Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
A few weeks ago, Hillary Clinton delivered a much-touted policy speech at the New America Foundation in Washington, where she talked passionately about the financial plight of Americans who "are still barely getting by, barely holding on, not seeing the rewards that they believe their hard work should have merited." She bemoaned the fact that the slice of the nation's wealth collected by the top 1 percent—or 0.01 percent—has "risen sharply over the last generation," and she denounced this "throwback to the Gilded Age of the robber barons." Her speech, in which she cited the various projects of the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation that address economic inequality, was widely compared to the rhetoric of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), the unofficial torchbearer of the populist wing of the Democratic Party. Here was Hillary, test-driving a theme for a possible 2016 presidential campaign, sticking up for the little guy and trash-talking the economic elites. She decried the "shadow banking system that operated without accountability" and caused the financial crisis that wiped out millions of jobs and the nest eggs, retirement funds, and college savings of families across the land. Yet at the end of this week, when all three Clintons hold a daylong confab with donors to their foundation, the site for this gathering will be the Manhattan headquarters of Goldman Sachs.
Goldman was a key participant in that "shadow banking system" that precipitated the housing market collapse and the consequent financial debacle that slammed America's middle class. (A system that was unleashed in part due to deregulation supported by the Clinton administration in the 1990s.) This investment house might even be considered one of the robber barons of Wall Street. In its 2011 report, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, a congressionally created panel set up to investigate the economic meltdown, approvingly cited a financial expert who concluded that Goldman practices had "multiplied the effects of the collapse in [the] subprime" mortgage market that set off the wider financial implosion that nearly threw the nation into a depression.
So you're in the middle of the biggest secrets-blowing caper in the history of the known universe. You're one of a small number of people who have access to the most classified information about the most classified spying programs of the most powerful superpower—and you're swiping tens of thousands of pages of these secrets and preparing to hand them over to journalists. You've already made contact with your recipients—and it was harder than you thought to do so. You've switched jobs, moving from one contractor to another, in order to snatch more of the documents you want revealed to the unknowing public. You're scraping NSA servers. You're watching your back. Oh damn, you are certainly watching your back. You know the people you work for can monitor who gets in and out of the system, and though you are one of the few with the keys to the crypt, you have to be worried—scratch that, paranoid, and rightfully so—that someone's going to wise up. You make a slip—they might be watching right now—and the alarms go off. And it's no more Hawaiian paradise. It's federal prison. But you're committed. You have your plan. You're about to send a security kit to an American reporter who lives in Brazil and works for a British outlet so you can communicate via a safe and encrypted mechanism. You're keeping all of this secret from your live-in girlfriend. You're thinking about your getaway. Iceland, maybe Iceland. You know that you are engaged in risky business. You could end up changing the world. You could end up dead. Yes, dead. On the run, some times things happens. It's possible. Oh, what was that sound? Did something weird just happen with your laptop? Did a strange car drive past the house not once but twice? Man, this is intense.
And in the middle of this adrenalin-laced stretch—on April 5, 2013, a mere weeks before you start slipping that journalist top-secret docs exposing the USG's biggest secrets and then head to Hong Kong to meet him and his compatriots—you send an email to the NSA's general counsel's office, posing a rather prosaic query. One question: Why?
Today the NSA released an email Edward Snowden sent its general counsel on that date. The spy agency was responding to NBC News reporting that it had confirmed that the NSA had received an email from Snowden before he leaked all those documents expressing "policy and legal" concerns. This report seemed to bolster Snowden's claim that he had alerted intelligence officials of his profound concerns about the NSA's extensive surveillance programs before taking matters into his own hand and becoming a whistleblower. But when the NSA put out the email—claiming it was the only communication of this sort it had received from Snowden—there was a surprise: Snowden had not contacted the NSA's top lawyers about possible abuses within the NSA. He had asked questions regarding information in a training course. The course had covered the "Hierarchy of Governing Authorities" for federal action. At the top of the chain was the US Constitution. Right below were federal statutes and presidential executive orders. Snowden wanted to know which of the two ranked higher. "My understanding is that EOs may be superseded by federal statutes, but EOs may not override statute," he wrote. " Am I incorrect in this?" And he had a similar question about Pentagon regulations and Office of Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) rules.
That was it. A simple query about training material.
Someone in the general counsel's office—the person's name is redacted—replied quickly and informed Snowden that EOs cannot override a statute and that Defense Department and ODNI regs "are afforded similar precedence." This NSA official helpfully added, "Please give me a call if you would like to discuss further." Apparently, if the NSA is to be believed, Snowden was satisfied and did not follow up.
Why would a fellow currently mounting a significant penetration of an intelligence agency choose on his own to contact the lawyers for that agency and ask these questions? Why did he care about this? Why would he want to be on their radar screen at all at this time? Was he trying to establish some sort of paper trail? Was he worried that he had left a clue somewhere about his ongoing operation and thought such a note would divert attention?
This is a puzzler. Snowden comes across as a smart and thorough fellow who sure knows how to plan well. But how does this email fit into the plan? Marcy Wheeler suggests that Snowden was trying to get the NSA lawyers to admit that the agency saw EOs as top dogs (to prove, in a way, that the NSA was using one particular EO to trump laws that might limit its surveillance activities). Until Snowden explains this email himself, it's hard to know if this is correct. If so, Snowden would be even a cooler cucumber. It's hard to imagine a fellow who's about to sabotage an entire intelligence community deciding that this is a good time to play mind games with the lawyers at the NSA and possibly draw notice. In all his interviews, Snowden hasn't mentioned that he sought to squeeze this kind of secret out of the NSA as he was filling up disk drives with its most sensitive documents.
So here is a new question about Snowden. And the question remains: whether (and how) Snowden tried to go through channels before going to Greenwald and the Washington Post.
The ACLU, which represents Snowden, says of this email controversy, "This whole issue is a red herring. The problem was not some unknown and isolated instance of misconduct. The problem was that an entire system of mass surveillance had been deployed—and deemed legal—without the knowledge or consent of the public. Snowden raised many complaints over many channels. The NSA is releasing a single part of a single exchange after previously claiming that no evidence existed." (Mother Jones asked the ACLU if it could share more of this email exchange, and it said it didn't "have any other info.")
Yes, the big picture is still there: How far over the line did the NSA go with its surveillance programs, and what ought to be done about that? But Snowden's tale is also captivating, and the release of this email today adds to the mystery.
UPDATE: Several hours after the NSA released the Snowden email, Snowden told the Washington Post, "Today’s release is incomplete, and does not include my correspondence with the Signals Intelligence Directorate’s Office of Compliance, which believed that a classified executive order could take precedence over an act of Congress, contradicting what was just published. It also did not include concerns about how indefensible collection activities—such as breaking into the back-haul communications of major US internet companies—are sometimes concealed under EO 12333 to avoid Congressional reporting requirements and regulations."
Snowden insisted that he had tried to work within the system: "If the White House is interested in the whole truth, rather than the NSA’s clearly tailored and incomplete leak today for a political advantage, it will require the NSA to ask my former colleagues, management, and the senior leadership team about whether I, at any time, raised concerns about the NSA’s improper and at times unconstitutional surveillance activities. It will not take long to receive an answer."
Snowden said there were other relevant emails (presumably sent to the NSA) "not just on this topic. I’m glad they’ve shown they have access to records they claimed just a few months ago did not exist, and I hope we’ll see the rest of them very soon." He maintained, "I showed numerous colleagues direct evidence of programs that those colleagues considered unconstitutional or otherwise concerning. Today’s strangely tailored and incomplete leak only shows the NSA feels it has something to hide."
If Snowden did have more extensive correspondence with the NSA, he and/or the agency should be able to resolve the question of what he sought to do before revealing the NSA's most important secrets..
Since the end of the Cold War, foreign policy has become much more challenging. In a post-bipolar world where nonstate actors pose real threats and disrupters (good and bad) are everywhere, the issues are knottier and unforeseen developments often yield difficult options. In the aftermath of 9/11, George W. Bush chose not to come to terms with this fundamental change. Instead, he opted for a blunderbuss policy dominated by a misguided invasion of Iraq. President Barack Obama inherited a helluva cleanup job. And as he had handled the details—such as winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—he has had tried to articulate an overall strategy. His latest stab at this was the speech he delivered to West Point graduates this morning.
Early in the address, Obama noted, "you are the first class to graduate since 9/11 who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan." The young men and women before him cheered. It was a poignant moment. Then Obama proceeded to outline a larger vision. He summed up his stance in these lines:
[S]ince George Washington served as commander in chief, there have been those who warned against foreign entanglements that do not touch directly on our security or economic well-being. Today, according to self-described realists, conflicts in Syria or Ukraine or the Central African Republic are not ours to solve. Not surprisingly, after costly wars and continuing challenges at home, that view is shared by many Americans.
A different view, from interventionists on the left and right, says we ignore these conflicts at our own peril; that America's willingness to apply force around the world is the ultimate safeguard against chaos, and America's failure to act in the face of Syrian brutality or Russian provocations not only violates our conscience, but invites escalating aggression in the future.
Each side can point to history to support its claims. But I believe neither view fully speaks to the demands of this moment. It is absolutely true that in the 21st century, American isolationism is not an option. If nuclear materials are not secure, that could pose a danger in American cities. As the Syrian civil war spills across borders, the capacity of battle-hardened groups to come after us increases. Regional aggression that goes unchecked—in southern Ukraine, the South China Sea, or anywhere else in the world—will ultimately impact our allies, and could draw in our military.
Beyond these narrow rationales, I believe we have a real stake—an abiding self-interest—in making sure our children grow up in a world where schoolgirls are not kidnapped, where individuals aren't slaughtered because of tribe or faith or political beliefs. I believe that a world of greater freedom and tolerance is not only a moral imperative—it also helps keep us safe.
But to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution. Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures—without thinking through the consequences, without building international support and legitimacy for our action, or leveling with the American people about the sacrifice required. Tough talk draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans. As General Eisenhower, someone with hard-earned knowledge on this subject, said at this ceremony in 1947: "War is mankind's most tragic and stupid folly; to seek or advise its deliberate provocation is a black crime against all men."
This is not new. Obama chooses no specific camp. He does not truck with so-called realists and isolationists who do not want the United States to be involved with overseas conflicts that do not directly and immediately threaten the United States. Nor does he side with interventionists who call for US military engagement in trouble spots around the world. Cognizant of the costs of war (money, lives, and more), he does not want to overcommit the United States. Citing the costs of nonaction and the interconnectedness of today's world, he does not want to remain on the global sidelines. He's certainly no neocon eager to deploy US military resources overseas to intervene in Syria or to up the ante with Russia regarding Ukraine. (Obama announced he would boost efforts to help Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq, deal with refugees and cross-border terrorists from Syria, and "ramp up" support for elements of the Syrian opposition "who offer the best alternative to terrorists and a brutal dictator." He said he would keep working with the IMF and allies to bolster Ukraine and its economy and isolate Russia.) But Obama did defend his use of drone strikes. He noted, "In taking direct action, we must uphold standards that reflect our values. That means taking strikes only when we face a continuing, imminent threat, and only where there is near certainty of no civilian casualties. For our actions should meet a simple test: We must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield." (Yet his administration has not always met this standard.)
For years, Obama has been trying to form and sell a balanced approach that justifies certain military interventions and limits others—while redefining national security interests to include climate change and other matters. That's a tough task. The world is not a balanced place. It's likely that Obama's handling of foreign policy will continue to be judged on a case-by-case basis and less on the establishment of an integrated doctrine. Given the global challenges of this era, a grand plan may not be realistic.
If you had any iota of doubt that the right's never-ending obsession with Benghazi is not driven by its antipathy toward (or fear of) Hillary Clinton and by a desire to raise money for conservative outfits, then please see the fundraising email below that was sent out this week by the Stop Hillary PAC. Dispatched to conservative mailing lists, the solicitation depicts the Benghazi inquiry as all about Clinton, accusing her and her comrades of mounting a cover-up and successfully (apparently) neutering all previous congressional investigations.
The letter is not subtle:
As you know, previous attempts to uncover the truth were met with stonewalling by Hillary Clinton and Obama administration apologists.
Make no mistake: this stonewalling has EVERYTHING to do with protecting Hillary Clinton's chances of becoming President in 2016. You could hear the desperation in Hillary's own voice when she shrilly yelled, "WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE!!!!" at a fact-finding hearing.
Clearly, Hillary Clinton and those surrounding her think the deaths of 4 brave Americans makes no difference. Clinton simply cannot be troubled with anything that might stain the red carpet that has been rolled out for her Presidential run by the liberal elite and their accomplices in the media.
But now that Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) has been appointed by House Speaker John Boehner to run a select committee on Benghazi, the Stop Hillary PAC notes, there is finally a chance the truth will emerge. Unless, of course, Clinton and her henchmen destroy Gowdy. The Stop Hillary gang presents this as a real possibility:
Remember, those that dared to uncover the truth about the Monica Lewinsky/Bill Clinton affair and Clinton's lies under oath about it? The Clinton's methodically destroyed the careers and reputations of those that dared to lead the impeachment proceedings, including Congressman Bob Livingston, Bob Barr, Henry Hyde, Newt Gingrich, Helen Chenoweth, and Dan Burton.
Yet these supposed Clinton victims either were not undone by the Clintons or did not fare so badly. Livingston did resign from the House—but because of an extramarital affair. Gingrich was forced out of the House speakership by his fellow GOPers. Still, his career seems still to be kicking. Barr remains in the game; he ran as the Libertarian Party's presidential candidate in 2008, and days ago he won enough votes in a Georgia primary to make it to the runoff for a GOP congressional nomination. Burton—who relentlessly pursued the conspiracy theory that Clinton White House aide Vince Foster was murdered (and did not commit suicide)—stayed in the House until 2012, when he resigned. Chenoweth, too, left the House on her own accord, sticking to a pledge to serve no more than three terms. Hyde carried on in the House until his 81st birthday in 2005, when he announced he would retire.
But the Stop Hillary PAC warns that Americans who want the truth about Benghazi ought to be worried about Gowdy's fate. There is, however, a way for these Americans to help: They can sign the Stop Hillary PAC's "statement of support" for Gowdy and, of course, send money to the PAC. If you cannot part with $50, $100, $250, $500 or more, the group suggests a symbolic donation of $20.16. "If Congressman Gowdy can finally uncover the truth, then, perhaps we can stop Hillary once and for all…because, she MUST BE STOPPED," the group notes.
The letter, not surprisingly, does not say how the Stop Hillary PAC will use these contributions to help Gowdy—who with subpoena power shouldn't need that much assistance. But the group's filings with the Federal Elections Committee might cause a potential donor to be concerned. From the start of 2013 until the end of this past March, the group raised $462,749. In this time period, it spent $407,970. About $110,000 of that went straight to fundraising consultants. And most of the rest was paid out to direct mail, political consulting, and PR firms. According to Open Secrets, the PAC has devoted about 90 percent of its expenditures to fundraising overall. This stat gives the impression that the group exists largely to raise money for itself. (The honorary chairman of the Stop Hillary PAC is Colorado state Sen. Ted Harvey, a Republican who once claimed that California wildfires were set by Al Qaeda. They were not.)
Democrats who charge that the new Benghazi committee was established to allow conservatives to bash Clinton and keep milking their movement grassroots for cash need look no further than the Stop Hillary PAC. Its email ends with this enticement: "the first 2,500 patriots" who send $20.16 or more to the PAC to support Gowdy will receive "our extremely popular Stop Hillary window sticker."
It is odd that in a year widely cited by political handicappers as favorable for Republicans, one of the most senior elected GOP officials in Washington—Mitch McConnell, the minority leader of the Senate—is perhaps the most embattled Republican incumbent up for reelection. Though McConnell easily fended off a tea party challenge in his home state of Kentucky, defeating businessman Matt Bevin in Tuesday's Republican primary contest, the five-term senator will now face off against Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky's Democratic secretary of state, in a race deemed to be one of the more competitive clashes of the year. Yes, with Republicans riding high—and giddy at the prospect of taking the Senate—their main man in the Senate is fighting for his political life. Why is this? The answer may be simple: He's not that likable.
In his decades in public life, McConnell has not been fully embraced by his fellow Bluegrass Staters. He won his Senate seat by taking on Democratic incumbent Walter Huddleston in 1984, and he bagged merely 5,200 votes more than Huddleston—about a 0.4 percent margin. (Ronald Reagan won the state that year by 21 percentage points.) In his four subsequent reelection bids, McConnell only topped 55 percent of the vote once. (In 2002, he drew 64.7 percent.) These days, his approval rating in the state hovers in the low 30s —far below President Barack Obama's anemic national numbers. Given McConnell's low standing, almost any Democrat who doesn't drool would stand a chance against this well-funded, influential Washington power broker.
McConnell's political unpopularity among Democrats is not surprising. He lacks the slightest hint of charisma or charm—or personality—that conservatives sometimes can employ to win over Dems, especially in Southern states. He certainly doesn't look good holding a gun. His awkward relationship with conservatives is a bit puzzling. In Washington, he has in recent years developed the rep as a chief obstructer of Obama. In 2010, he notably said, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." What's not for a tea partier to like about that? McConnell has been a steady foe of Obamacare and still calls for its repeal. Yet the TPers in the GOP have squawked for years that McConnell is an accommodationist. He went along with the TARP bailout, and he negotiated last-minute deals with Obama on tax cuts and the debt ceiling. But these actions ended up well—even by conservative standards. The bailout led to a profit for taxpayers, and McConnell's backroom wheeling-and-dealing won the Rs an extension of the Bush tax cuts, a sharp drop in the estate tax, and dramatic spending cuts.
Yet McConnell has not been a bomb-thrower at the front lines of the tea party crusade. When tea party fave Rand Paul ran for the US Senate in Kentucky in 2010, McConnell backed an establishment Republican, Trey Grayson, in the GOP primary. Though McConnell proudly held the debt ceiling hostage in 2011, he was not a champion of shutting down the government in 2013 to force a repeal of Obamacare (or to win other concessions), à la Ted Cruz. And for years, McConnell has feuded with Jim DeMint, the onetime Republican senator who created the Senate Conservatives Fund, which has raised money for tea party GOPers taking on establishment Rs. (DeMint's group endorsed Bevin over McConnell.)
The ideological enmity McConnell has aroused on the right in his home state seems disproportionate. McConnell has done much for the conservative cause in Washington, yet apparently he is seen by many conservatives as a wimp, RINO, traitor, or all of the above. A recent poll found that only 39 percent of Bevin supporters would vote for McConnell in November and that 25 percent of Bevin supporters say they will stomp across party lines and vote for the Democratic candidate in the general election. It's hard to believe that a quarter of the folks supporting a tea party candidate will switch to Grimes in the fall. But what these numbers suggest is that tea party GOPers in Kentucky truly detest McConnell.
Are ideologically minded voters put off by McConnell because of him, not his positions? There is something that seems shifty about McConnell. He is an insider—a fellow who relishes cutting a complicated legislative deal on deadline and hobnobbing with K Street lobbyists—who tries and fails to come across as a one-of-us politician. He began his political career as a moderate Republican and veered right later on. He's not been able to integrate fully his conservative stances, his official actions, and whatever down-home appeal he can muster, as say Bob Dole did when he was a senator from Kansas.
But whatever McConnell lacks in the personality department, he compensates when it comes to political skills and ruthlessness. He won the Senate seat initially largely because his campaign consultant—a fellow named Roger Ailes—produced what has become an infamous television ad that showed bloodhounds searching for Huddleston. (The point: Huddleston had missed several Senate votes to do speaking gigs.) This time around, McConnell showed how calculating and unsentimental he could be by hiring Jesse Benton to run his reelection campaign. Benton managed Rand Paul's 2010 Senate campaign (which McConnell opposed) and then-Rep. Ron Paul's 2012 campaign. And the Paul camp from which Benton hailed has been allied with DeMint. (Benton told an Iowa activist he was "sort of holding my nose" to work for McConnell.) McConnell was embracing the enemy and slyly undermining the tea party assault against him.
Moreover, McConnell extracted an endorsement from Rand Paul. It wasn't much of an endorsement; Paul would not publicly say why he was backing McConnell. But McConnell had succeeded in preventing the forces that elected Paul from fully gathering behind Bevin, making sure there would be no full-scale tea party rebellion against him. When Amy Kremer last month resigned as chair of the Tea Party Express, she complained that the group was not working for Bevin in Kentucky. (Interesting side note: The woman who runs Rand Paul's political action committee is the daughter of the guy who runs the Tea Party Express.)
McConnell will do whatever it takes. A year ago—when actor Ashley Judd, a Democrat, was considering challenging McConnell—Mother Jonesrevealed a tape of a private McConnell campaign meeting in which the senator listened as his aides gleefully considered assaulting Judd for her past struggles with depression and for her religious views. He did not raise any objections. McConnell will run a smart and tough campaign against Grimes. He will valiantly defend his opposition to Obamacare in a state where nearly 400,000 residents have signed up for health care under the Affordable Care Act. He will try to shackle Grimes to the not-so-popular president. He will continue to dispatch his wife, Elaine Chao, a former labor secretary, to attest to his "love" for Kentucky—and to make McConnell seem amiable enough.
Grimes—a younger female candidate who comes from a long-established political family in the state—is frequently described by pundits as McConnell's most competitive foe in decades and a stronger challenger than Bevin. As can be expected in a race that will draw much national attention and oodles of out-of-state campaign cash on both sides, this contest will get ugly. But with the hard-nosed and cold-blooded McConnell in a corner, it is likely this election will exceed those expectations. When a candidate doesn't have to worry about his likability—and for McConnell it may be much too late for that—the incentive is to get nastier…and nastier.