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The enormous costs and elusive benefits of the war on terror: 20 years, $6 trillion, 900,000 lives

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Dylan Matthews reports in Vox:

On the evening of September 11, 2001, hours after two hijacked airliners had destroyed the World Trade Center towers and a third had hit the Pentagon building, President George W. Bush announced that the country was embarking on a new kind of war.

“America and our friends and allies join with all those who want peace and security in the world, and we stand together to win the war against terrorism,” Bush announced in a televised address to the nation.

It was Bush’s first use of the term that would come to define his presidency and deeply shape those of his three successors. The global war on terror, as the effort came to be known, was one of the most expansive and far-reaching policy initiatives in modern American history, and certainly the biggest of the 2000s.

It saw the US invade and depose the governments of two nations and engage in years- or decades-long occupations of each; the initiation of a new form of warfare via drones spanning thousands of miles of territory from Pakistan to Somalia to the Philippines; the formalization of a system of detention without charge and pervasive torture of accused militants; numerous smaller raids by special forces teams around the world; and major changes to air travel and border security in the US proper.

The “war on terror” is a purposely vague term. President Barack Obama famously rejected it in a 2013 speech — favoring instead “a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists.”

But 9/11 signaled the beginning of a distinct policy regime from the one that preceded it, and a regime that exists in many forms to the present day, even with the US exit from Afghanistan.

Over the past 20 years, the costs of this new policy regime — costs in terms of lives lost, money spent, people and whole communities displaced, bodies tortured — have become clear. It behooves us, then, to try to answer a simple yet vast question: Was it worth it?

A good-faith effort to answer this question — to tally the costs and benefits on the ledger and not just resort to one’s ideological priors — is more challenging than you’d think. That’s largely because it involves quantifying the inherently unquantifiable. If, as proponents argue, the war on terror kept America safe, how do you quantify the psychological value of not being in a state of constant fear of the next attack? What about the damage of increased Islamophobia and violent targeting of Muslims (and those erroneously believed to be Muslims) stoked by the war on terror? There are dozens more unquantifiable purported costs and benefits like these.

But some things can be measured. There have been no 9/11-scale terrorist attacks in the United States in the past 20 years. Meanwhile, according to the most recent estimates from Brown University’s Costs of War Projectat least 897,000 people around the world have died in violence that can be classified as part of the war on terror; at least 38 million people have been displaced due to these wars; and the effort has cost the US at least $5.8 trillion, not including about $2 trillion more needed in health care and disability coverage for veterans in decades to come.

When you lay it all out on paper, an honest accounting of the war on terror yields a dismal conclusion: Even with an incredibly generous view of the war on terror’s benefits, the costs have vastly exceeded them. The past 20 years of war represent a colossal failure by the US government, one it has not begun to reckon with or atone for.

We are now used to the fact that the US government routinely bombs foreign countries with which it is not formally or even informally at war, in the name of killing terrorists. We are used to the fact that the National Security Agency works with companies like Facebook and Google to collect our private information en masse. We are used to the fact that 39 men are sitting in Guantanamo Bay, almost all detained indefinitely without trial.

These realities were not inevitable. They were chosen as part of a policy regime that has done vastly more harm than good.

What America and the world might have gained from the war on terror

Before going further, it’s important to define our terms. . . 

Continue reading. There’s much more, and it’s a harsh indictment. One of several charts in the article:

‘I Helped Destroy People’: Terry Albury on his FBI work

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Janet Reitman reports in the NY Times about Terry Albury’s decision that I was worth going to prison to let the public know what the FBI and other government agencies are doing. The articlee mentions that the Obama administration prosecuted more people under the Espionage Act — for revealing to the public what the government was doing — than all previous administrations combined.

I think it is an ominous sign when a government goes to great lengths to keep its citizens from knowing what it is doing.

This article can be read without the paywall — the NY Times has instituted “gift articles,” and this is one I am giving. The article begins:

Early on the morning of Aug. 29, 2017, Terry Albury awoke with a nagging sense of foreboding. It was not yet dawn in Shakopee, Minn., the Minneapolis suburb where Albury, an F.B.I. special agent, lived with his wife and two young children, and he lay in bed for a few minutes, running through the mental checklist of cases and meetings and phone calls, the things that generally made him feel as if his life was in order. He was a 16-year veteran of the F.B.I.: 38, tall and powerfully built, with buzzed black hair and a black goatee. Most of his career he had spent in counterterrorism, investigating sleeper cells and racking up commendations signed by the F.B.I. directors Robert Mueller and James Comey, which praised his “outstanding” work recruiting confidential sources and exposing terrorist financing networks. He was a careful investigator and a keen observer. “Something is going on behind the scenes that I’m not aware of,” he told his wife the night before. She told him to stop worrying. “You always think there’s something going on.” She was right. But this time he had reason to be apprehensive, even though he’d been careful. The memory card was buried in his closet, tucked into a shirt pocket under a pile of clothes. “Stop being so paranoid,” he told himself. Then he left for work.

Albury had spent the past six months assigned to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport as a liaison officer. It had always amazed him how little most Americans knew about the legal netherworld of the international terminal, where federal agents from ICE or U.S. Customs and Border Protection could, at the behest of the F.B.I. or another intelligence agency, pull a person out of the customs line and interrogate him or her based solely on being from Pakistan, or Syria, or Somalia, or another country in which the U.S. government had an interest. His role was to supervise this form of intelligence gathering, a particularly unsavory aspect of counterterrorism, as he saw it, though it was better than being stuck at the sprawling, five-story edifice that was the Minneapolis field office, where he had worked since 2012.

That morning, Albury had been summoned to the field office for an interview with a group of F.B.I. inspectors from Washington. It was fairly routine — headquarters was always dispatching inspection teams to make sure agents and their managers were doing their jobs — but Albury had been at the office so infrequently that the last time his supervisor saw him, he asked him what he was doing there. “I work here,” Albury said. The encounter left him with an uneasy feeling.

Traffic was light. With any luck, he figured, he would be back at the airport before lunchtime. He pulled his government-issued Dodge Charger up to the security gate and flashed his credentials at the guard, who waved him through. The underground parking garage was nearly empty. That’s odd, he thought.

A couple of agents stood by the entrance. Albury chatted with them for a few minutes. “I thought you were over at MSP,” one agent said, referring to the airport. Albury mentioned his meeting with the inspectors. The agents rolled their eyes. “Good luck, man,” one said.

Later, Albury would replay certain moments: that the agents, frequently standoffish, seemed unusually friendly; that at 8 in the morning, the fourth floor, where Albury worked, was entirely empty, and that even though a few people began to trickle in by around 8:15, there were far fewer than were usually at the office at that hour. About 15 minutes after he sat down at his desk, the Minneapolis field office’s in-house counsel, an agent he’d seen maybe twice in his life and never off the management floor, appeared in the squad bay, walked past his desk and, Albury thought, appeared to give him a sideways glance. That, he decided later, was the tell.

After checking his email and reviewing his files, he headed upstairs to meet the inspectors. Awaiting him was the same official who weeks earlier asked him what he was doing at the office. He offered to take Albury downstairs to the interview. This also felt off.

The men rode the elevator to the first floor in silence. The interview room was down the hall. Fighting his growing sense of dread, Albury was halfway down the corridor when three F.B.I. SWAT team members appeared in front of him. “Hands on the wall!”

The agents patted Albury down, removing his Glock 23 service pistol from its holster and confiscating his spare magazines, handcuffs, badge and credentials. Then they led him into a small room. I guess this is it, he thought. Game time.

Two agents, a man and a woman, sat at a table. The woman spoke first. “Tell me about the silver camera,” she said.

More than seven months later, on April 17, 2018, Terry Albury appeared in a federal court in Minneapolis, where he pleaded guilty to charges of leaking classified information to the press. The allegations — that Albury downloaded, printed and photographed internal F.B.I. documents on his office computer, sending some of them electronically to a journalist and saving others on external devices found in his home — resulted from a 17-month-long internal investigation by the F.B.I., prompted by two Freedom of Information Act requests by a news organization (unnamed in the charging document) in March 2016. Nine months after these FOIA requests were made, a trove of internal F.B.I. documents shedding new light on the vast and largely unrestricted power of the post-9/11 F.B.I. was posted on the investigative-journalism site The Intercept. The cache included hundreds of pages of unredacted policy manuals, including the F.B.I.’s byzantine rule book, the Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide, exposing the hidden loopholes that allowed agents to violate the bureau’s own rules against racial and religious profiling and domestic spying as they pursued the domestic war on terror. The Justice Department, under the Trump administration’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions, charged Albury with two counts of “knowingly and willfully” retaining and transmitting “national defense information” to a journalist. In October 2018, he was sentenced to four years in prison.

Albury is the first F.B.I. special agent since Robert Hanssen to be convicted under the Espionage Act, the 1917 statute that has traditionally been used to punish spies: Hanssen was arrested in 2001 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for selling secrets to the Russians. Increasingly, however, the Espionage Act has been used by the Justice Department as a cudgel against people who have leaked sensitive or classified information to the press. The Obama administration prosecuted more government officials for leaking secrets to the press than all previous administrations combined, bringing Espionage Act charges against eight people in eight years and referring 316 cases for investigation. Among those charged were Chelsea Manning, who was tried and convicted in a military court-martial in 2013 for sending hundreds of thousands of classified military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks, and Edward Snowden, whose 2013 leak of classified N.S.A. documents to The Guardian and The Washington Post alerted the public to the scope of the N.S.A.’s mass-surveillance activities.

The Trump administration referred 334 cases for investigation and brought Espionage Act charges against at least five people in four years. The first was Reality Winner, a 25-year-old N.S.A. contractor who was arrested in June 2017 and accused of leaking a classified intelligence report on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election to The Intercept. The second national-security leak case of the Trump era was against Terry Albury, though unlike Winner’s case, his received little fanfare. Instead, his lawyers quietly hammered out a plea deal with the Justice Department, avoiding the unwanted media attention that would come with a formal criminal complaint.

In recommending that Albury receive a 52-month sentence, government prosecutors cast him as a compulsive leaker, recklessly endangering national security by “stealing” the government secrets he was sworn, as an F.B.I. agent, to protect. But Albury says he felt a moral imperative to make his disclosures, motivated by his belief that the bureau had been so fundamentally transformed by Sept. 11 that its own agents were compelled to commit civil and human rights violations. “As a public servant, my oath is to serve the interest of society, not the F.B.I.,” he says. “My logic was centered on the fact that the public I served had a right to know what the F.B.I. was doing in their name.”

“These documents confirmed what American communities — primarily Muslims and communities of color — and rights groups had long known or thought to be true,” says Hina Shamsi, director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. “For years we’ve been hearing from people who were surveilled or investigated or watchlisted with no apparent basis for the F.B.I. to suspect wrongdoing, but based primarily on their race or religion or political organizing and beliefs. And here’s someone who was trying to do the right things from inside government, and ended up either participating or being a witness or adjacent to a range of abuses that defined, and continue to define, the post-9/11 era. What are you supposed to do as a person of conscience when you see what your country is doing?”

This article is a product of close to three years of interviews with Terry Albury, whom I met for the first time in November 2018, shortly before he went to prison. Our initial, five-hour conversation took place in a hotel room in Berkeley, Calif.; subsequent interviews have been conducted through letters and email while Albury was in prison and more recently using Signal, an encrypted phone and messaging service. He has not previously spoken to the press about his case. In addition to his own account, this article is based on a review of hundreds of pages of government documents and reports by civil liberties and human rights organizations, as well as interviews with Albury’s attorney and friends; experts in national security and constitutional law; and a number of former F.B.I. officials and colleagues, several of whom insisted on anonymity out of a reluctance to publicly criticize the F.B.I. (The F.B.I. declined to comment on Albury’s case.)

“I was very idealistic when I joined the F.B.I.,” Albury says. “I really wanted to make the world a better place, and I stayed as long as I did because I continued to believe that I could help make things better, as naïve as that sounds. But the war on terror is like this game, right? We’ve built this entire apparatus and convinced the world that there is a terrorist in every mosque, and that every newly arrived Muslim immigrant is secretly anti-American, and because we have promoted that false notion, we have to validate it. So we catch some kid who doesn’t know his ear from his [expletive] for building a bomb fed to them by the F.B.I., or we take people from foreign countries where they have secret police and recruit them as informants and capitalize on their fear to ensure there is compliance. It’s a very dangerous and toxic environment, and we have not come to terms with the fact that maybe we really screwed up here,” he says. “Maybe what we’re doing is wrong.”

Albury joined the F.B.I. in 2001, one month before the attacks of Sept. 11. At 22, he had just graduated from Berea, a small liberal arts college in Kentucky, where he became fascinated with the idea of joining the bureau after completing a 10-week summer internship with the F.B.I.’s Crimes Against Children unit in Washington. He spent the summer shadowing agents as they worked cases against child sex traffickers and purveyors of child pornography, and he went back to college intent on joining the bureau immediately after graduation. That August, he was hired as an investigative specialist, an entry-level surveillance job he saw as a steppingstone to his ultimate goal of becoming a special agent and going after pedophiles. “Terry wanted to save people,” recalls his friend Felemon Belay.

Albury was an unusual candidate for the F.B.I. He grew up in . .

Continue reading — without worrying about the paywall. And there is a lot more in the article. At the link, you can also listen to an audio recording of the article.

Written by Leisureguy

1 September 2021 at 7:27 pm

A look at Afghanistan in 2009

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I blogged earlier Sarah Chayes’s hard look at the Afghanistan War. Her post today comments on whether anyone had any idea at the time of the nature of the situation. She writes:

A number of people have wondered whether any of the things included in my previous post were being said when it was soon enough to make a difference. They were. I wish I had to hand documents that others wrote or notes of arguments they made. May I assure you: I was not alone.

It is unsightly to witness former officials and current experts arguing about who said what when, and who should be held accountable for the suffering, frustration, and deep disenchantment now unleashed. May I just say that a further parallel between Afghan and U.S. leadership seems to be an imperviousness to the human emotion of shame.

I feel shame. I feel a deep foreboding for what lies in store if American elites refuse to look at the mirror now held out. Afghanistan is a reflection of us.

But just to return to the historical record, the attached PDF was recently sent to me by a British officer with whom I shared it at the time. I had passed it throughout the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force, and to the commander in chief of NATO, for whom I worked at the time, along with the incoming Obama team. Please forgive the wordy style. I hadn’t yet learned succinct military headquarters speak.

Written by Leisureguy

20 August 2021 at 1:46 pm

Where are the anti-war voices?

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Judd Legum has another excellent piece in Popular Information, which begins:

Yesterday’s newsletter detailed how the media is largely overlooking voices that supported Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. Instead media reports are almost exclusively highlighting criticism of the withdrawal — often from people complicit in two decades of failed policy in Afghanistan.

We have reason to believe that this is not an accident. On Wednesday, Popular Information spoke to a veteran communications professional who has been trying to place prominent voices supportive of the withdrawal on television and in print. The source said that it has been next to impossible:

I’ve been in political media for over two decades, and I have never experienced something like this before. Not only can I not get people booked on shows, but I can’t even get TV bookers who frequently book my guests to give me a call back…

I’ve fed sources to reporters, who end up not quoting the sources, but do quote multiple voices who are critical of the president and/or put the withdrawal in a negative light.

I turn on TV and watch CNN and, frankly, a lot of MSNBC shows, and they’re presenting it as if there’s not a voice out there willing to defend the president and his decision to withdraw. But I offered those very shows those voices, and the shows purposely decided to shut them out.

In so many ways this feels like Iraq and 2003 all over again. The media has coalesced around a narrative, and any threat to that narrative needs to be shut out.

Who is on TV? As Media Matters has documented, there are plenty of former Bush administration officials criticizing the withdrawal.

Is it really about execution?

Much of the criticism of Biden’s decision to withdraw has focused on the administration’s “execution.” The critics claim the withdrawal was poorly planned, chaotic, and unnecessarily put Americans — and their Afghan allies — in danger.

Some of these claims may be true. It’s hard to know, for example, how many people have been left behind since evacuations are ongoing. But, with a few exceptions, the criticisms of Biden’s execution are being made by people who opposed withdrawal altogether.

For example, in a scathing column published in the Washington Post, former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice criticizes the execution of the withdrawal. But she also makes clear that she does not think the U.S. military should have left.

Twenty years was not enough to complete a journey from the 7th-century rule of the Taliban and a 30-year civil war to a stable government. Twenty years may also not have been enough to consolidate our gains against terrorism and assure our own safety. We — and they — needed more time.

Rice’s argument for why the withdrawal was executed poorly is very similar. She says that waiting a few more months, until winter, would have made it more difficult for the Taliban to fight and “given the Afghans a little more time to develop a strategy to prevent the chaotic fall of Kabul.”

But Rice’s argument makes clear that it is impossible to disentangle the execution of the withdrawal with the broader policy failures of the last two decades. It may be more difficult for the Taliban to fight in the winter, but the Taliban did not need to fight. Afghan security forces simply evaporated.

The twenty-year effort to build up these institutions — touted by Rice and much of the national security establishment — was a total failure. A . . .

Continue reading. There may be a paywall, unfortunately, but the newsletter is excellent.

The media’s systemic failure on Afghanistan

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Judd Legum has a particularly strong column today. It may be protected by a paywall, but it’s worth checking out if you can. He writes:

After two decades of war, President Biden finally made the decision to fully withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan. It did not go as planned. The Afghan government and security forces, which the United States spent two decades building up, evaporated in days. The Taliban, the Islamist group which harbored Al Qaeda before the 9/11 attacks, quickly regained control over the country.

This was a failure that comes with real consequences for innocent Afghans. At particular risk are the Afghans that assisted US efforts, who may face retribution if they remain in the country, and women and girls, who may be stripped of their rights by the repressive Taliban regime.

But was this primarily a failure by Biden, for deciding to withdraw now? Or was it the unavoidable conclusion of failed policies in Afghanistan across four presidential administrations? Most coverage has focused criticism on Biden. And to bolster that argument, media outlets are relying on many of the people responsible for two decades of failure in Afghanistan. While there are legitimate criticisms of the way Biden executed the withdrawal, the result is an extremely distorted narrative.

Inside the Washington Post’s “straight news” piece on Afghanistan

Let’s examine, for example, this piece in the Washington Post: “Biden’s promise to restore competence to the presidency is undercut by chaos in Afghanistan.” Although this is presented as a “straight news” piece, the entire premise is that Biden’s decision to withdraw reflects his own incompetence. The author, Matt Viser, reports that the decision and its execution reflected “an inability to plan” and “an underestimation of a foreign adversary.”

As proof, Viser cites, “leading lawmakers and others” who believe that “the chaotic, and deadly, implementation of [Biden’s] decision reflects a failure by Biden at a critical moment to deliver the steady leadership and sound judgment he promised.” Who are these “leading lawmakers and others”? The same people who have been consistently wrong about Afghanistan strategy for the last twenty years.

The lead quote comes from former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta who said Biden’s decision to withdraw reflects the fact that Biden “didn’t really spend much time on the issue” and the Biden administration was simply “crossing their fingers and hoping chaos would not result.”

But is Panetta a credible voice on how policies will play out in Afghanistan? In a November 2011 interview with Charlie Rose, Panetta said that the military campaign in Afghanistan had “seriously weakened the Taliban” and now the Afghan people were “able to control their own fate.” He said that the development of the Afghan army and police force was “on target” and they were “doing the job.”

This was a consistent refrain during Panetta’s tenure as Secretary of Defense. “[W]e are moving in the right direction, and we are winning this very tough conflict here in Afghanistan,” Panetta said in December 2011.

After a March 2012 visit to Afghanistan, Panetta was even more optimistic. “Afghanistan needs to be able to govern and secure itself,” Panetta said. “We are very close to accomplishing that.” In January 2013, Panetta announced we had entered “the last chapter of establishing a sovereign Afghanistan that can govern and secure itself for the future.”

Panetta, of course, was wrong about all of this. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

. . . But neither Panetta’s role in the failed mission, nor his history of poor judgments about the trajectory of the country, are mentioned in the Washington Post. Instead he’s given free rein to paper over his involvement and place the blame on Biden.  . .

And there are more: others who were making disastrous decisions and misjudgments at the time, but quoted by the Washington Post as though they were impartial experts (rather than men trying to ignore their own role by placing blame on Biden).

It’s pieces like this — and there’s much more — that make me subscribe to Popular Information.

Another snippet from the piece:

Crocker’s role in covering up the corruption of the Afghan government is not mentioned in Viser’s Washington Post article or the other outlets that quoted him for criticizing the withdrawal — NBC NewsThe HillAxios, and Fox News.

Written by Leisureguy

18 August 2021 at 6:35 pm

The Afghanistan Debacle: How Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden Bamboozled the American Public

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David Corn’s newsletter The Land is available three times a week through a paid subscription, but the current issue — on the very interesting topic of how the public was betrayed by a succession of Presidents — is available free. It begins:

The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and the calamitous collapse of Kabul are the result of years of American failure to understand that nation and that war—an immense failure that was covered up by the administrations of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump.

It was Bush and Dick Cheney who led the United States into what would be the longest-running quagmire in American history. And they did so with little strategic thought about what to do after chasing Osama bin Laden out of Afghanistan and running the al-Qaeda-friendly Taliban out of power. Most notoriously, before figuring out how to proceed in Afghanistan after the initial attack, they launched the even more misguided war in Iraq on the basis of lies and, in similar fashion, without a clear plan for what would come after the fall of Saddam Hussein. As a result, over 4,400 American soldiers would perish there, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians would die in the years of post-invasion fighting. Meanwhile, nearly 6,300 American GIs and contractors would lose their lives in Afghanistan. The arrogance and ineptitude of Bush, Cheney, and their henchmen have led to the horrible images and tales we have seen reported from Afghanistan in the past few days—which themselves are the continuation of many years of horrible images and tales from the double-debacle of these two wars.

But the Obama and Trump administrations were complicit in the Afghanistan catastrophe, particularly for perpetuating the national security establishment’s delusions—and lies—about the war. In 2019, the Washington Post obtained access to a trove of confidential US government documents about the Afghanistan war that were produced as part of an inspector general’s project that investigated the root failures of the war by conducting interviews with 400 insiders involved with the effort, including generals, White House officials, diplomats, and Afghan officials. The findings were damning. As the Post put it, “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.”

That was a helluva secret to keep from the public. A sharp indictment came from Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who was the White House Afghan war czar for Bush and Obama. In 2015, he told the project’s interviewers, “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan­—we didn’t know what we were doing.” The guy in charge of Afghanistan remarkably added, “We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.” Lute also observed, “If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction.” Yes, imagine if we did—though the vast corruption that undermined the massive US rebuilding endeavor was well reported repeatedly over the years. As were the continuous failures within the war itself. Yet Congress, the media, and the citizenry paid insufficient attention to this never-ending, going-nowhere conflict.

Several officials interviewed noted the US government—military HQ in Kabul and the White House—consistently hoodwinked the public to make it seem the US was winning in Afghanistan when it was not. Remember the steady stream of assurances the Afghan military was becoming more capable of beating back the Taliban? That was BS. A senior National Security Council official said there was pressure from the Obama White House and the Pentagon to concoct stats showing the American troop surge was succeeding: “It was impossible to create good metrics. We tried using troop numbers trained, violence levels, control of territory, and none of it painted an accurate picture. The metrics were always manipulated for the duration of the war.”

John Sopko, who headed the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which ran the project, bottom-lined this for the Post: “The American people have constantly been lied to.”

Think about that. Americans have paid about $1 trillion for the war in Afghanistan. Thousands have given their lives; many more have suffered tremendous injuries. And the public was not told the truth about this venture. It was bamboozled by successive administrations. The Post had to twice sue SIGAR to force the release of these papers under the Freedom of Information Act. The Trump administration preferred to keep this material under wraps.

These documents were somewhat akin to the Pentagon Papers, the 7,000-page long history of the Vietnam War that was leaked to the media by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971 and showed that the Kennedy and Johnson administrations had routinely deceived the public about supposed progress in that war. (The Afghanistan papers, unlike the Vietnam study, were not classified.) Yet the Post’s big get did not detonate a major controversy, as the Pentagon Papers did. This holy-shit scoop was duly noted, and then, as is often the case, we all moved on. The Afghanistan war had long since become a non-story, relegated to p. A15, if covered at all.

Now we are worried, perhaps angered, by the fall of Kabul, and we fear for the Afghans—especially the women and girls, the human rights activists, and those who aided US forces and Western journalists—who are about to become inhabitants of the Taliban’s fundamentalist hellscape. But however we reached this point—and whether or not President Joe Biden committed a grave error with the US troop withdrawal and its management—one thing is clear: US presidents, military officials, and policymakers were not straight with the American public about Afghanistan. We never had an honest debate about what was being done there and what could—and couldn’t—be accomplished. (For a snapshot of the absurdity of the Afghanistan war, see this recent thread from Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat.)

As Afghans in Kabul, including President Ashraf Ghani, fled the incoming Taliban this past weekend, the blame game kicked in. Who lost Afghanistan? Well, it wasn’t ours to lose in the first place. But everyone is to blame, for everyone lied or got it wrong: Bush and Cheney, Obama and Biden, Trump and Pence, and now Biden and Harris. When Trump in February 2020 signed a “peace deal” with the Taliban obligating the US troop withdrawal that has just occurred, he told Americans that he expected the Taliban would act responsibly. He claimed the Taliban was “tired of war.” Secretary of Defense Mark Esper called it a “hopeful moment.” Months later, there was intensified fighting. In July, President Joe Biden, who had the choice of abiding by this deal or confronting an anticipated expansion in Taliban attacks, presented a false impression of what to expect with the troop pullout Trump had negotiated: “The jury is still out, but the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”

Ending the US military involvement in Afghanistan is a noble goal. But while it was too easy for the United States, in the wake of 9/11, to launch a forever war in the land that previously defied the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and other outsiders, extrication was never going to be smooth and cost-free. History doesn’t lie. And with no honest dialogue about the war, this brutal finish is even more shocking.

The American public has been conned about Afghanistan for two decades by successive administrations. Did any of those lies do the Afghan people any good? . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Government Report: Pentagon Had ‘Willful Disregard’ for Reality in Afghanistan

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Matthew Gault reports in Motherboard:

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a U.S. government watchdog group that chronicled America’s failures in the country, has released a new report summing up two decades of war. The 140-page report, titled What We Need to Learn: Lessons From Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction, is a damning list of failures. It tells the story of an ineffectual empire with no plan, no will to learn, and no idea how to do anything but spend money.

Much of the report is a brutal condemnation of a historic failure, and some of the anecdotes—one of which explains how officials used the TV shows Cops and NCIS to teach policing concepts—are simply mind-boggling. “The U.S. government did not understand the Afghan context and therefore failed to tailor its efforts accordingly,” the report states. And, it says, “U.S. government agencies rarely conducted sufficient monitoring and evaluation to understand the impact of their efforts.”

The report, based on hundreds of interviews and done by a government entity that has studied the war in Afghanistan for more than a decade, portrays the United States as a country that attempted to do nation building in a nation it didn’t understand and didn’t care to learn about. It said that the turnover within the rebuilding efforts’ ranks was such that the U.S. made the same mistakes over and over again, which SIGAR likened to an “annual lobotomy.”

“U.S. officials rarely had even a mediocre understanding of the Afghan environment, much less how it was responding to U.S. interventions,” it said. “Many mistakes were borne from a willful disregard for information that may have been available.”

From the very beginning of the report, which tallies the dead and the amount of money spent, the report explains how the U.S. government failed its own people and, more importantly, the people of Afghanistan: “The U.S. government has now spent 20 years and $145 billion trying to rebuild Afghanistan, its security forces, civilian government institutions, economy, and civil society. The Department of Defense has also spent $837 billion on warfighting, during which 2,433 American troops and 1,144 allied troops have been killed and 20,666 U.S. troops injured,” the report said.

“Afghans, meanwhile, have faced an even greater toll,” it said. “At least 66,000 Afghan troops have been killed. More than 48,000 Afghan civilians have been killed, and at least 75,000 have been injured since 2001—both likely significant underestimations.”

The report has seven lessons it wants America’s leaders to learn from Afghanistan. In a list, they feel like a tallying of major failures. According to SGIAR, the U.S. government continuously struggled to develop and implement a coherent strategy for what it hoped to achieve, set unrealistic timelines that fostered corruption, poured money into unsustainable infrastructure projects, hired and trained the wrong people poorly, and underestimated the violence that would plague an occupied country.

It’s a big-picture report with specific anecdotes that explain how terrible America’s efforts were. Facing a shortage of cops to train local civilian forces, America hired helicopter pilots to do the job. Helicopter pilots knew little about policing and had to be trained themselves. “The training many military advisors did receive was not even Afghanistan-specific,” the report said. “With such a training deficiency, some policy advisors turned in desperation to television shows like Cops and NCIS to become more familiar with policing.”

In 2009, when America realized it didn’t have enough people to build out the country’s infrastructure, “it tried to mass-produce these teams by taking chemical warfare response units and giving them a four-week-long PowerPoint training, with poor results.”

When these chemical warfare experts turned their sights to civil engineering, they began to turn in policy proposals with information copied from each other and the PowerPoint slides. “Another senior military officer told SIGAR that some justifications even included references to ‘sheikhs,’ indicating they were being copied from proposals written in Iraq.”

Staffing ambitious projects were a perennial problem in Afghanistan, the report found. The more than $144 billion the U.S. spent in the country on reconstruction went, largely, to buildings. It often couldn’t find people to do the jobs it needed done. “The United States government repeatedly undertook new projects without first guaranteeing enough personnel resources were available to see them through,” it said. “At one point, a USAID employee noted that the organization was so desperate for additional staff that they were hiring anyone with ‘a pulse and a master’s degree.’”

Those who did come to work didn’t stay very long, and by the time a competent person had gotten a handle on their job, it was often time for them to go home. “With personnel taking critical information with them as they rotated out, the reconstruction effort essentially experienced an annual lobotomy, as newly arriving staff made the same mistakes as their predecessors,” SIGAR said.

SIGAR documented the various problems of America’s war in Afghanistan for 12 years. The mistakes of the past were available for any U.S. official or general who cared to learn. According to SIGAR, its warnings were mostly ignored. “The U.S. government continuously struggled to develop and implement a coherent strategy for what it hoped to achieve in Afghanistan,” the report said. “The most fundamental of questions were continuously revisited, including who America’s enemies and allies were, and exactly what the U.S. government should try to accomplish. The ends were murky, and grew in number and complexity.”

As new political parties and new leaders took control in America, . . .

Continue reading. There’s (sadly) more.

Leaving Afghanistan

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Kevin Drum has an excellent post on where much of the blame for the US debacle in Afghanistan lies: the military. That conclusion was also reached by Mike Jason, who retired in 2019 as a U.S. Army colonel after 24 years on active duty during which he commanded combat units in Germany, Kosovo, Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan, he asks why the military failed so bad at its task. His entire article is worth reading; here’s its conclusion:

. . . Over these past 20 years, there have been many failings. We checked the box when it came to saying that we had trained our partners, spun a rosy narrative of progress, and perhaps prioritized the safety and well-being of our troops over the mission of buttressing partner capacity. (When our Afghan partners shot at us, killing our comrades in the now infamous “green on blue” incidents, we tightened up our security procedures but didn’t address the hard questions of why they were shooting at us in the first place.) We didn’t send the right people, prepare them well, or reward them afterward. We rotated strangers on tours of up to a year and expected them to build relationships, then replaced them. We were overly optimistic and largely made things up as we went along. We didn’t like oversight or tough questions from Washington, and no one really bothered to hold us accountable anyway. We had no capacity or experience with some of our tasks, and we stumbled.

Yet these failings—egregious as they were—make it easy to focus on the armed forces as a scapegoat. In fact, the military, our allies, and our Iraqi and Afghan partners were responding to a lack of coherent policy and strategy.

We invaded Afghanistan with righteous anger after 9/11, but then what? Why was the United States in Afghanistan for years afterward? What about our fraught relationship with Pakistan and its influence in Afghanistan? A coherent strategy to address these questions would have made my job easier on the ground. First and foremost, a clearly articulated end goal would have assured our Afghan partners and our allies from other nations (as well as our foes) of our determination. Instead of leaving the entire effort to the Department of Defense, a coordinated strategy with commensurate resources across government could have produced better results in multiple Afghan institutions. Further, 20 years ago, a commitment to law enforcement might have been very attractive to our allies, many of whom have their own national police force and a track record of success in performing such missions. Perhaps most crucial, a clear and forceful foreign policy regarding Pakistan, coupled with a commitment to supporting and employing a new Afghan army, would have provided much clarity and focus for our military.

We didn’t fight a 20-year war in Afghanistan; we fought 20 incoherent wars, one year at a time, without a sense of direction. The U.S. military can and should be blamed for the collapse of security forces in Afghanistan—I hold us responsible. The current collapse keeps me up at night. In the military, the main effort gets the best resources and the best talent available. For more than 20 years, no matter what was reported, what we read in the headlines, efforts to build and train large-scale conventional security forces in Afghanistan and Iraq have mostly been an aimless, ham-fisted acronym soup of trial and error that never became the true main effort, and we are to blame for that.

But we are not the only ones responsible. Someday we will ask young men and women to do this again—to fight a war overseas, to partner with local forces, to train them and build them up. Before we do, we owe it to those young people to ask the tough questions of how, and why, we all failed.

Heather Cox Richardson offers a good summary in her post this morning. I recommend reading the entire post; here’s the conclusion:

. . . By 2018 the Taliban, which is well funded by foreign investors, mining, opium, and a sophisticated tax system operated in the shadow of the official government, had reestablished itself in more than two thirds of Afghanistan. Americans were tired of the seemingly endless war and were eager for it to end.

To end a military commitment that journalist Dexter Filkins dubbed the “forever war,” former president Donald Trump sent officials to negotiate with the Taliban, and in February 2020 the U.S. agreed to withdraw all U.S. troops, along with NATO allies, by May 1, so long as the Taliban stopped attacking U.S. troops and cut ties with terrorists.

The U.S. did not include the Afghan government in the talks that led to the deal, leaving it to negotiate its own terms with the Taliban after the U.S. had already announced it was heading home. Observers at the time were concerned that the U.S. withdrawal would essentially allow the Taliban to retake control of the country, where the previous 20 years had permitted the reestablishment of stability and women’s rights. Indeed, almost immediately, Taliban militants began an assassination campaign against Afghan leaders, although they did not kill any American soldiers after the deal was signed.

Meanwhile, by announcing their intentions, American officials took pressure off the Taliban to negotiate with Afghan leaders. The Pentagon’s inspector general noted in February that “The Taliban intends to stall the negotiations until U.S. and coalition forces withdraw so that it can seek a decisive military victory over the Afghan government.”

Hoping to win voters with this deal to end the war, the Trump administration celebrated the agreement. In September, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted, “A vote for Joe Biden is a vote for forever war in the Middle East. A vote for Donald Trump is a vote to finally bring our troops home.” Then–Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested the U.S. would have “zero” troops left in Afghanistan by spring 2021.

When he was Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden had made it no secret that he was not comfortable with the seemingly endless engagement in Afghanistan. By the time he took office as president in January 2021, he was also boxed in by Trump’s agreement. In April, Biden announced that he would honor Trump’s agreement—“an agreement made by the United States government…means something,” Biden said—and he would begin a final withdrawal on May 1, 2021, to be finished before September 11, the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

In July, 73% of Americans agreed that the U.S. should withdraw.

On July 8, Biden announced that the withdrawal was taking place quicker than planned and that the military mission of the U.S. in Afghanistan would end on August 31. He said the U.S. had accomplished what it set out to do in Afghanistan—kill bin Laden and destroy a haven for international terrorists—and had no business continuing to influence the future of the Afghan people. Together with NATO, the U.S. had trained and equipped nearly 300,000 members of the current Afghan military, as well as many more who are no longer serving, with all the tools, training, and equipment of any modern military. While we will continue to support that military, he said, it is time for the Afghan people to “drive toward a future that the Afghan people want and they deserve.”

For those asking that we stay just a little longer, especially in light of the fact the U.S. has lost no personnel since Trump cut the deal with the Taliban, he asked them to recognize that reneging on that deal would start casualties again. And he asked, “Would you send your own son or daughter?”

Biden insisted the U.S. would continue to support the Afghan government and said the U.S. was working to bring to the U.S. Afghan translators whose lives are in danger for working with U.S. forces. He also seemed to acknowledge the extraordinary danger facing Afghan women and girls under the rule of the Taliban as it continues to sweep through the country. And yet, he said, “I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome.”

Instead of using troops, Biden has focused on cutting off the flow of money to terrorists through financial and economic sanctions. (Today, a U.S. official told CNN that the “vast majority” of the assets of Afghanistan’s central bank are not held in Afghanistan and that the U.S. will freeze whatever assets are in the U.S.)

As the U.S. pulled out of the country, the Afghan military simply melted away. Regional capitals fell to the Taliban with little resistance, and Kabul today fell with similar ease. Just five weeks after Biden’s July speech, the Afghan president has left the country and the Taliban is in power.

Already, Republicans are trying to blame the Taliban’s success in Afghanistan on Biden, ignoring former president Trump’s insistence that Biden speed up the exit because “getting out of Afghanistan is a wonderful and positive thing to do.” So eager are Republicans to rewrite history that they are literally erasing it. Tonight, Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel noticed that the Republican National Committee has scrubbed from its website a section celebrating the deal the Trump administration cut with the Taliban and praising Trump for taking “the lead in peace talks as he signed a historic peace agreement with the Taliban in Afghanistan, which would end America’s longest war.”

Representative Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), who served in Afghanistan and who opposed Biden’s plan for withdrawal, has been highlighting the past statements of pro-exit Republicans who are now attacking the president. “Do not let my party preten[d] to be outraged by this,” he tweeted. “Both the [Republicans] and [Democrats] failed here. Time for Americans to put their country over their party.”

The Afghanistan occupation and the Japan occupation

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Noah Smith has an interesting post:

Everyone is talking about the Taliban’s swift reconquest of Afghanistan in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal. As usual, most Americans understand this event only through the lens of their domestic political viewpoints. Conservatives who just a few years ago were praising Trump’s new “America first” attitude and his withdrawal from Iraq are now wailing that Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is the sign of a dying, decaying empire (that can of course only be restored by a conservative return to cultural and electoral dominance). Some on the left are decrying the U.S. “defeat”, raising the question of whether they think we should have continued occupying Afghanistan forever in order to secure “victory”. Others on the left are bewildered, bereft of talking points except to call for accepting a bunch of Afghan refugees (which of course is something we really ought to do).

Americans are approaching the situation this way because America is an insular country. Americans are among the least likely people to travel abroad, and our foreign language ability is among the world’s worst. Even our economy is unusually closed. When asked to identify Iran on a map, here is how Americans responded: . . .

I’m just sad they didn’t include the Western hemisphere on the map. Anyway, you get the point.

I’m no foreign policy expert, but I have lived overseas (about 4 years in Japan). That experience taught me how insular my own views of the world had been, and gave me a desire to bring the same perspective to my fellow countrymen. Realistically, though, this won’t happen, so instead all I can do is offer my thoughts on a blog.

Basically, my thought is this: Military occupations are much less able to transform countries than Americans tend to think. In particular, we should never go into a war expecting the outcome to look like post-WW2 Japan.

The Afghanistan War

I supported the Afghanistan War in 2001. I’m not a military interventionist in general — I strongly opposed the Iraq War just two years later, and protested against it. But in 2001, the case for war in Afghanistan seemed strong. America had suffered a huge, devastating attack on our territory; the terrorist group who perpetrated the attack was still at large; the Taliban government of Afghanistan was sheltering those terrorists. The case for war, as I saw it, had nothing to do with the odious nature of the Taliban regime — there are lots of odious regimes in the world, and we don’t go invading them just because they’re nasty and bad, nor should we. Instead, it was about eliminating a clear and present threat to the United States, and about punishing those who had been responsible for it.

Ten years later, that case for war still seemed strong. Bin Laden slept with the fishes. The leadership of al Qaeda had all been killed or captured, except for Ayman al-Zawahiri, a cranky old man who we seemed to leave in place in order to alienate as many people as possible before al Qaeda finally slipped into the history books. Though no one will ever say al Qaeda is dead, the centralized, competent organization that attacked us on 9/11 is certainly gone, and the name is now basically just a franchise used by a ragtag bunch of scattered local Islamist gangs who usually lose the wars they’re fighting in. Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader who chose to shelter and support al Qaeda, bought the farm in 2013 (though we didn’t know it til 2015).

In other words, America did what I saw us as having come to do. The threat (al Qaeda) was eliminated, and the punitive expedition seemed to have inflicted sufficient punishment on the people who sheltered them. Accordingly, the U.S. began to draw down troops, and by 2015 our military presence in the country was relatively minor. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and the bit about Japan is interesting (and convincing).

Written by Leisureguy

15 August 2021 at 6:15 pm

Facing Years in Prison for Drone Leak, Daniel Hale Makes His Case Against U.s. Assassination Program

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This article by Ryan Devereaux in The Intercept is a must-read:

THE MISSILES THAT killed Salim bin Ahmed Ali Jaber and Walid bin Ali Jaber came in the night. Salim was a respected imam in the village of Khashamir, in southeastern Yemen, who had made a name for himself denouncing the rising power of Al Qaeda’s franchise in the Arabian Peninsula. His cousin Walid was a local police officer. It was August 21, 2012, and the pair were standing in a palm grove, confronting a trio of suspected militants, when the Hellfires made impact.

The deaths of the two men sparked protests in the days that followed, symbolizing for many Yemenis the human cost of U.S. counterterrorism operations in their country. Thousands of miles away, at the U.S. military’s base in Bagram, Afghanistan, Daniel Hale, a young intelligence specialist in the U.S. Air Force, watched the missiles land. One year later, Hale found himself sitting on a Washington, D.C., panel, listening as Salim’s brother, Faisal bin Ali Jaber, recalled the day Salim was killed.

As Fazil recounted what happened next, I felt myself transported back in time to where I had been on that day, 2012. Unbeknownst to Fazil and those of his village at the time was that they had not been the only ones watching Salem approach the jihadist in the car. From Afghanistan, I and everyone on duty paused their work to witness the carnage that was about to unfold. At the press of a button, from thousands of miles away, two Hellfire missiles screeched out of the sky, followed by two more. Showing no signs of remorse, I, and those around me, clapped and cheered triumphantly. In front of a speechless auditorium, Fazil wept.

Hale recalled the emotional moment and others stemming from his work on the U.S. government’s top-secret drone program in an 11-page, handwritten letter filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia this week.

Secret Evidence

Hale was indicted by a grand jury and arrested in 2019 on a series of counts related to the unauthorized disclosure of national defense and intelligence information and the theft of government property. In March, the 33-year-old pleaded guilty to leaking a trove of unclassified, secret, and top-secret documents to a news organization, which government filings strongly implied was The Intercept. His sentencing is scheduled for next week.

The Intercept “does not comment on matters relating to the identity of anonymous sources,” Intercept Editor-in-Chief Betsy Reed said at the time of Hale’s indictment. “These documents detailed a secret, unaccountable process for targeting and killing people around the world, including U.S. citizens, through drone strikes,” Reed noted. “They are of vital public importance, and activity related to their disclosure is protected by the First Amendment.”

Federal prosecutors are urging Judge Liam O’Grady to issue a maximum sentence, up to 11 years in prison, arguing that Hale has shown insufficient remorse for his actions, that his disclosures were motivated by vanity and not in the public interest, and that they aided the United States’ enemies abroad — namely the Islamic State.

“These documents contained specific details that adversaries could use to hamper and defeat actions of the U.S. military and the U.S. intelligence community,” the government claimed. “Indeed, they were of sufficient interest to ISIS for that terrorist organization to further distribute two of those documents in a guidebook for its followers.”

Prosecutors have acknowledged, however, that Hale’s sentencing was “in an unusual posture” because the probation officer in the case, who makes recommendations to the court, “has not seen some of the key facts of the case,” namely those that the government says support its claim that Hale’s disclosures had the potential to cause “serious” or “exceptionally grave” harm to U.S. national security. The Intercept has not reviewed the documents in question, which remain under seal, shielded from public scrutiny.

Harry P. Cooper, a former senior official in the CIA and noted agency expert on classified materials who did review the documents, provided a declaration in Hale’s case on the potential national security threat posed by the release of the documents.

Cooper, who maintains a top-secret clearance and has trained top-level officials at the agency, including the director of the CIA, said that while some of the documents did constitute so-called national defense information, “the disclosure of these documents, at the time they were disclosed and made public, did not present any substantial risk of harm to the United States or to national security.”

Commenting on the government’s claim that Hale’s disclosures were circulated by ISIS, Cooper said, “such publication further supports my conclusions, because it suggests that the adversaries treated the documents as trophies rather than as something that would give a tactical advantage, given that publication would reduce to zero any tactical advantage that the documents might otherwise have given.”

“In short,” Cooper said, “an adversary who has gained a tactical advantage by receiving secret information would never publicize their possession of it.”

Hale was charged under the Espionage Act, a highly controversial 1917 law that has become a favored tool of federal prosecutors pursuing cases of national security leaks. The law bars the accused from using motivations such as informing the public as a defense against incarceration, and yet, Hale’s alleged personal motivations and character came up repeatedly in a sentencing memo filed this week, with prosecutors arguing that he was “enamored of journalists” and that as a result, “the most vicious terrorists in the world” obtained top-secret U.S. documents.

In their own motion filed this week, Hale’s lawyers argued that the former intelligence analyst’s motivations were self-evident — even if the government refused to recognize them. “The facts regarding Mr. Hale’s motive are clear,” they wrote. “He committed the offense to bring attention to what he believed to be immoral government conduct committed under the cloak of secrecy and contrary to public statements of then-President Obama regarding the alleged precision of the United States military’s drone program.”

Hidden Assassinations

Legal experts focused on the drone program strongly dispute the prosecution’s claim that Hale’s disclosures did not provide a significant public service. Indeed, for many experts, shedding light on a lethal program that the government had tried to keep from public scrutiny for years is vital.

“The disclosures provided important information to the American public about a killing program that has virtually no transparency or accountability, and has taken a devastating toll on civilian lives abroad in the name of national security,” said Priyanka Motaparthy, director of the Counterterrorism, Armed Conflict and Human Rights Project at Columbia Law School. “They helped reveal how some of the most harmful impacts of this program, in particular the civilian toll, were obscured and hidden.”

Thanks in large part to the government’s efforts to keep the drone program under tight secrecy, the task of calculating the human impact of the program has been left to investigative journalists and independent monitoring groups. The numbers that these groups have compiled over the years show a staggering human cost of these operations. The U.K.-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, or TBIJ, estimates the total number of deaths from drones and other covert killing operations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia to run between 8,858 and 16,901 since strikes began to be carried out in 2004.

Of those killed, as many as 2,200 are believed to have been civilians, including several hundred children and multiple U.S. citizens, including a 16-year-old boy. The tallies of civilian casualties are undoubtedly an undercount of the true cost of the drone war — as Hale’s letter to the court this week and the documents he allegedly made public show, the people who are killed in American drone strikes are routinely classified as “enemies killed in action” unless proven otherwise.

Following years of pressure — and in the wake of the publication of the materials Hale is accused of leaking — the Obama administration introduced new requirements for reporting civilian casualties from covert counterterrorism operations to the public in 2016, disclosing that year that between 64 and 116 civilians were believed to have been killed in drone strikes and other lethal operations. However, the Trump administration revoked that meager disclosure requirement, leaving the public once again in the dark about who exactly is being killed and why. . .

Continue reading. There’s more and it’s important because it shows an aspect of the US that one normally associates with the baddies. Some of what the US has done — a drone strike on a wedding party, for example — are functionally equivalent to terrorism.

Written by Leisureguy

25 July 2021 at 4:56 pm

Daniel Hale exposed the machinery of America’s clandestine warfare. Why did no one seem to care?

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Relevant to the story: Eye in the Sky, with Helen Mirrin and Alan Rickman—Alan Rickman’s last movie, in fact, and a terrific movie.

Kerry Howley writes in New York:

Daniel Everette Hale was the best dishwasher in Nashville. He was faster, more efficient, more knowledgeable about the machinery that makes a restaurant run. He could predict when the kitchen would need bowls and when small plates; he could take apart the dishwasher and deliver an impromptu lecture on the proper cleaning thereof. He was 31, slight, with a buzz cut and tattoos down his taut forearms, and while he thought himself the best, in the minds of the men for whom he worked he was a touch too invested. If something broke, such as a spray nozzle, he’d show up the next day with a new spray nozzle and tools to install it, having never checked with management at all, at which point management might say, “Daniel, we already had a backup spray nozzle.” Despite the excellence of his washing, he had been fired many times from many kitchens for generally being a pain in the ass. He was, for instance, persistently pressing the staff to demand higher wages and was repeatedly disappointed that the staff seemed uninterested.

There was only one restaurant that lived up to the standards of the best dishwasher in Nashville. This was Folk, which Daniel recalls as a “beautiful, just beautiful brand-new restaurant with, like, impeccable aesthetics and these big ceiling-high windows that let the light shine in during the midday and a beautiful marble bar and all these fresh, locally sourced ingredients.” The staff was disciplined and well trained and not given to the episodes of sexual harassment he had seen in other restaurants. In the open kitchen, he discovered “this really cool dish machine, a single-rack dish machine I hadn’t used before.” The staff was “like a family,” and the much-celebrated chef was “always, always there,” not at all like the “complete asshole dirtbag restaurant guys” he’d worked for before. But eventually, as he had in many other Nashville kitchens, Daniel became too difficult an employee to manage, too time-consuming in his ever-expanding list of ideas for improvement, and one evening in May 2019, the chef let him go.

Daniel got drunk, met a woman, went home with her, and immediately regretted it. In the night, he opened a condom but didn’t use it. He returned to his apartment early the next morning and called a close friend to whom he would lament the loss of his job. “I loved it there,” he was telling his friend, there on the porch on a wet May morning in Nashville. “I loved it. I loved every minute of it.”

Daniel heard a rustling in the leaves beside the porch and thought perhaps it was his roommates, though in retrospect they would not be up at 6 a.m. on a Thursday. He stopped speaking.

A man in black ran toward him with a drawn gun. Then two more men. Then six.

This is it, Daniel thought. Finally.

The FBI agents swarmed him, searched him. Last time this had happened, the agents had seemed to Daniel contemptuous, but these guys seemed slightly embarrassed, as if to acknowledge that it was all “a little excessive.” An FBI agent stuck his hand in Daniel’s pocket and pulled out the unwrapped condom.

“You couldn’t have warned me?” the agent said.

On the drive to work that morning, the chef turned on NPR, which is how he learned that the dishwasher he had just fired had been seized for stealing documents about the secret assassination program we have come to call the drone war.

Anyone can build a combat drone. If you build a drone for your little makeshift country, no one will be impressed. We may think of drones as indestructible, ironclad, and this is the impression defense companies attempt to impart with the hard names they give the machines they build — Predator drone, Reaper drone, Hunter drone — but in fact the original word, drone, is elegantly apt, and all of these are an attempt to mask the dumb delicacy it captures. Drones are flimsy, light little wisps of things, vulnerable to lost signals and sleepy pilots, vulnerable to gusts of wind and hard rain, lightning, ice. You will send a drone whirling into the sand should you turn too hard into a breeze or press the wrong button on your joystick; should you fly into an area of excessive electromagnetic noise or accidentally fly the drone upside down for a long while, oblivious. They slam into mountains, crash into other planes, fall into farms, sidewalks, and waterways. Sometimes they simply go silent and float away, never to be found again. Hundreds and hundreds of military drones we have lost this way, scattered across the globe. It’s okay. They’re cheap. We make new ones.

What is notable is not the drone but the network that keeps it aloft. This is where American power asserts itself: the satellites we rocket into the sky and the shallow-bowled receivers we nail to the ground. Concrete bases, trucks dragging satellites in their beds, the cables American soldiers lay in ditches they’ve dug into someone else’s desert. (“A fuck-ton of cables,” as one whistleblower explained it to me.)

Most of this hard and heavy infrastructure is maintained in a secrecy upheld by the CIA, which runs one drone program, the military, which runs another, the agencies that serve them, and the contractors that serve the agencies. In 2015, an insider leaked dozens of pages of documents about the inner workings of the American drone program, including information about the bureaucracy behind the “kill list” over which Barack Obama then presided. The Intercept published an eight-part series centered on these documents that became a book. “A ‘second Snowden’ Leaks to The Intercept,” announced CNN, an alliteration that would prove irresistible across media; “A Second Snowden Has Leaked a Mother Lode of Drone Docs,” read a headline in WiredAmnesty International called for a congressional investigation. First Snowden called it “an astonishing act of civil courage.”

Nearly no one knew who Second Snowden was then or for years afterward. After he was seized in the early-morning raid and released on bail and prosecuted through a pandemic, he stopped shaving and grew what a friend called “a ZZ Top beard.” He lost weight and began to wear clothes donated by concerned acquaintances; someone else’s large khakis hung off him, the waistband folded over, a belt yanked to the last loop. Friends pressed him to go public with the story of how and why, but Daniel maintained that in talking about himself, he would be taking the spotlight from victims of the drone war. He rarely left his room.

In November 2020, his housemate coaxed him out for a beer at a place called Moreland’s Tavern in Northwest D.C. When Daniel arrived, eight people he knew were seated at tables outside in the cold. The intervention had been arranged by the housemate and by one of Daniel’s closest friends, an activist named Noor Mir, who knew that Daniel was hesitant to impose on people and that he needed help. “I think it’s hard for men to understand that it’s okay to feel really, really scared,” Mir told me.

They went around the table, one by one, and told Daniel that he had to get his shit together. He needed to participate in his defense. He needed to prepare for the possibility of prison. He needed to consider the future care of his cat. He needed to tell his story, because if he failed to do that, the prosecution’s story would stand unchallenged. Daniel had his feet on a chair, his arms around his knees, supremely uncomfortable. Two hours in, the last person said what he had come to say. They waited for Daniel to respond.

“All right, everybody,” he said, half-smiling for the first time that evening. “Can we shut the fuck up now?”

Daniel told none of his friends he was ready to talk, but on April 4, he called me. He said he didn’t want to be called a whistleblower. He preferred the word traitor.

No one owns a secret state, and no one answers for it. There was a moment in 2012, 2013, when various people outside Yemen and Pakistan and Afghanistan began to notice that inside Yemen and Pakistan and Afghanistan, the U.S. was waging constant, secret war under a set of rules known to few. It was May 2013 when Obama finally felt it necessary to give his big drone speech, in which he acknowledged that drones were morally complicated, promised to “review proposals to extend oversight,” deemed them an unfortunate necessity for the safety of Americans, and generally gave the impression that he would make the program accountable. But everything of note that happens in this story happened after such gestures were forced, and made, and forgotten.

aniel did not come to the Air Force so much as he surrendered. He had grown up the son of a disapproving, Bible-quoting truck-driver father in Bristol, Virginia, which is just across the state line from Bristol, Tennessee. He is a descendant of Nathan Hale, hanged by the Brits in 1776 for attempting to pose as a Dutch schoolmaster and steal information on troop movements (according to Daniel, “not a very good spy”). Daniel’s parents were under constant stress: food pantries, endless dinners of rice and beans. The services he attended as a child were “fire and brimstone” — country music, his sister said, was sufficiently sinful to send you to hell. Among the various Appalachian churches was one, Emmanuel Baptist Church, where the pastor was revealed to be raping and torturing a young girl he and his wife had kidnapped. It was 1998, and Daniel was 11.

By the time he finished high school, Daniel trusted a single source of information, which was Democracy Now! Daniel’s father had, from a very young age, suggested the military as a way out of poverty, but Daniel was already on an intellectual journey in which he would come to see Edward Snowden as insufficiently extreme; he wanted nothing to do with it. He tried enrolling in a regional UVA campus and dropped out. He tried community college and dropped out. He met a friend on the internet playing World of Warcraft, moved to Vegas to look for work at a casino, could find no such work (“I was kind of a dipshit at the time,” he says), and moved back home. He answered a job ad that said it did not require experience and was given a bus ticket to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he joined a bunch of kids he describes as “mostly runaways.” The company put them up, two to a room, in hotels, and had them selling magazines door-to-door. You could get rich, the managers said, if you kept at it. You could be like them. It would be hard to imagine a worse salesman than Daniel Hale, who once told me he has frequent nightmares because “any person of conscience in America builds up a sense of dread.” Humiliated, he asked his dad for a ride home. Now he was in Bristol again, 21, with no real prospects and a sense of how brutal the world could be to a man with no skills for which the world had asked. He and his father got into a fight that became physical. Daniel walked into a military-recruitment office in a strip mall near a Walmart. He took a test, aced it, and was told he could do anything he wanted.

It wasn’t so bad, the life he had accepted when no others made themselves known, under a new president who made promises in which it was tempting to believe: the closing of Guantánamo, an end to forever war. Daniel assumed it was impossible to be a president without becoming a war criminal, but he had attended an Obama rally in his hometown. At the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, he studied Mandarin for the greater glory of the state. He adored his classmate Michael, with whom he had long conversations about politics and indie rap. He thought a lot about ways to get dishonorably discharged, but he woke up in the morning and went to class.

Obama did not in fact close Guantánamo in his first 100 days. He did not end the drone program or usher in a new age of transparency. Not a week into office, he authorized two drone strikes that killed 14 people, many of whom were not the targets. Obama increased the tempo of attacks and would, two years later, introduce the novel element of killing American citizens. At first the strikes had been limited to “Al Qaeda and associated forces,” but gradually they were found useful for forces it was extremely hard to argue were associated with Al Qaeda. It was useful, Obama found, to employ drone strikes against the tribal enemies of various governments the U.S. was supporting. It was useful to target not just high-ranking members of various organizations but low-level members; useful to evolve the whole thing from an assassination program to a holistic counterinsurgency machine. In parts of Pakistan, locals had stopped drinking Lipton tea, out of fear that the tea bags were homing devices used by the CIA to attract drones.

In early 2001, the U.S. did not know how to launch a missile from a Predator drone without damaging the drone. In early 2001, one could not have run an assassination program based on geolocation, simply because terrorism was not yet run on cell phones. Fourteen years later, the Pentagon was planning to spend nearly $3 billion on unmanned aerial vehicles in a single year. The president had access to technologies available to no president before him, and he opted to use them.

Obama, Daniel concluded, was “a clown,” “just a complete fraud,” who would uphold the worst policies of his secretive predecessor. But now it was 2010, and the national security state’s ability to keep its secrets was beginning to break down. While at the Defense Language Institute, Daniel says, an officer came into his classroom and forbade them from searching for a term relatively new to the world: WikiLeaks. If they did so, they’d lose their security clearance. Julian Assange had packaged, edited, and dramatically unveiled leaked footage of American soldiers shooting a man holding a camera because they had thought the camera was a gun. On YouTube, one could watch the photographer die and one could watch a van pull up and a man jump out to help the photographer the Americans had shot. One could watch, on YouTube, as the Americans shot up the van, though if one were watching closely, one would already have seen that in the front of the van were two small children. One could hear a deep silence as the American soldiers watched the limp children being carried from the van.

“Well, it’s their fault,” one hears a soldier say, “for bringing their kids into battle.”

Daniel was sent to Fort Meade, which he describes as . . .

Continue reading. There’s much, much more.

E.P.A. Approved Toxic Chemicals for Fracking a Decade Ago

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The panel above is from 50 years ago, and we have learned nothing in the meantime: we continue to trash the environment despite having to live in it. Hiroko Tabuchi reports in the NY Times:

For much of the past decade, oil companies engaged in drilling and fracking have been allowed to pump into the ground chemicals that, over time, can break down into toxic substances known as PFAS — a class of long-lasting compounds known to pose a threat to people and wildlife — according to internal documents from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The E.P.A. in 2011 [under President Barack Obama – LG] approved the use of these chemicals, used to ease the flow of oil from the ground, despite the agency’s own grave concerns about their toxicity, according to the documents, which were reviewed by The New York Times. The E.P.A.’s approval of the three chemicals wasn’t previously publicly known.

The records, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by a nonprofit group, Physicians for Social Responsibility, are among the first public indications that PFAS, long-lasting compounds also known as “forever chemicals,” may be present in the fluids used during drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

In a consent order issued for the three chemicals on Oct. 26, 2011, E.P.A. scientists pointed to preliminary evidence that, under some conditions, the chemicals could “degrade in the environment” into substances akin to PFOA, a kind of PFAS chemical, and could “persist in the environment” and “be toxic to people, wild mammals, and birds.” The E.P.A. scientists recommended additional testing. Those tests were not mandatory and there is no indication that they were carried out.

“The E.P.A. identified serious health risks associated with chemicals proposed for use in oil and gas extraction, and yet allowed those chemicals to be used commercially with very lax regulation,” said Dusty Horwitt, researcher at Physicians for Social Responsibility.

For fracking to work, the energy industry has an appetite for chemicals that, when pumped underground at high pressure, can coax oil out of the ground most efficiently. In 2008, a scientific paper published in an oil-industry journal and led by a DuPont researcher referred to the “exceptional” water-repelling and other characteristics of types of chemicals that include PFAS, and called the chemicals an “emerging technology” that showed promise for use in oil and gas extraction.

The E.P.A. documents describing the chemicals approved in 2011 date from the Obama administration and are heavily redacted because the agency allows companies to invoke trade-secret claims to keep basic information on new chemicals from public release. Even the name of the company that applied for approval is redacted, and the records give only a generic name for the chemicals: fluorinated acrylic alkylamino copolymer.

However, an identification number for one of the chemicals issued by the E.P.A. appears in separate E.P.A. data and identifies Chemours, previously DuPont, as the submitter. A separate E.P.A. document shows that a chemical with the same E.P.A.-issued number was first imported for commercial use in November 2011. (Chemours did not exist until 2015, though it would have had the responsibility to report chemicals on behalf of its predecessor, DuPont.)

There is no public data that details where the E.P.A.-approved chemicals have been used. But the FracFocus database, which tracks chemicals used in fracking, shows that about 120 companies used PFAS — or chemicals that can break down into PFAS, the most common of which was “nonionic fluorosurfactant” and various misspellings — in more than 1,000 wells between 2012 and 2020 in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Wyoming. Because not all states require companies to report chemicals to the database, the number of wells could be higher.

Nine of those wells were in Carter County, Okla., within the boundaries of Chickasaw Nation. “This isn’t something I was aware of,” said Tony Choate, a Chickasaw Nation spokesman. [Fun fact: I was born and raised in Carter County, and my grandfather Ham, a surveyor, made the first official map of Carter County, for which he was paid 40 acres of land which turned out to be above the largest oil pool in Oklahoma, a discovery made some years after he traded the land for a buckboard and a team of mules. – LG]

Nick Conger, an E.P.A. spokesman, said that the chemicals in question were approved a decade ago, and that amendments to laws since then now required the agency to affirm the safety of new chemicals before they are allowed into the marketplace. He said the redactions in the documents were mandated by a statute protecting confidential business information. The Biden administration had made addressing PFAS a top priority, he added, for example by proposing a rule to require all manufacturers and importers of PFAS since 2011 to disclose more information on the chemicals, including their environmental and health effects.

Chemours, which has in the past agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to settle injury claims related to PFOA pollution, declined to comment. In 2005, DuPont also agreed to pay $16 million to settle allegations by the E.P.A. that it had failed to report information about the health and environmental effects of PFAS, in the largest administrative penalty the agency had ever imposed at the time. But Chemours, which was spun off from DuPont in 2015, has not spoken publicly about the use of these chemicals in drilling and fracking. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Later in the report:

A class of man-made chemicals that are toxic even in minuscule concentrations, for decades PFAS were used to make products like nonstick pans, stain-resistant carpeting and firefighting foam. The substances have come under scrutiny in recent years for their tendency to persist in the environment, and to accumulate inside the human body, as well as for their links to health problems like cancer and birth defects. Both Congress and the Biden administration have moved to better regulate PFAS, which contaminate the drinking water of as many as 80 million Americans.

Industry researchers have long been aware of their toxicity. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s, when the environmental attorney Rob Bilott sued DuPont for pollution from its Teflon plant in Parkersburg, W.Va., that the dangers of PFAS started to be widely known. In settlements with the E.P.A. in the mid-2000s, DuPont acknowledged knowing of PFAS’s dangers, and it and several other chemical manufacturers subsequently committed to phase out the use of certain kinds of the chemical by 2015.

And it’s not just the effects of the poisoning of the ground (and, presumably, groundwater). As a consequence of injecting wastewater from oil production into the ground, Oklahoma has been wracked by earthquakes.

And of course we continue to pollute the ocean — and there’s the elephant farting in the room: massive dumping of CO2 into the atmosphere, causing global warming and climate change, which we see accelerating as heat builds up (and as we continue to burn fossil fuels).

Of course, there’s the money the companies have paid, but that really doesn’t do the job, does it?

Written by Leisureguy

12 July 2021 at 7:15 pm

“I Fought in Afghanistan. I Still Wonder, Was It Worth It?”

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Timothy Kahn, formerly a USMC captain, served in Iraq and Afghanistan and writes in the NY Times:

When President Biden announced on Wednesday that the United States would withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021, he appeared to be finally bringing this “forever war” to an end. Although I have waited for this moment for a decade, it is impossible to feel relief. The Sept. 11 attacks took place during my senior year of college, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that followed consumed the entirety of my adult life. Although history books may mark this as the end of the Afghanistan war, it will never be over for many of my generation who fought.

Sometimes there are moments, no more than the span of a breath, when the smell of it returns and once again I’m stepping off the helicopter ramp into the valley. Covered in the ashen dust of the rotor wash, I take in for the first time the blend of wood fires burning from inside lattice-shaped mud compounds, flooded fields of poppies and corn, the sweat of the unwashed and the wet naps that failed to mask it, chicken and sheep and the occasional cow, the burn pit where trash and plastic smoldered through the day, curries slick with oil eaten by hand on carpeted dirt floors, and fresh bodies buried shallow, like I.E.D.s, in the bitter earth.

It’s sweet and earthy, familiar to the farm boys in the platoon who knew that blend of animal and human musk but alien to those of us used only to the city or the lush Southern woods we patrolled during training. Later, at the big bases far from the action, surrounded by gyms and chow halls and the expeditionary office park where the flag and field grade officers did their work, it was replaced by a cologne of machinery and order. Of common parts installed by low-bid contractors and the ocher windblown sand of the vast deserts where those behemoth bases were always located. Relatively safe after the long months at the frontier but dull and lifeless.

Then it’s replaced by the sweet, artificial scents of home after the long plane ride back. Suddenly I’m on a cold American street littered with leaves. A couple passes by holding hands, a bottle of wine in a tote bag, dressed for a party, unaware of the veneer that preserves their carelessness.

I remain distant from them, trapped between past and present, in the same space you sometimes see in the eyes of the old-timers marching in Veterans Day parades with their folded caps covered in retired unit patches, wearing surplus uniforms they can’t seem to take off. It’s the space between their staring eyes and the cheering crowd where those of us who return from war abide.

My war ended in 2011, when I came home from Afghanistan eager to resume my life. I was in peak physical shape, had a college degree, had a half-year of saved paychecks and would receive an honorable discharge from the Marine Corps in a few months. I was free to do whatever I wanted, but I couldn’t bring myself to do anything.

Initially I attributed it to jet lag, then to a need for well-deserved rest, but eventually there was no excuse. I returned to my friends and family, hoping I would feel differently. I did not.

“Relax. You earned it,” they said. “There’s plenty of time to figure out what’s next.” But figuring out the future felt like abandoning the past. It had been just a month since my last combat patrol, but I know now that years don’t make a difference.

At first, everyone wanted to ask about the war. They knew they were supposed to but approached the topic tentatively, the way you hold out a hand to an injured animal. And as I went into detail, their expressions changed, first to curiosity, then sympathy and finally to horror.

I knew their repulsion was only self-preservation. After all, the war cost nothing to the civilians who stayed home. They just wanted to live the free and peaceful lives they’d grown accustomed to — and wasn’t their peace of mind what we fought for in the first place?

After my discharge, I moved to . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

The Real Reason Republicans Couldn’t Kill Obamacare

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Adapted from The Ten Year War: Obamacare and the Unfinished Crusade for Universal Coverage, St. Martin’s Press 2021, and quoted from the Atlantic:

The affordable care act, the health-care law also known as Obamacare, turns 11 years old this week. Somehow, the program has not merely survived the GOP’s decade-long assault. It’s actually getting stronger, thanks to some major upgrades tucked in the COVID-19 relief package that President Joe Biden signed into law earlier this month.

The new provisions should enable millions of Americans to get insurance or save money on coverage they already purchase, bolstering the health-care law in precisely the way its architects had always hoped to do. And although the measures are temporary, Biden and his Democratic Party allies have pledged to pass more legislation making the changes permanent.

The expansion measures are a remarkable achievement, all the more so because Obamacare’s very survival seemed so improbable just a few years ago, when Donald Trump won the presidency. Wiping the law off the books had become the Republicans’ defining cause, and Trump had pledged to make repeal his first priority. As the reality of his victory set in, almost everybody outside the Obama White House thought the effort would succeed, and almost everybody inside did too.

One very curious exception was Jeanne Lambrew, the daughter of a doctor and a nurse from Maine who was serving as the deputy assistant to the president for health policy. As a longtime Obama adviser, going back to the 2008 transition, Lambrew was among a handful of administration officials who had been most responsible for shaping his health-care legislation and shepherding it through Congress—and then for overseeing its implementation. Almost every other top official working on the program had long since left government service for one reason or another. Lambrew had stayed, a policy sentry unwilling to leave her post.

On that glum November 2016 day following the election, Lambrew decided to gather some junior staffers in her office and pass out beers, eventually taking an informal survey to see who thought Obama’s signature domestic-policy achievement would still be on the books in a year. Nobody did—except Lambrew.

Yes, Republicans had already voted to repeal “Obamacare” several times. But, she knew, they had never done so with real-world consequences, because Obama’s veto had always stood in the way. They’d never had to think through what it would really mean to take insurance away from a hotel housekeeper or an office security guard on Medicaid—or to tell a working mom or dad that, yes, an insurance company could deny coverage for their son’s or daughter’s congenital heart defect.

A repeal bill would likely have all of those effects. And although Republicans could try to soften the impact, every adjustment to legislation would force them to sacrifice other priorities, creating angry constituents or interest groups and, eventually, anxious lawmakers. GOP leaders wouldn’t be able to hold the different camps within their caucuses together, Lambrew believed, and the effort would fail.

All of those predictions proved correct. And that wasn’t because Lambrew was lucky or just happened to be an optimist. It was because she knew firsthand what most of the Republicans didn’t: Passing big pieces of legislation is a lot harder than it looks.

It demands unglamorous, grinding work to figure out the precise contours of rules, spending, and revenue necessary to accomplish your goal. It requires methodical building of alliances, endless negotiations among hostile factions, and making painful compromises on cherished ideals. Most of all, it requires seriousness of purpose—a deep belief that you are working toward some kind of better world—in order to sustain those efforts when the task seems hopeless.

Democrats had that sense of mission and went through all of those exercises because they’d spent nearly a century crusading for universal coverage. It was a big reason they were able to pass their once-in-a-generation health-care legislation. Republicans didn’t undertake the same sorts of efforts. Nor did they develop a clear sense of what they were trying to achieve, except to hack away at the welfare state and destroy Obama’s legacy. Those are big reasons their legislation failed.

Obamacare’s survival says a lot about the differences between the two parties nowadays, and not just on health care. It’s a sign of how different they have become, in temperament as much as ideology, and why one has shown that it’s capable of governing and the other has nearly forgotten how.

Democrats were so serious about health care that they began planning what eventually became the Affordable Care Act more than a decade earlier, following the collapse of Bill Clinton’s reform attempt in the 1990s. The ensuing political backlash, which saw them lose control of both the House and Senate, had left top Democrats in no mood to revisit the issue. But reform’s champions knew that another opportunity would come, because America’s sick health-care system wouldn’t heal itself, and they were determined not to make the same mistakes again.

At conferences and private dinners, on chat boards and in academic journals, officials and policy advisers obsessively analyzed what had gone wrong and why—not just in 1993 and 1994 but in the many efforts at universal coverage that had come before. They met with representatives of the health-care industry as well as employers, labor unions, and consumer advocates. Industry lobbyists had helped kill reform since Harry Truman’s day. Now they were sitting down with the champions of reform, creating a group of “strange bedfellows” committed to crafting a reform proposal they could all accept.

Out of these parallel efforts, a rough consensus on substance and strategy emerged. Democrats would put forward a plan that minimized disruption of existing insurance arrangements, in order to avoid scaring people with employer coverage, and they would seek to accommodate rather than overpower the health-care industry. The proposal would err on the side of less regulation, spending, and taxes—basically, anything that sounded like “big government”—and Democrats would work to win over at least a few Republicans, because that would probably be necessary in Congress.

Proof of concept came in 2006, in Massachusetts, when its Republican governor, Mitt Romney, teamed up with the Democratic state legislature to pass a plan that fit neatly into the new vision. It had the backing from a broad coalition, including insurers and progressive religious organizations. Ted Kennedy, the liberal icon and U.S. senator, played a key role, by helping secure changes in funding from Washington that made the plan possible. “My son said something … ‘When Kennedy and Romney support a piece of legislation, usually one of them hasn’t read it,’” Kennedy joked at the signing ceremony, standing at Romney’s side.

Kennedy’s endorsement said a lot about the psychology of Democrats at the time. No figure in American politics was more closely associated with the cause of universal health care and, over the years, he had tried repeatedly to promote plans that looked more like the universal-coverage regimes abroad, with the government providing insurance directly in “single-payer” systems that resembled what today we call “Medicare for All.” But those proposals failed to advance in Congress, and Kennedy frequently expressed regret that, in the early 1970s, negotiations over a more private sector-oriented coverage plan with then-President Richard Nixon had broken down, in part because liberals were holding out for a better deal that never materialized.

Kennedy was not alone in his belief that the champions of universal coverage would have to accept big concessions in order to pass legislation. The liberal House Democrats John Dingell, Pete Stark, and Henry Waxman, veteran crusaders for universal coverage who’d accrued vast power over their decades in Congress, were similarly willing to put up with what they considered second-, third-, and even fourth-best solutions—and they were masters of the legislative process, too. Waxman in particular was an expert at doing big things with small political openings, such as inserting seemingly minor adjustments to Medicaid into GOP legislation, expanding the program’s reach over time. “Fifty percent of the social safety net was created by Henry Waxman when no one was looking,” Tom Scully, who ran Medicare and Medicaid for the Bush administration in the early 2000s, once quipped.

Obama had a similar experience putting together health-care legislation in the Illinois state legislature—where, despite proclaiming his support for the idea of a single-payer system, he led the fight for coverage expansions and universal coverage by working with Republicans and courting downstate, more conservative voters. He also was a master of policy detail, and as president, when it was time to stitch together legislation from different House and Senate versions, he presided over meetings directly (highly unusual for a president) and got deep into the weeds of particular programs.

Obama could do this because the concept of universal coverage fit neatly within . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Later in the column:

Another problem was a recognition that forging a GOP consensus on replacement would have been difficult because of internal divisions. Some Republicans wanted mainly to downsize the Affordable Care Act, others to undertake a radical transformation in ways they said would create more of an open, competitive market. Still others just wanted to get rid of Obama’s law and didn’t especially care what, if anything, took its place.

“The homework that hadn’t been successful was the work to coalesce around a single plan, a single set of specific legislative items that could be supported by most Republicans,” Price told me. “Clearly, looking at the history of this issue, this has always been difficult for us because there are so many different perspectives on what should be done and what ought to be the role of the federal government in health care.”

The incentive structure in conservative politics didn’t help, because it rewarded the ability to generate outrage rather than the ability to deliver changes in policy. Power had been shifting more and more to the party’s most extreme and incendiary voices, whose great skill was in landing appearances on Hannity, not providing for their constituents. Never was that more apparent than in 2013, when DeMint, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, and some House conservatives pushed Republicans into shutting down the government in an attempt to “defund” the Affordable Care Act that even many conservative Republicans understood had no chance of succeeding.

The failure to grapple with the complexities of American health care and the difficult politics of enacting any kind of change didn’t really hurt Republicans until they finally got power in 2017 and, for the first time, had to back up their promises of a superior Obamacare alternative with actual policy. Their solution was to minimize public scrutiny, bypassing normal committee hearings so they could hastily write bills in the leadership offices of House Speaker Paul Ryan and, after that, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Written by Leisureguy

28 March 2021 at 4:52 pm

The Endgame of the Reagan Revolution

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Heather Cox Richardson writes a good summary of modern American political history:

And so, we are at the end of a year that has brought a presidential impeachment trial, a deadly pandemic that has killed more than 338,000 of us, a huge social movement for racial justice, a presidential election, and a president who has refused to accept the results of that election and is now trying to split his own political party.

It’s been quite a year.

But I had a chance to talk with history podcaster Bob Crawford of the Avett Brothers yesterday, and he asked a more interesting question. He pointed out that we are now twenty years into this century, and asked what I thought were the key changes of those twenty years. I chewed on this question for awhile and also asked readers what they thought. Pulling everything together, here is where I’ve come out.

In America, the twenty years since 2000 have seen the end game of the Reagan Revolution, begun in 1980.

In that era, political leaders on the right turned against the principles that had guided the country since the 1930s, when Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt guided the nation out of the Great Depression by using the government to stabilize the economy. During the Depression and World War Two, Americans of all parties had come to believe the government had a role to play in regulating the economy, providing a basic social safety net and promoting infrastructure.

But reactionary businessmen hated regulations and the taxes that leveled the playing field between employers and workers. They called for a return to the pro-business government of the 1920s, but got no traction until the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, when the Supreme Court, under the former Republican governor of California, Earl Warren, unanimously declared racial segregation unconstitutional. That decision, and others that promoted civil rights, enabled opponents of the New Deal government to attract supporters by insisting that the country’s postwar government was simply redistributing tax dollars from hardworking white men to people of color.

That argument echoed the political language of the Reconstruction years, when white southerners insisted that federal efforts to enable formerly enslaved men to participate in the economy on terms equal to white men were simply a redistribution of wealth, because the agents and policies required to achieve equality would cost tax dollars and, after the Civil War, most people with property were white. This, they insisted, was “socialism.”

To oppose the socialism they insisted was taking over the East, opponents of black rights looked to the American West. They called themselves Movement Conservatives, and they celebrated the cowboy who, in their inaccurate vision, was a hardworking white man who wanted nothing of the government but to be left alone to work out his own future. In this myth, the cowboys lived in a male-dominated world, where women were either wives and mothers or sexual playthings, and people of color were savage or subordinate.

With his cowboy hat and western ranch, Reagan deliberately tapped into this mythology, as well as the racism and sexism in it, when he promised to slash taxes and regulations to free individuals from a grasping government. He promised that cutting taxes and regulations would expand the economy. As wealthy people—the “supply side” of the economy– regained control of their capital, they would invest in their businesses and provide more jobs. Everyone would make more money.

From the start, though, his economic system didn’t work. Money moved upward, dramatically, and voters began to think the cutting was going too far. To keep control of the government, Movement Conservatives at the end of the twentieth century ramped up their celebration of the individualist white American man, insisting that America was sliding into socialism even as they cut more and more domestic programs, insisting that the people of color and women who wanted the government to address inequities in the country simply wanted “free stuff.” They courted social conservatives and evangelicals, promising to stop the “secularization” they saw as a partner to communism.

After the end of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, talk radio spread the message that Black and Brown Americans and “feminazis” were trying to usher in socialism. In 1996, that narrative got a television channel that personified the idea of the strong man with subordinate women. The Fox News Channel told a story that reinforced the Movement Conservative narrative daily until it took over the Republican Party entirely.

The idea that people of color and women were trying to undermine society was enough of a rationale to justify keeping them from the vote, especially after Democrats passed the Motor Voter law in 1993, making it easier for poor people to register to vote. In 1997, Florida began the process of purging voter rolls of Black voters.

And so, 2000 came.

In that year, the presidential election came down to the electoral votes in Florida. Democratic candidate Al Gore won the popular vote by more than 540,000 votes over Republican candidate George W. Bush, but Florida would decide the election. During the required recount, Republican political operatives led by Roger Stone descended on the election canvassers in Miami-Dade County to stop the process. It worked, and the Supreme Court upheld the end of the recount. Bush won Florida by 537 votes and, thanks to its electoral votes, became president. Voter suppression was a success, and Republicans would use it, and after 2010, gerrymandering, to keep control of the government even as they lost popular support.

Bush had promised to unite the country, but his installation in the White House gave new power to the ideology of the Movement Conservative leaders of the Reagan Revolution. He inherited a budget surplus from his predecessor Democrat Bill Clinton, but immediately set out to get rid of it by cutting taxes. A balanced budget meant money for regulation and social programs, so it had to go. From his term onward, Republicans would continue to cut taxes even as budgets operated in the red, the debt climbed, and money moved upward.

The themes of Republican dominance and tax cuts were the backdrop of the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. That attack gave the country’s leaders a sense of mission after the end of the Cold War and, after launching a war in Afghanistan to stop al-Qaeda, they set out to export democracy to Iraq. This had been a goal for Republican leaders since the Clinton administration, in the belief that the United States needed to spread capitalism and democracy in its role as a world leader. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq strengthened the president and the federal government, creating the powerful Department of Homeland Security, for example, and leading Bush to assert the power of the presidency to interpret laws through signing statements.

The association of the Republican Party with patriotism enabled Republicans in this era to call for increased spending for the military and continued tax cuts, while attacking Democratic calls for domestic programs as wasteful. Increasingly, Republican media personalities derided those who called for such programs as dangerous, or anti-American.

But while Republicans increasingly looked inward to their party as the only real Americans and asserted power internationally, changes in technology were making the world larger. The Internet put the world at our fingertips and enabled researchers to decode the human genome, revolutionizing medical science. Smartphones both made communication easy. Online gaming created communities and empathy. And as many Americans were increasingly embracing rap music and tattoos and LGBTQ rights, as well as recognizing increasing inequality, books were pointing to the dangers of the power concentrating at the top of societies. In 1997, J.K. Rowling began her exploration of the rise of authoritarianism in her wildly popular Harry Potter books, but her series was only the most famous of a number of books in which young people conquered a dystopia created by adults.

In Bush’s second term, his ideology created a perfect storm. His . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

How Trump Gutted Obama’s Pandemic-Preparedness Systems

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Abigal Tracy writes in Vanity Fair:

When the first reported cases of Ebola in Guinea came to light in March 2014, it set off a mad scramble inside the Obama White House to track and contain the spread of the virus, which killed around 50% of the people it infected. Though not nearly as contagious as the current coronavirus, an epidemic, or even a pandemic, seemed possible if the disease weren’t confined to its West African redoubts. The Obama White House had clear protocols and chains of command for these kinds of threats. “The way to stop the forest fire is to isolate the embers,” Beth Cameron, a former civil servant who ran the White House’s National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, told me. Cameron and her colleagues quickly drew up a memo to Susan Rice, the national-security adviser, and Lisa Monaco, the homeland-security adviser, outlining what was known about the outbreak, setting off a chain of action that went up through the Oval Office, then spread through the government.

In the summer of 2018, on John Bolton’s watch, the team Cameron once ran was one of three directorates merged into one amid an overhaul and streamlining of Donald Trump’s National Security Council. And the position Monaco previously held, homeland-security adviser, was downgraded, stripped of its authority to convene the cabinet.

Obama’s team never faced a crisis as serious as the novel coronavirus, a truly unprecedented challenge. But officials who worked on past crises and experts on pandemic response believe that Trump’s dismissal—and in some aspects, wholesale discarding—of the Obama administration’s preparedness structures and principles, and the current administration’s ideas about government—that states could and should take take responsibility, that business could be more effective than government at solving problems at this scale—have left them dangerously unprepared.

“What the administration lacked in February, and still lacks today is articulating an overall strategy for managing this crisis,” a former administration official told me. “There’s a framework in place, we understand what authorities and roles and responsibilities everybody across government has at their disposal to be able to address an emergency. But when you walk through crisis management at a presidential level, the job of the president, first and foremost, is to develop and articulate the end state that we are trying to get to.”

Trump has yet to do this. “President Trump has, throughout this, seemed a little schizophrenic about his role,” Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development who ran USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance in the Obama administration, told me. “On the one hand, he clearly wants all the credit for it when things go right. On the other hand, he has furiously attempted to avoid having to take ownership for the success of the effort…he wants the credit without the accountability.”

The biggest difference between Obama’s approach and Trump has to do with science. “Traditionally, we have had a situation where the response is always scientifically, technically proven,” says a former government official. “Of course there are political considerations. But the options that are presented are fundamentally sound from a scientific perspective.”

In the current situation, the president decides which scientists and governmental organizations are listened to. “We’re seeing that institutions like the FDA and the CDC have been curtailed; their ability to do the right thing has been curtailed,” this person added, noting Food and Drug Administration commissioner Stephen Hahn’s subtle hedge when asked on CNN about Trump’s suggestion that people inject themselves with disinfectants to fight COVID-19. “I certainly wouldn’t recommend the internal ingestion of a disinfectant,” Hahn, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, said.

Trump critics are quick to draw contrast between the COVID-19 and Ebola crises. Obama, they assert, was guided by objective facts. “One of the principles [that] President Obama was very clear on when it came to public health crises is you have to be guided by science and facts and speak clearly and consistently and credibly on those issues,” Monaco told me. “That meant, frankly, having public health and medical experts do the communicating.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

2 May 2020 at 2:13 pm

How Trump Wasted the Best Tool He Had to Fight Coronavirus

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Eric Cortellessa writes in the Washington Monthly:

Out of all the responsibilities President Donald Trump has shirked during the COVID-19 pandemic, from not pressing China for information on the virus in its early weeks to not building up a testing regime in the United States, none has been more derelict than his administration’s failure to provide front-line healthcare workers with the medical and protective equipment they need.

What’s most exasperating is that there was a system in place to provide that equipment: the U.S. Strategic National Stockpile, an integrated collection of secret, federally-controlled warehouses with billions of dollars worth of precisely the kind of critical supplies that were needed in this crisis, such as masks and ventilators.

Once the CIA warned Trump of a coming pandemic in January, his administration should have immediately ordered more such equipment to meet the coming surge. That he didn’t left American hospitals overwhelmed. It left states having to claw to obtain the materials they need to save lives. Of course, it didn’t help that Trump did nothing to replenish or update the stockpile in his first three years in office; by mid-April, it had already distributed 90 percent of the stockpile’s supplies.

The president and his administration then compounded these grievous errors with lies and misinformation. The president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has said the stockpile was for the federal government, not the states. In fact, it was built precisely for states and localities to use in the case of an emergency. Trump, meanwhile, has repeatedly blamed his predecessor for leaving him with a depleted stockpile. “Our cupboards were bare,” he told reporters last weekend. Yet the Obama administration, having used the stockpile to deal with the swine flu and the Ebola crises, tried to increase funding for it, but was blocked by Tea Party Republicans and sequestration.

Trump’s mismanagement of the reserve is more than just another case of the administration’s tendency to shift blame and spew lies. It gets at the heart of one of the key roles of any president—to prepare for threats that have not yet happened.

One president who exemplified this foresight was Bill Clinton, who created the Strategic National Stockpile in his second term. For more insight into this, I spoke with Richard Clarke, Clinton’s chief counterterrorism adviser on the National Security Council and the man the president tasked with building the stockpile.

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What led to the creation of the national stockpile? It’s been reported that President Clinton came up with the idea after reading a bioterrorism thriller. Is that true? 

There were a lot of novels out. Richard Preston wrote one. The president was a great reader of everything. He stayed up late every night reading. He went through several books a week. I recall getting a couple bounced over to me, with questions like, “Could this really happen?”

But it wasn’t just that he had read novels. There were two events in the mid-1990s that, together, jarred the president: the Oklahoma City bombing, which was done by two Americans with an 18-wheel tractor trailer filled with explosives, and separately, in Tokyo, a fringe group called the Aum Shinrikyo developed their own biological and chemical weapons and tried them out on the Tokyo subway.

This caused the president, among others, to think: What if those two things came together? What if, suddenly, we had large attacks using chemical or biological weapons on our subways? President Clinton asked me to see if we were at all prepared to handle that. We came back to him and said we weren’t. There were no detection capabilities for most of these kinds of attacks. There were no response capabilities in most cities. Nobody was trained, nobody was equipped.

Not only would we not be able to deal with the consequences, we wouldn’t even have detected the attack. There was no detection equipment deployed anywhere. The Army had some for battlefield use, but there was nothing in any cities. There was nothing in the White House. We wouldn’t have known if the White House had been sprayed with a biological weapon.

So we started a program. It was originally designed to deal with bioterrorism. But we also realized that you could use it for a pandemic.

How did you realize that?

Well, in investigating all that, we found a lot of interest from the Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They told us a very similar thing could happen naturally—an emerging infectious disease, like the 1918 flu. We weren’t prepared for that either. What we figured out was, we could set up a nationwide detection system and an international system that would work for both biological attacks from terrorists and emerging infectious diseases.

The president secured money from Congress to put into the Public Health Service and the CDC to create a stockpile. A lot of it was grant money that went down to the state and county level, so they could have labs that would be able to detect and test. They set up a system so that when people came to emergency rooms and reported illnesses, that information would go into a national monitoring system. We realized that if a big event happened in any city, the city would be overwhelmed. So we set up a national stockpile of emergency medical gear that included medicines, hospital beds, ventilators, and put it in warehouses around the country.

We had a plan that when the equipment reached near its expiration date, it would be rotated, either through the Defense Department or Veterans medical systems, so that the equipment would be used before their expiration dates.

How was the stockpile set up so that the government could use it if a real crisis happened? . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

25 April 2020 at 8:43 am

How Bad Antitrust Enforcers Kill People

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Matt Stoller comments in BIG on a NY Times story I blogged recently:

How A Merger Killed the Ventilator Market

The New York Times had an important story about the ventilator market a few days ago, with Nicholas Kulish, Sarah Kliff and Jessica Silver-Greenberg reporting why a government effort to stock up on the machines after the SARS epidemic failed.

In 2006, in attempt to learn from what might happen should a SARS-like disease hit here, civil servants in government decided to stockpile ventilators. They wanted both more ventilators and better ventilators than were on the market. So government officials found a small innovative corporation called Newport Medical, and contracted with the corporation to design a cheaper and better version.

Ventilators at the time typically went for about $10,000 each, and getting the price down to $3,000 would be tough. But Newport’s executives bet they would be able to make up for any losses by selling the ventilators around the world.

“It would be very prestigious to be recognized as a supplier to the federal government,” said Richard Crawford, who was Newport’s head of research and development at the time. “We thought the international market would be strong, and there is where Newport would have a good profit on the product.”

At first the project seemed on track. Newport built a working prototype, and the government was on track to order 40,000 ventilators to put into the national stockpile. Newport would then be able to sell additional units into the health care market, as well as abroad. But in 2012, Covidien, a large medical device manufacturer and distributor, bought up Newport Medical, canceled the Federal contract, and shut down Newport’s ventilator line of business.

The result, in 2020, is that we don’t have enough ventilators in a pandemic.

There are three failures of policy here. I’ll start with the simplest, which is that the merger should have been blocked.

Antitrust Failure

The merger by any standard was a clear-cut antitrust violation. There are two theories as to why Covidien sought to buy Newport. First, Covidien already had a ventilator product, and didn’t want to compete with a lower priced and better version. Covidien bought Newport to take its competitive product out. That’s called a ‘killer acquisition,’ meaning that the goal is to undermine a potentially innovative or lower prices product line.

The second is that roll-ups were part of a broader consolidation trend in the industry in general. “Manufacturers,” as the Times reported, “wanted to pitch themselves as one-stop shops for hospitals, which were getting bigger, and that meant offering a broader suite of products.”

Both theories are likely true. Covidien from 2008-2014 bought 17 other corporations. Covidien pitched itself not just as a device maker, but as a device distributor to hospitals. It even called itself a platform, saying in its press release bleating about the acquisition that the acquisition would strengthen its “ventilation platform” for patients around the world. In other words, Covidien was both trying to take out a potential competitor *and* strengthen its own bargaining posture against hospital purchasers, who were themselves getting bigger.

The merger should have and could have been blocked on many different grounds, the simplest being the killer acquisition theory. Yet the Federal Trade Commission, led by Jon Leibowitz, just waved the illegal merger through without even asking any questions. Now there are calls, by both FTC Commissioner Rebecca Kelly-Slaughter, and antitrust thinkers across the board, to reexamine this merger. In Congress, Antitrust Committee Chairman David Cicilline made this point on Twitter. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and it shows the degree to which the US is out of whack. Later in the column:

The roll-up of device makers that Covidien was pursuing was part of a longstanding consolidation in the medical industry that correlated to consolidation more broadly. Because our antitrust laws focus on low consumer prices, what has happened across the economy is the creation of ‘power buyers.’

Most people look at monopolies who made commodities, say, steel, and believe a monopoly manifests by how much that company can raise the price of what it sells. But monopolies can operate on the buying side too. Walmart is a buying monopoly, able to use its market power to push prices down against suppliers and workers. I mean if you sell a large chunk of your product to Walmart, they can tell you what price to take. The price to consumers may be low, but that’s because Walmart is using market power against the supplier and not the consumer. But because our antitrust enforcers don’t see anything but consumer prices, corporations like Walmart became far more powerful from the 1980s to the 2000s.

As Olivia Webb noted, there was a Walmart-ization of the medical industry as well, as hospitals combined purchasing power in cartels called Group Purchasing Organizations. GPOs buy supplies for hospitals, and they are supposed to get better prices. But they often don’t. In 1986 Congress exempted them from anti-kickback laws, so there are huge conflicts of interest in how they operate. GPOs are also big. In 1996, the Clinton administration basically said GPOs wouldn’t be subject to antitrust prosecution. Today, for context, just four GPOs account for 90% of generic pharmaceutical purchasing. GPOs also handle medical devices.

Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, one of the results of these choices, as well as the refusal to enforce merger law or antitrust, was the concentration in these corporations that sell things to hospitals, everything from syringes to software. During the HIV epidemic, a corporation called Retractable Syringes developed a safer syringe that doctors and nurses wanted to prevent accidental needlesticks, but GPOs prevented them from selling their product to hospitals. None of this went unnoticed. Congress held hearings, to no avail, on all sorts of innovative medical devices that couldn’t make it into hospitals. Retractable won a private antitrust lawsuit, but more recently it lost one on appeal. Without legal redress, much of the medical device industry consolidated. Covidien itself was bought by Medtronic a few years ago.

Written by Leisureguy

1 April 2020 at 5:36 pm

Example of Trump incompetence: Before Virus Outbreak, a Cascade of Warnings Went Unheeded

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David E. Sanger, Eric Lipton, Eileen Sullivan, and Michael Crowley report in the NY Times:

The outbreak of the respiratory virus began in China and was quickly spread around the world by air travelers, who ran high fevers. In the United States, it was first detected in Chicago, and 47 days later, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. By then it was too late: 110 million Americans were expected to become ill, leading to 7.7 million hospitalized and 586,000 dead.

That scenario, code-named “Crimson Contagion,” was simulated by the Trump administration’s Department of Health and Human Services in a series of exercises that ran from last January to August.

The simulation’s sobering results — contained in a draft report dated October 2019 that has not previously been reported — drove home just how underfunded, underprepared and uncoordinated the federal government would be for a life-or-death battle with a virus for which no treatment existed.

The draft report, marked “not to be disclosed,” laid out in stark detail repeated cases of “confusion” in the exercise. Federal agencies jockeyed over who was in charge. State officials and hospitals struggled to figure out what kind of equipment was stockpiled or available. Cities and states went their own ways on school closings.

Many of the potentially deadly consequences of a failure to address the shortcomings are now playing out in all-too-real fashion across the country. And it was hardly the first warning for the nation’s leaders. Three times over the past four years the U.S. government, across two administrations, had grappled in depth with what a pandemic would look like, identifying likely shortcomings and in some cases recommending specific action.

In 2016, the Obama administration produced a comprehensive report on the lessons learned by the government from battling Ebola. In January 2017, outgoing Obama administration officials ran an extensive exercise on responding to a pandemic for incoming senior officials of the Trump administration.

The full story of the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus is still playing out. Government officials, health professionals, journalists and historians will spend years looking back on the muddled messages and missed opportunities of the past three months, as President Trump moved from dismissing the coronavirus as a few cases that would soon be “under control” to his revisionist announcement on Monday that he had known all along that a pandemic was on the way.

What the scenario makes clear, however, is that his own administration had already modeled a similar pandemic and understood its potential trajectory.

The White House defended its record, saying it responded to the 2019 exercise with an executive order to improve the availability and quality of flu vaccines, and that it moved early this year to increase funding for the Department of Health and Human Services’ program that focuses on global pandemic threats.

But officials have declined to say why the administration was so slow to roll out broad testing or to move faster, as the simulations all indicated it should, to urge social distancing and school closings.

Asked at his news briefing on Thursday about the government’s preparedness, Mr. Trump responded: “Nobody knew there would be a pandemic or epidemic of this proportion. Nobody has ever seen anything like this before.”

The work done over the past five years, however, demonstrates that the government had considerable knowledge about the risks of a pandemic and accurately predicted the very types of problems Mr. Trump is now scrambling belatedly to address.

Crimson Contagion, the exercise conducted last year in Washington and 12 states including New York and Illinois, showed that federal agencies under Mr. Trump continued the Obama-era effort to think ahead about a pandemic.

But the planning and thinking happened many layers down in the bureaucracy. The knowledge and sense of urgency about the peril appear never to have gotten sufficient attention at the highest level of the executive branch or from Congress, leaving the nation with funding shortfalls, equipment shortages and disorganization within and among various branches and levels of government.

The October 2019 report in particular documents that . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, including a clear list of lessons learned — and then ignored.

Later in the article:

What is striking in reading Mr. Kirchhoff’s account today, however, is how few of the major faults he found in the American response resulted in action — even though the report was filled with department-by-department recommendations.

There were deficiencies “in personal protective equipment use, disinfection” and “social services for those placed under quarantine.”

There was confusion over travel restrictions, and the need “for a smoother sliding scale of escalation of government response, from local authorities acting on their own to local authorities acting with some federal assistance” to the full activation of the federal government.

The report concluded that “a minimum planning benchmark might be an epidemic an order of magnitude or two more difficult than that presented by the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, with much more significant domestic spread.”

But one big change did come out of the study: The creation of a dedicated office at the National Security Council to coordinate responses and raise the alarm early.

“What I learned most is that we had to stand up a global biosecurity and health directorate, and get it enshrined for the next administration,” said Lisa Monaco, Mr. Obama’s homeland security adviser.

Written by Leisureguy

19 March 2020 at 1:40 pm

The Other Essential Pandemic Office Trump Eliminated

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Rosa Li writes in Slate:

Much attention has been paid to the Trump administration’s shortsighted elimination of the White House Pandemic Response Team. The frustration with this decision is obvious: In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, we should have public health experts working with the federal government to tell us that social distancing is the best thing we can do to prevent infections and slow the strain on our health care system. But we also need behavioral scientists who can help advise on exactly how to get people to actually follow such instructions. The Obama administration created a White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, or SBST, tasked to use “behavioral science insights to better serve the American people” precisely for this reason. Unfortunately for the U.S., the Trump administration got rid of that too.

In its brief existence, the SBST tackled a broad range of issues, from fighting food insecurity to helping people save for retirement, through an evidence-based policy approach that drew inspiration from decision-making research. For example, they encouraged households to make their homes more energy-efficient by highlighting the immediate, concrete benefits of saving money on their power bills, rather than trying to appeal to the abstract, distant goal of slowing climate change. Crucially, SBST programs rarely tried to tell people what to do by throwing a bunch of facts and statistics at them—a current coronavirus-fighting approach that has only worked with a subset of the population. Instead, the SBST found ways to encourage better decision-making by capitalizing on the mental shortcuts we take and the biases that we have.

Though the SBST is no more, findings from decision-making research can still help us understand why people are not taking the threat of coronavirus seriously and how they could be convinced to follow social distancing recommendations. While epidemiologists are trying to model COVID-19’s true fatality rate—is it 3.4 percent? 1 percent?—decision scientists already know that people are generally pretty bad at objectively assessing probabilities. Famous behavioral economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky argued that people “discard events of extremely low probability,” simplifying minuscule percentages to basically zero. In other words, regardless of COVID-19’s true case fatality rate, our human brains are tempted to shortcut it to “super unlikely, so probably not me.”

Of course, even a 1 percent fatality rate means a devastating number of lives lost around the world. Effectively communicating the lethality of COVID-19 is paramount to convincing people to take the threat seriously. One strategy is to . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

It’s easy to see why Putin wanted Trump to be president. Moving the US from a state of readiness for emergencies to a state of being completely unprepared weakens the country.

Written by Leisureguy

19 March 2020 at 1:25 pm

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