Monday, May 27, 2013

Veterans Day 2013

Today America remembers its war dead.  More than 2 million men and women have heroically and courageously given their lives for their country since its founding.  

From the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775, to Gettysburg in 1863, to the Battle of Amiens in 1918, to Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Battle of Pork Chop Hill in 1953, the Tet Offensives in 1968 and 1969, the Invasion of Grenada in 1983, to Desert Storm in 1991, to Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. servicemen have died defending freedom.
In a Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, President Barack Obama paid tribute to America's war dead.  "They are heroes, each and every one," he said. "They gave America the most precious thing they had, the last full measure of devotion. And because they did, we are who we are today: a free and prosperous nation, the greatest in the world."  

In the past decade about 2.5 million members of the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard and related Reserve and National Guard units have been deployed in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, according to Defense Department records.  Nearly 40,000 Americans have been deployed more than five times, and more than 400,000 have undergone three of more deployments.  In that time about 7,000 U.S. servicemen have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

The president also spoke about those who are currently on the front lines.  "We must remember our countrymen are still serving, still fighting, putting their lives on the line for all of us," President Obama said.

Hundreds of thousands of veterans have returned home after selflessly putting it all on the line for the country they love.  But all too often the system they defended has failed them.  The transition into daily life can be difficult under the best of circumstances.  For the tens of thousands of veterans suffering from physical or mental injuries, the post war care is inadequate.

An unprecedented number of veterans are facing the challenges of civilian life.  Some have enrolled in college.  For instance, John Byrne, a Valor Award winner for a 36-hour fire fight in Afghanistan in which four of his comrades were killed.  He spent more than a decade in service of his country.  He is now a sophomore at Hofstra University, nearly 20 years older than his classmates.  But he is also working part time and trying to start a family.  While he is not complaining, it isn't easy dealing with homework, work and the emotional effects of battle. 

He recently wrote on his blog, "I think that feeling and emotions I had about going to Afghanistan were rooted in the things my parents instilled in me, being a good person, and the love of being American. Serving my country gave me a proud feeling that I am unable to put into words."

Let us remember not only America's war dead.  Let us redouble our efforts to care for those veterans who have returned home in the hopes of having productive and meaningful lives. 

"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;" wrote William Shakespeare in Henry V, "For he to-day that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother."

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A.P. and the A.G.

The U.S. Justice Department's secret seizure of two months of phone records for reporters and editors of the Associated Press is a reckless violation of the First Amendment.  So egregious is this violation of the U.S. Constitution that Attorney General Eric Holder must be held accountable.

On Monday, the president and chief executive of A.P., Gary Pruitt, sent a stinging letter to Attorney General Holder condemning the department's “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into its organization.  Pruit wrote, “These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the news gathering activities undertaken by The A.P. during a two-month period, provide a road map to A.P.’s news gathering operations, and disclose information about A.P.’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.” 

Last June, Mr. Holder assigned Ronald C. Machen Jr., the United States attorney for the District of Columbia, to lead one of two investigations into government leaks of national security information to the media.  The leak investigations were in response to demands from Congress for a crackdown following pre-election disclosures about a bomb plot, cyber warfare against Iran and details of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.  Republicans accused the Obama administration of intentionally leaking the information to news organizations, including the A.P., to make the president look strong on national security.  The White House denied the charge.

Mr. Machen's spokesperson told The New York Times, “We must notify the media organization in advance unless doing so would pose a substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation.”  He further explained, “Because we value the freedom of the press, we are always careful and deliberative in seeking to strike the right balance between the public interest in the free flow of information and the public interest in the fair and effective administration of our criminal laws.”

But news organizations are outraged.  For instance, the Newspaper Association of America called the seizure unprecedented"These actions shock the American conscience and violate the critical freedom of the press protected by the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights,” it said in a statement.  And Republicans in Congress have criticized the Justice Department's actions.  House Speaker John Boehner's spokesman said, “The First Amendment is first for a reason. If the Obama Administration is going after reporters’ phone records, they better have a damned good explanation.”

The controversy over the seizure of the A.P. phone records comes as the administration is struggling to explain why the Internal Revenue Service secretly targeted conservative and Tea Party tax-exempt groups for extra scrutiny.  Further, the White House is embroiled in a dispute over "scrubbed" talking points used following a terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound at Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans died, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.  Together these issues raise questions about the president's leadership.

There is nothing more sacred in the American democracy than freedom of the press.  Independent news organizations serve a critical role in monitoring government for crimes and abuses of power.  At times, confidential sources are essential for the disclosure of wrongdoings.  Most news organizations do not grant confidentiality unless the information provided is vital to the public interest.  Journalists seriously weigh an individual's motives for giving information against the need for the public to know.  But disclosure of confidential sources to the government can have a chilling effect on the free flow of critical information, and can lead to retribution.     

The freedoms enjoyed by the American press are the envy of the world.   Freedom of the press is one of the founding principles upon which the country was built.  Any attempt to undermine this principle is an attack on America.   It seems unlikely that Attorney General Holder was not informed of these unusual actions of his department's special investigation into government leaks.  Nonetheless, the seizure of phone records from the A.P.,  a non-profit global news organization owned by American newspaper and broadcast companies, is an outrageous abuse of power by his Justice Department.  

Attorney General Holdermust take this breach of an essential right seriously in order to send a wake up call to all government agencies, and to the world.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Benghazi Politics

Republicans are obsessed with last September's attack by terrorists on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.  So rabid are their efforts to uncover a scandal that some in the party are throwing the word impeachment around. 

An independent inquiry, headed by former Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Pickering and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, released a damning report last December.  It found that "systematic failures and leadership and management deficiencies" within the State Department resulted in a "security posture that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place."    Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took full responsibility in a Congressional hearing in January. 

Instead of focusing on what is being done to capture the perpetrators and what measures are being put in place to assure it doesn't happen again, tragically Republicans are zeroing in on a misleading set of administration talking points used by officials to explain the attack.   The State Department's top spokeswoman at the time, Victoria Nuland, objected to including the CIA's reference in an early draft to intelligence about the threat from al Qaeda in Benghazi.  ABC News reported that one of her emails said it "could be abused by members (of Congress) to beat up the State Department for not paying attention to warnings, so why would we want to feed that either? Concerned."  

With the Presidential Election a few weeks away last fall, Republicans believe that the administration did not want to say anything that would undermine President Barack Obama's claims that Al Qaeda was defeated.  Instead, they believe the talking points were intentionally "scrubbed" of references to Al Qaeda.  And they cite as further proof the statements made by America's U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice on the Sunday talks shows that the attack was in response to an anti-Islamic film that had fueled violent anti-American demonstrations at the same time in twenty countries, including Egypt and Tunisia.   

Were her statements, which came from the talking points, a deliberate attempt to mislead the American people?    Reuters reported that, "A source familiar with the Benghazi communications said Nuland was concerned the talking points went further than what she was allowed to say during her briefings and that 'the CIA was attempting to exonerate itself at the State Department's expense.'"  In other words, this was a skirmish between two government agencies over who would be blamed.  

In Wednesday's Congressional hearing, chaired by Republican Representative Darrell Issa, three witnesses spoke at length about the incident.  The then number two official in America's Tripoli Embassy, Gregory Hicks, said he was stunned when he heard Rice's account.  He claimed that he was later demoted for raising questions about how the incident was handled by the State Department.  That charge was denied by the State Department, which said he was reassigned with no reduction in pay.  Nonetheless, Hicks was not prohibited from speaking to Congress.

There were 64 attacks on American diplomatic targets during President George W. Bush's administration.   American diplomatic facilities have been targets of anti-American sentiment for decades.  In spite of that, Congress has been reducing diplomatic security budgets in recent years.  

Sadly, four Americans died in the attack at Benghazi.  In their memory, and for the sake of all those who serve our country overseas, Congress should now focus its attention on how to better protect our outposts instead of trying to score political points.    

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Zoe Art

Zoe Peyronnin just finished a fashion design course at Parsons The News School for Design.  One of the pictures she displayed in the class's final show was this self portrait.  While Zoe is a junior at the Spence School, on New York City's upper east side, she has taken three courses at Parsons over the past 18 months.

Zoe Peyronnin

Cassie Sleeps

Just let sleeping dogs lie. Right Cassie?
Cassie the Pomeranian