Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day

On this Memorial Day, we offer a column first published four years ago at  As we remember.


Slowly and sadly, Memorial Day is becoming just "another" holiday, better known for cookouts and retail deals than its intended purpose--honoring our fallen military heroes.  If you doubt this trend, watch TV for a few minutes this weekend.  There are plenty of ads for cars, furniture and clothes, (but unless you're watching Fox News), little is little mention of why Monday is a solemn, special day.  
But for anyone who ever wore the nation's uniform--or those who understand the high price of freedom--Memorial Day will never lose its meaning.  For us, the last Monday in May brings memories of friends and family members who gave their lives on the battlefield, or died in service-related mishaps.  This may sound quaint, but their sacrifice (and the day that honors it) should not be a pretext for a mattress sale.  
That's one reason I stay away from the malls and the beach on Memorial Day.  Instead, my thoughts usually focus on three individuals who made the ultimate sacrifice and touched my own life in the process.  For me, Memorial Day is about Walter, Ken and Mike.  
I never knew my Uncle Walter.  He was my mother's kid brother, a child of the Great Depression who grew up poor in a small Mississippi town.  After graduating from high school in 1942, he followed the path taken by many young men: he joined the Marine Corps.  Two years later, he was a trained rifleman, part of the 1st Marine Division that had been assigned to the invasion of Peleliu, in the southwestern Pacific.  
Seven decades later, the battle remains steeped in controversy.  Historians and military analysts argue that the invasion was unnecessary.  But General Douglas MacArthur argued that he needed the island to support the planned re-taking of the Philippines.  MacArthur's plans were eventually approved by FDR and the attack on Peleliu began on September 15, 1944.   
What followed was--arguably--one of the toughest battles fought by U.S. forces in World War II, complicated by countless blunders and miscalculations.  General William Rupertus, commander of the 1st Marine Division, confidently predicted that his crack unit would wrap up the battle in just three days.  Rupertus didn't know that his division was out-numbered by Japanese defenders (dug into a honeycomb of defensive positions), or that the preliminary naval bombardment inflicted virtually no damage on the enemy.    
General Rupertus was also unaware that the Japanese had changed their tactics, shifting most of their fortifications away from the invasion beaches.  As the Marines moved inland, they ran into an almost impenetrable wall of pillboxes, machine-gun nests and carefully-concealed artillery positions.  The invasion quickly bogged down--it would take U.S. forces more than two months to secure the island--and the Marines paid dearly for their commanders' mistakes.  
One of them was my Uncle Walter.  He died on the second day of the battle, as his regiment advanced under withering fire.  A fellow Marine later told my mother that Walter was literally vaporized by a Japanese artillery shell.  To this day, my uncle is classified as Missing in Action; graves registration teams couldn't find enough remains to confirm his death in battle.  
I met Ken during my own military career, some forty years later.  He was an F-4 driver in the same unit where I served as the intelligence officer.  In some respects, he was a typical fighter jock; supremely confident and highly skilled.  But he was also a genuinely nice guy, one of the most popular members of our squadron.  Though only a Captain, he was widely regarded as one of the best pilots in our wing.  His future seemed limitless.   
But like my uncle, Ken's future also went unrealized.  We lost him on a "routine" training mission, though that adjective is often misused.  Little is routine about taking high-performance combat jets on simulated combat missions.  En route to a bombing range in northeastern Georgia, four of our F-4s descended for the low-level portion of their flight, practicing skills they would use to evade Soviet air defenses in central Europe.  It was something our crews did on a daily basis.  
Ken's Phantom was the last in a four-ship formation.  As they flew over a river, a flock of birds suddenly lifted out of the tree line, directly into the path of the F-4.  Multiple bird strikes took out both engines, fatally crippling the aircraft.  Ken did everything right; he pulled back on the control stick to gain altitude, called "Mayday" over the radio, and started the ejection sequence for himself and his weapons system officer (WSO).
The back seater escaped unharmed, but something went wrong when Ken's ejection seat deployed .  Parachute Lines became wrapped around his upper body and snapped Ken's neck as the chute deployed.  Searchers found the faulty chute and his body about 24 hours later, hanging from a tree near the crash site.  The following week we gathered in the base chapel to remember our departed comrade.  I had the honor of reading "High Flight" at the end of the Memorial Service.  Even today, I cannot read or recite the lines of John Gillespie Magee Jr.'s epic poem without thinking about Ken, another pilot who died too young, in the service of his country.  
Sacrifice also defined the life of Mike, the third hero who occupies my thoughts on Memorial Day.  He originally hoped to become an Air Force officer through the ROTC program where I was an instructor, but struggled academically.  When it became apparent that Mike would not meet the required time line for graduation and commissioning, it became my job to release him.  Having never been a scholarship student, Mike didn't owe the Air Force--or the country--anything.  He had the option of simply fading back into the student population, earning a degree, and getting on with life.    
But Mike--predictably--had other ideas.  After learning that a commission was out of reach, He promptly asked about enlisting as an airman, and I put him in touch with a local recruiter.  In hindsight, Mike's reaction was anything but surprising.  He was always the first cadet to volunteer for a project and see it through.  His determination was inspiring, and Mike earned the respect and admiration of his fellow cadets and the detachment staff.   
A few months after Mike enlisted, I got a phone call from his recruiter.  He reported that Mike hit another academic buzz saw in the airborne radio operator's course, and had dropped out of that program.  I remember writing a letter of recommendation, urging the service to retain Mike, and assign him to a new career field.  Happily, the Air Force concurred and sent Mike to an Army base in Virginia, where he was trained as a Black Hawk helicopter crew chief. 
It soon became apparent that Mike had found his niche.  He became an outstanding crew chief in a search-and-rescue squadron, maintaining HH-60 Pave Hawks helicopters.  Mike's performance led to his selection as a flight engineer, part of a helicopter aircrew.  
On March 23, 2003, Mike and the other members of his crew were deployed to Afghanistan.  They received word that two young Afghan girls were in desperate need of medical evacuation and treatment at a U.S. hospital.  The girls' village was located high in the mountains; the weather was already bad and deteriorating.   
Despite those risks, Mike and his crew took off, in an HH-60 with the call-sign "Komodo 11."  They were accompanied by a second rescue helicopter.  En route to the distant village, Komodo 11 crashed, killing Mike and five other crew members.  He was 29 years old,    
You won't find the names of Mike, Ken and Walter on the list of America's revered military heroes.  But they are heroes nonetheless, brave men whose selfless sacrifice embodies the best of our nation.  On this (and every) Memorial Day, they deserve thanks, gratitude and remembrance from a nation whose freedom they helped secure.

They deserve nothing less.  .

Friday, May 24, 2013

Your Federal Betters

It's been quite a month for Lois Lerner.  In the span of just a few weeks, she's gone from being a faceless--but powerful--federal bureaucrat, to the eye of a political storm involving the IRS's targeting of conservative non-profit groups.

But if Ms. Lerener's name rings a bell, it should.  Many conservatives remember Lerner from her days as an attorney at the Federal Election Commission, where she toiled for many years before moving to the IRS in 2001.  Turns out that Ms. Lerner was pushing a similar agenda 25 years ago, as chief of the FEC's enforcement branch.  As a former co-worker told National Review:

Before the IRS, Lerner served as associate general counsel and head of the enforcement office at the FEC, which she joined in 1986. Working under FEC general counsel Lawrence Noble, Lerner drafted legal recommendations to the agency’s commissioners intended to guide their actions on the complaints brought before them.

“I’ve known Lois since 1985,” says Craig Engle, a Washington, D.C., attorney who from 1986 to 1995 served as the executive assistant to one of the FEC’s commissioners and later worked as general counsel to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “I’m probably one of the few people in Washington who really knows her whole career as opposed to those who have come across her lately.”

Engle describes Lerner as pro-regulation and as somebody seeking to limit the influence of money in politics. The natural companion to those views, he says, is her belief that “Republicans take the other side” and that conservative groups should be subjected to more rigorous investigations. According to Engle, Lerner harbors a “suspicion” that conservative groups are intentionally flouting the law. 


Mark Hemingway at The Weekly Standard has documented what he calls Lerner’s “politically motivated harassment” of the Christian Coalition. At her direction, the FEC in 1994 sued the group in the largest enforcement action in history, accusing it of “expressly advocating” the election of Republican candidates. In a deposition, FEC lawyers asked Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North whether and why the former Southern Baptist minister Pat Robertson was praying for him and why he thanked Robertson in a letter for his “kind regards.” Five years later, in 1999, the group was cleared of any wrongdoing. 

Not long after the Christian Coalition was finally cleared, Ms. Lerner was on her way to the IRS, which (apparently) offered new opportunities to push her same agenda, culminating in the recent harassment and bureaucratic persecution of tea party groups and other conservative organizations.  

So what can be done about the Lois Lerners of the world?  Not much, according to Daniel Foster, who has a companion piece currently posted at NRO.  As a career civil servant, individuals like Lois Lerner are just about impossible to fire, as he reminds us.  

Statistically speaking, the firing of a federal employee is a rare event. A Cato Institute study showed that in one year, just 1 in 5,000 non-defense, civilian federal employees was fired for cause.

A widely cited analysis by USA Today found that in FY 2011, the federal government fired just 11,668 out of 2.1 million employees (excluding military and postal workers). That’s a “separation for cause” rate of 0.55 percent, roughly a fifth the rate in the private sector.

And the firing of employees who fit Lerner’s profile is rarer still. Lerner is very much a “white-collar” employee, and the same analysis found that blue-collar employees (such as food-service workers) were twice as likely to be fired. Lerner is a twelve-year vet at IRS, and before that was associate counsel at the Federal Elections Commission for many years. But fully 60 percent of federal employees fired were in their first two years on the job. Lerner has averaged $185,000 in salary from 2009 to 2012, but only 0.18 percent of federal employees making more than $100,000 were let go for cause. Most relevant of all, Lerner is a lawyer, and just 27 of the government’s 35,000 lawyers lost their jobs in 2011 — six fewer than left federal employment via the Big Sleep.    

Late today, it was announced that Lerner has been placed on administrative leave.  That means she'll be collecting her yearly pay of $180,000 at home for at least a few months.  Incidentally, no one knows exactly how many federal employees are in this status at any given time, but the paid vacation can be rather lengthy.  In 2012, the Washington Post detailed the status of an inspector general at the National Archives, who had been accused of misconduct by a subordinated.  As the paper reported at that time, the IG's faced an extended period in highly-paid limbo because the special panel that investigated complaints against departmental IGs met only four times a year. 

And what if Ms. Lerner is indicted--and convicted--in federal court?  Even then, there's a strong chance she'll retain her federal pension.  Consider the case of Darleen Druyun, the Air Force's former senior civilian acquisition official.  In 2005, Ms. Druyun was sentenced to nine months in prison for passing information on a competitor's bid to Boeing, the company she joined after retiring from civil service.  Despite her federal conviction, Druyun retains her federal retirement benefits, based on her "retirement" before going to prison, and years of honorable service prior to her sentence. 

So, if Lerner finds herself facing a trial and possible jail time, she will simply retire before her case goes to court.  Her benefits will be in place during legal proceedings, and will continue--even if she is convicted.  In fact, there are several federal pensioners who are currently guests of Uncle Sam, including disgraced former Representatives Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-CA) and William Jefferson (D-LA).  Cunningham is actually double-dipping, collecting both a military pension (he is a retired Navy pilot and Vietnam figher ace), along with his Congressional retirement benefits.  Jefferson's retirement check is also rolling in, while he serves a 10-year sentence on corruption charges.  Obviously, Congress operates under a different set of rules, but you'll find several former federal employees who are currently in prison, but are still receiving pension benefits.   

Needless to say, any sort of action against Ms. Lerner could take years, so she'll remain on the IRS payroll while the legal and administrative processes slowly grind along.  If it's any consolation, ideologues like Lerner remain a minority--but they tend to gravitate towards high-paying (and highly influential) positions.  Far more numerous are the career "civil servants" who are incompetent, lazy, or both.  

I know; I met plenty of them during my service as a military officer, and later a defense contractor.  Some of the biggest slugs were encountered during my tenure at an intelligence agency.  Our building was literally populated with senior civilians (GG-13/14/15s) who were more concerned about their professional advancement--and building their bureaucratic empires--than accomplishing the unit's mission.  

One of the consummate operators in the organization was a woman (GG-14) who ran a specialized analysis division.  She had been in the building almost 30 years; in fact, it was the only place she ever worked.  Her father, a former senior civilian in the building, helped her secure an entry-level job fresh out of college, despite (by her own admission) a fondness for recreational drugs and "wild times" as a university student.  Later, a messy affair with a co-worker wrecked her first marriage, but her security clearance was never in jeopardy, and she kept climbing the ranks.  

By the time I met her a decade ago, she had carved out a nice little empire, supervising a dozen staffers and managing a travel budget that totaled more than $300,000 a year.  Analysts who worked for the woman told me that most of that money covered travel by the GG-14 and her deputy.  The supervisor enjoyed trips to Europe; she spent three years working on an unclassified threat guide with our "NATO" partners that was virtually useless to the operational community, but it guaranteed her regular flights to the continent, including one $5,000 trip to Norway.  Her assistant once bragged about being "TDY" six weeks in a row, and routinely buttonholed co-workers about sightseeing opportunities at his various destinations.  

As you might expect, the amount of work produced by this "team" was meager, at best.  One analyst told me his annual "production plan" amounted to five items.  That didn't mean he had to generate five major studies or analyses; he could simply contribute a few paragraphs to the work of another analyst and that counted.  So did contributions to products from other intel organizations.  But, in the finest civil service tradition, no one was checking the annual output, so as long as the analysts showed up and pretended to work, everything was fine, and most of these slugs, led by their esteemed supervisor, collected annual bonuses for their "performance."  

In fairness, there are hard-working civilians in the federal workforce, but in my experience, they are few and far between.  A friend of mine spent several years in the education and training directorate at Air Force Material Command Headquarters at Wright-Patterson AFB, OH.  One of their staffers was a GS-14, nearing 40 years of federal service.  However, this particular individual had stopped performing useful work years earlier, but no one was willing to go through the gymnastics required to discipline--let alone, dismiss--this federal gold brick.  

Finally, the director hit on an idea.  Since the non-performing GS-14 was often observed reading at his desk, he was assigned to read (and review) new books on education and training techniques and their potential applicability to the Air Force.  So, at annual salary of more than $100,000 a year, the U.S. taxpayer got the highest-paid book reviewer this side of The New York Times.  I have no idea if "the reader" (as he was known) is still on the federal payroll.  The Navy reportedly has a civil service employee in his 80s, with no plans to retire.  The longest-tenured federal worker (that we could find) spent 71 years working for the Department of Agriculture before moving on to that big bureaucracy in the sky back in 2009.  

So that's your federal workforce.  The ideologues like Ms. Lerner are bad enough, but when you factor in all of the deadbeats, sycophants, crooks, empire-builders and the rest, you can see why our government is a mess.  And that doesn't include the folks at the top of the steaming pile, our elected leaders, the same bunch Mark Twain once referred to as "America's native criminal class."  

Maybe it's time to bring back the Spoils System.      

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Whereabouts Unknown

Remember the closing sequence of Animal House?  Just before the final credits rolled, we learned that Hoover became a public defender in Baltimore; Otter established an OB-GYN practice in Beverly Hills and Bluto became a U.S. Senator.  As for Daniel Simpson Day ("D-Day," played by Bruce McGill) his whereabouts were officially unknown.

Oddly enough, we can say the same thing about the Commander-in-Chief on the night of September 11, 2012.  As the U.S. consulate in Benghazi came under attack and Ambassador Chris Stevens died (along with three other Americans), President Obama essentially disappeared.  Officially, we're told that he had a previously-scheduled meeting with then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey, at 5:30 eastern time, during the early stages of the assault.  While the session with Panetta and Dempsey had been previously scheduled, events in Libya were discussed during the meeting.

After that...well, we don't know.  The next time Mr. Obama was seen publicly was 9 am the next morning, en route to a fund raiser in Las Vegas.  Where was he during the 12-14 hours from the time his meeting with Mr. Panetta and General Dempsey ended, and the moment he boarded Marine One for the trip to Andrews AFB, and his flight to Nevada?  Supposedly, he was somewhere in the White House but to this day, there have been no photographs of the President in the Situation Room (or any other venue), monitoring events in Libya as they unfolded.  

Eight months after Benghazi, the usually incurious Washington media (and various pundits) have apparently discovered Mr. Obama's disappearing act, and they're finally asking questions.  To be fair, most of the queries have come from Fox News, which has been on the story from Day One.  On the May 8th edition of Special Report, Charles Krauthamer pointedly asked "where was the Commander-in-Chief in all of this?" noting the stand-down order given to a U.S. special forces team that was in Libya at the time, and awaiting permission to fly to Benghazi and provide assistance.

So far, no one has bothered to pose that question to Mr. Obama himself, but Chris Wallace attempted to follow-up on that query this morning, in an interview with White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer on Fox News Sunday.  Predictably, Pfeiffer offered no additional details on the president's whereabouts during the Benghazi debacle, but he did offer this observation--the commander-in-chief's physical location on the night of September 11th is an "irrelevant fact."  Here's the complete exchange between Pfeiffer and Wallace, posted at The Weekly Standard:

WALLACE: let's turn to benghazi. he had a meeting with panetta in the afternoon, heard about this on an unrelated subject, wanted them to deploy forces as soon as possible. the next time he shows up, hillary clinton says she spoke to him at around 10:00 that night after the attack at the consulate, not the annex, but the attack at the consulate had ended. question, what did the president do the rest of that night to pursue benghazi?

PFEIFFER:  the president was kept up to do throughout the entire night, from the moment it started till the end. this is a horrible tragedy, people that he sent abroad whose lives are in risk, people who work for him. i recognize that there's a series of conspiracy theories the republicans are spinning about this since the night it happened, but there's been an independent review of this, congress has held hearings, we provided 250,000 pages of -- 250,000 pages of documents up there. there's been 11 hearings, 20 staff briefings. everyone has found the same thing. this is a tragedy. the question is not what happened that night. the question is what are we going to do to move forward and ensure it doesn't happen again? congress should act on what the president called for earlier this week, to pass legislation to actually allow us to implement the recommendations of the accountability review board. when we send diplomats off into far-flung places, there's inherent risk. we need to mitigate that risk.

WALLACE: with all due respect, you didn't answer my question. what did the president do that night?

PFEIFFER:  kept up to date with the events as they were happening.

WALLACE: he didn't talk to the secretary of state except for the one time when the first attack was over. he didn't talk to the secretary of defense, he didn't talk to chiefs. the chairman of the joint who was he talking to?

PFEIFFER:  his national security staff, his national security council.

WALLACE: was he in the situation room?

PFEIFFER:  he was kept up to date throughout the day.

WALLACE: do you know know whether he was in the situation room?

PFEIFFER:  i don't know what room he was in that night. that's a largely irrelevant fact.

WALLACE: well --

PFEIFFER:  the premise of your question, somehow there was something that could have been done differently, okay, that would have changed the outcome here. the accountability roof board has looked at this, people have looked at this. it's a horrible tragedy, and we have to make sure it doesn't happen again.

WALLCE: here's the point, though, the ambassador goes missing, the first ambassador in more than 30 years is killed. four americans, including the ambassador, are killed. dozens of americans are in jeopardy. the president at 4:00 in the afternoon says to the chairman of the joint chiefs to deploy forces. no forces are deployed. where is he while all this is going on?

PFEIFFER:  this has been tested to by --

WALLACE: well, no. no one knows where he is, who was involved, the --

PFEIFFER:  the suggestion of your question that somehow the president --

WALLACE: i just want to know the answer.

PFEIFFER:  the assertions from republicans that the president didn't take action is offensive. there's no evidence to support it.

WALLACE: i'm simply asking a question. where was he? what did he do? how did he respond in who told him you can't deploy forces and what was his president?

PFEIFFER:  the president was in the white house that day, kept up to date by his national security team, spoke to the joint chiefs of staff earlier, secretary of state, and as events unfolded he was kept up to date.

If you buy Mr. Pfeiffer's explanation, it really doesn't matter where the President actually was, given the communications capability that supports the commander-in-chief.  It doesn't matter if he is in the Oval Office, the residential quarters, the limosuine, or half-way around the world on Air Force One; the President has the ability to stay in touch with senior advisers, utilizing a full range of secure voice and data networks.

But if President Obama was in the White House that evening, why not move to the Situation Room, which is maintained--and equipped--for crisis management?  Mr. Obama has used that facility during past contingencies, ranging from the bin Laden raid to Hurricane Sandy.  The chief executive's presence has often been documented through official photos, released by the White House press office.  But so far, no photo has emerged of Mr. Obama in the situation room during Benghazi, suggesting he was at another location in the White House.  But where?

And what's the hang-up about releasing that location?   Needless to say, Mr. Pfeiffer (and the White House) have opened another can of worm by refusing to disclose the President's whereabouts on the evening of 11 September was and providing more details of the interaction with his national security team.

Such information is critical, because the version of events now available depicts a commander-in-chief who was out-of-the-loop by his own choosing (emphasis ours).  Obviously, no one expects a President to manage every single engagement in the War on Terror, but Benghazi was different.  A U.S. diplomatic facility was under attack for hours; four Americans died and it's unclear who was in charge.  Who gave the order for the special ops team in Tripoli to stand down?  Who determined that other assets could not be mustered in time to provide assistance?  These are questions that demand answers, beginning with the actions of the President.

However, there are ways of determining what the President knew, in terms of information available to him.  As we noted last fall, the National Security Agency (NSA) almost certainly issued FLASH/CRITIC intelligence reports on the situation in Benghazi.  A CRITIC, or Critical Intelligence Report is reserved for the highest-priority SIGINT reporting (an attack on a US. diplomatic compound would certainly meet the criteria for that type of reporting.  FLASH priority dictates the CRITIC must be delivered to the commander-in-chief within 10 minutes.

Perhaps it's time for the House Intelligence Committee to summon General Keith Alexander, the NSA Director, for testimony on his agency's reporting from Benghazi.  A review of CRITIC traffic (along with delivery confirmations) would provide additional insights into the amount of information received by the POTUS and how he accessed it.  Incidentally, there would be no need to disclose the intelligence details of the CRITICS; just the timelines for NSA issuing the reports and when they were received by the White House.

As for the President's location, the Secret Service is responsible for keeping tabs on that.  Maybe Congressman Issa should subpoena the Secret Service visitor logs and related documents for the White House on the evening in question.  That would offer some idea as to who was present in the situation room, and where the President was hunkered down as events unfolded in Benghazi.

Mr. Pfeiffer's parsing suggests the White House has something to hide.  What might that be?  Our guess goes something like this: initial reports from Libya were bad; in the middle of a re-election campaign, Mr. Obama took the advice of his political advisers and tried to distance himself from Benghazi--even before the attack ended.  Key decisions were deferred to subordinates, part of a strategy to muddle through the situation and "manage" the disaster on the back end.

This strategy is reflected in the lack of communication between Mr. Obama and his senior national security advisers on that fateful evening.  To date, there is no record of additional conversations between the President, Defense Secretary Panetta and General Dempsey beyond their 5:30 meeting.  Similarly, there appears to be only one phone call between the President and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the attack in Benghazi. That conversation reportedly occurred at 10:00 pm Eastern Time, hours before the assault ended.

Clearly, it's hard for a President to manage a crisis when he has limited communication with his advisers.  And it's even more difficult when he is outside the Situation Room, apparently by design.  If there's anything worse than a commander-in-chief who is AWOL, it's a President who deliberately takes himself out of the loop during a serious foreign policy crisis.  The political calculations of Barack H. Obama are now being laid bare, and the White House is doing all it can to minimize the damage.                              



Monday, May 13, 2013

Risk Avoidance

Call it "Spook's Razor:" Opportunities for timely blogging decrease in proportion to the demands of one's "real job," and that decline usually coincides with significant, even earth-shattering events.  Put another way, we've been way too busy to post, even as the truth on Benghazi finally emerges--or should we say, can no longer be ignored--and the IRS scandal explodes with full force.

We'll have more thoughts on both tomorrow but in the mean time, Bing West has a great column at National Review on-line.  Mr. West, a Marine combat veteran of Iraq observes that the nation's senior military leaders (active and retired) didn't exactly cover themselves in glory with their handling of Benghzi, or trying to explain away the "decision-making process."  A few excerpts:

Sunday was quite a day for Benghazi and the U.S. military. At the platoon level, you are expected to admit errors in firefights in order to correct mistakes and do better the next time. We all make mistakes. But as we saw on yesterday’s talk shows, once you reach the top level, whether retired or not, you deny any possibility of error and label any question about military performance idiotic. This is not the behavior of a healthy organization, and if it persists, we are in for a nasty shock in a future crisis or conflict.

On CBS, former secretary of defense Bob Gates launched an impassioned defense of the Obama administration, sneering at critics for holding a “cartoonish impression of military capabilities and military forces.” He staunchly defended the administration’s high-level decision-making surrounding Benghazi, citing four reasons.

First, he said, sending fighter jets "ignored the number of surface-to-air missiles that have disappeared from Qaddafi's arsenals.  I would not have approved of a sending an aircraft, a single aircraft, over Benghazi."  

How many aircraft has the U.S. lost in hundreds of thousands of combat flights since 2001? Zero. The former SecDef is so afraid of an unknown risk that he would not send an aircraft capable of destroying a mortar site while Americans died? This is the pinnacle of risk avoidance.   

Hammer, meet nail. Read the whole thing; it's a sad reminder that those on the E-ring and in unified command billets are sometimes more motivated by politics than their military judgment.  Which brings us to the $64,000 question: exactly who was calling the shots on the night of September 11, 2012?     


Monday, May 06, 2013

Dickey's Folly?

It may go down as one of the worst media decisions since Wall Street rejected David Sarnoff's appeal for investing in radio back in the 1920s.  As one of the smart money boys told the NBC president, "Who would pay for a message sent to no one in particular?"  Who indeed.

Almost a century later, the President of Cumulus Radio seemed poised to top that banker, by getting rid of Rush Limbaugh.  According to Politico, the New York Daily News and other outlets, Mr. Dickey has been complaining (again) that Rush's rant against Sandra Fluke cost his stations at least $5 million in advertising revenue last year.  That has renewed speculation that the Cumulus chief won't renew his stations' contract with Limbaugh that expires at the end of this year.

Naturally, some media types have begun whispering about how this would "hurt" Rush.  After all, Cumulus owns 40 stations that carry his show, in some of the nation's biggest media markets.  That means the nation's #1 talk host would lose such affiliates as WABC in New York; WLS (Chicago), WBAP (Dallas) and WJR (Detroit), to name a few.

As someone who slaved in the radio salt mines before having the good sense to make the military career, it's important to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Best as I can tell, here's what's really going on in the Rush/Cumulus controversy.

First, I'll assume that Lew Dickey isn't completely stupid (though the jury's still out on that one).  But he clearly wants a better deal.  By that, we mean he would like to keep Rush's show on his stations, but pay a lower syndication fee and keep more of the advertising revenue generated by the program.  As we've noted before, the Rush Limbaugh Show is not only the gold standard for syndicated talk, it's also a cash cow.  A 60-second network commercial (carried on all Rush affiliates) goes for a reported $16,000.  If you want a "live read" by the host, be prepared to pay even more.  And Rush and his syndicator, Premier Networks (owned by Clear Channel) keep half of the advertising revenue generated by every hour of his program.

Rush commands that kind of deal because his program delivers.  Critics claim that Limbaugh's heyday is long past, but he still attracts millions of listeners every week.  And at the local level, he can help a station reverse its fortunes.  In recent years, Clear Channel put Rush on struggling FM stations in New Orleans, Raleigh and Pittsburgh.  The stations in the Crescent City and Raleigh doubled their listenership in less than a year; in fact, Rush's New Orleans outlet (WRNO) now beats the legendary WWL-AM head-to-head, though WWL has more listeners when you add in their FM simulcast.

Truth be told, Lew Dickey is trying to blame Rush for his stable of under-performing stations.  Despite the bad economy, Limbaugh's powerhouse Los Angeles affiliate, KFI-AM is one of the top-billing stations in the country, selling almost twice as much advertising time ($46 million a year) as WABC.  In fact, you won't find a single Cumulus property on the list, a fact not lost on Mr. Dickey.  He recently conducted a mini-purge at WMAL in Washington, apparently because that station wasn't meeting performance expectations.  Even WABC, home to such hosts as Don Imus, Sean Hannity and Mark Levin (in addition to Limbaugh) bills about $13 million less a year than all-sports station WFAN, despite the fact that WABC has more listeners.  Rush is right: not even his "magic" can compensate for a laggard sales department.

And what if Dickey can't get a better deal?  He has Mike Huckabee warming up in the bullpen.  Cumulus signed the former Arkansas governor to a lucrative deal last year, at least by their standards.  His program currently airs opposite Rush in many markets; so far, his ratings have been under-whelming, to say the least.  But, since Cumulus owns the Huckabee show, they won't have to split advertising revenue with an "outside" host and his syndicator.  Dickey may believe he can get a better return with that option, even if it means fewer listeners.

It's one hell of a gamble, to say the least.  Without Rush, ratings on WABC, WLS and other Cumulus stations will crater, and may never recover.  That means lower audience levels for the afternoon drive period (which follows Rush in many markets); smaller cumulative audiences and of course, reduced ad revenues.

Conventional wisdom says that Rush's program will move to WOR-AM in New York when his contract with Cumulus ends in December.  WOR once ruled the airwaves in the Big Apple, but now attracts about half the audience of WABC.  The addition of the Limbaugh would definitely boost WOR's fortunes, and there are hints that other Premier personalities (such as Sean Hannity) may follow suit.  However, don't rule out a more radical move by the folks at Clear Channel.  The radio giant has FM stations in New York, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit--and other cities--that could easily flip to a talk format, following their successful model in other cities.

Commercial radio is a Darwinian business in every sense of that term.  It's not a place for the faint-of-heart or executives who make idiotic decisions. Ninety years from now, Lew Dickey may be remembered as a visionary who foresaw the decline of conservative talk radio and its superstar hosts.  But I tend to believe that Dickey will wind up in the same category as that Wall Street investor of years ago, who made the wrong call and missed a gravy train.  Except in this case, Mr. Dickey is actually driving the train and for whatever reason, seems determined to run it off the tracks.                           

Paging Congressman Issa

On the way home in my car this afternoon, Sean Hannity took a call from a military member who claims to have been the sensor operator for the Predator drone mission over Benghazi on the night of September 12, 2012.  The caller, who identified himself as "John," said the UAV spent only about five minutes over the consulate before being repositioned over the nearby CIA annex.  He described seeing a crowd of hundreds of fighters outside the consulate, through the drone's sensors.

John also confirmed what this blog--and other sources--have reported for months.  The situation in Benghazi was actively monitored by various governmental organizations, civilian and military.  He noted that the secure "chat" rooms, which allow various nodes to share information during UAV missions, were very active that night.  It's also no secret that the drone's video feed was available at various command nodes, including the White House Situation Room; CIA Headquarters, the State Department and the National Military Joint Intelligence Center (NMJIC) in the Pentagon.

Now, here's the shocker.  John told Sean Hannity that no one from his unit has been contacted or questioned by Congressional investigators.  He was unable to confirm if the video from that terrible night still exists.  According to the sensor operator, the sensor "haul" from "uneventful" sorties is eventually erased, and the storage space is used for more recent missions.

Paging Congressmen Darrell Issa and Mike Rogers.  You might want to send your investigators to Creech AFB, NV and talk to the sensor crews who were "in the seat" that night.  You might also issue a Congressional subpoena for the video, and send your experts to CIA Headquarters; NGA Headquarters, the NMJIC, Langley AFB, VA; Ramstein AFB, Germany, US European Command, Beale AFB, California, Hickam AFB, Hawaii and any other place it might still reside in the bowels of our intelligence apparatus.  Before it's too late.                

Coming Home to Roost

George H.W. Bush once observed that "what you don't know about domestic policy" loses elections; "what you don't know about foreign policy gets people killed."

Sadly, we're about to see that maxim played out on a grand scale in the Middle East, where the two-year old Syrian civil war has already claimed at least 70,000 lives.  Now, as Barack Obama fiddles, that conflict is threatening to engulf Israel, Lebanon and the rest of the Levant, creating a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions.  The next wave of casualties may well include Israeli, Lebanese, Jordanian and Turkish civilians, who die under a hail of rockets and missiles, some tipped with chemical warheads.  

How did we arrive at this most dangerous moment?  Flash back to 2009, and the Green Revolution in Iran.  Tens of thousands of Iranians, many of them students, took to the streets, demanding a democratic government.  The United States took a pass on providing support, and the mullahs responded brutally.  Scores of protesters died, and thousands more were sent to prison.  Further emboldened, Tehran continued work on its nuclear program, and increased support for its various proxies, including Hizballah in Lebanon, confident that America would not challenge Iran's geopolitical ambitions.

With the advent of the Arab Spring, the Obama Administration voiced strong support for so-called "freedom" and "democracy" movements in places like Tunisia and Egypt.  Unfortunately, the White House and their friends at Foggy Bottom had little concern about various Islamist groups that exploited the uprisings, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.  So, when a terrorist group took the reins of power in Cairo, there was a collective shrug at State and the National Security

Council, amid some vague assurances that we could somehow "manage" the situation, or reshape the  Muslim Brotherhood into something the founding fathers might recognize.

In Libya, the U.S. and its western partners took a more direct approach, providing military support for the anti-Qadhaffi faction, hastening the demise of the long-time dictator.  But once again, there was no regard for who was running the revolution, and what might happen if the Islamists took power.  And when some of the same factions stormed out consulate in Benghazji last September (resulting in the murder of our ambassador and three other Americans), President Obama and various officials tried to blame the debacle on an internet video that "slandered" the Prophet Mohammed.  Six months later, Congress is still trying to figure out what happened on that September night, but one thing is certain: the "offended" Muslims were actually terrorists, and the assault on our diplomatic facility had nothing to do with that video.

Now, the conflict in Syria seems poised to explode into a regional war.  Israeli warplanes have attacked targets inside that country two times in as many days.  The first target was another shipment of rockets and missiles, apparently bound for Hizballah.  Less than 24 hours later, the IAF struck again, hitting a military site near Damascus that is (reportedly) affiliated with Syria's chemical weapons program.  The attack sent a fireball over the city, suggesting that the Israelis found their target.

In the aftermath of the latest air raid, reactions have been predictable.  Damascus has accused the Israelis of "aiding terrorists," claiming the attack "opens the door to all possibilities," including a wider war.  Iran has been trying to rally the Islamic world to Assad's side, with no apparent success, but it's clear that Tehran won't let its client go down without a fight.  Meanwhile, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon expressed grave concerns over the Israeli air strikes, but had no comment on the reasons behind the attack: widespread fears that Syria is using those weapons on its own people, and may soon target Israel as well.  Making matters worse, there are growing concerns that anti-Assad forces (aligned with Al Qaida) may soon gain control of some of the CW production facilities and stockpiles, making a grave situation even worse.

As for the administration, it's still trying desperately to kick the Syria can down the road.  The White House's disdain for the issue was on display in Sunday's edition of The New York Times when an unnamed administration official mused that if Bashir Assad dropped Sarin on his own people, "what's that got to do with us?"  Geographically, that might be remotely accurate, but what if those munitions wind up in the hands of Hizballah or Al Qaida?  Or if Assad, in a last, desperate move, launches a chemical and biological attack against Israel, or American forces in neighboring Turkey?

To be fair, there are no good options in Syria.  By some estimates, a ground operation to secure Assad's WMD arsenal would require 75,000 ground troops (who would be vulnerable to attack) and put us squarely in the middle of a civil war.  There is virtually no support for that option, and rightfully so.

On the other hand, a case can be made for air and missile attacks against Syria's chemical and biological research and storage facilities.  The Israeli Air Force has penetrated Assad's air defense system with no apparent problems (again), and a few days of SEAD would virtually eliminate that threat, allowing planners to focus on the destruction of WMD stockpiles and research centers.  

Are there any guarantees of eliminating all of the Syrian stockpile?  No.  Risks of collateral damage. Certainly.  But after years of kicking the can down the road, we are faced with stark choices: help the Israelis eliminate most of the threat now, or spend decades trying to track down every missile warhead, artillery round and BW culture that will disappear from Syria after Assad falls and the Islamists take over.  In the interim, there is the threat of chemical and biological attacks against civilian targets in the region.

A senior Air Force officer one told me the lack of easy or convenient options is no excuse for inaction.  Not when the stakes are this high--and climbing.  By trying to "muddle through" on Syria, President Obama is putting us on a path that will jeopardize our security for decades to come.  What was that line about chickens coming home to roost?