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Posts published in “McKee”

How do we sleep at night?


Buried in the news last Friday, behind the dreadful stories streaming from Paris, was word that a drone attack in Raqqa, a desolate town in northern Syria, had probably killed Mohammed Emwazi, notoriously known as Jihadi John, the brutal Islamic States’ terrorist of the horrendous beheading videos.

An Army press officer explained that Emwazi was the target of the attack, and confirmed that the drone missiles hit the target and that personnel – that’s plural – were killed. An unofficial report says there were three vehicles blown up, another says that at least three other individuals were in the targeted vehicles.

Although the drone can zoom a video in on a selected target close enough to read a license plate, this is all that has been released thus far. But this just begs more questions. In particular, who besides Emwazi were killed? Other members of Islamic States? Innocent civilians? Maybe women or children? Not clear.

There is an elaborate command structure for authorizing drone strikes, running from the lowest field commander up through the complete chain of command to the White House. Everybody up the ladder has to approve. One veto anywhere up the line, and the proposal is scrapped. Once it makes it to the White House, the President signs off on every concept plan -- who the target is, why it is thought that the target is where it is said to be, where it will take place, etc., and what the collateral damage estimate is. The approval up the chain of command to this point is of the operation in concept or a CONOP. The actual go-ahead for a given shoot must be based upon a fully approved CONOP, and is by a smaller designated committee within the military; again, it has to be unanimous, but the President is not involved in the actual operations decisions.

For the targeting window to be considered suitable, whether for the operations concept or the specific shoot, there must be current, reliable intelligence reports that indicate a “low CDE,” meaning a low estimate of “collateral damage.” This is the military term for the women, children and other incidental civilians that might be in the path of the military operations. There is an actual international law compact on the issue of collateral damage that says, in effect, it is permissible for the military to conduct an attack that knowingly includes civilians within the target operations area where the expected loss of civilian life is not “clearly excessive” to the anticipated military gain. The compact does not quantify the term – it does not say exactly how disproportionate the mix has to be before it is permissible to intentionally include women and children in the attack zone.

Although John Brennan, current CIA director, says drone strikes are only used to apply “targeted, surgical pressure to the groups that threaten us,” Leon Panetta, a previous director of the CIA, explained it this way: “If you can isolate the individual and take the shot without impacting on women or children, then do it. But if you have no alternative and it looks like he might get away, then take the shot.” In other words, notwithstanding Brennan’s doubletalk, it is okay to take out a few women and children if the bad guy is about to get away.

All of this is shrouded in secrecy, and exact numbers are difficult to find and very hard to verify. From the reports available online, some from admittedly biased groups, it appears that when we target a specific individual, we kill far more additional people, including uninvolved civilians and even children, than we do in more generic attacks. The worst example may be our attempts to kill al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri in 2006. Then, in two targeted drone strikes, we managed to kill 76 children and 29 adults, but not Zawahiri. In Pakistan several years later, we fired six separate drone attacks over a two year period in an attempt to kill one man - Qari Hussain, an al Qaeda Taliban leader - before bringing him down in October of 2010. In the effort, 128 people were killed, including 13 children. In a more recent compilation published in November of 2014, The Guardian reported that attempts to kill 41 designated targets to date resulted the deaths of an estimated 1,147 people as of November of 2014. This meant we were killing an average of 128 people in drone attacks for every targeted individual we went after. Serious questions are raised over just exactly how we define terms like “clearly excessive,” “surgical accuracy,” and “precise.”

None of this takes even one iota away from how horrible the terrorist attack on Paris was, nor justifies nor explains the atrocities it has brought to the French and the unbelievable grief suffered by the innocent victims’ loved ones there. But as we ponder the circumstances in Paris, answer this:

What do you suppose the going rate in collateral damage is today for a drone strike on a terrorist leader of the caliber of Emwazi – maybe two kids and a pregnant woman?

Promises broken


Contrary to his repeated promises, Barack Obama announced on Friday the deployment of U.S. combat forces into Syria to assist local rebels fight I.S.I.S. The political, military and legal morass boggles.

There is no express legal authority for the United States to commit ground troops into Syria. It is not clear exactly who needs help or why. There is no mission statement particular to this situation. There appears to be no exit strategy. The rationale Obama has manufactured is that he has authority under the War Powers act of 2001, even though I.S.I.S. is not al Qaeda, Syria is not Iraq, and Bashar al Assad is not Saddam Hussein.

The area is in northern Syria, reportedly under the control of Kurdish rebels. The force to be deployed is a special operations unit of a few dozen. Their orders are to train and advise the Kurdish rebels, but administration officials acknowledge that the unit will be operating at or on the “front lines,” if such ever can be said to exist in guerrilla warfare, and was expecting to find themselves in firefights sooner or later.

The rebels are also seeking to overthrow Syrian president Bashar al Assad, and may be expected to engage in fighting against the government forces as well. What complicates this to an astronomical level is that the Russians have declared themselves allied with the Syrian government, and will be supporting the government forces with aid, weaponry, and air support.

Air Force A-10 Warthogs and F-15 fighters from bases in Turkey will be committed to the air support of the U.S. forces as and when needed. The Russian air support may well be coming from Russian bases in Crimea or navy carriers in the Black Sea. This may well entail both countries flying through shared airspace on the way in, over and out of Syria. While the Russians have said their main target will also be the I.S.I.S. forces, they may have already conducted air strikes on Syrian-Arab rebel forces. Further, although President Putin has stated that Russia has no intent of committing ground troops to the effort in Syria, President Obama has made exactly the same promise.

There is no other way to look at this other than that the chances of the United States finding itself in a firefight with Russia, either on the ground or in the air, have just increased through the roof.

What can possibly go wrong?

Playing fair in the sandbox


Donald Trump called Bernie Sanders a “socialist-slash-communist,” proving convincingly that he has no idea what either term means. Senator Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist,” a phrase disconnected from both. Let’s examine some basics.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the term “socialist” means one who advocates that the means of production, distribution and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole. It says the term “communist” means one who advocates that all property be owned by the community, and that each person participate according to ability or needs. Socialism and communism are each independent economic theories.

Neither have anything to do with the totalitarian government of the former Soviet Union. For The Donald to call Bernie a “socialist slash communist” is an ad hominem argument intended to arouse visceral feelings towards totalitarian Communism reminiscent of the Cold War. It is baseless slander when applied to Senator Sanders, and should have no place in a legitimate political argument.

While the pure socialist may advocate for government ownership of most business, the democratic socialist does not. With the exception of demanding the abandonment of private ownership of prisons, which was a wrong-headed idea from the outset, and perhaps advocating for the eventual merger of the health insurance industry into a single-payer entity, the democratic socialist appears to accept private ownership of business, provided that the community and the masses are protected by reasonable and effective government regulation.

“Capitalism,” says the OED, means the system where trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit. Pure capitalism, or laissez faire, means the private ownership without interference or regulation by the government. Under laissez faire, it is only the “private owners” who are in any position to benefit from the economic system. In today’s economy, the “owners” would be the top 2% of us, or perhaps only the top 1%, being those who actually control the resources to push capital, labor and production to their best advantage. The masses, the 98% or 99% of us who do not have this power, would literally be at the mercy of the “owners” under laissez faire.

In the late 1700’s, Adam Smith realized that unrestrained free market capitalism would be intolerable. Smith recognized that if the entirety of the economy was left to vagaries of a market exclusively controlled by the owners, then what he termed the great body of mankind – i.e., the rest of us – would be impacted by “intellectually erosive effects.” He said this was the condition “into which … the great body of the people must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.” Thus even Adam Smith felt that in certain circumstances, it was a proper function of government to protect the masses.

The plain fact is that we have not had anything close to laissez faire capitalism in this country from the earliest days of the 1800’s. Certainly beginning with the trust-busting days of Teddy Roosevelt, and continuing to this day we have established an extensive matrix of government regulation to protect most of us from the “intellectually erosive effects” of the unrestrained free market. One might say that our system has evolved into one of regulated capitalism.

What we enjoy from the view on the left is a system of democratic socialism with strong components of regulated capitalism, and a few tendrils reaching towards laissez faire. From the right, the view is of regulated capitalism with a strong dose of democratic socialism, and a few tendrils stretching into classic socialism. Or maybe it is the other way around.

The point is that from wherever we look, we see an amalgam of both economic systems, interwoven, and hopefully taking the best from each. There are considerable differences between regulated capitalism and democratic socialism. In almost every quarter, there is plenty to argue about in the areas of who is entitled to protection and from what, how much is reasonable, whether the involvement is national or best left local, and always, always, how much will it cost and who is to pay.

But certainly we must recognize that these debates are well intentioned, by patriots of good cheer, and are being advanced with honorable motives and a sincere desire for betterment of society. There should be no place here for personal attacks or mean spirited slander.

Middle Eastern waffle irons


We have steadily found our way onto the wrong side of almost every issue of importance in the Middle East. Some are the result of our inability to work our way out of the mess that George Bush placed us in. Some are the result of rough spots Obama has encountered in the transition to his objectives. A few are the result of wrong choices, and our refusal to acknowledge such, back up if necessary, and change direction. Syria is an unfortunate example.

Obama inherited a difficult situation in Syria. Diplomatic relations were broken off in 1967, and were never restored. Informal relations deteriorated seriously under George Bush, and since the end of the Iraq war had remained rocky because of Syria’s poor human rights issues. This was the situation when Obama stepped into office. When civil war broke out in 2011, the United States attempted to remain aloof, but for some reason felt it had to express its dissatisfaction with the president of Syria, Bashar al Assad, by declaring that he had to go. This has proved to be a mistake. Since the United States had no major backers in the declaration against Assad, and no intention of taking unilateral action to enforce its wish, Assad has been able to simply ignore the threat without consequence.

This left us with no place at the table in the negotiations for the destruction of Syria’s chemical and biological weapons. Obama waffled when news of Syria’s WMD first exploded on the world scene. He indicated that the United States would intervene with force, and at least hinted about troops being committed. But then he backed off, and said – in the peculiar double negative of government speak -- that military intervention was “not unavoidable.”

This allowed Russia to seize the initiative and broker an impressive concession before the United Nations. The United States was moved further out of the picture. Then, in mid-2015, Russia announced that it was joining with Iran to bring immediate military assistance to Syria in the form of weaponry, aircraft support, and technical assistance, in order to allow Syria to effectively fight and defeat I.S.I.S.

Vladimir Putin very carefully threads the needle in expressing his support for Syria. He explains that Russia supports the “legitimate government” of Syria and supports Bashar al Assad as the head of that government. Putin says he would urge Assad to “work with healthy opposition on political reforms,” and that Russia is “ready to work” towards a “path of political transition.” (Al Jazeera, June 2015)

Deconstructing this double talk, it seems Putin would not object if Assad was to step down, as long this was the will of the Syrian people and not pressure from without. Furthermore, one might think that Putin believes Russia is well placed to help in this endeavor, should the opportunity arise.

We, on the other hand, have increasingly found ourselves on the wrong side of critical events. We declined to support Syria because of the inhumane acts of al Assad. We declined to support the revolutionary overthrow, because we could not determine if the rebel groups were radical jihadists. Now, with the sudden appearance of the Islamic States and its horrific intentions, we felt compelled to face the lesser of two evils and began to funnel some support to others of the Syrian insurgents, such as al Nusra and related entities. We have justified this by maintaining that our support is primarily for their efforts to oppose I.S.I.S.

The results so far have been far less than satisfactory. An example of what we achieve by insisting on running everything ourselves, is a program the Pentagon just shut down. It was intended to recruit and train up to 15,000 Syrian rebels to fight exclusively against I.S.I.S. After one year in operation, and close to $500 million spent on the effort, the program had recruited and trained only five individuals. Five. Defense Secretary Carter announced that the program was being closed down, and acknowledged that it was a total failure.

Not to waste any low hanging fruit, Vladimir Putin promptly announced that the $500 million should have been given to him to use in Russia’s efforts to fight I.S.I.S; he would not have wasted the money, he said, as his programs were far more successful. Then, perhaps to rub it in, he then suggested that Central Command begin to share its intelligence with the Russian units. So far, this has been met with a flat rejection, and stony silence to any entreaties to future discussion of areas of potential cooperation.

Under these circumstances, and as abhorrent as the thought may appear to be at first blush, there is good reason for us to admit our error and reverse course in Syria. Attempting to bring about both the fall of Assad and the defeat of I.S.I.S. through nothing more than tactical support of the ill organized forces of al Nusra, without committing U.S. troops on the ground in the effort, is destined to failure. This is the obvious if difficult, hard lesson of Iraq and Libya. Just deposing Assad by revolution, if such were possible, without defeating I.S.I.S. would assuredly concede the entire region to the new caliphate. And committing U.S. ground forces to any part of the effort must continue to be totally unacceptable. As distasteful as it may appear, the successful course on this aspect of the Middle East is increasingly obvious.

We should hold our nose, cross our fingers, and accept Putin’s invitation to join forces with Russia.

One giveth, one taketh away


Duff McKee has been writing column-length pieces from time to time over the years, mainly in Facebook, and now he has agreed to become a regular contributor here. This is a recent post from Facebook about Kate's law; new pieces will be coming soon. - rs

What a week! The House announced a move to improve the criminal justice system by reducing draconian sentencing in one area, and the Senate announced a move to reverse the course and return to the unreasonable sentencing in another.

On the positive side, the House Judiciary Committee announced agreement upon a major overhaul of the drug sentencing laws, reducing prison terms in many areas and increasing the emphasis on rehabilitation. This begins to mirror extensive efforts by the states, including Idaho, to reexamine and overhaul their criminal justice systems. Significant savings in cost are being realized as prison populations are reduced. To the liberals, this is a matter of social justice. To the conservatives, it is a matter of simple economics. The product is a bi-partisan effort and the results are projected to be considerable.

On the negative side, the Senate announced it was going to take up a bill next week that will dramatically increase the prison sentence for anyone illegally entering the country after having been once deported, or having been convicted of a serious felony. New prison sentences are to be imposed for violations, starting out at five years mandatory for first offense, no exceptions.

This comes in response to the senseless murder of Kate Steinle, allegedly by an illegal immigrant. When a national furor resulted, Bill O’Reilly seized the initiative and promoted the enactment of new federal sentencing provisions, which he has termed “Kate’s Law.” This has been vigorously lobbied, mostly by Fox News, and has been taken up by the Conservative wing of the Republican party, most prominently by Senator Cruz but including others. It does not seem to matter that the immigration status of the assailant was and is wholly immaterial to any of the facts or circumstances of the murder. Nor does it appear to matter that the new provisions are completely unnecessary, redundant and inconsistent with existing law, and counter to the efforts that are being taken elsewhere to overhaul the criminal justice system.

The only justification offered for the mandatory prison sentences are that knowledge of the severity of the sentence to be imposed will deter others. Deterrence has been studied to death over the last decade as state after state has taken up the issue of sentencing reform. With detailed statistics going back almost 50 years, the studies are overwhelming in demonstrating that in the usual case, the actor gives no thought to consequences at all. Changing the mix of what might be considered will not alter this condition. In the few cases where deterrence might hold some influence, studies indicate that it is the certainty, not severity, of punishment that impresses. There are no credible studies supporting the conclusion that adding knowledge of the severity of punishment makes any significant difference.

In the general case, immigration offenses do not warrant mandatory prison sentences. There is no violence involved, the offense does not involve moral turpitude, and the direct impact of the offense does not extend beyond the individual and perhaps the immediate family. Protection of society is not a consideration. An immigration offense is “malum prohibitum,” meaning it is a public offense only because a statute declares it such, not because of any intrinsic evil in the conduct cited. For all these reasons, in the absence of aggravating circumstances, misdemeanor range sentences are adequate and appropriate to recognize the seriousness of the offense and impress the consequences of punishment upon the actor.

Illegal reentry is already a federal crime with punishment provided of a fine and incarceration for up to 20 years for extreme cases. The ordinary case, without aggravating circumstances, calls for sentences of 2 years or less. The precise sentence depends upon statutory conditions pled and sentencing guidelines found after conviction. There were approximately 16,500 prosecutions under this law in 2014, with the average length of sentence imposed being 17 months, including time served.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission estimates that increasing the minimum sentence to a mandatory five years in all cases will add approximately 60,000 inmates to federal prisons over the next 5 years, at a cost to the penal system of approximately $2 billion per year. According to one Congressional source, this will completely erase the savings expected from the overhaul of drug sentencing.

Unless reason and common sense prevails when this measure comes up for a vote, what the left hand may have provided in terms of a bipartisan proposal for reform and costs saved in the area of drug reform, will be taken away by the right hand under the guise of immigration control and in retribution for Kate’s unseemly murder.