Forests and Trees

forestThe current hyper-partisan environment in Washington, D.C. appears to be both a result and function of the Village Press which has confused incidents and policy to such an extent that it is difficult to separate the scandals du jour from the policy reforms which might mitigate the possibilities of future foul ups.

Case in point: Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi.   As long as the D.C. press continues to focus on the construction of talking points in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack on a diplomatic outpost seeking an elusive, and very likely non-existent connection to political machinations in campaign season, we’ll not get around to addressing some very real problems which make our diplomatic missions less safe.

There is another way to frame this information issue:  As long as the D.C. press corps is intent on categorizing all policy decisions and governmental activity in political terms we won’t get deeply enough into the policy implications.  This framing is easy, requires very little if any policy expertise, and can be deftly constructed to create a platform for hyperbole. The focus may sell newspapers and advertising but it’s not very helpful when looking for ways to solve real problems.

It might be interesting to know how many of the commentators and pundits who have graced us on the Sunday morning jabberwocky sessions have read the 39 page report from the State Department’s independent review panel.  (pdf)  Those who have will be familiar with the following sample of recommendations for action made by the independent review panel.

The Department must strengthen security for personnel and platforms beyond traditional reliance on host government security support in high risk, high threat posts.

The Board recommends that the Department re-examine DS organization and management with a particular emphasis on span of control for security policy planning for all overseas U.S. diplomatic facilities.

Regional bureaus should have augmented support within the bureau on security matters, to include a senior DS officer to
report to the regional Assistant Secretary.

The Department should develop minimum security standards for occupancy of temporary facilities in high risk, high threat environments, and seek greater flexibility for the use of Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) sources of funding so that they can be rapidly made available for security upgrades at such facilities.

The Board supports the State Department’s initiative to request additional Marines and expand the Marine Security Guard (MSG) Program – as well as corresponding requirements for staffing and funding.

The Board strongly endorses the Department’s request for increased DS personnel for high – and critical – threat posts and for additional Mobile Security Deployment teams, as well as an increase in DS domestic staffing in support of such action.

Perhaps instead of endlessly opining on the subject of how the Department of State and the Central Intelligence Agency disputed the crafting of information to be made available to the public at large (including interested parties in Libya) we might take a moment to ask:

# What actions have the Department of State and other governmental agencies taken to reduce our reliance on host nation security forces for the protection of diplomatic outposts?

# What actions have been taken to better coordinate the agencies and departments responsible for developing and implementing plans for outpost security in high risk environments?

# If we are using temporary facilities in high risk areas what contingency plans are now in place to reduce the probability of attack.  Granted, we shouldn’t announce our security plans to the entire world, but it would be nice to know that the Department of State and other agencies are coordinating their efforts to plan for the use of temporary facilities and to mitigate threats.

# Where were the Marines?  The quick answer is: In Tripoli.  The important question isn’t why weren’t they dispatched to the scene immediately?  Quick answer: The were guarding the permanent embassy in Libya. The long answer is another question:  What is the appropriate kind of staffing for diplomatic security?

“Approximately 90 percent of U.S. diplomatic security personnel are private contractors, according to Deborah Avant, a scholar with a doctorate from the University of California San Diego who oversees The Private Security Monitor, an independent research project on government contracting.”  [UTSanDiego]

Do we want to increase funding for the expansion of the Marine Security Guard (MSG) Program? Or, do we want to rely on privately contracted security personnel?   If we mix the two, what percentage should be military personnel? Corporate security personnel?  Contractors from the host nation?  No, this kind of discussion doesn’t make for rousing ratings, but it would be far more informative than bickering about who edited talking points for Sunday morning consumption.

# The independent review panel urged the State Department to “increased DS personnel for high – and critical – threat posts and for additional Mobile Security Deployment teams, as well as an increase in DS domestic staffing in support of such action.”

“The State Department is asking Congress for more than $1.3 billion to boost security, out of contingency funds once allocated for Iraq: $553 million for additional Marine security guards, $130 million for civilian diplomatic security personnel and $691 million for installation improvements, officials told The New York Times.” [UTSanDiego]

The request has been made, now we need to know how much of this recommendation has be implemented, or is in the process of implementation?  Perhaps we could even find out how Marine Corps plans to get 1,000 more guards trained and available for diplomatic security duty?  Do they have the funding necessary to make all posts as secure as reasonably possible? Or, are current funding levels sufficient to meet some needs but not others?

The recommendations mentioned above are only a handful, and not representative of the entire report, but they are illustrative of the kinds of questions we should be discussing as a civil society with legitimate concerns for the safety of our diplomatic endeavors.  So long as the Villagers are content to air the political rendition of the Bickersons we’ll not likely hear much about the policy changes necessary to improve diplomatic security.

Case in Point:  The Tax Man Cometh.  The Internal Revenue Service faced a veritable flood of requests for 501 c(3) and 501 (c) 4 status (tax exempt) in recent years.  There were no less than 2,744 501 (c) 4 applications in 2012:

Compare that to 1,777 applications in 2011 and 1,741 in 2010, federal records show. Not since 2002, when officials processed 2,402 applications, have so many been received.

Meanwhile, Exempt Organizations Division staffing slid from 910 employees during fiscal year 2009 to 876 during fiscal year 2012, agency personnel documents indicate.

In 2010, IRS officials projected exempt division staffing at 942 employees. But IRS officials cut the number to 900 after the agency began slashing its budget in response to fiscal woes affecting most corners of the federal government.  [CPI]

Thus we have a decreasing number of people handling a 56% increase in the number of applications in a single year — and what do people tend to do when an agency is short handed?  They make short cuts.  In this instance some not very good ones.   We can quibble endlessly about who did what to whom? However, questions like is the “targeting” of right wing groups comparable to IRS investigations of Green Peace or the NAACP?” aren’t very constructive.   There are two policy points in this controversy, each less well covered in our media than would be good for us.

# Who should be making decisions about the application of campaign finance laws?  There are some legitimate lines of inquiry here:

“For the I.R.S.’s bipartisan legion of critics, the agency’s record has underscored its contradictory and seemingly confused response to the fastest-growing corner in the world of unlimited political spending: tax-exempt groups that have paid for at least half a billion dollars in campaign ads during the last two election cycles.

The I.R.S. has done little to regulate a flood of political spending by larger groups — like Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, co-founded by Mr. Rove, and Priorities USA, with close ties to President Obama — as well as Republican leaders in Congress and other elected officials. And an agency that is supposed to stay as far away from partisan politics as possible has been left in charge — almost by accident — of regulating a huge amount of election spending.”  [NYT]

Given the amount and sources of political funding in this country, it hardly seems rational to leave the determination of regulation to an agency tasked with revenue collection.  Perhaps we ought to be using this latest “scandal” as a starting point toward rationalizing our campaign finance structure?  We can see the agency struggling with how to deal with groups that announced their intention to “improve our general welfare,” but whose main object was to funnel campaign funds.   How was the agency to determine what was political and lobbying and what was “advocacy?”  Would a political, as contrasted with a social welfare, organization necessarily be involved with limited or expanding government, or with educating people about the Constitution?  [ABC pdf]  Should the term “party” in the title of the group be an acceptable flag identifying the applicant as a political rather than a social welfare or educational organization?   There is appropriate indignation from both sides of the political aisle about the shorthand methodology of the IRS, but that still leaves us wondering — Who is in charge of implementing campaign finance regulation in this country?

# Is the Internal Revenue Service appropriately staffed to allow that agency to meet citizens’ needs in a timely and accurate fashion?  Do we really believe that cutting staff from 942 to 900 will mean there are enough people to review the increasing number of applications for tax exempt status?  Is the agency so understaffed that there is a temptation to ignore the Big Players while smaller organizations get more scrutiny?

Case in Point: Pressing the Press.  The Department of Justice used FISA warrants to obtain information from 20 telephone lines related to reporting by the Associated Press.

“The organization was not told the reason for the seizure. But the timing and the specific journalistic targets strongly suggested they are related to a continuing government investigation into the leaking of information a year ago about the Central Intelligence Agency’s disruption of a Yemen-based terrorist plot to bomb an airliner.” [NYT]

We need to tread carefully here.  In 2008 Congress passed the FISA Amendments Act, in the wake of revelations about the NSA warrantless wiretaps during the Bush Administration.   This would be the self-same H.R. 6304 about which the ACLU raised significant objections.     The bill passed with a 293 to 129 vote in the House of Representatives on June 20, 2008 [roll call 437] and by a vote of 69 to 28 in the Senate on July 9th.  [roll call 168]  There were 188 House Republicans who voted for the bill and 105 Democrats voting in favor.  128 Democrats voted against it, while only 1 Republican (Rep. Johnson, IL) voted “no.”   All 28 “no” votes in the U.S. Senate were cast by Democrats.

While the Associated Press may characterize the the intrusion in angry terms:

“Gary Pruitt, the president and chief executive of The A.P., called the seizure, a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into its news gathering activities.

“There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters,” he wrote. “These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the news gathering activities undertaken by The A.P. during a two-month period, provide a road map to A.P.’s news gathering operations, and disclose information about A.P.’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.” [NYT]

The Associated Press ought not get a free pass in this instance because (1) we don’t know if it was “massive,” — we actually don’t know much of anything because that’s how the FISA Law was written,  (2) we don’t know if it was “overbroad” either because that’s how the FISA Law was drafted, and (3) we don’t know if AP’s “sources and methods” were compromised — and we probably aren’t going to find out because in the wake of various acts of terrorism the majority of members of the 110th Congress were pleased to enact ‘reformed’ measures to allow for this kind of surveillance in cases of national security (in this instance a CIA operation).   If the Associated Press naively thought it was somehow immune to the provisions of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 because a press pass is as good as a law-proof vest, then they’ve been sorely disabused of their optimism.

Some caution should be exercised when we call for a No-Holds Barred approach to “fighting the War on Terror” in the name of national security, because while it may appear to be a grand idea when the target is a potential or alleged terrorist or someone associated with a potential or alleged terrorist —  it’s a whole different ball game when the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 is applied to you.

The discussion in this instance needs to be more broadly focused — not on whether or not the AP is an aggrieved party or if CIA operational methods and sources were compromised by reporting — but on whether we may finally be ready to take a serious look at the objections to H.R. 6304 which were raised by the ACLU and other civil rights organizations when the law was being considered.

Simply bouncing from one “scandal” to the next in order to boost ratings and sell print isn’t going to serve the American public any better now than it did when we followed Whitewater into nothingness.   With each major incident there is a choice to be made — either follow popular titillation with the shallow aspects of a scandal, or take a more measured long term view which addresses serious questions about which we should demand serious answers.  It’s the difference between be able to discern good wood from pulp.

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