Political Animal

The White House Blocks Oversight of Security Clearance Lapses

On April 1, 2019, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform issued a long memorandum based on the whistleblower testimony of Tricia Newbold, an 18-year veteran of the White House‘s Personnel Security Office. Her allegations were extensive and explosive, and chiefly concerned mismanagement of the White House’s security clearance process. House Republicans had an interesting response.

Republicans said [committee chairman Elijah] Cummings “cherry-picked” excerpts of the closed-door interview with Newbold, whom they characterized as a disgruntled employee with limited knowledge of how security clearance decisions are made.

If Chairman Cummings cherry-picked her testimony, he sure wound up with a big bowl of fruit. I’ll highlight just four of her most concerning revelations:

  1. As an adjudications manager, she oversaw her office’s security clearance rejections. In as many as 25 cases where she affirmed those rejections, she was overruled, and the reasoning was not memorialized (as is standard) for later review or for legal or political defense.
  2. The office instituted a new policy of reciprocity, meaning that anyone with a preexisting security clearance was presumptively approved and did not undergo fresh vetting, despite the fact that they would be working in proximity to the president.
  3. Credit checks were eliminated for anyone who had been approved within the last six years, creating a window of vulnerability where people with financial problems (who are more susceptible to bribery or blackmail) would not be detected.
  4. A significant number of people were granted interim security clearances during the review process and then were later rejected. Some of these people had been granted the highest level of access to classified material, including the presidential daily brief, but no damage assessment was being done in any of their cases.

Ms. Newbold, who has a form of dwarfism, alleges that her boss Carl Kline retaliated against her for raising concerns by placing files out of her reach. At one point, she was suspended for 14 days for insubordination because she resisted changes in policy that she considered to be unacceptable risks to national security.

Reading through the memo that summarizes her testimony, one thing is more clear than anything else. She is exceptionally knowledgable about the White House security clearance process and can explain it in clear and concise language. This is obvious whether or not you agree with her or place the same weight as she does on the matters she highlights. The House Republicans have absolutely no justification or credibility when they argue that she has “limited knowledge of how security clearance decisions are made.” Her job for some time now has been to review how those decisions are made.

Mr. Kline has been moved to a position at the Pentagon, but the House Oversight Committee justifiably wants to question him. They issued a subpoena, and Kline was supposed to testify on Tuesday. That did not happen because the White House instructed him not to cooperate, and his lawyers are understandably trying to protect their client’s future employment:

In a separate letter Monday, Kline’s attorney, Robert Driscoll, told the [Oversight] panel that his client would adhere to the White House recommendation.

“With two masters from two equal branches of government, we will follow the instructions of the one that employs him,” Driscoll wrote in the letter addressed to the committee’s chairman, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.).

Were Mr. Kline to appear and testify, he’d have to explain why he decided to pick on a dwarf by deliberately placing files out of her reach, and I imagine things would not get much easier from there. The White House knows that the whole thing would be politically damaging and extremely hard to defend, so they’re willing to take this battle to the courts. I don’t think their claims of executive privilege are likely to prevail, but they will at least delay the day of reckoning and can hope that whenever Kline finally has to make an appearance the security clearance issue will seem like old news.

Trump’s Defense Rests on a Denial of Russian Interference

The leader of Donald Trump’s legal team, Rudy Giuliani, made headlines on Sunday when he told Jake Tapper that, in the context of the Trump Tower meeting, there was nothing wrong with taking information from the Russian government for his campaign to use against Clinton. A statement like that came as a shock to many people in the media, and justifiably so.

But even more troubling was something Giuliani said just a few days prior to that. As it turns out, Chris Cuomo posed the question that I suggested should be asked of the president concerning the opening statement from the Mueller report which reads, “The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.” Watch how Giuliani dissembles in a sea of lies and denial.

In that short three and a half minute clip, here are all of the ways Giuliani tried to dodge the reality of Russian interference in the 2016 election:

  • he says that the president has no knowledge of Russian interference in his campaign,
  • he distracts with lies about the findings of the Mueller report,
  • he diverts attention with an argument about “spying” on the Trump campaign,
  • he claims that the surveillance of Carter Page was based on a false affidavit,
  • he claims to not know what the president knows about Russian interference,
  • and he suggests that the president “has a different opinion” on Russian interference than the intelligence community and Mueller’s investigators.

That is an excellent example of the method of propaganda known as the “firehose of falsehoods.” You can almost see Giuliani’s brain searching for one of the many lies he has catalogued to use in defense of his client on these matters. But the outcome is eventually clear: Giuliani, on behalf of Trump, can never acknowledge that the Russians interfered in the 2016 election. One can only imagine that they would be even more loathe to admit that Putin did so in order to support Trump’s candidacy.

This president cannot acknowledge those basic facts—and that has important ramifications. One is that it calls into question every other statement he makes with regards to the investigation of these matters. To the extent that they begin with a lie, how can anyone believe what comes next?

Perhaps an even bigger concern is that as long as the president denies that the Russians attempted to interfere in the election, he has no reason to implement strategies that could stop them from doing so again. The result is that a foreign adversary interfered in our elections in a sweeping and systemic fashion and, because the president denies that it ever happened, he won’t take measures to protect the most fundamental cornerstone of our democracy.

I have already suggested that the reason Trump denies the fact of Russian interference is because it inevitably leads to the question of why they would do so—especially on his behalf. It also raises important questions about why the Trump campaign didn’t report overtures from Russian emissaries regarding things like the offer to share dirt on Clinton. Finally, to acknowledge Russian interference in the hacking of emails would call into question why Trump did things like champion Wikileaks over 140 times during the last month of the campaign. All of that points to the kind of “collusion” Mueller identified in his report (emphasis mine).

The investigation also identified numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump Campaign. Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.

In other words, Trump’s entire defense is based on a denial of the most basic facts related to Russian interference in the 2016 election. That is not the defense of someone who is innocent. As a matter of fact, it reeks of guilt. But perhaps even more importantly, the president’s defense relies on not doing anything to protect this country’s elections going forward.

Cory Booker Could Pull Off a Surprise Win in Iowa

In writing about the early campaign strategies of the top tier 2020 Democratic candidates, I noted what Edward-Isaac Dovere wrote about Cory Booker.

The other 2020 Democrats will have their media moments, Booker and his campaign people believe, and the voters will cycle through them. And as that happens, he’ll keep reaching out to voters in small venues, such as these in Ames and Davenport, and building out an organization to hold on to them. Others will flare up and falter, according to the Booker campaign’s plan, and the New Jersey senator will be there to pick up the pieces.

Pat Rynard, former Democratic campaign staffer and founder of Iowa Starting Line, noted that the only two public endorsements from the Iowa caucus have gone to Booker. Representative Amy Nielsen was the first. On Monday, she was joined by Representative Jennifer Konfrst, one of four women who flipped Republican suburban districts in 2018.

Endorsements from state legislators in Iowa don’t make the national news. But they demonstrate the strategy Dovere was documenting. Rynard goes on to write about how Booker was particularly engaged behind the scenes in assisting down-ballot Democratic campaigns during the 2018 midterms and often talks about the need for Democrats to win back state legislatures around the country.

If the name Pat Rynard rings a bell, it is because I commented on a piece he wrote recently titled, “What Many Democrats Still Don’t Get About Rural Campaigning.” In other words, the strategist who knows the most about how to win over white (mostly rural) voters in Iowa is recognizing the effectiveness of Booker’s campaign strategy.

Beyond endorsements, Booker has the advantage of family in Iowa. His grandmother was born and raised in Des Moines.

None of that means that Booker will win the Iowa Democratic caucus, but if he did, it wouldn’t be the first time an African American candidate surprised the country by doing so.

Seth Masket is asking a very small group of activists in early states about their preferences in the primary. So his data should come with a whole host of caveats because it might or might not be an indication of what happens when the votes are tallied over eight months from now. But he included a question that no one else is asking: Which candidates do you not want to see become the nominee?

What we see is that both Sanders and Biden may have reached a ceiling of support among those who are most engaged at this point, or those for whom name recognition would not be a factor.

Sanders, however, is deeply unpopular among supporters of just about all the other top-tier candidates — about half to three-quarters of activists who supported one of the eight candidates who were ranked the highest in the first table would not want to see Sanders win the nomination. Biden, too, is unpopular among supporters of Booker, Warren and Sanders, again garnering around 50 percent opposition.

What could be happening, as we see with the candidates down at the bottom of that chart like Harris, Booker, Castro, and Warren, is that Democrats would be happy to support any one of them. That is affirmed by the fact that Harris, Booker, and Warren lead the field (in that order) among the activists polled by Masket when respondents are allowed to name all of the candidates they would consider supporting.

With a field of candidates this large, the level of support currently enjoyed by Sanders and Biden might be enough to make them the top contenders throughout the primary. But if, as in years past, we see a lot of early exits from the race, that might open the door for one or more of these three to become competitive. I wouldn’t count any of them out at this point. That includes Booker—especially if he pulls out a win in Iowa.

How Trump’s Iran Sanctions Might Empower the Regime

Donald Trump is anything but subtle. When he designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a foreign terrorist organization on April 8, the timing was impeccable. One day before Israel’s election, the decision was a major boost to Benjamin Netanyahu, who went on to win a fifth term as prime minister. But it wasn’t a surprise on a policy level. It was merely the next step in the his  “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.

Then, on Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the administration would fully impose new sanctions to prevent five countries from buying Iranian oil, furthering the nation’s economic isolation. Previously, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Turkey were issued waivers on Iranian oil imports from sanctions Trump imposed in November. “We will no longer grant exemptions,” Pompeo declared in a press conference. “We’re going to zero—across the board.”

This all fits a pattern. Before becoming Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton told a Paris audience that the “declared policy of the United States should be the overthrow of the mullah’s regime in Tehran.” Since his West Wing ascendance, he has helped make American policy precisely that—even though no one in the administration will admit it.

Over the last year, Trump has withdrawn the United States from the Iran nuclear deal and imposed a series of tough sanctions on Iran. Trump officials have said they want to pressure the Iranians to negotiate a new pact with more stringent terms. But their actions don’t reflect a realistic, good-faith effort to achieve that end. In reality, they are bent on removing the Iranian leadership.

Trump’s harsh new sanctions, which will take effect on May 2, seem to be part of that plan. But it comes with a paradox: in his attempts to weaken Iran’s ruling clerics, he may actually strengthen them.

When George H.W. Bush orchestrated crippling sanctions against Iraq—four days after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990—it backfired. The U.S.-led campaign didn’t squeeze Saddam’s regime as Bush envisioned. It inflicted pain on ordinary Iraqis and empowered Saddam with his own people as he painted the Americans as the source of their misery.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hasan Rouhani are not benevolent actors. They are oppressive autocrats who continue to test ballistic missiles and foment violent unrest in Iraq and Syria. Through the IRGC, they support terrorist entities like Hezbollah and Hamas. They are worth confronting strongly. But history shows that a devastating sanctions regime can have the opposite of its intended effect. Unfortunately, the Trump administration seems to know, or care, little about history.

Before 1990, 61 percent of Iraq’s GDP relied on oil exports. But after Hussein invaded Kuwait in August of 1990, Bush organized a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions that put severe limits on Iraqi exports and imports, with the express intent of getting Saddam out of Kuwait and forcing him to reveal, and then eliminate, any nuclear weapons. Operation Desert Storm ultimately drove Saddam out of Kuwait, but when the sanctions hit, his government found a way to not only survive but prosper.

The Iraqi people, on the other hand, suffered greatly. The sudden imposition of sanctions left Iraq’s monolithic economic structure bleeding dry. A 2003 UNICEF report later confirmed that the ban on Iraq’s oil exports caused its currency’s to depreciate by over 5000%, putting a major strain on social services. In 1996, the U.N. launched an oil-for-food program to address the country’s humanitarian crisis. But Saddam funneled an estimated $10 billion from the initiative for his own profit, further denying Iraqis much-needed assistance.

The situation led to high rates of child mortality. The United Nations has estimated that 576,000 Iraqi children died as a result of the sanctions, which contributed to fatal rates of malnutrition. The country’s struggling GDP left sanitation systems in disarray and hospitals barely functioning. The U.N.’s report put the blame squarely on the U.S.-led sanctions, which it said “victimized the people of Iraq in the name of isolating Saddam Hussein.”

The Trump administration now risks going down the same path with Iran.

Trump’s combination of exiting the nuclear deal Iran wasn’t violating, designating the IRGC as terrorist group (the first time the U.S. declared a part of a foreign government as such), and the sanctions will make it impossible for Rouhani to engage with Washington without appearing weak inside Iran.

Ultimately, Trump’s pressure campaign will fortify Iran’s hardliners. The IRGC designation ignores the large role that the Guard plays for most Iranians as a conscription organization. Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution said that many of those drafted into the IRGC “are not necessarily individuals who share its ideology or objectives.” But the move will make Iranians who served in the IRGC because of Iran’s compulsory military service affiliated with a “terrorist” entity, and they then will likely be cut off from accessing medical supplies and drugs from American and European companies who won’t do business in Iran for fear of facing criminal penalties.

Along with the Trump administration’s blanket travel ban on all Iranian citizens, this action further antagonizes the Iranian public and enforces the narrative that the U.S. is their enemy.

Equally disconcerting, the IRGC stands to benefit from the sanctions. Jeff Prescott, executive director of National Security Action and a former Obama administration official, said the IRGC controls much of Iran’s black market—which has “popped up because of the restrictions” already imposed. “There’s a real risk of miscalculation that comes with taking this kind of step,” Prescott told me.

One Iranian parliamentarian estimated that the IRGC’s oil-smuggling revenue specifically helped it make roughly $12 billion per year. The organization also takes advantage of the Iran’s coastline to bring in other items, like alcohol. Sanctioning Iran’s economy forces even more economic activity to go underground, where the IRGC has a much stronger hold on trade.

The ghost of Saddam already looms over the U.S. government. Earlier this month, twelve senators—Kentucky’s Rand Paul was the only GOP among them—introduced legislation that would prevent the White House from engaging Iran militarily without congressional approval. They are concerned that Trump is planting the seeds of an eventual armed confrontation, and that he might repeat the mistake that George W. Bush made in invading Iraq.

For now, at least, military escalation appears unlikely. Maloney told me that Iran has been careful to contain its ground forces and affiliate militias in theatres where the U.S. also has boots on the ground, like in Syria. Tehran is also conscious of the fact that America is headed into another election. It may simply be waiting out the Trump years. Indeed, several leading 2020 Democratic hopefuls have called for re-entering the Iran deal should they be elected.

In the meantime, however, Trump is going down the same road Bush 41 travelled to try and to weaken a tyrranical Middle East regime. He is likely to be repeating the same mistake.

To be sure, sanctions can work in certain circumstances. The Obama administration deployed them to great effect in 2013 to get Iran to the negotiating table. But there was a reason Obama was under such a rush to clinch the accord by 2015: he knew that sanctions invariably lose their effectiveness over time.

Time, however, is not the issue with Trump’s sanctions. It’s the circumstances. He may have thought there was an opening when there were mass Iranian protests against the government’s economic policies from December 2017 to January 2018, but his bellicose posturing has squandered that opportunity.

Instead, he’s made it so Iran’s mullahs can pin the country’s economic woes on an American bogeyman. His IRGC designation and new oil sanctions will only exacerbate this problem, inflicting more hardship on the Iranian citizens than the despots who oppress them.

Bush 41’s anti-Saddam sanctions boomeranged. If America does the same thing with Tehran, the consequences could be dire: the rogue nation currently has troops and affiliated militias scattered across the region, and it still hopes to one day acquire a nuclear arsenal. Trump says he wants to change the character of Iran. But everything he’s doing is emboldening the country’s leaders who made it such a toxic problem to begin with.