September 13, 2012

Liz Cheney: Administration response to crises "appalling"

Mitt Romney's campaign continued to blast the Obama administration for its foreign policy Thursday, this time urging people to read a column by Liz Cheney calling the White House response to the Egypt and Libya crises "appalling."

"It has certainly been a terrible 48 hours," the conservative commentator, and daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, wrote in the Wall Street Journal. "In Libya, violent extremists killed American diplomats. In Cairo, mobs breached the walls of the U.S. Embassy, ripped down the American flag and replaced it with the al Qaeda flag.

"In response to the attack in Cairo, diplomats there condemned not the attackers but those who 'hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.' The president appeared in the Rose Garden less than 24 hours later to condemn the Libya assault and failed even to mention the attack in Egypt. The message sent to radicals throughout the region: If you assault an American embassy but don't kill anyone, the U.S. president won't complain.

"Though the administration's performance in the crisis was appalling, it wasn't surprising—it is the logical outcome of three-and-a-half years of Obama foreign policy."

Cheney went on to argue the U.S. looks weak.

Continue reading "Liz Cheney: Administration response to crises "appalling"" »

July 25, 2012

Romney has a chance with undecideds, if they would only learn to like him

President Barack Obama is up by 6 over Mitt Romney in the latest NBC News-Wall St. Journal poll, which illustrates how the Republican candidate has a hurdle to overcome--likeability.

But he has a chance with undecided voters. Here's the narrative from NBC's "First Read:"

"Our pollsters went back through the last three months and gathered together all of the people who have said they are either 'depends,' 'neither,' or 'not sure' when it comes to Romney vs. Obama to create a comprehensive look at the undecideds. And it’s not good news for the president.

"About the only thing the 'undecided' are undecided on is the horse race. They have 'decided' on how they view the president and the country. The undecideds are more pessimistic about the direction of the country and the economy and the job the president’s doing overall and on the economy.

"By any stretch, these should be people willing to fire Obama and vote for Romney – EXCEPT that they don’t like him very much at all. While Obama’s fav/unfav with the group is an abysmal 29 percent/42 percent, Romney’s is even WORSE – 16/44. 16!!! These voters, if they vote, won’t likely evenly split. It will be because Romney convinced them they should vote for him. But so far, almost none of his messaging/rhetoric looks like it’s appealing to them – and Obama’s Bain attacks likely are making an impact."

March 02, 2011

Bush honors Bill Frist: "We're delighted to watch you hang"

It was like a reunion from the last decade, as former President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and others gathered Wednesday to honor former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

The occasion was the official hanging of Frist's portrait in the Capitol.

"I can assure you, Bill, that we are delighted to be here to watch you hang," Bush said as the crowd laughed. He then offered warm praise.

"I really admired the fact that Bill served during tough times," Bush said, notably during the Iraq war, "but he left the Senate in a gentlemanly way."

Bush got a standing ovation, and Frist said he felt "a sort of interlocking kinship" with the Bush family.

"And Mr. president, some day, there might just be -- it's kind of scary--a George Bush Frist," saying that if Bush hadn't run for re-election, Frist's eldest son would not have met his future wife, on the campaign.

"It's kind of frightening," Frist said, "but Ashley (his daughter-in-law) speed it up."

Everyone then headed for a nearby reception room, where they enjoyed wine and mini-beef tenderloin and cheese biscuits.


June 04, 2010

Why do the Obama folks lowball the size of the oil spill?

On Thursday, "a senior administration official" met with a couple of editors and reporters at McClatchy's Miami Herald to talk about the oil spill. At one point, one of the journalists asked the official just how much oil was gushing out of the leak at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. The estimate, the official said, was 12,000 to 19,000 barrels per day.

While that's closer to the mark than the 5,000 bbd the administration repeated for weeks, it's still wrong, by a substantial factor. In fact, the administration's own Flow Rate Technical Team last week announced that it had arrived at two different ranges: the 12,000 to 19,000 figure that the "senior official" repeated at the Herald and a 12,000 to 25,000 bbd estimate, which for some reason Obama officials seem to forget when they are talking about the size of the leak. Read McClatchy's Lesley Clark on the subject here.

Carol Browner, Obama's adviser on energy and climate change who, by the way, was born in Miami, made the same omission on Sunday in her appearance on Meet the Press, where she said the administration is "prepared for the worst." So what is the worst? David Gregory asked her the size of the leak. After 10 sentences of throat-clearing about how hard it is to get to the estimate (see the transcript here), Browner finally gave the 12,000 to 19,000 figure. No mention of the 12,000 to 25,000 estimate.

Of course, those figures may be low now, too. The successful severing of the riser from the blowout preventer on Thursday increased the flow, perhaps by 20 percent (this recalls BP's petulant insistence in the middle of last month that estimates of higher than 5,000 bbd had to be wrong, in part because kinks in the riser were slowing the gusher). So assuming that 20 percent increase, the worst case scenario now would be a leak of between 14,400 bbd and 30,000 bbd. Or, at the high end, 63 percent more than the figure the "senior official" used Monday with those journalists in Miami.

This is no esoteric argument. Browner explained on Sunday why it's important to know how much oil is spewing: BP will owe fines based on how much is spilled, and court cases are likely to turn on the number as well -- a fact that had largely escaped the administration until McClatchy reporters Marisa Taylor, Erika Bolstad and Renee Schoof pointed out on May 20 that BP had a major financial interest in keeping the oil leak's size unknown and preferably unknowable (see their story here). The White House press office howled when that story appeared, though it would have been more appropriate to say "Thanks, we missed that one." The next day was when the administration finally broke away from BP and appointed an independent task force to figure it out.

Today, Erika Bolstad points out another reason for the Obama folks to be diligent in learning how much oil has leaked: BP owes us, the American taxpayers, royalties on all that oil that's been "extracted" from the well, whether BP got to sell it or not (and if the "top hat" works in corralling some of the spewing oil, BP can make a little offsetting revenue on it as well). Bolstad's story is here.

If you're kind, you might think only that the administration was, well, just not very quick on the uptake here and that it needed some newspaper reporters previously unschooled in deep water blowouts to figure out what was going on (for another example click here for McClatchy's Shashank Bengali's exploration of the huge loophole in the administration's most recent drilling moratorium). But the pattern suggests that the administration, from the White House and various Cabinet secretaries right down to the NOAA administrator, whose task it was to figure out how much oil was leaking and yet remained stubbornly uninterested in finding out until a university professor from Indiana testified before Congress, was deliberate in its efforts to downplay the size.

On Thursday, we learned from the Center for Public Integrity, which got hold of Coast Guard logs from the early days of the spill, that within a very few hours the Coast Guard thought what was left of the Deepwater Horizon well might gush 8,000 bbd, a number that soon grew to, worst case scenario, 64,000 bbd (the Center's article on the topic can be found here).

And we learn from ABC News that from the beginning the Coast Guard had ample access to videos that showed crude oil billowing out of the wrecked riser and blowout preventer, but didn't think to come up with a better estimate of the leak and didn't try to make the videos public so someone else could. (Interestingly, the Coast Guard told ABC that BP wouldn't release the videos, saying they were proprietary, which is the same reason the Interior Department is using to refuse to identify the 33 offshore exploratory rigs in the Gulf that are supposed to shut down "when it's safe to do so." Without their locations and their operators' names it'll be hard for anyone to check to see if the Interior Department actually enforces that order.)

Early Friday, BP engineers got the "top hat" on the spewing blowout preventer. If the device works as hoped, they'll begin to collect at least some of the spewing oil and carry it to the surface. At that point, we'll know how much is being collected. That will help establish how much is leaking.

That shouldn't be the end of the matter, however. When Congress is probing the whys and wherefores of the disaster, a few questions should be asked about why, from top to bottom and up to today, the Obama people don't want to confront reality on the size of the leak.

May 26, 2010

War over war funding erupts in Senate

Even efforts to provide emergency funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are sparking partisan rancor in the U. S. Senate.

The Senate's been debating for two days a $59 billion plan to provide funds for the wars, as well as money to help victims of Haiti hurricane and to help deal with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

But some Republicans want to pay for the funding--usually not done for emergencies--by cutting the budgets of members of Congress by $100 million, disposing of unused government property, which would save an estimated $15 billion, and rescinding unspent and uncommitted federal funds, a potential $45 billion saving.

Another plan includes freezing federal pay for a year, a $2.6 billion savings, eliminating non-essential government travel, cutting back on printing government documents, and other initiatives.

Chief sponsors are Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and John McCain, R-Ariz. "Designating war spending as an unforeseen emergency year after year is a farce that is designed to help politicians avoid hard budget choices," Coburn said.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., reminded Republicans that during the Bush administration, war emergency funding was not paid for.

"Members who voted to send our troops into harm's way and never raised a fuss about paying for the war under President Bush are now trying to score political points," Reed said. "They aren't looking to make hard  choices, they are looking to make campaign commercials."

Fiinal votes are expected by the end of the week.

April 09, 2010

Is Liz Cheney prepping to carry on family business?

Looking like a potential candidate for office herself, Liz Cheney kicked off a three-day Republican conference Thursday evening with a blistering indictment of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy.

“There are three prongs to the Obama doctrine,” Cheney told about 3,000 cheering attendees at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans. “Apologize for America, abandon our allies and appease our enemies.”

The daughter of former Vice President Richard Cheney also lambasted Obama’s domestic agenda, particularly the recently enacted health care law. Like other speakers at the meeting, she urged Republicans to win back Congress this fall, then repeal the act.

“We still have time to stop this dangerous power play, she said.

But it was foreign policy where Cheney listed her detailed critique of Obama’s record, from threatening to prosecute CIA officers for torturing suspected terrorists, to hiring lawyers for the Justice Department who had represented suspected terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“The American people have a right to know if lawyers who previously represented terrorists…are now setting American policy with respect to detention of terrorists,” she said.

“We know that one of the lawyers who represented detainees at Guantanamo was caught drawing a map of the detention facility complete with the location of the guard posts in order to give it to his terrorist clients.

“We know that other lawyers who call themselves …the John Adams project have been tracking and stalking CIA officers. They have learned their names and they’ve been taking their pictures” and sending the information to “their terrorist clients at Guantanamo,” Cheney said.

She said Obama’s new nuclear strategy ruling out the use of nuclear weapons to retaliate against biological, chemical or cyber attack from some countries showed his “naïveté.”

She also lambasted his approach to Iran. “All those deadlines that have been put on the Iranian government have been ignored again and again,” she said. “In this  administration’s dealings with Iran, the deadlines are meaningless, the sanctions worthless and the speeches pointless.”

She ripped Obama for criticizing Israel over its insistence on building new settlements in the occupied West Bank. “The world is safer when there is no daylight between the United States and Israel,” she said.

She also said it was “juvenile” for Obama to publicly suggest distance between the U.S. and Afghan President Hamid Karzai over corruption in his government, calling Karzai an ally “whose support we need.”
(Obama on Friday said that Karzai remains a critical partner in U.S. efforts against terrorism.)

Cheney, who opened the conference that will include such high profile speakers as Sarah Palin, is being mentioned as a possible candidate for office, perhaps the Senate from her home state of Virginia.

She did not address her own ambitions, but did say, “Like my father and mother before me, I am proud to be in the arena.”


January 20, 2010

More cluelessness in the Obama administration?

It wasn't just the future of health care that had the Obama administration flummoxed Wednesday. Also confusing was what the administration thought about its decision to try the Detroit underpants bomber in civilian court.

The Republicans, of course, have blasted this decision, conveniently forgetting that the Bush administration chose civilian court to charge (and convict) Richard Reid, the shoebomber whose effort to blow up a Miami-bound airliner in 2001 was eerily similar to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's try at blowing up the Detroit-bound flight.

The decision for a civilian trial seems easily defensible. Obama officials said as far back as July that the difference between a civilian trial and a military one has to do with where the crime/attack took place and what its target was. In the case of an attack on a U.S. military target overseas, such as the USS Cole, that means a military tribunal for Abd al Rashim al Nashiri, who's being held at Guantanamo in the November 2000 attack.

Those same parameters were behind the decision to try accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York -- a civilian target, in the United States, in which the victims were civilians.

That decision upset Republicans, too. But Attorney General Eric Holder and President Barack Obama both have been uncompromising in its defense.

Which makes Wednesday's testimony before the Senate Homeland Security Committee all the more astounding. Of the three Obama officials there — Homeland Security boss Janet Napolitano, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair and Counterterrorism Center chief Michael Leiter — none defended the decision. Blair even said it was a mistake that Abdulmutallab had been questioned by the FBI instead of the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, an entity announced over the summer to deal with terrorist suspects outside the usual Miranda rights questioning. Here's AP's account.

At least FBI Director Robert Mueller defended the FBI's role before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

It gets worse, as Spencer Ackerman of the Washington Independent points out here. Not only did Blair, Napolitano and Leiter go AWOL on civilian prosecution, they turn out apparently to be under-informed about the status of the HIG. It's not yet operational and couldn't have been called in, even if that had been a good idea. Blair issued a restraction.

Maybe it's no wonder that Abdulmutallab got on board the plane.

January 03, 2010

Brennan: No regrets on Yemeni transfers from Gitmo

John Brennan,Obama's counterterrorism adviser,defended the administration's most recent returns to Yemen of Guantanamo detainees on CNN today and said the administration wasn't rethinking it's general strategy of closing Guantanamo, where nearly half of the remaining prisoners come from Yemen.

Brennan said the most recent transfer of six Yemenis to their homeland came only after the U.S. had assessed and been satisfied with the Yemeni government's release of a lone Yemeni, who Brennan said had been transferred to Yemen eight weeks earlier. That is almost certainly a reference to Alla Ali Bin Ali Ahmed, 26, whose return to Yemen the Justice Department announced on Sept. 26. A federal judge had ordered his release in May, saying the Pentagon had no grounds to hold him. You can read Judge Gladys Kessler's declassified ruling here. No word on how the Yemeni government handled Ahmed's return, but it's likely he was detained for at least a month after his arrival.

As for future returns to Yemen, Brennan wasn't specific, though Gloria Borger tried to pin him down. Republicans have asked that no more Yemenis be sent back to their homeland from Guantanamo, given the rise of the local al Qaida affiliate. Brennan would say only that the administration would move at the appropriate time.

Brennan also wouldn't be pinned down on whether Major Nidal Hasan's shooting spree at Fort Hood was an act of terror. With the president declaring the near-miss Christmas Day bombing attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab a terrorist attack, why not Hasan's Nov. 5 attack, which killed 13 and wounded as many as 40? Brennan stumbled, and Borger didn't probe enough to get a real answer. How about this speculation: Unlike the Christmas Day case, the U.S. still hasn't determined whether Hasan was directed to open fire or acted on his own, whereas Abdulmutallab's links to al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula seem clear.

December 02, 2009

Surges, then and now

Amid all the hubbub about whether it's a good idea to set a date for when U.S. troops will begin leaving Afghanistan, it's probably useful to point out that the Bush surge in Iraq (also 30,000 troops) had an end point to it that everyone knew when it started -- and it was just 15 months.

The first "surge" troops of the Iraq era began arriving in February 2007, and continued arriving at the rate of one brigade a month for six months. The first "surge" troops to depart Iraq began leaving in April 2008 and were bascially out at an even faster pace. As Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno pointed out in this August 2007 briefing, "The surge, we all know, will end sometime in 2008, in the beginning of 2008. We know that the surge brigades will leave at 15 months, so that will be somewhere between April and August of '08 when those units will leave based on the 15-month rotation."

The same "they'll-just-wait-for-you-to-go" rhetoric was around then. But Iraq just marked its most peaceful month since the U.S. invasion -- with U.S. troops basically confined to their bases.

There's still a lot of debate about whether Iraq will hold together when American forces are finally gone in 2011. That's when we'll know if the surge really worked. And Afghanistan isn't Iraq. But right now experience doesn't suggest a deadline has made matters worse.

Blackwater, Erik Prince and CIA assassinations

Did the Bush administration plot the assassination of A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani scientist generally blamed for giving the keys to the nuclear club to North Korea, then get cold feet? That's among the allegations in an article in the new issue of Vanity Fair that focuses on the CIA connections of Erik Prince, whose security firm Blackwater became synonomous with reckless adventurism in Iraq.

Prince isn't the source of the A.Q. Khan story -- the article's author, Adam Ciralski, cites an unnamed source -- but in talking about his role with the CIA Prince apparently indicates that the CIA's assassination program had gone much further than the Obama administration let on when it canceled the program earlier this year (here's a Washington Post story and another from McClatchy). Prince indicates the program had one notable success: the death of an al Qaida middle man in Syria. Prince says his Blackwater team found the man, but left the finishing work to the U.S. military.

Prince apparently is talking because he feels burned by congressional leaks about his company's role in the now canceled program. The press release is below. You can read the story here.



NEW YORK, N.Y. — Erik Prince, head of the military contractor Blackwater (renamed Xe in February) and recently outed as a participant in a C.I.A. assassination program, speaks to Vanity Fair writer Adam Ciralsky about his role in the program and his decision to leave the firm.

Prince, the wealthy, 40-year-old heir to an auto-parts fortune, reveals in the new issue of Vanity Fair that, after 12 years building Blackwater, he is resigning from the company and plans to turn it over to its employees and a board. “I’m through,” says Prince. “I’m going to teach high school. History and economics. I may even coach wrestling. Hey, Indiana Jones taught school, too.”

Prince, who says Blackwater now pays $2 million a month in legal bills to fight an array of investigations and charges ranging from bribing Iraqi officials to illegal arms shipments to murder (allegations which Prince and company spokesmen deny), expresses deep anger and resentment in the Vanity Fair story. “I put myself and my company at the C.I.A.’s disposal for some very risky missions,” Prince tells Ciralsky. “But when it became politically expedient to do so, someone threw me under the bus.”

Prince blames Congressional Democrats for revealing his role in the C.I.A. assassination plan. Ciralsky reports that two attendees at a confidential, closed-door Capitol Hill session last June with C.I.A. director Leon Panetta insist the director discussed Prince’s and Blackwater’s parts in the agency’s plan to lethally target al-Qaeda operatives and their allies. Soon thereafter, press accounts surfaced, disclosing Prince and his company’s involvement. (When asked to verify this account, C.I.A. spokesman Paul Gimigliano said, “Director Panetta treats as confidential discussions with Congress that take place behind closed doors.”)

“The left complained about how [C.I.A. operative] Valerie Plame’s identity was compromised for political reasons,” Prince tells Ciralsky. “A special prosecutor [was even] appointed. Well, what happened to me was worse. People acting for political reasons disclosed not only the existence of a very sensitive program but my name along with it.” Prince confesses that he felt betrayed. “I don’t understand how a program this sensitive leaks. And to ‘out’ me on top of it?”

Ciralsky reports that for the past six years, Prince has publicly served as Blackwater’s C.E.O. and chairman, while privately, and secretly, he has been doing the C.I.A.’s bidding, helping to craft, fund, and execute operations ranging from inserting personnel into “denied areas”—places U.S. intelligence has trouble penetrating—to assembling hit teams targeting al-Qaeda members and their allies.

According to sources with knowledge of his activities, Prince has been working as a C.I.A. asset, or spy. While Blackwater earned over $1.5 billion in government contracts between 2001 and 2009, Prince used his access to paramilitary forces, weapons, and aircraft, and his indefatigable ambition—the very attributes that have galvanized his critics—to become a “Mr. Fix-It” in the war on terror.

Ciralsky reports that Prince wasn’t merely a contractor; he was arguably a full-blown asset. Three sources with direct knowledge of the relationship say that the C.I.A.’s National Resources Division recruited Prince in 2004 to join a secret network of American citizens with special skills or unusual access to targets of interest. The C.I.A. won’t comment on this, but, Prince says, “I was looking at creating a small, focused capability, just like Donovan did years ago”—referencing William “Wild Bill” Donovan, who, in World War II, served as the head of the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the modern C.I.A. (Prince’s youngest son, Charles Donovan, is named after Wild Bill.)

Two sources familiar with the arrangement say that Prince’s handlers obtained provisional operational approval from senior management to recruit Prince and later generated a “201 file,” which would have put him on the agency’s books as a vetted asset. (Ironically enough, when al-Qaeda attacked the U.S. mainland on 9/11, Prince says, he felt the urge to join the C.I.A.—the very agency that would later woo him—and actually applied. “I was rejected. They said I didn’t have enough hard skills, enough time in the field.”)

According to two sources familiar with his work, Prince, after 9/11, began developing unconventional means of penetrating “hard target” countries—where the C.I.A. has great difficulty working, either because there are no stations from which to operate or because local intelligence services have the wherewithal to frustrate the agency’s designs.

The agency also turned to Prince when time came to train the members of their targeted-killing squad. The team practiced not at Blackwater’s North Carolina compound, but on a separate estate overseen by Prince, an hour outside Washington, D.C., reminiscent of the country estate where O.S.S. intelligence squads were trained during World War II. As Prince puts it, “We were building a unilateral, unattributable capability. If it went bad, we weren’t expecting the chief of station, the ambassador, or anyone to bail us out.”

Ciralsky reveals that the C.I.A. targeted-killing team, according to a source familiar with the program, went further than the agency has previously admitted. The source says they were dispatched to Hamburg, Germany, to surveil Mamoun Darkazanli—an al-Qaeda financier living in Hamburg—going in “dark,” meaning they did not notify their own station, much less the German government, of their presence; the team followed Darkanzali for weeks and worked through the logistics of how and where they would take him down. Another target, the source says, was A. Q. Khan, the rogue Pakistani scientist who shared nuclear know-how with Iran, Libya, and North Korea. The C.I.A. team supposedly tracked him in Dubai. In both cases, the source insists, the authorities in Washington chose not to pull the trigger.

Khan’s inclusion on the target list, however, would suggest that the assassination effort was broader than has previously been acknowledged. (Says agency spokesman Gimigliano, “[The] C.I.A. hasn’t discussed —despite some mischaracterizations that have appeared in the public domain—the substance of this effort or earlier ones.”) Of the public comments that current and former C.I.A. officials have made, the source familiar with the Darkazanli and Khan missions tells Ciralsky, “They say the program didn’t move forward because they didn’t have the right skill set or because of inadequate cover. That’s untrue. They operated for a very long time in some places without ever being discovered. This program died because of a lack of political will.”

Prince tells Ciralsky he and a covert team also helped find and fix a target in October 2008, then left the finishing to others: “In Syria, we did the signals intelligence to geo-locate the bad guys in a very denied area.” Subsequently, a U.S. Special Forces team launched a helicopter-borne assault to hunt down al-Qaeda middleman Abu Ghadiyah. Ghadiyah, whose real name is Badran Turki Hishan Al-Mazidih, was said to have been killed along with six others.

Finally, Vanity Fair reports that up until two months ago—when Prince says the Obama administration pulled the plug—Prince, according to insiders, was running intelligence-gathering operations from a secret location in the U.S., remotely coordinating the movements of spies working undercover in one of the so-called Axis of Evil countries; their mission: non-disclosable.

Adam Ciralsky, an award-winning television producer, has received many of broadcast journalism's highest honors, including three Emmys (two for “news & documentary” and one for “business & financial reporting”), the Polk Award, the Peabody Award, and the Loeb Award. A former C.I.A. lawyer, his contract was not renewed under contentious circumstances in the 1990s before becoming a reporter for CBS and NBC News.

The January issue of Vanity Fair hits newsstands in New York and Los Angeles on December 2 and nationally on December 8.


"Planet Washington" covers politics and government. It is written by journalists in McClatchy's Washington Bureau.

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