The Good and Bad of Leaks

 Posted by  Disasters and Tragedies, Terrorism, The Media  Comments Off on The Good and Bad of Leaks
Oct 092013

Anonymous sources keep the government honest.

One of my favorite West Wing quotes is when CJ Craig, the fictional White House Press Secretary, discusses how leaks are a necessary part of governing:   “There is no group of people this large in the world that can keep a secret. I find it comforting. It’s how I know for sure the government isn’t covering up aliens in New Mexico.”  Leaks keep the government honest.  Without Deep Throat, we wouldn’t have known that Richard Nixon attempted election fraud.  (Which was the point of the Watergate break-in; to steal campaign documents from the DNC.)  Without the Pentagon Papers, it might have taken years to uncover the incompetence within the Pentagon, and dishonesty from the White House, that undercut our efforts in Vietnam.  Anonymous sources give the public necessary information about corruption and incompetence, and are the ultimate defense against the creation of secret conspiracies that would be against the public’s best interest.

But anonymous sources also ruin lives.

A classic-but-modern example of this is Richard Jewell.  Mr. Jewell was working as a security guard at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.  He spotted a suspicious bag, called it in, and started moving people away from it.  It turned out, that bag contained a bomb.  Mr. Jewell saved lives that day.

But then the FBI began to suspect that maybe he was involved in planting the bag in the first place, so that he could play the part of hero.  They never had any hard evidence of this–only a general profile gathered from Mr. Jewell’s work history that was similar to people who had done this in the past.  He was the FBI’s primary suspect for almost three months before he was officially cleared.  (The bomber turned out to be a right-wing anti-abortion activist; he was caught about a decade later.)

All of that would have been fine–except for that someone in the FBI leaked the fact that Mr. Jewell was a suspect to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.  That anonymous source triggered every major news paper in the country–and many internationally–to dig into his past.  He received death threats, he became unemployable, he had the media stalk him and his family.  The FBI had absolutely no evidence linking Mr. Jewell to the bomb, and yet it destroyed his life in a very real way.  (Eventually he received an apology from the FBI, he settled a liable suit against several major news outlets, got a job as a Sheriff’s Deputy in Georgia, and died of diabetes a few years ago.)

So I like leaks.  I want people who work in government to tell dirty secrets to reporters.  But I also want those reporters to exercise restraint in what they publish.  The people do not have a “right” to know every last detail.  Reporters who fail to understand that have no place in the business.

The Merits of Inaction

 Posted by  Foreign Policy, Israel and Palestine, Middle East, Obama Administration, Terrorism  Comments Off on The Merits of Inaction
Jun 182013

There is a certain arrogance with being the world’s only superpower.  The United States can project military power anywhere on the globe in a way that no other country can.  That power is both a blessing and a curse.  The blessing is that we are able to defend American interests (both economic and strategic) and stop human rights violations wherever and whenever we need to.  The curse is that we are constantly tempted to do so… and often the best thing we can do is nothing at all.

Syria is, I believe, one such case.  In particular, in Syria there are basically four options on the table: Continue reading »

Sympathy for the Dzhokhar

 Posted by  Book Related, Disasters and Tragedies, Terrorism  Comments Off on Sympathy for the Dzhokhar
Apr 232013

Apparently I have something in common with the nation’s latest terrorist; we both love going to the Midwest Grill, a Brazilian BBQ Restaurant in my (our?) neighborhood.  We were also both captains of our respective high school wrestling teams and members of the National Honor Society.  His friends from high school talked about him going out of his way to help out, giving rides home, and coming back to his high school to help out for wrestling practice after he had graduated–all things I can relate to.  For all those reasons–not to mention the fact that he only lived about a quarter mile from me–it’s really hard for me not to relate to him.

Which makes the events of the last week all that much more baffling for me.  How could this kid get so twisted that he placed two bombs in a crowd of people, shot a police officer in cold blood, and hijacked a car at gun-point?

I have nothing but sympathy for the friends and families of the victims.  The eight year old boy whose life was ended just as it was beginning.  The graduate student from China who loved living in Boston.  The  restaurant manager from the suburbs who never missed a marathon.  And the MIT officer who was the consummate policeman.

But it’s the bomber, suspect number two, the one who was just arraigned on federal charges from a hospital room yesterday… he’s the one whose story seems most familiar to me.  And yet he’s the one who maybe I will never understand.  Because for all the similarity, how could I understand what drove him to commit such an act of evil–an act that is so viscerally repellent to me I have trouble even watching the footage of it?

Understanding is especially difficult because human motives are never easily understood.  They are never so simple as we would like them to be.  It would be nice if there were a simple, clean, explanation for why he did it.  His evil brother made him do it.  His felt abandoned by his family.  He felt abandoned by his friends.  He fell in with a bad crowd.  He started listening to the wrong preachers.  He was depressed.  He was angry.  He was on drugs.  He was crazy.

But the truth is always more complicated.  The truth is some combination of some or all of those things–and more.  The truth is that human beings are extraordinarily intricate creatures who usually don’t fully know why we do what we do, and who rationalize our behavior after the fact to make ourselves feel better about what we’ve done.

The best we can do is to understand his actions and associations.  Did anyone help him or fund him or advise him?  What else were they planning on doing?  Did they commit any other crimes before the marathon?  Those are all important questions.

As for motive?  Why he did it?  As much as I would love to know… it’s a fool’s errand.

Finally, let me end by quoting Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of the Boston Archdiocese: “Forgiveness does not mean that we do not realize the heinousness of the crime.  But, in our hearts, when we are unable to forgive, we make ourselves a victim of our own hatred.”


On September 11, 2012, a State Department outpost in Benghazi, Libya was attacked by a local Al Qaeda affiliate, killing four Americans including the Libyan ambassador.  At the time, there were protests erupting at American embassies around the Muslim world over a disgustingly insulting YouTube video about the Prophet Muhammad.  Initial media reports out of Benghazi were that the Americans were killed as a result of one of those protests getting out of hand.  But what the CIA knew at the time, and the media would discover within a couple weeks, was that the attack had actually been carried out by the Al Qaeda affiliate.  Again, it was initially thought that the Al Qaeda affiliate had used a protest outside the American facility as cover to attack; it was eventually determined that there wasn’t actually a protest that night.  The motives of the Al Qaeda affiliate are somewhat obscure; it was initially thought that they were acting in response to the assassination of a particular high-ranking leader within Al Qaeda, although more recently it has come to light that the attack was at least partly in response to the video.

Okay, so there are some important issues that we should be discussing about that attack.  Three come to mind, in particular:

  1. Motive.  Why was the American Ambassador attacked?  Was he targeted, in particular, or was the attack aimed at the facility itself?
  2. Prevention. Should we have known before hand about the attack?  Was there something that we could have done to prevent it?
  3. Security.  Why was the attack successful?  Could reasonable security measures have been taken to prevent the deaths of those four Americans?

Those questions are being asked by both the CIA and the State Department, and I hope that we can learn the appropriate lessons to prevent such an attack from happening again.

But there is a fourth question being asked, and is the most high-profile of all the questions being asked, which really puzzles me:

4. What did the American Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice know and when did she know it? Continue reading »


The United States has been dropping bombs, mostly using unmanned drones, on terrorist cells along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border for years now.  These are incredibly remote and sparsely populated areas, we are using the most accurate guidance systems in the world, and we don’t drop all that many of them.  And yet, even so, those bombs sometimes hit the wrong targets–instead of assassinating terrorist leaders, we kill innocent children.  It happens often enough that there is increasing pressure on the Obama Administration from liberal groups to cease these attacks altogether.

The Gaza Strip is home to about 1.7 million people.  It has roughly the same population density as Washington, DC and is about twice as large.  The Israeli rockets and bombs are not as accurate or technologically advanced as what we are dropping in Pakistan,  and dozens of warheads are landing on Gaza every day.  Over 100 Palestinians have died in less than a week, including 24 women and 10 children–and those number will surely climb daily as long as Israel keeps dropping bombs on Gaza.

First of all, Hamas clearly started the current engagement.  I will make no excuses for their behavior–firing rockets into Israel was certainly an act of evil, and they have certainly killed civilians as well.  Last I checked, the Israeli death toll stood at three, and those were surely innocents.  I understand completely why Israel would want to respond to such an attack.  But Israel’s response has been completely disproportional–to such an extent that it will prove to be self-defeating. Continue reading »

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