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“Release Of American POW Sparks Partisan Dispute”: In Practice, The United States Has Negotiated With Terrorists Plenty Of Times

Under normal circumstances, when U.S. officials secure the release of an American prisoner of war, it would seem like a happy occasion for the country, regardless of political considerations. We were reminded over the weekend that these are not normal circumstances.

President Obama announced on Saturday that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only American soldier held captive in Afghanistan, was finally free after five years as a prisoner of the Taliban, In exchange for his release, U.S. officials agreed to release five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar.

In his White House announcement, the president said, in reference to the Taliban detainees, “The Qatari government has given us assurances that it will put in place measures to protect our national security.”

The complaints from congressional Republicans were immediate.

Amid jubilation Saturday over the release of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from captivity by the Taliban, senior Republicans on Capitol Hill said they were troubled by the means by which it was accomplished, which was a deal to release five Afghan detainees from the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Top Republicans on the Senate and House armed services committees went so far as to accuse President Obama of having broken the law, which requires the administration to notify Congress before any transfers from Guantanamo are carried out.

Throughout the weekend, prominent GOP lawmakers condemned the move with varying degrees of outrage. Several Republicans described the policy that led to Bergdahl’s release as “shocking,” “disturbing,” and “dangerous.”

Any sense of national joy that might otherwise come with the knowledge that an American POW is on his way home disappeared within minutes of the announcement – Bergdahl’s freedom quickly became the latest partisan fight, and the prospect of congressional hearings are more a matter of “when,” not “if.”

For Republicans, this is an outrage: as Karen Tumulty reported, the administration is required to notify relevant congressional committees 30 days before prisoner transfers, and this clearly did not happen. For Democrats, there were extenuating circumstances that required a legal shortcut: without immediate action, the opportunity to rescue an American POW would probably be lost forever, and Bergdahl’s life would be in severe jeopardy. “We did not have 30 days to wait,” Susan Rice said yesterday.

Who’s right? In this case, probably both.

But Republicans went on to raise a separate concern. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), among others, condemned the White House for having “negotiated with terrorists.” The Michigan Republican added that the move marked a “fundamental shift in U.S. policy.”

That’s a nice soundbite, but it’s also wrong.

In principle, the United States does not negotiate with terrorists, which is a sensible policy intended to discourage terrorism. In practice, the United States has negotiated with terrorists plenty of times.

For example, when terrorists hijacked TWA Flight 847 in 1985, the Reagan administration negotiated with the hostage takers, despite the U.S. policy, and despite fears that it might create an incentive for future hijackings.

More recently, and more to the point, military leaders appointed by the Bush/Cheney administration, at David Petraeus’ behest, endorsed negotiations with the Taliban years ago in the hopes of improving national security conditions in Afghanistan*.

The politics surrounding negotiations to free Bergdahl have been ugly for a long while, so this weekend’s rhetoric hardly came as a surprise. What’s more, many of the questions that have been raised about the move deserve answers.

But let’s not pretend that talking to the Taliban represents some kind of shocking twist.


By: Steve Benen, The Madow Blog, June 2, 2014

June 3, 2014 Posted by | Politics, POW's, Terrorists | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Mad About Vlad!”: The Increasingly Awkward Conservative Crush On Putin

All the way back in 1946, with Nazi Germany defeated and the cold war commencing, George Orwell wrote a brilliant essay on James Burnham. The author of The Managerial Revolution and a leading political philosopher, Burnham was a frequent contributor to the young National Review, and, more broadly, a leading voice of postwar American conservatism.

What Orwell found in his analysis of Burnham was that this ostensible democrat and cold warrior held deep regard for–and even envied–authoritarian or totalitarian powers, including Stalin’s Russia. This is why, Orwell explained, Burnham originally predicted a Nazi victory in World War II. (Britain, typically, was considered “decadent.”) In later years, Orwell continued, Burnham would write about Stalin in “semi-mystical” terms (with a “fascinated admiration”), comparing him to heroes of the past; Burnham didn’t like Stalin’s politics, but he admired his strength. Of Burnham’s odd quasi-regard for Stalinism and its supposedly destined victory over the forces of sickly democratic regimes, Orwell added: “The huge, invincible, everlasting slave empire of which Burnham appears to dream will not be established, or, if established, will not endure, because slavery is no longer a stable basis for human society.”

Orwell, then, was not merely critical of Burnham’s pessimism (Orwell himself could be overly pessimistic.) He also saw this pessimism as reflective of a mindset that prioritized vicious power-wielding and coercion over other things that allowed states to succeed and prosper.

This variety of pessimism did not end with Burnham, unfortunately. During the nearly 50 year Cold War, Americans were informed time and again by rightwingers that the Soviet Union did not allow dissent, and could therefore pursue its desired policies without protest. While the Soviets were single-minded, we were, yes, decadent. Soviet leaders could fight wars as they pleased, but freedom-loving presidents like Ronald Reagan had to put up with what Charles Krauthammer laughably called an “imperial Congress.”  (Some of the same type of commentary shows up about today’s China: look how quickly the Chinese can build bridges! And, as Thomas Friedman proves, it isn’t coming solely from the right.) But more unique among conservatives is the desire for a tough leader who will dispense with niceties and embrace power.

The reason for all this ancient history is the situation today in Ukraine, where an autocratic Russian leader who exudes manly vibes has ordered his armed forces into Crimea. It is unclear whether this move on Russia’s part will prove successful, but, amidst uncertaintly among western leaders over what to do, there has arisen a new strain of the Burnham syndrome. Conservatives don’t just see the west and President Obama as weak; they also seem envious of Putin’s bullying. “There is something odd,” Benjamin Wallace-Wells wrote in New York magazine, “about commentators who denounce Putin in the strongest terms and yet pine for a more Putin-like figure in the White House.”

Sarah Palin, for example, said this last night to Sean Hannity:

Well, yes, especially under the commander-in-chief that we have today because Obama’s — the perception of him and his potency across the world is one of such weakness. And you know, look, people are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil. They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates. We are not exercising that peace through strength that only can be brought to you courtesy of the red, white and blue, that only a strengthened United States military can do.

Put aside the syntax for a moment and ask: is there not a bit of envy here? Isn’t Palin very clearly desirous of a tough-guy president who wrestles bears and drills for oil? (The swooning over Bush’s landing on that aircraft carrier was a telling sign.) Now read Rush Limbaugh:

In fact, Putin—ready for this?—postponed the Oscar telecast last night.  He didn’t want his own population distracted.  He wanted his own population knowing full well what he was doing, and he wanted them celebrating him.  They weren’t distracted.  We were.

If only America wasn’t distracted by silly things like the Oscars, perhaps we would have the strength to stand up to the tough Russia. (On his web page, Limbaugh has a photo of a shirtless Putin.) In case the point isn’t obvious enough, Limbaugh continues:

Well, did you hear that the White House put out a photo of Obama talking on the phone with Vlad, and Obama’s sleeves were rolled up?  That was done to make it look like Obama was really working hard—I mean, really taking it seriously. His sleeves were rolled up while on the phone with Putin! Putin probably had his shirt off practicing Tai-Chi while he was talking to Obama.

Limbaugh quite clearly wants this kind of leader.

Also on view over the past few days is the idea that Putin must be smarter and cagier and stronger: “Putin is playing chess and I think we’re playing marbles,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. The Russians are thus necessarily craftier than our weak and vacillating (key word) democratic leader.

The silliness inherent in all this talk is that when American presidents have generally acted above the law, or engaged in stupid and immoral wars, or bullied neighbors, or cracked down on domestic dissent, it has backfired in the worst ways on them and the country. (The examples are too obvious to list.) Moreover, I notice that conservatives seem to view some of Obama’s domestic actions–appointing czars, for example–as being the result of a vindictive, bloodthirsty, and authoritarian mindset. However absurd the particular claims may be (Cass Sunstein as Stalin), it is proof that the people who seem to secretly pine for an American Putin don’t really want one.

Orwell’s response to this sort of thinking was to write, of Burnham, “He ignores the advantages, military as well as social, enjoyed by a democratic country.” Of course this is not a guarantee that this crisis will play itself out in a way that is beneficial to American or Western (or Ukrainian) interests. But the presumption that Russia has just masterly played the Great Game, and that our weakness will doom us, is nearly automatic among large segments of the American right. (Olga Dukhnich, in The New York Timesmakes the point that this crisis may backfire just as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan did. Whether correct or not, it is a nice counter to the reigning right-wing ultra-pessimism.)

Orwell closed his essay as follows:

That a man of Burnham’s gifts should have been able for a while to think of Nazism as something rather admirable, something that could and probably would build up a workable and durable social order, shows what damage is done to the sense of reality by the cultivation of what is now called ‘realism’.

It is now Team Obama that styles itself realist, in quite a different way than Orwell was talking about. And large chunks of the American right would now also scorn the term. What they haven’t scorned is the mindset, which is the problem in the first place.


By: Isaac Chotiner, The New Republic, March 4, 2014

March 8, 2014 Posted by | Conservatives, Ukraine, Vladimir Putin | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Reality Versus The Imaginary”: Does It Matter If Edward Snowden Is A Russian Spy?

We already know that Edward Snowden is dependent on the Russian government to keep him out of reach of the American justice system. But accusations have recently been made that Snowden’s relationship with the Kremlin goes much deeper than we previously suspected.

On Sunday, House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) strongly suggested that Edward Snowden stole NSA secrets with help from Russia, though Rogers declined to provide any evidence to back that suggestion.

The following day, The New Republic‘s Sean Wilentz published a harsh profile chronicling the backgrounds of Snowden and his muckraker allies Glenn Greenwald and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, discerning a common thread of “paranoid libertarianism” that has paradoxically intertwined these self-proclaimed defenders of human rights with a brutal Russian autocracy.

And while Wilentz stops short of accusing Snowden of espionage, Business Insider‘s Michael Kelley also explored Snowden’s ties to Russia, eventually asking, “Is the fact that his life is now overseen by a Russian security detail more than an extraordinary coincidence?”

It bears repeating: No one has produced evidence that Snowden was on Russia’s payroll when he stole the NSA’s secrets. But suppose he was — would it matter?

To answer that question, we need to separate two different controversies surrounding the world’s most famous whistleblower.

First, to resolve the debate over whether Snowden deserves some form of clemency, his motivations and actions are integral. If it is found that he passed national security secrets to Russia or China, that would completely outweigh whatever benefits he has provided to Americans in better understanding the scope of NSA surveillance. Since that question is far from resolved, the New York Times editorial board and others are premature in promoting clemency.

Indeed, Slate‘s Fred Kaplan, in his argument against clemency, flagged that Snowden has not leaked “any documents detailing the cyber-operations of any non-allied countries, especially Russia or China,” even though he presumably would have had access to NSA information regarding their operations. He even leaked information about American operations against the Taliban, which, as Wilentz noted, has nothing to do with protecting American civil liberties, but instead helps Snowden and his allies “damage their bugaboo national security behemoth.”

As Wilentz argued, Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange possess an extreme libertarianism, driving them to undermine American foreign policy. The three, wrote Wilentz, “have unleashed a torrent of classified information with the clear intent of showing that the federal government has spun out of control…an imperial power, drunk on its hegemonic ambitions.”

On the flip side, if Snowden could somehow prove that he is an American-as-apple pie idealist who simply wants to share information with his fellow citizens, the argument for clemency gains more weight.

However, to resolve the debate over what forms of surveillance are constitutionally sound and effective at counter-terrorism, Snowden’s motivations are fundamentally irrelevant. One could simultaneously believe that Snowden deserves the electric chair for aiding foreign powers, and that the NSA’s bulk collection of metadata violates the Fourth Amendment. Or, that Snowden acted in good faith, yet what he uncovered merely shows an NSA properly focused on terrorism and operating within the bounds of the Constitution.

Yet the latest revelations about Snowden may help clear a path to having a more rational debate about the NSA. The latest reporting suggests that his motivations are at least ideologically suspect and possibly unpatriotic, which makes it easier to sideline Snowden and simply focus on the NSA itself.

Most Americans, regardless of their views on the NSA, don’t possess the reportedly extreme views of Snowden, and don’t see America’s actions on the global stage as deserving of more scorn than Russia or China.

Much is at stake, both in terms of our liberty and our security, as we discuss whether President Obama’s NSA reforms are either appropriately mild or insufficiently drastic. It is in our interest to premise the discussion on what the NSA is doing — not what is being imagined by political extremists, or just possibly, anti-American spies.

By: Bill Scher, The Week, January 23, 2014

January 27, 2014 Posted by | Edward Snowden, National Security | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“He May Also Have Been A Spy”: Snowden Lied About China Contacts

Yesterday, the New York Times urged the Obama administration to offer Edward Snowden “a plea bargain or some form of clemency.” The paper called the former NSA contractor “a whistle-blower” for his exposure of “the vast scope” of the NSA’s “reach into the lives of hundreds of millions of people in the United States and around the globe.”

Perhaps Snowden is what the Times portrays him to be, a hero of sorts, yet the editors of the paper rushed to judgment. In their editorial they did not even raise the possibility that he passed along vital national security secrets to China. It is likely he did so.

“I have had no contact with the Chinese government,” Snowden wrote in a Q&A on the Guardian website while taking refuge in Hong Kong in June. “I only work with journalists.”

That’s far short of the truth. By the time he wrote those words in the online chat, Snowden, according to one of my sources in Hong Kong, had at least one “high-level contact” with Chinese officials there. Those officials suggested he give an interview to the South China Morning Post, the most prominent English-language newspaper in Hong Kong. This is significant because, as the Post noted, Snowden turned over to the paper documents that contained detailed technical information on the NSA’s methods. Included in these documents were Hong Kong and Chinese IP addresses that the NSA was surveilling. The disclosure of those addresses was not whistle-blowing; that was aiding China.

The Post, my source told me, had sent two reporters to interview Snowden. The paper did not give a byline to one of them, a Chinese national serving as the deputy to Editor Wang Xiangwei, who openly sits on a Communist Party organ in the Mainland. That reporter is suspected to have then supplied Snowden’s documents to Chinese agents. Beijing, it appears, was able to cover its tracks while obtaining information from the so-called whistle-blower.

Specifically, it appears that agents of China’s Ministry of State Security were in contact with Snowden during his stay in Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous part of China. “The Chinese already have everything Snowden had,” said an unnamed official to the Washington Free Beacon days after the leaker had left Hong Kong for Moscow. Representative Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, said that Snowden probably went to Mainland China during his stay in Hong Kong, a suspicion shared by some in that city.

Moreover, evidence suggests that Beijing orchestrated Snowden’s flight from Hong Kong. Albert Ho, one of Snowden’s lawyers, believes Chinese authorities contacted him through an intermediary to pass a message that it was time for Snowden to leave the city. “I have reasons to believe that… those who wanted him to leave represented Beijing authorities,” he was quoted as saying.

We can only speculate as to the motives of the Chinese to frustrate Washington’s attempts to apprehend Snowden, but they did their best to make sure that American officials did not get the opportunity to interrogate Snowden. The last thing they wanted was for the U.S. to learn the extent of their penetration of the NSA and the FBI in Hawaii.

Some in the American intelligence community suspect Snowden was really a “drop box,” receiving information from NSA personnel working for China. In other words, he was used as a courier.

In any event, the Daily Beast’s Eli Lake reported in late June that the FBI was investigating whether Snowden obtained documents “from a leak inside the secret FISA court.” Similarly, Mike Rogers has suggested Snowden probably had an accomplice in the NSA giving him information.

Beijing may also have encouraged Snowden to leave Hawaii. One of my sources indicates that Chinese intelligence, either directly or through FBI personnel working for China, tipped Snowden off that NSA investigators were closing in on him.

At this point, allegations of Snowden’s shadowy involvement with Chinese intelligence in Hawaii remain unconfirmed, but the evidence suggests he lied about his dealings with Chinese officials during his stay in Hong Kong. That tells us he may have been more than just a “whistle-blower.”

Just because he raised critical issues that go to the core of our democracy does not mean Mr. Snowden is a hero. He may also have been a spy.


By: Gordon G. Chang, Author of The Coming Collapse of China; The Daily Beast, January 3, 2014

January 4, 2014 Posted by | National Security | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Time To Get A Life”: Republicans React To Benghazi News

The article The Times published on Benghazi this weekend infuriated many Republicans, who ran screaming to television studios.

Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, who has made a special crusade out of the attack on the American diplomatic and intelligence compound in Benghazi, was asked on “Meet the Press” to justify Republican claims that Al Qaeda agents planned and executed the operation. (The article found no evidence that Al Qaeda was involved.)

Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC put her finger on the political question when she asked Mr. Issa why Republicans “use the term Al Qaeda.” After all, she said, “you and other members of Congress are sophisticated in this and know that when you say Al Qaeda, people think central Al Qaeda. They don’t think militias that may be inspired by Bin Laden and his other followers.”

“There is a group there involved that is linked to Al Qaeda,” Mr. Issa said. “What we never said — and I didn’t have the security to look behind the door, that’s for other members of Congress — of what the intelligence were on the exact correspondence with Al Qaeda, that sort of information — those sorts of methods I’ve never claimed.”

I’m still trying to parse that sentence.

On Fox News on Sunday, Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan insisted the story was wrong in finding that “Al Qaeda was not involved in this.”

“There was some level of pre-planning; we know that,” he said. “There was aspiration to conduct an attack by Al Qaeda and their affiliates in Libya; we know that. The individuals on the ground talked about a planned tactical movement on the compound — this is the compound before they went to the annex.”

For anyone wondering why it’s so important to Republicans that Al Qaeda orchestrated the attack — or how the Obama administration described the attack in its immediate aftermath — the answer is simple. The Republicans hope to tarnish Democratic candidates by making it seem as though Mr. Obama doesn’t take Al Qaeda seriously. They also want to throw mud at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who they fear will run for president in 2016.

Which brings us to one particularly hilarious theme in the response to the Times investigation. According to Mr. Rogers, the article was intended to “clear the deck” for Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said today that The Times was “already laying the groundwork” for a Clinton campaign. Other Republicans referred to Mrs. Clinton as our “candidate of choice.”

Since I will have more to say about which candidate we will endorse in 2016 than any other editor at the Times, let me be clear: We have not chosen Mrs. Clinton. We have not chosen anyone. I can also state definitively that there was no editorial/newsroom conspiracy of any kind, because I knew nothing about the Benghazi article until I read it in the paper on Sunday.


By: Andrew Rosenthal, Editorial Page Editor, The New York Times, December 30, 2013

December 31, 2013 Posted by | Benghazi, Republicans | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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