Former chief White House ethics lawyer: Clinton Foundation controversy is just a distraction from bigger issue

By Richard Painter, University of Minnesota

Hillary Clinton’s critics claim that federal ethics laws were broken when her subordinates at the State Department arranged meetings and other favors for donors to the Bill and Hillary Clinton Foundation.

Evidence is still surfacing as to who at the State Department did what and why. But as a former chief White House ethics lawyer in the Bush administration, I can tell you that allegations of favoritism for donors is nothing new. There were plenty such allegations during the Bill Clinton administration. If nothing changes, I believe it will be more of the same in a Hillary Clinton administration.

As I illustrate in my book, “Getting the Government America Deserves,” there was also favoritism for donors in the Reagan administration and both Bush administrations. Same for Congress over many years. The same is arguably true for the Obama administration. One case in point: access to staff in the White House and Department of Energy granted to investors in Solyndra Solar Energy Company. The Clinton Foundation may be a novel twist to an old problem, but donors get high-level access every day in Washington.

The Clinton Foundation is a marginally relevant side show in the gigantic multibillion dollar circus of American campaign finance. Almost all American politicians depend upon money to get elected, and almost all consciously or unconsciously do favors for their donors. Corruption is eating away at our republic. The media’s obsession with the indirect ways in which a single charitable foundation advances a single candidate’s career misses the point.

Clinton’s critics and the candidate herself should instead focus on what American voters of all political convictions really want: less influence for big money in American government.

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A stark reminder of Guantánamo’s sins

In an editorial, the New York Times says: It is haunting, maddening even, to revisit the facts of Abu Zubaydah’s time in American custody more than 14 years after he was detained in Pakistan in the frenzied period following the Sept. 11 attacks. Abu Zubaydah, the first prisoner known to have been waterboarded by the Central Intelligence Agency, loomed large in America’s imagination for years as the personification of evil.

On Tuesday, a small group of human rights advocates and journalists got a fleeting glimpse of Abu Zubaydah — the first since his detention — when he appeared before a panel of government officials to argue that he would not be a threat to the United States if he were released from the Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba. The hearing, which civilians were allowed to watch part of from a live video feed, is an opportunity to reflect on the shameful tactics employed during years of national panic about terrorism and to reinvigorate efforts to close the prison.

George W. Bush’s administration believed that Abu Zubaydah, a bearded Saudi who wears a patch on his left eye, was the operations head of Al Qaeda. Mr. Bush singled him out in a 2006 speech, calling him a “senior terrorist leader,” and claiming that “the security of our nation and the lives of our citizens depend on our ability to learn what these terrorists know.” Abu Zubaydah and men like him, government officials argued, fully justified the facility at Guantánamo as well as a secret web of prisons run by the C.I.A. They also justified the “enhanced interrogation techniques,” otherwise known as torture, then eagerly embraced by some American intelligence officials.

Years later, it became clear that Abu Zubaydah wasn’t a top figure in Al Qaeda after all. It also became clear that he had willingly provided insights into terrorist groups when he was interrogated by F.B.I. agents, who treated him cordially. By the time he was turned over to the C.I.A., his knowledge about threats to the United States appears to have been largely exhausted. Yet agency personnel insisted on the need for torture, waterboarding him at least 83 times and subjecting him to other cruelty.

Never charged and never tried, Abu Zubaydah has also never been allowed to speak publicly about his ordeal. His American abusers have never been held to account. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. considers sanctions against Russia in response to hacks of Democratic groups

The Wall Street Journal reports: U.S. officials are discussing whether to respond to computer breaches of Democratic Party organizations with economic sanctions against Russia, but they haven’t reached a decision about how to proceed, according to several people familiar with the matter.

Levying sanctions would require the White House to publicly accuse Russia, or Russian-backed hackers, of committing the breach and then leaking embarrassing information. The U.S. has frequently opted not to publicly release attribution for cyber-assaults, though Washington did openly accuse North Korea of carrying out an embarrassing breach of Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc. in 2014.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. intelligence agencies have been studying the Democratic hacks, and several officials have signaled it was almost certainly carried out by Russian-affiliated hackers. Russia has denied any involvement, but several cybersecurity companies have also released reports tying the breach to Russian hackers.

On Thursday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) told reporters, regarding a breach of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which spearheads the Democratic House campaigns: “I know for sure it is the Russians” and “we are assessing the damage.”

She added, “This is an electronic Watergate…The Russians broke in. Who did they give the information to? I don’t know. Who dumped it? I don’t know.” [Continue reading…]

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DNC hacking puts Obama in tough spot with Russia

The Hill reports: Pressure is growing on the White House to respond to Russia’s apparent hack of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), placing President Obama in a delicate political position.

Evidence has mounted that the Russian government was behind the theft of tens of thousands of damaging internal emails from the DNC, leading prominent lawmakers from both sides of aisle to call for some form of response.

The ranking members of the House and Senate Intelligence committees and the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee have all issued calls for Obama to “seek justice” for the alleged attack.

But should Obama publicly point the finger at the Kremlin, it could expose covert intelligence capabilities and damage already touchy discussions over Russia’s behavior in Syria and Ukraine, experts say.

That dynamic reflects one the central challenges the White House faces in responding to cyberattacks. Without any international rules of engagement, officials must weigh a response to each attack individually.

The FBI has opened an investigation into the hack, but because of the risks, experts say, the public is unlikely to ever know the results, even if it is able to prove Russia’s guilt beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Obama has a slate of possible responses at his disposal, but each carries its own set of problems.

“They are really in between a rock and a hard place. Everything they do has a downside,” said Herb Lin, a senior research scholar who studies cyber policy and security at Stanford. [Continue reading…]

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Ryan’s honesty about Trump’s racism provokes criticism from fellow Republicans

The Hill reports: Speaker Paul Ryan’s handling of Donald Trump is coming under criticism from Senate Republicans, many of whom prefer the way their leader, Mitch McConnell, deals with the unconventional candidate.

McConnell, the Senate majority leader from Kentucky, has steadfastly declined to call Trump’s criticism of a federal judge “racist,” a term that Ryan pointedly deployed.

“It sets up journalists to ask, ‘Do you agree with Paul Ryan that it was racist?” said an aide to a vulnerable GOP senator
Trump set off a firestorm last week by claiming that a Mexican-American federal judge handling a lawsuit against Trump University was biased because of his heritage.

Republican lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol swiftly expressed strong disapproval but Ryan ratcheted up the criticism significantly by calling it “the textbook definition of a racist comment.”

Ryan’s remarks quickly became a Democratic talking point used to batter vulnerable Senate Republican incumbents. [Continue reading…]

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William Hartung: How to disappear money, Pentagon-style

Colonel Mark Cheadle, a spokesman for U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), recently made a startling disclosure to Voice of America (VOA)AFRICOM, he said, is currently mulling over 11 possible locations for its second base on the continent.  If, however, there was a frontrunner among them Cheadle wasn’t about to disclose it.  All he would say was that Nigeria isn’t one of the countries in contention.

Writing for VOA, Carla Babb filled in the rest of the picture in terms of U.S. military activities in Africa.  “The United States currently has one military base in the east African nation of Djibouti,” she observed. “U.S. forces are also on the ground in Somalia to assist the regional fight against al-Shabab and in Cameroon to help with the multinational effort against Nigeria-based Boko Haram.”  

A day later, Babb’s story disappeared.  Instead, there was a new article in which she noted that “Cheadle had initially said the U.S. was looking at 11 locations for a second base, but later told VOA he misunderstood the question.”  Babb reiterated that the U.S. had only the lone military base in Djibouti and stated that “[o]ne of the possible new cooperative security locations is in Cameroon, but Cheadle did not identify other locations due to ‘host nation sensitivities.’”

U.S. troops have, indeed, been based at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti since 2002.  In that time, the base has grown from 88 acres to about 600 acres and has seen more than $600 million in construction and upgrades already awarded or allocated.  It’s also true that U.S. troops, as Babb notes, are operating in Somalia — from at least two bases — and the U.S. has indeed set up a base in Cameroon.  As such, the “second” U.S. base in Africa, wherever it’s eventually located, will actually be more like the fifth U.S. base on the continent.  That is, of course, if you don’t count Chabelley Airfield, a hush-hush drone base the U.S. operates elsewhere in Djibouti, or the U.S. staging areas, cooperative security locations, forward operating locations, and other outposts in Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Senegal, the Seychelles, Somalia, South Sudan, and Uganda, among other locales.  When I counted late last year, in fact, I came up with 60 such sites in 34 countries.  And just recently, Missy Ryan of the Washington Post added to that number when she disclosed that “American Special Operations troops have been stationed at two outposts in eastern and western Libya since late 2015.”

To be fair, the U.S. doesn’t call any of these bases “bases” — except when officials forget to keep up the fiction.  For example, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 included a $50 million request for the construction of an “airfield and base camp at Agadez, Niger.”  But give Cheadle credit for pushing a fiction that persists despite ample evidence to the contrary.

It isn’t hard, of course, to understand why U.S. Africa Command has set up a sprawling network of off-the-books bases or why it peddles misinformation about its gigantic “small” footprint in Africa.  It’s undoubtedly for the same reason that they stonewall me on even basic information about their operations.  The Department of Defense, from tooth to tail, likes to operate in the dark. 

Today, TomDispatch regular Bill Hartung reveals another kind of Pentagon effort to obscure and obfuscate involving another kind of highly creative accounting: think slush funds, secret programs, dodgy bookkeeping, and the type of financial malfeasance that could only be carried out by an institution that is, by its very nature, too big to fail (inside the Beltway if not on the battlefield).

Rejecting both accurate accounting and actual accountability — from the halls of the Pentagon to austere camps in Africa — the Defense Department has demonstrated a longstanding commitment to keeping Americans in the dark about the activities being carried out with their dollars and in their name.  Luckily, Hartung is willing to shine a bright light on the Pentagon’s shady practices. Nick Turse

The Pentagon’s war on accountability
Slush funds, smoke and mirrors, and funny money equal weapons systems galore
By William D. Hartung

Now you see it, now you don’t. Think of it as the Department of Defense’s version of the street con game, three-card monte, or maybe simply as the Pentagon shuffle.  In any case, the Pentagon’s budget is as close to a work of art as you’re likely to find in the U.S. government — if, that is, by work of art you mean scam.  

The United States is on track to spend more than $600 billion on the military this year — more, that is, than was spent at the height of President Ronald Reagan’s Cold War military buildup, and more than the military budgets of at least the next seven nations in the world combined.  And keep in mind that that’s just a partial total.  As an analysis by the Straus Military Reform Project has shown, if we count related activities like homeland security, veterans’ affairs, nuclear warhead production at the Department of Energy, military aid to other countries, and interest on the military-related national debt, that figure reaches a cool $1 trillion.

The more that’s spent on “defense,” however, the less the Pentagon wants us to know about how those mountains of money are actually being used.  As the only major federal agency that can’t pass an audit, the Department of Defense (DoD) is the poster child for irresponsible budgeting. 

[Read more…]

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CIA internal watchdog ‘accidentally’ destroyed its only copy of Senate torture report

Michael Isikoff reports: The CIA inspector general’s office — the spy agency’s internal watchdog — has acknowledged it “mistakenly” destroyed its only copy of a mammoth Senate torture report at the same time lawyers for the Justice Department were assuring a federal judge that copies of the document were being preserved, Yahoo News has learned.

While another copy of the report exists elsewhere at the CIA, the erasure of the controversial document by the office charged with policing agency conduct has alarmed the U.S. senator who oversaw the torture investigation and reignited a behind-the-scenes battle over whether the full unabridged report should ever be released, according to multiple intelligence community sources familiar with the incident.

The deletion of the document has been portrayed by agency officials to Senate investigators as an “inadvertent” foul-up by the inspector general. In what one intelligence community source described as a series of errors straight “out of the Keystone Cops,” CIA inspector general officials deleted an uploaded computer file with the report and then accidentally destroyed a disk that also contained the document, filled with thousands of secret files about the CIA’s use of “enhanced” interrogation methods. [Continue reading…]

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What happened to billions in U.S. military aid to Egypt?

Julian Pecquet writes: The Egyptian government is hindering Washington’s ability to track billions of dollars worth of anti-aircraft missiles and other US weapons, the US government watchdog said in a blistering report just as Congress gets ready to renew the annual $1.3 billion request.

The United States provided $6.5 billion in military assistance to Cairo between 2011 and 2015 with the understanding that it would be closely monitored and it would serve American interests. Instead, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) asserts that the Obama administration has often failed to meet those requirements due to resistance from their Egyptian counterparts, lack of guidance from Washington and insufficient staffing at the US Embassy in Cairo.

The State Department and the Defense Department (DOD) have established programs “to provide reasonable assurance that military equipment transferred or exported to foreign governments is used for its legitimate intended purposes and does not come into the possession of individuals or groups who pose a threat to the United States or its allies,” the GAO said in its May 12 report. “However, gaps in the implementation of these end-use monitoring programs — in part due to limited cooperation from the Egyptian government — hampers DOD’s and State’s ability to provide such assurances.” [Continue reading…]

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The FBI is keeping 80,000 secret files on the Saudis and 9/11

The Daily Beast reports: The Obama administration may soon release 28 classified pages from a congressional investigation that allegedly links Saudis in the United States to the 9/11 attackers. A former Republican member of the 9/11 Commission alleged Thursday that there was “clear evidence” of support for the hijackers from Saudi officials.

But in Florida, a federal judge is weighing whether to declassify portions of some 80,000 classified pages that could reveal far more about the hijackers’ Saudis connections and their activities in the weeks preceding the worst attack on U.S. soil.

The still-secret files speak to one of the strangest and most enduring mysteries of the 9/11 attacks. Why did the Saudi occupants of a posh house in gated community in Sarasota, Florida, suddenly vanish in the two weeks prior to the attacks? And had they been in touch with the leader of the operation, Mohamed Atta, and two of his co-conspirators?

No way, the FBI says, even though the bureau’s own agents did initially suspect the family was linked to some of the hijackers. On further scrutiny, those connections proved unfounded, officials now say.

But a team of lawyers and investigative journalists has found what they say is hard evidence pointing in the other direction. Atta did visit the family before he led 18 men to their deaths and murdered 3,000 people, they say, and phone records connect the house to members of the 9/11 conspiracy. [Continue reading…]

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Bob Graham: Release the uncensored truth about 9/11

Former senator Bob Graham writes: Nearly 15 years after the horrific events of 9/11, President Obama must decide whether to release 28 pages of information withheld as classified from the publicly released report of the congressional inquiry into the terrorist attacks that killed thousands of Americans.

On April 10, the CBS program “60 Minutes” aired a story about the missing 28 pages. I was one of several former public officials — including former House Intelligence Committee chairman and CIA director Porter Goss (R-Fla.) ; Medal of Honor recipient and former senator Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.); former Navy secretary John Lehman; and former ambassador and representative Tim Roemer (D-Ind.) — who called on the White House to declassify and release the documents.

Two days after that broadcast, I received a call from a White House staff member who told me that the president would make a decision about the 28 pages no later than June. While that official made no promises as to what Obama would do, I viewed the news as a step in the right direction. [Continue reading…]

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A soldier’s challenge to the president

In an editorial, the New York Times says: Capt. Nathan Michael Smith, who is 28, is helping wage war on the Islamic State as an Army intelligence officer deployed in Kuwait. He is no conscientious objector. Yet he sued President Obama last week, making a persuasive case that the military campaign is illegal unless Congress explicitly authorizes it.

“When President Obama ordered airstrikes in Iraq in August 2014 and in Syria in September 2014, I was ready for action,” he wrote in a statement attached to the lawsuit. “In my opinion, the operation is justified both militarily and morally.” But as his suit makes clear, that does not make it legal.

Constitutional experts and some members of Congress have also challenged the Obama administration’s thin legal rationale for using military force in Iraq and Syria. The Federal District Court for the District of Columbia should allow the suit to move forward to force the White House and Congress to confront an important question both have irresponsibly skirted.

The 1973 War Powers Resolution requires that the president obtain “specific statutory authorization” soon after sending troops to war. Mr. Obama’s war against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, was billed as a short-term humanitarian intervention when it began in August 2014. The president and senior administration officials repeatedly asserted that the United States would not be dragged back into a Middle East quagmire. The mission, they vowed, would not involve “troops on the ground.” Yet the Pentagon now has more than 4,000 troops in Iraq and 300 in Syria. Last week’s combat death of a member of the Navy SEALs, Special Warfare Operator First Class Charles Keating IV, underscored that the conflict has escalated, drawing American troops to the front lines.

“We keep saying it’s supposed to be advising that we’re doing, and yet we’re losing one kid at a time,” Phyllis Holmes, Petty Officer Keating’s grandmother, told The Times.

Asked on Thursday about the lawsuit, the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, said it raised “legitimate questions for every American to be asking.” The administration has repeatedly urged Congress to pass a war authorization for the war against the Islamic State. It currently relies on the authorization for the use of military force passed in 2001 for the explicit purpose of targeting the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks, which paved the way for the invasion of Afghanistan.

“One thing is abundantly clear: Our men and women in uniform and our coalition partners are on the front lines of our war against ISIL, while Congress has remained on the sidelines,” the White House spokesman Ned Price said in an email.

Yet, the White House has enabled Congress to shirk its responsibility by arguing that a new war authorization would be ideal but not necessary. Administration officials could have forced Congress to act by declaring that it could not rely indefinitely on the Afghanistan war authorization and giving lawmakers a deadline to pass a new law.

By failing to pass a new one, Congress and the administration are setting a dangerous precedent that the next president may be tempted to abuse. That is particularly worrisome given the bellicose temperament of Donald Trump, the likely Republican nominee.

It is not too late to act before the presidential election in November. The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and House Speaker Paul Ryan have shown little interest in passing an authorization. They should feel compelled to heed the call of a young deployed soldier who is asking them to do their job.

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An army captain takes Obama to court over war on ISIS

The New York Times reports: A 28-year-old Army officer on Wednesday sued President Obama over the legality of the war against the Islamic State, setting up a test of Mr. Obama’s disputed claim that he needs no new legal authority from Congress to order the military to wage that deepening mission.

The plaintiff, Capt. Nathan Michael Smith, an intelligence officer stationed in Kuwait, voiced strong support for fighting the Islamic State but, citing his “conscience” and his vow to uphold the Constitution, he said he believed that the mission lacked proper authorization from Congress.

“To honor my oath, I am asking the court to tell the president that he must get proper authority from Congress, under the War Powers Resolution, to wage the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” he wrote.

The legal challenge comes after the death of the third American service member fighting the Islamic State and as Mr. Obama has decided to significantly expand the number of Special Operations ground troops he has deployed to Syria aid rebels there. [Continue reading…]

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