Monday, May 27, 2013

Intelligence Leaks

All the talk about the administration's investigation of intelligence leaks reminds me of one of my experiences about 20 years ago while I was in the Foreign Service.  I was the chairman of a committee looking at violations of certain US export control laws. Occasionally we would get intelligence that somebody was trying to violate the laws, and we would debate whether we could take action on the intelligence, and if so, what kind of action.  The intelligence agencies were often resistant to taking action on intelligence, because they worried that it might reveal "sources and methods."  Occasionally I opposed taking action because I did not think the intelligence was good or reliable enough.  In that case, I would usually ask the intelligence agency involved to try and get better or confirming information.  Several times when I did not want to act on questionable intelligence, I got calls at home at 10:00 or 11:00 o'clock at night from Michael Gordon (I think) who had been told the intelligence information and wanted me to confirm it.  I would not confirm it; I fell back on the old saw, "neither confirm nor deny."  I don't even remember if the articles ran.  However, I was amazed that the leaks must have come from the conservative side of the people working on the issue, probably from the CIA or the Pentagon.  And the leaks were of very highly classified information.  Somehow, I expected that if anyone were going to violate the law in order to "do good," it would be some crazy liberal, not some conservative, who claimed to be super patriotic.  I never knew who did it, but I was appalled at the cavalier treatment of classified information.

I didn't have any personal connection to the Iraq war, but I was similarly surprised that Judith Miller wrote a number of New York Times articles on the war, particularly regarding weapons of mass destruction, that were false and planted by conservatives linked to Dick Cheney and company.  It's as if conservatives have no regard for the law or the truth.  I'm sure many do, but the moral standards on the right have in the past seemed to lower than on the left.  I will be interesting if we ever find out where the new set of leaks came from.

Despite my experience, I am not in favor of the way the Obama administration is going about its investigation of the recent leaks regarding Yemen and North Korea.  I don't think Obama should be pursuing journalists; he should limit his investigation to government employees.  If the FBI is too inept to figure out who is doing the leaking without looking a journalists' phone records, then they should give up.  The journalists are not violating the law (in most cases); the leakers are.  Let the journalists do their job, and just go after the government employees.

Friday, May 17, 2013

IRS Scandal Overblown

On its face, the IRS scandal involving the questioning of 501(c)(4) applications by conservative Tea Party groups looks bad, and it is, but it's not terrible.  David Brooks makes a good point in his NYT column on the issue, generally critical, but pointing out that most Tea Party groups hate the IRS, which is reviewing their applications, and would eliminate it or drastically limit it.  Brooks says, "It’s hard to tell now if the I.R.S. scandal is political thuggery or obliviousness. It would be one thing if the scandal is just a group of tax people targeting the most anti-tax groups in the country. That’s just normal, run-of-the-mill partisan antipathy."

In addition, the 501(c)(4) provision is bad policy, as Steve Rattner wrote in the NYT, and as Stephen Colbert illustrated when he created his bogus, but legal, Super PAC during the last election cycle.  Rattner points out the one of the biggest advantages of 501(c)(4) status is that the group does not have reveal the names of its donors.  Carl Rove has worked out a scheme where he collects money through his 501(c)(4) so that he does not have to reveal donors' names, and then transfers the money to his Super PAC.  In theory the 501(c)(4) group should not be overtly political, but the Super PAC can be.  So, the IRS was given the job of overseeing one of the most controversial  election financing provisions, something that should be overseen by the Federal Elections Commission, but the FEC is toothless and worthless, the IRS is probably a better organization to it, if you are interested in protecting the American people from election fraud.  Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has only strengthened the legal channels for political corruption in America.

So, the IRS made a little stand against political corruption, and it has been viciously attacked for doing so.  It is at fault, particularly if it routinely granted 501(c)(4) status to liberal groups while giving conservative groups a hard time.  However, the real problem is the corrupt politicians who passed section 501(c)(4) in the first place so that their campaigns could rake in millions of dollars in untraceable contributions.

Try Diplomacy with Syria

Here's an op-ed in the NYT by a real FSO in Colorado, Amb. Christopher Hill, arguing the case for diplomacy to solve the Syrian civil war.  I think it is worth a try.  We should be having meetings with the Russians, the Syrians, and anybody else signficantly affected by the war, like the Jordanians and Turks; however, I am not optimistic that anything will stop the bloodshed, including American boots on the ground, much less creating a no-fly zone, or other half-way measures.  It is becoming increasingly clear that the US intervention in Libya, which appeared to be relatively cost-free and successful, was not so successful.  The attack on the American mission in Benghazi, the attack on the Amenas oil facility in Algeria, and the al Qaida unrest in Mail all showed the remaining power of the Libyan rebels who do not like us.  So, the American intervention in the relatively manageable Libyan civil war, was less than completely successful.  Whether it turns out to be 25%, 50% or 75% successful, only history will tell, like the war in Iraq.  Hopefully Libya will turn out better than Iraq.  Unfortunately one of the best American strengths in Libya, the well-liked Ambassador Christopher Stevens, was killed by the anti-American group Ansar al Sharia, weakening America's future role there.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Too Much Benghazi

I have had enough of the Republicans' screaming about Benghazi.  They are overjoyed that Amb. Stevens was killed, and they are dancing on his grave, making political capital with his death.  They, of course, argue that it is the administration and the Democrats who are dishonoring his death by not saying that he was killed by terrorists.  If you compare Benghazi to the friendly-fire death of Pat Tillman in Afghanistan, where the Bush administration actually lied to cover up the fact that he was killed by friendly fire, there is no doubt that the Obama administration was more honest and more concerned about the death of those serving this country.

Only recently has it become clear that Benghazi was neither an embassy nor a consulate; it was some kind of other diplomatic mission, which seems to have been devoted to the CIA.  There were relatively few State Department personnel there; the Ambassador and an IT specialist just happened to be visiting when the attack occurred.  It's not clear what the CIA was doing; they could have been advising local leaders on political and security issues, or they might have been planning drone attacks on the very people who attacked the mission.  If that's the case, they were just too slow.

I also think it's unbalanced to have a man of outstanding moral character arguing with a low-life like Issa.  Wikipedia says Issa was accused of several car thefts, although he apparently was never convicted, and collected on a large fire insurance policy on his company under suspicious circumstances.  He apparently served honorably in the military, although apparently without leaving the US or serving in combat.  Meanwhile, Ambassador Pickering is an honorable man who has served in many senior jobs in the State Department, as ambassador to several countries and as assistant secretary and under secretary in Washington.  While I was an intelligence analyst in the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research, I worked with Pickering when he was Assistant Secretary for Oceans, Environment, and Science, and had such a high opinion of him that he is one of the reasons I stayed in the Foreign Service.

Ambassador Pickering's report led to the firing of several State Department employees from their jobs dealing with security.  The Republicans are less interested in security; they are only interested in the talking points prepared for Ambassador Rice the Sunday after the Benghazi attacks, claiming that the talking points were modified for political reasons because of Obama's election campaign.

There seems to be some consensus that the attack was carried out by a group called Ansar al Sharia, although different from the group with the same name in Yemen. This group made a positive name for itself during the rebellion against Qaddafi, but it aroused hostility by its attack on the Benghazi mission, especially since Amb. Stevens was well known and loved by the Libyan people.  It does not appear that it has done anything of significance since 9/11/2012.  It seems to me that in a rational world the Republicans would be mad at Ansal al Sharia for killing the Americans, rather than at President Obama for allowing some watered-down talking points to be used while the US Government was still trying to figure out exactly what happened.