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Sunday, October 25, 2015

Benghazi: Time to Think the Unthinkable?

Three weeks ago, I gave a paper on "Thinking the Unthinkable About National Security Narratives." It was inspired by the brief uproar over Seymour Hersch's claims about the Obama administration's tale about the killing of Osama bin Laden. Indeed, much of the paper tracks a long series of likely political deceptions and fabrications fomented by various U.S. national security elites over the years. I focus on threat inflation, misapplied analogies to justify war, stories to support the conduct of American wars, etc.

Ultimately, the paper will need to expand on the evidence, but it briefly considers the bomber gap, missile gap, and window of vulnerability. These cases largely led to unnecessary and costly increases in US military spending. It also considers inflated threats that helped lead to war -- the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the first Persian Gulf War, for example. I barely discussed the numerous deceptions allegedly employed to sell the most recent Iraq war, which was the subject of so much of my blogging and academic writing for a decade. Instead, I quote some scholars who argue that we won't know for certain about alleged Bush administration deceptions until additional critical materials are declassified.

There are plenty of other likely deceptions with more modest political goals and some are mentioned in the paper (Jessica Lynch, Pat Tillman). Remember, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara didn't even think the deployment of Soviet Missiles in Cuba in October 1962 posed a new military threat to the US. He described it as a domestic political problem. That's not the way JFK framed it to the American public or to the Soviets.

Indeed, my "Unthinkable" paper describes the problem of deception about national security as endemic -- and especially problematic to study academically because of the huge advantages security elites have in the marketplace of ideas. They control information, largely thanks to secrecy, which gives them the ability to provide a particular narrative about threats, war, etc. They have the authority to speak, thanks to their position in power, which is accompanied by access to impressive material resources as well. The stories elites tell may endure for a long time, even as new evidence challenges some of it. My paper points out that historians and political scientists are still arguing about whether FDR tried to deceive Americans about the need for World War II. The relevant documents are ~75 years old.

Last weekend, the NY Times Magazine drew attention to some of the same questions I'm asking and problems I'm exploring, though Jonathan Mahler chose to focus on the Obama administration story about killing bin Laden.
It’s not that the truth about bin Laden’s death is unknowable; it’s that we don’t know it. And we can’t necessarily console ourselves with the hope that we will have more answers any time soon; to this day, the final volume of the C.I.A.’s official history of the Bay of Pigs remains classified. We don’t know what happened more than a half-century ago, much less in 2011. 
There are different ways to control a narrative. There’s the old-fashioned way: Classify documents that you don’t want seen and, as [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates said, ‘‘keep mum on the details.’’ But there’s also the more modern, social-media-savvy approach: Tell the story you want them to believe. Silence is one way to keep a secret. Talking is another. And they are not mutually exclusive.
In any case, this week, the world watched former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testify for nearly 11 hours about the September 11, 2012, attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi. The questions that Republicans wanted to ask were much like the ones I'm asking: Did the Obama administration, and especially Secretary Clinton, fabricate a political lie to the American people? Did they do this for reasons unrelated to genuine national security purposes (domestic politics)?

My paper included a number of caveats about the strength of the evidence about various alleged cases of deception because the ideas I'm exploring are ordinarily "unthinkable." Political opponents in the heat of a partisan struggle might accuse their foes of engaging in deception and political fabrication in the area of national security, but the wider reaction is usually much more cautious. And academics are especially cautious.

Critics are often not taken seriously if they argue that elites use national security matters to increase their popularity ("rally 'round the flag"), win elections, create jobs, or divert attention from personal political crisis. This is said to reflect paranoia and conspiracy theorizing.

And, in fact, Mahler's piece was attacked by critics as promoting "conspiracy theory."  Colleagues at the NY Times were apparently worried about the effect this story would have on the credibility of their newspaper's journalism. CNN's Peter Bergen called Mahler's story "bizarre."

So what is the story with Benghazi? Did Clinton seek to deceive? Or are conservatives serving up a juicy conspiracy theory based on thin evidence?

Based on my reading of various conservative twitter users, the question about Clinton's alleged deceptions now seem to be their primary concern. The critics argue that Clinton and others blamed an anti-Islamic video for the attack, when she and others in the administration knew it was an intentional act of terror. This is Clinton's entire statement of September 11, 2012, with the most controversial part in red:
 "I condemn in the strongest terms the attack on our mission in Benghazi today. As we work to secure our personnel and facilities, we have confirmed that one of our State Department officers was killed. We are heartbroken by this terrible loss. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and those who have suffered in this attack.

This evening, I called Libyan President Magariaf to coordinate additional support to protect Americans in Libya. President Magariaf expressed his condemnation and condolences and pledged his government’s full cooperation.

Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.

In light of the events of today, the United States government is working with partner countries around the world to protect our personnel, our missions, and American citizens worldwide."
The debate over the years has often focused on a memo drafted by then-White House Deputy Strategic Communications Adviser Ben Rhodes a few days after this statement, which formulated the White House talking points to guide then-UN Ambassador Susan Rice on various Sunday TV programs. The administration wanted to sell the attack as “rooted in an Internet video, and not a failure of policy.” The presidential election was about 7 weeks away and the killing of bin Laden was a featured part of their story for reelection.

Essentially, conservatives claim that the evidence was soon clear that Benghazi was a predesigned terrorist attack and that there had been no anti-video protest at the mission in Libya. Nonetheless, the Obama administration blamed a video repeatedly.

This suggests a partisan deception about policy, right?

What is the evidence for the defense? Obama himself called the event an "act of terror" on September 12. The administration started acknowledging the premeditated terrorism by September 19.  That date is important because it turns out the intelligence agencies were apparently telling the administration that the video protest was the likely cause until September 24. In November 2014, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence released a report that seemingly debunked the theory about political fabrication:

This week, conservatives are convinced that Clinton's same-night email to daughter Chelsea and phone call with Egyptian prime minister (September 12) constitute new smoking gun evidence about their original concerns. In a brief email reference, Clinton told Chelsea that the act was perpetrated by an al-Qaeda like group. She also told the Egyptian PM that “We know the attack in Libya had nothing to do with the film. It was a planned attack — not a protest.”

This sounds like fairly damning evidence and it might well be correct to blame Clinton and the Obama administration for playing politics with national security. However, this version of the narrative overlooks certain facts.

First, the Republicans still have not grappled with the intelligence reports. Was it wrong to say something publicly that was consistent with the intelligence? Readers may remember that this was essentially the defense of the Bush administration regarding Iraq, even though members of the administration often said things that seemed well beyond the intelligence findings. This reading doesn't explain the sentences Clinton apparently communicated to her daughter or to the Egyptians, but ask this question: Is it possible that those far more private instances simply reflect her going beyond the intelligence, perhaps based on unconfirmed evidence? I don't know, and neither do the conservative critics.

Second, Clinton's statement used the passive voice. She didn't say the video caused the attacks, she said some had claimed that. It's a classic Fox News tactic, of course. Indeed, Fox News was running with the video story on September 11, just as many other news agencies were. Susan Rice's statements on Sunday TV went further, but she wasn't the one being scrutinized this week. On those shows, Rice also repeatedly said, "we'll wait to see exactly what the investigation finally confirms." President Obama also made similar remarks that week about waiting for additional evidence to confirm what happened.

Third, the right's interpretations focused narrowly on Benghazi and ignores other important events occurring that day. The inflammatory video in question was provoking demonstrations at American embassies around the world. The US mission in Cairo was of special concern, though other attacks elsewhere led to deaths. The Obama administration was arguably trying to signal that the US would not tolerate this behavior. Perhaps they were thinking that there would be no replay of Iran 1979 on their watch.

I'm not creating this tale for them, I'm just providing a charitable reading of the situation. This is the story Clinton told the members of Congress this week:
FMR. SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: During the day on September 11th, as you did mention, Congressman, there was a very large protest against our embassy in Cairo. Protesters breached the walls. They tore down the American flag. And it was of grave concern to us because the inflammatory video had been shown on Egyptian television, which has a broader reach than just inside Egypt. 
And if you look at what I said, I referred to the video that night in a very specific way. I said, some have sought to justify the attack because of the video
I used those words deliberately, not to ascribe a motive to every attacker but as a warning to those across the region that there was no justification for further attacks
And, in fact, during the course of that week, we had many attacks that were all about the video. We had people breaching the walls of our embassies in Tunis, in Khartoum; we had people, thankfully not Americans, dying at protests. But that's what was going on, Congressman. 
I'm not sure of Clinton's motives, but her story fits the words. Sure, the Republican story also seems to fit, but it presumes malfeasance without proving it. I'm willing to think about the unthinkable, but I want the evidence of deception to be as strong as it can be.

This post was motivated by several twitter exchanges I had yesterday with people on the right (linked above). I certainly agree that there's reason to be interested in this case, but it seems like a relatively mild instance of a much larger problem. Some people are quite worked up about it, but I didn't notice them screaming for heads to role because of Iraq. Or lies about Jessica Lynch. Or lies about Pat Tillman.

I know that Tom Nichols has a crafty argument about Bill Clinton's role in inflating the chemical weapons threat from Iraq, but Clinton wasn't the President who puffed up a nuclear threat to launch a war on Iraq. As I've written before, referencing David Kay, letting a chemical threat justify preventive war might spark dozens of such wars. 

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Monday, October 19, 2015

Music Flashback: Hard Times in the Land of Plenty

For some time, my friend, neighbor, and favorite DJ Michael Young has been playing about one old vinyl cut per hour on his "Roots 'n' Boots" WFPK program every Sunday night. Of the three tunes he spins every week, I typically own the old LP of at least one of the songs. This week, he played Omar and the Howlers, "Hard Times in the Land of Plenty," from 1987.

Hey, I still own that record!

Given the ongoing national conversation about economic inequality, it seemed particularly appropriate for me to blog it:


By the way, Mike also played "Able" by Nathaniel Talbot. My wife and I thought it was a new James Taylor tune. She's a big fan of the JT and we were both surprised to learn the song wasn't his.

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Saturday, October 17, 2015

ISSS-ISAC 2015: Springfield, MA


Last weekend, I traveled to Springfield, MA, to attend the Annual Joint Meeting of the International Security Studies Section of ISA and the International Security and Arms Control Section of APSA.

For a panel "Thinking About Security," I presented a paper, "Thinking the Unthinkable About National Security Narratives," (latter requires ISA archive access) which considers the often-deceptive narratives constructed and employed by American national security elites to identify threats, justify policy actions (including war and intervention), and sustain support for policy -- including war and intervention. The field is characterized by secrecy and limited participation in both public debate and internal decision-making. Deception and secrecy are arguably endemic and enduring problems in national security affairs and not readily addressed by the ordinary "thinkable" solutions.

It's a very rough paper that needs a great deal of work. The empirical section of the paper is especially crude, only briefly surveying a lot of literature on threat inflation, the misapplication of the Munich analogy, and other instances when security elites employed deceptive narratives. Along with various cold war examples, I mention deceptions involving the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Persian Gulf War, and Iraq war. I also mention a few lesser deceptions, involving Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman, for example.

Today, I just read a long and interesting piece in the New York Times Magazine by Jonathan Mahler that covers much the same ground (including many of the same examples and concerns about secrecy and deception) though with terrific reporting and analysis of the narrative about the killing of Osama bin Laden. As I said last weekend in Springfield (and this was in my conference proposal), my inspiration for the paper was the Seymour Hersh story about the killing of Osama bin Laden. My paper briefly mentions the various versions of the bin Laden story, but primarily emphasizes the difficulty of finding "truth" on any significant national security issue.

I ran out of time writing, but the paper concludes by arguing (as I often have) the need for more open and inclusive debate in the public sphere. A "marketplace of ideas" is likely not going to work if we want anything like democratic decision-making on national security affairs.

Among other avenues, I plan to look at what the US government used to say about Soviet "disinformation" and deception.

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Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Who said it better?

Jeb Bush....? On mass gun violence in a school:


Or Donald Rumsfeld? On Iraq

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