Sunday, January 11, 2009

Dubya As Only David Could See Him

Yes, there are tons of 10 best and 10 worst lists around. But David Letterman came up with his own unique version of George Bush's Top 10 Presidential Moments.

We will never see the likes of George again. Hopefully.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Poor Leon Penatta Won’t Know What Hit Him When He Hits The CIA

Talk about setting up a bright, highly competent, loyal, nice guy for failure.

When Barack Obama named former Clinton chief of staff Leon Penatta to run the Central Intelligence Agency yesterday, he picked a man whose biggest plus is having loudly protested the agency’s use of torture including waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques.” He also chose a man who has deep government experience, a clear understanding of intelligence agency budgets, and skill at managing a bureaucracy.

What Panetta doesn’t have is the foggiest notion about the arcane inner workings and culture of The Company, which can be as complex, subtle, unfathomable and biting as the aristocratic society depicted in Brideshead Revisited.

“One of two things will happen,” an old friend replied this morning to an e-mail I sent after the announcement. The man spent more than 25 years at the CIA, sometimes travelling under false passports, sometimes analysing disparate bits of incoming intelligence behind a desk at headquarters, sometimes running a foreign station. “Either (Penatta) will figure things out quickly and adapt to the culture while he tries fixing it, or it will eat him alive. But, generally, outsiders don’t do well if they’re parachuted into top jobs at Langley.”

The Bush 41 Factor

Yesterday, in boosting Penatta’s likely chances for success, some commentators pointed to the tenure of George H. W. Bush as CIA director as an example of how an “amateur” can grasp the reins of the agency firmly and succeed. Indeed, Bush 41’s time at Langley was so well regarded by the nation’s intelligence community that the CIA’s sprawling, multi-building campus in suburban Virginia bears his name in tribute.

But Bush the Elder wasn’t exactly an amateur.

For one thing, both the Bush and Prescott families had long ties to the secret world, dating back before the days of the OSS in World War 2. For another, besides heading the CIA, Bush Senior was ambassador to Japan. The Tokyo embassy houses what traditionally is the largest CIA station in the Pacific, charged with monitoring China and North Korea. In his position, Poppy Bush worked closely with a wide range of agency types during his tenure in Tokyo, often involved in decisions about which bits of intelligence to pass on and how much local analysis should go in a report to headquarters.

In short, G. H. W. Bush knew the people, the operation and the culture.

Restoring Confidence

Working Penatta’s his favour is that career officers at the CIA know Panetta’s first task is to restore morale, which was devastated during the Bush years because intelligence was so heavily politicized.

His second job is to ensure everyone knows that the Obama White House wants their best work, unslanted and unbiased, and that the likelihood is nil that Vice President Joe Biden will be looking over their shoulders constantly as was Dick Cheney, Scooter Libby and David Addington’s practice.

If Panetta can accomplish these twin undertakings in the first year on the job, he’ll buy himself some room to learn – and manoeuvre his way through – the CIA’s Byzantine mores and culture.

“People will be very suspicious at first,” I am told by another intelligence community source.

“They won’t be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt," she adds "Hopefully, he’ll work fast on rebuilding confidence of officers in The White House and DNI (Director of National Intelligence) so he can get on with the real job ensuring the agency produces the best intelligence we can come up with.”

Saturday, January 3, 2009

It's Time To Bring Cuba In From The Cold

At the end of the state funeral for Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on October 3, 2000, official mourners were milling about in front of Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica. Cuban president Fidel Castro stepped over to Jimmy Carter to ask a serious political question:

What did Carter think of using the love of baseball shared by Cubans and Americans as a way to begin normalizing relations between the two nations? Castro even offered to send an airplane to bring Carter and anyone else the former president thought should accompany him to Havana for a meeting to begin the process.

Carter thought it a terrific idea and when he returned home, he called Paul Beeston, then Major League Baseball’s chief operating officer. Would Beeston travel to Havana with Carter to cut a deal with Castro? Beeston agreed and when Carter asked the White House for clearance, Bill Clinton green lighted the trip.

But before the meeting could be scheduled, the Supreme Court gave George Bush the presidency. Bush had campaigned hard on a vitriolic anti-Castro platform in South Florida, Between the old cold warriors and neo-cons surrounding him, Bush would never endorse a sensible Cuban policy so Carter and Beeston never met with Castro to work out "baseball diplomacy." The best chance since 1962 to co-exist with Cuba disappeared in a cloud of dust thicker than when David “Big Papi” Ortiz slides into second.

Obama’s Opportunity

David Erickson, a senior fellow at The InterAmerican Institute and author of The Cuba Wars told the PBS NewsHour’s Ray Suarez last week that Cubans in the US and on the island look at the incoming Obama administration with both hope and fear. “There’s hope there will be change in US-Cuba relations and fear it won’t come fast enough.”

Not since Allan Dulles sabotaged Pres. Dwight Eisenhower’s attempt to establish a rapport with the Cuban revolution in 1959 has there been as good an opportunity to put decades of failed American policy in the past. On the NewsHour, Erickson added, “Five decades of evidence shows that the US attempt to starve out the Castro regime hasn’t worked. The United States must take a far-ranging look at its relationship with Cuba.”

The fact is, Cuban-Americans – and Americans generally – simply ignore the countless bans on everything involving Cuba. Travel restrictions? Americans detour through Canada, Mexico or the Bahamas to holiday in Havana or Varadero. Ban sending cash to Cuban family members? Non-US organisations and even Canadians and Mexicans on holiday carry money to the Cuban relatives of Americans. Trade restrictions? Establish a complex web of arms-length, off-shore subsidiaries as difficult to unravel as Rubic's cube.

The policy is a charade.

Moreover, with first generation exiles who fled the revolution dying off, second and third generation Cuban-Americans see the folly in American policy.

“It’s crazy,” a dazzling Cuban-American woman living in Miami told a friend of mine who was sitting with her at the pool bar of a Varadero resort. “I have to fly to Nassau and wait three hours for a connecting Cubana flight just to get here. It doesn’t take you that long from Montréal.”

Priorities and Politics

Adjusting America’s Cuba policy will not be Obama’s top priority, not with needing to get his $800-billion economic recovery plan through Congress quickly, disengaging from Iraq, figuring out what will be workable in Afghanistan, undoing Bush’s damaging executive orders, closing GITMO, and a host of other pressing matters.

Moreover, attempts to change Washington’s relationship with Cuba will run into rear-guard attacks from right-wing Republicans, neo-cons and aging cold warriors. Using high voltage words like “henchmen," former Bush Latin America advisor Adolfo Franco said on the same NewsHour segment that Obama should take the advice of John McCain and not meet with Cuban officials. He didn’t explain why anyone in the White House should listen to McCain on anything.

“This is not the time to infuse the Cuban economy with foreign currency dollars,” Franco stated. “Instead, we should stand with those fighting Castro.”

Except the only people still fighting Castro are his fellow neo-cons and a handful of octagenarians sipping Café Cubana in Miami's Little Havana.

Indeed, to the vast majority of Cubans, the government in Havana is irrelevant to their daily lives. Also, Franco ignored a political reality: By shunning Raul Castro, Washington pushes Cuba closer to Venezuela and Bolivia. The US made the same mistake in 1959, practically shoving Fidel into the arms of Nikita Khrushchev and Mao Tse-Tung – and we know how well that worked out; just ask anyone who lived through the Cuban missile crisis.

It’s time to bring Cuba in from the cold. Barack Obama has a chance to fix a policy that’s been wrong – and ineffective – for 50 years.

Friday, January 2, 2009

A Big ‘Hoorah!’ To The NYT’s Dexter Filkins

In a devastatingly critical examination of the narco-state formerly known as Afghanistan, the New York Times’ Dexter Filkins today documents case after case of wide spread corruption on a massive scale in the Afghan government, including officials ranging from low-level, local bureaucrats right up to the brother of President Hamid Karzai. Filkins shows the difficult situation Pres. Obama will face in dislodging a surging Taliban, and the feudal war lords who’ve run the country for centuries, both of which are profiting from opium smuggling, and paying and receiving bribes.

It didn’t take years cultivating sources or meeting a “Deep Throat” in dangerous Kabul alleys for him to pen the piece. Filkins arrived in Kabul only about two months ago following several years covering Iraq, interrupted by a year in the US to write a book. In reading the article, it seems he did much of his reporting simply standing in front of government offices and court houses, talking to people coming out after they paid a bribe to judges and other officials, or refused to do so.

So, why did it take so long for any Western journalist to write this story? Moreover, why did the Bush administration allow the situation to get so out of hand?

Could-a, Should-a

The outstanding Filkins article highlights a major problem in newsrooms today. His article could have – and should have – been written a year or more ago; it’s not as if corruption showed up in Kabul at Halloween as a trick-and-treat handout.

Why has the news media been sleeping, especially since thousands more American troops will be re-routed to Afghanistan from Iraq after the Obama inauguration?

Part of the lack of coverage might be explained by the relatively few number of American, British and European reporters based permanently in Kabul. A perfect storm of tight budgets which means fewer reporters that leads to dwindling international coverage coupled with a lack of editorial interest and a preference for dramatic battlefield stories when reporters are loosed on the country leaves little room for what journalists call “enterprise stories” – those that take time to report and write.

To illustrate the issue, I’ve realised that the BBC has more reporters stationed permanently in Africa than most major US print and broadcast news outlets have in Europe and Asia combined. True, the broadcaster gets generous funding from the British government added to by a license fee levied on each TV set in the country along with ad revenue from some of its networks, but how it allocates its annual budget is very different than the way its American counterparts dole out cash to news operations.

No wonder Americans are so ill-informed about the world. Even if they want to know more, they have to really go out of their way to find key information.

Missed Opportunities

Meanwhile, after the American invasion in 2001, Afghanistan became poppy central, harvesting more plants than anywhere else on earth. While some Western media have covered this angle off-and-on, before Filkins’ story no major newspaper or network has documented in such detail the extent and pervasiveness of drugs-related corruption. Compared to what goes on daily throughout Afghanistan’s government, Rob Blagojevich is a clumsy amateur.

Under George Bush, the American and NATO strategy of dealing with poppy growing in Afghanistan has been to send troops across farmland destroying crops. This did two things: First, it alienated Afghan farmers whose land wouldn’t support any other agriculture. Second, it gave war lords, drug lords and the Taliban an opportunity to say to farmers, “Come join us. We’ll protect you and buy your harvest for cash.”

In yet one more mistake on a long list of foreign policy errors, the White House missed a chance to slow Afghanistan’s opium trade and deny insurgents a ready source of hard currency, which also propels corruption. Instead of burning fields, Bush could have followed the successful lead of earlier US efforts to control poppy growing and opium smuggling in Turkey. Using US money, the Turkish government buys up the annual harvest, handing it over to the Americans who, in turn, sell some to pharmaceutical companies – which uses an opium offshoot in many prescription drugs – and burn the rest.

The strategy works, and it's a lot cheaper than sending in the cavalry: Farmers are content, world opium supplies are cut, crime lords are cut out of the picture and pharmaceutical companies have a ready supply of a much-needed ingredient. Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld reportedly vetoed the proven Turkish approach in Afghanistan, just one more tragedy in the long list of Bush administration tragedies.

The way the US government, newspapers, cable and broadcasters have dealt with Afghanistan reminds me of a line from Paddy Chayefsky’s brilliant 1971 film, The Hospital. George C. Scott, playing an exhausted and frustrated suicidal physician, decides to quit medicine and run off to Arizona with Diana Rigg – well, she’s reason enough to quit any job and run off anywhere with her – because he realises patients are being “neglected to death.”

Between journalism’s indifference and US government missteps, Afghanistan is being “neglected to death.” Let's all give a very big “Hoorah!” to Dexter Filkins for showing the results.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Fanfare For A New Administration

A hat tip to the folks at the Editor & Publisher blog who thought this piece directed by the greatest maestro of the 20th century, Arturo Toscanini, would have been an appropriate way to mark the arrival of 2009, perhaps as the Times Square ball descended.

I may have a better idea. The music opens the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, to my mind the greatest fanfare ever written. I’d suggest using it to open Barack Obama’s Inaugural Concert at the Kennedy Center.

I used to have a recording of this performance; the boxed album set included Toscanini directing all nine Beethoven symphonies. They were on records and I wish I could find the same set on CD.

“Please Cry For Me, I’m Al Gonzales.”

Like tens of millions – and growing – of his increasingly desperate countrymen, he is out of work and cannot find a job; worse, nobody in his chosen profession will even interview him. His previously good friends don’t want to publish his story so he is reduced to keeping a journal for his sons. He wonders what went wrong with his carefully crafted, uniquely American, tale of the dirt poor boy, son of immigrants, who makes very good. He cannot grasp how his world fell apart, so completely and so quickly.

He actually wonders if he is simply another victim of the times.

At the end of his tether, the man finally goes to a support group luncheon meeting only blocks from the building that once housed his large office, where sympathetic ears listen to his tale of woe. Those gathered around the table nod sympathetically, shake their head in sadness and wish him well when they shake his hand as he leaves.

As the man walked out of the office, I wonder if he heard a twisted version of an Andrew Lloyd Weber song from Evita echoing in his head: “Please cry for me, I’m Al Gonzales.”

Completes The Trifecta

I almost hurled my breakfast when I read an article in the on-line Wall Street Journal about Alberto Gonzales’ meeting with the paper’s editorial board earlier this week. It’s clear that the selective memory of the man who “can’t recall” when testifying before Congressional committees hasn’t gotten any better with the time. He doesn’t even remember the reality – forget about specific facts – of his tenure as White House counsel and Attorney General.

Fredo's whining, coupled with Dick “Dare You To Indict Me” Cheney’s self-admitted war crimes and George “Who, Me Worry?” Bush’s total fogging of the past eight years completes the administration’s Trifecta of distortions, dissembling and dishonesty.

"What is it that I did that is so fundamentally wrong, that deserves this kind of response to my service?" he sniffed to the editors.

Uhm, let’s see.

There is the politicalisation of the Justice Dept., including widespread employment discrimination and the infamous US Attorney scandal. There was his racing to the hospital bed of an extremely ill John Ashcroft to get the man, still recovering from major surgery, to sign a re-authorization of secret wire tapping that the AG’s temporary fill-in, James Comey, wouldn’t sign. He signed torture memos. He destroyed the DoJ's Civil Rights Division. Things were so bad, Justice’s own Inspector General investigated him on charges of perjury and obstruction, not exactly exonerating Gonzales.

We can add warrantless-searches, the Military Commissions Act, GITMO torture, abandoning the Geneva Conventions and shocking tolerance for corruption of a department that, for the benefit of the nation and the rule of law, must maintain its independence, to the list.

Add in almost no redeeming qualities. As Adam Cohen, chief legal analyst for CBS News wrote not long ago, “He brought shame and disgrace to the Department because of his lack of independent judgment on some of the most vital legal issues of our time. And he brought chaos and confusion to the department because of his lack of respectable leadership over a cabinet-level department among the most important in the nation.

“He neither served the longstanding role as "the people's attorney" nor fully met and tamed his duties and responsibilities to the constitution. He was a man who got the job not because he was supremely qualified or notably well-respected among the leading legal lights of our time, but because he had faithfully and with blind obedience served President George W. Bush for years in Texas (where he botched clemency memos in death penalty cases) and then as White House counsel (where he botched the nation's legal policy on torture).”

The Worst Ever?

Along with John Mitchell, Dick Nixon’s felonious attorney general, Alberto Gonzales may well be among the worst AG’s the nation has had in the past 100 years. Yet, Fredo sees no connection between his lawlessness and why law firms won’t hire him or why publishers are scorning his memoir.

Frankly, he has proven to be such an inept lawyer, I would not let Alberto Gonzales draw up a simple will. And if I were a book editor, I wouldn't trust his memory.

And so, with deep apologies to Mr. Weber, Sarah Brightman and Madonna, let’s all sing in 2009 together:
Please cry for me, I’m Al Gonzales
The truth is I don’t remember
All those bad mem-ries
My lying existence
I kept my promise
To not remember
I kept my promise
Don’t keep your distance.