Friday, November 27, 2015

CIA in the Crosshairs

"The world is on the edge of eruption," former CIA Director George Tenet recalls as he arranged for an emergency meeting at the White House with National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice on July 10, 2001. Cofer Black, the Director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center and Rich Blee, accompanied Tenet. Tenet recounts Blee's warning to Rice, "There will be significant attacks against the United States in the coming months." He continued, "Al Qaeda's intention is the destruction of the United States." Black then adds, "This country has got to go on a war footing now," as he slams his hand on the table.

Following the meeting Black tells Blee, "I think we've finally gotten through to these people." But later he realizes that essentially nothing happens. Rice later said she did not recall the meeting and wrote, "My recollection of the meeting is not very crisp because we were discussing the threat every day." Having raised the alert levels for personnel abroad, she added, "I thought we were doing what needed to be done." But on September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda struck a coordinated blow against the United States, killing nearly 3,000 people.

This dramatic episode in the CIA's history is told in detail in the Showtime documentary, "The Spymasters: CIA in the Crosshairs," which will air Saturday night. The program pulls the curtain back on America's most secret agency and sheds light on its successes and failures. Actor Mandy Patinkin, who plays CIA operative Saul Berenson in the series Homeland on Showtime, narrates it.

The Spymasters includes interviews with all 12 living CIA directors and their operatives. They talk about their convictions, "and, for the first time, their passionate disagreements about the agency's past, its current mission, and its future." The documentary lays out the complexities, the growing threat, and the controversies that been laid at the doorstep of the CIA. Did the CIA fail in 2001? Did the White House ignore the CIA's warnings about 9/11? The 9/11 Commission Report, released in July 2004, concluded, "This was a failure of policy, management, capability, and, above all, imagination."

The failure for the U.S. government to keep America safe led to a series of controversial decisions. Rendition was an intelligence-gathering program involving the transfer of foreign nationals suspected of involvement in terrorism to countries for interrogation and detention in "black sites" in countries where U.S. safeguards did not apply. The use of torture, known as the enhanced interrogation program, used techniques like waterboarding, in order to gain crucial information from suspected terrorists. Former director Stansfield Turner says, "I don't think a country like ours should be culpable of conducting torture." Tenet, on the other hand, says the U.S. Justice Department ruled the techniques were not torture, and President George Bush approved them.

Another consequence of the 9/11 attacks is the use of drones to strike back at terrorists. The Pentagon's use of drones is public, but the CIA has never acknowledged it also uses them. Yet President Barack Obama's former CIA Director Leon Panetta recounts a time the CIA had located a "bad man" who was responsible for killing American soldiers in Afghanistan. But the terrorist was with his family, which made the use of a drone strike problematic. "One of the tough questions was what should we do?" Panetta recalled. He said he called the White House and they said, "Look, you're going to have to make a judgment here." Panetta said, "I found I was making decisions on life and death as director, and those decisions are never easy, and frankly they shouldn't be easy." He added, "I thought it was really important in that job to do what I could to protect this country." The CIA struck, "And it did involve collateral damage, but we got him," Panetta concluded.

Following 9/11 the CIA scored an early victory in Afghanistan driving the Taliban out and destroying Al Qaeda's sanctuary, but Osama Bin Laden escaped. This victory was followed by one of America's most controversial wars. "Neither the CIA or any other or any other government agency ever found any evidence that Iraq played any role at all in 9/11," former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell recalled. Yet former Vice President Dick Cheney was speaking out publicly about Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's connection to Al Qaeda. Tenet told the President Bush that Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction was a "slam dunk." The U.S. invaded Iraq and more than a decade later it is still paying the price for this bad decision.

CIA in the Crosshairs is directed by Gedeon and Jules Naudet, who were responsible for the most powerful documentary ever produced of the 9/11 attacks. It is written by Chris Whipple, a skilled investigative journalist, and the executive producer is CBS News' Susan Zirinsky. She is also my wife.

Americans are on edge following the horrifying November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris. Questions are being raised about where the line is drawn between what techniques the CIA can use to defeat the terrorists, especially those that are home grown, and every American's right for privacy. 

Panetta says, "We may have to use these kinds of weapons. But let me tell you something, if we fail to do this, and God forbid this country faced another 9/11, you know what the first question would be, 'Why the hell did you let this happen?'"

Friday, November 20, 2015

Trump Playing Politics With Fear

Fear is a powerful motivator that is sadly all too often exploited by politicians. No one is more adept at doing so than Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Now Trump says he "would certainly implement" a data base for tracking Muslims in the United States.
Trump spoke Thursday in Newton, Iowa, in between campaign events. "I would certainly implement that. Absolutely," he said, "There should be a lot of systems, beyond databases." Later Trump was asked how his plan would differ from the Nazi's requiring Jews to register. "You tell me," Trump responded to a reporter. When asked where he would register Muslims he said, "Different places," not ruling out mosques. "It's all about management," he said. "Our country has no management." He was asked if Muslims would have to be legally obligated to sign into a database, "They have to be--they have to be," he responded.
Trump has often resorted to demagoguery to drive his poll numbers up. But these remarks are the height of religious bigotry and un-American. Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told NBC News, "What else can you compare this to except to prewar Nazi Germany." There are 2.6 million Muslims in America, and a bill severely restricting the admission of Syrian refugees into the U.S. has passed the House of Representatives. This action follows terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut and Egypt that the Islamic State has claimed credit for. ISISmay have embedded terrorists with refugees fleeing into Europe from Syria and Iraq.
The Syrian refugee crisis has become a big issue in the Republican primary. But Trump's plan for a Muslim database intensifies the debate. Friday morning former Florida Governor Jeb Bush called Trump's remarks "just wrong." The GOP presidential candidate told CNBC, "You talk about internment, you talk about closing mosques, you talk about registering people, That's just wrong." He added, "It's not a question of toughness. It's to manipulate people's angst and their fears. That's not strength, that's weakness." But over the weekend Bush told CNN that Christian refugees could be admitted to the U.S. "There are a lot of Christians in Syria that have no place now," he explained. "They'll be either executed or imprisoned, either by Assad or by ISIS. And I think we should have -- we should focus our efforts as it relates to the Christians that are being slaughtered."
Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson, who has been losing ground in the polls, compared the process of admitting Syria refugees into the U.S. with parents trying to protect their children from a rabid dog. "If there's a rabid dog running around in your neighborhood, you're probably not going to assume something good about that dog," Carson said during a campaign stop in Alabama. "And you're probably going to put your children out of the way. That doesn't mean that you hate all dogs." He said it would be "foolish" to admit Syrian refugees without a thorough vetting process. "We have to have in place screening mechanisms that allow us to determine who the mad dogs are."
Texas Senator Ted Cruz, also a GOP presidential candidate, has been on both sides of the Syrian refugee issue. In February 2014, when compassion was what most Americans were feeling, Cruz supported allowing Syrian refugees into the U.S. "We should continue to do so....We have to continue to be vigilant to make sure those coming are not affiliated with the terrorists, but we can do that." But now that Americans are fearful of terrorists Cruz has changed his stance. "It makes no sense whatsoever for us to be bringing in refugees who our intelligence cannot determine if they are terrorists here to kill us or not," he said. "Those who are fleeing persecution should be resettled in the Middle East in majority Muslim countries."
The White House has said it wants to bring 10,000 Syrian refugees into the United States out of the more than 4 million Syrian refugees who have been displaced by that country's civil war. The vetting process currently in place is rigorous and can take 2 years to complete. The bill that passed the House of Representatives with the support of many Democrats would require that all the nation's top national security agencies sign off on each Syrian refugee.
The president has said he will veto the bill. But President Obama did not dignify himself when he lashed out at Republican members of Congress Wednesday from the Philippines. "We are not well served when, in response to a terrorist attack, we descend into fear and panic," he told reporters. "We don't make good decisions if it's based on hysteria or an exaggeration of risks." A better approach would have been for the president to recognize that Americans have legitimate concerns about terrorism, and to promise to make the refugee vetting process as rigorous as possible.
ISIS has been using anti-Muslim sentiment in the West as a recruiting tool. It has had limited success with young disaffected Americans, and authorities are working hard to keep track of possible terrorists in this country. But Trump's outrageous idea of creating a Muslim database, Carson's ridiculous comparison between Muslims and dogs, Bush's Christian litmus test for Syrian refugees, and Cruz's politicization of the issue are all empowering ISIS.
The terrorist attacks in France were horrific. But Americans should not react out of fear. The great Madame Curie, who spent most of her life in France, once said, "Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less."

Friday, November 13, 2015

Immigration By The Numbers

The immigration issue has roiled the Republican Party as its presidential candidates attempt to appeal to the conservative, anti-immigration wing of their party in order to win their party's nomination.  But the GOP is going to pay a heavy toll in the 2016 national elections.  

Businessman Donald Trump fired the opening salvo last June when he announced he would run for president.  "When Mexico sends its people they're not sending their best," he said. "They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us.  They're bringing drugs.  They're bringing crime.  They're bringing rapists.  And some, I assume, are good people."  Trump has proposed building a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico (with a nice door) and promises he will get Mexico to pay for it.   

Trump raised the stakes this past Wednesday on MSNBC when he said, "You're going to have a deportation force, and you're going to do it humanely."  But he has yet to offer any specific details on how he will send an estimated 11 million undocumented workers out of the country.  It is hard to picture a "deportation force" humanely separating a Latino mother from her American born children.   

Nonetheless, Trump's position on immigration has resonated with party members.  In a national poll published in Roll Call, 49% of those identifying themselves as Republican agreed that Trump would best handle the immigration issue.  Trump's percent was five times higher than the second place finisher, Sen. Marco Rubio.  Trump has been so successful exploiting immigration to the Republican Party base that Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz are now publicly quibbling over each other's prior positions on the issue.  

The Republican National Committee following Gov. Mitt Romney’s loss in the 2012 national election identified immigration as a critical issue.   Romney had received just 23% of the Latino vote in his defeat.  By contrast, President George W. Bush received 44% of the Latino vote in his 2004 re-election.  The RNC released an autopsy report in early 2013 that called on Republicans to reach out to Latinos.  "Among the steps Republicans take in the Hispanic community and beyond, we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform," the report stated. "If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only. We also believe that comprehensive immigration reform is consistent with Republican economic policies that promote job growth and opportunity for all."

Many Republican strategist have amplified this position.  Steve Schmidt, who ran Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign in 2008, has observed, "The long-term problem for Republicans is that in every demographic that is growing in the country, Democrats are gaining market share," he said last year in the Los Angeles Times, and "in every demographic group in the country that is shrinking, Republicans are gaining market share."

Romney beat President Barack Obama by 20% among white voters according to exit polls.  A Gallup Poll, released just ahead of the GOP autopsy report, showed that Non-Hispanic whites made up 89% of Republican self-identifiers, while Hispanics were only 6% of that group.   The problem for the Republican Party is that the Non-Hispanic white population is shrinking.  Meanwhile, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that here are more than 55 million Hispanics and their number is growing.  

The GOP may think that Senators Rubio and Cruz, both Cuban Americans, can help the party appeal to more Latinos, but each of their stands on immigration has hurt them among this voting segment.  Further, nearly 65% of the Latino population is Mexican American, while only 4% is Cuban American, and most live in Florida.  Nationally Latinos, especially Mexican Americans, prefer Democrats over Republicans.  And 81% of Latinos believe that unauthorized immigrants should not be deported.  As Gov. Rick Perry once said, "Oops."

Donald Trump's talk of a border wall and deportation squads may play well with conservatives in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, but it has seriously damaged the Republican brand with most Latinos.   It is likely that the Republican candidate will have to receive 40% of the Latino vote in order to be elected president.   

So don't count on the ultimate GOP standard bearer to maintain the hard-line position on immigration in the general election that was needed to win the nomination.   For instance, over the last few years both Rubio and Cruz have each changed their prior position on immigration for political expediency.   

Unless, of course, that nominee is Donald Trump.  Then who knows what will happen?  Except it will be humane and huge!