35 budgets your political opponent is going to say, ‘hey, I’m going to fight for those jobs,” noted Grazier. “(Lockheed) just wants to remind them of that.”
Whatever the case, this is just one more example of things not being exactly what they seem in the Beltway bubble. For a short while, in a brightly lit room at Rayburn, the F-35 was what it was promised. But, as Grazier points out, that assumption is just more than a little off the runway.
“If we can’t field a fully functioning fighter plane in less than 20 years, then there is something seriously wrong with our procurement system.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is executive editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC.
“U.S. Foreign Policy in the Trump Era: Can Realism and Restraint Prevail?” was held Friday, November 3, at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Watch full video here.
WASHINGTON — What is the fate of realism and restraint in the Trump era?
The consensus among the foreign policy luminaries brought together by the American Conservative on Friday: Don’t expect much from the White House, even though global realities, i.e., the ascendency of China, may leave the old U.S. order in the dust.
If there was any hope that Trump would inaugurate a new era of restraint, or even realist thinking, it’s been pretty much overtaken by events. Or, perhaps TAC editor Robert Merry put it best:
“Realism and restraint’ in the Trump era is roughly equivalent to the gigantic ice wall in Game of Thrones after the dragon that came under the spell of the night walkers got through with it,” he said.
That certainly got a laugh from the crowd at George Washington University, but the rest of his remarks about the discrepancies between Trump’s memorable foreign policy speech during the campaign in April 2016, and what he has done so far as president, were anything but funny.
“So many Americans rallied to the Trump campaign because of his hard attacks on the status quo but it turns out he was not the leader to take on the status quo, he just nibbles at the edges of it,” Merry noted, pointing out Trump’s earlier vision about scaling back wars and blasting nation building, only to propose sending more troops to Afghanistan, which has yet to produce a victory— no strong government nor capable Afghan military—in 16 years of U.S. intervention. He also pointed out Trump’s lack of resolve regarding easing tensions with Russia, or putting more pressure on NATO (Merry specifically fingered the expansion to tiny Montenegro, which faces both a backlash here and by the Russian government).
And, “(Trump) said we should have never been in Iraq; we have destabilized the Middle East,” added Merry, “yet now he threatens a confrontation with Iran.”
Asked whether Trump has engaged new and fresh voices in this administration, the answer is decidedly no, according to Will Ruger, vice president of research and policy at the Charles Koch Institute and Cato Institute fellow.
“If you look, leaving aside the people who signed the Never Trump letter, a lot of the same people who are involved (in the administration) are the same old people with the same old ideas,” he said. “That’s the problem.” He did note, more positively, that at least Trump and his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson still talk about the sovereignty of other nations and the problems of “democracy building.”
But what about the other players in the administration? Author and TAC contributor Mark Perry charged that the three generals in the Trump inner circle—Chief of Staff John Kelly, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster—were, despite being called the “adults” in the room, “out of their lane,” and not helping steer the Trump foreign policy in any meaningful way.
“We have a civilian government for a reason. We have political people doing political jobs for a reason. I’m not sure where this leads, but I think we’ve seen over the last two or three weeks, at least since John Kelly’s press conference, that the adults in the room may be more like the president than we think. They might let us down.” Then, with the specter of the recent Niger incident in the air, and on the heels of the Afghanistan troop infusion, “they might in fact reflect the military in which they’re from, which is expeditionary.”
New low in U.S.-Russian Relations
Some of the worst U.S. foreign policy disasters since the end of the Cold War “are obvious,” said Ted Carpenter, TAC contributing editor and Cato defense and foreign policy scholar. Those include Iraq and Libya, Afghanistan and the loss of civil liberties at home due to the War on Terror. But the “worst disaster in the last 25 years will end up being be the deterioration in relations with Russia, because that can have some catastrophic consequences.”
“We are in a new Cold War,” he declared. “The blame for this is not all on one side. But I believe the United States and its allies deserve the vast majority of the blame, somewhere in the area of 80 percent.”
Expanding NATO eastward, reneging on implicit agreement not to expand—“they led the Russians to believe that NATO’s eastern border would be at the eastern end of Germany. That didn’t happen.” NATO intervention in Balkan charged the Russian suspicion and resentment, Carpenter. It intruded into what had been Russian spheres of influence.
But what about Vladimir Putin’s aggressive policies today? “Putin started off wanting to join the West,” pointed out former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock (1987-1991). One move after another, whether it be the West’s role in the economic collapse following the fall of Communism, NATO expansion, or the U.S. involvement in the so-called “color revolutions” in former Soviet countries, Russia began to foment serious resentment against its foundling American “ally.”
“Within Russia you get a nationalist upsurge which Putin has utilized,” Matlock pointed out. “He feels, as many of his people do, that Russia has been rejected, and has been rejected (by the West) in part, by American pressure. It’s difficult to ignore the role we play in this.”
Associate Professor of International Relations Robert English said the fixation on Putin is to partially scapegoat failures in both Republican and Democratic policies with Russia. “Bush pushed NATO right up to Russia’s borders and foolishly crossed a very clear red line in pushing the Western alliance towards Ukraine and Georgia … Obama “continued to push into Ukraine and continued expansion of NATO overall.” This after the “beloved” (President) Bill Clinton sparked expansion in the first place, he concluded.
But today’s Democratic narrative over Russian meddling in the election has overtaken the historical perspective. Today, Matlock points out, “we have put our president (Trump) in a position where if he does propose something (positive in relation to Russia) they will say, ‘oh, they must have something on him!”
“I don’t care if they have anything on him,” Matlock said. “I don’t see any credible reason for us to be enemies and I can see very powerful reasons to work together.”
And they must work together, as this is no longer a world of unipolar power—namely, the U.S. as the sole leader of the geopolitical chessboard–but a world of multi-polar politics with Russia, China and India ascending, said Paul Kennedy, professor of history and director of International Security Studies at Yale University.
In the final panel of the day, The Future of Great Power Politics, the author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers said we have to “get real” and think of the world in terms of these “four big guys.” No more does America have the fiscal endurance or the long term military capacity to be the world’s police.
“The unipolar moment is over,” he said. “The question is now, how do we manage that post-unipolar world?”
Cato Institute Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies Christopher Preble pointed out that smaller powers, even non-state actors, have been able to take advantage of new technology and weapons systems to make life miserable for the old guard, including the U.S. Nowhere is this more obvious than in our current wars. “The U.S. struggles to win, it struggles to win decisively.”
Michael Desch, professor of political science at Notre Dame University, noted the “Jacksonian moment” in terms of U.S. foreign policy might have some elements of traditional realism but is “a double edged sword” in that the surge of populism and pushback against Realpolitik are sending the Trump White House on a collision course with Iran.
John Mearsheimer, author and professor of political science at the University of Chicago, says “big power politics is back on the table” and that means realism is, too. But restraint may no longer be the partner of realism, as the U.S. pushes back against a rising China. But he warns that China, like all great powers, will expect the same privileges and liberties as the U.S. boasted when it, too, was a rising superpower.
“They’re going to project their power. You can expect more of that as time goes by. I don’t blame them a bit because this is how the world works,” he said. “If we have a Monroe Doctrine, don’t you think they will want their own Monroe Doctrine? Of course they are going to…This is nothing to do with Communism or Marxism, this is basic realpolitik. You want to be a real power, you want to dominate your region of the world.”
“Give us the debate”
In his opening remarks, Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) lamented the lack of will and backbone from Congress on matters of war since 9/11. A longtime critic of the Iraq invasion and continuing war in Afghanistan, Jones told the story of a young woman he saw in the airport carrying a folded American flag in accordance with a servicemember or veteran who had died. “It was so sad for me,” he said, noting that any words he had for her seemed trite in comparison with her pain.
“Give us the debate,” he said, relating to decisions of war on Capitol Hill. He scowled at his colleagues’ lack of interest so far. “It’s like it doesn’t matter. I don’t understand that at all. We need to demand that the leadership of the House permit the Congress to debate war because if we don’t it’s going to be perpetual war from now on.”
“It’s time for the men and women of America to take back their constitution.”
- Samuel Goldman, George Washington University
- Robert W. Merry, editor, The American Conservative
- Congressman Walter Jones, U.S. Representative for the 3rd District of North Carolina
The Fate of Realism and Restraint in the Trump Era
- Robert W. Merry, editor, The American Conservative
- William Ruger, Charles Koch Institute
- Mark Perry, contributing editor, The American Conservative
- Moderator: Kelley Vlahos, executive editor, The American Conservative
Who’s Responsible for the New Low in U.S.-Russia Relations?
- Ambassador Jack F. Matlock, Jr., former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union
- Ted Galen Carpenter, contributing editor, The American Conservative
- Robert David English, University of Southern California
- Moderator: Scott McConnell, founding editor, The American Conservative
The Future of Great Power Politics
- John Mearsheimer, University of Chicago
- Paul Kennedy, Yale University
- Christopher Preble, Cato Institute
- Michael C. Desch, University of Notre Dame
- Moderator: Daniel McCarthy, Fund for American Studies
The news that 152 Afghan soldiers who came to the U.S. for training went AWOL generated a bit of excitement this month—especially since 83 of them never returned and several are considered “high risk” by federal officials because of their age and military training.
That the percentage of troops who take off once they get to the U.S. is only going up—13 percent in 2016 compared to 6 percent historically—seems shocking at first. But really, what do these soldiers have to go back to? After 16 years and $70 billion of U.S. building and training, the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANDSF) Army remains corrupt, inefficient, and unable to protect large swaths of the country from the resurgent Taliban, not to mention ISIS and other terror groups reportedly gaining ground there.
“It’s not surprising given what is going on there in Afghanistan,” said Larry Korb, defense expert for the Center for American Progress, in an interview with TAC. “The security situation is not getting better, you’ve got a corrupt government—it may be better than Karzai but not a great deal—you’ve got fighting between (President) Ghani and (CEO) Abdullah Abdullah. These guys are saying, ‘do I really want to go back there?’”
Moreover, Afghan security forces in Afghanistan have been killed at rates that would be considered unacceptable if they were Americans. Nevertheless, the press here barely raised an eyebrow when it was reported that the Afghans lost more than 800 soldiers in the first six weeks of 2017 alone. (Civilian casualties rose to a record 11,418 in 2016). In an early 2017 report, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said the Afghan military lost more than twice the men in 2016 than the total number of Americans killed there over the last 15 years—more specifically, 6,785 in one year. In an incident this month, 43 were killed on their own base during a Taliban ambush. This week, the Taliban attacked two Afghan outposts, killing 13. A gun battle ensued, according to the Washington Post, and an unknown number of Taliban were supposedly killed. But when they left, according to a local leader, the insurgents “seized all the arms and ammunitions.”
The attacks on Afghan bases, the gun battles, the losses—all this rarely registers a blip in the U.S. media, but the news of AWOL Afghans got the attention of a number of major news outlets, and brought rare attention to SIGAR, which has been toiling away at damning report after damning report on the Afghanistan war and reconstruction while official Washington looks the other way. The cold truth, it seems, is rarely welcome among those pulling the strings.
According to the latest SIGAR offering, half of the international troops who have gone AWOL since 2005 were Afghans, and because of that, the U.S. has reduced the number of programs it is offering stateside for them. In 2015, the U.S. spent $34.5 billion in equipment, services, and training on foreign troops visiting from 119 countries (not including NATO members). The number of Afghans who were able to take advantage of several programs, from counter-terrorism to aviation leadership, dropped dramatically from 1,190 in 2015 to 270 in 2016 (numbers do not necessarily reflect individuals because some of them engage in more than one of the nine programs offered by the government per year).
SIGAR spoke to several Afghan trainees who described untenable circumstances back home. Five of them, for example, said their lives were in danger just because they went to the U.S. for training. One said he did not expect to have a job when he returned home (apparently there is no guarantee a soldier will be able to return to his unit after U.S. training, which sort of defeats the purpose), while four others said they would be expected to pay bribes in order to get their jobs back.
Another, a female trainee, said that after she came here the “Taliban visited her home and threatened her family because of her involvement with the U.S.” Two others received threatening letters or phone calls from the Taliban, according to the report, “and another claimed that his family had been attacked due to his training in the U.S. and eventually had to change residences.”
This report comes less than two months after President Trump announced his new Afghanistan strategy, which, as many analysts who have been through this several times have said, sounds uncannily like the old one. The thrust: He’s authorizing several thousand U.S. troops in addition to the 11,000 we have there now.
Meanwhile, training and equipping the Afghans has cost American taxpayers more or less $4 billion a year; and the total cost of maintaining our presence there is now over $12 billion (including a fresh $1 billion for the new troops) annually, according to recent estimates.
Yet when they were truly tested, the Afghan Army (about 174,000 now) has largely failed to meet the grade. Almost half the country, as of earlier this year, is under Taliban control control or influence, a slow but steady whittling away of territory as U.S. and coalition forces have turned over security operations to their Afghan partners.
In October 2016, at least 100 soldiers fled their positions during a stand-off with Taliban near the capital of Helmand Province, which remains a Taliban stronghold. The fleeing men were pursued and executed. Also that month, the Afghan Army and National Police blamed each other for what Reuters called a “shambolic surrender” of Kunduz, as troops allegedly fled the fighting and the city went under Taliban control, albeit temporarily, before the U.S. was able to help regain it for them.
While experts like Caitlin Forrest of the neoconservative Institute for the Study of War say the reason the Afghans have ceded so much to the Taliban is a lack of resources and training, Korb says it’s more complicated than that.
“You can’t have a military unless they are loyal to the government,” he noted, comparing Afghanistan to some of the persistent problems the U.S. faced in training South Vietnamese troops to square off against the communist North during the Vietnam War. “The North were loyal to Ho Chi Minh, but in the South the leaders did not have the support of all of the people. I think here you have the same thing. If people don’t want to fight and die for their country as they perceive it, it’s going to be a problem.”
A comprehensive SIGAR report released in September underscored that they are both right. While more than $70 billion has been poured into the effort over 16 years, it has been subject to waste, misdirection, and a lack of accountability, so at times vital resources like proper equipment has been lacking (though the Afghans did get $28 million worth of useless camouflage uniforms). Program models and methods have shifted wildly over the years, while basic training has fluctuated in rigor and efficacy (apparently, some troops have resorted to using sensational TV shows like COPS and NCIS to bolster their training programs). Mentors and leaders rotate in and out of the country with no consistency. Furthermore, overall efforts still do not take into account the illiteracy and ethnic differences among the fighting age population. And above all, pervasive Afghan government corruption and a lack of will to fight threatens the very integrity of the system.
Despite all of those issues, the Obama administration authorized the Afghan army to expand upwards to 179,000 in 2009. They have never achieved that, and, with the methods of assessing numbers changing all the time, it isn’t even clear that the current 174,000 number is correct. Last year, to the chagrin of the Pentagon, the Associated Press reported that 40 percent of the Afghan security forces are “ghosts” —soldiers and police who exist on the books but are otherwise nowhere to be found.
At the time, SIGAR said, “neither the United States nor its Afghan allies know how many Afghan soldiers and police actually exist, how many are in fact available for duty, or by extension, the true nature of their operational capabilities.”
It would seem that the problem of AWOL trainees in the U.S. is a relatively small one, in comparison.
When asked about the AWOL soldiers, Pentagon spokesman Thomas Crosson said the military was putting up safeguards. “We have long been aware of the challenges that SIGAR highlights in its report, and we are working in partnership with the gov ernment of Afghanistan and the U.S. interagency to continually update our policies and procedures to reduce the number of absconders.”
As for the strength of the Afghan military in Afghanistan: “The mission of the U.S. military in Afghanistan is to train, advise and assist the 300,000-strong Afghan (ANDSF), who continue to bear the brunt of the fighting and casualties,” he said in an email to TAC. “As a result of our training, equipping, and partnering, the 17,000-strong Afghan special forces are the best in the region.”
Korb isn’t fully buying it. “If this is your best and your brightest in Afghanistan and they don’t want to stay…I’d say you’ve got a problem,” he noted.
“Again, I remember when George Bush used to talk about the the women’s rights and the education and all that sounds good, but when you are not winning on the ground, and the government doesn’t have the full support of the population, that’s where it matters.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is executive editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC.
The saga of Bowe Bergdahl—the soldier who walked off his post in Afghanistan before he was captured, held, and tortured by members of the Haqqani network for five years until his rescue in 2014—may be coming to a swift, if not anticlimactic end.
His detractors—who range from Donald Trump to Rush Limbaugh and countless members of the military community in between—won’t, as they say, have Bowe Bergdahl to kick around anymore. In fact, without Bergdahl, Trump wouldn’t have had one of his most indelible schticks of 2016: pretending to shoot Bergdahl in a firing squad. “He’s a traitor, a no-good traitor, who should’ve been executed,” Trump would say while he performed the grisly pantomime.
While we may never know what was in Bergdahl’s heart, the judge in his court martial reportedly accepted his guilty plea on charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy on Monday. According to reports from the hearing, there was no pre-trial plea deal between his defense team and Army prosecutors. This “naked plea,” according to legal experts, is essentially Bergdahl throwing himself at the mercy of the judge, Army Col. Jeffrey R. Nance, who will ultimately decide Bergdahl’s sentencing after a hearing that is supposed to begin Oct. 23.
Sgt. Bergdahl, who is still in the Army working a desk job at Joint Base San Antonio in Texas, could get life in prison if the plea backfires, Eric Carpenter, former Army defense attorney and prosecutor, told Task & Purpose on Sunday. “If he doesn’t have a deal, they could go in there and enter this naked plea and come out with a life sentence.”
Bergdahl attorney Eugene Fidell declined comment for this story.
Certainly, life in prison would be seen by many as a fitting punishment for the now-31-year-old Idahoan who said he walked off his post on June 30, 2009 to bring attention to what he perceived to be poor conditions and leadership issues in his unit. That didn’t happen, and he was captured by the Taliban almost immediately instead. A massive search went on after him, with missions diverted and six servicemembers allegedly killed in the process (the government has never confirmed that anyone died looking for Bergdahl, despite persistent accusations to the contrary).
When Bergdahl was finally freed (his harrowing time with the terror group included, according to Bergdahl, being beaten, cut, starved, chained spread eagle to a bed, and locked in a 6×6 cage in complete darkness for months at a time), it was in a Taliban swap for five of their detainees at Guantanamo Bay. While initially hailed at the White House as a good thing, an avalanche of criticism came from Capitol Hill (the deal hadn’t been cleared with members of Congress first, they complained), and from media such as Fox News and right-wing radio jocks who suddenly had access (with the help of Republican operatives) to members of the Bergdahl search party and unit, all of whom were calling him a deserter and traitor.
The fact is, Bergdahl was tried and convicted–even sentenced to death—before he entered the courtroom. While many will argue it is because he “walked off,” violating the code and forcing the U.S. military to marshal precious resources across dangerous terrain, diverting energy from critical counter-terrorism operations in southeastern Afghanistan, the political hue to the Bergdahl hate is difficult to ignore.
And we can pinpoint where it likely began: a Michael Hastings profile of Bergdahl and his family in Rolling Stone in 2012, one year before the award-winning writer of The Operatives (an excerpt of which got Gen. Stanley McCrystal fired from his command in Afghanistan) was killed in a car wreck. Hastings’ story was the first to suggest in detail that Bergdahl was disenchanted with the war in language that many critics of the Afghanistan-Iraq counterinsurgency policy would recognize. In increasingly dark emails written to his family and shared with Hastings, Bergdahl spoke openly about being deceived by his country and how he was “ashamed to be an American.”
In the second-to-last paragraph of the e-mail, Bowe wrote about his broader disgust with America’s approach to the war – an effort, on the ground, that seemed to represent the exact opposite of the kind of concerted campaign to win the “hearts and minds” of average Afghans envisioned by counterinsurgency strategists. “I am sorry for everything here,” Bowe told his parents. “These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live.” He then referred to what his parents believe may have been a formative, possibly traumatic event: seeing an Afghan child run over by an MRAP. “We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks… We make fun of them in front of their faces, and laugh at them for not understanding we are insulting them.”
Bowe concluded his e-mail with what, in another context, might read as a suicide note. “I am sorry for everything,” he wrote. “The horror that is america is disgusting.”
Bergdahl has not walked back these privately conveyed feelings, but in the intervening years it has become clear that he should have never been sent overseas with the Army to begin with. He washed out of Coast Guard training after a dramatic panic attack, which for some reason did not impede his mental health screening for the Army a few years later. It was evident he did not fit in with his unit socially, and his incongruent expectations and illusions of heroism that led to his walking off post were later diagnosed by an Army psychiatrist, who, while not trying to excuse the desertion charges, said Bergdahl was suffering from schizotypal personality disorder.
But by the time Bergdahl’s mental state, his insistence that he did not plan to desert permanently, and the revelations about the horrors he sustained as a Taliban captive, came to light, it did not matter. His failure to stay in line, his criticism of the war policy and of the military (even though they were private letters to his family) blunted any sympathy he might have earned, and by that time the politicized narrative had already had taken shape. People were forced to take sides and to many, he was the enemy. For always.
That the Obama administration had freed him and initially called Bergdahl a hero was certainly another bang of the gavel against him. As Limbaugh said Monday morning: “The Obama Administration was singing the praises—of a military deserter.” And Trump, who was calling him a traitor, turned out “to have been right from the start.”
Aside from being a tragedy—for himself, his family, and the military community that feels directly injured by his actions—Bergdahl is a symptom of the hyper-politicized culture that’s been sustaining and explaining away the failures of U.S war policy since 2002. He will likely be forgotten, but not before the war promoters and guardians of the status quo fix on some other scapegoat to divert public attention and emotion away from where it should be directed, at the U.S. government.
As defense writer David Axe said in 2014 after Bergdahl was released and the tidal wave of criticism was cresting: “We’ve got Bergdahl in our grasp. Defeated on the battlefield in two back-to-back wars, we can vent our frustrations on this sad, lonely and nearly-starved young man. … [The Taliban] beat us in a war of our choosing. Hate them for it, if you think it helps. But don’t blame their victory, and our losses, on Bergdahl.”
One look at Brian Alvarado and you wonder how he can still be alive. Especially when you get a glimpse at his pre-deployment photograph—a Marine in his service uniform, full-faced and ready for whatever war would dish out—and think, “is this really the same person?”
Unfortunately, yes, Alvarado served two tours 10 years ago, and for a time he patrolled “hell,” which is what the guys called the open air burn pits on major U.S. military installations like Air Base Balad in Iraq. When he got home, according to his wife, he was diagnosed with Squamous Cell Carcinoma (throat cancer) and began chemo and radiation in 2008. Today he can hardly speak and eats and drinks through a G-tube. His features are skeletal, his neck the size of man’s wrist. He is 5-foot-9 and weighs about 70 pounds.
For Alvarado and his wife Rocio, coming to terms with the cancer was one thing, but how he may have gotten it—from the burn pit itself— is another. He is one of thousands of U.S. military servicemembers and contractors who say their proximity to the pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, which burned—unregulated, in the open air—hundreds of tons of solid waste a day, have left them with progressive health conditions, including respiratory failure, debilitating nerve damage, and rare forms of cancer.
“There was no protection, no mask,” Alvadrado said through his wife, who interprets his indiscernible speech, or reads from the mini-white board he carries with him to communicate. “They gave us a gas mask, but it wasn’t for that. It was more for nuclear, biological chemicals. It was never mandatory for us to wear that.”
The veterans’ journey—from healthy soldiers to barely surviving, like Alvarado—has been captured in a new independent documentary, Delay, Deny, Hope You Die: How America Poisoned its Soldiers (the first part of that is a black slogan among vets, referring to the protracted dance with the VA over health claims), by director and producer Greg Lovett.
(Full disclosure: This writer was interviewed for the film.)
Lovett is not a veteran, health practitioner, nor is he related to anyone who has been crippled by the burn pits. But after seeing the stories about the pits and the government’s failure to take responsibility for their effects, he wanted to get the word out.
“Other than voting, this is where I can make a difference,” he told TAC. “Hopefully with knowledge comes change,” he said. “Maybe in some small way I can help.”
Lovett did not have to look far to find a full cast of veterans, contractors, doctors, and spouses who could testify about symptoms and their ongoing battle with the federal bureaucracy, which, as of today, has yet to acknowledge a direct connection between severe health injuries and the air around the pits. But if the history of Agent Orange is any guide, they may have to, eventually. The VA is still adding to the list of health conditions—including various cancers—to Vietnam veterans’ exposure to Agent Orange more than 40 years ago.
“There are real limits on what is being done and most of what is being done is outside the VA,” charged Anthony Hardie, a veteran and head of Veterans for Common Sense, in an interview with TAC. Hardie has been working as an advocate for Persian Gulf veterans suffering from Gulf War Illness, of which he is one, and burn pit victims.
“The VA has done some positive things piecemeal but overall the effort remains grossly inadequate,” Hardie said, “and as a result veterans are denied their claims (for burn pit) symptoms and are not able to get health care to deal with it.”
Unfortunately the frustrating response from the VA (the agency was dragged kicking and screaming into setting up an official burn pit registry for vets) is really just one layer, beginning with the cover-up of the extent of the environmental dangers of the pits, the failure of incinerators to fix the problems once Congress got involved, and the pushback against emerging medical findings and ongoing studies.
“I find it amazing that the military, which has a regulation for everything, did not have a regulation in place for the burn pit operations,” said Joe Hickman, who wrote the first comprehensive book on the issue, The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers, in 2016, and was interviewed for the documentary. “And those burn pits were operating in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2002 to 2009 without any regulation at all—they did not have any regulation of where they would be built or how they would be constructed. They did not do any soil samples before, and they didn’t do any plume samples after the burn pits were operational, for many, many years.”
TAC has been following the issue since 2009, about a year after veterans began coming forward looking for answers from the VA and Pentagon. Many of them lived near or directly tended to the pits, which sat in the middle of these fortified installations, sometimes two to three football fields wide. Vets recall throwing in everything from batteries, unexploded ordnance and paint cans to medical waste (including body parts) and styrofoam, and then lighting it up with diesel fuel. The result: a raging, never ceasing black plume straight out of the hell described in biblical times.
“When we got to the work area we had an initial briefing with our superiors and we were told to keep an eye on our people, that you were going to get the ‘Iraqi crud,’ and that everyone gets sick when they come down here,” recalled Jessey Baca, who served in Iraq as an Air Force Sergeant, also interviewed in Delay, Deny, Hope You Die. “And no doubt, within a week, people were falling out, getting sick.”
But it was civilian doctors, not the VA who began putting together the symptoms of veterans they treated and followed the path to not only their service in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the burn pits. Both Drs. Anthony Szema, formerly of Stony Brook School of Medicine, and Robert Miller of Vanderbilt, studied sick veterans, finding in lung biopsies irrevocable damage caused by heavy metals and carcinogens in small particulates that could only come from breathing in toxic air.
“Humans are supposed to breathe clean air,” said Szema in the film. “Any particle in the air can trigger asthma. And when you burn particles in an open air setting at a low setting, at low temperature, low heat, it generates thousands more times the particles than when you use an incinerator. And when you burn particles, when you are burning carcinogens, it exposes a person when they eat it, inhale it, sniff it, get it on their skin…which can cause cancer.”
But it turns out the military had an inkling of what was happening as early as 2006. In 2008, Army Times reporter Kelly Kennedy unearthed what is now referred to as the “Curtis Memo,” an Air Force study of the Balad pit by Lt. Col. Darrin L. Curtis, who said one of his research mates called it “the worst environmental site I have ever personally visited.” It listed a number of possible contaminants at the site based on the trash, including arsenic, benzene, carbon monoxide, cancer-causing sulfur dioxide, sulfuric acid, formaldehyde, hydrogen cyanide, and various metals.
While burning trash in war is hardly new, the size, scope, and length of the burning in these wars was, and as Curtis wrote in 2006, “today’s solid waste contains materials that were not present in the past that can create hazardous compounds.”
“In my professional opinion there is an acute health hazard for individuals … also the possibility for chronic health hazards associated with the smoke,” Curtis concluded. “It is amazing that the burn pit has been able to operate without restrictions over the past few years, without significant engineering controls being put into place.”
The release of the Curtis memo by the press unleashed a torrent of bad publicity and Congress got involved, eventually directing the Pentagon to shut down the pits in late 2009, and imposing mandates for incinerators. While the VA and Pentagon now acknowledge the danger of breathing in fine particulate matter, they say further study is warranted before a direct connection is made between serious illnesses like cancer and the pits. Studies so far conducted by the government have been inconclusive .
But veterans continued to get sick, some even died, and they were talking to each other and advocating, particularly through groups like BurnPits360. Many had gone to Miller for diagnosis. Soon the VA stopped sending vets to Miller, as his prognoses were getting more attention in the media and on Capitol Hill. “I think Dr. Miller’s research and his study is a perfect example of the VA trying to avoid the issue and trying not to pay the compensation to the veterans that they deserve,” said Hickman. “He has everything there and they still will not address his research.”
Meanwhile, some pits continued to run unfettered even after congressional shut-down, and in some cases incinerators that were brought in either didn’t work or took longer than necessary to get online, according to an explosive report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) in 2015. He called the conditions “indefensible” and blamed the military for spending $20 million on incinerators that were never used.
A class action lawsuit and by some 800 sick veterans, blaming contractor Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR) for running the pits and delaying the incinerators, is slowly making its way through the system. So far, a lower court ruled that the contractor has immunity against such suits in wartime. That was overturned on appeal in 2014.
The latest congressional action came when U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Thom Tillis (R-NC) helped to pass language in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, which was passed by the Senate last month. The “Helping Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Act” would create a center of excellence within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to better understand the health effects and proper treatments after exposure. The measure was inspired in part by the sickness and death of Iraq vet Amie Dahl Muller, 36, who believed her cancer was linked to the burn pits. Her story, including heartbreaking footage of Muller in the hospital receiving military honors upon her death in March of this year, are included in Delay, Deny, Hope You Die.
“People are in the hospital and in some cases dying, and their families insisted I show it because they know people need to see it,” said Lovett, who wants the movie to make a shocking impression on the public.
“The people I have shown it to are mostly non-military people. They are mad and they’re shocked. People will get it when they see it.”
Delay, Deny, Hope You Die is now screening in limited cinemas across the country in hopes of finding a major distributor.
It was just a few lines in an hour-long speech before the conservative Hillsdale College annual Constitution Day dinner, but for a brief, possibly illuminating moment, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) sounded like he might be a regular subscriber to The American Conservative.
After two years of pushing for an expansion in the drone war, staying in Afghanistan indefinitely, engaging in military action in Syria (even if that meant shooting down Russian planes), arguing to keep Gitmo open, and doing everything to maintain current, if not increased budgets for the Military Industrial Complex, the Arkansas Republican sounded like, well, a foreign policy realist, if not the majority of people in America today.
“Government now takes nearly half of every dollar our workers earn and bosses us around in every aspect of life, yet can’t even deliver services well,” Cotton declared to his audience of some 400 conservatives. “Our working class—the ‘forgotten man,’ to use a phrase favored by Ronald Reagan and FDR—has seen its wages stagnate while the four richest counties in America are all within the Washington Beltway. The kids of those forgotten men are the ones who chiefly fight our seemingly endless wars and police our streets, only to come under criticism from the very elite who sleep under the blanket of security they provide” (emphasis added).
There are a few ways to interpret this uncharacteristic blip. If Cotton has truly undergone an epiphany regarding the failed policies and powerful forces (i.e. the National Security Inc.) that have perpetuated these “endless wars” which he heretofore supported, then good for him. If, on the other hand, his reference to “endless wars” was a simple pander to the populist wave that helped to elect Donald Trump in 2016 (he began his remarks to Hillsdale Monday by saying Americans “lost their confidence in our governing class, in both its competence and its intentions”), then too bad.
Then again, there is not much evidence in the Cotton file to suggest this is a guy who has suddenly seen the light. A freshman senator at the age of 37 in 2015, Cotton is one of a small coterie of Iraq-Afghanistan combat veterans on the Hill today. But unlike those who have used their experience inside the wire to temper Uncle Sam’s interventionist impulses, Cotton has emerged as one of the biggest pro-war members of his class, a sort of junior hawk to Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham.
Right out of the gate, he defended the extra-judicial drone killing of Anwar Awlaki in 2011, and even called for more. “When an American drone unexpectedly brings justice to Anwar al-Awlaki, it is a powerful reminder to all terrorists their safe haven may not be so safe after all,” said Cotton. “Far from restraining the use of drones, then, through unwise and unconstitutional mechanisms, we should continue and probably expand their use in our war against radical Islam.”
About the same time, Cotton was all over the tube calling for one intervention after the next and had already begun his crusade against the Iranian regime, which he likened to Hitler, much like his neoconservative patrons in the Washington establishment.
“We can’t win the war on Islamic terror on defense, we have to win on offense,” Cotton exclaimed on CNN. He told an audience at the Heritage Foundation the day before that the negotiations of the P5+1 (the U.S., Russia, China, the U.K., and France, plus Germany, which finally led to a deal) was akin to the appeasement of Nazi Germany.
Later, as a guest on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” he emphasized his support for fighting ISIS. “We kill them there before they kill us here, it’s very simple,” he proclaimed. “The more we bomb, if we’re killing terrorists, the safer we are.” When hearing testimony in 2015 about closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center he lambasted the Obama Administration official before him, saying, they “don’t hate us for what we do, they hate us for what we are,” and scoffed at the idea that keeping GITMO open was in essence a terrorist recruiting tool for terrorists.
“The only problem with Guantanamo Bay is that there are too many empty beds,” he charged.
While many military vets develop a healthy skepticism for government, often having seen the corruption, hubris, and limited power to reform first-hand, Cotton has used his bully pulpit to bolster the national security state when it comes under fire. This includes the NSA, playing it up as “full of career military officers who follow the law by targeting foreign terrorists to protect American citizens” when the super-secret agency was called out for spying on Americans under the guise of the War on Terror. He then broke publicly with Sen. Rand Paul and supported extending the more intrusive controversial powers of the Patriot Act.
Cotton was at the forefront of a 2015 letter sent to Iranian leaders designed to thwart the nuclear deal (the effort failed). He also supported sending troops to Syria and argued that the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Force (AUMF) was enough to justify it but could also be used to shoot down Russian planes in Syria if necessary. He supports Trump’s plan to stay in Afghanistan, and has promised to end sequestration in order to increase the defense budget beyond its ginormous $600 billion annual tab. There is where your “nearly half” to the taxman is going.
All of this sounds eerily like a game plan for those “endless wars” Cotton appears to lament in his Hillsdale speech. He may have meant that America’s enemies are forcing the U.S. into this endless cycle of conflict, in which case his statement would be more in line with his record. Or, he might be reading the tea leaves—that the only people truly pushing for war are those benefiting from it inside the Beltway.
In that case, welcome to the club.
WASHINGTON — While UN ambassador Nikki Haley certainly didn’t come to the American Enterprise Institute Tuesday to praise the nuclear agreement with Iran, she insisted she wasn’t there to bury it either.
But we think she doth protest too much. Because that is exactly what she set out to do.
“I’m not making the case for decertifying (the agreement),” she told her rapt AEI audience. “I’m just saying if he (president) should decertify, he has the grounds.”
Haley then warned for what would not be the last time that we shouldn’t just assume that the Iranians were “doing the right thing.”
“What if they weren’t doing the right thing?” Haley presupposed, “And when that 10-year (expiration) hits … they start a nuclear war?”
Her speech, delivered at the most hawkish think tank in Washington—a nesting ground for the key architects of the Iraq War and wider Global War on Terror, not to mention nearly every anti-Iranian hardliner in town—came just five days after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) declared for the eighth time that Iran was complying with the 2015 deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.
To Haley the positive IAEA report counted very little against the much bigger, darker picture of Iranian deception, lies, and violence toward the West. “Many observers miss that point. They think, ‘Well, as long as Iran is meeting the limits on enriched uranium and centrifuges, then it’s complying with the deal.’ That’s not true. This is a jigsaw puzzle.” And the IAEA compliance a mere “puzzle piece.”
Most Americans probably believe that complying with the hard-fought pact that forced curbs on Iranian nuclear weapons development in exchange for lifting the crushing international sanctions against Iran is the official gauge that the deal is working. As do all of the signatories to the JCPOA: France, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, Germany and the European Union, none of which seem to have any interest in breaking off the accord. But the U.S. is pushing for more inspections on additional military sites, suggesting the Iranians are hiding something. Haley all but declared in her speech that the Iranians were guilty if they weren’t rushing to open up the additional sites, and the IAEA was weak for not demanding it.
But no matter. As Haley explained, the JCPOA is just one “pillar” in three pillars of compliance that President Trump will be assessing before he decides whether to cut loose. And be assured, “the end result has to be the security of the United States…we will always look out for our interest, our security.”
She insists that the Iranians are already in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, the UN’s endorsement of the JCPOA framework, for testing ballistic missiles and engaging in other nefarious “non-nuclear” activity, including “terrorism (and) the support for murderous regimes.” (Note: the words terrorism or terrorist are nowhere to be found in the resolution.) A test of this point, of course, failed earlier this year. France, Germany, the UK and U.S. complained to the UN Secretary General this year that the Iranians were testing a ballistic missile designed to someday carry a nuclear weapon, and was therefore in violation of 2231. The Iranians denied the missile was designed to carry a nuke, and a lack of “consensus” about the testing and whether this provision in 2231 was even binding, prevented further action. An additional June 2017 allegation by the U.S. accused the Iranians of receiving a shipment of ballistic-missile technology, but so far the Secretary General has not been able to corroborate it.
Haley dismissed all this under the umbrella of UN member states falling into the trap of thinking that the Iran nuclear agreement is “too big to fail.”
“Unfortunately as happens all too often at the UN, many member states ignore blatant violations of the UN’s own resolution,” she said. “The international community has powerful incentives to go out of its way to assert that the Iranian regime is in ‘compliance’ on the nuclear side. Meanwhile, the UN is too reluctant to address the regime’s so-called non nuclear violations.”
But according to Haley, Trump will use those and any other “non-nuclear” charges to make his own case, whether or not these things are binding at the UN. Then there is a congressional role, which Haley calls the third pillar, in the form of the Corker-Cardin bill, which requires the president to “certify” the integrity of the deal to congress every 90 days. Trump reluctantly certified in July, but hinted he may not in October. If Haley’s carefully constructed (and as Daniel Larison points out, sometimes fanciful) brief against the Iranians—beginning with the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the activities of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG), its proxies in the form of Hezbollah and their all of their “tentacles” in every conflict in the world—is any indication, Trump is beginning the wind-up now. AEI host Danielle Pletka even joined in, adding the world refugee crisis to list of Iran’s current international crimes.
“We must consider not only the technical violations but also (Iran’s) violation of 2231 and its long history of aggression,” Haley declared. If Trump doesn’t certify, then Congress has 60 days to consider whether to reimpose sanctions on Iran. Of course, this would immediately break the deal and likely re-trigger the nuclear development the world was trying to stop.
That is a risk they will have to take, she said. “We should welcome a debate over whether JCPOA is in U.S. national security interests…It’s past time we had an Iran nuclear policy that acknowledged that.”
This is music to the ears of those members who forced Corker-Cardin when they were angry with the deal and wished it away in the first place. It will be music to the ears of hardliners like former UN ambassador John Bolton, who has not only been pushing to dissolve the pact but to bomb Iran. It will be a symphony to the ears of Israel, which hates the deal and has been lobbying hard for its dissolution from the beginning.
Haley misses the irony of how this elaborate case against Iran is taking place in the shadow of an ascendent nuclear power —North Korea—openly testing missiles and threatening the U.S. and its allies with nuclear annihilation. The administration’s quest to turn back time and re-litigate diplomatic labors that span both the previous Bush and Obama eras appears ideologically driven and, frankly, tone-deaf at a time of what could be real crisis on the other side of the world.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is managing editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC.
As fresh entries to Bard College in 1967, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen imagined a pulsing jam session on every dorm floor, a confluence of heady creativity enjoined by “those of my kind,” thriving in the current cultural renaissance.
Becker and Fagan, two peas in a pod sewn in the New York jazz scene since they were old enough to listen, were flatly disappointed when Bard students failed to live up to the hype. All the kids around them just wanted to loll around stoned, Fagan noted archly in his 2013 memoir, Eminent Hipsters.
So the two, together, went their own way artistically, and the music world for generations to follow, was forever grateful. They became Steely Dan, always a pair, no matter the rotating session and tour musicians who fleshed them out full measure.
Walter Becker’s death at the age of 67, announced on Sept. 3 after an illness only mentioned vaguely in news reports over the late summer, came like a hammer into the hearts of fans who know implicitly that Becker—the sotto voce half of the super-successful iconoclastic pair—had imparted much of the duo’s cynical edge and sly, introspective pathos.
In a devastating but brief homage to his friend and musical partner for 50 years, Fagen said Becker had “a very rough childhood – I’ll spare you the details.” He went on:
Luckily, he was smart as a whip, an excellent guitarist and a great songwriter. He was cynical about human nature, including his own, and hysterically funny. Like a lot of kids from fractured families, he had the knack of creative mimicry, reading people’s hidden psychology and transforming what he saw into bubbly, incisive art.
The result, a canon of irreverent, surprising, sublime, sarcastic, opaque and always challenging songs that absolutely transcended the self-indulgent counter-culture of their time. So much that, when their peers like Jefferson Airplane/Starship went flying off-course and into the banality of the syntho-rock 80s, Becker and Fagen kept writing bad-ass music about the underdogs and degenerates, hopeful romantics, junkies, pitiable gray-flanneled men, vampish ladies and “luckless pedestrians” on the street of life. Much of what they sang about seemed so impenetrable but the fun was in decoding the cryptic and wrapping oneself in the beautifully meticulous (and altogether singular) symphony of jazz-rock-R&B. These men were aficionados of the spirit of the age, but they were also boys whose love of sci-fi and pulp fiction and love-hate relationship with the Post-War plastic New Frontier they grew up in was never far from their ironic, comical observations. They never surrendered to the narcissistic zeitgeist, nor to the conformity of non-conformity. They were anarchists of the realm.
They won a Best Album Grammy in 2000 for “Two Against Nature,” a Becker prize in that it shook off much of the snappy nostalgia that Fagen had strung through his nonetheless brilliant “Kamakiriad” in 1993, and went right for the jugular. Songs like “Gaslighting Abbie” and “Negative Girl” are as unsettling as they are infectious.
The pair were particularly averse to overt political commentary, but on “Jack of Speed,” it shows a bit, referring to “that right-wing hooey, sure stunk up the joint.” Later, in their post-9/11 “Everything Must Go,” the two seem to lament the end of empire and God, hinting the end of the American enterprise, and in usual fashion, comparing it to the shuttering of a supermarket.
Fagen’s readily distinguishable voice, successful solo career and striking pose most certainly became the de-facto face of this enigmatic band. Most people don’t realize there are only two members of Steely Dan and even fewer could call Becker out of a line-up. But die hard fans know better. Half of this strange and peerless alchemy has been extinguished for good, at least in this world. And it will never be the same.
Here is a little peek at how the magic was made:
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is managing editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC
Iconoclastic Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher confirmed that he had met Wednesday with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who still remains in his self-imposed five-year exile at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, afraid he will be subject to U.S. arrest if he leaves.
The reason for the unusual meeting (Rohrabacher claims he is the first member of congress to meet with Assange), according to Rohrabacher’s office, was to glean information from Assange on the real DNC leaker with an eye toward assisting the president in fending off charges about Russian hacking in Washington, and to help the WikiLeaks founder leave the embassy a free man.
Assange has been adamant that Russia was not the source behind the leaked Democratic National Committee emails that Wikileaks published ahead of the 2016 election.
According to Rohrabacher’s office, the two met for at least three hours. In a direct conversation with John Solomon at The Hill, the 15-term California congressman said further, “Julian also indicated that he is open to further discussions regarding specific information about the DNC email incident that is currently unknown to the public.”
Then, in a Thursday statement to the press, Rohrabacher indicated he already had information from the meeting, which he had planned to “divulge” to President Trump. He went even further with The Daily Caller Thursday, suggesting a deal might be in the making:
Rohrabacher told The Daily Caller in an exclusive interview Thursday that Assange is hoping to leave the Ecuadorian embassy in London where he is currently in asylum, and that during the meeting they explored “what might be necessary to get him out.”
The congressman told The Daily Caller that “if [Assange] is going to give us a big favor, he would obviously have to be pardoned to leave the Ecuadorian embassy.”
This was confirmed Friday by Rohrabacher spokesman Ken Grubbs, who told TAC the congressman had been thinking about Assange and “whether he could demolish the narrative that the Russians had hacked (the DNC) and he thought of speaking to Assange directly.”
Grubbs also confirmed that a pardon could be down the road—if Assange can supply the goods.
“There is nothing on the table yet. There are possibilities; that was discussed,” he told TAC. “(Rep. Rohrabacher) does believe that if Mr. Assange comes forth with the information promised he does deserve a pardon.”
He also confirmed that Rohrabacher came back with information, “but apparently more is forthcoming.”
There is a lot to unpack here. First off Assange has been neither charged nor convicted of anything, so a “pardon” would be unusual — but not unprecedented. On Sept. 8, 1974, President Gerald Ford granted recently resigned president Richard Nixon a “full, free, and absolute pardon,” making it impossible for him to be indicted for any crimes connected to the Watergate scandal. Assange and his lawyers maintain there has been a grand jury convened that will ultimately indict him, and that charges are inevitable once he leaves the embassy. This is not paranoid delusion. President Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions said outright that there is renewed interest in Assange’s arrest for publishing stolen classified government documents via Wikileaks.
Washington’s ire against the government transparency crusader began in 2010 when Wikileaks published tens of thousands of documents relating to the Afghan and Iraq Wars, along with secret State Department cables and more, leaked by then-Private Bradley Manning (now Chelsea), and has continued through more recently, when Wikileaks published more than 8,000 pages divulging CIA spying and hacking tools that could be used against Americans. Back in April, CIA director Mike Pompeo was emphatic that Wikileaks is “a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia” and should be treated as such.
The reason Assange fled to the embassy five years ago this month is that Swedish authorities wanted to serve him an arrest warrant on sex assault charges brought against him by two women back in that country, but he was afraid that both UK and Swedish authorities were just waiting to deliver him up to the Americans. So Ecuador gave him asylum.
The Swedes finally dropped their case against him in May, but the Brits say they are still obliged to pick him up on the lesser charge or failing to appear in court. UK officials have not commented on whether they have been working with the U.S. to arrest and extradite Assange, so the 45-year-old Australian is staying put for now and, judging from this reported conversation with Rohrabacher, perhaps trying to ensure his freedom by delivering a gift to Trump.
What twisted turns this story has taken since Wikileaks was heralded by many throughout the world for bringing to light many truths about the U.S. wars, its duplicity in foreign policy and its lack of candor with the American people about the failing military operations overseas, including unrecorded civilian deaths, and the torture and abuse of detainees in U.S. custody. Then, Assange was a hero of the left and libertarian right and labeled a dangerous provocateur and a criminal by the establishment on both sides for his willingness to break all norms in his mission to free information for all. Despite President Obama’s pardon of Chelsea Manning after seven years in military incarceration, Washington has been clear in its indictment of Assange, whom they do not see as a whistleblower but as an exploiter of illegally obtained property and secrets, and a risk to national security.
That is, until late 2016, when Wikileaks’ campaign of document dumps appeared coordinated to embarrass Democrat Hillary Clinton (no ally of Assange) in her election for president. The Russians have been accused of hacking DNC computers and handing 20,000 stolen emails to Wikileaks, which Assange has virulently denied. Another narrative that points to an inside leak as opposed to a Russian hack has bolstered Assange’s story more strongly in recent weeks.
Whether welcome or not, many of Assange’s old allies on the left have fallen away, and in their place are voices on the right like Sean Hannity, who seem all too happy to embrace Assange now that he’s ostensibly helped Trump win the presidency and bolster their own opposition to the Democratic narrative. (Trump himself has gone back and forth in his love/hate for Wikileaks.) Meanwhile, Assange has been accused of playing footsies with the Russians, sidelining their own transgressions in favor of embarrassing Clinton. Just last week, Foreign Policy published a piece accusing Assange of turning down a huge cache of Russian documents leaked from the Russian Interior Ministry during the 2016 election with information of Russian activities in Ukraine. Again, Wikileaks denied that it turned down the leaks based on the “country of origin,” but suggested leaks were rejected because they could not be verified, and these specifically had already been published by BBC and others in 2014. Assange raised this again in a Tweet Friday.
Rohrabacher, who in recent years has been called “Putin’s favorite congressman” has a long history with the Russians (after initially fighting, literally, against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the late 1980’s). He has been vocally skeptical of the Democratic push on the Russian hack story. In this vein, it is not surprising that he initiated this apparent negotiation with Assange in London.
Grubbs said that Trump did not ask Rohrabacher to engage, but when the time came, he would want the information Assange is presenting, and Rohrabacher would give it to him.
“Rohrabacher more than any other member, has been clear in his belief that Russia is not involved in this hack,” said John Kiriakou, the CIA whistleblower who did two years in federal prison and is now an activist for free information and protection for government whistleblowers. He, too, does not believe the Russians gave Wikileaks the DNC emails. “[Rohrabacher] is a senior member of congress, has held multiple committee chairs, is highly respected and he can carry the political weight that would allow him to bring a deal like this.”
What is curious is the confirmation that alt-right blogger and known internet troll Chuck Johnson had been involved in setting up the Rohrabacher meeting and was in the room, according to Grubbs. There is unflattering photographic proof, blared from a critic’s blog Thursday with an accompanying headline: “Photo of the Day: GOP Rep. Rohrabacher Poses With Holocaust Denier Chuck C. Johnson at Assange Meeting.”
What would this blogger, whose latest claim to fame is framing the wrong man as the driver of the car that plowed into a crowd and killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville on August 12, be doing setting up such a meeting? His reputation, which includes a host of false stories including congressmen hiring prostitutes, publicly outing and shaming the wrong woman at the center of the University of Virginia rape controversy, and being banned permanently from Twitter after he asked for help to “take out” a black civil rights activist, should disqualify him from being anywhere near this delicate situation. Grubbs acknowledged Johnson’s involvement, but said he was just one of the people who emerged to help the congressman make the connections. He intimated this is a man the congressman’s office does not know well.
Maybe he came from somewhere in the White House orbit—several stories in January placed Johnson close to the transition team.
For his part, Assange emerged from all of this clear in his intention to not involve “third parties” in his quest to get out of the embassy and from under the cloud of U.S. extradition. In a statement via Wikileaks’ Facebook page, the group acknowledged the meeting with Rohrabacher, which was “at the congressman’s request” but mentioned nothing about an exchange of information or “a pardon.”
“Mr. Assange does not speak through third parties. Only statements issued directly by him or his lawyers can be considered authoritative.”
Kiriakou agrees getting Assange out of the embassy unscathed is going to be difficult considering that Pompeo, Sessions, and other Republicans have been calling for his head for years. Trump appears in no position today to be granting safe passage for a man who published the emails that are the very bone of contention in a special counsel investigation into possible collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign.
“There has been talk about a deal in some circles,” Kiriakou tells TAC. “But a lot of important people would have to be convinced. It’s going to be difficult for anybody to make a big decision like this. It’s going to be tough.”
Kelley Vlahos is managing editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC
WASHINGTON—Djibouti, a 14,600 square mile country in the Horn of Africa, is getting a little crowded. The Chinese have forged an agreement with the local government to build a military base and have already dispatched troops there, bringing them cheek-to-jowl with the 15-year-old U.S. base at Camp Lemonnier.
It is the first time in modern history that a “peer competitor” like China has had such a close proximity to a U.S. base, and not surprisingly, American military officials are taking a territorial tone, noting the “security concerns” this raises—like they own the place.
But in a way, they are owners. In exchange for tens of millions of dollars, the Americans have maintained their permanent installation without strategic competition for so long it must seem like this “lily pad” is an American island of its own—and the Chinese, known for building their own islands, are encroaching upon it. In fact, it is their first “forward presence” in the region, and houses a reported 4,000 service members and civilians, a sophisticated intel-gathering facility, and a drone base which can launch attacks on Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen.
But wait, here come the Saudis, who are currently in negotiations to establish their own base in Djibouti, with an eye toward thwarting their Iranian-backed enemies 20 miles away across the Strait of Bab al-Mandeb Strait (“Gate of Tears” in Arabic) in Yemen. Ironically, tens of thousands of refugees have been coming across that same passage to Djibouti in rickety wooden boats to escape Saudi bombings, which have spurred mass starvation and the worst cholera epidemic on record in Yemen.
There goes the neighborhood.
Unfortunately for the Americans, the Trump Administration has chosen this very time to start chintzing on all of those neighborly things that might make life a little easier for their long beleaguered hosts, the African people—like aid to counter the horrific effects of famine, or development assistance to bolster decimated economies, or public health resources to fight raging epidemics. As of 2016, there were over 12 million people internally displaced in Africa due to war and famine—that’s 30 percent of the 65 million displaced persons worldwide. Instead of helping to address this head-on, however, the Trump administration has decided to focus on bombs over bread.
According to recent reporting, the military is getting a $52 billion boost in President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal, with an undisclosed amount headed for new AFRICOM training programs, including joint exercises with other African militaries, and more funds for counterterrorism efforts, which no doubt incorporate new infrastructure and support costs for the expanding footprint and uptick in U.S. airpower in the region. This comes on the heels of Trump relaxing the combat rules that were put in place in 2013 to protect civilians in Somalia, a failed state suffering from drought-related famine and continuing violence by the Islamist terror group Al Shabaab. Somalia has been a virtual hell hole since a power vacuum was created during the Bush Administration after 9/11, which allowed extremists to flourish as the U.S. used Somalia as both a target for its drone wars and a site for the CIA’s secret interrogation facilities. There have been two strikes against reported Shabaab targets there since the rules were relaxed in March.
According to Nick Turse, by far the most dogged reporter of the U.S. military operations in Africa, Americans are building another drone base some 2,335 miles west of Djibouti in the desert town of Agadez in Niger, which he calls “a West African paradise for people smugglers and a way station for refugees and migrants intent on reaching Europe’s shores by any means necessary.”
Meanwhile, the budget proposes cutting humanitarian and development assistance to $5.2 billion in the 2018 fiscal year from $8 billion now. This comes at a time when an estimated 26 million people in Africa are in need of food aid with famine stretching across four countries—the worst such conditions since World War II.
“Trump’s FY2018 budget slashes funding for anti-malaria programs (in Africa) by more than 40 percent. More than $1 billion for programs that provide antiretroviral drugs to people infected with HIV are slated to be cut, too,” Turse wrote TAC in a recent email. “Those and other proposed reductions in aid assure major increases in mortality.”
Ironically, the height of humanitarian focus on Africa was not during the Obama Administration, led by the first president of African descent, but President George W. Bush, who, while launching the Global War on Terror, introduced the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which provided antiretroviral treatment and care for HIV/AIDS patients and is credited with saving millions of lives. He also launched a $1.2 billion anti-malaria campaign and increased food and development aid primarily in Africa—a program also believed to have saved millions. He also increased total food and development aid by 640 percent, apparently the most of any U.S. president.
Obama’s administration, while continuing to widen the U.S. military footprint across Africa—nearly 50 outposts in more than 24 countries by the end of 2016, according to Turse—has been more lackluster in his attention to the suffering, critics say. According to Anakwa Dwamena, writing in October in The New Republic:
Nearly eight years later, there is a palpable sense that Obama’s legacy in Africa is not what it could have been. It is not only that his administration has failed to produce a single policy that could rival the success of PEPFAR; it has actually cut funding for the program, leading critics to warn that Obama may have set back progress on AIDS by years.
She goes on to say Obama waited until the end of his term to start initiating big projects and the ones he did—like Power Africa and the African Growth and Opportunity Act—have failed to meet their high expectations.
But what Trump is doing is leaving all pretense of a humanitarian balance in Africa behind. It doesn’t matter than his Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley spent last week scolding global leaders for their “collective failure” to address the famine in Africa. While the U.S. announced $466 million dollars in aid in July, this hardly squares with the slashing of the budget by billions, and what seems to be complete disinterest in confirming the Assistant Secretary for African Affairs at the State Department, which is the top U.S. envoy to the continent. In June, the White House rescinded its offer to a respected 20-year Air Force colonel for the key Africa post on the National Security Council. Meanwhile, Africa-watchers are still talking about how Secretary of State Rex Tillerson “blew off” the chairman of the African Union after inviting him to the U.S. in April.
“Which in diplomatic terms is bad. It’s insane,” noted Reuben Brigety, a former U.S. Representative to the AU, who spoke recently at an event at the Center for American Progress. He says the kind of military partnerships that have been fostered over the years with African nations “is a good thing, but it’s become problematic when there is no countervailing civilian component on the other side.”
Stephen Morrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies was more blunt with the New York Times, saying, “we are radically narrowing the definition of why and how Africa matters to U.S. national interests, and that does not include elevating humanitarian and development there.”
This is what happens when the Pentagon is driving Africa policy, says Turse. While there are plenty of people who say the military would rather not, they are in fact doing so, and Trump appears comfortable with that approach. “What we have, instead, is a four-star general commanding U.S. Africa Command reporting to a retired four-star general (Secretary of Defense James Mattis) who reports to a commander-in-chief who has bragged about giving ‘his’ generals ‘total authorization’,” says Turse.
“As with so much else with this administration, it’s unclear exactly what it means,” Turse added. “But it sure sounds like a recipe for continuation—and most likely escalation—of a military-driven U.S. agenda in Africa.”
Meanwhile, China and Saudi Arabia are no less selfish in their interests in the continent. The Chinese want to capitalize on their resources and influence, while the Saudis want the strategic advantage in their war with Iran and its supporters. In fact, they have already convinced Djibouti to side with the the Gulf States in their growing dispute against the Qataris. But unlike the U.S., both seem at least prepared to cement these new relationships with “soft power” offerings. China has embarked on a much-lauded $60 billion capital investment program tied to local development. And according to reports, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are pouring resources into refugee relief (for a problem the Saudis caused in the first place), public works, new mosques, and other projects in Djibouti.
It’s ultimately about keeping up with the Joneses. U.S. military leaders seem to get it, but increasing reports indicate that the White House does not. Not only will it cede authority and influence to rivals, but bombs over bread will mean more violence down the road. Maybe at some point, then-Gen. Mattis’s 2013 words to Congress will finally hit their mark: “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.’’
Kelley Vlahos is managing editor of The American Conservative.
WASHINGTON — It’s no secret that federal bureaucracy can be inefficient, wasteful and dysfunctional, but when the cumulative effect of mistakes at a major nuclear weapons laboratory starts resembling a Three Stooges shtick, it’s anything but funny. It’s dangerous.
Despite being a major component (and birthplace) of the U.S. nuclear weapons program, the lab is not (mis)managed solely by the federal government. The longstanding problems at the New Mexico campus, which include enough safety and security lapses to make one’s hair curl, have taken place under the stewardship of a private global construction giant, Bechtel Corporation, which leads the public-private partnership called Los Alamos National Security LLC. This also includes the University of California, which botched its own 62-year management of the lab but was taken on as a partner anyway. Two other private contractors—BWX Technologies and Washington Group International (now AECOM)—form the rest of the enterprise, which beat out other major privateers, such as Lockheed Martin, for the $2.2 billion contract in 2006.
Bechtel, the largest civil engineering and construction contractor in the United States, brought in an annual revenue stream of $32.3 billion as of 2015. It raked in billions of military contracts during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, scooping up a $680 million deal to “rebuild” only a month after the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003. Despite a long record of cost-overruns, mismanagement, environmental violations, and even fraud in its many war and domestic contracts, Bechtel has soared on to bigger and better things, today holding an unprecedented $10 billion contract to build Saudi Arabia’s first underground transportation system in Riyadh, and a planet full of other projects, including those involving the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
The Los Alamos partnership is destined to be just a footnote in the company’s 120-year history, however. In fact, Bechtel’s stewardship was so bad the consortium is losing its contract in 2018 and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the semi-autonomous part of the Department of Energy that oversees the development and modernization of the nation’s nuclear warheads, officially started the bid process for the new contract in late June.
The question is if privatizing the industry proved less safe and more expensive than a government run operation, will another private contractor be any better? Furthermore, seeing how the DOE, NNSA—even the U.S. Congress—fell down in its oversight responsibilities, who can be confident that the government can turn this lab, or any other that has been farmed out to industry, around?
“The management problems at Los Alamos National Laboratory are so deep and structural, there’s a lot of blame to go around, and they won’t be fixed by picking one contractor over another. The entire contracting arrangements need to be completely rethought and congressional oversight committees need to do their duty,” says Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group, an Albuquerque-based non-profit that since 1989 has been relentless in its pursuit to cast sunlight on the lab’s activities, including its contract and program boondoggles and security breaches.
“There has been little accountability for mistakes for literally hundreds of fiascos and goofball management decisions,” Mello told TAC last week. “We have to start with parsing the elements of the mission and the presumption that a lot of people can get rich while doing very little work at a federal nuclear weapons laboratory. The culture of Los Alamos is deeply arrogant and to bring back a culture of public service and intellectual integrity will require more institutional examination than has ever happened.”
For their part the NNSA and Bechtel have played down the connection between the partnership’s well-documented safety violations and cost overruns and the loss of the contract. “This has been forecasted long ago,” NNSA spokesman Greg Wolf said in June. “This was coming and the timing is coincidental.”
But in 2015 it was made clear that the partnership did not meet expectations and per the contract, failed to secure enough “award terms” that would allow them to extend the contract beyond the time it was set to expire in FY 2017.
Mello makes no bones about the the fact he is in favor of nuclear disarmament, in part because he believes the nuclear weapons industry has become a self-perpetuating bureaucracy forever in search of “make work” to justify its increasing federal budget (President Trump has proposed a 7.8 percent increase in the NNSA budget to $13.9 billion in FY18). This is not much different than the rest of the federal bureaucracy, but unlike other agencies, the NNSA involves “the apocalyptic power of nuclear weapons” and the constant threat of war to sustain itself, says Mello.
“It’s where Dr. Strangelove lives,” he said, referring to the 1964 political satire in which weak politicians and zealous military generals, advised by a diabolical wheelchair-bound ex-Nazi played by Peter Sellers, buffoon their way into a global nuclear holocaust. “He didn’t really go away, he took a job at the (Los Alamos) weapons lab and in the upper levels of the Air Force. That’s their problem. They’re an opaque part of the military that has an outsized role in maintaining a posture that keeps the threat of nuclear annihilation alive.”
Whether you agree with disarmament supporters or come down on the side that believes the nation’s nuclear arsenal must be modernized in order to maintain the Nuclear Triad and its role as a strategic deterrent (particularly now, when tensions with the only other country that can match’s America’s nuclear stockpile, Russia, are uncomfortably high), mounting evidence that what’s going on at Los Alamos is counter-productive on any front is hard to ignore.
On the safety and security front: numerous incidents reported and cited in investigations regarding employee exposure to radioactive material, including plutonium, arsenic and beryllium. Unsafe handling of radioactive materials seems to be a chronic issue. In 2013, in order to avoid missing a deadline, the lab reportedly cut corners to ship a highly acidic batch of nuclear waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M. To get it there fast, it mixed the waste with organic kitty litter and a neutralizer, turning it into a highly volatile material akin to a plastic explosive. When it got to Carlsbad it did just that—in 2014 the buried 55-gallon drum exploded underground, exposing 20 workers and shutting the plant for two years. The clean-up cost of at least $1 billon was billed to the American taxpayer.
In 2011, workers were cited for mishandling eight plutonium rods—putting them side-by-side on a table, described as a no-no of epic proportions for its potential to “fission uncontrollably, spontaneously sparking a nuclear chain reaction.” The incident, and others, eventually led to the 2013 shutdown of plutonium handling operations at Los Alamos, known as the PF-4 facility. This, of course, has halted the controversial pit production written about in these pages here and here. It also meant the loss of an estimated $1.36 million in productivity with no end in sight. As the DOE said this year the lab did not “meet expectations” on its safety scorecard and program compliance record. The lab is still not open for full production as a result.
This June, the Center for Public Integrity released a damning report citing chapter and verse all of the safety foibles and bad reviews, including 40 reports by government oversight agencies, teams of safety experts and the lab’s own employees over the last 11 years—all under the Bechtel-led auspices. The Center for Public Integrity says safety is taking a back seat to meeting deadlines set by the private contractors. Others say the contractors have been “chasing lucrative government bonuses tied to those goals.”
But what about cost? The move toward privatization was supposed to save taxpayers money but as the watchdogs point out, it’s done anything but. As the Santa Fe New Mexican reported early this year, the management fee incurred by the government increased from $8 million in 2005 to $80 million by 2010, while the number of upper-level managers making more than $200,000 a year tripled.
Just as bad are the lab’s boondoggles. As TAC reported in 2011, a facility that was supposed to increase pit (the cores of a nuclear weapon) production to 80 pits a year (per congressional mandate) ballooned to $6 billion in projected costs and spent $500 million in the planning phase before it was cancelled amid widespread criticism. That didn’t stop the lab from embarking on a new plan, one that is expected to cost $3 billion despite all of the aforementioned safety problems that already exist and have yet to be fixed.
Lydia Dennett, an investigator with the Project on Government Oversight says she has little confidence a new contractor will do any better after the Bechtel gang leaves town. There are less than two dozen contractors in this field, and they have all worked together in some configuration or another, even on the current contract. The big ones have their lobbyists in Washington to help pull the strings. She points to Lockheed Martin, which got a mere ‘slap on the wrist’ for using federal funds to lobby Washington for no-bid contracts, which is illegal. It still manages the Sandia National Laboratory to the tune of $2.4 billion a year. (CORRECTION 7/15: Lockheed’s contract expired in April. Sandia is now run by National Technology & Engineering Solutions of Sandia (NTESS), a wholly owned subsidiary of Honeywell International.)
“I don’t see any of these concerns changing just because there is a changing of the guard,” she tells TAC. “What needs to happen is the DOE needs to get more engaged in its management and oversight role.” She said the lack of accountability has been appalling, taking nearly a decade before Bechtel was penalized. “They got a lot of leeway and a lot of chances before the government stepped in and said, ‘enough.’ How much are taxpayers paying for before the government says, ‘enough’’’?
Mello points out that without stronger government oversight, a change in the lazy, pass-the-buck culture, and a true ‘free market’ approach that breaks up the small number of contractors’ grip on the industry and makes them truly accountable, the status quo will remain.
“In the absence of such a profound self-examination the only conclusion we can make is that Los Alamos cannot be reformed, it’s just going to be a mess,” he said. “And it will be just a matter of time before there’s more accidents, more project management failures, hundreds if not billions wasted.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is managing editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC
It’s been more than 15 years since the start of the Afghanistan War and already the horrors of the ground combat there and in Iraq appear at an increasingly “safe” distance in the American psyche. Sure, on sanctioned holidays and Marine Corps Marathons the visage of the wounded warrior is wheeled—or with advanced prosthetics, marched—out to serve as a sanitized reminder. But the really dark stuff, what they did and what they’ve seen, not to mention the consequent suicides, the often irrevocable psychological damage, are receding into the past—somewhere between “don’t go there” and “already forgot about that” on our mental bookshelf of American war experiences.
Peter Van Buren, who says his own life changed forever during a stint on behalf of the State Department during the so-called reconstruction period in Iraq, has published a book on the moral injuries of war. Van Buren, who wrote the viscerally arresting The Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent, about the human wreckage left behind by the evaporation of the manufacturing economy in the Midwest, has now written a wrenching alternative history of the Pacific War, one in which entire cities including Kyoto were firebombed by invading U.S. forces.
Hooper’s War is a series of flashbacks told through the eyes of Lt. Nate Hooper, who commands a unit as it makes its way across the countryside, eventually falling onto the blackened cinder hell that is Kyoto. It is also told through Sergeant Eichi Nakagawa on the Japanese side. Both meet because of one woman, and she decides their fates. Hooper lives to tell the tale: an aged veteran living out years of nagging regret, guilt, and the humanity he left smoldering, literally behind.
But Hooper is not an anti-war brief, nor an exercise in penance for American war crimes. Van Buren’s aim is to identify with the soldier, embracing his basic instincts for survival, petty motivations, biases, and moral flaws, along with his ability to transform, like Hooper, mid-stride. He writes like he was there, evoking the back-of-the-throat fear of the unknown, the sheer terror of losing every man around you, and following orders you know are wrong.
We talked to Van Buren, now retired from the government after a much-publicized break with the State Department. For him the past is present, as a new administration seems increasingly prepared to put more Americans into harm’s way any day now.
The American Conservative: Tell us why you took an alternate view of the Pacific War in WWII.
Van Buren: What I learned about moral injury, and what happens to people in war, I found spilled over historical lines. To go beyond the politics, I had to put people into the “Good War,” the one war that did not have all the political baggage of post-9/11 conflicts in it, and then to take another step back from reality into a fictional situation, to get away from the politics of using the atomic bomb. I wanted to talk about the murder of civilians, innocents, but I didn’t want to get into an undergraduate poli-sci discussion of why Harry Truman should have, or shouldn’t have used the atomic bomb on Japan.… So, the setting of WWII Japan is something familiar enough to the reader but without the complications that distract from my basic story.
TAC: What is moral injury?
Van Buren: The term is fairly new, especially outside of military circles, but the idea is as old as war, that people sent into conflict find their sense of right and wrong tested. When they violate deeply held convictions by doing something—such as killing in error—or failing to do something—such as not reporting a war crime—they suffer an injury to their core being. That’s moral injury.
Think Tim O’Brien’s iconic Vietnam War book The Things They Carried, or films like William Wyler’s 1946 The Best Years of Our Lives and Oliver Stone’s 1986 Platoon. As beings with a complex sense of right and wrong, it follows that that sense can be broken.
One Marine coming out of Iraq told me simply “My guilt will never go away. There is a part of me that doesn’t believe it should be allowed to go away, that this pain is fair.”
TAC: What was the most surprising thing you learned from the elderly Japanese you spoke with for this book?
Van Buren: Things were done in Japan that turned schoolboys and farmers and merchants from neutral persons to combatants. They became radicalized. I think that was something I knew intellectually but did not understand at a gut level, how easy it is to propagandize people, especially children. Japanese kids had been propagandized from their early childhood. These kids had been taught from the first day of kindergarten that it was their hemisphere in East Asia, and they were obligated to free it from western colonization. They were taught via movies and school lessons that the Japanese were superior to Koreans and Chinese, that that was the natural order of things. Even the Japanese version of religion was better, more pure.
Sound familiar in a post-9/11 world? It was never not part of their lives. It was very easy to take that as the natural state of things, that they were going to be part of a struggle of good versus evil. The Japanese government spent a decade getting its children ready for war. I look back at my childhood and, where we said the pledge of allegiance and did not ask questions of what your government was doing. You did not ask the hard questions of what what your country was doing.
Even today we see things like like “patriotism,” that look very much what these Japanese kids were being told. The demonization of the enemy. You can take what they were told then and you could pop it out of that context and into any other context of a the War on Terror. Change the nouns, and it would translate literally, word for word, from 1930s Japan to 1960s American to modern ISIS online sessions.
I also learned the extent that hunger played in Japan in the Second World War (during the Allied siege). People eating dogs and they were eating roots and parents were making choices about which of their children to feed. That story is not told in Western media at all.
TAC: In your last book, Ghosts of Tom Joad, you cast a glaring light on another very human experience—poverty and loss of identity—written through the eyes of regular Americans. How might Hooper compare to Tom Joad?
Van Buren: We find out that the main character in Hooper’s War is from the same town as the characters in Tom Joad. These stories are all connected. What happens to America at the hands and by the actions of their government is at the core of all of these stories. In Tom Joad the actions of the government destroy the midwestern way of life. In Hooper’s War there are young people who are sent off with the belief that the government is doing the right thing by them, sending them into war. That may be true in some macro sense, but the characters on the ground find nearly every situation morally ambiguous, and where there are no right or wrong answers and they are making split decisions that could harm the rest of their lives.
TAC: How did your own experience as a boomer-generation child inform this?
Van Buren: There is a lot of me in there I’m afraid, but it’s a much older me. I grew up in the gap between the patriotism that fueled the early Vietnam generation and the new patriotism that picked up during the first Gulf War. I was in the kind of neutral period where most of us didn’t feel compelled to join the military. I knew very little about the military. My dad served in a non-combatant role in Korea, my own grandfather was disabled and not a combatant in World War II. All of that changed for me when I went to Iraq in 2009, when I was embedded in the 10th Mountain Division there as a State Department diplomat. I knew so little about the military and war and what good and bad people do in these situations. I was suddenly exposed in so many different ways to things I never thought I would experience. I was mortared. I saw the aftermath of car bombs. Two soldiers in the units I worked with committed suicide. I saw what people were like making life and death decisions under enormous stress.
At the age of 50 I was experiencing so many things that changed me as a person and sensing things I had been totally ignorant of. It changed me. I’m in the book, I’m all through the book but not in an arrogant way, but in a sense that I’m the voice that is learning all these things alongside the main character, who also enters this story clueless about what is going on.
TAC: How did your Iraq experience inform your graphic, often unsettling portrayals of battlefield combat and the daily drudgery of war?
Van Buren: I was in a very unique role in Iraq. I had my little job to do working for the U.S/ Government, and I had reason to be there but it was a small part of what my Army unit was doing, which was shooting bad guys at night and doing real soldier stuff. I was a participant, I had a role, not like a journalist or some kind of war tourist, but I also was a third-party observer for a lot of things and I took advantage of that to learn everything I could. The soldiers were very nice to let me go along on missions that I had no official business being on and experience stuff that soldiers did. My eyes kept getting wider and wider. And I was looking at this stuff in utter shock. Not everyone gets that opportunity. At the same time I was personally, emotionally struck by the suicides, I was personally, emotionally struck by the devastation. There is always a lot of down time in military operations—hurry up and wait, right?—and so I talked to everyone I could, new guys and old vets alike. I hope my book does justice to the things they shared with me, because about 90 percent of what I read elsewhere is garbage, making everyone out to be either a hero or a baby killer, depending on the political needs for the day. Nothing is straightforward like that, nothing, not in any war.
TAC: What do you want readers to take away from this?
Van Buren: I think they will enjoy that it is a good story, a good story with a conscience. There are messages here, and philosophical points to be made there, but it is also a story you can still down and enjoy.
I also hope I am bringing this concept of moral injury to a wider audience, and to people who are not familiar with it—that moral injury is a cost of war. That it is about the suicides that take place every day, it is what their husbands and wives and brothers and sisters come home with. The next goal is to understand that there are implications of war forcing us to choose between morality and expediency. It never works when you step away from the moral positions. Whether on a macro level or among individual soldiers or whatever, it is never right when you abandon morality, when it is not at the core of what you are doing it will fail.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is managing editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC
WASHINGTON—The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and significant political capital trying to kill a brand-new law that would allow 9/11 survivors to sue the longstanding U.S. ally for its alleged connections to the terror attacks in domestic court. But the latest Saudi tactic—recruiting unaware American veterans to lobby their cause on Capitol Hill—crosses a line and may have run afoul of the law, say critics who have helped to expose the scheme in recent months.
“Lobbying by a foreign government is not necessarily illegal, but it is unethical and underhanded to use our nation’s heroes, our combat veterans, and turn them against the very families that you take an oath to protect,” charged Edward Vento, a Persian Gulf vet from Reno, Nev., who said he was asked “by a friend of a friend” to join a lobbying trip to Washington this winter. He declined.
According to records kept under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), multiple U.S. lobbying firms and individuals have disclosed contracts with the Saudi government to recruit veterans to spread the message on the Hill about the 2016 Justice Against State Sponsored Terrorism Act (JASTA) and its “unintended consequences,” including “potential liabilities arising for U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic personnel.”
Veterans contacted by TAC—even those who went on the fully paid trips to DC involving free hotel rooms (many at the now-legendary Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue), meals, and nights out on the town—say recruits in many cases were misinformed about what JASTA really does, and furthermore, not told at all that Saudi Arabia, the country that would currently have the most to lose if JASTA remains intact, was behind it all.
“I was blatantly lied to,” said Lorraine Barlett, a retired Army JAG officer, who said she was told “several entities” were paying for the trips she took. Barlett said the events were billed as “come support your local service members” in a notice passed along by a friend who was recruiting veterans in Augusta, Ga. She was not told Saudi Arabia was footing most if not all of the bills.
Dave Casler, an Iraq War vet from Sacramento, Calif., said something felt a bit off, but he went on a February trip anyway to “see what I could find out.” He called the experience “bat-shit crazy” with seemingly limitless funds for elaborate dinners and free booze. He told TAC the organizer of his trip, Jason Johns, told participants, unsolicited, that “this was not at all funded by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” Later, Casler recalled another coordinator, clearly intoxicated after a night of indulging, bragging that “the Kingdom” was behind it all.
Casler and others felt they were kept in the dark the whole time. “It’s multiple veterans on multiple trips who have said, ‘I wasn’t told the truth about who was paying for this,’” he said. “People don’t like being lied to or being used.” So far reporters have pieced together six or seven trips with 25–50 vets each.
9/11 Victims’ Families and Survivors United for Justice Against Terrorism—the main group pushing for JASTA legislation in hope of getting their day in court against Saudi Arabia—has formally asked the Department of Justice to investigate violations of FARA. The law, which monitors foreign lobbying, requires that American agents working on behalf of “foreign principles,” disclose all monies, missions, and materials associated with their work. The group claims there might have been hundreds of people lobbying on behalf of the Saudi Royal Family or government, including the volunteer veterans, who should have reported their activities. They said any materials given to volunteers or left with members of Congress did not disclose who paid for them. In short, they cite some 10 violations of U.S. code.
“They are going into these offices in Congress and none of them tell members of Congress that they are working on behalf of the Kingdom,” said Terry Strada, who heads the 9/11 Families organization and the Pass JASTA campaign. Her husband Thomas was a senior bond trader at Cantor Fitzgerald when he perished in the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers, leaving behind three children then aged 7, 4, and four days old.
“They had high-ranking, older vets, young vets, purple heart vets—all were misled. It’s one of the most disgusting things I’ve witnessed since 9/11.”
The complaint, sent to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, was dated March 29. When reached by TAC, the Department of Justice press office declined comment.
Meanwhile, the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington did not return a request for comment on this story. One of the Washington-based organizers for the trips, Scott Wheeler, whose FARA disclosure says his Capitol Media Group received some $365,000 from the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia to organize three veterans’ trips at a base fee of $30,000 each plus expenses to lobby against JASTA, spoke with TAC about the allegations by the 9/11 families and others.
“All of this is being turned into something that it is not,” he said. “We gave the material to the veterans to look at and they made their own determination. We did not tell them what to say. No one was misled. This is not a story.”
Wheeler, who is a veteran and longtime Republican media operative and journalist, said he never took the funds directly by the Saudi embassy, but via a Washington firm that recruited him. That firm, Qorvis MSLGroup, is one of over a dozen U.S. lobbying outfits currently on the Saudi payroll to the tune of $1.3 million a month, ostensibly to kill JASTA or at the very least render it harmless to the Kingdom. In 2004, according to reports at the time, the FBI raided Qorvis’s offices during an investigation of its lobbying campaign for Saudi Arabia, which was trying to burnish its image after 9/11.
Qorvis did not return a request for comment on this story. A spokesman for the firm told the Daily Caller, which broke the first story about this issue on February 7, that everything they were doing with the vets was “totally out in the open. This is totally transparent.” In a follow-up story on the DOJ complaint, Qorvis managing director Mike Petruzzello told Yahoo! News reporter Mike Isikoff that the veterans’ complaints that they did not know about Saudi Arabia’s backing of the project “rings hollow to me.”
Retired Air Force Col. George Risse of O’Fallon, Ill., told TAC that he was informed ahead of time that Saudi Arabia was footing the bill. The information led him to do more research on JASTA before he went to DC.
“My only concern was whether they were going to tell me what to say and they said absolutely not,” Risse said of his contacts. He ultimately went on a trip with Johns, a Purple Heart veteran and head of the No Man Left Behind Advocacy Group. Johns received a $100,000 fee from Qorvis to engage in outreach to the media, elected officials, and “influencers” against JASTA. (His memo to vets ahead of the February trip is here.)
“My experience has been they were very up front,” Risse said. “None of our allies thinks JASTA is a good idea.” Like others, he believes the trial lawyers are the only ones benefitting from it. As for Saudi Arabia being behind the trip, “I don’t consider that a problem as long as our interests are aligned.”
Do Saudis and Vets Have the Same Interests?
The Kingdom has been dogged by at least 9,000 lawsuits since 9/11 because survivors like Strada believe they can prove that elements of the government provided material support to the hijackers—15 out of 19 were Saudi—and that the state for years funded the spread the extremist ideology fueling al-Qaeda. While the U.S. government has held that there is “no smoking gun,” lawyers for the survivors believe they have identified enough evidence to let this play out in court, and the Saudis have done everything to avoid that day of reckoning.
In other words, say critics, this anti-JASTA campaign has nothing to do with troops, and everything to do with saving Saudi skins. “There are many layers of deception here, starting with giving veterans a false description of what JASTA is,” said Brian McGlinchey, who publishes the 28Pages.org website, which plumbed FARA records showing the big money trail from the Saudis to dozens of Americans working on their behalf. He has also reached out to veterans via social media to get their stories. “That U.S. veterans could be sued and hauled into foreign courts because of JASTA is just false on the face of it.”
According to Vento, the Reno veteran who declined to participate, recruiters have been setting up shop at trade shows and other events popular with veterans across the country in states as far flung from DC as Nevada, Oklahoma, and Colorado. The pitch is simple: Help your fellow service members. In one photo snapped of a booth at a trade show a banner declares, “Protect our troops from JASTA backlash.” Recruits were told that JASTA could result in service members being sued for war crimes. Leaders tell them the bill is a creature of trial lawyers looking to cash in—that it’s about money, not justice.
“You can see what they are doing—trying to turn [veterans] against the 9/11 families. You’re taking victims of terror and what is perceived as the nation’s heroes, and turning them against each other,” said Vento.
While JASTA passed both the House and Senate last year with large, bipartisan majorities, critics—even those who voted for it—worry the principle of state sovereign immunity is now at risk. JASTA now makes it easier for terrorism-related civil suits against foreign states in domestic courts whether or not they are not on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, which Saudi Arabia is not.
Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain, as well as a slew of skeptics from both sides of the aisle, warned of a backlash from other countries that could pass their own laws allowing them to drag the U.S. into court over perceived crimes. Barlett, the former Army lawyer, believes it is “a poorly written law” that could result in “a wing ding” of legislation by other countries in the future, “but there was no merit to the argument that it could hurt military servicemembers”—and she told that to Wheeler, the chief organizer of her two trips. She said the group continued to mislead the other veterans about the impact of the bill, which Wheeler strongly denies.
Barlett also charges that when she asked who was funding the trip, Wheeler would not give her a straight answer. She only found out the truth when the stories broke out in the news.
She said she is “embarrassed” for trusting her friend and going along. “Had I been told on the front end I would have never gone.”
Meanwhile, Tim Cord, speaking with McGlinchey for 28Pages.org, said his entire outlook changed when he was told about the Saudis. To him, their interests are not aligned.
“I’m sitting in the Trump hotel having the time of my life, and I get to the realization that, goddamn, I owe them now, and that is not a cool feeling to have. Not the Saudis, dude,” Tim Cord told McGlinchey.
A heated conversation has since ensued on Facebook, with veterans angered by the campaign arguing with those who felt their time in Washington was well spent—no matter who was paying.
“All efforts were made to be sure that the veterans knew up front that Saudi Arabia was funding the trips,” insisted Johns, a Purple Heart veteran who says he was never paid directly by the Saudis. He even disputes Casler’s recollection of events. “It is not true that I made any such unsolicited announcement about Saudi Arabia not funding the trip.”
He said his own concerns that JASTA would be harmful to the U.S. military led to his involvement in the campaign, and he doesn’t trust that bigger interests on the other side aren’t fueling these attacks on him and other vets involved. “I see trial lawyers in this.”
“Make no mistake, this has been and is all about the MONEY,” Johns wrote in an email, questioning why it’s “somehow scandalous and shady for an an ally, who has never been found culpable in the 9/11 attacks (is all conspiracy based allegations and scenarios) to facilitate honorable veterans speaking to Congress simply because our interests align?”
Vento says if it is a choice of between defending the 9/11 families or the Saudi Kingdom, the choice is clear. “I stand on the side of the 9/11 families. Period.”
Kelley Vlahos is a freelance reporter in Washington.