What ever happened with the Douma, Syria chemical attack investigation?

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By Kent R. Kroeger (August 24, 2018)

On April 7, 2018, a chemical attack in the Douma, Syria reportedly killed at least 70 people. Initially, it was not certain what (if any) chemical had been used, though medics and rebel-allied witnesses mentioned smelling chlorine.

As with any war zone, reliable information on the attack was hard to secure.

Here is CNN’s initial reporting on the attack:

“And there is definitely something (sniffs) that stings,” said CNN correspondent Arwa Damon as she tweaked her nose after smelling some clothing allegedly involved in the chemical attack.

Unfortunately for CNN and the anti-Syrian government brigade on Capitol Hill, there was no definitive evidence that the Douma attack was perpetrated by the Bashar al-Assad regime.

The U.S. and most NATO countries attributed the attack to the Syrian Army, despite Russian and Syrian government claims that the attack was a ‘false flag’ attack engineered by rebel groups and British intelligence. No independent evidence was ever presented by Russia or Syria to support their assertion.

Despite the uncertainty of the source of the Douma attack, on April 14th, the U.S., France and the United Kingdom carried out military strikes against multiple government sites in Syria.

What did the OPCW investigation into the Douma attack find?

When there is a suspected chemical attack somewhere in the world, the internationally-respected investigation group, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), tries to get on the ground as soon as possible and collect its own independent evidence. Chemical attacks are against the Geneva Convention and are war crimes. Furthermore, the Assad regime (as did the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq) has used chemical weapons against its own people. That is not debatable. But so too have the anti-regime forces. That is also not debatable.

From a strategic point of view, some observers thought the Douma attack made little sense, assuming Assad was rational and wanted to stay in power. His forces were about to take over Douma from anti-regime forces when the alleged chemical attack occurred.

As a ‘false flag’ operation where anti-regime forces would try to pin the blame on Assad’s forces, the Douma attack made much more sense. In that scenario, if the blame could be assigned to the Assad regime, it would increase the chance of deepening the U.S. military commitment in Syria.

That did not happen, in part, because the OPCW could not verify that chlorine-gas canisters were the cause of the civilian deaths. In its preliminary report, the OPCW did verify the existence of chlorine gas residue in two locations where such chemical agents were known to have been produced, but “no organophosphorous nerve agents or their degradation products were detected in the environmental samples or in the plasma samples taken from alleged casualties.”

In other words, the OPCW confirmed that no nerve agent was used in Douma but could not confirm a chlorine-gas attack on civilians. More analysis will need to be done, said the OPCW.

However, in another OPCW report issued at the same time as the Douma preliminary report, the OPCW shared its final findings on allegations of chemical weapons used in Al-Hamadaniya, Syria on October 30, 2016, and Karm al-Tarrab, Syria on November 13, 2016.

Writes the OPCW: “On the basis of the information received and analysed, the prevailing narrative of the interviews, and the results of the laboratory analyses, the FFM cannot confidently determine whether or not a specific chemical was used as a weapon in the incidents that took place in the neighbourhood of Al-Hamadaniyah and in the area of Karm al-Tarrab. The FFM noted that the persons affected in the reported incidents may, in some instances, have been exposed to some type of non-persistent, irritating substance.”

But, strangely, I never heard about OPCW preliminary or final reports from mainstream U.S. news media outlets. I first read about it on Al Jazeera and again on RT.com (the Russian international news organization partially funded by the Russian government).

And, while I have no doubt in the 24–7 cable news cycle the OPCW’s findings on the Douma and other alleged chemical attacks were mentioned on CNN or MSNBC, it was certainly never emphasized.

I also saw the OPCW-Douma story on the Syrian government aligned news site called the Inside Syria Media Center. It is a pro-Syrian government news organization, probably financed by Iran, though it does not explicitly identify its funding sources on its website. Hence, it is considered a propagandist organization and is one of the hundreds of Facebook accounts recently suspended by Facebook for allegedly spreading “factually inaccurate” information.

I will let Facebook speak for themselves on this act of censorship:

We’ve removed 652 Pages, groups and accounts for coordinated inauthentic behavior that originated in Iran and targeted people across multiple internet services in the Middle East, Latin America, UK and US. FireEye, a cybersecurity firm, gave us a tip in July about “Liberty Front Press,” a network of Facebook Pages as well as accounts on other online services. They’ve published an initial analysis and will release a full report of their findings soon. We wanted to take this opportunity to thank them for their work.

Based on FireEye’s tip, we started an investigation into “Liberty Front Press” and identified additional accounts and Pages from their network. We are able to link this network to Iranian state media through publicly available website registration information, as well as the use of related IP addresses and Facebook Pages sharing the same admins. For example, one part of the network, “Quest 4 Truth,” claims to be an independent Iranian media organization, but is in fact linked to Press TV, an English-language news network affiliated with Iranian state media. The first “Liberty Front Press” accounts we’ve found were created in 2013. Some of them attempted to conceal their location, and they primarily posted political content focused on the Middle East, as well as the UK, US, and Latin America. Beginning in 2017, they increased their focus on the UK and US. Accounts and Pages linked to “Liberty Front Press” typically posed as news and civil society organizations sharing information in multiple countries without revealing their true identity.

This was a voluntary act of censorship by Facebook.

In practicality, Facebook’s censorship campaign is hitting some groups more than others, says Olivia Solon, who writes for The Guardian. “The first campaign involved a network of Facebook pages and accounts on other platforms under the banner ‘Liberty Front Press’ that positioned themselves as independent but were discovered to have ties to Iranian state media. The 74 pages, 70 accounts and three groups on Facebook and 76 Instagram accounts — some dating back to 2013 — posted political content focused on the Middle East, UK, U.S. and Latin America. The pages had about 155,000 followers in total. The same group spent more than $6,000 on Facebook and Instagram ads paid for in U.S. dollars, the last one running in August 2018.”

“The cybersecurity company FireEye, which first identified the campaign and flagged the campaign to Facebook, said the intent behind the activity appeared to be to ‘promote Iranian political interests, including anti-Saudi, anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian themes, as well as promote support for specific US policies favorable to Iran, such as the US-Iran nuclear deal’. There was also significant anti-Trump messaging and the creation of sock puppet accounts masquerading as liberal Americans.”

So, as of today, if you are a Facebook user and want to learn more about U.S.-Saudi-UAE actions in Yemen, where dozens of Yemeni children were recently killed by a U.S.-supplied Saudi air attack, you will find it harder to be informed.

Instead, you are more likely to get a Saudi, Israeli, or Trump administration view on that senseless massacre.

That might be acceptable for the causal, intermittent news consumer. But that should not be acceptable for anyone that really wants to understand what is going on in Yemen or any other Middle East conflict where Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the U.S. are direct or indirect participants.

If the Saudi, Israeli and U.S. point of view is all you require from your Middle East news, Facebook is working for you.

For the rest of us, Facebook’s censorship campaign is doing us a tremendous disservice.

-K.R.K.

About the Author:  Mr. Kroeger is a survey and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and son (You can contact him at: info@olsonkroeger.com)

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Social Media’s Censorship Was Predictable — The Public Response Doesn’t Need To Be

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By Kent R. Kroeger (August 24, 2018)

It was a sad moment in real time watching Bill Maher’s HBO’s Real Timeaudience cheer at the news that tornadic showman and InfoWars founder Alex Jones was being suspended on a number of social media platforms.

To Bill Maher’s admirable credit, he chastised his audience and the former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, who is in a constant search for the most sublime level of political tonedeafness, for their mob mentality in applauding the censorship of Alex Jones.

“If you are a liberal you are supposed to be for free speech; that is for the free speech you hate,” implores Maher. “That is what free speech means. We are loosing the thread.”

Senator Padmé Amidala’s lament at watching The Republic end in 19 BBY seems appropriate now: “So this is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause.”

[I still can’t forgive Natalie Portman for her acting in the Star War prequels, but she was a given a nice line there by George Lucas in the only watchable prequel — Revenge of the Sith.]

Brooks Heatherly, creator of YouTube’s ‘No Bullshit’ podcast, adds, “Like Bill (Maher) said, the Left is about being free speech. They are the anti-exclusivity party, the pro-diversity party. They are all about being who you want to be. And speaking your mind should be a part of that too. But, apparently, it is not OK to speak your mind if you are not a liberal.”

Alex Jones is indefensible on many levels. He’s a fantasist — a health supplement-pushing performance artist that profits from defaming the powerful (and, to his lawyer’s dismay, occasionally targets defenseless average folk) and pushes social theories meant to exploit existing social and political divisions. His best vein-popping rants, however, are brilliant theater (here is one of his pitch-perfect anti-globalist rants), matched in talent only by the progressive Left’s Jimmy Dore (here is one of his funniest political rants).

Yes, American civic discourse is more coarse than ever — but Alex Jones and Jimmy Dore are, first and foremost, about entertainment in the context of civic discourse. Not every comedian does political comedy (Thank God! for Steve Martin and Jerry Seinfeld) but some of those who do it, do it very well (and, frankly, Dore’s material is often far more honest and information-laden than any mainstream cable news show).

So when Facebook and Twitter suspends Alex Jones, it should matter to all of us, regardless of ideological orientation. There is something seriously wrong in this country today when people cheer the rapid decay of a social consensus on free speech and of the press.

While not technically a First Amendment issue, as Facebook and Twitter have the legal right to delete Jones (and InfoWars) from their services, their act is still censorship. In fact, it may be worse than government-mandated censorship as Facebook and Twitter did this voluntarily (after weathering some credible threats from congressional Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans that, if Facebook and Twitter don’t censor their service’s content, Congress will).

The enthusiastic cheering by Bill Maher’s audience indicates this new period of American censorship is not about to end and it has already limited your ability to find the news and content necessary to be an informed world citizen.

No, InfoWars should not be your primary source for world news. But with the news that Facebook removed 652 pages, groups and accounts “for coordinated inauthentic behavior that originated in Iran,” the use of censorship by Facebook to homogeneous its content has become normalized. And it will happen again and again…until Facebook users decide they’ve had enough and collectively leave Facebook.

You’ll be forgiven if you thought Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (Google) were just targeting Russian trolls and influence operations for their censorship programs.

Why now are Facebook censors targeting Iran influence operations (and, more quietly, Palestinian-sourced Facebook pages)?

Are Russia and Iran the only countries running covert influence operations through Facebook and other internet platforms? Of course not. Every major country runs covert influence operations to promote their national interests and preferred policies. Its called statecraft.

It’s not as cloak-and-daggery as cyber-security firms like FireEye (who helped Facebook identify influence operations on their service) try to make it sound. Its often just a series of rather mundane publishing activities where the content lacks attribution to its government source.

Countries’ intelligence and defense agencies incentivize journalists to write stories favorable to specific policies or opinions; and some create web-based news sites to propagandize for the government without directly (or even obliquely) identifying the information source. The targets of the information are usually foreign audiences, but not always. And they don’t always tell the truth, even to their domestic audiences. Because that is statecraft. That is what governments do.

And now we have Facebook deciding by algorithm what is ‘good information’ versus ‘bad information.’ And why target Iran now?

It’s not too hard to guess.

[Nikki Haley, make sure your power heels are shined and ready for another long round of Iran-bashing at the United Nations Security Council. This is going to be your president-in-waiting moment.]

Facebook is being persistently nudged by Congress (and the defense and security establishment) to identify influence operations originating from countries hostile to U.S. interests, particularly countries the U.S. may want to militarily engage with in the next few years. Don’t be surprised if North Korea is also on the censorship target list.

Facebook and the other major social media platforms are morphing into propagandizing machines for U.S. business and government interests, not unlike the content already available during an average quarter-hour on U.S. cable news networks.

Facebook will never be that homogeneous, but it will continue to trend towards that type of monotony as its algorithms continue to filter out ‘disinformation’ and unacceptable viewpoints.

The American Civil Liberties Union’ Vera Eidelman, the William J. Brennan Fellow for the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, summarizes the problem:

“Given Facebook’s nearly unparalleled status as a forum for political speech and debate, it should not take down anything but unlawful speech, like incitement to violence. Otherwise, in attempting to apply more amorphous concepts not already defined in law, Facebook will often get it wrong. Given the enormous amount of speech uploaded every day to Facebook’s platform, attempting to filter out “bad” speech is a nearly impossible task. The use of algorithms and other artificial intelligence to try to deal with the volume is only likely to exacerbate the problem.”

Having worked with them for thirty years, algorithms are rarely unbiased. The questions always become: Is the known bias acceptable? And what may be the unintended, potentially unacceptable biases?

Facebook and Twitter are fast abandoning their original charters to be open, free speech environments for a worldwide online community.

That dream is officially over and I suppose we are supposed to blame that on the Russians too.

It should never have been Facebook and Twitter’s job to determine what is ‘factually correct’ or appropriate content. In its first censorship algorithm, Facebook suspended a page containing the Declaration of Independence due to ‘hate speech’ contained in its text, but kept Holocaust-denying Facebook pages.

And now the company is expected, with the help of cyber-security firms like FireEye, to identify systematic disinformation on its pages?

I think not. And Facebook and other social media users may want to start looking for better online platforms to share information, opinions, and general happenings.

It might force Facebook and Twitter to remember why we originally used their services in the beginning.

-K.R.K.

About the Author:  Mr. Kroeger is a survey and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and son (You can contact him at: info@olsonkroeger.com)

 

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Journalists must remember the George Carlin Rule

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By Kent R. Kroeger (August 30, 2018)

Two recent news reports have again raised serious doubts about the veracity and integrity of past reporting surrounding the Hillary Clinton email controversy and its over-reliance on government sources.

First, in an August 23rd RealClearInvestigations story, Paul Sperry reported that the FBI’s examination hundreds of thousands of Hillary Clinton’s emails on Anthony Weiner’s unsecured laptop may not have been as complete as originally suggested by FBI Director James Comey.

Sperry writes:

In fact, a technical glitch prevented FBI technicians from accurately comparing the new emails with the old emails. Only 3,077 of the 694,000 emails were directly reviewed for classified or incriminating information. Three FBI officials completed that work in a single 12-hour spurt the day before Comey again cleared Clinton of criminal charges.

“Most of the emails were never examined, even though they made up potentially 10 times the evidence” of what was reviewed in the original year-long case that Comey closed in July 2016, said a law enforcement official with direct knowledge of the investigation.

Yet even the “extremely narrow” search that was finally conducted, after more than a month of delay, uncovered more classified material sent and/or received by Clinton through her unauthorized basement server, the official said. Contradicting Comey’s testimony, this included highly sensitive information dealing with Israel and the U.S.-designated terrorist group Hamas. The former secretary of state, however, was never confronted with the sensitive new information and it was never analyzed for damage to national security.

The second news story was broken by The Daily Caller’s Richard Pollock on August 27th, in which he reported that “a Chinese-owned company operating in the Washington, D.C., area hacked Hillary Clinton’s private server throughout her term as secretary of state and obtained nearly all her emails, two sources briefed on the matter told The Daily Caller News Foundation.”

According to Pollock’s anonymous sources, who were briefed on the intelligence finding, the Chinese firm was a cover for a Chinese intelligence operation which “obtained Clinton’s emails in real time as she sent and received communications and documents through her personal server.”

Keep in mind, Pollock’s evidence is no more concrete than the evidence Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia probe provided when it indicted various Russian intelligence operatives for hacking the emails belonging to the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. In both cases, the public is expected to accept the honesty and accuracy of evidence that cannot be independently scrutinized.

While the details provided in both cases appear plausible, even likely, independently verifiable documentation is conveniently withheld. “Trust us, we’re the government.”

Between the Weiner laptop revelations and the alleged Chinese hacker news stories, from a journalism perspective, the latter seems far more serious should the story prove to be even partially accurate.

It is understandable that the press didn’t have enough time before Election Day to verify FBI sources’ Nov. 6th claim that the “thousands of new emails were mostly personal and duplicates of what had already been seen.”

As for the alleged Chinese hacker story, it is baffling that the news media took over three years (!) to produce a substantive follow-up to a New York TimesJuly 2015 story that Department of State Inspector General Steven A. Linick and then-Intelligence Community Inspector General (ICIG) I. Charles McCullough III asked the Department of Justice to investigate whether classified information on Clinton’s private servers was compromised.

It can’t be emphasized enough, any conclusions drawn from a news story dependent on anonymous government sources, current or former, must be tentative. But The Daily Caller’s alleged Chinese hacker story is no more dependent on anonymous sources than most Trump-Russia collusion stories over the past two years.

National Public Radio runs a headline on the alleged Chinese hacker story like this — Trump Says Without Evidence That China Hacked Clinton Email Server— but gives us this headline for an even weaker-sourced CNN story on former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s possible testimony regarding President Trump’s prior knowledge of the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting — Cohen Contradicts Denials Of Trump Tower Meeting By President’s Team.

While the core conclusion of The Daily Caller story has yet to be invalidated, the assertions of CNN’s Cohen story have been contradicted by Cohen’s own lawyer, Lanny Davis, who was the source of CNN’s original story.

“Attorney for Michael Cohen keeps changing his story on Trump Tower meeting,” cries CNN’s Jim Sciutto.

Sorry, Jim, it should be in your job description to confirm the veracity of your sources. You don’t get to cry “Foul!” after you run the story.

As for the rest of the national news media, we continue to get a nightly diet of “Russia, Russia, Russia” stories from MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and others, but nary a peep about the possibility that Hillary Clinton was feeding our nation’s diplomatic secrets to Chinese intelligence on a real-time basis.

And we wonder why the average American doesn’t trust the news media.

The New York Times response to The Daily Caller story is even more disingenuous— China Denies Trump’s Claim It Hacked Clinton’s Emails, readsThe Times’ August 28th headline. Really? That is The Times’ response to The Daily Caller story? They thought maybe the Chinese government might fess up to spying on Clinton to a Times reporter?

Instead of showing such disrespect for its competition, The New York Timesshould be talking to the ICIG that, according to Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, found an “anomaly on Hillary Clinton’s emails going through their private server, and when they had done the forensic analysis, they found that her emails, every single one except four, over 30,000, were going to an address that was not on the distribution list.” Based on the ICIG analysis, the unauthorized source was a ‘foreign entity.’

Do we believe Louie Gohmert? Not in isolation we shouldn’t. Instead, we must first invoke the George Carlin Rule: If all we possess is the word of a U.S. House member, that’s as worthless as an Adam Schiff press availability. We should require actual evidence we can see, touch, and examine. But, at the same time, the suggestion that Chinese hackers would know how to exploit a private server and email system is entirely plausible and can’t be dismissed out of hand.

One would think The New York Timeshaving had its own servers penetrated by Chinese hackers in 2013, might be more sensitive to the possible compromise of Clinton’s email server by the same foreign actor.

Yet, it should be obvious why The Times hasn’t and won’t lead such an inquiry. Based on the recent surge in The Times overall readership and profitability during the Trump-Russia collusion panic, do you think its readers would want to know if Clinton’s private server may have seriously jeopardized national security? The Times would likely lose readership if its readers were told as much.

From the vantage point of commercial news organizations striving to maximize audiences and profits, the current news media obsession with the Trump-Russia collusion story is understandable. And while I tend to agree with journalist Glenn Greenwald’s assessment that the Russian meddling in 2016 was “not especially untoward,” the U.S. has done as much in other countries’ elections, I still don’t trust a single word that comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth or anyone associated with him. In other words, it has never been more urgent to invoke the Carlin Rule.

So, given the profit motive and the persistent untrustworthiness of the Trump administration, it is hard to judge too harshly those journalists today pushing the Trump-Russia narrative. Its just too good for business.

Perhaps I’m too forgiving.

My better angels would like to think there is an alternative universe out there somewhere. A place where Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election and Rachel Maddow has spent the last two years hammering on “China, China, China” and how they may possess lèsuo (勒索) — the Chinese word for kompromat — on President Clinton. In such a world, I still wouldn’t respect Maddow’s journalistic standards, but at least I would respect her consistency.

Journalists would be well-advised to internalize the Carlin Rule

Good journalism is hard. When done well, it goes beyond merely parroting the words of government or official sources and finds that relevant but reluctant source, silenced by fear, status or ambition, who nudges the journalist closer to the truth.

Good journalism requires a tenacious level of objectivity, a learned skill humans don’t naturally possess. When honest with ourselves, we realize objectivity potentially opens up some of our most deeply held beliefs to scrutiny and validation. Thus, in practice, objectivity is often so painful it is subconsciously avoided.

But journalists are supposed to fight that ingrained bias. They are supposed to counter their own selfish instincts and fragile egos with aspirations of bias free reporting.

That is not easy to do — and on some level impossible. So we should not be surprised (or overly judgmental) when sometimes journalists get crucial elements of a story wrong, particularly early in a story’s life cycle — history’s ‘first rough draft’ as journalist Alan Barth once wrote.

But sometimes that first draft is not just off-the-mark, but seriously flawed and capable of doing lasting damage.

The New York Times, Judith Miller, and the Search for Saddam’s WMDs

The run-up to the 2003 Iraq War precipitated what some consider the nadir of modern American journalism. In early 2002, as the U.S. continued its occupation of Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the George W. Bush administration had another regime change war plan in the works — the invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

U.S. and U.K. intelligence briefing books, declassified in 2010, suggested the decision to invade Iraq occurred as early as March 2002. According to a Downing Street briefing on March 8, 2002, British intelligence had already concluded the “U.S. administration has lost faith in containment and is now considering regime change.”

National Security Archive Senior Fellow John Prados and journalist Christopher Ames, who have extensively researched the declassified U.S. and U.K. documents, concluded that “the Bush administration sought to avoid the emergence of opposition to its actions by means of secrecy and deception, holding the war plan as a “compartmented concept,” restricting information even from allies like the United Kingdom, and pretending that no war plans were being reviewed by the president.”

“President Bush and his senior advisers were so intent on pursuing their project for war, the documents show, that they refused to be deterred by early and repeated refusals of cooperation from regional allies like Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt; or from traditional allies such as France and Germany,” wrote Prados and Ames.

Which is why The New York Times’ reporting on the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War was critical and so damaging when it failed to rigorously question the Bush administration’s assertions and justifications for a regime change war in Iraq.

In 2002, Judith Miller was a rising star at The Times, having just shared a Pulitzer Prize with other Times staff reporters for their coverage of global terrorism before and after the September 11 attacks. A graduate of Barnard College and Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Miller was a bright reporter with a TV-friendly face, an increasingly important characteristic among ambitious print reporters who were appearing with more regularity on cable TV news programs.

Miller, however, had one deep and critical flaw: she didn’t understand what it meant to be a journalist (regrettably, she was — and is — not alone in that respect). In a scathing article in The New York Review of Books critiquing the reporting on the Iraq War, Michael Massing quotes Miller’s own words on what she felt the job of being a reporter entailed:

…Miller said that as an investigative reporter in the intelligence area, “my job isn’t to assess the government’s information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself. My job is to tell readers of The New York Times what the government thought about Iraq’s arsenal.” Many journalists would disagree with this; instead, they would consider offering an independent evaluation of official claims one of their chief responsibilities.

Her reporting problems on Iraq started with a September 7, 2002 story (co-authored with Michael Gordon) on the reported interception of aluminum tubes headed to Iraq, in which she quoted unnamed “American officials” and “American intelligence experts” who claimed the tubes were intended to be used in centrifuges for the enrichment of weapons-grade nuclear material.

An independent CIA analysis in October 2002 would contend the tubes’ “diameters were too small and the aluminum they were made from was too hard” to be used for centrifuges; instead, they were most likely intended for use in artillery. However, attempts by David Albright, a former weapons inspector who directed the Institute for Science and International Security who had read the CIA analysis, to convince Miller to correct The Times’ reporting on the “tubes” were rebuffed.

Miller’s reporting on Iraq didn’t improve after that. An April 2003 Miller-penned story, based on hearsay evidence quoting an Iraqi scientist claiming Iraq had kept biological and chemical weapons right up to the U.S. invasion in March 2003, became a headline story throughout the U.S. news media.

But, again, other U.S. intelligence reports contradicted Miller’s reporting.

Among Miller’s sources on other Iraq WMD stories was Ahmed Chalabi, the U.S. government’s (and CIA’s) initial pick to replace Saddam Hussein. Chalabi and other Iraqi exiles, who would make up a large proportion of Miller’s sources on Iraqi WMDs, had one thing in common: their agenda was to replace the Saddam Hussein regime.

When the Bush administration ended its ties to Chalabi in May 2004, in part due to his dishonest behavior, The Times had to admit much of its reporting on the Iraq War used Chalabi and his associates as sources, even when the veracity of their information was questionable.

Oddly enough, I’ve often defended Judith Miller and her reporting on Iraq. I still contend that she was more a victim of a U.S. government-led manipulation effort aimed at American journalists than a perpetrator of a deliberate fraud. She should have known better. She should have been more inquisitive and doubtful regrading the information being fed to her. At the time, the pressures on reporters at a national news outlet to stick to a management-approved narrative are significant.

Judith Miller and The New York Times didn’t lead the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, they just made it easier for the Bush administration to sell the idea to the American people.

The New York Times’ solutions to minimize bad reporting are still relevant

The Iraq War reporting debacle still resonates throughout The Times’ newsroom. Miller’s career has all but ended, except for a few of her stories appearing on Newsmax now and then. Even Times reporters less culpable on the Iraq reporting, like James Risen, have moved on.

At the corporate level, The Times expressed regrets over their paper’s reporting and even implemented editorial and policy changes in the newsroom. In that regard, I highly recommend reading Daniel Okrent’s full article, “Weapons of Mass Destruction? Or Mass Distraction?”.

In the meantime, here is an abbreviated list of his suggestions for how The Times and all news organizations can avoid the mistakes made during the Iraq War:

(1) The hunger for scoops creates an incentive to publish too soon and without the proper quality controls. News organizations must enforce editorial quality controls, even if it means delaying publication.

(2) Wartime reporting increases the pressure for scoops and exclusives, making it important to increase, not relax, quality control procedures.

(3) The Front-page Syndrome encourages reporters to imbue stories with the “sounds of trumpets.” Instead, news organizations need to give more respect to “on the one hand, on the other hand” stories that offer balance and perspective, but may lack the urgency and drama of more one-sided, assertive stories.

(4) Military-sourced stories are seductive and exciting to write. They are too often biased. Yes, even quotes from military officers with stars on their shoulder cannot be uncritically accepted.

(5) Surprising stories — Okrent calls it hit-and-run journalism — are too frequently published without the requisite editorial controls. Unexpected news, if anything, requires more curiosity on reporters’ part.

(6) “There is nothing more toxic to responsible journalism than an anonymous source,” writes Okrent. While sometimes necessary, anonymous sources are too often “coddled” by reporters who want to keep them providing information. But anonymity allows sources more latitude to stretch the truth — even lie. Reporters need to be more diligent and assertive in getting sources to go “on the record.”

(7) And, finally, end-run editing, where reporters in often remote locations are able to abbreviate normal editing procedures, needs to end. In the internet age, physical distance is no excuse for short-circuiting editorial standards.

And I would add one more suggestion to Okrent’s list: Don’t believe anything the government tells you. Or anyone else for that matter.

(8) Question everything.

Had these suggestions been implemented in the coverage of the Trump-Russia collusion story, it would have helped news organizations avoid the rash of false reporting and out-right deception that has contaminated too much of the reporting so far.

If the national news outlets want to rebuild the public’s trust in their reporting, it is imperative Okrent’s suggestions are systematically implemented in newsrooms again.

Someday, the Trump-Russia story will be history…

It is doubtful senior management at CNN or MSNBC or The New York Timesare too concerned about the public’s overall trust in the news media. Not at this moment at least.

The major news outlets are experiencing record audience growth and profits. Perhaps the public’s low overall trust in the news media does not reflect their trust towards their preferred news outlets?

That may be true in the short-run, but what will happen to audience and readership numbers when the Trump-Russia story goes away? And it will go away…someday.

What will happen if the final outcome of the Mueller probe is inconclusive or is reduced to indicting Trump campaign operatives on only “process crimes” and not any conspiracy charges? The news media, in that case, will have to answer a lot of questions about their journalistic standards and methods.

The corporate news media has effectively exploited anti-Trump passions for short-term gain, but its rank journalistic standards in that pursuit may be doing permanent long-term damage to the Fourth Estate.

-K.R.K.

About the Author:  Mr. Kroeger is a survey and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and son (You can contact him at: info@olsonkroeger.com)

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The 2018 midterm elections are effectively over — feel free to start your Christmas shopping

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By Kent R. Kroeger (September 6, 2018)

It’s over.

While we still have to suffer through the general election kabuki dance, there is no mystery as to which party will control the U.S. House after the 2018 midterm elections. According to NuQum.com’s prediction model (see Figure 1) for the 2018 midterm election, the GOP will lose 35 House seats (Democrats need 23 to regain control of the House) and 4 Senate seats.

Despite far more Democratic incumbents running in the 2018 U.S. Senate contests, the NuQum.com model predicts the Democrats will regain control of the U.S. Senate.

Figure 1. Midterm Congressional Election Predictions

The NuQum.com U.S. House prediction model relies on five variables to predict the number of House seats lost/gained by the two parties: Presidential job approval (Gallup), Pct. Change in Real Disposable Personal Income, Size of Current Party’s Majority, Majority Party’s Performance in Previous Midterm Election, Indicator for Lame Duck Presidency. The U.S. Senate model uses only three variables: Presidential job approval (Gallup), Pct. Change in Real Disposable Personal Income, and an Indicator for a Lame Duck Presidency. Data and model specifications are available upon request to: kroeger98@yahoo.com

Why is the midterm elections outcome irreversible?

Labor Day is considered by many political analysts the key inflection point for midterm elections. Any party with a large lead in the generic ballot at that point is going to do well on Election Day. Given the current numbers, it would be unprecedented if the GOP were to retain control of the U.S. House after the midterms.

Figure 2. 2018 Generic Congressional Vote

Source: RealClearPolitics.com

Since the wide use of the generic congressional ballot question for tracking purposes, such a turnaround has never happened this late in a midterm election year. The last two midterms are illustrative of this stability and the practical irrelevance of general election campaigns (see Figure 2).

Figure 3. Generic Congressional Ballot in 2014 & 2010 Midterm Elections

Source: RealClearPolitics.com

The party that significantly leads the generic ballot in early September will most likely win the majority of votes in November. Scandals, candidate gaffes and other unpredictable events occurring late in the general election can alter individual race outcomes, but those cases tend to be randomly distributed and never sufficient in numbers to change the aggregate outcome for the Democrats and Republicans.

The Democrats will gain 35 House seats and 4 Senate seats in November and there is nothing Donald Trump and the Republicans can do to alter this eventuality. According to the NuQum.com model, Trump’s job approval could surge to 50 percent approval (it won’t) and the Republicans would still lose 26 House seats and one Senate seat.

Understandably, memories of the 2016 election give Democrats pause about making strong predictions regarding 2018, but congressional elections in general are more predictable than presidential outcomes. In a bad year for incumbents, such as 2010 when the Democrats lost 52 House seats, 85 percent still won re-election. Retirements and open seat contests introduce some competitiveness into congressional elections; but, generally, those contests tend to break towards the party with the momentum heading into the general election. That party is the Democrats this year.

Despite the considerable effort The Cook Report and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball put into predicting each congressional race, they are just modeling idiosyncratic variation. While their predictions are interesting, their analytic efforts merely nibble at the margins and are wholly unnecessary. The net partisan outcome for the 2018 midterms was largely determined in late 2017 when candidates had to make a decision whether or not to run for office.

Figure 4. Trump Job Approval

Source: RealClearPolitics.com

A quick inspection of Figure 4 shows Trump’s job approval in late 2017 was at or near the bottom for his term. In other words, quality Democratic candidates should have been feeling at that time very confident in their candidacies being successful in 2018. The NuQum.com model at the start of 2018 predicted a net House gain by Democrats of around 40 seats. Little has changed since that prediction.

The Democrats are putting high-quality candidates up against vulnerable Republicans

The New York Times’ Frank Bruni and Liriel Higa recently highlighted the 13 congressional candidates they consider the “faces” of the next generation of Democratic leaders. Despite relying on a lazy and predicable ‘year of the woman’ narrative, their article conveyed the considerable strengths of the newest generation of first-time Democratic congressional candidates.

The candidates in the article share this common trait: Good speakers that prefer to emphasize their background and résumés over talking about specific policy ideas. It’s a safe strategy geared towards getting centrist Democrats elected in conservative-leaning congressional districts.

The following video clips are indicative of the high quality found among the candidates mentioned in the Bruni and Higa article:

Chrissy Houlahan (PA-6)

Katie Hill (CA-25)

Lauren Underwood (IL-14)

Elissa Slotkin (MI-8)

Max Rose (NY-11)

Mikie Sherrill (NJ-11)

M.J. Hegar (TX-31)

Ammar Campa-Najjar (CA-50)*

Colin Allred (TX-32)*

Leslie Cockburn (VA-5)

Kathy Manning (NC-13)

Andy Kim (NJ-3)

Xochitl Torres Small (NM-2)

* Indicates Justice Democrat (progressive)

These are strong, high-quality Democratic challengers who saw President Trump’s significant weaknesses with voters in late 2017, particularly in suburban America, and realized now is their opportunity to run and win. That fact, more than any other reason, is why the outcome of the 2018 midterms is already baked into the system. At this late juncture, there is nothing the Republicans can do to save their House majority, and they will probably lose the Senate majority as well.

The 2018 midterm elections are, for all intents and purposes, over. Election Day in November is a mere formality.

Now the bad news for Democrats…

Unwittingly, Bruni and Higa also brought into focus a dangerous split that increasingly defines today’s Democratic Party. For lack of a better description, the split is between the Democratic Party establishment, still personified by Barack Obama, and the party’s progressive wing, otherwise known as Berniecrats.

According to Bruni and Higa, to win in traditionally Republican and suburban congressional districts, the Democrats are relying largely on centrist Democrats (or policy averse Democrats, as I call them) who emphasize their identities and personal backgrounds over their specific policy ideas.

Among the candidates Bruni and Higa feature, most are women, many have military service in their background and, with some noticeable exceptions, avoid policy specifics. Yes, these candidates have policy preferences, but that is not how they want to define themselves with voters. Similar to the Hillary Clinton campaign, the emphasis is on résumé over substance. Only Allred and Campa-Najjar from the Bruni and Higa article can be considered strong progressives.

A good example of these centrist candidates is Katie Hill, the Democratic House candidate in California’s 25th district, who is bisexual, married to a bisexual man, had an unplanned pregnancy at 18 and owns guns. These specific traits, experiences and life choices really have nothing to do with one another, other than they emphasize her distinctiveness from the Republican incumbent, Steve Knight, who has routinely voted to limit reproductive rights and deny basic civil liberties to LGBTQ Americans. More importantly, Hill is decidedly centrist in her policy views, even though she is routinely called a ‘progressive’ by the national news media.

In describing the Hill candidacy, The Los Angeles Times asksHow does a progressive Democrat try to unseat a Republican? Step one: Don’t talk about single-payer healthcare.

During a chat with a liberal activist group about universal health care, Hill said, “I shouldn’t go into the district and talk about single-payer, right? Like, that word by itself is going to be something that just immediately turns off a lot of people. But, if I talk about how we need to make sure that everybody has access to healthcare and that it’s affordable for everybody and how having a government option is needed at the very least, that is something people can really get behind. It’s more about the way we talk about things than being very far apart on issues.”

Hill’s answer is straight out of the corporatist ‘New Democrat’ handbook: When addressing universal health care, load your sentences with inoffensive platitudes and commit to nothing. This is not a criticism of Hill. To the contrary, it demonstrates her readiness to run for office and win. It is that quality in her that separates high-quality candidates that can win from political neophytes, who usually go down in a flaming heap of position papers and policy statements when they first run for office.

Hill is simply implementing the ‘New Democrat’ strategy championed by Bill Clinton and Al Gore in post-Reagan America and perfected by Barack Obama. Strategic centrism, as Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth describes it, advises Democrats to stay as close to the political center as possible, without alienating the progressive wing of the party; and, when at all possible, avoid boxing themselves in with firm positions on major policy proposals when, instead, they must put a premium on ideological flexibility.

It is this strategy that has become the dominant approach among today’s establishment Democrats, particularly those competing in middle America and conservative-leaning, suburban districts.

When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated incumbent Democrat Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th House District primary, Duckworth told CNN’s Jake Tapper that Ocasio-Cortez is not necessarily a model for other Democrats to follow. She is only “the future of the party in the Bronx, where she is,” said Duckworth. “I don’t think that you can go too far to the left and still win the Midwest.”

Duckworth may be right, but her opinion, which reflects the views of most establishment Democrats, is oddly reminiscent of an argument establishment Republicans were making in the mid-1970s when they dismissed Ronald Reagan’s muscular conservatism as a viable national strategy. Like Duckworth, the Bob Doles and Nelson Rockefellers in the GOP at the time saw overly strident ideological positions as a liability, not a strategic asset.

They were wrong and Reagan conservatism has been the establishment position for the GOP up until Trump’s recent rise.

And today’s Democratic Party looks increasingly like the Republican Party when it emerged from under Richard Nixon and Watergate — no coherent vision, just a need to regain power any way possible.

The 2018 midterms may be 1978 all over again

Democratic leaders insist on using the same playbook as Bill Clinton’s in 1992 or Barack Obama’s in 2008: Stay near the political center and rely on organizational superiority and candidate charisma to win elections. Substantive policy fights are best held away from the public’s gaze.

But what will happen once the Democrats, riding on the success of its centrist candidates, take back control of the House and Senate next January? Do the Democratic progressives who will join them, such as New York’s Ocasio-Cortez, Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, and Massachusetts’ Ayanna Pressley, simply take a backbench seat and wait for their marching orders from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi? I don’t think so. In fact, conditions will likely deteriorate very fast for the Democrats, especially if they also control the U.S. Senate.

Ocasio-Cortez isn’t going to Congress to watch Pelosi and New York Senator Chuck Schumer run investigations on the Trump administration. Her constituents will want to see tangible results. Sadly, they will far more likely see the Democrat-controlled Congress approve record-sized defense budgets than the passage of legislation overhauling the inefficient U.S. health care system or increasing the minimum wage or reducing the student debt burden for millions of Americans.

Can Pelosi and Schumer maintain the delicate balance between the corporatist interests seeking open markets, capital mobility, and low labor costs and progressive Democrats, many of whom are still fuming over how the Democratic National Committee openly rigged 2016 primary process against Bernie Sanders? It’s a balancing act the Democratic Party establishment has been attempting since 1992, with little success. Why should the present be any different?

Still, establishment Democrats will see the 2018 landslide as a watershed moment in U.S. political history where a near-permanent Democratic majority finally emerges. The GOP’s impending electoral debacle will, in turn, be seen as a signal of the end of its dominance over the American political system since 1978, when the first sizable number of Reagan conservatives began to win elections.

As it always is, the reality for Democrats will be murkier and fraught with political landmines. The 2018 midterms will be the first election when a meaningful number of progressive, anti-establishment Democrats start winning elections.

However, if progressives are rebuffed and ignored by their congressional leadership (as I expect they will be), they will unleash hellfire on their leaders, not unlike the backbencher revolt Newt Gingrich engineered against his party’s establishment in the late 80s and early 90s. Furthermore, it is increasingly possible the Democratic Party will effectively split into two separate parties, aligned on social justice issues, but permanently divided on economic policy.

If the 2016 election taught us anything, it is that majority of voters across the ideological spectrum are tired of establishment politicians dedicated to the interests of their large campaign donors over the interests of most Americans. As filmmaker Michael Moore aptly put it, Trump was their Molotov cocktail being thrown into the political system.

The message should have been obvious to the political establishment in both parties. Instead, we are distracted by various forms of Trump Derangement Syndrome and anti-Russia scaremongering every night on our nightly news programs.

The American political class has done nothing to regain the trust of the American people. Nothing.

As I pour through reams of survey cross-tabulations on current American attitudes, two years removed from the 2016 election, I see the same distrust and anger that was evident then— in fact, the discontent directed towards the political system may be worse (see Figure 5 below). And while most Americans are done with Trump, they are not screaming for more cautious centrism in his place. And does anyone think Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are the leadership Americans are craving for?

Figure 5. Trust in the Federal Government is Near All-time Lows

Source: Pew Research Center

It is informative that Bernie Sanders is still among the most popular politicians in America today. According to YouGov’s popularity tracking service, as of July 2018, Bernie Sanders was the 14th most popular person in the U.S., behind other politicians and notables such as Joe Biden (13th), Pope Francis (11th), Jimmy Carter (10th), Barack Obama (5th), Prince William (4th), Prince Harry (3rd), Bill Gates (2nd) and Queen Elizabeth (1st).

Behind Sanders are Bill Clinton (20th), Hillary Clinton (28th), Donald Trump (29th), Elizabeth Warren (41st), Nikki Haley (64th), Nancy Pelosi (67th), Chuck Schumer (78th), Corey Booker (82nd), Kamala Harris (88th) and Kristen Gillibrand (117th).

Seeing the continued strength of the Sanders brand relative to other active Democratic politicians, I wonder if the Democratic Party learned what it should have from 2016?

We will find out soon enough.

-K.R.K.

About the Author:  Mr. Kroeger is a survey and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and son (You can contact him at: info@olsonkroeger.com)

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What would an American coup d’état look like?

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By Kent R. Kroeger (September 11, 2018)

The following essay is mostly personal opinion, adorned with quotes from anonymous sources, all linked together by wild conjecture and creative license, and peppered throughout with occasional facts whenever possible — in other words, just your average news story today.

_________________________________________________________________

Typically, when we think of a coup d’état, we think of tanks in formation in front of a parliamentary building, jersey barriers surrounding a presidential palace, and armed militia controlling entry and exit at major access points and thoroughfares in a capital city.

But coups can come in many different forms, some ruthless and violent, and others barely noticeable outside of a small cadre of military, political and bureaucratic elites.

For the purposes of this essay, however, a simple dictionary definition of ‘coup d’état’ will suffice:

Coup d’état, also called Coup: the sudden, often violent overthrow of an existing government by a small group whose chief prerequisite is control of all or part of the armed forces, the police, and other military elements. Unlike a revolution, which is usually achieved by large numbers of people working for basic social, economic, and political change, a coup is a change in power from the top that merely results in the involuntary replacement of leading government personnel. A coup rarely alters a nation’s fundamental social and economic policies, nor does it significantly redistribute power among competing political groups.

The definition is narrow enough to distinguish a coup from legal transfers of political power, such as through elections or other constitutional processes, but broad enough to capture less obvious, but no less involuntary, removals of ruling elites.

The question posed in this essay’s title is not suggesting the U.S. is in the midst of an existing, or soon-to-be-implemented, coup attempt; but this essay is offering evidentiary signs and visual markers of what an American coup might include.

What this essay is not addressing is if the president has demonstrably committed a high crime and misdemeanor or is incapable of executing the duties of president. In such a case, a coup is not necessary. The Constitution through Article II, Section 4 (Impeachment) or the 25th Amendment (Incapacitation) has the means to deal with that problem.

We are considering here a situation where powerful people decide they don’t like a presidential election outcome and want to change the result sub rosa; a situation where the president has not committed a high crime and is notincapacitated and, instead, where conspiratorial actors attempt to remove him or her from power for illegitimate reasons.

Who would be the actors behind an American coup?

Coups require the cooperation of a decent number of people. Not too many. But a good number — lets say, 30 people. For a large country, like the U.S., maybe 50 people are needed.

An American coup would furthermore require people who were not only motivated to remove a duly-elected president, but capable of planning and implementing such a hostile takeover. That last requirement narrows the potential pool of conspirators down to a tiny fraction of Americans — probably less than 1,000 people in strategically useful positions.

Qualifying as a potential conspirator is not a function of wealth either, though the financial stakes involved in an attempted coup would no doubt inspire great interest in its potential risks among this nation’s wealthiest elites. Bill Gates or Warren Buffett might have the financial resources to fund an American coup, but they lack the incentive (the current president is working just fine for them and a failed coup would be really bad for business) and specific knowledge, or a strong relationship with people with such knowledge, to execute a successful coup. The super wealthy are better off watching from the sidelines.

On the other hand, a successful American coup will need to undermine the legitimacy of the current president and, therefore, the conspirators will need at least the passive cooperation of the nation’s major news, social and entertainment media outlets. And given that six companies control 90 percent of today’s U.S. media, it is likely that an American coup would include some of the most senior executives in our nation’s largest media companies.

Far more important than money or media access, however, will be an ideological esprit de corps among the conspirators. Bonded by like minds and interests, the potential conspirators will have a common understanding of the imminent threat posed by the current president and why his or her removal from power needs to happen now and not through the normal constitutional procedures. The coup’s urgency will feel so organic to this cabal, so obvious as to its necessity, that there may be surprisingly little communication between conspirators during the planning and execution stages. They will just know what to do and when to do it.

So who are the conspiratorial candidates? Probably two groups top the list: neoliberals and neoconservatives. An overly simplified description of these two political factions goes as follows:

Neoliberals, also known as corporatist Democrats, focus on economic issues (both domestic and global in scope), and attempt to maximize the public support while focusing on the interests of large corporations and private capital. Their patron saint is Bill Clinton and are represented today by Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the Democratic Party establishment. They do not like Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Tulsi Gabbard. In fact, they will do everything in their power to crush their collective bones into dust.

Neoconservatives originally were a sect of prominent Democrats (Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Henry “Scoop” Jackson) who focused on defense and national security issues and were fiercely anti-Communist, though always supporting major aspects of the Democrats’ social agenda, particularly with respect to civil rights. The early neoconservatives were a reaction to the emerging New Left of the 1960s and early 1970s that emphasized pacifism and moral relativism, a set of beliefs the neoconservatives blamed for George McGovern’s epic defeat to Richard Nixon in 1972. Eventually, the neoconservatives expanded into the Republican ranks as well (William Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Elliott Abrams, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Paul Bremer) and, today, are represented by the likes of Bill Kristol, Jon Podhoretz, Robert Kaplan, Trump national security adviser John Bolton, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, among others. Arizona Senator John McCain was also considered a neoconservative.

Perhaps the defining characteristic of modern neoconservatism is its belief that the American national interest often requires the U.S. to intervene (militarily, if necessary) in the internal affairs of other countries deemed anti-democratic and/or hostile to American global interests. Where the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia established that the sovereignty of individual nation-states was supreme and that the internal affairs of one nation-state was not to be interfered with by another nation-state, the neoconservatives tore such thinking asunder. In their view, it is the inherent right and moral imperative of supranational entities, such as the United Nations, or the U.S. itself, to intervene in the affairs of individual nation-states, whether they violate the rights of their own citizens or potentially threaten the broader interests of the U.S. and the international community.

In other words, neoconservatives love regime change wars and generally push for them at every opportunity.

While neoliberalism and neoconservatism are distinct ideologies, their adherents often commingle and individually may move freely between them. Case in point, many of Hillary Clinton’s closest national security advisers during her two presidential campaigns were staunch neoconservatives (Robert Kaplan, Sidney Bloomenthal), even though she is generally considered the neoliberal prototype.

Yet, I refuse to dive down a rat hole quibbling about the precise definitions of these two factions and therefore, for the purposes of this essay, I treat them as largely one cohesive group.

Neoliberals and neoconservatives are real groups and not intellectual abstractions. And while they don’t use secret handshakes and ancient rituals to initiate their brethren into the rules and customs of their ideological sect, they do possess fiercely homogeneous lifestyles that make membership in them obvious to their members. They go to the same schools, attend the same parties, work for the same companies, vacation on the same islands, were military officers at the same time, share the same spouses, read the same political columnists, and use the same financial advisers. Most importantly, they know who belongs and doesn’t belong to their respective sect.

Bernie Sanders, you are not a member of the neoliberal and neoconservative sects and will never be…even if you beg…on both knees.

What would be the tactics and methods used in an American coup?

This is the easiest question of all to answer.

Short of tanks on the White House lawn, the tactics and methods of an American coup would mirror tactics and methods the U.S. already employs in instigating coups outside the U.S.: (dis)information campaigns, manipulation of the popular media, financial incentives, planting conspirators inside the existing ruling group, and enlisting the ideological and (sometimes) material support of military leaders, the domestic security apparatus and the nation’s major economic interests.

Worldwide there have been 43 attempted coups since 2010, most have been in Africa (31), and only 9 were at least temporarily successful. Coups are hard, even in small countries. With a country the size of the U.S., the task is monumental.

But there is some guidance on how to execute a successful coup. Edward N. Luttwak, the godfather of coup planning and prevention, worked for U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of Net Assessment and was a consultant to the National Security Council, the White House Chief of Staff, and several other foreign governments. In 1968, he wrote the book Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook.

Though many of the conditions he views as necessary for a coup to succeed do not currently exist in the U.S., such as a prolonged economic crisis, the book still offers the basic structural patterns of successful coups.

For example, according to Luttwak, coups require the cooperation of military officers commanding units that can be quickly placed around government headquarter buildings and key hubs within the capital city. Luttwak also points out that passive, large-scale acceptance by the public is essential, as is the necessity for conspirators to move quickly and minimize violence. “The ideal coup is swift and bloodless,” says Luttwak.

In the case of the U.S., given the country’s sheer size and diffuse distribution of power, the Luttwak model does requires some alterations; but, nonetheless, offers a generalized framework for what an American coup would require:

First, delegitimize the president and his administration. An obvious task, but absolutely essential it is done well. Flood the daily news and information streams with negative stories, rumors, and outright lies about the current administration. For every rumor and falsehood you make them address today, they will be blindsided by two more tomorrow. And it will be critical to mix legitimate administration mistakes (which there will be many) with falsehoods. Muddle the information stream to the point where truth and fiction become indistinguishable.

Leverage every relationship you have with the national news media and entertainment industry and enlist them to spread these negative messages through the media bloodstream. Absolutely inundate the average American — politically active or not — with negative stories and images about the current president.

Additionally, plant your operatives in the current administration wherever possible, and have them leak rumors and innuendo to an eager press corps on a regular basis. And when the president’s popularity and influence starts its inevitable death spiral, plant an anonymous editorial in The New York Timessuggesting a disloyal cadre of senior administration officials, out of their selfless sense of patriotic duty, are working against the president’s agenda on a daily basis.

As the administration’s wheels start to fall off as the tenacity of the internal and external opposition grows, the administration loyalists themselves will start making objectively serious mistakes, which will augment, amplify and validate your initial disinformation campaign.

Second, ensure the defense and national security establishment supports the removal of the president. Without their support, even if only passive, there is no chance an American coup can succeed. Let them know what the U.S. defense establishment gains by allowing the premature removal of a duly-elected president. An even larger defense budget than the already bloated one we have today? A limit to the number of regime change wars we engage in at any single point in time?

What the Pentagon wants must be incorporated into the coup’s ultimate objectives.

Senior military officers are, by training and genetics, painfully risk-averse. Believe it or not, they hate ‘hot’ wars. Truly. They hate them. Especially against well-equipped adversaries (North Korea, Iran, Russia, China) where they have a chance of losing many of the sexy weapons systems the U.S. Congress has generously funded. Or worse yet, exposing the irrelevancy and impotence of these multi-million dollar systems. The reputations of defense contractors and distinguished military careers can be permanently ruined in ‘hot’ wars, and that scares stars off of generals.

The neoliberal-neoconservative conspiratorial cabal will profit directly from any of the regime change wars being gamed every day within the Pentagon. That doesn’t mean the Pentagon wants to engage in these wars. But they if they are going to be forced into them by their civilian masters, they want to “win” them according to some objective, though inevitably inadequate, metric.

A successful American coup will therefore establish clear boundaries and goals towards which the defense and national security establishment can buy into and implement once the new administration takes over.

[Donald Trump’s ill-informed, arbitrary, and Twitter-driven foreign policy development process is precisely the type of civilian leadership that would provoke a Pentagon-led mutiny. And, frankly, it would be hard to oppose such a mutiny — though we still should.]

Thirdly, there must be a singular leader that can sell the coup to the American people. To use the current American political context as an example, a coup against Donald Trump must be marketed and legitimized in such a way that even the most ardent and clueless Trump supporter (Eric) will grudgingly concede ‘it had to be done.’ It may be a fair estimate that a quarter of the American people will never accept the removal of a U.S. president (if Richard Nixon’s resignation is any indicator). But that level of resistance is tolerable. They can shamed into silence with enough help from the media.

What cannot happen is something north of 40 percent of the public opposing a president’s removal. In that scenario, all hell breaks loose. Riots breaks out. People will die. And whatever benefit achieved by the president’s removal will be more than lost in the nation’s streets and neighborhoods.

How do you sell a coup to the people? The conspirators will need a consensus-building leader, a statesman, someone with qualities that transcend party and ideology. Without that person, there is no American coup, just a nationwide melee followed by martial law.

How about Barack Obama? He’s why we are facing this problem to begin with.

How about Michelle Obama? We sort of tried that with Hillary and, well, here we are.

Joe Biden? Only Democrats love Joe Biden, and even most of them don’t.

Oprah? Stop it.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson? Maybe. A definite maybe.

As of today, no such person exists. And no American coup will succeed without someone possessing that stature.

So, to instigate an American coup, at some point, sooner rather than later, someone must come riding in (figuratively) on a white horse pledging to unite the partisan factions and return order and decency to the American presidency and political system. When that person arrives, then you can have your coup.

Lastly, an American coup will need to look, as much as possible, like democracy in action. In other words, the only plausible route for a coup is through the specious application of either the Constitution’s Article II (Section 4) or the 25th Amendment.

So, even under conducted under false pretenses, the act of removing a president must look to the American people as morally and legally copacetic. Anything less, and the coup fails. However, if the first step outlined above (delegitimization) is executed properly, it should not be hard to make the coup look like the Constitution and our democracy are working exactly the way the Founding Fathers designed them.

Let us admit what many serious people are thinking: Donald Trump needs to be removed from office immediately

Personally, I believe Donald Trump is more an imminent threat to himself than to the U.S. Rather, his powerful enemies are far more dangerous to the American democracy and way of life than he is.

But I also recognize Donald Trump is not up to the job of being president. He’s not even close.

He is a chronic liar, poorly-educated, stubbornly uninformed, inarticulate, immature, misogynistic, devoid of empathy, and emotionally erratic — and that assessment is based on just his behavior in the last 24 hours.

When I tell people my 12-year-old son, right now, would make a better president than Donald Trump, it is not said in jest. I truly believe it. Even scarier, my son believes it.

Unfortunately, our system of government is poorly designed to handle someone like Trump. If we had the United Kingdom’s parliamentary system, Trump would be a non-issue. The ruling party would change the locks on his office door and he’d be marginalized immediately. The British House of Parliament doesn’t f*rt around with numpties like Trump. The UK (or any other parliamentary democracy) will never have a potentially existential crisis such as the one enveloping the U.S. at present. UK’s stodgy politics may be far too biased towards elites and the status-quo, but they will never have a Donald Trump problem. Never.

So, as of today, what should we do here in the U.S.?

Again, the answer is easy. Donald Trump is the duly-elected President of the U.S. He has the constitutional and moral right to stay in office for the rest of his term, assuming nothing disqualifying is revealed by the Robert Mueller probe — and there is little reason to believe he will. If Congress negates the 2016 election because the Russians bought some Facebook memes and stole some emails with the prior knowledge of the Trump campaign, they will be granting the Russians far more power over the U.S. than they deserve.

Plus, pursuing the removal of the president only distracts Americans from the real, more serious issues facing this country.

Therefore, any attempt to contradict the will of the American electorate in 2016 will do more harm to the republic than anything Trump can do as president.

An American coup, through the improper application of the Constitution’s mechanisms for removing a president, is the last thing this country need’s and serious people need to start saying so.

Besides, we only need to wait two more years before the next presidential election. A blink of an eye.

-K.R.K.

About the Author:  Mr. Kroeger is a survey and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and son (You can contact him at: info@olsonkroeger.com)

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Is the Syrian civil war winding down?

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By Kent R. Kroeger (September 14, 2018)

With an impending ‘final’ battle for the last major rebel stronghold in Idlib, Syria, many observers are suggesting this may be the final stage of the Syrian civil war which started in 2011.

Several significant in the past year are generally cited as evidence of the war coming to a close. “For one thing, 2017 marked the fall of opposition-held Eastern Aleppo to government forces,” says journalist Alessandria Masi, managing editor for Syria Deeply. “The evacuation of rebels from Aleppo to Idlib that followed was the first of many such movements to take place in other areas of Syria over the past year. The battle against the so-called Islamic State has been — to a certain extent — won. What’s more, the Syrian government has made a major push to spur reconstruction, development and financial investment in the country.”

While pockets of Islamic State forces (ISIS) and Syrian rebels still exist in southern Syria, the last major concentration of anti-Assad forces reside in the Idlib province (see Figure 1). In addition, Kurdish forces with the support of U.S. Special Operations forces control most of northeast Syria.

Should the Assad forces regain control of Idlib province, the government will control two-thirds of the territory it controlled prior to the start of the civil war seven years ago.

Figure 1. Status of Syrian Civil War (September 2018)

Source: Bloomberg News Service

At the same time, Russian, U.S., Iranian, and other foreign fighters will still be firmly entrenched within Syria (see Figure 2), not to mention Israel’s continued control of the Golan Heights (internationally recognized as Syrian territory) and Turkey’s opposition to any Kurdish independence push in northeast Syria.

Given the stark realities on the ground, the notion that the Syrian conflict is winding down appears somewhat optimistic.

Figure 2. Locations of U.S. and Russian Troops in Syria (January 2018)

Source: Artishok Interactive

Many unresolved aspects of the Syrian civil war could ignite a new, and possibly deadlier, round of Syrian fighting. Most prominent among them is the fact that U.S. and Kurdish forces control a substantial percentage of Syria’s oil fields and its most productive natural gas field near Deir Ezzor (also known as Dayr Az Zawr) (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Location of Syrian Oil and Gas Fields

Source: The Energy Consulting Group

Before the civil war, Syria’s GDP provided approximately 20 percent of the Syrian government’s revenues and about 40 percent of its export receipts, according to The World Bank.

The Bashar al-Assad government is already strapped for money as it begins to fund reconstruction in post-civil war Syria, and if Damascus cannot leverage the entirety of its energy production assets for generating export revenues, it is hard to imagine how Syria can avoid taking on enormous levels of additional foreign debt. As of 2017, the CIA estimated Syria’s gross public debt as a percentage of GDP was 58 percent.

“Syria as a centrally managed state no longer exists,” says Osama Kadi, founder and president of the Syrian Economic Task Force. “Analyzing the Syrian economy in terms of it being a comprehensive state economy is meaningless because there are four influential military powers on the ground: Iran, Russia, Turkey and the U.S. They have control over areas and resources that the Syrian regime does not.”

For example, when the U.S. ousted ISIS from Raqqah, its forces also took control of the majority of Syria’s oil fields, the revenues from which will be critical for Syria’s reconstruction. “Thus, if no deal is reached between Russia and the U.S., which most likely will be the case, then each area of influence will have separate reconstruction and development plans,” says Kadi.

Unfortunately, there is already evidence that any attempted settlement regarding Syria’s oil and gas reserves, as small as they are relative to other oil and gas producing countries in the region, could turn violent.

Jared Szuba, writing for the DefenseReport.com, believes competition for control of Syria’s gas and oil fields was behind a brief but deadly skirmish near Deir Ezzor (also known as Dayr Az Zawr) between American forces and Russian paramilitary contractors on February 7, 2018, which left around 300 Russians dead and hundreds of pro-regime fighters injured.

Writes Szuba:

On the night of February 7, hundreds of fighters from various countries, backed by artillery, multiple rocket launcher systems and Soviet tanks, emerged from a row of villages near the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor and advanced towards the one of the country’s largest natural gas fields.

As the yet unidentified forces advanced on February 7th towards American positions controlling the Conoco natural gas field, which were captured in September 2017, US Army Brigadier General Jonathan Braga, director of operations, Combined Joint Task Force (Operation Inherent Resolve) picked up the phone used for Russian deconfliction to ascertain if Russian forces were in the area. When Gen. Braga’s Russian counterpart said ‘No,’ U.S. forces promptly unleashed three hours of airstrikes on the enemy positions, resulting in the death of hundreds of Russian contractors.

Since the incident, the U.S. military has been vague on what caused those events on the evening of February 7th, but Szuba believes a race between U.S. forces and pro-Syrian government forces, including Russians and Iranians, is the root cause:

The Department of Defense may have been covering for bold battlefield opportunism in the place of failed diplomacy. Shortly after the airstrike, there were multiple reports that there had been no such deconfliction line agreement at Deir Ezzor. An anonymous U.S. official told The Wall Street Journal in September that attempts to pressure Russia to commit to the line in the summer of 2017 “stalled,” and as a result, both sides dashed for the area’s oilfields.

In all probability, the pro-Assad forces were probing the American defensive positions on February 7th to determine how committed the Americans are to protect strategic territory, such as the Conoco natural gas field near Deir Ezzor.

According to Szuba, the Assad government considers control of its oil and gas fields as critical in financing the country’s reconstruction after seven years of war. Before resigning, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson even admitted that U.S. control of Syria’s oil and gas assets would be used as leverage against the Assad government once the civil war as effectively ended and ISIS has been defeated.

But more critically, the U.S. aims to prevent Iran from establishing a continuous land-route to its Mediterranean allies through Iraq and Syria’s Deir Ezzor corridor. An unbroken land transportation route from Iran to the Mediterranean would be a major strategic victory for Tehran and something the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia are unlikely to accept quietly.

And, finally, very little attention has been given to the Assad regime’s stated desire to recapture all Syrian territory lost during the civil war.

“Although the [government] essentially obtained victory after reconquering Aleppo city in its entirety, it still vows to retake all of Syria,” Aymenn al-Tamimi, research fellow at the Middle East, told Syria Deeply. “This intention needs to be taken seriously, especially with regards to the conflict with the armed opposition. Hopes that ‘deescalation’ will be conducive to bringing about a real political settlement and long-term toleration of formal opposition control of certain areas are mistaken. Whatever truth there might be to the supposed Russian reluctance regarding the military reconquest of particular places is not enough to restrain the government when it is intent on military reconquest and ‘softer landing’ methods have failed.”

If Szuba and al-Tamimi are correct, a Syrian government victory in Idlib will merely mark the end of the Syrian conflict’s first phase. The next combat phase may be driven by four factors: (1) Syria’s urgent need for oil and gas revenues to support reconstruction efforts, (2) the regime’s nationalist desire to regain control of all territory held prior to the civil war, (3) the enormous challenges Syria will face as it reincorporates the potentially millions of Syrian refugees who will return once security conditions allow, and (4) Iran’s ambition to control a continuous land corridor from Iran to the Mediterranean.

If these factors cannot be settled diplomatically through negotiations, and there is reason to think they will not, the likelihood of a military solution involving multiple countries substantially increases. And this new combat phase could escalate rapidly into a wider regional war given there is no timetable for Russian, Iranian, Turkish and U.S. forces to leave Syria.

When that much firepower under differing commands is put that close together, bad things often happen.

Israel and Saudi Arabia are already engaged in a semi-secret alliance to contain Iran’s influence throughout the Middle East. While Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have taken the lead on fighting Iranian proxies in Yemen (with substantial U.S. assistance), Israel has focused on attacking Iranian assets in Syria. The magazine, Foreign Policy, recently reported that Israel secretly armed and funded 12 Syrian rebel groups to push Iranian-backed forces and ISIS fighters away from the Israeli border.

Add to this volatile mix Israel’s strategic incentive in keeping Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah embroiled in Syria’s civil war and it becomes hard to be optimistic about Syria’s immediate future.

And still lurking behind the curtain are America’s neoconservative regime-change mavens, formerly led by late-Senator John McCain, who now believe they have figured out how to win a regime change war, and would love to demonstrate their newly-acquired wisdom by doubling-down on U.S. military commitments in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and half of Africa.

With every new atrocity against civilians in Syria, whether it be an illegal chemical or incendiary attack or a more ‘civilized’ barrage of artillery shells where the victims die under tons of rubble, the calls for a larger U.S. troop presence in Syria will grow louder. South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham, former Secretaries of State John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, Tom Friedman, David Ignatius, and a vast assortment of former George W. Bush national security mavens are always prepared to appear on Morning Joe or Rachel Maddow to promote their forevermore discredited regime change agenda.

In other words, the Syrian conflict could get even uglier than it already is.

-K.R.K.

About the Author:  Mr. Kroeger is a survey and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and son (You can contact him at: info@olsonkroeger.com)

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Audience ratings, not white male privilege, killed Michelle Wolf’s not-bad-but-not-great TV show

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By Kent R. Kroeger (September 17, 2018)

Apparently, Salon’s Melanie McFarland and The Daily Beast’s Kevin Fallonresent that comedian Norm Mcdonald has a TV show and fellow comedians Michelle Wolf and Robin Thede do not anymore.

McFarland and Fallon apparently are not fans of old, white guys doing non-topical comedy in an uninventive way, while criticizing the #MeToo movement for not being more forgiving to sexual assaulters like his friend Louis C.K.

On that level, I understand why East Coast media mavens are already panningMacdonald’s new show, which I would describe as Zach Galifianakis’ “Between Two Ferns” with a slightly higher production budget. Norm Macdonald Has a Show is why I don’t watch TV anymore, except for an occasional live sporting event or hurricane. Macdonald rehashes the ‘Can you believe this dopey guy has a TV show?’ concept, brilliantly re-imagined by David Letterman 35 years ago and mined dry of inventive comedy by the mid-1990s.

Two minutes into this preview clip of Macdonald’s show will give you a good idea of what to expect:

“Norm Macdonald has a show and Michelle Wolf does not. That’s aggravating,” bemoans Fallon. “It’s aggravating because of what Wolf’s show and her material contributed to the national discourse, and the utter pointlessness of what’s happening on Macdonald’s series.”

McFarland takes Fallon’s lament one step farther and declares Macdonald representative of all old, white guys ever: “The world has always been ruled by some version of Norm Macdonald. That’s why so many people love him.”

Four thousand years of male domination will produce powered flight, anabolic steroids, and an enduring bias towards things masculine, but I don’t think it makes us ‘love’ Norm Macdonald. That said, I do agree with McFarland that there is no way a show like Macdonald’s even gets out of a development meeting unless the process is dominated by old, white guys and the women who pretend to love them.

The real tragedy in McFarland and Fallon’s critique is that Macdonald persists in getting work while Wolf and Thede must struggle. While the Norm Mcdonald Has a Show premiered this week on Netflix, The Break with Michelle Wolf, also on Netflix, and BET’s The Rundown with Robin Thede were both recently cancelled after only one season.

Why were these shows cancelled? According to DeadlineThe Break simply didn’t garner a large enough viewership for Netflix to secure a renewal (Note: Netflix does not generally release viewership numbers for its programs). And while BET’s press release announcing the cancellation of The Rundown did not mention ratings, BET’s new president Scott M. Mills, who has little patience for shows with low ratings, prefers original movies and shows with scripted content. In its final episode on April 19th, The Rundown achieved a 0.09 rating (Persons 18-49) and attracted only 200,000 viewers, according to Nielsen Research.

In an economic system where boardrooms are held accountable by shareholders, ratings are the critical metrics informing decisions made at TV networks. If you have any media companies in your 401k, you’d better hope that is how decisions are made.

Yet, McFarland and Fallon are crying ‘sexism.’ The same boardrooms dominated by womanizing, sexual assaulting men like CBS’s Les Moonves, in their view, are not giving women-led shows a chance to find an audience.

There is truth to that assertion, but it is difficult to prove. Case in point, at the same time Michelle Wolf’s shows was cancelled, Netflix also announced the cancelling of The Joel McHale Show, which debuted only a month earlier than Wolf’s show. McHale’s show, too, did not find an audience.

The Break and The Rundown were immensely popular with critics — both received Rotten Tomatoes ratings over 70 percent (which is very good). But there aren’t enough arrogant, insular East Coast critics to keep a major network show alive. TV shows need millions of regular viewers and history is littered with so many high quality/low-rated TV shows you could fill a 24–7 cable network channel with them (Freaks and GeeksDeadwoodMr. ShowFlight of the ConchordsFireflyArrested Development). Great shows with tiny audiences. Networks hate great shows with tiny audiences.

For McFarland and Fallon to attribute the cancellation of The Break and The Rundown to sexism is just another lazy narrative posing as insightful analysis, meant to give their confederates living in the same ideological bubble something to talk about at parties. McFarland and Fallon’s cry of sexism is as unsurprising and lifeless as Norm Macdonald Has a Show.

Their conclusion also ignores this non-controversial fact: TV shows are generally cancelled when people don’t watch them and networks don’t make money selling advertising on them. If it makes you feel good to tag others as sexist, I suggest you try to understand why the American television viewer (which skews female, by the way) doesn’t seem to appreciate shows like The Break and The Rundown. Is the patriarchy driving their TV viewing tastes? If so, why does Full Frontal with Samantha Bee routinely finish in the Top 10 in the ratings?

Source: Showbuzzdaily.com

If white male privilege is driving the view options and habits of Americans, please explain why Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, the Oprah Channel series Greenleaf, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show, and VH1’s Black Ink Crew Chicago are routinely in the Top 10 for cable TV shows?

Is it possible The Break and The Rundown were not good enough to inspire people to carve 30 more minutes of viewing time out of their day? And I’m saying that as someone who has been a fan of both Wolf and Thede from their Daily Show work. I posted on my blog the morning after Wolf’s appearance at this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner that she was “brilliant” and, minus a tasteless and unfunny abortion joke, her performance was funnier than Stephen Colbert’s legendary 2006 performance.

But then I watched her Netflix show and, while I was amused, I didn’t leave feeling her “material contributed to the national discourse,” as suggested by Fallon. Which begs the question: Is our national discourse now being legitimately driven by comedy shows? Really? If true, someone in academia should look into that problem. That cannot be a good sign for democracy. As Sam Kinison once said, “Stand-up comics are smart people who didn’t pay attention in class.” Probably not the people you want setting the national policy agenda.

Here is one of The Break’s best episodes.

The show’s production values were excellent. I love her look and voice (some people strongly disagree with me on the latter). And the writing was what you would expect from a show spawned from the Daily Show with Trevor Noah. More importantly, The Break was far superior to what I expect to see in the future from Norm Macdonald Has a Show.

Here is one of the most provocative episodes from The Rundown with Robin Thede, a show structured more like The Daily Show than is The Break, but whose content is more serious and not as funny as The Break:

So, am I agreeing with McFarland and Fallon after all? No. There is no rule or law that says if I (or they) like a show it needs to say on the air. And that is the problem with the McFarland and Fallon sexism supposition that tries to superimpose a sex- and gender-based sociological framework to what is more likely a cold and mundane business decision driven by simple microeconomic incentives. Moreover, they violate one of the basic rules of social analysis: You must rule out the most obvious causal factors (TV ratings, in this case) before proceeding to other potential explanations like sexism or racism. Their insight on sexism, while still plausible as a distal factor, comes across as merely an attempt to sell an ideological agenda.

That doesn’t help anyone. Not Michelle Wolf. Not Robin Thede. Not anyone trying to be bring a new idea or perspective to television.

-K.R.K.

About the Author:  Mr. Kroeger is a survey and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and son (You can contact him at: info@olsonkroeger.com)

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Is opposition research protected speech?

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By Kent R. Kroeger (July 31, 2018)

The news media never lets an opportunity get away to jump on Donald Trump and his surrogates. The latest example is Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani saying during a CNN interview that ‘collusion is not a crime.’

Is he right? Is the news media right in disputing his legal claim?

As it typically is, the answer to both questions is ‘Yes and No’.

No, there is no specific federal indictment for collusion. (Giuliani is correct).

However, yes, the term ‘collusion’ is used in the context of the Trump-Russia investigation as a rhetorical umbrella to cover a broad range of indictable crimes such as: aiding and abetting a crime, being an accessory to a crime, false statements, theft or robbery (including the hacking of e-mails), attempting a crime, conspiracy, fraud, money laundering, obstruction of justice, perjury, racketeering under the RICO statute, and wire fraud.

In theory, these are crimes for which Donald Trump’s campaign associates could be indicated as part of Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation. [Note: Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz makes a strong legal argument that a sitting president cannot be indicted; while there are highly-regarded constitutional experts that disagree with Dershowitz’ claim, until it is settled by the U.S. Supreme Court, my inclination is to assume Dershowitz is correct.]

In reality, any indictments by Mueller’s team are most likely going to involve the crimes of giving false statements and obstruction of justice. Those are the low hanging fruits for federal prosecutors. These are the primary crimes that took down Richard Nixon and his associates during Watergate.

More speculatively, Mueller may be looking into whether Trump’s team conspired (unlike collusion, a conspiracy is a crime) with Russian agents to defraud the U.S. during the 2016 election. For example, Mueller is likely deciding whether Trump’s associates aided and abetted a crime such as helping the Russians target their social media campaign to specific voter segments, helping the Russians distribute stolen property (i.e., the DNC/Podesta emails), or helping to launder Russian money into the Trump campaign finance coffers.

And, keep in mind, planning to commit a crime is a crime too, even if no crime is actually committed. It is also illegal to knowingly take possession of stolen property.

According to FindLaw.com, “A criminal conspiracy exists when two or more people agree to commit almost any unlawful act, then take some action toward its completion. The action taken need not itself be a crime, but it must indicate that those involved in the conspiracy knew of the plan and intended to break the law. One person may be charged with and convicted of both conspiracy and the underlying crime based on the same circumstances.”

This is where the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr., and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya (and at least five others) becomes important.

Was it illegal for Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner (or anyone else in the Trump campaign) to take a meeting with a Russian lawyer over Russia’s possible possession of ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton?

If you listen to the news media (including Fox News!), there is a broad assumption that such a meeting would be illegal if the parties discussed the Trump campaign taking possession of stolen property (‘dirt’ on Clinton) OR helping the Russians in laundering stolen property through a third party such as Wikileaks.

CNN Editor-at-Large Chris Cillizza’s July 27th article titled, “Michael Cohen just dropped a collusion bombshell in the Russia investigation,” is indicative of this common news media assumption.

“If Michael Cohen can make good on his allegation that Trump knew about the meeting prior to it happening — and perhaps provide corroborating witnesses to that effect — it would not only prove the denials by the President and his son wrong, but it would be the biggest step to date in proving (or at least suggesting) real collusion between the Trump team and the Russians,” argues Cillizza.

But does it?

Setting aside the question of whether collusion is a crime, there is a genuine legal question that the national news media has largely ignored during their coverage of the Trump-Russia investigation: Is it legal for a presidential campaign in the course of doing opposition research to ask foreign actors for compromising information about an opponent, including information illegally obtained by these foreign actors?

If it weren’t for the leaking of classified information from the U.S. intelligence community (an illegal act), the New York Times would have little to print regarding the Trump-Russia story. The national news organizations depend heavily on their access to anonymous leakers within the U.S. government and their publication of such information is constitutionally protected speech.

But what about political campaigns?

Aside from one excellent opinion piece by UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh published in The Washington Post over a year ago, there has been little discussion of this question as it relates to the Mueller probe.

As of today, there is no evidence that Donald Trump Jr. or Jared Kushner believed the ‘dirt’ on Clinton they sought from the Russians were the product of an illegal hack or that they intended to take possession of this ‘dirt’ had it been made available by the Russians in the Trump Tower meeting. There is also no evidence Don Jr. or Jared offered to help the Russians in laundering this ‘dirt’ through a third party such as a friendly journalist or whistle-blower website (Wikileaks).

But even if Don Jr. and Jared talked with the Russians about doing that, it is still not clear they would have been committing a crime. Perhaps they were simply doing opposition research to find out what ‘dirt’ the Russians had on and, if it did exist, what information was contained in this ‘dirt’ that might help the Trump campaign? A normal, well-run presidential campaign will often hire former journalists (people like Glenn Simpson at GPS Fusion) to do their opposition research.

News organizations routinely print or broadcast illegally obtained information and the U.S. Supreme Court, through its New York Times Co. v. United States ruling during the Pentagon Papers controversy in the early 1970s, upheld the right of the press to do this. Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, and Daniel Elsberg are heroes to many Americans and all three committed unquestionably illegal acts.

So before anyone screams, “Don Jr. and Jared are not protected by the same laws that protect journalists or whistle-blowers,” they need to consider this argument offered in Eugene Volokh’s Washington Post editorial.

Volokh starts by acknowledging the many legal scholars who have concluded that since U.S. campaign finance law prohibits non-U.S. citizens from offering ‘anything of value’ to a U.S. political campaign, the law would also consider the Trump campaign’s expressed interest in obtaining Clinton’s deleted emails from a foreign actor to be prohibited. “Campaign staff are barred from soliciting any ‘thing of value’ from such foreigners. And, the argument goes, valuable political information about an opponent’s misdeeds is a ‘thing of value,’” writes Volokh, who cites legal analyses by election law scholar Rick Hasen (UC-Irvine School of Law) and by Common Cause.

But Volokh believes this interpretation of what constitutes a ‘thing of value’ would make “opposition research on much possible foreign misconduct virtually impossible.” In his view, such a broad interpretation of ‘a thing of value’ would be deemed unconstitutional if brought before a court.

Volokh offers this hypothetical situation:

Say, hypothetically, that a Turkish advocacy nonprofit thinks something bad is happening at Trump Towers Istanbul. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t just send an e-mail saying “hey, we’re upset, and we think there’s something bad afoot.” Instead, it actually tries to gather enough information to prove what it suspects. It then mentions to the Clinton campaign that it has such “compiled information.” It seems to me that the Clinton campaign would have a First Amendment right to express a willingness to get this information; if the law bans such speech, then it is unconstitutionally overbroad.

The U.S. Constitution trumps what campaign finance law might say.

According to Volokh, “Those (campaign finance) rules ban contributions of ‘things of value’ by all foreign citizens (except those who are also U.S. citizens or permanent residents), and the argument is that politically useful information about a candidate’s opponent is in general a thing of value. If that is the right way to construe the statute banning foreign contributions, then the statute…is therefore ‘substantially overbroad’ and thus facially unconstitutional (at least as to such information), regardless of whether a narrower statute could ban the particular kind of speech involved here. But if we avoid the overbreadth by construing ‘things of value’ as not including information (or as not including one-off information that isn’t in the form of a standard commercially distributed product, such as poll results or prospective contributor lists), then Donald Trump Jr.’s expression of willingness to accept such information from foreigners (including ones linked to foreign governments) wouldn’t be covered by the statute.”

In Volokh’s interpretation, by extension, it would also be legal for Donald Trump Sr. to approve or have knowledge of such a meeting.

Admittedly, Volokh cautions that his interpretation of the law would still not allow Don Jr. or Jared to ask for ‘dirt’ on Clinton from the Russians if they knew the ‘dirt’ was a compiled product procured through illegal means. And the law most definitely does not allow the Trump campaign to aid or abet any illegal hacking of an opponent’s emails. However, assuming that is not the case, Volokh asserts that prohibiting an expressed interest in obtaining ‘dirt’ on Clinton is most likely unconstitutional.

Still, legal scholar Rick Hasen responded in Slate to Volokh’s analysis of the law with this vigorous rebuttal:

Should it ever come down to a prosecution of Donald Trump Jr., I think courts would — and should — reject [the First Amendment overbreadth] arguments. One way to do so would be to read the statute more narrowly to proscribe actions like Trump Jr.’s: campaigns taking compiled information for free that they would have paid significant value to receive from a foreign source — or at least a foreign government.

But Volokh remains unmoved by Hasen’s focus on the exchange (or lack thereof) of money for the information. “If someone emails me offering some evidence about someone’s supposed misbehavior, I’ll be open to it, though of course I’ll be skeptical until I can confirm it; but if someone offers to sell it to me, I would think that this would actually produce more possible ethical problems,” says Volokh. “A right to gather evidence should include the right to simply ask for it, without having to offer payment.”

Hasen responds by noting that U.S. laws barring foreign interference in U.S. elections are designed to protect the American democracy. “To let someone off the hook who solicited ‘very high level and sensitive information’ from a hostile government because there may be cases in which information from a foreign source does not raise the same danger to our national security and right of self-government is to turn the First Amendment into a tool to kill American democracy,” writes Hasen. “As a matter of protecting American democracy, the (Volokh) argument is pernicious and threatens the very core of what it means for ‘we the people’ to decide who governs us.”

Hasen’s criticism is compelling. It is dangerous to put foreign actors in a position where they know they can legitimately offer compiled information that might alter the outcome of an American election. The incentive is just too large for countries with advanced cyberespionage capabilities— such as Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and Israel — to snoop and poop on U.S. computer servers.

But Volokh offers another hypothetical in response to Hasen’s ‘barring foreign interference’ argument:

If the Hillary Clinton campaign had reason to think that, say, the British government had ‘very high level and sensitive information’ showing serious misbehavior by Trump, I think it would have had every right to get that information and see if it should be put before the American people as evidence that Trump shouldn’t be elected. Limiting candidates’ ability to expose their opponents’ misbehavior would violate the First Amendment, and no interest in ‘barring foreign interference’ could justify such a restriction. Indeed, denying candidates this right to get such information and convey it to voters would itself interfere with ‘the right of the American people themselves to decide who our elected officials and representatives are.’

While the Hasen interpretation is probably the consensus right now, in my opinion, it takes the U.S. down a dangerous path that threatens constitutionally protected speech— perhaps even more dangerous than having foreign governments thinking they can influence U.S. elections by hacking our emails and planting unattributed memes on Facebook and Twitter.

An educated populace is the best protection against foreign propaganda (and domestic propaganda for that matter). Legal restrictions on what types of information are acceptable for campaigns to pursue or the means by which that information is obtained is potentially far more pernicious than anything foreign-sourced Facebook memes or illegally obtained campaign emails can do to disrupt our elections.

I can only hope one of the outcomes of the Trump-Russia investigation is that the courts take up the question of Protected Speech versus Protecting the Integrity of U.S. Elections. If important and relevant information on U.S. candidates exists in the hands of foreign actors, limiting candidates’ access to it (and thereby voters’ access to it) does not sound like an approach that maintains the integrity of U.S. elections. In fact, it does the opposite.

-K.R.K.

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Russiaphobia just wiped out $120 billion in wealth; luckily the Trump economy added an additional $300 billion

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By Kent R. Kroeger (July 30, 2018)

Combined, the roughly 20 percent drop in Facebook and Twitter stock prices on Friday wiped out about $120 billion in shareholder value.

Coincidently, on the same day Facebook and Twitter shareholders took a giant hit to their net worth, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis announced the U.S economy (as measured by GDP) grew 4.1 percent last quarter.

“The Republicans giveth and the Democrats taketh away,” piped a radio host on an afternoon talk show here in Philadelphia.

To give the Republicans total credit for the current strength of the U.S. economy may be an over-simplification of how the economy works, but there may be some merit to the claim.

But to imply the Democrats are responsible for Facebook and Twitter losing between 15 and 20 percent of their stock value? That assertion strains even my credulity.

Still, let us give both assertions a spin.

Is the Trump administration responsible for current economic growth?

To the extent any president can alter the direction of the economy in the short-term, Trump has probably done as much as any past president during peacetime.

The Trump tax cut (which largely went to corporations and the wealthiest Americans). A surge in defense spending. A rollback in some environmental regulations, and on-going attempts to repeal others.

All potentially impactful on the economy.

But when the recent quarter’s GDP surge of 4.1 percent is viewed relative to the past 70 years (Figure 1), it is hardly outstanding. It’s good, but not unprecedented.

Figure 1.

Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve

 

Nonetheless, recent economic growth has been stronger than the Obama administration’s average growth rate, and it is reasonable to suggest Trump has had a marginal impact on the economy.

Let’s quantify it.

In my back-of-the-envelope analysis (shown in the Figure 2), the Trump administration can arguably take credit for over $300 billion in above average U.S. economic growth this past quarter. If you compare Trump’s average quarterly GDP growth to Obama’s in Figure 2, it is apparent that economic growth has picked up since Trump took office (2.9% versus 2.1%, respectively).

Figure 2.

 

Since Obama inherited an economy in far worse shape than did Trump, the better comparison might be Obama’s average quarterly GDP growth in his last four years in office (2.3%) to Trump’s between 2017 Q2 to 2018 Q1 (2.6%). If you believe Obama deserves credit for the strong economy during Trump’s first year in office, economic growth in 2018 Q2 still outpaces average economic growth during the other quarters in Trump’s term (4.1% versus 2.6%, respectively).

As to why we’ve seen higher growth recently, the general consensus among economists points to greater business optimism, particularly among smaller businesses, along with the relaxation of the federal regulatory environment, and a surge in stock and housing prices. Surprisingly, among even conservative economists and financiers the Trump tax cut gets little credit for current economic growth. In fact, the fear among some economists is that the tax cuts add so much to the budget deficit that the Fed could be forced to move interest rates higher which would, in the long-term, overwhelm whatever positive impact the Trump tax cuts in the short-term.

The additional national debt Trump is accumulating through his combined policies of tax cuts (primarily targeting the wealthy) and increased defense budgets could result in a significant budget crisis in the next four years.

However, as of today, the Trump economy is strong and not likely to recede into a recession in the next twelve months. Though, by historical standards (see Figure 1), U.S. economic growth under Trump is not as robust as it was under Eisenhower, JFK/LBJ, Reagan or Clinton.

Nonetheless, it would be dishonest to suggest the U.S. economy is anything but strong and positioned to stay that way for at least another year. And Trump deserves some credit.

Now, are the Democrats guilty of talking down the stock values of Facebook and Twitter?

That’s a bold statement and most likely impossible to prove.

The Facebook and Twitter stock price drops were inevitable, but did the Democrats make it worse?

Yet, why did the stock prices for Facebook and Twitter drop as much as they did in the midst of such economic prosperity? Analysts blame disappointing user and earnings growth brought on, in the case of Facebook, by the shrinking number of people available for future growth.

According to media writer Max Read, Facebook’s 241 million monthly active users represent “about 87 percent of Americans and Canadians who have the ability to use Facebook” and do.

Despite announcing their third consecutive profitable quarter, Twitter also reported 335 million monthly active users during the latest quarter, down from 336 million during the first quarter of 2018. Down just 1 million monthly active users, yet their stock price sheds more than 14 percent — evidence that investors care more about user numbers than advertising revenues when analyzing social media companies.

Investors have legitimate concerns about how Facebook and Twitter measure their monthly user numbers. Some analysts have argued that social media companies have been exaggerating their user numbers from the beginning and have kicked this problem down the road for far too long. Tech writer Kerry Flynn recently summed up the evidence beautifully in an article located here. And last October Twitter pretty much admitted they have been fudging their audience numbers.

To their credit, Facebook and Twitter have been cleaning up their user base measurement act, particularly following the negative coverage of their role in Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.

Which is why the stock price declines on Friday seemed like an over-reaction to what was a small decline in Twitter’s user base and a smaller-than-expected increase in Facebook’s user base.

No, the stock price drops on Friday reflected something else and I don’t think its a mystery what that ‘something else’ might be.

The social media stock price drops on Friday were the malignant side effect of the on-going Russiaphobia epidemic being promoted by the Democratic Party and their confederates in the news media.

Whatever harm the Russians did to the American electoral system in 2016 (and they clearly did something), it is nothing compared to the damage being done to Facebook and Twitter as they try to modify their services to address narrow partisan concerns over such things as ‘fake news’ and community content standards.

Twitter and Facebook both said their recent efforts to address Russia’s interference in the 2016 election contributed to their disappointing user numbers.

Twitter, for example, said in a press release last week that its deletion of “malicious automation, spam and fake accounts,” in addition to addressing Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation was the cause of the 1 million user drop off last quarter. Facebook, likewise, has ratcheted up their efforts to shed fake accounts and suspend users that violate their service’s community standards and rules. All could things to do, and something the social media companies should have addressed from their inception.

Some of what Facebook and Twitter is doing to improve their services is a good thing (verifying identities, making it harder to create multiple accounts, limiting automated bots, improving user base metrics). Unfortunately, the hysteria around the Trump-Russia investigation is introducing some really bad ideas into social media communities.

The best example is Twitter’s healthy conversation program and subsequent shadow banning algorithms could potentially destroy Twitter’s inherent purpose by turning into a ‘safe space’ for the Resistance and other like-minded folks.

“We’re tackling issues of behaviors that distort and detract from the public conversation in those areas by integrating new behavioral signals into how Tweets are presented,” writes Twitter’s VP for Trust and Safety Del Harvey. “By using new tools to address this conduct from a behavioral perspective, we’re able to improve the health of the conversation, and everyone’s experience on Twitter, without waiting for people who use Twitter to report potential issues to us.”

The early result of Twitter’s healthy conversation program appears to be biased towards crowding out conservative voices on Twitter (good explanations of this possible problem can be found here and here).

And, according to Gab.ai CEO Andrew Torba, Democratic activists may already be gaming Twitter’s new healthy conversation algorithm by propagating ‘block lists’ to fellow activists which leads to a disproportionate percentage of account suspensions being issued for conservative voices on Twitter.

Here is a graphic Torba distributes explaining how Twitter might be laundering its political bias:

Source: Andrew Torba (Gab.ai)

 

If this claim about Twitter’s growing political bias is accurate, and I still have some doubt, it will result in the end of what made Twitter great in the first place. And Facebook may be following Twitter down this same rat hole.

Russiaphobia has induced a partisan element into the dialogue between social media companies, the news media, and the political class that may well drag Facebook and Twitter down a path from which their stock prices may never recover.

And, yes, we can blame the Democrats for this outcome, if it happens.

-K.R.K.

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Facebook and Twitter may be evolving into ‘Democrats Only’ communities

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By Kent R. Kroeger (July 30, 2018)

Facebook and Twitter stock prices shed around $120 billion on Friday, largely due to slower-than-expected user growth.

Both social media companies are blaming programs they’ve implemented to address automated bots and fake accounts, problems exposed during the current Trump-Russia collusion investigation.

According to a Pew Research Center study, two-thirds of tweeted links to the web’s most popular sites are generated by automated bots (i.e, not human beings). These Twitter bots are largely built by private corporations and political organizations.

“The (Pew) bot study is a reminder that a large portion of what happens on Twitter is simply machines talking to machines,” says business and technology writer Chris O’Brien.

In addressing congressional concerns about how many people may have been exposed to Russian social media propaganda in 2016, the Trump-Russia investigation has laid bare the inaccurate audience metrics used by Facebook and Twitter. That is a good thing.

In October 2017, Twitter announced it had included users of third-party applications as part of their user base. According to a Twitter management letter to its shareholders, since the fourth quarter of 2014, this method over-counted Twitter users by “an average of 1 million to 2 million users per quarter.” Facebook has faced similar criticism.

Internet audience measurement services such as QuantcastVerto Analytics, and Nielsen have reported the methodological flaws in social media audience numbers for years but were too fragmented and unstandardized to shift investor sentiments. Hopefully, that has now changed.

Facebook and Twitter shareholders may not agree now, but in the long-run this stock price drop was a necessary correction as it will force all social media networks to tighten up their audience metrics so they better reflect the actual number of human beings using their social network services.

But here is the problem now emerging with the social media communities:

The mainstream media’s bullying surrounding Russiaphobia has opened the door for Facebook and Twitter to discriminate against people based on their attitudes, preferences and opinions. In trying to placate frenzied media critics, Facebook and Twitter have since last year started to block or delete, not just Russia-sourced accounts, but also “far-right” accounts that arguably promulgate “fake news” and “hate speech.” The problem is, the humans at Facebook and Twitter have built deeply-flawed algorithms that force machines to decide what user accounts to suspend or delete.

At one point Facebook’s ‘hate speech’-identifying algorithm determined that the posting of the Declaration of Independent by a Texas newspaper, the Liberty County Vindicator, qualified as ‘hate speech’ and therefore was tagged for deletion. Only after notifying the Vindicator of its offense did Facebook realize it had made a mistake.

And what was is the ‘hate speech’ found in the Declaration of Independence?

In articulating the colonist case for breaking from the rule of the British King, the Founding Fathers wrote:

He has excited domestic Insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the Inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions.

While Facebook can be commended for admitting the absurdity of their targeting algorithms, their admission has only amplified the exposure of other cases where legitimate Facebook or Twitter users are being blocked or suspended. Twitter was reportedly suspending one million Twitter users a dayduring one of its more recent purges.

And who exactly is being suspended? It is hard to tell since the social media companies don’t share their proprietary algorithms with the public. However, there is anecdotal information emerging that suggests social and political conservatives are disproportionately being affected. Am I sure of this? No. But it increasingly sounding plausible.

Here is just one example of shadow banning that I find particularly unsettling:

There is a website — shadowban.eu — that allows Twitter users to determine if their Twitter account has been ‘shadow-banned,’ which is the act of blocking a user or their content from an online community such that it will not be readily apparent to the user that they have been banned. ‘Shadow-banning’ is part of what Twitter calls its healthy conversation project (I can only imagine what the kids at Twitter have dreamed up as constituting unhealthy speech.)

One interesting shadow banning case has been brought to my attention by Andrew Torba, the co-founder of Gab, an advertising-free social network dedicated to preserving freedom of speech and the free flow of information on the internet.

As more and more Republican activists and politicians were reporting that they were being shadow banned on Twitter, Torba decided to enter the congressional candidates in his district into shadowban.eu service. First, he entered California Rep. Ted Lieu’s Twitter account into the shadowban.eu service and this was returned:

Figure 1.

The ‘shadow ban’ indicator is labelled: No QFD Ban. The QFD stands for ‘Quality Filter Discrimination.’ Figure 1 is telling us Rep. Lieu has full service rights on Twitter. Now let us check is Republican opponent, Kenneth Wright (@drwright4congr1):

Figure 2.

Dr. Wright is shadow-banned on Twitter. Why?, you ask. After a few phone calls, a Google search and a background check on Mr. Wright, I found no obvious reason for why Mr. Wright is shadow banned.

The National Review’s Jack Crowe has identified other Republicans and conservatives that have been shadow banned, including Donald Trump Jr.’s spokesman Andrew Surabian (@Surabees).

Twitter has been quick to end the ‘shadow ban’ on prominent Republicans that have not passed the ‘healthy conversation’ filter. Still, the fact that this could even occur in the first place is chilling.

Torba is not holding back on what he thinks is going on.

“Twitter is actively interfering in the U.S. midterm elections,” he says.

And how is Twitter doing this?

According to Torba, “Twitter creates these algorithms to hide the tweets of users who are blocked by many other users, among other signals. Prominent left-wing activists then share block lists that they add anyone who follows too many of the wrong people.”

By widely distributing and sharing the block lists with other Democratic activists, says Torba, these activists effectively flood Twitter’s shadow banning algorithm with hundred of thousands of Republican and conservative Twitter users who are then shadow banned.

To be fair, Twitter is already addressing this problem. Nonetheless, it demonstrates the opportunity for the social media services (not just Twitter) to discriminate against people they decide engage in ‘unhealthy’ conversations.

Given the political donation patterns of Silicon Valley executives, I would not be surprised if their definition of ‘unhealthy’ speech discriminates against Republicans and conservatives.

Are conservatives just being snowflakes?

Perhaps. But with Republican Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz’ threat to file a Federal Election Commission complaint against Twitter over the shadow banning, it is unlikely Twitter will dismiss this issue as mere Trumpian paranoia.

Regardless of how well Twitter addresses the possible discriminatory effects of its shadow banning algorithm, Twitter and Facebook users across all political inclinations need to be vigilant in holding social media companies accountable for any discriminatory business practices.

This is not a freedom of speech issue, per se, but if Facebook and Twitter want to continue as valued online communities, allowing political bias to influence who can and can’t participate in these communities is unacceptable.

Is it unhinged hyperbole to suggest Facebook and Twitter, in the current political environment, might morph into safe-havens for liberals and Democrats only?

I don’t think so. In fact, Facebook and Twitter are already going down that path. And if they continue, don’t be surprised if their stock prices take more big hits down the road.

-K.R.K.

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Charisma: Some politicians have it, but how do we know?

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By Kent R. Kroeger (July 23, 2018)

Last year, I was excited to read that a team of University of Toronto psychologists had come up with a quantifiable and validated measure of ‘charisma’ — an elusive construct that has never been well-defined or measured in a consistent way by academics and writers.

Charisma is one of those, “I know it when I see it” type of phenomenon. Yet, collectively, people can generally create a common list of those who possess this trait in greater quantities than the average person. Politics, in particular, has a rich history of charismatic leaders: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Ronald Reagan, Jesse Jackson, etc.

So, last fall, when Konstantin O. Tskhay, R. Zhu, C. Zou, and Nicholas Rule published their research on charisma, Charisma in Everyday Life: Conceptualization and Validation of the General Charisma Inventory, I was hopeful.

These researchers created the General Charisma Inventory (GCI), a six-item, self-reported inventory of questions used to measure someone’s level of charisma. Using a combination of exploratory and confirmatory factor analytic techniques to construct this six-item measure of charisma, they empirically tested their operationalization of the charisma construct and found it to be observable, consistent with public conceptions, and predictive of real-world outcomes (i.e., persuasion).

To measure charisma, they ask respondents to rate their agreement on a five-point scale from 1 Strongly Disagree to 5 Strongly Agree, whether “I am someone who…”:

  • Has a presence in a room
  • Has the ability to influence people
  • Knows how to lead a group
  • Makes people feel comfortable
  • Smiles at people often
  • Can get along with anyone

The first three questions measure a person’s “persuasiveness” and the last three measure their “affability” (i.e., likability).

Unfortunately, my enthusiasm for the GCI waned quickly as it became apparent the researchers had come dangerously close to confounding the measurement of the GCI (an independent variable) with the outcome they were trying to explain (persuasion). This is a problem far too common and hard to avoid in psychometric research.

In Toronto researchers’ derivation of the GCI, two factors largely defined its measurement: a person’s (1) persuasiveness and (2) likability. In other words, if someone is persuasive and likable (i.e., charismatic) they are able to persuade others.

That is the definition of a circular argument and it offers very little empirical value since the GCI correlates strongly with persuasion outcomes by definition, not by construct validity.

Konstantin, et al. are correct about one thing: the empirical literature on charisma is sparse and only loosely connected. Two exceptionally interesting examples are:

Fond, Ducasse, Attal, Larue, Macgregor, Brittner, and Capdevielle, Charisma and leadership: new challenges for psychiatry, Encephale. 2013 Dec;39(6):445–51.
Vergauwe, Wille, Hofmans, Kaiser, de Fruyt, The Double-Edged Sword of Leader Charisma: Understanding the Curvilinear Relationship Between Charismatic Personality and Leader Effectiveness, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2018, Vol. 114, No. 1, 110–130.

The Vergauwe, et al. research is especially interesting in that it attempts to answer the question: Can someone be too charismatic and therefore less effective at persuasion? According to these researchers, the answer is an emphatic ‘yes’.

Some leaders, when facing high pressure situations, are better than others at adjusting to the situation and remaining “self-composed” ( see research by Hogan, R., & Hogan, J. (2007). Hogan Personality Inventory manual. Tulsa, OK: Hogan Press).

Building on Hogan and Hogan (2007), Vergauwe, et al., found that charismatic leaders who are good at such adjustments are also more effective at persuasion. Figure 3 (below), reprinted from their research article, shows the two distinct effectiveness curves for leaders with ‘low’ and ‘high’ levels of adjustment (self-regulation).

SOURCE: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

What is charisma?

The Merriam-Webster definition of charisma goes like this: a personal magic of leadership arousing special popular loyalty or enthusiasm for a public figure (such as a political leader).

‘A personal magic’? A brave attempt, I suppose, but inadequate for theory-building and empirical validation. If the prior research on charisma tells us anything is that it is a multi-faceted concept where, in practice, some charismatic individuals may be high some of these factors but low on others.

Randall Collins, Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, argues there are four kinds of charisma — on-stage charisma, backstage charisma, success-magic, and reputational charisma — and the “more kinds you have, the more charismatic you are.” He treats charisma as a quantity of something good, like money or number of close friends.

German sociologist Max Weber defined charisma as “a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.”

Furthermore, Weber saw charismatic leadership as unstable and unsustainable over long periods of time.To him, the loyalty charisma inspires among people is less durable compared to other types of political loyalty such as tradition-based and legal-rational-based.

In her study of charismatic leadership among Muslim clerics in contemporary Indonesian, Texas A&M Assistant Professor Jennifer Epley saw the weakness in Weber’s view of charisma when she wrote, “Weber’s overall theory of charismatic leadership needs to be expanded to include details about how to precisely identify charismatic leaders and make distinctions between leaders. In addition, we need an improved account of the individual or historical conditions and cultural attitudes that give rise to and influence charismatic leadership.”

For charisma to have any empirical value, ‘knowing-it-when-you-see-it’ is not enough, we need to know what qualities and attributes describing individuals make them charismatic, and does this charisma vary, not only across individuals, but over-time and over different contexts within the same individual.

One must also make a distinction between charismatic leaders and demagogues. It is a fuzzy line as demagogues are going to have many of the same characteristics as charismatic leaders, but have one important distinction — demagogues exploit existing prejudices of the time to form a political movement. Charismatic leaders, on the other hand, may also exploit existing sentiments within a population, but also create new supporters through persuasion techniques.

I may have created the same circular definition I criticized the previous research for doing — using persuasion to both define and validate the charisma construct — but I offer this difference: I define someone as charismatic if, among other attributes such as attractiveness and affability, they also engage in the systematic use of proven persuasion techniques. This definition emphasizes that a charismatic leader can employ proven persuasion techniques without necessarily being successful at persuasion [Think Barack Obama]. The relationship between charisma and persuasion is now a probabilistic one and can be empirically tested.

Political consultants are looking for the next John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan

Even if we develop a suitable definition for charisma, is there any evidence it will be useful in predicting important leadership outcomes, such as elections?The evidence in fact remains sparse in support of its impact on election outcomes. For every charismatic politician like JFK, there is a Richard Nixon, Michael Dukakis or Charlie Crist. And, no, anti-charisma is not a form of charisma.

One empirical study of charisma and election outcomes was conducted by The University of Amsterdam’s Wouter van der Brug and The Ohio State University’s Anthony Mughan in 2007. Their investigation of three Dutch elections found that “there is in fact little support for (Weber’s) charismatic leadership hypothesis, at least in the context of leaders shaping electoral outcomes.”

“While recognizing that charisma may manifest itself in other, perhaps indirect, ways, there would seem to us at the very least to be a need for the notion of charisma to be conceptualized more rigorously if it is to continue to be used as an explanation of right-wing populist party success,” concluded van der Brug and Mughan.

Using formal theory, a recent study by Mexican political scientist Gilles Serra concluded that charisma encourages candidates with less experience and more extreme policy stances. And the empirical evidence supports the conclusion. “The sudden success of charismatic outsiders with state-intervention policies demonstrated, in the eyes of several academics, that old-school left populism has made a comeback,” Serra writes, “In spite of serious discredit of fascism after the Second World War, Western Europe has witnessed a rise of right-wing populism since the 1990s.”

The same argument has been made to explain the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

Regardless of the existing research, ‘charisma’ remains too some consultants the holy grail of candidate X-factors that can determine who wins an election. Or so the myth goes.

So why do so many political consultants believe charisma matters? Because with every election cycle we witness a new candidate, like Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Barack Obama in 2004, coming out of nowhere to capture the imagination of voters and the East Coast media.

And what exactly are they seeing in politicians like Ocasio-Cortez and Obama? Good-looks? Effective speaking style? Simple language? Sophisticated language?

The Five Communication Techniques Common to Charismatic Politicians

For some subjects, the popular literature sometimes offers more valuable insights than the academic literature. The study of charisma may be one of those examples. Charisma, the research construct, is elusive. Charisma, the real-life tool to gain friends and win elections, is far more interesting.

One source I’ve used frequently for finding video examples of effective leadership techniques is YouTube vlogger Charlie Houpert. A musician by training, he offers a series of watchable educational and training videos on charisma, including how it can be taught, and examples through history on its effective use in persuading others (see his video on the ‘Five Steps required for Charismatic Leadership; here: Charisma On Command).

My biggest disagreement with Houpert is his frequent use of Barack Obama as an archetype of charismatic leadership. While I don’t dispute Obama’s considerable charismatic skills, particularly given the substantive hurdles he faced in 2008, the tallest being the need to convince a large number of white Democrats that a African-American could be elected president, I do argue that Obama’s charismatic skills were insufficient once he was elected president.

Therefore, I will borrow Houpert’s 5-step schema for describing charismatic leadership, but offer more appropriate examples of their real-life implementation.

The Five-Steps Used by Charismatic Leaders:

Step 1: Explain the problem, simply. Portray the status quo as something negative that needs to be changed through a specific series of actions. Bill Clinton was a master at explaining a current problem in an easily accessible manner that his audience would understand. The following video from a 1992 presidential debate between Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush represents a masterful use of this first charismatic leadership step.

 

I didn’t experience John F. Kennedy’s nor FDR’s presidencies directly, but for my money, Bill Clinton is the most charismatic politician I’ve ever witnessed and his greatest skill was describing problems in ways voters understood.

Step 2: Preemptively address critiques. Handle criticisms of these proposed actions before they are raised by others. The risk with step is that a politician doesn’t want to put too much emphasis on the criticisms, as that could backfire. But handling counter-arguments sooner rather than later is a communication technique employed by the best politicians of our time, particularly those confident in their own ideas.

As a video example, I will use the same one offered by Houpert in his video blog on charismatic leadership. In the video below, Obama is reacting to a mass shooting in Oregon and prepares to outline, generally, a plan to address gun violence in America. In doing so, he first outlines the common arguments against gun control. And when done well it is not simply a ‘straw man’ set up but rather a means to acknowledge the valid opinions of gun control opponents.

 

Though not often called charismatic, one of Hillary Clinton’s best rhetorical techniques is to give both sides of an argument as a part of a process to reveal her own policy stance. Often this communication technique was derided by political pundits as it made her seem ‘wishy-washy’ and noncommittal on important issues; but, in many cases she was genuinely trying to capture the complexity of an issue — ala Bill Clinton.

Step 3: Give people ownership of your argument. 

Since resisting change is human nature, a charismatic leader will portray solutions as being consistent with a person’s current identity. For example, to convince pro-guns rights Americans to support stronger gun laws, you don’t need to convince them to become pacifists. Instead, let them know that who they are now is consistent with supporting stronger gun laws.

It is called coalition building and charismatics are better at it than the average person. It is in sharp contrast to identity politics which typically divides voters into mutually exclusive groups (‘Us’ versus ‘Them’). Dividing voters is what demagogues do, not charismatics.

And no politician excelled more than Jesse Jackson at using the language of coalition building to address potential voters. There is a reason he called it the Rainbow Coalition, though the expectation in the mainstream media at the time of his 1984 presidential candidacy was that he would be divisive (‘a demagogue’) that would ultimately hurt the Democrats in the general election.

Mondale did get crushed in Reagan’s historic 1984 landslide, but not because of Jesse Jackson, whose candidacy directly paved the way for Obama’s victory in 2008.

The following video is from a Jackson speech in Madison, Wisconsin in 2011 on the 43rd anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination midst a growing movement within the state opposing the policies of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Though his energy level was not what is was during his 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns, his inclusive tone had not changed. In this speech, Jackson doesn’t just list the social groups aggrieved by Gov. Walker’s policies, as if they were mutually exclusive categories, but consciously tied them together into a broader collective — a coalition of African-Americans, Latinos, Whites, sanitation workers, peace activists, and others.

“It is (Martin Luther) King’s democracy we embrace today — a multi-racial democracy,” Jackson tells the audience. “Where Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus can sit side-by-side — that is King’s democracy. Stopping war and investing in peace — that is King’s democracy.”

His speech is simple, repetitive, and inclusive. That is how charismatic leaders talk.

I said previously that Bill Clinton was the most charismatic politician of my lifetime. I amend that statement by making Bill Clinton number 1A and Jesse Jacksonn 1B. Like no other politician, Clinton could weave statistics and facts into a causal model that was relatable and easy to understand — but Jackson understood pacing and tone better and delivered much more inspiring speeches.

Step 4: Make the future look bright. Let the people know the future will be bright if these future actions are adopted. Optimism sells, always. Make America Great Again was optimistic. I’m With Her was just puzzling. You don’t have to like Donald Trump to appreciate the direct power of his 2016 campaign message, expressed during his inaugural speech:

 

Finally,

Step 5: Make the ask. Politics is a sales-oriented business. People will not change their behavior or actions if they are not asked to do so. Charismatic leaders assertively ask voters for their vote.

This should be the simplest step, but I was amazed after viewing hundreds of campaign stump speeches between 1980 to the present, that the actual ‘ask’ was more of an afterthought tagged at the end of a long speech, when it should have been more explicit. Perhaps stump speeches are not the best venues for the ‘ask’ statement?

One recent and beautiful example an effective ‘ask’ statement is found in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ self-written TV ad during her congressional primary race in New York City’s Bronx. She doesn’t actually make the ‘ask’ until the 2:02 mark in 2:08 minute TV ad, but by the time the potential voter hears it, the message is so clear and your biggest takeaway from the ad is her name and what she wants you to do: Vote for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on June 26th. That is the only thing a lot of people will remember from the ad, but that is all they need to remember.

Ocasio-Cortez’ unexpected upset of Joe Crowley is one reason I wrote this current essay. She is far too new to politics to assert her charismatic skills are ready for the national stage. Her minor back-tracking on support for the Palestinian people is not a good sign. But she is damn good in her TV ad and her unscripted TV appearances have been solid. Also, she is good without a script, another charismatic characteristic I could have addressed in this essay.

Time will tell if Ocasio-Cortez is the next great political star. Let the following appearance on MSNBC offer some initial evidence in support of that conclusion:

 

I probably disagree with no less than 80 percent of her policy stances. But the most frequently held canard in electoral politics is the belief that policies determine vote preferences. Don’t get me wrong. Voters do have opinions on issues and they judge candidates on issues, among many other factors.

But when a true charismatic enters the political arena, you can almost throw ideology and public policy out the subway car window. People will re-align their opinions for an inspiring and transcendent candidate. I watched people do it for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

I don’t know if Ocasio-Cortez will be that kind of candidate in the far future (she is VERY young), but her debut on the national scene has been a good start. The Republicans would be foolish to dismiss her because of her progressive policy stances. Many Republicans did the same thing when Trump entered the party and look how that turned out.

With that, I will sign off by acknowledging that I have not solved the methodological problems associated with measuring charismatic leadership. But, I do believe the five-steps mentioned above capture some of its essence. The five-steps also suggest something else about charisma that is often ignored, or even dismissed: Charisma can be taught. You don’t have to be born with it.

Charisma is not good-looks. It is not merely likability. It is not just the ability to express yourself well under pressure. It is something much more multi-faceted and some current politicians have it (Nikki Haley, Ben Sasse, Kamala Harris, Tulsi Gabbard, Joe Biden), some have lost it (Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi), and some never had it (Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, John Kerry).

And it can be measured.

-K.R.K.

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The Imperial Presidency: Is this the beginning of its end? We can hope.

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By Kent R. Kroeger (July 20, 2018)

Consider this question: When was the last time the U.S. Congress declared war?

December 1941. World War II.

Every U.S. military engagement since then has occurred without a congressional declaration of war, starting with Harry S. Truman’s police action on the Korean peninsula.

On July 18, Representatives Walter Jones (R-NC) and Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) stood on the Capitol lawn announcing their new U.S. House Resolution 922 calling for Congress to reclaim its constitutional power to declare war. In their resolution, presidential wars not declared by Congress would become impeachable “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

“Ever since, Congress has failed to uphold this congressional duty and has ceded this power to president, presidents of both parties,” Gabbard said at the Capitol lawn press conference. “So our country remains in a state of perpetual war at a great cost to the American people.”

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) introducing House Resolution 922

 

From 2001 to 2016, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria have cost this country around $3.6 trillion, according to Brown University researchers.

Constitutional scholar Bruce Fein, who drafted the Jones-Gabbard resolution, offers a more sociopolitical argument in support of House Resolution 922: “War gives birth to a surveillance state and the crippling of privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment under a national-security banner. War replaces transparency with secrecy inconsistent with government by the consent of the governed and congressional oversight of the executive. War destroys the Constitution’s separation of powers — a structural Bill of Rights — by entrusting limitless power to the president.”

In the Jones-Gabbard resolution’s favor is the Constitution itself. The War Powers Clause (Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the U.S. Constitution) is crystal clear on what branch of government has the explicit right to declare war: The Congress shall have power…To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.

However, our U.S. Congress is populated by mostly risk-averse politicians unprepared to take ownership of our nation’s many and usually counter-productive wars. In 1950, a war-weary Congress was more than willing to relinquish its War Powers to President Truman at the onset of the Korean War.

Since Truman, wars have been justified under the rubrics of national security and the fulfillment of treaty obligations, policy domains where the executive branch has firm constitutional standing. While Congress always has the power of the purse at its disposal, few in Congress are willing to cut funding for on-going military operations for fear they’d be accused of ‘cutting our military off at the knees.’ Re-election obsessed politicians aren’t going to take that chance. Not now. Not ever.

The constitutional power for making war may reside with Congress, but the political power to do so is decidedly in favor of the president — at least since Truman’s Korean War. Which is why the Jones-Gabbard resolution is so important, even if it is a symbolic gesture unlikely to ever pass out of the House Armed Services committee, much less become law. Their resolution is an opening salvo from Congress in the direction of the Trump administration (and for all administrations hereafter).

Presidential power must be tempered so it will again be in relative alignment with the other branches of government.

At a time when the ethic of bipartisanship feels more appropriate for a drippy, contrived message in a Disney movie than a political discussion, the Jones-Gabbard House bill represents what may be a growing congressional movement— finding material ways to limit the power of a presidency currently in the hands of a man the Washington establishment and half of the American public considers a palpable threat to our national interests and security.

Donald Trump is not a Russian intelligence asset. That belief is the product of a modern, virulent form of McCarthyism whose proponents will soon face their own day of reckoning.

But the reality of Trump is far worse…he’s incompetent and dangerously impulsive. And, if Steven Spielberg’s Abraham Lincoln is correct, Trump is nonetheless “clothed in immense power.”

 

Thank God, a long overdue conversation is starting in this country about the risks of what historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called The Imperial Presidency, a term he penned during the Richard Nixon administration, but meant to be applicable to the executive branch since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

In critiquing Schlesinger’s book The Imperial Presidency for The New York Times in 1973, writer Garry Wills offered this critique on presidential power: “The celebrants of Presidential power — Sorensen, Neustadt, Burns — have busily if rather quietly gone to work on their palinodes. Naturally, they try to save as much of the prior fabric as they can, amending here, canceling there and subtly restating throughout. Since they all agree that the last good Powerful President was Mr. Kennedy, and that the main count against his successors is Vietnam, the obvious course is to claim that Presidential power remains a blessing — all but the war-making power, which must be cut back.”

all but the war-making powerwhich must be cut back.

We’ve known of this problem since at least 1973, yet, the office has only grown more powerful.

The power to make war is peerless among governmental functions. Even Congress’ nebulous power to tax and spend is politically and functionally subordinate to the power of invading a hostile country and changing its alliances and form of government. As a country, we have been comfortable with these War Powers being in the possession of either men who posed no challenge to the existing military-security establishment (LBJ, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Obama) or were groomed within it (Eisenhower, JFK, Carter, George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush).

But no prior president comes into office as maladjusted to the office’s demands and expectations as Donald J. Trump. And, yet, his access to its War Powers are only abbreviated by the knowledge and creativity of his national security team. Even the slightest provocation by Iran tomorrow would be enough justification for Trump to start a hot war and there is very little Congress or the American people could do to stop it.

How is this possible?

If you seek to blame someone for the damage Donald Trump is capable of doing to this country (and the world), start the blame game at the feet of FDR. The executive branch grew exponentially under FDR as it addressed two existential crises: a crushing economic depression and an impending World War. Congress simply wasn’t nimble enough to address these problems, particularly with respect to the War.

Fast forward to the present, Trump is the direct benefactor of FDR’s extraordinary political tools, as was every president between Truman and Obama.

Now that we arguably have a rogue president — a fact I don’t completely accept but understand why some do believe this — what do we do now?

Impeaching Trump is not a solution. That is a extempore salve to a bigger institutional problem — an executive branch that has grown too powerful relative to the other branches of government.

There is only one long-term solution to this problem: Reduce the power of the presidency and reassert the already existing constitutional powers of the legislative branch.

“It’s time we found a way to work around this presidency,” suggested former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, while appearing recently on CNN’s The Axe Files with David Axelrod.

Barack Obama’s former senior adviser immediately laughed at Landrieu’s idea, and his reaction was telling. Axelrod, a political operative of a rank matched in recent times by only Karl Rove and James Carville, is part of the problem Jones and Gabbard are trying to dismantle and his dismissive attitude towards Landrieu revealed his unbowed allegiance to presidential power. And why not? It’s made him rich and a lifetime member of the Washington establishment.

However, Axelrod’s political project to make a junior U.S. Senator from Illinois the most powerful man in the world was both a stunning political success (if simply winning the presidency is the measure) and a debatable failure (if tangible, durable results are the measures).

Yes, Obama helped save the economy at a time when it was conceivable this country would languish in an economic depression for many years. But, even that success is tempered by the knowledge that Obama simply perpetuated and expanded economic policies developed by Wall Street banking interests and initially implemented by George W. Bush’s administration (i.e., TARP and the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing policy).

It’s not historical chance that our country is still dealing with the consequences of the Truman’s Korean conflict. Presidential-led wars never end because the political purpose they serve never ends.

When they do end, it often coincides with a change in the presidential administration. Eisenhower suspended the Korean War. Nixon/Ford eventually did the same with Vietnam. Obama effectively pulled the U.S. out of Iraq (George W. Bush’s war) only to start his own military adventures in Syria, Yemen and Libya (among others).

These executive-initiated wars rarely represent, or even need, the independent will of the people and, instead, gain their popular support through the imaginary independence of the mainstream media which often has a greater incentive than the president to push for a new, marketable American war.

The U.S. has been in a constant state of war since 9/11. Some might even argue we haven’t stopped fighting wars since V-J Day. The Jones-Gabbard resolution will not stop that fact anytime soon. Presidential power in the age of Trump is still unbowed. It will take an assertive Congress and an clear-eyed American public to turn this ship around.

The Jones-Gabbard House Resolution 922 offers hope in that regard.

-K.R.K.

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When will the U.S. Intelligence Community face the music over the 2016 election?

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By Kent R. Kroeger (July 16, 2018)

The election of Donald Trump on November 8, 2016, was the culmination of the greatest influence operation campaign in modern espionage history.

Regardless of whether Russia’s interference in the 2016 election changed the outcome (and I do believe it had an impact, though not decisive, based on my research found here), the mere fact that U.S. lawmakers continue to obsess about Russian meddling — at the expense of other major problems facing the country— is testament to the Russian influence operation’s…well, influence.

The Mueller investigation’s conspiracy indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence (GRU) personnel for hacking Democratic National Committee (DNC) and John Podesta emails only highlights the long-established ability of the Russians to do more with less. When the U.S. builds a $17 billion aircraft carrier, Russia responds with a nearly-unstoppable $3 million missile to destroy it. That’s how Russia stays in the game.

According to the Mueller indictment, using relatively inexpensive hacking tools at their disposal, the Russian’s attempted to alter the outcome of the 2016 presidential election in favor of Donald Trump. And what is startling is that the U.S. intelligence community (IC) and senior Obama officials knew generally of the Russians’ covert efforts but were still debating the scope and nature of those efforts right up until election day.

Apart from Obama directly telling Vladimir Putin in September 2016 to stop the election interference, little else was done to stop it. In fact, it appears the FBI and the other intelligence agencies were more focused on catching the Trump campaign colluding with the Russians than impeding Russian interference.

So why haven’t people in our intelligence community (IC) and executive branch been admonished for their role in failing to stop this Russian attack on our electoral system, perhaps the most vital component of the American democracy?

The U.S. did not lack the resources or capabilities to stop the Russians

The U.S. intelligence community’s (IC) budget is larger than the defense spending of every nation except the US, China, and Russia, and it has been this big for a long time. Yet, apart from tracking Russia’s cyber activities leading up to the Nov. 8th election, the IC did little to inform anyone of this meddling other than sharing intelligence with only high-ranking Obama officials — who failed to act on the information beyond opening a counter-intelligence investigation against the Trump campaign and President Obama’s private scolding of Putin. Even congressional leaders were largely in the dark up until the final month of the campaign when the Steele dossier was leaked to the press and the Clinton campaign issued instructions to their friendly media outlets to only mention the hacked emails in the context of Russian hacking.

Regardless of whether it was the decisive factor, the Russian influence operation achieved its ultimate goal: a Trump presidency. Given the $70 billion this country spends on intelligence each year, how do we explain this outcome?

Well, very easy. There are at least two reasons this happened.

First, the Obama administration let political considerations outweigh the larger national interest. By the administration’s own admission, they decided a confrontation with the Russians during an election season would likely appear partisan and benefit the Trump candidacy, and that was a risk they weren’t willing to take. As long as the administration thought Clinton would win, Russia’s threat to the integrity of our national elections was acceptable and could be cleaned up diplomatically on the election’s back-end.

Even after the hacked DNC and Podesta emails were released on the DCLeaks and Wikileaks websites, the substantive impact on the presidential race appeared minimal, according to the aggregate polling data widely available at the time. Post the party conventions, it was only after a media obsession over Clinton’s health and the Clinton Foundation in September that Trump began to appear like a viable candidate in the polling data. And that surge faded after his debate debacles.

In the graph below, derived from RealClearPolitics.com’s 2016 election forecasting model, the impact on the election by the release of the DNC emails through DCLeaks (in late June) and Wikileaks (in mid-July) is confounded by other events, particularly the party conventions. While it is tempting to blame the DCLeaks and Wikileaks email releases for Hillary Clinton’s 20-point drop in her probability of winning, such a conclusion ignores the likely impact of the Republican National Convention during this period.

Furthermore, the strong bounce Clinton received coming out of the Democratic National Convention in late July far surpassed the decline she experienced immediately after the DNC emails were released.

 

The next major release of hacked emails were in mid-October when Wikileaks started a timed release of the Podesta emails. Again, immediately after the Podesta emails started appearing, Clinton’s win probability went up, not down. Similar to the national convention period in July, the impact of the Podesta emails is confounded by the three candidate debates in which Clinton was generally viewed as the clear winner. Clinton’s poll numbers (and win probability) didn’t start declining until the release of the news on premium hikes for Obamacare on October 23rd and the James Comey letter about a week after that.

This visual analysis of the RealClearPolitics’ win probability data does not rule out the possible impact of the hacked DNC and Podesta emails on the final outcome. The hacked emails may have acted as a cumulative drag on Clinton’s polling numbers such that her popularity surges after the convention and the debates were not as strong as they otherwise would have been.

But the graph does support the contention that the Obama administration may not have been in a panic over the DNC and Podesta email releases given the polling data they possessed at the time.

Why screw up Clinton’s likely election victory with an aggressive, anti-Russian counter campaign that might backfire? Even a covert effort to shut down probable Russian trolls could become public and inspire a significant backlash. The Obama administration reasoned: Why take the chance? She was going to win anyway.

The second reason the IC failed to recognize the severity of the Russia cyber attack may have been its over-reliance on classified intelligence, such a signals intelligence (SIGINT) and human intelligence (HUMINT); when, in reality, the evidence of Russian interference was readily available through more mundane open source intelligence (OSINT) channels.

Journalist Dana Priest, in an excellent article for The New Yorker, spells out the OSINT problem with examples of open source researchers who had identified the Russian cyber-threat years before the 2016 U.S. election:

The Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, a NATO-affiliated organization based in Riga, Latvia. issued a public report in 2014 on Russia’s disinformation campaign against Ukraine in which it identified themes that Russia would use against the U.S. two years later. The report even detailed the specific methods Russia used in spreading the disinformation, including creating falsely-identified Facebook and Twitter accounts controlled by Russian intelligence operatives.

Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab in Edinborough, Scotland identified Russian intelligence-sourced social media accounts during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.

The cyber-threat research being done by the Atlantic Council and the Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, among many others, is in the public domain, yet, we have been told repeatedly by former Obama officials that the U.S. was caught by surprise at the scope and intensity of the Russian election interference.

According to Priest, the IC’s bias against OSINT blinded “U.S. intelligence officials to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s evidence (in 2002) that Iraq did not actually possess weapons of mass destruction. In 2010, it blinded them again to the Arab Spring revolutions brewing across the Middle East.”

In her view, the systematic devaluation of OSINT by the IC is an even graver problem at a time when Russia and China actively use social media as a major platform for their disinformation operations.

“Unless FBI agents and American intelligence officers get over this bias, they will continue asking for special powers to snoop on Internet users in ways that should not be allowed,” warns Priest.

What have we learned?

Ironically, the joint congressional inquiries into the intelligence failures surrounding 9/11 and the Iraq WMDs issued similar admonitions when they concluded U.S. intelligence failures are more likely to occur when (1) intelligence is politicized, and when (2) the IC becomes too reliant on classified intelligence sources when more cost-effective open source material would have revealed similar information. This preference for classified intelligence creates a ‘cloak-and-dagger’ atmosphere in the IC where critical information gets excessively sheltered and kept from policymakers and law enforcement officials that actually need the information.

Did the Obama administration and the IC learn anything from ‘Curveball’ and the Iraq WMD mess? Apparently, the answer is ‘no.’

Politicized intelligence kept from the people that needed it most, including the American people, is the real tragedy of the 2016 election.

What should be done?

Starting with the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. has arguably experienced 12 major intelligence failures, including Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.

The list includes: Pearl Harbor, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Tet Offensive, the Yom Kippur War, the Iranian Revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Indian nuclear bomb test, the 9/11 attacks, the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.

What do most of these intelligence failures have in common?

With the exception of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, all of these intelligence failures prompted internal inquiries into U.S. intelligence’s processes with the specific goals of understanding why these failures occurred and how they can be avoided in the future. Unfortunately, the government doesn’t always share those critiques with the American people.

In the case of the most egregious intelligence errors, such as Pearl Harbor, the 9/11 attacks and the intelligence on WMDs in Iraq, joint congressional hearings have been conducted resulting in the public release of key findings and recommendations.

But in the case of the April 1961 Bay of Pigs operation conducted at the beginning of John F. Kennedy’s administration, an investigation led by General Maxwell D. Taylor at the behest of the president was initiated on April 22nd, only three days after the end of the CIA’s failed invasion of Cuba. The classified Taylor Commission Report was issued on June 13th; however, the unclassified version was not publicly released until December 1984 — almost 24 years after the invasion.

We now know with Rachel Maddow-like certainty, the CIA really f**ked up.

But do we really need a 9/11-style inquiry to understand what really happened in 2016? Priest suggests the answer is ‘no.’

“To avoid long drawn-out investigations and the wasting of even more time, the IC should remember two of the most important lessons that emerged after 9/11: it is unwise to conceal the truth and to pretend that all is well,” writes Priest. “Instead, the director of National Intelligence, Daniel Coats, one of the few members of the Trump Cabinet whose reputation for independence is still intact, could commission educational materials, like those on StopFake’s Web site, that help the public spot online disinformation. He could disclose to Congress the weaknesses in the IC capabilities, and make the case for rearranging resources to combat this not-so-new threat.”

As worthwhile as Priests’ suggestions are, they come up short in one respect: with an intelligence failure on this scale, people and agencies must face the public. Call it a public flogging without any actual flogging. Nothing gets the creative juices flowing in an entrenched ‘deep state’ bureaucrat like seeing their reputation maligned in a public forum.

The seeming ubiquitousness of former CIA Director John Brennan and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on cable news shows since Trump’s inauguration may not be merely for patriotic reasons. From what the Mueller investigation has revealed so far with respect to Russia’s covert activities in the 2016 election, the IC was not blind to what the Russians were doing (amplifying fake news through social media; disseminating hacked emails through third-party websites such as Wikileaks, etc.) and how they were doing it (creating falsely-identified social media accounts; cyber attacks on email servers).

Yet, apart from only the most senior Obama administration officials, this information was largely kept secret.

In July 2017, while speaking at a national security forum in Aspen, Colorado, Brennan said there was no way for U.S. intelligence officials could have known the scope of Russian election meddling in 2016. “People have criticized us and the Obama Administration for not coming out more forcefully in saying it,” he offered the audience filled with defense and intelligence experts. “There was no playbook for this.”

 

Was he kidding? The U.S. wrote the playbook on cyber attacks. Brennan should know that. Certainly the man to his immediate left on the Aspen stage, James Clapper, should have known given he was the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence from 2007 to 2010 at a crucial time when the U.S. began standing up its own cyber operations command.

The U.S. invented and perfected cyber warfare’s core methods: phishing attacks, denial-of-service (DoS) attacks, malware, automated password attacks, drive-by downloads, “man-in-the-middle” attacks, and many more.

But in 2015 and 2016, Brennan and Clapper couldn’t envision the Russians stealing sensitive emails and disseminating them across the internet to the embarrassment of select U.S. political figures? Or creating fake social media accounts to spread disinformation to American voters?

So far, none of the techniques used by Russia in their election interference campaigns (which include attacks on Britain’s 2016 Brexit vote and the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, among others) are outside the U.S.’s own cyber capabilities.

And the laundering of hacked emails through friendly journalists and third-party websites like Wikileaks has a long history that could not possibly have been a ‘surprise’ to Brennan and Clapper.

The Panama Papers, the leaking of 11.5 million documents in 2015 disclosing financial and attorney–client information for more than 214,488 offshore entities, mirrors the DNC/Podesta email hacks.

Coincidentally, close associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin were personally embarrassed by the Panama Papers and Putin’s own spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said their being leaked to the public were part of a conspiracy against Russia orchestrated by the Central Intelligence Agency and hinted the Russians would reply in kind.

Yikes! Maybe Brennan and Clapper should have been reading more transcripts from Peskov media interviews in 2015?

That Brennan could say with a straight face that the Russians were using a new playbook in their 2016 election meddling is preposterous. He is either incompetent or lying. Or both.

If there ever is a full inquiry into the mistakes made by the Obama administration during the 2016 election, it is a fair bet much of the blame will lay directly at the feet of Brennan and Clapper, along with a president so intimidated by Putin that he choked when there was still time to expose the Russian meddling before the Nov. 8th election.

Don’t mistake this criticism of the Obama administration as a blanket exoneration of the amateurish deering-dos of the 2016 Trump campaign. Trump’s campaign was a whirling dervish of a mess from beginning to end. And they still won.

That fact gnaws at my attempts to explain the Trump victory. How could such an incompetent crew of New York real estate turds beat the most powerful political machine in the world?

The 2016 election notwithstanding, I continue to believe winning presidential elections requires competent people. Corey Lewandowski, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, George Papadopoulos, and Carter Page don’t fit the profile. At least Paul Manafort and Roger Stone brought with them presidential campaign experience, though in a kind of skeevey and thievey sort of way. And I will always respect Kellyanne Conway’s expertise in strategic communications and marketing. She was a competent woman air-dropped into a moronic frat boy culture and proved she is capable of directing a winning presidential campaign.

But, in my heart, I still believe the Trump campaign had outside help to pull off what they did. And I am not at all convinced it was anything the Russians did. As noted earlier, there is no evidence that the hacked DNC and Podesta emails changed many votes in the aggregate. Furthermore, the Russians spent peanuts compared to the other big players in the 2016 election. Their social media memes were amateur-looking and violated nearly every aesthetic standard in print and digital advertising.

If Russia efforts made Trump president, then it is way too easy to become president.

I am far more inclined to believe Trump’s win was determined by two other sources: (1) the billions of dollars in free media given to Donald Trump throughout the campaign by the major news outlets, and (2) Cambridge Analytica’s big data and social media operations that targeted ‘weak’ Republican and Independent party identifiers who initially were ‘soft’ Trump or Clinton supporters. Trump’s social media campaign drove Hillary Clinton’s negatives through the roof with this voter segment, even as they were distrustful of Trump as well. [Again, my own research using 2016 post-election survey data lends support to this thesis.]

The Russians, at best, augmented Cambridge Analytica’s efforts in the margins; though, as yet, no hard evidence exists to suggest Cambridge Analytica was linked to the Russians. Jared Kushner might know. Someone should ask him.

Hopefully, once the anti-Russia hysteria generated by the mainstream media’s coverage of the Mueller investigation dies down, serious journalists and intelligence analysts will ponder the far more important questions: Why was U.S. intelligence so tardy in discovering and impotent in stopping the Russian election meddling in 2016? And what can we do in the future, without compromising free speech, to avoid this happening again?

As Roger Stone might say, it soon may be John Brennan and James Clapper’s ‘time in the barrel.”

-K.R.K.

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Bias is human nature — it doesn’t mean we can’t do our jobs

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By Kent R. Kroeger (July 13, 2018)

Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz perfectly summed up FBI agent Peter Strzok’s appearance at a joint hearing before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee and House Oversight and Government Reform Committees: “It was a disaster — everybody looked terrible.”

The Washington Post editorial board went even further with their headline:

 

Between Rep. Louie Gohmert’s (R-TX) indecorous use of Strzok’s extramarital affair with fellow FBI agent Lisa Page for public shaming purposes to Rep. Steve Cohen’s (D-TN) equally inappropriate suggestion Strzok deserved a purple heart, the House hearing offered little new information about the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

All the hearing did was expose the vacuity of the partisan arguments offered in the Trump-Russia collusion investigation. Here are just two examples of the rhetorical rubbish and illogical logic coming out of Thursday’s House hearing…

Did Strzok’s personal bias affect either FBI investigation?

First, we have the Republican’s contention that Strzok’s clear bias against Donald Trump affected his work as the FBI lead in both the Hillary Clinton email and Russian election meddling investigations.

Responding to that allegation in his prepared remarks, Strzok said, “After months of investigations, there is simply no evidence of bias in my professional actions,” noting also that the Dept. of Justice’s Inspector General investigation concluded that at no point did his political and personal opinions “impact any official action.”

While that answer may not be sufficient for pundits at the Fox News Channel, from my experience working for an Inspector General in a U.S. intelligence agency, Strzok’s defense is entirely credible.

Across the dozens of investigators, auditors and inspectors I worked with on a daily basis, almost all of whom at some point expressed partisan views. It is not only human nature to have opinions, but among the highly educated and experienced professionals I worked with in the U.S. intelligence community (IC), strong partisan opinions were often expressed in our daily office conversations. And among those openly expressed opinions, included on occasion were comments about subjects of open investigations.

Being committed to the integrity of an FBI investigation and also believing Trump was not qualified to be president are not mutually exclusive states of mind. Both can exist within the same person.

But across all of the highly-opinionated investigators and inspectors I worked with in the IC, did I ever witness or hear secondhand evidence of partisan bias changing the results of an investigation?

Never. Not once.

Why? Because the procedures, rules and norms imposed upon mid-level and high-mid-level career bureaucrats in our government’s Inspector General and criminal investigation offices are too strong and too absolute to allow otherwise.

If there is a bias at the FBI, it is an institutional bias against accusing high-ranked public officials of criminal behavior. It is, ironically, a bias that will most likely work in Trump’s personal favor in Robert Mueller’s investigation.

For this reason, I find Strzok’s public testimony on his impartiality with respect to the Clinton and Russia-Trump investigations to be not only plausible, but most probable.

If Strzok wanted to end Trump’s candidacy, why not leak to the press?

Here is where I do part company with Strzok and his sympathizers, exemplified by The Washington Post editorial board in their summary of Thursday’s joint House hearings: “If the (FBI) agency had been trying to harm Mr. Trump’s campaign, agents could have released damaging information on pro-Trump Russian interference before Election Day — and they did not.”

Ironically, it is The Washington Post’s own reporting that answers the question as to why FBI agents didn’t leak knowledge of Russian meddling in favor of Trump’s candidacy. In an election where Hillary Clinton was the clear favorite to win the election right up until election night, the last thing the Obama administration wanted to do was give the Trump campaign ammunition that suggested the Democrats were conspiring to undercut his candidacy.

The leak likely would have backfired. Besides, Clinton was destined to win — why take the risk?

Through U.S. intelligence, the Obama administration knew months before the 2016 election that hackers with “ties to Russian intelligence services had been rummaging through Democratic Party computer networks, as well as some Republican systems, for more than a year.” Friday’s news that the Mueller investigation indicted 12 Russians for hacking the DNC and Podesta emails offered little new information that had not already been disclosed by Washington Post writers Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima and Adam Entous in their June 2017 story: “Obama’s secret struggle to punish Russia for Putin’s election assault.”

In June and July of 2016, DCLeaks and Wikileaks dumped 20,000 Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign emails online. By late July, the FBI “officially” opened an investigation of the Trump campaign’s contact with Russian officials.

“It is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend,” a former senior Obama administration official involved in White House deliberations on Russia told The Washington Post. “I feel like we sort of choked.”

Why isn’t there a congressional investigation into the Obama administration’s breath-taking incompetence in stopping the Russian election meddling?

Russian’s interference in the 2016 election was the world’s worst kept secret. In late August of 2016, Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid (D-NV) called out publicly Russia’s election meddling in a letter to then-FBI Director James Comey.”

Comey himself wanted to publicly announce FBI counter-measures to the Russian election interference according to Newsweek. “Two sources with knowledge about the matter told Newsweek that Obama administration officials blocked the effort,” according to a National Public Radio news report.

Again, where’s the investigation into the Obama administration?

Crimes were most likely committed by both Clinton and Trump — only one will get indicted

Based on all available public information, Strzok did his job and committed no crime. But that is the problem.

When Obama’s Department of Justice (DOJ), under Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s leadership, effectively narrowed the scope of the Clinton email investigation to whether Clinton criminally mishandled classified material, they changed the final outcome of the investigation. By excluding any substantive inquiry into the destruction of subpoenaed government records (i.e., Clinton’s 30,000+ deleted emails), the DoJ guaranteed the FBI investigation would not end in an indictment of Clinton or any of her associates.

At one point during the FBI’s 2016 interview with Clinton’s chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, an FBI investigator did in fact ask about the decision rules used to identify and exclude Clinton’s 30,000+ ‘personal’ emails from public release, prompting Mills to walk out of the interview.

The Clinton campaign and DoJ’s public explanation on Mills’ walk-out was that she was protected from testifying regarding the email selection method due to attorney-client privilege. But there is no attorney-client privilege if the attorney is also committing criminal act, and the destruction of Clinton’s subpoenaed government records was a criminal act.

Where the criminal mishandling of classified material requires evidence of gross negligence or intent, destroying subpoenaed government records simply requires evidence that the records were destroyed and that the subject knew of their destruction. Proving gross negligence or intent has a high evidentiary threshold compared to proving that someone was involved in the destruction of subpoenaed evidence (an felony obstruction of justice crime).

When Lynch forbade the FBI investigators to even ask Clinton or her associates about events leading up to the destruction of over 30,000 emails, the ‘fix was in’ and the investigation’s final outcome was not going to include a Clinton indictment.

Here’s the problem for Clinton’s critics…limiting the scope of the Clinton email investigation was well within the DoJ’s right to exercise prosecutorial discretion. If before an investigation starts, prosecutors are convinced certain crimes will be hard to prove, it is within their right to exclude investigations into those crimes. That doesn’t mean the crimes didn’t happen. It just means prosecutors chose not to burn resources where an indictment is unlikely.

But that doesn’t make it right, especially when the evidence for the destruction of subpoenaed government records was well-known.

As for the Trump-Russia probe, with the new indictments against 12 Russian’s involved in illegal hacking, the broad outline is now appearing on how the Mueller investigation will end.

By many accounts now, Mueller is focusing on Trump senior adviser Roger Stone and his connection to Russian operatives connected to the email hacks.

According to The Washington Post, “The Russians used Guccifer 2.0’s Twitter account to send multiple messages to ‘a person who was in regular contact with senior members’ of Trump’s campaign, Mueller wrote in the indictment.”

While it is not a crime to engage in Twitter conversations with Russian hackers, Mueller’s team is looking for evidence that Stone coordinated with the Russians on how and when to disseminate the hacked emails in order to maximize their impact.

Even that might not be a crime, but it is close enough to warrant Mueller’s attention. Unfortunately for Trump’s critics, even if Stone did coordinate with the Russians, it is not clear how that would connect directly to Trump and thereby become an impeachable offense.

Trump’s biggest vulnerability remains in obstructing the Mueller probe, not in personally colluding with the Russians.

As for Strzok, he is nothing more than a cog in the wheel of a sprawling federal bureaucracy dedicated to preserving the interests of the Washington, D.C. establishment. It would have been nice if the Republicans during Thursday’s hearing had pressed Strzok to enlighten us on how early and extensively in the election the FBI started running informants against the Trump campaign.

As it stands today, the American public and Congress remain in the dark about exactly what prompted the FBI to start throwing informants at the Trump campaign well before opening the Crossfire Hurricane counter-intelligence investigation in late July 2016. It no longer seems credible that it was George Papadopoulos, a low-level Trump campaign operative, spilling the collusion beans to an Australian diplomat.

But I bet Pete Strzok knows. And he’s not telling. At least not yet.

-K.R.K.

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