Back in October 2007, the House of Representatives passed The Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act by an overwhelming 405 to 6 vote. The bill would have created and empowered a Congressional commission to hold hearings nationwide, conduct investigations, and propose new legislation to deal with the threat posed by various groups designated as “homegrown terrorists.” The legislation was introduced by then-Congresswoman Jane Harman, normally a reliable liberal, after she learned of alleged threats directed at synagogues in her California district.
The bill was also introduced to the Senate and was viewed favorably by the head of the Homeland Security Committee, at that time Sen. Joe Lieberman. It appeared to have majority support, but no action was taken on it and the bill eventually died in committee.
The demise of the Act was largely due to an uproar amongst civil libertarians regarding its overly broad definitions of what constitutes terror, leading numerous critics to challenge its potential infringement on First Amendment rights to free speech. Congressman Dennis Kucinich called it a “thought crime bill” and Ron Paul condemned it as both unconstitutional and unnecessary while also deploring its circumvention of the existing criminal justice system.
So case closed on a bad bill. Or was it?
In Washington, a favored bit of legislation that doesn’t make it through the committee and onto the floor for a vote can always be tacked on to another bill. Or, if there is some awkwardness about it, it can always be repackaged and given another name. Both of those tactics are currently being employed to revive the Violent Radicalization Act as the The Countering Violent Extremism Act of 2015, which is now being rolled into the renewal of the Homeland Security Act as an amendment. It has also been bureaucratically jiggled, creating an Office for Countering Violent Extremism headed by an Assistant Secretary under the direction of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) rather than a commission run by Congress.
DHS defines violent extremists as “individuals who support or commit ideologically-motivated violence to further political goals.” It subdivides the extremists into domestic terrorists, which means native-born extremists who are generally speaking right-wing politically and anti-government, and homegrown violent extremists, who are U.S. citizens or residents beholden to a “foreign” ideology or terrorist group. In February, Homeland Security produced a report suggesting that the threat from domestic terrorists might well be as serious as that coming from individuals linked to overseas terrorism.
The legislation authorizing the new Office for Countering Violent Extremism is carefully neutral regarding exactly whom it is targeting, providing it with latitude to examine both domestic and internationally connected terrorism. But both political reality in Washington and most particularly the language used suggest that it will be heavily focused on Muslim communities and groups. It calls for “identifying risk factors that contribute to violent extremism,” “identifying populations targeted by violent extremist propaganda, messaging or recruitment,” and “assessing the methods used by violent extremists to disseminate propaganda and messaging to communities at risk for radicalization the recruitment.”
The intended mechanism is also clear. The bill calls for “leverag[ing] new and existing internet and other technologies and social media platforms to counter violent extremism,” a goal which might be connected to impending legislation that would compel providers to report on “suspect messages” relating to terrorism, which they do not currently do. Social media are understandably reluctant to become secret informants for the government while spokesmen on national security argue, inevitably, that it is essential to keep the country safe.
It is not difficult to see where this is going. The Office will hold hearings and will summon “experts” to speak, but there will be no critics of the program, only advocates drawn from places like the American Enterprise Institute, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and the Heritage Foundation. They will all agree that homegrown violent extremism is a serious problem and it will be implicit that the development is inextricably connected to the rise of political Islam.
The Office for Countering Violent Extremism is neither unique nor radically different from much of what has taken place already. An unfortunate consequence of the trauma of 9/11 has been the creation of a number of new laws and commissions designed to protect the country, frequently through either deliberate or inadvertent limitation of rights that have long been viewed as fundamental. The Patriot Acts of 2001 and 2006, the Military Commission Act of 2006 and the annual Authorizations for the Use of Military Force have diminished constitutional rights to free speech, freedom of association, freedom from illegal search, the right to habeas corpus, prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, and freedom from the illegal seizure of private property.
That there might be homegrown terrorists in the United States is also not a revelation: their existence has been front page news since the time of the first World Trade Center bombing and Timothy McVeigh. But the increasing conflation of terrorism with Islamic militancy has been a more recent post-9/11 development. As terrorism is and always has been a crime and it is something that the law enforcement community and intelligence agencies have been dealing with intensively for the past fourteen years one wonders why a new Office with an expensive bureaucracy should now be required to address the problem.
It is certainly true that those who want to do more to confront what they see as a major threat believe that that something extraordinary must be done to anticipate and neutralize the homegrown problem, but many outside the national security bureaucracy believe that the threat itself has been overstated. Arrests and convictions in terrorism cases suggest that most of the alleged threat has come from activists who are more “wannabe” than the real thing, many of whom are arrested and charged after insertion of an FBI informant in law enforcement operations that might well be regarded as entrapment.
And some examples of similar programs both in the U.S. and overseas are not particularly encouraging. state department efforts to engage suspected militants in conversations through social media have generally been regarded as a failure. A major British initiative called “Prevent,” which began 10 years ago in the wake of the London bus and underground bombings, funded a number of programs supporting community outreach and dialogue but found that it was difficult to demonstrate what if anything was being accomplished. Worse, there was a public relations problem because many of those most effective at connecting with disaffected Muslim teenagers were themselves former Jihadis or religious extremists, suggesting that they might be doing more recruiting than dissuading. After 2010, the program began to emphasize less outreach and more surveillance of Muslim communities, a fact that was noted by those on the receiving end and perhaps an inevitable development in a initiative that seeks to combine educational and law enforcement functions but which has difficult in creating a firewall between them. Many critics of “Prevent” now note ruefully a new law in Britain that requires all government employees, including teachers and social workers, to inform the police if they suspect someone is being “radicalized.”
Even a well-intentioned effort to probe the mysteries of radicalization can produce unintended consequences, as the British experience suggests. The DHS’s own definition of “violent extremism” implies that numerous groups, including animal rights activists, anarchists, gun enthusiasts, and polygamists, could become part of the Office for Countering Violent Extremism mandate. As there will be no completely transparent or objective screening process, the agenda will be driven by the need to show some results. And the direction it takes will almost certainly be shaped by the same self-defined “experts” who will called upon to address the DHS panels. They currently enjoy good access to individual congressmen and to congressional committees, which will carry over into interactions with the new bureaucracy. Many of them have a scarcely concealed anti-Muslim agenda and it is likely that they and their associates will find plenty of terrorists and radical groups to investigate, including “anti-American” professors at various universities and critics of Washington’s post 9/11 foreign policy.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.
Last week’s two mass murders carried out by militants allegedly associated with the Islamic State (IS) took place shortly after the release of the State Department’s annual Country Reports on Terrorism 2014. Country Reports is 389 pages long, broken down by country and region. It also includes statistical charts, a focus on state sponsors, and analysis of transnational issues. It is worth a read if only to gain some insight into how the United States government views an issue as unwieldy and ultimately indefinable as “international terrorism.”
Initial reactions from interested parties and the media suggest that one can find something in the report to support nearly any point of view if one looks hard enough. The New York Times emphasized in its headline that “Iran still aids terrorism,” a conclusion also reached by the neoconservative Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP). Critics and friends of Israel, meanwhile, found the report’s explicit detailing of the Palestinian civilian deaths that occurred during the fighting in Gaza last summer either an “about time” moment or just one more indication that the White House is intent on punishing Benjamin Netanyahu.
I found the report to be somewhat perplexing, at times contradictory in terms of how it defines terrorism and what conclusions it draws. The 21st century might well be called the century of the terrorist. Terrorism is constantly in the news in one form or another and American newspapers have been reporting that “terrorism trend lines are ‘worse than at any other point in history.’” But what is terrorism? It has frequently been pointed out that “terrorism” is a tactic, not an actual physical adversary, though it is less often noted that a simple definition of what constitutes terrorism is hardly universally accepted, while the designation itself is essentially political. The glib assertion that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter fails to capture the distinction’s consequences as the terror label itself increasingly comes with a number of legal and practical liabilities attached. Describing an organization as terroristic in order to discredit it has itself become a tactic, and one that sometimes has only limited applicability to what the group in question actually believes or does.
The bone of contention in defining terrorism concerns where to draw the line in terms of the use of violence in furtherance of a political objective. In practice, it is generally accepted that state players who employ violence do so within a social framework that confers legitimacy, while non-state players who use political violence are ipso facto terrorists, or at least susceptible to being tagged with that label, which confers upon them both illegitimacy and a particularly abhorrent criminality. But some on the receiving end of such a Manichean distinction object, noting that the laws defining terror are themselves drawn up by the governments and international organizations, which inevitably give themselves immunity in terms of their own potential liability. They would argue that established regimes will inevitably conspire to label their enemies terrorists to marginalize both resistance movements and internal dissent in such a way as to diminish the credibility of the groups that are so targeted. One might reasonably argue that the government assertion of a right to a monopoly use of violence is sometimes in practice indistinguishable from the actions of non-state players.
One might also argue that “the threat of terrorism” is deliberately exaggerated and even nurtured by governments to justify tax increases and military spending while also permitting behavior by the country’s executive free of the usual legal and constitutional restraints. Interestingly, the State Department report, perhaps inadvertently, provides ample evidence that the global terrorist threat is not particularly global, and in most cases hardly amounts to a threat. The report notes that there was an 81 percent increase in terrorism connected fatalities in 2014, but it also observes that nearly 80 percent of all those fatal terrorist attacks took place in five countries—Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Syria. All are either war zones or have large areas that are not controlled by the central government. To put it simply, a power vacuum will often be filled by forces hostile to the country’s rulers and the result will be bloody.
For Americans the threat is best described as miniscule, hardly reflective of the popular view of a world awash with militants all seeking to kill U.S. citizens before travelling to Times Square so they can blow themselves up. Twenty-four Americans died in terrorist incidents overseas in 2014, but seventeen of those deaths occurred in war zones (Afghanistan, Somalia, and Syria). Five more were Israeli citizens who resided in Israel but who had a second U.S. passport. The other two deaths were in Abu Dhabi and Egypt. Even if one broadens the analysis to include terrorist incidents in the United States, which are not covered in the State Department report, the numbers remain the same as there were no deaths in 2014.
Overall, there have only been seven incidents attributed to jihadi-type terrorists in the U.S. since 9/11, resulting in 26 deaths. Not to disparage the death of anyone, but statistically speaking that is roughly one incident every two years and less than two deaths per year, hardly an existential crisis for the United States of America. During the same time period 48 Americans were killed in the U.S. by white supremacists and other non-Muslim extremists in 19 separate domestic terrorist incidents.
Even the labeling of Iran as “aiding terrorism” is a bit of a fudge that raises some questions regarding how plausibly defensive behavior by various governments is categorized. The main charges against Iran are that it is supporting anti-American radical Shi’ite militiamen who are helping defend Iraq, and that it and its proxy Hezbollah are aiding the Syrian government as well. As the U.S. government claims that Syria is itself guilty of terrorism, Iran thus becomes a terror sponsor once removed, permitting it to be tarred with the same brush.
But the State Department report also goes on to describe IS as the most serious new terrorist threat. As the Islamic State is opposed on the ground by both Iran and Syria as well as by Hezbollah and the Iraqi militias it would appear that Damascus and Tehran are only doing what the U.S. is also seeking to do, i.e. destroy IS. It should be clear that the policy makes even less sense than the Pentagon’s arming of Syrian rebels, which suggests that some in Washington want to differentiate between “good” and “bad” terrorists. Conspicuously, the State Department report makes no claim that Iran is in any way threatening Americans and provides no evidence to suggest that its client Hezbollah is an international terrorist organization. Even WINEP can only cite the arrests of three suspected but not convicted Hezbollah operatives in Thailand and Peru in 2014 to substantiate its claim that the group operates worldwide.
All of which, yet again, raises the question of who or what a terrorist is, how one attempts to tally the actual death toll, and what it means. A recent report by the highly respected Nobel Prize-winning Physicians for Social Responsibility suggests that there has been considerable deliberate understating of the true consequences of terrorism. The report reveals that more than 1.3 million people were killed during the first 10 years post-9/11 as part of the so-called “global war on terror” (GWOT) in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan alone. As one might reasonably add Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen to the carnage and update the numbers on Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan for all areas where the U.S. is or has been engaged militarily the current total might easily exceed two million or more. The report stresses that the estimate of the dead is “conservative” based on the most reliable sources, suggesting that there are large numbers of deaths that have been reported but could not be confirmed.
The State Department report is of necessity heavy on numbers and light on introspection, while it cannot be expected that anyone in Washington will take the blame for the anarchy that has been unleashed in the Arab heartland. Still less would anyone actually try to understand what motivates people to commit terrorist acts. To be sure, there is enough blame to go around, and not all of those possibly millions of potential war on terror victims were killed by American bullets or bombs. But their deaths are plausibly the consequence of ill-advised military interventions and operations to destabilize and replace existing governments, starting with the Taliban and continuing with Libya as well as into the present with operations directed against Syria.
How many of the dead that the Department of State scrupulously reports on each year are ultimately the victims of a misdirected and overly muscular response unleashed after 9/11, and how many new deaths will be added to that tally, is anyone’s guess, but attempts to point the finger at bit players like Iran and Syria might be convenient and politically comforting even as they are basically misguided.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.
Spying has sometimes been described as the realm of smoke and mirrors, but the expression might equally be applied to politics in Washington. President Obama appeared to be aligning himself with the critics of the growing militarization of police forces in the United States when he spoke in Camden, New Jersey on May 18. He declared that his administration would henceforth limit the types of surplus military equipment given to police departments as part of a program referred to as “1033.” The program, which has transferred material worth $18 billion, takes its name from and is funded through section 1033 of the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act.
Equipping the police with military weapons began even earlier, however, with the 1990 defense spending bill, when a surge in the activity of violent drug gangs left the police outgunned and lacking the resources to purchase items like body armor, night-vision goggles, and automatic weapons to match those used by their adversaries. The program inevitably grew post-9/11 and was justified as an appropriate anti-terrorist measure under the aegis of the Defense and Homeland Security Departments. To respond to the new security environment, the transfers began to incorporate heavier equipment, including armored vehicles.
The heavily armed police on display during the recent riots in Ferguson, Missouri prompted Obama to establish in January a working group—headed by the attorney general and secretary of defense—seeking to find a middle ground between legitimate police needs and the widespread perception that law enforcement has become an occupying army. It focused on procurement, training, inventory control, and potential civil-rights violations. The group’s 50-page report, “Recommendations Pursuant to Executive Order 13688 Federal Support for Local Law Enforcement Equipment Acquisition,” was released to coincide with Obama’s Camden visit. The White House declared that it had taken major steps to demilitarize the police, and the media largely endorsed that narrative.
Certain weapons systems and peripherals have been placed on a list of prohibited items, including tracked armored vehicles, firearms and ammunition of .50 caliber or higher, grenade launchers, military-specification equipped and armed vehicles, bayonets, and camouflage uniforms. As police forces, with very rare exceptions, do not have any of the equipment that is now banned, the list is basically irrelevant. The curious inclusion of camouflage uniforms was intended to distinguish policemen from soldiers.
The group also recommended that access to other weapons be more strictly controlled. Airplanes, helicopters, armored vehicles on wheels, drones, riot gear, battering rams, special-purpose firearms, and command vehicles are all acceptable as long as the police department fills out the forms required to validate the transfer and makes sure its personnel are properly trained to handle the equipment. Any police force can acquire the surplus gear, with the sole exception of those providing security for public school systems.
So the widely ballyhooed first step in the demilitarization of police follows the pattern of misdirection that has become characteristic of the Obama administration. Equipment that no one uses or even desires has been banned, while everything else is still available, as long as one is willing to do the required paperwork and endure the approval process.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.
Back in the 1980s I had a friend who was, like me, a CIA Case Officer. He came from a German-Jewish family that had immigrated to the United States in 1933 and, though non-practicing in religion, he was a devoted reader of Commentary. At that time Commentary was the house organ for what we now would describe as a neoconservative foreign policy, a fringe viewpoint that had not yet captured the Republican Party.
One day my colleague approached me and began to rant and rave about the movie “Gandhi.” He had been reading about the film in Commentary and told me that it was historically inaccurate and little more than a puff piece that had been funded by the Indian government. Lacking any particularly insight into the matter I made agreeable noises and left it at that, but it occurred to me that there was something more to the story.
Today I understand what the problem was. Gandhi forced a seemingly unassailable imperial occupying power to pull up stakes and go home. And he did it through nonviolence. Commentary clearly understood that if the Palestinians were to copy Gandhi it would create possibly insurmountable difficulties for the Israeli occupation, which was even then beginning to build permanent settlements for 100,000 settlers in East Jerusalem, on the West Bank and the Golan Heights, as well as in Gaza. It could also expose Israel’s denial of basic human rights to many of the Palestinians under its control.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and numerous other friends of Israel have essentially declared war on the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS), which one might describe as the Palestinian version of Gandhi, as it is nonviolent and nonconfrontational. BDS essentially seeks to bring about change through exposing the immorality of the status quo and even challenging the legitimacy of the Israeli state, which was founded by dispossessing the Palestinians. BDS was organized in 2005 and has three stated objectives: ending the Israeli occupation, granting Arab Israelis full citizenship rights, and respecting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. The third demand, the most contentious, is generally conceded to be a bargaining chip, expected to be subsumed into an agreement that would produce two contiguous states, which the BDS organizers explicitly support.
Boycotting Israeli products, divesting from companies that operate there, and calling for sanctions directed against particularly egregious human rights violations are intended to create economic pressure to bring about the type of change that eventually occurred in apartheid South Africa. Netanyahu clearly understands that BDS is the greatest threat that the current Israeli government faces because it actually might be successful, as the world now realizes that Tel Aviv plans a perpetual de facto occupation of all of Palestine coupled with second-class status for anyone who is not Jewish. As a result, even many traditional supporters of Israel regard continuation of the Israel-Palestine status quo as both morally and politically indefensible.
Supporting boycotts or foreign sanctions has now been declared illegal for any citizen of Israel and the government is also taking aim at local human rights groups that it says are providing fodder for foreign critics. Israel was rocked two weeks ago by a near miss over a possible suspension of the country from the international soccer federation FIFA due to its treatment of Palestinian footballers, and fears that similar moves might be taken against its participation in next year’s Olympic Games. Netanyahu understands that international ostracism is a threat far greater than a potentially nuclear-armed Iran and much more significant than the two intifada outbreaks of violence that began in 1987 and 2000. He has stated so explicitly, saying recently that BDS “is an international campaign to blacken [Israel’s] name” and declaring that it “is not connected to our actions; it is connected to our very existence.”
Ayelet Shaked, the Israeli justice minister, has instructed her department to “prepare a plan of legal steps” against BDS to “move from the defense to the offense.” The government has budgeted $26 million to fund the effort. Gilad Erdan, Minister for Public Security Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy, will lead the effort together with Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely. Erdan and Hotovely might well be considered gifts to the Palestinians as both are poster children for Israel’s hardest hardliners, Erdan saying that Arab members of the Israeli parliament will be “cleansed” when the time is right while Hotovely has declared “This land is ours. All of it is ours.”
The Israeli government view is that accepting BDS is analogous to letting Nazis into your house. Yair Lapid, a former Finance Minister, told a New York audience that BDS organizers were “outright anti-Semites” linked to Arabs who “collaborated with the Nazis” and for a kicker threw in that they were “responsible for 9/11, for terror attacks in Madrid and London, and for the 250,000 people already killed in Syria.”
In the United States a broad array of organizations considered to be part of the Israel lobby have also mobilized, while Israeli-American billionaires Haim Saban and Sheldon Adelson, who recently hosted a meeting in Las Vegas to address the problem, are funding the effort with $20 million to raise an activist army called “Campus Maccabees.” Saban noted that “Any company that chooses to boycott business in Israel, we’re going to look at this case, and once we’re done, they’re going to think twice about whether they want to take on Israel or not.” Self-described “America’s Rabbi” Shmuley Boteach was at the meeting as designated point-man, damning BDS as “Hitler’s U-boats” and an “an act of war” that is “driven by a malignant pulse of anti-Semitism.”
The BDS movement in the United States has won some minor victories, to include resolutions supporting boycotts on 15 university campuses as well as divestment by the Presbyterian and Methodist Churches. In Brazil, the government recently canceled a $2 billion contract with an Israeli security firm linked to the upcoming Rio Olympics. In Europe, the movement is much more advanced. The European Union (EU) intends to demand that products originating in Israeli settlements be identified as to place of origin while 16 of 28 EU foreign ministers now support sanctioning such goods. Recently, major French telecom company Orange Chief Executive Stephane Richard recognized the problem in doing business in Israel, stating that he would like to pull out completely. He was forced to travel to Israel to apologize personally to Netanyahu, recanting obsequiously under pressure from Jewish organizations and the French government.
The U.S. Congress recently approved an anti-BDS amendment to the omnibus European trade bill, mandating that nations engaging in anti-Israel boycotts, to include “Israeli controlled territories,” should be penalized in any trade agreement. In early June the South Carolina legislature made it illegal for any public entity to do business with a company or organization that “boycotts others” based on “national origin.” The bill also targeted other kinds of discrimination, but it was really all about Israel, with one State Representative acknowledging “our great ally” before noting that the legislation would counter “economic warfare to forward the purposes of hatred and bigotry … the tactics employed by the Nazis.” Similar bills have also passed in Indiana and Tennessee while Illinois has unanimously approved legislation prohibiting any pension fund investment in companies that boycott either Israel or territories occupied by Israel. There are reportedly 18 other states with similar legislation pending.
New York State considered cutting off funding to colleges that pass resolutions boycotting Israel, a step that GOP Presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz also supports at the federal level, blocking money that would include student loans and research grants. Cruz, who called BDS both a “lie” and “anti-Semitism,” was picking up his Defender of Israel award from the Champion of Jewish Values International Awards Gala at the time.
The counterattack in the U.S. has also spawned an interesting website called Canary Mission, which “was created to expose individuals and groups that are anti-Freedom, anti-American and anti-Semitic.” In reality it is all about Israel, targeting BDS activists at colleges and naming students involved, as “We believe in the right of employers to know which potentially threatening organizations prospective employees were affiliated with during their time on campus.” In short, if you become too active with BDS, we will attempt to make you unemployable.
Some observers note that attempts to use “Lawfare” and coercion against BDS activists might also actually make the movement go underground and be more difficult to confront. Instead of demonstrating or demanding divestment in public fora, critics will simply avoid having anything to do with Israel or with the business interests of prominent American and European Jews who are heavily engaged in supporting the Israeli government. Entertainers will increasingly avoid performing in Israel and academics will stop going to conferences. At a certain point, even friendly investors will consider the country to be a poor risk due to its politics.
The Nazi theme inevitably surfaces regularly in the attacks on BDS. One editorial describes the movement as “a blatant lie rooted in Goebbels’ school.” Benjamin Weinthal, a research fellow for the neocon Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, notes that neo-Nazi groups support BDS and that the first phase of the Holocaust consisted of boycotting Jewish businesses. He cites an acerbic Israeli Foreign Ministry response to European efforts to label settlement products, “It seems European nations now want to put a yellow patch on Israeli products…” It is a familiar argument: since neo-Nazis support boycotting Israel then anyone supporting a boycott must be considered a neo-Nazi.
One can only expect the fight over BDS to become even more bitter as the two sides dig in. The involvement of both federal and state governments on behalf of Israel is particularly regrettable as there will be pressure on universities to conform, and First Amendment rights could easily be trampled along the way. The argument that efforts to bring about change in Israeli policies equates to anti-Semitism is also dangerous, particularly as it could lead to a questionably broad definition of “hate speech.” Even if Netanyahu is able to win by blocking critics, it will still be a Pyrrhic victory because it will not address the fundamental issue: Israel, by its own actions, has become internationally isolated, reducing the number of countries that are reliably sympathetic to a handful. As Israel’s leading columnist Nahum Barnea, in describing the unsustainability of the status quo, put it laconically, “…as long as we have not occupied the rest of the world, we have a problem.”
It is sometimes observed that universities, far from being centers for the free exchange of different viewpoints, frequently are victims of their own orthodoxy in their eagerness to excommunicate promoters of views that are considered to be outside the pale or otherwise unacceptable. That type of complaint most often comes from conservatives who are appalled by the progressive and politically correct orthodoxy that dominates many departments at most universities but it also applies to liberals who seek to promote alternative views at colleges that regard themselves as Christian.
With that in mind, I am somewhat conflicted over the idea of “presidential libraries” being collocated at major universities, because it creates a perhaps unhappy matrix where politics, personal commemoration, and archival information presumed to be both reliable and comprehensive have to coexist. Most Americans would likely be surprised to learn that there are 13 presidential libraries, many of which are attached to museums and supporting foundations, all of which are now operated by the National Archive and Records Administration (NARA). The first such library was founded by Herbert Hoover, but a number of libraries preserving presidential papers were established privately prior to that administration for presidents Washington, the two Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln, Grant, Hayes, Wilson, and Coolidge.
Currently, the libraries themselves are constructed from private contributions, and some of the more recent ones even have endowments to help with their operating expenses. After they open, all the libraries and exhibit rooms are funded through the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955 and are managed by the NARA, which provides them with much of their material and pays their actual operating costs, currently in excess of $100 million annually. Add-on institutes linked to the libraries are privately funded, normally by a foundation set up for that purpose.
Presidential libraries actually attract few visitors. The three most popular are those of JFK, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. Others get by through hosting special events like book signings that might or might not be linked to the presidency or by featuring theme park-like exhibits. Even the most popular, the Reagan library, recently featured a display of Walt Disney treasures.
The older presidential libraries are essentially historical collections of presidential papers and are only to a limited extent partisan, as the contentious issues that might have divided the nation once upon a time have subsequently faded. That makes them a genuine resource for researchers, aided measurably by the declassification of many documents that were considered too sensitive when they first opened their doors.
The newer libraries have likewise been promoted as repositories for documentary evidence relating to a presidency but they are in fact much more self-absorbed, engaged in what one critic describes as “legacy polishing.” They include numerous unclassified documents that present a certain point of view, but most information that would be of interest to scholars does not begin to appear until more than a decade after the library opens, after it has been “processed.” Even then, it is reasonable to assume that many documents will take decades to be declassified, or may never appear at all on grounds of national security, or potential embarrassment.
The issue of presidential libraries has some immediacy for me as my alma mater, the University of Chicago, has recently been chosen to become the home of the Barack Obama Presidential Center. In the words of the press release, Chicago has agreed to “collaborate” with the Center, which will nevertheless be “independent” from the university. The Center will include a library, museum, exhibit rooms, and office space for the Barack Obama Foundation. The city of Chicago is donating the land while construction costs will be privately raised. The actual operation of the center will depend on both NARA funding and a private endowment. As hosting a presidential library is regarded as prestigious, the university is already boasting of the achievement to us alumni, envisioning in the Center the creation of a “new global destination.”
The Great Seal of the University of Chicago proclaims “Crescat Scientia Vita Excolator,” in English, “increase knowledge so life can be improved.” But if the actual aim of a top university espousing the highest academic standards is to enhance our understanding of the world, there are certain pitfalls in tying oneself to what is an essentially self-serving political initiative.
The Chairman of the Obama Foundation, for example, describes the development as a “dynamic, vibrant forum for civic participation, education, action and progress” while a local community organizer sees a “tremendous opportunity to help culturally significant neighborhoods become vibrant and more economically self-sufficient.” University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer adds his own vision of a “catalyst for economic and cultural opportunities as well as community programing.”
One has to wonder exactly how the repository of record for presidential papers part fits in to all that exuberance, and it is fair to ask if it is reasonable for tax-supported monuments to ex-presidents to be so focused on social engineering. And Obama, like his predecessor, is not exactly very easy to define, meaning that an assessment of his time in office will be inevitably take on the coloration of whoever is structuring the narrative and to what end. Which means that it will likely leave out more than it includes, and therein lies the dilemma.
Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize will no doubt be prominently on display, but one will likely be unsuccessful when seeking the critical documents needed to explain the arguments made and the reasoning behind assassination by drone. Given that it is impossible to sit in on a meeting that took place six years before, the position papers and meeting notes would be invaluable in trying to assess what occurred, but those documents will not be in the library as they potentially disrupt the narrative and are considered both too recent and too sensitive for public consumption.
The George W. Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, which includes a library, museum, and think tank, provides some insights into what the Barack H. Obama library is likely to offer. First of all, the museum portion is essentially a celebration, offering displays on what the administration itself saw as its positive achievements, which the George W. Bush Foundation president describes as “…a reflection of what [the Bushes] think is important about what happened in their service.”
Given recent comments made by George W. Bush on some of his most criticized policies, it is clear that there has been no serious retrospection regarding the Iraq invasion or on the use of renditions and torture by the CIA, exigencies which both he and his museum clearly view as aspects of a “war presidency.” Nor is there any second-guessing about Hurricane Katrina or the financial meltdown and bank bailout at the end of his term of office. All of those issues are dealt with using displays and video defensively, providing explanations that amount to damage control featuring recorded speakers like Condi Rice, Andrew Card, and John Bolton. For the serious student there is thin gruel, with no opportunity for rigorous inquiry into whether the White House had a reasonable case to justify its handling of all those evolving situations. At the dedication Bill Clinton even joked about the library, which includes W’s collection of signed baseballs, as the “latest, grandest example of former presidents to rewrite history.”
So assuming that the Obama Library will be a replay of the W version with a lot more community outreach thrown in, I would like to see the University of Chicago exploit its leverage over the situation at this development stage to insist that there be at least a modicum of transparency and at least token accountability in examining the full record of the Obama White House, warts and all. President Obama should certainly get top marks for his opening to Cuba and his willingness to negotiate with Iran, but there ought to be plenty of room for a serious discussion over the questionable mandate referred to as Obamacare as well as regarding the two wars in Libya and Syria motivated by “regime change,” initiated by the White House against nations with which we Americans were not at war.
And then there are the innocent victims of the U.S. foreign policy that has been a hallmark of both the Bush and Obama years, an estimated 1-2 million Muslims who have perished in the so-called “War on Terror,” to include the more than 3,000 civilians who have been killed under Obama by drones. And there needs to be some explanation for the treatment of whistleblowers who have attempted to expose criminal and unconstitutional activity only to be silenced through imprisonment as well as for the “renditioned” and tortured foreigners seeking redress in U.S. courts who have been blocked through repeated invocation of the State Secrets Privilege.
Obama can also be rightly criticized for his overexploitation of claimed executive privilege, something which, perhaps not coincidentally has found strong and vocal support in the University of Chicago Law School. And finally, there is the possibly unconstitutional NSA domestic surveillance program as well as the targeting and killing of American citizens by drone without any due process that the Founders of this nation would recognize.
These are all serious issues. If the President can make a solid case for his actions he should do so through the mechanism of his Center and show the public the documents and records of the deliberations that supported his decisions. That is precisely what a taxpayer-supported presidential library should do, and it is also what the University of Chicago, as a collaborator in the project, should demand.
Some might argue that knowing exactly how Osama bin Laden was killed really doesn’t matter. Some might even argue that he is still alive, which, if nothing else, would demonstrate the persistence of urban legends relating to conspiracies allegedly involving the U.S. government. JFK’s assassination has the grassy knoll and second gunman, plus Mafia, CIA, and Cuban connections as well as a possible Vietnamese angle. 9/11 had the mystery of the collapse of Building 7. More recently still, the Texas State Guard was mobilized to monitor a military training exercise because it was rumored to be a ploy to impose martial law. Demonizing Washington as one large conspiracy is good business all around.
The death of bin Laden has been memorialized by a CIA-sponsored film “Zero Dark Thirty” and a book by Peter Bergen, by numerous White House leaks and press releases, and by memoranda of participants, including the CIA’s female officer who tracked bin Laden and the Navy SEAL who allegedly fired the fatal shots. The most recent contribution to the oeuvre is an account by the former CIA Deputy Director and torture apologist Michael Morell, The Great War of Our Time: the CIA’s Fight against Terrorism from al-Qai’da to ISIS.
Inevitably, great stories that don’t quite hang together are often revised as memory grows weak and, in the manner of Rashomon, frequently take on the coloration of where the narrator was sitting when events unfolded. And then there are the skeptics, who focus on the inconsistencies and pull together their own explanations. A number of articles and blogs have questioned details of the standard narrative on bin Laden. One compelling account by R.J. Hillhouse in August 2011 challenged central aspects of the prevailing story, and there has been corroborative reporting from highly respected New York Times correspondent Carlotta Gall.
A more recent skeptic about bin Laden is America’s top investigative reporter, Seymour Hersh. In a lengthy article published in the current London Review of Books, Hersh provides a fascinating narrative regarding the killing of bin Laden, which contradicts the account provided by the government. A White House spokesman immediately weighed in to describe Hersh’s account as “baseless,” while Morell has called it “all wrong” and Bergen has dubbed it a “farrago of nonsense.”
Sy Hersh believes the official account, that bin Laden was discovered in Abbottabad after one of his couriers was tracked, is wrong. Instead, he claims, the source of the information was a Pakistani intelligence officer who was paid as much as $25 million. Hersh also claims that the heads of the Pakistani Army and its intelligence service (ISI) knew about the raid in advance and were able to facilitate the U.S. incursion. A Pakistani intelligence officer participated in the operation after a Pakistani army doctor obtained DNA evidence proving the presence of bin Laden, convincing the White House to authorize the attack. The Obama administration, however, claims that the assault was completely unilateral and Pakistan knew nothing about it.
The Hersh account also states that bin Laden had been under house arrest by the Pakistani intelligence service for five years and was unarmed when the U.S. team arrived with instructions from Washington to kill him. His stay in Pakistan was being secretly funded by the Saudi government, which did not want him released. There was no shooting apart from that done by the Navy SEALs. An after-the-fact cover story prepared by the White House and Pakistani officials, that bin Laden had been killed in a drone strike in Afghanistan, was abandoned when Obama, for various reasons, decided to instead go public on the night of the killing, betraying the trust of the Pakistani generals.
The Hersh account and the government response together raise a number of questions which can be examined based on plausibility of the respective accounts and the possible security considerations that might have influenced an official narrative that milked the event for political gain while also protecting sources and methods. Interestingly, NBC News came out with its own report one day after Hersh’s article was published, confirming it from its own sources that a Pakistani official “helped the U.S. find Osama bin Laden, not a courier.” The article, subsequently retracted, also cited a New York Times Magazine report by Carlotta Gall that the Pakistani intelligence service ISI actually had a special desk tasked with hiding bin Laden.
For what it’s worth, I have known Sy Hersh for more than 15 years and have a great deal of respect for him as a journalist. I am aware of how carefully he vets his information, using multiple sourcing for many of his articles, and I also know that he has a network of high-level contacts in key positions scattered throughout the defense, intelligence, and national security communities. For this article he cites three anonymous U.S. special ops and intelligence sources, three named Pakistani sources, and a number of unnamed Pakistanis. I think I know the identities of at least two of his American sources, both of whom are reliable and have access, while one of his other anonymous sources might well be Jonathan Bank, the former CIA station chief in Islamabad. If Sy says that someone revealed something to him either on background or anonymously, I am sure that he accurately conveys what was said, though that does not necessarily rule out the possibility that the source might be intentionally misleading him or somehow be mistaken.
Against that, the government has hardly been a reliable source of accurate information, even regarding this past weekend’s Delta Force raid in Syria in which the Pentagon account and the report of a British monitoring group vary considerably. Some of those who are most aggressively attacking Hersh know nothing about the death of bin Laden except what the White House and its various spokesmen have provided. Several have a vested interest in parroting the official line, to include books they want to sell and white lies they would prefer remain somewhere in the shadows. Nevertheless, the bin Laden killing was a story that benefited the White House politically, making it important to get the details right lest it be discredited from the get-go.
Hersh’s first assertion, that the source of the information was a Pakistani intelligence officer who walked-in with the information is quite plausible and it actually makes more sense than the courier story, which is inconsistent in terms of who, what, when, and where. Walk-ins are mistrusted, but they also provide many breakthroughs in intelligence operations. In this case, the walk-in passed a polygraph examination and provided significant corroborating information. If the man was indeed paid and he wished to keep the connection secret, a cover story would be needed to explain how the U.S. came by the information. That is where the courier story would come in.
The presumed role of the Pakistani intelligence officer leads naturally to the plausible assumption that Pakistan had bin Laden under control as a prisoner. Among retired intelligence officers that I know no one believes that the Pakistanis were unaware of bin Laden’s presence among them though there are varying degrees of disagreement regarding exactly why he was being held and what Islamabad intended to do with him. Some speculate, as Hersh asserts, that the Paks were seeking a mechanism both to get rid of bin Laden and obtain a satisfactory quid pro quo for turning him over to Washington. Per Hersh, they considered bin Laden a “resource” to be cashed in at the right time, which makes sense.
That several senior Pakistani military officers were informed of the impending raid is also not exactly surprising. The billions that Washington has provided to the Pakistani military was largely controlled by the head of the army and the chief of ISI. That did not exactly make them paid agents of the United States, but it certainly would create a compelling self-interest in keeping the relationship functional. They could be relied upon to be discreet and they were certainly well-placed enough to mitigate the risk to incoming American helicopters if called upon to do so.
Hersh notes that due to the delay caused by the crashed helicopter the SEAL team was on the ground for 40 minutes “waiting for the bus” without any police, military, or fire department response to the noise and explosions. The public lighting in that area had also been turned off. And, indeed, the White House could still claim that it was a wholly U.S. operation because the civilian government in Islamabad, out of the loop on what was occurring, could plausibly deny any deal with Washington. Hersh notes that in Obama’s press conference on the killing, the president nevertheless acknowledged that the “counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding,” a statement that may have been true enough but also exposed the assistance that had been received and put at risk the generals who had cooperated.
And then there is the Saudi role. Hersh claims that Riyadh was footing the bill for holding bin Laden because they did not want him to reveal to the Americans what he knew about Saudi funding of al-Qaeda. The Pakistanis for their part wanted bin Laden dead as part of the deal so he would not talk about their holding him for five years without revealing that fact to Washington.
Other claims by Sy Hersh include his debunking of the “garbage bags of computers and storage devices” seized by the team, used to support the contention that bin Laden was still in charge of a vast terrorist network. But there is little evidence to suggest that anything at all was picked up during the raid. Documents turned over by the Pakistanis afterwards were examined but found to be useful mostly for background on al-Qaeda.
Concerning the firefight that may not have occurred, the government account started with a claim that bin Laden was armed and resisted using his wife as a shield, a wild west fantasy concocted by then-White House terrorism chief John Brennan, but it eventually conceded that the terrorist leader was unarmed and alone. In the initial debriefing the SEAL team reportedly did not mention any resistance in the compound. The military participants in the raid were subsequently forced to sign nondisclosure forms threatening civil penalties and a lawsuit for anyone who discussed the operation either publicly or privately.
Finally, what happened to bin Laden’s body? The original plan was to wait a week and announce that bin Laden had been literally blown to bits by drone, but that was preempted by President Obama, who saw an opportunity to score some political points. There is no evidence that bin Laden was buried at sea, as was alleged, no photos, no eyewitness testimony by sailors on board the USS Carl Vinson, and no ship’s log confirming the burial. Two of Hersh’s sources are convinced the burial never took place and that what remained after being torn apart by bullets was instead turned over to the CIA for disposal. They regard the burial at sea as a poorly designed cover story to get rid of the body and avoid any embarrassing questions over possible misidentification.
So what do I think is true? I believe that a walk-in Pakistani intelligence officer provided the information on bin Laden and that the Pakistanis were indeed holding him under house arrest, possibly with the connivance of the Saudis. I am not completely convinced that senior Pakistani generals colluded with the U.S. in the attack, though Hersh makes a carefully nuanced case and Obama’s indiscreet comment is suggestive. I do not believe any material of serious intelligence value was collected from the site and I think accounts of the shootout were exaggerated. The burial at sea does indeed appear to be a quickly contrived cover story. And yes, I do think Osama bin Laden is dead.
Ironically, for a president who once ran for office promising “transparency” in government, the dreaded associated “a” word, “accountability,” has been somewhat difficult to discern. Even if government actions were transparent, which they are not, the ability of senior bureaucrats and politicians to make multiple bad decisions goes unchallenged when there is no accountability .
The recent killing of two foreign captives in an errant drone strike in Pakistan has raised some serious questions about the government’s employment of what has become its principal offensive weapon in its global war on terror (which the White House now prefers to call its overseas contingency operations). While President Obama, who has claimed that drones strikes only take place when there is “near certainty” about the target, took personal responsibility for the mishap, it does not require much understanding of Washington’s ways to realize that the gesture is in reality quite empty since the Chief Executive is unlikely to bear any actual consequences.
As the government acts in loco populi in its increasing use of drones as the end game in a policy that includes kill lists, assassinations of American citizens and military action in countries with which the United States is not at war, there should be at least a modicum of both transparency and accountability to the process. In reality, there is neither and many Americans have no idea what is being done in their name. Most would be shocked to learn about the U.S. using drones for so-called double-taps in which a group on the ground is hit and the drone hovers while rescuers rush to the scene. The rescuers are then killed by a second wave of missiles. Apart from anything else, targeting those assisting the wounded is a war crime.
The serious questions that should be raised about the use of drones have most often been successfully deflected by both government and an accommodating media which have diverted the narrative into an all too frequent technical discussion of the weapon’s capabilities. Drones are cheap as weapons systems go, they are versatile, they can hover for hours or even days. They have unparalleled technical intelligence sensors and they can spot, assess, and kill targets with some precision. They are a Hollywood-plus-video game vision of warfare, American-style, with an operator sitting in air-conditioned comfort while he or she searches for a target, acquires it, and zap, a hellfire missile makes the bad guy wish he had not messed with Uncle Sam. Best of all, as in a video game, no American servicemen are actually placed in harm’s way in the process.
When not discussing how capable drones are at doing what they do and dissecting how they do it, the media interest is frequently focused on the administrative question of who should be operating them, whether that ought to be the intelligence community or the armed forces. The Pentagon runs the drones in places like Afghanistan and Iraq-Syria that are considered war zones, where it has a broad mandate to use the unmanned vehicles for “protection of forces” as well as offensive operations. The CIA initially became the prime operator in most other theaters because it could plausibly deny what it was doing and could also target countries like Pakistan and Yemen where the governments were ostensibly friendly and supportive but did not want the public to know that they were cooperating with the Americans. And the CIA also had the advantage of operating with less of a bureaucratic “tail” than the military, enabling it to move more quickly and respond spontaneously to evolving situations. But essentially the question of who should run the counter-terrorist drones is a bit of a red herring as the technology, procedures and results are basically the same and there is no longer any fig leaf of denial regarding who is doing what to whom.
The government’s justification for using drones at all, reportedly spelled out in some detail in classified Justice Department memos, has long been based on the constabulary concept. That means that the U.S., by virtue of the authority provided by the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) to pursue al-Qaeda and more recently “associated groups” wherever they might be, has taken upon itself the task of ridding the world of terrorists. The drone has become the mechanism of choice in those countries where the local authorities do not have the ability to confront and detain their own radicals and whatever other non-indigenous terrorists have chosen to shelter within their borders. In other words, if Pakistan can’t do it, Washington will send in a sheriff and take care of the problem.
But how drones work, who operates them, and what the legal justification for their use might be avoids rather more serious discussion of their fundamental immorality. The 800-pound gorilla question regarding the drones is, “Who exactly is being killed and what do we in Washington actually know about those who are dead?” Anecdotally, the people who live in the places that are on the receiving end of the attacks believe that large numbers of civilians are killed, far more than the number of actual militants. The destruction of a wedding party in Yemen in December 2013 was widely reported and led to compensation payments by the United States government.
The federal government undoubtedly compiles meticulous reviews of drone strikes, but the official public announcements, when they are actually made, seem to vary considerably from what those on the ground are experiencing. They routinely indicate that only militants or terrorists have been killed and are often accompanied by the word “confirmed.” But how do we know that to be true as the details of such operations are generally considered classified and how does that square with independent estimates suggesting that only two percent of the thousands killed fit the high-level terrorist profile? The Guardian has reviewed drone strikes in Pakistan and has concluded that 28 civilians are killed as collateral damage for the death of each certifiable “bad guy” target.
As many of the strikes and victims are located in Pakistan or Yemen where the U.S. has no one on the ground, are American authorities getting some kind of confirmation from the respective governments or intelligence services, and if so, how do Islamabad and Sana’a themselves identify militants? It might well just be someone who lives in the wrong village or who is out at the wrong time at night. Or could it be the supporter of a political party opposed to the government?
A second question, which is related to the first, must be “what is the benefit versus damage assessment relating to drone strikes?” Washington is hated in Pakistan, with opinion polls revealing that only 11 percent of the population views the United States favorably. Other polls indicate that the level of animosity is directly linked to the attacks by drones. If that is so, what is the offset? How many identified leaders of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, who are the alleged targets of the drone operations, have been killed and, more to the point, to what extent has that degraded their ability to conduct their own operations? If the threat represented by the two groups is not being dramatically eroded, the damage to Washington’s relationship with Pakistan, nuclear armed and frequently borderline unstable, might well be considered a price that is too high to pay.
A third question relates to how the drones are actually directed, because the targeting relies on intelligence and one has to suspect that the information being developed might not be very reliable. A drone capable of hitting a target with pinpoint accuracy is only as good as the intelligence it relies on to make the strike. Lack of precise information on what is actually happening on the ground is likely the reason the program developed so-called signature strikes. Signature strikes are basically profiles, i.e. someone behaving in a certain way or appearing in a certain area, which means that the attackers have no idea whatsoever of whom they are killing. If there is heavy reliance on signature strikes, which appears to be the case, the collateral damage caused by the attacks will be considerably higher as there will undoubtedly be a substantial margin for error.
Finally, drones should be considered in their macro context, which is the extent to which they have done irreparable damage to the reputation of the United States and led many to label it a rogue nation. The callous attitude towards casualties inflicted collaterally suggests that the U.S. is at war with civilian populations as much as with terrorists, eliminating any possible moral high ground for justifying the unending war on terror.
But one should go back to the initial observation about transparency and accountability, which is where the rot sets in. The government has a right to protect secrets on sources and methods relating to its counter-terrorism activity, but such operations should be conducted within a context where it is being honest with the public about what is being done and what the costs are. There is considerable evidence that the White House has sought to conceal the scale of ongoing military action worldwide and the fact that it has avoided transparency about the drone program suggests that it has much to answer for.
Last week Pope Francis described the slaughter of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire as “genocide,” joining France and 20 other countries in adopting that designation. The massacres and forced relocations of Armenian civilians began 100 years ago and concluded with the end of the First World War in 1918. Even Turkey’s German military advisers were appalled by what they were witnessing. Turkish historians have tended to argue that the deaths were consequences of the war itself, in which Imperial Russian armies overran predominantly Armenian regions in Eastern Anatolia, leading to a forced evacuation of a population that had allegedly greeted the invaders and was considered unreliable. Food and other resources were scarce or nonexistent along the largely arid countryside that the evacuees passed through.
Nevertheless, though wartime conditions might in part explain the scale of the deaths of civilians, there is more than enough documentary evidence to make a convincing case that Armenians far removed from the fighting were also systematically slaughtered as policy initiated by senior government officials. Not every official or Turkish soldier was part of the process, but many certainly were.
The usual Turcophobes have praised the papal pronouncement, while Ankara has recalled its ambassador from the Holy See and has expressed its anger. The Turks’ response is in part fueled by their belief that they were victims in the First World War as much as anyone, having been invaded and occupied by foreign armies during the fighting and in its aftermath. Still, while the concern of Ankara lest it be associated with a crime against humanity carried out on its soil is understandable, the intention either to kill or drive out all or most Armenians from Ottoman lands qualifies as a genocide if anything does, making it, as Pope Francis noted, the first such outrage in the 20th century. It was followed by Stalin’s starvation of the Ukrainians, the Wannsee program by the Nazis to kill or expel all European Jews, Pol Pot’s mass slaughters in Cambodia, and the horrors of Rwanda at the century’s end.
But one nevertheless has to wonder at the consequences of an ex post facto establishment of accountability for a crime that began 100 years ago in a now nonexistent political entity with victims and perpetrators who are no longer alive. When I lived in Istanbul in the 1980s I knew many Armenians well enough to be invited into their homes and attend their church services. I also knew Roman Catholics with whom I went to Mass, and had friends at the Greek Patriarchate, the Phanar. Christians were allowed to worship freely, but there was always a sense that they were being permitted to do so on sufferance and that it was a privilege rather than a right in an overwhelmingly Muslim country. I visited Istanbul again this summer, and the increase in visible Islamic religiosity was startling, so I assume that Christians are even more on edge.
Given that Christians in Turkey are still allowed to worship and associate more or less freely, Pope Francis’s declaration can only make their status somewhat more delicate, as those who see Turkey as a Muslim rather than a secular nation, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will be able to play the nationalist card to make that vision a reality. The pace of the conversion of surviving historic churches into mosques will no doubt accelerate. In short, Pope Francis makes their situation more difficult in exchange for what I believe to be no actual net gain.
And then there is the essential hypocrisy of papal pronouncements. All too often the Church fails to live up to its own values. For me that occurred in dramatic fashion when Pope John Paul II conferred the appearance of Christian legitimacy on President George W. Bush by granting him four papal audiences. To his credit, the pope raised the issue of the deteriorating status of Christians in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East and called for peace in the region, but he did not do or say anything that might have a serious impact. If Turkey must be held accountable for massacres that took place in wartime 100 years ago, one has to wonder why the man who started a war unnecessarily, which at that point had killed scores of thousands of civilians and enabled the destruction of the ancient Christian communities in the Middle East, should be rewarded with multiple papal audiences.
I for one would have liked to have seen the pope refuse to meet with Bush or at least politely but publicly confront the president during the audience over what he had unleashed. Such a gesture could have had a real impact in the United States and just might have put the lie to the claims of success of the Iraq venture, which one still tends to hear on occasion, recently from Bush himself declaring that it brought “democracy.”
I understand that the sensitivities of the U.S. Catholic Church are important to the Holy See, and no pope would want to gratuitously contradict an American president, but it seems to me that the Church has a responsibility to bear witness as an antidote to ongoing evil backed by an assertion of Christian values. A public display of disapproval delivered to 78 million American Catholics might have served to restrain Bush-Cheney. And even if it did not, it would have been the right thing to do.
Which brings us to here and now. Concerning Pope Francis and his condemnation of Armenian genocide, I have to ask, “What have you done for me today?” The reticence of Christian organizations to get behind the Boycott, Divestments, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel in an attempt to help deliver self-determination and fundamental human rights to the Palestinians has mystified me. I understand that the Catholic Church does not want to make more confrontational its interaction with the often difficult Israeli overlords of ecclesiastical properties in Jerusalem, and the Church has its own priorities in support of Christian-Jewish dialogue that it would not want to damage. There is also lurking the issue of historic anti-Semitism within the Church, but BDS is a perfect vehicle for helping to redress a current wrong. It is nonviolent, nonconfrontational, and conforms with international law. Precisely what is boycotted, divested, or sanctioned can be tailored to specific issues like settlement building. BDS seeks to establish fundamental liberties for Palestinians, including the freedom to run their own affairs either as a separate state or as part of a truly democratic Israel that grants equal rights to all.
For Catholics there is also a personal stake in what goes on in Israel, namely that the Church has an ancient physical presence in Israel and Palestine that is diminishing and under siege. The abuse of Christian clergy and laity in Israel has been widely reported, and there are 50 laws that discriminate in various ways against non-Jews. The Israeli bureaucracy de facto aids the process by refusing basic services for non-Jews, appropriating or infringing on Christian and Muslim religious sites, and systematically denying things like building permits even if there is no law that is directly applicable.
Demands to turn Israel into an increasingly apartheid-like Jewish State will have additional real-life consequences, not unlike Erdogan’s promoting Islam as the state religion in Turkey. Some Israeli politicians are on record calling for the expulsion of all Arabs or creating incentives for them to leave voluntarily. Christians, many of whom are in communion with Rome, confronted by a government hostile to their interests have already done and will continue to do the latter, emigrating to find a better life within their diaspora community overseas. The number of Catholics in Israel declined by half between 1980 and 2008. The death of the Christian community in the very land where the religion was founded ought to be of concern to the head of the Roman Catholic Church.
To be sure there will be strong resistance to any papal pronouncement in support of any element of BDS. Israelis will unleash their considerable propaganda resources to denigrate the pope, including labeling him as an anti-Semite. Indeed, other Christian groups that have supported BDS, often in a lukewarm fashion, have been so denounced, including the Presbyterians, who recently divested from three companies well known for their involvement in the Israeli-occupied territories.
Media coverage of Pope Francis’s comments on the Armenians cited his outspokenness and “sympathy for all victims.” Apart from his reference to the “state of Palestine” on a visit to the Holy Land in May, any recognition of Palestinian suffering has been rather thin gruel. One has to ask, when the Roman Catholic Church’s sympathy will be extended in tangible form to the Palestinians?
It has been observed that the Barack Obama administration has employed the state secrets privilege more than all preceding presidential administrations combined. There is a certain irony inherent in that fact as Obama ran for office in 2008 specifically committing himself to creating a more open and transparent government.
The contemporary version of the state secrets privilege was first successfully invoked in 1953 in a case involving military secrets. It was intended to provide the government with a mechanism to intervene in judicial proceedings if there were some danger that classified information might be revealed as part of the legal process. In practice, this has meant that if a plaintiff or defendant in a trial sought to use government information to help make his or her case the justice department (DOJ) would be able to intervene ex parte in camera and, after making its case, hopefully obtain a ruling from the judge that the information being sought was inadmissible on grounds of national security.
Originally the secrets privilege was used only rarely and it was also employed with considerable specificity, focusing, for example, on a document or testimony that the government was able to claim would do damage to national security or other significant equities. The department of justice guideline clearly states that the privilege cannot be invoked to “Conceal violations of the law, inefficiency or administrative error” or to “prevent embarrassment to a person, organization or agency of the United States government.” In practice, however, even if error or embarrassment is the real reason for the action, it can always be claimed that the issue involves national security, so the guideline is essentially toothless. Indeed, the very first assertion of the privilege in 1953 was itself fraudulent. After the papers relating to the crash of a military plane were finally declassified in 2000 it was subsequently determined that the driving force behind the cover-up was to avoid embarrassing the Air Force over the poor maintenance of its aircraft.
The decision to declare information admissible or not is up to the presiding judge, but he or she might or might not actually review the relevant document or other evidence in question, frequently relying solely on the government lawyer’s testimony or a DOJ affidavit regarding the potential impact. If the judge concurs in the government case, access to the information would be denied without further discussion and the trial might then proceed.
But deviating from the precedents of how state secrets is supposed to work has made the protections built into the process largely irrelevant. Currently the privilege is most often employed by the government not to stop exposure of a piece of information but rather to intervene to prevent a trial from taking place at all. The George W. Bush administration used state secrets privilege to block litigation relating to torture or abduction, most notably in the 2007 American Civil Liberties Union suit on behalf of five rendition victims filed against Jeppesen DataPlan, a subsidiary of Boeing Company that had participated in the process. The Bush DOJ also twice gagged FBI whistleblower Sibel Edmonds based on state secrets to preemptively block her from saying anything about corruption at the Bureau.
The Bush administration even blocked any legal recourse for those who had been tortured. Canadian Maher Arar, who was detained by U.S. government agents in 2002 and rendered to Syria where he was tortured was denied access to American courts for redress after it turned out he had been accused based on inaccurate information. German citizen Khaled el-Masri was tortured at a U.S. government black site in Afghanistan after being rendered from Macedonia. He was finally released when it was determined that he had been wrongly detained. Both Arar and el-Masri were blocked from suing the United States government through assertion of the state secrets privilege.
The Obama administration has expanded the use of state secrets to stop challenges to the assassination-by-drone program and even to defend no-fly lists. The increased recourse to the state secrets privilege by administrations apparently seeking to avoid scrutiny or accountability has inevitably led to abuses in terms of how it is employed. One is inclined to expect bizarre results when a government can regularly claim that it has secrets that it cannot share that potentially preempt any retributive action through the judiciary. It might rightly be suggested that such action is symptomatic of a totalitarian state, and so it is.
A recent case in a New York Federal court involving a lawsuit that was dismissed by the presiding judge has only received limited media coverage, but it exhibits clearly exactly how judicial remedies targeting government illegality are gradually being stifled by the department of justice. As the government was not even a party to the New York case, it also raises questions about the White House’s willingness to work hand-in-hand with accommodating private organizations to carry out the type of “covert actions” that were once the purview of intelligence organizations.
The defendant in the New York trial was United Against Nuclear Iran, which has a budget just shy of $2 million. The group, which has obtained a 501(c)3 educational tax status which allows it to limit identification of its donors, has offices in Rockefeller Center in New York City and posts its findings using a billboard on Times Square. Describing itself as engaged in “economic and psychological warfare” against Iran, it is active on Capitol Hill providing “expert testimony” for congressional committees, to include “help” in drafting legislation. At a July 2014 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Iran all three outside witnesses were from UANI.
Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad, is on the UANI advisory board, which also includes ex-Senator Joseph Lieberman, former Homeland Security Adviser Fran Townsend, ex-CIA Director James Woolsey, and former senior diplomat Dennis Ross, all of whom have frequently been seen as favoring Israeli interests. Lieberman, Townsend, Ross, and Woolsey might well have easy access to U.S. government-generated information even though they are no longer in office.
UANI is active in the media but is perhaps best known for its “name and shame” initiatives in which it exposes companies that it claims are doing business with Tehran in violation of U.S. sanctions. UANI routinely intimidates its targets by defaming their business practices as well as by demanding both examination of their books and an audit carried out by one of its own accountants followed by review from an “independent counsel.”
UANI was being sued by a Greek billionaire Victor Restis whom it had outed in 2013. Restis, claiming that he was defamed, believes the exposure was fraudulent and carried out in part to damage his business. He filed suit demanding that UANI and billionaire Thomas Kaplan turn over documents and details of relationships regarding UANI donors who he claimed were linked to the case. Kaplan once boasted “we’ve [UANI] done more to bring Iran to heel than any other private sector initiative.”
Restis intended to expose Kaplan’s connections and associates both inside and outside the government but the department of justice twice intervened in the case, asserting that the exposure of the sought-after documents would damage national security. As in all state secrets cases, the meeting between the judge and the DOJ lawyers was conducted in secret and neither plaintiff nor defense attorneys were given access to the alleged classified material. In state secrets initiatives the DOJ nevertheless normally indicates which agency had sought the intervention and provides some hint of what was involved, but in this case there was no indication why sensitive information would be held by UANI or what the possible government interest in the matter might be. The second DOJ intervention proved decisive as Judge Edgardo Ramos agreed to dismiss the lawsuit on March 26th.
Passing intelligence related or law enforcement documents to a private organization for exploitation is illegal, and it is also illegal for the government to conduct a covert action, meaning an activity that could be plausibly denied and not linked to any federal agency, if doing so might influence opinion or policies in the United States. In this case, the justice department’s only apparent concern was that the activity might be exposed. There was no indication that DOJ would go after UANI for having acquired the information which almost certainly was uncorroborated work product provided by the Treasury Department section responsible for sanctions, the Office for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, headed by Undersecretary David Cohen.
There is, of course, speculation that UANI is little more than a front for Israeli or U.S. intelligence. That just might be true and should surprise no one, but the more important issue is the right of individuals to litigate to obtain redress from damages inflicted by a second party without interference by the government. Even if one accepts the necessity of having something like a state secrets option on the books, the introduction of the DOJ into a dispute in which the government is not even a party suggests some ugly possibilities.
It would probably not shock anyone to deduce that the White House just might be using the secrets privilege in an indiscriminate fashion to derail inquiry into a situation that it might find embarrassing or where there is potential criminal liability, as appeared to be the case in New York. In Restis v. UANI there is quite clear evidence that something is very wrong and is being covered up. Either classified information was obtained criminally or it was shared with a private organization illegally by the government itself to enable more effective harassment of innocent people and companies. Or perhaps a deliberate attempt was orchestrated by parties currently unknown to shape opinion in the United States through alarming assertions about perfidious Iran and the corrupt businessmen who are enabling it to evade sanctions. It could have had both objectives. Either way, the dismissal of the lawsuit was just one more indication that the tendency of the White House to bend the rules to produce a desired result is, if anything, growing.
Having experienced several more weeks of mainstream media jingoism about the “Iranian threat,” culminating in the outrageous Joshua Muravchik op-ed advocating war with Iran as the “best option” for dealing with that country, one has to ask why it is that a gaggle of self-proclaimed “experts” has been able to capture the foreign-policy narrative so completely, in spite of the fact that they have been wrong about nearly everything?
Neoconservatives have two core beliefs. First is their insistence that the United States has the right or even the responsibility to use its military and economic power to reshape the world in terms of its own interests and values. Constant war thus becomes the new normal. As Professor Eliot Cohen, a former State Department adviser under George W. Bush, put it, “For the great mass of the American public … and for their leaders and elites who shape public opinion ‘war weariness’ is unearned cant, unworthy of a serious nation… .”
The second basic neoconservative principle, inextricably tied to the first, is that Washington must uncritically support Israel no matter what its government does, which makes the defense of all things Israeli an American value. William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, made the neoconservative viewpoint clear when he recently wrote that Benjamin Netanyahu would win the GOP’s presidential nomination, if he could run, because “Republican primary voters are at least as hawkish as the Israeli public.” Other neoconservatives continue to pursue the goal set out by the “Clean Break” memo provided to then-Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in 1996, which recommended the reordering of the entire Middle East to benefit Israel. The memo was written by Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, James Colbert, and David and Meyrav Wurmser.
Beyond foreign policy, things get a bit fuzzy with large variations regarding the kinds of social issues that energize many actual conservatives. In fact, neoconservatives usually avoid discussing abortion, immigration, gay marriage, race, and the proper place for religion in a civil society because they find themselves on the progressive side of the argument. They are also light on the ground when it comes to constitutionalism and civil liberties, concerns of traditional conservatives, preferring instead to back the warfare state coupled with a unitary executive, which frees up the president to exercise the military option in international relations.
This ambivalence is because, as it has been observed, many neoconservatives are former leftists or even radicals who have by their own account “been mugged by reality,” leading to a gradual shift away from the Scoop Jackson Democratic nest where many of them were nurtured to the Republicanism of Ronald Reagan, where they focused more practically on obtaining positions in the Pentagon. Many eventually supported John McCain before gravitating to the George W. Bush administration, where some of them found senior-level government positions in both the White House and Defense Department.
Neoconservatives largely mix with other neoconservatives, which means that they operate with considerable internal cohesion, but that does not fully explain their success in selling a product that has begun to smell very bad if one judges by results rather than marketing. But perhaps the answer lies in understanding how the bubble around Washington works, which the neoconservatives have mastered. They are particularly adept at resume building within their clique, understanding full well that a Fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies is more likely to find space on a friendly editorial page than someone without that cachet who has a large audience on the alternative media, particularly if that someone is diverging from status quo policies or staking out a position that differs substantially from foreign-policy groupthink. Their ability to seek out and build relationships with friends in the mainstream media, which the Guardian describes as “extraordinary,” has significantly contributed to their success. In 2002 alone the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), an AIPAC spin-off, by itself placed 90 op-eds in the mainstream media. They also enjoy, for the same reason, unchallenged access to government committees and advisory commissions.
Muravchik, currently a Hopkins’ Fellow, is a prime example of an ascendant neoconservative. His biography is typical of the older generation of neoconservative, starting out as a socialist before becoming a Democrat in the Scoop Jackson-inspired Coalition for a Democratic Majority, and finally ending up as a GOP-leaning neocon. Stops along the way include what some have described as “neoconservative alphabet soup.” Muravchik is or has been affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), WINEP, Project for the New American Century (PNAC) the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) and the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq (CLI), where he served on the board.
Always completely protective of hardline Israeli interests, Muravchik was one of the neoconservatives who pushed most diligently for war against Iraq post-9/11, and he has persistently called for an attack against Iran. In 2006 he wrote an op-ed declaring that “We must bomb Iran,” with follow-up pieces demanding more of the same in 2007, 2008, 2011, and 2014.
Neoconservatives like to write books as part of their credential building process, making sure that the results are promoted through their networks and favorably reviewed no matter how ridiculous. Laurie Mylroie’s Saddam Hussein’s Unfinished War Against America, which claimed that Iraq had bombed the world Trade Center in 1993, was both printed and praised by AEI. Muravchik’s 2014 offering Making David into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel explains that Israel has been the victim of the embrace of a progressive-inspired model of “national/ethnic struggle.” In other words, the turn against Israel is due to leftist politics and has not been the result of anything Israel has done.
Muravchik’s career has carefully advanced in such a fashion as to validate himself as an expert on international affairs even though it should be apparent that he is little more than an academic apologist for a rather narrowly construed point of view. And nearly every other neoconservative has a similar trajectory, starting out in elite academia and then bouncing from position to position inside and outside the government, aided at every step by others in the movement. The neoconservatives benefit particularly from their ownership of a number of foundations and institutes, the aforementioned alphabet soup, that provide resting places between university and government positions, complete with salaries and important-sounding titles. Many also are provided with lucrative opportunities in the private sector that free them to subsequently concentrate on the true task at hand, which is shaping U.S. foreign policy.
If one looks at the careers of 30 well-known neoconservatives, one notes that there are a number of stops that pop up on many of the resumes, a progression that might well be described as something like a cursus honorum whereby the neoconservative aspirant is afforded status and credibility before stepping out onto the national or international stage. Muravchik’s multiple affiliations are exceptional, but they are actually exceeded by Richard Perle, who has been connected to AEI, FDD, PNAC, JINSA, CLI, the Hudson Institute, U.S. Committee for a Free Lebanon, Center for Security Policy, and the Committee on the Present Danger.
The Project for the New American Century, launched in 1997 by William Kristol and Robert Kagan, served as an apparent incubator for the modern neoconservative movement and was a popular introduction to national politics. By the time it ceased to operate in 2006, four out of five of the neoconservatives who rose to prominence in the George W. Bush administration and subsequently were in some way affiliated with it.
The second most popular stop for neoconservatives, not surprisingly, was and still is the American Enterprise Institute, where more than half have been affiliated. Other popular destinations include the Foreign Policy Initiative, founded by Kristol, Robert Kagan, Dan Senor, and Eric Edelman. There is also the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, which is backed by Kristol as well, but headed by Canadian Mark Dubowitz, a Hopkins product and FDD’s Executive Director, who is regarded by Congress as an expert on how to deal with Iran and also reportedly briefs “…counterterrorism officials on a range of national security and terrorism-related concerns.” Dubowitz’s resume suggests, however, that he actually doesn’t appear to know much about Iran apart from what can be done to punish it economically. Nor does he have the depth that comes from actually working for a law enforcement or intelligence agency. He is basically an academic, a familiar pattern for neoconservatives.
Another focal point is Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Paul Wolfowitz, architect of the disastrous Iraq War, served as dean prior to entering the Pentagon as a political appointee in 2001, which might partly explain the attraction. Indeed, one might suggest that SAIS is the academic wing of the neoconservative movement. Ten out of 30 leading neoconservatives have had some connection to Hopkins.
A third of neoconservatives have worked for JINSA. More than two-thirds have written for The Weekly Standard, National Review, or the Wall Street Journal. Surprisingly few have had any direct connection to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), but more than half have worked with WINEP, which was founded by AIPAC. Neoconservatives also figure prominently in the Middle East Forum and the Hudson Institute. Some have been active in Bill Kristol’s most recent venture the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI), launched in collaboration with Christian Zionist Gary Bauer. Military service is rare among the neoconservatives, which has led to frequent charges that they are armchair warriors more than willing to let others die to achieve their aggressive foreign policy objectives.
That the neoconservative cursus is supported by large amounts of money should not be ignored, as that is the glue that enables aspirants to persevere and turn one’s political leanings into a viable career. AEI had income totaling $46 million in 2013. WINEP received $8.7 million in the same year.
So how do critics of the incessant warfare combined with obeisance to pro-Israel policies get heard? Well, by and large they don’t get to capture an audience because they have little or no access to the mainstream media or to policymakers. There are no traditional conservative media outlets in any way comparable to the mainstream magazines, newspapers, and talk shows that the neoconservatives dominate, though TAC probably comes closest to being a viable alternative. The Ron Paul movement’s interest in fixing America’s global role has withered and died as the organizations he spawned have turned inward and largely eschewed foreign policy. No one who is a traditional conservative with cautious views about interventionism is particularly welcome on television or in testimony before government panels or commissions.
Most of all, there is no structure in place in any way comparable to what the neoconservatives have developed to nurture, support and guide young conservatives who would like to make a career in exposing the all too evident falsehoods inherent in the new American nightmare. The neoconservative example may be deplorable, but it has been all too effective, and seemingly impossible for those with limited resources to emulate.
The Washington Post reports that “terrorism trend lines are ‘worse than at any other point in history.’” But what is terrorism? It has frequently been pointed out that “terrorism” is a tactic, not an actual physical adversary, but it is less often noted that a simple definition of what constitutes terrorism is hardly universally accepted, while the designation itself is essentially political. The glib assertion that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter fails to capture the distinction’s consequences as the terror label itself increasingly comes with a number of legal and practical liabilities attached. Describing an organization as terroristic in order to discredit it has itself become a tactic, and one that sometimes has only limited connections to what the group in question actually believes or does.
The bone of contention in defining terrorism is where to draw the line in terms of the use of violence in furtherance of a political objective. In practice, it is generally accepted that state players who employ violence do so within a social framework that confers legitimacy, while nonstate players who use political violence are ipso facto terrorists, or at least susceptible to being tagged with that label, which confers upon them both illegitimacy and a particularly abhorrent criminality. But some on the receiving end of such a Manichean distinction object, noting that the laws defining terror are themselves drawn up by the governments and international organizations, which inevitably give themselves a pass in terms of their own potential liability. They would argue that established regimes will inevitably conspire to label their enemies terrorists to marginalize both resistance movements and internal dissent in such a way as to diminish the credibility of the groups that are so targeted. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recently been doing precisely that, and one might reasonably argue that government use of violence is often in practice indistinguishable from the actions of nonstate players.
Some common dictionary definitions of terrorism include engaging in “the systematic use of terror,” surely an indication of the inscrutability of an issue when the word must be used to define itself. The United Nations has been unsuccessfully negotiating a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism since 2002 that would define terror as causing death or serious injury or destroying or damaging public or private property “to intimidate a population, or to compel a Government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act.” The United States Federal criminal code uses similar language, as does the Patriot Act, with the key elements being the use of violence or physical destruction to “intimidate or coerce” a civilian population or an existing government.
Governments are aware of what can be accomplished by invoking the word “terrorism.” The diplomacy-averse United States frequently hides behind the label, as it is prohibited by law from negotiating with groups so-labeled, and thereby avoids having to confront the possible legitimacy of what they represent. And it also justifies a uniformly violent response, which is invariably described as self-defense.
Fourteen years ago the “global war on terror” was used to justify wholesale American intervention in predominantly Muslim countries. A number of European countries, including France and Britain, have followed the example of the two Patriot Acts by introducing antiterrorism legislation that provides special police and intelligence service authorities that limit normal legal protections in terrorism cases. The broadly written laws have largely rendered the authorities immune from either regulation or prosecution, and governments in the West have generally been reluctant to allow any third-party inquiries into the related behavior of military and police forces. In the United States the state secret privilege, originally intended to prohibit the exposure of classified information in court, has been used to completely derail judicial proceedings relating to offenses allegedly committed by the government in terrorism cases.
And critics of the essentially hypocritical double standard used in defining terrorism certainly have a point. One might reasonably argue that the use of drones, in which “signature” targets are killed because they match a profile, fits comfortably within the definition of terrorism. During 2003-4, American Army and Marine forces in Fallujah sometimes shelled and bombed targets in the city indiscriminately and were certainly responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths. The Israeli Defense Forces killed thousands of civilians in two incursions into Gaza as well as several attacks on Lebanon. There was no declaration of war to justify the use of armed force in either case, and independent observers noted that many of the civilian casualties could have been avoided, normally a defining factor that makes an incident terror. Both Israel and the United States turned the tables on the situation by referring to their opponents and victims as “terrorists.” There has been no accountability for the deaths because it was two governments that carried out the killing.
In a world seemingly obsessed with terrorism it was inevitable that something like an anti-terrorism industry would grow dramatically. Every television and radio network has its own stable of pundits who pontificate on every violent incident, and there also are well-compensated freelancers, who describe themselves as experts, such as Evan Kohlmann and Steve Emerson. Emerson recently had to apologize after claiming that Birmingham, England had a number of no-go areas controlled by local Muslim extremists.
It should be no surprise that lawyers have now also gotten into the game. In 1996 Congress passed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which allows victims of terrorism to file civil suits in federal and state courts against sponsors or supporters of terrorism. Once you have a group or individual labeled as terrorist, or providing assistance to terrorists, there are a number of options you can pursue. The burgeoning antiterrorism industry appears to be in some ways linked to the increasing employment of Lawfare, which uses the legal system to wage war by alternative means, making it possible to obtain a favorable judgment and damages from the assets of a recognized terrorist organization. Such litigation benefits from favorable legislation in the United States that makes terrorism a worldwide crime subject to U.S. judicial review.
Recent court cases have involved both states that allegedly sponsor terrorism or actual organizations that are now parts of governments that either currently or at one time were perceived to be terrorists. Many of the groups targeted are enemies of Israel, and the Israeli Lawfare center Shurat HaDin is most active in pursuing such litigation. In a recent case in New York City, the Palestinian Authority was successfully sued by a group of Israelis and Americans over terrorist attacks that took place in Israel in 2002-4. If the appeal fails, the Palestinian Authority will be required to pay $1 billion in damages and will be bankrupted, with negative consequences for the United States, which has been seeking to create a viable government on the West Bank.
The U.S. Department of State identifies four countries as state sponsors of terrorism, making them prime targets for sanctions and other legal action. They are Cuba, Sudan, Syria and Iran. Cuba is an anomaly as it has not threatened anyone in decades but remains on the list due to the deep passions within America’s politically powerful Cuban Lobby. Sudan likewise should not be so designated, as even the U.S. government admits that it is cooperative on terrorism issues.
This leaves Syria and Iran, both of which are regarded as state sponsors of terrorism even though both are themselves victims of terrorist attacks carried out by groups supported by the United States. They are on the list because they harbor or cooperate with Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. All three groups consider themselves to be resistance movements against the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine, but Israel regards all three as terrorists, a view shared by the United States on the state department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization list. That viewpoint is not necessarily shared by many European governments, which regard the organizations as having evolved into legitimate political parties. There are also thousands of individuals and groups considered to be terroristic or criminal, collected by the U.S. Department of Justice on its Special Designated Nationals List. Individuals and organizations on the list have their assets blocked and are subject to other punitive action by the United States government.
Being designated by the Department of the Treasury or state does not necessarily mean that someone or some organization was actually involved in terrorism. The Texas-based Holy Land Foundation, an Islamic charity, was declared a terrorist organization in 2001. Its officers were convicted and imprisoned in a 2008 trial because the Treasury Department determined ex post facto that it had given money to Hamas before that group was itself named as a terrorist organization.
Inclusion on the State or Treasury lists can mean that there is solid evidence of wrongdoing, but it can also represent mere insinuations or a strong desire to see a group singled out for punishment. In any event, once a group or person is designated for a list, it is difficult to get off. Organizations that have not engaged in terrorist activity for many years remain on the list while other groups that are active escape censure. Recently, the Mujaheddin e Khalq (MEK), an Iranian terrorist group that killed six Americans in the 1970s, was removed from the list under political pressure from Congress and the media. Again, Israel was involved. MEK is an enemy of the current government in Tehran and is itself an important component of the Israeli intelligence effort against Iran, having been involved in the fabrication of information suggesting that Iran has an active nuclear weapons program as well as participating in the assassinations of Tehran’s scientists.
So what terrorism actually consists of very much depends on one’s perspective, rendering the word itself largely meaningless. But those who are listed as terrorists experience real consequences even accepting that the designation is both selectively applied and politicized. The United States and Israel in particular use the terrorism label to demonize opponents, drum up fear, and generate popular support for security policies that might otherwise be unpalatable. They also justify their own behavior by asserting that they occupy the moral high ground in the defense of the world against terror, a claim that certainly should be regarded with considerable skepticism.
Recent reports that the National Security Agency (NSA) appears to have installed a worm in computer hard drives that enables it to surreptitiously collect information, compartmentalize and conceal it, and later enable access without being detected have failed to produce much of a reaction in the media and from the public. This is possibly due to the complexity of the technology involved but it might also be because a certain fatigue regarding the NSA and what it has been up to has replaced the initial indignation about the violation of privacy rights. It may well be that most Americans now accept the fact that wholesale government intrusion into areas once regarded as off limits is a feature of post 9/11 life. That shift in perception might well be exactly what the White House has intended to accomplish, anticipating that it will be able to wait out the critics and avoid any meaningful reforms.
Most interested parties who have followed the debate over NSA bulk data collection are likely only dimly aware that there have been a number of panels and review groups convened to examine the NSA practices, most of which have concluded that the program should be eliminated on both civil liberties and effectiveness grounds. The most venerable and quite likely the most thorough was named back in August 2013 by President Obama in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations. It was called “The President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies” and was intended to examine what reforms might be necessary to respect personal liberties while at the same time protecting national security. The stated intention for convening the panel was to restore public trust in what the White House was doing by way of the NSA.
The panel consisted of former national security official Richard Clarke and ex-CIA Acting Director Michael Morell as well as three lawyers who are currently professors at major universities: Geoffrey Stone, Cass Sunstein, and Peter Swire. Sunstein also served in the Obama administration as director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs while Swire was the chief privacy consultant in the Office of Management and Budget under Bill Clinton as well as under Obama.
As is frequently the case with government commissions and boards, a clear majority of the panel consisted of legal and security experts who themselves were on intimate terms with the government and are not known to be critics of its policies. Cass Sunstein’s wife Samantha Power is the current U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and Sunstein himself was a supporter of George W. Bush’s military commissions. Peter Swire worked for the Clinton and Obama administrations while Richard Clarke was a national security adviser in both Republican and Democratic White Houses and was notable for running around “with his hair on fire” warning that something was coming shortly before the 9/11 attack. Geoffrey Stone was the only panelist with no senior government affiliation. He is a Law Professor at the University of Chicago and serves on the board of advisors for the American Civil Liberties Union. In 2006 he endorsed the view that the NSA surveillance program was “unlawful.”
In hindsight it is illuminating to review what the panel concluded and what has actually taken place. The five participants came up with 46 recommendations, all of which were approved unanimously. They are described in a 239 page unclassified publication, “The NSA Report: Liberty and Security in a Changing World.” The key judgments fall into three separate areas. The first was the bulk collection of the metadata itself, which was done by the NSA after 2006 by virtue of a blanket approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). The panel recommended that a third party rather than the government itself should hold the data base, that querying the information would require a court order, and that the data be held for only two years instead of five.
The second issue was the National Security Letters, which were authorized post 9/11 for the FBI to obtain personal information on suspects. The letters are classified secret but they require no judicial oversight and go directly to the source of the information, which in turn is not allowed to reveal to the suspect that he or she is being investigated. In practice, the letters were widely abused and only rarely related to actual terrorism cases. The panel recommended that the letters require a court order but the FBI objected that such a move would make the process “inefficient.”
The third broad area of inquiry was the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which was founded in 1978 and in theory limited the government’s ability to intercept communications in the United States without probable cause that there was a possible espionage connection. In fact, however, the court became a rubber stamp for government action, rarely challenging or even examining the case being made. The panel recommended that the board create a privacy and civil liberties advocate who would be able to challenge the government proposals.
So what happened? President Obama agreed that the metadata should be held outside the government but has recently reneged, arguing that the proposal was unacceptable for both “legal and practical reasons.” The recommendations to require a court order to access the database and to reduce the time information can be held are in limbo, part of the legislation on NSA that is stalled in Congress pertaining to the USA Freedom Act which is unlikely ever to emerge now that the Republicans are in control. The White House also rejected requiring judicial action to issue a National Security Letter and made civil liberties advocacy to the FISC dependent on the court itself asking for such participation.
So nothing has changed and even if one instead evaluates the programs purely as a possibly necessary evil, collecting information to keep us safe, the result has to be questionable at best. When the panel examined the evidence it was determined that the metadata program, for all its expense and intrusiveness, had in 2012 queried only 288 phone numbers, which resulted in 12 actual leads, none of which helped prevent a terrorist incident. Indeed, in all the seven years that the program had been running prior to that time no terrorist attacks were prevented because of it. The NSA and White House argued nevertheless that the program had to be preserved because it might be needed in case a major attack were to be planned in the future. The panel bought into that argument.
The panelists agreed in their report summary that it would be wrong to wholly trust either elected or appointed government officials. But at the same time all but one of them had previously held high-level federal appointments and were comfortable with how the bureaucracy functions. They apparently were accepting of the principle that the government exists to serve the people and will generally be inclined to do the right thing. Quite likely they were mistaken in that presumption, possibly because their own self-esteem derives in part from their federal employment.
In reality, any government’s first imperative is to stay in power and it will reflexively do whatever serves that interest, no more, no less. In this case it was essential for the White House to be seen to be doing some housecleaning relating to NSA. Appoint a distinguished panel and mission is accomplished no matter what the group concludes because the findings are largely irrelevant and can be ignored or circumvented, which has been the case with the “The NSA Report.”
There should also have been more serious concern regarding the federal government possessing the ability to invade privacy at will even if certain ameliorating mechanisms are put in place to manage that capability. If government is given a tool that it can use to gain information it will use it and it will actively work around any limitations placed on its use. And then there are the political benefits derived from big government. Large programs cost many billions of dollars, involve thousands of jobs, and are frequently justified due to internal government dynamics even when they fail to perform. NSA spying as an element of the national security surveillance state is like a genie that has been let out of the bottle. There is no simple way to put it back inside and there are all too many on the outside who, for many reasons, welcome its continued presence.
It was said of the French Revolution that it ended up devouring its own children. Something similar is occurring within the United States national-security establishment, as extreme responses surface in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris.
In the National Security Council (NSC) there has been serious consideration of “temporarily” eliminating visa waivers for select European countries where there are large minority Muslim populations. Currently most Europeans can travel to the United States without first obtaining a visa, leading to concerns that “home grown” European terrorists can easily enter this country, obtain weapons, and stage a Charlie Hebdo in Times Square.
The drive to “do something” is based on the White House assessment that countries like France and Belgium are unable to manage their domestic terrorism problems, potentially permitting them to spill over against targets in the United States. Discussions in the NSC regarding options to limit travel have been strongly opposed by the Department of State, which does not have the resources to begin again issuing large numbers of visas at many of its overseas posts. Foreign governments would also be seriously upset by such a move and would undoubtedly retaliate against traveling Americans.
Charlie Hebdo has also revived consideration of what to do about the possible development of more “insider” terrorism inside the United States, exemplified by the Washington Navy Yard killings in 2013 and the shooting carried out by Maj. Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood in 2009. Possible steps to take to identify individuals who are considered “high risk” from a security point of view are again being considered, though the government is reluctant to describe its deliberations in those terms, lest it be accused of profiling. Internally, however, a number of federal security and law-enforcement agencies have begun to tighten up their vetting practices for employees who were either born or have family in what are now being referred to as “conflict zones.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has institutionalized stricter monitoring of some employees as part of the Post-Adjudication Risk Management program, which involves more frequent and more stringent security screenings. The employees themselves are reported to be angry at the procedures they are forced to endure, as many believe—probably correctly—that inclusion in the program is both arbitrary and damaging to promotion prospects. Many of those affected are linguists or foreign-culture specialists who are critical to FBI efforts to monitor local immigrant communities in the United States. Some might even argue that the increased scrutiny is likely to produce at least a few embittered employees without necessarily enhancing national security.
Other national-security agencies have followed the FBI lead, though they have been reluctant to formalize a category of at-risk employees through creation of an actual program. Since the Washington Navy Yard incident, the use of polygraphs for many employees with access to classified information has doubled, and there has been greatly increased monitoring of internal communications. Critics of the disruption and expense involved in the search for “insiders” also note that the United States has been relatively immune from international terrorism since 9/11 precisely because American Muslims are so well assimilated, which could shift perceptibly if there develops a widespread belief that they are not trusted by the government that employs them.
The Obama administration is gloating over the recent conviction of Jeffrey Sterling in an Alexandria, Va. federal court for allegedly leaking details of a secret government program called Operation Merlin that was intended to damage Iran’s nuclear program. Attorney General Eric Holder described the verdict as “…a just and appropriate outcome. The defendant’s unauthorized disclosures of classified information compromised operations undertaken in defense of America’s national security. The disclosures placed lives at risk.”
But some serious doubts persist over whether Sterling actually did anything illegal. Sterling was charged and convicted on nine counts, seven of which pertain to the Espionage Act of 1917, which was mostly of interest to antiquarians before it was taken off the shelf and used by the George W. Bush administration and subsequently employed even more frequently by Barack Obama’s increasingly reactionary Justice Department. The Espionage Act, designed to catch and convict enemy agents during wartime, gives the prosecution considerable leeway in terms of how it defines and conducts its case. Prosecutors can cite national security as an excuse to limit what would be considered normal constitutional protections such as the right to confront one’s accuser. They can also restrict access to certain types of information on national security grounds and order investigations within the government definition of what constitutes probable cause, to include someone’s searching the internet for information that might be regarded as “suspicious.”
Prosecutors can also divide their case into separate counts to ensure success even if there is a failure to convict on some of the charges. Even though Sterling was accused of only one leak the specific counts against him included seven separate elements linked to the alleged crime. Mimicking the curious language employed by the Act itself, two of the charges include causing journalist James Risen to write a 2003 article, as well as the account of Merlin contained in his book State of War.
There have also been a number of interesting subplots during the investigative and subpoena processes that preceded the actual trial, which have played out over the course of more than five years. Sterling, who may or may not have revealed details of the secret government program, has been hailed as a whistleblower by defenders responding critically to the high level of government secrecy prevailing during the past 14 years. The government prosecutors for their part claimed that Sterling had revealed details of Operation Merlin to Risen, who in turn described the program both in detail and in extremely negative terms in State of War, which came out in 2006.
The initial interaction between government and governed involved the prosecutors attempting to force Risen to reveal his sources for Operation Merlin. Risen, who claimed only that he had multiple sources for his story, refused to do so and was prepared to go to jail. The government eventually backed off in January, declaring that it would not force Risen to testify and allowing the trial to proceed. Risen was removed from the list of potential government witnesses and the prosecution made its case based purely on circumstantial evidence.
Sterling, who had gone through established whistleblower channels in his attempt to expose the failings of Merlin by approaching the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2003, insisted that he was not the source for Risen. His defense team suggested instead that someone on the congressional staff could just as easily have leaked the information, an alternative that was not seriously considered by the government attorneys.
Once the trial started, the prosecutors focused on discrediting Sterling as a government employee, citing an alleged poor work record and history of disgruntlement that led to a claim of racial discrimination, while producing a series of witnesses who were allowed to testify from behind screens and using only their first names so they could not be identified. The prosecution then moved on to trying to prove that Operation Merlin was important, a government secret worthy of protection and one whose disclosure had done enormous damage. Among others, former National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice testified to the value of the program.
Merlin involved giving defective plans for a nuclear weapon to Iran by way of a Russian scientist who was paid more than $400,000 to serve as the principal agent for the transfer. Risen’s view, expressed in his book, was that Merlin was ill-conceived, mismanaged, and disastrous. It was “hopelessly botched, and possibly backfiring by giving the Iranians blueprints that could be useful to them if they sorted out the good information from the errors.” He called it an operation “conducted in the darkest corner of the American national security establishment.”
The government prosecutors made no effort to prove that Sterling ever actually spoke to Risen about Merlin because the evidence to support that assertion did not exist in spite of an exhaustive years-long investigation. Sterling did indeed exchange numerous phone calls and emails with Risen, many of which were monitored by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but Merlin was not mentioned. The government claimed that Risen’s view of Merlin paralleled that of Sterling as expressed when he addressed the issue with the congressional staff, but there was no actual smoking gun. Prosecutors attempted to demonstrate that Sterling had motive, opportunity, and access. So it had to be him.
Col. Pat Lang, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s clandestine program, was a consultant for the defense, though he was not called to testify. He described the outcome as a “travesty” as there was no actual evidence confirming that Sterling was a source for the book. Indeed, some of the information in Risen’s book relating to Merlin could not have been known by Sterling as he was no longer associated with the operation after mid-2000.
Jeffrey Sterling could not testify in the trial on his own behalf because he would have had to discuss the issue of the value of Operation Merlin, which is still classified, meaning he could not reveal any details about it even if they were already known through the Risen book. So he was convicted on the basis of a series of calls and emails that made him suspicious and, in the minds of the jury, guilty.
Because only witnesses who praised Merlin were allowed to be called, the government by any reasonable standard failed to prove that, in Holder’s words, Sterling had compromised an operation that was in fact “in defense of America’s national security.” Still less did the prosecution demonstrate that he had “placed lives at risk.” If there was a victory in the case it was on the side of the Obama White House, which has exceeded all previous administrations combined in terms of going after alleged leakers. Prior to Obama, there had been only three prosecutions of current or former officials for disclosing classified information. Under Obama, there have been eight, which is particularly ironic as the administration has itself been prone to leak information. There has also been considerable pressure on journalists to reveal sources, as occurred with Risen. Associated Press phone records have been seized by prosecutors and a Fox News reporter was investigated relating to criminal charges connected to classified information.
Jeffrey Sterling will be sentenced in federal court in Alexandria on April 24th and is facing up to 80 years in prison.
In high school civics classes, Americans are brought up to believe that in their nation a rule of law prevails. Justice is depicted as blind and the rules apply to everyone. All Americans will receive the same fair hearing in court or at the hands of the government. Of course the reality is that experience tells us that those who trust in impartial justice are somewhat delusional as the criminal justice and regulatory systems do not operate in a reliably mechanical fashion. Many factors determine whether a suspect actually goes to trial or whether an organization is regulated or investigated and there are a number of roadblocks along the way that influence the outcome.
One of the federal government regulatory bodies that few have heard about is the board at the United States Department of Justice’s Counterespionage Section that administers the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). The original FARA was passed in 1938 just before the outbreak of war in Europe and was intended to monitor the activities of front organizations being directed by the German and Italian governments. From its inception FARA was politicized and selective. Rome and Berlin were potential enemies while the extremely active British government efforts to draw the United States into what eventually became a European and then a world war were largely ignored.
The original act was loosely worded to include anyone propagandizing for a foreign power but an amended version in 1966 narrowed the definition of whom would be covered to include only actual “agents of a foreign principal” working directly for a foreign government in an attempt to influence U.S. economic or political decision making. Since 1966 there have been no successful criminal prosecutions under FARA and nearly all compliance has been more-or-less voluntary. There have, however, been a number of civil cases and administrative resolutions in which the government asserted the viability of the act. In 2004, for example, Susan Lindauer, a former congressional staffer, was charged with taking payments from an Iraqi government source. Her case was finally dropped in 2009.
There are somewhat less than 2,000 foreign agents registered under the act representing more than 100 countries. Their names and their periodic financial and activities filings are accessible by the public at the FARA Unit office in Washington. Most are associated with law or lobbying firms that represent foreign governments as part of their business. Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert was, for a time, a registered agent for Turkey when he held that account while working for the Dickstein Shapiro law firm, which he joined after leaving congress. Former Congressman Dick Gephardt also headed a company engaged in lobbying for Turkey. Both Gephardt and Hastert were involved in lobbying Congress to oppose pending legislation calling the First World War massacre of Turkish Armenians a “genocide.”
The disadvantage of registering under FARA is that you have to disclose your sources of income and you also have to detail what you are doing on behalf of the foreign government. Organizations that do not consider that they are actually directed by a foreign government or who assess their relationship to be borderline are consequently reluctant to comply.
FARA inevitably is selective in its targeting. Agents of nations hostile to the United States are pursued with some vigor while organizations linked to powerful domestic political lobbies tend to get a pass. This has been historically true of Irish republican groups as well as of the predecessor of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which was founded in 1949 as the American Zionist Council. The American Zionist Council was funded directly by the Jewish Agency for Israel. Attorney General Robert Kennedy ordered the group to register in 1962 but the death of his brother led to an intense lobbying campaign to influence his strongly pro-Israel successor Lyndon B. Johnson who obligingly instructed the Justice Department to stand down.
Since that time repeated efforts to compel AIPAC to register have failed due to White House and Justice Department unwillingness to confront the issue but a new initiative by the Israeli government might well be construed as having crossed the line in violation of FARA. In early January the Prime Minister’s Office of the Israeli government funded a joint project to be run by the government’s National Information Directorate and StandWithUS, which has been described as an “American hasbara organization.” In Hebrew the name, hasbara, means literally “public explanation” but the expression is generally applied to anyone involved in generating pro-Israeli propaganda. It is also sometimes more politely described as a program of “perception management,” a euphemism made popular by the Donald Rumsfeld Pentagon in 2004.
Israel has long been paying students as part-time bloggers or exploiting diaspora Jews as volunteers to get its message out. In 2009 the Israeli Foreign Ministry wrote to a number of pro-Israel organizations emphasizing the “importance of the internet as the new battleground for Israel’s image.” Haaretz reported in 2013 how Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office collaborated with the National Union of Israeli Students to create “semi-military covert units” at the seven national universities organized to work in situation rooms. Students use different names and IP addresses, which enable them to make multiple posts, and are paid as much as $2,000 monthly to work the online targets.
The hasbara program includes recruitment, training, Foreign Ministry-prepared information sheets, and internet alerts to potential targets. It is essentially an internet-focused “information war.” It is supported by a desktop tool called Megaphone that provided daily updates on articles appearing on the internet that are singled out for confrontation or attack. The hasbara commenters flood websites where commentary critical of Israel is observed in the belief that if something is repeated often enough in many different places it will gain credibility and create doubts regarding contrary points of view. They also can hound critics and even destroy careers in journalism. Veteran CNN reporter Jim Clancy was forced to resign last week after an exchange of tweets with hasbara over the Paris terror attacks.
The joint enterprise between the American foundation and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office is more of the same. It reportedly is intended to strengthen “Israeli hasbara on social media platforms,” with StandWithUs running “interactive media war rooms.” The National Information Directorate’s role will be to draft the talking points and monitor the progress of the “war.”
StandWithUs, which was founded to “educate others about Israel,” originated in Los Angeles. It now has 18 chapters in the U.S., Canada, Britain, and also in Israel. Incorporated as the Israel Emergency Alliance, StandWithUs is a 501(c)(3) organization, which means it has successfully claimed to be a tax exempt educational foundation. It is reportedly largely funded by Las Vegas multi billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who also has been active in supporting Republican candidates perceived as particularly friendly to Israel. StandWithUs is aggressive in its defense of Israel, to include a secret program to compile critical dossiers on pro-Palestinian speakers as part of an effort to help “Israel advocates respond to and counter anti-Israel speakers who come to your campus.”
The project is ostensibly being run through the StandWithUs chapter in Israel, but it will include the training of British and American students, and the parent organization is itself American in both funding and its incorporation. As it has no other function than promoting the Israeli government point of view so as to influence decision making in the United States and in the United Kingdom. It would be a clear case where registry with FARA would be mandatory as the political direction and half the funding for the project are coming directly from the Israeli government. If StandWithUS is compelled to register under FARA it will have to reveal all its funding and its tax exempt status will presumably be revoked by the Internal Revenue Service.
And StandWithUs is far from alone. Israel is certainly entitled to make its case to the American and international audience and one might observe that it has done so extremely tenaciously and very effectively. But a number of organizations in the Israel Lobby are little more than fronts for promoting the Israeli right wing government talking points in an attempt to shape American policy, which indisputably makes them foreign agents as defined by FARA. As foreign agents, they should be subject to some supervision of and restraints on their activities and there would also be a certain transparency in terms of who they are and what they represent which just might make the media less inclined to go to them for commentary.
One suspects that the Barack Obama/Eric Holder Justice department has little stomach for going after any organization linked to Israel and that reticence is regrettable, particularly as Israel will undoubtedly be using the upcoming Netanyahu visit to ratchet up the intensity of its own campaign to convince the American public that war with Iran should be a compelling U.S. national interest. If the American public were made aware that much of the war fever is being drummed up by organizations that are actually acting as agents of a foreign government it just might make a difference in how that sales pitch is perceived. But even if that were not the case, it would not be a bad thing to observe that the United States government does indeed, at least occasionally, play by its own rules.
As has been well documented, there are a lot of folks out there who do not like Edward Snowden very much, some of whom are prepared to do something about him up to and including his summary execution. It would be simplistic to suggest that everyone so inclined is motivated by selfish interests such as concern that a lack of support for certain government programs will lead to a loss of employment and income, but job security certainly might play a role in some cases. Others might well be irritated by the possibility that certain national security positions will be disdained by the public, just as the Transportation Security Agency is regularly lampooned currently.
I personally think that at least some of those government employees who hate Snowden despise him because they actually believe that he is a traitor to the United States, that he revealed secrets that should have stayed hidden, and that his activity will diminish American national security. Some governmental critics of Snowden are almost certainly particularly incensed because he was an “insider,” an employee who went rogue and violated his pledge not to disclose classified information to those who are not permitted access to it. His crime is therefore much more grievous than that of a journalist whose job it is to expose secrets because a key part of Snowden’s job was to protect them.
Having had to sign nondisclosure agreements a number of times, I appreciate that most employees take the commitment seriously. Those who believe otherwise, that classifying information frequently is a way to avoid accountability and even to hide criminal behavior, often also think that those who reveal such information should not be punished and should be protected under existing whistleblower legislation. But that in turn raises the question of what exactly is a whistleblower.
The Whistleblower Protection Act, originally passed in 1989, is actually quite broad in its definition of what makes someone a government whistleblower and therein lies much of the problem because a good deal is subject to interpretation. It also deliberately excludes whole categories of government employees in the areas of security and national defense. The original act, which was “enhanced” by Congress in 2012 and additionally by presidential directive later in the year, blocked retaliation directed against some federal employees who revealed a crime, a failure to abide by rules and regulations, corruption, gross mismanagement, waste of government money, an abuse of authority, or a significant and identifiable danger to public health or safety.
The protection mechanism is complex, including a special counsel and two boards, but an overwhelming percentage (over 90 percent) of employees who believe they have been treated badly and appeal the process are turned down, meaning that the actual protection can sometimes appear to be more notional than real. Where revealing certain types of information is specifically forbidden by laws on the books, courts have ruled that it is not considered whistleblowing. Holders of security clearances can, for example, have their clearances revoked, which is career ending, without any effective redress. Congressional staffers constitute a large group with significant potential access to wrongdoers but they cannot whistleblow at all.
Currently the Supreme Court is hearing the case of Robert MacLean, an Air Marshal, who was fired after alerting the public to a 2003 Transportation Security Agency decision to save money by canceling Air Marshal assignments on long-haul flights that would require hotel stays. McLean regarded the move as damaging to public safety so he went to his boss, who told him to keep quiet, and to the department’s inspector general, who responded similarly. McLean leaked the information to a reporter for MSNBC and his Supreme Court case rests on the TSA having only guidelines regarding the sharing of information without any specific statute to back it up. If there had been a law against exposing TSA decisions MacLean would have had no case.
Whistleblower protection has also been undermined by the judiciary whenever the restricted information that has been revealed lacks specificity or is subjective in nature. The government might have plausibly argued in the MacLean case that the desirability of having Air Marshals on planes is a judgment call as it does not in fact necessarily make travel more secure, but for obvious reasons it chose not to do so. The fact is that most federal government employees who consider themselves to be whistleblowers are de facto or even de jure punished for their actions and few are protected. Sibel Edmonds, who among other things revealed high level corruption in the U.S. government, was fired from her job and had two gag orders put in place against her using the State Secrets Privilege to prevent her from revealing what she knew. Frustrated, she eventually did go public in an American Conservative interview in 2009.
The lack of protection for federal government whistleblowers is coupled with an understandable unwillingness to submit oneself to the criminal justice system. I hear repeatedly from former colleagues in the national security world that while Edward Snowden may have been justified in exposing the secret NSA spying program he should have limited himself to only enough information to make his case and, after moving the information to a safe location, he should have turned himself in to face the consequences. Snowden in fact took an estimated 1.7 million documents many of which had nothing to with the NSA program and then fled to China, which many still regard as an enemy of the United States in what was undoubtedly a bad public relations move. He then flew to Russia on his way to Ecuador but his U.S. passport was revoked to prevent onward travel and he remains in Moscow to this day. He would have been much better advised to go to Quito or Sao Paulo in the first place.
Snowden has stated that he is willing to return to the United States for trial if he can be guaranteed a prompt and open hearing similar to that which was afforded to whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame. Ellsberg was tried in 1971 and was prepared to go to prison but avoided conviction after gross government malfeasance was demonstrated relating to the investigation preceding the trial. Snowden, who claims that he made efforts to speak with his NSA superiors before he took action, might be a bit disingenuous in his professed willingness to return home to face the music but the issue is currently moot in any event as the U.S. government has refused to cut any special deals and is insisting that it would try Snowden under the Espionage Act of 1917 which permits numerous prosecutorial shortcuts. And Snowden is right to be concerned. The handling of U.S. citizen and terrorist suspect Jose Padilla as an “enemy combatant” suggests that a little extracurricular meting out of justice might well be expected if Snowden were to surrender himself into custody. Padilla, whose actual crimes remain vague to this day, was so harshly abused in prison that it made him incompetent to stand trial. More recently, Pvt. Bradley Manning was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 35 years confinement after being held for more than three years in a military stockade.
The Manning case is not unlike the Snowden case in that the theft of classified information lacked specificity, i.e., Manning could not claim that he was addressing a specific act of illegality as he downloaded and shared an enormous dump of frequently raw classified information. Nor can Snowden make that claim in spite of the fact that his theft was much more focused since he also took so much additional material with him. That essentially means that Snowden is undeniably guilty under the Espionage Act, that he knows it, and that he might well be merely asking for some decency in the process to argue his case and salvage his reputation, which the government is clearly not inclined to guarantee. A show trial over government spying on U.S. citizens would not be welcomed by either a Democratic or Republican administration.
So even if Snowden were a completely legitimate whistleblower who perfectly fits the legal definition of what a whistleblower should and should not do, he cannot necessarily expect either fair treatment or justice. But the genie is out of the bottle. An increasing number of Americans now believe that the federal government cannot be relied upon to tell the truth. Renewed war fervor over the atrocities being committed by ISIS should not obscure the fact that most of the public understands that the policies of the past 13 years have been failures. Some federal employees would no doubt like to kill Snowden, but others surely have begun to think of the ethics of what they are doing and might someday feel compelled to take action to reveal some new illegality. But they will either have to emulate Snowden and work up an elaborate escape route or assume that they will be both vilified and treated with extreme harshness by the existing criminal justice system.
And one might well ask what great dark secrets still remain out there to be exposed? I can think of two possible targets. The first would be the NSA spying program redux, which still continues to operate under slightly modified rules and with little congressional oversight. But perhaps a much bigger story is the Senate torture report, which has already begun to fade in the collective memory. I recently waded through the 549 page summary and can only imagine what horrors the full 6,000 page text contains. More than that, I was astonished by the number and length of the redactions from the summary, making the text almost unreadable on many pages. The redactions apparently consist of details of who, what, when and where that would greatly increase both the comprehensiveness and the credibility of the document. Someone must have an unredacted version of the full text and it would be quite amazing if it were to be leaked.
Director of Central Intelligence John Brennan has convened a panel to consider Agency reorganization. The central issue is whether CIA analysts should be more operationally integrated with Clandestine Service officers, but reform might also include creating new staffs operating independently of the geographical divisions that have traditionally run the spies. China, might, for example, become a separate hybrid intelligence collection and analysis center divorced from East Asia Division.
Since its founding in 1947, the Agency has maintained a firewall between operations and analysis, though the rise to prominence of the Counterterrorism Center (CTC), as well as special staffs dedicated to counter-narcotics and nonproliferation, has broken down that barrier. CTC and the issue-oriented staffs have included not only analysts but also law-enforcement representatives from the FBI and Secret Service. In theory everything is shared, and the model is considered to be successful, fueling the drive to replicate it.
To be sure there is a cultural divide within the Agency, with ops officers frequently regarding analysts as out-of-touch eggheads while the analysts reciprocate by seeing case officers as psychopathic cowboys, but there are good practical reasons for separating analysts from spies.
When I was about to go to Europe as a CIA case officer in the 1970s, I sought a meeting with the lead analyst on European socialist and communist parties, as I knew little about the factions and players in such broadly based movements. His insights were astonishing and helped greatly in preparing me for my assignment, but there was hell to pay on both sides of the CIA bureaucracy over the breach in protocol. We persevered, but I always thought afterwards that there was some possibility that I had largely adopted his point of view, which might have distorted my own thinking when confronted by a very different reality on the ground.
Contamination of the intelligence product can develop in both directions, with the spies influencing how the analysts judge the information that they receive and the intelligence collectors in turn becoming too responsive to what the consumers want. Working closely together encourages tunnel vision, reducing the likelihood that the prevailing groupthink will be challenged, as both analysts and spies can become obsessed with secondary targets and issues. The current system provides a degree of separation and a second pair of eyes that can prevent such an occurrence.
And then there is the issue of potential politicization, which is likely where Brennan comes in. If a new center were to be focused on Iran, for example, would the analysts, who work closely with the consumers in the White House and Congress, pressure the intelligence collectors to focus on what is of interest to the politicians? Responding to consumer expectations might well mean looking only for information that supports administration or congressional perceptions.
Intelligence is basically fungible, and you can pretty much find what you want to find if you try hard enough, but it is essential to have a measure of separation built into the system to provide checks and balances against politicized judgments dominating the process.
The meticulously documented 528-page Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s secret rendition, detention, and interrogation program is remarkable for its candor. In blunt language it describes the horrors of the black site secret prisons and the efforts that were made to get terrorist suspects to talk. It effectively makes two overriding points, first that the interrogations were brutal, worse than anyone had been led to believe, and second, that they did not produce any information that might not have been developed otherwise.
Regarding oversight of the program, the report claims that the Agency deliberately misrepresented the value of the program and did not adequately brief congress on exactly what it was doing. Even a supportive President George W. Bush was not provided any details until 2006. One suspects that the Senate committee is to a certain extent hypocritically avoiding responsibility for what has become a political football. Congressmen quite likely did not want to know all the details regarding the interrogation program and some are certainly now feigning ignorance of it even if they were initially briefed. “Striking back” after 9/11 was, after all, bipartisan and there continued to be a broad national consensus on the need to “do something” about Middle Eastern terrorism up until the time when the occupation of Iraq began to go sour.
The CIA’s 136-page heavily redacted rebuttal to the Senate report chooses to ignore the brutality of the interrogation program, though current Director John Brennan has described some procedures as “abhorrent” and the Agency concedes that some “mistakes” were made. The rebuttal ignores the ethical, constitutional, and rule-of-law issues by insisting that no actual torture took place. It maintains that the activity at the black sites was effective, producing information that would not have been obtained otherwise, though Brennan is now claiming in conciliatory fashion that it is impossible to separate intelligence obtained by enhanced interrogation from other information developed from the same source without coercion, making an assessment of relative value “unknowable.”
Other Agency defenders have identified a number of suspects who were questioned successfully in enhanced fashion, including a key link that they claim eventually led to Osama bin Laden. They insist, mantra-like, that “enhanced interrogation” saved thousands of American lives. Indeed, a website they have established to argue their case is called CIASavedLives.com.
The Senate report examines those same claims but comes to the opposite conclusion, i.e. that no intelligence produced by torture was ever uniquely actionable, that all the useful information was obtainable by less coercive means. Further, at least 26 detainees were “wrongfully held” while others could not even be identified. Inexperienced contract interrogators sometimes started torturing suspects even before asking a single question, and several cooperating detainees were tortured anyway. Inept management meant that one junior officer who allowed a prisoner to die of hypothermia later received a cash reward of $2,500.
Coercive interrogation frequently also produced misleading or fabricated intelligence. Sifting through the details provided by both sides, the Senate Committee appears to win this argument, and one might note that this was also a conclusion arrived at by FBI interrogator Ali Soufani (who deplored the Agency methods) as well as by a review conducted by CIA’s own Inspector General in 2004.
The other argument being made by the CIA is that the interrogations were legal because government lawyers said that that they were so. It is similar to the “legal orders” argument made by defendants at Nuremberg and at the Tokyo war crimes tribunal, a number of whom were hanged. To my mind, no one can reasonably argue that the loathsome physical abuse detailed in the report, including beatings, repeated waterboardings, and anal penetrations referred to as “rectal hydration,” in addition to threatening family members, can conceivably be construed as anything but torture. That CIA is hanging its hat on the presumed legality of acts that are best described as loathsome or horrific is self-defeating, and no one should pay any attention to what is clearly a shoddy attempt to shift the argument.
But definitions aside there is a major flaw in the Senate investigation, namely that it is completely dependent on documents. No victims of the black sites were interviewed, while the CIA refused to allow its employees to testify. Some defenders of the Agency are consequently now objecting that the report was prepared without interviewing the participants in the process, notably the senior managers at CIA who conceived of the program and oversaw its operation. The Agency managers who were most intimately involved in the program were Directors George Tenet and Porter Goss, Deputy Director John McLaughlin, Deputy Director for Operations Jim Pavitt, Director of the Counter Terrorism Center Cofer Black, and Black’s Deputy Jose Rodriguez who later succeeded Black and then Pavitt. For the Agency defenders, this is a useful argument with considerable current resonance given the media frenzy over accounts of gang rape at several universities where the alleged rapists were tried and convicted by the press without being able to tell their side. CIA defenders claim that they would have liked to see the people most involved rebut the claims being made regarding their malfeasance.
But as usual the devil is in the details. Agency supporters assume that Tenet and company would have been able to blow enough smoke up a sufficient number of derrieres to obfuscate the charges against them. I would argue instead that the Senate should indeed have spoken to participants, but would have been better served by concentrating on the bottom of the food chain. The actual torturers should have been identified, subpoenaed, and forced to testify in detail under oath. If necessary they could have done so in alias to protect their cover. Why go to that trouble? Because it appears to me that what the Senate discovered might only be the tip of the iceberg in terms of what actually occurred, and the only way to get at the truth and come to some reconciliation over the horrors perpetrated by our government on our behalf would be to talk to the guys who were tightening the thumb screws.
Against legal advice, in 2005 Jose Rodriguez ordered destroyed the 92 interrogation videotapes that were maintained at a black prison site in Thailand. This was a federal offense that the Justice Department chose not to prosecute. Rodriguez claimed he did it to protect the identity of the interrogators but the argument is ridiculous. I have seen interrogation tapes and the interrogator is only a voice. The suspect is the focal point of the filming, not the interrogator. The tapes were destroyed one day after Sen. Carl Levin proposed an independent investigation of the interrogation program. Given that as well as the content of some internal CIA emails it is clear that the videos were destroyed to eliminate evidence of what was surely a war crime and to put paid to any prospects for criminal charges against the perpetrators.
It is also safe to assume that other records on the interrogation program were either destroyed or, more likely, never produced in the first place. The Senate report describes documentation as often “sparse and insufficient” or even “non-existent.” Anyone who has ever served in a CIA station overseas knows that stations operate on a basis of what might be described as permanent damage control. Bear in mind that nearly everything CIA does overseas is illegal. Anything that occurs that is either embarrassing or likely to produce negative fallout in Washington is culled or massaged to either make it go away or to produce a result that would be construed positively. The Senate committee noted that the interrogation program produced information that was either exaggerated or even false. That is exactly what one should expect.
The ability to selectively shape the narrative does not mean that there was not considerable pushback by Agency officers who were appalled by what was taking place. The documents reveal that many questioned the value of the program but were ignored or overruled by senior management. As early as January 2003, CIA’s director of interrogations complained that the terrible treatment of prisoners was a train wreck “waiting to happen and I intend to get the hell off the train before it happens.” He admitted to “serious reservations” regarding the program and refused to continue to be involved “in any way.” Torturing people might have been a good career move in 2003 but many of the participants in the process must have realized even back then that it could easily blow back.
So a document-driven investigation into the activities of a clandestine U.S. government organization that is accustomed to covering its tracks is only likely to discern part of the story. The other element that needs some airing is the whole issue of accountability, because without accountability the sorry episode is likely to be repeated if there is another major terrorist incident in the United States. Indeed, such a response is more than likely as Agency supporters, including most Republicans in Congress are largely unrepentant, believing as they do that exposing government torture is worse than the torture itself. Many do not appear to believe that there was anything wrong with what the CIA did. Former Vice President Dick Cheney has already said “If I had to do it all over again, I would do it.”
In an attempt to avoid the accountability issue, the Senate report summary does not actually blame anyone and does not recommend any legal action against the senior officials either at CIA or in the White House who ordered the torture. Nor are the actual torturers being held responsible for what they did. President Barack Obama, who has admitted that “We tortured some folks,” long ago decided that there would be no criminal charges ostensibly because he wanted to avoid going head-to-head over policies initiated by his predecessors in office. The White House, however, went further than that, recently seeking to block release of the report summary. When it was published the president oddly cautioned that “it is important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had.”
The administration also should be held to account for relentlessly hyping the danger that might result from the report’s publication, advising that American travelers overseas and diplomatic missions might be targeted, as if the parameters of the torture program have not been well known to interested parties for a number of years. The assertion that its release would damage relationships with foreign intelligence services was also dutifully trotted out, a specious claim that has been re-issued after every intelligence flap or breach since 1975, when the Church Committee met and rogue Agency case officer Philip Agee wrote Inside the Company: A CIA Diary. Intelligence agencies do not share information because they like each other. They do it because it is an essential part of doing business.
So if there is a problem with the Senate report it is that it is incomplete. Someone should have made greater efforts to interview the actual victims, as well as the torturers and the bureaucrats who sent them on their merry way, in order to find out what was not contained in the six million pages of documents examined. The perpetrators and enablers of “enhanced interrogation” must be held accountable for what they did, and the United States government, collectively speaking, should admit in plain language that torture was indeed what took place and that it was and is unacceptable. Wrongfully detained Canadian citizen Maher Arar, who was “rendered” to Syria and tortured, observes that “Torture does not tell you anything about the person being tortured but tells you volumes about the person who’s doing the torture.”
The Declaration of Independence and Constitution established the principle that the United States would behave as a moral country in which citizens have inherent rights. One fundamental right is the expectation that the government will behave lawfully and fairly. The Declaration of Independence also acknowledges “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.” If the United States is ever to regain its honorable place among nations it must completely and unambiguously acknowledge what occurred between 2002 and 2007, and it must take steps to ensure that such depravity never takes place again.
Back in the good old days of the Cold War, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) would do whatever it could to discredit the Soviet Union. We used to place articles in friendly newspapers exposing Soviet human rights violations, arrange for Russian front companies to buy technology that had been tampered with so that it would damage assembly lines when put into place, and send money and samizdat publications to groups like Solidarity that were opposing the communists. But there was a real war going on, even if it was tepid, and because the two sides were in dead earnest it was anything goes and more was always better.
Today, more than 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there are many indications that Washington is slipping into a new and completely unnecessary confrontation with Moscow, only this time it is not being run largely out of sight by the CIA. Much of the new conflict is being conducted openly, with sanctions and resolutions by Congress, regular appearances in unstable regions overseas by senior state department officials and politicians, and trainings in new media political organizing funded by quasi non-governmental organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
This is not to suggest that there is not a covert side to it all. The funding and training of opposition groups frequently take place outside of the country being targeted, meaning that the players and their sources of income are carefully hidden from sight. The actual training and organizing are frequently carried out by a private contractor rather than any agency linked to the U.S. government, increasing the plausible deniability of an official connection.
And much intergovernmental activity and links to important corporate components in the private sector are often arranged with a wink and a nod, without leaving any paper trail and avoiding any downstream accountability. That is exactly how $5 billion of U.S. taxpayer-provided money has been wasted on developing what passes for pluralistic democracy in Ukraine but might more properly be described as “regime change.” Such overt interference in other countries’ internal politics also explains why governments in Cairo, Moscow, and elsewhere have forced a number of foreign consultants working locally on NED’s dime to go home.
The rights and wrongs of Russian policy towards Ukraine have been discussed ad nauseam in The American Conservative as well as virtually every other forum dedicated to foreign and security policy. Let it suffice to say that Moscow has definite security concerns relating to ongoing NATO expansion, particularly the most recent ham-handed attempts to bring Kiev into the “Western” fold. It has as well strong historical and national defense related ties to Crimea. Even if one believes that Vladimir Putin is evil incarnate and seeks to reacquire Eastern Europe, one must concede that the argument over what is taking place should not be reduced to bumper sticker slogans. Unfortunately that is precisely what the United States Congress and to a lesser extent the White House are seeking to do.
Former Congressman Ron Paul of Texas has noted some of the overt maneuverings taking place to heighten tension with Moscow. He is particularly scathing regarding the U.S. House Resolution 758, entitled “Strongly condemning the actions of the Russian Federation, under President Vladimir Putin, which has carried out a policy of aggression against neighboring countries aimed at political and economic domination,” which was passed on December 4th just before Congress recessed for Christmas. There were only ten votes opposed to the motion.
Paul describes the bill as “16 pages of war propaganda that should have made even neocons blush, if they were capable of such a thing” and observes that the resolution might provoke “a war with Russia that could result in total destruction.” H.R. 758 condemns Russia for invading Ukraine without producing a shred of evidence that that is what took place, blames Moscow for shooting down MH-17, condemns the selling of arms to the Syrian government, accuses Russia of invading Georgia in 2008, and claims Moscow “illicitly acquir[ed] information” about the U.S. government through computer hacking while also “distorting public opinion” through its controlled media outlets. The resolution urges Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to disarm separatist rebels in the country’s eastern provinces and calls on President Barack Obama to provide the Ukrainians with weapons and training to that end, meaning that American soldiers might well be on the front line of what is generally regarded as a civil war.
In response to those who might ask why the United States is getting involved at all, the resolution affirms that it is because Russian involvement in the Ukraine “poses a threat to international peace and security.” As Ron Paul notes, seldom have there been so many lies, half-truths and distortions packed into one House Resolution. Indeed, many of the accusations being made regarding Moscow’s alleged bad behavior could more credibly be leveled against Washington.
As bad as the openly promoted war against Moscow is, there is also a secret conflict that some have referred to as a “stealth war.” It has been described as “an attack on the international market for Russian corporations, and on the international currency and security clearance systems on which the market depends.”
To that end, there have been some reports suggesting that the United States Treasury Department has been discreetly putting pressure on major European lenders to urge them to avoid acquiring Russian equity or debt because such transactions are currently legal but might become illegal with a new round of tightened sanctions, making Moscow a very bad risk, financially speaking. Whether a tightening of sanctions is likely or not is largely irrelevant as financial institutions are risk averse and any warning of potential problems produces an instant retrenchment. A Lloyds Banking group withdrawal from a refinance involving Russian oil conglomerate Rosneft in May has been attributed to U.S. pressure.
Russia’s economy is indeed struggling, partly due to sanctions, but more due to the fall in the price of oil. Russia considers existing sanctions to be illegal but has so far failed to take steps against them. It is, however, likely that if sanctions are strengthened there will be litigation over breaches of contract, which would hurt all parties involved and only benefit a handful of international law firms.
More to the point, sanctions will not change Russian policy, because for Moscow Ukraine is a vital interest, and using them as a sword of Damocles style threat, as Secretary of State Kerry has done, is only likely to poison the atmosphere, making genuine rapprochement unobtainable. The United States has a great deal to lose if Russia chooses to go tit-for-tat in responding to both the overt and secretive attacks on its economy. Moscow has been cooperative with both Washington and the Europeans regarding tracking the financing of terrorist groups, proliferators, and drug cartels. It will be unlikely to continue that cooperation if it perceives a Western willingness to act against its own financial institutions and economy. It could even revert to its pre-2003 standard operating procedure of looking the other way when criminal proceeds were deposited in its banks, which made it at that time a haven for money laundering.
Moscow has also cooperated politically over how to deal with Syria, Iran, and North Korea. Russia could unilaterally break sanctions on oil purchases from Tehran and start selling weapons to Damascus, including up to date air defenses that could bring down U.S. warplanes. It could ease restrictions on trade with North Korea. At the United Nations, it might use its veto selectively to impede American-backed initiatives.
Using both open and hidden initiatives to push Russia into a corner from which it cannot escape is not good policy. As Ron Paul has noted, to do so is to invite war. And there are historical analogies that demonstrate what might develop. Trade embargoes and restrictions on oil sales to Japan in 1940-1941 contributed both to Tokyo’s expansion in Asia in search of alternative resources and eventually led to Pearl Harbor. It is not wise to provoke a powerful enemy unless a vital national interest is at stake, which is not the case with Ukraine and Crimea.
The ire directed at Russia by both Congress and the White House, ably assisted by the mainstream media, is irrational, and official Washington should reconsider the error of its ways and step back before it creates a situation that will be disastrous for all parties involved.
Running an empire is not cheap.
The revelation that Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has run up $4.7 million in travel expenses, over 930,000 miles, and a total of 373 days on the road in his five years in office should not surprise anyone, until one realizes that the numbers conceal as much as they reveal. As the Secretary travels by military aircraft and naval vessels, the cost of getting from point A to point B is not included, nor are a lot of the related staffing expenses as they are taken care of by Defense Department personnel who would be getting paid anyway.
Even with those sunk costs, however, managing visitors nevertheless compromises the ability of the local mission or command to carry out its normal duties. In my experience, the visit of a senior bureaucrat, a congressional delegation, or a high-ranking military officer overseas is both a money pit and a time-waster as it invariably requires weeks of preparation prior to the arrival of the potentate.
Congressmen are notorious for their worldwide travel as part of “Congressional Delegations” (CODELs), which are intended to be both “fact-finding” and “educational.” Most CODEL visits not surprisingly occur in the summer when Congress is in recess, and sometimes lack seriousness or even any recognizable agenda. Sixteen congressmen traveled to Rome in March to attend the installation of Pope Francis at a cost of $63,000, a relatively small expense by government standards, but nevertheless a gesture that should have been paid for either through a private foundation or by the congressmen themselves.
America’s legislators are also prone to travel with their families and staffs in tow, particularly when the destination is desirable. Phony agendas are frequently contrived with the cooperation of the local U.S. Embassies to permit the government to plausibly pay for the supernumeraries. This includes spouses attending the opening of a school or visiting a hospital. Generally speaking, a meeting with local officials during a CODEL is sufficient to justify the trip. That is the “fact finding” part and the rest is “educational.” CODELs traditionally traveled VIP on military aircraft to many destinations, but new post-sequester regulations now require them to travel on commercial carriers. By claiming that they have to work immediately upon arrival in a foreign destination they are able to upgrade to Business Class.
Congressmen and staffers frequently also benefit from trips arranged by lobbyists, interest groups, or even foreign governments. Sen. John McCain’s frequent maladroit appearances in international hot spots are often privately funded. In a notorious case recounted in the Washington Post, “About a dozen congressional staffers flew business class on a trip to China last summer  and stayed at luxury hotels while touring the Great Wall and the Forbidden City and receiving a ‘briefing on ancient artifacts and dynasties’ at the Shanghai Museum. The all-expenses-paid visit came courtesy of China.”
And some other senior officials are even less inclined to stay at home. Hillary Clinton logged almost one million miles while visiting 111 countries during her tenure as secretary of state, and John Kerry will likely easily surpass that record having visited 51 countries and totaled over 520,000 air miles in his first year alone.
Secretaries of state travel on a specially equipped Boeing 757 and have many of the security and communications add-ons that accompany the president, including advanced Secret Service teams and supporting aircraft to carry journalists and staff. But at least Clinton and Kerry had a good excuse for their peripatetic ways: dealing with foreigners is in their job description. As for the actual costs of all the travel, those remain a state secret and would probably be misleading even if an attempt were made to break them down. As the aircraft, crew, security details, and communications staff are supplied by the government and are paid for whether they are being used or not, it is difficult to separate out discretionary costs. Hotels, meals, and entertainment expenses have not been made public for such official travel and are not accessible through the Freedom of Information Act.
Perhaps not surprisingly the greatest abuse of the taxpayer-funded travel privilege comes from the White House, which routinely under both Republicans and Democrats mixes “official” trips with fundraisers and other activities that are strictly partisan politics in a deliberate attempt to have a nod to government business pay for the politicking. President Barack Obama is indeed the “most well-traveled” president in U.S. history and also the most expensive.
The Democratic National Committee is supposed to reimburse the government for any costs that relate to electioneering or fundraising, but Obama, like his predecessors and contrary to his pledges of “transparency in government,” has refused to reveal just how much that amounts to. It is to be presumed that infrastructure costs including $228,000 per hour for Air Force One alone are considered to be a fixed expense, as is security and ground transportation, which all suggests that the actual reimbursement might well be more notional than real, meaning that it would be embarrassing to actually reveal how little it is.
Watchdog group estimates of Obama travel, including more than $7 million spent on vacations to Hawaii and Martha’s Vineyard and an appearance on the Jay Leno show in 2013, run to over $44 million. A 13-hour cameo appearance at the Nelson Mandela funeral cost $11 million and included a bill for 127 hotel rooms.
Estimates for presidential travel costs should be considered to be minimalist as many actual expenses are picked up in other ways, including the White House operating budget, or are not included. And First Lady Michelle is also on the government dime when she travels separately. A recent “non-political” trip to China had her staying at the Westin Hotel at $8,400 per night, a suite that had been considered unacceptable for an earlier visit by Vice President Joe Biden because it was too expensive.
What arguments are made for all the traveling and the expense that is involved, a phenomenon that is unique to the U.S. government? The president represents the country in international fora and while one might disagree with the rationalizations for some of the travel, few would dispute that it is generally speaking a necessary evil. What is not necessary is the imperial entourage that accompanies the president, reported to be for some trips a second 747 for the media and other guests, three cargo planes, a total of 900 fellow travelers and staff, and a supply of armored vehicles.
For travelers from the intelligence and defense establishments there is an understanding that being briefed in Washington is not the same as visiting a field operation and seeing how things function first hand. The only problem with that argument is that the visits of senior officials and military officers are carefully orchestrated and prepared, meaning that the insights gained are carefully managed and pretty much identical to those that would be obtained from a briefer back at home without being able to look out the window and see sand dunes.
It is also sometimes argued that a visit to the field allows senior management to mix with lower ranks to obtain their views and insights, but in my 20 years of experience in government I never witnessed a situation in which congressmen or flag officers were allowed to mingle with the lower rank and file unsupervised. Secretary Mabus indeed describes a chance encounter with a junior officer in Hawaii during which she vented about her career prospects because she could not serve on a submarine. Mabus changed the rules to permit her to serve underwater, but citing the conversation as justifying his travel to Honolulu is in reality a thin justification for a lot of unnecessary expense.
A more persuasive argument is that in the context of American empire it is desirable to visit the client states to convince the local allies that they are truly respected and loved by the Mandarins in Washington. That argument has some cogency as I can recall visits to overseas posts by Congressional Delegations and senior bureaucrats that largely consisted of series of briefings and social gatherings intended not necessarily to educate or inform but rather to reinforce the bond between the two nations. It is of course difficult to calculate how much such contact is worth and impossible to say whether it is justified at a time of government-wide fiscal restraint.
What is certain is that no foreign legislature enables its elected officials to travel as intensively as the U.S. Congress. And no head of state costs as much as President Obama.