Wednesday, May 29, 2013

AP scandal and new drone policies: collision of American values and national security interests collide in a kicked over hornets nest.

The collision of  American values and national security interests erupted recently   over the Associated Press “scandal” and President Obama’s  ordering a new policy limiting  drone strikes.  The President’s walking a fine line  between looking after the safety of our homeland  and doing it within the bounds of the ideals  we like to think our country represents knocked over a hornets nest of political controversy.  How the President, already under attack for handling the IRS and Benghazi issues, can get past this will be a challenge, but he can.
The AP scandal and outrage from the public,  Congress,  and  journalists heaped another headache on the White House, already besieged by the IRS and  Benghazi   issues. Attorney General  Eric Holder had subpoenaed  telephone and email records of journalists who made public information they had obtained from unknown sources in the administration. The Justice Department’ claims  their  goal was to discover who in the administration  was talking to the journalists  in question since the leak  endangered national security.
 Bi-partisan  cries of foul  roared to  ear numbing decibel  levels.  Critics claimed  Holder’s actions were  suppressing whistle blowers, chilling investigative reporting,  violating first amendment rights,  and were another example of  government overreach. 
 Was national security endangered ?  We may never know all of the details because the White House considers  the leaked information to have damaged  an on-going covert operation.  What appears to have happened is that the 2009 underwear  bomber  that tried to bring down an airplane and  a recent drone attack on an Al Qaeda target in Yemen  both  involved  a  U.S. intelligence operative working  within the  Yemen Al Qaeda organization and the agent  and the operation were now endangered, thanks to reports on FOX and Associated Press.  
While the President was not implicated in ordering the investigation,  he immediately announced his  support of legislation to provide immunity for journalists who publish leaks . Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) announced plans to introduce legislation.       Politico  reported   May 26 what  the senators  had in mind:   Demands for reporters' phone or email records .. would need to be approved by a judge under a strict legal standard of… a 'significant and articulable risk of future terrorism or harm to the national security'….”  If the President throws strong support to this legislation, he has a chance to put the issue to rest.
The other issue exploding lately was the President’s announcement to limit drone attacks.  This policy change addresses an ethical and moral dilemma and helps remove a stumbling block to carrying out American foreign policy.
The CIA had originally used drone strikes to hit high value Al Qaeda control and command operatives, but lately it had expanded their use to lower level activists.   Targeting had also  killed  innocent civilian wedding party and funeral attendees, including women and children, and four US citizens.  The President made it clear drones would still be used, but the extensive, and sometimes indiscriminate use of drone strikes had become a counter productive strategy, turning off those we needed as allies and becoming a recruiting tool for terrorist organizations..
  The President  plans to transfer execution of  drone strikes to the military,  limiting their use to when civilians were not near,   targeting truly  high value operatives, and being  used only when  local governments were unwilling or unable to take action. The President believes limiting drone strikes   will also  make it easier to gather international support, win hearts and minds instead of angering those we need on our side ,  and  to diminish our enemies’ recruiting tools.
 This new policy  serves two masters:  smart strategy that promotes our national interests and being more in harmony with our national values.  He needs to make that argument more strongly than he has so far, but the case is there to be made.
For more, go to
This is a version of my column that will appear in the this week

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Focus on the IRS "scandal" creates an opportunity to fix a campaign finance dodge and redefine exemptions

The brouhaha over the IRS’s zeal in investigating conservative political organizations’ application for tax exemption under  a501(c)(4) clause  is one more  episode  of the IRS stepping  into political doo doo.  The current focus  creates an opportunity to fix a problem.
A long standing  interpretation of the laws by the IRS has  opened the door to a dodge of   campaign finance laws.. Unlike other political organizations, the names of  donors to “C4’s” are not required to be disclosed. Requests for the exempt status doubled after the Citizens United Supreme Court decision in 2010 permitting corporations  and labor to donate to political organizations.  The IRS’   triaging priorities for review given   a limited staff  and more work  could be interpreted as  intentionally or inadvertently biased. The Inspector General’s conclusion was the  latter.
 Conservative groups claim  they were singled out for long delays and demands for excessive  documentation . No Tea Party  or Patriot applicant was denied tax exempt status, though one did lose it.   The report conducted by the independent Inspector General and the House hearings  reveal no White House involvement.  Whether   a criminal act was committed  is yet to be seen. 
Abuse of IRS regulations  has happened under the aegis  of both parties.  In 2004, in the Bush administration, the  NAACP complained their applications were singled out by the IRS  and  approval  were delayed for two years.  There are other incidents  involving tax exempt status and politically motivated  audits  over the 100 year history of the IRS .
The most constructive  outcome  of this newest  scrutiny  of the IRS  is to rewrite the tax code to eliminate ambiguities or , better still,  simply to deny exempt status to any political organization that  spends any  money  on  political  ads that intervene in campaigns.. Why should taxpayers have to make up the difference for reduced   income to the Treasury by exempting organizations intervening actively in political campaigns, anyway ?
Why is the IRS caught up  trying to determine whether a politically oriented applicant is primarily spending  resources on political intervention? The law says those getting tax exempt status are  organizations that  operate “exclusively for the promotion of social welfare”. In 1959, the regulators interpreted the law to mean groups “primarily” engaged in helping the community.
  “Primarily” by definition  is   not  the same as “exclusively”.   “Primarily” makes the test more  vulnerable to some underling’s judgment call.  Is the tipping point   50%?, 51% or more?.  Whether either term is followed, the IRS’ burden will always be to  determine how much of an organization’s activity is used for political campaign advocacy and that can only be learned  by asking for evidence.
The devil is also  in defining what  constitutes forbidden  action.  Is it  that a  political organization has paid for advertising urging   votes  for or against an issue or candidate?  Whether that is the situation  or not has been a subject of  court cases and conflicting laws on the state level, including a recent case in Colorado.   
This hearing is an opportunity to fix a problem at the federal level by amending the federal tax laws. The easiest fix, requiring no act of Congress,  is for the IRS   to follow the statute as written:  (C4)’s should spend zero  money on campaigning for or   running ads exhorting voters to cast ballots for or against a specific ballot issue or a candidate.
The House Committee has  provided a public service by exposing the need for  reforms  regarding  (C4)’s.  So long as the GOP does  not   spew turbo charged   rhetoric that gives the impression their goal is mostly to damage the President, the public will  not dismiss the hearings  as just partisan politics .They are in danger. CNN polls as of    Friday, May 17,   showed President’s approval of 53% broke down heavily by  party affiliation.  

A version of this will appear this week in the 

Footnote: Felicia Muftic has been active in government relations in 501(C)(3) and 501(c)(4) organizations  and as an election commissioner and a government official in a career spanning 40 years.  She wrote the handbook for campaign finance disclosures for the City and County of Denver.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Yesterday with horror I watched the Oklahoma City area hit with another terrorist attack...but this time the terrorist was Mother Nature.  TV coverage on MSNBC and CNN switched to local TV station  coverage and I watched the tornado develop, destroy, and pictures immediately transmitted by TV helicopters after the hit. I saw the disaster play out just as those in Oklahoma saw it.

 I grew up in Oklahoma's tornado alley and I understand the terror of it all.
After the Joplin tornado, I wrote a column with my memories of what it was like to live under the threat of the storms as a child, well before Doppler Radar, techniques to survive, and a warning system to take cover. I have reproduced that column here:

Reports of Woodward, OK being hit by a tornado shortly after midnight today, with at least 5 killed,  reminded me of a post on this blog in June 2011 shortly after the Joplin tornado.  Woodward figured prominently in that post, as well. Early reports indicate the tornado warning system failed this time;  in the past, there were no warning systems and the earlier tornado killed over 100. Excerpts from that 2011 post : "I was born and raised in tornado alley so spring was a time of terror for me. The pictures of Joplin, Mo., brought back some familiar pains in the pit of my stomach and memories.

My home town, Muskogee, Okla., is 125 miles south west of Joplin, and Joplin was on the way to grandmother's house in southwestern Missouri. My 1940s childhood memory of Joplin was a pit stop to fill up the gas tank.

When tornado season came I huddled in my bed on the second floor of our wood frame house, waiting for death to come. It never did, but I resolved never to live near tornado land again.

The Wizard of Oz story never had much credibility with me. I never thought I would wake up from a fantastic dream because I knew I would be sucked up and die in a funnel cloud.

Looking back on those times, I probably was realistic. There were no tornado sirens, no Doppler radar, and no storm shelters. The closest cellar was in a neighbor's home nearly a block away. All we were educated to do was to go to the southwest corner of the building. We knew no more than that. We were just sitting ducks waiting to be plucked up. The myth had always been that Muskogee was immune because it sat down in the Arkansas valley. One April day in 1945 the myth was blown away by a tornado that devastated the east side of the town. Two children were killed and my father, a telephone company executive, took me on a tour of the destruction, which only reinforced my terror of spring.

Two years later the Woodward tornado in the southwestern corner of the state killed more than 100 people. I remember the radio reports, newspaper's screaming headlines, and my parents talking about it. It was since that terrible episode that records began to be kept of death and destruction caused by tornadoes in the U.S. Joplin 2011 was the worst."

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Benghazi hearings: making hash from the rehash

Remember the presidential campaigns last fall when Republicans   thought the issue that would sink  Obama  was the Benghazi  screw up  and an alleged cover up  on the scale of Watergate?  The US Ambassador to Libya and 3 other Americans were killed while visiting a dangerous  part of Libya. As an  issue,  It did not enter into the electorate’s psyche in 2012. The same fate is likely to meet  this current rehash    in 2016.
If we learned anything in 2012  foreign policy mess ups that are water under the bridge  rarely  become a  determining issue in a campaign    .The economy, debt, ,  tax policy class warfare, and  immigration issues drowned out the Benghazi tragedy as factors  determining the outcome and no doubt some of these issues and issues yet unknown will dominate 2016, too, if Hillary Clinton or anyone else is  standard bearers of the Democratic party..
 As much as some in the GOP hope it would be, Benghazi is no Watergate,  a cover up  which did impact future elections and  brought down Pres. Nixon.   Watergate covered up  a crime sparked by political dirty tricks, …a break in at the Democratic  headquarters.   At  worst,  the Benghazi talking points could indeed have been spun to some political purpose to protect the President’s posterior at the end of a re-election campaign . At best,  they  walked back  Pres. Obama earlier  attribution  of  terrorist involvement in the Benghazi attack before the actual identification of the perpetrators were known.   
 Those talking points , delivered  days after the event by UN Ambassador Susan Rice, positioned   the at  cause as part of wide spread demonstrations across the Muslim world   instead of an attack by militants. That is not the first time a high US diplomatic official  repeated  points spun by others . Secretary of State   Colin Powell  was  fed  bogus  “proof” of Iraq’s WMD which he repeated  at the UN. While it  did  gather international  support for conducting the longest war in US history,  it did not result in George W Bush’s election loss or in talk of  impeachment proceedings. The Benghazi  spin had  no comparable impact on shaping  US policy.
The  GOP controlled House of Representative committee  has almost exclusively focused on finding proof that  Benghazi was  a covered up  by  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.   This stinks to high heaven  as  a witch hunt concocted  to wound  Clinton enough  to keep her from being a winning candidate  for president  in 2016 .  If the House committee really cared about  preventing such  future tragedies, they should instead  be  examining whether all diplomats in instable areas need more security or an rescue squad  should be kept on call nearby  when diplomats  venture from their green zone,  whether the risk assessment was faulty,  or whether there was adequate funding for our diplomats’ security.
The  House hearing  so far has disclosed substantially   little more than we had learned running up to the 2012 election  or a subsequent investigative report .  As Ambassador Thomas Pickering,  who chaired the independent investigative report,  commented on Candy Crowley’s CNN show Sunday , he found that Clinton did not make decisions on the actual events and that the military commanders responsible confirmed that  logistics made  rescue  impossible. Pickering further commented that he saw nothing new coming from the committee hearings regarding conduct of the actual Benghazi event.
New information that  did emerge  so far concerns  post attack  actions.   A committee of government agencies, including representatives of the CIA,  White House and State Department,  revised  Rice’s  talking points twelve times .    The State Department reassigned the second in command of the Libyan embassy  for blowing the whistle without a minder  present contrary to personnel policy .    That action  did not contribute to proving  cover up since the cat was already out of the bag.
For more, visit
(This is a version of my column that will appear in the Sky Hi Daily News this week)

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Syria...the Balkan experience points a way

Below is a reposting of a column I wrote regarding Syria and what could be best endgame of a US intervention in their civil war.   It is as pertinent now, over a month later, but the mechanism for some political settlement has been set up.  It appears that Russia, who agreed to the political mechanism for negotiation, has continued to supply Syria with heavy weight armaments and the momentum in the war has swung to  the Assad side.   Pres. Obama, bitten by not so good outcomes in Libya and Iraq, has procrastinated in his decision until now, and hopefully it will not be too late.  He received a push from former Pres. Bill Clinton, urging humanitarian intervention, n which might give him some domestic cover to protect him from the ire of the liberal wing of the Democratic party.

The irony of Clinton's statement is that Clinton's reluctance to take action in the Bosnia conflict resulted in 100,000 killed and 2 million refugees and the coining of the phrase of "ethnic cleansing" while he dawdled.  It took enormous bi-partisan effort to get him off his dime and finally working with NATO, a no fly zone was created that equalized the power of those fighting the Serbian attempt to carve out greater Serbia from Bosnia.  The result is that ultimately there was a political settlement in the Dayton Accord that resulted in the end of fighting and killing.  There was also a mechanism set up to bring to justice the perpetrators of the ethnic cleansing campaign in the war crimes trials in the Hague, which is still on going. 
A version of the following post  appeared  in the Sky Hi Daily News during the week of May 8, 2013.:

 Syria’s civil war  is emerging as a  US foreign policy crisis  and there is a gnawing feeling   of “been there, done that in Iraq and Afghanistan”.  While it was probably a  mistake, last year Pres. Obama drew a red line that would trigger greater US involvement if  Syrian Pres. Assad’s used  chemical weapons. There is some evidence Assad did.  
Empty threats risk future threats not being taken seriously and the president has been under pressure to make good on his threat. At least Obama is right in being cautious now. All of his options carry risks. Ethnic  civil wars like the one in Syria are the tar sands of  outsider intervention; easy to get into and  difficult  to get out of , and risk  spreading conflicts beyond borders.
The New York Times reported Israel  wiped out Syria’s main chemical weapons facility and long range missile storehouses last week.   While the strikes served Israel’s purpose to take out Syria’s arming  Hezbollah in Lebanon, it  may  also have made the chemical weapons redline  issue  moot.     No  one is claiming Israel’s strikes were a proxy for making good on a US threat, but  it served that purpose, too.
Military aid to the rebels and no fly zones should still be on the table because they  promote an end that serves our national interests. . Israel’s airstrikes demonstrated the weakness of Syria’s air defense and the feasibility of enforcing no fly zones. Boots on the ground have wisely  been ruled out by about everyone in the US. We learned some hard lessons  in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The situation on the ground has changed since last year,  with Al Qaeda- like  organizations  hijacking many of the rebel groups and with few  moderate  forces left to arm.     Our weapons could fall  into the wrong hands, making the situation more dangerous. We can only hope our intelligence assessments are accurate.
 Giving military aid  and enforcing no fly zones could   be the catalyst to get  Russia to force Assad to step down, since  military aid to the rebels could tip the stalemated conflict against Assad. The final outcome is still mostly in Russia’s hands. Assad is their client.   Russia’s reluctance to force Assad out is understandable. The fall of Assad could put Al Qaeda like rebels in charge,  closer to their borders.
Russia may be gambling that our  reluctance to get involved  will not change. Beware.  We found ourselves eventually caught up in the Balkan Wars in the 1990’s as the former Yugoslavia broke up.   Media coverage of  ethnic cleansing , fleeing refugees, and the shelling of Dubrovnik  and Sarajevo  turned  US public opinion around  to support  intervention.  Western countries also   feared Bosnia could become a stronghold for Al Qaeda Europe.  
During  the Balkan conflict NATO put only peacekeeper boots on the ground, but they enforced   no fly zones and  bombed Serbia  during the Kosovo  conflict.  Military aid flowed freely to all parties, with Russia supplying Serbia and the West backing Croatia.  
The conflict  in the Balkans  was ultimately  resolved by diplomats and the agreements   contain models that could benefit both Russia and the West in Syria.   Croatia and Serbia were carved from   the former Yugoslavia.  These new nations  were left with even fewer ethnic minorities  though these were already   areas with  historical cohesiveness.   Croatia joins the European Union this July  and last month Serbia agreed to enter in negotiations to resolve Kosovo’s status.
 Bosnia, still balanced  demographically  between Muslims, Croatian Catholics, and Serbs,  is a less successful result of the settlement. Ethnic factions are hunkered down in cohesive geographic sectors,  barely working together cooperatively on a national level.   At least the shooting, ethnic cleansing  and threat to Europe was  stopped. 
 Syria  also has  some  religious cohesive regions . A Balkanized solution just might  work for Russia and the US.   
For Felicia Muftic’s  Balkan background, visit
Column translated into Croatian is also posted at

Footnote:  The New York Times today reports that Secretary of State John Kerry will be in Russia today meeting with their President and high ranking officials to discuss a negotiated settlement.  It appears that either the threat of US military aid to the rebels or a switch in the view of what Russia believes to be in their self interest has  changed.  Whether the Israeli strike figured into the equation is not known, but it did demonstrate the fear that the Syrian civil war would spread which would not be in the interest of either Russia or the US.