State of the Union

How Republican Primaries Create More Pentagon Pork

When Carly Fiorina told a Republican debate audience what the country needs to have “the strongest military on the face of the planet”—50 Army brigades, 36 Marine battalions, at least 300 naval ships, a rebuild of the Sixth Fleet and an upgrade of “every leg of the nuclear triad”—it sounded a bit familiar.

“These numbers seem to be pulled straight from a report released by the conservative Heritage Foundation this year,” noted The Daily Beast’s Kate Brannen, and many of them were. While analysts like Brannen were able to discount the numbers as nothing more than a wish list with a likely $500 billion price tag, Fiorina had already appeared steely and well-informed. The September 16 debate helped propel her forward, both in the polls and the eyes of the fickle media.

Republican candidates use the “super size me” rhetoric to burnish their national security credentials because it works, at least in the short term. It’s a perennial sideshow that has become more gratuitous—and less convincing—as the 9/11 attacks have receded further in the rear view. But the “more is better” argument, even in a drawdown period after two enormously expensive wars, staggers on like a zombie, reanimated by hawks like Fiorina, who often consult with think tanks funded in part by the defense industry and ex-military officers who serve on the boards of Beltway government contractors.

“And they [advisors] tell them the military is great, and that it just needs more money and people. They tell candidates what they want to hear, and you know what, it’s just going to keep producing these hollow victories at best,” said (Ret.) Army Maj. Don Vandergriff, who is now teaching leadership courses at Fort Benning, Ga., and serving on the new military advisory board at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO).

“I tell you, if you put more money, more people into the current system, it is going to break our economy and will force us to suffer defeats all over the world.”

Vandergriff’s assessment may sound extreme, but consider how the military has poured $400 billion into the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, an overly designed, technological fantasy machine that is politically insulated from annual budget cuts. Despite being the costliest weapons system in U.S. history, the plane has flight issues, can’t dogfight (according to one test pilot), and after 12 years in the making, won’t see service until 2017 at the earliest. Could that money have gone to more critical functions in U.S. counter-terrorism operations abroad? Anything seems better than a plane that won’t fly.

“Debates around the F-35 illuminate how Congress falls short in its fundamental defense role,” said (Ret.) Lt. Col. Anthony B. Carr, a former combat pilot for the U.S. Air Force, and now a law student and senior editor at Harvard University’s National Security Journal. He is also serving on POGO’s new reform team, which hopes to publicly counter the budget myths propagated by the defense establishment.

“The Air Force and Marine Corps can’t be put in a position where they see no choice but to pay for and field a program—even if it means ditching people and weapons still relevant to our defense—for lack of a suitable alternative,” he said, noting the steep personnel cuts—about 19,000 active duty Airmen—after belt-tightening measures in 2014.

If the F-35 represents everything wrong with the state of military budget and procurement, candidates like Fiorina are the perfect emissaries for this topsy-turvy world on the public stage. As she ladles billions in fictional gravy onto the budget, the Pentagon chiefs are trying to do it for real in their annual food fight on Capitol Hill. Each applause line by Fiorina or any other GOP hawk—like Rubio insisting the administration’s policies are “eviscerating” the military—is one point for the team lobbying Congress. And every rhetorical flourish counts double today as the Pentagon chiefs seek to stop congressional measures that would keep FY 2016 spending under the $499 billion sequestration caps put in place in 2010.

That dramaturgy has been on display all week, as top brass tell the press and lawmakers that the sky will indeed fall down if the military is forced to stay within this limit. The first question is whether Congress can avoid a shutdown by passing a continuing resolution by September 30. A CR could fund the defense budget at FY 2015 levels until December, paving the way for a real FY 2016 agreement. Critics are worried Congress will continue to pass CRs through the rest of the fiscal year, forcing the Pentagon to live under the $499 billion cap and the administration’s request of $535 billion.

Watch for the words “disaster” and “unacceptable,” along with “danger” and “harm” in regards to this budget scenario. Or worse. We know, according to military leaders who have been unusually accessible to press lately, that “readiness,” “modernization,” and even the nation are already at risk.

In a recent speech, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter raised the specter of Russia and China, which he claimed “have advanced their capabilities.” He continued: “What we have under sequestration or a long-term continuing resolution is a straitjacket. We would be forced to make irresponsible reductions when our choices should be considered carefully and strategically.”

Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work went further, telling Congressional Quarterly that a year-long continuing resolution would be “disastrous,” damaging new start weapons like the next-gen Air Force bomber, planned construction, and multi-year procurement programs.

“There is no organization on earth that would be able to operate under these conditions. Now the reason we do is we make compromises, and the compromises we make are not good for national security,” complained Work.

The threats that we face are increasing,” said Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. “So this budget uncertainty exacerbates what is already a pretty challenging circumstance.”

Then there are the military associations defending the DOD’s spending interests on the outside. They include the National Defense Industries Association, led by two retired generals, which serves as a giant megaphone for defense contractors and beltway bandits whose very life depends on a steady diet of U.S. tax dollars (75 percent or more of total revenues in some cases).

“An extended CR would harm our national security and our economy,” the group said in a letter to the House and Senate leadership on September 14, asserting that “a CR makes it difficult to meet ongoing operational needs, which have only become more frequent, dangerous, and pressing since the last budget deal.”

As expected, the rending of clothes and gnashing of the teeth are well underway. While no one—even the reformers—thinks continuing resolutions and keeping to caps through indiscriminate cuts (which are really just slowing growth) are the way to go, groups like POGO continue to insist the basic priorities are all wrong. They see several issues—the military’s love affair with technology, an antiquated personnel system fraught with unaccountability and too many generals, a lack of oversight, and a global mission—all combining to form a system that runs like an all-you-can-eat buffet engineered by politics and corporate meddling. As for cuts, the Pentagon usually gets what it wants anyway, in the form of the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund.

Danielle Brian, executive director of POGO, says the establishment of a military advisory board stacked with veterans with reform experience is just one more way the nonprofit watchdog group is trying to fight hawkish politicians and ubiquitous think tank cheerleaders on their own turf.

“POGO is reviving the legacy of reform-minded military officers working alongside the Center for Defense Information to counter the fact-free rhetoric spewing from the mouths of politicians with real world experience,” she told TAC this week.

The board will be joined by Marine Capt. Dan Grazier, 37, who retired from active duty just four months ago. (Grazier is POGO’s new Jack Shanahan fellow, a position reserved for those with recent combat experience.) While many of his fellow service members might have chosen a more lucrative path in the military-industrial-congressional complex, he’s jumped right into trying to reform it.

“I was a true believer,” he told TAC about his time in Marines. “Then I learned about John Boyd.”

Boyd—a military theorist and strategist who died in 1997—remains a rock star among the close knit group of military reformers who not only founded POGO in 1981, but continue to honor Boyd’s legacy by serving as persistent critics of Pentagon programs. Boyd’s teachings emphasized decentralized, objective-driven commands over centralized, method-driven ones; the military’s over-reliance on technology; and of course, the decision cycle theory known as the OODA Loop. Grazier’s dramatic move is just one example of the way Boyd’s approach has touched and made new acolytes out of young service members.

Of course it is no coincidence that the other military advisors—Vandergriff, Carr, Gary “G.I.” Wilson, Mike Wyly, and Danny Davis—share Grazier’s enthusiasm for Boyd’s theories. They too, come up from the “Mafia Fighter” tradition that is the bedrock of POGO.

“I just hope the reform movement can get back on track,” said Wilson, a former Marine infantry officer whose military experience spans the Vietnam War area through Iraq in 2005.  

“John Boyd once told me that [military] technology is supposed to be bigger, heavier and more complex because it means more money, more cost overruns and contracts in 38 different states,” said Wilson, who is teaching in California. “It’s not about winning wars, it’s about awarding contracts.”

Grazier said he is slowly encountering the entrenched corporate, political, and military relationships that bloat the budget and dictate the defense establishment orthodoxy in Washington. It’s not so hard now, he tells TAC, to see why Fiorina and others choose to bang the drum and call in the airstrikes on the debate stage.

“Political engineering—I had no idea how bad it was until I got to Washington,” he said. “The tendrils, how far they go, that’s what really surprised me.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

The Most Invisible Christians in Washington

a katz /
a katz /

The woman’s voice rose higher and began to crack. It broke through the apparent frustration—and to a lesser extent, anger—which permeated the packed room at the National Press Club in Washington last week.

“We are being massacred and I don’t know how much further we can go,” she said, the tears finally coming. Murmurs and nods, then applause, rushed in with a sort of catharsis. Nahren Anweya was among friends.

An Assyrian Christian activist, Anweya says she has family living under persecution by the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq. She had taken the microphone at a press conference held in Washington by In Defense of Christians (IDC), which brings together scholars, elected officials, advocates, and clergy to discuss urgent threats to their faith in the Middle East. They meet once a year to lobby Congress, and include the most ancient of Christians—the ethnic Assyrians, who still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus—along with the Syriacs, Chaldean Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Copts, Maronites, Melkite Greek Catholic, Protestants and more.

Beyond the ongoing conflict in Iraq, which has driven tens of thousands of Christians out of the region since 2003, the issue has taken on a particular urgency as the Islamic State has accelerated brutal attacks and kidnappings of minority Christians in Iraq and Syria. Families have been sent into hiding and across borders.

The New York Times recently asked, “Is this the end of Christianity in the Middle East?” For many at the conference this week, such statements are the canary in the proverbial coal mine. To them, time is running out. The pre-2003 Christian population in Iraq numbered about 1.5 million. Today, it is less than 300,000 and shrinking rapidly. In Syria, Christians once accounted for 10 percent of the population, but today their numbers have declined to an estimated 1 million or less. ISIS and other Muslim insurgents target them not only for their faith, but for their traditional support of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has in turn insulated them. Years ago the Christians there thrived; in recent months, however, that sanctuary has proven brittle: Most recently, after a summer of kidnappings and killings, 150 Christians were taken from the town of Qaryatain after it was seized by IS soldiers from government forces in August. Word quickly spread of women and children who were raped and sold into slavery.

“The world has watched and witnessed the targeted persecution of Christians, suffering violence, displacement, rape, enslavement, and even death,” said Kirsten Evans, executive director of IDC. “Do these crimes constitute genocide under international law, and if so, what the so what are the options the international community has in order to respond?”

The first question was rhetorical: this group is emphatic that the “G word” be used in all references to the Christian plight. They spent the rest of the week talking to no less than 250 lawmakers and urged them to support a bipartisan resolution—introduced this week by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Nebraska)—declaring the attacks to be “genocide,” and calling for international tribunals, as well as the arrest and prosecution of perpetrators wherever the crimes happen, whether in Iraq, Syria or beyond.

“What we’re seeing in Iraq and Syria today is genocide,” exclaimed former Rep. Frank Wolf, (R-Va.), whose vigorous remarks nearly blew out the speakers in the low-ceilinged space, which was standing room only.

“I visited Iraq in January of this year … going through villages to the front lines, the Peshmerga took us out, and talked to and interviewed roughly 75 people. I came back and asked, does this administration care? Does the congress care? Does the UN care, and sometimes, does the church care?”

Last year, this message was overshadowed in the media by an appearance by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Unlike the vast majority of people who attend the IDC events, Cruz is a Southern Baptist Christian and a provocative partisan who even a year ago had been identified as a potential candidate for president.

In 2014, Cruz was invited to present a keynote speech at the conference’s gala dinner, easily the most coveted slot of the three-day event. What happened next most likely had to do with a report at the Washington Free Beacon a few days before, which called the conference a hotbed of “pro-Hezbollah and pro-Assad speakers.” It alleged that major Democratic fundraiser and Lebanese businessman Gilbert Chagoury—a longtime bête noir of Republicans who love to tie him to Bill and Hillary Clinton—was funding the conference, and that key presenters, including the patriarchs of the Syriac and Maronite churches, had been rabble rousers against the state of Israel and Zionism for years. The article pointed out that members of the Hezbollah party in Lebanon, which has been part of the government there since 2005, would be in attendance. By the time Cruz stepped on the stage, the event had morphed into a “snake pit of pro-Islamists,” “Iran linked” and “an Axis of Evil” summit, according to the right wing blogosphere.

One could say Cruz made a calculated decision, but whatever it was, he came locked and loaded. He appeared to focus on devotion to Israel, not the issue of Christian persecution that had drawn the audience. After initial applause, then polite but uneasy silence, the boos came. Some Lebanese parliamentarians walked out. Then Cruz made a dramatic exit, not before announcing that “some here” are “consumed with hate.” Later on Twitter, Cruz offered one last flourish: “Anti-Semitism is a corrosive evil, and it reared its ugly head tonight.”

Former IDC executive director Andrew Doran, then still in charge, was subsequently forced to explain the audience’s behavior to National Review’s Kathryn Jean Lopez. But he stood his ground on Cruz: “It’s unfortunate that Senator Cruz was booed. But what’s more unfortunate is that he chose to make a summit of and for Middle Eastern Christians about something other than a summit about Middle Eastern Christians …” Doran concluded that Cruz’s remarks were “designed to bait the audience; sadly, some attendees took the bait.”

There were plenty of Republican members of Congress at the IDC meeting this year, but no presidential candidates courting the evangelical vote like Ted Cruz made it to the dais. During the wide-ranging press event, talk hardly meandered toward Israel, save for Wolf and others raising the horrors of the Holocaust and the price humanity pays when ignoring the warning of impending persecution and slaughter. This was met with nodding, not booing.

Instead, tensions surfaced among audience members over what motivates IS. Is it Islam? Or as Katrina Lantos Swett, the chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom suggested, it could be a totalitarian impulse akin to Stalinist communism or Nazism, albeit one informed by religion. Later on, a woman could be heard scolding the Armenian speaker for not specifically raising the plight of Assyrians in his remarks, a charge he emphatically denied.

This year, it was headlines that threatened to subsume IDC’s message. The wave of humanity flooding Europe from Syria and Iraq—in numbers that dwarf those of the Christian victims of IS attacks—was front and center. Even the Pope weighed in on Sept. 6, urging Westerners to open their doors to their Muslim brethren.

“There is no differentiation in my mind,” said Evans when asked by TAC if it might be difficult to get their issues—specific to Christians—heard among the din. She and others acknowledged that the vast number of people suffering from the onslaught of IS in the region are in fact, Muslim. She said IDC stands with all victims, “regardless of religion.”

It is a human rights crisis, she said, “and we are piece of that; we want to defend the whole pie. Absolutely all.”

The solution appears to be two pronged. First bring attention to violence against all people in the Middle East and the cause of that violence, while lobbying to get Christian minorities out of conflict zones on expedited visas. Then promote bolstered aid for those who cannot leave, and propose safe havens like the Nineveh Plains Project, which seeks to restore control of ancient lands to Assyrian Christians in the north of Iraq, an area now under siege by ISIS fighters.

Muslims, some attendees suggested, are not on the verge of annihilation in the Middle East. Others pointed out that Shia are being killed for their faith by Sunni IS. That’s genocide, too.

“Basically we have to have a legal strategy and a public relations strategy—of which this press conference is one—and everyone has to call things by their proper name,” said Robert Destro, professor of law at Catholic University. “Christians, Shia, Yezidis—all different groups—and not just in the Middle East—we have to get everyone into this and we have to call things by their proper name and calling it genocide is a good place to start.”

IDC left town a little more than a week before the arrival of Pope Francis. But the group is lobbying him, too, at a distance and through the media, to specifically mention genocide when he makes remarks about the state of the Middle East.

“I am hopeful that the pope, when he is before a joint session of congress with the House and Senate and the joint chiefs and the whole world watching, will call it genocide,” said Wolf, “and that in itself can be a game changer.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

The Whistleblower the CIA Couldn’t Break

Settling in with a coffee at Northside Social, a genial locus of suburban D.C. hipsters, earnest teleworkers hunched-over laptops, and moms in yoga pants and ball caps on break, John Kiriakou is talking about prison.

It’s a jarring juxtaposition, and a safe bet that no one else at Northside Social is talking about a recent incarceration at that very moment. Beltway culture is a bubble, and North Arlington, Va., is its own bubble-within-a-bubble. Caffeine-fueled chatter about politics and prison policy is pretty standard stuff, reliving one’s time in the pen is not.

Kiriakou, however, fits right in, looking relaxed in a comfortable green t-shirt and jeans. He addresses the baristas with a familiar wave, and they respond warmly. After all, he is a denizen of this milieu: a well-educated, professional man who lives with his family—an accomplished wife and three young children—in nearby Lyon Park, a tree-lined neighborhood filled with colorful and eclectic but expensive homes, many retrofitted in the last decade from the sturdy bones of 1920s Craftsman bungalows.

But it wasn’t always this way. After the former CIA agent was charged and convicted with leaking classified information and sent to prison in 2013, he became one of the 2.3 million Americans incarcerated by the state. It was a shock. Everything he had developed in the 40-odd years of his life—independence, dignity, strength, sense of purpose, and justice—had been challenged, as if he were suddenly a nobody, another number, or worse, a disposable man.

The entire experience changed how Kiriakou sees himself in the order of things. And it changed how he perceives the government in that order of things.

“I don’t trust the government, not a single branch of it,” he tells TAC in our interview. “I think the judicial system is broken. And I don’t think Congress has the guts or the willingness to fix it.”

His metamorphosis began in the Kafkaesque world of the federal legal system and continued through his 24 months in the Loretto Federal Correction Institution. Kiriakou, now 51, emerged from incarceration this spring not broken but “more open minded and patient,” unyielding to power, and laser-focused on changing the status quo.

“I had always just assumed that government employees, whether CIA, FBI, Justice, or whomever, mostly tried to do the right thing; that is, obey the law, serve the country, and protect Americans,” he shared.

“What I ended up seeing, though, was an ugly underbelly that included corrupt prosecutors and investigators, racism, and abuse of power. I have come to the conclusion that Ronald Reagan was right: Government is the problem, not the solution to the problem.”

In other words, he does not want to be known only for blowing the whistle on the CIA’s torture enhanced interrogation techniques, which began his long initiation into the government labyrinth over seven years ago. He wants to blow trumpets, high and clear, on the entire racket. And he wants to start with prisons, over-criminalization, and unfair sentencing.

“One of my great regrets is being known as the torture guy,” he said easily. “[That’s] something most everyone has already taken a position on.” He wants to push reform legislation now supported by both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. He wants to talk about the lack of real drug counseling and addiction services for prisoners, when statistics say more than half were likely abusers or addicts when they were incarcerated. He wants to talk about overcrowding, and neglect in the prison health care system. He wants to talk about how mental illness is treated like a behavioral problem for which solitary confinement is the standard fix.

Stunningly, Kiriakou said inmates were the only ones in Loretto teaching “classes,” in lieu of serious academic and rehabilitation programs for prisoners. “There was no incentive,” for anyone to be a better person, period, he said.

“These guys are going to get out eventually and they are going to be untrained, and they’re going to be pissed off, and they’re go straight back to their communities and they are going to have no skills—no marketable stills,” he said. “Then we wonder why there is recidivism because the system has done nothing to curtail recidivism or improve recidivism rates,” he said. A study of 30 states by the Bureau of Prisons in 2014 found that 3 out of 4 convicts returned to jail within five years of their release.

Loretto officials have long declined to speak about Kiriakou or respond to the charges he’s made publicly since his release. Nevertheless, he’s been quite candid about his time there, often speaking fondly of the other prisoners who he socialized with and helped out periodically by writing motions and letters to their attorneys. He made friends with the inmates, antagonized the guards, and survived with his CIA know-how. Much of this will be documented in a forthcoming book, Doing Time Like a Spy: How the CIA Taught Me to Survive and Thrive in Prison, along with Letters from Loretto, a collection of missives from prison originally published online by journalist Kevin Gosztola.

“When 98.2 percent of all federal cases end up in convictions, almost all of which are the result of plea bargains, there’s a problem. When prosecutors try to make a name for themselves so they can move onto multi-million dollar salaries in big law firms, there’s a problem. When hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans are serving sentences of life or nearly life for first-time, non-violent drug offenses, there’s a problem,” he said.

“And when those men and women who conceived of the torture, who approved the torture, who carried out the torture, and who destroyed evidence of the torture continue to not only walk free, but also to justify their crimes with multi-million dollar book deals, there’s a problem.”

Kiriakou is known in the activist crowd as the only member of CIA to go to jail for torture—because he exposed it. He certainly doesn’t have champions in every corner, however. Members of the CIA rank and file, in particular, have accused him of embellishment, betrayal, and self-aggrandizement, according to Steve Coll, who wrote a lengthy profile of Kiriakou’s case for The New Yorker in 2013. Though he is ready to move on, his judgments and actions on torture bought him the unique soapbox on which he stands today, albeit at great cost to himself, and his family.

Kiriakou was involved in counterterrorism operations in Pakistan after 9/11, and was part of a team that captured high-ranking al-Qaeda official Abu Zubaydah. After he resigned and was consulting with ABC News in 2007, Kiriakou was the first CIA official to confirm publicly that waterboarding had been used on detainees. He called it torture, but necessary nonetheless. Two years later, when it was revealed Zubaydah was waterboarded at least 83 times, Kiriakou denounced the practice altogether. He became a hero of the anti-torture/anti-war movement.

His growing fame garnered attention from the CIA and FBI. In 2012 he was charged with violating the Espionage Act and the Intelligence Identities Act for revealing the names of two agents, one covert, to journalists. He was also charged with making misleading statements to the CIA’s Publications Review Board while seeking clearance to publish his memoir, The Reluctant Spy. He enlisted attorney Jesselyn Radack, herself a whistleblower, and she kept light on his case. He was able to plea a deal to get all but the charge of revealing the name of one agent dropped, but he was still off to prison in February 2013, on a 30-month sentence.

He left his family behind, severely weakened by the ordeal. His wife Heather, a senior CIA analyst, was forced to resign and had no job prospects. They took out a second mortgage on the house they built and moved a street away into a smaller rental. Heather and the kids eventually went on welfare. When it came time to tell his younger children, then eight, seven, and one, where daddy was going, he told them simply that he lost the argument he was having with the FBI and his “punishment” was helping bad guys get their high school diplomas. He was only half lying—he really thought he’d be teaching GED classes at Loretto.

It would be the first of many shattered expectations, but certainly not the worst. He was supposed to be going to the low-security camp outside the prison walls. On the first day he was led inside instead, to quarters with murderers and child molesters in a rotating menagerie of cellmates. It turned out that camp was just a court “recommendation,” not an order. Instead of a teacher, he became a janitor at the chapel, which he described as a hotbed of pedophiles.

So he spent his time writing “Letters from Loretto.” With an old-school pen-to-paper urgency, his letters alternated between sad vignettes of prison life, and daily attempts by guards to break him down for a penance he knew he would never make.

“My first day I thought, holy shit, I’m in prison. What have I gotten myself into? Then I said to myself, ‘take it easy, you were trained for this stuff, this can’t be harder than Pakistan or Afghanistan,’” he recalled to TAC.

“I made a conscious decision when I got there that I would not allow myself to become institutionalized,” he added, “and I would resist their authority at every opportunity, whether it was writing ‘Letters from Loretto,’ or defending myself from abusive guards.” He wouldn’t stand “at attention” when told, he questioned silly rules, and at one point told the guards to do their worst, that they would get out eventually.

It was a gamble, but it preserved his sanity and self-respect. When his children finally learned the full truth, it was during one of their visits to the prison. His seven-year-old daughter noticed that other men in khaki jumpsuits were coming in and out of a door that read, “inmates only.”

“My son said, ‘dad are you a teacher here or are you a prisoner here?’ I said, ‘I am a prisoner, but you know buddy, I’m going to get out of here and we are going to be a family again.” In time he did, and they were.

This time, the expectations were exceeded: the Kiriakou family will be moving back to the dream house in Arlington this winter, thanks in part to Code Pink, which crowd-sourced enough cash for John and Heather to pay off the second mortgage while he was in prison. Strangers from the Greek-American community made sure he fulfilled the mandated full-time employment requirement when he was released, and sent money to his wife each month he was incarcerated. His friends and family assured the children that dad is a hero. He believes they are proud, which is more than he could ask for.

Today Heather has a new job with a defense contractor, and John has a perch at the progressive Institute for Policy Studies as an associate fellow. He will continue to write, make speeches, and do plenty of media. “Prison changes people, and John came out with a passion for prison reform,” notes IPS director John Cavanagh, who met with Kiriakou before Loretto. “It felt like an excellent fit to invite him on board.”

Above all, he’ll be enjoying life as an Arlington dad. School starts Monday, and for the first time in two years he will be there to see his kids off, then perhaps make a stop for coffee at Northside Social. Because he can.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

Police Spying Meets Bipartisan Opposition

American politics may be ideologically divided when it comes to government surveillance—there is probably no better example than Chris Christie’s emotional riposte to Rand Paul’s constitutional swipe at bulk data collection in the first primary debate—but there is one stealthy spy tool that is bringing both ends of the spectrum together in mutual shock and horror.

It’s called “Stingray,” a black box that can mimic a powerful cell tower, tricking wireless devices into communicating information to it and thus giving cops access to a specific target’s location and data. But this technology doesn’t stop there—it also exposes everyone’s devices in the vicinity of the black box, making innocent bystanders vulnerable to the eyes and ears of probing law enforcement.

Local, state, and federal police have been using this kind of technology to surreptitiously monitor the location of suspects for at least 20 years, but thanks to booster products like “FishHawk” and “Porpoise,” which are all made by the same Florida-based Harris Corporation, cops now have the ability to eavesdrop on conversations, and monitor texts as well.

According to this map by the American Civil Liberties Union, (at least) 53 local and state police departments in 21 states across the country are using Stingray technology today. In addition, the ACLU knows of at least 12 federal agencies that use it. Given the secrecy, there could be more. Law enforcement has contended Stingray is for “emergencies,” ostensibly to locate violent criminals and would-be terrorists, but the ACLU has enough documentation to show how often it is used for otherwise, even to monitor peaceful protests.

And they are doing this with or without court orders, say critics, often keeping judges and especially elected officials in the dark through an elaborate veil of vague affidavits, non-disclosure agreements that police sign with both the FBI and Harris Corporation, and appeals to domestic and national security. In other words, even law-and-order advocates and sympathetic magistrates are unsettled at how Stingray is being used right under their noses.

“They are spying on law-abiding citizens as we speak,” charged Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who has called Stingray “an abusive program,” and successfully passed an amendment to the House Commerce, Justice and Science (CJS) Appropriations Act in June that would restrict the use of the technology without a court order. An original champion of the Patriot Act who spent his four years at the helm of the House Oversight Committee investigating Benghazi, the IRS, Obamacare, and “Fast & Furious,” on this issue Issa appears four-square with the privacy advocates.

When asked by USA Today what the next step was, given that there was no similar amendment in the Senate spending bill, he said, “I will use additional opportunities to get it done. Right now law enforcement won’t tell us how many Stingrays they have. The only way to protect the American people is to change the law.”

In February, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., called out Stingray and Harris Corporation on the Senate floor for the first time—a pivotal moment, advocates say.

“Employed for a national security, for our national safety, which is the job of government, then it’s a good thing,” Nelson said. “Employed, however, for other reasons of invading our Constitutional right to privacy is another thing. It is time to stand up for the individual citizen in this country and their right to privacy.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, the new Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman, have targeted Stingray in a pair of bills demanding agents show probable cause before using any sort of GPS tracker, not just Stingray. This, they say, would affirm the Supreme Court’s view in United States v. Jones, which in 2012 said the GPS tracking of a suspect constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment. That case focused on police and a target under warrant—it did not even begin to consider the innocent bystanders who might get swept up in a Stingray dragnet.

“Right now there is no consistent legal framework in place,” Wyden spokesman Keith Chu tells TAC. “I think it’s clear that the lack of a coherent legal framework, a lack of any kind of clear rule of how this kind of technology or other tracking device takes place, is something that should concern everyone in my opinion, no matter where (on the political spectrum) you fall.”

The more one learns about Stingray the worse it seems to get. According to reports this year, this kind of technology can disrupt phone signals from other towers in the vicinity to give police a clear shot at their target, potentially putting emergency calls at risk. Furthermore, reports late last year indicate U.S. Marshals have been flying aircraft outfitted with these devices, gathering data from countless numbers of cell phones in every flight.

In a more recent report, the Associated Press said it analyzed scores of flight data and found the FBI ran more than 100 flights over 11 states over a 30-day period this spring. The 50 Cessna aircraft, whose pilots were connected to fake front companies, were equipped with heavy duty cameras, “and in rare circumstances, technology capable of tracking thousands of cellphones, raising questions about how these surveillance flights affect Americans’ privacy,” according to the AP.

The FBI confirmed their use, but said the planes were not used for mass surveillance. Furthermore, the FBI insists police always get court orders for Stingray, with of course, a number of exceptions, including its deployment in “public spaces” and for “emergencies.” Privacy experts say these loopholes are big enough to fly a Cessna through.

Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman and ranking member of the Judiciary Committee respectively, penned a lengthy letter in December to then-Attorney General Eric Holder and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, asking not only about the planes, but the “exceptions” to seeking Stingray warrants. A similar letter was signed by a group of Democratic senators, including current Democratic primary candidate Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

“The Fourth Amendment protects Americans from unwarranted searches and seizures, so we need a better understanding of how this technology is being used, including the legal authority agencies obtain prior to deploying these tools, the specific information they are giving to judges when requesting to use them, and what policies are in place to ensure the civil liberties of innocent Americans are protected,” Grassley’s office said in a statement forwarded to TAC on Aug. 14.

Clearly in response to congressional pressure—as well as mounting legal battles in a number of states—the Justice Department announced in May that it will conduct its own internal review. According to the Wall Street Journal, a Justice spokesman said the department is “examining its policies to ensure they reflect the Department’s continuing commitment to conducting its vital missions while according appropriate respect for privacy and civil liberties.”

This is nothing more than an afterthought, Neema Guliani, legislative council for the National ACLU, tells TAC. “Why are we having a conversation about whether the policies and practices are appropriate after a decade of you using them?”

The FBI might say, “trust us,” but the truth of the matter is, Stingray would be just another fish in the sea if news organizations and civil liberties advocates weren’t beating the rushes for evidence everyday. It’s been such a secret it has taken years for advocates to get a handle on it.

How? Police departments are forced to sign non-disclosure agreements with the FBI when they purchase “Stingray”—at least $400,000 a pop. This keeps the lid on how and when it is used, and in court, ACLU cites numerous examples of the government getting cases dismissed or negotiating plea deals in order to avoid talking about the Stingray on the record.

In some cases, police have purposefully concealed their use at all in official affidavits. As a result, federal judges have been hoodwinked, thinking they are being asked to sign off on routine wiretaps, rather than cell simulators. In this email thread obtained by the ACLU, a Sarasota, Fla., sergeant suggests a fellow officer mucked things up when he gave away too much about the technology investigation in a case report:

In the past, and at the request of the U.S. Marshals, the investigative means utilized to locate the suspect have not been revealed so that we may continue to utilize this technology without the knowledge of the criminal element. In reports or depositions we simply refer to the assistance as ‘received information from a confidential source regarding the location of the suspect.’ To date this has not been challenged, since it is not an integral part of the actual crime that occurred.

Some judges who have gotten wise to Stingray, however, have started imposing stricter rules for cops who want to use it. After finding out about Stingray through local news reporting, judges in Tacoma, Washington, are now forcing police to spell out what they want, and how they are going to get it without infringing on the rights of bystanders. It’s now a state law in Washington.

But while one jurisdiction seems hip to the trick, others remain ignorant, in many cases because they don’t have a choice. Harris Corporation, in conjunction with the FBI, have gagged local police departments with non-disclosure agreements that require complete silence about how Stingray and its cousins work, even during the acquisitions process.

Joe Simitian, a Clara County, Calif., supervisor, told the New York Times in March that he was floored by his sheriff’s request to buy Stingray without even the basic details of how it worked:

“So, just to be clear, we are being asked to spend $500,000 of taxpayers’ money and $42,000 a year thereafter for a product for the name brand which we are not sure of, a product we have not seen, a demonstration we don’t have, and we have a nondisclosure requirement as a precondition. You want us to vote and spend money,” he continued, but “you can’t tell us more about it.”

The Harris Corporation did not respond to a request for comment for this story. In a clarification in May, the FBI said the non-disclosure agreements do not prevent officers from revealing that Stingray has been used in an investigation and denied that cases have been dismissed before acknowledging Stingray’s use in court depositions.

Guliani doesn’t buy it. “There has been a concerted effort to hide these devices from the public and even to members of congress,” she said. “You are hiding this from people who are responsible for providing oversight and making sure they are used properly.”

For now, despite bipartisan disgust, there are no new hearings planned on the issue, and so far, the legislation championed by Wyden and Chaffetz has gone nowhere. “There are going to be new devices and new ways to track people,” insisted Chu, Wyden’s spokesman.

“Senator Wyden will keep working to move this forward.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

Will Politics Bury Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl?

U.S. Army

“We get a traitor, a no-good, rotten traitor like Bergdahl,” said Donald Trump, the current frontrunner of the GOP primary pack. “And they get five killers that they most wanted in the whole world, who are right now back on the battlefield, trying to kill everybody, including us. Okay? What kind of a deal is this?”

The case of Bowe Bergdahl, the Army sergeant retrieved in a prisoner exchange with the Taliban last year and subsequently brought up on desertion charges, has never lacked for heated rhetoric, but the coincidence of his case’s progress with the 2016 primary season has dramatically raised the volume. While Jack Nicholson’s character in the film “A Few Good Men” may have shouted “You can’t handle the truth!” the question in the Berghdahl case is whether anyone will be able to hear the truth over the noise.

Contrary to Trump’s declarations, Bergdahl has not yet been convicted of anything, much less treason, and the five prisoners (at least four of whom were political, moderate Taliban never accused of direct violence) swapped for him back in June are still on travel restriction and nowhere near “the battlefield.” Nevertheless, Trump knows such red meat, spoiled as it may be, is the coin of the realm with grassroots audiences.

Sen. Ted Cruz suggested that Bergdahl himself should feel guilty about the deal that brought him home, while Sen. Marco Rubio told Fox News back in February, “We said at the time that that swap, in and of itself, would now put a price tag on the head of every American abroad. In fact, ISIL, as we speak, is actively looking for more Westerners to kidnap, particularly Americans.”

“The story is right-wing crack,” wrote Michael Tomasky in June 2014, after he received his own tsunami of Twitter-hate for defending Bergdahl’s rescue. “And sure enough, Republicans are hitting the pipe big time.”

It is this kind of hyper-politicized atmosphere that Bergdahl’s supporters fear the most, moving into an Article 32 hearing in September to determine whether he will be tried by Court Martial.

“Due to the notoriety of this case, getting a fair trial will be difficult,” mused (Ret.) Lt. Col. Lorraine Bartlett, who served as a defense attorney with the U.S. Military Commissions at Guantanamo Bay. She senses the public is clamoring for a “red meat trial” and a Court Martial would definitely give them one. She suggests his team might plea to a lesser AWOL charge.

(Ret.) Maj. Todd Pierce, who worked with Bartlett on the commissions, says a Court Martial could taint the well further than anyone expects. “I think the militaristic Republican candidates, which means all of them with maybe only one exception, will exploit this case for the maximum political gain,” he said, “regardless of the cost to national interests. One of those costs would be to make it impossible for successful negotiations favorable to the U.S. and Afghanistan in resolving the conflict in Afghanistan.”

Bergdahl’s legal team includes civilian attorney Eugene Fidell, who teaches at Yale Law School and has a strong background in military law and litigation. He has openly questioned whether his client could get an impartial jury of his peers under the current circumstances. “His case has received a Niagara, a Niagara of vilification in the media and elsewhere,” he told PBS Newshour.

Just two weeks ago, outfits like were giddily announcing “Bowe Bergdahl caught in NorCal pot farm raid.” The coverage all but suggested that not only was Bergdahl a comrade-killing commie, but a lawbreaking stoner to boot. The not-so-sexy truth was that he unexpectedly dropped by to see a friend at a Mendocino County farm that day, and was not connected to, nor detained during, the raid. The police, however, sent word to the Army, and then ran to the press.

“A number of people, many people have said the most dreadful things about my client without knowing the first thing about his actual conduct or his actual motivation,” Fidell said on PBS. “People have said he should be shot, he should hanged, he should be shot in the legs and then shot again, the most bizarre things.”

Fidell spoke briefly with TAC last week about the upcoming hearing, which will take place on Sept. 17 at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio Texas.

Bergdahl was formally charged in March with one count of desertion and one count of misbehavior before the enemy, specifically, that he endangered his fellow soldiers through “disobedience, neglect, or intentional misconduct.” The former carries with it a possible five-year sentence, the later upwards of life in a military prison or even the death penalty. Similar to a civilian Grand Jury, the September hearing could influence the disposition of Bergdahl’s case.

After listening to testimony from witnesses on both sides and reviewing evidence, the investigating officer, a JAG corps lieutenant colonel, will recommend to a non-lawyer officer how the charges should be disposed. That officer will, in turn, take the nonbinding recommendation to the Commander of U.S. Army Forces. Currently, that four-star is Gen. Mark Milley, who brought the initial charges against Bergdahl.

The hearing may result in a recommendation other than General Court-Martial: a Special Court-Martial, a recommendation that charges be amended or added, alternative dispositions such as administrative discharge, resignation, or non-judicial punishment. They could recommend the case be dropped altogether. Experts say the General Court Martial would be the harshest route for Bergdahl in that it would be like trying him on felony charges, where he’d be subjected to a jury of his peers.

“I do have some concern, given the amount of publicity that this case has generated over the time since he was liberated by President Obama that it will be very, very hard to assemble a jury, if the case ever gets to a court-martial,” Fidell told PBS.

Meanwhile, Bergdahl’s team has attempted, so far unsuccessfully, to get Milley removed from the case. The four-star has been nominated as Army Chief of Staff, and the team feels that the politicized nature of the case will have an undue influence on Milley’s ability to provide impartial judgment. Milley sat before the Senate Armed Services Committee in July and his confirmation is pending before the full Senate (which could come before the hearing anyway). The SASC is headed by Sen. John McCain, who like the other Republican members of the committee, has been publicly critical of the exchange of Guantanamo Bay prisoners for Bergdahl, calling them “hard-core jihadists who were responsible for 9/11.”

McCain is hardly the lone or the loudest voice in the din that followed Bergdahl’s release in June 2014. Criticism has been dogging Bergdahl since 2009 among soldiers who insisted he deserted. But after he was rescued, members of Bergdahl’s former unit began their ubiquitous rounds in the media, accusing Bergdahl of causing the deaths of six fellow soldiers who were looking for him in the weeks after he vanished. That their myriad appearances on television, particularly Fox News, appear to have been initially orchestrated by a Republican strategist is a detail lost on nearly everyone but Bergdahl’s most dogged defenders.

Things got out of hand quickly when when it was revealed that he was swapped in exchange for five Taliban detainees and that Congress wasn’t consulted ahead of time. Meanwhile, critics began revisiting an earlier, sympathetic profile by the late Michael Hastings in Rolling Stone that painted Bergdahl as idealistic and disillusioned with the war. Bergdahl not only became a pincushion for all the Obama hatred on the right, but a scapegoat among pro-war conservatives for everything wrong with the war under the current administration.

“The nation craves a Dolchstoßlegende, and without an active antiwar movement or a critical media, this is a tough itch to scratch. With Bowe Bergdahl, our war-lovers have a chance to blame somebody, which will add one more layer of ignorance and misunderstanding to how we think and talk about the Afghan War,” said Chase Madar, author of The Passion of Bradley Manning.

Veteran Nathan Bradley Bethea upped the ante when he wrote that, in addition to the six soldiers in Bergdahl’s unit, two more from another one were killed in an operation near the Afghanistan/Pakistan border because, he contends, critical intelligence resources were diverted to the search for Bergdahl. No one seems to remember, though, that Bethea also said he forgave Bergdahl, and acknowledged the horror he lived in for five years. He also guessed the Army would want to avoid a Court-Martial:

I believe that Bergdahl also deserves sympathy, but he has much to answer for, some of which is far more damning than simply having walked off…

…Reprimanding him might yield horrible press for the Army, making our longest war even less popular than it is today. Retrieving him at least reminds soldiers that we will never abandon them to their fates, right or wrong. In light of the propaganda value, I do not expect the Department of Defense to punish Bergdahl.

The White House was excoriated for appearing with Bergdahl’s parents in the Rose Garden to sing Bergdahl’s praises when he was finally released. National Security advisor Susan Rice drew fire for saying Bergdahl served with “honor and distinction,” a comment repeated ad nauseam by the anti-Bergdahl blogosphere almost as reason enough to let him rot in jail for the rest of his life.

Fidell’s mission is not to let that happen. In light of that task, he is doing very little press these days. He was firm in not speaking with TAC about any of the details of the case. Instead, Fidell pointed to a lengthy letter he wrote to Milley before Bergdahl was charged. It liberally quotes an unreleased report by investigating officer Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl and is informative about where the defense might go. It also teases out some conclusions by Dahl that may get in the way of the snowballing narrative threatening to collide with his client in September.

Among those conclusions number a few very important points: that Bergdahl did not go seeking the Taliban and did not harbor an intent to remain away permanently, which could set up a case of AWOL as opposed to desertion. The report also says, according to Fidell, that there is no evidence that any soldier died searching for him, and that Bergdahl’s specific intent was to bring what he thought were “disturbing circumstances” to the attention of a high-ranking officer.

That last point suggests there is much more to be revealed about the day Bergdahl left his post. Whether “the truth” will have a whit of a chance of surviving in this political atmosphere remains to be seen. For now, experts say, the Army has stayed above the fray of the lynch mob. Let’s just hope it stays there.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

America’s Already-Failed Cyber War

NSA Director Keith Alexander. DoD photo by Cherie Cullen/Released

This spring, upwards of 22 million people—including all government workers and their families—were affected by the largest data breach of government computers ever, putting their personal histories—including information about bankruptcies, mental health issues and finances, not to mention Social Security numbers, at risk.

In a seeming moment of candor, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in July that the two separate hacks of the Office of Personnel management first discovered in June were a “wake up call” for the federal government regarding the urgency of the cybersecurity threat, and that “we need to improve out mission” to secure the nation’s networks from further harm.

“To be frank,” he said before an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the preeminent national security think tank, “our federal cybersecurity is not where it needs to be.”

The sound heard shortly thereafter was of 22 million simultaneous face palms across the bureaucratic universe.

After spending two decades and untold billions in taxpayer dollars on federal cyber priorities, not to mention the dedication of new agencies, programs, departments, task forces, a czar, and a cyber command under the U.S. military, the idea that the DHS needed an “a-ha” moment to put the threat into perspective is absurd, even bordering on cheap sentiment considering the circumstances. Perhaps Johnson, on the job for a year and a half while playing defense all the way, was just happy that it was OPM director Katherine Archuleta on the chopping block. She resigned under broad congressional pressure on July 10, just a day after Johnson declared his epiphany.

Federal workers are not buying it. The American Federation of Government Employees and National Treasury Employees Union announced they were suing OPM on behalf of its combined 450,000 members, alleging that that the agency knew for years that its network security was weak and vulnerable, but failed to do anything about it.

The two OPM hacks included the background check system database that holds super-sensitive information about government employees and contractors who have applied for clearances since 2000 (and, by extension, their friends and family members who were listed on applications, too). “It’s a treasure trove of information about everybody who has worked for, tried to work for, or works for the United States government,” FBI Director James B. Comey said in July.

One could see an attack coming down Pennsylvania Avenue in this February report by the Office of Budget and Management, which found OPM consistently at the bottom of basic security metrics. It particularly stood out in its poor authentication and remote access encryption standards. In other words, OPM set out a bright neon welcome sign for hackers.

“Since 2007, officials at OPM have been alerted to their lackluster data security policies and protocols and failed to take appropriate steps to safeguard the information,” said the AFGE leaders when they announced the suit June 29. “Although they were forewarned about the potential catastrophe that government employees faced, OPM’s data security got worse rather than better.”

How could this be? Not only has the government poured endless resources into building and rebuilding network security—a little less than $13 billion across the government in the last year alone—but entire bureaucratic infrastructures have been raised up to address this issue. Despite that, and not counting the recent OPM breach, the number of security incidents reported by federal agencies rose to 67,168 in 2014 from a low of 5,503 in 2005, according to the GAO.

More importantly, Washington is treating this as yet another war—a “cyber war”—and blaming the North Koreans and Chinese governments for the most egregious attacks. And for good reason, as we know now that foreign hackers have accessed blueprints of the U.S. military’s most advanced weapons systems over the last decade, including Patriot missile technology, the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship, the Aegis Ballistic Missile System and that albatross, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which now carries a program price tag of over $1 trillion (though the Chinese might be rethinking the value of that last hack, considering a recent flight test that found the F-35 couldn’t dogfight its way out of a open kennel).

But like all Washington wars, there is a lot of bluster and bureaucracy, even more space carved out for generals and career employees seeking advancement, and a private industry sniffing out the next money pot. The usual short shrift is given to finding a long-term, creative strategy that actually works.

“To me, the whole enterprise is troubled, risks being a boondoggle, and is riddled with failures,” said Gordon Adams, who served as a senior budget official for national security in the Clinton Administration, which, incidentally, launched the very first commission dealing primarily with cyber threats to critical infrastructure in 1996, followed by the first cyber war game (enemy: North Korea).

From there the government continually added 20 years of layer upon layer of “solutions,” mostly in the form of new programs, salaries, and government buildings, each routinely forgotten once the next shiny solution came along. Remember the National Infrastructure Protection Center? Probably not. It was created under Clinton, but eventually disbanded when it was absorbed by the bureaucratic hydra otherwise known as DHS in 2003.

Every traditional law enforcement, military and surveillance agency now has a piece of cyber, not to mention the new components that sprang up in the wake of the 9/11 attacks—like the National Counter Terrorism Center, and the Center for Cyber Security under DHS. The most recent: the Cyber Threat Intelligence Integration Center, was announced in February.

Don’t forget the parade of blue ribbon panels, with names like the Critical Infrastructure Protection Committee, Partnership for Critical Infrastructure Protection, National Infrastructure Assurance Council, and the Critical Infrastructure Partnership Advisory Council, also gobbling up funding in order to issue white papers and recommendations most assuredly gathering dust somewhere in a desk no longer used.

In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed the first “cybersecurity czar,” but after the flashy Richard Clark the post became just another mouth to feed, with negligible impact and forgettable leadership. The current czar, White House cyber security coordinator, Michael Daniel, has been called a “total n00b” (gamer speak for novice) for his complete lack of technology on his resume. He is a former OMB official.

In 2010, USCYBERCOM (U.S. Cyber Command) was created and given four-star leadership (Gen. Keith Alexander, who was also director of the National Security Agency at the time) to centralize, synchronize, and lead all of the defense department’s cyber offensive and defensive operations, with components in each branch of service. It has received more than $500 million each year since 2014 and is expected to get a little less than that in FY 2016. However, defense-wide, the Pentagon is expected to get closer to $5.5 billion in cyber funds next year.

Of course, the goal of heading off the Chinese menace was never far from the lips of USCYBERCOM’s proponents. “The Chinese are viewed as the source of a great many attacks on western infrastructure and just recently, the U.S. electrical grid. If that is determined to be an organized attack, I would want to go and take down the source of those attacks,” Alexander said at time of his four-star promotion.

The war was on, and so was the feeding frenzy. While it was well documented at the time that industry giants like Lockheed Martin and Boeing were having trouble keeping their own barn doors closed against persistent cyber espionage, the defense sector seized upon the chance to amp up their cyber portfolios for the federal round robin amid declining budgets and economic recession. When the Washington Post published “Top Secret America” in 2010, some 143 companies were getting paid to provide security services to 22 government organizations involved in “the cyber war,” the fastest growing zip code in the national security state.

Criticism abounds, and for good reason. Americans hear very little about the “offensive” side of this warfare, particularly America’s involvement in launching its own attacks to spy, steal secrets and sabotage the enemy’s capabilities.

Also, privacy advocates are rightly concerned about legislative “fixes” that would increase the information sharing between the federal government and the private sector, including the propagation of back doors and surveillance authorities like CISPA (Cyber Information Sharing and Protection Act). Given the disclosures by former Booz Allen Hamilton analyst Edward Snowden (ironically, the most profound example of the weakness of the sprawling contracting system in the cybersecurity context), there is understandable wariness over giving the government and their corporate “partners” any more access to Americans’ private data.

Finally, critics want to know much of the cyber war is hype generated to create more self-sustaining ecosystems within the government apparatus and the Military Industrial Complex.  “Now that the government has decided to stimulate the cybersecurity market Washington’s perennial parasites want a piece of the action,” wrote Firedoglake’s DSWright in 2011. To be sure, the only place that so-called Beltway Bandits have been thriving in recent years has been in cybersecurity. But as the OPM disaster has shown, this hasn’t necessarily translated into success.

“The U.S government has an infinite capacity to spend money on cyber, and the road is littered with failure, both in setting up IT systems and in defending them,” Adams, now a professor emeritus at American University, noted to TAC.

The War on Drugs is a perfect example of a failed mission built on a similarly elaborate architecture of government appropriations, contractual relationships, and law enforcement authorities extending from the White House all the way down to municipal police departments and public schools. But the effort has been largely written off as one of the biggest failures in government history.

Rather than dismiss the cyber war as mere hype (Leon Panetta warning of a “cyber Pearl Harbor” is enough to get anyone’s cynicism in gear), putting cyber in the context of the Drug War could be the first step in wrapping one’s mind around this mess. There is a drug problem in this country, but the federal government has proven it cannot solve it. There are very real threats to both public and private networks and national security is indeed at stake. The further dependent we become on the grid (think: the Internet of Things) the more vulnerable the nation—its economy, its privacy, and security—becomes. But is the federal bureaucracy proving an effective leader in protection, prevention and resiliency? Not quite, not yet.

The “a-ha moment” here is not in finally recognizing the threat, but acknowledging that 20 years of evolving federal cybersecurity policy is not working. This is already morphing into another endless war the United States will never win. The time to break the cycle is now.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

Army Whistleblower Turns Populist

Lt. Col. Daniel Davis
Lt. Col. Daniel Davis

He bucked the generals, how bad could retirement be?

Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis served the Army for 30 years, earning a reputation in the latter stage of his career as a fierce critic of American conduct of the war in Afghanistan as well as the generals who misled Americans about their failures. Davis is leaving for the civilian asphalt jungle this summer, but finding a civilian outlet for his unyielding truth-telling could pose a challenge.

Davis will not join the officers who retire in Washington in order to belly up to the defense industry, hoping to trade their inside knowledge for an executive post or consulting gig. Instead, he’s looking to the nonprofit sector to give the civilian leadership in Washington the same treatment he gave his military superiors in the Pentagon, and to help people become better informed voters. His project is called “Democracy Awake,” though so far it has a lot more potential than resources, Davis tells TAC.

To understand Danny Davis the prospective civilian, it is vital to understand Daniel L. Davis, the Lieutenant Colonel. In 2009, Davis publicly denounced Gen. David Petraeus’s plan to implement an Iraq-style troop surge in Afghanistan, insisting that it “could actually result in a worsening of the situation.” After a 2011 tour in Afghanistan on a Ready Equipping Force, Davis was so struck by the contrast between the conditions on the ground and the sunny reports coming from the generals that he called them out to media and insiders alike for misleading the American public. His treatise went viral, and he took his case to receptive ears in Congress. He likes to say being honest is the least difficult part of his job, and for the last several years, the corruption of power in the military has stuck in his craw.

“It was the right thing to do,” he said, trying not to come off too cornpone for the room. “Not to do something would have been to endanger the lives of the soldiers. It would have been unconscionable for me to keep quiet. That’s how I want to look at everything.”

Not everyone was thrilled with Davis’ call to conscience. After going public, he was ignored in the hallways at the Pentagon, he said, though he wasn’t fired. Ironically, he was shifted to a marketing job where he helped produce slick recruitment videos, a post he very much liked and continued in until his retirement.

In the meantime, he was predictably attacked in establishment military circles, including by retired Col. Joseph J. Collins, a former assistant secretary for stability operations in Afghanistan, who called Davis’ report “a mess.” Collins suggested that Davis’ “Dereliction of Duty II” does an outright disservice to counterinsurgency idol H.R. McMasters’ 1997 book, Dereliction of Duty, which is about how the Joint Chiefs and the White House failed to provide a clear strategy for victory in the Vietnam War.

“McMaster’s book by the same title was well-researched and well-written. Davis’s work is neither. Davis’s work should be called ‘Dereliction of Civility’ or maybe, ‘Death by Semi-anonymous Anecdote,’ or ‘My Turn for Warhol-hood,’” groused Collins.

“Davis is not a hero, but he will go into the whistleblower hall of fame. If years hence, he doesn’t make full Colonel, it will be construed as punishment, but there is nothing in this report that suggests he has any such potential.” Collins’s own 2008 “pull no punches” tell-all, “Choosing War: the Decision to Invade Iraq and its Aftermath,” was published long after he and former bosses (Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld) were safely out the door, and the Bush administration itself soon to follow. Davis, on the other hand, exposed himself by pointing out his superiors’ mistakes as they were making them.

Three years after Davis’s “Dereliction,” official operations in Afghanistan have ended, but the war is hardly won. The Taliban is stepping up attacks, with numerous bombings in Kabul and Helmand province—two former U.S. military “successes.” They’ve declared Kuduz in the north their first major “foothold” since the 2001 U.S. invasion. Leading hawks like Sen. John McCain are now calling for a “reassessment” of the U.S. withdrawal timeline. Five years ago Gen. Petraeus was saying the Taliban was on the run. What happened?

“We have these PR claims of great success everyday, when the evidence overwhelmingly refutes it. Every tactical engagement you can say we ‘won’ but it doesn’t make any difference,” says Davis, noting that our “actions over the last 10 years have worsened our national security, not improved it and I have a big, big problem with that.”

“I served in the military because I love our country and wanted to serve it,” Davis tells TAC, insisting he never gave up on the Army. “The institution of the U.S. Army is fantastic, the people who fill out the ranks are beautiful people, they are true patriots who care about the country.” Unlike Collins, who wrote his books and critiques for his “soldier-scholar” peers at the National Defense University, Davis says he put pen to paper for the U.S. servicemen and women, and by extension, the American people supporting them, who he felt were being misled.

“We have become disenfranchised,” he says, turning to domestic politics in a recent interview. Ticking off stats about the influence of elite money in elections, he notes that in the 2012 election, not one House or Senate member was elected without the help of the “1 percent of the 1 percent,” the 31,385 people in the U.S. who contributed $6 billion in campaign contributions—nearly 30 percent of all (traceable) funds reported by political committees that year overall.

He says the October 2013 government shutdown that left hundreds of thousands of government workers in the lurch over pay was his epiphany.

“I saw how disastrous and horrible it was to the lives of regular people. I knew it would eventually get resolved [by lawmakers],” he says, “and then nothing was going to change. They could have resolved it on Day One, though, and not disrupted the lives of so many people. It was like they didn’t care what the shutdown was gong to do to those people, the ripple effect.”

He says elected officials on Capitol Hill operate on a pay-to-play field that, like in the case of the shutdown, offers no field time for regular people. He scoffs at a system that now lets super PACs and their hyper-wealthy donors, and their lobbyists, call the shots. Just this week, Democratic candidate and Sen. Bernie Sanders echoed this complaint, calling it a “national disgrace” and blasted his fellow candidates scrambling to raise millions before the current quarterly filing deadline.

“Ninety-nine percent have no say in who runs or who wins and have no influence on what they do when they get into office,” Davis concluded. “That is not right and it is not how the country is run.”

To some, this goal of a grassroots movement trying to do an end-run around big money in politics may seem quixotic, if not a bit Pollyannaish, particularly for a man with bills to pay. The Washington area is a most expensive place to live and he has two young sons, 13, and 9, to support. Even with retirement, the need to find a regular-paying job is inevitable. But Davis is not one to look for the easy way out.

“[Davis] embodies all those things that America is supposed to stand for,” says Matthew Hoh, who served as a Marine and a civilian in both Iraq and Afghanistan before resigning in protest of the war policy in 2009. He and others had actually counseled Davis not to go public with his takedown of the generals, fearing it would wreck his career. “He said, ‘I know what this might bring down on me and my family but it is the right thing to do,’” Hoh recalls to TAC.

Hoh isn’t surprised that Davis is trying to shift his attention towards democracy and money in campaigns. “He’s more concerned with truth and integrity than going along and getting along,” he says. But Hoh knows it won’t be easy. After making his own stand, Hoh is still struggling to resume a career. He worked for a spell in the think tank world in Washington, and for personal reasons eventually drifted back to North Carolina. He knows he has burned bridges, and that the whistleblower moniker is both badge and burden.

“Many [military retirees] want to get out and help fix whatever they see is wrong with the policy,” he says. “But no one is going to hire you for that.”

Col. Morris Davis (no relation) knows this. He retired from the U.S. Air Force in 2008 after quitting his post as Guantanamo Bay prosecutor over the use of waterboarding and torture of prisoners. He spent his time in the immediate aftermath writing op-eds, doing media, tangling with the Congressional Research Service, and teaching part-time. Now he is back working for the government, as an administrative judge for the Department of Labor. He says Davis is in “for a rude awakening” in the non-profit world, which looks attractive and clean from the outside, but is really a tangle of fundraising and forced narcissism. “I went into it naive and learned the lessons the hard way,” he tells TAC.

Morris Davis says he wishes Daniel Davis the best, but warns that money is a corrupting influence in the nonprofit world, too, and having a military background can actually hinder, rather, than help the process. Then of course, there’s that truth-telling.

“LTC Davis should understand that neither being military nor being someone who spoke out weigh in his favor,” Morris said in an email to TAC. “They’ll pat him on the back for what he did there, but they’ll be concerned that he might do it again here.  In other words, they admire you pointing out someone else’s warts, but they’ll worry you might expose their theirs.”

Davis says that money—big business—is ruining the military’s vision and effectiveness. The resources poured into bad weapons systems, ships, and vehicles because one contractor dominated the process themselves create massive liabilities in the long-term. He blames the breed of yes-men at the top, and sees the same phenomenon afflicting the political scene on the civilian side of American life.

“I feel there is a small group of people who are taking the country in the wrong direction and one day it could have catastrophic consequences,” he says.

So what to do about it? A self-described conservative independent, Davis wants to offer an accessible online platform called a “power hub” to serve as a clearinghouse for voter information and a grassroots meeting place, for all political persuasions. He began a crowd-sourcing campaign to raise $30,000 to start building, but it’s barely simmering so he’s now adjusting that goal while looking for a job. There are soft landings in security-related positions all over the greater D.C. area, and then there is hard reality. Right now, it can go either way.

“I’m not looking to make money for myself, I’m looking to make a difference. I’m looking to at where I can use my skills and abilities,” he said. “I want a job with a purpose.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

Reading War With China

U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Mark C. Schultz/Released

Imagine a near-future scenario in which China and Russia sneak-attack America’s assets in the Pacific, sink its fleet, and occupy Hawaii in order to stage a multi-front war of land, sky, space, and cyber. Meanwhile, U.S. Marines turn into mujahedeen, NATO crumbles like a cookie, and Wall Street plunges into a black shroud of despair.

This may sound like “Red Dawn”, but authors Peter W. Singer and August Cole endeavor to make their new (and first) novel Ghost Fleet a modern cautionary tale more in the mold of World War Z, informed by two writers whose professional métier is the unbounded realm of the U.S. national security establishment, otherwise known as the Military Industrial Complex. As think tank denizens in the belly of the Beltway beast, both Singer and Cole have an inside grasp of how the Washington military culture works, with a particular focus on future war technology and all of the politics, hubris, and unintended consequences that world entails.

On the front end, Ghost Fleet, which hits the bookshelves on June 30, will no doubt cheer critics who see the Pentagon as long overdue for a reality check. On the back end, however, it’s a traditional war novel, sure to excite readers of the genre for illustrating the major conflict Washington really wants to fight—not a conflict against rag-tag religious fundamentalists in the Middle East who never seem to go away, but Great Power against Great Power, in the Pacific. In other words, World War III.

It’s not all wishful thinking—today’s headlines certainly lend themselves to the narrative, with China’s massive island building in the South China Sea, and its suspected super hack of the U.S. government’s most sensitive personnel data. Reportedly Chinese computer spies have routinely breached American weapons projects in order to clone them. Meanwhile, national security experts now openly refer to an “arms race” in the Pacific, egged on in part by Washington’s own public displays, such as the “pivot to Asia,” the Pentagon’s offset strategies, and years of doomsday reports from the U.S. Navy.

Singer, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, has been writing about the U.S. military’s strengths and vulnerabilities for some time. He was the first to take full measure of outsourcing war, capping it off with a seminal book on the private military industry in 2007. Today he focuses on cutting-edge robotics and unmanned systems. Cole is a former defense reporter for the Wall Street Journal who now runs the Art of Future War project at the Atlantic Council. Together they make a formidable team of two men who write about Washington’s defense community while advantageously situated within its fraternal embrace.

The result: Ghost Fleet is an ambitious blend of fact and fiction, Herman Wouk-meets-William Gibson, with a dash of Brave New World and “In Harm’s Way” for good measure. Critics of the Washington war machine will appreciate the first half, which takes a scalpel to nearly every major budget and acquisition debate since 9/11, underscoring the cynical subtext of each failed, aborted or over-extended program.

But if this makes Singer and Cole’s military readers uneasy, they’re soon rewarded by the second half, which allows them another crack at glory not seen since the Navy picked itself out of the detritus of Pearl Harbor. From their vantage, the authors not only know the machines, but the myth, and weave a tale that will speak directly to defense insiders (this early review is a tip off). Thanks to some fun sci-fi touches and the pace of a Tom Clancy novel, Ghost Fleet will likely find an audience among thriller lovers, too.

Ultimately, Ghost Fleet is not an argument against war, but a primer on how to wage it better. TAC talked to Singer about this, and the real-life U.S.-China conflict, in a recent interview:

TAC: So I’m reading Ghost Fleet and suddenly there are all these headlines about China building massive islands in the South China Sea and (Secretary of Defense) Ashton Carter calling on them to stop. Tensions seem to be ramping up and the headlines seem to be cuing the book.

PS: It was very hard to engineer a geopolitical crisis just for the benefit of the book but it worked out (laughs). The book is a mash-up of fiction and non-fiction. It is both a novel, but also looking at the overall trends in technology and politics of the real world. One key issue we wanted to explore is how geopolitics is undergoing a shift. If you look at the 20th century, it was shaped by great power politics, both the world wars that we actually fought, and the one that we didn’t fight but defined the last half of the century’s politics, the Cold War.

After the Berlin Wall falls and then 9/11, that idea of a war between great states is off the table, it’s not even thought of. It’s all about terrorism and insurgency. Conflict doesn’t go away but it’s not about the big boys anymore.  It’s not even thought of.

But now the risks of a big war between great states is back on the table.

With Russia and China and the U.S., you not only have a new arms race but a massive amount of tension and it is scary. I don’t think war is inevitable but that phrase ‘war is inevitable’ was used in a Chinese newspaper just last week … there are some very dangerous [signs] here. What the book does, is that it takes these trends and says ‘What if?’

TACThe Navy especially has been talking about conflict with China for the last several years, in fact it seems to be what the military culture in Washington would prefer. As someone who works both in and outside the defense community here, were you in a sense reacting to that, or are you seeing something else when you wrote this?

PS: I have a track record as a sort of trend spotter. Over a decade ago I was writing about the rise of the private military companies and—five years ago—the rise of the robots in war … This trend is one that I see as both real, but misunderstood. If you look at the raw data, China is clearly rising as an economic, political, and military great power, and we see that in everything from its economy moving towards the number one position in the world, it’s military spending has essentially gone up a greater percentage than anyone else’s in this period. They built the most warships in 2013, the most warships in 2014, they are expected to build the most warships in 2015 and are planning for the most in 2016 and 2017. You sense the trend here.

But there is another trend, as these two great powers engage in an arms race. This added risk is revealed when you look at both China’s plans and U.S. plans. Both militaries are gearing up for something. That is the centerpiece of the new U.S. “offset” strategy, which is about buying a whole new generation of tech to deter or defeat China. And that is at the center of China’s more emboldened strategy, where it is redefining its thinking on “active defense” from close to home to global power.

The problem is that both of them have the notion that any conflict would be “short” and “sharp” in their words and would work out for their side. There are great levels of overconfidence, both inside and outside of government, noting for example polling in China that 74 percent of the public thinks their military would beat the U.S. in a war. This doesn’t just make war more likely, they can’t both be right! One of them has to be wrong and would lose, or it could be that both could be wrong and the war could be draining and long. From a U.S. perspective, I think we are looking at what we can do and not factoring in the other side looking at what we can do and then reacting to that.

…The difference of a World War III is it would see battles of different domains. And you would be competing against states that could have just as good gear as you do—or even better. That could be very challenging, which makes it entirely compelling from the fictional standpoint—and of course scary if there was a real war.

TAC: One of the most compelling themes here is that our own technology—the sophisticated weapons systems, ships, planes, drones, communications—can be turned on us so easily by an adversary.

PS: The amazing networked communications, the command and control information domination that we have been able to put on the battlefield—they are strengths that could be turned into weaknesses. For example, we totally depend on GPS satellites. What happens when we don’t have access to that? We have that at play.

But we also have the “own goals” we might score on ourselves—an old soccer saying. We have spent not millions, but trillions of dollars on weapons system that might not serve us in actual great power war. We’ve bought weapons systems that we already know are riven with cyber vulnerabilities. Last year, the Pentagon’s tester found 40 major programs had vulnerabilities. Similarly, we are in the middle of buying warships that in the words of the Navy’s own tester are “not survivable” in an actual battle. We’ve bought a plane that is supposed to be a generation ahead of anything out there and we are seeing Chinese prototypes flying that already look like their twin.

TAC: Speaking of scoring goals on ourselves, what does it mean when you are fielding fighter jets in which 78 percent of the microchips in it are made by the people you might end up fighting, which is raised in the book?

PS: That’s not a random number, it’s the exact number in the F-35, that we cite in the book from a DARPA presentation. The risk there is not just someone cuts off your supply line, but you’ve opened yourself up to a new kind of hack, a “hardware hack,” where the other side can literally back vulnerabilities into your systems that you won’t know are there until they activate. Oops, I just spoiled one of the opening scenes.

TAC: There is a ton of technology here. I’m no techno geek—and I don’t mean to insult you here—but how much of the technology in Ghost Fleet actually exists and how much is of the “Star Trek” order, where it sounds perfectly real, but has little basis in reality?

PS: We came at it opposite of “Star Trek” in that many of the cool technologies in  “Star Trek” were actually imagined a way to solve production problems on the set. For example, the transporter was created because the prop of an actual shuttle craft would be too expensive to build for the original series. Our rule was everything in the book has to be inspired from the real world—it had to be a technology that is already at the research and development or prototype or even operations stages. It may sound fiction but it’s all footnoted in the index. No Klingon power packs or teenage wizard wands.

TAC: Ghost Fleet is very Navy-centric, why?

PS:  There is definitely at the center, a Navy theme … that’s again reflecting the real world and the fiction that I love. We envisioned what would be different about a war with China is it would involve something we haven’t seen since 1945 and that is a battle between great powers … If you look at China, the military build-up has literally created a modern powerful and soon to be globe spanning Navy … If you look at the next generation of our warships, where are we sending all of them? The Pacific. Like it or not it is a reality. It is an arms race in the Pacific—the U.S. and the Chinese are in a looming Cold War, with nationalism raising the risks. Just as we are talking right now, Foreign Policy magazine released an article describing the U.S.-China predicament as ‘riding the tiger.’

Hopefully (the book) will to shape politics in a way so that the scenario doesn’t come true. That is a difference with the “Star Trek” series—you hope that it doesn’t come true.

TAC: All of this speculation about a U.S.-China confrontation, is any part of you concerned that it merely whips up the war hawks and helps the Navy and defense industry justify expanding their budgets? It might sound cynical but this is Washington, and the Pentagon is still smarting from sequestration.

PS: No, they don’t need my help in that. My concern more is us buying gear that weirdly isn’t that great for an insurgency fight in the Middle East or a great power conflict in the Pacific. We have a lot of what I joke are Pontiac Aztec defense programs, where you try to be all sorts of things simultaneously and end up being bad at all of them individually, the way the Aztec was supposed to be a sports car crossed with a van crossed with an SUV.

TAC: I never asked you about Russia’s role in all of this. Why Russia, and how do you think real-events shaped the U.S-China narrative in your book?

PS: There is an ever closer alignment between Russia and China, and even more so after Ukraine further isolated Russia from the West. Indeed in the last few months they’ve signed over 30 major agreements on everything from energy to cybersecurity and done joint military exercises not just in the Pacific but also in Mediterranean. The problem for Russia is that it is China’s junior partner, who doesn’t want to realize they are the junior.

TAC: Thank you for your time.

PS: Thank you.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

March of the Imperial Senators

(Photo by U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Joshua Treadwell) (Released)
(Photo by U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Joshua Treadwell) (Released)

Revisionist history is en vogue among Republicans this summer.

As Ramadi falls, hawks offer comfort in the argument that at least Iraq’s current troubles with ISIS can all be laid at President Obama’s feet. In the face of well-documented Iraqi reality, they are reviving the stale Vietnam-era trope to say that—if only the United States had the conviction to stay a little longer—it would have “won.”

The reviser-in-chief is none other than Sen. John McCain. McCain was Washington’s greatest advocate for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and he hated that the U.S. ever left. No doubt he dislikes President Obama, who thwarted the elder man’s bid for the White House in 2008, even more.

Just last week he told reporters that President Obama’s strategy for curbing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, was “one of the most disgraceful episodes in American history.” McCain’s widely known and tolerated flair for the dramatic now places an “episode” that most Americans could not rightly pin down, much less explain without the aid of Google, alongside slavery, the Trail of Tears, the federal crackdown on World War I-era Bonus Marchers, and the entire Vietnam War.

His partner in this long-running routine, Sen. Lindsey Graham, also reminiscent of Dr. Strangelove’s Gen. Buck Turgidson (“Mr. President, we must not allow a mineshaft gap!”), laid out the latest talking points in an interview about the ISIS takeover of Ramadi in Iraq this month:

It’s a predictable outcome of withdrawing all forces back in 2011…The military advised [Obama] to leave 10,000 troops. When he refused to take their advice, everything you see before you is a result of that big mistake.

Graham, McCain, and their fellow Republican hawks, energized by an election over a year away, are once again using foreign policy overseas to bludgeon Obama, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and by extension, the whole Democratic Party in the arena of domestic politics here at home. It’s a deadly fandango that places national security in the balance, while lawmakers play rhetorical games, often crossing, if not leaping, the usual boundaries of diplomatic propriety and control.

“Imperial senators, basically that’s what they are … playing this real life version of Risk,” said Matthew Hoh, an Iraq War veteran, referring to the strategy board game in an interview with TAC. Hoh was the highest U.S. official to resign in protest of the Afghanistan war policy when he quit his State Department post in 2009.

Hoh says playing “real life Risk” is all about deception, and in the case of Iraq, a larder of revisionist history, which, as McCain and Graham have demonstrated, involves an elaborate tweaking of the story of how the U.S. withdrew from Iraq in 2011, and why. It also requires the ambitious assumption that a) American forces had every right and opportunity to stay there indefinitely, and b) there would be no consequences if they did so.

Therefore it is “Obama’s fault,” as Graham has said repeatedly, for not renegotiating the Status of Forces Agreement, which codified the complete pull-put of U.S. combat troops by 2011. His failure to do so was evidence of his willingness to put politics before the long-term security of the Middle East, or so they say. This not only squandered the surge “victory” led by Gen. David Petraeus’ in 2007, but the vacuum Obama left set the stage for the Islamic State and its rampage across Syria, and Iraq.

“It’s revisionist, and it’s for political reasons, and it’s the same thing you hear from those who said we could have won the Vietnam War—we could have tried harder if the media had allowed it, or the hippies had allowed it,” said Hoh. “The reality was that Iraq was not going to allow us to stay. There was very little opportunity to let us stay in Iraq.”

Republican President George W. Bush deliberated and signed the withdrawal agreement in 2008 with Prime Minister Maliki, a man who the U.S. spent enormous sums of money and political capital keeping in office since 2006. When Obama was elected soon after, he endeavored to see it through. Publicly, he advocated for a small residual combat force to stay in the country to help the Iraqis. Privately, according to numerous reports, he and his staff argued with the Pentagon over how big that force would be. He wanted 5,000 or less, they wanted upwards of 10,000.

But it turned out that the Iraqis had other plans. There was plenty of Kabuki theatre, as Maliki was forced to manage a government his opponents said he did not rightfully earn the right to form after the 2010 election, while needing to appease the Iraqis who wanted to see the Americans go. He seemed to be telling the Americans privately he wanted a big U.S. presence left behind, while explaining to the Wall Street Journal in 2010, “this (SOFA) is not subject to extension, not subject to alteration. It is sealed.”

Negotiations reportedly wore on until the eleventh hour, but finally broke down when Maliki could not promise criminal immunity for U.S. troops there. “Frankly, given that less than 20 percent of the Iraqi public wanted American troops to stay, and given the great resentment in the Iraqi population …there wasn’t much sympathy to grant Americans full legal immunities in the Iraqi parliament,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey in 2014. The withdrawal was complete in 2011.

The rest as they say is history, but Republicans have written their own chapters to the story, seizing on private memoirs from departing members of the Obama court, either scorned and ready to talk or just eager for the limelight and their own political makeovers. A narrative has been woven into existence that says Obama didn’t “try hard enough,” that Maliki was willing to bend but wasn’t given the proper inducements, that the White House flubbed tactically, etc. From the reliably Republican Washington Times in June last year:

Once Mr. al-Maliki repeated his demand for criminal jurisdiction over U.S. forces, the Obama administration stopped talking, a former defense official said. The White House planned to pull out of Iraq instead of engaging in tough negotiations to reach a compromise.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta left his job in 2013 and wrote ruefully about the Iraq withdrawal a year later. In Time magazine, following the release of his memoirs in 2014, Panetta wrote, “the White House was so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.” He claims “we had leverage,” but offers nothing but the weak threat of withholding reconstruction aid. Nevertheless, his “tell all” was a boon for the war hawks, and Republicans have gobbled it up.

Writer Gareth Porter, on the other hand, argued in a 2011 article that it was Maliki’s design all along to boot the Americans, and the SOFA was crafted that way despite the objections of Bush and the U.S. military. In the end, Bush was forced to agree to the 2008 document, lest he leave it up to chance that an incoming Democratic White House might pull out much sooner.

“A central element of the Maliki-Iran strategy was the common interest that Maliki, Iran and anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr shared in ending the U.S. occupation, despite their differences over other issues,” wrote Porter.

Dexter Filkins breaks this down in his extensive, “What We Left Behind” for the New Yorker in 2014. Maliki needed al-Sadr’s coalition support in the new parliament, so a deal was struck. Sadr would weigh in for Maliki, as long as Maliki promised that U.S. combat forces would leave.

While behind the scenes Iraqi politicians reportedly expressed interest in a long-term American combat presence, wrote Filkins, “(Maliki) argued that the long-standing agreement that gave American soldiers immunity from Iraqi courts was increasingly unpopular; parliament would forbid the troops to stay unless they were subject to local law.” It gave him the out he needed.

The war hawks argue that if Obama had renegotiated the SOFA (basically forced a longer occupation), the U.S. would have helped the Iraqis repel growing al-Qaeda elements before they morphed into the Islamic State. This completely ignores the fact that it was our friend Maliki’s suppressive and discriminatory treatment of the Sunnis that empowered the extremist elements. It also ignores the very real possibility that al-Sadr’s Shia army, which had been standing down per agreements, may have re-emerged to fight the Americans themselves, along with the Iranian-backed militias that are now fighting ISIS in places like Ramadi.

“Sadr said he would put his army back on the streets if we were to stay,” Hoh said. Furthermore, “even if we put troops back there, the Islamic State and the Sunni were going to fight against the Shia-dominated military anyway. So we would have our troops in the middle of a civil war.”

Revisionism is a shopworn playbook employed to maintain support for the military and its operations overseas. The rewritten chapter on the Vietnam War, which claims the conflict would have been won if Washington had been more willing, was carried forward like a torch by Gen. Petraeus and his counterinsurgency “crusaders” in 2007 to garner support for escalating and protracting the Iraq War.

But not all history is so easily glossed over. The war hawks conveniently forget that McCain lost to Obama in 2008 for a host of reasons, not the least of which was that Bush had promised the American people both retribution after 9/11, and a transformation of the Middle East. What they got was endless war, with the worst yet to come in Afghanistan. They were tired, and preferred the so-called “anti-war” candidate to McCain’s dusty, faintly jingoistic rhetoric, which smelled like more of the same.

Despite what McCain & Co. say today, the country is split over putting so called “boots on the ground” in Iraq, or in Syria. The more the hawks call for military intervention, in fact, the more they remind Americans of the debacle that mired the U.S. there in the first place. The Wall Street Journal recently called it “an awkward election issue” that Republicans feel the need to dodge on the campaign trail.

“The GOP debating position is in tatters,” writes Juan Williams for The Hill. “Republican leaders refuse to admit that a Republican president made a terrible mistake in starting the war in Iraq. This sad political reality is a reflection of a culture of political polarization which has left much of the GOP base with their own set of beliefs, regardless of the objective facts.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

Pamela Geller’s Free-Speech Hypocrisy


For those of us following Pamela Geller’s bombastic career over the course of the past decade, one of the most illuminating aspects of the aftermath of her otherwise tragic Texas Muhammad caricature contest, and its accompanying road show of anti-Muslim provocateurs, was how it revealed a fault line–however thin–over just how far the right should go in provoking Islamic fundamentalism.

Geller’s event was planned after 11 people at the magazine Charlie Hebdo were killed in January by Islamist attackers because of the magazine’s regular depictions of Muhammad and Islam. Two Muslim converts, Elton Simpson, 31, and Nadir Soofi, 34, whom police say have been communicating with ISIS over social media, attempted to storm the May 3 contest with assault rifles. They were killed when they exchanged fire with the two men providing security outside the event and a SWAT team that responded.

Such violence could have been expected, which was almost certainly the point. Geller and her associates “have the right to go there, but again, it’s stupid, it accomplishes nothing,” said Bill O’Reilly, whose brand of pop-conservative opinionating has kept him in the top seed of prime-time cable talk shows since he joined Fox News in 1996. “You don’t fish for [terrorists] by putting people in danger.”

O’Reilly was chatting with Laura Ingraham, the sharp-tongued doyenne of right-wing talk radio. Ingraham is the pillar of truth or a priestess of hate, depending on the eye of the beholder, but numbers don’t lie—she has successfully made a name for herself in a male-dominated field in which hosts generally hew to the hard-line orthodoxy on immigration, terrorism, and religion.

But when it comes to Geller’s stunt in Garland, Ingraham seemed to be calling for a time out: “The idea that this is going to be beneficial to us—and I come to it from a Catholic Christian conservative perspective—to rile an entire faith this way … to do what was done at this (contest) … it not only doesn’t accomplish anything, but I think it could actually make things worse for us.”

“Us” in this case means those who have made it their agenda to expose radical Islam as a tool of oppression and terror against non-believers. Taunting large numbers of Muslims over their belief that depictions Muhammad are tantamount to idolatry doesn’t help move “moderates” over to the side against extremism, she suggested.

“There is a line that is crossed if you attack someone’s religion,” offered Mike Lofgren, a retired Republican congressional staffer who in 2012 wrote, The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless and the Middle Class Got Shafted.

One of the first interviews granted by Geller after the May 3 incident was with Martha MacCallum at Fox. It did not go well. Kelleher flat-out asked Geller whether the conference was an appropriate way to combat extremism, citing criticism from billionaire gadfly Donald Trump and conservative Catholic ramrod Bill Donahue, both of whom said Geller’s event was “taunting” extremists and insulting all of Islam.

“When you embolden people, when you empower people, the haters, you’re going to get violence,” Donohue said in an earlier interview with Fox. “And so why would anybody who’s morally responsible want to intentionally incite other people? …We live in a sick society that some people think it’s good to taunt other people.”

Trump, who is no stranger to flamboyant publicity stunts, seemed scandalized by Geller’s tactics. “It looks like she’s actually taunting people,” Trump said. “It’s disgusting that [the shooting] happened and everything else, but what are they doing drawing Muhammad? Isn’t there something else they can draw?”

Fox’s MacCallum pointed to Pope Francis, who went into a Turkish mosque to pray for the end of the wars. “I understand where you are coming from, but I’m not sure you went about the right way,” she charged.

“You’re looking to restrict my speech,” shot back Geller, who has spent the last 10 years trying to shut down places of worship and keep al-Jazeera off the air. She retreated to her favorite defensive position, behind the 1st Amendment, where Geller knows no constitutionally minded conservatives or liberals will go.

“You’re asking me to abridge my speech so as not to offend savages,” she said, a line that was oft-repeated in the days after. “I’m not looking to denigrate anybody. I’m looking to rise everybody up.” She then compared herself to Rosa Parks, the black woman who sparked the end of the Jim Crow south by refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white man in 1960.

A better comparison might be Sen. Joe McCarthy, who spent several years investigating, blacklisting, and destroying careers of citizens under the mantle of anti-Communism. Geller may be talking cartoons right now, but just a few years ago she was demanding loyalty tests and warning an audience at her unofficial 2010 CPAC event that Islamists had infiltrated every level of the U.S. government. At the same event, her Defense Initiative co-founder, Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch proceeded to snicker at the prospect of Muslim women shrinking away from full-body airport security scanners because their faith demands modesty. Any move to accommodate them would be a “perversity,” he said, because Muslims “made [full-body scanners] necessary.”

This was just one in a string of several statements and innuendo showing how he and Geller really feel about Muslims, despite their flimsy public exhortations to the contrary. “Everyone knows Islam is a religion of peace that has been hijacked by a tiny minority,” Spencer said acidly to a room of knowing guffaws. Like people who “believe in Santa Claus, though no one has ever seen it.”

Just two months later, Geller started the group Stop Islamicization of America and led a rally through the streets of downtown Manhattan in order to shut down the construction of an Islamic center she declared to be an affront to the victims of 9/11. The only connection between the center and the dead 9/11 hijackers, of course, was that they shared the same faith. Just like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, a Christian, shared his religion with 173 million adult Americans. Nevertheless, the center became synonymous with terror, and the project appears forever on hold. That is how Geller and Spencer operate.

It is difficult for Geller, 58, not to tip her anti-Muslim hand. A wealthy socialite who loves the spotlight and the camera, she often lapses into her real feelings during press interviews, such as this one with The Times of Israel. After calling herself a “human rights activist,” Geller all but declares that the only path for a Muslim to become moderate is to stop being so Muslim.

Later on in the interview, she declared that “all of the major Muslim organizations in the U.S. are linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. That is not a conspiracy theory, that is conspiracy fact.” Since Geller and her friends believe that members of the Muslim Brotherhood are terrorists-in-waiting, is she not saying all major Islamic organizations in the U.S. (representing more than 5 million Muslim-Americans today) are linked to terrorism and should therefore be investigated and/or shuttered?

Then there is her association with Geert Wilders, who joined her event in Texas. The Dutch parliamentarian and frequent guest on the Geller train is known for calling for a ban on the Koran and for staunching the flow of Muslims into Europe. He told Fox’s Sean Hannity on Tuesday that he wanted to plan a Muhammad cartoon expo in the parliament to show that they weren’t intimidated. When asked if he was “anti-Islam,” Wilders said simply, “Well, I’m certainly not anti-Muslim, but indeed I believe Islam is a threat to our civilization.”

Geller’s approach has gotten her into trouble with conservatives before. There is a reason her group is never allowed an official presence at CPAC, which is one of the biggest grassroots right-wing convocations of the year. Some of its attendees might agree with much of what Jihad Watch and Geller’s longtime blog, Atlas Shrugs, dish out, but organizers apparently won’t take any chances with having what the Anti-Defamation League has called Geller’s “anti-Muslim bigotry” bringing a lot of unwelcome press onto their annual confab.

It doesn’t help that Geller, Spencer, and their pal Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy have accused CPAC of treating with terrorists, particularly targeting organizer Suhail Kahn and long-time conservative power-broker and CPAC board member Grover Norquist. Not only have all three attacked Norquist for allegedly hanging out with “radicals” and accused Kahn of being one but they have also charged the popular Americans for Tax Reform president with bringing jihadists into the Bush White House, and they have repeatedly assailed Norquist’s wife.

“Grover Norquist’s ties to Islamic supremacists and jihadists have been known for years. He and his Palestinian wife, Samah Alrayyes—who was director of communications for his Islamic Free Market Institute until they married in 2005—are very active in ‘Muslim Outreach,’” Geller wrote in 2010. She goes on to elaborately connect-the-dots between the “silver tongued jihadists” he supposedly introduced to President Bush with card-carrying terrorist sympathizers, saying Norquist “had given Muslims with jihad terror links access to the highest levels of the U.S. government.”

Even Joe McCarthy could hardly make such guilt-by-association charges and call it a fight for America’s freedom. When the same tactics are turned on Geller, however, she calls it an affront to her own freedom of speech, such as when intrepid writers pointed out that Norwegian white nationalist, Islamophobe, and mass murderer Anders Breivik was a big fan of Geller and Spencer, calling her, in his 5,000-page manifesto, one of the “decent human beings” under attack for speaking truth to power. He went on to cite her blog 12 times and Spencer’s Jihad Watch 116 times. From Slate, shortly after the killings:

He cited [Geller’s] blog, Atlas Shrugs, and the writings of her friends, allies, and collaborators—Robert Spencer, Jihad Watch, Islam Watch, and Front Page magazine—more than 250 times. And he echoed their tactics, tarring peaceful Muslims with the crimes of violent Muslims. He wrote that all Muslims sought to impose “sharia laws” and that “there are no important theological differences between jihadists and so-called ‘peaceful’ or ‘moderate’ Muslims.”

Still right-wing writers like NRO’s Rich Lowry and the daddy of the radio demagogues, Rush Limbaugh, defend her, mostly against her liberal detractors. They know their audience: the same sort of people who supported ill-fated presidential candidate Herman Cain, who said he would institute loyalty tests for all incoming staff at the White House, and Newt Gingrich, who likened the fight against Sharia in the U.S. to the American Revolution.

Perhaps, however, the comments by Ingraham, O’Reilly, and other conservatives indicate Geller can no longer take their tolerance of her for granted. Does she care? Never. As she told, her conservatives critics are weak sisters, “desperately afraid that the leftist media will smear them by association with me,” she said. “It is an act of sheer cowardice.”

Everyone–even neoconservative critics who call her “shameful”–insists that Geller’s free speech is sacrosanct. But what makes some conservatives especially uneasy is that her rigid stance against Islam raises implications for their own religious freedom movement, not to mention that it’s unclear whether her “free speech” is primarily about denying someone else’s. She is also drawing fire, literally. Even the mayor of the unfortunate town where the attack happened said she invited the attack.

“That’s the price we pay for living in a relatively free society,” said Mike Lofgren. “But if someone ends up getting killed as a result of her shenanigans, she really might want to rethink this stuff.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

Lobby Day For the Marijuana Industry

Squint, and it looks like your typical networking confab in the nation’s capital: men and women in tailored suits and trendy dark-framed glasses gathered around a sideboard of coffee and carbs, their outsized name cards promoting wonkish-themed firms and start-ups.

Focus in, however, and a few inconsistent cues emerge: a touch of leather here, a man with handlebar mustache over there.

The blink-you-missed-it nonconformity is all you get, however. As marijuana industry leaders readied for lobbying Capitol Hill Tuesday, their freak flags weren’t flying. This is the next-gen legacy of a decades-old movement, a business association like any other, with their sights on tax reform and banking regulations, and they are all business. They just want to end the federal ban on pot, too.

“If you are in the business of selling cannabis or cannabis products in the cannabis space it is in your financial interest to change federal law,” exclaimed Aaron Smith, co-founder and executive director, of the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), which started out with a dozen cannabusinesses in 2010 and now has over 850 members and a full-time lobbyist on the Hill.

Not just about profits, the assorted entrepreneurs, investors, advocates, lawyers and compliance experts gathered in Washington had specific goals for their “lobby day” with lawmakers on Wednesday. Those included a change to the tax code, specifically repealing “280E,” which restricts their ability to declare corporate deductions, forcing pot business to pay upwards of 70 percent of their income to Uncle Sam. They also want Congress to step in on their behalf with federal regulators who are scaring banks into turning away businesses in states where recreational marijuana and/or medical marijuana are fully legal, forcing them to be dangerous cash-only operations.

“We’ve come a long way since the beginning,” said Steve Fox, co-founder and deputy director, who heads up NCIA’s lobbying effort, recalling the first such confab in 2010 where, “I believe all we probably had was a homemade little poster board with our logo on it on the podium.” On Tuesday he spoke to a generous audience in the sleek “20 F Street” conference center on Capitol Hill, and two giant banners with NCIA’s sunrise logo (no leaf) graced the stage. D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton stopped by and spoke for nearly 20 minutes about D.C.’s legalization law, which so far, has been thwarted by several Republicans in Congress.

Like any other industry, every level of the supply chain filled the room—cultivators, sellers, laboratories that test medical marijuana, manufacturers of equipment that extract the oils that make edibles and other cannabis products, capital investors, and experts who help cannabusinesses comply with the laws, which vary from state to state. Activists were in force, too, the backbone of a movement that has steered not only successful medical marijuana laws in 23 states plus D.C., but full legalization in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia—all in the last five years.

“This is all part of an ongoing social justice movement,” said Smith, “but we are also a movement for free enterprise, which I think has been the driving force behind a lot of social change.”

This juncture is exactly where free enterprise needs to keep channels open with the anti-prohibition effort and not let the two grow apart or worse, work against one another, said Rob Kampia, head of the Marijuana Policy Project, which has been responsible for drafting most of the state-level laws enacted since 2000, including the landmark referendum legalizing pot in Colorado in 2012.

On one hand, medical dispensaries used to a certain profit level in California were blamed in part for gumming up full legalization in 2010 because they saw profits going down. On the other, reformers have been prickly about “Big Pot” and the over-commercialization of the bud.

“The tension between industry players who care about making money and the rest of us who care about freedoms … . Both aren’t mutually exclusive,” pointed out Kampia. More than ever, he said, they have to work together.

Now that these laws are in place, the success of the movement will depend, in part, on whether the dispensaries act responsibly, standards are met, the taxes and other benefits that states are counting on transpire, and businesses not only profit, but have the ability to grow and flourish in a safe, legitimate space. Getting the federal government to take pot off of its Schedule I list of Controlled Substances, would be the cherry on top.

No one agrees more than the entrepreneurs who spoke with TAC at the event Tuesday. All three have livelihoods that depend on the success of cannabis, but expressed a personal investment in reforms based on the compassion for patients and the freedom of choice. All three were running to serve on the NCIA’s board of 22 directors.

“I’m conservative—very conservative,” and a longstanding Republican, offered Chet Billingsley, a refined older gentleman with a shock of white hair, impeccably dressed, and with a presence that belies his years on Wall Street and in the halls of America’s top schools, including West Point, Harvard, and MIT. The founder of California-based Mentor Capital, a publicly traded mergers & acquisitions and investment company since 1985, Billingsley has shifted the company’s focus from cancer research to medical cannabis. Mentor is now what is called a public incubator, taking solid cannabis companies, prepping them to go public, and then spinning them off, all the while letting them maintain operational control.

He told TAC that when he was first approached with investing in medical marijuana, “my response was, ‘are you kidding me?’ It was like asking a chicken to go surfing in the ocean.” It was a moral dilemma. Then “the scientist in me” did the research and found the answer. For cancer patients, Billingsley realized, “(cannabis) was a godsend,” stimulating appetite, suppressing nausea, and easing pain. He believes cannabis can ease the tremors brought on by Parkinson’s disease, and treat epilepsy, too.

In fact, families all over the country have been moving to medical marijuana states like Maine and Colorado to treat children with epilepsy because it is known to help reduce the severity of seizures.

For Billingsley, an end to federal prohibition would open the space to investment, which is hurting due to fears among banks and other financial institutions. Most banks won’t take accounts from cannabusiness, and even attempts to open community credit unions are encountering unusual speed bumps.  Everyone fears the unknown when a new president takes office in 2016. “This is driving down investors,” he said. “Cannabis stocks are down 25 percent.”

Meanwhile, The Washington Post recently reported that two girls from Northern Virginia who suffered hundreds of seizures a day are now being treated with a THC extract that has rendered them all but seizure-free in Colorado. These are the kinds of heartrending stories that Dorian Des Lauriers of ProVerde Laboratories likes to hear, but all the more reason he went to lobby congress this week for a bill that would allow every state to offer medical marijuana without federal intervention.

“I’m here to lend my support to changing laws,” the former software developer told TAC. ProVerde is a Massachusetts-based consulting and testing lab that helps cultivators, dispensaries and patients determine the right strain and dosage of marijuana required for treatment. Currently the lab is helping 10 families in Maine find the right formula for treatment for epilepsy.

“It is mind-boggling that these laws still exist,” said Des Lauriers, who senses the charm for politicians on the Hill: “the fact that we come from a strict science perspective—people listen. Politicians, leaders listen to that, it’s science and fact-based. I bring credibility to the cause, which is getting rid of these ludicrous, arcane laws.”

He said he was running for the NCIA board because he believes the lobbying is working—and he’s right. There are several bills pending in Congress that would prevent the DOJ from prosecuting dispensaries in compliance with their state medical marijuana laws, as well as measures that would end the ban on medical marijuana. Another would repeal 280E to help bonafide businesses reap the same tax benefits as any other corporation.

That issue has drawn the support of Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, who won’t speak on the issue of whether pot should be legalized, but says 280E, which was established in 1982 after a convicted drug smuggler was able to apply federal deductions to his profits, is a matter of “taking the federalist approach.”

“Whether it is medical marijuana or recreational marijuana, you don’t want tax policy getting in the way of federalism,” he told TAC ahead of a planned appearance at the NCIA event. “If the state is taking a position that it is not a crime then the feds shouldn’t be taxing it like it is.”

In his opinion, the federal government is stifling free enterprise – and experimentation — by burdening potential entrepreneurs with “bad tax policy.” When federal taxation precludes state experimentation,” he said, “I think it’s dangerous.”

Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, which has been working for 15 years on state and federal reforms, said they can “see victory” at the federal level, mostly because the lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are coming around to the sound economic arguments, and positive opinion polls. If Colorado’s “experiment” is any indication, it’s going okay, so far. Crime rates were down in Denver from 2013, and the tax benefits are rolling in, maybe not as much as advocates has predicted, but $50 million from July 2014 to January 2015 shows the financial get was more than just a pipe dream.

Meanwhile the industry is boasting  $2.7 billion in annual revenues and employs tens of thousands of people, according to NCIA.

“There is nothing that has more potential for explosive growth than this industry – it’s phenomenal,” said A.C. Braddock, CEO of Seattle-based Eden Labs, which specializes in marijuana extraction and distillation systems that turn marijuana plants into oils that can be taken orally, vaporized or smoked.  She is also running for the NCIA board.

“We can’t keep up with the demand,” she said to TAC. But there is so much more. She wants to open up space for women CEOs and to promote “green” extraction techniques, as well as success for the industry as a whole.

“We just have to get past the stigmas involved in this simple plant.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

Our Bad Friends, the Saudis

State Department photo / Public Domain

Before most Americans could even pronounce the name “Houthi,” much less tell you who they were, Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham were on a dais chastising President Obama for his unwillingness to bomb them into the ground.

Mere hours after the Saudis (armed with $90 billion in U.S. weaponry and more on the way) began pounding Shia Houthi rebel targets in Yemen, the two senators were lamenting that Washington had not been let in on the operation.

“The fact that the Arab coalition no longer trusts us, or feels they need to inform us as what they’re about to do, is chilling,” Graham said on March 26. “They no longer have confidence in the United States of America,” McCain enjoined. “The Saudis did the right thing.”

This has been a common refrain from the senior senators, who have become as predictable as the tides when it comes to blaming the president for “leading from behind,” or not showing the appropriate obeisance to certain foreign allies—whether Israel on the Iran nuclear deal or Ukraine in their struggle against Russia.

But that Obama should be admonished for a perceived laggardness in the Sunni Gulf states’ swift intervention in Yemen, in what has been called a battle for sectarian dominance in the region, shows how little these men think of the American public. After 14 years of fighting Sunni insurgencies with no end in sight (Iraq and Afghanistan, al-Qaeda everywhere, now ISIS), the idea the U.S. could be shamed into joining a coalition of countries espousing highly questionable motives and human rights records, in an intervention no one can rightly explain, should raise a few red flags.

And one question—what do we get out of it?

There are, of course, two prevailing boilerplate explanations for why the U.S. should intervene more strenuously: 1) Yemen is boiling over in a proxy war in which the bad guys are power-hungry Iranians seeking to establish Persian-led Shi’a hegemony across the region, and/or 2) Washington must support “pillars” of stability like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, else the Middle East will go up in flames. Both claims have been deemed exaggerated and oversimplified in varying degrees by national security experts who see the events in Yemen as nothing more than a civil war that could turn into a sectarian blow-out across the region if airstrikes continue and Iranian proxies get further enmeshed in the situation.

The Saudi government has just hired two top Republican political spin doctors for tens of thousands of dollars to ensure that the above narratives stick, however, and to make sure that U.S. elected officials react in a matter consistent with the Saudi point of view on Yemen and the Gulf states’ desire to see President Bashar al-Assad deposed in Syria.

While U.S. lawmakers and the constellation of Washington think tanks can always be persuaded, the American people are far from convinced that Saudi Arabia, a monarchy that beheads people for blasphemy, covers women from head to toe, keeps its people largely unemployed and poverty stricken, and exports the kind of terror-inspiring Wahhabism that makes suicide bombers out of boys, really has American best interests at heart.

Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia has done a stellar job at maintaining the fiction that even while it is everything that America is not, the kingdom is worthy of unconditional support. The same goes for places like Egypt and like Bahrain, which itself has largely escaped U.S. censure in its violent (Saudi-assisted) crackdown on the country’s oppressed Shi’a majority.

Aside from regional “stability,” the sword of Damocles ostensibly hanging over Washington until now has been oil (though the U.S. imports less oil from Saudi Arabia now than it does from Latin American countries and Canada), and U.S-global economic concerns linked to Saudi investments in the U.S. and the preservation of dollar as the world reserve currency. Those cringeworthy kisses and hand-holding with the man in the flowing robes weren’t for nothing.

After all these years of this ill-fitting alliance, the U.S. has demanded little in return. The Saudis allowed access to installations and air space after 9/11, and the CIA has a drone base there. U.S. forces work closely with the Saudi military, but more permanent U.S. assets are parked in other Gulf States, like the Navy’s 5th fleet in Bahrain.

Meanwhile, Washington continues to demur on the possible Saudi connection to 9/11, and has been tepid in its criticism of Saudi support of Sunni extremists in Syria and Iraq, including ISIS. All this makes the McCain-Graham insistence that Washington “prove” its loyalty so mendacious. Who should prove what to whom?

Conservative columnist Trudy Rubin raised these contradictions in an April 11 column about Riaf Badawi, the Saudi Arabian blogger whose case went viral after he was sentenced to 1,000 lashes for advocating free speech in the kingdom. He got 50 of those lashes before an international outcry forced the government to postpone the rest, yet he still languishes in a 10-year jail term and is in danger of being retried on apostasy charges, punishable by death (likely a public beheading, of which there have been 54 already in 2015).

“[Badawi] was trying to encourage the kind of peaceful debate that is essential if Arab nations are ever to emerge from the backwardness that fueled the failed Arab Spring,” wrote Rubin.

When asked why the Saudis would display a level and kind of intolerance similar to the Islamic State, “Saudi officials insist they won’t tolerate any interference with their ‘independent judiciary,’” she continued. “This is a thin cover story designed to stifle debate about the impact of Saudi religious ideology at home and abroad.”

Badawi’s wife, who fled with their young children to Canada, has spoken publicly for his release. Saudi Arabia has responded by “warning” Canada not to interfere. The Saudis have been even tougher on Sweden, recently cowing the country’s officials into walking back criticism made by their own foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom.

Wallstrom had spoken out against Badawi’s flogging and called Saudi Arabia a dictatorship. The House of Saud responded by scrapping a major arms deal with the country, barring her from talking about democracy and women’s rights at a speech of the Arab League in Cairo, recalling its ambassador to Stockholm, announcing it would no longer issue business visas to Swedes or renew the visas for Swedish citizens already there, and blocking the recent transfer of Swedish monkeys to a Riyadh zoo.

One would think Washington was in a much better position to pressure the Saudis on this point, but as foreign policy analysts (especially of the old Cold War ilk) are wont to say, “it’s complicated.” It’s especially complicated by the amount of money and the number of top-drawer lobbying firms Saudi Arabia employs to do its bidding in U.S. centers of power.

Therefore it’s not surprising that the Obama administration has been criticized for its lackluster appeals to the kingdom on its human rights record. When the White House failed to mention Badawi during the elite-studded Washington pilgrimage to King Abdullah’s funeral in January, Obama insisted that “a balance” is required.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf was less nuanced: “I don’t think we’re in the business of demanding things.”

When U.S. Senators weighed in urging the Saudis to desist in the flogging, it was six Democrats and two Republicans (Marco Rubio and Mark Kirk) who signed a letter. Graham and McCain, who was forced to fire a top fundraiser during his 2008 campaign for president because his firm collected $15 million in lobbying work from the Saudis, were absent.

The fact is, Badawi was espousing the same arguments against the Saudis’ harsh interpretation of Islam that McCain and Graham have made in justifying the expensive, endless U.S. war on radical jihadism overseas. Many Americans are waking up to the fact that there is little difference between the two, and that Washington looks hypocritical when it coddles one purveyor of Wahhabism while sending U.S. troops into harm’s way to spill blood over another.

“This is an old story, that the U.S. puts aside human rights when it does not coincide with its own strategic interests,” Phyllis Bennis, activist and Middle East commentator for the liberal Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), tells TAC

“The disempowerment of women, the truly abysmal version of a so-called justice system that includes flogging bloggers and beheading people, the government’s definition of ‘terrorism’ which includes advocacy of atheism – this is the so-called stabilizing instrument of U.S. foreign policy in the region we are supposed to be supporting in this moment of instability?”

At least 90 people were publicly executed in Saudi Arabia in 2014. According to Sevag Kechichian, the Saudis have been defiant in the face of criticism, insisting such beheadings occur only after the strictest fair trial standards are upheld. Kechichian points out, however, that “suspicion, it seems, is enough for a judge to order putting an end to someone’s life.” Half of the announced executions in 2014 – and so far in 2015 – are for non-lethal offenses, he said. The vast majority are drug related, including mere possession. Meanwhile, religious minorities, including Christians, are routinely persecuted by the country’s religious police.

Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, a convert who wrote The Two Faces of Islam: Saudi Fundamentalism and Its Role In Terrorism (2002) and founded the Center for Islamic Pluralism, says “Wahabbism is entrenched” in the kingdom and that reforms are in motion, but “it’s going to be slow.”

Unlike Bennis, Schwartz believes there is good reason to push back against Iranian influence in Yemen, and believes Obama could be more active in supporting the Gulf states against Assad’s crackdown on the Sunni opposition in Syria. However, “the U.S. should be more active is supporting reforms in Saudi Arabia,” he tells TAC. “That should be key to our policy in the Middle East. I am in favor of more active criticism of Saudi Arabia. I am also realist about how societies change.”

Meanwhile, more than two-thirds of Saudi nationals are under the age of 30 and three-quarters of all unemployed are 20-somethings. Millions of Saudis are living on less than $530 a month, even while, thanks to the monarchy’s spoils, Saudi Arabia has one of the highest concentrations of wealth on the planet. There is a pressure cooker here, one that also includes a restive Shi’a minority, and a radicalized segment of the population that sees the House of Saud as aberration.

Afshin Shahi writes that with its aggression in Yemen, new King Salman and the country’s elites are either ignoring these domestic struggles or using foreign policy “as an effective tool to control internal dynamics. “(The) ‘external enemy’ can be used to generate unifying nationalism or to legitimize a security state,” he says. “It’s an especially useful tactic for authoritarian regimes.”

But as one Reuters analysis warned on April 10, this strategy may have unintended consequences, as “nationalist fervor is sweeping the conservative Sunni Muslim kingdom, bringing with it a sharp sectarian edge.”  The Saudis may call it a war against Tehran’s influence, but it appears to be translating into a religious war that abides no territorial boundaries.

So far, Pakistan has sensed that, too, refusing a Saudi request to send any troops with Riyadh and Egypt for a potential ground war in Yemen.

It’s hard to think this is what McCain and Graham truly want, but maybe they’ve been in league with Saudi interests against Iran for so long that putting American forces in the middle of an 1,300-year-old sectarian schism that Americans can’t even begin to untangle, doesn’t strike them as ill-conceived. For McCain, who has raved more than once, “thank God for Saudi Arabia and (former intelligence chief and ambassador) Prince Bandar, ” that point may be long lost.

It may be music to the kingdom’s ears, but for America’s sake, its lawmakers should reconsider their blessings before blundering into the next war.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

How Google AdSense Censors the News

Is Google trying to censor news it deems “inappropriate” for public consumption?

That’s what the editors of several news websites are asking after recent tussles with Google AdSense, the online advertising behemoth that generates revenue for publishers by placing third-party “pay per click” or “pay per impression” ads on their sites. Publishers need only sit back and collect the checks, which can add up to thousands of dollars a month, depending on traffic.

AdSense brings in about $13 billion a year to Google’s coffers, about 24 percent of its overall revenue. According to its fourth-quarter earnings report in January, Google earned $3.72 billion in the last months of FY2014 from ads appearing on its network partners’ websites. In 2011, the company said it paid 68 percent of ad revenue back to the sites that participate in AdSense. All added up, that’s a lot of cash.

Until, of course, a publisher runs afoul of Google’s Terms and Conditions. Google says it tries to guarantee its advertisers that their ads will only be displayed on “family-friendly” websites. That includes a strict prohibition on “violent content,” a rule the company says is applied across the board—and is apparently blind to context.

“If your site has content which you wouldn’t be comfortable viewing at work or with family members around, then it probably isn’t an appropriate site for Google ads,” according to Google’s guidance for “Adult Content.”

But “family-friendly” is a vague standard that can lead to poor, context-free judgements about content, as some publishers, including The American Conservative, suspect after recent brushes against those Terms and Conditions.

Daniel McCarthy, editor of The American Conservative, says that in January, Google AdSense asked that its ads be removed from a January 2012 story featuring a commentary by this author that included a photograph of U.S. soldiers urinating on Afghan corpses, as well as a photograph of abuses that had occurred at the Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq War (specifically, the infamous photo of Pfc. Lynndie England dragging an Iraqi by a leash).

“Because ads are displayed on our site according to a general template, the only way we could satisfy Google’s demand was by removing AdSense from all of our article pages,” McCarthy explained, adding that “We still feature AdSense on our homepage and blogs, for now.” How much longer may depend on just how indiscriminately Google enforces its rules.

“There’s a chilling effect here,” McCarthy says, getting to the heart of journalists’ obligation to report the news, including disturbing images that the public needs to see. A corporate gatekeeper that treats news like offensive or “adult” content risks stifling free speech.

“Advertisers have always been free to withdraw support from a news organization when they’re embarrassed by its reporting, but Google is more than just an advertiser: AdSense is the Internet’s largest advertising network, and the only reason it’s the Internet’s largest ad network is because of Google’s market power as a provider of search engine and other services integral to most Americans’ web use,” says McCarthy.

“So when Google imposes restraints upon what news organization can report, it’s not acting like an auto manufacturer that withdraws advertising from ’60 Minutes’ in retaliation for an expose. It’s more akin to CBS itself telling the news program that it can’t report anything that wouldn’t be suitable for children’s television.”

Google as an Internet gatekeeper is no fantasy. Since its founding as a scrappy start-up amid the tech boom of 1998, it has grown to dominate the online ad and search markets. The company has drawn the attention of regulators, who want to rein in what they see as monopolistic behavior. Google in turn has spent millions of dollars a year lobbying Congress. Not all of that spending has been purely self-interested, however: the Internet giant, whose motto has long been “Don’t be evil,” has weighed in against what it calls unnecessary government surveillance on the net, and the company is aware of the censorship risks that overly broad regulations can pose.

One wonders then why AdSense won’t make a distinction between “Faces of Death” and the analysis delivered by The American Conservative when it comes to offensive violent content, which Google describes in its Terms and Conditions as anything with “bloodshed, fight scenes and gruesome or freak accidents.” Publishers, Google says, “are responsible for every page on which their ad code appears and for screening any text, images, videos or other media which will appear on a page with Google ads.”

Eric Garris, editor and founder of, reports that AdSense contacted him on March 18 to say that his news site was suspended from the AdSense network due to pages that violated its terms of service, after had been with AdSense for nearly 10 years. (Full disclosure: the author is a former contributor to

“I woke up Wednesday morning, went to the computer, looked at the front page, and there were no ads. Just three big blank spaces where the ads should have been,” he told TAC. “Then I went to my email and there was the mail from Google AdSense.”

The offense? Two pages that contained a series of graphic Abu Ghraib photographs first seen on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” featuring U.S. military servicemembers torturing Iraqi detainees, putting them in naked stress positions, frightening them with dogs. Two show servicemembers making the “thumbs up” sign over the bodies of dead prisoners.

These pictures are offensive, but that was the point—their release in 2004 caused an international uproar about U.S. treatment of detainees and soldiers’ conduct in war, spawned a number of high-level investigations, and led to lawsuits that are still playing out in our highest court. Without the pictures, would the outrage have been as fierce, the response as swift? The images are part of the historical record, and they made a difference.

“This is a matter of principle,” says Jillian York, Director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Seeing that Google has become such a significant part of what we see and do online and in the public sphere, she says, “I think the company has an obligation to protect free speech and they are not, by and large, doing that.”

When contacted by TAC, AdSense spokesperson Andrea Faville said she could not discuss individual cases but that the Terms and Services are quite clear about prohibited content, which all publishers agree to at the onset. “The reason for the policies, really, is to protect everyone,” she said.

“It is not a judgment call in terms of the value of the content,” according to Faville. She says Google polices its more than two million partner sites for potential offenses with “a combination of technical and human review,” suggesting there are bots set to specific algorithms sniffing out offenders, then actual people at Google who determine whether action needs to be taken.

Garris and others wonder why the red flags regarding the Abu Ghraib photos now, after they’ve been online so many years already. “I understand that Google wants to protect their advertisers and that is a reasonable thing, but what they were objecting to had been on our site for 11 years and they never complained before,” Garris told TAC.

Gawker’s Alex Pareene followed the exchanges between and AdSense for a week, expressing incredulity that the ad giant couldn’t discern between news and gratuitous stuff like this. He says the incident should “worry publishers of controversial political content who rely on Google for revenue. It looks to be much too easy for a malicious complaint, a faulty algorithm, simple human misinterpretation or overeager application of policy to cost a publisher a lot of money.

“The result could be a very real chilling effect on independent journalism.”

Especially since it seems that once the process gets over to the “human review,” things get much more subjective. Garris says was reinstated after he got in touch by e-mail with AdSense public relations. But then AdSense came back and said the deal was off because of a May 2014 Antiwar story that featured an Associated Press photo showing a pile of dead people allegedly killed by Ukrainian government soldiers.

Garris says he was willing to work with Google on the issue but soon got the sense he was being painted into a corner. “I think what they really might be trying to do is edit us so we either become less objectionable in their minds, or just get rid of us.”

In their last exchange, Garris asked Google PR rep John Brown if this photo of Yemenis carrying a blanket, ostensibly with an injured person inside, “would be objectionable.” Brown, according to the email provided by Garris, responded: “A good rule of thumb is if it would be okay for a child in any region of the world to see that image, it’s acceptable.”

What would happen if Google really applied this “rule of thumb”? Suddenly, all of the significant war photography of the last century seems at risk, like this grim view of Omaha Beach after the D-Day invasion. What about these images from World War I, Vietnam—could the goal of keeping advertisers happy eventually scrub the historical canon of war’s ugly realities, leaving only a bloodless, “family friendly” Madison Avenue vision intact?

For the last 70 years, entire generations have been educated about and sensitized to the horrors of the Holocaust with photography. Consider what will be lost in our mission to “never forget” if scenes like this are deemed unfit to appear on ad-supported sites.

“No newspaper could operate in the brick-and-mortar world under the constraints that Google imposes on its clients,” says McCarthy.

“Does Google consider newspapers inappropriate for the family table?” he wonders. “They certainly can contain images and stories you wouldn’t want the youngest members of the family exposed to, but it’s the duty of a new organization to report such things, and it’s the duty of parents, not advertisers, to control when their children are exposed to harsh realities.”

Faville insists AdSense has nothing to do with making editorial judgments. “We are happy to work with any website that is compliant with our policies… we work with more than two million websites all over the world with all kinds of content. The team’s concern is if the content is in line with our policies or not.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

America’s Warlords in Afghanistan

Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson and Maj. Gen. Abdul Raziq (Sgt. Antony S. Lee/Army)
Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson and Maj. Gen. Abdul Raziq (Sgt. Antony S. Lee/Army)

Thanks to a tawdry investigation and controversial plea deal this month, David Petraeus will forever be known as the American general who gave over classified ‘black books’ to his mistress-biographer. But his real legacy appears to be playing out like a slow moving train wreck back in the provinces of Afghanistan.

According to a Human Rights Watch report released in early March, Afghanistan is under siege by a “new generation” of strongmen, warlords, and militias that are terrorizing local populations. Their menacing presence only effectively differs from the Taliban in that they have enjoyed the complicity and support of U.S. forces—including former General Petraeus—and major elements of Afghanistan’s government.

So while Petraeus is busy advising the White House on what to do with Iraq—another country whose reconstruction he left unfinished—unchecked corruption and violence threaten to undo every last good thing the West has tried to accomplish in Afghanistan since 2001.

“The Afghan government and its supporters should recognize that insecurity comes not only from the insurgency, but from corrupt and unaccountable forces having official backing,” Phelim Kine, HRW’s deputy Asia director, said in a March 3 release.

“Kabul and its foreign supporters need to end their toxic codependency on strongmen to give Afghanistan reasonable hope of a viable, rights-respecting strategy for the country’s development.”

HRW found, through numerous interviews with civilians, cross-checked with official inquiries and independent reporting, that Afghan Local Police (ALP) commanders were behind many of the human rights abuses. Petraeus, during his brief time as Commander of the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) in Afghanistan (2010-11), was the key facilitator of the ALP, calling it a “community watch” of sorts, and considered it critical to his counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy in Afghanistan.

“This program mobilizes communities in self-defense against those who would undermine security in their areas,” Petraeus told congress in March 2011. “For that reason, the growth of these elements is of particular concern to the Taliban, whose ability to intimidate the population is limited considerably by it.”

It turns out that while Petraeus was burnishing his bio with black book fodder for Paula Broadwell’s 2012 hagiographical All In: The Education of General David Petraeus, his “community watch” was becoming a village horror show for Afghan civilians in a number of ways—right under the noses of the U.S. Special Forces who armed and trained them, and who in many cases insisted on appointing their commanders, sometimes against the locals’ adamant opposition.

“What has been put into this (HRW) report, everyone knew for years,” said Thomas Ruttig, a co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, in a Skype interview with TAC from Kabul. Not only the ALP, he said, but private militias, security companies, strongmen and their minions, have flourished because of their usefulness in the war against the Taliban.

Despite the numerous allegations of criminal activity and brutality committed against the population, he said, “leading U.S. military commanders continue to present themselves with these people in a very friendly manner.” For him, “this is really shocking. War is violent, but there are real excesses here that go far beyond any red line that is acceptable.”

By September 2012 Petraeus was long gone from the scene, and his vaunted ALP program was slipping into disgrace. While the ALP was credited for keeping the peace in some places, burgeoning complaints of abuse and corruption in others forced the U.S. Army to halt recruitment that fall. By then, the ALP was 16,000 strong nationwide, according to the New York Times. In its most recent report, HRW said the ALP managed to give legitimacy (and a source of income) to warlords, local strongmen, and illegal militias that had already enjoyed an unofficial “hands-off” approach under the former regime and its American partners:

Although the Afghan government outlined measures to prevent pre-existing militias from joining the ALP, a weak vetting process failed to achieve this, and the force has provided cover for armed groups already implicated in abuses…The result has been a pattern of impunity, abuse, and the consolidation of power and control of resources by a small elite group.

HRW has singled out some of the more infamous American allies, among them Abdul Hakim Shujoyi, who despite outstanding arrest warrants for the murder of more than a dozen people remained the de facto commander of the ALP in the central district of Khas Uruzgan as of June 2014. According to HRW,

Shujoyi was originally a member of the Afghan Security Guards (ASG) and directly worked with U.S. forces in Khas Uruzgan. U.S. Special Forces in the district reportedly insisted on his recruitment as the commander of the Afghan Local Police in Khas Uruzgan in early 2011, although he was not from the locality.

Shujoyi and his men are accused of raping, stealing, beating, setting fire to at least one person’s home, and killing 121 local men. In one incident in August 2012, his forces were accused of killing upwards of 17 people in one day, including the stoning of a 15-year-old boy.

An American spokesman denied any ties with Shujoyi at the time of the killings, and said U.S. Special Forces were not active in the area where they occurred. But despite the arrest warrant, Shujoyi still enjoys his freedom, and has been witnessed with U.S. forces since.

“Everyone has seen (Shujoyi) with the Americans,” one witness told HRW. In particular, according to the report, “he was frequently seen entering the international base in the district capital of Khas Uruzgan (known as Forward Operating Base [FOB] Anaconda).”

In 2013, Australian journalist Paul McGeough wrote that “a reputation as a fearless ‘Taliban hunter’ has earned enough U.S. military protection for (Shujoyi) to cast himself as a new warlord—even as the Americans were backing him into the leadership of a new grassroots community protection service, the Afghan Local Police or ALP.”

In other words, McGeough added, “Special Forces has emboldened and protected Shujoyi.”

Meanwhile, in Urgun province, Tajik “Commander Azizullah” made a neat shift to ALP chief after allegedly committing numerous crimes against civilians as a member of the Afghan Security Guards from 2008 to 2010, when the ASG was conducting combat operations with U.S. forces, according to HRW. It was then that he was first accused in a 2010 United Nations report of theft and beatings during search operations, detention and physical abuse of children, and arbitrary killing of civilians. This included one case in which he reportedly drove around with the dead bodies of three locals strapped to his vehicles, announcing they were terrorists, until they started to decompose.

When confronted with the charges in 2011, a NATO spokesman at the time told the The Independent there was “little information to substantiate what were essentially claims.”

Azizullah and the forces under his command joined the ALP in February 2011, according to the HRW report, “despite local objections that this would legitimize Azizullah.” Afterwards, “human rights abuses attributed to his forces continued.”

Likely the most infamous of the Afghan strongmen associated with the United States, Gen. Abdul Raziq is credited with both keeping the Taliban out of Kandahar, and running an elaborate network of ruthless security forces that made him wildly rich, and feared. Nothing, the report says, happens in the province without his knowing. Meanwhile, a UN report in 2013 accused Kandahar police of “disappearing” 81 people in just one year.

Overall, Raziq and his henchmen are accused of drug running, corruption, torture, and more. In 2011, journalist Matthieu Aikins uncovered a 2006 case in which Raziq and his men allegedly executed 16 rivals and dumped their bodies in the desert. Raziq dismissed the allegations as smears against his reputation. When asked, according to reports, U.S. officials have affected the same tone, preferring to refer to the charges as baseless rumors.

Raziq, 36, rose in power as police chief of his hometown of Spin Boldak after the 2001 invasion, but his support from former President Hamid Karzai and the U.S. catapulted him to rock-star status and head of security for Kandahar province, the epicenter of the Taliban insurgency.  Dubbed “Our Man in Kandahar” in Aikins’ Atlantic profile, Raziq received Petraeus (five times), Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and other top Americans at his home in Spin Boldak. His men were trained by none other than Blackwater, and armed to the teeth by U.S. forces, according to Aikins.

“Ah, yes, General David … a good man,” gushed General Raziq, as he recalled the visits from Petraeus in a November 2014 interview with the New York Times.

Just last year, the new ISAF commander Lt. Gen. John Anderson seemed to be carrying on the tradition, as he was captured in a photo with Raziq, his arm slung over the smiling Afghan in a seeming show of camaraderie.

TAC reached out to the Pentagon for this story and received a brief but timely response about the standards applied to the ALP. From spokesman Maj. Brad Avots:

The U.S. military funds the salaries of Afghan Local Police who are under the control of the Afghan Ministry of Interior …  In order to maintain international support and the trust and confidence of the Afghan people, (they) must demonstrate that they are effectively governed, respect the Rule of Law, and operate in accordance with the Afghan constitution and international obligations.

President Ghani is now trying to figure out a way to rein in “our man in Kandahar,” but it seems futile. Nasir Shansab, an Afghan-American author who spoke with TAC from Kabul, says he doesn’t have much confidence that Ghani, who has pledged to clean up corruption and bring war criminals to justice, will be successful.

He blames the U.S. for not encouraging better standards when they had the chance.

“They have simply looked the other way and never had the courage or willingness to tell the Afghan government there has to be rule of law. And I am very sad about that,” said Shansab.

“Right from the beginning the United States was here to win the war. They went to the warlords and armed them to wage the war. That pattern was established. And the warlords they all got rich and powerful because of the war and now they run the country the way they want to,” he said.

“That is the state of human rights in Afghanistan,” Shansab charged. “I hate to be so dark, but that is the truth of it.”

Ruttig says that while U.S. forces are withdrawing now, Petraeus’s legacy police are “shooting up like mushrooms.” They’ve taken to illegal tax collection to subsidize their ranks.

“There were a lot of formal precautions to take them under control,” Ruttig noted,  “but it was clear to everyone who set up these precautions they were not going be as strong as they were on paper.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

The DEA Strands Veterans

U.S. Army
U.S. Army

When ret. Sgt. Ben King came home from Iraq he was “high on his service,” but like many other veterans coming home from active duty at the time, the adrenaline eventually wore off and the pain settled in.

Suddenly, King, who served on an Army tactical psychological operations team (PSYOPS), was feeling less like a “warrior” and more like an old man. He had serious joint aches and couldn’t sleep well at night. He started self-medicating with alcohol and sleeping pills. He was becoming an emotional wreck.

“When I got back,” he explained to TAC, “I came back high on my service and proud of my service and very much the warrior. But little by little, things started wearing me down.”

King, now 34, is among a significant percentage of recent combat veterans suffering from chronic pain (44 percent) and/or symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (20 percent or more). They range from people like King who suffered emotional stress and muscle strain from the rigors of everyday combat life, to the thousands of men and women who survived the kinds of head and limb injuries that would have left them dead in wars just a generation ago.

Veterans along this scale have, up to now, turned to pills for pain, anxiety, depression, and insomnia—mostly because they relied on them before they got out of the military. When they got home, VA doctors found prescription meds an effective way to plow through the glut of patients flooding into hospitals in unanticipated numbers across the country.

But unfortunately, as has been reported here at TAC and in many other outlets, overmedication has led to the rampant misuse and abuse of pills, dependency, and even death. As Aaron Glantz wrote in a piece about the VA for the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2013, “Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the agency charged with helping veterans recover from war instead masks their pain with potent drugs, feeding addictions and contributing to a fatal overdose rate among VA patients that is nearly double the national average.”

Because of reporting like Glantz’s, and numerous studies both inside and outside the military and VA health system, things are beginning to change. Whether that ends up being good or bad for veterans, will depend on whether there are other options for the injured and disabled.

According to a Washington Post report in February, new federal Drug Enforcement Agency rules instituted last summer have restricted access to the number of opiates like Oxycontin and Vicodin that anyone, including veterans, can get per month. In other words, doctors cannot fill more than a 30-day supply of painkillers to anyone, anymore. This does not apply to drugs for depression, anxiety or insomnia. The changes came not only in response to veterans’ issues, but nationwide addiction and overdose statistics, what Centers for Disease Control has called a “growing, deadly epidemic,” backed up with data indicating that it is “the worst drug epidemic U.S. history.”

For some vets who welcome alternative pain management and who believe pill popping has taken over their lives, this is a welcome development. But for many others, the Post points out, it is a troubling one. Vets tied to the VA system often drive great distances to get to a government pharmacy, and the wait times for appointments at some facilities can be weeks, even months.

“Suddenly, the VA treats people on pain meds like the new lepers,” said Stephanie Schroeder, the wife of veteran Craig Schroeder. She told the Post her husband was injured in a makeshift-bomb explosion while serving in Iraq. He suffers from traumatic brain injury, hearing loss, a herniatic disc, and pain from a broken foot. He has been on a “steady regimen” of opioids ever since. Now, he’s had to wait five months for an appointment with the VA and his prescriptions have simply run out.

“It feels like they told us for years to take these drugs, didn’t offer us any other ideas, and now we’re suddenly demonized, second-class citizens,” she said.

Dr. Charles Ruby, who retired from the Air Force and is now working as a clinical psychologist and veterans advocate in the greater Washington, D.C., area, is a proponent of therapy vs. medication for PTSD sufferers. He acknowledges, too, that pain meds, especially in combination with psychotropic drugs, can be lethal. However, he is skeptical of what he says are the federal government’s arbitrary constraints on painkillers.

“It’s probably a good idea to manage the doling out of [opioids], but who does the managing, in my view, should be the prescribers, the doctors,” he told TAC, “not the DEA stepping in. The government is going with this brutish shotgun approach without judging the consequences.”

Veterans’ blogs have been lighting up with responses to the new rules, which many are calling onerous and resulting in withdrawal symptoms among users. Among the complaints, that vets are all being labeled addicts no matter the circumstances.

“Best I can tell, VA could have handled the change better and treated veterans affected with more compassion while they suffered through withdrawals,” writes disabled veteran and advocate Benjamin Krause, who runs “A big problem with the change was that VA failed to warn and did not explain exactly why the change was going on. Veterans that pushed for the painkillers they previously received were labeled as ‘drug seeking.’”

Many of Krause’s commenters said they would like to try medical marijuana as an alternative, but did not trust that even if they did so in a pot-friendly state such as Colorado, their federal benefits wouldn’t be at risk.

The VA did not respond for calls for comment. A Center for Investigative Journalism report in 2014 found that for years, the VA did not follow its own rules regarding the distribution of highly addictive painkillers—including morphine. All the while, VA prescriptions of narcotics jumped 270 percent between 2001 and 2012.

Ben King said he recognizes the struggle and is now a strong proponent of alternative treatments. After he was introduced to yoga at a D.C.-area VA, he became convinced he could lose the pills and booze. He now runs “Armor Down,” which supports “mindful meditation” as a healing approach for veterans.

“It was really rough for me to start thinking about pulling away from these things that I was using, which I felt were very valuable, very helpful,” he told TAC. But they were just blunting his symptoms, and only for short periods of time. King now believes meditation and other holistic remedies can work to help veterans transition to civilian life and even manage pain.

The VA has come to this realization, too, and in recent years has poured money into alternatives, including a $21.7 million initiative late last year that would study the effectiveness of such therapies—including the use of morning light to treat back-pain and PTSD, as well as hypnotherapy, chiropractors, and meditation to reduce chronic pain.

According to a December article in Medical Care, authors A. Rani Elwy and Stephanie Taylor presented 14 new studies on CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) therapies, saying the research showed “promising steps to improve the health of veterans and active military personnel.” They also cited statistics showing that CAM programs were offered in some form at 90 percent of VA medical facilities at the time.

King said the greatest obstacle has always been the stigma of such programs for the military culture. “What (the DEA rules) represent for the VA is a kind of pulling off of the Band-Aid,” he said. “If they VA can find a way to articulate the means of these (alternative) practices, they can have the opportunity to frame the changes as beneficial to everyone. But it’s going to take some guts.”

Several members of Congress have been pushing for funding for alternatives, too. Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., recently re-introduced her Expanding Care for Veterans Act, which would broaden research and access to CAM.

“(Complementary and alternative medicine) can help veterans manage chronic pain and reduce overuse of prescription drugs, which, as we now know, can lead to very serious health problems caused by addiction,” Brownley said in a statement to TAC.

However, in response to the new DEA restrictions, she warned, “The VA and DEA must also ensure that regulations aimed at preventing prescription drug abuse do so without compromising pain management.”

The reality is, not all sufferers can be expected to get through the day with Yoga or acupuncture. Their injuries are too serious. For vets who need to cut through the VA wait times or get to a pharmacy closer to home, the Veterans’ Affairs Choice Card program would allow them access private clinics. But so far, according to a recent VA report, only 27,000 out of the nine million eligible vets have bothered to use it.

One issue, according to the Washington Post, is that veterans have to wait months to be reimbursed by the VA for private care. Again, bureaucracy gets in the way.

Meanwhile, veterans feel labeled and abused, as though they are paying for others’ mistakes.  “Their policies regarding the prescription of opiate pain relievers are not only an atrocity against the disabled but are criminal in their application and enforcement,” raged one commenter.

“As usual, no one cares, and veterans who are suffering in agony remain voiceless and trapped in a government made nightmare.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

Abu Ghraib Goes to Court

The world was so scandalized by the images of American soldiers forcing naked Iraqi detainees to pile into pyramids, leashing them and cornering them with dogs—not to mention the dead bodies flanked by men and women in camouflage giving the “thumbs up” sign—that the words “Abu Ghraib” will be forever associated with a sense of depravity and shame.

But nowhere to be seen in those photographs were the civilian contractors accused of setting the horror at the infamous Iraqi prison into motion, long before the scandal broke in 2004. These men managed to stay in the shadows, out of range of the camera, though subsequent military investigations confirm they were there all along.

These were the private contractors from CACI Inc., and Titan Corporation (later L-3 Communications), which provided interrogators and translators, respectively, to the prison. They were fingered as puppeteers of a kind in the Iraq War’s worst abuse scandal. According to testimony by lower-level guards from the 372nd Military Police Company who were convicted and did time for their role in the abuse, the guards were ordered by the private contractors working at the jail to “soften up” the prisoners, and were even given ideas of how to do it.

This was confirmed in the first official Army investigation by Maj. General Antonio Taguba, which examined the military police role, and another by Major General George Fay, which looked at the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade. Both criticized the contractors’ role on site.

The Taguba report names names, including CACI interrogator Steven “Big Steve” Stefanowiz, who became known as a ringleader, inspiring a newly installed Cpl. Charles Graner—yes, that Graner—to use a number of abusive techniques with the prisoners, including stripping them naked, forcing them to endure stress positions, and inducing sexual humiliation.

From Taguba:

[Stafanowiz] Allowed and/or instructed MPs, who were not trained in interrogation techniques, to facilitate interrogations by “setting conditions” which were neither authorized and in accordance with applicable regulations/policy. He clearly knew his instructions equated to physical abuse.

But neither Stefanowiz, nor any civilian interrogator, was ever reprimanded, as recommended in the report, much less charged with any crime. Nine out of the 11 individuals convicted were non-officers, while one additional officer received a non-judicial reprimand and was relieved of duty and another faced a series of charges but was later acquitted.

Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who had been commanding officer at the prison (and highest ranking woman in the war), probably took the biggest hit for the team—she was demoted to colonel in 2005 for an unrelated charge. She believes the demotion was political retaliation for her public view that the abusive practices were led by contractors and approved higher up the governmental food chain. This familiar but never officially prosecuted charge was bolstered by revelations in 2005 that former Guantanamo Bay commander Geoffrey Miller had instituted the same techniques at Gitmo (including the use of dogs and forced nakedness) before he helped set up detention operations at Abu Ghraib at the beginning of the war.

Many of the degrading and abusive techniques at Abu Ghraib—the beating, stress positions, protracted isolation, sleep deprivation—also mirror some of the CIA’s post-9/11 interrogation practices revealed in the newly-released executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee “Torture Report.”

“It’s been documented that the authority emanated from the highest level of government,” said Jonathan Hafetz, an associate professor of law at Seton Hall University and former senior attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Torture was official U.S. policy—and it played out in a number of different ways, including through abuse by private contractors.” But so far, critics like Hafetz lament, contractors have avoided culpability for their direct involvement in prisoner abuses, as alleged in the official Army reports.

They have not escaped entirely scot-free, however. Scores of former detainees have retained American attorneys and have taken the private military companies to federal district court, accusing both CACI and Titan of, among other charges, cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; torture; war crimes; assault and battery; sexual assault; intentional infliction of emotional distress; and aiding the military handlers in all of these crimes.

In 2013, Titan Corporation settled with 70 Iraqis for $5 million. CACI, however, which made billions in the war, has been steadfast in maintaining its innocence and has not offered to settle. They have fought various lawsuits all the way. Former CEO and recognized face of CACI, J. Phillip “Jack” London, wrote a book about it, called Our Good Name: A Company’s Fight to Defend Its Honor and Get the Truth Told About Abu Ghraib, in 2008. 

A judge even ordered, upon CACI’s request, that the impoverished Iraqis suing the company in Al Shimari v. CACI pay the multibillion-dollar company’s legal fees—nearly $14,000—when the district court threw the case out in 2013.

In that decision, the court said it didn’t have the jurisdiction under the Alien Tort Act (ATS) to review the case, citing Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, which held that the ATS only applies to conduct taking place in the U.S or on the high seas.

Forcing the Iraqis to pay CACI’s fees was only one indignity inflicted upon the abused. The court insisted that at least three Iraqis had to be in court for the case to proceed, but their attorney Baher Azmy of the Center for Constitutional Rights said at the time, “There is some inexplicable block by some agency in the U.S. government that’s preventing them from coming here.”

But now the tide has seemingly turned. The Iraqis got a boost last summer when the Fourth District Court of Appeals found that the Virginia District Court erred when it tossed out the case, and that Kiobel could not be so narrowly applied in Shimari, remanding the case back to Virginia.

On Feb. 6 of this year, both sides gave oral arguments to Judge Gerald Bruce Lee in the federal district court in Alexandria. CACI is now arguing that the “political question doctrine” immunizes them from suit, because the court is barred from second-guessing military command decisions in wartime. They also say that the military is immune from such lawsuits, so as agents operating strictly under the military chain of command, the private military contractor is exempt as well. According to this November filing by CACI’s lawyers, the military had controlled “all aspects of interrogations” at the prison and exercised “total control” over the CACI interrogators.


CACI isn’t the first contractor to use these arguments and surely won’t be the last. In fact, numerous lawsuits by not only foreign plaintiffs, but also American soldiers who feel they were harmed by private contractors in the warzone, are making their way through the system. Decisions in any one of them could have an impact on the others.


For example, just last month the Supreme Court declined a request by KBR Inc. and former parent company Halliburton to review two lawsuits against the private contractor relating to its work in Iraq. One is a class action suit by hundreds of veterans who say they were made sick by the burn pits under the purview of KBR, which had a waste management contract with the U.S. The other is a suit by the family of a soldier who was electrocuted in a base shower built by a KBR subcontractor in Iraq.

KBR, which has denied wrongdoing in both cases, has said it should be shielded with same immunity from lawsuits as the military, and is also protected under the same “political question doctrine” as CACI is using in the Abu Ghraib case.

While the District Court in each case agreed with KBR and granted dismissals, they were both overturned by the Circuit Court of Appeals. By refusing to get involved, the Supreme Court effectively sent the cases back to the District Courts, where the plaintiffs hope to get a trial.

“You cannot look at these cases in a vacuum,” says Steve Vladeck, a law professor at American University who has written extensively on contractor liability issues, including the political question doctrine and other defenses, at the Lawfare blog.  “In all of these cases where you have private military contractors being sued in court for conduct in Iraq and Afghanistan they have invoked the same battery of defenses.”

The contractor lawsuits are taking place in a shifting gray area in which there is little solid precedent, but tiny convenient legal shelters into which companies are trying to hide, hoping the suits will go away. Will the political question doctrine and immunity argument be the sanctuaries they are looking for? Observers say there is no hard and fast litmus test, and like everything with war contractors, new cases seem everywhere, ready to set a standard.

Meanwhile, Congress has not stepped in to clarify the law as it applies to contractors in war, even as the U.S. government has outsourced more of today’s military operations to civilians than it has in any other conflict in its history. The question about what to do when those hired by the government are accused of abuse and negligence is something the Supreme Court may have to deal with more assertively, sooner or later.

As for the legacy of Abu Ghraib, the former detainees want their day in court, and for the time being, they are getting their wish.

“I think in general, the government’s record in prosecuting torture and other misconduct in Iraq and elsewhere has been extremely disappointing,” Hafetz tells TAC. “But contractors should remain liable, and I think that’s what the courts are suggesting here. They should be held to account.”

Calls to CACI and its attorneys were not returned, nor were calls to the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing the plaintiffs in Shimari v. CACI.

A Blackwater World Order

After more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, America’s most profound legacy could be that it set the world order back to the Middle Ages.

While this is a slight exaggeration, a recent examination by Sean McFate, a former Army paratrooper who later served in Africa working for Dyncorp International and is now an associate professor at the National Defense University, suggests that the Pentagon’s dependence on contractors to help wage its wars has unleashed a new era of warfare in which a multitude of freshly founded private military companies are meeting the demand of an exploding global market for conflict.

“Now that the United States has opened the Pandora’s Box of mercenarianism,” McFate writes in The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What they Mean for World Order, “private warriors of all stripes are coming out of the shadows to engage in for-profit warfare.”

It is a menacing thought. McFate said this coincides with what he and others have called a current shift from global dominance by nation-state power to a “polycentric” environment in which state authority competes with transnational corporations, global governing bodies, non-governmental organizations (NGO’s), regional and ethnic interests, and terror organizations in the chess game of international relations. New access to professional private arms, McFate further argues, has cut into the traditional states’ monopoly on force, and hastened the dawn of this new era.

McFate calls it neomedievalism, the “non-state-centric and multipolar world order characterized by overlapping authorities and allegiances.” States will not disappear, “but they will matter less than they did a century ago.” He compares this coming environment to the order that prevailed in Europe before the domination of nation-states with their requisite standing armies.

In this period, before the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 ended decades of war and established for the first time territorially defined sovereign states, political authority in Europe was split among competing power brokers that rendered the monarchs equal players, if not weaker ones. The Holy Roman Emperor, the papacy, bishoprics, city-states, dukedoms, principalities, chivalric orders–all fought for their piece with hired free companies, or mercenary enterprises of knights-turned profiteers.

As progenitors of today’s private military companies (PMCs), free companies were “organized as legal corporations, selling their services to the highest or most powerful bidder for profit,” McFate writes. Their ranks “swelled with men from every corner of Europe” and beyond, going where the fighting was until it wasn’t clear whether these private armies were simply meeting the demand or creating it.

In an interview with TAC, McFate said the parallels between that period in history and today’s global proliferation of PMCs cannot be ignored. He traces their modern origins to the post-Cold War embrace of privatization in both Washington and London, both pioneers in military outsourcing, which began in earnest in the 1980s.

By the time the U.S. decided to invade Iraq and stay there in 2003, its smaller peacetime military force structure could not withstand the burden. The Pentagon increasingly relied on contractors to support and wage the war.

“Policy makers, when they started the war in Iraq, they didn’t think it would last beyond a few weeks. They had three terrible choices – they could withdraw prematurely, they could institute a Vietnam-era draft … or they could contract out. So they chose to contract it out,” McFate said. “That is why you have it now and why it is not regulated.”

The U.S. used contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan more than it had in any war in its history: in 2010 there were more contractors deployed to war zones (207,000) than U.S. servicemembers (175,000). In World War II, contractors only made up 10 percent of the military workforce, according to McFate.

From 1999 to 2008, at the peak of the wars, Pentagon spending on outsourcing alone increased from $165 billion to $466 billion a year. Attempts at oversight have been pathetic, as documented by the government’s own inspectors general time and again. Success at regulating or imposing codes of conduct on contractors has proven elusive, too. The industry remains as opaque as it has been unassailable where it really counts—the pocketbook.

“The industry is here to stay; it’s not going anywhere,” said McFate a former employee of Dyncorp, which cut its teeth in Bosnia. Dyncorp thrived as one of Washington’s primary contractors for both security and reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq despite intermittent accusations of overbilling and underperformance on the job.

Perhaps the most infamous of all contractors was Blackwater, which deflected charges of fraud, violence against civilians and murder for years before it was forced to “rebrand.” Four of its former guards were convicted of murder in October, however, in connection with the massacre of 17 Iraqis in Nisour Square in 2007.

Blackwater’s founder Erik Prince has dipped and dodged his way through several incarnations of his company (no longer “Blackwater,” it was renamed “Xe” and is now “Academi”), and has been successful at running a number of other so-called shell companies and international security operations inside and outside of the U.S. government trough, including anti-piracy enterprises in North Africa.

In his post-American days (Prince left the U.S. for Abu Dhabi in 2010 amid a series of federal charges and lawsuits dogging Blackwater), Prince perched himself “at the top of the management chain” at Saracen International, a security group made up of hard-core mercenary veterans hired in 2009 to train indigenous forces in Puntland, Somalia, and to serve as a security detail for the embattled president of the fragile central government in Mogadishu.

Saracen was officially kicked out of Somalia in 2011 after accusations were made that it was violating the country’s arms embargo. According to Jeremy Scahill’s seminal “Dirty Wars”, however, by 2013 it was not clear that Saracen had ever left, and it was likely still operating in Somalia at the time with a handful of other international PMCs, including Dyncorp.

This is the world that Prince has both made and has thrived in. According to McFate, “‘irregular’ warfare is more regular than the ‘regular’ warfare,” as the number of internal conflicts have tripled while interstate wars have dwindled in number since a peak in 1965. As a result, PMCs have been used increasingly over the last 15 years by countries, NGOs, and corporations alike to protect ships on the high seas and oil fields in the deserts, to secure humanitarian missions, to raise armies against insurgencies, and to serve as security details at embassies, military bases, and palaces across the Middle East and beyond.

On the darker side, many of the multinationals once on the U.S. dole as PMCs in places like Iraq have since started their own enterprises and taken their skills to clients no matter the mission. They are hard to track, and impossible to rein in.

For example, before Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi was killed, he hired mercenaries from across Africa, “to brutally suppress the popular revolt against him,” McFate points out. Likewise, papers reported in 2011 that one of Prince’s companies, Reflex Responses, was hired to raise a force of several hundred guards for the emir of Abu Dhabi, to “assist the UAE government with intelligence gathering, security, counterterrorism and suppression of any revolts.”

By no means has the U.S. stopped using PMCs—they are protecting diplomats in Afghanistan and Iraq, training foreign militaries, and conducting intelligence. At this point they are more agile and better equipped to do this work overseas than even their military paymasters, McFate argues, and their use prevents the public angst—and scrutiny—that accompanies putting American soldiers into harms way.

“The argument about private militaries being here to stay – that is the truth or unfortunate truth depending on your position,” said Peter Singer, senior fellow for the Future War project at the New America Foundation and author of Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry.

“For those who thought this would all be over with the end of Iraq 2.0 or Obama’s presidential victory, the facts just don’t bear that out,” he told TAC in an interview. Singer agrees with McFate’s assessments in Modern Mercenary, which he said
“mixes the analytic and academic side with his own personal experiences working for one of the firms; that combination is rare in this space.”

McFate details for the first time in public how he was hired by Dyncorp on behalf of a secret U.S. contract to help prevent a group of Hutu rebels, the Forces Nationales de Liberation (FNL), from sparking another genocide of the Tutsis during the ongoing civil war in Burundi. McFate was tasked at one point with guarding the president of Burundi from impending assassination. The president remained safe, and the civil war was brought to an end by 2005.

McFate said he wrote about this, and Dyncorp’s training of the Liberian army in 2011, to show in part that PMCs can be used to positive ends. But he is not naïve. He is clear about where they can fail, invite mission creep, or seize power for clients through violence. By their very nature, PMCs profit from conflict and are always at risk of creating and expanding it for their own benefit. McFate cites numerous examples throughout history in which mercenaries have played both sides, only to come out with full pockets.

In addition, private armies live by no rules of war or international conventions; here, Erik Prince is the best example. PMCs can hide in countries with the lowest standards and norms. They have access to a global arms trade and the latest military technology, including drones. They are a risk to civilian populations, and their operations are never transparent. “You can FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) the CIA, you can’t FOIA this industry,” said McFate.

So what to do? McFate suggests that banning PMCs or trying to regulate them into submission won’t work because it would only drive them underground and into the realm of rogues. He suggests letting the market work to “incentivize desirable practices by making them profitable” might be the best course. He notes, however, that when the U.S. military had “market power” and was in the best position to set price and practices at the beginning of its wars, it “failed to do so.”

Whether the cons of private contracting outweigh the pros is a debate McFate chooses not engage, and his background as both soldier and contractor figure heavily in the tenor of his book. “I leave it deliberately up to the reader,” he said. “The book is not an argument; it’s more about exploration. There is a big global trend happening right under our feet. I think we are in the precipice of a big decision.” That decision is how to deal with the privatization of war effectively, if at all.

It will not be easy. U.S. agencies knowingly hired companies with spotty records. They used private contractors for controversial secret operations, including the detainee interrogations at Abu Ghraib, and a covert CIA assassination program involving Blackwater. It will take a lot more trust in Washington to believe that “best practices” in this industry can genuinely come from government itself.

“In an idealized world the companies with the best practices and best performance records would end up with all the contracts, and the bad actors would be eliminated from the field,” said Singer. “That hasn’t happened in regular business, much less when you cross regular business with what you call politics.”

Or war. Get your seat belt on, because if McFate is right, it is “back to the future,” and any choice we might have had in the matter is long gone.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

David Petraeus’s Double Standard

When CIA officer John Kiriakou was convicted of revealing the name of an agent allegedly involved in the torture of a prisoner, then-CIA director David Petraeus heralded the court’s decision as “an important victory for our Agency, for our Intelligence Community, and for our country.”

“Oaths do matter, and there are indeed consequences for those who believe they are above the laws that protect our fellow officers and enable American intelligence agencies to operate with the requisite degree of secrecy,” he said in a statement on Oct. 23, 2012.

Less than a month later it would be revealed that former general Petraeus had broken his own oath, to his wife Holly, admitting to an affair with a woman who had once been his subordinate in the Army. In the course of the investigation that exposed the affair with Paula Broadwell—who was also his biographer—the FBI found he might have broken another oath, to the CIA (the affair supposedly began after he began his directorship there). Investigators suspected that the celebrated retired general had given her access to classified information that she was not authorized to have.

At the time, President Obama assured there was no indication that Petraeus passed along material “that in any way would have had a negative impact on our national security.”

This month, however, sources inside the Justice Department suddenly leaked that they have enough evidence to recommend felony charges against Petraeus for providing classified information to Broadwell. The New York Times, in breaking the news, suggested that investigators were frustrated that higher-ups had been dragging their feet on the case, that the man once called “King David,” was receiving “special treatment at a time Mr. [Attorney General Eric] Holder has led a crackdown on government officials who reveal secrets to journalists.”

For his part, Petraeus has insisted all along that he did not pass along classified material to his former mistress, and according to the Times, is uninterested in making any plea “that would spare him an embarrassing trial.”

Reaction has been swift and predictable. Official Washington and the elite media have rushed to Petraeus’s defense, rebuking the unnamed sources inside the Justice Department as overzealous and vindictive and possibly having ulterior motives for dragging the beloved “four star” through the mud.

“No American deserves such callous treatment, let alone one of America’s finest military leaders whose selfless service and sacrifice have inspired young Americans in uniform and likely saved many of their lives,” Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a joint statement.

Calling him “the four star general of our generation” and “a very brilliant man,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who once demanded no quarter for Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning and Edward Snowden—whistleblowers both—appeared to suggest a man’s personal appeal and status qualify as mitigating factors in a potential felony prosecution.

“This man has suffered enough in my view,” Feinstein told CNN on Jan. 11. “It’s done, it’s over. He’s retired. He’s lost his job,” Feinstein said. “I mean, how much does the government want?”

The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald was aghast when he heard the audio of her full remarks during an interview on Democracy Now on Jan. 12, calling it, “actually one of the most disgusting remarks you’ll ever hear.”

Now, what’s so amazing about that is that, first of all, the United States imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world for trivial transgressions. You would never hear Dianne Feinstein or any of those people in Washington saying about ordinary people, ‘Oh, they’ve suffered enough. They’ve lost their jobs. They’ve been taken away from their family. Let’s free them from prison.

“Maybe I’m wrong, but as I seem to remember from middle school government class, lady justice is supposed to wear a blindfold,” said Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, in a recent email exchange with TAC. He continued:

If the FBI has sufficient evidence of wrongdoing, then it ought to present those findings to a court for the consideration of indictment.  If they do not have sufficient evidence, the case needs to be closed and the suspicions related to Mr. Petraeus removed. But the stature of Mr. Petraeus, his past accomplishments, or what he may have suffered owing to self-inflicted misbehavior he may have committed should bear no weight whatsoever in the decision.

It is no secret that since leaving the CIA in a cloud of shame, Petraeus has nonetheless enjoyed a lucrative post-career, beginning with a $220,000 a year pension paid for by the U.S. taxpayer. He is also teaching at CUNY (he was forced to give up the six figure salary there after students and faculty protested), and the University of Southern California. He has a perch at Harvard, and was hired in 2013 by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, the private equity giant best known for “large debt-fueled corporate takeovers.”

While Broadwell was stripped of her security clearances, Petraeus reportedly retains his. Hardly an outcast, he has consulted with the White House on current troubles in Iraq—a war he was unable to fully win as head of U.S. Central Command, despite a barrage of accolades testifying to the contrary.

Meanwhile, Kiriakou has been in a federal prison with violent offenders for cellmates for more than two years. His wife Heather, who was pushed out of her job as a top CIA analyst three years ago—before John was even convicted—is struggling to pay the mortgage on their home while raising three young children alone. When he finally gets out in early February, he will be under house arrest until May, with little opportunity to get his family out of the enormous debt they have accumulated over the past several years since he was indicted.

Some would say that is “suffering.” But unlike the relative quiet it kept about Kiriakou’s humiliations when they were happening, the Beltway hive is already fighting—and seemingly winning—Petraeus’s battle for public opinion. If there was any doubt that the man who sold counterinsurgency (COIN) and two massively expensive (and failed) military surges to Washington is the Don Draper of the military age, one need only see how, with seemingly little effort, Petraeus is already being spun as a victim of the Obama administration’s runaway war on leaks, with the political establishment, media, and even the conservative grassroots closing ranks around him.

For his debut column at Politico last week, veteran newsman Jack Shafer penned “In Defense of David Petraeus,” which takes the Obama administration to task for over-classification and its crackdown on leakers. In defense of Shafer, he has been writing about these issues for some time and has nominally defended Edward Snowden. But he seems to compare Petraeus’s transgressions to writing bad checks and was never so breathless when talking about Kiriakou.

Neoconservative writer Eli Lake, who recently went over to Bloomberg News, also takes aim at the Obama administration in his Jan. 10 analysis, “Petraeus Caught in Obama’s War on Leaks.”

At first, Lake hints at the double standard, noting that high-level security-state offenders, if indeed that is what Petraeus is, “are almost never punished as harshly as low- and mid-level analysts,” using as an example Thomas Drake, a former NSA executive who lost his security clearance and his career, and who is now working at a Washington D.C.-area Apple Store following an aborted prosecution by the government in 2011.

Drake, a whistleblower who sacrificed his livelihood to bring attention to the unconstitutionality of the NSA’s post-9/11 data collection, has suffered, and with little or no public sympathy. The government wanted to prosecute him under the Espionage Act, thinking he had leaked information about President Bush’s warrantless surveillance program, but it couldn’t make the case. He lost everything anyway.

Lake acknowledges that, “admittedly, Petraeus played a supporting role in the administration crackdown” on leakers by taking agency credit for Kiriakou’s demise. But that is as far as Lake is willing to go. He minimizes allegations that Petraeus engaged in more than just pillow talk with his former mistress:

when Broadwell—a graduate of West Point—was writing her first biography of him, she was given access to top secret information covering the period in which Petraeus commanded allied forces in Afghanistan. This arrangement is common in Washington for established authors. Sources for Bob Woodward, whose books often disclose classified information that is provided to him through semi-official leaks, are not investigated for betraying state secrets.

Meanwhile, Petraeus has his right flank covered, too. The conservative grassroots believe he’s being blackmailed by the Obama administration over what he knows about the 2012 attacks on the American mission in Benghazi. They also sense this is a ploy to keep Petraeus from running for the White House in 2016. In the wake of the Times’ report on possible charges against Petraeus, Judge Andrew Napolitano took to the Fox News airwaves to rake Obama over the coals:

David Petraeus was the head of the CIA at the time of Benghazi … David Patraeus was mentioned as a vice presidential candidate. You can’t ethically or lawfully use the threat of a prosecution for political purposes but I am not naïve—it has happened before and it will happen again.

As national-security journalist Kevin Gosztola tells TAC, there is every reason to criticize the administration for its proliferating leak prosecutions and its zeal for using the Espionage Act to punish truth-tellers and whistleblowers. But all the evidence (that we know of) in the Petraeus case suggests that an “oath” was broken in order to sell a book, for the benefit of what turned out to be a bloated hagiography about a general who for years seemed more intent on preserving appearances and managing politics than actually telling the truth about America’s wars. Gosztola is not ready to make Petreaus a martyr to the cause.

Gosztola, who has been one of Kiriakou’s few links to the outside world writes: 

Petraeus should be prosecuted to send a message that leaks for personal gain are wrong. And, when elites feel disgusted or scoff at Petraeus’ prosecution [because they like to fawn over him], they can join the efforts of whistleblower advocates to end the use of the Espionage Act in leak prosecutions. They can help deal with the issue of rampant over-classification and push for changes in how the government goes about punishing people to “protect” the sanctity of American secrets.

The potential indictment of Petraeus raises a number of questions. While critics loathe him for his politicization, if not expansion, of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they resent, perhaps more, the power of the state to use government secrecy and the threat of prosecution to silence dissent and quash efforts at open information. They look at unpunished leaking that benefits the state and chafe at the inequities.

That leaves Petraeus’s detractors, who would normally be thrilled at the idea of his comeuppance, in the awkward position of having to defend the general against the government. Or not.

“The problem is the rank hypocrisy,” said Tom Drake, who of all people might want to see someone like Petreaus in the hot seat, “and the use of the Espionage Act to chill anybody that [the] powers-that-be deem necessary to quell with respect to source information.”

“It is the power of the surveillance state that threatens all of our individual privacy, movement, association, and beyond—including Petraeus.”

Drake is a stalwart of the civil-libertarian cause, but it will be interesting to see how many Johnny-come-latelies suddenly take up this banner to defend Petraeus. Because of this deft spin, and for political reasons we cannot even begin to disentangle, he can’t seem to lose—the Teflon general.

“No,” said one military source who has known Petraeus since West Point, “nothing will stick to Petraeus.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

Bureaucrats With Berettas

terrordome vilsack agriculture tank press conference

It’s a morning Kenneth Wright will never forget: 15 armed agents break in his front door and grab him by the neck, still in the boxer shorts he slept in. For six hours, a handcuffed Wright sat in a cruiser parked outside with his three children, ages 3, 7, and 11, while agents searched his house.

“They put me in handcuffs in that hot patrol car for six hours, traumatizing my kids,” the Stockton, Calif., resident told a local news outlet at the time.

Drugs? Weapons? Domestic violence? No. As Wright later found out, his gun-toting visitors were from the Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General (OIG). What the neighbors mistook as a S.W.A.T. team raid was really the execution of a search warrant in a student loan fraud case involving Wright’s wife, who wasn’t even there at the time.

“They busted down my door for this,” he exclaimed, “it wasn’t even me.”

The Department of Education took a drubbing from conservative and libertarian media but was unrepentant in its explanation. It offered no information on what the search warrant was for, other than to say that the OIG got it signed by a federal judge, and that the OIG routinely executes warrants for bribery, embezzlement, fraud, “and other criminal activity.” The department also said it “assesses” the danger of each search based on “a number of factors” before bringing the guns, like the whether the “persons” known to be at the house have a criminal or violent history.

Wright had no previous record, according to the above-mentioned report.

It might come as a surprise to most Americans, but the DOE considers its inspector general’s office to be its “law enforcement” arm and has outfitted it as such. In 2010, the department purchased 27 Remington Brand Model 870 police 12-gauge shotguns to replace its old firearms. “OIG operates with full law enforcement authority,” the department said after the Stockton incident.

And it was right. After the 9/11 attacks, the Homeland Security Act of 2002 gave inspector generals’ offices across the federal spectrum statutory authority to build up such law enforcement capabilities—including the right to carry weapons and arrest people.

Not surprisingly, as the nation debates the militarization of local and state police in the wake of several high-profile use of force cases, the proliferation of the law enforcement culture within the federal bureaucracy has largely gone unnoticed. The fact is, agencies whose prime directive is to audit and investigate regulatory transgressions like waste, fraud and abuse, are arming up with rifles and submachine guns—in essence, getting ready for battle.

“Not only is it overkill, but having these highly-armed units within dozens of agencies is duplicative, costly, heavy handed, dangerous and destroys any sense of trust between citizens and the federal government,” declared Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, in a statement to TAC. He plans to re-introduce language he sponsored in the last session that would repeal the authority given to the OIGs in 2002 and prohibit any federal agency outside “those traditionally tasked with enforcing federal law,” like the FBI and federal marshals, to get their hands on machine guns, grenades, and other military weapons.

In May last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) OIG put a bid out for 85 submachine guns (original solicitation here), specifically “.40 Cal. (Smith & Wesson), ambidextrous safety, semi-automatic or 2 shot burst trigger group,” outfitted with “Tritium night sights for front and rear, rails for attachment of flashlight (front under fore grip), scope (top rear) and stock-collapsible or folding, magazine.”

In September, a contract went out to Heckler & Koch Defense Inc., a weapons outfit in Northern Virginia, for $126, 586 worth of “weapons” for the OIG with no additional detail available. On the Heckler & Koch website, the gun closest to the solicitation is the MP5/40 Smith & Wesson.

Broiled by bad press after news of the solicitation and subsequent contract to Heckler & Koch, the USDA OIG responded with a five-page backgrounder—and justification—in October. “OIG’s investigations handles, on average, over 800 criminal investigations each year, some of which place OIG agents in potentially life-threatening situations,” it read.

The USDA said its statutory authority dates back to the Agriculture and Food Act of 1981 which gives the OIG authority to “make arrests, execute warrants for arrest, the search of premises or the seizure of evidence; and carry firearms.”

“Although most OID enforcement activities do not result in a use of force related incident, a seemingly routing action such as an interview, surveillance, or search-arrest warrants always has the potential to turn into a dangerous deadly situation,” the agency argued, going on to list 11 cases dating back to 1997 in which OIG investigators were directly or indirectly threatened, or involved massive amounts of drugs, weapons and criminal activity.

“Carrying situation-appropriate firearms and wearing ballistic vests, as necessary, can reduce the possibility that criminal suspects engage OIG special agents or other persons in physical violence or use of firearms,” the agency said. So what about the 85 sub-machine guns?

The agency says the guns are not “fully automatic” capable and would “be carried by OIG special agents only when a particular arrest or search warrant is deemed as high risk for danger.”

One might ask two things: 1) whether the “crime” and “danger” should dictate that traditional law enforcement like the FBI step in rather than the USDA’s OIG, and 2) Why the OIG, which is has traditionally looked inward to tackle fraud and abuse among USDA’s programs, is increasingly pursuing cockfighting rings and meth labs on farms.

It isn’t new, says Washington, D.C., attorney Patrick O’Donnell, whose work in part requires that he defend corporate clients and individuals in federal cases quite like the ones pursued by these OIGs every day. He says the complexity of federal law has pushed the boundaries of what violations of a regulation constitutes a “crime” and the OIGs have taken full advantage, pursuing the more “glamorous” path of arming up.

“Those who do this on the defense side don’t carry guns—I can’t carry a gun. I work in Washington D.C. where they are basically outlawed,” he tells TAC. “But I personally don’t feel the need to be armed.” He said aside from his government cases, he has defended clients in both white-collar crimes and in pro-bono criminal defense cases. “I’ve done a lot of them in rough neighborhoods with rough folks—I know what cases tend to be threatening or not threatening. So this strikes me as outlandish.”

O’Donnell and colleague Brita Strandberg recently penned an op-ed, “We Don’t Need a Pistol-Packing FCC Inspector General’s Office,” for the National Law Journal. The FCC’s OIG David L. Hunt has testified that his office would like to hire two criminal investigators, who would be armed, to carry out what he says are potentially dangerous investigations going on both inside the agency’s programs and outside fraud and theft cases, typically involving federal communications subsidies like the Video Relay Service or the Universal Service Fund and its four major programs.

Hunt has argued that the office lacks the tools to go after more of these crimes effectively and must wait for FBI/DOJ investigators, whose time is split, to do the job. “However, if we were to have the support of criminal investigators, we could develop a case to a further point on our own rather than consume DOJ and FBI resources,” he told a House subcommittee in September.

As for the guns, “OIG investigators will be able to securely enter premises to interview witnesses in situations where it may be unwise to do so without the assistance of the FBI,” Hunt said, pointing an ongoing cases where “we have been advised not to conduct interviews because of possible safety concerns.”

Hunt told TAC last week that, “the focus on the weaponry is frustrating; all we are saying is if you want to investigate crime you have to have people trained to do that.” He said his office oversees a nexus of $10 billion in taxpayer money and is their job to keep it from leaking out into the wrong hands—whether that is embezzlement on the inside or among potentially dangerous actors outside.

“We’re like internal affairs at a police department but with a huge program (Universal Service Fund)—a number of huge programs on the outside too,” Hunt tells TAC. “Congress did not just task us to look on the inside.”

O’Donnell says it’s no surprise that FCC and other OIGs “are turning outward in the world, and not inward to the agency. ” The former invites possible law enforcement action, is higher profile, and tends to get more press.

“There is nothing glamorous about taking a hard line on the FCC and critically pointing out its shortcomings,” he said, referring to internal audits required by the OIG. “But to say you helped bust someone ripping off a program and to say you helped prosecute them and you have to carry a gun as a federal agent—well that’s more glamorous.”

So far, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has been unwilling to green light Hunt’s request to add two criminal investigators to his 39-member staff. In a statement to TAC, Wheeler’s office said: 

Chairman Wheeler values and supports the independence of the Office of the Inspector General. The question of whether to permit armed employees in FCC buildings and field offices raises important security and employee safety questions. The Chairman has not made a final decision. The Office of the Chairman has discussed public safety concerns with the Inspector General and is consulting other agencies on their practices.

Critics like O’Donnell and others suggest that once these agencies have the ability to build law enforcement capabilities, the need to justify them inevitably grows, too, as does the proliferation of their trappings, including weapons and “tactical” gear (the USDA’s Animal and Plant Inspection service paid $10,000 for a sniper rifle in 2010, for example)—not unlike the militarization of local and state police departments everywhere in the nation today.

“We are already far down this road,” he said. “There is no shortage of law enforcement in America. Quite the opposite.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

Afghanistan’s Still-Broken Government

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Afghan presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah (left) and Ashraf Ghani (right) on August 8, 2014. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Afghan presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah (left) and Ashraf Ghani (right) on August 8, 2014. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Newly elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, a technocrat with broad Western support who promised to bring his troubled country into the 21st century, has something in his government he hadn’t counted on: a shadow.

Thanks to a power-sharing agreement that the United States helped to push on Ghani, the president has a prime minister, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, a former finance minister and top Northern Alliance official who had all but threatened civil war if he was not given a place at the head of the government along with Ghani. Abdullah got his wish, but longtime observers say the “sharing” may have created the conditions for a civil war anyway.

“I think forcing the two to share power is a recipe for disaster,” said Otilie English who worked on and off in Kabul throughout the decade after 9/11, mostly on government teaching contracts. Before 9/11 she did human rights lobbying, and worked to promote the cause of the Northern Alliance against the Taliban in Washington. She has no illusions that Afghanistan has turned a corner since.

“I really think the country is evolving back to conditions prior to the civil war in the 90’s in which Kabul was destroyed.”

A return to the 1990s would be the worst-case scenario, but it is just as likely that the central government will be a conflicting mess of tribalism, ethnic competition, and corruption—in other words, it will be no different than it is today. The first indication that things are going south are that it’s been a month since the so-called united government was formed, yet there is no government because the two sides cannot agree on who will be running the ministries.

“Power-sharing agreements can only succeed when there is political order, backed by internal security arrangement and an effective state-building mechanism,” said human rights activist Nemat Sadat.

“Unfortunately, in Afghanistan, with the escalation of attacks in Kabul and throughout Afghanistan occurring since the inauguration and the inability to decide new ministers who can create an effective state-building mechanism, and the U.S. and allied countries running for the exits, you have a power vacuum.”

Tony Cordesman, senior national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), points out that on every measurable front, Afghanistan is descending into crisis. “They [the metrics] are truly dismal,” he said, from economic growth and poverty, to security and governance. CSIS has just issued two reports with reams of data to prove his point.

“Just remember—and this often gets lost—Afghanistan is a country that regardless of who is elected, would have truly major governance problems. It is one of the worst governed countries in the world.”

Afghanistan’s recent open election—the country’s first without Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-installed leader who was constitutionally mandated to step down after two terms—was supposed to help turn the governance problem around.

TAC wrote about the elections this past summer, when Ghani and Abdullah went into a run-off after all of the eight competing candidates failed to get 50 percent of the vote in the April elections. Abdullah led April’s voting with 44 percent, compared to Ghani’s 31 percent. By July’s election, however, things had turned ugly as it was announced that Ghani was leading Abdullah 56 percent to 43 percent.

In one respect, the shift in numbers was not surprising—in American terms, think of it like an eight-way race in which six candidates are Republicans and two are Democrat. One candidate from each party emerges from the first round, and then the Republican benefits by consolidating the others’ votes in the two-way run-off. Ghani and five other candidates were all ethnic Pashtuns, while Abdullah and is Tajik and Pashtun but hails from the Northern Alliance, which was a Tajik resistance movement.

Nonetheless, Abdullah would not accept the results, charging widespread fraud. When he made the same accusations four years before against Karzai, it turned out that he was right. But this time, the situation was more complicated, observers said, and any fraud like ballot stuffing could turn out to have been committed on both sides. Either way, Abdullah threatened to withdraw support from the government if audits were not done. “We would rather be torn into pieces than accept this fraud. We reject these results … and justice will prevail,” he told a crowd of restive supporters in July.

A deep audit of more than a million votes was initiated by the International Election Commission, and in September Ghani was declared the winner. But mysteriously, we do not know by how much—the final tallies were never released. Almost immediately, Ghani and Abdullah signed a power-sharing agreement, promoted by Secretary of State John Kerry, which gives Ghani the presidency but leaves both men essentially in charge, with Abdullah serving as CEO with all the duties of prime minister. (For a deeper dive into the details, see the Afghan Analysts Network’s take.)

“Abdullah stamped his feet, and blustered and basically threatened and that’s why our government gave in—Kerry should have never went near this because it’s not going to work,” said English.

Nevertheless, U.S. officials, like senior presidential advisor John Podesta, called the pact and the subsequent joint-signing of the security agreement keeping upwards of 10,000 American troops in the country, a “turning of the page” in regards to U.S.-Afghan relations.

According to Martine van Bijlert at AAN, “Ghani and Abdullah have, so far, taken great pains to present the image of a united leadership,” going to Brussels and London in December to convince the international community to continue aid and security partnerships, but the cracks are already showing. Several deadlines to fill the cabinet have already been missed. Meanwhile, the old Karzai cabinet was dismissed from duty in November.

The deal itself might be to blame, as it calls for a perfect split in the appointment of the 25 ministries, each man getting half, but is filled with ambiguities about how to arrive at that split. AAN’s Bijlert writes that while the two have agreed to split up the ministries, they are not yet fully agreed on who gets which posts to fill. And according to AAN, the exact terms of Abdullah’s authority were not made clear in the original agreement, creating another sticking point. As of Friday none of the ministers have been appointed, which leaves the most critical posts like interior, finance, and defense in limbo.

In a town in which these jobs have usually been doled out for patronage and become cash cows for officials’ friends and family, this is a tricky business. Ghani has promised to stop the era of patronage and move toward meritocracy, but that goal seems farther away now as Afghanistan slips into the abyss of poverty and insecurity.

As Sadat tells TAC: 

The main conundrum in this power-sharing agreement is that under the terms signed by Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah and brokered by the United States, it requires “parity” to deciding leadership positions in ministries relating to security and economy and that the two sides will be “equally represented at the leadership level.”

This restricts Ghani’s executive powers and his dream about establishing a “merit-based” mechanism (or meritocratic or meritocracy if you will), whereby appointment of officials are made based on who is the most qualified to lead that position.

English tells TAC that to make it even worse, the nepotism and patronage throughout the ministries is ethnic-based, with Tajiks filling some ministries, Pashtuns others. This is the way it has always been and complicates the way forward. “Abdullah will demand certain key ministries and Ghani won’t give them up, and all the ministries are ethnically divided—that’s just how it is done.”

David Isby, an Afghan expert and author of Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires: A New History of the Borderland, adds that appointing ministries in the past has always been about favors and payback. Ghani has promised to tackle this corruption—most recently in his London speech—but therein lies the conundrum. “That means he is going to have to something about a system that is about mainly dividing the goodies rather than doing a job,” he tells TAC.

Isby says the central government is actually less important than setting the 34 provincial governments on a straight course, and to start that process the two new “co-leaders” had to go to their international donors with hat in hand first, even if it meant missing the deadlines for establishing the cabinet. “That’s where their money is, you know—they had to make that priority,” said Isby. However, he concedes that the continuing violence, including a series of suicide attacks in Kabul over the last month, combined with government uncertainty, “discourages investment.”

Bijlert takes that point one step further, suggesting the donor community is unsettled by the delay in the cabinet.

“The introduction of new faces ahead of the (donor) conference would have been a tangible sign of progress easily understood at home and in donor capitals. It would have been particularly welcome given the contentious and drawn-out election, the lingering uneasiness about whether a dual-headed government will actually work and the morphing of the ISAF mission into the new Mission Resolute Support,” she wrote, noting the new assistance role for the few international troops left behind.

Bijlert added: 

The inauguration of the new government initially led to a sense of optimism among many Afghans. This has been dampened as time passed, particularly with still no ministers appointed who could have started effecting the promised changes. What remains is a mix of hope and disappointment, as the new government, on the one hand, continues to present a sense of dynamism, albeit largely symbolically, and on the other hand, remains bogged down in its own complications.

CSIS’s Cordesman points out that the instability on all levels will indeed create a security vacuum for both the country and the region, given the strength of the Pakistani Taliban next door. He in part blames the American government for letting the corruption and the persistent problems in the Afghan military get so bad without coming to terms with them sooner and more openly.

The power-sharing agreement was just an attempt at a Band-Aid in order to keep all the powerbrokers happy, but the country is bleeding through. “And at this point,” he said, “no one can predict the outcome.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.

← Older posts