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Why the Media Are Ignoring the Afghanistan Papers

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Alex Shephard writes in the New Republic:

This week, The Washington Post published the Afghanistan Papers, an extensive review of thousands of pages of internal government documents relating to the war in Afghanistan. Like the Pentagon Papers, which showcased the lies underpinning the Vietnam War, the Post’s investigation shows that U.S. officials, across three presidential administrations, intentionally and systematically misled the American public for 18 years and counting. As Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1974, told CNN earlier this week, the Pentagon and Afghanistan Papers revealed the same dynamic: “The presidents and the generals had a pretty realistic view of what they were up against, which they did not want to admit to the American people.”

The documents are an indictment not only of one aspect of American foreign policy, but also of the U.S.’s entire policymaking apparatus. They reveal a bipartisan consensus to lie about what was actually happening in Afghanistan: chronic waste and chronic corruption, one ill-conceived development scheme after another, resulting in a near-unmitigated failure to bring peace and prosperity to the country. Both parties had reason to engage in the cover-up. For the Bush administration, Afghanistan was a key component in the war on terror. For the Obama administration, Afghanistan was the “good war” that stood in contrast to the nightmare in Iraq.

The Afghanistan Papers are, in other words, a bombshell. Yet the report has received scant attention from the broader press. Neither NBC nor ABC covered the investigation in their nightly broadcasts this week. In other outlets, it has been buried beneath breathless reporting on the latest developments in the impeachment saga, Joe Biden’s purported pledge to serve only one term, and world leaders’ pathological envy of a 16-year-old girl.

The relentless news cycle that characterizes Donald Trump’s America surely deserves some blame: This isn’t the first time that a consequential news story has been buried under an avalanche of other news stories. But one major reason that the Afghanistan Papers have received so comparatively little coverage is that everyone is to blame, which means no one has much of an interest in keeping the story alive. There are no hearings, few press gaggles.

George W. Bush started the Afghanistan War and botched it in plenty of ways, not least by starting another war in Iraq. But Barack Obama, despite his obvious skepticism of the war effort, exacerbated Bush’s mistakes by bowing to the Washington foreign policy blob and authorizing a pointless troop surge. Now, although both Democrats and Donald Trump seem to be on the same page about getting the U.S. out of Afghanistan, there has been little progress with peace talks. The pattern across administrations is that any movement toward resolution is usually met with a slow slide back into the status quo, a.k.a. quagmire.

The political press loves the idea of bipartisan cooperation, which plays into a notion of American greatness and its loss. It also thrives on partisan conflict, because conflict drives narrative. It doesn’t really know what to do with bipartisan failure.

During the impeachment hearings, news outlets gleefully covered the conflict between Trump and members of the foreign policy establishment, holding up the latter as selfless bureaucrats working tirelessly and anonymously on behalf of the American interest, in contrast with the feckless and narcissistic head of the executive branch. The Afghanistan Papers don’t provide that kind of easy contrast; they demand a kind of holistic condemnation, in which Trump and those bureaucrats are part of the same problem.

The media also has a long-standing bias toward “new” news. The Afghanistan War has been a catastrophic failure for nearly two decades. Because little changes, there is little to report that will excite audiences. (Though the Afghanistan Papers are startling, they are hardly surprising.) Given that the president is the greatest supplier of “new” news in recent history—his Twitter feed alone powers MSNBC most days—more complex stories, like the situation in Afghanistan, are often buried in favor of the political equivalent of sports sideline reporting.

The result is that this massive controversy receives disproportionately little coverage. Despite wasting thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars, everyone in the U.S. government gets off scot-free. . .

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It is increasingly difficult to see how the US can get back on track. Too many different forces have motivation to stay the current course, which leads directly over a cliff.

Blood Money

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Judd Legum writes at Popular Information:

In the wake of a deadly mass shooting by a member of the Saudi Air Force training at a U.S. military base, Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo became virtual spokespersons for the Saudi regime.

On December 6, Trump tweeted a summary of his call with King Salman, which read like a press release from the Saudi government:

King Salman of Saudi Arabia just called to express his sincere condolences and give his sympathies to the families and friends of the warriors who were killed and wounded in the attack. The King said that the Saudi people are greatly angered by the barbaric actions of the shooter, and that this person in no way shape or form represents the feelings of the Saudi people who love the American people.

The next day, Pompeo tweeted a similar message summarizing his call with the Saudi foreign minister.

It is part of a disturbing pattern where, in the face of atrocities linked to the Saudi government, Trump and his administration operate as a propaganda arm for the Saudi regime.

Echos of Khashoggi

Trump’s response to a mass murder at a U.S. naval base by a member of the Saudi Air Force mirrors his response to the brutal murder of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Shortly after Khashoggi’s murder, Trump sent Pompeo to Saudi Arabia, where he “greeted King Salman with a warm handshake, smiling as the cameras flashed.”

After the meeting, Pompeo released a statement thanking “the King for his commitment to supporting a thorough, transparent and timely investigation.”

Shortly thereafter, as evidence of the Saudi government’s role in the murder mounted, Pompeo released another statement praising the Saudi regime: “My assessment from these meetings is that there is serious commitment to determine all the facts and ensure accountability, including … for Saudi Arabia’s senior leaders or senior officials.”

Trump also took to Twitter to defend Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). “Just spoke with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia who totally denied any knowledge of what took place in their Turkish Consulate,” Trump said last October.

In an interview with the AP, Trump compared the treatment of MBS to Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual assault before being confirmed to the Supreme Court.

“Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent. I don’t like that. We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh and he was innocent all the way as far as I’m concerned,” Trump said. In November, the CIA concluded that MBS ordered Khashoggi’s assassination, but Trump never stopped defending MBS and the Saudi government.

The murder of Khashoggi was not an isolated incident. The Saudi government has “detained or disappeared hundreds of activists and political opponents.”

Why is the United States training members of the Saudi Air Force?

The shooter was identified as Second Lt. Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani. He “initially entered the United States in 2017, when his training with the United States military began.” He first “attended language school at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas” before continuing his training in Pensacola, Florida.

The mass shooting shines a spotlight on a larger question: Why is the United States training members of the Saudi Air Force, which has been targeting civilians in Yemen?

The air war in Yemen “has killed thousands of Yemeni civilians since 2015.” The Saudi-led coalition has been accused of waging “indiscriminate attacks.” Last March, “mourners in northern Yemen…buried 17 civilians, including nine children.” In addition to training, the United States “provides the warplanes, munitions and intelligence used in many of those strikes.”

“[I]f your partner appears consistently unwilling to comply with international law, or to minimize harm to civilian life, then at some point you should not be partnering with them at all, as is clearly the case for Yemen,” Kristine Beckerle, legal director of the human rights group Mwatana, said last May.

Trump uses veto pen to protect Saudis

Disturbed by the Khashoggi assassination and the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, a bipartisan coalition in Congress took action this year to try to curtail the Trump administration’s unflinching support of the Saudi regime.

In response, Trump repeatedly used his veto powers to protect the Saudi government. In July, Trump “vetoed a series of measures approved by bipartisan lawmakers that were aimed at blocking the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia.” The resolutions were a response to Trump’s decision in May to declare an emergency “to bypass Congress and expedite billions of dollars in arms sales to various countries — including Saudi Arabia.”

In April, Trump “vetoed a bill passed by Congress to end support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.” The Senate held a vote to override the veto, which garnered 53 votes, including seven Republicans, but ultimately did not receive the required super-majority of 67 votes.

Trump’s extraordinary offer to the Saudis

Trump has shown extraordinary deference to the Saudi regime in a variety of circumstances. In September, after an attack on a Saudi oil facility briefly disrupted 5% of the world’s crude oil supply, Trump pledged to retaliate on behalf of the Saudis, as soon as he received instructions from the Saudi government. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 December 2019 at 8:52 pm

The Daily 202: The Afghanistan Papers show the corrosive consequences of letting corruption go unchecked

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A lesson the US should heed for itself. James Hohmann writes in the Washington Post:

THE BIG IDEA: A toxic mix of U.S. government policies, under the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, directly contributed to Afghanistan’s descent into one of the world’s most corrupt countries.

U.S. leaders said publicly that they had no tolerance for corruption in Afghanistan, but that was one of several topics related to the war effort on which they systematically misled the public, according to a trove of confidential government interviews obtained by The Washington Post.

American representatives often looked the other way at egregious and brazen graft, so long as the offenders were considered allies. Congress appropriated vast sums of money, which was handed out with little oversight or recordkeeping. The ensuing greed and corruption undermined the legitimacy of the nascent government and helped make the ground more fertile for the Taliban’s resurgence.

“The basic assumption was that corruption is an Afghan problem and we are the solution. But there is one indispensable ingredient for corruption — money — and we were the ones who had the money,” said Barnett Rubin, a former senior State Department adviser and a New York University professor.

The adage is as true in Afghanistan as America: Follow the money.

“Our biggest single project, sadly and inadvertently, of course, may have been the development of mass corruption,” said Ryan Crocker, who twice served as the top U.S. diplomat in Kabul, in 2002 and again from 2011 to 2012. “Once it gets to the level I saw, when I was out there, it’s somewhere between unbelievably hard and outright impossible to fix it. … The corruption was so entrenched and so much a part of the lifestyle of the establishment writ broadly…”

Crocker told interviewers from the government that he felt “a sense of futility”: “I was struck by something [then-president Hamid] Karzai said and repeated a number of times during my tenure, which is that the West, led by the U.S., in his clear view, had a significant responsibility to bear for the whole corruption issue,” he explained. “I always thought Karzai had a point, that you just cannot put those amounts of money into a very fragile state and society, and not have it fuel corruption. … You just can’t.”

— The comments from Crocker and Rubin are included among more than 2,000 pages of previously private notes from research conducted by U.S. government investigators. More than 400 people who played a direct role in the war, from generals to diplomats and aid workers, were questioned about what went wrong. The interviews were conducted by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction between 2014 and 2018 for a “Lessons Learned” project. A report outlined the conclusions in broad brushstrokes in 2016, but a lot of the most noteworthy material was held back. The Post has fought a three-year legal battle, which is ongoing, to get these documents out under the Freedom of Information Act so that the American people can see for themselves what’s been going on.

John Sopko, the head of the federal agency that conducted the interviews, acknowledged in an interview with Craig Whitlock that the records show “the American people have constantly been lied to.” Whitlock has written a six-part series dissecting all the documents. (You can start with Part One here.)

— A key theme underlying many of the most candid interviews is that a short-term focus on maintaining security led to compromises that started small but became bigger and bigger. It’s a cautionary tale that can be cross-applied to a host of other challenges facing the United States.

Gert Berthold, a forensic accountant who served on a military task force in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2012, analyzed 3,000 Defense Department contracts worth $106 billion. He said they calculated that about 40 percent of the money ended up in the pockets of insurgents, criminal syndicates or corrupt Afghan officials. But former government ministers told them it was higher. Berthold said few U.S. officials wanted to hear about the evidence they uncovered: “No one wanted accountability,” he said. “If you’re going to do anti-corruption, someone has got to own it. From what I’ve seen, no one is willing to own it.”

Christopher Kolenda, a retired Army colonel who deployed to Afghanistan several times and advised three U.S. generals in charge of the war, said the Afghan government led by Karzai had “self-organized into a kleptocracy” by 2006. “I like to use a cancer analogy,” the colonel told his government interviewers. “Petty corruption is like skin cancer; there are ways to deal with it and you’ll probably be just fine. Corruption within the ministries, higher level, is like colon cancer; it’s worse, but if you catch it in time, you’re probably ok. Kleptocracy, however, is like brain cancer; it’s fatal.

— A lot of important information is still being concealed by the government. While the agency has turned over previously unpublished notes and transcripts from 428 of more than 600 interviews that were conducted, these documents identify only 62 of the people who were interviewed by their names. The names of 366 others are blacked out. A decision by a federal judge is pending in response to a motion to disclose the other names. But The Post chose to publish what it has now, instead of waiting for the judge to rule on the rest, because these records could contribute to the civic discourse over President Trump’s negotiations with the Taliban and the debate over whether to withdraw the 13,000 U.S. troops who remain in Afghanistan, which has become a flashpoint in the 2020 campaign.

The Post attempted to contact for comment everyone whom it was able to identify as having given an interview as part of the project. (Their responses are compiled here.)

— Here are five of the most striking quotes about corruption from people whose identities are still redacted in the interview summaries:

1. An unnamed senior U.S. diplomat said the early years were “a dark space” with “not much documentation” about who we were giving cash. “We had partnerships with all the wrong players,” this diplomat lamented during an interview in August 2015. “The U.S. is still standing shoulder-to-shoulder with these people, even through all these years. It’s a case of security trumping everything else.”

2. From another unnamed senior U.S. official: “Our money was empowering a lot of bad people. There was massive resentment among the Afghan people. And we were the most corrupt here, so had no credibility on the corruption issue.”

3. From a former National Security Council staffer: “In the beginning, the military kept saying that corruption was an unfortunate short-term side effect then toward the end the feeling was ‘Oh, my God, this could derail the whole thing.’”

4. An unnamed State Department official said that U.S. officials were “so desperate to have the alcoholics to the table, we kept pouring drinks, not knowing [or] considering we were killing them.” This person said that the Americans “had no red lines” for cutting off corrupt partners. “We didn’t spend the money effectively and didn’t consider the implications,” this person told government interviewers. “We wanted to keep the country afloat, not to let the country be a safe haven for the Taliban and al Qaeda.”

5. An unidentified government contractor said his job was to distribute $3 million in taxpayer money each day for projects in an Afghan district roughly the size of a U.S. county. He recalled asking a visiting congressman whether the lawmaker could responsibly spend that kind of money back home: “He said hell no. ‘Well, sir, that’s what you just obligated us to spend and I’m doing it for communities that live in mud huts with no windows.’”

— So often, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Chapter four of Whitlock’s six-part series is a narrative, as told through these interviews, of how Afghanistan became consumed by corruption: “About halfway into the 18-year war, Afghans stopped hiding how corrupt their country had become. Dark money sloshed all around. Afghanistan’s largest bank liquefied into a cesspool of fraud. Travelers lugged suitcases loaded with $1 million, or more, on flights leaving Kabul. … Karzai won reelection after cronies stuffed thousands of ballot boxes. He later admitted the CIA had delivered bags of cash to his office for years, calling it ‘nothing unusual.’ … According to the interviews, the CIA, the U.S. military, the State Department and other agencies used cash and lucrative contracts to win the allegiance of Afghan warlords in the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. …

In 2002 and 2003, when Afghan tribal councils gathered to write a new constitution, the U.S. government gave ‘nice packages’ to delegates who supported Washington’s preferred stance on human rights and women’s rights, according to a U.S. official who served in Kabul at the time. ‘The perception that was started in that period: If you were going to vote for a position that [Washington] favored, you’d be stupid to not get a package for doing it,’ the unnamed official told government interviewers. By the time Afghanistan held parliamentary elections in 2005, that perception had hardened. Lawmakers realized their votes could be worth thousands of dollars to the Americans, even for legislation they would have backed anyway … ‘People would tell each other, so-and-so has just been to the U.S. Embassy and got this money. They said ‘ok now I need to go,’’ the U.S. official said. ‘So from the beginning, their experience with democracy was one in which money was deeply embedded.’”

On Aug. 20, 2009, Afghans went to the polls to choose a president. … Right away, reports surfaced of electoral fraud on an epic scale — ghost voting, official miscounting, ballot-box stuffing, plus violence and intimidation at the polls. Initial results showed Karzai, the incumbent, had won. But his opponents, and many independent observers, accused his side of trying to steal the election. A U.N.-backed panel investigated and determined Karzai had received about 1 million illegal votes, a quarter of all those cast. The outcome put Obama administration officials in a box. They had said corruption was intolerable but also had promised to respect Afghan sovereignty and not interfere with the election. Moreover, they did not want to completely alienate Karzai. If there was another vote, many saw him as the likely victor anyway. In the end, the Obama administration brokered a deal in which Karzai was declared the winner after he agreed to share some power with his main rival. …

Peter Galbraith, a Karzai critic who served as a deputy U.N. envoy to Afghanistan in 2009, was removed from his post after he complained that the United Nations was helping cover up the extent of the election fraud. An American, Galbraith told government interviewers that the U.S. government also stood by when Karzai appointed cronies to election boards and anti-corruption posts.”

It got worse in 2010: “Kabul Bank, the country’s biggest, nearly collapsed under the weight of $1 billion in fraudulent loans — an amount equal to one-twelfth of the country’s entire economic output the year before. The Afghan government engineered an emergency bailout to stem a run on the bank as angry crowds lined up to withdraw their savings. Investigators soon determined Kabul Bank had falsified its books to hide hundreds of millions of dollars in unsecured loans to politically connected business executives, including the president’s brother Mahmoud Karzai and the family of Fahim Khan, the warlord then serving as the country’s first vice president. ‘On a scale of one to 10, it was a 20 here,’ an unnamed U.S. Treasury Department official posted to Kabul as an Afghan government adviser told interviewers. ‘It had elements that you could put into a spy novel, and the connections between people who owned Kabul Bank and those who run the country.’ …

“At first, in public and in private, the Obama administration leaned on Karzai to fully investigate the Kabul Bank scandal — not only to recover the stolen money but also to demonstrate to the Afghan people that no one was above the law. … For about a year after the scandal became public, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, led by then-Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, made the case a top priority and pressed Karzai to take action, three former officials told government interviewers. But they said the embassy backed off after Eikenberry was replaced by Ryan Crocker in July 2011. … Crocker, as well as U.S. military commanders and others in Washington, did not want to risk alienating Karzai, because they needed his support as tens of thousands of additional U.S. soldiers arrived in the war zone. They also said Crocker and his allies did not want Congress or international donors to use the bank scandal as an excuse to cut off aid to Kabul.” . ..

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Written by LeisureGuy

9 December 2019 at 1:07 pm

At War With the Truth in Afghanistan

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Craig Whitlock has a special report in the Washington Post:

A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.

The documents were generated by a federal project examining the root failures of the longest armed conflict in U.S. history. They include more than 2,000 pages of previously unpublished notes of interviews with people who played a direct role in the war, from generals and diplomats to aid workers and Afghan officials.

The U.S. government tried to shield the identities of the vast majority of those interviewed for the project and conceal nearly all of their remarks. The Post won release of the documents under the Freedom of Information Act after a three-year legal battle.

In the interviews, more than 400 insiders offered unrestrained criticism of what went wrong in Afghanistan and how the United States became mired in nearly two decades of warfare.

With a bluntness rarely expressed in public, the interviews lay bare pent-up complaints, frustrations and confessions, along with second-guessing and backbiting.

“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015. He added: “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”

“If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction . . . 2,400 lives lost,” Lute added, blaming the deaths of U.S. military personnel on bureaucratic breakdowns among Congress, the Pentagon and the State Department. “Who will say this was in vain?”

Since 2001, more than 775,000 U.S. troops have deployed to Afghanistan, many repeatedly. Of those, 2,300 died there and 20,589 were wounded in action, according to Defense Department figures.

The interviews, through an extensive array of voices, bring into sharp relief the core failings of the war that persist to this day. They underscore how three presidents — George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump — and their military commanders have been unable to deliver on their promises to prevail in Afghanistan.

With most speaking on the assumption that their remarks would not become public, U.S. officials acknowledged that their warfighting strategies were fatally flawed and that Washington wasted enormous sums of money trying to remake Afghanistan into a modern nation.

The interviews also highlight the U.S. government’s botched attempts to curtail runaway corruption, build a competent Afghan army and police force, and put a dent in Afghanistan’s thriving opium trade.

The U.S. government has not carried out a comprehensive accounting of how much it has spent on the war in Afghanistan, but the costs are staggering.

Since 2001, the Defense Department, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development have spent or appropriated between $934 billion and $978 billion, according to an inflation-adjusted estimate calculated by Neta Crawford, a political science professor and co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University.

Those figures do not include money spent by other agencies such as the CIA and the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is responsible for medical care for wounded veterans.

“What did we get for this $1 trillion effort? Was it worth $1 trillion?” Jeffrey Eggers, a retired Navy SEAL and White House staffer for Bush and Obama, told government interviewers. He added, “After the killing of Osama bin Laden, I said that Osama was probably laughing in his watery grave considering how much we have spent on Afghanistan.”

The documents also contradict a long chorus of public statements from U.S. presidents, military commanders and diplomats who assured Americans year after year that they were making progress in Afghanistan and the war was worth fighting. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

The US has been betrayed by its leaders.

The sidebar has useful links:

THE AFGHANISTAN PAPERS: At war with the truth

INTERVIEWS AND MEMOS – Key insiders speak bluntly about the failures of the longest conflict in U.S. history

POST REPORTS – Hear candid interviews with former ambassador Ryan Crocker and retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn<

THE FIGHT FOR THE DOCUMENTS – It took three years and two federal lawsuits for The Post to pry loose 2,000 pages of interview records

PART 1 – U.S. officials constantly said they were making progress. They were not, and they knew it.

PART 2 – Bush and Obama had polar-opposite plans to win the war. Both were destined to fail.

PART 3 – Despite vows the U.S. wouldn’t get mired in “nation-building,” it has wasted billions doing just that

PART 4 – The U.S. flooded the country with money — then turned a blind eye to the graft it fueled

PART 5 – Afghan security forces, despite years of training, were dogged by incompetence and corruption

PART 6 – The U.S. war on drugs in Afghanistan has imploded at nearly every turn

Interviewees respond

Share your story about the war

Written by LeisureGuy

9 December 2019 at 12:53 pm

Burgess Meredith tells GIs in 1943 how to behave in a pub

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Written by LeisureGuy

27 November 2019 at 2:47 pm

Posted in Army, Military, Video

Trump’s Retribution Against the Washington Post Owner Is His Gravest Abuse of Power

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Jonathan Chait writes in New York:

The saga of President Trump’s reprisals against Amazon has lurked on the margin of the news, largely overshadowed by the Ukraine scandal. Late Thursday night, Amazon revealed it had filed a protest in federal court of a Pentagon decision to deny it a $10 billion cloud-computing contract, the most recent piecemeal iteration of a saga that attracted precious little media attention even before the Ukraine scandal obscured it.

Yet the story here is almost certainly a massive scandal, probably more significant than the Ukraine scandal that spurred impeachment proceedings. Trump improperly used government policy to punish the owner of an independent newspaper as retribution for critical coverage. It resembles the Ukraine scandal because it is a flagrant abuse of power, and has been hiding in plain sight for months (as the Ukraine scandal did, until a whistle-blower report leaked in September). The scale of the abuse, though, is far more serious, because it is a concrete manifestation of Trump’s authoritarian ambitions.

Coverage of this story has implicitly extended Trump the benefit of the doubt by treating his hatred of Amazon’s owner and the Defense Department’s decision to spurn Amazon as presumably disconnected. There is not yet any smoking gun proof that Trump interfered improperly. It is possible, however unlikely, that the Pentagon acted completely at arm’s length from any political consideration, and the result just happened to comport with Trump’s desire to punish Jeff Bezos.

But even the appearance of impropriety ought to amount to a far larger scandal than it has been treated so far. The external evidence alone is incredibly damning, sufficient on its own to constitute an impeachable offense.

Starting in 2015, Trump raged at critical coverage in the Washington Post, and immediately connected it to the economic interests of its owner.

By 2016 Trump had gone from implicitly threatening to harm Amazon’s interests to threatening this explicitly. “If I become president, oh do they have problems. They’re going to have such problems,” he warned, presciently, in February 2016. A few months later, Sean Hannity asked about critical reporting in the Post. Trump’s response was telling. He weaved back and forth between denouncing the Post and denouncing Amazon, treating the two as interchangeable:

It’s interesting that you say that, because every hour we’re getting calls from reporters from the Washington Post asking ridiculous questions. And I will tell you. This is owned as a toy by Jeff Bezos, who controls Amazon. Amazon is getting away with murder, tax-wise. He’s using the Washington Post for power. So that the politicians in Washington don’t tax Amazon like they should be taxed. He’s getting absolutely away — he’s worried about me, and I think he said that to somebody … it was in some article, where he thinks I would go after him for antitrust. Because he’s got a huge antitrust problem because he’s controlling so much. Amazon is controlling so much of what they’re doing.

And what they’ve done is he bought this paper for practically nothing. And he’s using that as a tool for political power against me and against other people. And I’ll tell you what: We can’t let him get away with it. So he’s got about 20, 25 — I just heard they’re taking these really bad stories — I mean, they, you know, wrong, I wouldn’t even say bad. They’re wrong. And in many cases they have no proper information.

And they’re putting them together, they’re slopping them together. And they’re gonna do a book. And the book is gonna be all false stuff because the stories are so wrong. And the reporters — I mean, one after another — so what they’re doing is he’s using that as a political instrument to try and stop antitrust, which he thinks I believe he’s antitrust, in other words, what he’s got is a monopoly. And he wants to make sure I don’t get in. So, it’s one of those things.

But I’ll tell you what. I’ll tell you what. What he’s doing’s wrong. And the people are being — the whole system is rigged. You see a case like that. The whole system is rigged. Whether it’s Hillary or whether it’s Bezos.

What’s revealing is the ease and frequency with which Trump weaves back and forth. If you are charting his rant, it goes Washington Post-Amazon-Washington Post-Amazon-Washington Post-Amazon-Washington Post-Amazon. In Trump’s mind, they are the same.

As president, Trump has continued denouncing the Post and its owner, and publicly floating policies to exact his revenge. Sometimes he has claimed Amazon is getting away with avoiding “internet taxes”:

Other times he has framed the issue as generous postal rates:

The former complaint is totally false, the latter only exaggerated. But neither is made in anything resembling good faith. Both clearly showed Trump casting about for a policy rationale to justify the motive he had already revealed.

In March of 2018, five sources who have discussed the issue with Trump described him as “obsessed with Amazon,” according to a report by Jonathan Swan. Another report the next month by Gabriel Sherman provided more detail about Trump’s thinking. Four sources close to the White House told Sherman not only that Trump is obsessed with punishing Bezos and Amazon (“He gets obsessed with something, and now he’s obsessed with Bezos,” one source said. “Trump is like, how can I fuck with him?”), but floated for the first time using the Pentagon as the vehicle to do this. “Advisers are also encouraging Trump to cancel Amazon’s pending multibillion contract with the Pentagon to provide cloud-computing services,” Sherman’s sources reported.

Guy Snodgrass, a former speechwriter to Defense Secretary James Matthis, writes in his new book that in the summer of 2018, Trump ordered Mattis to “screw Amazon” by denying it the contract. Snodgrass records that Mattis pushed back on this request. And it is common for Trump or his advisers to consider wild, dangerous, or criminal schemes they ultimately don’t follow through on. Yet the fact is that the Pentagon did deny Amazon the cloud-computing contract after what the New York Times called a “highly unusual, last-minute intervention by President Trump.” And that denial came as a shock to analysts, who considered Amazon the prohibitive favorite to win the bid. The firm is the country’s largest cloud provider and had already built a cloud for the CIA.

On their face, the publicly reported facts of this case lay out a gigantic scandal. The president intervened to deny a federal contract to a firm he publicly and privately vowed to punish because its owner also owns a newspaper whose coverage angered him. The most generous possible interpretation of these facts is that Trump somehow came to believe some merit-based reason to deny Amazon the contract. But this scenario would presuppose that Trump is able to ignore his intense personal animus toward a principal figure in the dispute and form a judgment abstracted from his political interests — the kind of thinking even Trump’s defenders would largely concede he is almost incapable of.

And even this virtually-unimaginable scenario would still amount to a massive abuse of power. After all, Trump has vowed retribution against Bezos over the Post’s coverage, and then delivered a punishing blow to his firm. His actions made the threat credible.  . .

Continue reading.

The US is rushing toward tyranny, and the Republican Party is doing all it can to protect Trump and speed the process.

The column concludes:

Amazon’s suit may or may not expose the process that led the Pentagon to its decision. Trump is reasonably good at hiding evidence, banishing note-takers from his presence, using code words and funneling his shadiest orders through intermediaries.

Whatever the outcome, though, Trump has already taken his largest step toward the kind of democratic backsliding engineered by Orban in Hungary and Erdogan in Turkey (two strongmen he admires). He has turned the power of the state into a weapon of intimidation against the free press. Clever conservatives have defended Trump’s abuses for years by insisting he is too incompetent to be an effective authoritarian. They have used a version of that defense in the Ukraine scandal — he attempted to use American diplomatic might for his political gain, but failed. Here, though, Trump set out to abuse his powers of office to intimidate the media, and succeeded. What are we going to do about it?

Written by LeisureGuy

23 November 2019 at 5:53 pm

Blame Over Justice: The Human Toll of the Navy’s Relentless Push to Punish One of Its Own

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Conservatives gravitate to strongly hierarchical organizations, which fit well with their primary values of in-group loyalty and respect for authority, whereas liberals gravitate to the looser structure of diverse and egalitarian organizations.

A hierarchical organization is in general more efficient than an organization that depends on group consensus, and a hierarchical organization has obvious advantages for the military: in battle, there’s no time for group discussions to gain agreement. Moreover, and somewhat morbidly, if the commander is killed, the succeeding commander must be immediately recognized and accepted by all so that s/he can immediately take the reins and direct forces in battle — because a battle is no place for an open and democratic election. When the commander falls, the highest ranked person with seniority in that rank is the new commander. This is an efficient algorithm, and it is easily applied in the event that commanders successively fall: there’s always a highest rank left (even if but a non-commissioned officer) and one person of that rank will have seniority.

But strongly hierarchical organizations have disadvantages as well. As Lord Acton observed, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and as one’s position in a hierarchy ascends, his or her power increases. Self-protection is a human impulse, and when things go bad for someone, it is tempting to push the blame elsewhere. A person with power can exercise that power to push away blame. In a hierarchical organization, blame can readily be pushed down, to those of lower rank.

We see this playing out daily in the White House, with personnel who were hired with praised are fired with blame, a constant turnover to keep blame away from the person at the top of the hierarchy. And we see it now in the US Navy. Megan Rose reports in ProPublica:

It was 10 p.m. on Jan. 15, 2018, when the phone rang in Navy Cmdr. Bryce Benson’s home tucked into a wooded corner of Northern Virginia.

Benson had just gotten into bed, and his chest tightened as he saw the number was from Japan. It was his Navy attorney calling. The lawyer said he wished he had better news, but he’d get right to the point: The Navy was going to charge Benson with negligent homicide the following day.

Benson, 40, stared at the ceiling in the dark, repeating the serenity prayer as his feet pedaled with anxiety. Next to him, his wife, Alex, who’d followed him through 11 postings while raising three kids, sobbed.

Seven months earlier, Benson had been in command of the destroyer the USS Fitzgerald when it collided with a massive civilian cargo ship off the coast of Japan, ripping open the warship’s side. Seven of his sailors drowned, and Benson was almost crushed to death in his cabin. It was then the deadliest maritime accident in modern Navy history.

Benson, who’d served for 18 years, accepted full responsibility. Two months after the crash, the commander of the Pacific fleet fired Benson as captain and gave him a letter of reprimand, each act virtually guaranteeing he’d never be promoted and would have to leave the service far earlier than planned. His career was essentially over.

Then, days later, another of the fleet’s destroyers, the USS John S. McCain, collided with a civilian tanker, killing 10 more sailors. The back-to-back collisions exposed the Navy to bruising questions about the worthiness of its ships and the competency of the crews. Angry lawmakers had summoned the top naval officer, Adm. John Richardson, to the Hill.

Under sustained fire, Navy leaders needed a grand, mollifying gesture. So, in a nearly unprecedented move in its history, the Navy decided to treat an accident at sea as a case of manslaughter. Hastily cobbling together charges, the Navy’s top brass announced — to the shock of its officers — that the captains of both destroyers would be court-martialed for the sailors’ deaths.

The Navy told ProPublica that “given the tragic loss of life, scope and complexity of both collisions,” it had an “obligation to exercise due diligence” and its investigation had “informed charges against” Benson and the captain of the McCain.

To many officers, the Navy had gone too far. “There was a deflection campaign,” one admiral said recently, likening the Navy’s response to shielding itself from an exploding grenade. “It was pretty clear Richardson wanted to dampen the frag pattern.”

Even then, no one, least of all Benson, could have predicted how relentless the Navy’s pursuit of him would be.


In the early hours of June 17, 2017, a trio of junior officers guiding the USS Fitzgerald made a calamitous series of mistakes in basic navigation that veered the destroyer directly into the path of a hulking cargo ship three times its size.

As the civilian vessel bore down, the panicked officers squabbled about what to do. Benson’s written orders were clear: When in doubt, wake me up. But no one called the captain, sleeping in his cabin just a 30-second walk away.

At 1:30 a.m., the cargo ship slammed into the side of the Fitzgerald, knocking the warship into a violent tilt and ripping it open like a can of tuna. Water rushed into an enlisted sleeping area below deck.

Benson awoke trapped in his destroyed cabin, which had been shoved 20 feet by the impact and no longer had an exterior wall. He called for help, delirious, bleeding and perilously close to the gaping hole and the black, cold ocean below.

Crew members battered his steel door open with dozens of wild swings of a sledgehammer and a kettlebell, then formed a chain in the darkness to reach Benson and haul him by his arm over the debris to safety.

Benson stumbled barefoot up the ladder to the bridge of the ship, determined to take charge. Amid the chaos, he sat in the captain’s chair, but before he could give any orders his arms spasmed awkwardly and he slid to the floor.

Benson, barely conscious with a traumatic brain injury, had to be airlifted off his crippled ship.


Two months after the collision, Benson, still struggling with nightmares and his memory, sat in a small, bare conference room, tensely waiting to be called into the 7th Fleet commander’s office.

Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, who was in charge of all the ships in the western Pacific, had summoned Benson for a disciplinary hearing called an Admiral’s Mast.

Earlier that day, after the Navy held a press conference announcing he’d be fired, Benson had the surreal experience of watching the end of his career flash on TV in the base gym. But he’d known lying in his hospital bed right after the crash that this is where he’d end up.

Now, his hair freshly cut and wearing a hand-pressed white uniform, Benson was relieved that the day had come. These formal proceedings would close the chapter.

And he hoped that the Navy would finally let him leave Japan to seek necessary medical care back in the States. A month had passed since doctors had said he needed critical neurological and mental health care at Walter Reed Military National Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. The base in Yokosuka, Japan, had limited resources to help him deal with his debilitating post-traumatic stress, and he was growing increasingly desperate.

Aucoin called him in. Benson took a deep breath, saluted and listened, occasionally looking down at his hands, as Aucoin matter-of-factly read the administrative charges against him. Aucoin emphasized that there had been serious mistakes, and as captain, Benson was ultimately responsible.

Aucoin regarded Benson with empathy. The admiral had spent his two years in charge of the 7th Fleet begging, to no avail, for more men and a more reasonable pace of missions. He’d taken the issues with the ragged fleet into account when punishing Benson. Aucoin had the backing of his boss, Adm. Scott Swift, who’d assured him that top Navy leadership wouldn’t have supported anything more severe.

Aucoin came around the table and shook Benson’s hand.

“That’s done now,” Aucoin told him.

Benson had the right to appeal the findings of his disciplinary hearing, but a Navy lawyer told him he wouldn’t be able to leave for the States until any appeal was completed. Benson waived his rights on the spot.

Later that day, Aucoin wrote an email asking when Benson would be permitted to move. Vice Adm. Robert Burke, the head of Navy personnel who has since been promoted to the Navy’s No. 2 position, responded that he’d been “awaiting word from [Navy lawyers] that all the paperwork had been signed regarding [Benson’s] intent to appeal.” With that finished, Burke wrote he’d now release the orders. A Navy spokesman, citing privacy concerns, declined to answer questions about specifics, saying only that the Admiral’s Mast process did not affect Benson’s move.

Nearly nine weeks after his doctors’ recommendation, Benson stepped into Walter Reed for the first time.


On Halloween, Benson grabbed a bucket of candy and strode down his driveway in a brown, furry Chewbacca suit. He sat out there for awhile, gaily greeting trick or treaters.

Alex Benson watched from the window, her breath caught in her chest. It was her first glimpse of the old Bryce in more than four months. She’d come to understand it would be a long time before her husband of 18 years grasped his way back to any semblance of who he used to be.

She and her children had quickly become alert to the signs of his PTSD, jumping to the aid of the man who once seemed indomitable. In crowded public spaces like the grocery store, they looked out for when his face would suddenly go blank with his light blue eyes staring unfocused in the distance. One of them would step in front of him, take his hand and lead him out.

Alex felt like she was always watching him, ever since he checked “yes” on a hospital form in Japan asking if he was suicidal. She’d even sit vigil by the tub when he took a bath.

Benson attended therapy twice a week at the sprawling Walter Reed complex. He was doing a nine-step, cognitive behavior therapy program for PTSD. At his Monday group therapy session, he was quiet at first. He’d always taken a while to open up to new people. But he’d hit it off with a Navy chief and veteran of Fallujah, Iraq, who was a regular at the group. As “accountability buddies,” they’d check in with each other regularly and text pictures of their workouts to show they were doing the self-care helpful in recovery.

The Navy assigned Benson to the office that oversees special events in the Capitol, such as the planning for Sen. John McCain’s funeral. It wasn’t where he’d thought he’d be, but after a few months he started to believe what Aucoin had said after the disciplinary hearing back in August: “You’re a good officer who could still provide value to the Navy.” Benson knew he had only a short time left to serve, but putting on the uniform most weekdays felt like stepping back into himself.

The Navy had been the center of Benson’s identity since he was 18 years old and joined the ROTC at Marquette University in 1995. In the service, he’d found a place that suited his idealism, said Benson’s friend since that ROTC program, retired Navy Cmdr. Ryan Farris.

Throughout his career, Benson struck colleagues as quiet and focused, and he had an almost cliched Midwesterner’s hardworking earnestness that lent itself to teasing. “He only spoke when he had something meaningful to say,” Farris said.

Benson and his wife heard on the news that the Navy assigned an admiral to review the punishments from the Fitzgerald and McCain collisions. But his lawyer told them that since he had already been disciplined at a high level — by a three-star admiral — he was unlikely to be a target. Richardson had agreed with Aucoin’s judgment at the time, and it was rare for an admiral’s discipline to be overturned.

And the Navy’s internal reviews into root causes of the collisions pointed to policy decisions made at the Pentagon level, involving critical shortages in training, manning and maintenance time, none of which were controlled by Benson and Cmdr. Alfredo Sanchez, captain of the McCain.

In December on vacation in Massachusetts, Benson surprised his family when rather than staying home by himself, he joined them snowshoeing. They laughed together as they got caught in a big snowstorm. Alex Benson took out her phone to capture the moment in a selfie, each of their hats covered in fat snowflakes, her husband with a wide grin.


On Martin Luther King Day in 2018, when the halls of the Navy Yard would normally be fairly quiet, lawyers scrambled to finalize homicide charges against Benson and Sanchez. Richardson was due for a second battery of questions from outraged lawmakers later that week.

During heated hearings earlier that year, then-Arizona Sen. John McCain had warned Richardson and the secretary of the Navy. “We will identify shortcomings, fix them and hold people accountable,” he said, as family members of some of the fallen sailors looked on.

Afterward, Navy leaders had decided the “close temporal proximity” of the two crashes meant they needed to reassess “whether all appropriate accountability actions have been taken,” Adm. Bill Moran, the second-in-command at the time, wrote in an order assigning an admiral to the task.

Benson, who’d thought his punishment had been levied, would now face harsher scrutiny because another captain on another ship crashed two months after him.

Richardson announced the new charges days before he sat in front of the House Armed Services Committee, assuring its members that the Navy was taking accountability very seriously. Richardson, now retired and newly installed on the board of Boeing, didn’t respond to requests for an interview. A Navy spokesman said the hearings helped guide policy changes to prevent future tragedies and did not affect disciplinary actions. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and much of it is ugly. Later in the article:

Benson went over the details of his 35 days in command of the Fitzgerald again and again.
He’d stepped into the role as captain after more than a year as the ship’s executive officer, but he set out to sea with a largely new, and green, crew. He knew his exacting standards had helped him rise through the ranks, but they also at times made him difficult to work for.
Almost immediately, Benson’s bosses had upended his plans to get his crew up to speed, cutting short his training schedule in favor of an unrelenting series of missions and forcing him to do training on the fly. He worried about deploying when his crew lacked competency in high-skill tasks like ballistic missile defense.
But, he said, “if I felt my watch standers couldn’t avoid a 30,000-ton tanker, I would not have gotten underway.” Of course, if he hadn’t gone forward, he said, “I would’ve been left there on the pier and someone else would’ve got the ship underway.”
After the crashes, lawmakers had pressed Richardson on just this point: Could a commander say his ship couldn’t safely do the mission without blowback?
“If I could go down there and give that commander a handshake and a medal, I would do that,” Richardson replied at the time. “This is exactly the kind of honesty and transparency we need to run a Navy that’s safe and effective.”
Many current and former ship captains scoffed at what they saw as Richardson’s hypocrisy. In the real world of the Navy, a ship captain telling his command he couldn’t safely get underway is “impossible,” one former skipper said in an interview. No one believes there is a legitimate risk, only that the captain is failing to do what’s needed. “The subtext is that you’re a bad officer and probably a bad person too,” another officer said.
By pursuing Benson, the officers said, Richardson and others atop the Navy hierarchy could avoid taking responsibility for their role in setting commanders, and their ships, up for disaster. For years, a ProPublica story in February found, the Navy had ignored reports, audits and the warnings of many top Navy and Pentagon officials that the fleet was dangerously overworked, undermanned and in disrepair, putting sailors’ lives at risk.
Navy spokesman Cmdr. Clay Doss said in a written response to questions that the service “cannot fail to learn from these tragedies” and is working to change its “must-do culture.”
“The direction from our fleet commanders is clear: The Navy will not deploy ships if they are not ready to sail safely and confidently,” Doss wrote, and the service expects commanders to “raise problems loudly … without fear of repercussions.”
Shortly before the Fitzgerald’s collision, the destroyer had been stuck in port because of computer system glitches on the ship. A senior officer remembered overhearing a phone call in which Benson’s boss, the commodore, Capt. Jeffrey Bennett, berated him for asking for help.
“You expect me to fix your problems now?” Bennett yelled. Benson could say only that he’d try harder to take care of it on his own.
“His choice was to do the best he could or be relieved,” the officer said. Bennett couldn’t be reached for comment.
Now, Benson tortured himself over what he could have done differently. . . .

Written by LeisureGuy

20 November 2019 at 9:44 am

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