State of the Union

Stop Pandering to Veterans

Max Goldberg, Iowa State Daily / Flickr
Max Goldberg, Iowa State Daily / Flickr

Americans were shocked recently to find out that one by one, 14 Marines who had served together in a single unit in Afghanistan had committed suicide since returning to the states in 2008, with several more attempting to end their lives, sometimes repeatedly.

In November, TAC talked to Tommy Rieman, an Iraq War vet besieged by demons, who drove his car into a tree to end his own life. Fortunately he failed.

The first common thread in these incidents is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The second is that these vets wanted to harm themselves, not others. The third thing is they didn’t seek help earlier for fear of looking unhinged and helpless in the eyes of society.

So when Sarah Palin seemed to be blaming her son Track’s recent domestic assault charge on PTSD—and however indirectly, President Obama’s “disrespect” for the troops—veterans across the board delivered a swift and uniform rebuke. It’s probably one of the reasons why “Momma Grizzly” seems to have been packed off by Donald Trump and returned to Alaska C.O.D.

Underneath her nonsense lies a very dangerous allegation — that all veterans are ticking time bombs, ready to brandish weapons,” tweeted Afghanistan veteran and writer Nate Bethea, who recounted his own PTSD and how, during his darkest moments, “at no point did I lash out at anyone, because that would have made me feel worse. It would have confirmed my suspicions of being defective.”

The news broke of Track Palin’s arrest the morning of her January 20 stump speech. Track allegedly punched his girlfriend in the face with a closed fist, kicked her and threatened to kill himself with an AR-15 rifle. This wasn’t the first time the 26-year-old Iraq vet had been in trouble. In 2014, Track and sister Bristol Palin were involved in a well-publicized drunken brawl involving at least 20 individuals at a Wasilla party. Palin, ever-ready to paint broad garish strokes for political expediency, attempted to foist this one over as political-personal testimonial for Trump’s candidacy:

So, when my own son is going through what he goes through after coming back, I can certainly relate with other families who kind of feel these ramifications of some PTSD and some of the woundedness that our soldiers do return with—and it makes me realize more than ever, it is now or never for the sake of America’s finest, that we have that commander-in-chief who will respect them and honor them.

After covering veterans issues for 20 years, beginning with PTSD among Vietnam veterans, then Gulf War Illness, and now a whole new war, this reporter can tell you there is nothing that provokes veterans more than politicians suggesting they are crazy and unfit for society. PTSD is a mental condition, and while tens of thousands or more of active duty military and recent veterans are suffering from it, along with other illnesses like service connected depression and anxiety, context is everything. Indulging in caricatures to make a buck (Hollywood), or to win elections (politicians), is a no-go zone for vets.

As Bethea wrote later in the New York Times:

That (healing) process begins by speaking frankly. Facing up to destructive or abusive behavior comes next, along with the assertion that we are responsible for our actions, no matter what burdens we carry. Post-traumatic stress is no excuse for violence or abuse, nor should it be considered a default association. I’d like to hope that, beneath the bluster and the political talking points, Sarah Palin understands this. I hope even more that her son seeks care and finds peace.

This is not political correctness. it is a matter of protecting everything each generation has worked for, says Hal Donahue, a Vietnam veteran and writer who focuses on veterans issues. He says it took decades, but society today is more open and welcoming to troubled veterans, and this in turn has encouraged more men and women than ever to seek help when they need it.

“We are making progress—it has been a bipartisan effort and it has been working. To damage that for political reasons is appalling,” said Donahue.

“Guys with PTSD—and I know many of them—are more likely to hurt themselves more than anyone else. She basically linked PTSD to domestic violence. It is not an image that helps veterans.”

That Palin made these assertions during a hyper-media-magnified political speech made it more unseemly because one of the loudest complaints by veterans during campaign season is that for all the tub thumping for war—particularly by Republicans—there is hardly anything left for vets when they come home, save for the “tie the yellow ribbon” platitudes and a few crumbs about funding the the VA.

We are hearing a lot from the candidates about their plans to send our military to face the world’s threats, but little about how they plan to take care of them when they come home,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).

After dropping out of last week’s Fox-sponsored debate, Donald Trump announced he would hold his own event to compete with it, and donate the funds raised to veterans’ groups. Rieckhoff called it out as gimmickry, and said IAVA wouldn’t accept any of Trump’s money if offered.

“We need strong policies from candidates, not to be used for political stunts,” he tweeted Thursday afternoon. He told MSNBC that he hoped PTSD and veterans did not become a “chew toy” during the rest of the campaign.

Leo Shane, a writer for Military Times, illustrates the sad reality when it comes to veterans’ issues in the campaign. After 14 years of non-stop war and over 2 million men and women serving, he tweets, “veterans” were mentioned all of 10 times over the course of six GOP debates. The Democratic candidates did better with 21 mentions over six debates. Of course after Trump raised the issue Thursday in his own ringleader fashion, the Republican candidates, both in the so-called undercard debate and on stage at the main event, found their inner veterans’ advocate. But most sensed the pandering.

“The evening was the culmination of a week of political posturing with wounded service members confusingly thrust in the middle of the Republican fight,” Shane wrote afterwards.

“We are tired of being pawns in political games. We are tired of being forgotten once we serve. We are tired of being ignored in political debates by the people who would assume the role of Commander-in-Chief,” tweeted Tim Everett, who says he is a recent veteran and indie filmmaker, after the September 16 GOP debate.

“What comes after war? Peace—not a single reference to peace last night,” he continued. “What comes after war? Healing and therapy, trauma and horror. PTSD. Surgeries. Medicine. Endless waits at the VA. Not a single reference to the plight of veterans.”

Palin struck a nerve for all these reasons and more. The fact is, soldiers from the wars that Palin and others have so strenuously promoted have been coming home changed, if not damaged. Studies have indicated that yes, individuals with combat-related PTSD can be more prone to violence, including domestic abuse, than those veterans without PTSD. Much of that is fueled by substance abuse and other factors. Some vets suffering from PTSD also have a traumatic brain injury (TBI). It can be difficult to sort out all of these risk factors.

Take the “Lethal Warriors,” the name given to the Army’s 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, stationed in Fort Carson, Colorado, and the subject of a book by Colorado Gazette reporter Dave Philipps. When they returned from two bloody tours in Iraq, taking the most casualties of any Fort Carson brigade combat team, they became the most infamous group stateside. “Since 2005,” Phillips wrote in his original series, “the brigades’ returning soldiers have been involved in brawls, beatings, rapes, DUIs, drug deals, domestic violence, shootings, stabbings, kidnapping, and suicide.”

But Philipps’ in-depth interviews and research were more than just shock-doc storytelling. He wanted to convey that there are consequences when redeploying people already damaged by war (or in some cases, not psychologically fit for combat in the first place). He wanted to show that these men asked for help and did not get it. He later went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for exposing that the military was responsible for discharging thousands of soldiers without benefits for “misconduct,” many who were wounded and needed mental health care.

Sadly, an Army report released just before Philipps’ “Lethal Warriors” series showed that the base itself had failed to provide the support for returning soldiers that would help prevent the violence and self-destruction rampant at Fort Carson. Then-Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker said the risk factors (repeated high intensity deployments, PTSD, substance abuse, failures in leadership, stigma and other barriers to help) were a “toxic mix” that let to the shocking statistics there.

So it’s complicated, a mess that war promoters like Palin had a hand in making, but now want to use as a bludgeon against their political opponents. Veterans and their advocates won’t let that happen. They know PTSD is complex. Many of the veterans treatment courts popping up around the country take on violent offenders, for example, as well as DUIs and substance abusers.

Veterans know the first step is taking responsibility for their actions. They just ask that politicians like Palin do the same. And they would appreciate it if public figures would keep veterans issues out of their partisan endorsement speeches.

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

When Money Can’t Buy An Army

Afghanistan Matters / Flickr
Afghanistan Matters / Flickr

The Afghan military sustained twice as many losses in the last year as U.S. forces killed in the entire 13 years of war in Afghanistan. And the pace of casualties is escalating, suggesting that the Taliban is stronger than the Pentagon and mainstream media have ever let on—in fact, the Afghan security forces are a house of cards experts say is destined to fall.

Just this week, the Associated Press reported that upwards of 40 percent of Afghan security forces are “ghosts”—soldiers and police who exist on the books but are otherwise nowhere to be found. With current maps showing the Taliban holding more territory than at any time since 2001, and ISIS moving in to make a play for their turf, confidence that a “national” army can defend Afghanistan on its own is at an all-time low.

“It is not succeeding, that’s the point,” says Anthony Cordesman, senior security analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Numbers and facts on the ground, he tells TAC, are hard to come by. “There is no transparency—you can’t trust anything. There is no meaningful readiness data anymore.”

But a careful look at how these forces were trained and how it was reported in the media suggests the true picture was skewed the whole time. In fact, the effort might have been doomed from the start.

“There was gross over-assessments of success coming out of CENTCOM [Central Command]—no one bothers to go back and check,” said Cordesman. Congress, too, fell down on the job. “When they could have imposed meaningful transparency and systematic accountability, the congress never did.” The military padded its reports, blew smoke at Congress and enabled a White House in denial, he said (an investigation into how much is ongoing).

Today, the Pentagon assessments are a bit more staid. In December, the military reported to Congress that

Although the ANDSF [Afghan Security Forces] have capability advantages over the insurgent forces, they remain reluctant to pursue the Taliban into their traditional safe havens. Given the ANDSF’s current stage of development, they cannot manage the insurgency and ensure security and stability across Afghanistan without further improvement…

Larry Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan, said the situation is eerily like Vietnam. “When we left there, the millions [of South Vietnamese army soldiers] we trained looked great on paper. [But] really, they crumbled. As we know now from the archives, the North Vietnamese were surprised at how easy it was.”

When President Obama announced his intentions of keeping 9,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan through 2017, no one argued with his assertion that the more than 325,000 Afghan forces there weren’t fit to defend the country on their own.

The bottom line is,” Obama said in October, “in key areas of the country, the security situation is still very fragile, and in some places there is risk of deterioration.”

You bet it’s fragile. When the Taliban briefly took over Kunduz in October, many of the Afghan forces reportedly ran in the face of the Taliban invasion.

Knowing nods all around. The same thing happened in Iraq over the last year and a half, when the Islamic State took over town after town and the American-trained Iraqi army evaporated like mist.

Thanks to the Pentagon shell game, it’s difficult to zero in on the numbers, but the last official count for the Afghan army released by the Pentagon in July was 176,420 and that was down from 2014, much from desertion. (Reuters just reported that a third of the Army had to be replenished in 2015 due to casualties and soldiers walking away). The police numbered 148,296. But if recent reports about “ghost soldiers” are correct, these metrics are a mirage.

Sadly, the U.S. spent $25 billion building and training the Iraqi military, and more than double that—$65 billion—doing the same thing in Afghanistan. And the money keeps pouring into the sieve. According to Stars & Stripes, the U.S. and coalition partners spent $4.1 billion on Afghan forces in 2015 alone.

“Prudence might actually counsel that Washington assume instead, when it comes to organizing, training, equipping, and motivating foreign armies, that the United States is essentially clueless,” wrote Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich in October.

Yet instead of considering whether they were chasing rainbows with nothing but an empty pot at the end, the defense establishment in Washington—whether it be the military or the web of think tanks and contractors that supported it—took great pains to convince the purse holders and American public that more resources would do the trick. As we know now, it never did.

One telling moment came in 2014, when the Pentagon announced it was destroying or breaking down into scrap much of the equipment and vehicles in Afghanistan before U.S. forces pulled out. “[The Afghans] don’t have the requisite skills to maintain these things,” noted Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, who served in Afghanistan as an Army acquisition chief from 2011-12, at the time.

Korb concurs. “If you give that stuff to the Afghan or even the Afghan Security Forces, it could still end up with the Taliban. You have to err on the side of caution.”

How Did This Happen?

A review of a decade of public reports about the training exposes how fragile these efforts were from the beginning.

As Cordesman noted, the military establishment created a Potemkin Village, playing the press and Congress like violins during hearings and visits from congressional delegations. “The Afghan National Army is making tremendous progress and is a factor on the battlefield,” boasted a Pentagon press release in 2007. “Progress” is always relative of course, and while the soldiers might be a “factor,” reports dating back a decade are typically shrewd about how they define exactly what that means.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the late Michael Hastings’ book, The Operators. In that account, then-Gen. Stanley McChrystal shared his skepticism about the war with Hastings sotto voce, while publicly—and for Washington—he promoted it. When Hastings writes about this apparent contradiction, the mainstream media pounces on him for not playing along. He devotes an entire chapter of the book to the “Media-Military Industrial Complex.”

“The unwritten rule I’d broken was a simple one,” he said. “You really weren’t supposed to write honestly about people in power,” or by extension, the war.

Meanwhile, we may never know how much and where all the money for training was spent. That’s because, as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has pointed out, much has been classified, sometimes retroactively, due to “national security” concerns.

So all we have to go on is SIGAR’s work, and bits and pieces of press releases, contract notices, and think-tank analyses. For example, a 2011 RAND white paper entitled  “The Long March” shows billions appropriated for building infrastructure, as well as equipping, arming, and sustaining Afghan troops. Here too is careful massaging of the language to suggest that success was just around the corner, but “in spite of the progress made in the development of the ANA, its operational effectiveness remains very much in the balance.”

There is disappointment, too, over coalition countries dragging their feet on money and trainers. “The progress of Afghan forces is such that U.S. military officials are asking for a much larger commitment”—meaning money—“from the U.S. government to accelerate the pace of training for the Afghan National Army and to improve the Afghan army’s equipment,” the Pentagon said in a 2007 release, which featured quotes from Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, then chief of the combined forces in Afghanistan, later the U.S. ambassador there.

However, he added, “I will firmly tell you in 2007 that the Afghans want this army more than we do.”

Since then billions more were spent, much of it through contractors including infamous Blackwater (now Academi), with some hope—akin to a belief in fairies and unicorns—that the Afghan government would be able to sustain it all when the West finally pulls out.

The U.S. Institute for Peace said in 2013 that “the residual cost of sustaining the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) assistance program after 2014 is estimated at between $2 billion and $6 billion, more than the Afghan government’s annual budget.” That’s an annual cost, according to the Washington Post.

A CNAS report in January 2015 guessed the Americans would be footing most of that bill. Like most Washington assessments, however, it started off sunny:

In September 2014, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) trainers assessed 33 of 40 ANSF units to be either “capable” or “fully capable.” … Moreover, the ANSF are now “in the lead” for security operations across the country and are scheduled to be fully responsible for this mission by the end of 2014.

The rest of the report, however indirectly, describes why it won’t work. Phrases like “in the lead,” it seems, are fungible too.

More recently, CSIS pulled together a number of 2015 assessments that challenge whatever optimistic predictions CNAS had in the first place.

As for the police, U.S. contractor Dyncorp has received billions in reconstruction funds, including contracts to train security forces, since the war began. Even after the State Department was blamed for failing and the reins were turned over to the Pentagon in 2010, Dyncorp escaped scrutiny. It kept getting lucrative multi-year deals, despite falling short. In January 2015, Dyncorp won another contract for $100 million to train and mentor Afghan police and military.

Despite what the U.S. Institute for Peace calls “remarkable progress,” the police as an institution remain prone to “corruption, incompetence, abuse of power, and pervasive illiteracy.” As of May 2014, despite a total of $15 billion spent, thousands of cops on the books remained untrained. And the $300 million a year the U.S. forks over for their salaries? Much of it is unaccounted for, according to SIGAR.

Our track record at building security forces over the past 15 years is miserable,” Eikenberry told the New York Times recently, changing his earlier tune. Today, he writes about the failures of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. As though anyone was listening.

The Afghan Local Police system, on the other hand, is a corrupt, destabilizing, dangerous hot mess, thanks in part to the U.S. military, which put ex-warlords and militiamen in control of many constabularies across the country. As always, little consideration was given to local tribal interests and communities, many of whom have since turned to the Taliban as an alternative. But this seems to be the case with the training of all security forces, with little accounting for Afghanistan’s ethnic, tribal, and sectarian culture. As a result, the Afghan resistance to the Western template has resulted in fraud, failure, and widespread mistrust between the international and Afghan forces.

“A lot of this was about imposing outside systems that in many ways do not conform to local [culture], taking existing structures and breaking them,” said Cordesman.

“The real key is that you have to be able and willing to fight and die for your country,” added Korb. But is there an Afghan “nation” that local security forces believe in enough to die for? If not, should the U.S. continue to send thousands of soldiers and contractors into harm’s way for nothing?

These are very expensive questions indeed. Most agree Washington doesn’t have 13 more years to find out.

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

An Enduring Domain for Peace

Justin Raimondo / Wikimedia Commons
Justin Raimondo / Wikimedia Commons

It ain’t easy being a libertarian anti-war activist. No one trusts your motives and the scene is rife with assumption: If on the left, the heart bleeds for humanity, while libertarians want to make sure no one drops blood on behalf of the state. One is selfless, while the other is selfish. Or so the metaphors go.

But for 20 years, while some anti-war movements on the left have waned and evaporated with the changing of the guard in the White House, the libertarians and self-described paleoconservatives at Antiwar.com have endured and outlasted the suspicion and derision of the mainstream, not to mention the slings and arrows of the War Party.

They’ve outlived at least one war (Bosnia), are growing old with others (Afghanistan, Iraq), and meet each new one (Libya, Syria) with the same hard gaze and piercing reporting and commentary.

Antiwar.com has even outlasted the vitriol of its critics. David Frum—the former Bush speechwriter who coined the phrase “axis of evil”—once called Antiwar.com co-founder Justin Raimondo an unpatriotic, self-defeating, sympathizer of terror when he refused to goosestep with other conservatives behind the invasion of Iraq. Where is Frum today? After remaking himself as an establishment pundit, the Canadian-born recovering neoconservative is now furiously distancing himself from the inmates he helped take over the asylum, and chafing against any allusions to his former persona.

Meanwhile, while not rich in coin or feted among the media elite, Raimondo and co-founder Eric Garris, who conceived of the website and have been running it every day for 20 years, take satisfaction in knowing that—unlike Frum—they were right about the disastrous trajectory of the wars they opposed, and can sleep at night with a clear conscience.

“We were hard core about it and we didn’t give an inch and we were proved right,” says Raimondo, now 60-something, and though he confesses to being more “tired,” he has kept up the pace of three columns a week for over a decade. “We stood strong.”

Garris, a Los Angeles baby-boomer who cut his teeth on a civil rights march at age eight, laughs to think today how Raimondo first rebuffed his idea to take their protest of the 1995 NATO bombing in Bosnia online, calling the advent of news websites “a passing phase.” Juiced on libertarian thinkers like Randolph Bourne, Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand, and fully entrenched in libertarian grassroots politics, both soon realized the Internet provided the best space to explore and report on war from a libertarian-right perspective. They believed—and still do—that foreign policy was the “central issue of our time.”

They had already thrown their support behind then-presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, who had opposed the first Gulf War and had later co-founded TAC. They were ready to reach out to others on the right tired with the interventionist orthodoxy. “We wanted to educate why foreign policy isn’t an afterthought,” Raimondo recalled.

“In the Clinton years, it was a lonely battle because the people who you would think would be the first to respond to a website called Antiwar.com would be on the left,” he added. “Back then I was writing a column every single day including Sunday. Partly it was frustrating that we were not getting the support I thought we were going to get.” The left, particularly under a Democratic administration (recall that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke, and First Lady Hillary Clinton were the early vanguard of modern humanitarian interventionism), were knee-jerk in their suspicions of the anti-war right.

Libertarian anti-war critics faced the double duty of defending themselves against traditional hawks, too. Though it was slightly easier in a time when Republicans were opposing the NATO operations and late 1990s airstrikes in Iraq, many of course out of purely political motives. Then, as today, libertarians are considered suspect, no matter how strongly their positions on war and domestic security line up with the left or right.

Raimondo in particular has a bare-knuckled writing style that both endears and repels readers, depending on what they want to hear. An openly gay man who long eschewed the support system of the liberal San Francisco activist community he lives alongside, he’s sarcastic and doesn’t shrink from public conflicts with other writers and readers, nor is he averse to making them personal. He burns bridges, and has bad blood with people going back years. But he’s the first to admit it, and the same passion he is criticized for unleashing like a literary Smaug is what makes his columns so sharp, funny and cathartic.

“Justin Raimondo is a cross between H. L. Mencken and Gore Vidal,” offers Angela Keaton, who is the longtime director of operations at Antiwar.com and currently among its staff of seven. “His chronicling of a decaying empire is both depressing and exhilarating.”

Raimondo isn’t the only writer that has bolstered the website over two decades. Antiwar.com boasts a revolving stable of trenchant writers hailing from different spheres: journalists, academics, columnists, retired military and intelligence agents. Particularly after 9/11 put the country on a firm and forever war footing, the website drew not only a new audience and burgeoning fame in the online news media universe, but writers who wanted a say yet were rebuffed by corporate platforms uneasy with critiquing the status quo.

“We were there in terms of providing alternative ways for thinking about 9/11,” recalled Garris.

“It was interesting, we didn’t become a major site until the day after 9/11,” added Raimondo, noting the website logged some 80,000 visitors the day after the terror attacks alone (up from an average of maybe 5,000). “We started getting death threats and also media attention.” PBS NewsHour did a segment on the website; the Drudge Report included a link in his covered media roll, where it remains today.

Over the years a host of regular contributors (including this writer, far from a libertarian purist) found a welcome perch at Antiwar.com. They hailed from both the left and the right, crossing generational lines and addressing the rise of so many different elements of the growing military-industrial complex and new security state.

“One of the goals of Antiwar was to mainstream the anti-war position as opposed to pigeon-hole it into some kind of leftwing, Democrat endeavor,” said Garris. The result was that on any given day one could find writing from conservatives Patrick J. Buchanan, Jude Wanniski, Ron Paul, and the late Charlie Reese alongside leftist writers like Noam Chomsky, Gareth Porter, Andrew Cockburn, Juan Cole and Norman Solomon. Phil Giraldi and Ray McGovern have lent their long experience in the U.S. intelligence community to the cause. For a long time until his death in 2012, Jeff Huber brought his gold-standard wit and military insight to the page, coining nomenclatures like “Bullfeather Merchants” and “Pavlov Dogs of War” to describe the warmakers he despised. He gave nicknames to his favorite targets like Ray “Desert Ox” Odierno and “Uncle Leo” Leon Panetta and used his own Navy background to skewer the day’s war headlines.

Every day editors like Jason Ditz have made sure there was an updated compendium of news links and fresh stories covering current news on the war, categorized by region, conflict, and domestic security issues. Antiwar has had some of the best in the trenches and behind the scenes, including Jeremy Sapienza, Matt Barganier and John Glaser. The Scott Horton Show—now independent but still found on the site—increased reach and gave the brand a depth that went beyond just a sounding board. It was interactive.

“There is no other show like that,” said Keaton, who helps the site raise money, works conferences and exhibitions, and participates in panel discussions. “Scott opened up Antiwar to a new and younger audience.”

Of course when President Obama took office Antiwar lost some of its progressive writers and readers. But they expect the same if a Republican ever wins the White House again. “There are people who say they are anti-war but they are really only anti-a particular war,” said Garris. “They don’t care about policy, they care about power.”

Good riddance to those people, says Keaton. While it made it difficult for Antiwar’s fundraising after Obama came to wage “the good war” in Afghanistan, it has made their own movement that much stronger, she said.

“Working for Antiwar has meant absolute consistency. We are going to remain the same, respond the same way, along the same editorial lines,” she said. Thanks to the the great leadership of Garris, she said, “it is extremely cohesive. I couldn’t be prouder.”

Of course Antiwar has not been without controversy. Among its readership, the site invariably draws elements of the fringe—quite the minority—but among them are 9/11 truthers and anti-Semites, who show up from time to time in the comment fields and link back to Antiwar from their own websites and blogs. Raimondo’s regular critiques of Israel and neoconservatives, particularly during the run-up to the Iraq War, have also drawn accusations of anti-Semitism. Raimondo denies the label but considers it intimidation and hasn’t let up one inch on Bibi Netanyahu or neocons. He and Garris also drew attention from the FBI; a file, obtained through FOIA, showed federal agents were once looking at Antiwar.com as a “threat to national security,” in part because of Raimondo’s writing about Israel in the wake of 9/11 and its criticisms of the U.S. in general.

Those revelations were a mixed blessing. At first Garris thought publicizing this, particularly in the wake of Edward Snowden’s exposure of the government’s vast domestic surveillance programs, would help, but it ended up turning away prospective donors and making current ones wary. “It has hurt us—we’ve had to make cutbacks, we’ve had to cut staff,” he said. “It wasn’t the effect I was expecting.” Today, Antiwar brings in about $500,000 a year, and that goes all to annual operations, Garris said. Times are lean, but stable, he added. A presidential contest that all but promises the election of a war hawk no matter what party wins won’t hurt.

Given there is war—and more war—on the horizon, plus a national security state that makes whatever the Clinton years did to harm civil liberties look infantile in comparison, what does the team think they’ve achieved in 20 years?

“We’ve played a major part in influencing young people, people who are not necessarily left-wing but anti-war,” he said. The burst of Ron Paul mania in 2008 and 2012 comes to mind. “The Internet, it’s a young person’s game and for a significant time we have been opening people’s minds to [anti-interventionism]. Who knows who the 16-year-old of today is going to grow up to be?”

Raimondo doesn’t sugarcoat things. “I think we were the first to popularize the notion that a cabal of neoconservatives led us down a path to war,” he said. “I think that is our best achievement right there. Making known to people there was a specific group of of people and institutions that were plumbing for war and specifically a war in the Middle East.”

What next? Keeping alive the idea of non-interventionism amid the changing tides of politics, he says. Battling charges of isolationism and worse, it could be a challenge, but never unsurmountable. “We’re a rock, and the sea is rising up against us, but we endure.”

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

The Cult of Air Power Won’t Destroy ISIS

Orlok / Shutterstock.com

Obliterate. Destroy. Bomb them into the stone age.

After nearly 15 years of war, we are used to this kind of bombast from warhawks and Republican candidates eager to make a muscular point on the debate dias. But now, particularly after the shocking attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, calls to “unleash” the full power of the U.S. military overseas—even if that means eliminating “cumbersome” and “restrictive” rules of engagement—have taken on a more realistic, if not mainstream urgency.

Led by a vanguard of camera-ready lawmakers and armchair generals, the march to “take the gloves off” is now punctuated with language that taps into real fears over domestic terrorism, government mistrust, and the prevailing cultural divide.

This was all too apparent during Tuesday’s GOP debate. When asked about his earlier remarks about “carpet bombing ISIS into oblivion,” Ted Cruz walked it back some but not all. “You would carpet bomb where ISIS is, not a city, but the location of the troops,” he said, avoiding the obvious problem that the militants have strategically located themselves in cities. Donald Trump danced around a question about collateral damage in Syria, but when Rand Paul reminded him of the Geneva Conventions, he let it rip.

“So, they can kill us, but we can’t kill them?”

It is in this milieu that the forever war pundit, the retired Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, thrives. In fact, he was so spun up on his own bravado after San Bernardino, he compared President Obama to a woman’s private parts on live television (Fox News suspended him). Still, he knows that other kinds of dirty words, like “lawyers” and “political correctness,” always hit their mark.

Our military has the resources to shatter ISIS, but political correctness has penetrated so deep into the Pentagon that, even should a president issue the one-word order, “Win!,” our initial actions would be cautious and halting … Instead of “leaning forward in the foxhole,” our leaders lean on lawyers.

Peters and others now have their sights trained on Raqqa, a major stronghold for ISIS. The city is a particularly horrific place, as described by recent refugees and brave journalists who report on forced marriages, crucifixions, beheadings and the brutality of the religious police. The predominantly Sunni community was a center of resistance against President Bashar Assad five years ago, but ISIS methodically took it over, sending families fleeing and an untold number to an early grave. Today, no unaccompanied women under 45 are permitted to leave the city. Children are stolen and trained as fighters. It’s a cage, a ripe target for Bashar Assad’s barrel bombs, according to the journalists, and now British, French, Russian and yes, U.S. airstrikes.

“When you say ‘Raqqa,’ the first thing people think of is ISIS,” said one member of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), in a New Yorker interview. “They forget the hundreds of thousands of civilians, normal people like us. I am not a terrorist.”

But Ralph Peters thinks he is. In fact, to Peters, Raqqa is the perfect example of the rules of engagement serving as a tether on American might: “The generals who won World War II would start by leveling Raqqa, the ISIS caliphate’s capital, ” Peters blasted forth in a November op-ed. “Civilians would die, but those remaining in Raqqa have embraced ISIS, as Germans did Hitler. The jihadis must be crushed. Start with their ‘Berlin.’”

Nevermind that the strategic impact of the U.S. firebombing of German cities has been hotly contested over the decades with one consensus growing around the conclusion that its effects were exaggerated and largely inefficient-save for killing between 400,000 to 600,000 civilians. More recent examples, including Vietnam, and later Fallujah, would suggest that bombing—whether it be the “leveling” that Peters asks for, or the “precision” kind—is not a panacea.

But Peters’ hyperbole aside, the prevailing suggestion that the military has been “restricted” in striking at ISIS targets, encumbered by meddlesome lawyers, is worth noting, and dissecting.

“We’ve had incredible restrictions on what we call rules of engagement so, as a result, it takes layers to get approval for a target, it takes too much time, the enemy gets away on us, we’re not really going after the right targets,” contends retired Gen. Jack Keane, who after steering the U.S. military “surge” in Iraq, enjoys a regular perch on Fox News and serves as the chairman of the Institute for the Study of War, an outfit run by serial interventionist Kim Kagan. So what are these “restrictions?” If they should be removed, what then? With the Department of Defense under pressure to step up its game against ISIS, TAC decided to ask several retired military officers.

The level of aggression used by the military has consequences, for the force itself, the people with whom the military force comes into contact, and the perspective of such by the larger community receiving reports about any given action,” said Dakota Wood, a former strategist for the Marine Corps Special Operations Command who now serves as a senior defense fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

“’Loose’ or permissive ROE may enable a military force to use force/violence more freely, perhaps reducing short term risk to the units/soldiers involved but it could also increase risk and jeopardize the mission by enabling what could be perceived as ‘wanton destruction,’” he added.

“It really depends on the context and what is to be achieved.’”

The Military’s Perception

Charlie Dunlap, a highly regarded former Air Force Judge Advocate General (JAG) and head of Duke’s Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, says he’s been hearing complaints for months about restrictions on airstrikes.

As of mid-November, the U.S-led coalition has carried out more than 8,247 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, with more than three-quarters, 6,443, conducted by Americans. It is not clear whether that figure includes strikes from the separate CIA drone war in Syria, which is targeting ISIS leadership in coordination with Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) on the ground.

When Micah Zenko suggested earlier this year that the number of strikes were far below that of past U.S. operations in Iraq and even Bosnia, the response was swift and negative. Stories abounded about pilots returning from missions, their payloads intact. In response to a senator’s question December 9, Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that 40 percent of sorties were returning without having fired their weapons.

The reason why is somewhere buried in the rhetoric, say the military experts who spoke with TAC. The rules of engagement (ROE) document is classified, so no one outside those cleared to see it knows what it is. Everything is based on hearsay.

But Dunlap believes the operation in Syria has been restrained by the White House targeting policy announced amid drone war criticisms in May 2013, which is more restrictive than the standard rules of engagement under the 1949 Geneva Conventions as they relate to civilians. Under those measures, attacks are prohibited if they “may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.”

The 2013 policy standards and procedures call for “near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed.” If this supersedes international law in the Syrian campaign, Dunlap says, then it is indeed hindering the military’s ability to take out ISIS, which is largely based in population centers like Raqqa, Dunlap told TAC. “Near certainty,” he said, is impossible.

What does seem clear is that a strategic misjudgment has been made in thinking that stricter rules than what the law requires would somehow earn support among the civilian populace in Syria and Iraq, not to mention among our European allies and even the American people,” Dunlap said.  “But there is no evidence that that has happened. The reality is that civilians suffer more when ISIS’s barbarism is allowed to persist, and thoughtful people realize that.”

The Pentagon did not return calls for comment. Meanwhile, stories about pilots hemmed in by “zero civilian casualty” rules are in ready supply. Despite assurances from the White House in 2014 that the “zero” policy did not apply to Syria and Iraq, Martha Raddatz at ABC News reported in November that she was told the opposite by officers at the Combined Joint Operations Center (CJOC) in Erbil, where “strike officers” who call in the attacks from the ground are headquartered.

About that time, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said he was “prepared” to loosen the rules of engagement, much like the new freedom to hit the ISIS oil trucks and tankers, but one can only guess at what he meant.

Dunlap doesn’t think it’s “the lawyers” constraining operations, but the generals reportedly required to approve each strike. “It represents a lack of trust in subordinates, and is inevitably cumbersome because it requires the continuous presence of a flag officer,” he said.

“It is amazing that the decision has been made that even colonels are not competent to make these kinds of warfighting judgments,” he added.

Still, retired military officers like Dunlap seem uncomfortable with the bumper sticker bloviations deployed by politicians and cable news pundits. And they know that strikes are only as good as the intelligence on the ground, and right now that’s lacking, with or without strict policies from Washington.

“Lawyers advise commanders but they are not in the chain of command and do not approve or disapprove targets,” charged David Maxwell, a retired Army Special Forces colonel and professor at the Center for Strategic Studies at Georgetown. “They provide expert advice but are not the problem despite what Ralph Peters might say.”

Maxwell says common laws of war under the Geneva conventions “are absolutely necessary if we are going to be a moral nation.” Without reason and morality, he added, “we will trend toward absolute war and that is not something as Americans we want to see.”

‘Everyone is bombing Raqqa now’

After about a decade of a deep dive into Vietnam—including never before seen documents in the National Archives and myriad interviews with Vietnamese in country about their experiences living under U.S. fire—investigative reporter Nick Turse thinks he knows what the aftermath of  “absolute war” looks like.

With a rush toward increasing the “body count” and pacifying a rebellion, the Vietnam-era “Operation Speedy Express” was the kind of gloves-off air and ground war that Peters talks about, and it did nothing to win the war. What it did was leave upwards of 7,000 civilians dead during a six month period in 1968 alone, according to one inspector general’s report and reporters on the ground.

“It is obvious from the evidence and records recovered that most of those killed in the Mekong Delta were civilians, because the rules of engagement were ignored,” Turse asserts. “The Delta was never pacified. The ultimate results speak for themselves — look who’s in control there today,” he added, noting the Communist government in Hanoi.

Turse and others blame “the cult of airpower” going back to the early 20th century for why the military thinks it can do better each time around. Abandoning carpet bombing for “precision strike” sounds like the modern solution, but even “smart bombs,” are a gross misrepresentation of reality, experts say. They are still vulnerable to weather conditions, jamming, and the subjectivity of the people calling in the strikes from the ground. As we saw recently with the U.S. bombing of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan, they can be deadly inaccurate.

Thinking people can disagree over how to handle ISIS. Dunlap and Maxwell say the military is in no rush for war in Syria but if they are tasked with going, they want to be able to “do it right.” Critics like Turse see intervention as provocation, the best recruiting tool ISIS could have. One thing they do agree on is that “taking the gloves off” to “level Raqqa” is the rhetoric of fools.

“Anyone who would advocate that we do not need [rules of engagement],” said Maxwell, “is not someone I would recommend quoting.”

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

Obama’s Guantanamo Challenge

JTF Guantanamo photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth

Outside, its buildings bear the signs of the blistering sun and the sea. Inside, cell walls and “feeding chairs” trace, however invisibly, the blood and bodily fluids of men. The Guantanamo Bay detention camp is more than a memento of one of America’s darkest periods of war and insecurity—it is a living, breathing testament to it.  

Year after year, President Obama has promised to close it. As he enters the last year of his final term, he may have to fight the entire Congress to get it done. It would appear he is ready: Instead of erasing GTMO from prepared remarks in Manila after the Paris attacks, he used the tragedy to stress why the notorious prison should be shuttered, calling it “an enormous recruitment tool for an organization like ISIL.”

“It’s how they rationalize and justify their sick perpetration of violence on its people,” he said on November 19. “We can keep the American people safe by shutting down that operation.”

Col. Morris Davis (Ret.), a former prosecutor at GTMO who resigned over the use of evidence gleaned through the torture of detainees there, agrees the president is on solid ground with the national security argument.

“If you need proof of whether Guantanamo helps ISIS promote its brand among those who might be susceptible to its influence, just look at the murder videos they’ve recorded and released,” Davis told TAC. “The murder victims are dressed in orange jump suits for a reason: To make them look like the Guantanamo detainees shown in the iconic Camp X-Ray pictures.”

“ISIS has been able to rationalize its brutality in the eyes of some by packaging it as a tit-for-tat for Guantanamo.”

It remains to be seen whether Obama has the political grit to follow through. He’s going to need it, and a whole lot of sass and strategery to get past Republican demagogues who suggest all Muslims, much less the ones languishing at Guantanamo Bay, are suspect. It could be the test of his presidency.

Of the 107 detainees remaining at the prison today, 48 are cleared for repatriation elsewhere. Around 50 men haven’t been charged with anything, but are deemed too dangerous for release. Just days before the Paris attacks, Obama announced the Pentagon would be releasing a plan for closing the prison and transferring those men to high security prisons in the U.S. The plan is supposed to include a list of facilities that are up to the task. The federal supermax prison in Colorado—ironically considered “the Alcatraz of the Rockies”—already holds 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaui, and is a likely place for transfer.

Even before the attacks, this drew the usual hyperbole from critics. Aside from the fear of prisoners breaking out, there’s the relatively new bugaboo that other terrorists may try to break in.

“I will not sit idly by while the president uses political promises to imperil the people of Colorado by moving enemy combatants from Cuba, Guantanamo Bay, to my state of Colorado,” Republican Senator Cory Gardner told a Capitol Hill news conference after he and 40 sheriffs signed a letter telling Obama he was “dangerously naïve not to recognize that a civilian prison with an untold number of enemy combatant inmates, located in our state, would provide a very tempting target for anyone wishing to either free these detainees or simply wishing to make a political statement.”

Shortly thereafter, the Senate passed a version of the National Defense Authorization Act that would again cut funding from any attempts to transfer detainees to domestic soil, preventing Guantanamo’s closure. The House passed the measure with a huge majority, 370-58. The Senate vote was 91-3, with the only dissenters being Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore). Wyden was the only one who cited GTMO as a reason for voting against the larger bill. Rand Paul, possibly the only other senator who might have stood against it, did not vote, and other Republican senators currently running for president were also absent.

Despite his objections, the president signed the bill Thursday. The administration has put out oblique signals, meanwhile, that it might be willing to use his executive authority to close GTMO instead. But constitutional questions aside, Obama also runs the risk of bypassing Congress while it has the ear of Americans on security.

“One of the Obama Administration’s greatest failures has been to let the other side dictate the narrative on Guantanamo,” said Davis. “Just look at some of the nonsense you see on social media about Guantanamo detainees, which is driven in part by news networks and politicians who play on feelings, not facts.”

But timing is everything, and the administration’s announcement that it was releasing five Yemeni prisoners to the United Arab Emirates just a few days after the November attacks in Paris was probably unhelpful. The word came as authorities were uncovering a nest of jihadis living in Muslim enclaves in France and Belgium. While one event had absolutely nothing to do with the other—the Yemenis, held since 2002, were never charged with anything—the optics couldn’t have been worse for a White House that has often been criticized for its tone deafness during key national moments.

The backlash was immediate. “It is clearly evident that President Barack Obama and his administration care little about reality but will push ahead with their ideological agenda,” boomed Lt. Col. Allen B. West (ret.). A former member of Congress, West was once sanctioned for putting a gun to an Iraqi prisoner’s head and threatening to kill him, and is rivaled only by Pamela Geller in rank Islamic fear mongering.

“Here we are just days after a horrific Islamic terror attack in Paris and what is the Obama administration response? They release five Yemeni detainees from Guantanamo Bay to the United Arab Emirates. I suppose it’s fair enough—seems the bad guys lost eight in Paris so it’s proper that we refill their ranks,” West charged.

“The shutdown in Guantanamo brings in the worst of the worst. I saw Khalid Sheikh Mohammad down there. Evil incarnate. Mastermind of 9/11. I don’t want him in the United States of America and I don’t think most Americans do,” said Rep. Mike McCaul, head of the House Homeland Security Committee, three days after the Paris attacks.

There is no indication that Khalid Sheikh Mohammad or his four accomplices in the 9/11 attacks—currently on trial (after a decade of fits and starts) at the Court of Military Commissions at GTMO—will be going anywhere. In fact, the trial will continue there even if the prison itself is closed down to everyone else. Congress successfully blocked the transfer of the proceedings to civilian courts three years ago.

One of the few Republicans behind closure, Senator John McCain, has not been able to get beyond his obvious dislike of the president to fully assist him in this one endeavor. His willingness to assist in the transfer of prisoners to the U.S. has been tepid at best. More recently, he openly lambasted the president when it was suggested that an executive order might be in the offing. “He lies when he says that he really wants to close Guantanamo with the cooperation of Congress, because he’s never sent over a plan,” said McCain, who voted for the NDAA with the majority of his party.

Lost in the tussle is the argument of why GTMO should be closed in the first place and immediately, said Davis. “I understand that when he took office the economic freefall and health care reform were higher priorities, but in the process it’s led to a public that is almost entirely uninformed [about GTMO],” he explained.

From the early days of Camp X-Ray, as the first Guantanamo prison was known, there have been numerous investigations, leaked reports, and personal accounts that should have sparked outrage. But the White House has made very little of the brutal interrogations, psychological abuse, suicides and attempted suicides, hunger strikes and twisted jurisprudence that have occurred there to make his case for closing it.

Just consider the financial burden, said Davis. According to the Defense Department, in 2014 the government spent nearly $400 million—more than $3 million per detainee—to maintain GTMO.  Millions more are being spent today to upgrade the court facilities for “the long term.”

Is an executive order the only way to stop this mess?

“I’d like to see (Obama) issue an executive order to close it and then let the courts decide who’s right,” said Davis. “President Bush didn’t go to Congress to get their approval to open the detention camp at Guantanamo, so why does President Obama have to get their blessing to close it?”

Some conservative constitutional lawyers are warning against such a move—even those who loathe everything GTMO stands for. “No, I don’t think he as President has the authority to unilaterally overrule Congress and act in violation of prohibitions on moving Guantanamo prisoners into the U.S. which Congress may put into a veto-proof National Defense Authorization Act,” said Todd Pierce, who as a former Army defense attorney at the prison, strongly believes it should be closed. He warns that the troubles wouldn’t end with the transfer of prisoners to the U.S. “‘Indefinite detention’ with no foreseeable release is a form of torture in itself,” he told TAC.

As always, the administration has been giving out mixed signals. Former White House counsel Greg Craig recently co-authored an op-ed asserting that “the president has exclusive authority to determine the facilities in which military detainees are held. Obama has the authority to move forward. He should use it.” But when asked by the House Judiciary Committee about the op-ed, Attorney General Loretta Lynch testified that the administration has not asked the justice department for a legal opinion on the matter, and that it “would follow the law of the land” in enforcing restrictions on prisoner transfer imposed by Congress.

So either one hand isn’t talking to the other, or Craig’s op-ed was a trial balloon intended to see which way the wind is blowing. Shortly after Lynch’s rebuke, the breeze turned brittle and sour as the streets of Paris ran with blood. If closing GTMO was a difficult challenge before, it is a somewhat of a gauntlet of fire now. The terrorist attacks in Paris will make the effort to close Guantanamo much more difficult, although the two aren’t related,” said Davis.

After Obama signed the NDAA into law, however, he also issued a signing statement making clear the tussle wasn’t over:

As I have said repeatedly, the executive branch must have the flexibility, with regard to the detainees who remain at Guantanamo, to determine when and where to prosecute them, based on the facts and circumstances of each case and our national security interests, and when and where to transfer them consistent with our national security and our humane treatment policy.

Obama is right to stand his ground on GTMO, but it will take more than a constitutional parley—he will have to convince the American people. “You have to give the credit where credit is due, and the other side has run a very effective misinformation campaign,” Davis added, “which I think at some point in the future, history will look back upon as a black mark.”

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

Finding Justice for Veterans

Justice for Vets Facebook
Justice for Vets Facebook

One day he was standing next to the first lady in the VIP box at the president’s State of the Union Address. The next, he was in front of a judge facing a DUI conviction.

For former Staff Sgt. Tommy Rieman, recipient of the Silver Star for valor, who even had an action figure fashioned in his image, there was only one way, and it was up. Killing himself didn’t work—the night he was cited for DUI he purposefully rammed his car into a tree. So he was forced to live his demons: self-medicating his PTSD with booze and bills, and slowly alienating everyone around him.

He found redemption in the most unlikeliest of places: a courtroom.

But it wasn’t any courtroom, it was a Veterans Treatment Court set up in Harnett County, N.C. It is now one of 264 such courts across the country that gives veterans a chance to avoid jail and the stigma of a criminal conviction. These courts, established in 2008 and based on the Drug Court model, are being hailed today for their compassion and their commitment to vets who have lost their way. They are also part of a growing civic movement that embraces treatment over incarceration, in hopes of draining the prisons of people who do not belong there, not just veterans.

“I believe in the program whole-heartedly,” said Rieman, who graduated from the VTC in November 2014. He spent more than a year in the intensive regime that included weekly visits to a judge three hours away from his home. There was also therapy, AA meetings, and work with a veteran-mentor, a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross named “George,” who he fully credits for keeping him “on point.”

“I didn’t want to let him down,” Rieman told TAC in an interview. Like other vets in the program, he appreciated the structure of setting goals, and frankly, following orders.

As a war hero who had been feted by President Bush in 2007, and spent years after his multiple deployments traveling across the country and talking about his experiences, he didn’t want to be treated with kid gloves anymore.

“I’ve gotten away with things,” he said, because of his medals. “I needed someone to be hard on me. I didn’t need a pass. I needed structure and guidance, and they provided that.” Unlike other vets who can get their charges wiped or reduced when they graduate, Rieman’s DUI conviction stuck. But that’s okay, because his sobriety and second chance at life did too.

“I don’t think I’m going to be in that same situation any time soon,” said Rieman, now the head of a nonprofit and ambassador for Justice for Vets.

Today, when the media want to highlight the sacrifices made by recent Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, more often than not they show the wounded warrior, the individual with such severe physical injuries that he or she is fitted with an advanced prosthetic, or whose face bears the scars of a crippling bomb blast.

Less visible are those with psychological wounds, brought on by combat stress and/or traumatic brain injury (TBI). It is estimated that somewhere between 20 and 40 percent or more of recent combat veterans suffer from PTSD symptoms, which can include night terrors, flashbacks, irritability, paranoia, and anxiety. In the most recent survey of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America members, 44 percent said they had been diagnosed with PTSD. In that same survey, 18 percent said they have a mild to severe TBI from the war. That’s a big number, thanks in part to the rise of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) attacks in the recent conflicts. Symptoms of TBI can range from chronic headaches, aggressive mood swings, and changes in personality, all the way to crippling cognitive disabilities and memory loss.

Left on their own, many veterans suffering from these mentally debilitating symptoms self-medicate, or depend solely on psychotropic drugs doled out by the VA. Many sustained physical injuries in the war, too, and have been on pain medications since they were overseas. It’s hard to keep a job in this spiral, and family relationships suffer. Some eventually steal and deal to feed their habits. They get into fights, carry weapons, or drive drunk.

“The vast majority of veterans are strengthened by their military service, but not everyone’s journey is the same,” says Melissa Fitzgerald, whose own journey from Hollywood (“The West Wing”), eventually took her to Justice for Vets, the leading advocate for the Veterans Treatment Courts (VTC).

Given the odds, it’s not difficult to comprehend how veterans like Rieman end up on the wrong end of the judge’s bench, how they went from heroes to menaces to society, within years or even months of their return. While it’s difficult to ascertain how many recent vets are behind bars today, we know there were about 700,000 veterans in the correctional system in 2007, with about 230,000 of those incarcerated, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Vets accounted for nearly 10 percent of the total arrests (about 1.2 million) that year.

“All those transitions and all those traumatic experiences and we expect (soldiers) to come home and police themselves—I don’t think so,” said Rieman, who was recognized for using himself as a human shield after an attack on his convoy in Iraq in 2003. Despite getting shot twice and enduring 11 shrapnel hits, he continued to defend his position, rout the attackers, and set up a medical evacuation, according to the DoD.

The VTC formula has been deemed so successful that there are now 264 such programs operating in 37 states and Guam, helping upwards of 13,200 vets. The key: matching the vet up with another veteran, as a mentor and confidant, someone who understands the horrors of combat and the difficulties of adjusting in the civilian milieu back home. Behind them is a phalanx of representatives from the VA and veterans service organizations providing on the spot access to the panoply of services the veteran is entitled to, particularly healthcare. Beyond that, the vet is connected with any education, housing, and employment assistance they are entitled to.

“Putting them in jail won’t help their situation, it just exacerbates it,” said Gary Augustine, executive director of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) whose members across the country serve as mentors for veterans in the courts. “We do this for other segments of society—juveniles and drug offenders—why not veterans? They are going in the right direction.”

The courts are open to all vets who qualify, even those with less than honorable discharges, and in many states, unlike the drug courts, eligibility is not limited to non-violent offenses. Each vet is considered on case-by-case basis. The program can be as long as 18 months and is intense. There will always be those who backslide, but unlike regular court, the penalties are less severe. The goal, after all, is to keep these vets out of jail. One recent study found that not only did 86 percent of the veterans in a particular program stay arrest-free before graduation, they experienced “significant” improvement with their mental health and substance abuse issues.

“Not recognizing (these veterans’) actions as a result of military service-connected problems, and not treating them accordingly will only lead to more problems for the veteran, his/her family, and for society,” says veterans’ advocate Matthew Hoh, who has had his own struggle with combat stress and substance abuse since serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It is also much cheaper to treat veterans than to incarcerate them and throw them into the cycle of suffering and recidivism our justice and prison system is world renowned for.”

News reports across the country since the first VTC was established have been hailing their benefits. And why not? The success of these courts show that the legal system can martial itself with the help of non-profits (and yes, government entities like the VA) for the greater good. It’s also a plain old feel-good story.

Buffalo Judge Robert Russell helped to start the first drug courts in 1995. When a vet “turned completely around” after Russell paired him with another vet as a mentor, he knew he was onto something. He started the first VTC in 2008 and according to the most recent reports, 98 percent of the graduates in his program stay out of trouble after they graduate.

Hoh says this is the kind of compassion that is missing from the American criminal justice system.

“It is compassionate because we claim to be a moral and values based nation. To treat veterans, who we have trained and conditioned to kill and be killed, and then do nothing to accommodate them back into society, is a savage and heartless expression of a shallow and mean society,” he told TAC.

Further, the success of Veterans Treatment Courts should be utilized as a model for reformation of our criminal justice system. I don’t know, however, if our society has the minds and the hearts to implement such smart and compassionate change.

Change can start with giving vets the tools for readjustment before they get home from war. Rieman now runs the nonprofit Independence Fund, which supports veterans with catastrophic injuries. He says the military doesn’t do nearly enough.

“We spent a year training for war and what, two weeks training to reintegrate into society? There has to be cleaner hand-offs,” he said. “There needs to be a receiver, almost a sponsor, when they get back. You have sponsors when you go into the military. The whole system, it makes no sense to me and it’s so frustrating.”

Supporting the special courts is the first step, he said, noting there is no way to tell how many vets out there out of the 2.4 million who served in the recent wars are going to find themselves in court tomorrow. “These issues are not going to go away. If anything, they are going to get worse.”

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

No More Tweets from Tahrir Square

Secretary_Kerry_Bids_Farewell_To_Egyptian_Minister_of_Defense_General_al-Sisi

There is something altogether clarifying when a beautiful Egyptian woman, her almond eyes flashing and voice smooth, stands tall in her high-heeled Roman sandals and declares, “I don’t want to be Winston Smith.”

That Dr. Sally Toma would choose the protagonist in one of the most provocative imaginings of totalitarianism in literary history—George Orwell’s 1984—says everything about how the Egyptian democracy movement views its fragile circumstances in Egypt today.

“We have the ministry of truth and the ministry of love,” she said, referring to the ironical government bureaucracies in Orwell’s dystopian classic, “and propaganda, and torture, and Big Brother.”

“I keep on hoping we don’t have the [same] end of Winston Smith,” she said. By the end of 1984, Smith, who serves as the novel’s ill-fated conscience, is psychologically tortured into submission. His transformation is as good as a lobotomy.

“We cannot scream about violations anymore because we will be beaten up,” Toma, a Christian Egyptian, told an audience assembled by Washington’s Middle East Institute on September 30. She and others do not foresee another revolt on the scale of 2011’s January 25 Revolution anytime soon.

“Maybe the only hope for civil society is to actually try and survive. Perhaps we call ourselves the keeper of the flame, but all we can do is keep it alive and going and to prepare the younger ones.”

This is a far cry from Tahrir Square, where Toma and her fellow compatriots helped to topple the dictatorial regime of Hosni Mubarak, who for three decades kept political enemies and social uprisings in check with patronage politics and dungeon-like prisons. When the Muslim Brotherhood rose to take Mubarak’s place after 2011—and began repressing non-Islamist voices with new laws that effectively killed and jailed dissidents all over again—Toma returned to the streets to help bring the new president Mohammed Morsi down.

But it was the military that lent its muscle to the 2013 coup and it came at a price: Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, now President el-Sisi, is a strongman of the Mubarek mold. Not only did he throw the democratically elected Morsi in prison, but the former president of Egypt is now facing the death penalty and is rarely seen since his arrest in 2012.

The Brotherhood, now illegal and considered a terrorist organization by the state, was driven underground, if not out of Egypt entirely. More than 1,000 unarmed Brotherhood protesters were killed by security forces during a Cairo sit-in in August 2013. Meanwhile, Toma and her friends watched as independent political parties withered, opposition was silenced, and journalists and activists were jailed for as little as an offending Facebook post. Estimates are that some 20,000 dissidents remain in prison today.

Critics say the 2014 presidential vote, which el-Sisi reportedly won by 96 percent, was a sham. For one, citizens were “threatened to be penalized if they did not go out and vote,” Toma said. Those who refused stayed far away from the voting box and and kept their mouths shut, fearing the worst if they spoke out. “It tells you something, the only box we believe in now, in terms of the revolution, is a coffin. You can’t start having votes and elections until you have democratic institutions,” she said.

“We decided to go into another box,” she said, noting the movement’s quiet shift underground.

This October, el-Sisi will preside over parliamentary elections that experts say will make great PR, but will do little to advance civil society. Independent parties like Al Dostour are boycotting, citing in part an election law they say is unfair and serves only wealthy, well-connected candidates, much like in the Mubarak era.

“The parties had separate reasons to protest,” said Gameela Ismail, a leading member of Al Dostour, who shared the stage with Toma. She was referred to often as “mother” of the 2011 democracy movement, for her passionate speeches in Tahrir, and her commitment to the embattled protesters.

She said Al Dostour at its peak boasted some 20,000 members. It is now closer to a thousand strong. “We have been targeted by detention and imprisonment,” she said. But who could protest? A decree known as the “anti-protest law” put into effect by el-Sisi after the Morsi ouster requires a protest permit be obtained by police.

“Sisi doesn’t seem interested in party building or normal politics,” said Nathan Brown, author and professor of international affairs at George Washington University, noting that the “authoritarian legal framework” in place will make parliament little more than a noisome herd of cats. El-Sisi, on the other hand, holds all the power legislatively in what Brown calls a “security-oriented regime.”

“I think politics in Egypt is dead right now,” Brown said simply. “When I went to Egypt in 2012 there was a lot of activity by young people. A lot of that has been blunted.”

As these critics assembled in Washington, el-Sisi was trying to put his best face forward for the cameras at the UN in New York. He made sure he released 100 dissidents, including two al-Jazeera reporters and two popular female activists, ahead of his arrival. Publicly, he waxes expansively about his country’s role in countering ISIS and promoting “regional stability.”  

Domestically, he passed an even harsher anti-terror law in August that critics say “paves the way to impunity,” shielding law enforcement from charges of excessive force, and punishing reporters who contradict the state’s official record of events. El-Sisi says it’s necessary in order to exert control over militants in his country, but would never acknowledge that his own policies not only create the conditions for sporadic terrorist attacks in Cairo, but has breathed new life into an ongoing insurgency in the Sinai. If anything, he blames revolution—the very wave of people-power that cemented his control—for holding Egypt back.

As he told Margaret Warner on PBS when she tried to press him ahead of his speech at the United Nations on September 28:

These have been very difficult times for Egyptians. And we have 90 million people. They need to live. Egyptians want to find their basic needs provided and a better chance for life. This cannot be achieved while there is a state of chaos. The standards that you live by do not necessarily have to apply to the standards that we live in, in our own countries. We need some time in order to reach the standards that you live by.

El-Sisi—if Toma’s literary comparisons can be taken to their metaphorical conclusion—is Egypt’s Big Brother. And this Big Brother has a big sugar daddy in the United States, which recently released its hold on $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt.

The U.S. has also promised to help with escalating militant attacks in the Sinai, where the only line of defense appears to be the already stretched Egyptian security forces and a small multinational force at the northeast border (mostly Americans) put into place after the signing of the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. The Sinai insurgents, emboldened by the revolution and el-Sisi’s crushing of the Brotherhood in 2012, have now pledged allegiance to ISIS.

“To have an insurgency capable of using heavy artillery and anti-aircraft missiles and anti-tank missiles, this is all new in the country, said Omar Ashour, senior lecturer of Middle East politics and security at the University of Exeter, adding that the government in Cairo is “feeding it.”

Ashour described the policy as one of totalitarian paranoia: “if you are not with us you are against us and if you are not with us enthusiastically maybe you are against us too.” El-Sisi may like to talk about external foreign threats to distract the Egyptian people—and the international audience from the crackdowns inside his country—but “the threats are internal and it has to do with non-state actors that challenge the system.” The escalation and the failure to see why, was the “main mistake of Mubarak.”

“Yes there are security issues and we have to deal with it. Terrorism is present … no one can deny this. But to what extent,” asked Emad Awad Botross, an Al Dostour party member, in a brief interview with TAC. “We are fighting and we are at war. [El-Sisi] uses this for cover. We must choose between liberty and truth and security, and civil and social justice and security. Some of my friends went to prison just for having this book [1984] in hand. We are living this.”

If the liberal reformers seem strident, there is a reserve of Egyptian experts tied to the Egyptian establishment and U.S. officials on the other side doing their best to temper their view. Abdel Monem Said Aly, head of the Regional Center for Strategic Studies in Cairo and former chairman of Al Ahram newspapers, widely seen as a tool of the Egyptian government, told the MEI audience that “Egypt is economically better,” today than in recent years (el-Sisi talks a great game, of course, but this remains to be seen), and that the prison system in Egypt “is much better than the United States,” pinging on the nearly 2 million Americans in jail today, and “the distribution of wealth is better than the United States.”

Speaking for the U.S. State Department at the conference, Candace Putnam, director of Egyptian Affairs, insisted that “life is returning to normal” in Cairo, but “it is a new normal.” This is diplomat-speak that means Egypt is a place where everyone is on tenterhooks, but the trains and cabs are at least moving. It was hard to tell where Putnam was coming from, much like U.S. policy on Egypt in general. “We have had four years of political upheaval and revolution and that is not finished, there is a lot of churn,” she said, sounding uncannily like el-Sisi on PBS just 400 miles away.

“You have a generational divide across all Egyptian communities … and you have the outside actors that are having an impact that you have never seen before. It is understandable that the Egyptian government sees this as their primary concern.”

When asked about human rights, Putnam said simply, “we’ve been extremely vocal,” and described continued quiet engagement “combined with public criticism.”

She said the U.S. is responding to Egyptian requests for equipment for the borders, including additional armored vehicles, parts for their Apache helicopters, and more for the Sinai. That doesn’t include troops on the ground. “They don’t want our help,” she noted.

If anything, el-Sisi is no fool. He has already embarked on what Al Jazeera calls “a fine bromance” with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and his government cemented it with remarks by Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry, following the Russian air strikes in Syria that began in late September. He refuses to call for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s ouster.

“Russia’s entrance, given its potential and capabilities, is something we see is going to have an effect on limiting terrorism in Syria and eradicating it,” Shoukry said in a televised interview.

Like Toma and 1984, Ismail likes to draw upon literary devices, but hers sound more like Jurassic Park, and if possible, are even more apocalyptic.

“The dinosaur,” she said, referring to the government, “would like to protect the state, it defends the state.” But “while it is doing this it steps on its own eggs, its own children … who want a better future.”

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

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 / Shutterstock.com
a katz / Shutterstock.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LARRY W. SMITH/EPA/Newscom
LARRY W. SMITH/EPA/Newscom

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 Breitbart.com, 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 Antiwar.com, 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 Antiwar.com had been with AdSense for nearly 10 years. (Full disclosure: the author is a former contributor to Antiwar.com)

“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 Antiwar.com 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 Antiwar.com 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.

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