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Archive for August, 2011

Posted by The Agonist on August 30th, 2011

From our partners at The Agonist

Peter Walker | Aug 30

The GuardianUS has wasted $30bn on Iraq and Afghanistan contracts, report finds
Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan says change needed to avoid similar waste in future

The US government has wasted more than $30bn (£18.3bn) on private contractors and grants in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade – more than 15% of the total spend – according to a bipartisan group charged with examining the issue.

The figure, described as “sobering but conservative”, illustrated the need for significant law and policy changes to avoid such waste in the future, the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan said.

The body, set up by a Senate vote in 2007 to mimic the work of a post-second world war commission that investigated waste, will submit its report to Congress on Wednesday.

However, some details of its findings were revealed by the co-chairs of the eight-member commission, writing in the Washington Post.

At least another $30bn could be wasted if the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan are unable to keep US-run projects running after the US withdraws or simply choose not to do so, Christopher Shays, an ex-Republican congressman, and Michael Thibault, a former deputy director of the Defence Contract Audit Agency, wrote.

“Tens of billions of taxpayer dollars have been wasted through poor planning, vague and shifting requirements, inadequate competition, substandard contract management and oversight, lax accountability, weak inter-agency co-ordination, and subpar performance or outright misconduct by some contractors and federal employees. Both government and contractors need to do better,” they said.

Examples of waste in the report included $40m of US money to finance a prison Iraq did not want and that was not completed, and more than $300m on a power plant in Kabul “that requires funding and technical expertise beyond the Afghan government’s capabilities”.

Or we could avoid war and save money and lives

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Posted by The Agonist on August 27th, 2011

From our partners at The Agonist

Aug 27

BBC – Al-Qaeda’s suspected operations chief, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, has been killed in Pakistan, a senior US official says.

The Libyan militant was killed on 22 August in the volatile Pakistani tribal region of Waziristan, he added.

He would not say how Abd al-Rahman died, but a CIA drone strike was reported in Waziristan on the same day.

Abd al-Rahman was reportedly number two on a list of the five top militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan whom the US most wanted to capture or kill.

In October 2010, Pakistani intelligence officials said they believed Abd al-Rahman had been killed in an air strike by a US drone in North Waziristan.

More recently, he was reportedly appointed al-Qaeda’s emissary in Iran.

Suspected? Believed? Reportedly? Brokered? Appointed? I wonder who actually wrote this story

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Posted by Just Foreign Policy on August 19th, 2011

From our partners at Just Foreign Policy

Rep. Lynn Woolsey is circulating the following Dear Colleague and Sign-On letter to the Super Committee urging them to end funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of the debt deal.

Urge your representatives to sign the Woolsey letter here.

Letter to Super Committee: $1.8 Trillion in Savings

August 12, 2011

Dear Colleague:

As the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, also referred to as the “Super Committee,” begins its work, we must remind its members of the overwhelming costs due to the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I urge you to join me in cosigning the letter below to the Co-Chairs and members of the Select Committee noting the $1.8 trillion that could be saved by ending the wars. To cosign or for additional information, please contact me or Jennifer Goedke (5-5161) on my staff.


Lynn Woolsey

Member of Congress


September 9, 2011

The Honorable Patty Murray
The Honorable Jeb Hensarling

Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction

The Honorable Xavier Becerra
The Honorable Dave Camp
The Honorable James E. Clyburn
The Honorable Fred Upton
The Honorable Chris Van Hollen
The Honorable Max Baucus
The Honorable Jon Kyl
The Honorable John Kerry
The Honorable Rob Portman
The Honorable Pat Toomey

Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction

Dear Co-Chairs and Members,

Congress and the American people have entrusted you with a great responsibility – ensuring the economic well-being of our nation. This is no simple task and will require both bold decisions and fair compromises.

read more

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Posted by alexthurston on August 18th, 2011

This article originally appeared on

Those first acts of that first shining full day in the Oval Office are now so forgotten, but on January 21, 2009, among other things, Barack Obama promised to return America to “the high moral ground,” and then signed a straightforward executive order “requiring that the Guantanamo Bay detention facility be closed within a year.”  It was an open-and-shut case, so to speak, part of what CNN called “a clean break from the Bush administration.”  On that same day, as part of that same break, the president signed an executive order and two presidential memoranda hailing a “new era of openness,” of sunshine and transparency in government.  As the president put it, “Every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information, but those who seek to make it known.”

Of course, nothing could have been more Bushian, if you were thinking about “clean breaks,” than America’s wars in the Greater Middle East. When it came to the Iraq War, at least, President Obama arrived in office with another goal and another promise that couldn’t have been more open and shut (or so his supporters thought), not just drawing down Bush’s disastrous war in Iraq, but “ending” it “responsibly.”  (Admittedly, he was also muttering quietly about “residual forces” there, but who noticed?)

Two and a half years later, Guantanamo remains thrivingly open, while all discussion of ever closing it has long since ended; the administration has, in those same years, gained a fierce reputation as an enforcer of government secrecy and, while it has prosecuted neither torturers, nor financial titans, it has gone after government whistleblowers with a passion.  In the meantime, the Iraq War was indeed wound down “responsibly” (which turned out to mean incredibly slowly), but in recent months, as U.S. casualties again rose, the Obama administration and the U.S. military have visibly been in a desperate search for ways to keep sizeable numbers of American forces there as “trainers,” while also militarizing a vast State Department mission in Baghdad and outfitting it for the long haul with more than 5,000 armed mercenaries as well as a mini-air force.

Promises? As Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman used to say: What? Me worry? As it happens, though, David Bromwich, TomDispatch regular (and essayist for the Huffington Post and the New York Review of Books) does worry. In today’s ambitious post, he offers a new yardstick for measuring the promises, the acts, and the nature of the Obama administration — as well as the nature of its “break” with the Bush era. Tom

Symptoms of the Bush-Obama Presidency
The Saved and the Sacked

By David Bromwich

Is it too soon to speak of the Bush-Obama presidency?

The record shows impressive continuities between the two administrations, and nowhere more than in the policy of “force projection” in the Arab world. With one war half-ended in Iraq, but another doubled in size and stretching across borders in Afghanistan; with an expanded program of drone killings and black-ops assassinations, the latter glorified in special ceremonies of thanksgiving (as they never were under Bush); with the number of prisoners at Guantanamo having decreased, but some now slated for permanent detention; with the repeated invocation of “state secrets” to protect the government from charges of war crimes; with the Patriot Act renewed and its most dubious provisions left intact — the Bush-Obama presidency has sufficient self-coherence to be considered a historical entity with a life of its own.

The significance of this development has been veiled in recent mainstream coverage of the national security state and our larger and smaller wars. Back in 2005-2006, when the Iraqi insurgency refused to die down and what had been presented as “sectarian feuding” began to look like a war of national liberation against an occupying power, the American press exhibited an uncommon critical acuteness. But Washington’s embrace of “the surge” in Iraq in 2007 took that war off the front page, and it — along with the Afghan War — has returned only occasionally in the four years since.

This disappearance suited the purposes of the long double-presidency. Keep the wars going but normalize them; make them normal by not talking about them much; by not talking about them imply that, while “victory” is not in sight, there is something else, an achievement more realistic and perhaps more grown-up, still available to the United States in the Greater Middle East. This other thing is never defined but has lately been given a name. They call it “success.”

Meanwhile, back at home…

The usual turn from unsatisfying wars abroad to happier domestic conditions, however, no longer seems tenable. In these August days, Americans are rubbing their eyes, still wondering what has befallen us with the president’s “debt deal” — a shifting of tectonic plates beneath the economy of a sort Dick Cheney might have dreamed of, but which Barack Obama and the House Republicans together brought to fruition. A redistribution of wealth and power more than three decades in the making has now been carved into the system and given the stamp of permanence.

Only a Democratic president, and only one associated in the public mind (however wrongly) with the fortunes of the poor, could have accomplished such a reversal with such sickening completeness.

One of the last good times that President Obama enjoyed before the frenzy of debt negotiations began was a chuckle he shared with Jeff Immelt, former CEO of General Electric and now head of the president’s outside panel of economic advisers.  At a June 13th meeting of the president’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, a questioner said he assumed that President Obama knew about the difficulties caused by the drawn-out process of securing permits for construction jobs. Obama leaned into the microphone and offered a breezy ad-lib: “Shovel ready wasn’t as, uh, shovel-ready as we expected” — and Immelt got off a hearty laugh. An unguarded moment: the president of “hope and change” signifying his solidarity with the big managers whose worldly irony he had adopted.

A certain mystery surrounds Obama’s perpetuation of Bush’s economic policies, in the absence of the reactionary class loyalty that accompanied them, and his expansion of Bush’s war policies in the absence of the crude idea of the enemy and the spirited love of war that drove Bush. But the puzzle has grown tiresome, and the effects of the continuity matter more than its sources.

Bush we knew the meaning of, and the need for resistance was clear. Obama makes resistance harder. During a deep crisis, such a nominal leader, by his contradictory words and conduct and the force of his example (or rather the lack of force in his example), becomes a subtle disaster for all those whose hopes once rested with him.

The philosopher William James took as a motto for practical morality: “By their fruits shall ye know them, not by their roots.”

Suppose we test the last two and a half years by the same sensible criterion. Translated into the language of presidential power — the power of a president whose method was to field a “team of rivals” and “lead from behind” — the motto must mean: by their appointments shall ye know them.

Let us examine Obama, then, by the standard of his cabinet members, advisers, and favored influences, and group them by the answers to two questions: Whom has he wanted to stay on longest, in order to profit from their solidity and bask in their influence? Which of them has he discarded fastest or been most eager to shed his association with? Think of them as the saved and the sacked.  Obama’s taste in associates at these extremes may tell us something about the moral and political personality in the middle.

The Saved

Advisers whom the president entrusted with power beyond expectation, and sought to keep in his administration for as long as he could prevail on them to stay:

1. Lawrence Summers: Obama’s chief economic adviser, 2009-2010. As Bill Clinton’s secretary of the treasury, 1999-2001, Summers arranged the repeal of the New Deal-era Glass-Steagall Act, which had separated the commercial banks — holders of the savings of ordinary people — from the speculative action of the brokerage houses and money firms. The aim of Glass-Steagall was to protect citizens and the economy from a financial bubble and collapse.  Demolition of that wall between savings and finance was a large cause of the 2008 meltdown. In the late 1990s, Summers had also pressed for the deregulation of complex derivatives — a dream fully realized under Bush. In the first years of the Obama era, with the ear of the president, he commandeered the bank bailouts and advised against major programs for job creation. He won, and we are living with the results.

In 2009-2010, the critical accessory to Summers’s power was Timothy Geithner, Obama’s treasury secretary.  Most likely, Geithner was picked for his position by the combined recommendations of Summers and Bush’s Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. The latter once described Geithner as “a very unusually talented young man,” and worked with him closely in 2008 when he was still president of the New York Fed.  At that time, he concurred with Paulson on the wisdom of bailing out the insurance giant AIG and not rescuing Lehman Brothers. Obama for his part initiated several phone consultations with Paulson during the 2008 campaign — often holding his plane on the tarmac to talk and listen. This chain is unbroken. Any tremors in the president’s closed world caused by Summers’s early departure from the administration have undoubtedly been offset by Geithner’s recent reassurance that he will stay at the Treasury beyond 2011.

Postscript: In 2011, Summers has become more reformist than Obama. On The Charlie Rose Show on July 13th, he criticized the president’s dilatoriness in mounting a program to create jobs. Thus he urged the partial abandonment of his own policy, which Obama continues to defend.

2. Robert Gates: A member of the permanent establishment in Washington, Gates raised to the third power the distinction of massive continuity: First as CIA director under George H.W. Bush, second as secretary of defense under George W. Bush, and third as Obama’s secretary of defense.  He remained for 28 months and departed against the wishes of the president. Gates sided with General David Petraeus and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen in 2009 to promote a massive (called “moderate”) escalation of the Afghan War; yet he did so without rancor or posturing — a style Obama trusted and in the company of which he did not mind losing. In the Bush years, Gates was certainly a moderate in relation to the extravagant war aims of Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and their neoconservative circle. He worked to strengthen U.S. militarism through an ethic of bureaucratic normalization.

His approach has been endorsed and will be continued — though probably with less canniness — by his successor Leon Panetta. Without a career in security to fortify his confidence, Panetta is really a member of a different species: the adaptable choice for “running things” — without regard to the nature of the thing or the competence required. Best known as the chief of staff who reduced to a semblance of order the confusion of the Clinton White House, he is associated in the public mind with no set of views or policies.

3. Rahm Emanuel: As Obama’s White House chief of staff, Emanuel performed much of the hands-on work of legislative bargaining that President Obama himself preferred not to engage in. (Vice President Joe Biden also regularly took on this role.) He thereby incurred a cheerless gratitude, but he is a man willing to be disliked. Obama seems to have held Emanuel’s ability in awe; and such was his power that nothing but the chance of becoming mayor of Chicago would have plucked him from the White House. Emanuel is credited, rightly or not, with the Democratic congressional victory of 2006, and one fact about that success, which was never hidden, has been too quickly forgotten. Rahm Emanuel took pains to weed out anti-war candidates.

Obama would have known this, and admired the man who carried it off. Whether Emanuel pursued a similar strategy in the 2010 midterm elections has never been seriously discussed. The fact that the category “anti-war Democrat” hardly exists in 2011 is, however, an achievement jointly creditable to Emanuel and the president.

4. Cass Sunstein: Widely thought to be the president’s most powerful legal adviser. Sunstein defended and may have advised Obama on his breach of his 2008 promise (as senator) to filibuster any new law that awarded amnesty to the telecoms that illegally spied on Americans. This was Obama’s first major reversal in the 2008 presidential campaign: he had previously defended the integrity of the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act against the secret encroachment of the National Security Agency (NSA).

At that moment, Obama changed from an accuser to a conditional apologist for the surveillance of Americans: the secret policy advocated by Dick Cheney, approved by President Bush, executed by NSA Director Michael Hayden, and supplied with a rationale by Cheney’s legal counsel David Addington. In his awkward public defense of the switch, Obama suggested that scrutiny of telecom records and their uses by the inspectors general in the relevant agencies and departments should be enough to restore the rule of law.

When it comes to national security policy, Sunstein is a particularly strong example of Bush-Obama continuity. Though sometimes identified as a liberal, from early on he defended the expansion of the national security state under Cheney’s Office of the Vice President, and he praised the firm restraint with which the Ashcroft Justice Department shouldered its responsibilities. “By historical standards,” he wrote in the fall of 2004, “the Bush administration has acted with considerable restraint and with commendable respect for political liberty. It has not attempted to restrict speech or the democratic process in any way. The much-reviled and poorly understood Patriot Act, at least as administered, has done little to restrict civil liberty as it stood before its enactment.” This seems to have become Obama’s view.

Charity toward the framers of the Patriot Act has, in the Obama administration, been accompanied by a consistent refusal to initiate or support legal action against the “torture lawyers.”  Sunstein described the Bush Justice Department memos by John Yoo and Jay Bybee, which defended the use of the water torture and other extreme methods, in words that stopped short of legal condemnation: “It’s egregiously bad. It’s very low level, it’s very weak, embarrassingly weak, just short of reckless.” Bad lawyering: a professional fault but not an actionable offense.

The Obama policy of declining to hold any high official or even CIA interrogators accountable for violations of the law by the preceding administration would likely not have survived opposition by Sunstein. A promise not to prosecute, however, has been implicit in the findings by the Obama Justice Department — a promise that was made explicit by Leon Panetta in February 2009 when he had just been named President Obama’s new director of the CIA.

As head of the president’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, with an office in the White House, Sunstein adjudicates government policy on issues of worker and consumer safety; yet his title suggests a claim of authority on issues such as the data-mining of information about American citizens and the government’s deployment of a state secrets privilege. He deserves wider attention, too, for his 2008 proposal that the government “cognitively infiltrate” discussion groups on-line and in neighborhoods, paying covert agents to monitor and, if possible, discredit lines of argument which the government judges to be extreme or misleading.

5. Eric Holder: Holder once said that the trial of suspected 9/11 “mastermind” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a New York City courtroom would be “the defining event of my time as attorney general.”  The decision to make KSM’s a civilian trial was, however, scuttled, thanks to incompetent management at the White House: neither the first nor last failure of its kind. The policy of trying suspected terrorists in civilian courts seems to have suffered from never being wholeheartedly embraced by the administration’s inside actors. Local resistance by the New York authorities was the ostensible reason for the failure and the change of venue back to a military tribunal at Guantanamo. No member of the administration besides Holder has been observed to show much regret.

During his 30-month tenure, in keeping with Obama’s willingness to overlook the unpleasant history of CIA renditions and “extreme interrogations,” Holder has made no move to prosecute any upper-level official of any of the big banks and money firms responsible for the financial collapse of 2008.  His silence on the subject has been taken as a signal that such prosecutions will never occur. To judge by public statements, the energies of the attorney general, in an administration that arrived under the banner of bringing “sunshine” and “transparency” to Washington, have mainly been dedicated to the prosecution of government whistle-blowers through a uniquely rigorous application of the Espionage Act of 1917. More people have been accused under that law by this attorney general than in the entire preceding 93 years of the law’s existence.

Again, this is a focus that Bush-era attorney generals John Ashcroft, Alberto Gonzales, and Michael Mukasey might have relished, but on which none would have dared to act on so boldly. Extraordinary delays in grand jury proceedings on Army Private Bradley Manning, suspected of providing government secrets to WikiLeaks, and Julian Assange, who ran that website, are said to have come from a protracted attempt to secure a legal hold against one or both potential defendants within the limits of a barbarous and almost dormant law.

6. Dennis Ross: Earlier in his career, Obama seems to have cherished an interest in the creation of an independent Palestinian state. In Chicago, he was a friend of the dissident Middle East scholar Rashid Khalidi; during his 2007 primary campaign, he sought and received advice from Robert Malley, former special assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter.  Both were “realist” opponents of the expansionist policy of Israel’s right-wing coalition government, which subsidizes and affords military protection to Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank.

Under pressure from the Israel lobby, however, Obama dissociated himself from all three chosen advisers.

Ross, as surely as Gates, is a member of Washington’s permanent establishment. Recruited for the Carter Defense Department by Paul Wolfowitz, he started out as a Soviet specialist, but his expertise migrated with a commission to undertake a Limited Contingency Study on the need for American defense of the Persian Gulf.  An American negotiator at the 2000 Camp David summit, Ross was accused of being an unfair broker, having always “started from the Israeli bottom line.”

He entered the Obama administration as a special adviser to Hillary Clinton on the Persian Gulf, but was moved into the White House on June 25, 2009, and outfitted with an elaborate title and comprehensive duties: Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the Central Region, including all of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Pakistan and South Asia. Ross has cautioned Obama to be “sensitive” to domestic Israeli concerns.

In retrospect, his installation in the White House looks like the first step in a pattern of concessions to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that undid Obama’s hopes for an agreement in the region. Here, caution precluded all inventiveness. It could have been predicted that the ascendancy of Ross would render void the two-state solution Obama anticipated in his carefully prepared and broadly advertised speech to the Arab world from Cairo University in June 2009.

7. Peter Orzag: Director of the Office of Management and Budget from January 2009 to August 2010, Orzag was charged with bringing in the big health insurers to lay out what it would take for them to support the president’s health-care law.  In this way, Orzag — along with the companies — exerted a decisive influence on the final shape of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. In January 2011, he left the administration to become vice chairman of global banking at Citigroup.  A few days out of the White House, he published an op-ed in the New York Times advising the president to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for the top 2% of Americans — adding that Obama should indicate that the cuts would continue in force only through 2012. Obama took the advice.

8. Thomas Donilon: National Security Adviser and (after the departure of Gates) Obama’s closest consultant on foreign policy. Donilon supported the 34,000 troop-escalation order that followed the president’s inconclusive 2009 Afghanistan War review.  He encouraged and warmly applauded Obama’s non-binding “final orders” on Afghanistan, which all the participants in the 2009 review were asked formally to approve.  (The final orders speak of “a prioritized comprehensive approach” by which the U.S. will “work with [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai when we can” to set “the conditions for an accelerated transition,” to bring about “effective sub-national governance,” and to “transfer” the responsibility for fighting the war while continuing to “degrade” enemy forces.)

Donilon comes from the worlds of business, the law, and government in about equal measure: a versatile career spanning many orthodoxies. His open and unreserved admiration for President Obama seems to have counted more heavily in his appointment than the low opinion of his qualifications apparently held by several associates.  As Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs during the Clinton administration, he helped arrange the eastward expansion of NATO after the Cold War: perhaps the most pointless and destructive bipartisan project of the epoch. He was Executive Vice President for Law and Policy at Fannie Mae, 1999-2005.

The Sacked

Advisers and nominees with views that were in line with Obama’s 2008 election campaign or his professed goals in 2009, but who have since been fired, asked to resign or step down, or seen their nominations dropped:

1. General James Jones: Former Marine Corps Commandant and a skeptic of the Afghanistan escalation, Jones became the president’s first National Security Adviser.  He was, however, often denied meetings with Obama, who seems to have looked on Gates as a superior technocrat, Petraeus as a more prestigious officer, and Donilon as a more fervent believer in the split-the-difference war and diplomatic policies Obama elected to pursue.  Jones resigned in October 2010, under pressure.

A curious point:  Obama had spoken to Jones only twice before appointing him to so high a post and seems hardly to have come to know him by the time he resigned.

2. Karl Eikenberry: Commander of Combined Forces in Afghanistan before he was made ambassador, Eikenberry, a retired Lieutenant General, had seniority over both Petraeus and then war commander General Stanley McChrystal when it came to experience in that country and theater of war. He was the author of cables to the State Department in late 2009, which carried a stinging rebuke to the conduct of the war and unconcealed hostility toward any new policy of escalation.  The Eikenberry cables were drafted in order to influence the White House review that fall; they advised that the Afghan war was in the process of being lost, that it could never be won, and that nothing good would come from an increased commitment of U.S. troops.

Petraeus, then Centcom commander, and McChrystal were both disturbed by the cables — startled when they arrived unbidden and intimidated by their authority. Obama, astonishingly, chose to ignore them. This may be the single most baffling occasion of the many when fate dealt a winning card to the president and yet he folded. Among other such occasions: the 2008-2009 bank bailouts and the opening for financial regulation; the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the opportunity for a revised environmental policy; the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdowns and a revised policy toward nuclear energy; the Goldstone Report and the chance for an end to the Gaza blockade.  But of all these as well as other cases that might be mentioned, the Eikenberry cables offer the clearest instance of persisting in a discredited policy against the weight of impressive evidence.

Ambassador Eikenberry retired in 2011, and Obama replaced him with Ryan Crocker, the Foreign Service officer brought into Iraq by Bush to help General Petraeus manage the details and publicity around the Iraq surge of 2007-2008.

3. Paul Volcker: Head of the Federal Reserve under Presidents Carter and Reagan, Volker had a record (not necessarily common among upper-echelon workers in finance) entirely free of the reproach of venality. A steady adviser to the 2008 Obama campaign, he lent gravity to the young candidate’s professions of competence in financial matters.  He also counseled Obama against the one-sidedness of a recovery policy founded on repayment guarantees to financial outfits such as Citigroup and Bank of America: the policy, that is, favored by Summers and Geithner in preference to massive job creation and a major investment in infrastructure. “If you want to be a bank,” he said, “follow the bank rules. If Goldman Sachs and the others want to do proprietary trading, then they shouldn’t be banks.”  His advice — to tighten regulation in order to curb speculative trading — was adopted late and in diluted form. In January 2010, Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric, which paid no federal taxes that year, replaced him.

4. Dennis Blair: As Director of National Intelligence, Blair sought to limit the expansion of covert operations by the CIA.  In this quest he was defeated by CIA Director Leon Panetta — a seasoned infighter, though without any experience in intelligence, who successfully enlarged the Agency’s prerogatives and limited oversight of its activities during his tenure. Blair refused to resign when Obama asked him to, and demanded to be fired. He finally stepped down on May 21, 2010.

Doubtless Blair hurt his prospects irreparably by making clear to the president his skepticism regarding the usefulness of drone warfare: a form of killing Obama favors as the most politic and antiseptic available to the U.S.  Since being sacked, Blair has come out publicly against the broad use of drones in Pakistan and elsewhere.

On his way out, he was retrospectively made a scapegoat for the November 2009 Fort Hood, Texas, killing spree by Army psychiatrist Major Nidal Hasan; for the “underwear” bomber’s attempt to blow up a plane on its way to Detroit on Christmas day 2009; and for the failed Times Square car bombing of May 2010 — all attacks (it was implied) that Blair should have found the missing key to avert, even though the Army, the FBI, and the CIA were unable to do so.

5. James Cartwright: As vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Cartwright passed on to Obama, and interpreted for him, a good deal of information that proved useful in the Afghanistan War review. Their friendship outlasted the process and he came to be known as Obama’s “favorite general,” but Cartwright stirred the resentment from both Petraeus and Mullen for establishing a separate channel of influence with the president. Like Eikenberry, he had been a skeptic on the question of further escalation in Afghanistan.  His name was floated by the White House as the front-runner to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs after the retirement of Mullen.  Informed of the military opposition to the appointment, Obama reversed field and chose Army Chief of Staff General Martin Dempsey, a figure more agreeable to Petraeus and Mullen.

6. Dawn Johnsen: Obama’s first choice to head the Office of Legal Council, a choice generally praised and closely watched by constitutional lawyers and civil libertarians.  Her name was withdrawn after a 14-month wait, and she was denied a confirmation process. The cause: Republican objections to her writings and her public statements against the practice of torture and legal justifications for torture.

This reversal falls in with a larger pattern: the putting forward of candidates for government positions whose views are straightforward, publicly available, and consistent with the pre-2009 principles of Barack Obama — followed by Obama’s withdrawal of support for the same candidates. A more recent instance was the naming (after considerable delay) of Elizabeth Warren as a special advisor to organize the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, followed by the decision in July not to nominate her as the first director of the bureau.

Avoidance of a drag-out fight in confirmation hearings repeatedly seems to be the recurrent motive here. Of course, the advantage of such a fight, given an articulate and willing nominee, is the education of public opinion. But in every possible instance, President Obama has been averse to any public engagement in the clash of ideas.  “Bottom line is that it was going to be close,” a Senate Democratic source told ABC’s Jake Tapper when Johnsen’s name was withdrawn. “If they wanted to, the White House could have pushed for a vote. But they didn’t want to ’cause they didn’t have the stomach for the debate.”

Where the nomination of an “extreme” candidate might have hardened the impression of Obama as an extremist, might not a public hearing have helped eradicate the very preconception that a frightened withdrawal tends to confirm? This question is not asked.

7. Greg Craig: For two years special counsel in the Clinton White House, he led the team defending the president in the impeachment proceedings in Congress. Craig’s declaration of support for Obama in March 2007 was vital to the insurgent candidate, because of his well-known loyalty to the Clintons.  Obama made him White House Counsel, and his initial task was to draw up plans for the closing of Guantanamo, a promise made by the president on his first day in the Oval Office. But once the paper was signed, Obama showed little interest in the developing plans. Others were more passionate. Dick Cheney worked on a susceptible populace to resurrect old fears.  The forces against closure rallied and spread panic, while the president said nothing.  Craig was defeated inside the White House by the “realist” Rahm Emanuel, and sacked.

8. Carol Browner: A leading environmentalist in the Clinton administration, Browner was given a second shot by Obama as director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy.  She found her efforts thwarted within the administration as well as in Congress: in mid-2010 Obama decided that — as a way to deal with global warming — cap-and-trade legislation was a loser for the midterm elections. Pressure on Obama from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to heed business interests served as a strong incitement in forcing Browner’s resignation after the democratic “shellacking” in midterm elections, a result that his quiet abandonment of cap-and-trade had failed to prevent. The White House had no backup plan for addressing the disaster of global warming.  After Browner’s resignation in March 2011, her position was abolished. Since then, Obama has seldom spoken of global warming or climate change.

Moral and Political Limbo

The Obama presidency has been characterized by a refined sense of impossibility. A kind of suffocation sets in when a man of power floats carefully clear of all unorthodox stimuli and resorts to official comforters of the sort exemplified by Panetta. As the above partial list of the saved and the sacked shows, the president lives now in a world in which he is certain never to be told he is wrong when he happens to be on the wrong track.  It is a world where the unconventionality of an opinion, or the existence of a possible majority against it somewhere, counts as prima facie evidence against its soundness.

So alternative ideas vanish — along with the people who represent them. What, then, does President Obama imagine he is doing as he backs into one weak appointment after another, and purges all signs of thought and independence around him? We have a few dim clues.

A popular book on Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals, seems to have prompted Obama to suppose that Lincoln himself “led from behind” and was committed to bipartisanship not only as a tactic but as an always necessary means to the highest good of democracy.  A more wishful conceit was never conceived; but Obama has talked of the book easily and often to support a “pragmatic” instinct for constant compromise that he believes himself to share with the American people and with Lincoln.

A larger hint may come from Obama’s recently released National Strategy for Counterterrorism, where a sentence in the president’s own voice asserts: “We face the world as it is, but we will also pursue a strategy for the world we seek.” If the words “I face the world as it is” have a familiar sound, the reason is that they received a trial run in Obama’s 2009 Nobel Prize speech. Those words were the bridge across which an ambivalent peacemaker walked to confront the heritage of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King with the realities of power as experienced by the leader of the only superpower in the world.

Indeed, Obama’s understanding of international morality seems to be largely expressed by the proposition that “there’s serious  evil in the world” — a truth he confided in 2007 to the New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks, and attributed to the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr — combined with the assertion that he is ready to “face the world as it is.” The world we seek is, of course, the better world of high morality. But morality, properly understood, is nothing but a framework for ideals.  Once you have discharged your duty, by saying the right words for the right policies, you have to accommodate the world.

This has become the ethic of the Bush-Obama administration in a new phase.  It explains, as nothing else does, Obama’s enormous appetite for compromise, the growing conventionality of his choices of policy and person, and the legitimacy he has conferred on many radical innovations of the early Bush years by assenting to their logic and often widening their scope. They are, after all, the world as it is.

Obama’s pragmatism comes down to a series of maxims that can be relied on to ratify the existing order — any order, however recent its advent and however repulsive its effects. You must stay in power in order to go on “seeking.” Therefore, in “the world as it is,” you must requite evil with lesser evil. You do so to prevent your replacement by fanatics: people, for example, like those who invented the means you began by deploring but ended up adopting. Their difference from you is that they lack the vision of the seeker. Finally, in the world as it is, to retain your hold on power you must keep in place the sort of people who are normally found in places of power.

David Bromwich writes on civil liberties and America’s wars for the Huffington Post. A TomDispatch regular, as well as contributor to the New York Review of Books, his latest essay, “How Lincoln Explained Democracy,” appeared recently in the Yale Review.

Copyright 2011 David Bromwich

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Posted by DownWithTyranny on August 17th, 2011

From our partners at DownWithTyranny!

With all that taxpayer moolah we’re shoving directly and indirectly into Taliban piggybanks, can’t we at least try to persuade them to “Buy American”? Or is this what’s meant by “globalism”?

by Ken

And the, uh, good news, is that we managed to transfer this particular $360 million to the Taliban without having to give more than a modest amount of it directly. Most of it just sort of wound up in their hands.

Maybe it’s because I had just read a review by Charles Rosen in the New York Review of Books of a new translation by John Ashbery of the prose poems of Rimbaud (the review, which also covers a new translation by Karl Kirchwey of Verlaine’s Poems Under Saturn; only a digest is available free online, but if you’re interested let me know and I’ll see that you’re taken care of), but I can’t help feeling that what the folks at The American Prospect have achieved in today’s “Balance Sheet” report, “A Stimulus for the Taliban,” qualifies as some sort of prose poem. After telling us about AP’s report (“$360M lost to insurgents, criminals in Afghanistan“) “that the U.S. military, after going through hundreds of combat support and reconstruction contracts, estimates that $360 million in U.S. tax dollars has ended up in the hands of the Taliban,” The Balance Sheet, um, explains:

In a confusing process described as “reverse money laundering,” money moves from the United States to companies hired for transportation, construction, power projects and similar jobs who turn out to have ties to criminal networks. Only a small chunk of that $360 million was directly given to the Taliban; the bulk of the money was lost to profiteering, bribery and extortion by criminals and power brokers.

Say what?

I don’t know about you, but I’m sure breathing easier knowing that “only a small chunk of that $360 million was directly given to the Taliban.” After all, aren’t those “criminals and power brokers” who extracted “the bulk of the money” via “profiteering, bribery and extortion” merely enacting an Afghan version of the Republican plan for turning the U.S. economy around? Isn’t this pretty much what cesspools of corruption like Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry have in mind when they talk about “job creation”? Of course the only decent-paying jobs are for the profiteers, bribers, and extorters, but it’s often true that a certain number of grunt-level jobs trickle down to the yawping masses.

As we’ve pointed out frequently, at least the huge sums that vanish down DoD ratholes normally provide a certain amount of economic stimulus, one of the few kinds apparently still permissible in the Teabagging Era — it’s what we call “military Keynesianism,” and the Fiscal Prudes of the Right don’t at all like to talk about it. However, at least that money tends to be shoveled into our own economy, whereas this particular $360M seems to have vanished into assorted Afghan ratholes. Criminal Afghan ratholes. And of course the Taliban.

The DoD is on the case, however. The Balance Sheet further reports:

The Department of Defense announced Monday that they would reduce subcontracting, and thus the number of connections to the criminal network. Additionally, U.S. authorities in Afghanistan are screening contractors more carefully, and are more aggressively barring companies that violate contract terms or are involved in illicit behavior. They hope this kind of scrutiny will prevent more money from getting to the pockets of the very people the U.S. is supposed to be fighting.

The Balance Sheet also includes — in its “The Experts” side panel — a quote from a piece by Karen DeYoung in yesterday’s Washington Post (this is the correct link: “U.S. military awards contracts in Afghanistan to get money away from insurgents“):

U.S. commanders have argued that outsourcing the transport and security frees up the U.S. warfighters to handle more important missions. The only alternative, said a senior congressional staff member speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss information not yet released, is “to reduce the [U.S.] footprint in Afghanistan.”

Policymakers and the public need to understand, he said, that “the cost of doing business is that we have to pay, effectively, our enemy for the right to be there.”

Since that’s clearly crazytalk, the business about reducing the U.S. footprint in Afghanistan, I guess we just have to go on paying our enemy for the right to be there. Which segues right into the other “expert” quote offered by The Balance Sheet, from the AP report linked above (here’s another correct link):

Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., former chairman of the House oversight panel that investigated the wayward payments, said that the U.S. must stop the diversion of taxpayer dollars to the enemy. “When war becomes good business for the insurgents, it is all the more difficult to convince them to lay down their arms,” Tierney said.

One might add, though, that a good part of the problem from a budgetary standpoint — meaning in particular from a debt and deficit standpoint — is that war is such excellent business for our own domestic profiteers, bribers, and extorters. And it actually produces a decent number of decent-paying jobs. But like I said, our friends the Fiscal Prudes never like to talk about military Keynesianism. So just forget I said anything.

Say, how ’bout that weather?

Of course weather talk is apt to lead to climate-change talk, and we’re not supposed to talk about that either. So just never mind.

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Posted by The Agonist on August 16th, 2011

From our partners at The Agonist

Karen DeYoung | Aug 15

WaPoU.S. military awards contracts in Afghanistan to get money away from insurgents

The U.S. military has moved to stem the flow of contract money to Afghan insurgents, awarding at least 20 companies new contracts worth about $1 billion for military supply transport and suspending seven current contractors it found lacking in “integrity and business ethics.”

The new contracts, which were finalized Monday and will take effect next month, aim to eliminate layers of brokers and middlemen who allegedly skimmed money, and to allow more transparency in a complex web of Afghan subcontractors paid to provide security for the supply truck convoys.

“I think we’ve finally got our arms around this thing,” said a senior military officer who was authorized to discuss the matter only on the condition of anonymity. The new contracts, the official said, were the result of a year’s worth of “intelligence work and asking the right questions. We’re now starting to take action.”

Congressional investigators determined last year that much of the transport and security money went to the Taliban and Afghan warlords as part of a protection racket to ensure the safe arrival of the convoys, conclusions that were confirmed this spring by military and intelligence inquiries.

House and Senate committees have said that the military has long been aware of the problem but has been reluctant to disrupt the system and risk interrupting a supply chain that provides virtually all fuel, food and weapons for U.S. troops across Afghanistan. Some lawmakers have criticized the length of time it has taken the military to act and wonder whether the new system will change much.

“I appreciate that the Department of Defense has taken steps to reform its Afghan trucking contracts, but I am concerned that they still lack sufficient visibility and accountability to ensure that U.S. taxpayer dollars are not getting into the hands of the enemy,” said Rep. John F. Tierney (D-Mass.), whose House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee investigated the contract last year.
The panel has scheduled a hearing for Sept. 15.

While the Obama administration has touted significant progress against insurgents this year, U.S., NATO and Afghan military forces still control only scattered pockets of territory and thousands of trucks travel each week over vast unsecured areas.

U.S. commanders have argued that outsourcing the transport and security frees up the U.S. warfighters to handle more important missions. The only alternative, said a senior congressional staff member speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss information not yet released, is “to reduce the [U.S.] footprint in Afghanistan.”

Policymakers and the public need to understand, he said, that “the cost of doing business is that we have to pay, effectively, our enemy for the right to be there.”

Details of the new system are to be released next week, but military officials said that principle changes include direct contracts with truckers, improvements in convoy monitoring and increased vetting of Afghan private security subcontractors. The initial contract is for one year, with an option for a second.

Despite the 2010 congressional investigations and subsequent military findings that at least half of the eight firms participating in the Host Nation Trucking contract were involved in “a criminal enterprise or support to the enemy,” that contract was extended for six months in March.

Six of the companies are Afghan-owned or joint Afghan-international ventures. Two are described as U.S.-owned, including the Washington-based Sandi Group and NCL Holdings, whose founder and president, Hamed Wardak, is the son of Afghanistan’s defense minister. All served as brokers who subcontracted with Afghan trucking companies, and all used private Afghan security firms to guard the convoys.

The senior military official said that he could not discuss whether the companies would be barred from future U.S. contracts — a process that often involves lengthy legal proceedings — or whether any would be prosecuted by the Justice Department.

One of the eight firms was told in June that it had been barred from the new contract for reasons that could not be determined. Several of the others were actively bidding on the new contract before being informed last week that they were not eligible.

Letters sent to the firms said that their new bids were technically acceptable and competitively priced. But the letters went on to say that they had been “excluded” from the competition under federal regulations requiring “a satisfactory record of integrity and business ethics.”

Executives at several of the suspended companies expressed anger and disbelief about their suspension and said the new systems would do little to eliminate the problems of security or payoffs. The new contractors were largely the same truckers that the original firms had subcontracted, said John Christopher Turner, a principal in MG-EMA, a U.S.-Afghan venture that is one of the eight. “They have no clue,” Turner said of the military. “They’re not in the field at all.”

Said the head of another company who agreed to discuss the issue on the condition of anonymity: “Our prices were competitive, we were completely comfortable we were going to win this.”

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Posted by alexthurston on August 16th, 2011

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.

China just launched a refitted Ukrainian aircraft carrier from the 1990s on its first test run — and that’s what the only projected “great power” enemy of the U.S. has to offer for the foreseeable future.  In the meantime, the U.S. Navy has 11 aircraft carrier task forces to cruise the seven seas and plans to keep that many through 2045.  Like so much else, when it comes to the American military, all comparisons are ludicrous.  In any normal sense, the United States stands alone in military terms.  Its expenditures make up almost 50% of global military spending; it dominates theglobal arms market; and it has countless more bases, pilotless drones, military bands, and almost anything else military you’d care to mention than does any other power.

In other words, comparisons can’t be made.  The minute you try, you’re off the charts.  And yet, in purely practical terms, when you take a shot at measuring what the overwhelming investment of American treasure in the military, the U.S. intelligence community, the Department of Homeland Security, and the rest of our national security establishment has actually bought us, you come up with a series of wars and conflicts headed nowhere and a series of post-9/11 terror attacks generally so inept it hardly mattered whether they were foiled or not.

Still, when it comes to cutting the U.S. national security budget, none of this seems to matter.  The Pentagon “cuts” presently being discussed in Washington are largely in projected future growth, not in real funds (which continue to rise) — and even then, the Pentagon and its many boosters in Washington are already crying bloody murder.  Give some credit for all this to the giant weapons makers and to the military itself: both have so carefully tied military-related jobs into so many state economies that few congressional representatives could afford to vote for the sorts of real cutbacks that would bring perhaps the most profligate institution on the planet to heel and yet still leave the country as the globe’s military giant.  You want, for instance, to cut back on that absolutely crucial Navy acrobatic flying team, the Blue Angels.  (What would we all do without dramatic military flyovers at our major and minor sporting events?) Count on it, hotel keepers in Florida will be on the phone immediately!  Add in the veneration of American soldiers and you have a fatal brew when it comes to serious budget cutting.

Absurdity, logic. Neither seems to matter. Still, the financial basics remain eye-opening, asTomDispatch regular Chris Hellman of the National Priorities Project makes clear.  Tom

How Safe Are You?
What Almost $8 Trillion in National Security Spending Bought You

By Chris Hellman

The killing of Osama Bin Laden did not put cuts in national security spending on the table, but the debt-ceiling debate finally did.  And mild as those projected cuts might have been, last week newly minted Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was already digging in his heels and decrying the modest potential cost-cutting plans as a “doomsday mechanism” for the military. Pentagon allies on Capitol Hill were similarly raising the alarm as they moved forward with this year’s even larger military budget.

None of this should surprise you.  As with all addictions, once you’re hooked on massive military spending, it’s hard to think realistically or ask the obvious questions.  So, at a moment when discussion about cutting military spending is actually on the rise for the first time in years, let me offer some little known basics about the spending spree this country has been on since September 11, 2001, and raise just a few simple questions about what all that money has actually bought Americans.

Consider this my contribution to a future 12-step program for national security sobriety.

Let’s start with the three basic post-9/11 numbers that Washington’s addicts need to know:

1. $5.9 trillion: That’s the sum of taxpayer dollars that’s gone into the Pentagon’s annual “base budget,” from 2000 to today.  Note that the base budget includes nuclear weapons activities, even though they are overseen by the Department of Energy, but — and this is crucial — not the cost of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Nonetheless, even without those war costs, the Pentagon budget managed to grow from $302.9 billion in 2000, to $545.1 billion in 2011. That’s a dollar increase of $242.2 billion or an 80% jump ($163.6 billion and 44% if you adjust for inflation).  It’s enough to make your head swim, and we’re barely started.

2.  $1.36 trillion: That’s the total cost of the Iraq and Afghan wars by this September 30th, the end of the current fiscal year, including all moneys spent for those wars by the Pentagon, the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other federal agencies. Of this, $869 billion will have been for Iraq, $487.6 billion for Afghanistan.

Add up our first two key national security spending numbers and you’re already at $7.2 trillion since the September 11th attacks. And even that staggering figure doesn’t catch the full extent of Washington spending in these years. So onward to our third number:

3. $636 billion: Most people usually ignore this part of the national security budget and we seldom see any figures for it, but it’s the amount, adjusted for inflation, that the U.S. government has spent so far on “homeland security.”  This isn’t an easy figure to arrive at because homeland-security funding flows through literally dozens of federal agencies and not just the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). A mere $16 billion was requested for homeland security in 2001.  For 2012, the figure is $71.6 billion, only $37 billion of which will go through DHS. A substantial part, $18.1 billion, will be funneled through — don’t be surprised — the Department of Defense, while other agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services ($4.6 billion) and the Department of Justice ($4.1 billion) pick up the slack.

Add those three figures together and you’re at the edge of $8 trillion in national security spending for the last decade-plus and perhaps wondering where the nearest group for compulsive-spending addiction meets.

Now, for a few of those questions I mentioned, just to bring reality further into focus:

How does that nearly $8 trillion compare with past spending?

In the decade before the 9/11 attacks, the Pentagon base budget added up to an impressive $4.2 trillion, only one-third less than for the past decade. But add in the cost of the Afghan and Iraq wars and total Pentagon spending post-9/11 is actually two-thirds greater than in the previous decade.  That’s quite a jump.  As for homeland-security funding, spending figures for the years prior to 2000 are hard to identify because the category didn’t exist (nor did anyone who mattered in Washington even think to use that word “homeland”). But there can be no question that whatever it was, it would pale next to present spending.

Is that nearly $8 trillion the real total for these years, or could it be even higher?

The war-cost calculations I’ve used above, which come from my own organization,the National Priorities Project, only take into account funds that have been requested by the President and appropriated by Congress. This, however, is just one way of considering the problem of war and national security spending. Arecent study published by the Watson Institute of Brown University took a much broader approach. In the summary of their work, the Watson Institute analysts wrote, “There are at least three ways to think about the economic costs of these wars: what has been spent already, what could or must be spent in the future, and the comparative economic effects of spending money on war instead of something else.”

By including funding for such things as veterans benefits, future costs for treating the war-wounded, and interest payments on war-related borrowing, they came up with $3.2 trillion to $4 trillion in war costs, which would put those overall national security figures since 2001 at around $11 trillion.

I took a similar approach in an earlier TomDispatch piece in which I calculated the true costs of national security at $1.2 trillion annually.

All of this brings another simple, but seldom-asked question to mind:

Are we safer?

Regardless of what figures you choose to use, one thing is certain: we’re talking about trillions and trillions of dollars. And given the debate raging in Washington this summer about how to rein in trillion-dollar deficits and a spiraling debt, it’s surprising that no one thinks to ask just how much safety bang for its buck the U.S. is getting from those trillions.

Of course, it’s not an easy question to answer, but there are some troubling facts out there that should give one pause.  Let’s start with government accounting, which, like military music, is something of an oxymoron.  Despite decades of complaints from Capitol Hill and various congressional attempts to force changes via legislation, the Department of Defense still cannot pass an audit. Believe it or not, it never has.

Members of Congress have become so exasperated that several have tried (albeit unsuccessfully) to cap or cut military spending until the Pentagon is capable of passing an annual audit as required by the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990. So even as they fight to preserve record levels of military spending, Pentagon officials really have no way of telling American taxpayers how their money is being spent, or what kind of security it actually buys.

And this particular disease seems to be catching.  The Department of Homeland Security has been part of the “high risk” series of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) since 2003. In case being “high risk” in GAO terms isn’t part of your dinner-table chitchat, here’s the definition: “agencies and program areas that are high risk due to their vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, or are most in need of broad reform.”

Put in layman’s terms: no organization crucial to national security spending really has much of an idea of how well or badly it is spending vast sums of taxpayer money — and worse yet, Congress knows even less.

Which leads us to a broader issue and another question:

Are we spending money on the right types of security?

This June, the Institute for Policy Studies released the latest version of what it calls “a Unified Security Budget for the United States” that could make the country safer for far less than the current military budget. Known more familiarly as the USB, it has been produced annually since 2004 by the website Foreign Policy in Focus and draws on a task force of experts.

As in previous years, the report found — again in layman’s terms — that the U.S. invests its security dollars mainly in making war, slighting both real homeland security and anything that might pass for preventive diplomacy. In the Obama administration’s proposed 2012 budget, for example, 85% of security spending goes to the military (and if you included the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that percentage would only rise); just 7% goes to real homeland security and a modest 8% to what might, even generously speaking, be termed non-military international engagement.

Significant parts of the foreign policy establishment have come to accept this critique — at least they sometimes sound like they do. As Robert Gates put the matter while still Secretary of Defense, “Funding for non-military foreign affairs programs… remains disproportionately small relative to what we spend on the military… [T]here is a need for a dramatic increase in spending on the civilian instruments of national security.” But if they talk the talk, when annual budgeting time comes around, few of them yet walk the walk.

So let’s ask another basic question:

Has your money, funneled into the vast and shadowy world of military and national security spending, made you safer?

Government officials and counterterrorism experts frequently claim that the public is unaware of their many “victories” in the “war on terror.” These, they insist, remain hidden for reasons that involve protecting intelligence sources and law enforcement techniques. They also maintain that the United States and its allies have disrupted any number of terror plots since 9/11 and that this justifies the present staggering levels of national security spending.

Undoubtedly examples of foiled terrorist acts, unpublicized for reasons of security, do exist (although the urge to boast shouldn’t be underestimated, as in the case of the covert operation to kill Osama bin Laden).  Think of this as the “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you” approach to supposed national security successes.  It’s regularly used to justify higher spending requests for homeland security. There are, however, two obvious and immediate problems with taking it seriously.

First, lacking any transparency, there’s next to no way to assess its merits. How serious were these threats? A hapless underwear bomber or a weapon of mass destruction that didn’t make it to an American city?  Who knows?  The only thing that’s clear is that this is a loophole through which you can drive your basic mine-resistant, ambush-protected armored vehicle.

Second, how exactly were these attempts foiled? Were they thwarted by programs funded as part of the $7.2 trillion in military spending, or even the $636 billion in homeland security spending?

An April 2010 Heritage Foundation report, “30 Terrorist Plots Foiled: How the System Worked,” looked at known incidents where terrorist attacks were actually thwarted and so provides some guidance.  The Heritage experts wrote, “Since September 11, 2001, at least 30 planned terrorist attacks have been foiled, all but two of them prevented by law enforcement. The two notable exceptions are the passengers and flight attendants who subdued the ‘shoe bomber’ in 2001 and the ‘underwear bomber’ on Christmas Day in 2009.”

In other words, in the vast majority of cases, the plots we know about were broken up by “law enforcement” or civilians, in no way aided by the $7.2 trillion that was invested in the military — or in many cases even the $636 billion that went into homeland security. And while most of those cases involved federal authorities, at least three were stopped by local law enforcement action.

In truth, given the current lack of assessment tools, it’s virtually impossible for outsiders — and probably insiders as well — to evaluate the effectiveness of this country’s many security-related programs. And this stymies our ability to properly determine the allocation of federal resources on the basis of program efficiency and the relative levels of the threats addressed.

So here’s one final question that just about no one asks:

Could we be less safe?

It’s possible that all that funding, especially the moneys that have gone into our various wars and conflicts, our secret drone campaigns and “black sites,” our various forays into Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and other places may actually have made us less safe. Certainly, they have exacerbated existing tensions and created new ones, eroded our standing in some of the most volatile regions of the world, resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the misery of many more, and made Iraq and Afghanistan, among other places, potential recruiting and training grounds for future generations of insurgents and terrorists.  Does anything remain of the international goodwill toward our country that was the one positive legacy of the infamous attacks of September 11, 2001?  Unlikely.

Now, isn’t it time for those 12 steps?

Chris Hellman, a regular, is a Senior Research Analyst at the National Priorities Project (NPP). He is a member of the Unified Security Budget Task Force and the Sustainable Defense Task Force. Prior to joining NPP, he worked on military budget and policy issues for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and the Center for Defense Information. He is also a ten-year veteran of Capitol Hill, where as a congressional staffer he worked on defense and foreign policy issues.

[Note on further reading: Check out the latest National Priorities Project Report, "U.S. Security Spending Since 9/11." For full details of the 2012 homeland security request, see the “Homeland Security Mission Funding by Agency and Budget Account” appendix to the FY2012 budget (.pdf file); for the Government Accountability Office's "High Risk" series, click here; and to read the Institute of Policy Studies’ “A Unified Security Budget (USB) for the United States,” click here (.pdf file).]

Copyright 2011 Chris Hellman

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Posted by The Agonist on August 12th, 2011

From our partners at The Agonist

9 troops die in two days in Afghanistan

Insurgent attacks have killed nine NATO service members in the past two days in Afghanistan, where the U.S.-led coalition is mourning the deaths of 30 American troops and eight Afghans in a helicopter crash last week, military officials said Friday.

The Aug. 6 crash was the single deadliest loss for U.S. forces in the nearly decade-long war.

Related articles:
Afghanistan Raids by U.S. Commandos Almost Triple Since 2009, NATO Says
Afghanistan’s future murkier as Karzai disavows third term
Official Reports Security Progress in Afghanistan ~ note it is from DoD
Rethink Afghanistan
C.I.A. Is Disputed on Civilian Toll in Drone Strikes
Afghanistan vows to “set standards” on child labor in mines
Counterinsurgency scorecard says Afghan War could go either way ~ graphic below

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Posted by alexthurston on August 11th, 2011

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.

Could the Pentagon Be Responsible for Your Death?
The Military’s Marching Orders to the Jihadist World

By Tom Engelhardt

Put what follows in the category of paragraphs no one noticed that should have made the nation’s hair stand on end.  This particular paragraph should also have sent chills through the body politic, launched warning flares, and left the people’s representatives in Congress shouting about something other than the debt crisis.

Last weekend, two reliable New York Times reporters, Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, had a piece in that paper’s Sunday Review entitled “After 9/11, an Era of Tinker, Tailor, Jihadist, Spy.” Its focus was the latest counterterrorism thinking at the Pentagon: deterrence theory.  (Evidently an amalgam of the old Cold War ideas of “containment” and nuclear deterrence wackily reimagined by the boys in the five-sided building for the age of the jihadi.)  Schmitt and Shanker’s article was, a note informed the reader, based on research for their forthcoming book, Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda.

And here’s the paragraph, buried in the middle of their piece, that should have stopped readers in their tracks:

“Or consider what American computer specialists are doing on the Internet, perhaps terrorist leaders’ greatest safe haven, where they recruit, raise money, and plot future attacks on a global scale. American specialists have become especially proficient at forging the onscreen cyber-trademarks used by Al Qaeda to certify its Web statements, and are posting confusing and contradictory orders, some so virulent that young Muslims dabbling in jihadist philosophy, but on the fence about it, might be driven away.”

The italics are mine, and as the authors urge us to do, let’s consider for a moment this tiny, remarkably bizarre window into military reality.  As a start, just where those military “computer specialists” are remains unknown.  Perhaps they are in the Pentagon, perhaps somewhere in the National Counterterrorism Center, but whoever and wherever they are, here’s the question of the week, possibly of the month or the year: Just what kind of “orders” can they be posting “so virulent that young Muslims dabbling in jihadist philosophy, but on the fence about it, might be driven away”?

And even if our computer experts really were capable of turning wavering young Muslims back from the shores of jihadism — and personally I wouldn’t put my money on the Pentagon’s skills in that realm — what about young Muslims (or older ones for that matter) who weren’t on that fence and took those “orders” seriously?  What exactly are they being “ordered” to do?

Talk about a potential Frankenstein situation — and all we can do is ask questions.  Just what monsters, for example, might the military’s computer specialists be helping to forge?  And who exactly is supervising those “specialists” and their vituperative messages?  (Especially since they are unlikely to be in English, and we already know that Arabic, Pashto, Dari, and Farsi speakers at the higher levels, or even lower levels, of the Pentagon are, at best, few and far between.)

Keep in mind that we already have an example of a similarly wacky program lacking meaningful oversight that went awry, hit the headlines, and resulted in the perfectly real deaths of at least one U.S. Border Patrol agent and undoubtedly many more Mexicans.  The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives launched its now infamous gun-tracking program in Arizona in late 2009, under the moniker “Operation Fast and Furious” (a reference to a series of movies about street car racers).   It was meant to track cross-border gun sales to Mexico’s drug cartels by actually letting perfectly real weapons cross the border — more than 2,000 of them, as it turned out.  ATF agents, according to a Washington Post report, would be “instructed not to move in and question the [gun runners] but to let the guns go and see where they eventually ended up.”  And so they did for more than a year and, not exactly surprisingly, those weapons ended up “on the street” and in the ugliest of hands.

The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart asked an apt question about the program: “The ATF plan to prevent American guns from being used in Mexican gun violence is to provide Mexican gangs with American guns. If this is the plan that they went with, what plan did we reject?”

Assumedly, the same question could be asked of the military’s online anti-jihadist program, involving as it evidently does messages believed to be too extreme for wavering young Muslims with an interest in the jihadi “philosophy.”  Shouldn’t someone start asking whether those Pentagon’s “orders” to jihadis might not turn out to be the online equivalent of so many loose guns?

After all, what are those specialists ordering them to do?  And if actual jihadis actually tried to follow those “confusing and contradictory orders,” possibly being confused and contradictory kinds of guys, if they took them seriously and interpreted them in ways not predicted by their putative Pentagon handlers, is there a possibility that anyone could die as a result?  And if such messages turn off some prospective jihadis, isn’t it possible that they might turn on others?  And could they, for instance, have been ordered to commit confused and contradictory acts that might end up involving Americans?

Really, someone should blow Schmitt and Shanker’s paragraph up to giant size, tack it up somewhere in the Capitol, and call for a congressional investigation.  If the ATF could do it, why not the Pentagon?  And honestly, is this how Americans want to see their tax dollars spent?

Read the Schmitt and Shanker piece and you’ll get a sense of what Shakespeare might have called the “oerweening pride” rife in the Pentagon when it comes to their skills and their ability to put one (or two, or three) over on the jihadist community.  So pleased with themselves were they, that they evidently couldn’t help bragging to the two reporters about their skills.  The old phrase “too smart for your own good” comes to mind.  It’s enough to make you worry, even based on so little information (which the new book from the two reporters may significantly amplify).

And by the way, if you want another unsettling analogy, when it comes to off-the-wall ideas for “deterring” jihadist networks, check out the major record companies and their efforts to deter communities and individuals from illegally downloading music.  The Recording Industry Association of America, representing the four major record labels, decided to make a cautionary example of Jammie Thomas-Rasset, a Minnesota mom, by suing her “for illegally downloading and sharing 24 songs on the peer-to-peer file-sharing network Kazaa in 2006.”  So far, the organization has dragged her through three trials, getting terrible publicity.  Even if they win and leave her in hock for the rest of her life, do you think for one second that they will have made a dent in the world of illegal downloads or deterred anyone?  Just ask your kid.

Don’t think deterrence here, think blowback.

Honestly, if Schmitt and Shanker’s claim is accurate, you should be shaking in your boots.  And someone on Capitol Hill should be starting to ask some relevant questions, including this one: Could “computer specialists” in the employ of the Pentagon be responsible for your death in a future terrorist attack?

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s His latest book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), will be published in November.

Copyright 2011 Tom Engelhardt

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Posted by The Agonist on August 8th, 2011

From our partners at The Agonist

Juan Cole | Aug 8

Informed Comment – Another US helicopter got into trouble on Sunday, and had to make a hard landing in the eastern Paktia province, though no one aboard was hurt. It may have been forced down by Taliban fire.

Seven US & NATO troops have been killed in fighting in Afghanistan in the past 48 hours, on top of the 30 US soldiers, 7 Afghan troops and an interpreter who were killed when a Chinook helicopter went down, likely shot down by Taliban, in Wardak on Friday.

Two of those killed Sunday were French, and 7 French soldiers were wounded.

Also on Sunday, US troops recovering the crash wreckage in Wardak ran into heavy fire from local Taliban and there was a clash near the site.

Altogether, 50 US & NATO troops have already been killed in August, and 383 have been killed this year.

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