State of the Union

A Football Interlude

Professional football is the most popular sport in the United States, judging from fan and media interest, but it has changed through the years and has become very boring and formulaic, so much so that it has become difficult to watch. I recall back in the Frank Gifford days of the New York Giants how players were true warriors a la Sam Huff, and you could almost touch them from the seats at Yankee Stadium. They were also part of the local community. Many of the non-marquee players lived in ordinary houses and worked selling cars or at Sears in the off season. Also they did not move around a lot and stayed with their teams until their playing days were over, after which they became high-school coaches.

Today football is all glitz and marketing, largely driven by greed on the part of both players and owners, fueled by a frenzied media. Players move around a lot to make more money and games that used to end at four o’clock now end at four-thirty because there are more ads to squeeze in. Play is stopped for television time outs and at kick-offs and punts there is little more than ten seconds of actual play sandwiched between two blocs of ads addressing such key issues as erectile dysfunction and discount double checks. Penalties also stop play frequently while the new rules that often do not allow players to touch each other lest they get hurt are largely incomprehensible. And then there are the huge American flags that have become as large as the entire playing field, waggled obligingly by girls and guys from the local National Guard outfit when the hip-hop singer reaches the words “star-spangled banner still waves,” followed closely by an approving roar from the forty thousand drunks up in the stands. One announcer this weekend told the television audience that the game was going out to American troops in 175 countries and “we can’t describe what they do for us.” Indeed.

But on Saturday something odd happened. Underdog Baltimore was playing Denver and the game went into overtime. I don’t know exactly what happened but it appeared that the network ran out of commercials because the play went into a second overtime almost uninterrupted. The players, featuring future hall of famers in linebacker Ray Lewis and quarterback Peyton Manning, were actually seen to pick up their pace, playing hard as if they really meant it. The officials refrained from making ridiculous calls. It was actually exciting and fun to watch. It was what America and football on a Sunday afternoon used to be all about, but it was likely just a quirk, similar to Jupiter aligning with Mars every 11 years. It probably won’t happen again.

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Hagel, Healthcare, and “America’s Military Decline”

A recent op-ed by the New York Times’s compassionate conservative David Brooks demonstrates how to load an argument. In “Why Hagel Was Picked” Brooks complains about Americans choosing healthcare over military expenditures, arguing irrelevantly but emotionally that “voters and politicians care more about middle-class seniors than about poor children,” a contention he then expands by observing that “as the federal government becomes a health care state” Chuck Hagel will “supervise the beginning of America’s military decline.” Brooks calls it “choosing welfare over global power.”

As Brooks probably has very good health insurance as well as a nice private pension plan, he can afford to be cavalier about the many seniors, not all of whom are middle-class, who are dependent on Medicare to survive since whatever happens will not affect him personally. He projects rising healthcare costs based on current rates but does not address why medical care costs so much more in the United States compared to what is available in other first-world economies, a dysfunction that can be addressed if the political will exists to do so.

And his argument about “military decline” borders on the ridiculous, as he does not even attempt to make a case for the United States maintaining a million men and women in the armed forces. If the purpose of the U.S. military is to defend the nation, it would have the capability to do so even if it were half as large as it is now. Brooks is really talking about the ability to wage multiple wars overseas, which is something altogether different. Certainly that capability would diminish, and one might add thank God that it should do so.

The unmitigated failures of the past 11 years have demonstrated that the Brooks vision for what passes as foreign and defense policy should have been discarded long ago and replaced by something that is both more affordable and less interventionist.

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No Large Buckets in CIA Torture

Sometimes some folks who are supporting the unspeakable do protest too much. I have previously reviewed for TAC the book by former CIA senior officer Jose Rodriguez that sought to justify the use of “hard measures” against terrorist suspects. More recently, I again revisited the subject when the United States Senate Intelligence Committee completed a secret report demonstrating that the use of torture by the CIA never produced any intelligence that was critical to the government efforts directed against terrorist groups or their leaders. Now comes the rebuttal. Rodriguez, who was a classmate of mine at CIA, has a featured op-ed in the Washington Post entitled “A CIA Veteran on what ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ gets wrong about the bin Laden manhunt.” The piece is co-authored by former CIA press spokesman Bill Harlow, who also helped Rodriguez with his book.

Rodriguez disagrees with the Senate report, arguing that torture (which he refuses to call torture) produced information that eventually led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. He also claims that the film’s depiction of the brutalization of detainees is fiction, that “no one was bloodied or beaten” while CIA officers had to “receive written authorization from Washington…to give a detainee a single open-fingered slap across the face.”

He repeats his belief that “enhanced interrogation” was not torture because a brace of compliant lawyers at the Justice Department said it was okay. CIA “did waterboard three of the worst terrorists on the planet…in an effort to get them to cooperate.” In a bit of chilling prose that might have been written under other circumstances in places like Nuremberg Rodriguez (or Harlow) describes the procedure “Instead of a large bucket, small plastic water bottles were used on the three men…the same tactic used without physical or psychological damage, on tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel as part of their training.”  Khaled Sheik Mohamed, who was waterboarded 183 times, must have been delighted to learn that he was actually involved in U.S. Army basic training and that it wouldn’t hurt.  As a personal note, I would point out that Rodriguez is not a veteran and may not be speaking authoritatively on the practice of waterboarding GIs.  I went through basic training, admittedly many years ago, and no one tried to drown me. It is hard to imagine what waterboarding an Army trainee would seek to accomplish unless it serves as an admission that torture is now part of U.S. military doctrine.

I seem to recall that Rodriguez personally ordered the destruction of the 92 interrogation tapes involving harsh methods “to protect the interrogators,” a Orwellian claim if there ever was one and self-serving in that there survives no primary evidence to double check the claims that he and Harlow make. The destruction occurred in 2005 when Congress and the media were nosing around to learn details of the interrogation program and Rodriguez must have realized that what he had been approving was not exactly kosher. And CIA contractors regularly tortured “ghost” prisoners at Abu Ghraib who were not even entered in the prison records.  They beat at least one man to death while another contractor killed an Afghan detainee in similar fashion, but I assume Rodriguez would claim that those deaths and others were not strictly speaking part of the “enhanced interrogation” program which he so carefully supervised. What hard guys like Rodriguez fail to see is that once one opens the door to gratuitous physical abuse of prisoners it is difficult to control what happens next. People are maimed and people die. Some of them are surely innocent. Does Rodriguez really believe that some heavy at a secret prison in Thailand or Poland might actually seek permission from Washington to slap a prisoner around? As Rodriguez’s one time boss at the Counter Terrorism Center Cofer Black once put it, after 9/11 the “gloves come off.” The gloves were indeed off and even if Black and Rodriguez will never pay any price for their calculated brutality it is the reputation of the United States that has suffered.

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Trial by Jury 2013

Senator Rand Paul is boasting about how he preserved the right of every American citizen to a trial by jury through an amendment that he cosponsored with Senators Mike Lee and Dianne Feinstein. His press release claims that he has protected “the rights prescribed to Americans in the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution with regard to indefinite detention and the right to a trial by jury.” But check out Congressman Justin Amash’s more accurate assessment of what occurred:  “The heart of the Feinstein amendment:  ‘An authorization to use military force, a declaration of war, or any similar authority shall not authorize the detention without charge or trial of a citizen or lawful permanent resident of the United States apprehended in the United States, UNLESS AN ACT OF CONGRESS EXPRESSLY AUTHORIZES SUCH DETENTION.’ [Amash’s emphasis]. Well, that Act of Congress is the 2012 NDAA, which renders the rest of the Feinstein amendment meaningless.”

Amash is right and Paul is wrong. The Military Commissions Act and the 2012 NDAA are both acts of Congress that authorize the unlimited detention of American citizens and anyone else together with subsequent processing through military tribunals or no trial at all.

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Max Puts the Boot In

There was a special Christmas Eve treat in the Washington Post – an op ed by the redoubtable Max Boot explaining why the United States needs to leave a substantial military force in Afghanistan after 2014. Russian-born Boot  is a leading neoconservative who currently perches at the Council on Foreign Relations, but he also writes frequently for the Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal. In common with many other neocons, Boot has never served in the U.S. military yet appears to be fascinated by it. I can find no evidence that he has done anything but cheerlead every war Washington has fought since 9/11 while demanding, “more please.” In September 2012 he co-authored “5 Reasons to Intervene in Syria Now.” He holds a master’s degree in diplomatic history from Yale University, which has not stopped him from morphing into a “military historian.”

As part of his argument, Boot constructs the usual straw man to explain why Washington should maintain substantially in excess of the 6,000 strong force currently envisioned for deployment near Kabul post-2014. It goes like this:

  • “Imagine that intelligence analysts have identified a ‘high value target’ – say, a terrorist facilitator with links to both al-Qaeda and the Taliban – in Kandahar.  How would the US military capture or kill him without a secure base in Kandahar?”

Boot’s reductio ad absurdum argument suggests that something like a division of U.S. troops should remain in Afghanistan in perpetuity just in case his “high value target” shows up. He ignores the fact that there would be substantial Afghan security forces of various kinds in and around the city as well as a CIA base that would itself have significant paramilitary resources. The argument for keeping American soldiers in large numbers in any location where there is a terrorism problem is infinitely elastic and can be used for stationing soldiers anywhere and everywhere. What applies to Afghanistan also applies to places like the Philippines or Indonesia. The question that Boot does not ask is “What kind of threat to the United States does the straw man in Kandahar really represent?” Absent a clear and imminent threat directed against American lives and property the argument for continued U.S. involvement in far off wars is and should be unsustainable.

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Justice Delayed

Most Americans probably assume that once the wheels of government start turning there is a certain inevitability about the outcome, but that may not be true if there is an election coming up. Last week there appeared an interesting news item relating to Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey.

Menendez reportedly employed illegal immigrant and teenage sex offender Luis Abraham Sanchez Zavaleta as an unpaid intern in his Senate office. The Homeland Security Department (DHS) instructed federal agents not to arrest Sanchez, currently 18 years old and an immigrant from Peru, until after Election Day even though Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sought to detain him in early October. Several complaints by the ICE officers seeking to reverse the DHS decision were rejected.

According to the Associated Press article, “Menendez, D-N.J., who advocates aggressively for pro-immigration policies, was re-elected in November with 58 percent of the vote. He said his staff was notified about the case Monday, he personally learned about the case from AP’s reporting and knew nothing about whether DHS delayed the arrest. The senator said his staff asks interns whether they are in the country legally but cannot check to be sure… During discussions about when and where to arrest Sanchez, the U.S. reviewed Sanchez’s application for permission to stay in the country as part of President Barack Obama’s policy to allow up to 1.7 million young illegal immigrants avoid deportation and get permission to work for up to two years. As a sex offender, he would not have been eligible.”

Is it credible that a foreign-born intern working for a U.S. Senator would be hired without any background checks that would, inter alia, determine whether or not he or she was an American citizen? Or that office staff “cannot check to be sure” about immigration status? No. Apart from the imminence of an election, could there possibly have been any good reason why the arrest was deliberately and repeatedly delayed by someone in authority at DHS? No.

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Islamophobia Is Still a Republican Value

It is perhaps a given that the Republicans will draw all the wrong conclusions from their recent electoral defeat. They will, for example, likely support some kind of amnesty program euphemized as “immigration reform” for illegal immigrants in the mistaken belief that it will somehow reverse their dismal showing among Hispanic voters. It will only succeed in alienating their existing base of support.

For those of us who have been hoping that the light bulb might turn on regarding the ill-conceived preemptive foreign policy based on “American Exceptionalism” that has produced catastrophe after catastrophe while bankrupting the nation, it would appear that we will have to wait a bit longer based on evidence coming in from New York City. On February 16th, the Women’s National Republican Club will be hosting a “Henrietta Wells Livermore School of Politics … evening with Frank Gaffney. Mr. Gaffney is the Founder and President of the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C. The Center is a not-for-profit, non-partisan educational corporation established in 1988. Under Mr. Gaffney’s leadership, the Center has been nationally and internationally recognized as a resource for timely, informed and penetrating analyses of foreign and defense policy matters.”

Not quite true. Gaffney, consistently hawkish and pro-Israel, once described Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a “man of peace through restraint.” Gaffney has received significant funding from California bingo king Irving Moskowitz, who supports numerous right-wing Israeli groups in the belief that peace talks between Israel and the Arabs are suicidal for Israel. Moskowitz has been linked to Likud politicians ever since Menachem Begin in 1960 and once compared assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain for supporting “appeasement policies” akin to those applied to the Nazis before World War II.

According to the Center for American Progress’s report on Islamophobia, Fear, Inc., the Center for Security Policy is “… a central hub of the anti-Muslim network and an active promoter of anti-Sharia messaging and anti-Muslim rhetoric.” It identifies Gaffney’s group as “a key source for right-wing politicians, pundits, and grassroots organizations, providing them with a steady stream of reports mischaracterizing Islam and warnings about the dangers of Islam and American Muslims.”

Gaffney’s overwhelmingly negative reporting on Islam and Muslims has included the book Shariah: The Threat to America, of which he was a contributing author and the publisher. The book is purportedly a report produced by several “top security policy experts” challenging the federal government’s failure to confront the threat of “political Islam.” The report contends that the United States is threatened by “the totalitarian socio-political doctrine that Islam calls shariah.” Gaffney’s belief that the United States will soon be overwhelmed by “creeping shariah” is reflected in his call on Congress to revive the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in an effort to “root out” Islamist operatives.

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Cultural Changes at CIA

It is being reported that recently rusticated CIA Director David Petraeus annoyed his Agency subordinates through his requiring staff to hand him bottles of water at “precise intervals” when he was jogging and also demanding fresh sliced pineapple be made “available during business trips before bedtime.” As I recall when Ronald Reagan’s Director of Central Intelligence Bill Casey visited Rome Station back in the 1980s he had only one requirement – a fresh bottle of Irish whiskey on his bedside table every night. Bushmills, I believe.

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Is Iron Dome the Maginot Line?

An interesting article in The New York Times, “Israel’s Antimissile System Attracts Potential Buyers,” somewhat deflates the widespread praise for the performance of Israel’s Iron Dome batteries in the recent fighting with Gaza. Israel claims that Iron Dome was 85 percent effective, but the numbers deserve some examination. All the claims for the effectiveness of the system are derived from the Israeli government, which would very much like to sell Iron Dome to other countries.  South Korea, whose capital Seoul is close to the North Korean border, has been identified as a possible buyer.

The 85 percent effective number means that the missiles launched by Iron Dome either destroyed or deflected incoming missiles 85 percent of the time, but a Ministry of Defense account on November 21st demonstrates otherwise: 1,382 rockets fired from Gaza struck Israel, with another 389 intercepted by Iron Dome. Other estimates indicate that 70 percent of Gazan missiles and rockets landed in Israel without being intercepted, which might suggest that the Israeli government is cooking the books to make the system appear more effective than it is both to intimidate the Palestinians and to encourage foreign sales.

The Israeli government response to those numbers has been to claim that most of the hits were on parts of the country not protected by Iron Dome and the U.S. has gone along with that narrative, apparently agreeing to buy still more launchers to cover nearly all of Israel. But a civilian expert cited in the Times article notes that he has seen no photographic evidence that the Gazan missiles were actually brought down by Iron Dome. The missiles and rockets fired from Gaza were largely homemade with crude guidance and stabilization systems and subject to failure without the intervention of any defensive system. Just because an Iron Dome anti-missile-missile detonated does not necessarily mean that it destroyed anything when it did so.

The Iron Dome system works by picking up an incoming missile on radar, using sophisticated tracking software to predict whether it will hit a populated area, and then launching a counter-missile to intercept. The actual destruction of the incoming missile is theoretically accomplished through an exploding warhead that releases hundreds of flechettes that destroy the attacker. When that occurs, the destroyed incoming missile should be perforated by the shrapnel, but that has not been evident in any photos. Since Israel has a vested interest in promoting the success of the system, any photos produced by the government from this point on would have to be considered suspect, cherry picked to make a case.

Israel’s missile defenses might, in fact, be of questionable value in terms of cost effectiveness. Consider for a moment the economics of Iron Dome. There are currently five operational units that are towed to the sites where are they deployed. They have cost $50 million each.  Israel eventually wants to deploy thirteen of them, all paid for by the US taxpayer. In the recent fighting, the Iron Dome units fired an estimated $25-30 million worth of anti-missile missiles, with a per unit cost of $50,000. The Gazan weapons were largely homemade though sometimes using Iranian avionic parts smuggled in and had no infrastructure costs for the launchers. Most were so-called Qassams, lacking sophistication but costing about $100 to construct. So on a one-to-one basis it costs $50,000 per missile fired from a $50 million launcher to defeat something that might cost $100 to build. And as for the nature of the threat itself, during 2011 missiles and rockets launched from Gaza managed to kill no one in Israel.

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The Iran Problem is an Israel Problem

On Sunday the Washington Post featured an op-ed “What Bill Clinton can teach Obama about the Israelis.” It was written by Natan B. Sachs, an Israeli “research fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.”

Sachs opined that it is possible for the White House to disagree with Israelis on some policy issues as long as there is a presumption that the U.S. president really cares about them. That view can certainly be challenged, as it assumes that American national interests have to be first explained to the Israeli public and then negotiated with Benjamin Netanyahu, but one notable aspect of the op-ed was the subliminal message it delivered. In a 1500-word article Iran was cited no less than nine times:  “Iran’s nuclear program;” “Iran’s ominous rhetoric and nuclear ambitions;” “the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program;” “deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions;” “prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons;” “concern over a nuclear Iran;” “prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons;” “getting Israelis to trust him [Obama] on Iran;” and “crisis over Iran’s nuclear program.”

Okay, I get it. Sachs is hardly a disinterested observer or he wouldn’t be working at the Saban Center, and he wants to make sure that every reader accepts what he believes to be true from the Israeli perspective, i.e that a menacing Iran that must be dealt with by whatever means are necessary. The acquisition of nuclear weapons by anyone should concern all of us, but the constant iteration of the alleged Iranian threat is little more than demonization of a foreign country that has not in fact actually threatened anyone. It seeks to establish a casus belli for staging a preemptive attack based on allegations that are themselves light on actual evidence. Both U.S. and Israeli intelligence actually agree that Iran does not currently have a nuclear weapons program and has not made the essentially political decision to start one.

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