The Best Defense

Rosa Brooks on Obama vs. his generals: This is some scary, lamentable stuff

Rosa Brooks, a smart former Pentagon official, has a terrific piece in the debut issue of Politico Magazine on the frosty relationship between the Pentagon and the Obama White House. She writes:

In my interviews, however, many senior military leaders complained of feeling baffled and shut out by a White House National Security Staff that, in their view, combines an insistence on micromanaging minor issues with a near-total inability to articulate coherent strategic goals. "The NSS wants to run the show, day to day and minute to minute," laments a former military official, "so they have no time -- they're almost incapable of strategic thinking."

.... There was the White House staffer who called me up and asked me to have CENTCOM move a U.S. drone to Kyrgyzstan, for instance, in an effort to track an alarming outbreak of ethnic violence. When I told him why I couldn't -- the chain of command just doesn't work that way, and in any case no formal planning or risk assessments had taken place -- he quickly grew exasperated.

"You guys" -- the Pentagon -- "are always stonewalling us on everything. I'm calling you from the White House. The president wants to prevent genocide in Kyrgyzstan. Whatever happened to civilian control of the military?"

"You," I had to tell him, "are the wrong civilian."

As if to emphasize the culture clash, after episodes like this one, the response from some of my Obama administration colleagues in the White House was bitter: Had I "gone over to the other side?" one asked.

Tom again: That certainly rings true to me. There is a tendency in many of Obama's officials, I think, to see the military as a political interest group, and to treat honest dissent as a form of disloyalty -- not recognizing that top generals are required to give their personal views when asked to do so by Congress. Slapping down generals for honesty was a deleterious tendency of Lyndon Johnson.

(Among the potential conflicts of interest in this item: I am working with Rosa on a project at the New America Foundation, and she used to date a good friend of mine. Plus Susan Glasser, the editor of Politico Magazine, used to be my boss at Foreign Policy magazine, and before that at the Washington Post. I am sure I will think of more. Oh yeah, Rosa also has a weekly column in Foreign Policy. Also, I talked to her about this article when she was writing it.)

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The Best Defense

A few words in support of Snowden

This kind of fits what I asked for the other day (in a comment) as I tried to understand the argument in support of Edward Snowden. These were written by "FG42":

In my mind, Snowden did a great public service to our country. If he hadn't blown the whistle, the gargantuan IC bureaucracy would have inexorably grown even bigger and more powerful -- and neither Congress, the media, the judiciary, or our political leaders would have known enough to effectively provide oversight and direction. And of course, the public would have known nothing at all. Clearly the NSA in this case was on track to becoming a runaway agency. The question we should ask is: before Snowden, what mechanism or process was there to objectively calibrate the balance between the need for surveillance and the privacy rights of citizens? And after Snowden, were there substantive reforms and improvements made as a result of the disclosures? And let's not be too naive about the IC's claims that the disclosures were so damaging. The scope of NSA's activities surely was already known to or anticipated by any foreign intelligence agency worth its salt, and they would have taken the necessary precautionary measures. The greatest damage probably was the embarrassment to the US.

Of course, I think Snowden needs to pay a penalty for breaking the law, just as the civil rights demonstrators in the 1960's expected jail as the price of civil disobedience. But the law is not supposed to be a blunt instrument. That's why judges can impose a sentence, and then suspend all or part of it. Or a person can be convicted, and then be paroled or pardoned. Or (and this one does bother me) the draft dodgers who fled to Canada or Sweden to avoid the lawful call of their country could be pardoned and allowed to return to the country that they rejected. So the Justice Department should negotiate a plea bargain with Snowden, and let him pay the reasonable (not a .22 bullet in the brain) penalty imposed. And let the country move on to really get a handle on the Surveillance State that we have and stop trying to shoot the messenger.

The Guardian via Getty Images