David Corn

David Corn

Washington Bureau Chief

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.

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John Cornyn's Earmark Hypocrisy

| Wed Dec. 15, 2010 5:15 PM EST

On Wednesday afternoon, as House and Senate Democrats were trying to handle the end-of-session passage of an $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill to fund the federal government, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) sent out a blistering email fundraiser for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which he heads. In the note, Cornyn decried the 6,600 earmarks totaling $8 billion contained in the bill:

Will you help send a message to Senate Democrats? Go here and tell them that you will not stand for business as usual in Washington. They should not pass this bill and to stop spending money our country doesn't have.

Cornyn failed to mention that last year he numbered among Congress' top earmarkers—supporting dozens of earmark requests that added up to $228 million.

As for the current bill, Cornyn has had a tough time explaining his own contradictory actions. On Fox News, host Bill Hemmer hammered Cornyn for requesting $16 million worth of earmarks in the very bill he was denouncing Democrats for. "Can you defend that?" Hemmer presseed. Cornyn said that he supported the Senate GOP's two-year moratorium on earmarks and would vote against this spending bill. But with the Democrats in the majority, the bill could well pass without Cornyn's vote. Under that circumstance, he would be able to both claim credit for the earmarks and for voting against the Democratic bill.

At a Capitol Hill press conference on Tuesday, Cornyn ran into similar trouble. After both he and Sen. John Thune (R-SD) slammed the bill, reporters grilled them on why the measure contained earmarks they'd requested. "I support those projects, but I don't support this bill," Thune said. When one reporter said to Cornyn, "It appears like you're saying one thing and doing another," the senator replied, "Not at all." As a GOP staffer tried to end the press conference, another reporter asked Cornyn if he would acknowledge "that it was wrong to put the earmarks in in the first place." Cornyn responded, "You've asked the question about five times and I've tried to answer it to the best of my ability." Then Cornyn left the room.

So one of the primo earmarkers on the Hill won't say whether he should have shoved earmarks into the current (or previous) spending bill. But he shows no hesitation in blasting Democrats for passing a measure containing his earmarks. In that NRSC email, he exclaims, "Democrats have a lot of explaining to do to taxpayers." So, too, does Cornyn.

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DC Ticker on ABC News: Sanders, Buy; Steele, Dump

| Tue Dec. 14, 2010 12:33 PM EST

I've previously explained the DC Ticker I compile most days, which is now being featured weekly on ABC News' website show, Political Punch, hosted by Jake Tapper. Here are the picks featured on the latest PP:

* Sen. Dick Durbin, buy. The No. 2 Democratic in the Senate, a liberal, is the most effective advocate for Obama's tax-cut deal in the Upper Chamber. As the bill passes without too much trouble in the Senate, Obama can thank him.

* Sen. Bernie Sanders, buy. The independent senator from Vermont became a progressive hero when he filibustered the tax cut deal. He's not going to be able to stop it, but he earned himself a Twitter hashtag (#filibernie).

* Sen. John Thune, buy. With grumbling on the right about the current crop of 2012 GOP presidential contenders, Thune offers what many Republicans yearn for: a fresh face. It worked for the Ds in 2008.

* Sen. John Cornyn, buy. He's signed up for another tour leading the National Republican Senatorial Committee. No surprise--he knows that 2012 at this point looks like it's going to be a great year for Republicans in the Senate.

* Michael Steele, dump. After the GOP achieved a historic victory in the midterm elections, almost everyone in the party wanted the chairman gone. Yet he's running for re-election. If he loses, he probably won't get a Fox News show.

You can receive the almost-daily DC Ticker report by following my Twitter feed. (#DCticker is the Twitter hashtag.) Please feel free to argue with my selections—though all decisions of the judges are final. And please feel free to make suggestions for buy or sell orders in the comments below or on Twitter (by replying to @DavidCornDC).

DC Ticker is merely an advisory service. It and its author cannot be held liable for any investments made in politicians, policy wonks, or government officials on the basis of the information presented. Invest in politics at your own risk.

Richard Holbrooke's Unfinished Business

| Tue Dec. 14, 2010 11:24 AM EST

When the Obama administration began and Richard Holbrooke was appointed as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan policy, there was cause for some hope. Holbrooke, who died Monday night at the age of 69, was a veteran diplomat who had achieved a forced peace in the Balkans via the Dayton Accords of 1995. He could be imperious and arrogant, but with his clout and foreign policy know-how, he had a chance at pushing the camel through the AfPak needle. On March 27, 2009, the morning after President Barack Obama unveiled his Afghanistan policy, Holbrooke participated in an on-the-record briefing with reporters.

During that session, in response to a question I asked, he candidly acknowledged the problem of corruption in Afghanistan. He came across as quite smart in asserting that one of the most cost-effective steps Washington could take would be to boost the agriculture sector of Afghanistan, which in years past had been a productive and profitable source of exports. Replicate the past success, he said, and Afghans would have money and jobs—and that, in turn, would create stability in the country. He called for "a complete rethink" of the drug problem in Afghanistan, suggesting that draconian eradication programs were bound to fail. The aura of confidence he always exuded appeared to be backed up by knowledge of the region and fresh ideas.

Holbrooke gave the impression that he was both a realistic and creative thinker, someone who would have a shot at finding a path to peace (or less war). And it was entertaining in a way to watch this fellow play his role as a grand statesman. At the time, I wrote:

Holbrooke is a wonderfully engaging character—an old-school power player. He schmoozes reporters, coming across as intelligent, crafty, and concerned. He is a charmer who knows his stuff. He won't no-comment a tough question; he will compliment the reporter on posing an insightful query, show he fully understands the issue at hand (which he does), and then explain he can't answer it—in a manner that can be convincing, not annoying.

But Holbrooke's skill set did not lead to much accomplishment in Afghanistan. He never worked out a productive relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who, admittedly, is a difficult target. He butted heads with other administration officials and was dismissed by European colleagues. He brokered no breakthroughs.

Still, Holbrooke's sudden death could have an impact on what happens in Afghanistan. Julian Borger of the Guardian writes.

The special envoy's death removes from the scene a passionate proponent of pursuing a political initiative alongside the military campaign… The Obama administration formally approves of a political discussions with the Taliban, but has not got directly involved itself. Even the CIA does not have a presidential directive empowering it to contact the Taliban directly.

The policy is to support the Afghan government's quiet contacts with the insurgent leadership… Holbrooke almost certainly would not have hung on in his position as Afghanistan-Pakistan envoy without the protection of Hillary Clinton, who he supported throughout the Democratic primary campaign. But Clinton did not share his approach to Afghanistan. She sided with the generals who argued that it was pointless investing political capital and taking the political risks inherent in direct talks with the Taliban until the insurgents had been battered into submission with another year or so of drone attacks and special forces raids.

Borger notes that though Holbrooke favored more diplomacy he helped block an idea promoted by White House aide Douglas Lute to set up a new UN special envoy to pursue peace talks with the Taliban. Holbrooke believed this would undermine the current UN envoy to Kabul. "European diplomats say the idea of a more powerful UN peace envoy could be revived," Borger writes, "now that Holbrooke and Lute are no longer canceling each other out in Washington… Nothing is certain, however, until the new power constellation in Washington falls into place after Holbrooke's departure from the scene."

Holbrooke's death comes at a time when Obama's Afghanistan policy is under review and heading toward a crunch point. The president has vowed to begin a disengagement in July 2011 that will lead to a hand-over of security responsibilities to the Afghan government by 2014. Yet the US military is still pursuing a counterinsurgency strategy that could take years to succeed, if at all. Meanwhile, the Afghan government led by Karzai is still inept and corrupt, and popular support for both Kabul and the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan is weak. Obama's line is that there has been progress in Afghanistan but challenges remain. It is unclear how he will finish this unfinished business that Holbrooke has left behind.


In a column for The Daily Beast, Les Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, offers a stark view of Obama's current position and Holbrooke's death that is worth quoting at length:

Ten years ago, after the 9/11 attacks, Afghanistan was the center  of the terrorist threat. Now, it's one of many homes to terrorists....And the argument that success in Afghanistan is necessary to ward off catastrophe in Pakistan is even more specious. Pakistan will resist or fall to extremists because of what happens in Pakistan, a nation of 180 million people, not because of what happens in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan itself is no longer a vital interest of the United States, but continuing the war there tears at our own nation's very vitals. With America drowning under a $1.5 trillion deficit for next year and an almost $15 trillion overall debt, we are verging on banana republic-hood. Most of the $125 billion being spent in and for Afghanistan could better be deducted from those bills. And how on earth can the administration justify spending billions to build roads, schools, and hospitals in Afghanistan when America's physical and intellectual infrastructure is simply collapsing? Of course, I feel for the  Afghans; but I feel far, far more for Americans....

So, when Obama steps to some podium Thursday to announce the results of his [latest Afghanistan] policy review, he will reaffirm this transition policy. He will say that U.S. efforts to date are "making progress."...Further, he will announce that he's keeping his previous promise to begin some reduction of U.S. forces by July 2011, but he still won't say how many. He will  go on to talk about general plans for U.S. force reductions over the following  three years but without any timetables. He will acknowledge problems with the government of President Hamid Karzai, its inefficiencies and corruption, but not  suggest in any way that these fundamental flaws in our ally should impair or will determine the rate of U.S. troop withdrawals....

President Obama will not be grim as he renders these policy verdicts. Administration officials say privately that while he has his doubts and worries about what he is doing in Afghanistan, Obama feels he's reached an acceptable balance in policy and a workable political consensus in support of that policy. In many respects, Obama's Afghan policy is much like his recent agreement on taxes with the Republicans. He doesn't really like a lot of the policy compromises he has reached on Afghan policy with Petraeus or on tax policy with the Republicans. But on both counts, he feels safe politically. As things stand, the Republicans won't attack him on tax policy and Petraeus won't flay him on Afghan policy. His own fellow Democrats will scream on both counts, but to the president, they don't seem to matter much on policy or on politics. He obviously reckons that Democratic liberals have nowhere else to turn, and he's probably right. But who knows where the political center of gravity will be in a year and a half with America still in the economic doldrums and with America still at war in Afghanistan? And who knows how the President will be able to navigate through all this without his most gifted foreign policy thinker and doer--Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke, my dear and best friend.

There's no telling whether Holbrooke would have helped Obama out of this mess. After all, for all his talents, he was part of the crew that enlarged the war. Before he died, he told his Pakistani surgeon, "You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan." It was a mission he had not been able to accomplish.

Can Palin Reconciliate This?

| Mon Dec. 13, 2010 12:46 PM EST

In July, Sarah Palin told The Daily Caller, a conservative site, that

the media became a key reason she decided not finish out her term as governor.

Bad media—forcing her to quit a job! Now let's turn to an interview she gave recently to Human Events magazine:

What attributes does Palin think a GOP candidate who steps up to the plate in 2012 should have? "Someone who’s willing to take some risks in terms of bringing in people who aren’t the known bureaucrats, but people with private sector experience who know how to run a business, make payroll, balance a budget, and live within your means." According to Palin, the candidate should also have "that steel spine, thick skin, not worrying about what it is that the adversaries are going say about you" and an understanding that "it is the people who hire you, who elect you, whom you are beholden to." Palin also spoke about the importance of humility: "You have to have a team around you that you will listen to, and that takes some humility, and not an arrogant, elitist attitude pretending that nobody else's advice really matters because you’re so doggarned smart you’re going to do it yourself."

The interviewer, Jedediah Bila, observed, "Who does that sound like? You be the judge?" Obviously, Bila thought Palin was describing herself. But how can Palin tell The Daily Caller that she ran out on her commitment to Alaska's citizens because of pesky journalists but then insist to Human Events that a political candidate must have a thick hide and ignore assaults from adversaries? Can Palin reconciliate these two statements?

WikiLeaks Provokes Dumb USG Response

| Fri Dec. 10, 2010 4:39 PM EST

From Steve Aftergood's Secrecy News:

The U.S. Government insists that the classification markings on many of the leaked documents being published by Wikileaks and other organizations are still in force, even though the documents are effectively in the public domain, and it has directed federal employees and contractors not to access or read the records outside of a classified network.

But by strictly adhering to the letter of security policy and elevating security above mission performance, some say the government may be causing additional damage.

"At DHS we are getting regular messages [warning not to access classified records from Wikileaks]," one Department of Homeland Security official told us in an email message. "It has even been suggested that if it is discovered that we have accessed a classified Wikileaks cable on our personal computers, that will be a security violation. So, my grandmother would be allowed to access the cables, but not me. This seems ludicrous."

"As someone who has spent many years with the USG dealing with senior officials of foreign governments, it seems to me that the problem faced by CRS researchers (and raised by you) is going to be widespread across our government if we follow this policy."

"Part of making informed judgments about what a foreign government or leader will do or think about something is based on an understanding and analysis of what information has gone into their own deliberative processes. If foreign government workers know about something in the Wikileaks documents, which clearly originated with the U.S., then they will certainly (and reasonably) assume that their US counterparts will know about it too, including the staffers. If we don't, they will assume that we simply do not care, are too arrogant, stupid or negligent to find and read the material, or are so unimportant that we've been intentionally left out of the information loop. In any such instance, senior staff will be handicapped in their preparation and in their inter-governmental relationships," the DHS official said.

"I think more damage will be done by keeping the federal workforce largely in the dark about what other interested parties worldwide are going to be reading and analyzing. It does not solve the problem to let only a small coterie of analysts review documents that may be deemed relevant to their own particular 'stovepiped' subject area. Good analysis requires finding and putting together all the puzzle pieces."

So far, however, this kind of thinking is not finding a receptive audience in government. There has been no sign of leadership from any Administration official who would stand up and say:  "National security classification is a means, and not an end in itself.  What any reader in the world can discover is no longer a national security secret. We should not pretend otherwise."

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