Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Arab League Stance Muddies U.S. Case

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From: barry levine 
Date: Wed, Aug 28, 2013 at 7:59 AM
Subject: re: Arab League Stance Muddies U.S. Case
To: ""

To the Editor:
  The Arab League gave president Obama a second chance yesterday. By withholding its blessing on U.S. intervention in Syria, it gives him a chance to rethink. Colin Powell distilled a century of American military adventurism when he pronounced that the U.S. should never apply armed force where we weren't willing to apply decisive armed force.
    Already, president Obama had thrown Mohamed Morsi under the bus to buy Saudi backing for our planned attacks on Syria.  It is not in our power to bring Morsi back. But we can still pull back from the potential quagmire of a Syrian war.
Barry Haskell Levine

Arab League Stance Muddies U.S. Case

Muzaffar Salman/Reuters
A rebel fighter of the Free Syrian Army took cover inside a damaged shop in the old city of Aleppo, in northern Syria, on Tuesday.
Published: August 27, 2013

CAIRO — The leaders of the Arab world on Tuesday blamed the Syrian government for a chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds of people last week, but declined to back a retaliatory military strike, leaving President Obama without the broad regional support he had for his last military intervention in the Middle East, in Libya in 2011.

While the Obama administration has robust European backing and more muted Arab support for a strike onSyria, the position of the Arab Leagueand the unlikelihood of securing authorization from the United Nations Security Council complicate the legal and diplomatic case for the White House.
The White House said Tuesday that there was “no doubt” that President Bashar al-Assad’s government was responsible for the chemical weapons attack — an assessment shared by Britain, France and other allies — but it has yet to make clear if it has any intelligence directly linking Mr. Assad to the attack. The administration said it planned to provide intelligence on the attack later this week.
As Mr. Obama sought to shore up international support for military action, telephoning Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, administration officials said they did not regard the lack of an imprimatur from the Security Council or the Arab League as insurmountable hurdles, given the carnage last week.
Administration officials said the United States did not seek an endorsement of military action from the Arab League. It sought condemnation of the use of chemical weapons and a clear assignment of responsibility for the attack to the Assad government, both of which the officials said they were satisfied they got.
The Obama administration has declined to spell out the legal justification that the president would use in ordering a strike, beyond saying that the large-scale use of chemical weapons violates international norms. But officials said he could draw on a range of treaties and statutes, from the Geneva Conventions to the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Mr. Obama, they said, could also cite the need to protect a vulnerable population, as his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, did in ordering NATO’s 78-day air campaign on Kosovo in 1999. Or he could invoke the “responsibility to protect” principle, cited by some officials to justify the American-led bombing campaign in Libya.
“There is no doubt here that chemical weapons were used on a massive scale on Aug. 21 outside of Damascus,” said the White House spokesman, Jay Carney. “There is also very little doubt, and should be no doubt for anyone who approaches this logically, that the Syrian regime is responsible for the use of chemical weapons on Aug. 21 outside of Damascus.”
A number of nations in Europe and the Middle East, along with several humanitarian organizations, have joined the United States in that assessment. But with the specter of the faulty intelligence assessments before the Iraq war still hanging over American decision making, and with polls showing that only a small fraction of the American public supports military intervention in Syria, some officials in Washington said there needs to be some kind of a public presentation making the case for war.
A statement by the Arab League on Tuesday adds to the uncertainty, underscoring the complexity of the regional landscape, where years of turmoil have set off fierce sectarian fighting and a tidal wave of refugees and left many fearful that a United States strike would further inflame tensions.
Leaders of the Arab world are deeply divided over a potential Western airstrike against Syria in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons, caught between deep public hostility to any kind of intervention and a tangle of shifting rivalries and allegiances.
The vast majority of Arabs are emotionally opposed to any Western military action in the region no matter how humanitarian the cause, and no Arab nation or leader has publicly endorsed such a step, even in countries like the Persian Gulf monarchies whose diplomats for months have privately urged the West to step in. In the region, only Turkey has pledged to support intervention.
Behind the scenes at least two closely allied Arab heavyweights, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, may be split over which enemy poses the greater immediate threat to their regional interests: the Sunni Islamists who dominate the Syrian rebels, or the Shiite Iranian backers of Mr. Assad.
The Arab League, a regional diplomatic forum that has already expelled Mr. Assad’s government, said in its statement that it holds “the Syrian regime responsible for this heinous crime,” but the statement also appeared to suggest that the specific “perpetrators” were not yet known and should be brought to international justice.
Stopping short of endorsing Western intervention, the league called on the United Nations Security Council to “overcome the disagreements between its members” so it could “take the necessary deterring measures against the perpetrators of this crime, whose responsibility falls on the Syrian regime,” and end other abuses that “the Syrian regimrs
Obama administration officials, who asked not to be identified because they were talking about behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts, asserted that they were satisfied with the Arab League statement.
“This was a big diplomatic step forward in laying the groundwork for actions the president might choose, and required days of aggressive diplomacy to avoid delay,” a senior administration official said Tuesday night.
“We know there’s a complicated dynamic inside the Arab League, including division over Egypt,” the official added. “But an unequivocal condemnation, unambiguous assignment of blame and unmistakable call for action to stop it from happening again was exactly what the doctor ordered.”
On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry made intensive efforts to mobilize support from Arab officials. He spoke twice to Nabil el-Araby, the secretary general of the Arab League, and also spoke with his counterparts from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
Outside the Arab world, Mr. Kerry spoke with the foreign ministers from Turkey and Britain; the secretary general of the United Nations and of NATO; and Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s senior foreign policy official.
The near-unanimous refusal to condone Western or even United Nations action publicly is a reflection of the unpopularity of such measures across the region, said Shibley Telhami, a scholar at the University of Maryland who studies Arab public opinion.
“Don’t expect anybody to thank the U.S., even if it is for humanitarian reasons,” he said. Polls show the vast majority of Arabs view any United States action as motivated by its own interest or Israel’s, no matter the context, perhaps because of the history of colonialism.
Even when the Western intervention in Libya appeared to be a triumph for its people, he said, polls showed that most Arabs considered it the wrong decision.
But while they will not say it publicly, several countries in the region have been working vigorously behind the scenes to topple the Assad government. For two years, the governments of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey have been shipping money and arms to rebels challenging Syrian troops. Neither Saudi Arabia nor any of the Sunni-dominated gulf states have publicly endorsed Western intervention. But all feel threatened by the regional rivalry with Iran, and all have privately urged the Western powers to intervene on behalf of the rebels, Western diplomats say.
In the Arab League meeting on Tuesday, Arab diplomats said, Saudi Arabia pushed for stronger language explicitly condemning Mr. Assad for launching the attack, which would have come closer to helping the Western powers justify military action.
But Egypt, still the most populous Arab state with the largest Arab military, disagreed, Arab diplomats said.
“It shows the schizophrenia of the Arab world,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, noting that gulf states and Jordan also appear to be working closely with the West on possible intervention while refusing to endorse it publicly.
But their silence created a potential problem for the United States and its European allies, he said, because it undermined the notion of a broad-based coalition with Arab support. “And every day that it goes on, opponents will try to exploit it,” he said.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Pressure Rises on Hamas as Patrons’ Support Fades

While Mohamed Morsi was in office, this paper trumpeted that he was closing smugglers' tunnels at Rafah and that Gazans were suffering from the restricted flow. Now that he has been ousted, the front page proclaims that he was the accomplice of these same smugglers, but the new Junta is shutting them down. Anyone who has been paying attention recognizes this as an Orwellian re-write of history to justify today's decisions. Truly, he "who controls the past, controls the future".
Barry Haskell Levine

Pressure Rises on Hamas as Patrons’ Support Fades

Wissam Nassar for The New York Times
Mahmoud al-Zahar, center, is a senior Hamas leader.
Published: August 23, 2013 54 Comments
GAZA CITY — The tumult roiling the Arab world had already severed the lifeline between the Palestinian militant group Hamas and two of its most important patrons, Iran and Syria.

Now, the dismantling of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood by the new military-backed government that ousted the Islamist president has Hamas reeling without crucial economic and diplomatic support. Over the past two weeks, a “crisis cell” of ministers has met daily. With Gaza’s economy facing a $250 million shortfall since Egypt shut down hundreds of smuggling tunnels, the Hamas government has begun to ration some resources.

Its leaders have even mulled publicly what for years would have been unthinkable — inviting the presidential guard loyal to rival Fatah back to help keep the border with Egypt open. (They quickly recanted.)

The mounting pressure on Hamas has implications beyond the 141 square miles of this coastal strip that it has ruled since 2007. It could serve to strengthen President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and his more moderate Fatah faction that dominates the West Bank just as Washington-orchestrated peace talks get under way. It also adds another volatile element to the rapidly changing landscape across the region, where sectarian tensions have led to bloodshed and the Islamists’ rise to power through the ballot box has been blocked.

“Now, Hamas is an orphan,” said Akram Atallah, a political analyst and columnist, referring to the fact that the movement sprang from Egypt’s Brotherhood a quarter century ago. “Hamas was dreaming and going up with its dreams that the Islamists were going to take over in all the capitals. Those dreams have been dashed.”

The tide of the Arab Spring initially buoyed Hamas, helping bolster Iran and Syria, which provided the Gazan leadership weapons and cash, while undermining President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who was deeply distrustful and hostile to the group. But Hamas eventually sided with the Sunni opposition in the civil war in Syria — alienating President Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian backers. That was offset when Mr. Mubarak was replaced by Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader and ideological ally who relaxed the borders and brokered talks between Hamas and the hostile West as well as its Palestinian rivals.

With Egypt’s military crackdown, Mr. Morsi in detention and the Brotherhood leadership either locked up, dead or in hiding, smuggling between Gaza and Egypt has come to a virtual halt. That means no access to building materials, fuel that costs less than half as much as that imported from Israel, and many other cheap commodities Gazans had come to rely on.

Egypt kept the Rafah crossing point closed for days — stranding thousands of students, business people, medical patients, foreigners and Gazans who live abroad. Adding to Hamas’s isolation, the new emir of Qatar, another benefactor, is said to be far less a fan than his father and predecessor.

In interviews here this week, as well as in public speeches, several Hamas leaders insisted that the Egypt crisis makes repairing the Palestinian rift more urgent. Instead, it already appears more elusive, with the loss of Cairo as the host and broker for reconciliation talks.

Seizing on its opponent’s weakness, the Fatah Revolutionary Council plans to consider declaring Gaza a “rebel province” at a leadership meeting Sunday with President Abbas, which would tighten the noose by curtailing Palestinian Authority financing of operations in the strip. Officials in Fatah and Hamas said that both have increased arrests of the other’s operatives in recent weeks. The Hamas leaders here blame Fatah for what they call a “vicious campaign” against them in the Egyptian news media.

“You can feel the heat because of what’s happening in Egypt,” said Ahmed Yousef, a former aide to Ismail Haniya, the Hamas prime minister of Gaza, who now runs a Gaza research group called House of Wisdom. “The tense relations between Gaza and Ramallah has been intensified. Everybody is suspicious.”

In separate interviews this week, three senior Hamas leaders — Ziad el-Zaza, the finance minister and deputy prime minister; Ghazi Hamad, who handles foreign affairs; and Mahmoud al-Zahar, a hard-liner — said they were taking a “wait and see” approach to Egypt, hoping that perhaps the tide could turn their way. They imagined that a public backlash against what they called a coup could yet lead to the Brotherhood’s resurgence.

“Our policy right now is to keep the people quiet,” Mr. Zahar said. “We have to keep our people highly immunized against the extreme attitude.”

Mr. el-Zaza, the finance minister, declined to say what spending was being cut beyond the use of government cars and expense accounts. All three said Hamas had been through worse: Israeli bombings and assassinations, exiles from Arab capitals, months-long closures of the Rafah crossing during Mr. Mubarak’s reign. “The region is in labor,” Mr. Hamad said. “It’s a time of difficulty, time of challenges.”

The opposition here has been emboldened by the events across the border. A new youth movement called Tamarod — Arabic for rebellion — after an Egyptian group that helped bring down Mr. Morsi, released a YouTube video urging the overthrow of Hamas and a Facebook page calling for mass demonstrations on Nov. 11. An engineering student who is among the group’s founders and spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals said that Hamas had detained at least 50 of Tamarod’s Facebook fans this week, and that he and several others had been jailed, placed under house arrest and had their mobile phones and computers seized. “Maybe Hamas leaders are afraid of what happened in Egypt,” he said.

Several experts said toppling Hamas would be tough. Unlike the Brotherhood, Hamas controls the security forces and service institutions in Gaza as well as its politics. And so far, the rhythm of life appeared to carry on.

Qatar-financed workers were widening the main north-south road this week. Kiosks were crammed with cartoon-character backpacks ahead of school opening on Sunday. The Ferris wheel at a Hamas-run amusement park continued to turn. But at the Rafah crossing, hundreds of desperate would-be travelers waited in vain for days. The gleaming, air-conditioned terminal opened last year was empty but for a handful of Hamas workers watching Al-Jazeera, its baggage carousel idle, a sign flashing “Welcome to Gaza” to nobody.

Egypt reopened the border on a limited basis Saturday, after not allowing anyone to leave since Aug. 15, after the government’s deadly raids on two Islamist protest camps.

While Gazans have suffered from intermittent Rafah closures for years, this time many dismissed the ostensible security rationale and saw it as collective political punishment.

“The governments are fighting, and we pay the price,” said Ahmed Muqat, 20, who was trying to get back to medical school in Turkey. “Things are going from worse to worse.”

Dalia Radi, 22, got married Aug. 15, but instead of a honeymoon, spent the week sitting on plastic chairs in a parking lot outside the crossing. For Ms. Radi, whose new husband has lived in Norway for six years, it would have been her first time leaving Gaza.

For Mayy Jawadeh, a 21-year-old student at the University of Tunisia, it may be the last.

“I will never come back again to Gaza,” Ms. Jawadeh said. “Here, no rights for humans — no electricity, no water, you can’t travel. Hamas interferes in Egypt and we bear the brunt.”

Fares Akram contributed reporting from the Gaza Strip, and Said Ghazali from the West Bank.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Hundreds Die as Egyptian Forces Attack Islamist Protesters

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: barry levine 
Date: Wed, Aug 14, 2013 at 11:44 PM
Subject: re: Hundreds Die as Egyptian Forces Attack Islamist Protesters
To: ""

To the Editor:
   President Obama showed both sense and spine in 2011 when he countermanded secretary Clinton's knee-jerk endorsement of Hosni Mubarak. The marchers of the Arab Spring clearly carried the Egyptian People's legitimate aspirations for a representative government. Mubarak--although a longtime ally of this country--had put himself on the wrong side of history. Since then we have not done as well. By continuing aid, we have legitimized the coup that ousted Mohamed Morsi. 
    It is never convenient to confess such a mistake. But as long as we underwrite the Egyptian budget and the Egyptian Military, the U.S. has a voice. And that voice must say that Morsi is the duly-elected president of Egypt, that the coup that ousted him is illegitimate and that the dollars won't flow until legitimate democracy is restored.
Barry Haskell Levine

Find more of my (largely one-sided) correspondence with the New York Times at:
Or write a letter of your own. Democracy only works when we engage in
the issues of our day

Hundreds Die as Egyptian Forces Attack Islamist Protesters

Mosaab Elshamy/European Pressphoto Agency
A young man next to the bodies of protesters killed on Wednesday. Many of the dead were shot in the head or chest; some appeared to be in their early teens.


Published: August 14, 2013 CAIRO — Egyptian security officers stormed two encampments packed with supporters of the ousted president, Mohamed Morsi, on Wednesday in a scorched-earth assault that killed hundreds, set off a violent backlash across Egypt and underscored the new government’s determination to crush the Islamists who dominated two years of free elections.
Related in Opinion

Is This the End of the Arab Spring?

Has the military's bloody crackdown in Egypt dashed any hope that democracy can thrive in the Middle East?
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The events in Cairo set off a violent backlash across Egypt.

The attack, the third mass killing of Islamist demonstrators since the military ousted Mr. Morsi six weeks ago, followed a series of governmentthreats. But the scale — lasting more than 12 hours, with armored vehicles, bulldozers, tear gas, birdshot, live ammunition and snipers — and the ferocity far exceeded the Interior Ministry’s promises of a gradual and measured dispersal.
At least one protester was incinerated in his tent. Many others were shot in the head or chest, including some who appeared to be in their early teens, including the 17-year-old daughter of a prominent Islamist leader, Mohamed el-Beltagy. At a makeshift morgue in one field hospital on Wednesday morning, the number of bodies grew to 12 from 3 in the space of 15 minutes.
“Martyrs, this way,” a medic called out to direct the men bringing new stretchers; the hems of women’s abayas were stained from the pools of blood covering the floor.
Adli Mansour, the figurehead president appointed by Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, declared a state of emergency, removing any limits on police action and returning Egypt to the state of virtual martial law that prevailed for three decades under President Hosni Mubarak. The government imposed a 7 p.m. curfew in most of the country, closed the banks and shut down all north-south train service.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the main Islamist group behind Mr. Morsi, reiterated its rejection of violence but called on Egyptians across the country to rise up in protest, and its supporters marched toward the camps to battle the police with rocks and firebombs.
Clashes and gunfire broke out even in well-heeled precincts of the capital far from the protest camps, leaving anxious residents huddled in their homes and the streets all but emptied of life. Angry Islamists attacked at least a dozen police stations around the country, according to the state news media, killing more than 40 police officers.
And they lashed out at Christians, attacking or burning seven churches, according to the interior minister. Coptic Christian and human rights groups said the number was far higher.
The crackdown followed six weeks of attempts by Western diplomats to broker a political resolution that might persuade the Islamists to abandon their protests and rejoin a renewed democratic process despite the military’s removal of Mr. Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president. But the brutality of the attack seemed to extinguish any such hopes.
The Health Ministry said that 235 civilians had been killed and more than a thousand others had been wounded across Egypt. But the rate of dead and seriously injured people moving through the field hospitals at the sit-ins seemed to promise the true numbers would be much higher.
The assault prompted the resignation of the interim vice president, Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Prize-winning former diplomat who had lent his reputation to selling the West on the democratic goals of the military takeover.
“We have reached a state of harder polarization and more dangerous division, with the social fabric in danger of tearing, because violence only begets violence,” Mr. ElBaradei wrote in a public letter to the president. “The beneficiaries of what happened today are the preachers of violence and terrorism, the most extremist groups,” he said, “and you will remember what I am telling you.”
The violence was almost universally criticized by Western governments. A spokesman for President Obama said the United States was continuing to review the $1.5 billion in aid it gives Egypt annually, most of which goes to the military. The spokesman, Josh Earnest, said the violence “runs directly counter to pledges from the interim government to pursue reconciliation” with the Islamists.

He said the United States condemned the renewal of the emergency law and urged respect for basic rights like the freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstrations. But he stopped short of writing off the interim government, saying the United States would continue to remind Egypt’s leaders of their promises and urge them “to get back on track.”

  • News Analysis: Arab Spring Countries Find Peace Is Harder Than 
Related in Opinion

Is This the End of the Arab Spring?

Has the military's bloody crackdown in Egypt dashed any hope that democracy can thrive in the Middle East?

Analysts said the attack was the clearest sign yet that the Egyptian police state was re-emerging in full force, overriding liberal cabinet officials like Mr. ElBaradei and ignoring Western diplomatic pressure and talk of cutting financial aid.
“This is the beginning of a systematic crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, other Islamists and other opponents of a military coup,” said Emad Shahin, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo.
“In the end,” he added, “the West will back the winning side.”
The attack began about 7 a.m. when a circle of police officers began firing tear gas at the protest camps and obliterating tents with bulldozers. Although the Interior Ministry had said it would move only gradually and leave a safe exit, soon after the attack began several thousand people appeared trapped inside the main camp, near the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, as snipers fired down on those trying to flee and riot police officers with tear gas and birdshot closed in from all sides.
“There is no safe passage,” said Mohamed Abdel Azeem, 25, a wholesaler, who had braved sniper fire to reach a field hospital.
For a time in the late afternoon, the Islamists succeeded in pushing the police back far enough to create an almost safe passage to a hospital building on the edge of what remained of their camp. Only a roughly 20-yard stretch in front of the hospital doors was still vulnerable to sniper fire from above, and a series of Islamist marchers from around the city flowed back into the encampment, bolstering its numbers.
But shortly before dusk, soldiers and police officers renewed their push, and the Islamists were forced at last to flee.
Three journalists were reportedly killed in the fighting: a cameraman for Sky News, the Britain-based news network; a reporter for a newspaper based in the United Arab Emirates; and a reporter for an Egyptian state newspaper. Several others were arrested.
Egyptian state news media played down the violence, reporting that the police were clearing the camps “in a highly civilized way.” In a televised address, Mohamed Ibrahim, interior minister under Mr. Morsi and now under the new government, said his forces “insisted on maintaining the highest degrees of self-restraint.”
Later, state television showed footage of a group of dead bodies it said were discovered under the main stage of the Islamist sit-in, corroborating dark rumors in the anti-Islamist news media. But it appeared to be a gruesome setup: journalists, including a reporter for The New York Times, had visited the area below the stage repeatedly in recent days and found it empty, without any bodies. Although journalists saw at least a few Islamists with guns on Wednesday, there was also no evidence that the Islamists had stockpiled large numbers of weapons inside the camp, as Egyptian state news media had said before the attack.
But in a televised statement, Hazem el-Beblawi, the interim prime minister and a Western-trained economist who had been considered a liberal, cited the Islamists’ supposed stockpiling of weapons and ammunition to argue that the use of force was justified to protect the rights of other citizens.
“Things were spiraling out of control, and we decided to take a firm stance,” he said.
By nightfall the Islamists had established new sit-ins outside a landmark mosque in Cairo and others in cities around the country, defying the new curfew and the interior minister’s vows to break up any such assemblies.
“Is this closer to being resolved tonight than last night?” asked Michael Wahid Hanna, a researcher on Egypt with the New York-based Century Foundation who was visiting Cairo. “Obviously not. I don’t think anybody has thought this through fully.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Weak Agenda on Spying Reform
---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: barry levine 
Date: Sat, Aug 10, 2013 at 8:31 AM
Subject: re: A Weak Agenda on Spying Reform
To: ""

To the Editor;
  Even if this do-nothing congress were shamed into doing its job for a change, a new statute restricting NSA spying on Americans wouldn't restore our Rights.  NSA intrusions on Americans' communications go back at least to 2001.For the first seven years of that, in blatant criminal violation of the FISA statute of 1978. Two departments of Justice, first under Bush and then under Obama haven't bothered to to "care that these Laws be faithfully executed" as our Constitution provides.
   President Obama speaks prettily about "balancing" our liberties and security. But this is not the government that is going to lift a finger  to preserve our rights.
Barry Haskell Levine


A Weak Agenda on Spying Reform

Published: August 9, 2013 243 Comments

He said he wants “greater oversight, greater transparency, and constraints” on the mass collection of every American’s phone records by the National Security Agency. He didn’t specify what those constraints and oversight measures would be, only that he would work with Congress to develop them. But, in the meantime, the collection of records will continue as it has for years, gathering far more information than is necessary to fight terrorism.
President Obama, who seems to think the American people simply need some reassurance that their privacy rights are intact,proposed a series of measures on Friday that only tinker around the edges of the nation’s abusive surveillance programs.
He said he wants an adversary to challenge the government’s positions at the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a long-needed reform that would allow the court’s federal judges to hear more than one point of view in approving targets and security policy. But if those arguments remain closed to the public — and the president did not suggest otherwise — then it will be impossible to evaluate whether the change has had any effect. At a minimum, he could have urged the court to release unclassified summaries of its opinions when possible.
Finally, he announced that the N.S.A. would hire a civil liberties and privacy officer and create a Web site about its mission, and that a task force would review the nation’s surveillance technologies. These measures, however, are unlikely to have a real effect on intelligence gathering.
Fundamentally, Mr. Obama does not seem to understand that the nation needs to hear more than soothing words about the government’s spying enterprise. He suggested that if ordinary people trusted the government not to abuse their privacy, they wouldn’t mind the vast collection of phone and e-mail data.
Bizarrely, he compared the need for transparency to showing his wife that he had done the dishes, rather than just telling her he had done so. Out-of-control surveillance is a bit more serious than kitchen chores. It is the existence of these programs that is the problem, not whether they are modestly transparent. As long as the N.S.A. believes it has the right to collect records of every phone call — and the administration released a white paper Friday that explained, unconvincingly, why it is perfectly legal — then none of the promises to stay within the law will mean a thing.
If all Mr. Obama is inclined to do is tweak these programs, then Congress will have to step in to curb these abuses, a path many lawmakers of both parties are already pursuing. There are bills pending that would stop the bulk collection of communications data, restricting it to those under suspicion of terrorism. Other measures would require the surveillance court to make public far more of its work. If the president is truly concerned about public anxiety, he can vocally support legislation to make meaningful changes, rather than urging people to trust him that the dishes are clean.

Friday, August 9, 2013

To American Watchdog on Afghan Reconstruction, Bluntness Is a Weapon

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: barry levine 
Date: Fri, Aug 9, 2013 at 9:45 AM
Subject: re: To American Watchdog on Afghan Reconstruction, Bluntness Is a Weapon
To: ""

To the Editor:
    Our "government of the People, by the People and for the People" in Lincoln's phrase rests on checks and balances between the three branches of government. The cutting edge of that interaction is the Inspector General, whether it's a permanent post as for Glen Fine in our department of Justice or a special post as for John F. Sopko in Afghanistan's reconstruction.  Our Founding Fathers conceived that of the three, Congress was the branch closest to the People. The Inspector General thus is the People's representative, seeing that the People's moneys are well spent and the People's interest is well served. 
   Is John Sopko undiplomatic? Fine. He's not a diplomat. He's  my eyes on the scene.  All the various agencies involved have public relations efforts to tell me what they're doing well. I'm indebted to John Sopko (as to Glen Fine) for telling me what needs to be done better--or what shouldn't be done at all.

To American Watchdog on Afghan Reconstruction, Bluntness Is a Weapon

Published: August 8, 2013
Enlarge This ImageKABUL, Afghanistan — John F. Sopko is a 61-year-old former prosecutor who believes “embarrassing people works.”
Christopher Gregory/The New York Times
John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction, in his Arlington, Va., office.

As the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction, he has made a full-time job of doing just that. He and his team spend their days cataloging the waste, mismanagement and fraud that have plagued American reconstruction projects in Afghanistan.
Then they go out and publicize what they have found — aggressively. If they upset the generals and diplomats running the war, so much the better. Most officials “would love to have it all triple-wrapped in paper, classified and slipped under a door so it goes away — then they don’t have to do anything,” he said during a recent interview.
He added, “I’m into accountability.”
Mr. Sopko may lack the name recognition of those who have shaped the war in the American imagination: Osama bin Laden, President Hamid Karzai, generals like Stanley A. McChrystal and David H. Petraeus. But Mr. Sopko has been as instrumental as anyone in shaping the now-prevalent view among Americans that the war in Afghanistan has become an expensive boondoggle no longer worth fighting.
After a few minutes with Mr. Sopko, it is easy to see why. He is blunt in a way that is rare for American officials, and his directness often hits just the right notes when he makes his case to Congress, journalists or others who help shape public opinion.
His success in effecting change is harder to measure, though. Mr. Sopko’s take-no-prisoners approach has alienated many officials whose work he scrutinizes. Many seethe at what they characterize as his grandstanding and bullying. Some throw out the occasional expletive to make their point.
His work, they say, lacks depth and nuance and too often emphasizes problems instead of solutions. A number of officials said they had begun to tune him out, though at the same time they said they did not want to attract Mr. Sopko’s attention.
The nicest thing many officials will say about Mr. Sopko is that he is not always wrong.
Mr. Sopko “does tell everyone, ‘U.S.A.I.D. can’t manage its programs because they can’t get off the embassy compound,’ ” Larry Sampler, a senior official at the United States Agency for International Development, told reporters at a briefing in Kabul last month. “I can’t say that’s not true.”
“But it’s not universally true,” Mr. Sampler added. As an example, he cited the fact that American officials based in Herat, in western Afghanistan, were allowed to drive their own vehicles because the area had become relatively tranquil.
Mr. Sopko has “created a perception that we’re just pushing money out the door and not paying any attention,” Mr. Sampler said, “and that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Mr. Sopko, who works from an office tower a few blocks from the Pentagon and makes occasional trips to Afghanistan, bristles at suggestions that he mainly seeks the limelight. He insisted that his goal was to help salvage the war effort by highlighting the need to stop spending money when its impact could not be gauged, or it was simply being stolen.
His critics should “spend less time complaining” about negative news media coverage, he said, “and fix it.”
He was more amused by a State Department effort to have a public affairs official sit in on interviews conducted at the American Embassy in Kabul. The embassy said it was standard procedure at missions around the world for any government employees speaking with the press.
Mr. Sopko, unsurprisingly, had a different take: “The last time I dealt with minders was in the Soviet Union,” he said, chuckling. No State Department officials were present during the interview.
Inspectors general, the government’s internal watchdogs, are usually reserved, issuing reports that tend to be dense and rather dry. Their public statements are often few and far between.
The Afghanistan special inspector general’s office was no different before the arrival of Mr. Sopko. Created by Congress in 2008 and modeled after a similar program in Iraq, the office produced a single audit in its first year. It soon improved, but not enough for Congress, which in 2011 forced out the first special inspector general, Arnold Fields.
Mr. Sopko took over a year ago and immediately stepped up the agency’s metabolism. In his first year, his office has issued more reports, alerts, audits and other items than were put out in the agency’s first four years of existence.
But the work, in Mr. Sopko’s estimation, is pointless unless someone is reading it. “I don’t put out reports just to kill a bunch of trees,” he said. “If you want to make a change, you need to get to the American people.”
That philosophy is evident in the steady stream of reports produced by his office. They are made for easy consumption with executive summaries and clearly stated conclusions, and Mr. Sopko’s public affairs staff aggressively flags them to reporters. The New York Times has cited the work of the special inspector general in multiple stories.
Sometimes, though, the power of embarrassment goes only so far. But “putting people in jail also works — it gets their attention,” Mr. Sopko said. Since he took the job, investigations by his office have resulted in nine people being jailed.
A sampling of his team’s findings in the past month offers a guide to the kind of work it is doing. There was what is known as an “alert letter” warning of “serious deficiencies” in a $47 million State Department program to develop Afghanistan’s justice system; an audit found that $47 million spent to help stabilize contested areas in Afghanistan had yielded little stabilization; another alert letter highlighted the $34 million spent to build a state-of-the-art headquarters for the Marines in southern Afghanistan that is never going to be used.
The reports do garner attention. The Marine headquarters, for instance, has quickly become another data point for skeptics of the Afghan war.
Raised in Cleveland, Mr. Sopko described his parents as New Deal Democrats who imbued him with the belief that the government could do good. His father was a meteorologist for the National Weather Service; his mother was a homemaker.
He became a lawyer, and started out prosecuting mobsters in Ohio. Then, in 1982, he decided to work as a Congressional staff member in Washington. There, he discovered he “loved doing the work that changed policy.”
Three decades later, Mr. Sopko is still in Washington, and still looking to shape policy. “I wish to goodness I had this opportunity four years ago,” he said. “That said, it still has to be done, and now more than ever.”
The troop drawdown may be well under way, but the United States is still committed to spending billions of dollars in Afghanistan in the coming years. Without “lots of troops protecting our people,” Mr. Sopko said, they “won’t have that ability to get out into the country.”
“We could just pump money out the door if we don’t keep at this,” he said.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Lawyer Says Fort Hood Defendant’s Goal Is Death

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: barry levine 
Date: Thu, Aug 8, 2013 at 10:17 AM
Subject: re: Lawyer Says Fort Hood Defendant’s Goal Is Death
To: ""

To the Editor:
   If Nidal Malik Hasan is seeking death, it is explicable that he is laying out the case that he has adhered to our enemies. What remains to be explained is why the Federal Prosecutor demurs to call this treason. That's the definition by the book (or rather by Article III of the U.S. Constitution). Instead, he has characterize the Fort Hood shootings as "workplace violence".
   I don't know what a guy's gotta do to make a political statement around here. Sometimes it seems the only recognized form of political expression is to give ever-more money to professional politicians.
Barry Haskell Levine

Find more of my (largely one-sided) correspondence with the New York Times at:
Or write a letter of your own. Democracy only works when we engage in
the issues of our day

Lawyer Says Fort Hood Defendant’s Goal Is Death

Brigitte Woosley/Associated Press
A sketch of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, right, with his former lead defense lawyer, Lt. Col. Kris R. Poppe, center, who said Wednesday that the major’s aim was to receive the death sentence, and that helping him violated ethics.
Published: August 7, 2013

KILLEEN, Tex. — On the first day of his military trial on Tuesday, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan told jurors that he was the gunman responsible for a shooting rampage at the Fort Hood Army base here in 2009 and that the semiautomatic handgun displayed by prosecutors was in fact his weapon. Major Hasan, who is representing himself after releasing his Army defense lawyers, asked only a handful of questions of the prosecution’s 12 witnesses, declining to cross-examine most of them.


At the start of the second day of the trial, on Wednesday, Major Hasan’s former lead Army defense lawyer, who sits by his side in the courtroom as his standby counsel, told the judge that Major Hasan’s goal was to receive a death sentence, and that helping him achieve that goal violated his ethical obligations.
“His goal is to remove impediments or obstacles to the death penalty and is in fact encouraging or working toward the death penalty,” said the lawyer, Lt. Col. Kris R. Poppe.
Colonel Poppe filed a motion asking the judge to modify the role of Major Hasan’s Army defense team. The colonel and two other Army defense lawyers assist Major Hasan in a limited capacity, guiding him through the mechanics of military law but offering no advice on his defense strategies. He asked the judge to change their role, and that of the Army paralegals who help Major Hasan, so that they are no longer required to provide any assistance to Major Hasan.
He said that aiding him even in a rudimentary way would assist Major Hasan’s goals, “which we believe are working in concert with the prosecution in achieving a death sentence.” He added, “That we cannot do.”
The request caused the judge to order a recess until Thursday morning. The judge, Col. Tara A. Osborn, asked Colonel Poppe why he was making the request now. He said that Major Hasan’s opening statement, as well as his conduct during jury selection — in which Major Hasan asked few prospective jurors questions — crystallized the issue and forced him to file the motion.
“This has got to be torture, particularly if you’re opposed to capital punishment,” Geoffrey S. Corn, a former Army prosecutor who is a professor at the South Texas College of Law in Houston, said of the defense team.
“Any lawyer who’s dismissed by his client and ordered to stay on the case as a standby counsel, it is probably one of the hardest things imaginable for a lawyer to do,” he said. “You have to sit there and watch your client make what you know are potentially mortal mistakes, and that’s agonizing.”
Major Hasan has been charged with killing 13 people and wounding more than 30 others in the attack on Nov. 5, 2009. If convicted, he faces the death penalty or life in prison without parole. For months, the judge and the former legal team have struggled with the lawyers’ role as standby counsel. Major Hasan asked the judge in May to allow him to release his lawyers. The judge granted the request but ordered the lawyers to remain his standby counsel.
The lawyers had worked on his case for three years and had not only helped Major Hasan keep his beard — which became a focus of his pretrial hearings — but also persuaded a military appeals court to remove the previous judge because of an appearance of bias.
Colonel Poppe’s motion was not a request to withdraw from the case. He told the judge on Wednesday that the lawyers stand ready to resume their defense of Major Hasan should he change his mind about representing himself and request that they return, or if the court ordered them to return.
Major Hasan, who sat next to Colonel Poppe as he spoke, said he disagreed with the colonel. “That’s a twist of the facts,” Major Hasan said of Colonel Poppe’s statement that he was seeking the death penalty. Major Hasan wanted to elaborate, but the judge prevented him from doing so, asking that the courtroom be cleared. She held a closed session with Major Hasan and his standby counsel before deciding to call a recess until Thursday.
It remained unclear why Major Hasan chose to split from his lawyers and why he wanted to represent himself. He has become the only defendant in recent history to represent himself in a military capital-punishment case, raising potential appellate-court issues if he is convicted and sentenced to death.
Prosecutors and the testimony of witnesses suggested that Major Hasan did not expect to survive the shooting rampage. The morning of the attack, he told people at the Killeen Islamic Center that he was going away and bid them farewell.
Colonel Poppe’s request posed several problems for the judge. She said the motion and documents submitted with it appeared to contain privileged information between Major Hasan and a jury consultant. The material was submitted to the prosecution, but the judge ordered the materials sealed and instructed prosecutors to return them to her immediately.
Military law experts said releasing privileged information to the prosecution raised the prospect of a mistrial, though they said it was unlikely that Colonel Osborn would declare one. The Army’s lead prosecutor, Col. Michael Mulligan, told the judge that he read the motion but that neither he nor the other prosecutors looked at the enclosures.
The judge asked Major Hasan if he wished to release the information regarding jury selection, and he replied that he did not. The jury consultant, Jeffrey Frederick, was to help Major Hasan select a jury, but he was not present during selection. Rather, he was at Fort Bragg on another case.
The judge had offered to delay jury selection so Mr. Frederick could be there, but Major Hasan declined, according to The San Antonio Express-News