The Voice of the White House
Washington, D.C. May 11, 2014: “The silence about the Boston bombings is interrupted by official releases to the media showing the FBI in a good light but the truth is that either they had subverted the older of the two brothers to work for them in return for getting American citizenship and had lost contact and/or control over him or they simply dropped the ball, ignored a Russian request to follow up on the older brother and forgot about him. In either case, they are shown in a terrible light. We are daily told how our heroic and brilliantly effective agencies, like the FBI, the CIA and the DHS are protecting Americans from evil Muslim terrorists when it clearly appears that they are doing no such thing. Of course these agencies love to expand and in expanding, rush to Congress every year for larger operating monies. Of course they never have to explain to obedient Congressmen just what they are doing, or not doing, with huge sums of the taxpayer’s money.”
Michele Bachmann: 9/11, Benghazi Were God’s ‘Judgment,’ So We Must Hold Day Of Prayer On Sept. 11
May 10, 2013
by Nick Wing
The Huffington Post
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) continued to promote a right-wing Sept. 11 “National Day of Prayer and Fasting” on Thursday, telling an audience gathered at a Capitol Hill event that such actions were necessary because “judgment” had been passed down by God on that day in both 2001 and 2012.
“Our nation has seen judgment not once but twice on September 11 and that’s why we’re going to have ‘9-11 Pray’ on that day,” she said at an event called “Washington: A Man of Prayer,” according to Right Wing Watch. “Is there anything better that we can do on that day rather than to humble ourselves and to pray to an almighty God?”
The 2012 attack on a U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans died, took place on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Earlier, Bachmann had claimed that the nation was experiencing difficulties that could be improved by turning to God.
“It’s no secret that our nation may very well be experiencing the hand of judgment. It is no secret that we all are concerned that our nation may be in a time of decline. If that is in fact so, what is the answer?” Bachmann asked. “The answer is what we are doing here today: humbling ourselves before an almighty God, crying out to an almighty God, saying not of ourselves but you, would you save us oh God? We repent of our sins, we turn away from them, we seek you, we seek your ways.”
Bachmann has partnered with Joseph Farah, editor of the far-right publication World Net Daily, to rally support for the outlet’s Sept. 11 event. She entered an official endorsement into the Congressional Record last month.
Farah has said the event is necessary because the nation is currently seeing a “slide from moral malaise to cultural hedonism,” which he argued was exemplified by growing support for gay marriage and equal rights.
The event has drawn backers among a number of prominent far-right conservatives. Martial arts and action movie star Chuck Norris recently joined the push.
Boycott of Israel is small for now, but gets higher profile with Hawking
Many celebrities have ignored boycott appeals, such as Elton John, Lady Gaga, Madonna, and Paul McCartney. Some academics say that the impact of the movement has been overstated.
May 9, 2013
by Joshua Mitnick, Correspondent
Christian Science Monitor
Tel Aviv -Stephen Hawking’s refusal of an invitation to a star-studded Israeli conference has handed pro-Palestinian activists a major victory in the campaign to isolate the Jewish state, but Israeli experts and officials are divided on whether it marks a tipping point or a one-time public relations coup.
Hawking ducked out of the annual Israeli Presidential Conference, which will draw the likes of Barbara Streisand and former President Bill Clinton this year to fete the 90th birthday of President Shimon Peres – Israel’s best known dove. Mr. Hawking’s status as an international bestselling author of books on physics and cosmology makes him one of the most prominent figures to join the boycott movement.
“He is a mega-celeb. Few people in the world don’t know who he is,” says Alon Liel, a former Israeli diplomat and director general of the foreign ministry who believes Mr. Hawking’s statement will resonate with other intellectuals.
Mr. Liel believes that is likely to give momentum to the cultural boycott of Israel – a decade-long effort to isolate Israeli academics and universities, and pressure prominent artists not to visit. That said, the efforts to isolate Israel economically through boycotts, divestment, and sanctions – known as BDS – have not caught much traction. Says Mr. Liel, “Look, [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu is in China” to drum up commercial ties.
Mr. Hawking joins cultural figures like rock star Roger Waters and jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson, who backed out of a show in Israel last year after most of the tickets had been sold.
Nevertheless, a longer list has ignored those appeals, such as Elton John, Lady Gaga, Madonna, and Paul McCartney. Indeed, some academics say that the impact of the boycott movement has been overstated.
Bar Ilan University Political Science professor Jonathan Rhynhold, who traveled to the UK eight years ago to defeat a motion at a British university to sever ties with his school, insists that academic ties between the United Kingdom and Israel have expanded over the last decade in spite of the boycott.
He believes that the core of the boycott movement represents a small minority of public opinion because it opposes Israel’s existence. However, the movement is able to reach the mainstream of international sentiment because of the overwhelming opposition to Israel’s settlement policies in the West Bank. (Indeed, the government reportedly advanced plans this week to build about 300 new housing units in the settlement of Beit El.)
“Israel’s real legitimacy problem is in the West Bank. The issue of settlements is indefensible,” he says. “Therefore when we expand settlements, we give more air to the BDS to get people like Hawking.”
Many Israelis see in the boycott movement a dangerous threat to delegitimize Israel’s very existence abroad. Amos Yadlin, a former military intelligence chief, said last year efforts to turn Israel into a pariah state are a strategic threat to the country on the level of missiles and rockets.
Ben Dror Yemini, a prominent centrist columnist at the Maariv newspaper, wrote that the Hawking boycott decision should be a “wake up call” to the government. “Intellectual terrorism works.”
Asked to explain how Israel could counter such a campaign in a phone interview, Mr. Yemini says that the government is mistakenly content with overwhelmingly pro-Israel approval ratings in the US.
“There is a campaign and they are beating us,” he says. “The most important thing are the elites. What is happening in academia and the media. There we are failing. Israel doesn’t look like it’s in the game.”
The University of Cambridge professor informed the office of the Israeli President on Friday that he had reconsidered “based on advice from Palestinian academics that he should respect the boycott,” according to a statement released by the head of media relations Tim Holt.
The campaign has also polarized the political environment in Israel, as right-wing politicians have assailed dovish critics of the settlements as one in the same as the pro-Palestinian boycott movement. Two years ago, Israel’s parliament passed a law enabling the filing of civil lawsuits against individuals who call for boycotts of settlement products, and sanctions for companies and non-profits that participate in boycotts. Mr. Hawking’s move is likely to strengthen that tendency, some say.
“Netanyahu wants us all to believe that Israel is threatened by BDS and ‘delegitimization,'” tweeted Anshel Pfeffer, a reporter for the liberal Haaretz newspaper. “Thank you Stephen Hawking for helping him.”
Noam Chomsky helped lobby Stephen Hawking to stage Israel boycott
US professor Noam Chomsky expressed regret at Hawking’s initial acceptance of invitation to speak at conference in Israel
May 10, 2013
by Robert Booth and Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem
Noam Chomsky was among 20 academics who privately lobbied Professor Stephen Hawking to boycott a major Israeli conference, it has emerged.
Chomsky, a US professor and well-known supporter of the Palestinian cause, joined British academics from the universities of Cambridge, London, Leeds, Southampton, Warwick, Newcastle, York and the Open University to tell Hawking they were “surprised and deeply disappointed” that he had accepted the invitation to speak at next month’s presidential conference in Jerusalem, which will chaired by Shimon Peres and attended by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.
Hawking pulled out this week in protest at Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, in the wake of receiving the letter and soundings from Palestinian colleagues. The 71-year-old theoretical physicist’s decision has been warmly welcomed by Palestinian academics, with one describing it as “of cosmic proportions”, but was attacked in Israel.
On Friday the liberal academic David Newman, dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben Gurion University in Israel, warned that an academic boycott “just destroys one of the very few spaces left where Israelis and Palestinians actually do come together”.
Chomsky, who has backed “boycott and divestment of firms that are carrying out operations in the occupied territories”, agreed to add his considerable weight to the pressure on Hawking after email correspondence with the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine campaign group (Bricup), said its chair, Jonathan Rosenhead.
The letter to Hawking declared: “Israel systematically discriminates against the Palestinians who make up 20% of its population in ways that would be illegal in Britain”, its treatment of the people of Gaza amounts to “collective punishment”, the construction of Jewish settlements breaches the Geneva convention and “Israel places multiple roadblocks, physical, financial and legal, in the way of higher education, both for its own Palestinian citizens and those under occupation”.
The letter continued: “Israel has a name for the promotion of its cultural and scientific standing: ‘Brand Israel’. This is a deliberate policy of camouflaging its oppressive acts behind a cultured veneer.”
Professor Malcolm Levitt, a fellow of the Royal Society and an expert in magnetic resonance at Southampton University, who signed the letter, said: “Israel has a totally explicit policy of making life impossible for the non-Jewish population and I find it totally unacceptable. As a scientist, the tool I have available to prevent the normalisation of that situation is boycott. It is a tough choice because Israel is full of brilliant scientists and they are our colleagues.”
Bricup is now to call on Lord Skidelsky, a leading economic historian, to refuse his invitation to speak at the conference. Skidelsky, emeritus professor of political economy at the University of Warwick and a Tory peer, declined to comment and is understood to still be planning to attend.
News of Chomsky’s role in what has been considered the coup of Hawking’s decision for the movement came amid growing signs in UK academia of interest in supporting boycotts of Israel. At its annual congress beginning on 29 May, the University and College Union will urge its 120,000 members to consider rethinking links with Israeli academic institutions. Teachers and lecturers will be asked to “consider the appropriateness of Israeli institutional associations”, according to a draft motion.
“It is brave of Hawking for the straightforward reason that someone who has his prominence will be targeted for vilification,” said Tom Hickey, a member of the UCU’s executive committee who put forward the draft motion. “If he can do that then all of us should think of doing it. This isn’t about targeting Israeli scholars but targeting the institutions.”
Pro-boycott academics believe action by scientists is particularly effective in opposing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians because the country’s strength in science and technology is a key driver of the economy, and they claim the research capabilities of Israeli academic institutions have been deployed in support of advanced programmes such as the development of drone aircraft.
On Friday the fallout from Hawking’s decision continued to be felt. “It is one of the starkest indicators yet that the tide is changing in the western mainstream against Israel’s occupation, colonisation and apartheid, and that the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement is fast reaching its South Africa moment of maturity and impact,” said Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian human rights activist and founding member of the BDS.
Others warned it would damage Israeli-Palestinian relations. “There are certain areas that are above political boycotts whatever your political positions are,” said Newman. “Scientific co-operation is one of those particularly when you think of the wider benefits of science on the whole. In this context, universities are among the few spaces in Israel-Palestine where, even in these difficult times, there is some sort of dialogue and co-operation.”
The British author Ian McEwan, who was criticised two years ago when he visited Israel to accept the Jerusalem Prize, said: “My feeling [in 2011] was that I wished to engage with the best elements of Israeli society and I don’t want to isolate those people,” he said.
He said there were dozens of countries “whose governments we might loathe or disapprove of” but “Israel-Palestine has become sort of tribal and a touchstone for a certain portion of the intellectual classes. I say this in the context of thinking it is profoundly wrong of the Israeli government not to be pursuing more actively and positively and creatively a solution with the Palestinians. That’s why I think one wants to go to these places to make the point. Turning away will not produce any result.”
Samia Botmeh, director of the centre for development studies at Birzeit University in the West Bank, and a member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel’s steering committee, said Hawking’s decision had significantly boosted the boycott movement locally and internationally, but denied there had been a “huge, orchestrated campaign” to persuade him. “It will be easier now for other academics who have been supportive of Palestinian rights but were reluctant to act on their support,” she said.
Boston chief: Wasn’t told FBI got Tsarnaev warning
AP foreign, Friday May 10 2013
ALICIA A. CALDWELL
Associated Press= WASHINGTON (AP) — The FBI did not initially share with Boston police the warnings it had received from Russia about one suspect in last month’s marathon bombings, despite the work of four city police representatives on a federal terrorism task force, Boston’s police commissioner told Congress on Thursday.
Yet Commissioner Ed Davis acknowledged that police might not have uncovered or disrupted the plot even if they had fully investigated the family of Tamerlan Tsarnaev based on those warnings. The FBI after a cursory investigation closed its assessment on Tsarnaev, who died in a police shootout after the bombings. Boston police learned about the Russian security service warnings only later.
“That’s very hard to say. We would certainly look at the information, we would certainly talk to the individual,” Davis said. “From the information I’ve received, the FBI did that, and they closed the case out. I can’t say that I would have come to a different conclusion based upon the information that was known at that particular time.”
In Massachusetts, meanwhile, Tsarnaev was secretly buried in an undisclosed location outside Worcester after a weeklong search for a community willing to take the body. Worcester police Sgt. Kerry Hazelhurst said Thursday the body was no longer in that city and had been entombed, but he would not say where.
The congressional hearing was the first in a series to review the government’s initial response to the attacks, ask what information authorities received about Tsarnaev and his brother before the bombings and consider whether everything was handled correctly.
Some lawmakers questioned whether Boston police could have more thoroughly investigated Tsarnaev after 2011, based on Russia’s vague warnings then to the FBI and CIA or the discovery by the Homeland Security Department in 2012 that he was traveling to Russia for six months, and whether Justice Department rules intended to protect civil liberties constrained the FBI’s own inquiry.
“Why didn’t they involve the local law enforcers who could have stayed on the case and picked up signals from some of the students who interacted with them, from the people in the mosque,” asked former Sen. Joe Lieberman, who also testified. “In this case, aggravatingly, you have two of our great homeland security agencies that didn’t involve before the event the local and state authorities that could have helped us prevent the attack.”
Davis’ testimony revealed a gap in information-sharing between federal and local officials. That was somewhat reminiscent of intelligence failures that preceded the 2001 terror attacks. Unlike those lapses, however, it’s not clear that anything would have been different, whatever coordination there might have been.
Led by the FBI, Joint Terrorism Task Forces operate in many cities as a way to bring federal, state and local officials together to share information. The model has existed for decades but, after 9/11, task forces sprouted up in cities nationwide to ensure that police were not out of the loop on investigations like the one the FBI conducted into Tsarnaev.
Davis said that while his officers weren’t given specific information about the elder Tsarnaev, they did have access to computer databases maintained by the terrorism task force. Later Thursday, Boston FBI Special Agent in Charge Richard DesLauriers issued a statement detailing how and why representatives from local agencies have access to the databases.
He said giving task force members access to the databases provides necessary “accessibility and awareness that otherwise would be unfeasible” given the volume of such investigations.
Under questioning from lawmakers, Davis said he was not aware of anyone from a local mosque where Tamerlan Tsarnaev once worshipped calling police after photographs of the suspects were released by the FBI. He said authorities also did not hear from classmates of Tsarnaev’s brother, Dzhokhar, at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured and faces federal terrorism charges in the attacks.
In a time of widespread budget cuts, the hearing also began laying the groundwork for an expected push for more counterterrorism money. Both Davis and Kurt Schwartz, the Massachusetts homeland security chief, praised federal grants that for years have kept cities flush with money for equipment and manpower.
“People are alive today” because of money for training and equipment, Schwartz said.
The hearing was conducted by the House Homeland Security Committee. The panel’s chairman, Rep. Michael McCall, R-Texas, and ranking Democrat, Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, both spoke of the importance of federal money, as did Lieberman.
“You can’t fight this war without resources,” Lieberman said.
In written testimony, Davis told lawmakers that cities should look at deploying more undercover officers and special police units and installing more surveillance cameras — but not at the expense of civil liberties.
“I do not endorse actions that move Boston and our nation into a police state mentality, with surveillance cameras attached to every light pole in the city,” Davis said. “We do not and cannot live in a protective enclosure because of the actions of extremists who seek to disrupt our way of life.”
Investigators used surveillance video from a restaurant near one of the explosions to help identify the Tsarnaev brothers.
Associated Press writers Jay Lindsay and Michelle R. Smith contributed to this report from Boston
Hezbollah Threatens Israel Over Syria Strikes
May 9, 2013
by Anne Barnard
New York Times
BEIRUT, Lebanon — The leader of Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese militant group, escalated tensions with Israel on Thursday over the recent Israeli airstrikes near Damascus, suggesting that the Syrian government would respond by providing Hezbollah fighters with the same weapons that Israel wants to keep out of their hands.
While the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, did not specify the type of arms, he said that they were “unique weapons that it never had before” that would “change the balance” of power with Israel, which regards his group’s alliance with Syria and Iran as one of its most potent security threats.
In a televised speech, Mr. Nasrallah said the transfer of the weapons would be Syria’s “strategic response” to the airstrikes that hit the outskirts of Damascus on Sunday.
Israel has not publicly acknowledged responsibility for those strikes. But Israeli leaders have said they would take military action to prevent Hezbollah from obtaining “game changing” weapons like chemical arms, which Syria is believed to possess in large quantities, and sophisticated long-range missiles that could hit anywhere in Israel from Hezbollah-controlled areas of southern Lebanon.
Analysts close to Hezbollah said they believed that Mr. Nasrallah was referring to long-range missiles, not chemical munitions. But the Israelis have expressed growing concern about the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war, suggesting that the transfer of such weapons to groups hostile to Israel was more and more likely.
The airstrikes believed to have been carried out by Israel last Sunday heightened fears that Syria’s war could lead to a regional conflagration.
Syrian officials said Thursday that they would respond forcefully to any future Israeli attacks and that they planned to retaliate for Sunday’s strikes, possibly by authorizing Syria-based militant groups to attack in the Golan Heights, the disputed border region captured by Israel from Syria in the 1967 war.
Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, said in an interview with Agence France-Presse in Damascus that any new Israeli assault would bring a “harsh and painful” response from Syria’s military.
“Instructions were given to respond immediately to any Israeli attack,” he said in the interview, which was also published on the Web site of Press TV, an Iranian satellite channel. “Syria will not allow this to be repeated.”
President Bashar al-Assad of Syria told recent visitors to Damascus that his government had decided to give Hezbollah “everything,” according to an article in the pro-Hezbollah Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar. He also said that Syria planned to become “a resistance country” and take a more active role in opposing Israel. Syria has long positioned itself as the champion of the Palestinian cause and as Israel’s greatest Arab foe, but since 1973 it has rarely clashed militarily with Israel.
The Israeli government did not respond to the assertions by Mr. Assad or Mr. Nasrallah. But Israeli analysts said they did not doubt that Mr. Assad’s forces and Hezbollah, which Israel considers a terrorist organization, would be drawing closer militarily, and that weapons transfers were possible.
“I’m afraid that both sides are serious in what they are saying and this is a recipe for direct confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah,” said Boaz Ganor, a counterterrorism expert at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel.
The escalating tensions came as the United States was seeking to exert more diplomacy in conjunction with Russia, Syria’s most powerful foreign supporter, aimed at starting negotiations to settle the Syrian conflict.
Secretary of State John Kerry, asked during a visit to Rome about intelligence reports that Russia was completing a sale of surface-to-air missiles to Syria, told reporters that the focus should be on the Russian-American agreement to convene peace talks as soon as possible.
But he said he had made it clear to Russian leaders during his visit to Moscow this week, where the agreement on peace talks was reached, that the United States “would prefer that Russia not supply assistance” to Syria’s air defenses because of the threat they posed to the region, particularly Israel.
In addition to meetings with Italy’s new prime minister and foreign minister, Mr. Kerry discussed Syria with Jordan’s foreign minister, Nasser Judeh, pledging $100 million in new humanitarian assistance, nearly half of it to help Jordan deal with a flood of refugees. He also spoke with the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, in an effort to start negotiations.
Mr. Kerry suggested that the United Nations would soon announce a date for talks to begin, presumably in Geneva, where an effort to create a framework for a negotiated settlement began last year but stalled.
In Paris, the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said in an interview with Le Monde that France favored the diplomatic solution advanced by Mr. Kerry, but that it also wanted to rethink the European Union arms embargo in order to help the Syrian rebels. He also proposed that the United Nations should declare Syria’s Islamist Al Nusra Front a terrorist organization to separate it from other rebel groups.
The United Nations Security Council has already looked informally at whether to impose sanctions on Al Nusra Front after it pledged allegiance last month to Al Qaeda. The State Department designated Nusra a terrorist organization in December, but the group has strengthened since then. It is considered one of the Syrian insurgency’s most effective fighting forces.
Senior French officials said that the French position toward the Syrian rebels had become noticeably more cautious in the last few weeks, especially since the resignation last month of Sheik Moaz al-Khatib, the leader of the main political opposition group, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, amid political infighting.
They said they would like to see the opposition’s main armed wing, the Free Syrian Army, become more centralized and come under the command of a civilian hierarchy before moving ahead with arms transfers.
At the United Nations, where a deadlock in the Security Council has frozen any concrete action on Syria, Qatar and other supporters of the Syrian opposition began circulating a draft General Assembly resolution on Thursday that strongly condemned the Assad government and called for a political transition.
Such resolutions are nonbinding, but its supporters hope a vote supporting the measure in the Assembly as early as next week will add pressure on Damascus to end the fighting.
In a related development, the United Nations said Thursday that Lakhdar Brahimi, the special Syria envoy for both the United Nations and the Arab League, had agreed to Mr. Ban’s request to stay on the job. Mr. Brahimi had been expected to resign in frustration over the lack of progress on the political track. But he apparently changed his mind after the Russian-American agreement to convene a peace conference — something Mr. Brahimi had long sought.
Reporting was contributed by Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem, Steven Erlanger from Paris, Steven Lee Myers from Rome, Neil MacFarquhar from the United Nations and Rick Gladstone from New York.
Homeland Insecurity: Seven Years, Untold Dollars to Silence One Man
by Peter Van Buren
What do words mean in a post-9/11 world? Apart from the now clichéd Orwellian twists that turn brutal torture into mere enhanced interrogation, the devil is in the details. Robert MacLean is a former air marshal fired for an act of whistleblowing. He has continued to fight over seven long years for what once would have passed as simple justice: getting his job back. His is an all-too-twenty-first-century story of the extraordinary lengths to which the U.S. government is willing to go to thwart whistleblowers.
First, the government retroactively classified a previously unclassified text message to justify firing MacLean. Then it invoked arcane civil service procedures, including an “interlocutory appeal” to thwart him and, in the process, enjoyed the approval of various courts and bureaucratic boards apparently willing to stamp as “legal” anything the government could make up in its own interest.
And yet here’s the miracle at the heart of this tale: MacLean refused to quit, when ordinary mortals would have thrown in the towel. Now, with a recent semi-victory, he may not only have given himself a shot at getting his old job back, but also create a precedent for future federal whistleblowers. In the post-9/11 world, people like Robert MacLean show us how deep the Washington rabbit hole really goes.
The Whistle Is Blown
MacLean joined the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) in 2001 after stints with the Air Force and the Border Patrol. In July 2003, all marshals received a briefing about a possible hijacking plot. Soon after, the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA), which oversees FAMS, sent an unencrypted, open-air text message to the cell phones of the marshals cancelling several months of missions for cost-cutting reasons. MacLean became concerned that cancelling missions during a hijacking alert might create a dangerous situation for the flying public. He complained to his supervisor and to the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, but each responded that nothing could be done.
It was then that he decided to blow the whistle, hoping that public pressure might force the TSA to reinstate the marshals’ flights. So MacLean talked to a reporter, who broadcast a story criticizing the TSA’s decision and, after 11 members of Congress joined in the criticism, it reversed itself. At this point, MacLean had not been identified as the source of the leak and so carried on with his job.
A year later, he appeared on TV in disguise, criticizing the TSA dress code and its special boarding policies, which he believed allowed marshals to be easily identified by other passengers. This time, the TSA recognized his voice and began an investigation that revealed he had also released the 2003 text message. He was fired in April 2006. Although the agency had not labeled that message as “sensitive security information” (SSI) when it was sent in 2003, in August 2006, months after MacLean’s firing, it issued a retroactive order stating that the text’s content was indeed SSI.
A Whistleblower’s Catch-22
That disclosing the contents of an unclassified message could get someone fired for disclosing classified information is the sort of topsy-turvy situation which could only exist in the post-9/11 world of the American national security state.
Under the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA), a disclosure prohibited by law negates whistleblower protections. That, of course, makes it in the government’s interest to define disclosure as broadly as possible and to classify as much of its internal communications for as long as it possibly can. No wonder that in recent years the classification of government documents has soared, reaching a record total of 92,064,862 in 2011.
Officially, the U.S. government recognizes only three basic levels of classification: confidential, secret, and top secret. Since 9/11, however, various government agencies have created multiple freestyle categories of secrecy like “SSI,” “Law Enforcement Sensitive,” “Sensitive But Unclassified,” and the more colorful “Eyes Only.” All of these are outside the normal codification system; all are hybrids that casually seek to incorporate the full weight of the formal law. There are currently 107 designations just for “sensitive” information. In addition to those labels, there exist more than 130 sets of extra “handling requirements” that only deepen the world of government secrecy.
At issue for MacLean was not only the retroactive classification of a text message already in the public domain, but what classified could possibly mean in an era when everything related to the national security state was slipping into the shadows. Such questions are hardly semantic or academic. MacLean’s case hinges on how they are answered.
The case against Army Private Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks is, for example, intimately tied up in them. The military hides behind classification to block access to Manning’s “public” trial. With WikiLeaks, despite more than 100,000 U.S. State Department diplomatic cables being available to anyone anywhere on the web, the government continues to insist that they remain “classified” and cannot even be rereleased in response to requests. Potential federal employees were warned to stay away from the cables online, and the State Department even blocked TomDispatch from its staff to shield them from alleged WikiLeaks content (some of which was linked to and discussed, but none of which was actually posted at the site).
With author Tony Shaffer, the government retroactively classified its own account of why he was given the Bronze Star and his standard deployment orders to Afghanistan after he published an uncomplimentary book about American actions there. The messy case of alleged “hacktivist” Barrett Brown includes prosecution for “disclosing” classified material simply by linking to it at places where it had already been posted online; and, while still at the State Department, I was once accused of the same thing by the government.
In MacLean’s case, over a period of seven years, the legality of the TSA firing him for using an only-later-classified text was upheld. Legal actions included hearings before administrative judges, the Merit Systems Protections Board twice, that interlocutory appeal, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The sum of these decisions amid a labyrinth of judicial bureaucracies demands the use of the term Kafkaesque. MacLean, so the general judgment went, should have known that the text message he planned to leak was a classified document, even when it wasn’t (yet). As a result, he should also have understood that his act would not be that of a whistleblower alerting the public to possible danger, but of a criminal risking public safety by exposing government secrets. If that isn’t the definition of a whistleblower’s catch-22, what is?
What such a twisted interpretation by the various courts, boards, and bodies meant was chillingly laid out in an amicus brief on behalf of MacLean filed by the United States Office of Special Counsel (a small, lonely U.S. government entity charged with protecting whistleblowers):
“Whistleblowers should not have to guess whether information that they reasonably believe evidences waste, fraud, abuse, illegalities or public dangers might be later designated as SSI [unclassified sensitive security information] and therefore should not be disclosed. Rather than making the wrong guess, a would-be whistleblower will likely choose to remain silent to avoid risking the individual’s employment.”
Seven Years Later…
In 2011, five years after he had been fired as an air marshal, MacLean’s case finally reached the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Two full years after that, in April 2013, the court handed down a decision that may yet provide justice for Robert MacLean — and for future whistleblowers. While awkwardly upholding previous decisions that the government can indeed retroactively classify information, even documents in categories like SSI that exist outside the government’s official framework for classification and secrecy, the court tackled a more basic question: Was Robert MacLean a whistleblower anyway, entitled to protection for his act of conscience?
Here lies the conflict at the heart of just about every whistleblower case — between the public’s right (and need) to know and the (at times legitimate) need for secrecy. The government typically argues that individuals should not be allowed to decide for themselves what remains secret and what doesn’t, or chaos would result. At the same time, in a post-9/11 world of increasing secrecy, the loss of the right to know, and the massive over-classification of documents, the “conflict” has become ever more one-sided. If everything can be considered a classified secret document too precious for Americans to know about, and nothing classified can be disclosed, then the summary effect is that nothing inside the government can ever be shown to the public.
The court found that while the Transportation Safety Administration could legally apply any classification it wanted to information any time it wanted, even retroactively, simply slapping on such a label did not necessarily prohibit disclosure. Absent an actual law in MacLean’s case mentioning SSI, a term created bureaucratically, not congressionally, there could be no Whistleblower Protection Act-excepting prohibition. In other words, MacLean could still be a whistleblower.
One of MacLean’s lawyers, Tom Devine, told me the decision “restored enforceability for the Whistleblower Protection Act’s public free speech rights. It ruled that only Congress has the authority to remove whistleblower rights. Agency-imposed restraints are not relevant for WPA rights.”
“With this precedential decision,” MacLean explained to me, “agencies can no longer cancel out Whistleblower Protection Act rights with their semi-secret markings like SSI, Law Enforcement Sensitive, etcetera.”
In a concurring opinion, United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit Judge Evan Wallach was even clearer: “Mr. MacLean presented substantial evidence that he was not motivated by personal gain but by the desire to protect the public… I concur to emphasize that the facts alleged, if proven, allege conduct at the core of the Whistleblower Protection Act.”
MacLean’s case now returns to the Merit Systems Protection Board. The board is a complex piece of bureaucracy inside the already complicated federal government personnel system. In simple terms, it is supposed to be a place to appeal personnel actions, such as alleged unfair hirings and firings. It thus serves as a kind of watchdog over the sprawling federal human resources empire. The Board now has the court-ordered specific charge to “determine whether Mr. MacLean’s disclosure qualifies for WPA protection.”
Note as well that this case could continue without end for years more, traveling on “appeal” back through the federal judicial bureaucracy and the courts. And remember that this, too, is an advantage to a government that wants ever less known about itself. If, as a federal employee, you are watching a case like MacLean’s (or Thomas Drake’s, or Franz Gayle’s, or Morris Davis’s, or John Kiriakou’s, or even my own small version of this), then you can’t help noticing that the act of whistleblowing could leave you: a) out on your ear; b) prosecuted for a criminal act and/or c) with your life embroiled for years in the intricacies of your own never-ending case. None of this is exactly an encouragement to federal employees to blow that whistle.
Whistleblowers and Secrecy
Threats to whistleblowers abound, so any positive step, however minimalist or reversible, is important. Entering the White House pledging to head the most transparent administration in history, Barack Obama has, in fact, gone after more national security whistleblowers, often using the draconian Espionage Act, than all previous administrations combined.
His Justice Department has repeatedly tried to prosecute whistleblowers, crudely lumping them in with actual spies and claiming they endanger Americans (and sometimes “the troops”) by their actions. In addition, through the ongoing case of Berry v. Conyers, Obama has sought to expand the definition of “national security worker” to potentially include thousands of additional federal employees. Many employees who occupy truly sensitive jobs in the intelligence community (for example, real-world spies at the CIA) are exempt from being granted whistleblower status. They also cannot appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board if fired. By seeking to expand that exemption to a significantly larger group of people who may work at some federal agency, but in non-sensitive positions, Obama is also functionally moving to shrink the pool of potential whistleblowers. In Berry v. Conyers, for example, the persons Obama seeks to exempt as occupying sensitive jobs are merely an accounting technician and a commissary worker at an Air Force base. Neither of them even hold security clearances.
What happens with MacLean’s case potentially affects every future whistleblower. If the mere presence of a pseudo-classification on an item, even applied retroactively, negates whistleblower protections, it means dark days ahead for the right of the citizenry to know what the government is doing (or how it’s misbehaving) in its name. If so, no act of whistleblowing could be considered protected, since all the government would have to do to unprotect it is classify whatever was disclosed retroactively and wash its hands of the miscreant. Federal employees, not a risk-taking bunch to begin with, will react accordingly.
This is what gives MacLean’s case special meaning. While the initial decision on his fate will occur in the bowels of the somewhat obscure Merit Systems Protections Board, it will set a precedent that will surely find its way into higher courts on more significant cases. Amid a lot of technical legal issues, it all boils down to something very simple: Should whistleblower protections favor the conscience of a concerned federal employee willing to risk his job and the freedom to inform the public, or should they dissolve in the face of an unseen bureaucrat’s (retroactive) pseudo-classification decision?
Procedurally, there are many options ahead for MacLean’s case, and the government will undoubtedly contest each tiny step. Whatever happens will happen slowly. This is exactly how the government has continually done its dirty work post-9/11, throwing monkey wrenches in the gears of the legal system, twisting words, and manipulating organizations designed to deliver justice in order to deny it.
MacLean smiles at this. “I did seven years so far. I can do seven more if they want. There’s too much at stake to just give up.”
Peter Van Buren is a retired 24-year veteran of the State Department. A TomDispatch regular, he writes about Iraq, the Middle East, and U.S. diplomacy at his blog, We Meant Well
US officials blocked rescue effort while Benghazi burned, Congress toldDiplomat Gregory Hicks accuses State Department of cover-up in evidence that may yet hurt Hillary Clinton’s White House bid
May 8, 2013
by Dan Roberts in Washington
While US diplomats were pulling bodies from a burning Libyan consulate and frantically smashing up hard drives last 11 September, their superiors blocked rescue efforts and later attempted to cover up security failings, according to damaging new evidence that may yet hurt Hillary Clinton‘s presidential hopes.
In vivid testimony to Congress on Wednesday, Gregory Hicks, deputy to murdered US ambassador Christopher Stevens, revealed for the first time in public a detailed account of the desperate few hours after the terrorist attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi.
He also said that Stevens went to Benghazi to beat a 30 September deadline to convert the mission to a permanent posting. There was additional time pressure because Clinton planned to visit Libya later in the year and to announce the opening of the post, Hicks said.
But Hicks and two other state department witnesses also singled out the government response for criticism. Until now that criticism had been largely dismissed as a partisan effort by Republican congressman to smear former Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time.
Hicks claimed Clinton’s chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, telephoned him to complain that he had given critical evidence to congressional investigators without the presence of a “minder” from the state department. “A phone call from that senior a person is generally considered not to be good news,” said Hicks, who said he had since been demoted. “She was upset. She was very upset.”
The career diplomat also alleged he was actively discouraged by officials from asking awkward questions about why other top Clinton aides, including the UN ambassador Susan Rice, initially blamed the attack on a spontaneous protest that got out of control. He described that briefing he described as “jaw-dropping, embarrassing and stunning”. It is now thought the attacks, involving up to 60 heavily armed militia, were co-ordinated by Ansar al-Sharia, a group affiliated to al-Qaida, and timed to coincide with the 11th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.
The allegations of a state department cover-up follow equally embarrassing claims that military leaders blocked efforts to dispatch special forces troops to the Benghazi consulate.
In testimony that first emerged on Monday, Hicks claims that four special forces soldiers with him in Tripoli were “furious” when they were told by superiors in Washington that they could not join a relief flight to Benghazi organised by the Libyan government in the hours after the initial attack.
Mark Thompson, a former marine who heads the foreign emergency support team, also alleged that the White House blocked his efforts to dispatch a specialist group from the US that is designed to respond to incidents such as the Benghazi attaack.
Hicks said he was told that US air force jets based in Italy could have reached the consulate in “two to three hours” but were blocked, out of fear of offending the Libyan government, and because a refuelling tanker could not be found.
Pentagon officials have repeatedly argued that none of the available military assets could have reached Benghazi in time to prevent the death of ambassador Stevens and three other consular staff. But Hicks insisted even if they had been too late, better attempts should have been made. “People in peril in future need to know that we will go to get them,” he said. “That night we needed to demonstrate that resolve even if we still had the same outcome.”
Hicks also rejected the defence given by Hillary Clinton when pressed on the initial delay in attributing the attack to terrorists, arguing the US undermined its Libyan allies who were rightly pointing to Ansar al-Sharia.
“President Magarief was insulted in front of his own people, in front of the world. His credibility was reduced. His ability to govern was [damaged]. He was angry … He was still steamed about the talk shows two weeks later. I definitely believe it negatively affected our ability to get the FBI team quickly to Benghazi.”
Hicks also testified that part of the reason that Stevens was in Benghazi was to make preparations to convert the mission to a permanent post, and to lay the groundwork for a visit by Clinton. “At least one of the reasons the ambassador was in Benghazi was to further the secretary’s wish that that post become a permanent constituent post” and because Clinton “intended to visit later that year” to announce the conversion.
Democrats on the committee attempted to play down the significance of the new evidence. “There is no smoking gun today,” said Mark Pocan of Wisconsin. “There is not even a lukewarm slingshot.” Deputy chair Elijah Cummings said the hearing would not be able to get to a full picture without recalling other military witnesses.
But the powerful and at times emotional testimony of the state department witnesses is likely to rekindle questions over the government’s handling of the incident. The Obama administration had hoped that an earlier independent review panel had drawn a line under the issue.
Republicans characterise their refusal to let the Benghazi issue go as a determination to find out what went wrong. But some Democrats have suggested that the real intention is to taint both the White House and Clinton in a bid to dent her chances in 2016 should she decide to run.
Hicks described receiving the final telephone call from ambassador Stephens revealing he was under attack. He said an attaché ran into his villa “yelling Greg, Greg, the consulate’s under attack”. Hicks looked at his phone and had two missed calls. He called back and got ambassador Stevens. “He said, ‘Greg, we’re under attack.'”
“I said ‘OK’ and the line cut.”
Hicks then described how he had taken refuge in a secure villa that was set alight with petrol by the attackers. He also told how the embassy building in Benghazi was hit by mortar fire and how a tiny group of soldiers at both sites fought through the night to prevent both facilities from being overrun.
“September 11 was a routine day until we heard the news that our embassy in Cairo had been stormed and they were trying to tear down the flag,” recalled Hicks.
“I had bad cellphone reception but walked to the tactical operations centre and heard that our consulate in Benghazi had been breached and at least 20 armed individuals were in the compound.”
After twice not recognising the number, he said he received a short call from ambassador Stevens, thought to be his last, who said they “were under attack”. He and an assistant, Sean Smith, were led to a safe area inside a villa next to the consulate by security agent Scott Strickland. It was set on fire with jerry cans of fuel shortly after 9pm.
“Scott attempted to lead them out but they didn’t follow. He tried to get back in but was beaten back by the smoke,” said Hicks. “Petroleum-based fires emit cyanide gas and one full breath can kill you. They managed to pull Sean out, but he was dead. They couldn’t find Chris.”
A second wave was coming to attack and the remaining consulate staff fell back to a nearby CIA annex. “After about an hour and a half of probing attacks from terrorists that they were able to repulse they decided to evacuate,” said Hicks. They met with a response team flown from Tripoli on a Libyan C130 transporter and retreated back to the capital.
Hicks says at this point he still thought that ambassador Stevens might be alive and he received word from the Libyan government that he was being held in a hospital run by the same group responsible for the attack. “I thought we might need a hostage response team to get the ambassador out of a hospital under enemy control,” explained Hicks.
At the same time the group was claiming responsibility for the Benghazi attack on Twitter, embassy staff began noticing threats against their facility in Tripoli too.
“We began planning to evacuate, and took 55 people to the annexe,” said Hicks. “At 2am Hillary Clinton calls and she asks me what is going on. I brief her mostly about ambassador Stevens and told her we would need to evacuate. At 3am I received a call from from the prime minister of Libya who told me that ambassador Stevens had passed away. It was the hardest call I have ever had to take.”
Hicks says he has vivid memories of communications staff in Tripoli destroying classified equipment including a female officer manager “smashing hard drives with an axe”. The contingent in Benghazi then tried to drive to the airport around dawn but were hit by two mortar rounds.
“The first mortar was long and landed among the Libyans who were escorting us – they took casualties. The next was short and landed on the annex roof, killing one of our people and seriously wounding another, David. Mark charged onto the roof and strapped David, who was a large man, to his back and carried him down the ladder.”
Hicks says he wanted to send further reinforcements to Benghazi where they had been fighting through the night but was unable.
Eric Nordstrom, a security officer who also gave evidence to Congress said the lessons state department employees have taken from Benghazi were scathing: “Whether you’re at a mission, preparing for a hearing or you’re standing on top of a building “surrounded by a mob,” he says, “The message is the same: You’re on your own.”
• This article was amended on 8 May 2013 to make clear that mortar attacks took place in Benghazi, not Tripoli.