All posts by Peter Van Buren

Mueller’s Investigation is Missing One Thing: A Crime

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A baby born when Robert Mueller started his investigation would be talking by now. But would she have anything to say?

We last looked at what Mueller had publicly—and what he didn’t have—some 10 months ago, and I remained skeptical that the Trump campaign had in any way colluded with Russia. It’s worth another look now, but first let’s give away the ending (spoiler alert!): there is still no real evidence of, well, much of anything significant about Russiagate. One thing that is clear is that the investigation seems to be ending. Mueller’s office has reportedly even told various defense lawyers that it is “tying up loose ends.” The moment to wrap things up is politically right as well: the Democrats will soon take control of the House; time to hand this all off to them.

Ten months ago the big news was Paul Manafort flipped; that seems to have turned out to be mostly a bust, as we know now he lied like a rug to the Feds and cooperated with the Trump defense team as some sort of mole inside Mueller’s investigation (a heavily-redacted memo about Manafort’s lies, released by Mueller on Friday, adds no significant new details to the Russiagate narrative.)

George Papadopoulos has already been in and out of jail—all of two weeks— for his sideshow role. Michael Avenatti is now a woman beater who is just figuring out he’s washed up. Stormy Daniels owes Trump over $300,000 in fees after losing to him in court. There still is no pee tape. And if you don’t recall how unimportant Carter Page and Richard Gates turned out to be (or even who they are), well, there is your assessment of all the hysterical commentary that accompanied them a few headlines ago.

The big reveal of the Michael Flynn sentencing memo on Tuesday was that he will likely do no prison time. Everything of substance in the memo was redacted, so there is little insight available. If you insist on speculation, try this: it’s hard to believe that something really big and bad happened such that Flynn knew about it but still wasn’t worth punishing for it, and now, a year after he started cooperating with the government, still nobody has heard anything about whatever the big deal is. So chances are the redactions focus on foreign lobbying in the U.S.

This week’s Key to Everything is Michael Cohen, the guy who lied out of self-interest for Trump until last week when we learned he is also willing to lie, er, testify against Trump out of self-interest. If you take his most recent statements at face value, the sum is the failed negotiations to build a Trump hotel in Moscow, which went on a few months longer than was originally stated, and that we all knew about already.

Fair use excerpt. Read the full article here.

Julian Assange Will Die Alongside Your 1st Amendment Rights

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Accidentally disclosed information confirms the US is actively planning to prosecute Julian Assange. What happens to Assange will almost certainly change what can be lawfully published in our democracy. This threat to our freedoms is being largely ignored because Assange, once a progressive journalist, is now regarded as a hero-turned-zero. At stake? The ability of all journalists to inform the public of things the government specifically wants to withhold

A clerical error revealed the Justice Department secretly has filed criminal charges against Assange. Court papers in what appears to be an unrelated case used cut-and-pasted language from documents prepared previously against Assange.

Though the new information makes clear prosecution is planned if Assange can be delivered to American custody, no further details are available. Assange is under scrutiny at a minimum for unauthorized possession of classified material going back to at least 2010, when Wikileaks burst on to the international stage with evidence of American war crimes in Iraq, and exposed years worth of classified State Department diplomatic cables.

More recently, Assange has been accused of trying to manipulate the 2016 US presidential election with his release of emails from the Democratic National Committee server. The emails, some believe, came to Wikileaks via hackers working for the Russian government (Assange denies this) and are deeply tied to the claims of collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow otherwise known as “Russiagate.” Less publicized in the media but of critical concern inside the US government is Wikileaks’ publication of the so-called Vault 7 materials, CIA hacking and malware tools, which revealed American technical intelligence skills and methods. Assange has hinted on at least one occasion he may have “Vault 8” materials as yet unreleased.

When Assange is prosecuted, on trial with him will be a key question concerning the First Amendment: do journalists actually enjoy special protection against national security charges? Can they publish classified documents because the national interest creates a 1A shield to do so? Or only when the government allows it?

Under the current “rules,” you get caught handing me a SECRET document, you go to jail. Meanwhile, I publish to millions, including any Russian intelligence officers with Internet access, and end up on Kimmel next to Taylor Swift. I whisper “I’m a freedom fighter, you know” into Taylor’s moist ear and she sighs.

Ask Edward Snowden, in dark exile in Moscow. Talk to Chelsea Manning, who spent years in Leavenworth while journalists for the New York Times and the Washington Post won accolades for the stories they wrote based on the documents she leaked. See how many stories today cite sources and reports, almost all of which are based on leaked classified information, stuff the government doesn’t want published yet accepts as part of the way journalism and the 1A work.

Yet despite widespread practice, there is no law rendering journalists immune from the same national security charges their sources go to jail for violating. There is no explicit protection against espionage charges written between the lines of the First Amendment. It is all based on at best an unspoken agreement to not prosecute journalists for revealing classified data, and it appears it is about to be thrown away to nail Julian Assange.

In 1971 Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, a classified history of the Vietnam War, to the New York Times. Reporters at the Times feared they would go to jail under the Espionage Act but published anyway, even as the Washington Post wimped out. The Nixon administration quickly found a court to order the Times to cease publication after initial excerpts were printed, the first time in US history a federal judge censored a newspaper.

The Supreme Court then handed down New York Times Company v. United States, a victory for the First Amendment which allowed the Papers to be published, but an opinion which sidestepped the larger question about whether the 1A protects journalists publishing classified in favor of simply affirming the government couldn’t censor the news in advance. The Court left the door open for the government to prosecute both the leakers (by dismissing Ellsberg’s leaker case on technical grounds and ignoring his public interest defense) and the journalists who publish them (by focusing narrowly on prior restraint.) The Justices avoided saying the 1A offered a specific shield to journalists in matters of national security.

The Pentagon Papers case has governed everything about national security journalism from that day until the moment the US government finally gets Julian Assange into an American courtroom.

On the source side, the Obama administration was especially virulent in prosecuting leakers. Trump continued the policy by throwing the book at Reality Winner. Both administrations made clear there was nothing to distinguish between taking classified documents to inform the public and taking them say with the intent to hand over secrets to the Chinese. On the other side of the equation, the journalists, the government (including, to date, Trump despite all the noise about attacking the press) has chosen not to prosecute journalists for publishing what leakers hand over to them.


The closest step toward throwing a journalist in jail over classified information came in 2014, when Obama Attorney General Eric Holder permitted subpoenaing New York Times reporter James Risen regarding a former CIA employee. After much legal muscle tussle, the Supreme Court turned down Risen’s appeal, siding with the government in a confrontation between a national security prosecution and infringement of press freedom. The Supreme Court refused to consider whether the First Amendment includes an unwritten “reporter’s privilege” in the free press clause. The Court instead upheld existing decisions finding the Constitution does not give journalists special protections. The door was w-a-y open to throwing Risen in jail.

But instead of becoming the first president to jail a journalist for what he published, Obama punted. Happy with the decision affirming they could have prosecuted Risen, with no explanation prosecutors asked the US District Court to simply leave Risen alone. Risen’s alleged source went to jail instead for leaking classified. The unspoken rules stayed intact.

Unspoken rules are useful — they can be read to mean one thing when dealing with the chummy MSM who understands where the unspoken lines are even if they need the occasional brush back pitch like with Risen, and another when the desire is to deep-six a trouble-maker like Assange. Julian Assange poked the Deep State — he exposed the military as war criminals in Iraq (ironically in part for gunning down two Reuters journalists), the State Department as hypocrites, laid bare the CIA’s global hacking games in the Vault 7 disclosures, and showed everyone the Democratic primaries were rigged. None of those stories would have come to light under the MSM alone. And if Assange does know something about Russiagate (did he meet with Manafort?!?), what better place to silence him than a SuperMax.

The government is likely to cite the clear precedent from the Obama years it damn well can prosecute journalists for revealing classified information, and keep the established media happy by offering enough thin exceptions (natsec journalism groupies have already started making lists) to appear to isolate Assange’s crucifixion from setting broad precedent. Say, start with the fact that he wasn’t covered by the 1A outside the US, that his sources were Russian hackers seeking to harm the US instead of misguided chaps like Ellsberg and Manning. Assange had no national interest in mind, no sincere desire to inform the public. He, a foreigner no less, wanted to influence the 2016 election, maybe in collusion!


Shamefully, those stuck in journalism’s cheap seats are unlikely to side with Assange, even though they wrote stories off what he published on Wikileaks. They’ll drift along with the government’s nod and wink this is all a one-off against Julian, and those who play by the government’s unspoken rules are still safe.

They’ll self-righteously proclaim Assange going to jail is a sad but unfortunately necessary thing, claiming he just took things too far dealing with the Russkies, ignoring while the door to prosecute a journalist for national security has always been carefully left open by administrations dating back to Nixon, it is only under their watch that it may be slammed on the hands of one of their own whom they refuse to see, now, for their own misguided self-preservation, as a journalist. The Daily Beast’s take on all this, for example, is headlined a TMZ-esque “Unkempt, Heavily Bearded Julian Assange No Longer Has Embassy Cat For Company.”

They will miss where previous cases avoided delineating the precise balancing point between the government’s need to protect information, the right to expose information, and the media’s right to publish it, an Assange prosecution will indeed create a new precedents, weapons for the future for clever prosecutors. It will be one of those turning points journalists someday working under new press restrictions will cite when remembering the good old days.

Reprinted with permission from WeMeantWell.com.

Progress or Failure in North Korea?

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In this same week the New York Times asserted North Korea is engaged in a “great deception” over its nuclear forces, South Korean unification minister Cho Myoung Gyon is visiting the United States with plans to meet Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a Member of Congress, and to address several forums. 

Will he speak of diplomatic failings and deceptions? Or will he talk about how to make progress as the two allies seek a balance between economic rewards and North Korean denuclearization?

It’s likely the latter. Cho may compare the situation to one year ago, when the Council of Foreign Relations put the chances of nuclear war at 50%. Since then: the Olympics attended by North and South, the Trump-Kim-Moon summit, multiple intra-Korea summits, and positive steps economically and symbolically. The reality is we are watching complex diplomacy unfold in real time, meaning things can appear to move slowly. But with the Americans, the minister is likely share a perspective that with the movie played at double-speed a different picture emerges.

The question is not so much if progress is occurring, but if, driven more by the Koreas than Washington, it isn’t moving fast enough. Jeong Se Hyun, former unification minister, reminds it is “unprecedented” for Seoul’s unification ministry to deal directly with the State Department. The reason? “In this situation where the United States is putting the brakes on United States-North Korea relations, there is a need for the unification ministry to directly persuade the State Department,” Jeong said.

A year ago it was reported the United States was imminently preparing to attack North Korea. Instead of holocaust, what followed was a summit in Singapore. Officials from North and South now meet regularly, Secretary Pompeo has been to Pyongyang, and there is a new American Ambassador (a career Navy officer whose father fought in the Korean War) and Deputy Chief of Mission (a professional diplomat with nearly a decade of Korean experience) in Seoul. The United States has a Special Representative for North Korea. Diplomatic infrastructure is being built.

Yet the headlines this week raise concern over a “great deception” by the North Koreans, evidenced by a think tank “discovering” North Korean missile facilities already long known to United States intelligence. As dramatic as that sounds, South Korea’s presidential spokesperson put those “new” missile facilities into a more accurate perspective, saying “North Korea has never promised to shut down this missile base. It has never signed any agreement, any negotiation that makes shutting down missile bases mandatory… There is no agreement, no negotiation that makes it necessary for it to be declared.” All of this was to be expected; Kim Jong Un in his January 2018 New Year’s Day guidance stated North Korea would shift from open air testing to maintaining nuclear weapons in such facilities.

The larger story left in the shadows of such created-drama is the ongoing rush forward driven by the two Koreas themselves, the most likely subject of discussion this week between Minister Cho and Secretary Pompeo.

Since the Trump-Kim-Moon summit the two Koreas established pseudo-embassies just north of the Demilitarized Zone, where representatives have met more than 60 times. The offices have become clearinghouses for over a dozen joint economic initiatives, including a massive project in preparation for greater cross-border trade to link roads and railroads severed during the Korean War. North and South Korea have removed landmines and other weapons from the border and drawn back border guards. Kim offered to permanently dismantle two key ICBM facilities under the observation of outside experts, and to negotiate further on the permanent shut down of the nuclear facility at Yongbyon.

While Minister Cho and Secretary Pompeo will no doubt agree that’s not a bad start for the first five months since Singapore, of likely concern to the United States is South Korean President Moon Jae In’s belief economic progress is a necessary fore step to ultimate denuclearization. He almost certainly sent Cho to Washington seeking American concurrence to increase economic cooperation with the North, including asking for changes to sanctions now limiting some financial transactions. Moon himself lobbied Russia leader Vladimir Putin along the same lines, and will make a pitch to Vice President Pence on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations ASEAN Summit this week.

Moon seeks sanctions relief as negotiations move forward, no doubt holding little is accomplished without some give and take. “I believe the international community needs to provide assurances that North Korea has made the right choice to denuclearize and encourage North Korea to speed up the process,” he said this week in Paris. American domestic politics sees things flipped 180 degrees, with sanctions relief a thank-you gift delivered after the last nuke is carted away.

Despite the situation as described by pundits – a sneaky North Korea duping an uninformed American president – the reality appears much closer to a process now at a crossroads between two visions of a way forward. North and South Korea appear to want economic progress, paced with concessions by the North. Under criticism Trump is naive, the American side wants aggressive steps toward denuclearization first, with economic progress largely withheld instead of fed incrementally. How much the United States is willing to incentivize denuclearization is much more likely the subject Minister Cho and Secretary Pompeo will discuss then North Korean missile bunkers both have long known about.

Time matters. A new American president in 2020 will be unlikely to press the case in North Korea, receding back into the politically safer waters of previous decades’ policy of largely ignoring things. Washington is not alone in seeing strategy held hostage to domestic politics. In the South, progress with North Korea is widely supported, and Moon will see electoral challenges if he does not deliver results. Kim’s domestic situation is less clear, but he faces pressure for economic progress from his growing middle class while at the same time must tamp down the suspicions of his hard line supporters that he may give away too much too soon at too low a cost.

Minister Cho may remind his reluctant American interlocutors decades of sanctions have yielded only a nuclear North Korea. The nukes are part of a problem solved by a comprehensive solution that takes into account what the North is really at the table for: engagement with the world system and assurance of its own survival. That ultimate goal will require the North’s nuclear weapons to become unnecessary, as Pyongyang agrees internally to and is allowed externally to become so engaged with the global system it finds itself no longer in need of such a powerful deterrence. It can be done; the world has the broader road map of Deng Xiaoping and China to follow forward.

This isn’t faux optimism. This is diplomacy, chock-a-block with hard choices and twisty decisions, a push and pull between priorities. The underlying challenge for the three parties is not about media bleating, North cheating, and Trump tweeting, but finding the proper balance of economic incentives which match both strategic and domestic needs, in three national capitols. All that before time runs out.

Reprinted with permission from WeMeantWell.com.

Deception in North Korea? Nope, But a New Flavor of Neocon

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What is the state of diplomacy on the Korean peninsula? Are we again heading toward the lip of war, or is progress being made at an expected pace? Are there Asian Neocons fanning the flames for conflict in Pyongyang much as others did with Baghdad?

A year ago, in November 2017, John Brennan estimated the chance of a war with North Korea at 20 to 25 percent. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said the odds were 50/50. The New York Times claimed we were “slouching toward war” with the North, on a “collision course.” National security adviser HR McMaster said North Korea represented “the greatest immediate threat to the United States” and that the potential for war with the communist nation grew each day. The US lacked an ambassador in Seoul; Victor Cha was rejected by Trump because, according to “sources and reports,” he didn’t support a preemptive strike on Pyongyang. It was reported the US was “imminently preparing for an attack on North Korea,” driven in part by hawks like Mike Pompeo and John Bolton.

All that was wrong.

Cha, it appears, didn’t in fact support what Trump actually was planning: not a preemptive strike, but a summit meeting with Kim Jong Un, held some five months ago in Singapore following a first try at courtship aside the Seoul Olympics in January 2018. World leaders meeting to talk peace is historically seen as a good thing. Yet the American media consensus was a president they believe is roundly despised globally conveyed “legitimacy” on Kim Jong Un, no matter that his family has ruled North Korea for some seven decades, and his country already holds a seat at the United Nations. No shortage of experts from South Korea universities and American think tanks were found to support those claims.

The media generally ignored, in return for the US postponing a handful of military exercises (“concessions,” which were deeply criticized by an American media which has failed to note the US has actually resumed some exercises), the North unilaterally stopped ICBM testing (the missiles which might someday be able to reach the US) and nuclear detonations. It released American hostages, and took steps to close down two nuclear missile facilities. Kim Jong-un fired top military leaders who dissented over his approaches to South Korea and the United States.

Officials from North and South now meet regularly, and US diplomats engage with both sides on an ongoing basis; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been to Pyongyang. Numerous practical steps have been taken along the DMZ to reduce the chance of accidents. South Korea’s unification minister in charge of North Korea issues Cho Myoung-gyon will visit the United States this week, where he is expected to meet Pompeo. This is the first time in four years for South Korea’s unification minister to visit Washington. On the last visit, in 2014, then-Secretary of State John Kerry refused to meet with his predecessor in line with the Obama (and Bush) administrations’ policy of ignoring North Korea in hopes the problem would go away.

Yet the headlines this week in the New York Times and other major US outlets scream of a “great deception” by the North Koreans, evidenced by a hardline think tank — helmed in part by Victor Cha — “discovering” North Korean missile facilities already long known to US intelligence (Cha’s lo-rez commercial satellite photos are dated March, months before the Trump-Kim summit, so everyone who mattered already knew.) In a matter of a few paragraphs, Cha and the Times blow this “discovery” up to announce, without any evidence, “What everybody is worried about is that Trump is going to accept a bad deal — they give us a single test site and dismantle a few other things, and in return they get a peace agreement” that formally ends the Korean War. Mr. Trump, he said, “would then declare victory, say he got more than any other American president ever got, and the threat would still be there.”

What is the real state of diplomacy on the Korean peninsula? Are we again heading toward the lip of war?

Of course not. South Korea’s presidential spokesperson put those “new” missile facilities into the perspective Trump’s critics lack, saying “North Korea has never promised to shut down this missile base. It has never signed any agreement, any negotiation that makes shutting down missile bases mandatory… There is no agreement, no negotiation that makes it necessary for it to be declared.” In other words, there can be no deception where there was no agreement.

To call what the Times discovered a “deception” is deeply misleading. The Singapore declaration and the inter-Korean summit declarations of April 27 and September 19 this year do not commit Pyongyang to disclose the sites. What is new to the Times is actually old news; Kim Jong Un in his January 2018 New Year’s Day guidance stated North Korea would shift to the mass producing nuclear weapons in such facilities. “The nuclear weapons research sector and the rocket industry should mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles, the power and reliability of which have already been proved to the full, to give a spur to the efforts for deploying them for action,” Kim said. The Times in fact more or less acknowledged all this in September, before being surprised by it in November.

And the Times’ big scary takeaway, that the old/new facilities are in caves, confuses tactical concealment with some sort of nefarious political “deception.” Did they expect the missiles to be worked on in the parking lot outside Kim’s villa?

One issue only lightly touched by a western media obsessed with parsing tweets as their stab at journalism is the ongoing rush forward driven by the two Koreas themselves, what under any other media climate would be hailed as a huge series of successes but which falls in 2018 under the Trump Is Always Wrong Shadow. In a short time the two states established psuedo-embassies just north of the DMZ, where representatives from the two Koreas have met more than 60 times. The office has become a clearinghouse for over a dozen projects launched during the summit. There are plans for a massive bi-national project to link roads and railroads severed during the Korean War.

North and South Korea have begun removing landmines from the border, drawn back some troops, and most recently held a third leaders’ summit in September in Pyongyang where North Korean leader Kim offered to permanently dismantle two key ICBM facilities under the observation of outside experts. He also offered to negotiate further on the permanent shut down of the nuclear facility at Yongbyon. South Korean President Moon Jae-In, for his part, better than the US understands the future is ultimately about economics, not nukes. Moon seeks sanctions relief as negotiations move forward (little is ever accomplished without some give and take.) “I believe the international community needs to provide assurances that North Korea has made the right choice to denuclearize and encourage North Korea to speed up the process,” he said this week in Paris during a visit with French President Emmanuel Macron. If the western media is correct that Trump is being duped, played, deceived, and cheated by the North, what must they think about the faster pace set by the South? After all, a US miscalculation means we all switch from Samsung to Apple phones made in China, while South Korea risks being turned into a wasteland dotted only with signs for Nuka Cola.

Left off to the side is that it has been only five months since the historic summit in Singapore. Obama’s agreement with Iran, which did not even involve actual working nukes, took almost two years to conclude. Cold War negotiations with the Soviet Union ran across administrations, extending the broader process into decades of talks, and were aimed at goals much shorter than full denuclearization. Five months is barely enough time to grow a decent garden, never mind resolve multinational problems that reach back to 1945.

With North Korea, there is no history of trust, no basis of goodwill to build on. That all has to be created, built from scratch, as part of the heavy lifting of diplomacy. The ultimate goal — denuclearization — may or may not someday come to pass, but if it does it will be the result of years of more small steps forward than small steps back. Diplomacy is about moving the goalposts and embracing the long game, not playing chicken. It will require the North’s nuclear weapons to become unnecessary, as the North agrees to and is allowed to become so engaged with the global system that it finds itself no longer in need of such a powerful deterrence to attacks by its neighbors. Diplomacy requires one to at least understand the opponent’s goals and motivations, even if you don’t agree with them.

There exists an industry of sorts devoted to portraying North Korea as an eviler than evil empire, with Kim as a parody of the movie Dr. Evil. These hardliners, ensconced mostly in universities in South Korea and think tanks in the US, have been around since the Cold War to make sure the case for the militarization of South Korea and American support for various South Korean military dictators never lacked public advocates. They act as mouthpieces for North Korean defectors with horror stories, and are quick to seize on anything to amplify the threat. Older readers will remember similar mostly defunct “industries” set up to do the same over the actions of Cuba, China, and the Soviet Union once (though the Red Threat gang is trying to make a comeback over Bond villian wanna-be Putin.)

Victor Cha himself is a kind of one man gloom machine, writing regularly of the impossibility of denuclearization. His old articles focus fearfully on meetings canceled them (but since successfully concluded; fatalism ignores the future) he in fact represents a kind of Asian neocon, an industry dedicated to the impossibility of peace on the peninsula as long as the Kim dynasty remains in power. Cha’s home organization, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, for example, features multiple former Secretaries of Defense on its board and as trustees, and is well-funded by elements of the military industrial complex. Of the plan to link railroads across the DMZ, what any sane person would see as progress, the organization grumbled the “move is expected to increase friction with its traditional ally Washington over the pace of inter-Korean engagement.”

So shame on those hardline groups — let’s call them Asian Neocons, for they want regime change in the North in the same way as Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al, wanted it in the Middle East — and shame on the New York Times for morphing its Trump-is-always-wrong editorial policy into presenting something long-known to US intelligence as something new enough to declare deception has overtaken the diplomatic long game on the Korean Peninsula. As they did during the run up to the Iraq War, the Times is once again serving as a platform for those who cannot see or will not wait for a peaceful way forward.

Deception? The deception, it is clear, is all (again) on the side of the neocons. They seek to destroy any chance of lasting peace with unrealistic expectations and by announcing failure at goals never actually set. Because if not diplomacy, then what is the alternative? Theirs is not pessimism, it is fatalism. Success instead should be measured by the continued absence of war and the continued sense that war is increasingly unlikely. Anyone demanding more than that wants things to fail.

Reprinted with permission from Medium.com.

What if a #MAGA Guy Ate Twitter’s Face?

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More than a few people have cited the exchange below as justification for my forever trip down the Memory Hole, my ban from Twitter. I used to be there as @wemeantwell.

My bad zombie joke about #MAGA, or anything else I wrote that was flippant, is not writing I’m proud of. But ask yourself if indeed what I was doing, in the words of Twitter’s auto-response to me, “harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence someone else’s voice,” or if I was just being rude and childish. Ask yourself if whatever I did means you can never read anything I’ve written on Twitter over the past seven years, if it means I should never be allowed to write there again.

Does it justify censorship?

Before you say yes, keep in mind that Twitter allows you to block me, mute me, never see me again. That’s your decision, and good for you, and good riddance to me. But censorship takes that decision out of your hands, and allows Twitter to make it on behalf of literally the entire planet.

Though the “he called me human garbage first” excuse is pretty weak, it is useful to show the context of my allegedly game-changing Tweet. I think anyone who has dipped into the sticky waters of Twitter, or lived as an adult on earth, has heard much worse. I think also my line about a MAGA guy eating someone’s face can be seen by reasonable people as a rhetorical slap, not a literal invitation to zombie attack.

Think of it like people saying “Go kiss my ass!,” or “F*ck yourself.” I don’t think in those instances anyone expects you to contort and smooch the buttocks or to perform a unilateral sex act. There’s a difference between saying “Go jump in a lake” to end an argument and an invitation to go swimming.

But corporate censorship needs only the finest of hooks. Twitter is happy to allow calls for white genocide by New York Times editorial board member @SarahJeong, “understanding” they are not literal, while being shocked — Shocked! — to see me invoke a scene from Fear the Walking Dead.

And anyone who thinks I was banned for simply being rude on Twitter does not understand much about the point of censorship.


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Reprinted with permission from WeMeantWell.com.

Diplomacy 101 Case Study: Singapore Summit

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While I can say there isn’t a formal class at the American State Department called Diplomacy 101, some training offered to new hires comes pretty close. Those basic tenets of statecraft, largely unchanged from Thucydides to Bismarck to Pompeo, are important to review in light of the widespread criticism of the Singapore Summit.

You make peace by talking to your adversaries. Diplomacy is almost always a process and rarely a big-bang scale event. Steps backward are expected along with steps forward. Realizing America’s foreign policy goals often means dealing with bad people. As an American diplomat I purposely flattered and befriended gangsters in Japan to help American citizens in trouble, Irish Republican Army terrorists when a change in administration in Washington saw them eligible for visas, and militia leaders in Iraq who sought deals during the Surge. So has every diplomat, along with most intelligence officers and military officers. Many in the media have done exactly the same things to cultivate sources.

The Etruscans, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Eritreans, and Everyone else from A-Z have been conducting diplomacy with adversaries of all flavors, titles, and moral standards since before the word was even invented by the French. A leader whose family has been the sole ruler of his nation for seven some decades, who controls nuclear weapons, whose nation has a seat at the United Nations and embassies in multiple countries around the world already meets any practical test of “legitimacy.” Kim’s nuclear weapons exist whether or not he meets a sitting American president, or ex-presidents Clinton and Carter, though the only chance those weapons may someday be gone rests in such meetings.

Now protocol is always tricky. President Obama had no obligation to bow to the Emperor of Japan, but decided to convey respect; same with American male diplomats holding the hands of or exchanging kisses with their Arab counterparts; I kissed a lot of bearded men while on duty myself. Mistakes happen — Trump did not need to salute that North Korean general — but what matters most is the effect on your counterparts. No damage was done, and maybe even some additional humility was conveyed in a situation where offense could have easily derailed more important matters.

Diplomacy 101 advises you can’t control how your adversary, or even your friends, will portray events. Signals to the international community are important, but if you get too concerned about controlling them you’ll end up advising your boss she better just stay in Washington. One expert writes, “Foreign policymaking is not an omnidirectional antenna that clearly emits messages in all directions, which are correctly interpreted and acted upon by the intended audiences. Indeed, refraining from pursuing diplomatic initiatives because of how an adversary might characterize that initiative is surely a signal of weakness. And in the case of North Korea, allowing the propaganda efforts of a totalitarian government to influence United States policy making priorities is just self-crippling.”

It’s different with created messaging directed at your adversary, because nobody else matters. Much mockery was slathered on the video Trump played for Kim in Singapore, depicting him as a great leader facing a history-bending decision. The video was spiced full of symbols that resonate with Koreans, including sacred places and holiday images that mean little to outsiders. The audience was one man, and the video was designed to do one thing, speak to Kim in a visual language he understood. Diplomacy 101 suggests everyone else might stand aside, the way older folks should do when people say such-and-such a new dance song is good or bad, knowing they’re not the intended audience.

Negotiations are rarely an even exchange. But how long will you sit at the table if someone else seems to win every hand? Everyone has to at least feel they can win, so they don’t have a reason to cheat, and thus stay in the game. Even when stakes are high the good news it’s hard to give away “the store.” The store in whatever form usually isn’t something that can be irrevocably stopped, boxed up for shipment, or destroyed forever. Never mind the checks, balances, and bureaucratic brakes built into something as complex as the United States government, or even what may appear to be mostly a one-man-rule system. Diplomacy 101 encourages a thoughtful approach to score keeping, knowing the score only really matters at the end anyway.

Diplomacy 101 also reminds the most important purpose of a good first date is to make sure there’s a second. It doesn’t make sense to call it a failure if no marriage proposal follows dessert. Love at first sight is best left for the movies. A kiss goodnight is great, but international relations is a chaste process and demanding or expecting too much too early isn’t a long game strategy. Setting an artificial clock running alongside something as delicate as nuclear disarmament accomplishes nothing. Negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union sometimes spanned administrations.

Even failures are part of the process. William Johnson, a Foreign Service Officer who served as the State Department’s political advisor on special operations to the United States’ Pacific Command, explained to me “Diplomacy is often a series of failures, and in the best case, the failures become incrementally less bad, until sometimes the least spectacular failure is declared success. Diplomacy is a game where the goalposts are supposed to move, and often, to move erratically. Trump needs a plan, with specific goals, each laid out neatly in a set of talking points, not because he will attain those goals, but because he needs to figure out how short of them he can afford to fall or how far beyond them he can push his interlocutor.”

A future Diplomacy 101 class may examine the Singapore Summit alongside President Richard Nixon’s summit with Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung. That 1972 meeting ended over two decades of isolation between the two nuclear-armed countries, and is universally hailed as brilliant diplomacy. But looking back, the main takeaway, the ShanghaiCommunique, is full of vague phrases promising to meet again, to somehow make “progress toward the normalization of relations,” and “reduce the danger of international military conflict.” The status of Taiwan, which had almost brought the Americans and Chinese to war, was dealt with in almost poetic terms, able to be read with multiple meanings.

There was no timeline for anything. No specific next steps listed, though Nixon did agree to the “ultimate objective of the withdrawal of all US forces and military installations from Taiwan.” Nothing about China’s horrendous human rights situation. Few details at all, and the biggest problem was treated obliquely. It took seven more years before full diplomatic relations were restored. Yet scholars see the visit as one of the most impactful ever by an American president, to the point where the term “Nixon to China” is now shorthand for a breakthrough leaders’ meeting.

It is of course too early to fully assess the Singapore Summit, never mind to see if it will rank anywhere near the Nixon-Mao meeting. But we do know personal diplomacy has sometimes been the right strategy, and that Americans have met with dictators, nuclear-armed and not, before. Simply amending “But Trump!” to those and other realities of diplomacy does not change them. As the United States-North Korea relationship evolves, it is important to avoid valuing the sharp elbows of partisan politics over the earned lessons of Diplomacy 101. Class dismissed — for now.

Reprinted with permission from WeMeantWell.com.

The US is Playing with Fire if It Walks Away from the Iran Nuclear Deal on May 12

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A foreign policy crisis is coming May 12. President Donald Trump’s likely decision on that day to not continue waiving sanctions on Iran under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will significantly increase the chances of war.

The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed by China, Russia, and most of western Europe requires the American president to certify every three months Iran’s nuclear program is in compliance with the deal. In return, the next quarter’s economic sanctions are waived against the Islamic Republic. Earlier this year, Trump warned he was waiving sanctions for the final time, setting a May 12 deadline for significant changes in the agreement to be made. Failing those changes, Trump’s non-signature would trigger sanctions to snap into place.

The changes Trump is insisting on — reduce Iran’s ballistic missile capability, renegotiate the deal’s end date, and allow unrestricted inspections — are designed to force failure.

Iran’s ballistic missile program was purposefully never part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action; as learned during the Cold War, trying to throw every problem into the same pot assured no agreement could ever be reached. Trump trying to add the missile program in three years after the agreement was signed is wholly outside the norms of diplomacy (and the art of dealmaking.) Ballistic missile capability lies at the heart of Iran’s defense. Sanctions have already kept the country from fielding any significant air force, and memories in Tehran of Iraqi air strikes on its cities in the 1980s when Iran lacked retaliatory capability lie deep. The missile program is the cornerstone of Iranian self-preservation and thus understood to be non-negotiable.

The 2030 agreement end date is to the Trump administration a ticking time bomb; Iran will nefariously lie in wait, springing whole into nuclear status 12 years from now. Leaving aside the original agreement was negotiated with such a deadline, and American policy has generally been for presidents to honor agreements in place as they take office, the worry over an Iran of the future going nuclear is pure drama.

Twelve years is a lifetime in the Middle East. Some 12 years ago Syria was at peace with its neighbors, and the United States happy to outsource torture to Assad as part of the War on Terror. Turkey was a democracy, Russia mostly a non-player in the region, and Iran was timidly facing the American military on two of its borders, open to broad negotiations with Washington. There is more than enough to focus on in the Middle East of 2018 than what the area might look like strategically in 2030, even assuming Iran could surreptitiously keep its nuclear development going such to pop out of the cake in 12 years with a nuclear surprise. Washington’s demand for an indefinite extension of limits on Iran’s nuclear activities is political theatre.

As for the concern Iran is not compliant with the agreement, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations body charged with monitoring the deal, has presented no such evidence. Iran has in fact shown itself anxious to stay in compliance; in two past minor instances where the Agency noted Iran exceeded its heavy water limits, Tehran immediately disposed of the excessive amount. Trump has suggested he wants unprecedented access to any and all Iranian sites, including military sites not known to be part of any nuclear program. The United States never allowed carte blanche to the Soviets during the Cold War, no nation with the power to say no would. Following the inspections ahead of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, where intelligence officers were embedded in the process and the results politicized, American credibility for this task is low.

So these aren’t really negotiating points, they’re excuses for the United States itself to step out of compliance with an agreement. “President Trump appears to have presented the [Europeans] with a false choice: either kill the deal with me, or I’ll kill it alone,’ said Rob Malley, a senior American negotiator of the deal, and now head of the International Crisis Group.

None of this is a surprise. Trump has always wanted out of what he calls the “worst deal ever.” His new foreign policy team — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton — are also ardent opponents. While anything can happen inside a White House fueled by chaos, there is no plausible scenario that says the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will survive May 12. What happens next?

The likely effects of walking away from the agreement are global. Iran may immediately kick start its nuclear program. Tehran’s hegemonic efforts in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria would remain untouched if not intensify in retaliation. Iran’s current missiles will still be able to reach Jerusalem and Riyadh. The odds of the North Koreans agreeing to a nuclear deal decrease; imagine being the new State Department envoy sitting across from an experienced North Korean diplomat trying to answer his question “What is to say you won’t do this to us in three years?”

European allies will be reluctant to join in future diplomatic heavy lifting in the Middle East or elsewhere, shy to commit only to see the Americans turn up their noses following another election. Relations could easily sink to the level of 2003, when America’s bullheaded invasion of Iraq split the alliance. Russia and China, signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, will have a chance at being the “good guys,” seizing an opening to expand cooperation with Iran at a time when American diplomacy might instead be looking for ways to drive wedges among them.

Meanwhile, the impact of renewed sanctions may be quite limited strategically. It is unclear if American pique will be followed by all of Europe falling into line with re-imposed sanctions; there is a lot of money in doing business in Iran and absent unambiguous proof Iran violated the agreement it is hard to see them going along in earnest. It is even less clear Russia and China will follow the new sanctions regime. And even if some signatories agree to reimpose sanctions, there is little to suggest Iran’s ambitions have been severely thwarted by decades of sanctions anyway. Had they been fully effective, there’d have been no need for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in the first place.

Without the agreement, there is, to misquote Churchill, nothing left to “jaw jaw,” leaving Iran free to develop its weapons and America only the option of destroying them. It’s perhaps the dangerous scenario Washington, encouraged by an Israel who has sought the destruction of Iran’s nuclear facilities for years, wants. The Israeli air strikes which decimated Saddam’s nuclear program and Syria’s were small scale, directed against nearby, discrete targets, vulnerable above ground. Not so for Iran, whose nuclear facilities are far away, dispersed, underground, and protected by both a decent air defense system and a credible threat of conventional, terrorist, cyber, and/or chemical retaliation. And that’s all before the newly-emboldened Russians weigh in.

The chance of terminating Iran’s nuclear program is held against the risk of full-on war in the region. The United States is playing with real fire if it walks away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on May 12.

Reprinted with permission from WeMeantWell.com.

Review: A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership is Mostly About Making Jim Comey Rich

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Despite the lofty title, in A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership James Comey comes across in turns petty, smug, sanctimonious, bitter, and most of all, pandering.

Comey feeds the rubes exactly what they paid the carnival sideshow barker in front at Barnes and Noble to hear: the pee tape, the jokes about small hands, the comparisons of Trump to a mob boss, and enough Obama-worship to fill a week’s worth of Maddow.

Where Comey could have shined — clarifying historical events from the Bush and Obama eras, shedding real light on the FBI’s interplay with the Clinton campaign, verifying or denouncing parts of the Russiagate narrative — he stops purposefully short. A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership is a quick grab at the money, something that in the old days would have been on pay-per-view cable or tucked away inside a second-tier men’s magazine.

Comey tells us Trump is obsessed with the pee tape, desperate for the FBI to investigate-to-exonerate. “I’m a germaphobe,” Comey quotes Trump, emphasizing the president claimed he only used the Russian hotel room to change clothes. The then-Director of the FBI was apparently non-committal to his boss, but in his book safely removed by a year and the publishing process Comey writes “I decided not to tell him the activity alleged did not seem to require either an overnight stay or even being in proximity to the participants. In fact, though I didn’t know for sure, I imagined the presidential suite of the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow was large enough for a germaphobe to be at a safe distance from the activity.”

Classy, and it sets the tone for the two men’s encounters over loyalty pledges, Mike Flynn, and all things Russia. Trump says something neatly packaged and impeachment-worthy, conveniently only in a conversation he and Comey are privy to. Comey, rather than seek clarification, always assumes the worst, keeps his thoughts to himself, but remembers to document every word in writing. Everything about James Comey is presented so that you get the message that everything he is — straight-arrow bureaucrat, warrior-poet of the people, apostle of law and order, defender of the Constitution — is what Trump isn’t. It’s my word against his, you know who you believe, might as well be the title of the book.

You were expecting insight? Trump never laughs, Comey writes, a clear tell to a soul-seer POTUS harbors “deep insecurity, an inability to be vulnerable or to risk himself by appreciating the humor of others.” Comey describes Trump as shorter than he expected with a “too long” tie. The eyes, by the way, are “expressionless.” Comey says the president’s hands were “smaller than mine.” Jim, we get it — Trump is short, wears his ties long to compensate, has tiny hands — brother, just represent: I’m a bigger man than the president!

The Clintons are always in the background. Comey teases there is classified but unverified info on Loretta Lynch that “casts serious doubt on the Attorney General’s independence in connection with the Clinton investigation” but unlike in the case of Trump, where classification and proprietary have the value of a paper bag in the rain, Comey reveals no details.

Elsewhere, Comey creates his own standard, well outside the law, for why the investigation into Clinton’s exposure of classified material on her personal unclassified server did not lead to prosecution: she gosh golly just didn’t intend to do anything criminally wrong, he says, taking the term “willful” in the actual law and twisting it to mean “evil intent.” Comey says prosecution would have required a specific smoking gun message from someone telling Clinton sending classified material via unclassified channels was wrong. He has nothing to say about whether that message might have been in the 30,000 emails Clinton deleted, only shrugging his shoulders to say there was nothing to justify prosecution as far as anyone looked. Why, he adds, they even asked Hillary herself.

And as long as he’s making up the law, those memos Comey wrote of conversations between two government employees, on Federal property, regarding national security-related official government business? He “regards” them as personal property, so their contents didn’t have to be classified and thus could not by definition be leaked. He did not, however, include them in his book and they remain hidden from the public.

Comey writes he felt confident reopening the Clinton email probe days before the election because he ­assumed Clinton would win, and if the new investigation was revealed after her victory it might make her seem “illegitimate.” He says the same thing about keeping Russian meddling quiet, certain it wouldn’t matter when Hillary became his boss a few months later. The irony of Comey setting out to legitimize the expected Clinton presidency ended up hurting her aside, what is disturbing is the blatant admission a partisan calculus was part of the decision making in any way at all.

It’s a heck of a thing to admit in writing, and shows how empty Comey’s constant claims to integrity lie. Should any serious prosecution emerge from the mess of the Trump presidency, Comey’s credibility as a witness is tainted, and his value to the American people he claims to serve thus diluted. Comey will see his testimony whittled down by defense lawyers even now cross-indexing statements in the book with the public record. And who knows what Seth and Trevor and Rachel will pull out of him?

Most people tangled up in Washington beheadings get around these problems by waiting until after the dust has settled to write their books. That was the case for the Watergate gang, Oliver North, and Monica Lewinsky. The problem with Comey waiting is that there’s very little new here. If your impeachment fantasy includes the pee tape, or if you believe it is made-up, Comey has nothing to enlighten you either way.

Instead, this is like reading a 13-year-old’s diary about why she hates boys, or a bunch of angry Tweets dragged out over 304 pages. Comey doesn’t appear to have any political ambitions, and he doesn’t seem to be using the book to audition for a talk show job. It’s not even good “score settling” in that it’s just mostly the same stuff you’ve heard before.

And that’s all a shame, because there is a better book Comey could have written. Comey was witness to the legal wranglings inside the Bush administration over NSA’s illegal domestic spying on Americans, and was in the hospital room when Bush White House officials tried to bully ailing Attorney General John Ashcroft into reauthorizing the Stellar Wind surveillance program. Comey was there for the debates over torture, and under Obama, the use of the Espionage Act to punish journalists and whistleblowers. None of that was morally repugnant to him at a Trump-like level, and he never resigned in protest to protect his honor. Why, Jim?

But instead of insight into all that we get a quick overview that adds little to the known facts. Comey’s narratives are designed only to show leaders in each instance acted honorably enough for Comey’s taste, as opposed to Trump. Comey’s visceral hatred of Trump as a liar and a boor prevents Comey from writing an honorable memoir of his decades inside government, and instead drives him to present a version of events where history is only of value when it can be slaved to making Trump look bad in comparison. It’s a thin shell for anyone who knows more about these events than Colbert or Meyers spoon out.

There’s a reason why circus sideshows got out of town after a few days, before the rubes figured out the “Alien from Mars” was just a rabbit with some fake teeth glued on. It’s pretty clear Comey’s higher loyalty lies only to making a quick buck for himself with a near-substance free book, before anyone realizes it’s all a fraud.

Reprinted with permission from WeMeantWell.com.

FARA: Freedom of the Press, But On the Government’s Terms

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A bipartisan group of lawmakers called for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate if Al Jazeera, the news outlet connected to the Qatari government, should register with the Justice Department as an agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA.)

This has broad implications for our First Amendment, our access to dissenting opinions, and in how the rest of the world views us.

The lawmakers claim Al Jazeera “directly undermines American interests” and broadcasts “anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel” material. Al Jazeera would joinRussian outlets RT and Radio Sputnik, Japan’s Cosmomedia, the Korean Broadcasting System, and the China Daily in registering as foreign state propaganda outlets. DOJ has also been asked to look into a range of other Chinese media.

Ironically, the bipartisan request to force Al Jazeera to register comes amid a controversy over the network’s filming of a documentary critical of pro-Israel lobbying in the US The network used an undercover operative to secure footage revealing possibly illegal interactions between advocacy groups and lawmakers.

The Foreign Agents Registration Act was never intended to regulate journalism. The legislation in fact includes finely-worded exemptions for approved journalists, scholars, artists, and the like, who are not required to announce themselves as “agents of a foreign principal” regardless of what they create. The law was created in 1938 in response to German propaganda, specifically Nazi officials and those they employed to make pacifist speeches in then-neutral America and to organize sympathetic German-Americans. By requiring those working for the Nazis to register, and report their finances and spending, US counterespionage authorities could more easily keep track of their activities.

FARA law doesn’t even prohibit straight up propagandizing, though it seeks to limit the influence of foreign agents by labeling their work, apparently to help out Americans who otherwise would not be able to tell the difference on their own. The law specifically says “Disclosure of the required information facilitates evaluation by the government and the American people of the statements and activities of such persons in light of their function as foreign agents.” Indeed, the Atlantic Council claims these actions “do not suppress freedom of speech; instead, it serves the First Amendment by supplementing information available to the public.”

Here’s a use of FARA in line with the law’s original intent: the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, whose job is to lobby Americans on behalf of a foreign government, in this case, to take vacations in Abu Dhabi, is a FARA registrant. You know who is up to what when the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority says they have decent beaches you should visit. Other typical registrants might include an American lawyer hired by Saudi Arabia to lobby Congress in favor of more arms sales. Being a foreign agent is happily legal and very popular with former Congresspeople and government bureaucrats; you just need to announce your employer.

But FARA can also serve a more nefarious purpose, as a Catch-22 prosecution (a “compliance statute”) for those the US wants to declare as foreign agents but who resist; if the feds want to taint you as a foreign agent, you either agree and register, or face jail.

That is what happened in the case of RT and Radio Sputnik. Following the 2016 election, frightened officials demanded the Russian news organizations register as propaganda agents. RT’s editor-in-chief maintained her network was an independent news outlet, but chose to comply rather than face criminal proceedings, adding “we congratulate the American freedom of speech and all those who still believe in it.” Critics then swung RT’s snarky comment on free speech into “proof” it unfairly criticizes America.

The use of FARA to allow the government to declare which foreign media outlets produce “news” and which produce “fake news” and propaganda is “a shift in how the law has been applied in recent decades,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists. “We’re uncomfortable with governments’ deciding what constitutes journalism or propaganda.”

As the Justice Department wields the FARA weapon against journalists, here’s what they will face.

Designation under FARA requires a media outlet label its reporting “with a conspicuous statement that the information is disseminated by the agents on behalf of the foreign principal,” a nutritional label for journalism. It also means the outlet must open its finances to the Department of Justice. It means Americans who choose to watch that media, or participate in its talk shows, or who work legally for those outlets, open themselves to accusations of “treason” (one political staffer was fired after being interviewed by Radio Sputnik.) It adds credence to the muddy cries of “fake news” used to shut out dissenting opinions. It gives credibility to groups like PropOrNot, which lists websites it “determines” are Russian propaganda, and Hamilton 68, which does the same for Twitter.

Subjecting journalists to FARA sends a message about America. It encourages foreign governments to impose restrictions (Russia has already passed a law requiring outlets like CNN to register as foreign agents.) It uses the full authority of the American government to declare Al Jazeera, a network which reaches 310 million people in more than 160 countries, has no equal place within a free press because its broadcasts are “anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel.” In the specific case of Al Jazeera, it seemingly extends America law to cover anti-Israeli propaganda as well. As with attempts to claim Wikileaks is espionage and not journalism, this use of FARA says the US will use its laws to harass those with “un-American” opinions.

The use of FARA to restrict foreign journalists also adds to rising sense among too many already frightened Americans that our freedoms are being used against us. “The US is at a huge strategic disadvantage when it comes to the New Media Wars because our information environment is so open and rich,” said one former CIA Deputy Director of Intelligence. Perhaps too many dissenting voices isn’t a good idea. The Internet is just too much freedom for the First Amendment to responsibly allow. Maybe the government should become more involved in what we say, hear, watch, and read, as Facebook and Twitter (who banned RT from advertising) do now, you know, for our own protection. Our open society is a vulnerability, not a strength.

The roots of our most basic rights flow from the freedom of the press written into the First Amendment. The press must be unfettered in reporting so citizens can make informed decisions when voting, protesting, and petitioning their government. Government should play no role in designating good journalists from bad, licensing who can report, or otherwise interfering with access to a broad range of ideas. Sorting out the marketplace of ideas — opposing opinions, bias exposed and hidden — is supposed to be our job as an informed citizenry anyway.

Reprinted with permission from WeMeantWell.com.

Politics, Justice, and the Surveillance State

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The role pervasive surveillance plays in politics today has been grossly underreported. Set aside what you think about the Trump presidency for a moment and focus instead on the new paradigm for how politics and justice work inside the surveillance state.

Incidental collection” is the claimed inadvertent or accidental monitoring of Americans’ communications under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act. Incidental collection exists alongside court-approved warranted surveillance authorized on a specific individual.But for incidental collection, no probable cause is needed, no warrant is needed, and no court or judge is involved. It just gets vacuumed up.

While exactly how many Americans have their communications monitored this way is unknown, a significant number Trump staffers (no evidence of incidental surveillance of the Clinton campaign exists) were surveilled by a White House controlled by their opposition party. Election-time claims the Obama administration wasn’t “wiretapping” Trump were disingenuous. They in fact gathered an unprecedented level of inside information. How was it used?

Incidental collection nailed Michael Flynn; the NSA was ostensibly not surveilling Flynn, just listening in on the Russian ambassador as the two spoke. The intercept formed the basis of Flynn’s firing as national security advisor, his guilty plea for perjury, and very possibly his “game changing” testimony against others.

Jeff Sessions was similarly incidentally surveilled, as was former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, whose conversations were picked up as part of a FISA warrant issued against Trump associate, Carter PagePaul Manafort and Richard Gates were also subjects of FISA-warranted surveillance; they were surveilled in 2014, the case was dropped for lack of evidence, then re-surveilled after they joined the Trump team and became more interesting to the state.

Officials on the National Security Council revealed Trump himself may also have been swept up in surveillance of foreign targets. Devin Nunes, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, claims multiple communications by Trump transition staff were inadvertently picked up. Trump officials were monitored by British GCHQ with the information shared with their NSA partners. Some reports claim after a criminal warrant was denied to look into whether or not Trump Tower servers were communicating with a Russian bank, a FISA warrant was issued.

How much information on Trump’s political strategy a Democratic White House acquired via surveillance, as well as the full story of what might have been done with that information, will never be known. We do know Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats saw enough after he took office to specify the “intelligence community may not engage in political activity, including dissemination of US person identities to the White House, for the purpose of affecting the political process of the United States.”

Coats likely had in mind the use of unmasking by the Obama administration. Identities of US persons picked up inadvertently by surveillance are supposed to be masked, hidden from most users of the data. However, a select group of officials, including political appointees in the White House, can unmask and include names if they believe it is important to understanding the intelligence, or to show evidence of a crime.

Former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice told House investigators in at least one instance she unmasked the identities of Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, and Steve Bannon. Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, also made a number of unmasking requests in her final year in office.

But no one knows who unmasked Flynn in his conversations with the Russian ambassador. That and subsequent leaking of what was said were used not only to snare Flynn in a perjury trap, but also to force him out of government. Prior to the leak which took Flynn down, Obama holdover and then-acting attorney general Sally Yates warned Trump Flynn could be blackmailed by Moscow for lying about his calls. When Trump didn’t immediately fire Flynn, the unmasked surveillance was leaked by a “senior government official” (likely Yates) to the Washington Post. The disclosure pressured the administration to dump Flynn.

Similar leaks were used to try to pressure Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign, though only resulted in him recusing himself from the Russiagate investigation. Following James Comey’s firing, that recusal ultimately opened the door for the appointment of Special Counsel Mueller.

A highly classified leak was used to help marginalize Jared Kushner. The Washington Post, based on leaked intercepts, claimed foreign officials’ from four countries spoke of exploiting Kushner’s economic vulnerabilities to push him into acting against the United States. If the story is true, the leakers passed on data revealing sources and methods; those foreign officials now know however they communicated their thoughts about Kushner, the NSA was listening. Access to that level of information and the power to expose it is not a rank and file action. One analyst described the matter as “the Deep State takes out the White House’s Dark Clown Prince.”

Pervasive surveillance has shown its power perhaps most significantly in creating perjury traps to manufacture indictments to pressure people to testify against others.

Trump associate George Papadopoulos lied to the FBI about several meetings concerning Clinton’s emails. The FBI knew about the meetings, “propelled in part by intelligence from other friendly governments, including the British and Dutch.” The feds asked him questions solely in hope Papadopoulos would lie, commit perjury, even though there was nothing shown to be criminal in the meetings themselves. Now guilty of a crime, the FBI will use the promise of light punishment to press Papadopoulos into testifying against others.

There is an element here of using surveillance to create a process crime out of a non-material lie (the FBI already knew) where no underlying crime of turpitude exists (the meetings were legal.) That that is then used to press someone to testify in an investigation that will have significant political impact seems… undemocratic… yet appears to be a primary tool Mueller is using.

This is a far cry from a traditional plea deal, giving someone a light sentence for actual crimes so that they will testify against others. Mueller should know. He famously allowed Mafia hitman Sammy the Bull to escape more serious punishment for 19 first degree murders in return for testifying against John Gotti. No need to manufacture a perjury trap; the pile of bodies who never saw justice did the trick.

Don’t be lured into thinking the ends justify the means, that whatever it takes to purge Trump is acceptable. Say what you want about Flynn, Kushner, et al, what matters most is the dark process being used. The arrival of pervasive surveillance as a political weapon is more significant than what happens to a little bug like Jared.

Reprinted with permission from WeMeantWell.com.