Daniel Schulman

Senior Editor

Based in DC, Dan covers politics and national security. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine, the Village Voice, the Columbia Journalism Review, and other publications. He is the author of the new Koch brothers biography, Sons of Wichita (Grand Central Publishing). Email him at dschulman (at) motherjones.com.

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Hamid Karzai: Practical Joker?

| Thu Apr. 1, 2010 12:44 PM EDT

Is Afghan President Hamid Karzai pulling a prank? He says that his re-election was indeed tainted by epic fraud. But here's the twist: He says the UN, and in particular its former No. 2 official in Afghanistan, Peter Galbraith, were behind it:

"There was fraud in the presidential and provincial election, with no doubt there was massive fraud," he said.

"This wasn't fraud by Afghans but the fraud of foreigners, the fraud of Galbraith, or (head of the EU's observers Philippe) Morillon, and the votes of the Afghan nation were in the control of an embassy."

Accusing Galbraith of taking part in the fraud is particularly strange. The diplomat was reportedly removed from his post last fall because he was too outspoken about the tainted election, clashing with his boss, Kai Eide (who was later dismissed himself), over whether to aggressively pursue allegations of vote-rigging and ghost polling sites. In October, Galbraith wrote:

For weeks, Eide had been denying or playing down the fraud in Afghanistan's recent presidential election, telling me he was concerned that even discussing the fraud might inflame tensions in the country. But in my view, the fraud was a fact that the United Nations had to acknowledge or risk losing its credibility with the many Afghans who did not support President Hamid Karzai.

I keep waiting for Karzai's office to issue a release—"April Fool's!"—informing the international media that we've been punk'd. Apparently Galbraith, who called Karzai's remarks "absurd," thought the Afghan president was pulling his leg, too. He told the BBC: "At first I thought it was an April Fool's joke but I realised I don't have that kind of warm, personal relationship with President Karzai that he would do that."

Speaking of tense relationships, Karzai is on mighty thin ice with the Obama administration, particularly after his recent move to wrest control of his country's Electoral Complaints Commission by claiming the authority to appoint all five members of the panel, three of whom had previously been chosen by the UN. (The Afghan parliament voted overwhelmingly against Karzai's decree on Wednesday.) Karzai's maneuver so enraged US officials that the Obama administration abruptly cancelled a planned visit by the Afghan president to the White House. Karzai responded to this slight by inviting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Kabul, where the Iranian firebrand delivered an anti-American speech. After President Obama's surprise visit to Kabul on Sunday, the White House put the Karzai visit back on its calender—a move that it might be rethinking right about now.

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Rep. Hank Johnson Thinks Guam Could Capsize

| Thu Apr. 1, 2010 10:15 AM EDT

It couldn't have been easy for Admiral Robert Willard, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, to maintain a straight face during his completely bizarre grilling by Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) last week. Willard was testifying before the House Armed Services Committee at a hearing concerning his command's FY 2011 budget. Part of the hearing centered on plans to shift thousands of US troops from Okinawa to Guam. This move is likely to put a serious strain on the tiny island—but not the kind that Johnson is worried about. Take it away, Hank:

My fear is that the whole island will become so overly populated that it will tip over and capsize.

To which Willard, who appears to be stifling a grin, says:

We don’t anticipate that. The Guam population, I think, currently about 175,000, and again, with 8,000 marines and their families, it’s an addition of about 25,000 more into the population.

Earlier, in another cringe-worthy moment, Johnson goes into exhaustive detail about the island's dimensions, eventually posing this question to the admiral: "I don't know how many square miles it is, do you happen to know?"

Willard: "I don't have that figure with me, sir, but I could certainly supply it to you if you'd like."

Since Willard definitely has more important things to do than Google the square mileage of Guam, I'll save him the trouble: approximately 212.

Jon Stewart needs to send Johnson a thank you note. You can't make this stuff up.

UPDATE: Johnson, via his spokesman, responds:

“I wasn’t suggesting that the island of Guam would literally tip over,” said Johnson. “I was using a metaphor to say that with the addition of 8,000 Marines and their dependents – an additional 80,000 people during peak construction to the port on the tiny island with a population of 180,000 – could be a tipping point which would adversely affect the island’s fragile ecosystem and over burden its already overstressed infrastructure.

“Having traveled to Guam last year, I saw firsthand how this beautiful – but vulnerable island – is already overburdened, and I was simply voicing my concerns that the addition of that many people could tip the delicate balance and do harm to Guam.”

Another Embassy Guard Scandal?

| Fri Mar. 26, 2010 11:42 AM EDT

Surely last September's scandal involving the bacchanalian hijinks of ArmorGroup’s vodka-butt-shot-taking guards taught the State Department—and specifically its diplomatic security division—a major lesson about the perils of loose oversight, right? Perhaps not, according to a recent review of Triple Canopy’s $438 million contract to guard the US embassy in Baghdad conducted by the State Department’s Inspector General.

No, Triple Canopy personnel were not spending their off duty hours gallivanting around with coconut bikinis covering their privates and subjecting each other to lewd hazing rituals. But the IG’s report [PDF], dated March 10 and first obtained by the Project on Government Oversight, does raise the question of whether anyone might have been the wiser if they had been. Among other areas where oversight was MIA, the IG’s office reported that the "Embassy is not properly overseeing" Camp Olympia, where Triple Canopy’s guards reside.

Petraeus for...?

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 12:29 PM EDT

At a presser in Manchester, New Hampshire yesterday, Gen. David Petraeus once and for all squashed rumors that he has presidential ambitions (and rendered obsolete the Petraeus 2012 website). At least I think he did:

I thought I’d said no about as many ways as I could. I really do mean no. We have all these artful ways of doing it. I’ve tried Shermanesque responses, which everybody goes and finds out what Sherman said was pretty unequivocally no. I’ve done several different ways. I’ve tried quoting the country song, ‘What Part of No Don’t You Understand?’ I mean, I really do mean that. I feel very privileged to be able to serve our country. I’m honored to continue to do that as long as I can contribute, but I will not, ever, run for political office, I can assure you. And again, we have said that repeatedly and I’m hoping that people realize at a certain point you say it so many times that you could never flip, and start your career by flip-flopping into it.

Hmmm. So he's not ruling out a cabinet level appointment, then. Secretary of State? Let the rampant speculation commence!


Outsourcing Oversight

| Tue Mar. 23, 2010 4:47 PM EDT

Last September, the antics of ArmorGroup North America's vodka-butt-shot-taking Kabul embassy guards caused more than a diplomatic embarrassment. The resulting scandal's propaganda and terrorist recruitment potential has been likened to that of Abu Ghraib, and it may have played a role in undermining counterinsurgency objectives in Afghanistan. The episode also exposed deep flaws in the State Department's oversight of the contractors on its payroll, and now the agency has a curious plan to prevent another Embassy-gate. It entails hiring another contractor, this one to police its embassy contractors.

Eric Boswell, the Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security, described this plan recently in written responses to questions posed by Sen. Claire McCaskill following a hearing last December. Asked about the "options for improved oversight of private security contractors and contracts" his office was considering, Boswell wrote [PDF]:

As a result of the Diplomatic Security (DS) investigation into the allegations of misconduct, DS temporarily assigned a DS Special Agent to reside at Camp Sullivan, where the AGNA guards reside, to augment the Regional Security  Officer’s (RSO’s) contract oversight efforts in Kabul. As part of the long term solution, DS has conducted interviews and is now in the selection and hiring process for a personal service contractor (i.e., an employee engaged directly by the government rather than a third-party contractor) who will reside at Camp Sullivan and further augment the RSO’s contract oversight responsibilities.

The notion of partially outsourcing oversight certainly raised eyebrows in McCaskill's office. Last Friday, she wrote [PDF] Boswell expressing concern "that the steps taken by the Department may not go far enough to ensure that there is sufficient transparency, accountability, and oversight of the contract. In particular, I'm troubled by the decision to employ a contractor to provide contract oversight for the Department."

However counterintuitive, the outsourced oversight model has already been used to a degree by the Pentagon in both Afghanistan and Iraq. For instance, Aegis was awarded a contract to run the Armed Contractor Oversight Directorate in Afghanistan. And DoD brought in a firm called Serco to oversee aspects of a massive KBR logistics contract in Iraq. But if the government is turning to contractors to oversee contractors, who's overseeing them?

(H/T POGOblog)

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