2012 - %3, November

Petraeus Affair Lesson: The Army Is Better at Planning Soirees Than Wars

| Tue Nov. 13, 2012 2:41 PM PST

Among the many strange details emerging from the story of retired Gen. David Petraeus' affair with his biographer, there's this: US Central Command seems to have prepared more thoroughly for its military parties than for the war in Iraq.

News of Petraeus' marital peccadilloes came to light after Jill Kelley, a Tampa socialite and friend of Petraeus, complained to her FBI friend about receiving harassing emails... which turned out to originate from Petraeus' paramour, Paula Broadwell. Kelley, too, is alleged to have sent "hundreds" of emails (including allegedly "flirtatious" ones) to another general, Marine Gen. John Allen, who's currently overseeing the war in Afghanistan.

Kelley's involvement in the affair has shed light on the military's robust social calendaring at MacDill Air Force Base, Central Command's Tampa headquarters. Tampa has long been known for its gritty night scene—its main drag of strip clubs is literally up the street from MacDill's gates, a straight shot north on Dale Mabry Highway—and Kelley was noted for hosting military VIPs during the city's pirate-themed springtime Gasparilla Festival. She also was a VIP invitee to the service's biggest party of the year, the annual Army Ball, in 2011. It was a party with an exacting military plan that might raise a few eyebrows.

Every Army officer is well-acquainted with the five-paragraph "operations order," the basic memorandum format in which military maneuvers are written up—from major war campaigns to small intelligence-gathering trips. But it might shock some war veterans to learn that CENTCOM's Army Ball that year was organized to the smallest detail in a whopping 17-page official op order with 13 appendices. Marked "UNCLASSIFIED," the memo details how CENTCOM worked with the Pentagon's Special Operations Command "to allow area Army personnel and friends to celebrate the 236th birthday of the United States Army and to promote beneficial public relations in the greater Tampa Community."

Under Section III, "Execution," the Army Ball's executive committee chairmanLt. Gen. Joseph Votelnoted that "[t]here will be five phases of the operation." These included Phase IV, "Execution," and Phase V, "Recovery," in which the party's organizing team "salvages what resources are practical and usable for future balls, performs an After Action Review, and transitions the resources available to the 2012 Army Ball Committee."

Here's the thing: That's more planning and direction than CENTCOM put into postconflict reconstruction in Iraq. When planning for the war against Saddam Hussein in 2003, then-CENTCOM commander (and recent Romney adviser) Gen. Tommy Franks put together a slideshow presentation for President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, among others, that summarized their Iraq strategy. On every slide detailing every option for how to start the war, info on how the war would end—called "Phase IV, Post-Hostilities" in military parlance—was marked by a single word: "UNKNOWN."

Here's what that looks like (click to embiggen):

 

Is it really possible that one of the Army's major combatant commands put more thought into its annual soiree than how to manage post-war Iraq? Of course, there were plenty of military personnel working on the Iraq question, even if their work never filtered up to the operation's slide-writing deciders. But as l'affaire Petraeus demonstrates, every good party needs a planner.

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After Sandy, a Taxpayer Bailout for Flood-Prone Developments?

| Tue Nov. 13, 2012 2:39 PM PST

From a Coast Guard flyover of Long Island after Hurricane Sandy.

The catastrophic damage left by Hurricane Sandy has once again underscored the costly shortcomings of the way we—that is, federal taxpayers—insure property owners against the monster storms that are becoming ever more predictable as the planet warms and sea levels rise.

Storms, not terrorists, present the biggest threat to the coastal cities and communities that are home to more than half of all Americans—not to mention critical conduits for international trade. And yet the FEMA-administered federal flood insurance program, which took a bath after Hurricane Katrina six years ago, is still foundering. As the New York Times reported this morning:

The federal program collects about $3.5 billion in annual premiums. But in four of the past eight years, claims will have eclipsed premiums, most glaringly in 2005—the year of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma—when claims totaled $17.7 billion. Private insurance companies have long avoided offering flood insurance to homeowners.

"It's like rat poison to them," said Tony Bullock, an insurance industry lobbyist, explaining how the risk outweighs the benefit for private insurers. "You need the federal backstop."

While Sandy's overall financial toll has yet to be tallied, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has estimated damages in New York state alone at $50 billion. No more than $20 billion of the overall cost will be covered by private insurance, says Cynthia McHale, director of the insurance program at Ceres, a sustainable-economy coalition consisting of companies, investors, and public-interest groups. This puts most of the remaining burden on state and federal governments.

Which Anti-Science Rep. Will Chair the Science Committee?

| Tue Nov. 13, 2012 2:18 PM PST

The race is on for the next chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee—and no matter who wins, he won't be a big fan of science.

So far, three men have announced that they would like to take over for Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), who is stepping down because House rules limit representatives to 6 years as chairman. Hall was certainly no champion of science, telling National Journal last year that he doesn't think humans are having a significant impact on the climate because, "I don't think we can control what God controls." He also said he was "really more fearful of freezing," and that he thinks climate scientists dreamed up the whole "warming" thing to make money.

But the would-be new chairs aren’t much better. So far, Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), Lamar Smith (R-Texas), and James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wisc.) have all announced that they would like to take over, Science reports. Here are some of their greatest hits on science.

Rohrabacher: You can check out his webpage on the subject, which is full of crazy, or read his March 2009 speech on how scientists made up global warming as part of a "radical agenda to change our way of life." Or you can see his May 2011 comments that seemed to indicate that he believes that trees cause global warming. His greatest hit, however, was suggesting in a hearing that historic global warming was caused by "dinosaur flatulence." (While you're at it, check out my colleague Daniel Schulman's 2010 story about Rohrabacher taking up arms in Afghanistan in the '80s.) 

Smith: Here's Smith in December 2009 chastising news networks for not devoting enough coverage to the so-called "Climategate" affair: "We now know that prominent scientists were so determined to advance the idea of human-made global warming that they worked together to hide contradictory temperature data." His congressional website does at least acknowledge that the climate is changing, but not that human activity is a major factor.

Sensenbrenner: The Wisconsin lawmaker believes that climate change is a "massive international scientific fraud," and in December 2009 declared, "There's increasing evidence of scientific fascism that's going on." But his best one-liner, perhaps, was at a 2007 panel in which he suggested that maybe we should put catalytic converters on cow butts to deal with gases.

Fear of Obamacare Plummets After Election

| Tue Nov. 13, 2012 12:11 PM PST

Sarah Kliff—who really should be working the fiscal cliff beat, no?—highlights an interesting survey result today. In its latest healthcare tracking poll, the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that 49 percent of the public wants to keep or expand Obamacare, while 33 percent want to repeal it. This is down considerably from August (the most recent previous poll), when 40 percent of the public wanted to repeal Obamacare. Likewise, overall unfavorability ratings are also down, from 43 percent to 39 percent.

As the chart below shows, this mostly happened all at once. The sentiment for repeal stayed pretty steady at around 40 percent for two solid years, and then suddenly dropped right after the election. The mere fact that Obama won, and therefore Obamacare was here to stay, apparently changed a lot of minds. Elections really do have consequences.

After Obama Win, Calls For Secession Pour In (Again)

| Tue Nov. 13, 2012 11:07 AM PST
Confederate flag superman bro

Well, President Barack Obama won reelection. And by quite a lot, actually.

The options for despondent conservatives are somewhat limited at this juncture: They can pout. They can turn on each other. They can keep their heads and plot a 2016 comeback. They can call for impeachment hearings.

Or they can play the secession card.

In the days since the election, the White House website has been inundated with secession-related petitions on its "We the People" page, with concerned citizens requesting the "peaceful" secession of more than half of the country's states. The Louisiana petition has received over 28,000 signatures, and Texas' now has over 25,000. Per the "We the People" rules, these petitions now have enough signatures to merit an official response from the White House. "None of the petitions explicitly cite Obama's reelection as a reason for independence, but all were created after last week's elections," Politico's Byron Tau reported on Monday. "Most of the petitions simply quote the Declaration of Independence in their request to depart the country." Via his press secretary on Monday, Texas governor (and former 2012 Republican presidential candidate) Rick Perry came out against secession while emphasizing his continued "frustrations" with the federal government. (It appears Perry's tone has softened since 2009.)

Nearly identical secession petitions have also been created for over 30 states. Here's an example of one petition asking the federal government to, "Peacefully grant the State of New York to withdraw from the United States of America and create its own NEW government." It's important to note that this petition was created by "C R" in Grand Forks, North Dakota, not by anyone in New York. It cropped up on November 10, and currently has upwards of 11,000 signatures:

The White HouseThe White House(A minor backlash to these on "We the People" includes a counterpetition titled, "Deport Everyone That Signed A Petition To Withdraw Their State From The United States Of America.")

Though the "We the People" petition page is a nice enough idea, it frequently unleashes spates of White House-sanctioned trollmageddon. If the parade of lazily crafted secession entreaties aren't enough for you, here's the Obama administration's response last year to two separate petitions demanding answers regarding an X-Files-style alien cover-up. There was also that one petition asking the White House to start taking these petitions more seriously.

It's Time for the Republican Freakout Over Susan Rice to Stop

| Tue Nov. 13, 2012 10:19 AM PST

The Washington Post, in a piece about how President Obama's national security team is likely to shake out in the wake of David Petraeus's departure and the expected resignation of Hillary Clinton, says that Susan Rice is his top pick to take over the State Department. But there might be trouble brewing:

Rice, one of an inner circle of aides who have been with Obama since his first presidential campaign in 2007, is under particular fire over the Benghazi incident, in which U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.

Some Republican lawmakers have suggested that she was part of what they suspect was an initial election-related attempt to portray the attack as a peaceful demonstration that turned violent, rather than what the administration now acknowledges was an organized terrorist assault.

Rice’s description, days after the attack, of a protest gone wrong indicated that she either intentionally misled the country or was incompetent, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said Sunday. Rice, he said, “would have an incredibly difficult time” winning Senate confirmation as secretary of state.

But several White House officials said Obama is prepared to dig in his heels over her nomination to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has long said she will serve only one term.

I hope Obama does dig in his heels over this if he really thinks Rice is the right person for the job. The Republican freakout over Benghazi has been shameful, and their insane scapegoating of Rice's appearances on the Sunday chat shows a week after the attacks has been doubly so. Republicans—aided and abetted at times by reports in the mainstream media—decided to pretend that Rice had blamed the Benghazi attack entirely on a YouTube video, which they took as dark evidence of a coverup designed to protect Obama. But the truth is that Rice flatly did nothing wrong, a point that bears repeating. She did nothing wrong. Here's an instant replay of what happened, which I originally posted three weeks ago:

  • The CIA's collective judgment on Saturday the 15th, when Rice taped her interviews, was that the protests earlier in the week in Cairo — which had been inspired by the video — had also inspired protests in Benghazi. Later, extremist elements hijacked those protests to storm the consulate. The CIA subsequently backed off its belief that there had been protests in Benghazi, but that only happened later. On Saturday, the CIA told Rice there had been protests, and that's what she said on TV.
  • The evidence to this day suggests that, in fact, the YouTube video did play a role in the attacks. It's simply not true that Rice invented or exaggerated about that.
  • Rice was, in fact, properly cautious in her TV appearances. The transcripts here are crystal clear. On Face the Nation, for example, she carefully told Bob Schieffer that she couldn't yet offer any "definitive conclusions," but that "based on the best information we have to date" it appeared that there had been a spontaneous protest in Benghazi "as a reaction to what had transpired some hours earlier in Cairo where [...] there was a violent protest outside of our embassy sparked by this hateful video." She then immediately added: "But soon after that spontaneous protest began outside of our consulate in Benghazi, we believe that it looks like extremist elements, individuals, joined in that effort with heavy weapons of the sort that are, unfortunately, readily now available in Libya post-revolution. And that it spun from there into something much, much more violent." When Schieffer pressed her on whether the attack had been preplanned, or whether al-Qaeda was involved, she said directly that we simply didn't know yet.

Graham and the rest of the Republican caucus appear to still be in election season attack dog mode, and it's time for this to stop. They have every right to investigate Benghazi, which might very well have been handled poorly in some respects and which might have been a case of poor anticipation of an attack that should have been expected. But Rice's conduct was fine. She very carefully, and very professionally, passed along what was, at the time, the considered judgment of the intelligence community. Some of it was wrong, but there was no coverup. There was just new information and new analysis over time, which is exactly what you'd expect following an incident like this. It's long past time for conservatives to acknowledge this.

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The FBI Can Trawl Through Your Email Archives Anytime it Wants

| Tue Nov. 13, 2012 9:52 AM PST

Here's a surveillance state factlet that I think I knew at one point, but have since forgotten:

Under the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, federal authorities need only a subpoena approved by a federal prosecutor — not a judge — to obtain electronic messages that are six months old or older. To get more recent communications, a warrant from a judge is required. This is a higher standard that requires proof of probable cause that a crime is being committed.

....The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy, has proposed changing the law to require a warrant for all Internet communications regardless of their age. But law enforcement officials have resisted because they said it would undercut their ability to catch criminals.

As it happens, news reports suggest that the FBI did indeed get a warrant in order to trawl through the emails from Paula Broadwell and David Petraeus that are at the center of the current FBI/CIA scandal. But that shouldn't change anything. The six-month rule simply has no reasonable basis. The FBI needs a warrant to look through my physical belongings regardless of how old they are, and that's how it should be. Email shouldn't be any different.

UPDATE: Julian Sanchez tweets some additional context: "Technically accurate but misleading: Subpoena for e-mail ALWAYS requires prior notice to user, opportunity to quash....For access without notice, judicial order always acquired—though not necessarily a probable-cause warrant."

UPDATE 2: Never mind. Julian Sanchez tweets again to say prior notice isn't required after all: "I was mistaken. The provision is confusingly framed, with "delayed notice" attatched to the "court order" subsection....But on a second look, 2705 allows delay for either orders or subpoenas. Embarrassing goof on my part; apologies....Though my understanding is that many providers will balk at turning over contents in response to a subpoena."

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 13, 2012

Tue Nov. 13, 2012 9:50 AM PST

Soldiers of the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division’s brigade commander and command sergeant major’s personal security detachment receive a brief in a bunker Nov. 9, 2012 at Combat Outpost Khenjakak in Afghanistan. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Kimberly Hackbarth.

How the CIA Became the 6th Branch of the Military

| Tue Nov. 13, 2012 8:55 AM PST

Robert Wright, in an obvious effort to use Petraeusgate to draw attention to a boring subject that has nothing to do with sex, says the real scandal here isn't Petraeus leaving the CIA, it's the fact that he arrived there in the first place:

When, in the fall of 2011, David Petraeus moved from commanding the Afghanistan war effort to commanding the CIA, it was a disturbingly natural transition. I say "natural" because the CIA conducts drone strikes in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and is involved in other military operations there, so Petraeus, in his new role, was continuing to fight the Afghanistan war. I say "disturbingly" because this overlap of Pentagon and CIA missions is the result of a creeping militarization of the CIA that may be undermining America's national security.

The militarization of the CIA raises various questions. For example, if the CIA is psychologically invested in a particular form of warfare—and derives part of its budget from that kind of warfare—can it be trusted to impartially assess the consequences, both positive and negative, direct and indirect?

And then there's the transparency question. [A piece in the Washington Post] noted concerns among some activists that "the CIA now functions as a military force beyond the accountability that the United States has historically demanded of its armed services. The CIA doesn't officially acknowledge the drone program, let alone provide public explanation about who shoots and who dies, and by what rules." Indeed, only a few months ago, in compliance with the War Powers Resolution, the Obama administration reported (vaguely) on targeted killings in Somalia and Yemen that had been conducted by the military, but not on those conducted by the CIA.

....The circumstances of Petraeus's departure from the CIA are a little alarming; you'd rather your chief spy not be reckless. But the circumstances of his arrival at the CIA a year ago were more troubling. Yet no alarm was sounded that was anywhere near as loud as the hubbub surrounding Petraeus now. That's scandalous.

As near as I can tell, drone warfare was largely handed over to the CIA precisely in order to avoid normal military accountability. That really is scandalous, but it attracted only fleeting notice. It's probably too much to hope that the Petraeus scandal will cause anyone to rethink this, but rethink it we should. Wright has more at the link.

The New Flyover Country

| Tue Nov. 13, 2012 4:03 AM PST

President Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney by assembling a coalition of unprecedented diversity—in an electorate that was 72 percent white, 44 percent of Obama voters were not. But in the dull lexicon of Washington political reporters, a rich, NPR-listening white liberal remains the favored stereotypical shorthand for a Democratic voter.

For example, in an otherwise interesting piece about the right's media bubble, Politico describes Obama's coalition as more ominvorous in its media appetites because "there are as many, if not more, NPR-oriented liberals as MSNBC devotees on the left; the Democratic media ecosystem is larger and more diverse." So when summing up the media appetites of the most diverse electoral coalition in American history, Politico's two examples are liberals who watch NPR and liberals who watch MSNBC. That's when they're being polite. If they're trying to affect a derisive tone they might go with "the coffee-drinking NPR types of Seattle, San Francisco and Madison, Wis."

The NPR stereotype itself is overblown—liberals make up 36 percent of the NPR audience, while 39 percent consider themselves moderates and 21 percent conservatives. NPR's audience is more highly educated than the country as a whole, but the candidate who won Americans without a college degree was Barack Obama. In real life, NPR's journalism just also isn't liberal

More importantly, the notion that people with liberal or left-of-center views are all NPR devotees is a right-wing meme the mainstream media has mindlessly parroted for years. I suspect why this happens because the upper-middle-class liberals in the DC metro area are the Obama voters Beltway reporters frequently come in contact with. That's why much of the national media's image of the quintessential Obama voter remains some yuppie with a taste for gourmet coffee. There is no room in that political shorthand for the retired black Marine in Ohio who knocked on doors for the Obama campaign, or the Latina mom who stood in line for hours—at three different times—just to be able to cast a ballot. The working-class people of color who now make up much of the base of the Democratic Party often seem as invisible to political media as they were to the Romney campaign, which the New York Times described as being shocked that the Obama operation turned out "voters they never even knew existed."

You can almost understand the Romney campaign's surprise. The national media doesn't talk to these voters much—they work hard and play by the rules but were never the group that politicians used to refer to as "working hard and playing by the rules," because before Obama, only white people were described that way. Political consultants never refer to them in cute, condescending shorthands like "soccer moms" or "NASCAR dads." They may drink beer, but they're never the folks who the reporters mean when they talk about "Joe Sixpack." They drive our buses, care for us when we're sick, clean our hotel rooms, teach our children, cook our meals, answer our noise complaints, and much more. Their political views aren't discussed or explored so much as summed up as a matter of "demographics," as though their votes were settled by genetics rather than individual agency. They are the new "flyover country," except they're not so much flown over as invisible to the people who rely daily on their labors. The political press often lacks the vocabulary to describe them, and until last week they could be safely disregarded.

That's no longer true. But a political press used to communicating the soul of America in tired metaphors meant to paint a superficial portrait of a certain kind of working-class white voter from the South or Midwest is ill-equipped to tell you about them. References to NPR and lattes won't cut it, not that they ever did.