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 forth 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 re her emails.

One 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."

Monday, April 11, 2016

Cuban Prisoners? What Prisoners?

Damas de Blanco hauled away on eve of  Obama's arrival in Havana

 My article on Cuban political prisoners appeared in the Washington Monthly, April 11, 2016:

 “Did you ask if we had political prisoners?” asked a flustered Raúl Castro. “Give me the list of political prisoners and I will release them immediately. Just mention a list. What political prisoners? Give me a name or names. After this meeting is over, you can give me a list of political prisoners. And if we have those political prisoners, they will be released before nightfall.”

On the verge of apoplexy at being sandbagged by a reporter during his joint press appearance with Barack Obama, the Cuban president chose the Captain Renault approach to addressing the journalist’s question. Shocked, shocked, he was, that political oppression might be going on inside his country. Meanwhile, hours before the U.S. president’s arrival, the National Revolutionary Police (PNR) had rounded up some fifty mostly middle aged women who, as they do every Sunday, were peacefully protesting the continued detention of their loved ones, political prisoners in Castro’s Cuba. Western reporters caught on pixels and flashed across the globe photos of the Ladies in White being dragged kicking and screaming into police vans. It was not an auspicious start to the first official visit to Cuba by a U.S. president in eighty-eight years.

The round-up wasn’t limited to the Ladies in White. The police had their hands full. Besides arresting the grandmothers and homekeepers of the Ladies in White, they also hauled off over a dozen other pro-democracy activists who carry out protests under the banner, “Todos Marchamos” (“We’re All Marching”). The latter carried signs proclaiming, “Obama’s trip to Cuba isn’t for fun. No to violations of human rights,” and “Obama, we have a dream: a Cuba without Castros.” Meanwhile, in another part of town, several male dissidents who had interrupted an ESPN live broadcast, shouting “Freedom for political prisoners!” and “Down with Castro!” were roughed up, thrown into police vehicles and taken away.

Clearly, all is not well in the socialist state of Cuba. In fact, a recently released report by the independent Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation finds that there were more than 1,400 arbitrary political arrests during March, including nearly 500 during Obama’s visit to Cuba last month.

Human rights groups, including the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, gladly obliged President Castro by promptly providing the prisoner lists he demanded during his press conference with Obama. There are, however, no hard and fast figures on political prisoners in Cuba for a variety of reasons. For one, the Cuban authorities now seldom pass multi-year sentences on political activists. They resort instead to frequent arrests and short-term detentions in order to harass dissidents rather than turn them into martyrs. Often, police will hold detainees for a few hours or days, then release them far from their homes. Another reason for the fuzziness of the numbers around political detainees is that some individuals charged under the infamous legal rubric, “potential dangerousness,” either fall into a gray area or are actually recidivist, usually petty, criminals.

Of the 8,600 politically motivated detentions counted by the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation in 2015 and the several hundred arrests so far this year, almost all went through Castro’s catch and release system. Of fifty-three prisoners the Cuban government agreed to release in the lead-up to the Obama visit, half were rearrested and four exiled abroad. A leading anti-regime group, the Patriotic Union of Cuba, claimed more than 260 of its members were taken into custody on the eve of President Obama’s arrival in Havana - almost all have been released. The fifty-odd members of the Ladies in White were also released, including leader Berta Soler, just in time to join other dissidents for a meeting with Obama at the U.S. embassy. The fact checking organization PolitiFact can only conclude that there is at least a “handful” of political prisoners. Most experts believe Cuba’s steady prisoner of conscience population numbers in the fifty-to-sixty range.

One of these longer term prisoners, journalist Adolfo Fernández Sainz, described to me the game of wits and coercion that goes on between non-criminal inmates and their jailers. One of 75 writers and librarians swept up in the “Black Spring” crackdown of 2003, Fernández spent half of a fifteen-year sentence in the Castros’ prisons. They were Amnesty International prisoners of conscience. Initially, he was beaten, fed bad food, kept with hardened criminals and denied familial visitations. He and other political prisoners, however, soon learned how to apply leverage over the authorities. Hunger strikes usually got Cuban officials to back down. Fernández carried out five himself, severely affecting his health. They also refused to engage in “re-education through labor,” insisting they did not need to be “re-educated.” Finally, they learned how to parlay the attention they received from foreign governments and human rights organizations to their advantage. Whenever maltreatment leaked out to the world, the Cuban government incurred foreign pressure, compelling it to ease up on the prisoners. Fernández’s wife and daughter agitated for his release as founding members of the Ladies in White. “It was a constant chess game of willpower. And we won,” he said.

The game of wits is ongoing but has evolved on both sides. For example, social media now empower the dissidents. A flood of tweets and Facebook postings with photos goes out to the world the instant police raid demonstrators, according to Cuban-American activist Maurico Claver-Carone. “Then the bloggers join in.” That the government is now always under a social media looking glass has compelled it to resort to harassment over extended imprisonment, he said. “This, in turn, has emboldened regime opponents. As a result, numbers of demonstrators are on the rise.” Claver-Carone’s Cuba-based sources tell him that there is an ongoing tension between the street-level PNR cops and their hard core Ministry of Interior masters. The cops dislike having to haul the gentle Ladies in White and others into custody. Sometimes they tip off the demonstrators in advance of a planned raid, thus giving them time to flee before the police arrive.

When he first heard that President Obama would visit Cuba, Adolfo Fernández Sainz scoffed at American naïveté. He has since changed his mind. Now working with the Miami-based Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, Fernández told me the Cuban people have been uplifted by the president’s visit. Feedback from his contacts in Cuba’s activist community is “overwhelmingly positive.”

Accompanying the Obama delegation, Baruch College professor and Cuba expert Ted Henken echoed Fernández’s sentiments. “The air feels different for many Cubans,” he told me shortly after his return from Havana. “Morale is up.” Henken predicts that Obama’s message of the Cuban people’s “capacity to speak and assemble and vote for their leaders” hit a chord with Cubans. He senses that they will be “pushing the envelope more,” challenging the government by joining demonstrations in greater numbers. But more Cubans will prefer to take advantage of growing space that will come with Raúl Castro’s easing of government control over parts of the economy and the opening up of American trade and investment, particularly after the embargo is lifted. The Cuban government nonetheless will undoubtedly not let up on its strategy of keeping pro-democracy activists off guard through regular raids and short-term incarcerations. But the bottom line in this visit is that “Obama hit a home run,” according to Henken. And it will pay dividends.

Washington has learned that opening of relations with authoritarian regimes does not magically bring democratic freedoms. China continues to oppress dissidence four decades on with normalized relations with the U.S. The same goes for Vietnam after two decades of full relations with Washington. Politicians who insist on withholding diplomatic relations until “all political prisoners are released” and/or “democratic freedoms are adopted” are purposely disingenuous. Theirs is a short-term personal political agenda for the most part. A longer term, historical focus is what is needed. Growing engagement over a period of years brings with it greater prosperity in countries like China and Vietnam with consequent growing middle classes who, over time, begin to agitate for more say in how their societies are run. We saw this in South Korea, Taiwan and Latin American countries as military regimes gradually gave way to functioning democracies.

When President Obama met with Cuban dissidents at the U.S. embassy, he praised them for their “extraordinary courage.” In his keynote speech, the president appealed to universal freedoms, including “that the rule of law should not include arbitrary detentions of people who exercise those rights.” But he also talked of “an evolution taking place inside of Cuba, a generational change.” After so many decades of dictatorship, it will take a generation, if not more, for Cuba to catch up with a post-cold war world.

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