Archive for the 'Politics' Category

Rise of the President as Assassin

Friday, June 14th, 2013

The Way of the Knife, The CIA, A Secret Army, and a War at the ends of the Earth, Mark Mazzeti, 2013

Dirty Wars, the World is a Battlefield, Jeremy Scahill, 2013

Or How the ChickenHawks Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld institutionalized Presidential Assassinations

The political term Chickenhawk is defined in Wikipedia as:

Chickenhawk (also chicken hawk and chicken-hawk) is a political term used in the United States to describe a person who strongly supports war or other military action (i.e., a War Hawk), yet who actively avoided military service when of age.

The term indicates that the person in question is hypocritical for personally dodging a draft or otherwise shirking their duty to their country during a time of armed conflict while advocating that others do so. Generally, the implication is that chickenhawks lack the moral character to ask others to support, fight and perhaps die in an armed conflict. Those who avoid military service and continue to oppose armed aggression are not chickenhawks.

Chickenhawks 1980 and 2000

These two books explore how Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld , hereinafter referred to as CR, transformed the elite special forces (Navy Seals, Delta Forces, and Army Rangers) into the ultra secretive JSOC command, reporting directly to the President with a worldwide license to kill. CR largely insulated W from their decisions under the guise of denyability.

Prior to CR under W, these special forces were primarily famous for two disastrous actions, the aborted 1980 attempt to rescue the Iran hostages under Carter and the even more disastrous 1993 Black Hawk Down incident in Mogadishu Somalia under Clinton. The only group with a more disastrous history than the special forces was the CIA who Congress outlawed from initiating assassinations after the revelations of the Frank Church hearings in 1975. For more on CIA incompetence see Secrets in an Open Society.

A more minor enabling player in these books is the FBI with their proclivities to entrap innocent victims in their notorious sting operations. Two US citizen victims of drone assassinations were driven by previous FBI sting operations, Imam Anwar Awlaki was killed in September 2011 and Buffalo citizen Ahmed Hijazi (Kamal Derwish) was killed in November 2002 along with the alleged mastermind of the USS Cole attack, Abu Ali al Harithi. Awlaki was arrested twice in San Diego when FBI prostitute undercover agents approached him unsolicited. Hijazi was accused of being one of the Buffalo NY “Lackawanna Six” after his assassination. The FBI stings were instrumental in encouraging both men to leave their US homes for Yemen where they were assassinated. For more on FBI methods see Paranoid Ideologues.

The central theme of both books is how American policy in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, and elsewhere has actually led to an increase in American insecurity and how policy makers refused to see how their policies were counterproductive. In each case, America either invaded directly to destroy an existing regime, or had proxies (Christian Ethiopians invading Islamic Somalia) destroy the existing regime or undermined the regimes by totally disregarding the country’s sovereignty (Yemen and Pakistan). America always chose the wrong people to form new regimes and these US backed regimes always led to an increased presence of enemies of the US in the countries. For example, al Shabab, a Taliban like group in Somalia, has gone from a nonentity to a major force controlling more and more of Somalia. Unless American soldiers stay in Afghanistan, the Taliban will likely retake control of the country. Our good ally Pakistan likely welcomes this outcome. This universally disastrous foreign policy has cost hundreds of thousands of innocent lives and trillions of US taxpayer dollars. Enemies of the US have multiplied many fold. Yet none of these enemies pose an existential threat to the US, unlike the Soviet Union during the cold war. The disastrous policy of “war on terror” and “the world is a battlefield” is designed to continue forever.

Stanley McChrystal with Obama

CR authorized a secret JSOC facility camp in Iraq, NAMA under McChrystal, where JSOC personnel both captured and “interrogated” prisoners. NAMA was far worse than Abu Ghraib yet Americans were never told about it and its abuses. Tortured prisoners will say whatever the torturers want to hear, in this case WMD and al Queda. That the confessions were untrue didn’t matter to true ideologues CR. When a major insurgency erupted, CR kept insisting it was just a few “dead enders” from the Hussein Baathist era. De-Baathification had created hundreds of thousands of unemployed, trained soldiers, with unlimited weapons. There were plenty of groups willing to exploit these soldiers for their own purposes. A Jordanian terrorist claiming to be associated with al Queda, and working in Iraq, Zarqawi, started chopping off heads, giving CR “evidence” that Hussein had harbored terrorists. The evidence was that Zarqawi had traveled to Iraq for medical treatment once prior to the American invasion. Hussein probably never heard of Zarqawi.

Obama and Brennen Terror Tuesdays

Obama, upon taking office and to everyone’s surprise, kept W’s security team of Petraeus, McChrystal, McRaven, Gates, and Brennen. Early in Obama’s administration, Somali pirates mistakenly boarded an American flagship. They quickly realized their mistake and attempted to escape, taking the captain hostage. A battleship was ordered to the scene. Obama was informed that the planet’s best snipers (the JSOC ninjas) were only 45 minutes away from the battleship. Obama ordered them to the scene and when they reported they had clear shots at the pirates, Obama gave the order to kill. Three shots, three dead Somali pirates. Obama loved it and invited the ninjas involved (members of Navy Seal Team 6) to the White House. Thus was born the era of Obama as assassin in Chief.

Who snatched Leon Panetta’s Body?

Obama had appointed trusted ally Leon Panetta to head the CIA and under Obama the JSOC and CIA were to form a closer working relationship in their “targeted killing” program. This program has been expanded from the W era and has been largely successful in assassinating people on the kill lists although with countless innocent victims. Obama and Panetta announced the closing of the black sites (secret prisons), the end of torture interrogations, and the end of renditions, and then secretly continued all three.

The books recount discussions about the best way to kill a target, with an M16 or a drone strike. The drone strike is seen as more antiseptic but more difficult to confirm the kill. Occasionally, CIA operatives have been sent to strike sites to collect DNA samples and other evidence, but the strikes make such a mess that identification is difficult. Maybe the Ninjas should bring back the head after a kill. The reader is reminded of scenes from the movie “GoodFellas” and discussions among its psychotic characters. Kill or capture? If you capture you need a prison and you are expected to interrogate. Do you hold indefinitely or are you forced to try the “detainee“? Better to just kill the target and be done with it.

Obama condemns US citizen to death without due process >
Anwar’s 16 year old son Abdulrahman also killed by US drone

In the case of Anwar Awlaki, the intelligence community seems to have concluded that his speeches and blogs were protected free speech and they never got evidence, despite Obama’s false statements, that Awlaki was associated with al Queda or ever assisted any terrorist. This conclusion also included analysis of emails between Awlaki and Nidal Hasan the American soldier that killed 13 at Fort Hood Texas. Awlaki posted a blog after the killings supporting Hasan’s actions which may have been the breaking point for Obama. Awlaki was killed simply to silence him. Nothing more. two weeks later a US drone strike “accidentally” killed Awlaki’s son Abdulrahman. Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs comment: “Well I would suggest´╗┐ that he should have a more responsible father.” Unbelievable.

Petraeus sells Obama on Afghan “surge”

When McChrystal was put in charge of the Afghanistan “surge” other military commanders expected the worst and got it. McChrystal reproduced his Iraq operation on steroids. JSOC operators multiplied, black ops prisons like NAMA were created, and targeted killings skyrocketed. Like Iraq, there were virtually no al Queda operating inside Afghanistan. The targets this time were mid level Taliban but the ninjas couldn’t even tell the tribes apart, so the killing of innocents and allies multiplied. Hatred of Americans and sympathy if not support for the Taliban increased. One mistaken raid killed Daoud, an American trained regional head of intelligence, and members of his family. Realizing their mistake, the JSOC team refused to call medical assistance and starting digging their bullets out of the victims body while some were still alive. They died. The team was only able to recover only 17 of the 21 rounds fired in the raid. A dogged British journalist, Jerome Starkey, exposed the coverup and witnessed a scene where a fatigue wearing soldier with the name tag McRaven enacts a ritualistic sheep sacrifice in front of the family by way of apology. Starkey didn’t even know who McRaven was at the time. Another example of foreign policy gone terribly wrong.

Raymond Davis contractor with license to kill

Secret Wars is organized chronologically, jumping from Iraq to Afghanistan to Yemen to Somalia with Awlaki’s story threaded throughout. Toward the end, we finally get to Pakistan where things get really strange. Remember that the CIA and Pakistan’s ISI worked closely through the 1980′s to support the Afghan Mujahedin (see Ghost Wars) in their fight against the Soviet occupation and that Pakistan is a nuclear power. In January 2011 American Raymond Davis killed two Pakistanis at a busy intersection in Lahore. Davis’ rented Honda Civic was carrying enough arsenal to hold off a small army in addition to GPS, satellite communications, night vision equipment, multiple ids and cell phones, ATM cards, makeup and disguises and other trade craft. He would have made James Bond envious. The killed Pakistanis were ISI operatives who were following Davis and he shot them both through the windshield as only a trained assassin would have been able to do. He was in possession of sensitive photos of secret Pakistani military facilities including nuclear storage facilities. His cell phones showed he had made calls to both Tehrik-e-Taliban and Lahkar-e-Jhangvi Pakistani terror groups. Who was Davis working for? Was it the CIA, JSOC or someone we haven’t heard of? People at his obvious level of experience have level after level of cover stor. He was released after admission that he worked for the CIA but the reality is probably deeper. What was he doing at the secret military sites? It seems that the US government has secret plans to secure (i.e. steal) Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in the event of a coup or other instability inside Pakistan. How wild is that? Why was he calling Pakistani terror groups?

Davis called for backup, calmly photographed the two Pakistani’s he killed, and fled the scene in his Honda. A backup Land Cruiser with false license plates rushed to assist Davis but ran over a motorcycle killing its driver. The Land Cruiser fled but Davis’ Honda was stopped by police two miles from the murders. ISI sent special forces to guard his prison cell and prevent a JSOC style rescue. Had Davis been put with the general prison population he would probably have had his throat slit. The backup team returned to the CIA-JSOC safe house, destroyed all their documents and equipment, and fled to the US Consulate where they were evacuated from the country before Pakistani officials could question them. They have not been identified.

The CIA had followed a courier to Osama bin Laden’s safe house five months prior to the Davis incident and were awaiting confirmation that Osama was there and assassination plans were readied when the Davis incident happened. The US needed to get Davis out of Pakistan before they could initiate the assassination of bin Laden. Thus the negotiations with Pakistan and the ISI took on an urgency it would not have otherwise had. Then the wife of one of the ISI murder victims committed suicide leaving a video statement blaming the US. Davis’s handlers apparently hid his true job from the white house and state department leading both to make embarrassing and false claims about Davis’s job. Afraid that Davis might start talking and needing to proceed with bin Laden’s assassination, top US military officials including Admiral Mullen and Petraeus met in Oman with their Pakistani counterparts in the military and ISI to hash out a solution. A very unusual Sharia court proceeding presented the families of the victims with $2.3 million and Davis was whisked out of the country on a CIA rendition plane.

William McRaven Mr. Cool

Six weeks later Osama bin Laden was assassinated in Abbottabad Pakistan. For bin Laden’s murder, the JSOC ninjas under CIA direction shot and killed bin Laden, brought the entire body to a ship, and buried it at sea. It was not deemed necessary to share confirmation with the American people. Before the mission the team discussed not shooting bin Laden in the head since the reason for sending a team on a dangerous mission 150 miles inside sovereign Pakistan to a house a mile away from a military academy was to confirm the kill.

Matt Bissonnette Seal Team 6 Member

The first team member to encounter a tall man in the house shot him three times in the head. The next team member shot the body multiple times in the chest. Matt Bissonnette’s job was to collect DNA samples (they had DNA from bin Laden’s sister) and when he cleaned off the face he was surprised how young the man was and that his beard was completely black. Bissonnette had surely seen every photo and video of bin Laden in existence yet he didn’t recognize the man in person. Bissonnette remembers thinking at the time that the American people don’t need to see this (the messed up face and head). Even if this is the reason photos were not released there is no security reason why the DNA test results should not have released to the public. Guns were found in the house but none were loaded. Anyone there could have been captured without a fight but the mission was assassination. Four men and one woman were killed in the raid. Others, including children, were injured. Immediately after the raid Brennan said that the team had been in a firefight (false) and that bin Laden had used women as a shield (false). The Obama administration said just trust us then lied about so many aspects of the mission that Bissonnette felt compelled to write his own account No Easy Day. He would not have been privy to the DNA test results. We should trust them that the DNA test results were a match?

Michael Furlong Michele Ballarin

The Way of the Knife includes a couple of characters (for comic relief?). Michael Furlong was an overweight long time government and military person who spoke in fast government-military speak that seemed to bedazzle whoever he met. He ran an operation where spyware was hidden in a cell phone game with information gathered and stored in an illegal database in the Czech Republic. Furlong showed up in Prague during sensitive negotiations over deploying a US missile defense system in the Czech Republic and US government officials had him thrown out the the country.
Michele Ballarin was a wealthy West Virginia Republican socialite who raised Lippizaner horses. She somehow inserted herself into Somali pirate ransom negotiations and pirates on one seized ship raised a sign asking specifically for her. She proposed setting up a food program for refugees in Somalia where she would collect intelligence about everyone who came to get aid that she could feed to US intelligence. The program was not approved.

Blackwater’s Eric Prince appears in both books with activities no less bizarre but certainly not comic. Prince is drawn to unsavory characters around the world like a magnet. He outfitted his own small ship with an incredible arsenal, helicopter, and small speed boats, and offered to escort ships through the Somali pirate area of operations for $200,000 a trip. This was his sanest venture. He lives in Abu Dhabi to be close to the action and avoid taxes.

The Steel Factory

Monday, January 30th, 2012

Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, Ezra F. Vogel, 2011

Three Stampers

A thorough (800 pages) account of the life and impact of Deng on the modernization of China. Deng’s history including his years in France, where he first met Zhou Enlai and Ho Chi Min, and Russia, his roles in the war against Japan and the Civil War against the Guomindang and the early years of the Communist rule of China up to the Cultural Revolution are covered in only 45 pages. The tale really begins in 1967, when Deng, age 63, is placed under house arrest. In 1969 with the plane crash that killed Lin Biao and the first Soviet incursions into Outer Mongolia, Mao has Deng sent to Jiangi province where he was given light factory work in an army controlled facility. He would not be recalled to Beijing until 1974, when Zhou Enlai had again fallen from Mao’s grace and was dying of cancer and Mao himself was fast failing from Lou Gerhig’s disease. After some success in restoring order to the railroads and key provinces, Deng again is attacked by Mao starting in 1975. Zhou Enlai dies in early 1976 and Mao attempts a quiet ceremony only to see Beijing and Tiananmen overrun with spontaneous mourners. On April 5 1976 a massive demonstration is held in Tiananmen Square for Zhou and Deng. Jiang Qing (Mao’s separated wife) and the Gang of Four (so named by Mao) set out to quell the demonstration and continue the criticism of Deng. Hua Guofeng is named Mao’s successor and Mao dies on September 9, 1976. Hua immediately moves to arrest the Gang of Four who are tried and executed for their role in the Cultural Revolution and the purge following the April 5 demonstration. Deng immediately consolidates his power in the military and foreign affairs and quietly sets out to remove Hua. Deng never assumes the titles of leadership and never creates a cult of personality around himself.

The “Four Modernizations” to develop agriculture, industry, national defense, science and technology was formalized by Zhou Enlai in 1963 and underpinned the policies of Deng after 1977. Mao had believed in the need for continuous revolution which resulted in the chaos and tragedies that were the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Mao engaged in perpetual war against the landlords and capitalists. But Mao also attacked the intellectuals and educated Chinese and Deng led in the purges of the Hundred Flowers campaign starting in 1957. By 1977, Deng had come to realize that China would need an educated class to promote education, research, and modernization. Chinese universities had been largely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, were occupied by the army, and were operating at a secondary school level. Deng moved to normalize relations with the US with a primary goal to send large numbers of Chinese students to US universities. He reformed the Universities to qualify students for admission to foreign Universities. Deng explained that working with your mind was the same as working with your hands and all work should be honored. Asked if Deng wasn’t worried that the students would stay abroad, Deng responded that it didn’t matter because they were still Chinese and would help China wherever they chose to live and work. As it turned out sizable numbers of students did return to China where they played key roles in China’s transformation.

Shenzhen old and new

Deng was famous for his memorable quotes “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.” and “When you open the door, flies will get in.” to explain his openness to economic and market experimentation and willingness to tolerate some corruption if economic progress results. The usual focus is on China’s development of the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) led by Shenzhen near Hong Kong which grew from a sleepy village of 20,000 to a metropolis of several million with tall modern buildings and all infrastructure needed to support modern manufacturing. But equally important to the transformation of China were allowing certain regions to move from collective farming to household farming resulting in huge increases in food production and the promotion of small enterprises at the collective and household level to produce and market products wanted and needed by the people Household farming and small scale enterprise came to produce half of China’s GNP.

Particularly interesting were Vogel’s reasons why China developed so differently from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. He points out the China had a long history as a culturally unified area dominated by the Han people. The entire country had a single written language and Mandarin was long the official government spoken language. Mao simplified the written language and made sure all Chinese were taught Mandarin and simplified Chinese writing. Second, China has a long coastline and many deep water seaports unlike the other Communist countries. This advantage makes it far easier to import technology and export products. Transportation in the interior of China was limited but the coastal cities were not held back by this limitation. Third, China had the examples of Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, (the dragons) and Japan to study and emulate. Finally, many millions of Chinese were living overseas throughout the developed world. China found these overseas Chinese very ready to assist in the modernization process. Deng was advised by Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Hong Kong shipping magnate Y K Pao and several Chinese American Nobel laureates.

old steel and new

The largest foreign investor in China was Japan. Vogel points out that the eye opening trips made by Chinese leaders to Japan and Western countries in the late 1970s resembled the Iwakura Mission of 1871 in Meiji Japan. Like Japan, these trips served to show the Chinese how far behind they were. This was brought home most tellingly when Deng visited an automated continuous production steel plant in Japan whose production was almost the equivalent of all China’s antique plants combined. With Japan’s technical, financial, and management assistance, China today produces more steel than the US and Japan combined. Deng was equally interested in how Japan had converted from a war production economy during the war to a peacetime, consumer economy so quickly after the war ended.

Deng began his rule with two bold moves. He authorized a lightning strike military invasion of Vietnam to demonstrate that China could threaten Hanoi anytime it chose. Troops took control of all northern county capitals then withdrew to China in only 28 days. Deng calculated that this surprise move would stall Vietnam’s aggressions in Laos and Cambodia and to warn the Soviets to stay away from the southern region, would secure China for at least a decade, giving him time and space to implement his economic reforms. Second, Deng moved immediately to normalize relations with the US so that the Soviets would be detained from aggression, Chinese students could begin study in US universities to close the training gap, and the US could be encouraged to invest in China. Central in Deng’s mind was US education of China’s best students.

Vogel spends a lot of time discussing the Tiananmen Square student uprising of 1989. Deng started his leadership by normalizing relations with the US and wanted to bookmark his regime with normalized relations with the Soviet Union. Gorbachev visited Beijing in late May 1989 to finalize the normalization agreement. Hu Yaobang, as General Secretary was a reformer promoting freedom and democracy much beloved by Chinese university students. Hu was removed from office and criticized for his failure to deal with student demonstrations in 1986. When he died in 1989, the students came to Tiananmen Square to honor Hu much like the earlier mourning demonstrations in honor of Zhou. Hu replaced Zhou in the hearts of the students. Deng desperately wanted to clear the square by the time Gorbachev arrived. He wrote a tough editorial which only strengthened the resolve of the demonstrators. Days before Gorbachev and massive worldwide media arrived in Beijing the students started a hunger strike. Western press which came to cover the Gorbachev visit quickly turned their focus to the demonstrators. Deng tried to clear the square with unarmed soldiers but failed. He waited for Gorbachev and the Western press to leave then sent in heavily armed troops with orders to clear the square at any cost. Estimates of student deaths vary from 400 to several thousand. Zhao Ziyang was removed from power for disagreeing with Deng’s handling of the demonstration.

Factions remained under Deng with the reformers on the right and the conservatives led by Chen Yun on the left. The early success of creating a market economy in China resulted in double digit GNP growth for a number of years in succession. By the late 1980′s the massive growth led to inflation anticipated to be 30% in 1989. Inflation was particularly hard on the mass of Chinese living with fixed incomes. Chen and the conservatives blamed the Tiananmen demonstrations on this inflation and moved too aggressively to contain it bringing the Chinese economy to a hard landing with growth under 4%. The conservatives remained in control until 1992 until Deng, then 87 years old initiated one final movement during his winter vacation in the south. During visits in Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Guangzhou, and Shanghai, Deng spoke out colorfully and strongly for liberalization and expansion of his socialist market economy. Hong Kong media quickly picked up on Deng’s tour and began broadcasting coverage of his talked via television which was now widely available in the regions near Hong Kong. Popular support for his views exploded and his hand picked successor Jiang Zemin quickly changed sides from the Chen led conservatives to the Deng led reformers. In his last movement, Deng thus set the stage for the resumption of the fast growth that continues to this day. From this time forward, inflation fighting measure assured that the economy would have a soft landing and rapid growth continue.

the Steel Factory melts the Iron Lady

The British handover of Hong Kong took place in 1997 just months after Deng’s death. Preparations for the handover occupied a central part of Deng’s attention during his rule. He knew that Hong Kong would be invaluable as a financial and trade center as it had since the revolution in 1949. Deng consistency pressed the one country – two systems approach to dealing with Hong Kong. He continued to develop personal relationships with key Hong Kong businessmen and made sure that the right people from China were appointed to Hong Kong and that Hong Kong leaders were developed to be able to take over when the British administrators left. One of Vogel’s better stories is the visit of Margaret Thatcher (the Iron Lady) to Deng (the Steel Factory) in September 1982. Thatcher was riding high after her victory in the Falken Islands and intended to tell Deng that Britain had decided to keep administering Hong Kong indefinitely. Deng changed her mind for once and all. China would administer Hong Kong and warned Britain not to attempt to drain assets from Hong Kong prior to the handover.

China’s efforts to reassure the residents of Hong Kong received a big setback after the Tiananmen Square repressions and individual residents continued to leave Hong Kong for Canada and other destinations taking as much wealth with them as possible. For all the drama, the handover went smoothly and Hong Kong continues its role today as financial center and trading center for China and Hong Kong’s residents continue to prosper.

Modern Shanghai Bund

What about Shanghai, China’s largest manufacturing center when Deng took over? Shanghai was initially excluded from the SEZ creations because of its size and complexity and because Deng was worried that the SEZs would be seen as a recreation of the colonial past with the foreign concessions. Shanghai was allowed to modernize later and Deng’s successor Jiang Zemin made his reputation in Shanghai.

It is difficult for those in China an abroad who became adults after Deng stepped down to realize the enormity of the problems Deng faced as he began this journey; a country closed to fundamentally new ways of thinking; deep rifts between those who had been attacked during the Cultural Revolution and their attackers; proud military leaders who were resistant to downsizing and budget reductions; public animosity toward imperialists and foreign capitalists; an entrenched conservative socialist structure in both the countryside and the cities; a reluctance by urban residence to accept over 200 million migrants from the countryside; and dissension as some people continued to live in poverty while others became rich…It is doubtful that anyone else had the combination of authority, depth and breadth of experience, strategic sense, assurance, personal relationships, and political judgement needed to manage China’s transformation with comparable success.

Four Generations

Another reason to study this work is for the insights it gives into the inner workings of the political system, the campaigns, the training and promotion of leaders, the complex intrigues between ruling cliques. Deng watched events unfold as labor unions struck in Poland, Nicolai Ceausescu was overthrown in Romania, and as Gorbachev set out to reform the communist party only to see the collapse of the entire Soviet system. Deng was determined to keep a strong single communist party with adherence to the thought of Lenin, Marx, and Mao (with Deng as the high priest of interpretation). At the same time he believed that leaders should experiment, make mistakes, admit their mistakes, correct their mistakes, and experiment again. He carefully avoided the Kruschev mistake of critizing Stalin, finding quotes from Mao that he was correct 70% of time, in other words Mao made mistakes such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, for which Mao accepted responsibility (he did?), corrected, and moved on to new experiments.

Deng believed that training leaders, giving them freedom to experiment, judging the results (did the cat catch mice? were the flies tolerable?), correcting mistakes, including changing leaders if necessary is the key role of the communist party leadership. Deng believed that reform and economic transformation could only be accomplished by the selection of the proper leadership at the national and regional levels. Deng and his cohort were the second and last generation to have experienced the wars as leaders. Deng was determined to force his cohort of old revolutionaries to retire with him and to pass the reigns to a much younger generation of leaders who grew up in very different conditions. We have now seem several and are about to see the next changing of the guard as the next generation assumes power in a peaceful transfer. All this is the rightful legacy of Deng.

Scamming the President

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

Confidence Men, Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President, Ron Suskind 2011

The title is intended as a play on the word “confidence”, used to describe the primary motivations of Tim Geithner, Ben Bernanke and Larry Summers in dealing with the financial crisis as in “the proper role of government is to restore confidence in the financial institutions”. The second intended meaning of Suskind is how this small group of men manipulated, conned, scammed the President into following their policies and not the policies actually desired if not ordered by the President. Pretty strong stuff.

The book is a long rambling story telling of events from the long run for President, through the financial meltdown and the first years of the Presidency with an emphasis on the financial crisis but with excursions into health care reform and the auto bailout. It is so rambling that sometimes Suskind gets his facts mixed up as when he says health care insurers have revenues totaling $12 billion of the $2.5 trillion industry (page 193). Insurers profits alone exceed $12 billion! He sometimes loses the narrative as when he implies that Obama has already decided on an insurance mandate at the first health care summit where he gave the last word to insurance lobbyist Karen Ignagni. Then later in the book when health care reform again comes up for discussion it seems Obama has not decided on a mandate. And then Obama campaigned promising a public option. But here the problem may not be with the storyteller but with the man himself and this reader suggests this book is best seen as an imperfect study of the enigma that is our President.

After all, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out how these key players would act given their outsized egos, their personalities, and their history. Summers is a bully with highly toned rhetorical debating skills who is not embarrassed to dominate a discussion on subjects he knows nothing about. As Treasury Secretary in 1999 he was the moving force behind the Clinton administration dismantling of Glass-Steagall to allow Citibank to merge with Travelers Insurance bring Solomon and Smith Barney, two wall street investment banks into the Citi fold. He also made sure that the derivatives market would remain unregulated. These acts make Summers next only to Fed Chair Greenspan the most culpable enablers of the financial meltdown. It is equally revealing that Summers existed totally in the shadow of Bob Rubin so long as Rubin was Treasury Secretary for Clinton. Bullies know their place in the kicking order.

Geithner is a lifelong public servant who spend time in Washington and New York. At the New York Fed he was the shoe shine boy of wall street and the bankers who called him the “boy scout” behind his back. He and Bernanke together with former Goldman CEO ($750 million compensation) Hank Paulson engineered the bank rescue plan and further consolidation of finance as Wachovia, Washington Mutual, Bear Sterns, and Merill Lynch were swallowed up by the big banks. Geithner is not a public servant, he is a servant of Wall Street. It also turns out he is a tax cheat, failing to pay the IRS $34,000. Either he is cheating or he is incompetent, great choice! Incidentally, it seems Geithner’s father at the Ford foundation met Obama’s mother at least once in Indonesia. From Wikipedia;

From January 1981 to November 1984, Dunham (Barack’s mom) was the program officer for women and employment in the Ford Foundation’s Southeast Asia regional office in Jakarta. While at the Ford Foundation, she developed a model of microfinance which is now the standard in Indonesia, a country that is a world leader in micro-credit systems. Peter Geithner, father of Tim Geithner (who later became U.S. Secretary of the Treasury in her son’s administration), was head of the foundation’s Asia grant-making at that time.

Bernanke Lavishes free $14 Trillion on Wall Street

Ben Bernanke was touted as an expert on the Great Depression when he became Chairman of the Fed at the beginning of the meltdown. He was at all the merger and bailout meetings but we only now are learning the extent to which the Fed was secretly lending money to troubled institutions throughout the period. Recent Freedom of Information material acquired by Bloomberg is finally starting to shed some light on the extent of the exposure of the public in Fed lending to the banksters. The Fed has secretly loaned a peak of $1.2 Trillion to Wall Street and the banks including many European banks. Yes, public money has been loaned to European firms. That $1.2 trillion is the same total as all delinquent and foreclosed US home loans. Suskind put the figure at $3.5 trillion from 2007 to 2009. This brings the total Fed issuance to $14 trillion. If that money is used to purchase Treasuries at 3% this free money would yield the banks about $350 billion. So much for lessons on the Great Depression.

But the problem is not these characters who would be expected to act as they have. The important question is how did the President come to appoint them to positions where they could do more damage. Even Bernanke could have been replaced in 2009 when his first term ended.

President elect with Paul Volcker and Austan Goolsbee

Suskind characterized this question as Team A verses Team B. Team A, led by venerable Paul Volcker, was with Obama from the beginning of his candidacy and in-so-far as Obama’s superior knowledge of the workings and problems in the financial sector secured him election, it is thanks to Team A education and advice. On team A were Volcker, Austan Goolsbee, Robert Wolf (CEO of UBS and eyewitness of the meltdown meetings), Robert Reich, Stanley O’Neill, and William Donaldson. All expected significant rolls in the new administration, with Volcker as Treasury Secretary.

Obama Picks Team B

So how and why did Obama go with team B led by Geithner and Summers? We don’t have a clue. Byron Dorgan, Senator from North Dakota put it most eloquently; “You’ve picked the wrong people…I don’t understand how you could do this. You’ve picked the wrong people.” We voters all felt the same way. Where’s our change?


Daschle Master of Congress Left Behind

But Obama was not done yet. He needed to choose between longtime master of the senate, the low key, soft spoken, extremely tough Tom Daschle, and the brash, volatile, inexperienced, caustic, egotistical fourth ranked representative Rahm Emmanuel for his Chief of Staff, doorkeeper to the President. Tough choice right? We’ll go with the much hated in Congress Rahm. What is this man doing to himself? And even worse, Obama spent so much political capital getting Geithner appointed despite his personal tax problems that Obama loses entirely the services of Dacshle, who has a minor problem in failing to report the use of a lobbyist provide car while in Washington. Dacshle could have been confirmed before Geithner but not after. So Obama trades Dacshle for Geithner.

During this transition period, Obama is reading up on FDR who in his first hundred day in office passed the Emergency banking and Glass-Steagall acts, establishes the FDIC to insure deposits, created the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Tennessee Valley Authority. He passed the Farm Credit, Truth in Securities, and the National Recovery Acts, and others. The basis of the entire New Deal were in place within 100 days of FDR assuming office. While detractors point out that full recovery did not happen until WWII started, there was never doubt in Americans minds that the country was back on track early in 1933. Obama assumed office with no plans whatever; none; nada! So much for the legacy of FDR. And he appoints a team guaranteed to continue undermining the FDR legacy.

Two million people showed up in the freezing cold to watch the Obama inauguration and hope. Elizabeth Warren first met Obama at a campaign event in Chicago. Afterward Obama talked about being inside the bubble; “I haven’t been living in this bubble very long. I’m in it now, but not that long ago I had a real life.”

“And she (Warren) would wonder, replaying that last conversation in her head, if it was really about the bubble or the character of the man inside the bubble, and if in Chicago she had seem what she hoped to see, rather than what was really there.”

There are a lot of us wondering this same thing now.
Elizabeth Warren will not head Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

See Warren As TARP Oversight Chair Take on Geithner

You can’t run a policy based on a misdirection or a fiction. I don’t know what the president is thinking. I don’t see the president. He meets with bankers. He doesn’t meet with me. But if he’s involved in this at all, he’s got to know that his angry words at Wall Street, and their recklessness and dangerous incentives in compensation, about how they do their business in ways utterly divorced from what’s actually good for the economy – that he can’t just say that sort of thing and then just dump money in their laps and be credible. Tim and Larry’s whole plan is just like Argentina’s in the 1980s. There was this giant hole marked “Banks” and the government just dumped money in that hole, as much as they had, while they lied about it. That’s what Larry thinks, that the U.S. is Argentina.”

Elizabeth Warren, who was the driving force in establishing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to which Obama failed to make its first head and which was crippled at its inception by placing it in the Federal Reserve – toothless. This leads Suskind to another startling theme that links Obama, Summers, Emmanuel, and Geithner, their seeming inability to deal with women professional as equals. Suskind suggests that Summers was fired from the Presidency of Harvard not only because he suggested that women were genetically unsuited to science, but because during his tenure only four women were promoted at Harvard. Hillary, as a world recognized force of nature is the sole exception, viewed not as a woman, but as a power base. Suskind suggests that Christina Romer was given a “safe” ie. non threatening to Geithner and Summers appointment in a nod to gender equality.

Rubin Tanks Citigroup – Obama Wants to Dismantle Citi

Citigroup, under the leadership of Bob Rubin (himself now toxic in Washington) loaded up with toxic CDOs late in the game, was insolvent and ready to go under. Sheila Bair of FDIC tells the White House she is ready do an FDIC resolution of the bank, something the FDIC has been doing successfully since 1933 without a single mishap. Geithner panics because, of course, Citi is “too big to fail”, but Bair points out that at heart Citi is a bank, unlike the Wall Street firms they were dealing with in the past so of course the FDIC knows exactly how to resolve it.

The White House has been discussing the coming implosion from the start and Obama has centered on a “Japan or Sweden” theme. Japan repeatedly bailed out its financial institutions without insisting they clean up their toxic assets leading to the “lost decade” when Japan stopped growing economically. Sweden nationalized its banks, cleaned out the toxic assets, restructured and then closely moved to privatize the banks as they regained their feet. Sweden quickly recovered economically. Obama made it absolutely clear he favored Sweden.

Shiela Bair Ready to Resolve Citibank

When Bair announced her intention, Obama held a meeting at which he indicated his desire to restructure the entire banking industry. Having made his wishes known he left the meeting to have dinner with his family (dinner is more important than restructuring the financial system!) As soon as Obama leaves, Rahm says restructuring the entire industry is a non-starter because Congress will never approve the funds necessary. Note that he waits for Obama to leave before scuttling the entire plan. Obama comes back and Summers tells him they can’t afford the restructure the entire industry. Obama says, OK, we’ll start with Citi and when we show that works we can ask Congress for money for the rest of the industry. New decision, new plan. By this time Summers and Romer are in favor of the restructuring.

Geithner is terrified of restructuring Citi and has Treasury working feverishly on bank stress tests as an alternative to determine the real state of health of the industry. Industry insiders roll their eyes because the big unknown of course are the extent of toxic CDOs which are usually kept off the books to deceive investors and regulators and will not be uncovered by stress tests. Geithner simply wants to buy time and is determined to pump money to shore up confidence. He never seriously considered a resolution of citibank.

Bizarrly, Shiela Bair, government’s only expert on the resolving of banks is never consulted. Summers and Romer seem to think the ball is in Geithner’s hands but unknown to them, Geithner uses the excuse that the FDIC is too leak prone to discuss the possible restructuring of Citi. Geithner is, of course, doing nothing to plan for Citi’s restructure. When Obama asks how the plan is coming Geithner only talks about stress tests. Geithner is directly defying the express wishes and orders of his President. Nothing happens and Citi is never restructured. Bair is never brought into the loop. Welcome to Japan (or are we now Argentina) – so long Sweden. Geithner keeps his job as Treasury Secretary after monumental insubordination.

After this, Summers felt free to “re-litigate” every decision Obama thought he had made. Obama finds himself facing the same decisions over and over. More insubordination.

What is happening here is what seems increasingly to happen to Presidents, both Republican and Democratic, they are being managed by the staff that is supposed to support and implement their wishes. Only the President is elected by the people and only he has the mandate to govern. But in the modern Presidency including Clinton, W, and Obama, the staffs have taken the central policy development role and have their own constituencies. This has been true of three Treasury Secretaries to three Presidents; Rubin under Clinton, Paulson under W, and Geithner under Obama. Who do these guys work for and who do they serve? Certainly not their Presidents. The isolation is increased with a Summers who controls what the President sees and who he hears and with Rahm who arbitrarily dictates what is legislatively possible. Generally nothing is said to be possible. A President who can assemble two million citizens on the Washington Mall can pass any legislation he wants to, at least for a while. And it was Rahm’s job to figure out how to pass the President’s wishes into law, not to tell what can’t be done. Dacshle would have figured it out. So who is Obama and why has he allowed all this to happen – not happen.

Volcker reflects on Obama;

I think Obama understands everything intellectually, very easily, near as I can see. What we don’t know is whether he has the courage to follow through. He understands it, but does he feel it in the belly? I don’t know.

Volcker was vehemently oppossed to Gethner’s stress test idea because it puts the government into the position of choosing winners and losers. Finally fed up, Volcker agreed to appear before Barney Frank’s committee to give his opinion and Volcker pulled no punches. Glass-Steagall needed to be restored;

The point is not only the substantial risks inherent in capital market activities. There are deep seated, almost unmanageable, conflicts of interest with normal banking relationships – individuals, businesses, investment management clients, seeking credit, underwriting, and unbiased advisory services. I also think we have learned enough about the challenges and distractions for management posed by the risks and complexities of highly diversified activities.

Summers opined to many senior staff members in widely quoted terms;

We’re home alone. There’s no adult in charge. Clinton would never have allowed these mistakes.

Then there was the treatment of the many women on the staff. As Anita Dunn recalled;

This place would be in court for a hostile workplace…Because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women.

Obama, Summers, Geithner, and Emmanuel are all implicated in creating this hostile workplace.

Early in his term Obama brings a group of Congressional leaders of both parties to the White House to discuss the budget. Out of nowhere, Obama blurts out to the Republicans present “I’m prepared to give you tort reform. What will you give me?” What does tort reform have to do with the budget? This leads one participant to think of the movie Dave, where an actor look alike is brought into the White House to impersonate a secretly comatose President.

Obama assembled a team, led by M&A banker Steven Rattner, to deal with the auto industry crisis. So it is no surprise the team approached the auto industry totally from the perspective of a financial acquisition where 17 out of 20 firms end up being liquidated. The team called saving Chrysler rather than liquidating it and collaterally destroying the suppliers and dealers as a side effort of liquidation “a close call”. No one in the room was looking out for the worker, the industry retiree, the jobs.

For the next 200 pages, Obama and the white house virtually disappear – in a book about the presidency!

The banks and Wall Street are back to normal behavior with over $35 trillion in outstanding credit default swaps by 2011. The repo (daily refinancing of off the books securities) is fully up and running. Profits are at record levels as are compensations to the top executives. Then the Goldman scandal revealed by the SEC that hedge fund manager John Paulson was creating derivatives designed to fail that Goldman could then sell to suckers, like German Banks while they purchased CDS insurance against these same CDOs, reigniting the public furor at wall street’s unethical and illegal behavior. Goldman made $3.7 billion in 2007 from Paulson’s hand crafted weapons of mass destruction. This was on top of the previous disclosure that large amounts of TARP funds had flowed through AIG directly to Goldman as 100% payment for CDS insurance claims. No haircut for Goldman!

Larry Fink $9 trillion toxic asset cover guy

Meanwhile Treasury handed off $9 trillion in toxic troubled mortgage assets to Blackrock to manage. $5.5 trillion came from Freddie and Fannie and the rest came largely from the Lehman bankrupcty and from the AIG CDs insurance payouts. Blackrock was paid $300 million a year to manage these “assets”. Suskind doesn’t pursue this but the reader thinks this means that the government and the Obama administration are the direct owners of a heck of a lot of mortgages. How many houses are still occupied? Are restructured loans being offered? Are these loans being foreclosed on? What is the state of the paperwork on these loans? Are they fragments or tiers of CDOs or can whole mortgages be reconstructed? It seems there is a potential here to do a lot of good for people and the economy. It looks like Geithner and Treasury may be sitting on this toxic stuff just like Wall Street and banks so no one has to recognize the losses entailed.

The Dodd-Frank bank reform bill passes which promises to do nothing for bank reform. Even the Volcker rule has been neutered. Deriratives, those weapons of mass destruction, may be moved to separate subsidiaries but no clearinghouse and no exchange required. Obama, who was MIA during its development publicly praises the bill.

Gary Gensler, Scourge of Wall Street

Suskind spends some time on Gary Gensler, formerely of Goldman and now chair of the obscure regulatory agency Commodities Futures Trading Commission CFTC. As a condition of his senate approval Gensler had to promise Maria Cantwell (and Bernie Sanders) that he would push for derivatives to be traded through an exchange and with a formal clearinghouse.

He meets Voightman who ran Lehman’s mortgage finance arm and asks him when he knew the mortgages were in trouble. Voightman said that by August 2005 10% of mortgagees were failing to make their first payment. But he said Goldman saw mortgage underwriting standards deteriorate in 2004 and demand for CDOs skyrocketed. Goldman quickly realized someone was needed to take the short side or “downside” to assure the liquidity of these CDOs. “Goldman did that as fast as was humanly possible, and then some.” Goldman anticipated the financial collapse in 2004!

Gensler studlied Morgan Stanley’s financials and discovers they have an $80 billion derivatives book of which $55 billion is uncovered – un-collateralized; roughly 60%. Wall Street hasn’t changed its behavior at all. Digging further he came across figures from the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision whose conclusions supported that Morgan was not alone. Goldman, JP Morgan, insurance companies, and others have an over the counter derivatives book of $400 trillion of which more than half is unsecured or un-collaterized – there is nothing in reserve when these unregulated derivatives blow up. The next financial collapse is primed and ready.

Gensler finds a former colleague is working for Senator Blanche Lincoln and works with them to develop a bill to require regulation of derivatives. Her bill passes committee. The bill fails, Lincoln attempts to attach it to other bills but it ultimately disappears. Gensler is called the most dangerous man in Washington by Wall Street, he receives death threats, one threatener is arrested, and Gensler is assigned a security detail. Wall Street plays hardball to protect their sacred compensation which largely depends on unregulated derivatives. Gensler’s initiatives missed Dodd-Frank but Gensler is still out there trying to reign in those derivatives. Obama is MIA.

Bernanke’s first term ends in 2009 and Geithner recommends that Obama retain him. Summers, who thought he had an understanding with Obama that he would be the next Fed Chairman, is furious. He acts out like a little kid, throwing tantrums, and demanding new perks if he is to stay. He fortunately decides to leave. At the end we go through the complete staff reorganization at the White House. Only Geithner remains, but alongside Bernanke, that is all Wall Street needs. Imagine Geithner’s payoff once he leaves office in five years – unless the next financial meltdown has already begun.

Don’t Prosecute Wall Street or Bank Executives

Missing from the book are some pretty significant details. Attorney General Eric Holder is mentioned once as a member of the committee to select a VP. Occupy Wall Street (and Michael Moore) wonder why there have been no arrests or prosecutions of Walls Street “banksters” for their frauds leading to the financial meltdown. The executives themselves maintain that they broke no laws, but their attorneys, as reported by Suskind, are actually advising them that their activities “would be hard to prosecute” – slightly different than not breaking any laws. The book also reports someone suggesting that a few hundred “perp” walks would do wonders to reform the behavior on Wall Street. The answer has to be that Obama or his administration has instructed Holder that there will be no prosecutions of Wall Street or the bankers, under the cover of “confidence”. This would be consistent with Summer’s and Geithner’s “do no harm” wimpy non approach to financial reform. (Just paper over the problem with money!) This is a major and key oversight for Suskind. Criminal prosecutions would have changed the entire dynamic for this wimpiest of administrations.

The SEC should have also figured in this book even if only to call attention to their lack of action. Finally (after the book is published) the SEC has announced fraud prosecution against top executives in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which are both under control of the government. There is unlikely to be criminal charges coming out of this SEC action. To see how regulators are supposed to act in a financial crisis see William Black.

The environment doesn’t even get a mention in this book it is so far down the list of Obama’s priorities. We know he embraces “drill baby drill” and was only momentary delayed by the BP Gulf disaster from approving new drilling leases (including some to BP). We know he overrode the EPA to soften air control standards. We know he is delaying action of international climate change carbon emissions commitments. We know he delayed a decision on the oil sands pipeline as a political expediency to get him through the next election before he has to make a choice. The Republicans are attempting to force him into a decision before the election knowing any decision will anger some of Obama’s constituents. Wimp-in-chief.

We know Obama is secretly rebuilding the nuclear arsenal at enormous public expense. We know that Obama ordered that there would be no prosecutions of the W officials for war crimes. “Let’s Look Forward. Move on.” Obama promised to close Guantanamo, then failed to do so. Obama promised to end torture, then tortures American citizen Bradley Manning in America. Not satisfied with torture, both Obama and Biden publicly declare Manning guilty of leaking the secrets, declare him a terrorist, leaving a fair trial for Manning impossible anywhere.

Adding to this outrage, Obama becomes “Assassin-in-Chief” ordering Osama Bin Laden killed illegally by having the military violate the territory of Pakistan to shoot, extract, and then dispose of the body at sea. What happened to due process, the rule of international law, the example of Nuremberg and Japan after WWII. He then expands on this assassin persona by killing American Citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. He also assassinated al-Awlaki’s innocent 16 year old American son. Who is this Harvard trained law professor guy?

Poppies in the Great Game

Monday, August 31st, 2009

Seeds of Terror, Gretchen Peters, 2009

poppy poppyharvest
Poppy Harvest

This book can usefully be read as a companion volume to Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars. Where Coll’s sterile account of U.S. CIA involvement in Afghanistan focuses on the role of the CIA in pushing funds and arms matched by equal funding from Saudi Arabian intelligence through Pakistan’s ISI to clandestinely support the Mujahideen extremists, this book tells in a confused and disorganized fashion the same tale with a central focus on the role of opium and heroin smuggling in the same time frame.

In this account, drugs were a major source of funding for the Mujahideen throughout the period of anti Soviet insurgency and gave the fighters sources of revenue and arms independent of CIA or ISI influence. The Soviets found themselves fighting extreme levels of troop drug addiction similar to the U.S. problem with drugs in Vietnam. After the Soviet withdrawal in the late 1980′s, drugs became the major source of revenue and weapons for the fighting factions within Afghanistan.

drugstages
Stages of Opium Production – Mujahideen

In Peter’s account, some American officials were aware of the extent and impact of drug trafficking but were completely ignored in the maniacal focus on embarrassing the Soviet Union with their own version of Vietnam. Beyond this single goal all other factors were conveniently ignored. It probably helped that very little of Afghanistan’s heroin found its way to the U.S. even though it certainly was central to the drug problem of Great Britain and other NATO countries. For a look at the impact of this drug traffic on Britain see the BBC miniseries Traffik. This ignoring the drug problem continued after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union, throughout the tribal battle for control of Afghanistan after the Soviet period, through the rise of the Taliban, the overthrow of the Taliban, and up to today. In particular, the U.S. military has consistently ignored the drug problem, highlighted by Donald Rumsfeld’s pronouncement that “We (U.S. military) don’t do drugs.” Even today there is virtually no cooperation between drug enforcement efforts and military efforts in the country.

drugroutes
A few Drug Smuggling Routes

Peter’s conclusions are pretty stark and shocking and it is a shame the book isn’t better written . Poppies and drug trafficking account for 30% of Afghanistan’s GDP. If you add the value of other illegal smuggling activity (electronics, appliances, vehicles, weapons) illegal activity probably accounts for more than half of Afghanistan’s economy. The corruption of the Karzai government, local officials, and police start from this dominant fact. Afghanistan is awash in illegal money, weapons, and goods. Bribery and corruption must follow from this fact.

walihamidkarzai
Drug Dealer Wali and brother Hamid Karzai

The American media have given the public the impression that the Taliban and al Qaeda are opposed to drugs and both have made pronouncements that good Muslims should never use them. This impression was enhanced when the Taliban ordered that Poppies not be planted in the year 2000. What the media never told us was that al Quada and the Taliban had stockpiled huge quantities of opium and heroin, the equivalent of about three years of world wide supply, because a glut in the market had driven prices to an all time low. By forbidding the growing of poppies, the Taliban created an instant shortage or perception of a shortage and prices skyrocketed. (Sounds a little like OPEC and oil).

Peters asks how a group of illiterate thugs (Taliban) could organize and run a global market in drug production and distribution. She thinks they can’t, which means that the Taliban has always been backed by drug kingpins who used to Taliban for security and enforcement in return for huge quantities of money and arms and other needed items like Toyota Land Cruisers and Hiluxes. Peter’s has no doubt that both the Taliban and al Qaeda have relied heavily on the drug trade to supply themselves even though the leadership may not have engaged directly in drug deals.

Today the media is continuing to do its number on us by referring to all insurgents in Afghanistan as Taliban. The insurgents themselves seems willing to go along with this designation even though few are connected in any way with the original Mullah Omar group which is still hiding somewhere in the tribal region of Pakistan. We are not facing an organized and integrated Taliban group where it is possible to sit down and negotiate with the leadership. The insurgency is very fragmented. The thought that dollars can be used to buy a change of loyalty of the insurgents is maybe possible but the U.S. would need to outbid the drug lords and it could prove very costly and may not result in any long term changes or improved stability.

When the U.S. pulled back from Afghanistan to focus on Iraq, they turned the fighting over to the NATO coalition. A U.S. coordinator complains that he spends more time in Europe than in Afghanistan. Britain has been given responsibility for anti drug efforts but these efforts are almost never coordinated with the military which makes raids and arrests next to impossible. The U.S. DEA has people in Afghanistan today but they get no more cooperation than the British. Arrests and seizures are few and ineffective and do not impact total drug exports. When military commanders accidentally stumble on a drug cache or convoy or find a major drug lord there is no guarantee the kingpin will be detained or the drugs destroyed. Such is the lack of coordination with the military

Neighboring Iran and Pakistan as well as the former Soviet Stans and Russia are experiencing huge increases in drug addiction and drug crime as a result of the environment in Afghanistan.

drugseizure
Rare Drug Seizure at Sea

Afghanistan remains a medieval place where modern financial networks don’t exist. Much of the drug trade is barter and where cash transfers take place they are done through the tradition hawala networks which are based on a honor system where actual money is not moved or even recorded in a way that can be traced. Attempts to regulate these networks are currently ineffective.

What happened to those stinger missiles that Coll reported the U.S. supplied to shoot down Soviet helicopters and planes and that the CIA tried to buy back after the Soviet withdrawal? Some were sold by drug runners back to the CIA for enormous sums of money and other were and may still be used to protect drug smuggling convoys making their way to the Iran border.

Corruption extends equally to Pakistan and Iran as well as other middle eastern drug destinations or transit routes. Attacking the drug problem would have to be at the core of any efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and it is clear the problem can’t be attacked without a coordinated regional effort. It is not clear the Obama administration even understands the extent of the problem or has prevailed on the dominant U.S. military to force it to address the problem, cooperating with law enforcement and drug enforcement groups and with intelligence gathering groups. It’s not clear to Peters that the lessons of 9/11 have been learned, much less the lessons of Vietnam. (Remember that U.S. military planes were used to smuggle drugs to the U.S. during Vietnam see biopic – American Gangster starring Denzel Washington.)

Peters makes a good case that drugs are the central funding source behind Islamic extremist terrorists and that the networks cannot be controlled as long as Afghanistan’s drug supply continues. Unfortunately it still seems politically unpopular for politicians to discuss the problem and meanwhile the military continues its resistance to recognition of the centrality of the problem. The book blurb asks Obama to read this but by all indications he hasn’t.

Economics Debunked

Monday, December 29th, 2008

The Predator State, James K. Galbraith, 2008

James Galbraith’s father John Kenneth Galbraith (The New Industrial State 1967), in 2006 from his deathbed, suggested that James write this book. It was published in the spring of 2008 before the total meltdown of the financial system threw the economy into a downward spiral whose bottom we have yet to see.

The Keynsian Johns

Both Galbraiths are Keynesian economists, those forgotten guys. The basic tenet of Keynesian economics is that only aggressive government policy can stabilize the economy which is otherwise subject to massive swings, creating enormous problems such as run away inflation, failing financial institutions, failing corporations, and massive unemployment. But, hey, today everyone in Washington is a Keynesian, right? After forty years of Chicago school dominance, Keynes is back.

James Galbraith outlines a history of the world economy starting with the Bretton Wood Conventions following WWII which established the U.S. economy and the gold backed dollar as the standard on which all foreign currencies would be based. The breakdown of this system, started when Nixon went off the gold standard and allowed the dollar to float, provides the backdrop to a consideration of the major economic theories of the conservatives advanced to fill the void left by the abandonment of Bretton Wood; monetarism, supply side economics (with trickle down), balanced budgets, and free trade. Even the Democrats became advocates of balanced budgets and free trade.

One by one Galbraith exposes these theories to be false with no empirical evidence. Unlike Kline’s Shock Doctrine, which portrays Milton Friedman and his colleges as co conspirators in a massive transfer of wealth, Galbraith, who remains friends with some conservative economists, views them as benignly misdirected, living in their ivory towers where they consistently ignore the facts.

While the Presidents from Reagan through Clinton felt the need to incorporate conservative economists into their administrations to give a veneer of academic respectability, George W Bush felt no such need and simply appointed cronies who poured the public coffers directly into the pockets of lobbying client firms without any resort to economic theoretic justification.

Today there is open discussion of the role of Alan Greenspan in the current crisis. There is no corresponding discussion or remembrance of the role of his predecessor, Paul Volcker, who held interest rates at rates as high as 20%, ruining the economies in much of Africa, Asia, and Latin America who had borrowed heavily from the Chicago school dominated IMF who insisted on shock therapy changes as a condition of their loans. Unsurprisingly the struggling countries were unable to pay off the loans at the new extortionary levels. This led to a collapsed overseas markets for American products and to greatly strengthening the dollar, permanently weakening steel and auto production in the US as it was unable to compete with cheaper products from Germany and Japan. Galbraith points out that inflation is another thing economists are unable to understand or control. It seems to appear and disappear out of nowhere.

Galbraith attributes the fall of the Soviet Union largely to their inability of pay off their massive loans in an environment of super high interest. The rise of China and India as an economic powers was made possible precisely because they did not borrow heavily from the IMF or adopt shock therapy.

What actually ended inflation in 1984 was the incoming flood of foreign investments looking for high returns from the interest rates and the stability of the American government. It had nothing to do with monetarism, the supposed justification for the extortionary interest rates. Yet, worryingly, this same Volcker has been named to the new Obama economic team, presumably because of his “expertise” in fighting inflation. Lord, save us from the experts.

One concept, that of the free economy, Galbraith points out is without any meaning at all except perhaps to very large multinational corporations, yet all politicians who hope to be successful must pay lip service to it just as they must attend church even though they may be atheists. In the real world, free markets are so rare, they are almost non existent.

Galbraith points out when the Japanese real estate and financial bubble burst throwing that country into a decade long stagnation:

This dimmed the luster of the Japanese model for American observers, even as they largely overlooked the obvious point: there is evidently no development path that an unfettered, liberated, free capital asset market cannot screw up.

On the relationship between full employment (deemed by conservative economists to be inflationary and therefore bad) and wage inequality, Galbraith demonstrates, as do all Keynesians, that full employment, such as is enjoyed in Denmark, actually leads to greater wage equality, not less, and there is no evidence that full employment is inflationary.

Getting into the book’s central theme, he then makes some original observations along the lines of the Black Swan phenomenon. The big dominant corporations such as ATT and IBM lost their technological leadership to small startup entrepreneurs who were funded by new venture capital and equity raising wall street firms. The founders of these firms in Silicon Valley, Seattle, Boston, and other technology hubs overnight became extremely wealthy together with their supporting financial institutions.

Traditional companies became dependent on technology from outside rather than developing it internally and the CEOs of these traditional companies became extremely envious of the great wealth of these new technology usurpers. The CEOs formed closed groups, gained control of boards of directors, and demanded and received compensation and bonuses to close the gap with their entrepreneurial counterparts at levels unsustainable by the companies they ran. In a word, these CEOs became predators, preying on the companies they supposedly were leading (down the drain).

Unmanned Predator RQ-1

This group did not come from within their companies but were outsiders with little technical knowledge of the company. Their primary justification for their compensation was that they had been CEO of other firms where they were paid outrageously. As a new and small elite, they became predators, feeding off and destroying stockholder value and even whole companies as they competed with other CEOs to maximize their own compensation. They measured their own success and worth, not by the success of the companies they were failing to lead, but by their accumulation of personal wealth. Where did this loot go? Not into the productive economy, but into private mansions and conspicuous consumption.

Galbraith attributes the decline of the modern American industrial system studied by his father to:

These four phenomenon — the rise of trade, the reassertion of financial power (wall street and venture capital), the outsourcing of technological development, and the ascendancy of an oligarchy in the executive class — … had dramatic effects on American industrial corporations, on the way they are run, and on their broadly declining position in the world.

On the need for and desirability of regulation:

…Regulation helps the competitive position of relatively advanced businesses, by reducing or even eliminating the competition from backward enterprises that offset higher production posts with less safe factories and products and will lower wage bills.

Unfortunately for America the advanced “better” businesses of today are often offshore like the Japanese automakers.

Galbraith considers the rise of predator executives not to be a part of the normal process of growing wealth disparity, but a separate and more pernicious phenomenon. Not satisfied to raid and bankrupt their firms, this group set out to control and dominate the government and its apparatus as well. They are not normal conservatives, desiring a smaller government; they want a strong government, led by an imperial executive branch, in position turn a blind eye to regulation, to privatize as many government functions as possible with extortionary contracts, but also to be ready to bail them out when their destructive practices bankrupt their companies. By controlling government, they can minimize governments regulatory oversight that may interfere with their predatory practices while assuring that the government is ready with contracts and bailouts when needed. Hence the phenomena of Cheney turning the executive, and Newt Gingrich, Tom Delay, and Jack Abramoff turning the congress into the arms of the new predator state.

Predator State

…it is fair to say that the very concept of a public purpose is alien to, and denied by the leaders and operatives of this coalition.

Modern corporate decision-making structures exist … to permit senior executives to do what they want… This is the culture that Richard Cheney brought back into government… The operational result is a government by cliques operating in secret, indeed with their very membership unknown outside…We have instead (of checks and balances) a government public relations apparatus whose purpose is not to persuade but to deflect, deter, and frustrate inquiry into the operation of the government…It fills the courts with functionaries who are prepared to act as enablers for the executive branch.

But if the government is predatory, then it too will fail in every substantial way (just like the corporations). Government will not cope with global warming, or with Hurricane Katrina, or the occupation of Iraq, or Election Day chaos, or avian influenza, or nuclear weapons…Failure on that scale is not due to incompetence. It is intended. Inside government no one cares. The attention of the people in charge is focused on other goals (acquiring massive personal wealth).

So, can the predator state be turned around under an Obama Presidency to tackle current problems like global warming, broken health care, a financial meltdown taking more and more companies with it? Galbraith hopes so but recognizes how broken government is, how far down the predator path we have gone.

Galbraith ends with discussions of the need for reestablished regulation and the re institution of utilities where free markets do not exist (like California and Texas electric power), the need for massive new levels of government planning and investment to rebuild infrastructure, provide public services like education and health care, and to tackle really tough problems like CO2 emissions and global warming. He pleads for the reestablishment of standards for safety, working conditions, minimum and maximum income and the environment. We also clearly need new standards for financial markets and energy and global trade. Galbraith remains confident that America will be able to pay for all these reforms and recover its global leadership position as an innovative, moral, economic power.

This book is a compact 200 pages. It would have been helpful to provide more detail and facts to debunk the conservative’s economic theories, but maybe Galbraith thought too much detail would discourage readers.

New Hampshire Redo

Thursday, February 7th, 2008

What the Media isn’t telling you but you need to know

Dennis Kucinich kucinich.jpeg Albert Howard howard.jpeg

To revisit the New Hampshire Digression – How many of you know there is a New Hampshire vote recount taking place right now? Do a google search and try to find out what is going on. You would think there are nothing but wacko conspiracy theorist postings so complete is the absence of coverage. Dennis Kucinich’s presidential campaign requested and has paid for a Democratic recount. Republican candidate Albert Howard also requested a recount of Republican ballots. What are they finding in New Hampshire four weeks after the election?

State officials were required to audit each voting machine during the election but most failed to do so.

Many Optical ballots were not counted – 550 in one town alone.

Some ballots were not read because voters used the wrong markers.

Memory cards which store the counts from each optical reader for transmission to the central tally machine are missing.

Optical paper ballots themselves, needed for the recount, are missing.

Problems with Diebold voting machines were reported in 21 towns on election night. Details are unknown.

The state is withholding “uncounted” and “spoiled” ballots from the recount against Kucinich’s express request that they be included.

Republican and Democratic ballots are all mixed up slowing down the recount.

Many towns have not send their paper ballots for recounting more than four weeks after the election.

The chain of custody of ballots is so flawed there is no way to verify that the ballots being recounted by hand are the same as those actually counted by the machines in the election. It is easy to imagine a bunch of folk in a back room busily marking ballots today trying to generate a set to match those machine counts.

Counters are slow, leading to speculation that they intentionally exhausted the money provided before finishing.

Counting was suspended in the Democratic recount when the initial funding ran out in the first week of the recount after the first two towns showed up 4% to 10% errors (In favor of Hillary).

This somehow all seems worthy of coverage and something all citizens need to and are entitled to know.
Rich Holt has introduced a national bill required paper ballots but as New Hampshire is showing very clearly, paper ballots alone will not fix the problems in voting.

New Hampshire Digression

Friday, January 11th, 2008

Voters in New Hampshire mysteriously changed their minds about who to vote for in the last 24 hours before the Tuesday primary, defying nine polls showing a double digit lead for Barack Obama; but (even more mysteriously) only in those precincts using Diebold optical scan voting machines. See The Brad Blog. And Check the Votes. The pundits were working overtime to explain the unexplainable – Hillary showed emotion, more women showed up, Barack’s young voters stayed home, they showed up but voted for (Edwards or McCain take your pick), etc. all without any evidence. When Karl Rove of all people shows up to explain Hillary’s miraculous comeback, (in the Wall Street Journal, no less) red flags go up all over the place. Is Karl, master of character assassination and wedge issues politics, now secretly working for the Clinton campaign? Or are the Republicans simply trying to ensure that divisive Hillary is the Democratic nominee?

Diebold AccuVote Optical scanner highlighting notorious Memory Card accuvote.jpg

Here is a sample blog entry from Black Box Voting (Bev Harris’s group) following the New Hampshire Primary

Sunday the New York Times Magazine featured an article by Clive Thompson Can You Count on Voting Machines? The article paints a rather benign view of the machines and their vendors, does not even mention Bev Harris and her group’s work, and worse makes no mention of the many successful lawsuits against the machines. Thompson claims there is no evidence anywhere of fraud or tampering, flying in the face of massive evidence to the contrary and mounting numbers of mysterious outcomes. The article concludes that optically scanned, voter marked ballots are the best available system but neglects to point out that manual recounts of optical ballots are almost never done, making them as vulnerable to tampering as any other form of electronic counting.

And so, inevitably, controversy rages about the New Hampshire primary outcome. Kucinich is asking for a Recount. Even the Republicans are getting into the act. Yet here, finally, is an ideal opportunity for voting machine advocates to put the system to the test. Diebold, who are complaining that the machines give them terrible publicity, should sponsor a manual (no machines involved) recount of those optical ballots for both the Republican and Democratic primaries. So few people voted in this small state that the time and cost of a manual recount shouldn’t be prohibitive. Also the stakes are still low enough (this is only the second primary) to keep outside pressures to a minimum. If a manual recount confirms the machine counts, it would go some ways to reassuring a very nervous public that something is not seriously amiss with these machines.