Sep 09

(On Violence believes that one of the things which makes America great is the ability to hold elective representatives accountable. With an impending vote in Congress on President Obama’s desire to use military force in Syria--which we both oppose--we emailed our elected representatives to voice our opposition.)

To Senator Dianne Feinstein, Senator Barbara Boxer, Representative Brad Sherman and Representative Karen Bass,

We are writing to urge you to vote against the use of military force in Syria or the surrounding countries because of the ongoing civil war and Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s possible use of chemical weapons.

Before we explain why, we would like to commend both the Congress and President Obama for seeking legislative approval of this action. Though we wish this discussion had started sooner, we appreciate that the legislative branch is debating the issue.

That said, you should adamantly oppose U.S. military action in Syria. First, the U.S. cannot hold up international norms--the ostensible reason for war--without gaining broad international support. Ideally, this means getting the United Nations, NATO or the Arab League on board, as President George H.W. Bush did before the Persian Gulf War. To maintain America’s leadership in the world means not just having the military power to attack other countries, but building, maintaining and then using our diplomatic power to build coalitions.

Second, the U.S. has not exhausted all other options. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry should initiate talks between all interested parties, including Turkey, Russia, China and Iran, before the U.S. goes to war. If the U.S. truly cares about protecting the people and children of Syria, then it should let in Syrian refugees, increase funding to aid groups in Syria and pledge to financially and logistically support any peacekeeping forces the U.N. might send if a cease fire can be reached. It should not launch cruise missiles before taking these actions. Dropping bombs and firing missiles could kill many more people than Bashar al Assad killed with chemical weapons.

Third, a war in Syria has a small but not statistically insignificant chance of spiralling out of control. With multiple parties involved, including Iran, Turkey, Lebanon and Israel, starting an air war could easily escalate.

Finally, the use of cruise missile strikes has very little chance of succeeding at any of its goals. Academic research shows that the intervention of outside nations--except under terms of a ceasefire or peace keeping arrangement--tend to prolong civil wars.  It won’t signal anything to Iran or North Korea. And it will do little to ease the suffering in Syria.

Taken together, we urge you to vote no on authorizing military force in Syria.


Michael Cummings

Former Captain in the US Army and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan

Eric Cummings

Aug 27

(To read the rest of our posts on the 2013 Oscars, please click here.)

(To read other “Facts Behaving Badly”, please click here.)

Browsing the interwebs for our series on Benghazi, I came across this paragraph on the blog “The XX Committee”:

“And let it be said that the IC has lots of smart, dedicated people, who protect you, dear citizens, while you sleep, and prevent Bad Things from going down, more often than not. As they unfailing point out, the public usually hears only about the ball-droppings, when something gets screwed up like Benghazi, while a dozen big successes that same season stay secret for decades.”

The above statement is repeated so often it has become axiomatic in political discourse. In short, you--the public--never hear about most of the good things the CIA does. You only hear about the bad things. As David Brooks said once about the CIA, “They’re all doing it in secret, and no one will ever know what they do.” As Eric C wrote about last week, O’Donnell tells Mendez in Argo, “If we wanted applause, we would have joined the circus.”

I call it the CIA’s “excellence in anonymity” argument, which even the CIA itself believes. In the DCI’s annual report from 1999 they wrote,

"During FY 1999, the IC made critical and important contributions to advance our national security strategy...This report includes only those achievements that can be described without risk to sensitive sources and methods."

I am officially calling this out as a “Fact Behaving Badly”. If anything, the opposite is true: the CIA loves to hype itself to Hollywood; it also buries its worst screw ups behind a giant wall of federally-enforced secrecy.

Let’s start with the first part, “you never hear about all the good things the CIA does.” Sure we do. And who do we hear it from? The CIA’s PR machine. On The Media covered this a few months back with Ted Gup. The CIA really cares about its image:

“I saw a significant shift beginning in the nineties, where the agency's concern for its public image here at home became increasingly expressed and its campaign to win over the American public increasingly sophisticated. And that's when you saw this profusion of memoirs written by former operatives.

“I saw a tremendous amount of leaking, and I know that my colleagues in the press have as well. They have their own liaison in Hollywood who works with filmmakers when the films are deemed not to be overtly hostile to the agency. Over the last 20 years, the agency that once simply invoked “neither confirm nor deny” has become something of a spigot for stories that continually flow to the press.”

Ted Gup described in a New York Times op-ed just how many memoirs are out there all approved by the CIA:

“What message did it send when George J. Tenet, its former director, refused to explain the intelligence debacle involving nonexistent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq but later got a seven-figure book contract and became a highly paid speaker? How is it that Milton Bearden, a former covert operative, got agency permission to write a book (“The Main Enemy”) with a New York Times reporter? What of the many memoirs written by ex-spooks like Robert Baer (“See No Evil,” and, with his wife, another former C.I.A. operative, “The Company We Keep”), Tony Mendez (“The Master of Disguise”), Lindsay Moran (“Blowing My Cover”), Melissa Boyle Mahle (“Denial and Deception”) and Floyd L. Paseman (“A Spy’s Journey”)?”

The CIA always advertises its successes. Most notably, everyone on the planet knew within hours Osama bin Laden was dead. But it doesn’t stop there. The CIA, ironically, publishes press releases about dead terrorists in Pakistan, while denying its own drone program which killed the terrorist. Hell, not one but two (two!) of this year’s Best Picture nominees were about the CIA’s successes.

Surely, though, we hear about all the bad things the CIA does, like the Bay of Pigs disaster. Man, we all heard about that.

If only.

The CIA, for instance, detained about 70% of the wrong people in Guantanamo. As we wrote two years ago, Guantanamo had the lowest recidivism rate of all time, meaning...Guantanamo either scared all the potential terrorists straight...or it had rounded up the biggest group of innocent people on the planet. It also extraordinarily renditioned Khalid El-Masri, who had to go to 60 Minutes to tell his story. The CIA hasn’t officially acknowledged this. Nor would it openly, willingly or tranparently reveal this fact...until it had to.

There was also that whole “Iraq WMDs intelligence” thing, where German intelligence out-analyzed the CIA. If it were up to the CIA, we never would have heard about that. Only due to a congressional investigation did the colossal intelligence failure come to light. This begs the question, was that intelligence failure unique or does the CIA (and larger intelligence community) manage to hide or obscure most of its screw-ups, especially when they aren’t of national consequence? I would bet the latter.

So don’t believe anyone who tells you that you don’t know when the Intelligence Community keeps you safe. You do; they’ll make a movie about it. And don’t believe them when you only hear the bad things; most of those things are so far classified you won’t ever probably hear about it.

But the CIA, NSA, JSOC and other intelligence agencies have fantastic pull with the press and (established over the few decades) excellent PR machines. So this fact won’t die. Unfortunately.

Aug 05

Don’t blame me, David Brooks said it first!

Eric C and I consider the weekly commentary of Shields and Brooks, New York Times columnist David Brooks and syndicated columnist Mark Shields, each week on the PBS Newshour a must listen. (Partisans beware, they spend a lot of time agreeing and complimenting each other.)

But I have to respond to what David Brooks said on the 26th. Discussing the defeat of the NSA meta-data collection House amendment, Mark Shields brought up the American government’s addiction to secrecy. Brooks defended NSA employees, saying they mostly try to do good, and they are a bunch of bright people to boot. He defended the NSA program by quoting Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution on why America keeps secrets.    

“...the government should have some secrecy for the same reason middle-aged people should wear clothes.You don't want to see all that stuff.”

Brooks has actually made this exact point on the show before, and he’s absolutely right: nobody wants to see middle aged people naked. Middle-aged bodies are wrinkly, overweight and gross.

You know what isn’t gross? Hot, healthy, tanned, young bodies. Everybody the world over, from time immemorial, wants to see hot, young people naked. It’s why Playboy, Maxim and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition exist. It’s why Venus de Milo and David don’t have any clothes on. It’s why celebrities do nude scenes in movies. It’s why strip clubs exist.

Flipping Brooks’ analogy on its head, he isn’t arguing for government secrecy; he’s making an argument for more transparency. If Americans don’t like what they see when America (at least America’s national security apparatus) does a strip show, they should change what they see, not add more clothes.

Of course, Brooks could defend the age argument. He could say, “Well, America isn’t young anymore, and people don’t like looking at old people naked.” Not hot old people! Jennifer Aniston graced the covers of GQ nude at the age of 40.

This analogy only works because Brooks is skeptical of government transparency. He believes that over the last forty years, as journalists have dug deeper into the workings of government and transparency activists have won little battles, America’s trust in government has eroded. As he said on the show, “I think, as we pass more transparency legislation, trust in government has gotten worse.”

I completely agree. Americans would have much more trust in government if the government kept more and more secrets. This would mean, though, that government malfeasance, abuse, negligence and criminality would go on unreported, but Americans could keep their trust strong (and their heads buried in the sand). The biggest breach of trust by a politician in the last fifty years--and probably American history--was President Nixon stealing elections, literally using the power of the presidency to take an election. Obviously, Americans lost some faith in government.

But it isn’t their fault; it’s Nixon’s and every other corrupt or incompetent politician’s fault. Americans rightfully want more transparency and more anti-corruption efforts to ensure politicians work for the people, and not the other way around.

Honestly, Brooks couldn’t have chosen a worse week to make this argument. America saw more of the NSA’s naughty bits than the NSA ever wanted...and lots of Americans concluded the NSA should go on a diet. It also showed that, yes, transparency weakens trust in government...but only after the director of the NSA and the NSA public affairs office lied to the public. When asked, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”, the director of the NSA told America and Congress, “No sir…not wittingly.” He then legally escaped perjury charges because the NSA defines “collection” and “surveillance” in ways that defy common decency. (Read this Slate article for more.)

To double down on the lies, the NSA then says the programs averted 50 terror attacks. On deeper probing, journalists and Congress narrowed this number down to 1, a single attack. The NSA also says its analysts never investigate Americans inappropriately, yet last summer a rogue FBI agent took down the director of the CIA because a friend asked him to investigate a person she didn't like.

The problem isn’t that America doesn’t want transparency. Americans want to trust politicians when they say, “Trust us”. When you pull away the clothes to find out you can’t/shouldn’t/couldn’t trust them, well, that damages the relationship. The solution is less secrecy and more transparency, not the other way around.

Jun 03

(What follows is a letter--or email--we sent to Andrew Sullivan of The Dish following one of his posts. It didn’t get published on The Dish but we thought we’d share it with our readers anyway.)

Andrew and crew,

I love your coverage of terrorism, specifically the emphasis on holding the former administration responsible for the war crimes (torture) it committed (and holding the current administration responsible for punting on the issue). However, I do have a huge issue with a line from your essay last week, “Obama’s Gitmo Disgrace”:

“We also know that some terrorists were captured but with no real proof; and that some have been transferred to other countries. Of those some have taken up arms; some have simply melted back into society.”

Not the case. According to this table released by Director of National Intelligence, of the 603 detainees released from Guantanamo, only 97 are confirmed to have reengaged in terrorism. Another 72 are suspected of reengaging in terrorism. In short, the recidivism rate of Guantanamo is incredible; most U.S. justice systems would love to have over 70% of its convicted criminals never go back to crime. This number is even more incredible when you consider that the bar of “suspected of reengaging in terrorism” is probably exceptionally low, dramatically overstating the case. (The New York Times goes into even greater depth here.)   

So we shouldn’t say “some and some”. We should emphasize that the majority of people kidnapped, tortured and illegally detained at Guantanamo were innocent. We should emphasize the vast majority had nothing to do with terrorism. We tortured innocent people and held them for no reason. We should emphasize that intelligence is much more often wrong than right. We should explain that intelligence thrives off paying people for information, and in dirt poor Afghanistan a lot of people got rich, and settled grudges, by giving Americans bad information.

Americans don’t know that but they should.


Michael Cummings

May 31

In the midst of all the Second Korean War hype, Fareed Zakaria gathered a roundtable to discuss this issue. One line stuck out to me from the April 7th episode [emphasis mine]:   

“RICHARD HAASS, PRESIDENT of COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: And the problem is not simply the Chinese are worried about immigrants, they are worried about unification of Korea with Seoul as the capital as part of the American security orbit.

That's part of ...

ZAKARIA: Nuclear weapons and 40,000 American troops.

HAASS: And even -- one of the interesting diplomatic things (inaudible), U.S. what we tell the Chinese, look, we're prepared to negotiate about that. It doesn't have to have nuclear weapons. Indeed, we'd be against the unified Korea with nukes.

Another possibility is we can talk about American troop presence. We can talk about a lot of things...”

From what I gather, Fareed Zakaria just asked Richard Haass, “If the price of a unified Korea was the removal of U.S. troops from Korean soil, would you take that?” and he said, “Well, we can talk about it.”

This whole conversation literally blows my mind.

We’ve written before about the massive, excessive, costly and needless presence of U.S. troops overseas. It does more to antagonize our opponents than provide specific security gains. (I stop short of calling it a burgeoning “U.S. Empire” the way many netizens tend to exaggerate. Though it wastes money, it isn’t an empire, or it’s the weakest empire in history.)

In the past, we had good reasons to station American troops overseas. Take the start of the Cold War in Europe, for instance. Having tanks in Western Germany definitely helped deter Soviet aggression. Maintaining a presence in Japan did the same thing, as well as helped stabilize that post-war nation.

And for decades, having troops in South Korea helped enforce the armistice. I don’t think any observers of international relations could doubt this.

But, man, inertia is hard to overcome, especially when it could make you “look weak” to the larger world.

Only inertia could explain how an American national security expert--Richard Haass--wouldn’t want to immediately pull American troops from South Korea if the Koreas merged. We station troops in Korea because of the Korean war and the continuing threat posed by Pyongyang. Remove that threat, and what are the troops doing there? What border are they standing on? Why wouldn’t we pull our troops back? Why risk antagonizing China, and in the meantime, prevent China from distancing themselves from North Korea?

Because Richard Haass wants to “talk about” a lot of things? To maintain “naval superiority” in Asia? To keep an ongoing “pivot to Asia”?

Our politicians and general don’t react quickly. The military and government are loathe to change when events on the ground change. This is why conservatives advocate for a smaller, more nimble government. Because they hate inertia, specifically systemic inertia (bureaucracy). We don’t need troops in Germany and Italy. We have no geo-political reason for them to stay. Yet, every time America tries to bring them home, somehow it never happens.

Unfortunately, war hawks hate weakness, and will cling to inertia to maintain strength. And war hawks simply want to maintain U.S. strength even when it adds little to our security besides perception.

May 29

First, a confession: I’m no expert on Korea, either the current hostilities or the region. The Army almost stationed me there twice, but luckily I switched my orders both times, once to Italy and once to Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

Whenever a war with North Korea seems evident, I think back to how I almost ended up on that peninsula. I think about leading an infantry platoon training to fight the North Koreans or I think about plotting a hypothetical North Korean invasion of the south as a military intelligence officer.

In each case, I imagine a war with North Korea the way most generals in the U.S. Army hope:

A conventional war! With tanks and planes and artillery! Closing with the enemy! Huzzah!

That, of course, makes me think about the consequences, as I did last spring and fall about a possible war with Iran. Without a lot more study, I can’t say whether a war with North Korea would be more or less dangerous for Americans than a war with Iran.

I can say, though, that any war will cost a lot of Americans their lives. With mountainous terrain, nuclear weapons, and a gigantic special operations force, a war with North Korea wouldn’t resemble the previous Korean War much at all. In a lot of scenarios (maybe most), a lot of Koreans and Americans would die.

Worse...I don’t think the generals will get their clean, predictable maneuver war. Even though the Pentagon spends gobs of money developing conventional force projection weapons (like tanks, planes and ships), a war with North Korea could bog down in an insurgency just like in Iraq. Or Vietnam.

Let me say that again so it sinks in: The United States--if dragged into a war with North Korea--might have to wage a counter-insurgency.

Why? Several factors make a North Korean insurgency possible, if not likely:

1. Ideology. Think about it. At this point, North and South Korea have been divorced for decades. One emerged as a democracy with a vibrant economy. The other remains a dictatorship with a narco-agrarian economy. North Korea’s leaders have blasted their people with propaganda about the West, America and South Korea for decades. Even if a majority of the population can put it all behind them, some die hards will refuse to kow tow to the south.

2. Special operations troops. As I mentioned above, North Korea has troops trained in irregular warfare. (Allegedly, 180,000 of them.) Sure, a lot of this is probably low quality training, and a lot of North Korean exaggeration and bluster has turned plenty of regular units into “special operations”. At the very least, they will try to mount IED attacks and small unit raids on U.S. units entering from the south in heavily canalized mountain passes.

3. Old regime remnants. Plenty of stakeholders will sincerely believe they can outwait the U.S. occupancy. This will provide motivation to special operations troops and could form the core of an insurgency.

4. China. The perfect external base of support if China doesn’t agree with a U.S.-South Korean war.

Even if a full-blown insurgency doesn’t develop, our military must heed the lessons of the last ten years before driving into Pyongyang. We must plan for follow on operations. We can’t give regular North Koreans reasons to think Americans are evil. (Strict Rules of Engagement will make an appearance (or should) in another war, in other words.) We shouldn’t annihilate what little infrastructure North Korea has without thinking about the consequences. Rebuilding (or just building) infrastructure will build support among the regular, just-free citizens of North Korea.

This is why the quick rush back to “conventional” warfighting bothers me so, so, so much. The most likely wars in America’s future--which to be clear, we should absolutely avoid at all costs--are in Iran and North Korea. Those wars will likely only briefly feature all the fancy, expensive toys the Pentagon loves to purchase from military contractors, before descending into irregular warfare.

In other words, in twenty years the U.S. Army and Pentagon will have to relearn the lessons of the last ten years...

May 28

Here at On Violence, we don’t like to chase the news.

Long time readers know this, and may even be rolling their eyes at the above sentence, since we’ve written about this before here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

But we have to say it again, because we haven’t written about America’s second war with North Korea yet. Wait, you might ask, we went to war with North Korea?


You wouldn’t have guessed it based on the media coverage. Remember when war was imminent? Headlines like “North Korea Warns It Is on Brink of Nuclear War With South” terrified all of us. North Korea set a date! Even America’s resident ombudsman, Jon Stewart, got in on the action, covering it unironically here, here, here and here. A future war with North Korea even has a Wikipedia entry.

But we’re not at war. Why? As Michael C, in his original draft of tomorrow’s post, wrote:

“Yet this latest round of saber-rattling seems to have everyone worried. Possibly, even more than usual. And I have to specify, more than usual. As this On The Media segment makes clear, every year when U.S. and South Korean militaries conduct massive joint training exercises--which simulate both repelling a North Korean invasion and sometimes a South Korean attack on North Korea--North Korea gets all riled up and makes increasingly hostile threats.

So I won’t chime in to say how I think a war will go with North Korea. After this exercise, I believe that affairs on the peninsula will calm back down.”

Which is exactly what happened. It’s odd to think that just two months ago, America was on the brink of war. Then the Boston bombing happened, and everyone forgot about the war of the moment. When the Boston bombing coverage died down, the media moved on to political scandals and tornadoes. No one’s mentioned North Korea again.

And all of this was quite predictable. There are a couple of lessons here. One, everyone should listen to On The Media, especially people who comment on the media. (We’re looking at you, Jon Stewart.)

Two, constant media hype usually doesn’t spread information, it spreads disinformation. And speculation. A Pew poll from the time showed that the people who followed the North Korean story tended to overstate the threat of war from North Korea. If constant media coverage doesn’t help, what does? Deliberate long form journalism based on extensive fact checking and context.

On a practical, diplomatic level, hyping the possibility of war can only exacerbate tensions, not ease them. It’s times like these when the press makes military leaders and politicians feel obliged to go to war, rather than fearful. This should never be the case.

Mar 27

(To read other “Facts Behaving Badly”, please click here.)

I want to open this post up by explain how you should go about finding a “Fact Behaving Badly”.

Step 1: Hear a fact. If you hear an incorrect fact once, it can’t do too much damage. But if you hear it more than once, from multiple sources, move to step 2.

Step 2: Ask yourself, is this fact too good to be true? Too ideologically perfect? Could a political consultant have designed this fact? If yes, move to step 3.

Step 3: Google the fact. Or go to

For example? The other day, a co-worker of mine told another co-worker the story behind his space pen. NASA spent over a million dollars engineering a pen that would work in space. Do you know what the Russians used?

A pencil!

Having heard this story more than once, I asked myself, “Man, this story sounds way too anti-government to be true.”

It isn’t. Almost nothing in the story is right.

NASA used pencils--mechanical pencils, not wooden pencils, because of the fire risk--for years. But “because of the substantial dangers that broken-off pencil tips and graphite dust pose in zero gravity to electronics and the flammable nature of the wood present in pencils” NASA looked for an alternative. The inventor of the space pen developed it independently, as a marketing gimmick, and gave samples to NASA. After testing the new pens, NASA bought them from the entrepreneurial inventor. Within a few years, the Russians adopted the space pen as well. (H/T to Snopes and the Space Review for the debunking.)

Ironically, the space pen is the ultimate example of entrepreneurial capitalism.

Perhaps you heard about those $16 muffins the Department of Justice bought a few years ago? Yeah, not true. What about the $200 hammers? The $600 toilets? Or the $10,000 coffee makers? (H/T to Freethoughtpedia.) Mostly, the media takes complex items--a combination tea maker/coffee maker/soup warmer designed to work at high altitude in the cramped confines of a bomber--and re-dubs them as something simpler--a coffee maker!--then runs the story under a breathless headline decrying government waste. (If you bought these myths, don’t feel bad; newspapers repeat them all the time. The $16 muffin tricked The LA Times, CBS and CNN, along with 178 other news sources.)

Some facts behaving badly are true, if you don’t caveat them. According to this guy, NASA did technically spend $10,000 on a toilet. But as the website points out, that kind of makes sense when failure--zero gravity fecal matter everywhere--could cost lives.

With all this talk of money, Michael C and I got in the mood to share five somewhat-foreign-policy-related economic “Facts Behaving Badly”.

Myth 1: China owns all of our debt.

Yeah, not so fast. Pundits, politicians and comedians have repeated this claim so many times that most Americans now accept it as gospel. Except China doesn’t own all of our debt. They don’t even own half of it. China has, approximately, 8% of the U.S. debt, (at the time of this writing) an amount so low I’m not sure the average American would ever guess it. Indeed, foreign governments, in total, only own 32% of the U.S. debt.

If China doesn’t own our debt, who does? The super rich. I’ll let Robert Reich take it away, “This huge structural change in how America's rich finance government--from paying taxes to lending money--has gone almost unnoticed.”

Myth 2: America Imports Most of Its Oil.

No. “The U.S. now imports 45% of its petroleum, down from 57% in 2008.” So the word “most” no longer applies.

Myth 3: America gets most of its oil from the Middle East.

Again, no. Most of the rest of that oil doesn’t come from the Middle East. In fact, 69% of our oil imports come from five countries. Only one--Saudi Arabia--is Middle Eastern; three of them--Canada, America’s biggest oil importer, Mexico and Venezuela--are North or South American.

(This great Politico article debunks some other gasoline myths.)

Myth 4: America must become “energy independent”.

Even if America did, it wouldn’t lower the price of gasoline. Why not? Well, Canada went “energy independent” years ago, and guess what? They still sell their oil on the international market. America has been “agriculturally independent” for years, but still sells its agricultural products on the world market too. To hear why, listen to NPR’s Planet Money.

Myth 5: America no longer makes anything.

Let’s watch an ABC series on buying American-made goods. Man, American manufacturing sure has plummeted!

Except, as this article by MSNBC, or this story by NPR’s Planet Money, or this other NPR piece, or this CATO blog post, or even this news article from...ABC itself?...explains that America still leads on manufacturing. And even when China passes America, America will still only be in second place.

The great change between the past and present is the number of manufacturing jobs. Frankly, American productivity has increased tremendously from even ten years ago. Productivity, and ergo profitability, have skyrocketed, while companies outsourced low wage/manual manufacturing to cheaper overseas factories or robots. This is an issue of what types of jobs and at what rates people are willing to pay for goods. But this shouldn’t mean America dives into protectionism over manufacturing.