David Bromwich: The leader Obama wanted to become and what became of him

Doesn’t this just say it all?  After Majority Leader Harry Reid went the ultimate mile for the president, loosing the “nuclear option” on the Senate to wipe out Republican filibusters of a bevy of log-jammed presidential nominations, and after the Republicans — the president’s proudly disloyal opposition — had fumed to their hearts’ content, Obama still couldn’t get his nominee to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division confirmed.  The culprits in a Congress where, from the White House point of view, evil has been every shade of Republican turned out to be seven disloyal Democrats.  Despite a “sustained closed-door effort” by Obama and his aides, they voted the nominee down.  Think of it as a little parable for the Obama presidency.

Meanwhile, in foreign policy, the din has been thunderous when it comes to Vladimir Putin and events in Ukraine.  Denunciations of the Russian president have rung from every quarter in Washington.  Sanctions against individual Russians have been issued with broader sanctions threatened and Secretary of State John Kerry has led the way.  But so far it’s been a Charge of the Lite Brigade.  Kerry actually had the chutzpah to say of the Russian troops sent into the Crimea, “You just don’t in the twenty-first century behave in nineteenth-century fashion by invading another country on [a] completely trumped up pretext.”  And the former senator, who had voted for the invasion of Iraq (to deal with Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction program), did it straight-faced.  Had the situation not been so grim, it would have been pure stand-up.  

The poor people of Ukraine are, of course, caught in the ring with global heavyweights and wannabes.  And the action’s been hot and heavy.  For one thing, the White House seems to have leaked German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s private suggestion to the president that, in a conversation they had, Putin had been “in another world” — i.e. deranged.  (It was assumedly a good way for the White House to depth charge her relationship with the Russian president.)  As for Putin, if he’s crazy, by all accounts he’s crazy like a fox. He’s managed to go to “war” with what’s left of the Red Army and as the leader of a far more ramshackle state than the Soviet Union without a shot so far being fired.  He’s been punching visibly above his weight.

Thematically true to the Obama era, Washington has no less visibly been punching below its weight.  Its theme, widely announced, has been to “isolate” Russia, particularly economically.  Even as Republican congressional representatives were clambering aboard the Good Ship Sanctions (while continuing to denounce the president), the Obama administration hasn’t been able to rally those who actually matter: its European allies.

Yes, they’ve all said the right words in the rhetorical war that’s been underway, but in a fashion new in the trans-Atlantic relationship, even Great Britain has balked at Washington’s urgings to impose real sanctions on the Russians.  And no wonder: unlike the U.S., the Germans and others have significant trade relationships with that country and rely on it for natural gas supplies, none of which are they eager to imperil.  Here, too, for all the sound and fury signifying little, Obama seems to have been trumped by Putin.

The president’s inability to get much of significance done, no matter the topic, has become legendary.  In this, he may be the perfect symbol of our age.  His is a presidency in a time of decline.  As TomDispatch regular David Bromwich indicates today in a sweeping character portrait of the man we’ve never quite come to know, he’s had an uncanny knack for embodying the waning of American power.  Whether at home or abroad, it seems as if that power is somehow mysteriously draining out of Washington.  As Bromwich suggests, the president’s words can still soar, but the actions he proposes show a remarkably consistent inability to leave the ground. Tom Engelhardt

The voice
How Obama became a publicist for his presidency (rather than the president)
By David Bromwich

Like many days, March 3rd saw the delivery of a stern opinion by President Obama. To judge by recent developments in Ukraine, he said, Russia was putting itself “on the wrong side of history.” This might seem a surprising thing for an American president to say. The fate of Soviet Communism taught many people to be wary of invoking History as if it were one’s special friend or teammate. But Obama doubtless felt comfortable because he was quoting himself. “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent,” he said in his 2009 inaugural address, “know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” In January 2009 and again in March 2014, Obama was speaking to the world as its uncrowned leader.

For some time now, observers — a surprisingly wide range of them — have been saying that Barack Obama seems more like a king than a president. Leave aside the fanatics who think he is a “tyrant” of unparalleled powers and malignant purpose. Notions of that sort come easily to those who look for them; they are predigested and can safely be dismissed. But the germ of a similar conclusion may be found in a perception shared by many others. Obama, it is said, takes himself to be something like a benevolent monarch — a king in a mixed constitutional system, where the duties of the crown are largely ceremonial. He sees himself, in short, as the holder of a dignified office to whom Americans and others may feel naturally attuned.

A large portion of his experience of the presidency should have discouraged that idea. Obama’s approval ratings for several months have been hovering just above 40%. But whatever people may actually think of him, the evidence suggests that this has indeed been his vision of the presidential office — or rather, his idea of his function as a holder of that office. It is a subtle and powerful fantasy, and it has evidently driven his demeanor and actions, as far as reality permitted, for most of his five years in office.

[Read more...]

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This is what occupation looks like: Russian provocation and Serbian Chetniks in Crimea

e13-icon“We are often told our actions are illegitimate, but when I ask, ‘Do you think everything you do is legitimate?,’ they say ‘yes’,” President Vladimir Putin said at a press conference on Tuesday. “Then I have to recall the actions of the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, where they either acted without any U.N. sanction or completely distorted the content of such resolutions, as was the case with Libya.”

For many critics of U.S. military action over the last thirteen years, Putin’s words resonate deeply.

There’s no question that when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says, “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text,” the hypocrisy in a top U.S. government official saying this, is glaring.

But here’s the problem: it’s starting to sound like for many of the people now chanting “Hypocrisy!”, they see hypocrisy as worse than occupation. Indeed, this insistence on focusing on the lack of integrity of Western political leaders is becoming an excuse to ignore or legitimize the Russian invasion of Crimea.

In his latest report from Crimea, Simon Ostrovsky offers a close-up view of the Russian occupation.

A Serb commander belonging to the Chetnik movement, controlling a checkpoint between Sevastopol and Simferpol and supporting the occupation, says — without a hint of irony — “it would be better to resolve this issue internally.” He sees himself and the Russians as part of this “internal” solution. (It should be noted that the Chetniks have a history of involvement in ethnic cleansing, mass murder and other war crimes.)

If a Serb, having traveled hundreds of miles to Crimea, identifies himself as part of an internal solution, this begs the question: how would he define external?

I guess an example would be OSCE observers invited by Ukraine’s interim government — that’s why they got shot at when they attempted to enter Crimea.

But here’s a final thought: if you think occupation is only a problem when it’s conducted by Americans or Israelis, then maybe it’s time to ask yourself whether you really understand the meaning of the word hypocrisy.

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Obama has bungled his negotiations with Putin

a13-iconFred Kaplan writes: The most startling thing about the crisis in Ukraine is how horribly all the actors have played their hands.

First, the Ukrainian parliament, after stepping up to power, drastically overstepped its bounds, dissolving the courts and ousting President Viktor Yanukovich by fiat rather than through legal processes of impeachment—thus giving Russian President Vladimir Putin the sliver of an excuse to declare the new leaders “illegitimate” and to intervene under the pretense of restoring “order.”

Then, Putin went overboard, not merely bolstering the security of Russia’s naval base on the coast of Crimea (an autonomous republic of Ukraine that once belonged to Russia) but mobilizing 30,000 troops to occupy the entire enclave. This was unnecessary, since Putin already, in effect, controlled Crimea. It may also prove stupid, as the move’s violence has further alienated Ukrainians, raised suspicions among Russia’s other ex-Soviet neighbors, and roused resistance from otherwise indifferent Western nations.

Which leads to President Obama, who has responded to the aggression by imposing sanctions—a cliché of foreign policy that usually has no effect, but in this case will almost certainly make things worse.

Sanctions only work (and, even then, rarely) when they are universal, when they truly hurt the regime being targeted, and when they coincide with—or prompt—political change. Russia fits none of these categories. Too many European nations are too dependent on Russian gas supplies or bank deposits to make sanctions bite or endure. None of the sanctions under discussion are knockout blows; no conceivable sanctions would compel Putin (or any Russian leader) to surrender Ukraine. And regime change in Moscow is hardly on the horizon.

This crisis will be settled by making things somehow right with Ukraine—keeping it secure from further encroachments and ensuring that its government reflects the will of its people. The path toward both goals runs through the upcoming elections in May. And neither goal can be accomplished—no free and fair election can take place—without Russian involvement. [Continue reading...]

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Assad taking advantage of U.S.-Russia split over Ukraine, observers say

a13-iconThe Washington Post reports: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is taking advantage of the rift between Russia and the United States over Ukraine to press ahead with plans to crush the rebellion against his rule and secure his reelection for another seven-year term, unencumbered by pressure to compromise with his opponents.

The collapse last month of peace talks in Geneva, jointly sponsored by Russia and the United States, had already eroded the slim prospects that a negotiated settlement to the Syrian war might be possible. With backers of the peace process now at odds over the outcome of the popular uprising in Ukraine, Assad feels newly confident that his efforts to restore his government’s authority won’t be met soon with any significant challenge from the international community, according to analysts and people familiar with the thinking of the regime.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s defiant response to the toppling of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has further reinforced Assad’s conviction that he can continue to count on Russia’s unwavering support against the armed rebellion challenging his rule, said Salem Zahran, a Damascus-based journalist and analyst with close ties to the Syrian regime.

“The regime believes the Russians now have a new and stronger reason to keep Assad in power and support him, especially after the experience of Libya, and now Ukraine,” he said. “In addition, the regime believes that any conflict in the world which distracts the attention of the Americans is a factor which eases pressure on Syria.” [Continue reading...]

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Markets already see a Putin win

o13-iconAnatole Kaletsky writes: Oscar Wilde described marriage as the triumph of hope over experience. In finance and geopolitics, by contrast, experience must always prevail over hope, and realism over wishful thinking.

A grim case in point is the confrontation between Russia and the West in Ukraine. What makes this conflict so dangerous is that U.S. and EU policy seems to be motivated entirely by hope and wishful thinking. Hope that Russian President Vladimir Putin will “see sense” — or at least be deterred by the threat of sanctions to Russia’s economic interests and the personal wealth of his oligarch friends. Wishful thinking about “democracy and freedom” inevitably overcoming dictatorship and military bullying.

Investors and businesses cannot afford to be so sentimental. Though we should never forget Nathan Rothschild’s advice at the battle of Waterloo — “buy on the sound of gunfire” — the market response to this week’s events in Ukraine makes sense only if we believe that Russia has won.

The alternative to acquiescence in the Russian annexation of Crimea would be for the Ukrainian government to try to fight back, either by military means or by pressuring the Russian minority in the rest of the country. That, in turn, would almost inevitably imply a descent into Yugoslav-style civil war — with the strong possibility of sucking in Poland, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United States.

The West has no intermediate option between accepting the Russian invasion and full-scale war because it seems inconceivable that Putin would voluntarily withdraw from Crimea. Having grabbed Crimea by force, to give it up now would almost certainly mean the end of Putin’s presidency. The Russian public, not to mention the military and security apparatus, believes almost unanimously that Crimea is “naturally” part of Russia, having been transferred to Ukraine, almost by accident, in 1954. In fact, many Russians think, rightly or wrongly, that the entire Ukraine “belongs” to them. (The word “u-krainy” in Russian means “at the frontier,” and definitely not “beyond the frontier.”)

Under these circumstances, the idea that Putin would respond to Western economic sanctions, no matter how stringent, by giving up his newly gained territory is pure wishful thinking. [Continue reading...]

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Washington Post: Declassify the Senate report on CIA interrogation methods

o13-iconIn an editorial, the Washington Post says: More than a dozen years after the attacks of 9/11, it is time to treat government decisions made in the aftermath as history — to be debated and learned from. This is especially true of the misguided program of interrogation and torture carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency. In the years after the attacks, so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” that did not measure up to American values nor international law were brought to bear on detainees. We need to know the full story of how that happened.

In a landmark investigation, comparable in significance to the 9/11 Commission report, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence initiated a full probe of the interrogations in 2009. The investigation was completed in December 2012 and approved by a 9 to 6 vote. The resulting report is roughly 6,300 pages long, with a 300-page executive summary. The CIA, which is the focus of much criticism in the report, submitted a 120-page response to the committee in June, explaining where the agency agreed with the findings and where it disagreed. A long period of discussion between the CIA and committee staff ensued, concluding last September. Since then, the report has been under revision to reflect the comments.

When complete, the full report will go back to the committee for approval and then, perhaps, to the executive branch for declassification. We hope this happens soon. The committee chairwoman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), has called for the release of a declassified executive summary and of the findings and conclusions. President Obama, who early in his first term repudiated the legal memos that were used as justification for the interrogations but also announced that he would not seek criminal charges against CIA operatives who participated in the them, has endorsed making public a declassified version.

Clearly, this has been a painful process for the CIA. The report is expected to be highly critical of the agency’s actions. A key issue is whether methods such as waterboarding produced any useful intelligence, as members of the Bush administration and others have claimed. A debate without the facts is hollow. We need to read the report of the Senate committee in order to squarely address it.

There have been some reports in recent days of an investigation by the CIA’s inspector general into whether agents gained access to Senate committee computers, perhaps an effort to interfere with the report’s publication. If this happened, this is terribly inappropriate. The CIA must cooperate with Congress in getting this report published, however unpleasant that may be.

The interrogation methods were part of a covert action program authorized by the president. It is time to examine the program with some historical perspective, learn the lessons and ponder how the United States can best defend itself in a dangerous world without violating dearly held values and principles.

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On Ukraine, Obama should listen to Kissinger

I know — why should anyone listen to Henry Kissinger?

I saw links to his Washington Post op-ed on Ukraine last night and my reaction was not: I must find out what Kissinger thinks.

But no one should get hung up on bylines.

Listen to what he’s saying without judging it on the basis of his political history, and I think that most people would recognize that what the 90-year-old former U.S. secretary of state is offering here is wise counsel.

Kissinger writes: Public discussion on Ukraine is all about confrontation. But do we know where we are going? In my life, I have seen four wars begun with great enthusiasm and public support, all of which we did not know how to end and from three of which we withdrew unilaterally. The test of policy is how it ends, not how it begins.

Far too often the Ukrainian issue is posed as a showdown: whether Ukraine joins the East or the West. But if Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other — it should function as a bridge between them.

Russia must accept that to try to force Ukraine into a satellite status, and thereby move Russia’s borders again, would doom Moscow to repeat its history of self-fulfilling cycles of reciprocal pressures with Europe and the United States.

The West must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country. Russian history began in what was called Kievan-Rus. The Russian religion spread from there. Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries, and their histories were intertwined before then. Some of the most important battles for Russian freedom, starting with the Battle of Poltava in 1709, were fought on Ukrainian soil. The Black Sea Fleet — Russia’s means of projecting power in the Mediterranean — is based by long-term lease in Sevastopol, in Crimea. Even such famed dissidents as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky insisted that Ukraine was an integral part of Russian history and, indeed, of Russia.

The European Union must recognize that its bureaucratic dilatoriness and subordination of the strategic element to domestic politics in negotiating Ukraine’s relationship to Europe contributed to turning a negotiation into a crisis. Foreign policy is the art of establishing priorities.

The Ukrainians are the decisive element. They live in a country with a complex history and a polyglot composition. The Western part was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1939, when Stalin and Hitler divided up the spoils. Crimea, 60 percent of whose population is Russian, became part of Ukraine only in 1954, when Nikita Khrushchev, a Ukrainian by birth, awarded it as part of the 300th-year celebration of a Russian agreement with the Cossacks. The west is largely Catholic; the east largely Russian Orthodox. The west speaks Ukrainian; the east speaks mostly Russian. Any attempt by one wing of Ukraine to dominate the other — as has been the pattern — would lead eventually to civil war or breakup. To treat Ukraine as part of an East-West confrontation would scuttle for decades any prospect to bring Russia and the West — especially Russia and Europe — into a cooperative international system. [Continue reading...]

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Obama knew CIA secretly monitored intelligence committee, senator claims

The Guardian reports: A leading US senator has said that President Obama knew of an “unprecedented action” taken by the CIA against the Senate intelligence committee, which has apparently prompted an inspector general’s inquiry at Langley.

The subtle reference in a Tuesday letter from Senator Mark Udall to Obama, seeking to enlist the president’s help in declassifying a 6,300-page inquiry by the committee into torture carried out by CIA interrogators after 9/11, threatens to plunge the White House into a battle between the agency and its Senate overseers.

McClatchy and the New York Times reported Wednesday that the CIA had secretly monitored computers used by committee staffers preparing the inquiry report, which is said to be scathing not only about the brutality and ineffectiveness of the agency’s interrogation techniques but deception by the CIA to Congress and policymakers about it. The CIA sharply disputes the committee’s findings.

Udall, a Colorado Democrat and one of the CIA’s leading pursuers on the committee, appeared to reference that surreptitious spying on Congress, which Udall said undermined democratic principles.

“As you are aware, the CIA has recently taken unprecedented action against the committee in relation to the internal CIA review and I find these actions to be incredibly troubling for the Committee’s oversight powers and for our democracy,” Udall wrote to Obama on Tuesday.

Independent observers were unaware of a precedent for the CIA spying on the congressional committees established in the 1970s to check abuses by the intelligence agencies.

“In the worst case, it would be a subversion of independent oversight, and a violation of separation of powers,” said Steven Aftergood, an intelligence analyst at the Federation of American Scientists. “It’s potentially very serious.” [Continue reading...]

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As China looks on, Putin poses risky dilemma for the West

a13-iconDavid Rohde writes: One senior Obama administration official called Vladimir Putin’s actions in the Ukraine “outrageous.” A second described them as an “outlaw act.” A third said his brazen use of military force harked back to a past century.

“What we see here are distinctly 19th and 20th century decisions made by President Putin,” said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity to a group of reporters. “But what he needs to understand is that in terms of his economy, he lives in the 21st century world, an interdependent world.”

James Jeffrey, a retired career U.S. diplomat, said that view of Putin’s mindset cripples the United States’ response to the Russian leader. The issue is not that Putin fails to grasp the promise of western-style democratic capitalism. It is that he and other American rivals flatly reject it.

“All of us that have been in the last four administrations have drunk the Kool-Aid,” Jeffrey said, referring to the belief that they could talk Putin into seeing the western system as beneficial. “‘If they would just understand that it can be a win-win, if we can only convince them’ – Putin doesn’t see it,” Jeffrey said. “The Chinese don’t see it. And I think the Iranians don’t see it.”

Jeffrey and other experts called for short-term caution in the Ukraine. Threatening military action or publicly baiting Putin would likely prompt him to seize more of Ukraine by force. [Continue reading...]

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Why Russia isn’t taking the U.S. seriously

John Judis, at The New Republic, interviews Dmitri K. Simes, president of The Center for the National Interest and publisher of the foreign policy journal The National Interest.

John Judis: So, is a civil war likely at this point? What do you think is going on?

Dmitri K. Simes: Well, I think it still is unlikely, it’s not impossible but it’s unlikely. It’s very clear that Crimea is under Russian control and that is hard to change. There is nothing anyone can do about it, except negotiate. And if Moscow uses force there, that may lead to a dangerous escalation. Still, Russia’s presence does not yet mean that Crimea will become a part of Russia. There was a hopeful sign yesterday, when the new prime minister of Crimea announced that they would postpone the referendum on their statehood. That statement was clearly coordinated with the Kremlin. So there may well be an opportunity if we want to use it, to negotiate what exactly what this referendum would be about — about a union with Russia, about full independence, about extended autonomy. That still may be negotiable. Crimea will probably not be an integral part of Ukraine any longer. As far as Russian troops moving into eastern Ukraine, I still consider this highly unlikely and avoidable, but of course it also depends on what the government in Kiev is going to do.

JJ: Russians now charge that the U.S. and E.U. interfered — they’re blaming the Americans and the European Union—how do you assess the Obama administration’s performance so far?

DKS: I think it has contributed to the crisis. Because there was a legitimate government in Kiev, led by President Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych is a despicable character. He also is inept. He was the principal architect of his own demise. Yet he was legally elected. He commanded a clear majority in the Ukrainian parliament. And essentially the United States and the European Union have decided to side with the protesters. Let me say, too, if they were using that kind of force and those techniques against a friendly government we would not call them protesters, we would call them rebels. We have sided with these protesters slash rebels. We used them to pressure Yanukovych to negotiate a deal, which the European governments fully endorsed, and which had the support of the Obama administration.

When the rebels used the momentum from the deal essentially to remove Yanukovych and his whole government from power, we have accepted that as if it were normal to remove a legally elected government by force. More than 100 deputies from the Rada from the former ruling party, the Party of Regions, would not come to the Rada, and those from the Party of the Regions that voted with the opposition, some of them were clearly intimidated, and others belonged to Ukrainian oligarchs who were allowed to play a role in politics. And while those deputies normally belong to the Party of Regions, actually they were controlled by the oligarchs, who were pressured by the West to change sides. So that’s what led to the new government coming to power in Kiev. You could not ignore this process if you wanted to know why the Russians decided to interfere.

Now, I understand that we favored the rebels. And I also again have to say that looking at Yanukovych, he clearly was unsavory, and unpopular, and inept, and I can understand why we would not do anything to promote his questionable legitimacy. But we have to realize, that as we were applying this pressure on the Ukrainian political process to promote those we favor, we clearly were rocking the political boat in Ukraine, a country deeply divided, a country with different religions, different histories, different ethnicities. And it was that process of rocking the boat that led to the outcome have seen. That is not to justify what Putin has done, that is not to say that the Russians are entitled to use their troops on the territory of another state. But let me say this: any Russian wrongdoings should not be used as an alibi for the incompetence of the Obama administration. [Continue reading...]

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Peter Van Buren: The next battleground in the war on whistleblowers

Who can keep up?  The revelations — mainly thanks to the documents Edward Snowden took from the National Security Agency — are never-ending.  Just this week, we learned that GCHQ, the British intelligence agency whose activities are interwoven with the NSA’s, used a program called Optic Nerve to intercept and store “the webcam images of millions of internet users not suspected of wrongdoing” (including Americans).  As the Guardian reported, “In one six-month period in 2008 alone, the agency collected webcam imagery — including substantial quantities of sexually explicit communications — from more than 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts globally.”  Yahoo is now outraged; the Internet Association, a trade group for the giants of the industry, has condemned the program; and three U.S. senators announced an investigation of possible NSA involvement.

At about the same time, Glenn Greenwald revealed that GCHQ was engaging in “extreme tactics of deception and reputation-destruction.”  These included “‘false flag operations’ (posting material to the internet and falsely attributing it to someone else), fake victim blog posts (pretending to be a victim of the individual whose reputation they want to destroy), and posting ‘negative information’ on various forums.” Again, this was evidently happening with the knowledge, if not collusion, of the NSA.

Meanwhile, with Washington entering a self-proclaimed era of “reform” when it comes to spying on Americans, we just got a striking you-can’t-win-for-losing Catch-22 message from the front lines of the surveillance wars. Claiming that recent pending lawsuits make it necessary, the Obama administration has requested permission to hang on to phone metadata “on billions of U.S. phone calls indefinitely instead of destroying it after five years.” Hmmm… this may be the only example we have of the U.S. intelligence community fighting tooth and nail to stick to the letter of the law.

And mind you, that’s just dipping a toe in the positively oceanic global surveillance waters.  It’s been nine months since the Snowden revelations began and who can keep it all straight?  Nonetheless, it’s possible to put everything we know so far into a simple message about our American world-in-the-making: the surveillance part of the national security state has, in its own mind, no boundaries at all. As a result, there is no one, nor any part of communications life on this planet, that is out of bounds to our surveillers.

Given what we now know, it’s easy to ignore what we don’t know about how our government is acting in our name. That’s why the figure of the whistleblower — and the Obama administration’s urge to suppress whistleblowing of any sort — remains so important. How are we ever to know anything about the workings of that secret state of ours if someone doesn’t tell us? As a result, TomDispatch remains dedicated to documenting the Obama administration’s ongoing war against those who have the urge to bring the secret workings of the national security state to our attention — especially in cases like Robert MacLean’s, where otherwise little notice is paid in the mainstream media.  So today, we’re publishing a follow-up to our earlier story about MacLean, again by TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren. Himself a State Department whistleblower, Van Buren takes another deep dive into the dark territory he has dubbed post-Constitutional AmericaTom Engelhardt

Silencing whistleblowers Obama-style
Supreme Court edition?
By Peter Van Buren

The Obama administration has just opened a new front in its ongoing war on whistleblowers. It’s taking its case against one man, former Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Air Marshal Robert MacLean, all the way to the Supreme Court. So hold on, because we’re going back down the rabbit hole with the Most Transparent Administration ever.

Despite all the talk by Washington insiders about how whistleblowers like Edward Snowden should work through the system rather than bring their concerns directly into the public sphere, MacLean is living proof of the hell of trying to do so. Through the Supreme Court, the Department of Justice (DOJ) wants to use MacLean’s case to further limit what kinds of information can qualify for statutory whistleblowing protections. If the DOJ gets its way, only information that the government thinks is appropriate — a contradiction in terms when it comes to whistleblowing — could be revealed. Such a restriction would gut the legal protections of the Whistleblower Protection Act and have a chilling effect on future acts of conscience.

Having lost its case against MacLean in the lower courts, the DOJ is seeking to win in front of the Supreme Court. If heard by the Supremes — and there’s no guarantee of that — this would represent that body’s first federal whistleblower case of the post-9/11 era. And if it were to rule for the government, even more information about an out-of-control executive branch will disappear under the dark umbrella of “national security.”

[Read more...]

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In the Ukraine crisis, the U.S. has a credibility problem

o13-iconEugene Robinson writes: Is it just me, or does the rhetoric about the crisis in Ukraine sound as if all of Washington is suffering from amnesia? We’re supposed to be shocked — shocked! — that a great military power would cook up a pretext to invade a smaller, weaker nation? I’m sorry, but has everyone forgotten the unfortunate events in Iraq a few years ago?

My sentiments, to be clear, are with the legitimate Ukrainian government, not with the neo-imperialist regime in Russia. But the United States, frankly, has limited standing to insist on absolute respect for the territorial integrity of sovereign states.

Before Iraq there was Afghanistan, there was the Persian Gulf War, there was Panama, there was Grenada. And even as we condemn Moscow for its outrageous aggression, we reserve the right to fire deadly missiles into Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and who knows where else.

None of this gives Russian President Vladimir Putin the right to pluck Crimea from the rest of Ukraine and effectively reincorporate the historic peninsula into the Russian empire. But it’s hard to base U.S. objections on principle — even if Putin’s claim that Russian nationals in Crimea were being threatened turn out to be as hollow as the Bush administration’s claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. [Continue reading...]

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Obama: The U.S. may soon be unable to defend Israel from international isolation

n13-iconJeffrey Goldberg writes: When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the White House tomorrow, President Barack Obama will tell him that his country could face a bleak future — one of international isolation and demographic disaster — if he refuses to endorse a U.S.-drafted framework agreement for peace with the Palestinians. Obama will warn Netanyahu that time is running out for Israel as a Jewish-majority democracy. And the president will make the case that Netanyahu, alone among Israelis, has the strength and political credibility to lead his people away from the precipice.

In an hourlong interview Thursday in the Oval Office, Obama, borrowing from the Jewish sage Rabbi Hillel, told me that his message to Netanyahu will be this: “If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who?” He then took a sharper tone, saying that if Netanyahu “does not believe that a peace deal with the Palestinians is the right thing to do for Israel, then he needs to articulate an alternative approach.” He added, “It’s hard to come up with one that’s plausible.”

Unlike Netanyahu, Obama will not address the annual convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group, this week — the administration is upset with Aipac for, in its view, trying to subvert American-led nuclear negotiations with Iran. In our interview, the president, while broadly supportive of Israel and a close U.S.-Israel relationship, made statements that would be met at an Aipac convention with cold silence.

Obama was blunter about Israel’s future than I’ve ever heard him. His language was striking, but of a piece with observations made in recent months by his secretary of state, John Kerry, who until this interview, had taken the lead in pressuring both Netanyahu and the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, to agree to a framework deal. Obama made it clear that he views Abbas as the most politically moderate leader the Palestinians may ever have. It seemed obvious to me that the president believes that the next move is Netanyahu’s. [Continue reading...]

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Russia and the West are tearing Ukraine apart. Both sides must stand down now or face the consequences

a13-iconAnatol Lieven writes: If there is one absolutely undeniable fact about Ukraine, which screams from every election and every opinion poll since its independence two decades ago, it is that the country’s population is deeply divided between pro-Russian and pro-Western sentiments. Every election victory for one side or another has been by a narrow margin, and has subsequently been reversed by an electoral victory for an opposing coalition.

What has saved the country until recently has been the existence of a certain middle ground of Ukrainians sharing elements of both positions; that the division in consequence was not clear cut; and that the West and Russia generally refrained from forcing Ukrainians to make a clear choice between these positions.

During George W. Bush’s second term as president, the U.S., Britain, and other NATO countries made a morally criminal attempt to force this choice by the offer of a NATO Membership Action Plan for Ukraine (despite the fact that repeated opinion polls had shown around two-thirds of Ukrainians opposed to NATO membership). French and German opposition delayed this ill-advised gambit, and after August 2008, it was quietly abandoned. The Georgian-Russian war in that month had made clear both the extreme dangers of further NATO expansion, and that the United States would not in fact fight to defend its allies in the former Soviet Union.

In the two decades after the collapse of the USSR, it should have become obvious that neither West nor Russia had reliable allies in Ukraine. As the demonstrations in Kiev have amply demonstrated, the “pro-Western” camp in Ukraine contains many ultra-nationalists and even neo-fascists who detest Western democracy and modern Western culture. As for Russia’s allies from the former Soviet establishment, they have extracted as much financial aid from Russia as possible, diverted most of it into their own pockets, and done as little for Russia in return as they possibly could.

Over the past year, both Russia and the European Union tried to force Ukraine to make a clear choice between them—and the entirely predictable result has been to tear the country apart. Russia attempted to draw Ukraine into the Eurasian Customs Union by offering a massive financial bailout and heavily subsidized gas supplies. The European Union then tried to block this by offering an association agreement, though (initially) with no major financial aid attached. Neither Russia nor the EU made any serious effort to talk to each other about whether a compromise might be reached that would allow Ukraine somehow to combine the two agreements, to avoid having to choose sides. [Continue reading...]

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The crisis in Crimea could lead the World into a second Cold War

a13-iconDmitri Trenin writes: In Moscow, there is a growing fatigue with the west, with the EU and the United States. Their role in Ukraine is believed to be particularly obnoxious: imposing on Ukraine a choice between the EU and Russia that it could not afford; supporting the opposition against an elected government; turning a blind eye to right-wing radical descendants of wartime Nazi collaborators; siding with the opposition to pressure the government into submission; finally, condoning an unconstitutional regime change. The Kremlin is yet again convinced of the truth of the famous maxim of Alexander III, that Russia has only two friends in the world, its army and its navy. Both now defend its interests in Crimea.

The Crimea crisis will not pass soon. Kiev is unlikely to agree to Crimea’s secession, even if backed by clear popular will: this would be discounted because of the “foreign occupation” of the peninsula. The crisis is also expanding to include other players, notably the United States. So far, there has been no military confrontation between Russian and Ukrainian forces, but if they clash, this will not be a repeat of the five-day war in the South Caucasus, as in 2008. The conflict will be longer and bloodier, with security in Europe put at its highest risk in a quarter century.

Even if there is no war, the Crimea crisis is likely to alter fundamentally relations between Russia and the west and lead to changes in the global power balance, with Russia now in open competition with the United States and the European Union in the new eastern Europe. If this happens, a second round of the cold war may ensue as a punishment for leaving many issues unsolved – such as Ukraine’s internal cohesion, the special position of Crimea, or the situation of Russian ethnics in the newly independent states; but, above all, leaving unresolved Russia’s integration within the Euro-Atlantic community. Russia will no doubt pay a high price for its apparent decision to “defend its own” and “put things right”, but others will have to pay their share, too.

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The West’s puny response to Ukraine crisis will not deter Putin

o13-iconSimon Tisdall writes: Barack Obama has sternly warned Vladimir Putin there will be “costs” for Russia if it continues or expands its military intervention in Ukraine. But the American president did not specify what these costs might be, and this toothlessness, in a nutshell, is the dilemma now facing the US and its allies. Putin does not fear the west. On the contrary, he is once again forcefully demonstrating his deep contempt.

The idea that the US, Britain or France – the only western countries with sizeable, readily deployable, experienced combat forces – might respond militarily to Russia’s invasion of Crimea cannot be taken seriously. Putin surely calculates there will be no such challenge, as he did, correctly, in Georgia in 2008, and thus moves his troops and tanks in Crimea – and possibly eastern Ukraine – with impunity. Obama, whose presidency has been dedicated to ending wars, not starting them, has shown he has no appetite for new armed confrontations, in Syria or elsewhere.

Even if Obama did want to pursue a military option, he would be hard put to make it credible. US forces in western Europe have been cut back repeatedly. The US sixth fleet, headquartered in Naples, is a considerable weapon. But to make any sort of impact in Ukraine, it would have to deploy into the Black Sea via the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus, a move that Turkey would find highly objectionable, and which Russia would regard as a direct threat. [Continue reading...]

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