Trump, McConnell, Putin, and the triumph of the will to power

Jonathan Chait writes: Of the many things that resulted in Donald Trump’s election, from Hillary Clinton’s own errors to James Comey’s extraordinary insinuations against her in the contest’s final stages, Russian hacking played a meaningful enough role to tilt a razor-tight contest. Russia successfully riled up Bernie Sanders die-hards against the Democratic Party by leaking minor intrigue that fueled their suspicions, aggravating a Clinton liability with young voters that never healed. They also dribbled out enough emails in the succeeding months to keep stories using the word “emails” in the lead of Hillary Clinton news, adding more smoke to the haze of scandal that permeated coverage of her campaign.

We now know with near-certainty that Russia did this with the goal of electing Trump president. During the campaign, this reality was not quite certain enough to be reported as fact. Trump, of course, insisted there was no evidence Russia even had a hand in the attacks, let alone with the goal of helping him. (It “could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”) Elements of the left decried suspicions of Russia’s role as “neo-McCarthyism.” The Nation editorialized, “ liberal-media elites have joined with the Clinton campaign in promoting the narrative of a devious Russian cyber-attack.” Others on the left insisted that the substance of the stolen emails command far more importance than their provenance, which in any case was disputed and unknowable. On October 31, the New York Times reported that the attack was probably “aimed at disrupting the presidential election rather than electing Mr. Trump.”

Friday, the Washington Post reported that the CIA had concluded well before November that Russia specifically sought to elect Trump. The CIA’s analysis is obviously not infallible, but it fits with a wide array of other evidence. Russia had a clear motive: chilly relations with the Democratic administration that had orchestrated sanctions against it, close ties with Donald Trump and several of his advisers, and a series of pro-Russian positions from Trump on such issues as Crimea, NATO, and Vladimir Putin’s human rights abuses. Russia also hacked the Republican National Committee but declined to release any of the contents. The disruption was intentionally one-sided. The CIA’s conclusion merely lends incrementally more confidence to a deduction that was already fairly obvious.

What is more interesting in the Post story is the response of various officials to the revelations. The Obama administration declined to publicize, wary of being seen as intervening on Clinton’s behalf. Instead, it devised a fallback plan. Concerned that Russia might attempt to hack into electronic voting machines, it gathered a bipartisan group of lawmakers to hear the CIA’s report, in the hopes that they would present a united front warning Russia not to disrupt the election. According to the Post, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “raised doubts about the underlying intelligence and made clear to the administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics.” Other Republicans refused to join the effort for reasons that can only be understood as a desire to protect the Republican ticket from any insinuation, however well-founded, that Russia was helping it.

Even the most cynical observer of McConnell — a cynical man to his bones — would have been shocked at his raw partisanship. Presented with an attack on the sanctity of his own country’s democracy by a hostile foreign power, his overriding concern was party over country. Obama’s fear of seeming partisan held him back from making a unilateral statement without partisan cover. No such fear restrained McConnell. This imbalance in will to power extended to the security agencies. The CIA could have leaked its conclusion before November, but held off. The FBI should have held off on leaking its October surprise, but plunged ahead. [Continue reading…]

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The Senate torture report must be saved

Senators Carl Levin and Jay Rockefeller write: In President Obama’s final national security speech on Tuesday, he spoke about the importance of staying true to our values, of not returning to torture, and of transparency. Now, in his remaining time in office, he has an opportunity to take action to advance these goals and to do something of great importance for the public’s understanding of our history. He has the ability to protect the Senate Intelligence Committee’s full 6,700-page report on torture from being lost, perhaps forever.

Given President-elect Donald J. Trump’s unconscionable campaign pledge to “bring back waterboarding” and “a hell of a lot worse” — acts that would be illegal if carried out — President Obama’s leadership on this issue has never been more important.

Drawing on our decades of work in the Senate and our chairmanships of the Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, we are calling on President Obama to preserve the full torture report as a matter of profound public interest. We are not asking him to necessarily agree with all of the report’s findings, though we certainly hope he does, but we are asking him to protect it as an important piece of history.

The president could do this simply by allowing departments and agencies that already possess the document to enter it as a federal record, making it much more difficult for a future administration to erase. [Continue reading…]

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Russia hacked Republican National Committee but kept data, U.S. concludes

The New York Times reports: American intelligence agencies have concluded with “high confidence” that Russia acted covertly in the latter stages of the presidential campaign to harm Hillary Clinton’s chances and promote Donald J. Trump, according to senior administration officials.

They based that conclusion, in part, on another finding — which they say was also reached with high confidence — that the Russians hacked the Republican National Committee’s computer systems in addition to their attacks on Democratic organizations, but did not release whatever information they gleaned from the Republican networks.

In the months before the election, it was largely documents from Democratic Party systems that were leaked to the public. Intelligence agencies have concluded that the Russians gave the Democrats’ documents to WikiLeaks.

Republicans have a different explanation for why no documents from their networks were ever released. Over the past several months, officials from the Republican committee have consistently said that their networks were not compromised, asserting that only the accounts of individual Republicans were attacked. On Friday, a senior committee official said he had no comment. [Continue reading…]

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Republicans ready to launch wide-ranging probe of Russia, despite Trump’s stance; Obama orders intel review

The Washington Post reports: Leading Senate Republicans are preparing to launch a coordinated and wide-ranging probe into Russia’s alleged meddling in the U.S. elections and its potential cyberthreats to the military, digging deep into what they view as corrosive interference in the nation’s institutions.

Such an aggressive approach puts them on a direct collision course with President-elect Donald Trump, who downplays the possibility Russia had any role in the November elections — arguing that a hack of the Democratic National Committee emails may have been perpetrated by “some guy in his home in New Jersey.” The fracture could become more prominent after Trump is inaugurated and begins setting foreign policy. He has already indicated that the country should “get along” with Russia since the two nations have many common strategic goals.

But some of Trump’s would-be Republican allies on Capitol Hill disagree. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (Ariz.) is readying a probe of possible Russian cyber-incursions into U.S. weapons systems, and he said he has been discussing the issue with Senate Select Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (N.C.), with whom he will be “working closely” to investigate Russia’s suspected interference in the U.S. elections and cyberthreats to the military and other institutions. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been apprised of the discussions. Burr did not respond to requests for comment.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) also said he intends to hold hearings next year into alleged Russian hacking. Corker is on Trump’s shortlist for secretary of state, according to the Trump transition team.

Trump transition officials could not be reached for comment.

The loudest GOP calls for a Russia probe are coming from McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Both have taken a hard line on Russia and have been highly critical of Trump, particularly his praise of President Vladimir Putin. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: President Obama has ordered a “full review” of Russian hacking during the November election, as pressure from Congress has grown for greater public understanding of exactly what Moscow did to interfere in the electoral process.

“We may have crossed into a new threshold, and it is incumbent upon us to take stock of that, to review, to conduct some after-action, to understand what has happened and to impart some lessons learned,” Obama’s counterterrorism and homeland-security adviser, Lisa Monaco, told reporters at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.

Obama wants the report before he leaves office on Jan. 20, Monaco said. [Continue reading…]

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Scott Pruitt, Trump’s climate-denying EPA pick, is worse than you think

Jay Michaelson writes: Every scientist not on the corporate dole is upset about Scott Pruitt, Donald Trump’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

Like Betsy DeVos, who wants to destroy public education, and Jeff Sessions, who wants to destroy the Voting Rights Act, Pruitt is against the very laws he will soon be in charge of enforcing.

And the more you know about environmental law, the more you know that the Oklahoma attorney general and his minions could be way, way, way worse at the EPA than pundits and scientists have said. Yes, he’s a climate denier. Yes, he’s sued the EPA five times to prevent regulations (and lost every time). And yes, he has openly defied court orders on same-sex marriage and abortion, investigated the Humane Society for daring to back an animal welfare law, and opined that public schools should distribute religious materials to children. But he’s about to enjoy free rein to gut environmental regulations, without Congress or the courts to stop him.

That’s because environmental laws are deliberately broad, delegating massive authority to the EPA, which then has broad discretion to determine how to implement them. If you think about it, this makes sense. Congress isn’t populated by scientists but by politicians. So they set policy goals — clean air, clean water, toxin-free environments — and leave it up to the experts to determine how to meet them.

Most of the nuts and bolts of environmental law have thus been created not by Congress but by generations of EPA regulations and implementations. Clean air standards for factories, thresholds for pesticides in fuels or toxic chemicals in detergents and fuels, pollution levels for rivers — all of these, and many more, exist in regulations contained in the Code of Federal Regulations.

Usually, it’s conservatives who have complained about this. First, of course, they tend not to like anything that restricts unfettered capitalism, and environmental law certainly does that. Second, they tend not to like big government and unaccountable bureaucracy, and reams of agency-generated regulations are exactly that. And they tend to be wary of executive power in general.
Thus, for the last 40 years, corporations, industry groups, conservative think tanks, and Republican lawmakers have sued the bejeezus out of the EPA (and other agencies), challenging just about every regulation the agency puts out.

And usually, they have lost. Over several decades, the Supreme Court has tended to side more with the EPA than with its challengers. There have been exceptions — one of Justice Antonin Scalia’s last opinions required the EPA to limit mercury emissions only when it is cost-effective for corporations to do so. But in general, the court has observed that the “enabling statutes” passed by Congress deliberately cede authority to the EPA. Without congressional authority, the EPA couldn’t make up regulations and decide how to enforce them. But with it, the agency can.

Now the shoe is on the other foot. Now it’s arch-conservatives who will be controlling the EPA, with exactly the same level of authority as the environmentalists who preceded them. [Continue reading…]

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Obama under mounting pressure to disclose Russia’s role in U.S. election

The Guardian reports: Barack Obama is facing growing pressure from congressional Democrats in both houses demanding further disclosures regarding Russia’s role in the 2016 US elections.

The White House has not responded to a week-old letter signed by every Democrat and aligned member of the Senate intelligence committee seeking declassification of “additional information concerning the Russian government and the US election”.

Now a group of senior House Democrats has also written to the president, seeking a classified briefing for colleagues on “Russian entities’ hacking of American political organizations; hacking and strategic release of emails from campaign officials; the WikiLeaks disclosures; fake news stories produced and distributed with the intent to mislead American voters; and any other Russian or Russian-related interference or involvement in our recent election.”

The letter was signed by Democratic whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, as well as the top Democrats on the House judiciary, intelligence, armed services, foreign affairs and oversight committees. [Continue reading…]

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Pentagon buries evidence of $125 billion in bureaucratic waste

The Washington Post reports: The Pentagon has buried an internal study that exposed $125 billion in administrative waste in its business operations amid fears Congress would use the findings as an excuse to slash the defense budget, according to interviews and confidential memos obtained by The Washington Post.

Pentagon leaders had requested the study to help make their enormous back-office bureaucracy more efficient and reinvest any savings in combat power. But after the project documented far more wasteful spending than expected, senior defense officials moved swiftly to kill it by discrediting and suppressing the results.

The report, issued in January 2015, identified “a clear path” for the Defense Department to save $125 billion over five years. The plan would not have required layoffs of civil servants or reductions in military personnel. Instead, it would have streamlined the bureaucracy through attrition and early retirements, curtailed high-priced contractors and made better use of information technology.

The study was produced last year by the Defense Business Board, a federal advisory panel of corporate executives, and consultants from McKinsey and Company. Based on reams of personnel and cost data, their report revealed for the first time that the Pentagon was spending almost a quarter of its $580 billion budget on overhead and core business operations such as accounting, human resources, logistics and property management. [Continue reading…]

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Congress authorizes Trump to arm Syrian rebels with anti-aircraft missiles

Julian Pecquet writes: The House voted for the first time today to explicitly authorize the incoming Donald Trump administration to arm vetted Syrian rebels with anti-aircraft missiles.

While the language in the annual defense bill also creates restrictions on the provision of the controversial weapons, it represents a win for Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., a fervent advocate of helping the rebels resist President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies. The Senate is expected to pass the bill next week.

Until now, the transfer of man-portable air-defense systems, or MANPADs, had been implicitly authorized in the absence of an outright ban. Critics, however, view the new provision as tantamount to a policy recommendation for the president-elect. [Continue reading…]

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Iran says U.S. extension of sanctions act violates nuclear deal

Reuters reports: Iran threatened on Friday to retaliate against the U.S. Senate’s vote to extend the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA) for 10 years, saying it violated last year’s deal with six major powers that curbed its nuclear programme.

The ISA was first adopted in 1996 to punish investments in Iran’s energy industry and deter its pursuit of nuclear weapons. The extension was passed unanimously on Thursday.

U.S. officials said the ISA’s renewal would not infringe on the nuclear agreement, under which Iran agreed to limit its sensitive nuclear work in return for the lifting of financial sanctions that harmed the country’s economy.

But senior Iranian officials took odds with that view.

Iran’s nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, who played a key role in reaching the nuclear deal, described it as a “clear violation” of the 2015 deal if implemented.

“We are closely monitoring the developments,” state TV quoted Salehi as saying. “If they implement the ISA, Iran will take action accordingly.”

The extension risks deepening hostilities between Iran and the United States ahead of the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, who said during his election campaign that he would abandon the deal. [Continue reading…]

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Top senators call on Obama to release classified information concerning Russia and U.S. election

The Atlantic reports: A group of top senators is asking President Obama to release more information about Russia’s involvement in the election, hinting that important details are being kept secret.

In a letter sent Tuesday and made public Wednesday, seven Democratic senators — six members of the Senate Intelligence Committee and one member of the Senate Armed Services Committee — wrote a two-sentence letter to the White House. It read, in its entirety:

We believe there is additional information concerning the Russian Government and the U.S. election that should be declassified and released to the public. We are conveying specifics through classified channels.

The letter was led by Ron Wyden, an outspoken Democratic senator from Oregon who has long been active on technology issues. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: A spokesman for Wyden, Keith Chu, said the senator believed the intelligence needed to be declassified “immediately”, as it was in the “national interest that the American public should see it”.

It is understood this is the first declassification request by seven senators in twelve years.

On 7 October, the US director of national intelligence and the secretary of homeland security took the rare step of directly accusing Russia’s “senior-most” officials of ordering the breach of the Democratic National Committee’s digital networks. Director James Clapper and Secretary Jeh Johnson accused the Russians of attempting to “interfere” in the US election, something the Obama administration had previously suggested but did not allege publicly. [Continue reading…]

BuzzFeed reports: US intelligence officials believe Russia helped disseminate fake and propagandized news as part of a broader effort to influence and undermine the presidential election, two US intelligence sources told BuzzFeed News.

“They’re doing this continuously, that’s a known fact,” one US intelligence official said, requesting anonymity to discuss the sensitive national security issue.

“This is beyond propaganda, that’s my understanding,” the second US intelligence official said. The official said they believed those efforts likely included the dissemination of completely fake news stories. [Continue reading…]

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Barack Obama’s contribution to the decline of U.S. democracy

John Weeks writes: The iconic slogan “Yes, we can!” inspired the wave of enthusiasm that swept up millions of Americans during the presidential election of 2008 and carried Barack Obama to the White House. If that slogan epitomized the beginning of the Obama presidency, he had an equally iconic ending: the first African-American president shaking hands with the first president-elect in at least 100 years endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

In November 2008 Barack Obama won the presidency with almost 53% on a voter turnout of 58%. The winning percentage was the highest since 1988 and the turnout the largest for 50 years. The first non-white president took office on a surge of enthusiasm exceeding any since Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 (by comparison John Kennedy went to the presidency with less than half of total votes and a winning margin of 0.2 percentage points).

The enthusiasm for Obama arose from fervent hope for specific changes: 1) a universal, affordable health system; 2) the end of two disastrous wars (Afghanistan and Iraq); 3) economic recovery from the worst collapse in 80 years; and 4) action against banks and bankers to prevent a recurrence of the collapse.

To fulfil these hopes, Obama had majorities in both houses of Congress, 58 of 100 Senators (largest majority of any party in 30 years) and 257 seats in the House (most since 1992). By any measure the new president enjoyed an overwhelming majority. Under some circumstances the Republican minority in the Senate could prevent voting, but a determined and bold president could force votes within the arcane Senate rules.

It quickly became obvious that Obama would be anything but determined and bold; on the contrary, avoiding conflict through compromise would guide his presidency. In face of a solidly right wing Republican opposition, attempting to compromise was recipe for failure, a disaster foretold and fulfilled. [Continue reading…]

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McCain warns Trump on torture, waterboarding

Politico reports: Republican Sen. John McCain issued a fiery warning to President-elect Donald Trump on the subject of torture Saturday.

“I don’t give a damn what the president of the United States wants to do. We will not waterboard,” McCain told an audience at the annual Halifax International Security Forum. “We will not torture people … It doesn’t work.”

Trump has repeatedly said that he would use much harsher measures against suspected terrorists. “We have to fight fire with fire,” he said at a June campaign rally, adding that the U.S. would have to “fight so viciously and violently” against the Islamic State.

“What do you think about waterboarding?” Trump asked the crowd, which cheered his answer: “I like it a lot. I don’t think it’s tough enough.” [Continue reading…]

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