Apr 24

James Comey released a book. Did you hear? Oh, you did. Great, so we don’t need to wade into the debate about his service in government, how he stood up to Trump and, most importantly for the coverage, how he should or should not be celebrated.

Since James Comey is so closely associated with the FBI, instead it seems like a good time to reflect on the venerable institution that is the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Does On V have some thoughts? Oh yeah. Some are old ideas updated, and some are new. (And we’ll have some come out tomorrow.)

1. You can’t forget the FBI has a horrific history, at worst, and checkered history, at best.

One of James Comey’s key arguments is that he cares first and foremost about respecting the institution of the FBI and its independence. I agree with him: in the age of Trump, protecting the rule of law is paramount, and independent institutions like the FBI help to do that. We need the FBI to investigate corruption of all kinds.

Of course, independent institutions need careful oversight and constant improvement to ensure they still do their jobs equitably and constitutionally. We can’t have law enforcement trying to influence politics or trample the Constitution.

The FBI has a checkered history in this regard.

For example, in the 1960s, the FBI spent a lot of time harassing, investigating and prosecuting civil rights leaders, up to and including trying to get Martin Luther King Jr. to kill himself. That happened. They also have a history of investigating anti-war groups. Since its founding and up to the death of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI also collected blackmail on politicians.

These trends haven’t entirely gone away. In response to 9/11, in addition to infiltrating mosques, the FBI started investigating anti-war groups, including Greenpeace. That happened. The FBI Director at the time? Robert Mueller. As a naturally conservative group, during times of national emergency the FBI tends to key in on perceived threats to America by liberal groups. They did this during the Cold War and continue to this day. There are even some articles who note that in the current day the FBI seems unwilling or unable to break up white supremacist plots until after the fact, and rarely entraps white supremacists, but continues to do so for suspected Muslim terrorists.

So we need to protect the independence of the FBI. But we also need strong oversight of an institution with the power to destroy politicians. That’s a delicate balance.

2. Lying to the federal prosecutors is a terrible law.

The Mueller investigation has further revealed the FBI and federal prosecutors reliance on one law--lying to federal investigators--to get a number of their prosecutions, especially of high profile suspects. I really would love to know exactly how many times it is used either as the sole charge or threatened to get cooperation out of suspects.

Frankly, the bar for being convicted of lying to the FBI is way too low. Honest mistakes can be interpreted as lying to an FBI agent, and have been. The best example of this I’ve ever heard was from this episode of This American Life. A simple conversation with one or two misremembered facts? Well now you are threatened with a federal felon and going federal prison. Meanwhile, the FBI can lie to suspects and face no repercussions, which just lacks basic fairness.

So how do we solve this problem? Well, we remove the statute. Basically, raise the bar to, “The FBI must prove motive to deceive the FBI and intent to deceive.” Basically, the same bar as perjury, which is really, really high. This way the FBI can still prosecute mobsters who lie to cover up a crime, but not petty criminals who say something wrong. Especially if they aren’t under oath. Alternatively, just remove the law (saying it is unconstitutional and infringes on first amendment rights) and keep obstruction of justice on the books or make the crime simply a misdemeanor with minimal prison sentences.

3. Lying by law enforcement needs to be severely curtailed.

At the same time, I would severely curtail the ability of all police officers and FBI agents to lie to suspects and the public. There are lots of examples, but the most egregious is lying to cover up a crime. Here would be a fun law:

“If a domestic law enforcement officer offers a false statement on a police form or document, it is punishable by five years in prison.”

What would this law do? Well, the next time a police shooting happens, the police officers will have to give a statement. On the top of the form where they fill out their statement, that law above will be printed. The officers witnessing the shooting now need to write their statements. (Ideally, independently from all other officers.)

At this point, they don’t know if a camera will later turn up revealing exactly what happened. If it does, the FBI and Department of Justice can easily come in and charge all the police officers with lying on an official form, if, for example, they claimed a suspect was running towards them when he was running away. They will suffer the same fate as those who they prosecute for lying to the FBI. (FBI agents? They’d face the same punishment and fate if they lied on official forms.)

I'm a huge supporter of civil rights, which is why it distresses me how frequently police officers have been caught lying on official forms. Only after video footage revealing the lies emerges do we understand the scope of the problem. This is really what the shootings of unarmed black men has revealed: that police officers will routinely lie at the most important times. That's why we need additional measure to ensure honesty by those who serve.

Apr 11

So how does the news media forget about the crisis in Syria? Simply have the FBI execute search warrants on the President’s lawyer. That should do it. And it has. (We also forgot about Scott Pruitt and didn’t realize that another person left the White House. Tom Bossert anyone?)

But President Trump has tweeted that missiles are on the way. So let’s get some thoughts out there before he follows through. (Thoughts 1 and 2 here...)

Quick Thought 3: Guh, credibility

If the rationale for using military force in the Middle East could be summarized in one word, it would be “credibility”. If a U.S. President doesn’t use force, he will look hesitant. Therefore, he lacks “credibility” to engage in wars, so bad actors will do more bad things. This is primarily a bug of Democratic presidencies, who are often called weak by their political opponents, but Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have already pseudo-threatened Trump that we will lose credibility if he doesn’t back up his tweets. Seriously, diplomacy happens via Twitter now.

But “credibility” is vague and amorphous. The evidence that “credibility” exists in foreign affairs or even influences policy is slim. From a scientific point of view. Dan Drezner has called it the “credibility fairy” and political scientists have written papers showing “credibility” doesn’t actually influence events. Zack Beauchamp at Vox has a whole take down of credibility related to Syria here. He basically shows that you can find all sorts of examples where the U.S. being a credible military threat didn’t deter anything. As President Obama pointed out, the best argument, of course, is that President George W. Bush invaded two countries, and that still failed to deter Russia from invading Georgia.

We have an article on this coming up, but the problem with credibility is an issue of fairness. Obama said one thing wrong (a red line in Syria) and everyone called it the biggest blunder of his Presidency (for example, the Washington Post this week and the New Yorker in its end of Presidency wrap up). Trump says something more detrimental to U.S. credibility nearly every week, and tears up international agreements, a far greater breach of trust, and the response is a shoulder shrug.

And yet, since it’s Trump, credibility is only mentioned when bombs are involved.

Quick Thought 4: The news reaction cycle is driving this.

True or false: After Trump bombed an airfield in Syria after the last chemical attack, the Syrians quickly rebuilt it.

True or false: The cruise missile strikes cost $100 million dollars.

True or false: This isn’t the first chemical weapon attack since Trump bombed that airfield.

True or false: Even though Trump bombed an airfield, it failed to deter Assad from future chemical weapons attacks. (See above.)

True or false: Doing something “stronger” will NOT deter future chemical attacks.

So I don’t know the answer to the last question, but I know the answers to the first four: all true. Most people don’t realize how miniscule the last U.S. “response” was, don’t realize that chemical weapons have still been used, and don’t connect how weak the deterrence message is. If Trump used violence last time and it didn’t deter Assad, will more violence?

So the answer to the last question is probably “True”.

Quick Thought 5: We need to figure out what we really care about in human rights.

The weirdest part is the focus overwhelmingly on the type of weapons used in Syria. From a moral and ethical standpoint, I just don’t get it.

If we want to avoid dead children, an admirable goal, then I would get it. But then we would look at U.S. support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and be appalled. Or we would just be appalled by the war in Syria every week. Or we would look at foreign aid and development spending, to prevent dead children in developing nations. But to only focus on dead children when chemical weapons are involved? It just seems to miss the point.

Yes, we need to hold the line to prevent the spread of chemical weapons. Bombing a country that is currently using them probably won’t help. The best way to do that isn’t to focus on one dictator, but to strengthen international institutions that can stop their spread, something Trump and Bolton--and many conservatives like them--are uniquely unqualified to do. Bolton in particular has said arms control agreements are worthless (when they aren’t) and also doesn’t like them because they restrict the United States (which is true, but besides the point).

Apr 09

I almost titled this post on the suspected/alleged chemical attack in Syria the “On The Media Quick Reactions Edition”. Both of my thoughts today will deal more with narratives in the media than the politics or policies involved. And in some cases, they drive each other.

Take my first point: I will keep calling this a suspected attack. News coming out of Syria is very, very unreliable. It isn’t for lack of trying by great journalists on the ground, but because it is an active and chaotic warzone. It will not shock me if our narrative on the event changes in six weeks, but by then it will be on page 12 of the newspaper (if you get one) or not covered at all on the front page of major websites. And if the narrative does change, it will be too late to change the political conversation in turn.

How else has the narrative affected policy?

Quick Thought 1: Only two options? Come on!

I hate “dilemmas”. I always have. Writing early on about Marcus Luttrell, I described his book, Lone Survivor, as a 300 page ethical dilemma. This was a trend I had noticed when writing about “rules of engagement”. My counterparts in the ROE debates often relied on dilemmas to show the problems with rules of engagement. (Look at this NPR article for how this affects mainstream outlets as well.)   

The real world is hardly ever just black and white. But we really want it that way. Quoting myself from the Luttrell article above:

I'm not surprised Luttrell only saw two options, human nature loves duality: prosecution or defense, Republicans or Democrats, pro-life or pro-choice, pro-guns or gun control, war hawk or dove, for or against with no middle ground. Marcus Luttrell describes his situation in dualist terms: kill or be killed. Military ethical dilemmas often fall into this trap: the ticking time bomb, children throwing rocks, or civilians acting as spotters are ethical dilemmas that are invariably presented with only two solutions.

The media enables Trump’s thinking in Syria (and limits our options) by implying Trump faces a dilemma in Syria. Josh Barro on this week’s “Left, Right and Center” summarized the issue by saying--I’m paraphrasing--that Trump wants to withdraw from what he sees as an endless war (Trump’s right) though it would risk allowing ISIS to return (Barro’s right on this). Since both options are bad, in Syria, we only have two bad options, or a dilemma.

It’s not a dilemma though. Even in the military sphere, we have more than two options. We could increase the number of troops or decrease the number of troops. We could launch some, none or tons of missiles and bombs. We could invade. That’s a range of options.

But that’s not the point. It isn’t about the military alone. What if Donald Trump proposed an escalation. But not a military escalation... a diplomatic escalation! Yes, in this scenario he would call not just a meeting of the Security Council, but an immediate summit of interested stakeholders and discuss bringing in UN peacekeepers to Syria and/or other options for Syria. Yes, Russia would oppose this, but the talks could still happen. Basically, Trump has the option, in addition to Barro’s two military options above, to try to solve the problem diplomatically. I haven’t really seen the diplomatic options explored by the executive branch or by the media when discussing the situation in Syria as wholeheartedly as they need to be.

But wait, there’s more. Let’s say Trump really wanted to get all the regional stakeholders like Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Iran and Iraq to the bargaining table. What if he offered an additional $50 billion over the next five years in refugee aid and resettlement funds, with the goal to have the EU and China each match the donation? Most of the international problems in Syria stem from the refugees, and America has done too little to ease this humanitarian crisis. Trying to solve the Syria problem with development aid is another tool (a fourth option!) that isn't mentioned by the media when Syria comes up. As a result, the politicians don’t mention it either.

Basically, I proposed two new tools that not a single news article or pundit has mentioned. I bet the smart people in government could brainstorm dozens more. Instead they focus on the bombs or troops, or lack thereof. We can be more creative than this. (Of course, you may say Congress would never fund my two new options. Good point! See next section.)

Quick Thought 2: Syria is Mitch McConnell’s fault

Imagine you opened up the Daily 202 from the Washington Post, the way I did this morning, and instead of seeing the discussion center only around President Trump, it’s first headline said, “Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan’s mistakes in Syria are still hurting the United States.”

Would that change how House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Marjority Leader Mitch McConnell act? I mean, if every newspaper in the country blamed them for Syria, would they try to do something?

I have to think so, but that isn’t the world we live in. Instead, we live in a world where the current President and maybe his predecessor share 100% responsibility for everything that does or fails to happen in the world. President Obama, when confronted with Syrian use of chemical weapons, rightly knew that any action he took would be criticized by Congressional Republicans. That’s all they ever did no matter what he did.

So President Obama said enough. As a Constitutional scholar, he knows that Congress actually controls the ability to declare war, so he asked for Congressional approval. He didn’t want Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan to be able to sit back and criticize whatever he did if they didn’t have the decency to take a stand themselves. (They criticized him for Libya endlessly, and never voted on that either.)

Ryan and McConnell (and I blame McConnell more) almost never worked with President Obama on virtually anything. McConnell viewed giving President Obama a win as more detrimental than any given policy issue. Even on issues where they agreed, McConnell viewed winning elections as more important than making the world a better place.

So they never took a vote on Syria.

So when someone writes that this is Obama’s fault for his redline, just know that Ryan and McConnell had the opportunity to work with Obama to craft an authorization for war (with funding tied it) and refused to do it. They own the blame for this failure.

Apr 03

(On Violence is back! At least for a little bit. We’re starting up for two reasons: 1. We didn’t want to miss our first “most thought-provoking” event and 2. We started a new podcast for those interested in podcasts, science fiction/fantasy, military history and humor: Spec Media. Please go check it out and share the news.)

We had the idea for this series months back. So a month ago, I started writing, collecting sources on Trump’s dismantling of the State Department. Since it is so seldom covered in the news (and by this we mainly mean the cable news and Google News front page), I didn’t think we’d get an update in the middle.

Well, we did!

While we were writing, President Trump released his new budget proposal. Do I mean the budget deal reached by Congress to fund the government for two years? No, I mean the separate document written by his budget director, Mick Mulvaney, which contains the Trump administration’s proposed budget for the future. Yeah, that’s confusing.

Either way, it updated the cuts that Trump wants in government. He wants to cut the State Department budget by 25% with more cuts for foreign aid. Long term, Trump proposes cutting the State Department budget to 58% of today’s total by 2022. (The recent budget deal of $1.3 trillion dollars didn’t end up taking any of these recommendations.)

I don’t have a unique take on that budget proposal by President Trump. It’s just bad (and unlikely to happen because even budget hawk Republicans know that doesn’t make any sense). But I do have some other unique takes.

1. Diplomacy as a weapon.

Our new podcast (follow us on Twitter here!) goes deep into a spoof of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, one of the greatest podcasts out there. Possibly my favorite series he did was on the Mongol Empire, Wrath of the Khans. Genghis Khan was one of the evilest men who ever lived--as Carlin points out a lot, time has healed Khan’s reputation--but he was excellent at defeating his enemies. Or to use the modern parlance, he loved winning. Under Genghis Khan, the Mongols did so much winning they got sick of winning.

So you would think Trump would want to emulate that, right?

Now, a lot of this winning was military might. Obviously. But it wasn’t only military might. You don’t take a 10,000 man army across the world and defeat every foe who steps up using military might alone. And Carlin is very clear in one of his episodes (they are so long I might never find the link) that the Mongols used diplomacy in an offensive capacity. That’s right, diplomacy as a weapon. (They also excelled at leveraging intelligence, while President Trump believes he is in an deep state conspiracy...)

What does this mean in practice? Well, Genghis Khan could divide his enemies while convincing a lot of smaller states to quit without even fighting. He played alliances against each other, and usually emerged on top. America did this throughout the Cold War. (As we’ve mentioned elsewhere, we weren’t always perfect. ***Cough*** Iran ***cough***)

Afterwards, America used diplomacy to shape the international system to benefit itself (and, usefully, to benefit all free-trading democracies). It knew that as a free-trading democracy, the best thing it could create would be a liberal world order to help it thrive. Obviously, the State Department has a huge role in this, and Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson may ruin it.

2. China understands diplomacy (and development) as a weapon.

China has a growing military. And it plans to leverage it more in the future. Their growing power in the military sphere complements their (formerly wildly) growing economy and economic might.

But China’s growing economic power and military might are going to be paired with...diplomatic might.

Unlike Donald Trump, China understands the value of a strong diplomatic corps. Now, China will make mistakes along the way. A lot of countries fear China’s growing power and are irritated by its posturing in those seas I mentioned above. But a lot of other smaller countries see a value in cozying up to China. China’s leader Xi Jinping even promised to protect free trade after Donald Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

China is pairing this with development assistance. They have a huge plan called the One Belt, One Road initiative. China has a development fund and a development bank in Africa. Now, maybe these expenditures are peanuts or will go away over time. But what if they don’t? Do we want to risk shrinking our capability as China expands theirs? What if China finds the investments have enormous benefits, the way the Marshall Plan and Korean/Israeli aid helped the US secure allies?

3: Even the National Review thinks this is bad.

I stumbled upon a quote from Noah Daponte-Smith while doing research that sums up why the State Department is good, so I’ll just let a conservative have the last word:

“The U.S. Department of State is one of the world’s great governmental institutions. Founded near the inception of this nation, it boasts a long and storied history: It has guided America’s evolution from a colonial backwater to a world superpower, and in the years following the end of the Second World War, it played a prime role in constructing the global order that still holds to this day.”