Trump Foreign Policy: The Shape of Things to Come

May 29, 2017–With President Donald J. Trump completing his first overseas tour the broad outlines of what will be his foreign and national security policies are beginning to come into focus. The good news is that, when confronted with the slapdash silliness of many things that he advocated as a political candidate, President Trump often relents and retreats to a more traditional and recognizable policy stance. The bad news is that, with distressing frequency, Mr. Trump hews to the slapdash and silly. Meanwhile, he is creating a policy machinery that promises to guarantee sloppy action.

Trump’s first trip ended in chaos as he denounced longstanding NATO allies, seemed to open up to their concerns on global warming, threaten economic war with Germany, while looking askance at our friends in France. Germany too. At a beer hall a couple of days after the bullish American had left, German chancellor Angela Merkel stood up to tell the crowd that the age of alliances is at an end. President Trump was warned going into this trip, he refused to relent, and the result has been predictable.

If that leaves your head spinning, there is more–in Israel where Trump had been promising friendship–and to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem (an open affront to Palestinians and Arab countries)–he suddenly reverted to a version of the old American approach of encouraging a two-state peace. In Saudi Arabia Trump went native, did the sword dance restricted to men, and looked on while Saudi royal family members made donations to Ivanka Trump’s foundation dwarfing anything for which candidate Trump lambasted the Clinton foundation in the last election.

In the Middle East Trump remained silent on human rights–a major issue in the region. Indeed, he participated in an odd séance with a lighted globe and the Saudi king and Egyptian military president, in both of whose nations human rights are threatened. Trump has recently chummed up to the Philippine president who is carrying out an active pogrom in his country. Combined with actions on the European portion of the trip, Mr. Trump cozies up to dictators while castigating democracies.

China also has a problem with human rights, and it, too, has benefitted from a Trump flip flop. Denounced consistently is Iran, which has just re-elected a moderate president and exhibits signs of improvement. There the United States has conceded the Iranians are keeping their side of a bargain on nuclear developments, and is “rewarding” that with plans for new sanctions. The ISIS enemy is also consistently condemned though there most would agree.

Trump’s line on North Korea is aggressive, matching the irrationality of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. There is no reason to suppose this approach will lead anywhere good.

Then there is the Russian Caper. Fresh revelations about Trump officials and family members and Moscow’s manipulation of U.S. politics in the 2016 election emerged almost every day during the Trump trip, and a parade of his senior officials made their way home to deal with the fallout almost every day of the tour. The latest is that the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, actually met with the Russian ambassador last December to request that he set up a Russian backchannel to afford secret communications with Moscow. The move smacks of espionage, reinforcing the impression the Russian Caper is every bit as sinister as some suspect.

Coming to the rescue, now again, is “Appropriate Dereliction” McMaster (see “H. R. McMaster: Appropriate Dereliction,” May 17, 2017, here below), who called a press briefing (from which the Trump officials fled after half an hour, and which they refused to allow cameras) to calm the waters. While refusing to comment on “Backchannel Jared” directly, the new national security adviser sought to reassure Americans, saying, of the backchannel, “No, I would not be concerned about it.” Pressed to explain, McMaster went on, “We have backchannel communications with a number of countries. So, generally speaking, about backchannel communications, what that allows you to do is to communicate in a discreet manner.” Over the weekend Homeland Security secretary John Kelly joined McMaster in dereliction, not only repeating the total BS line that a backchannel controlled by a foreign power is completely innocuous, but asserting that what Kushner did was good for the country! (Whatever Backchannel Jared thought he was up to in this gambit it had nothing to do with the country.)

Here is the kernel of thought about the administration’s new national security machinery: backchannels from the White House to substitute for front channels through the Department of State. If you wondered how the Trumpists expected to get away with gutting the State Department, reducing it by a third in the next budget, here is the answer. The foreign policy will be run directly out of the White House, relying on backchannels. The diplomats’ role will be to explain–from the outside–the rationale for whatever Trump does. Woe to everyone who has yet to master the art of the flipflop.

Meanwhile, Hal McMaster confirms why I have given him the sobriquet “Appropriate Dereliction.” Dereliction is what McMaster has accused his forebears of–the military leaders in the Vietnam war, McMaster maintains, failed to stand up to their president when he was leading the country into the Big Muddy. Well, here we are, and for the second time McMaster has acted in public to excuse egregious behavior from the president’s inner circle. In speaking of backchannels McMaster was directly misleading–the ones he refers to are set up within the U.S. government and the communications usually transmitted by the CIA. What Backchannel Jared sought was a com link over Russian channels. That’s what you do when you need to consult on an ongoing operation and don’t want your own side to know about it. See what I mean about sinister?

Red Flag for the Spooks: The Gathering Storm

July 11, 2014–Remember back in March? What Obama said? The spy agencies served up a menu to President Barack Obama they thought could turn the tables and get them out of deepening scandal. The National Security Agency (NSA) advanced a scheme that, while appearing to respond to criticism of its dragnet eavesdropping, might actually permit it to collect more information on Americans and other citizens. The president thought the option workable. Obama said, “I’m confident it allows us to do what is necessary in order to deal with the dangers of a terrorist attack, but does so in a way that addresses some of the concerns that people had raised.”

Meanwhile the Central Intelligence Agency was counterattacking against Congress on the Senate torture report, claiming the Senate Intelligence Committee had violated secrecy regulations, referring the case of an allegedly purloined document to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution.

Fearful Leader James Clapper must have felt himself riding especially high last week, when the independent Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board delivered its opinion on the NSA’s targeted (as opposed to its dragnet) wiretapping, which expressed itself “impressed with the rigor of the government’s efforts to ensure that it acquires only those communications it is authorized to collect.”

Then it all came crashing down.

In short order a series of developments have blown away the gossamer webs of complacency. On July 6, just a few days after the Privacy Board report, the Washington Post published an extensive expose that reviewed some 22,000 actual NSA surveillance reports, finding that just 11 percent of those intercepted were targets approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Nine out of ten persons wiretapped were bystanders.

The spooks’ irrepressible consigliere Robert S. Litt jumped up with the its-just-as-we-said defense, remarking that “the most you could conclude from these news reports is that each valid foreign intelligence target talks to an average of nine people.”

That lasted for just two days. The parsing depends on what is a “valid” foreign intelligence target. On July 9 in The Intercept, journalists Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain revealed that the NSA targeted numerous American citizens, including officials of American Muslim lobbying and advocacy groups, a Pentagon official running for political office in Virginia, and other prominent Muslim citizens. The FBI, functioning as the NSA’s target provider, put out training materials clearly racist in nature, picturing Muslims as conspirators (“Mohammed Raghead”) and fundraising for any purpose as intended to support terrorism.

Let’s go back to that nine-out-of-ten bystander rate. We’re not talking 2,400 terrorists, here, plus everyone they communicated with. We’re talking a small number of legitimate targets–Anwar al-Awlaki is on that list–a much larger list of innocents targeted–and then 90 percent more innocent bystanders in the NSA crosshairs. Once the NSA finds any expression of less than sterling content, the FBI then organizes a sting to entrap the person.

I mentioned the novel 1984 in a recent posting. What could be more Orwellian than this? It is totally illegitimate.

Meanwhile there is the matter of the German spying. The NSA wiretapping of German prime minister Angela Merkel has been deplored for some time. Der Spiegel, the newsmagazine, reports the NSA has its largest listening posts in Europe ensconced near Wiesbaden. As noted here the other day (“NSA: Who’s Damaging American National Security,” July 5), the German parliament has begun to investigate NSA spying in Germany–and the CIA set one of its spies to find out what is happening. German counterintelligence caught the agent. Now we get the everybody-spies-on-allies line from flak Michael V. Hayden (“Michael Hayden’s Faustian Bargain,” April 29). Hayden probably wishes now he had kept his mouth shut. A couple of days ago the Germans arrested a second alleged CIA spy, and their government has declared the CIA station chief persona non grata. That’s the kind of thing that happened between the U.S. and Russia during the Cold War. To have it now with Germany, a close U.S. ally on whose territory thousands of American soldiers and airmen are still stationed, is astonishing. The damage to U.S. national security is evident.

So here’s where it begins. “It” being the swamp that is going to swallow Fearful Clapper and his minions. As I explain in The Family Jewels, these scandals usually have a president defending the spooks, then tossing them overboard when the White House itself becomes implicated. Now Obama is indeed on the hot seat. He promised NSA reforms and said a good scheme has been adopted, only to have American citizens openly spied upon with an enormous army of the also-threatened right behind them. Muslim-American organizations have demanded explanations direct from the White House. Obama had discussed the NSA eavesdropping with Angela Merkel, making undertakings with Germany only to have continued espionage–and CIA spies–revealed. This calls into question Mr. Obama’s leadership of the U.S. intelligence community.

The marker quietly laid down several days ago is that the White House knew nothing about the CIA spies in Germany. That’s a very temporary holding position. Here is a high profile intelligence matter with a major U.S. ally who grants basing rights to American troops and whose cooperation on the Ukraine, in NATO, in Afghanistan, and elsewhere is quite necessary. Obama had already been revealed spying on Merkel. He made promises. The Germans actually tried to negotiate a no-spy pact. Now the CIA is caught with its hand in the cookie jar? In behalf of the NSA? Obama either did not bother to inform himself of what our spooks were doing (which seems unlikely), or he was the ringleader (also unlikely), or the spy agencies are out of control. I think the president will be obliged to demonstrate leadership by cracking down.

Yesterday the Department of Justice announced it is dismissing the CIA’s complaint against the Senate intelligence committee. The shoe is falling. NSA, CIA–welcome to the Brave New World.

 

 

NSA: Who’s Damaging American National Security?

July 5, 2014–It’s ironic–or, perhaps, fitting in this new era of government  doublespeak–that the patriotic airs of July 4 and America’s birthday are now accompanied by news of fresh security outrages. The National Security Agency’s preoccupation for covering its ass is to blame, and from the looks of this, it sounds like NSA is dragging the CIA into the muck with it. The locale is Germany and the story is spies.

As you’ll know from watching television, reading the papers, or this space, the NSA has scandalized Germany with its dragnet eavesdropping operations. President Obama issued an order to impose some limits on coverage of individuals–and specifically prohibited (only) spying on German chancellor Angela Merkel. The subject was the elephant in the closest recently when Merkel visited Washington for the two leaders to concert a policy to cope with the current troubles in the Ukraine.

That was “identifiable damage to national security”–the standard applied to claim so many citizens have hurt the spies. Here we have the spies hurting the nation. The security agencies should have taken their marching orders from the sense of Obama’s instructions. Instead we have this: the German parliament, or Bundestag, is conducting an official investigation into the NSA dragnet operation. This week the investigating committee took testimony, some of it in secret session, from former NSA employees Thomas Drake and William E. Binney. The spooks are so desperate to learn what German parliamentarians are discovering about the NSA’s operations, illegal in Germany, that CIA sources have been mobilized to service NSA desires.

Not long ago German counterespionage officers apprehended a suspected double agent, a 31-year old officer for the federal intelligence agency Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), who was suspected of spying for Russia. German state prosecutor Harald Range has confirmed the action on July 2. The BND officer is accused of selling more than two hundred secret documents, including a number that disclose activities of the Bundestag parliamentary committee. Under questioning, German sources report, the suspected spy disclosed that he does not work for the Russians at all but for the CIA–and takes his instructions direct from the U.S. embassy. Reports are that U.S. ambassador John Emerson, summoned to the German foreign ministry, has been asked to cooperate with the investigation of this espionage.

Can’t blame this on Edward Snowden. It is the activities of the intelligence agencies–in this case spying on friends America needs to make our foreign policies succeed–that damage our national security. These activities become known to the targets (as they did here) whether or not they are revealed by whistleblowers. The spooks would prefer to have us believe the damage results from revelation, not from commission. That is an arrogant and cynical stance. Do not believe it.

NSA vs Silicon Valley: Can’t Win? Change the Subject!

May 3, 2014–So, what the whistleblower said was all true. In fact, the whistleblower hardly said anything. He let the documents do the talking. The National Security Agency is intercepting anyone they want and collecting the metadata on everyone. The additional documents, legal rulings, that had to be released to “prove” that this dragnet eavesdropping had any juridical basis at all only showed that the denizens of Fort Meade had indeed sought to create a framework for doing precisely what the Snowden documents said.

The diplomatic costs have come home to roost. German-American talks on a spy treaty have collapsed. Our side blames the Germans and makes it out to be somehow off-color that another nation should demand that what American spies do on German soil cannot be illegal under German law. The Word is we don’t make deals like that even with our closest allies. The more insinuating text is that what spies do is basically illegal anyway. Why care?

Ukraine is one reason. German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Washington this week, her talks with President Barack Obama shadowed at every turn by the NSA eavesdropping scandal. Barack needs Merkel now–he needs her to stand with him on Russian encroachments on the Ukraine, an issue on which Germany can be a major player. But Merkel is still licking political wounds inflicted upon her by the NSA scandal. Obama was conspicuously smiling at their joint appearances but underneath the president must be acutely aware of how Fort Meade’s antics have hurt his larger projects.

The NSA started off by insisting it was not collecting data on anyone nor was it eavesdropping. Then it claimed it was “only” dealing in metadata. Then it was only aiming at legitimate intelligence targets, and not Americans. After revelation that our friend Merkel’s phones were bugged, the line went that everybody spies on their allies. As the evidence of massive NSA interception mounted the spooks squirmed on the hook of public disaster. All that interception (phone calls, emails, cloud memory holdings, game moves, web search data) might just send them into oblivion.

President Obama didn’t want that any more than Fort Meade. Back in January he moved on some reforms–not enough, but a start. The problem remains that the spooks still need a way to reframe the issue so they are not at the center of the cross-hairs. It appears that both Mr. Obama and the NSA  are on the verge of creating that narrative.

It was around the New Year when you began to hear–first in Op-Eds by spy-world figures like the former CIA officer John McLaughlin–that the NSA is only doing the same sort of data-mining and cookie reading the corporations engage in. Their point that the privacy issue is bigger than NSA spying is actually well taken. I’ll buy that too. So did Obama. He ordered up a study of web privacy issues and got the first results right around when Chancellor Merkel came to town.

But the White House and Fort Meade should be careful what they wish for. Yes, there should be much more stringent privacy controls on what Silicon Valley can read out on ordinary people. As a matter of fact, Angela Merkel’s country is one where some of those more stringent controls already exist, and those privacy standards are one reason the NSA spying has been so damaging over there. Your phone should not be an NSA target for the same reasons as Merkel’s.

What the spooks would like to come out of this is for citizens to say–for reasons of convenience–that Silicon Valley data-mining is OK and that, if it is, the NSA spying is fine too. But there are both qualitative and quantitative differences in these observations. Silicon Valley cannot target a drone on you or throw you in jail. It collects your data in hopes of winning your (and your friends’) dollars. The NSA eavesdropping is purposeful. It traces your connections in hopes of linking you and your friends, and if at some “hop” there happens to be a bad guy in the chain, woe to you all. What the NSA really doesn’t want is for privacy advocates to say that Silicon Valley and NSA spying are both wrong. Of course, that’s what is actually true. Everyone needs “Merkel rules.”