Snowden and NSA Ironies — 25 June 2013

The case of Edward Snowden is interesting to me more for what it says about the Obama Administration than for the actual circumstances of it.

Let’s dispense with the facts of the case first.  Snowden was a contractor with a security clearance who broke his oath of confidentiality.  He took it upon himself, in a manner reminiscent of Julian Assange and Wikileaks, to decide what materials ought to remain classified and what should be released to the public.  In doing so, he broke the law.

It is therefore completely appropriate that the Obama Administration should issue an arrest warrant for him and seek to get him extradited.  Their failure to do so is something else again, to be discussed below.

As to the moral and civil rights issues involved, my position is this: the government should have the right to collect the same sort of metadata that the great search companies like Google collect by the minute, so they can subject it to the same sort of sifting and pattern recognition.  It’s passing strange to me that there is no complaint whatsoever at private companies’ being able to track our purchases, our browsing, our locations, our phone records for the purposes of pushing customized advertising to us, but when the government has access to the same sort of data for the decidedly more consequential purpose of keeping us safe from terrorism and mass killings the hue and cry from some quarters is immediate.

Granted, the fact that the government has a monopoly on the legitimate use of coercion makes it a different kind of data consumer, at least potentially.  There is always the risk that governments will be corrupted by the power they have and the temptation to use it for political rather than public-welfare purposes.  Witness the abuse of the IRS’ powers directed toward Tea Party and other conservative groups.

But it should be the case, particularly in a well-run representative democracy, that government should be trusted more than a private company, which is only answerable to the demands of the bottom line and whatever disciplines the market imposes on it to pursue that bottom-line objective by ethical and legal means.

Indeed, it is a core tenet of the Obama belief system – which lies behind Obamacare and so much else in the President’s agenda – that government responds to purer motives.  The profit motive results in some people being victims; government action, by contrast, protects the weak from the predations of the profit-seekers.

It’s an idealistic view of government, when the reality is more along the lines of Madison’s Federalist comment – “the great difficulty is this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”  Governmental power exerts a gravitational pull that accretes ever more power unto itself, and it must be continually checked or it will become too big to control.  One natural consequence of Obama’s transformational presidency is that the government by deliberate intention becomes more powerful, and more wanting of control.  What we are seeing these days is that control is lacking.

This is why, instead of the general public reacting to the revelations of the government maintaining zilobytes of telephonic metadata with a yawn and a thank you, the reaction instead – interestingly, from both left and right – is that the security state is becoming a leviathan, a 1984 construct where Big Brother keeps his eye on us all.

It is in part a failure of the Obama Administration that this is an issue at all.  I believe that if the outlines of this program were publicly discussed years ago, under less fraught circumstances, the public would have given its tacit consent and Edward Snowden’s revelations would have been inconsequential – albeit still illegal.  But because of the loss of trust engendered by this administration due to Benghazi, the IRS scandals, the Justice Department sweeping of journalists’ records, and all the attendant lying, it is not only easy but natural for people to react to the NSA story with horror, exaggeration, and civil rights lawsuits.

Many observers have noted the irony of this President – who was among the foremost in condemning the anti-terror methods of his predecessor – now dealing with public condemnation of his own choices to pursue and even expand many of the same programs. But to me, the poetic justice runs deeper.

One reason the NSA metadata programs have been so critical to our continued security methods is that we have precious few other forms of intelligence.  The Obama Administration has outlawed all but the most perfunctory forms of interrogation, and because of its commitment to a pre-9-11 mindset is disposed to giving Miranda rights to terrorists such as Dzhokar Tsarnaev so we don’t get a chance to do even minimal interrogation.  And while the drone program has been successful at decimating top terror leaders and their families at minimal cost in US lives, it also means we silence potential sources of intel rather than capture and exploit them.  So the NSA program, which is now under attack, is one of the few tools we have left.

To return to Snowden, who is now in the midst of some Cook’s Tour of civil rights abusers in search of asylum, the additional irony is that one of President Obama’s early foreign policy objectives was to “restore the US standing in the world,” supposedly tarnished by the wild cowboy from Crawford, Texas and his unilateral ways.

So we had the famous “reset” with Moscow, the “shirt-sleeve” summit with China’s new premier, and all the other demonstrations of US good will.  It was almost as if the President thought that by sheer dint of his scintillating personality he could bring international rivals to sing from the US songbook.  Instead, we can’t even get Hong Kong to honor a decades-old extradition treaty, and Secretary Kerry vaguely warns of “consequences” if the Russians fail to arrest Snowden.  Those would, presumably, be the same kind of “consequences” at which Syria now trembles for having crossed the red line and used chemical weapons.  Which is to say, nothing at all.

So, instead of a non-issue, we have the nation in an uproar over civil rights invasions, one of our last remaining sources of anti-terror intelligence under attack, and the international community blithely indifferent to our demands for the return of a duplicitous contractor.

And, incidentally, what does it say about the security of our classified data that a mid-level contractor could download it to a thumb drive and sell it to the highest bidder?  This government needs some controlling, all right.

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Who Do You Trust? — 18 June 2013

It is a fragile thing, trust.  It can take years to build up and yet it can be lost in a breathtakingly short time.  When it comes to government, loss of trust can harm the functioning of our democracy for years to come.  That appears to be one of the legacies that Barack Obama is building for himself, and the reason why the series of scandals that has greeted his second term is so harmful.

Behind each one of them is the image of the federal government lying to the American people.  When the attack in Benghazi resulted in the death of the US Ambassador and three others, senior government officials – not just Susan Rice on the Sunday talk shows, but Secretary Clinton, Press Secretary Carney, the President himself – maintained for weeks that the proximate issue was a reckless video that incited a mob to lethal action.   Regardless of who framed the famous “talking points,” the result for the most disinterested observer was that the government maintained a fiction about a terrorist attack.

This obfuscation held more than election-season consequences.  The new Libyan Prime Minister, who accurately called the incident an act of terror on the same Sunday talk circuit, was so incensed at being essentially called a liar that he hindered the FBI crime scene investigators from visiting the site.  The perpetrators are walking free to this day, despite President Obama’s vow not to rest until justice is done for Chris Stevens and the others.

It gets worse from there.  With the IRS targeting of conservative groups, citizens were confronted with the prospect of a feared but heretofore apolitical bureaucracy taking sides in a Presidential contest.  And again, there were lies.  At first it was rogue agents in Cincinnati, then there was evidence that the effort was led from Washington.  The acting director denied under oath that any targeting had taken place, then recanted.  Lois Lerner, in charge of the group that monitored the tax-exempt applications insisted she did no wrong, then took the Fifth in congressional testimony.

One sure way to undermine trust in the government is to have its very engines trample on the First Amendment rights of certain individuals chosen not at random but by a systematic search of their political persuasions.  Nor was this done in a vacuum – all through the summer and fall of 2012, President Obama was warning darkly of unsavory political advocacy groups, possibly funded with illegal foreign money, operating in the shadows.  Small wonder the IRS thought they were on solid ground in focusing on Tea Party groups.

Speaking of trampling on the First Amendment, the Justice Department gave their own rendition in the wholesale sweeping of journalists’ phone records in an effort to identify leakers of confidential information.  This was an infraction grave enough even to get a rise out of the President’s amen chorus in the mainstream media.  It may, in fact, mark the point at which Obama begins to be held to normal standards of scrutiny.

And it went further than mere phone sweeps: Fox reporter James Rosen was named as a possible co-conspirator in a security leak investigation, in an affidavit to a federal judge asking for his specific phone conversations.  And the lies: Attorney General Eric Holder testified that targeting a journalist for possible prosecution was not something he had “heard of, or discussed,” when in fact the opposite was true, and it was his signature on the affidavit.

Now we come to the NSA meta-data scandal.  This, I think, is something of a different order from the others.  Personally, I believe it is OK for the government to be able to sift through the millions of phone links that take place daily looking for patterns that might warrant closer examination – as long as that closer look is authorized by the FISA court.  The fact that senior legislators from both parties have supported this program, that it has been known about for years, and that it has, according to testimony, been responsible for dozens of foiled terror plots, gives me some comfort.

But only some comfort, and this is the problem.  If we had a government that we felt could be trusted with such masses of private information, this would not be such an issue.  But the long list of trust-destroying actions taken by this government over the last few years has made the public wary even of those programs where no abuse has even been alleged.  The mistrust is bolstered by yet more lies: James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, swore under oath that we did not collect mass quantities of data about people’s communications, later describing it as the “least untruthful” answer he could give.

We don’t trust the government to protect its diplomats and tell the truth about it; we don’t trust it to protect our First Amendment rights; we don’t trust it to tell us the truth about so many things, and yet we are supposed to trust it holding huge quantities of data about our daily lives and communications, potentially listening in on what we innocently think are private conversations.  

President Obama recognized the dilemma, and said about ten days ago that we need to have a “national conversation” about the appropriate balance between security and privacy in an age of terrorism and high-tech vulnerabilities.  That’s fine and good, but after saying that, he has largely been silent.  The national conversation has been played out among partisans and the commentariat, without the President lending it his gravitas. If we are to come to a consensus, this is not the most promising way to get there.  

It calls for leadership.  Instead of leadership, we get more partisanship: the President today insisted that the NSA program is OK because, well, he’s not Dick Cheney.  Which is to say, “you can trust me, but don’t let the Republicans get hold of these tools.”

Well, judging from his government’s achievements of the last year or so, his claim on our trust looks a bit over-optimistic.

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It Comes From the Top –27 May 2013

Imagine this: you’re a small-scale businessperson in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.  Seeing corruption and governmental incompetence at all levels around you, you decide to do something about it: you found a couple of better-government organizations.  Careful to stay within the law, you submit for interest-group status.  This sparks a great deal of interest in you on the part of the Russian government.

Over the next 18 months, you receive no fewer than 6 visits from the Department of State Security, asking both general questions, and specific ones, such as, “Do you know this man? Who else in your organization knows him?  When was the last time he came to one of your meetings?”

During the same period, the State Taxing Authority conducts an audit of your business, an audit of your personal tax returns, and no fewer than four times comes calling and demanding answers about your two grass-roots interest groups.  The State Weapons Control Agency audits your firm not once but twice, ostensibly to make sure your factory is not making something you shouldn’t.  And the Russian Worker’s Protection Authority audits your business as well.  

Each visit is intrusive, diverting time and resources from your normal business, and marked by suspicion – the authorities’ starting point seems to be that you’ve got something to hide, and their job is to find it.

An American observing this official harassment would probably shrug and say, what do you expect?  Putin is ex-KGB, and the Russians never really figured out this democracy stuff.  This is a country that has no qualms about trampling the civil rights of oligarchs and peasantry alike.  If the agencies of the government are used to quell insurgent democratic voices, well, that’s classic thug government.  You see it in Russia, you see it in Venezuela, you see it in lots of places.

And now you see it in the United States.  For this is the tale of Catherine Engelbrecht, a businesswoman from Texas who founded the King Street Patriots and True the Vote, the latter a group dedicated to combating vote fraud.  After she and her husband submitted to the IRS for tax-exempt status, they were visited by, variously and multiple times, the FBI, the IRS, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA).  And she has yet to receive her tax-exempt status from the IRS.  This harassment took place over the period from December 2010 to the present – in other words, during the months up to and including Barack Obama’s re-election.

This is stunning.  It is impossible to imagine all these governmental examinations as coincidental.  Not when you place them against the background of the abuses the IRS has committed against – and only against – similar conservative groups during the same time period.   And because the harassment came from multiple agencies, it cannot be laid at the doorstep of an overzealous or rogue bureau in Cincinnati.  In some very real way, this had to have been directed.

So far, the IRS scandal has shown us how hard it will be to get any accounting out of the government.  Despite the Inspector General’s report and a round of Congressional hearings, we know nothing about how the campaign of harassment of Tea Party, Patriot, and similar groups was initiated.  People in Cincinnati say “it came from the top,” but the top bureaucrats either take the Fifth, or don’t remember, or deny knowing anything.  They lied back in 2011 when Congress asked them pointblank if they were targeting conservative groups, and now insist – with the bald shamelessness of someone insisting “black is white” – that they told the truth at the time.

While we do not know how this effort began, we do have a good feel for the results.  In the months before the President’s re-election, citizen groups expected to campaign against him were subjected to delay, obstruction, and limitations on their fundraising and political effectiveness.  

In other words, the machinery of the government was deployed to suppress the First Amendment rights of the President’s opposition.  And as Catherine Engelbrecht’s story suggests, this abuse of power may have been systematic, involving several agencies of the government, not just the IRS.  How many more stories are there out there like hers?

I suppose we can take some comfort that, unlike Putin’s Russia or Chavez’ Venezuela, when abuses like this come to light we have a press and a Congress that will step up to protect the rights of those mistreated by the government.  These out-of-control bureaucrats cannot act as contemptuously in this country as they could elsewhere.

But that is a rather slender reed, when you think of how sycophantic the press has been toward Obama for most of the last four-plus years, and when you think that it is only because we have a Republican House that these investigations are taking place.  This would be a non-issue if Nancy Pelosi were Speaker.  The missing element that ought to make abuses like this unthinkable is a respect for the dignity of our political process that ought to come from the very top.

Instead, the Obama White House has set the tone for this kind of all-out politics.  From the cold shoulder shown to Fox News to the demonizing of Wall Street, insurance companies, the oil business, etc, the White House has sought to de-legitimize its opposition.  Don’t forget it was the Obama 2012 campaign that led the way in targeting private individuals for their politics – as I pointed out previously, an Obama website named Romney donors by name and impugned their characters and their business ethics, and slurred them with insinuations of legally questionable activities.  True to form, some of the most prominent were audited by the IRS shortly after being thus outed.

Regardless of whether the Engelbrecht outrages and all the rest were sparked by a White House order or merely the response of a politically motivated bureaucracy to the President’s signal of intent, Barack Obama bears responsibility for the acts done in his name – and make no mistake, these were done to help ensure his re-election.

In 1170, King Henry II of England cried, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”  His words set in motion a chain of events that led to the martyrdom of Thomas a Becket, the priest who so confounded the King.  Henry afterward did penance for having caused the murder, however indirectly.

We could only hope for such humility and self-awareness from the President.

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Too Vast — 20 May 2013

I remember Candidate Obama saying in 2008, “it’s not whether government is too big or too little, it’s whether it works!”  

This, of course, assumes a manager is in charge.  Unfortunately, President Obama is no manager, and his government isn’t working too well.  And it’s bigger than ever.

Start with the implementation of Obamacare, Exhibit A for progressives’ unbridled faith in the benevolent powers of government.  The Health and Human Services department is woefully behind schedule in setting up the exchanges – sort of like Amazon.com for health care – through which small businesses and individuals are supposed to be able to choose between health plans.  And they are already about out of money to do it, having budgeted for the whole country about what California is spending setting up their own.  They have already decided to let the deadline pass for the small business exchanges, and the chances of completing the individual exchanges on time is indistinguishable from zero.

In addition, there are grandiose plans to set up computer systems that will integrate data from HHS, the IRS, Social Security and Homeland Security in order to police the individual mandate and other provisions of the “Affordable Care Act.”  Anyone who has been involved in system conversions at even moderately large companies knows what a playground for Murphy’s Law such an effort is.  Now imagine that project being brought to you by the people who run the Post Office.

Never mind the economic illiteracy that lies behind the whole effort – the notion that young, healthy workers will pay $7,000 – $10,000 for insurance policies they would not otherwise buy, when the penalty for not doing so is a fine of $2,000.  Couple this with the assurance that if you do get sick you can buy a full-bodied insurance policy whenever you want and the insurance company can’t charge you extra.  

No wonder Senator Max Baucus – who was one of the biggest proponents of Obamacare and one of its authors – now warns of an implementation “train wreck.”  The wonder is that this is a surprise to anybody.

One of the important elements of a government that works is a leader that leads.  The trifecta of scandals now plaguing the administration – each of which is getting worse by the day – indicates a bureaucracy out of control and a President behind the curve on what’s going on.  And that’s if you take the charitable interpretation.

Of the IRS targeting conservative groups for heightened scrutiny, the President told us that he learned of it only at the same time the rest of us did, through reports in the press.

Really?  Is that a response that is supposed to build confidence?  Whether this was the result of a few enterprising bureaucrats in Cincinnati or something considerably more sinister, how is it that the head of the executive power is not informed when something as politically potent as this is brewing?

It now appears that the White House counsel, as well as the Chief of Staff and other senior staffers, were aware of the IRS’ inspector general’s report on this scandal in late April, weeks before it was finalized and delivered around May 10.   Yet, as press secretary Jay Carney insisted, nobody told the President.

How does that make you feel?  The top staffers were more concerned with deniability and  protecting the President than they were in making sure the boss knew about a problem of potentially  Nixonian dimensions.

There seems to be a lot of executive haplessness surrounding these events.  According to Secretary of Defense Panetta, the President went to bed early on the night the consulate in Benghazi was subjected to a fatal attack, and did not once inquire later in the night as to the health and safety of the people he had caused to be in harm’s way.   Secretary of State Clinton says she didn’t see Ambassador Stevens’ increasingly desperate pleas for more security because she receives a thousand cables a day and just can’t read them all.  And despite the release of hundreds of emails that track the changes to the famous talking points, we still don’t know who it was that gave the thumb’s up to the hokum story of an anti-video demonstration gone rogue.

There also seems to be a lamentable tendency for the White House to send the wrong people out to face questioning – people who are not the ones who were present and informed.  Most famously, Susan Rice was sent to do the rounds of five Sunday talk shows spouting what every sentient being in the White House knew was poppycock about Benghazi, when Obama himself said she was not present and didn’t know anything about it.  Where was Hillary?  She mysteriously disappeared for months, because of some ill-defined fall and subsequent brain issue.  As Dan Brown’s symbologist sleuth Robert Langdon might have put it, hidden connection is much more plausible than coincidence.

Shifting gears to the Justice Department overreaching and seizing two months’ worth of AP phone records, the White House produced Attorney General Eric Holder to testify before Congress, and he couldn’t answer the most important questions about it because he had recused himself from the case.  Why not send the deputy who did make the decisions?

Similarly, the White House trotted out Senior Communications Advisor Dan Pfeiffer to do the Sunday shows yesterday, instead of policy actors, leading Face the Nation host Bob Shieffer to say, “I mean this as no disrespect to you, why are you here today? Why isn’t the White House chief of staff here to tell us what happened?”  Why, indeed?

David Axelrod, the President’s erstwhile chief political advisor, had these presumably helpful words to say:  “Part of being president is there’s so much beneath you that you can’t know because the government is so vast.”  In other words, the government is too big to manage.  Bureaucracies overrun their limits, enforcers violate essential constitutional freedoms, foreign policy bungles get sanitized in conference calls and emails.  Oh, and the President’s signature achievement is in danger of collapsing under its own weight.  And the President can’t be expected to be aware of it all.

Perhaps not all – there are hundreds of thousands of government employees doing millions of things every day.  But a government that works, one that is not so big as to be unmanageable, is one in which the person at the top knows the important stuff, and knows it when it counts.

We don’t have that with this government, and certainly not with this President.

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All Politics All the Time — 13 May 2013

There are two disconcerting threads that connect the two hot stories in the news this week, the renewed (I would say, disgracefully belated) interest in the Benghazi terrorist attacks of last September 11, and the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups for heightened scrutiny.

The first thread has to do with politics.  Both of these incidents happened during the run-up to the 2012 re-election of Barack Obama.  Both of them featured decisions made by administration officials that violated their duties to serve the American people with honesty and integrity.  And the actions in both cases helped Obama get re-elected.

In the case of the Benghazi attacks, the outlines of the story have long been available, but last week’s testimony by career diplomat Greg Hicks made it clear: the White House and the Secretary of State knew within hours that the attack on the consulate in Benghazi was an organized terrorist attack.  Despite this, the administration for weeks stuck to the story that the cause of the attack was mob anger at an anti-Muslim video that had been posted on-line.

The recent slow emergence of emails has shown that, contrary to administration statements at the time, the faulty explanation of the event was not the best information that the intelligence community had.  In fact, it was administration political and PR types, such as State’s Victoria Nuland, who insisted on watering down the report to remove any reference to al Qaeda-linked groups.

Not only that, but Hicks’ story revealed an administration keen to prevent inquiry into the incident: when Congressman Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah, went to Benghazi to investigate, Hicks was told by no less than Hillary Clinton’s right-hand aide, Cheryl Mills, not to meet with him.  And for other visitors from the FBI, to ensure that a State Department lawyer was present in all meetings.  When the lawyer was kept out of one meeting because he lacked security clearance, Hicks got a nuclear sunburn from Washington and was ultimately demoted from Deputy Chief of Mission to a desk job.

The politics of this were pretty obvious: President Obama was getting a lot of political mileage out of the claim that with Osama bin Laden dead al Qaeda was on the run, a spent force in the war on terror.  If Islamic terrorists can be so brazen as to stage a full-on attack on a US outpost, and kill the ambassador and three other Americans, that story line is fatally compromised and Obama’s campaign suffers.  Better to suppress the truth to the American people.

We don’t yet know all the facts around the IRS case, which just broke last week.  But the outlines again are clear: groups seeking tax-exempt status were singled out for intense scrutiny of their fundraising and other activities if they had certain tell-tale keywords in their names: Tea Party, Patriot, Constitutional, or Bill of Rights.  In other words, they were being targeted because of their political views.

This scrutiny is not simply a matter of filling out more forms.  The IRS has been known to ask these groups for tens of thousands of emails to be printed out and delivered, for detailed financial records, and even lists of donors’ names.  Quite apart from the cost and burden of complying with these demands – which takes time and energy away from the groups’ intended tasks – is the chilling effect on the group’s activities.  The IRS is as powerful an agency as the government has, and when they come calling one tends to shiver just a bit.

The unconstitutionality of this is not questioned by any commentator of left or right.  Which raises the question: who thought this was a good idea?  We are far from knowing how high this went, although latest indications are that it went all the way to Washington, but we do know that it is not inconsistent with the White House’s tactics.  A report I referred to some months ago described how the web site of the White House itself named Romney contributors by name and publicly accused them of being “less than reputable,” “on the wrong side of the law,” and profiting “at the expense of the American people.”  With that as background, who could fault an IRS functionary who thought a little harassment of conservative groups would be smiled upon from above?

The second thread that ties these events together is, to put it delicately, a rather casual acquaintance with the truth.  The aftermath of Benghazi is all about fabrication and misdirection, but a couple of points still bear mention.

First, President Obama has said repeatedly that he called the Benghazi attack terrorism the very next day; he blindsided Romney with that claim at the second debate (with Candy Crowley’s connivance), and he repeated it again today.  But I invite you to examine his Rose Garden remarks from Sept 12, here.  This is what he said specifically about the Benghazi attack: “Since our founding, the United States has been a nation that respects all faiths.  We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.  But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence.  None.”  He was associating the attacks with “denigration” of Islam, i.e., the video.  He does go on to mention terrorism, but only after making reference to the 9-11 attacks of 2001.  He does not mention Benghazi and terrorism in the same breath.  It’s a lie.

Further, Susan Rice, in the famous series of Sunday talk shows, not only perpetrated the video/mob fiction, but said there was “no evidence” that there was an organized attack by  Islamic extremists.  In fact, there was no evidence that it was anything but an organized attack by Islamic extremists.  That statement was simply untrue, and if she gleaned that from the heavily scrubbed talking points, then there is much more investigation to be done.

It also galls that Administration figures are trying to duck probing questions as if this is all old news.  Jay Carney, at the outset of last week’s hearings, tried the gambit that Benghazi “happened a long time ago,” as if there were some sort of statute of limitations on the murder of our ambassador by foreign terrorists.  Similarly, Hillary’s famous “what difference at this point does it make?” suggested that we don’t really need to know what happened, since we’ve been talking about it for such a long time.

Wrong and wrong.  This matters because the Administration lied to the American people for political reasons, and we still don’t know the whole truth.

Again, parallels with the IRS case.  While the fact of the scrutiny of conservative groups was known at supervisory levels of the IRS back in 2011, the Commissioner of the IRS was assuring Congress months afterward that there was no such targeting going on.

This story is new enough that it doesn’t have the barnacles of factoids that have hung on the Benghazi story after all these months.  But it would be surprising indeed to find that the denials of abuse of IRS power that have followed complaints from Glenn Beck and other conservative activists were not in fact knowing falsehoods a good bit of the time.

The American people deserve better than this.  They deserve an Administration that sets a tone of service and integrity, not one where politics colors every decision.  They deserve an Administration that levels with them about what is going on in the world and in their back yards.  And when there is a screw-up to acknowledge it, not to smother it in carefully crafted talking points.

Obama is rapidly losing whatever credibility he had left.  And for one who has built his political persona on effortlessly persuasive  communications, that is a big loss indeed.

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What To Do With Dzhokhar? — 22 April 2013

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev lies in a hospital bed, drifting in and out of consciousness, while the FBI waits to interrogate him.  Meanwhile, a controversy swirls around him, about whether to designate the younger of the Boston bombers an enemy combatant or to read him his Miranda rights as is the due of any US citizen – and he is a naturalized citizen.

In many ways, this controversy is more about appearances than about justice.  Tsarnaev is either going to prison for the rest of his life, or he will get the death penalty.  Whether it goes through the civil court system or a military tribunal, he will never see freedom.  As far as he himself is concerned, the debate is immaterial.

Moreover, the howls of mistreatment by the civil liberties folks because he has not yet been read his Miranda rights, and may not receive them for some time, misses the point.  It is not the case that citizens automatically must, as a matter of right, be informed of the right to remain silent, to get a lawyer, etc.  The true distinction is that without being Mirandized any subsequent statements will not be admissible in court, so for purposes of obtaining a conviction the interrogation is useless.

But in this case, there is ample evidence to convict Dzhokhar Tsarnaev without the assistance of any information to be gleaned from the FBI interviews.  He and his brother boasted that they were the bombers to the man whose Mercedes they hijacked on Thursday night.  Their faces are on plentiful videos of the crime.  One of the most grievously injured, a marathoner who lost his legs in the blast, looked him in the eye moments after he dropped his backpack, and fingered him from his hospital bed.  And then of course, there are the explosives, the guns, and the suicide vest worn by his brother on the Thursday night rampage.  It’s going to be difficult for him to mount an “it wasn’t me” defense.

That, of course, is not the reason for denying him the chance to get lawyered up and go quiet.  We need answers, and we need to get them from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  The two most important questions are, “why?” and “who else?”

As we gather information about the older brother, Tamerlan, it becomes increasingly evident that he had moved toward greater militancy in his Islamic faith over the last few years.  The dots have not all been connected, but the likelihood is growing that this was yet another case of a Muslim in America who became radicalized and became committed to the purifying fire of jihad.

To my Westernized mind, the notion of jihadi terrorism is dangerous, but foolish.  What can they hope to accomplish?  Certainly the example of 9-11 would persuade any would-be terrorist that an act of mass murder, no matter how spectacular, will fail either to make Westerners change their ways, or to bring about some revival of the caliphate.  We’re just too big, too shambling, too resilient to react as the terrorist wishes.  If terrorism, as the definition has it, is the use of wanton violence to obtain a political objective, then surely the predictable futility of the attack to achieve any such end makes it a particularly impotent terrorism.

This leaves the reasoning behind the attack in the realm of pure spasmodic hatred.  The objective has to have been the killing of innocent women and children.  They can’t have hoped to achieve anything more.  This is what makes discovering the motivation behind the Tsarnaevs’ gruesome act all the more important: how were they persuaded that it made sense to do this?  Who persuaded them?

This brings us to the second big question.  Who else was involved?  It seems unlikely to me, inexpert though I am, that this was a deadly whim acted out by two losers on the edge of American society using information picked up on bomb-making web sites.  In the first place, they would have had to practice their bomb-making technique: it is doubtful that the pressure-cooker bombs that exploded at Copley Square were the first trial.  This mission showed plenty of advance planning – they would not have left the most crucial element to chance.

Beyond that, their tactic of blowing two bombs in succession, the second one designed to kill people fleeing the first, is a signature ploy of Islamic radicals.  It strongly suggests jihadi training.

And then there was the rest of their ordnance: the guns, the pipe bombs, the suicide vests.  All these were accumulated by the Tsarnaev brothers and brought out on Thursday night – it beggars logic to suggest that all of that preparation steamed up from the frustrated mind of Tamerlan and/or Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  Cold reasoning suggests they had help.

Then there is the mysterious trip that the elder brother took to Russia last year.  No one knows where he went, or who he met with there, but the fact that the family comes from Chechnya, home to some of the most brutal terrorists in the world, is suggestive and disturbing.  He was there for six months, plenty of time to make contact with an Islamic godfather and pick up support and training for his mission.

So there is plenty that we need to learn from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  It may take a long time to winkle it out of him, particularly since the Obama administration has outlawed aggressive interrogation techniques.  Now, the only method available is the slow, patient building of rapport, the information deprivation, the isolation, the dependency.  The time allowed by the so-called Public Safety Exception, which allows the Attorney General to delay reading Miranda rights to a particular criminal, is limited.  Our need for information is not.

So this by itself argues for “enemy combatant” designation.  I can’t agree with those who would say it is preferable for Dzhokhar to be able to clam up as the price of affirming our civil liberties.  I don’t give a fig for demonstrating to the world that we are a nation of laws and restraint on the police.  That is evident to anyone who would care to look and is capable of being persuaded.  It is more important to me to demonstrate to the world that they can’t unleash this kind of terror on us without us eventually coming knocking on their door.

And for that, we need to ask Dzhokhar Tsarnaev a lot of questions.

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What Are We Doing? — 8 April 2013

This weekend, a 25-year-old woman from the Chicago suburbs was killed in Afghanistan.  Anne Smedinghoff was a State Department officer delivering books to local schools when she and four other Americans were killed by a roadside bomb.  By all accounts, she was smart, dedicated, and idealistic, and wanted to do good things around the world, an ambition for which she paid with her life.

Unsurprisingly, this led to a renewal of the chorus of “What are we doing in Afghanistan?”  One local talking head averred that “you can’t export democracy to countries that didn’t have the benefit of our Judaeo-Christian traditions.”  Others asked, “how is it in our national interest to be fighting and dying in Afghanistan?”

As I said over ten years ago, when George W. Bush got the country started in the “war on terror,” the big risk in that kind of endeavor is that it will take a long time, and we are an impatient people.  I feared we would not have the staying power for a protracted struggle against an enemy too amorphous to defeat convincingly.  That prediction did not require much prescience.

But I think the questions deserve to be answered nonetheless.  First off, democracy does not need a particularly Western culture or philosophy to thrive: look at Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, India, even Indonesia, the biggest Muslim country in the world.  All of them have solid democratic traditions, some older than others, that enable the peaceful change of governments and public acceptance of the new regime.  Many of them have grave problems, social strife, and serious political dysfunction; but who couldn’t say that about the United States?

Nor can one say, as the anti-war crowd are wont to do, that you can’t export democracy, or impose it at the point of a gun.  We did precisely that in Japan at the end of World War II, and in Germany as well.  Perhaps there were elements of culture in both countries that fortuitously favored the adoption of democracy, but perhaps as well it was just better, more thought-out execution of the task.

One thing I think we have gotten lazy about – and I charge the Bush administration with this as much as Team Obama – is that there is a lot more to democracy than elections.  Too many fledgling democracies have one election, for the sake of international legitimacy, and then tuck the whole idea away for the foreseeable future: one man, one vote, one time.  Then the people are worse off: stuck with a dictator perversely celebrated as a legitimate ruler.

As much as elections – more so, in fact – democratic societies need other institutions to give the process public legitimacy.  First and foremost, they need institutional checks on the power of the government: an independent judiciary that can overrule acts of the government, and a free and unfettered press to call officials to account for malfeasance.

Another critical element of a democracy is that governmental power should not be the path to riches.  When an official position means one can appropriate public wealth for oneself or one’s tribe, the legitimacy of the government is fatally compromised, and the cost of losing elections becomes far greater to the incumbent.  This is particularly the case in socialist economies, where the government controls so much of the nation’s economic activity, and the temptation of corruption is the greater.

So, in a word, it is not the case that democracy is a lost cause, but it’s not easy.  Bush was rightly leery of getting into the business of “nation-building,” but ended up there anyway. And that leads to the second point.

It is easy at this point to look at the frustrations in Afghanistan and ask what interest is served by being there.  But one must not lose sight of this: when we went into Afghanistan in late 2001, the whole country was behind the effort, or nearly so.  Even as late as 2008, Barack Obama was calling it the “good war” to contrast it with Iraq.  We justifiably went to Afghanistan when the Taliban would not break with bin Laden, and brought down the government.  So to those who now question why we are there, I would ask, “then what?”

Afghanistan became a haven for al Qaeda because it was a failed state run badly by zealots.  To topple that government and leave the wreckage behind would have been to leave the field wide open for a repeat.  We had to replace it with something.

Perhaps we were more successful after WWII because we were less bashful about establishing a protectorate or a regency, with our own forces running the place until a satisfactory successor government could be established.  As it was, we attempted to form a political system in decidedly suboptimal circumstances, and failed utterly to eradicate corruption and to deal with tribalism, two traits that gravely undermined our efforts.

But our interests were served not merely by trying to establish a legitimate government responsive to the people in Afghanistan.  We have far broader interests in being known and recognized as the guarantor of the rule of law and the workings of the international system.  One of the principle reasons the late twentieth century was a period of remarkable economic advancement for hundreds of millions around the world is because the US maintained the shipping lanes, pressed for free trade, upheld treaty obligations, and generally acted to maintain peace and security for all nations.

In fulfilling that role, we need to be seen as a nation that can be relied upon.  We have done terrible damage to that reputation over the last several decades, from the abandonment of South Vietnam to the similar betrayal of the Iraqis after the 1992 war.  It does not serve us well to cut and run in Afghanistan as well.

For better or worse, the US is the global “hyper power,” as the French like to say (somewhat sniffily).  We have a national interest in being respected, even feared, but not in being scorned.

So what is our national interest in Afghanistan?  Put simply, it is not failing.  We have an obligation to the world, and need to be good enough to fulfill it.

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