Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

December 18, 2019

The FBI and the Trouble With Secret Warrants


By David K. Shipler

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the person or things to be seized.
--The Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution
               
 The FBI, yet again, lied to the court, whose chief judge didn’t do her job properly and then excoriated the FBI. Republicans, who enacted and defended the secret system that permits such abuse, are suddenly in high dudgeon since the victim is one of their own. That’s the brief summary of the controversy over surveillance done on Carter Page, a campaign aide to Donald Trump. Whether something good comes out of the episode is an open question.
  There are basically two legal ways for the government to listen to your phone calls, read your emails, search your house, and invade other areas of your private life. One is with a traditional search warrant, signed by a judge after law enforcement swears that probable cause exists to believe that certain evidence of a specific crime will be found at a particular place and time. The other is with a secret court order under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which requires something quite different: probable cause that you are an agent of a foreign power, meaning either a government or a terrorist organization. No crime need be involved, and the standard of particularity is largely waived.
                Other differences are notable. In a criminal case, the warrant is eventually disclosed and might be presented to the target at his door if he’s home as police arrive to do the search. He ultimately learns details of the searches. Theoretically, he should be able to see the affidavit on probable cause that the police submitted to the judge, so his lawyer can challenge the warrant’s basis and move in court to suppress the resulting evidence. However, in the experience of Richard Foxall, a defense attorney in California, judges rarely allow the defense to inspect the affidavits. (See Foxall's comment below.) That check on law enforcement doesn’t prevent all official wrongdoing, but it helps.
                No such transparency exists in FISA warrants. Not only are they issued in secret by judges in a secret court, they are executed without notice to the target and are never disclosed unless the government chooses to use the resulting evidence in a criminal trial, and even then the affidavits themselves are usually considered classified. Occasionally the FISA material is used as a basis for an ordinary criminal warrant, but defense lawyers are usually blocked from seeing the original application.
Sometimes the FISA warrants are pried into the open through a lawsuit. Or, in the case of   Carter Page, when the FBI screws up so royally that the Justice Department’s inspector general is prompted to investigate the investigators.
                It was that secret FISA system through which government aimed its powerful monitoring apparatus at Page. And it was that process that the FBI abused, according to the inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, who uncovered 17 misstatements and omissions in the warrant applications. These were not just careless errors, and they were much more than the “gross incompetence and negligence” that Horowitz called them. They gave every appearance of being deliberate distortions aimed at strengthening investigators’ argument to the court that Page was probably a Russian agent.
Nor was this incident isolated. We’ve seen it before. It seems to reflect a culture of intellectual dishonesty among investigators who are so zealous that they filter out facts that undermine their theory of a case. That has undoubtedly led to the wrongful surveillance of innocent Americans by an opaque, clandestine system. Horowitz “has already begun an audit of other FISA applications,” Charlie Savage reports in The New York Times.
Significantly, a remedy exists in law that might curtail the practice, if federal judges would only use it.  That is the provision for an amicus curiae (friend of the court), an independent lawyer to defend privacy and civil liberties before the secret surveillance is approved. But judges hardly ever invite those amici into the closed hearings, and there is no indication that one was present when warrants were issued in Page’s case. In fact, according to a footnote in the Horowitz report, no hearing was even held before the chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Rosemary Collyer, signed off on the initial application.
Collyer, obviously feeling burned, has issued a public order to the FBI to shape up—specifically, to “inform the Court in a sworn written submission of what it has done, and plans to do, to ensure that the statement of facts in each FBI application accurately and completely reflects information possessed by the FBI that is material to any issue presented by the application.” But she takes no responsibility on herself and makes no mention of using outside lawyers to create an adversarial proceeding that might test the government’s assertions.
After years of extensive surveillance following 9/11, Congress created the amicus system in the 2015 Freedom Act, requiring a pool of at least five such lawyers with security clearances to stand ready to participate in those warrant hearings. The lawyers have been named, but few have been called. Of more than 1,500 cases heard in 2016, only one amicus was appointed by a judge, none in 2017 for nearly 1,600 cases, and just nine in 2018 for 1,651 applications involving 1,833 targets, including 232 Americans.
Typically, then, no competing information about the person being targeted comes before the judge, who sees only what FBI agents and Justice Department attorneys present. Eleven federal judges, appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court do rotating duty on the FISA court; each one can ask probing questions, reject applications in whole or in part, and modify orders. But the statistics aren’t reassuring: out of the 1,651 applications in 2018, only 30 were completely denied, 42 rejected in part, and 261 modified. We now know that the low rate of rejection is not because the Justice Department’s affidavits are flawless.
To do the surveillance on Carter Page, the FBI had to convince the court that there was probable cause to believe that Page was an agent of a foreign power, i.e. Russia. But in making that assertion to get the original warrant and then in three renewals, officials rewrote, distorted, and omitted important facts.
For example, an FBI attorney doctored an email from the CIA that might have neutralized suspicion about Page, whose past contacts with Russian intelligence officers figured in the probable-cause assertion. But it turned out that Page had been reporting to the CIA, which told the FBI that he had been “an operational contact.” That was left out of the original warrant application. To renew the warrant after it expired, an FBI lawyer altered an email from the CIA and made it read that Page was “not a source.”                
Agents hid questions about the reliability of reports from the former British spy Christopher Steele that Russia had compromising information on Trump, both financial and sexual. These formed a key basis for the warrant applications, which exaggerated Steele’s credentials—crediting him incorrectly with contributing significantly to an early criminal prosecution. The FBI also failed to inform the court that he had probably been hired indirectly by the Hillary Clinton campaign or the National Democratic Committee.
The FBI’s filings did not mention that Steele’s primary source, in an FBI interview, had contradicted “multiple sections of the Steele reports, including some that were relied upon in the FISA applications,” according to Horowitz’s investigation. Nor was the court told that the source disputed Steele’s report that a “well-developed conspiracy” existed between Russia and the Trump campaign. Instead, the FBI described the source as “truthful and cooperative,” leaving the impression that the person “had corroborated the Steele reporting.” And so on.
                All those defects in the applications strengthened the impression of Page as a Russian agent. He was placed under government monitoring for 11 months, in precisely what way the public does not know, because—except for the generic term “electronic surveillance”—the specific intrusions are blacked out in the inspector general’s report. Such warrants may authorize agents to plant bugs and cameras in homes and offices; sneak into houses to do secret physical searches; collect the content of phone conversations, emails, and texts; and monitor credit-card transactions, a person’s movements, and the like.
                FISA was enacted in 1978 as an innovative attempt to regulate domestic intelligence-gathering in the wake of revelations that the FBI, the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and other arms of the government had been spying on Americans for their political views—on civil-rights leaders, labor leaders, anti-war activists, and others.
                Until Sept. 11, 2001, the law might have worked pretty well. But after planes were flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Congress hastily loosened it through the Patriot Act. Where the law initially permitted sweeping surveillance only for “the purpose” of gathering foreign intelligence rather than evidence for criminal prosecution, the Patriot Act changed it to “a significant purpose.” That allowed criminal investigation to become the leading motive for acquiring secret and sweeping surveillance powers—an end run around the strict requirements of the Fourth Amendment.
                Erroneous assertions in affidavits submitted to the FISA court surfaced in 2000, when the Justice Department admitted to misstatements in 75 applications after the secret court published an unusual opinion on “the troubling number of inaccurate FBI affidavits.” One agent was banned entirely from submitting affidavits, and the FBI tightened its rules—some of which were then violated in the Page case.
                In 2004, after the wrongful arrest of Brandon Mayfield, an Oregon lawyer whose fingerprints were mismatched with those on a bag of detonators after trains in Spain were bombed, a lawsuit by Mayfield unearthed FISA warrants that displayed the FBI’s capacity for malicious self-delusion.
                After sneaking into his house and law office, possibly planting bugs, and rifling through files protected by attorney-client privilege, FBI agents spun innocent facts into sinister “evidence.” A home computer had been used to research flights to Spain, rental housing there, and Spanish railroad schedules. Very suspicious. But those searches were merely part of his 12-year-old daughter’s school assignment to plan a fictitious vacation. A note in her journal, which agents thought was Mayfield’s, contained a criticism of US bombing in Afghanistan. A phone number in Spain was found written down: the clincher, except that it was the number of an exchange program being considered for their son.
                Best of all in this gathering web of FBI fantasy was the discovery that Mayfield’s passport had expired, and there was no record of his leaving the country in the previous 10 years. This information could have been discovered without a FISA warrant, but what happened next illustrates the mindset of the investigator. He made up a scenario and swore to it in his affidavit: “Since no record of travel or travel documents have been found,” the FBI agent wrote, “it is believed that MAYFIELD may have traveled under a false or fictitious name, with false or fictitious documents.”
                Based on the fingerprint mistake and the secret warrant, Mayfield was headed straight for prison. He was saved only by the Spanish National Police, which kept insisting that his fingerprint was not a match, and which finally found its real owner, the real terrorist. But his law practice was severely damaged. His lawsuit was settled by the Justice Department for $2 million of taxpayer money.
                 To grasp the magnitude of our departure from founding principles, we have to go back to the beginning, that is, to the Fourth Amendment. It was drawn up as a rebuff to the British practice, under writs of assistance, to search entire villages for contraband—an odious habit that enraged colonists and helped light the fire of revolution.
 “A man’s house is his castle; and whilst he is quiet, he is as well guarded as a prince in his castle,” argued James Otis on behalf of Boston merchants in 1761. “This writ, if it should be declared legal, would totally annihilate this privilege. Custom-house officers may enter our houses when they please; we are commanded to permit their entry. Their menial servants may enter, may break locks, bars, and everything in their way; and whether they break through malice or revenge, no man, no court may inquire.”
                The technology is new, but the principle is the same.

December 7, 2019

The Pitfalls of Political Trash Talk

By David K. Shipler

                Nobody in American politics can beat Donald Trump at the game of coarse insults, name-calling, and personal ridicule. And nobody should try, especially Joe Biden, who needs to keep his poise of dignity and decency if he has a chance of rescuing discourse from its quagmire. Little temper tantrums and macho posturing, provoked Thursday by an Iowa voter’s unfriendly question, are not going to please citizens looking for a return to decorum.
Besides, Biden’s not very good at it. An early attempt occurred back in October 2016, when Biden was campaigning for Hillary Clinton. He managed to deflect public attention from his powerful condemnation of Trump’s boast that he could grab any woman’s pussy. Biden called it “a textbook definition of sexual assault” and went on: “He said, ‘Because I’m famous, because I’m a star, because I’m, a billionaire, I can do things other people can’t.’ What a disgusting assertion for anyone to make!”
The burning anger in Biden’s face said it all. Then he stepped on his own message by adding: “The press always asks me don’t I wish I were debating him. No, I wish we were in high school so I could take him behind the gym, that’s what I wish.” The partisan crowd cheered, but the more important point was swallowed by the Biden bravado, which became the focus of the news.
Biden must have thought he’d scored, because he embellished in March 2018 at the University Miami: “If we were in high school I’d take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him. . . . I’ve been in a lot of locker rooms my whole life. I’m a pretty damn good athlete. Any guy who talked that way was usually the fattest, ugliest S.O.B. in the room.”

November 25, 2019

Impeachment and the Mythology of American Virtue


By David K. Shipler

                After days of impeachment hearings in the House Intelligence Committee, the United States has emerged as a country riven by a clash between cynicism and perfectionism. Americans have grown so inured to wrongdoing that nefarious behavior won’t provoke outrage unless it violates some mythical norm of purity. And so Democrats and their witnesses have been forced to construct a backdrop of national righteousness against which President Trump can be cast in damning contrast.
                That shouldn’t be necessary. Trump’s actions should be enough for impeachment and conviction. If the society had a proper ethical reflex, it would be sufficient that he tried to get a “favor” for his reelection campaign from a foreign government, Ukraine, which desperately needs American support against Russia. End of discussion.
                 The United States shouldn’t have to be pictured as an unyielding advocate of global democracy and the rule of law, when we have a sordid history of doing the opposite where dictators suit us. Ukraine shouldn’t have to be given the exaggerated label “ally” when it has no such standing in any treaty. The rhetoric on foreign policy shouldn’t have to sound like a throwback to the Cold War, with Washington’s nobility poised against Moscow’s “aggression,” and a pretense that the U.S. bears no responsibility for the rising conflict with Russia.
Witnesses shouldn’t have to tout their and their families’ military service to be credible, and the military shouldn’t have to be burnished as flawlessly heroic. Those testifying shouldn’t have to chronicle their devotion to public service. Those born abroad shouldn’t need to sing moving hymns of praise to America as a haven of freedom to speak and to prosper, when prosperity and even freedom, as we are seeing, do not come to all who step onto American soil.
But national myths are often useful, because they set high standards to which the country should aspire. The gap between the myth and the reality is one that begs to be closed.

October 11, 2019

Punishing the Poor for Being Hungry


By David K. Shipler
The latest in a series: Making America Cruel Again

                The United States might be the only country in the world where poverty is considered a moral failing—on the part of the victims, not the society. When conservatives are in charge of government, this judgment infiltrates policy. Republicans move repeatedly to twist regulations around an assumption that the poor don’t want to work and don’t make sound decisions. And when this bias affects children’s nutrition, it can cause lifelong impairment.
                In the last year alone, the Trump administration has taken multiple shots at food stamps, now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program), which helped feed about 40 million people last year. The latest change, one week ago, would cut benefits by $4.5 billion over five years. Even in a booming economy, one in seven children are in families considered “food insecure,” according to the Department of Agriculture’s 2018 survey, meaning that they weren’t sure of having enough food for everyone.
                Research in the rapidly advancing field of neuroscience has documented the severe biological assaults caused by inadequate nutrition during sensitive phases of brain development. Numerous studies, compiled in a lengthy National Academy of Sciences report, From Neurons to Neighborhoods, portray a devastating landscape of cognitive deficiency resulting from nutritional deprivation. The insufficiency of healthy food during a pregnant woman’s second trimester can reduce the creation of neurons, the brain’s impulse-conducting cells. Malnutrition in the third trimester restricts their maturation and retards the production of branched cells called glia.
Iron is essential to promote the growth of the brain in size and the creation of the nerve-transmitting myelin sheath around the brain’s nerve fibers. The impact of iron deficiency in a baby, therefore, never disappears, even once the deficiency is eliminated. One longitudinal study that followed children from infancy through adolescence found that they scored lower “in arithmetic achievement and written expression, motor functioning, and some specific cognitive processes such as spatial memory and selective recall.”
Teachers reported that such children displayed “more anxiety or depression, social problems, and attention problems.” It is no great leap of logic to see learning disabilities as one result of malnutrition, and a child who can’t do decently in school, who can’t follow half of what a teacher is saying, is more inclined to drop out.
For those Republicans who are moved more by self-interest than empathy, it’s worth noting that high school dropouts earn less that those with degrees, pay less in taxes, have more serious medical problems, and are at higher risk of ending up in jail.
Yet Trump’s people have sought to saddle the $68 billion-a-year SNAP program with restrictions and cuts to the monthly benefits, which now come on debit cards with declining balances, and typically last a family only two or three weeks. Certain regulations that the Trump administration has either enacted or has openly considered would treat needy Americans with suspicion and distrust. For instance:

·         Officials have considered imposing a drug-testing regime on recipients (although not on farmers who receive huge federal subsidies as part of the same legislation).
·         The Agriculture Department, which administers the program, published a rule in July to eliminate states’ option to raise eligibility limits above the federal ceiling, which is 130 percent of the poverty line. Previously, states could get waivers to enroll families earning more if their housing and child-care expenses soaked up a big percentage of their income. More generous housing subsidies would help, because in many parts of the country, where rent can consume 50 percent or more of a family’s budget, the money for food gets squeezed. The comment period on the rule change ended in September; once adopted, it will cut off about 3 million recipients.
·         In last week’s action, the administration effectively took away $75 in benefits from one out of every five families by recalculating how housing and utilities costs are figured.
·         The Trump administration tried to tighten work requirements in this year’s budget, Congress refused, and officials have gone ahead anyway to partially evade the legislative intent. Since 1996, single able-bodied adults with no dependents, up to age 49, could get SNAP benefits for only three months in a three-year period unless they worked or were in job training at least 80 hours a month. States could waive the rule in areas with acute joblessness. Trump wanted to expand the requirement to age 59 and, more damaging, apply it to those with children over six years old. That was rejected by Republicans and Democrats in Congress. So last December the Agriculture Department did what it could administratively by making it much harder for states to get waivers.
·         In his 2019 budget, Trump proposed replacing half of a family’s cash grants with a food package of cereal, pasta, peanut butter, canned fruit and vegetables, meat, poultry, and other items deemed good for them. Sending such packages to 40 million people would have been so costly and impractical that the idea collapsed of its own weight. But the notion seems borne of a patronizing attitude toward the poor, who suffer from a disparaging stereotype that they do not act responsibly.
Clinics treating childhood malnutrition see a broad array of causes. Lack of money is the centerpiece, but lack of knowledge about healthy eating can also contribute to some cases. Health providers find that some parents don’t know how to cook with relatively inexpensive ingredients. New immigrants unfamiliar with American food can be fooled by ads into thinking that Coke and Cheetos are healthy. So can Americans themselves. Lots of junk food is cheap and filling, hence the nation’s epidemic of obesity, which can be a sign of malnutrition.
Supermarkets with fresh, healthy food are scarce in many low-income neighborhoods. A child’s food allergies can be baffling without the funds and information required to have a large assortment of choices on hand. Single parents doing shift work can’t keep track of what their kids are being fed by multiple caregivers. Nor do they usually have the orderly life that allows them to sit children down calmly to feed them, or have a regular family meal.
 In other words, childhood malnutrition is created at the confluence of problems and disabilities that magnify and reinforce one another. They must all be addressed. The cognitive impairment that results cannot be attacked by a country that keeps electing officials who entangle the safety net in a set of punitive impulses.
First published by the Washington Monthly.

October 2, 2019

The Constitutional Stress Test


By David K. Shipler

                For a country ostensibly devoted to the rule of law and worshipful toward its Constitution, the United States is in a peculiar state of dishonoring both. It has a president and a supposedly conservative political party that brushes away the ingenious checks and balances that the Framers devised to restrain authority. It is politicizing its judiciary and entangling its legislature in partisan stalemates while its executive branch evades, ignores, or derides the other branches of government.
This could have more than a transitory impact on the dynamics of the democratic system. In resisting the constitutional duty of Congress to monitor and limit executive behavior, Donald Trump and his acolytes are undermining a keystone of constitutional governance. The damage might turn out to be more serious than a phone call with the president of Ukraine, and more lasting than an impeachment inquiry. Conceivably, once the judicial branch gets involved, a “conservative” Supreme Court could codify curbs on the legislature’s authority to subpoena, question, and investigate administration officials. Such cases are now being litigated.
How is Congress to enforce its orders? By declaring recalcitrant officials in “inherent contempt” and seeking to have them fined or arrested? That would be an extraordinary step, and nobody seems to know how it would be carried out. Otherwise, though, Congress is defied with impunity, and the system is impaired. The smooth running of government would have to be discussed in the past tense, when it relied on a basic respect for the norms of balance among the branches, when it did not conduct debates across an unyielding divide of political tribalism.

September 15, 2019

Interpreting Biden on Race and Poverty


By David K. Shipler

                Former Vice President Joe Biden must have had millions of Democrats wincing during last Thursday’s debate as he fumbled his way through a pointed question on racial inequality in schools. His sentences were incomplete, his thoughts jumped around erratically. He revealed, once again, his tin ear on race.
But if you distill his incoherent response—which did not directly answer the question of Americans’ obligations in the long wake of slavery—you can see that he actually identified the essence of key problems facing impoverished families and their schools. He displayed deeper understanding and proposed more solutions in a disjointed sound bite than all the other candidates combined.
Here is what he said, annotated in italics:
            “Well, they have to deal with the … Look, there is institutional segregation in this country. And from the time I got involved, I started dealing with that. Redlining, banks, making sure that we are in a position where--” He doesn’t finish his thought, but he is pointing to banks’ long practice of denying mortgages to blacks and “redlining” poorer neighborhoods out of consideration for loans. That has contributed to entrenched poverty and de facto segregation by community, which has meant that schools have been segregated as well, by race and income.
“Look, we talk about education. I propose that what we take is those very poor schools, the Title One schools, triple the amount of money we spend from $15 to $45 billion a year.” Pumping more funds into poor schools is essential to improve kids’ life opportunities. That’s because education funding relies mostly on local property taxes, which create vast disparities in per-pupil expenditures between wealthy and poor school districts. What Biden does not say, and should, is that these difficulties, and others he mentions subsequently, afflict poor whites as well as blacks. There are public schools that don’t have enough textbooks for all students, and teachers pay out of their own pockets to photocopy chapters.

September 6, 2019

Wanted: A "Shithole Country"


By David K. Shipler

                Donald Trump, who has come to realize that he was born in the wrong country, has ordered his Trump Organization to look for one to buy that he can run unimpeded by legislators, judges, news reporters, experts, and meteorologists. He thinks it would be great fun after leaving the presidency.
                “Maybe one of those shithole countries,” he reportedly told Ivanka just before she set out for Latin America. “Look around down there, will you? I’d rather one of them than in Africa . . .” The rest of his sentence is unprintable.
                Word has gone out in high-powered real-estate circles that Trump is willing to pay a small fortune for a nation where he can draft his own weather maps predicting what he has imagined, publish his fantasies in every newspaper, turn every newscast into unreality TV, make skeptical questioning a felony, reward corruption as smart business, and summon nubile young women to his palace. (He wants a Trump Palace, preferably on a hilltop flattened for a golf course.)
                Trump has told associates that the property must have this key quality: no constitution, or at least one that can be ignored. The US Constitution is a royal pain, as he keeps discovering, and he’s sick and tired of trying to get around it. “In the old adage,” he told one close aide, “the price of real estate is determined by three factors: location, location, and location. What I’m looking for is a place that is valuable because it is lawless, lawless, lawless.”
                Hearing about this, a disillusioned, patriotic Trump voter declared, “It is terribly selfish to say this, but let’s hope his search for a ‘shithole country’ is successful before he turns ours into one.”

August 17, 2019

Israel Forfeits Its Case

By David K. Shipler

                Before Israel became extremely right-wing, officials used to be eager to make their case with facts and reason. They were so confident in the legitimacy of their position in the Arab-Israeli conflict that they actually seemed to welcome a good opposing argument, because they thought they had a better one. When I arrived there in 1979 after four years covering the Soviet Union, the refreshing air of openness by government was like a tonic. There were exceptions, but as a rule, Israel’s officialdom didn’t try to silence painful disagreement. Comfort with flagrant debate was one of Israel’s most admirable qualities.
There is still plenty of noisy, acerbic dispute in the country. But the government lost its footing in denying entry to two Muslim US congresswomen, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, who wanted to visit the West Bank to champion the Palestinian cause and condemn Israel’s continuing “occupation.” That would have been an annoyance that the old Israel could have handled with sensible rebuttal, and hopefully some healthy introspection. In an earlier time, leaders stood tall in self-assurance. In the new Israel, it seems, they cower pathetically in fear of on-the-ground criticism.
The ironic result is the opposite of what President Trump imagined. He had said that Israel would look weak if it allowed Omar and Tlaib to visit. Israel now looks weak for having banned them—and for taking Trump’s bad advice. (Of course Trump’s idea of weakness is that you listen respectfully to views that differ from your own. He doesn’t seem to realize how weak he looks in his thin skin.)
This episode brings to mind Israel’s decision in 1979 to allow Jesse Jackson to enter the country for a highly publicized visit to Israel and the West Bank. Because of Jackson’s pro-Palestinian tilt, Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan convinced Prime Minister Menachem Begin to deny Jackson any meetings with senior government officials, a rebuff that displeased some of Begin’s aides, who thought Begin himself should have met him. Yet the discomfort with Jackson’s views, including his earlier anti-Semitic remarks, did not rattle the conservative governing coalition enough to block his trip.

June 27, 2019

Jared Kushner and the Palestinian Pretense


By David K. Shipler

                Jared Kushner’s economic proposal for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is comprehensive, bold, and visionary, full of noble goals in commerce, trade, agriculture, manufacturing, road-building, local electricity production, water supply, education, vocational training, health care, women in the workforce, and the arts. Titled “Peace to Prosperity,” it imagines the West Bank as a trading center akin to Singapore or Dubai. Its calls for judicial independence, dependable contract law, anti-corruption measures, and administrative transparency that would be hailed by any “good-government” advocates. It envisions some $50 billion in international grants, loans, investments, and global expertise.  
                This would be nothing to sneer at if it related to reality. But to take it seriously, you have to play Let’s Pretend. So let’s pretend that the West Bank and Gaza constitute a normal country, independent but poor, with no Israeli overlords, and free to accept whatever outside assistance it chooses. Let’s pretend that the Palestinian rulers control their own borders so that people and goods can move easily, as Kushner recommends. Let’s pretend that West Bank land is all under Palestinian authority, rather than being fragmented into leopard-spot jurisdictions favoring expanding Israeli settlements and security concerns. And let’s pretend that the radical group Hamas no longer controls Gaza with a policy of relating to Israel by rockets alone.
                 In that fictional environment, Kushner’s plan is utopian in the best sense of the word. The document is silent on the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so depending on how charitable a reader wants to be, Kushner’s effort is either ignorant or presumptuous, either blind to the political resolution that would be required before his proposals can be implemented, or based on an assumption that a resolution will have occurred.

June 16, 2019

Phantoms of War


By David K. Shipler

                On the night of August 4, 1964, as two US destroyers were reporting attacks by North Vietnamese PT boats in the Tonkin Gulf, Navy Commander James Stockdale took off from the USS Ticonderoga to fly support. He spent more than 90 minutes below 2,000 feet searching for North Vietnamese vessels. “I had the best seat in the house to watch that event,” he wrote in a book twenty years later, “and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets—there were no PT boats there . . . there was nothing there but black water and American firepower."
                Yet the imagined incident, coming two days after an actual attack, prompted President Lyndon Johnson to denounce Hanoi’s “repeated acts of violence” and order a bombing run against a North Vietnamese oil depot. The sortie of 18 planes was led, ironically, by Stockdale, who knew conclusively what had not happened but followed orders to help “launch a war under false pretenses,” as he said in his book. (He was shot down on a later mission, spent seven years as a POW, and in 1992 ran for vice president on Ross Perot’s ticket.)
                The cautionary tale of the Tonkin Gulf has been revived in recent days by the Trump administration’s assertions of absolute certainty that Iran was responsible for attacks on two oil tankers. The evidence is sketchy—primarily a video showing Iranian Revolutionary Guards removing, not planting, a limpet mine—and sundry sightings of Iranian vessels in the area, as they always are. There might be intercepted communications, called SIGINT (signal intelligence) in the trade, but they haven’t been released.