Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Getting Into Trouble as a Writer

You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life. ~ Winston Churchill

Throughout history, writers have been notorious for getting themselves into trouble for their ideas. Socrates was forced to kill himself by drinking poison for the crime of "impiety." My namesake, Giordano Bruno, was burned at the stake for having the temerity to state, among other things, that the earth revolved around the sun. The British Crown convicted the great English-American firebrand, Tom Paine, of "seditious libel" in absentia for advocating in popular pamphlets a progressive tax and social welfare programs to alleviate poverty. Hannah Arendt, author of "The Banality of Evil," managed to escape Nazi Germany by the skin of her teeth and resettle in the United States. The Soviet Union expelled Alexander Solzhenitsyn from the country in 1974 for exposing the vast gulag forced labor camp system. Today, PEN International monitors the cases of some 900 writers who suffer persecution in countries across the globe.

I dealt with dissident writers in various countries in the course of my more than two decades as a Foreign Service officer. I helped resettle several dissident Cuban writers in the U.S. My favorite Vietnamese dissident was the writer Duong Thu Huong. At our first get-together over lunch in Hanoi, I asked this spirited woman how she planned to deal with communist officials who were harassing her. With a twinkle in her eye, she said without hesitating, "I spit in their face!"

Artyom Borovik was a groundbreaking Russian investigative journalist who was critical of Vladimir Putin. I'd occasionally meet him to discuss his reporting on Moscow's role in Afghanistan. His "Top Secret" TV program exposed the corruption of Russia's political and economic elite, earning him many enemies. Borovik quoted Putin in an article in 2000 as saying, “There are three ways to influence people: blackmail, vodka, and the threat to kill.” Days later, he died in a still-unsolved Moscow plane accident - one of what was to be many Putin critics who have turned up dead. He was 39.

I had the privilege of being acquainted with a number of very courageous writers over the years who stood up to tyranny and authoritarianism and paid a heavy price in terms of denied employment, harassment, imprisonment and loss of their life. Such people deserve our unmitigated admiration and respect, not to mention support.

And then there are those of us who merely get into mischief.

Whether as a diplomat or as a writer, I don't feel fully successful in my work unless denounced by oppressive regimes and their propaganda organs. The Cuban publication, El Heraldo Cubano, denounced me as a "yankee ex-intelligence officer" who helped "carry out subversive actions against the Cuban government" after my novel, Havana Queen, was published three years ago. In it, I spun a tale centering on the cataclysmic collapse of the Castro regime. "Mr. Bruno decided to fictionalize his experiences in a kind of thriller, under the suggestive title of Havana Queen," El Heraldo continued, "where he distorts the internal situation and invents others, with views that were approved by the Department of State, revealing the espionage work of American intelligence.” 

Havana Queen clearly gave Cuban officialdom agita. After all, digital copies were circulating throughout the island. Several Cubans even emailed me asking if I could send them hard copies (I politely declined). Meanwhile, I got into an escalating pissing match with Castro's propaganda machine, egging them on, daring them to denounce me in the communist party rag, Granma.

"Unintentionally, James Bruno confirmed in Havana Queen that which Cuba has denounced repeatedly, that the United States uses its diplomatic mission in Havana as a headquarters for human and technological spying, while it selects, trains and finances counterrevolutionary elements to carry out subversive acts against the Cuban government," ranted a known Cuban intelligence officer in his quasi-official blog. Ominously, he added, "If someday Bruno goes missing, remember Martí: 'If I go missing, look for me... in Cuba.'" I covered up my whereabouts in social media after that.

Well, what can I say? First, thanks to El Heraldo Cubano for adding to my authorial notoriety. We writers crave attention and, the more controversial, the better. History has shown that official condemnations have done wonders for authors' book sales. Boris Pasternak comes to mind. While by no means in his league, I can use all the denunciations I can get.

And then there was the time three years ago when I was called out of the blue by a federal law enforcement officer asking if I could help in tracking down a murderer who had been on the lam for almost four decades. William Bradford Bishop, Jr. was a Foreign Service officer who in 1976 bludgeoned to death his mother, wife and three young sons and then made a clean getaway. The FBI placed Bishop on their Ten Most Wanted list two years ago. Asked how I could help, the Bishop task force requested that I blog about Bishop. I had previously published a bestselling thriller, CHASM,  whose protagonist was modeled on Bishop. They wanted me to reach out to him and persuade him to turn himself in. I not only said yes, but I also traveled to Europe, where he is thought to have hidden himself, to try and find him. I visited seven countries looking for Bishop. You can read my many accounts of this fruitless search in this blog.

My family deemed me even more nuts than they'd always assumed. In response to my daughter's fear Bishop would attack me, I said, "Why, I can take on any 80-year old any day of the week."

Needless to say, Bishop is still out there somewhere. My brazen efforts have come to nought. But what if we'd met up...?

I walk a thin line at times vis-à-vis Uncle Sam on what I can and cannot say in my writings. You see, as a result of a Faustian pact I made with the federal government in return for a top secret security clearance back when I was young and naive, I gave away my soul for eternity. I must submit for official censorship virtually all that I write and wish to publish till my dying day. You can see the blacked-out redactions in my blog posts as well as The Foreign Circus for your entertainment pleasure. Uncle Sam has a unique way of messing up a recalcitrant writer's life if s/he doesn't follow these rules. Read of my Kafkaesque adventures with the green-eyeshaders in Why I am Censored.

Finally, there are the negative book reviews all serious writers inevitably incur. They constitute a sort of ego-deflating authorial notoriety. Here are some of my favorites:

On Permanent Interests --
“Probably the most ponderous 100 pages of text I've read in a long time.”

“Hate to burst everyone's bubble but unless you're looking for absolutely brainless entertainment, you might want to move on.”

On Tribe --
“While there are moments of good writing and wry observation, this book is a dud and so is the author.”

On Havana Queen --
“The biggest problem is the characters, none of whom have vaguely plausible motivations for anything they do, and much of what they do is idiotic.”

On The Foreign Circus --
“To James Bruno, everyone who doesn't see things his way is an idiot. He's a classic Washington has-been who sees everyone else as a moron. These narcissistic tendencies go very well with his evil twin's misogyny.”

James Bruno is a "Male, Pale, and Yale misogynistic, self-centered, and angry FS officer."
(I confess to the first two failings; but substitute "Columbia" for "Yale" on that last one, even though it doesn't rhyme. Misogynistic, I am not, but I could perhaps be a tad self-centered as well as angry on occasion.)

We authors can also be thin skinned. Sulphuric reviews deflate our egos and get our imaginations all worked up in very unconstructive ways. I mean none of these individuals knows me. How would they know I am a "has-been" much less an angry, self-centered, male, pale and Yale misogynist? A thug might act on such verbal attacks with physical force. Writers, on the other hand, marshal their arsenal of mental weapons and deploy them on paper and pixels.

So, Sir Winston, yes, I have made my share of enemies and am proud of it. I feel we have something in common.

Edward Snowden: Fade Left

The New York Times last week called for ex-NSA data-dumper Edward Snowden to be pardoned. That paper's chief competitor, The Washington Post, on the other hand, urged that he be prosecuted for his crimes. Alas, for once, the allegedly liberal "mainstream media" aren't on the same page. Now here's my two cents, for what its worth: Eddie boy, please fade away. Embrace the obscurity that a socially maladjusted geek like you richly deserves. Folks are wearying of you. They have other obnoxious iconoclasts to obsess over, like, say, Donald Trump. You will soon morph into yesterday's news and people won't give a crap about you any more.

Yes, that trollish gadfly movie-maker, Oliver Stone, has given you a boost in the public consciousness with a hagiographic biopic which the Christian Science Monitor's movie critic dismissed as "a fawning piece of work." And the U.S. House Intelligence Committee just issued a report denouncing you as "a serial exaggerator and fabricator." All this notoriety must have you ghoulishly rubbing your hands out there in exile in Putinland. Notoriety-laced narcissism clearly is another trait you share with the Republican presidential contender. But before you go too far with your delusions of returning to America as a fully pardoned conquering hero, you would be wise to examine several case studies of other turncoats who ended up in jail or exile.

First, there's Jonathan Pollard, the unhinged civilian naval intelligence analyst who sold tens of thousands of classified documents to the Israelis and attempted to shop yet more to other countries before being nabbed in 1985. These included the NSA's ten-volume manual on how the U.S. gathers its signals intelligence. He used his ill-gotten cash, which included a monthly clandestine $2500 stipend, to live high, including with cocaine. His wife was his partner in crime, helping to conceal crates of classified information and using some of the Israeli cash to fund her business. Upon his arrest, Pollard suddenly became an Israeli patriot, asserting he was helping the Jewish state when the U.S. government would not. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. The Israeli government and a broad network of supporters pulled every trick in the book to get Pollard sprung, ranging from letters from Israeli and American big shots to formal entreaties and cockamamie three-way spy swap deals from Tel Aviv. But none of them took. The U.S. intelligence community, defense establishment, veterans groups and members of Congress vehemently opposed freeing Pollard. Pres. Clinton came close to pardoning him, but retreated in face of the domestic opposition and Pres. Obama likewise demurred when Vice President Joe Biden said Pollard would be pardoned "over my dead body." Well, Pollard finally won parole after thirty years in the slammer in accordance with sentencing guidelines at the time of his conviction. Under the terms of his parole, Pollard must wear an ankle locator bracelet, reveal all of his internet use to the authorities and remain in the U.S. for at least five years. He is a jobless 62-year old.

Kim Philby was the principal double agent in the notorious "Cambridge Five," British intelligence officers and diplomats who spied for Moscow in the years surrounding WWII. A clandestine Soviet agent for three decades, he headed up Britain's counterintelligence operations and served as MI-6's head of station in Washington in the '50s. Philby gave up the ghost in 1963, defecting to Moscow. Two of his treasonous cohorts, Donald Mclean and Guy Burgess, tipped off by Philby that they were about to be arrested, had defected in 1951. None fared well there. Philby drank heavily and suffered from loneliness and depression; according to his Russian wife, he had attempted suicide by slashing his wrists in the 1960s. He lived to 76, having gone through four wives. She said, "he was struck by disappointment, brought to tears." Burgess and Mclean both succumbed to alcoholism, dying at 52 and 69, respectively.

Edward Lee Howard was the only former CIA employee ever to seek asylum in Moscow. A brawling drunk and drug abuser, Howard fled to Moscow in 1985. A case officer in the Soviet division of the CIA's Operations Directorate, he was trained by the CIA for deep-cover clandestine operations against the Soviets. There he remained, lonesome, embittered, alcoholic until 2002, when the Russian news agency TASS reported that Howard, 50, had died in a drunken fall from a stool at his KGB-owned dacha outside Moscow, breaking his neck. Breaking your neck falling from a stool? Hmm. Thriller film producer, Robert Stone, asserts that the KGB's successor agency, the SVR, whacked Howard simply because he was no longer useful to Moscow as it then sought to improve relations with Washington.

"There's little evidence from historical records that [Snowden] has anything good to look forward to," says Peter Savodnik, author of, The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union. "Essentially, nobody from the U.S. who has defected to Russia has gone on to think that's a smart decision." Echoing Robert Stone's assertion that defectors to Russia have a way of wearing out their welcome, Savodnik adds, "Whatever value he has to the Kremlin has already been drained... They'll probably try to marginalize him and send him where he's less likely to make noise or attract the attention of the media or others."

So, Ed, enjoy your last splash of public fame. Rest assured it will fade. Resign yourself never to return to your home country - alive anyway. Beware the booze. And, uh, don't be climbing any rickety Russian stools.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Bin Laden Raid ex-SEAL Forfeits Millions for Defying Uncle Sam

Exactly four years ago, I wrote the following regarding ex-Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette, one of the members of the team that carried out the raid to get Osama bin Laden:

Bissonnette "will most assuredly face a protracted legal battle which will probably result in the royalties of his book being forfeited to the government."

You see, Mr. Bissonnette defied government regs and proceeded to publish a book about the raid without submitting it for security review with the Pentagon. As a result, according to the New York Times , he will forfeit all of the $6.7 million in royalties he has earned on “No Easy Day,” as well as $100,000 in fees for six speeches. Ouch!

The Times reported that "Mr. Bissonnette acknowledged that he was required under his security clearances to let the Pentagon review the book, and he blamed another lawyer for advising him that he did not need to do so." In something akin to a Maoist show trial confession required of all such offenders, he issued the following statement, “I acknowledge my mistake and have paid a stiff price, both personally and financially, for that error. I accept responsibility for failing to submit the book for review and apologize sincerely for my oversight.”

In that blog article of four years ago, I cited the cases of an ex-CIA officer and a State Department official who similarly got nailed for publishing books on their adventures while in the service of Uncle Sam, got caught, were prosecuted and forced to pay a heavy price in the end. 

At that time, I had just shipped off to the State Department my fourth book for security review. I pointed out that, "taking an average of six months per review, my books will have sat a total of two years with the green eye-shaders in Washington. That's two years of not being published. Two years of royalties not flowing into my bank account." Whether or not my public laments had anything to do with the State Department adopting new regulations shortening the review process, I can't say, but they now promise a 30-day turnaround on books and up to 20 days for articles. At the same time they announced these tighter turnaround times, the Department pointedly emailed me with the following message:

"We are reminding former employees of their obligations under their Non- Disclosure Agreement(s) (SF-312):" 

I have been advised that the unauthorized disclosure, unauthorized retention, or negligent handling of classified information by me could cause damage or irreparable injury to the United States or could be used to advantage by a foreign nation. I hereby agree that I will never divulge classified information to anyone unless: (a) I have officially verified that the recipient has been properly authorized by the United States Government to receive it; or (b) I have been given prior written notice of authorization from the United States Government Department or Agency responsible for the classification of information or last granting me a security clearance that such disclosure is permitted. I understand that if I am uncertain about the classification status of information, I am required to confirm from an authorized official that the information is unclassified before I may disclose it, except to a person as provided in (a) or (b), above. I further understand that I am obligated to comply with laws and regulations that prohibit the unauthorized disclosure of classified information.

Can't be more clear than that. The other national security agencies have almost identical rules. And all employees are briefed on them prior to their signing obligatory nondisclosure contracts. So, Bissonnette's blaming his lawyer or claiming ignorance or disingenuously asserting his publisher had already screened his book for sensitive information was blowing smoke a la Hillary Clinton proportions with her emails.

One frustrated ex-fed who faced prosecution for publishing a book without vetting and got himself fired for the effort had the audacity to call me a "whore" in an online chat forum for my following the rules. I did not respond to this Tar Baby trash talk. I do not take a moral position on this matter, though I do acknowledge the government's interests in wanting to protect sensitive information. I am a mere pragmatist. I like to keep my royalties and I have this aversion to jail (actually been there once, but that's another story).

I feel for Mr. Bissonnette, a man with multiple awards for valor for service in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he let ego and greed get the better of him and now he's paying the piper. 

See also -

Monday, August 1, 2016

William Bradford Bishop: This Is What Hell Is Like

The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven. 
 ~ John Milton, Paradise Lost 

Dear Brad,

Pardon me for not wishing you a happy 80th birthday. Frankly, you don't deserve it. But that's another matter. Barring any new twists in your case, this likely will be my last message to you, or about you. Why? Because if you aren't already dead, you soon enough will be. Mortality knocks. Tap. Tap. Tap. I don't recall your religious beliefs, if any, but if you do believe in an afterlife, think about the celestial reunion with your murdered family members. Thanksgiving with the in-laws pales by comparison.

What will they say when meeting face-to-face with you at the Pearly Gates? "Hi, Dad?" "Glad to see you again darling?" "Oh, son. I missed you so?" Ahh. I think not. Their faces will reflect haunting remonstrance to your horrendous crime. Their silence will both reject you and beseech you for answers. "Why did you rob us of our lives and selfishly carry on with your own?" "You used to tell us you loved us. But it was false, wasn't it? We had love in our hearts for you when you crushed our lives while asleep in our beds, while relaxing with a good read, while entering the house after walking Leo, our dog. What was in your own heart? Hellfire and rage. Why? Why? Why?"

Upon reaching 80, you're playing with the house's money. To paraphrase Houseman, "Now fourscore years it's been, twenty will not come again." As we approach the precipice of death, most of us reflect back on our lives. We ask ourselves questions like, "Did I use my time wisely?" "Was my life meaningful?" "What did others think of me?" "Will my loved ones cherish my memory?" What about you, Brad? After killing your mother, wife and three sons, did you use your time wisely? Doing what? Hiding in the shadows, constantly on edge, fearful of being caught. Were you able to retrieve any meaningfulness as a fugitive on the run? As for what others think of you, well, I can assure you that it's been universal revulsion. Finally, having no more loved ones, there's obviously no one left alive to carry any memory of you.

Now here's my definition of hell: not only having your children predecease you, but actually ushering them into their graves. My definition of hell is contemplating how their lives would have progressed had their father not bludgeoned them to death. William would be 54 today. Sportive like yourself, one can imagine a self-directed, fit middle-aged family man. Brenton would have turned 50 this year. He was playful and had a lively sense of humor. He would likely have been popular and a cut-up at social gatherings. Geoffrey would be 45. A rambunctious kindergartner when you ended his life, he no doubt would have been a productive citizen as well. All three boys inherited their parents' smarts. One can assume they would have ended up as successful educated professionals.

And think of the grandchildren they would have brought you. That late-life event embraced by most parents but which you denied yourself. When you lie in bed at night, does your mind not dwell on your truncated bloodline? That essential progression of human life that you dumped into a shallow trench in a North Carolina woods and lit afire. Do you have nightmares? Have you ever contemplated putting a bullet into your own head to end the pain? If not, give it consideration. But do leave us a note before pulling the trigger.

Annette, 37 when you bashed her head in as she was catching up on reading, would now be 77. Your high school sweetheart was the ideal woman: smart, personable, artistic and beautiful. While your love for her was consumed in a vortex of murderous rage, hers for you never wavered. Do memories of the tender moments occasionally overwhelm you as your aged body fails you, as your own handsomeness has eroded, ravaged by time? As your attractiveness to women has faded over the years? In your lonesome existence as a hunted man, have you even dared to seek relationships of any kind?

And, finally, your mother, Lobelia. Does your mind ever dwell on how she nurtured you growing up, how she doted on her grandchildren? How does matricide fit with your conscience? Do you have one?

Yes, it appears you have slipped the noose of justice. Literally got away with murder. That may be so. But if a higher moral justice awaits us all in the end, you are in big, big trouble, my friend.

William Shakespeare said, “Hell is empty and all the devils are here.” I cannot imagine your life over the past four decades having been anything other than empty. And the devils indeed are here soon to escort you to your deserved destination. Think of them as U.S. Marshals of the hereafter. But before they take you, talk to us. Reveal yourself as an act of atonement, as a final sign that deep in your heart you held a reserve of caring for those who loved you.

See also:

William Bradford Bishop Murder Case: After Forty Years, Is It Time to Move On?

An Open Letter to William Bradford Bishop, Jr.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Russians Are Bullying Our Diplomats. Here’s How to Stop It

The following is my latest article in the Washington Monthly, July 28, 2016 

I once got into a drag race with a KGB agent. It was during the Cold War, as the clock was ticking down on the Soviet empire. As a junior diplomat at the U.S. embassy in Stalinist-run Laos in the ‘80s, I was regularly surveilled, harassed, propositioned and even once arrested at gunpoint and jailed, resulting in a diplomatic row. The place was lousy with Russians and all manner of East Bloc functionaries seeking to consolidate the small Southeast Asian country into Moscow’s orbit. And America was not welcome.

One of the Soviets’ favorite tactics was to tail us, letting us know they were always there watching us, onto whatever activities, official and otherwise, that we handful of American officials were up to. The more active we were, the greater the harassment. Being especially outgoing with the locals and fluent in their language, I was a top target. After leaving a reception one evening, I was tailed by a Russian well known to us as a KGB operative in the Soviet embassy. The squat, bald Khrushchev look-alike gamely tried to tailgate my Malibu in his creaky little Lada sedan. When I sped up, so did he. When I braked, so did he. When I
turned, so did he. Pissed, I decided to show the little creep what Detroit was capable of. I led him onto an unpaved country road. Then I let all eight cylinders of the Chevy reach their full potential. I’d get a lead on the KGB guy, then suddenly brake, raising billowing dust clouds for him to choke on. I repeated this stop-and-go tactic until he finally gave up and limped home for his pulmonary health, if nothing else.

This kind of cat-and-mouse play has been a feature of life for Western diplomats posted to hostile nations for many years. I was bugged, watched and intimidated in a variety of ways during my two-decade-plus diplomatic career, once even having my tires slashed by Cuban secret police. Many of my colleagues can tell harrowing tales of being shoved, having their children followed, their homes ransacked and dog feces smeared on their door knobs, among other imaginative acts of vandalism perpetrated by agents of America’s adversaries.

What’s currently happening in Russia, however, appears to go far beyond the pale. The Washington Post reported that a U.S. diplomat attempting to enter our embassy was recently assaulted and seriously injured by one of the Russian police goons who linger just outside our mission. The diplomat had to be medically evacuated to another country for treatment. This was not merely a “diplomatic incident,” which surely was the subject of an official U.S. protest, but a crime. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, to which Russia is a signatory, states, “The person of a diplomatic agent shall be inviolable. He shall not be liable to any form of arrest or detention. The receiving State shall treat him with due respect and shall take all appropriate steps to prevent any attack on his person, freedom or dignity… The private residence of a diplomatic agent shall enjoy the same inviolability and protection as the premises of the mission.” These protections further extend to diplomats’ family members.

The official harassment of U.S. diplomats has increased dramatically. Diplomats report harrowing tales of being shoved, having their children followed, their homes ransacked and dog feces smeared on their door knobs.

The Post further reports incidents recently involving home intrusions – including defecation on one family’s carpet, slashed tires and intimidation by Russian traffic police. A U.S. defense attaché’s dog was killed while he was away. Former U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul was incessantly hounded by ostensible Russian TV crews badgering him with belligerent statements. His children were followed by Russian security personnel. McFaul, who actively promoted human rights, was particularly singled out during his two years in Moscow. Now back at Stanford, Moscow continues to deride him. “We remember his professional incompetence. McFaul’s diplomatic mission fell through with a crash,” said Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman with undiplomatic bluntness. Not missing a beat, McFaul shot back in a tweet: “Why is she so obsessed with me?”

The official harassment has increased dramatically since the U.S. and its allies imposed sanctions against Russia following its aggression against Ukraine and 2014 takeover of Crimea. Moscow, in fact, makes no bones about its actions. “Diplomacy is based on reciprocity. The more the U.S. damages relations, the harder it will be for U.S. diplomats to work in Russia,” the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman tweeted.

A U.S. embassy Moscow official told me, “We are deeply troubled by the way our employees have been treated over the past two years. We have raised, and will continue to raise, at the highest levels any incidents inconsistent with protections guaranteed by international law, and we will also respond appropriately in accordance with U.S. and international law.” Secretary of State John Kerry has raised the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but thus far to no avail. The State Department announced it had expelled two Russian embassy officers on June 17 in response to the Russian policeman’s assault on the U.S. diplomat. Russia responded in kind, kicking out two U.S. embassy Moscow officials.

The State Department is now providing special training in how to deal with aggressive actions by Russian security to select personnel headed for diplomatic assignments in Russia and neighboring countries.

So, why do they do it? Petty revenge? To mess with our diplomats’ heads? Just plain barbarism?

“They do it to humiliate the diplomats, to deny you any sense that you control your environment – your home. They do it to mess with your mind. They do it to make you angry because then you make bad decisions. They do it because they can, and they want you to know that,” a former ambassador to a post-Soviet republic told me. During her earlier years of service in Moscow, this U.S. diplomat was the target of repeated acts of vandalism and harassment, ranging from her car windows being smashed to Moscow’s issuing a visa to her crazy ex-husband. Others in the embassy have had their homes vandalized, their windows opened in the dead of winter and their freezers unplugged, resulting in the spoilage of expensive imported provisions.

Here’s the rub: we cannot retaliate by beating up their diplomats and ransacking their diplomats’ homes. Why? Because we are a civilized nation that follows the rules. On one occasion of which I am aware, the State Department, in fact, years ago intervened to stop some retired federal employees who had planned to pull vigilante-style pranks against one communist nation’s diplomats in response to their government’s maltreatment of our diplomats.

Diplomatic immunity is a concept and practice that has evolved over generations, having been practiced by ancient monarchs of the Indian subcontinent and refined by the Italian city-states of the Renaissance. Realizing that killing the messengers was actually bad for a sovereign’s and a people’s long-term security interests, heads of state, over the centuries, developed the practice of protecting foreign envoys from attack and indeed treating them as honored guests. Ironically, Genghis Khan was a staunch defender of diplomatic immunity. His Mongols would often wipe entire cities off the map as revenge for the killing of their ambassadors. They even destroyed the Khwarezmid Empire after their envoys had been manhandled.

In recent times, the most egregious case of a state-sanctioned action against diplomats was the 1979 Iranian seizure of the U.S. embassy and its 52-member staff. The Iranians held them for 444 days. Many of the Americans were tortured.

“The problem with retaliating against the Russians for harassing our diplomats is that you have to find a way to do it that is both legal and does not hurt your side more,” a former U.S. Foreign Service officer who specialized in Russia told me. This is not just a moral issue, but also a practical one. Each retaliatory act generally leads to another, further aggravating the problem. Further restricting the movements of Russian diplomats in our country or expelling some inevitably leads to a spiral of mutual retaliation that can get out of control as happened in 1986 when the Reagan administration kicked out dozens of KGB operatives, leading to Moscow’s expulsion of an equal number of American diplomats.

The best approach is to isolate it from the other issues in the relationship and to find a way to make the Russians see that it is in their interest to engage in more civilized behavior. A policy of carrots and sticks is needed, one that entails identifying and taking away something the Russians want and, should they retaliate, will lead to their losing more than we will. At the same time, we should be forward-leaning by proposing changes in the way we treat each other’s officials to make life easier for them in both countries.

Measures could include: 

Publicizing Russian harassment by installing video cameras in and around the homes of U.S. staff as well as at entrances to the U.S. embassy, if they do not already exist, to catch the Russians in the act of harassing or assaulting our employees. Then disseminate footage of such attacks to the global media. 

Declaring a travel advisory for areas of Russia where our diplomats are being mistreated, specifically, Moscow and St. Petersburg. The advisories would warn American citizens to avoid these areas for their own safety. The resultant drop in tourism and business travel would be felt by the Russians. 

Increasing the number of FBI and other counterintelligence personnel who monitor Russians in this country. The Bureau’s Counterintelligence Division is too thinly stretched to be able to adequately monitor the suspected spies of Russia and other hostile nations. 

Reconstituting the Cold War era Active Measures Working Group, which exposed Soviet disinformation and covert operations. The new working group would counter Russian disinformation, including the very active social media troll farm in St. Petersburg. It would also publicize Moscow’s actions against diplomats. 

Continuing to raise the issue with the Russians via diplomatic channels, preferably after they have lost something they want to get back, in order to re-start a process in which both sides would be looking for ways to help each other’s diplomats, rather than to harm them.

The Obama administration would be wise to adopt actions ahead of Congress. The draft 2017 Intelligence Authorization Bill currently being considered by the Senate would impose some tough anti-Russia measures, including tighter travel restrictions on Russian officials, that could backfire on our diplomats’ abilities to do their jobs.

A government’s attacking foreign diplomats is an act of weakness. It is what bullies do when frustrated by their own lack of innovative thinking in addressing the challenges facing them. And I can speak from experience that official harassment never deterred my colleagues and me from doing our jobs. Russia has backed itself into a corner by its aggressions in Ukraine and Crimea. Instead of reconsidering its actions and pursuing innovative diplomacy, a morally and intellectually bankrupt Kremlin sends thugs to beat up foreign official guests and otherwise makes life difficult for them and their families via Halloween-style hijinks, and worse. This is not the civilized behavior of a modern nation-state, but the barbaric actions of a strongman-led autocracy. That the Russian government cannot even meet the standards of Genghis Khan speaks for itself. 

The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the United States Government. 

 See also:

Why Does America Send So Many Stupid, Unqualified Hacks Overseas?

 Russian Diplomats Are Eating America's Lunch

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Back Door Diplomats: Screw Merit

Daniel Sickles
Let it stand for uncounted years, to tell the story of Tammany's devotion to the country in time of war. 
~ Gen. Daniel Sickles 

I had this brainstorm. Let's thoroughly democratize our military. Open it up further to a broader diversity of people. What, you say? Why, everybody knows that the U.S. armed services are among the most racially and ethnically integrated entities in America. And they just opened the ranks up to transgender candidates after also eliminating a ban on gays. What more can they do?

Our military services recruit officers through one of four programs: via one of the service academies, the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC), the Officer Candidate School, and direct appointment. The latter is used to recruit highly specialized individuals with needed skills sets, e.g., lawyers, medical doctors, chaplains. We need a fifth door - actually a back door to recruit majors through generals, lieutenant commanders through admirals, irrespective of merit. We need to revert to the system in place prior to the end of the Civil War when any moneyed dolt could buy himself a flag officer job. In a rare fit of conscience, Congress outlawed the practice after the public recoiled at the needless slaughter brought on by incompetent political cronies who had been appointed generals - men like Daniel Sickles. A colorful Tammany Hall stalwart who pioneered temporary insanity as a legal defense after he killed his wife's lover, this "political general's" insubordination at Gettysburg cost more than 4,000 Union casualties. Later, as U.S. Minister to Spain, Sickles pursued his reputation as a womanizer in the Spanish royal court and was rumored to have had an affair with Queen Isabella II. But that was then and this is now.

Before you chalk me up with the likes of Katrina Pierson and click the Home icon to get yourself to saner digital territory, hear me out. I'm not as crazy as I sound. Just glance at my credentials, i.e., the ones I don't conceal.

But, "You're daft!" you say. Why, we cannot allow our honored military to be diluted with the beneficiaries of political patronage. Lives are at stake! We must defend the nation! Do that and the next thing you know, the Chinese will be building air fields in the U.S. Virgin Islands. No more Dan Sickleses. Please!! Entry into the armed services must remain strictly merit-based if we are to protect our national security.

Yes indeed. We must vigorously keep the stink of patronage out of the ranks of those who wage war. But for those who wage peace? Different story.

You see, some devilish denizens on the Hill have snuck into the draft Senate bill authorizing appropriations for the Department of State for 2017 language which would establish yet another back door into the U.S. Foreign Service. Section 206 laments that traditional induction "precludes the recruitment of many patriotic, highly skilled, talented, and experienced mid-career professionals who wish to join public service and contribute to the work of the Foreign Service, but are not in a position to restart their careers as entry-level government employees." Like a modern equivalent of Dan Sickles perchance?

The language calls for lateral recruitment of individuals who would skip the junior ranks (2nd lieutenant to captain equivalents) as well as the standard Foreign Service junior officer training regimen. And to top it off, these "patriotic" Americans would also skip most of the requisite entry-level dirty work, e.g., visa officer at Consulate Juarez. This is like getting into the U.S. Marines with no prior military experience at the rank of major, skipping boot camp and Officer Candidate School and being deployed to a cushy desk job at the Pentagon in lieu of a tour of duty in Fallujah. Nice deal if you can get it!

What in the world can be behind this interesting new twist to mint fresh mid-level diplomats without going through all the inconvenient fuss of rigorous vetting, training and up-through-the-ranks professional development? Could it be, alas, thinly disguised political corruption, i.e., a lawful spoils system?

Here's what I conjure up in my perfervid, admittedly over-active, imagination. Seeing the writing on the wall, that is, a Trumpocalypse in November, a whole bunch of Congressional staffers on the Republican side rightfully fear losing their jobs as the relentless down ballot avalanche wipes out whole GOP sincecure civilizations. These folks wake up in cold sweats from nightmare visions of LGBT hordes descending on the Capitol slashing and burning one formerly Republican-dominated subcommittee after another, replacing the staff with Stepford Wives-like liberal automotons fabricated in Massachusetts by Elizabeth Warren. These people will suddenly need new careers with the same kind of prestige and government paycheck they're used to. Ergo, the Foreign Service!

It is no coincidence that Republican Senator from Tennessee Bob Corker, also chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is sponsoring this bill. Members of both parties take care of their own when facing imminent defeat at the polls. It's no stretch of the imagination to surmise that GOP staffers went to Boss Bob, hats in hand, imploring, "O, free us from the wrath of the Democrats, Lord!" Hence the deviously accommodating language of Section 206. Of course, there is the added benefit of any politician, from the Prez on down, being able to use this kind of back door to reward all manner of undeserving cronies at the expense of disposable career folks.

In fact, as I've written extensively in past published articles and blog posts, using the State Department as a patronage waste dump has long been a bipartisan game. In fact, Democrat Obama may be the worst offender in modern times. A quick review of the Department's organizational chart reveals the existence of no less than 18 "Special Envoys," 16 "Special Representatives," 6 "Ambassadors-at-Large," 14 "Coordinators," 7 "Special Advisors," 1 "Senior Advisor," 1 "Senior Official," 1 "Personal Representative", and 1 "Senior Representative." These amount to a grand total of 65 superfluous "senior" something-or-others whose portfolios range from "Combating Anti-Semitism" to building "Global Partnerships" (whatever that is). Each of these "senior" factotums has a staff and a budget at great cost to the taxpayers. And these don't include the many more patronage sinecures larded throughout the regular bureaucracy and many ambassadorships sold to fat cat donors. State's organizational structure is a management consultant's nightmare, with metastasized offices covering overlapping and questionable duties. Twenty years ago, there were 4 Special Coordinators, 3 Special Advisors and 1 Ambassador-at-Large - that is, 8 floating senior positions; and these had concrete, usually finite functions, such as coordinating disaster relief for Haiti and managing counterterrorism policy.

Section 206 has not gone unnoticed. Twelve former presidents of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), State's quasi-union, wrote a letter to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) expressing “deep concern and opposition to Section 206 of the 2017 State Authorization Bill” which would create “an alternate hiring mechanism” for entry into the Foreign Service. "Lateral entry programs are neither rigorous nor impartial. There have been several lateral entry programs during our collective service. All have been vehicles for abuse through the hiring of personal and political cronies of those administering the lateral entry." A back door into the mid-level ranks, they note, would only further add to current bloat and essentially wreck the promotion prospects of career FSO's. In the parlance of my rural roots: Such a program is about as needed as wings on a pig.

But does anyone really care? To be blunt, not really. Since the war of independence through the many armed conflicts since, Americans have been indoctrinated to revere our outstanding military establishment. And the large veteran population is well organized to lobby for their service branches and for benefits. Hollywood has done more to hold our warrior class on a pedestal than any other media. But, diplomacy and diplomats? Few citizens know or care about the peacemakers. And the latter lack a broad domestic constituency to protect and promote the Foreign Service and Department of State. The populism which is ingrained in our political culture worships muscle over gray matter. Hence, the political class's lack of compunction to corrupt the U.S. diplomatic establishment through blatant spoils patronage - something that is off-limits with our armed services. It is lost on them that the nation's national security is equally dependent upon effective diplomacy as it is on fighting ability. As long as the politicos burden the Department of State with more Section 206's, expect to see diplomacy lag and the risk of more wars rise.

See also:

Why Does America Send So Many Stupid, Unqualified Hacks Overseas?

 Russian Diplomats Are Eating America's Lunch

Friday, June 3, 2016

Voting With Your Middle Finger

Democracy is the worship of jackals by jackasses. ~ H.L. Mencken

Like many people, I have a non-clinical schizophrenic side to my nature. On the one hand, my rural roots and working class background tell me I'm close to "the people," just another regular guy. But on the other hand, I am an overeducated professional class denizen with a passion for PBS documentaries and microbrews. This split personality plays out in my political views as well. I'll measure the worth of a candidate for public office by my father's dictum: "Has s/he ever had to take a lunch bucket to work?" But then I want to scrutinize their résumé for education and achievements. Will I vote for a candidate because they're "someone I'd like to have a beer with?" Or, because they have a solid platform of ideas with the brains to back it up? While folks opt for one or the other, or maybe even a combination of both, put me squarely in the corner of a solid platform backed by brains.
Which gets me to Donald Trump. For the life of me, I cannot fathom how any thinking citizen can throw their lot in with that bombastic buffoon. Irrespective of how justifiably pissed they are at our clearly screwed up political establishment, how can they entertain blowing the whole system up by electing an American Juan Peron to the White House? Are people that stupid? Not necessarily, but they are desperate as well as angry. Some, like Congressman Paul Ryan, can see the fool that Trump is, but are politically meretricious. But many others are acting out of nihilistic motives. These folks have thrown reason out the window. They are voting with their middle finger.
In The Dumbass Vote: A Modest Proposal to Repeal Universal Suffrage, I cite historian Akim Reinhardt's observation that "Many of the founders believed that, generally speaking, the mass of citizens are corruptible and easily swayed. This makes them susceptible to charismatic leaders, or even chaotic mob rule. So if you let the people decide what to do, it won’t be long before they either hand the reins of government over to some charming rapscallion who will quickly establish himself as a brutal despot, or the whole thing will simply devolve into anarchy and bloodshed." This explains the Grand Guignol Republican primaries of 2012 and this year which have seen, inter alia, a witch, a pizza magnate with a penchant for sexual assault, a surgeon who denies evolution and a relentlessly mendacious real estate wheeler dealer vie for their party's presidential nomination. And in This Isn't My Father's Republican Party, I lament the Republicans' purging their party of centrists and veering off into fringe territory with public debates about "legitimate rape," eliminating the minimum wage and carpet bombing the deserts of the Middle East.
A lot research has gone into this popular anger recently. Like oil and water separating, the top fifth in income is disengaging from the rest of the population. The percentage of families living in very affluent neighborhoods more than doubled between 1970 and 2012, from 6.6 percent to 15.7 percent while the percentage of families living in traditional middle class neighborhoods fell from 64.7 percent in 1970 to 40.5 percent, according to one recent study. "This self-segregation of a privileged fifth of the population is changing the American social order and the American political system, creating a self-perpetuating class at the top, which is ever more difficult to break into," states Thomas Edsall of the New York Times. And the lower 80 percent are resentful. That newspaper's principal center-right columnist, David Brooks, confessed, "I was surprised by Trump’s success because I’ve slipped into a bad pattern, spending large chunks of my life in the bourgeois strata — in professional circles with people with similar status and demographics to my own." This goes for most of us, myself included. And yet -- the statistics reveal that Trump supporters' median income of $71,000 exceeds that of Clinton and Sanders backers by over ten grand. So, go figure.
But the stakes are too high in this election. Whatever one thinks of Hillary Clinton, her foreign policy speech in which she accurately identifies Trump as "dangerously incoherent" hits the mark. I elaborated on this in Donald Trump’s Farcical Foreign Policy: "He not only lacks a worldview, but also the foundation upon which to form one."
As we struggle to find explanations for the surge in support for Trump, I nod and say, "Ah yes. I see," but still remain puzzled and continue to ask myself, "Are people really that gullible and stupid?" Sometimes, history moves according to unexplained forces and that refrain from the movie Casablanca echoes in my head: "The devil has the people by the throat."