A Non-Policy,Contradictory Counterterrorism Speech

I’ve had to take time off from blogging due to restrictions on eye movement in preparing for a retina reattachment operation on my left eye and then recovering from the operation. Today starts my third full week since the operation and the retina remains attached.

On June 25 I will have a cataract removed from my right eye. After these two opeations, I may be able to give up eyeglasses, except for reading.

Ther most succinct assessments I’ve read of President Barack Obama’s recent counterterrorism policy speech has been done by a senior Brookings Institute fellow and a Washington Post reporter. Benjamin Wittas of Brookings, wrote in his Web site Lawfare that: “To put it crassly, the president sought to rebuke his own administration for taking the positions it has — but also to make sure that it could continue to do so.” Scott Wilson, writing in the May 23, 2013 Washington Post, noted the “unusual ambivalence from a commader in chief over the difficulties” in trying to bring national security policies in line with the nation’s founding values.

My own assessment of the speech is that it was designed to enhance Obama’s legacy, despite counterwailing evidence; tried to put the onus on Congress for not giving him clear enough policy directions; doesn’t explain how major policy changes will be made in the future; and rebukes much of what his administration has already done in counterterrorism poalicy.

Four years ago, at the National Archives, President Obama advocated an abrupt departure from the national secuity policies of a country he said had “veered off course” under George W. Bush. He condemned the Bush administration for detention and interrogation policies that are contrary to American values and he banned the use of harsh interrogation techniques.

Despite the National Archives speech, Obama has essentially followed Bush policies and both have relied on the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF); however, in his counterterrorism speech he called on Congress to put llimits on a president’s use of military force, ignoring the fact that the  AUMF does not require the president to rely heavily on drone attacks and Special Forces in counterterrorism policy.

President Obama also wants Congress to pass media shield legislation. This request comes in the immediate wake of the Department of Justice secretly obtaining telephone records on more than 20 separate telephone lines and involving more than 100 Associated Press journalists. The records were deemed to be important in an effort to discover the source of a foiled bomb plot.

Obama said he was “troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable” and he called on Attorney General Eric Holder to assess the guidelines for such investigating and report to him in July. Congressional lawmakers might not be eager to pass media shield legislation for an administration that had secretly launched a major search for journalists’ telephone records.

One of the most impassioned passages in Obama’s speech was his condemnation of force-feeding at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility (Gitmo). Obama asked: “Is that who we are?” “Is that the America we want to leave to our children?” President Obama failed to note that the United Nations Human Rights Commission determined in 2006 that the violent force-feeding of Gitmo detainees amounted to torture.*

Barack Obama pledged as far back as the 2008 presidential campaign that he would close Gitmo. Well if he didn’t feel he had the legal authority to close the facility, he certainly has it now. Section 1028(d) of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act has a waiver provision that empowers the Secretary of Defense to authorize transfers when it is in the national security interest. The defense secretary could cite analyses that Gitmo breeds terrorists and transfer all detainees out.

Regarding Gitmo, President Obama also failed to promise to stop blocking the release of detainees cleared by habeas corpus proceedings.

In his counterterrorism speech, Barack Obama made the sensible point that the war on terrorism, like all wars, must end some day; furthermore, he said we could not indefinitely detain suspected terrorists not convicted in a lawful process. Yet he provided no guidance on how or when these kinds of policies would end. Obama  has been a supporter of indefinite detention up to now and law enforcement agencies continue to arrest and bring to trial home-grown suspected terrorists who have no known llink to al Qaeda or associated forces. Once more, intelliigence analysts contend that al Qaeda has metastasized into smaller regional groupings that have no discernible link to a centralized authority.

President Obama’s position and that of the Department of Justice is a hopeless muddle in regard to when a U.S. citizen can be killed. In his counterterrorism speech, Obama said: “For the record, I do not believe it would be Constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen — with a drone or shotgun — without due process.” However, he immediately carved out an exception for a “terrorist,” such as Anwar al Awlaki, who goes abroad to wage war against Americans and “we cannot capture him alive.”

The Department of Justice White Paper says that a U.S. citizen can be killed even when there is no “clear evidence that a specific attack on US persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”

President Obama further muddied the waters wen he said that we only strike at al Qaeda and associated forces; also, he flatly stated that “America does not take strikes to punish individuals.” Later, howeve,r, in the counterterrorism speech, he said that the decision to use force against individuals or groups is “the hardest thing I do.”

The Obama speech included an acknowledgment that the drone program kills civilians and he proposed a tougher policy, whereby a drone attack could not be made unless there was a “near-certainty” that civilians would not be harmed. Given, however, that U.S. military commanders and CIA drone operatives have insisted for years that utmost precautions are taken to prevent harm to civilians, “near-certainty” does not seem to be a real policy change.

Although Obama’s speech didn’t specify that “signature strikes” would end — strikes based on “patterns of life,” such as helping to unload ammunition from a truck — a White House Fact Sheet changes the current policy of defining as combatants all men of military age in the strike zone.

In summary, President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism speech repudiates much of what his administration has done and proposes pseudo policy changes that will allow him to carry out essentially the same counterterrorism policies he pursued in his first term.

*Although President Obama has contended that he has ended the use of torture and the authority for it, interviewed Afghan detainees have described interrogation methods of sleep deprivation and extreme temperature modification in CIA-operated prisons in Afghanistan during Obama’s presidency.

When President Obama led the effort to give detrainees more legal rights in the Military Commissions Act of 2009, the provision in the Military Commissions Act of 2006 that gives the president the authority to permit the CIA to use torture — enhanced interrogation — under national security grounds was not touched.

 

Bostonians Being Termed Especially Tough

Bostonians are being described as especially tough by both the media and Bostonians themselves in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. It is hard to make the case that the residents of an entire city are tougher than all other cities in the face of evil — the two bombings during the running of the Boston Marathon.

The toughness case rests largely on two happenings: the many residents who came out to cheer and applaud the first responders and law enforcement officers; and the mass singing of the National Anthem at sporting events. Lusty singing of the National Anthem was a feature of sporting events in the immediate wake of 9/11 and the line which drew the most boisterous reaction was: “and the bombs bursting in air.” A large majority of Americans wanted Afghanistan bombed for harboring terrorists. Mass singing of our jingoistic and militaristic National Anthem doesn’t denote toughness, not, certainly, the right kind of toughness. A year from now, Bostonians will probably be singing the National Anthem in the same manner they did before the bombings and their attitude toward protective forces will likely be no different than it was pre-bombings.

A look back at history shows that the “Southie” section of Boston was the focal point among northern states in resisting public school integration. Certainly, a large number of Bostonians did not show toughness in the face of the evil of educational segregation.

Raising this issue of toughness to the national level, a belief in American toughness is contradicted by what strong majorities of U.S. citizens allow to happen. Before the invasion of Iraq, various polls showed just a little over one-third of respondents supporting an invasion only if the UN Security Council sanctioned an invasion, or a large coalition had been put together to wage war. Yet, immediately after Iraq was invaded, with neither condition satisfied, about three-quarters or more of poll respondents supported the invasion. This phenomenom occurs every time the U.S. goes to war but the before and after polling gap on Iraq may have been more pronounced than usual.

One national poll found that 57 percent of respondents supported bombing Iran, despite the dire consequences likely to result from such an action.

In regard to firearms control, except for a ban on handguns, most proposed restrictions on firearms have found majority support in polling done over many years. Enhanced background checks before a firearms sale can be completed have been supported by about 9 out of ten respondents in recent polling. In regard to going to war and controlling firearms, the American people haven’t been tough enough in demanding that their country not participate in increasing the levels of violence.

I believe that too many issues get framed in the context of toughness, when the context should be wisdom. It is not wise for the United States to so often be involved in wars against nations that have not attacked it. It is not wise to continue the proliferation of firearms and not limit their destructive potential. Wisdom should aso attend how the general publiic perceives governmental spending. Polled Americans commonly say that they want the national government to sharply cut spending, yet when polled on specific programs, majorities don’t want them cut. A recent poll, for example, on about a dozen and a half programs or program areas, found that majorities wanted to cut spending only in regard to foreign aid — and that was a plurality, not a majority response. Foreign aid constitutes a tiny percentage of the federal budget.

If getting tough means being wise, then Americans need to be tougher and more reason-based in demanding their elected representatives chart wholly new directions for the nation.

Afghan Funding Is Deja Vu All Over Again

Last month the New York Times reported that the CIA dropped suitcases, packpacks and shopping bags full of money — tens of millions in cash — over a decade in a bid to purchase influence in Afghanistan. The cash instead  helped fuel Afghanistan’s raging corruption epidemic and empowered warloads, the Times says.

President Hamid Karzai said in a December 2008 press conference with President George W. Bush that the “international community wouldn’t leave” before “we have taken from President Bush and the next administration, billions and billiions of more dollars.” Bush replied to Karzai that he better hurry, because he, Bush, wasn’t going to be around much longer.

The revelation about the CIA’s lavish funding of the Karzai administration without accounting controls, brings to mind one of Yogi Berra’s most noted sayings. Berra, quoted often for his malapropisms that have bemused millions, once said: “It is deja vu all over again.”

When after the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, the U.S. Congress approved an aid package to Iraq, totaling about $18 billion, the legislation did not provide for a single additional auditor to account for how the money was distributed and spent. Much as the CIA transferred the Afghan money in suitcases, packpacks and shopping bags, stories began to appear about how the gusher of cash to Iraq was transported and stored. Greenbacks were found stuffed into cabinets, duffel bags and thrown into the backs of pickup trucks. Iraqi subcontractors were hired without adequate controls over their performance, leading to shoddy construction work, which began developing problems soon after a project was completed. Without adequate auditing controls, corruption became a major problem, as in Afghanistan, with U.S. military personnel implicated.

U.S. military officers in the field were even allocated bundles of money, which they could distribute on their own volition to fund local projects which they felt would help buy influence among the Iraqi people. No kind of experience, education nor training in the construction trades was required of these officers.

Since the New York Times article said that the CIA funding occurred over a decade’s time, it means that this is another area where a Barack Obama action emulated that of George W. Bush. It is a case of deja vu all over again.

War on Terror Veterans’ Trauma

The War on Terror has produced a number of adverse effects, both during combat and when veterans return to civilian life: these effects include post-traumatic stress disorder, serious depression, fear of social obtracism of those suffering from military sexual trauma,  high rates of abuse in the family and a frightening suicide rate.

About one-fifth of the veterans of the War on Terror have reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or serious depression; moreover, studies have shown that the military has saved $12.5 billion since 2001 by discharging soldiers diagnosed with personality disorder. [1] We can think back to the time when military doctors and psychiatrists were trying to relate claims of brains damaged in combat to an event that happened prior to the soldier entering one of the military services. There is little question that attempts to find an earlier cause of brain damage were motivated by a desire to exempt the government from paying for expensive long-term medical care.

It doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to believe that the repeated deployment of troops to combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan and long-term separation of husbands and wives, fathers and mothers from their children, puts a great strain on marriages, leading to higher rates of abuse. “Nationally, rates of child abuse have been three times higher in homes where a parent is deployed. Partner abuse rates are up 177 % in Army families since 2003.” [2]

Every day, the Veterans Administration estimates, 18 veterans commit suicide.  Veterans account for 10% of  the country’s adult population and 20% of the suicides. [3]

It isn’t likely that even the most dedicated efforts to solve these severe societal problems through bureaucratic structures and the work of committed professionals will make a major dent in these massive problems. Although Americans don’t hate war: they hate incompetent war, U.S. citizens must demand that their country abandon its proclivity to enter into war on such a frequent basis. Children eleven or under have never known a time when their nation has not been at war — and two wars for much of that time. Not only must we “study war no more” but we need to drastically reduce the size of our armed forces. Having fewer people in the military services will, in and of itself, reduce the level of destructive impacts on U.S. society.

  Footnotes

[1] Eli Jelly-Schariv, “The Crazy,” The Nation, October 20, 2012.

[2} Dan Butts, “War and Militarism Are Killing Us,” “Flash,” Peace Action of Michigan, 2013, Issue 1. (Much of this information comes from The Army Times).

[3] Schariv.

Estimated Military Assault Cases Spike

The Pentagon reported yesterday that estimated sexual assault cases have surged by 35 percent in two years. Using anonymous surveys and sampling research, the Pentagon estimated that 26,000 personnel experienced “unwanted sexual contact” last year, up from about 19,300 in 2010. The Pentagon recorded 3,374 sexual assault reports last year, up from 3,192 in 2011. In 2011 and 2012, fewer that one in 10 cases ended with a sexual assault conviction or court-martial. The vast majority resulted in minor administrtative punishments or were dismissed.

The latest report follows closely on the heels of the arrest of Lt.Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, who led the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Unit. Krusinski is charged with groping a woman in a parking lot.

Command responsibility has emerged as a major issue in sexual assault cases, whereby unit and base commanders decide which cases go to a court-martial, who sits on the jury and can overturn a conviction without needing to offer an explanation. Senators Kristen Gillibrand and Claire McCaskill have taken the lead to change the existing system. Among the recommendations to reform the system are: 1) have a special office in which experienced prosecutors make the decisions in which reported sexual assault cases go to trial; 2) remove the power of commanders to overturn  verdicts; and 3) give service members access to civil courts.

The issue of command responsibility came to wide public notice with the highly publicized case of Lt. Gen Craig A. Franklin, commander of the Third Air Force in Europe, who overturned the sexual assault conviction of a star fighter pilot. Another Air Force officer, Lt. Gen. Susan J. Helms, a former astronaut, tossed out the conviction  for aggravated sexual assault of a captain at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

President Barack Obama has vowed to redouble efforts to get a handle on the Pentagon’s dismal sexual assault record, because he says it besmirches the very uniforms worn by members of the military services; however, Pentagon failures don’t seem to be for lack of trying. I previously blogged on a hearing conducted by Senator Kristen Gillibrand, in which beribboned officers told of the extraordinary efforts they are making to significantly reduce the instances of “unwanted sexual contact.” Each of the military services has a sexual assault prevention and response office and the Pentagon has an office of its own. Moreover, the general counsel of the Department of Defense testified that he was under a mandate to provide a report on what he is doing to address the sexual assault problem.

Some lawmakers say the many instances of sexual abuse in the military services constitutes a cultural problem and a high military official testified before Congress that the blame should fall on a “hook-up” culture. However, a caller to a talk show may have hit on another source of the problem: she spoke of how oppressive military life is, with troops being assigned multiple times to combat zones. Because the troops feel so powerless to have any control over their situations, the only power they can exercise is to abuse their fellow soldiers. This is only one person’s theory but it does seem to have some plausibility.

Salvaging Tiger Wood’s Reputation

The Augusta Masters’ tournament features the latest attempt to salvage Tiger Wood’s golfing reputation. During the second round, Wood’s shot hit the flag on the fifthteenth hole and the ball bounced back into the water. Wood had to take a one-stroke penalty and hit his next shot from the drop circle. Later, after a caller apparently called the tournament committee, alerting it to a possible violation, and after Wood admitted in an interview that he had deliberately dropped the ball two yards back from where, in golfing parlance, the ball “crossed the margin” — two yards in front of where he had actually dropped it, the committee convened the next morning and assessed Wood a two-stroke penalty, on top of the required one-stroke penalty for hitting the ball out-of-bounds.

Subsequently, some of those who were argunig against disqualification of Tiger Wood for signing an incorrect score card, emphasized that photographs showed that his drop may have been only six inches behind where he should have dropped the ball. Other commentators were stressing a relatively new rule, which allows the tournament committee to rule against disqualification under certain conditions. The crucial rule that hasn’t changed is disqualification for signing an incorrect score card. Wood had admitted that he deliberately dropped the ball two yards back from the designated drop point in order to better control his distance on the next shot. Thus, Wood admitted that he signed a score card that he knew to be incorrect and the rule required him to disqualify himself. A pro golfer tweeted that Wood was saying that he was bigger than the golf game and that he could, with impunity, disregard rules that would be applied to all other golfers.

Switching to discussion of Tiger Wood’s golfing future, I feel the epitome of  predicting a bright future for Wood in the face of contrasting information, occurred at Augusta, when a veteran golf analyst initially said the biggest part of Wood’s failure to win at Augusta was that he was only four strokes under par on the par 5’s. Right after the analyst commented on the par 5’s, he said he thought Wood had a good chance of winning the U.S. Open at Meridian, because it is a short course where Wood could hit irons off the tee. So right after saying that a key feature of Wood winning majors was his long drives off the tee, leading to eagles and an occasional eagle on the par 5’s, the analyst said a shorter driving course was to Wood’s advantage. This kind of analysis comes under the category of “we’ll always find reasons why Tiger Wood should win the next major” — even though he hasn’t won a major in five years.

Next, the anlayst went on to propose that Wood was going to have a good chance of winning the British Open and the PGA major. It has been several years since Wood won the British Open and he missed the cut two or three years ago. Last year, Wood was not in contention on Sunday at the British Open and even though Adam Scott — in the lead at the time — bogeyed the last four holes, Wood finished behind Scott and the winner, Ernie Els.

As for Tiger Wood winning the PGA tournament, it is usually played on a par 70 or 71 course, meaning that there are fewer par 5’s to play, thus reducing an important Wood advantage.

The analyst at Augusta also stressed the fact that Wood has finished in the top five several times since he last won a major. What he didn’t say was that Wood was not in a good position to win on Sunday at several of the majors. When Phil Michelson won his last major at Augusta, Tiger Wood finished well behind him, and was caught and passed by Anthony Kim. K.J. Choi, who, I believe, started either behind or tied with Wood at the Sunday start, finished tied with Wood.

It has long been the case that golf commentators have grossly overused the terms, “Tiger lurking,” “Tiger on the hunt,” and “Tiger charging.” The fact is, as many of these commentators concede, that Wood has never won a major when he trailed going into the final Sunday. There is a reason why Wood doesn’t come from behind in majors: both Wood and his former caddy, Steve — now the caddy for Adam Scott — explained how Wood plays the majors. Wood and his caddy determine beforehand where on the green Wood should have his approach shot land to avoid a bogey. This is a cautious strategy that assumes or hopes that the winning score will be close to even par. It is not a strategy that works when the winning score is well under par. Phil Michelson was -16 in his last win at Augusta and Rory McElroy outshot the entire field by eight strokes in his last win at a major.

One other factor that will make it difficult for Wood to win more majors is the emergence of exceptionally talented young players and some who are older but still younger than Wood. Among the golfers who are younger than 25, the most talented might be Rory McElroy and Jason Day. Not far behind them are Rickie Fowler and Keegan Bradley. Among those over 25, the most formidable challlengers might be Dustin Johnson and Adam Scott. Scott held or tied the lead on Sunday in two majors and won this year in Augusta.

 

 

Overruling Science on Morning After Pill

The morning after pill has been a subject of great controversy during Barack Obama’s presidency and compromise has been the way of dealing with it. The first compromise was reached in 2009, when the Food and Drug Administration ruled that the pill must be kept behind the pharmacy counter and only those 17 years of age or older could obtain the pill.

The controversy was reignited when a federal judge recently ruled that females of any age should have access to the pill and access would take place 30 days after the ruling. The judge ruled that the scientific evidence shows that taking the pill is not harmful regardless of the age of the person taking it; moreover, he labeled the existing age restrictions as political in nature.

The Food and Drug Administration reacted by ordering that the pill should be taken from behind the counter and displayed on shelves just like any other product especially designed for women’s products. Moreover, the sale of the pill will be restricted to those aged 15 or older. Photo ID will be required.

In defending the FDA decision, President Obama mentioned that he had teenage daughters and the pill represented a difficult decision within the family. In doing so, he reflected the views of many parents who want a role in the pregnancy decisions of their daughters. Obama, I feel, has an unfortunate predilection for mentioning his family in connection with policy issues affecting the whole society. The impression he creates is that the effect on his family is a more important consideration than the impact on the general society.

The downside in setting a minimum age for access to the morning after pill is that pregnancies are sure to result among children under the age of 15, who could have avoided the pregnancy through access to the pill. Pregnancies among the very young seem to me to be a greater societal problem than would restricting parental involvement in their daughters’ reproductive decision-making. Also, having a baby at a very young age dims the educational and employment prospects of the mother.

Class and economic-status issues enter into the decision to set the minimum age of pill access to 15. The poor and near-poor children are less likely to have the required photo ID for proof of age. These same children are less likely to be able to afford the pill; although cost would be a consideration regardless of the age of the child. Planned Parenthood puts the cost of the pill in a range of $10 to $70 but a woman’s reproductive rights advocate appearing on this morning’s Bill Press Show put the average cost at $50.

Taking everything into consideration, the best decision would have been to follow the scientific consensus on pill safety and make the morning after pill available to anyone faced with the prospect of an unwanted pregnancy.