On Benghazi—An honest plea for specific charges.

On Benghazi: a challenge to conservatives to spell out, with specifics, what the wrongdoing was and who covered it up, when, and how.

Yesterday’s hearings over Benghazi (or as Ed Kilgore is fond of calling it to stress conservative hype, Benghazi!) seem to have been a big nothingburger in terms of actual scandal. As Steve Benen puts it,

Eight months after the attack itself, I know Republicans think there’s been a cover-up, but I haven’t the foggiest idea what it is they think has been covered up. For all the talk of a political “scandal,” no one seems capable of pointing to anything specific that’s scandalous. For all the conspiracy theories, there’s no underlying conspiracy to be found.

Steve, as a progressive blogger, is admittedly biased. But reading Andrew Stiles’ report on National Review Online I get exactly the same impression. Per Stiles, and stripping away the rhetoric and the table-pounding calls for “more questions,” the testimony of Gregory Hicks, the deputy chief of mission in Tripoli at the time, revealed the following:

(1) Susan Rice was wrong to call the attacks on the Benghazi consulate a possible result of the infamous anti-Muslim video. But Rice was describing, in real time and with proper caveats, what she thought was the case at the time, and everyone official has long since admitted that her initial, tentative take was wrong. So: who cares?

(2) The State department didn’t want Hicks to meet with a Republican congressional delegation on the subject, and an official without clearance tried but failed to horn in on the meeting. This will surprise anyone who has never read a book or article about a government agency, or known anybody who worked for one, but—really? Reading against the grain, it becomes clear that Hicks did meet with the Republican delegation, which got all the information it needed. Indeed, he told all kinds of investigators everything he had to say.

(3) Cheryl Mills, “State Department general counsel and former chief of staff to Secretary Clinton,” demanded an account of the above meeting and “sought to keep [Hicks] on a tight leash.” Now, like it or not, the U.S. has a system of political appointees in executive departments, and the Secretary of State is kind of expected to have subordinates whom she trusts. As for seeking a report of the meeting—a bit aggressive, sure, but again there was no cover-up; Hicks was able to tell whomever he wanted whatever he knew.

(4) Hicks was demoted to desk officer. He thinks it was because he was too aggressive on Benghazi. I wonder what his superiors think. In any case, this is at most hardball management but no crime.

(5) “The three witnesses present at Wednesday’s hearing were repeatedly referred to as whistleblowers” (by Republicans). But just as in that parable about calling the horse’s tail a fifth leg, that doesn’t make them whistleblowers. That word denotes someone who exposes crimes or acts of malfeasance that have been covered up. But the testimony itself, from the accounts I’ve read, exposed no coverup, and no crime.

That’s it. On the other side, we also learn, from this conservative account, that the State Department’s Accountability Review Board, which took Hicks’ testimony, absolved Clinton of any blame for poor security. (Hicks didn’t get to see the classified report, but I’ve seen no accounts from those who have, including partisan Republicans, that suggests a whitewash.) As a matter of fact, we learn—regarding the substantive matter supposedly at issue—nothing about State having even been responsible for poor security, as opposed to an ex ante decision regarding limited resources that was defensible at the time but turned out badly.

Look, I’m not a Benghazi expert. I’m willing to entertain the possibility that there’s something here that the media aren’t telling me. But before I evaluate the case, I need to see some concrete charges. My challenge to conservatives is to tell me, very simply, the following:

(1) What, in your view, was the crime? Who did what and which law did it break? No crime, no cover-up (in the usual sense).

But the idea seems to be that what was “covered up” was not crime but incompetence. (That stretches the former meaning of “cover-up,” but never mind.) So:

(2) Who failed competently to perform his or her job, in which concrete ways? Which decisions are we talking about, by whom, at what time, and on what grounds should we believe that a competent person in the job in question would have had to make a different decision? Again, failure to devote unlimited resources to guarding every consulate at all times does not constitute an incompetent decision but rather precisely a competent one. And a judgment (apparently held by the diplomats on the ground at the time) that there was a tradeoff between high security and diplomatic effectiveness is also, absent conclusive arguments to the contrary, quite defensible. We need more.

(3) What information was covered up, and how? What facts do we (a) now know to be the case that (b) were previously concealed from view by (c) illegitimate threats or undue influence (as opposed to agency politics as usual, whereby those higher up would rather sweep mistakes under the rug but grudgingly tolerate subordinates who air them)?

Unless all three of these elements in (3) are  present, there was no cover-up—at most a halfhearted attempt at a cover-up, or an honest difference of opinion about facts. And unless number (1) or (2) is present, there was nothing to cover up.

At this point in the career of a scandal, or attempted scandal, there are often disagreements over whether the charges are true. But I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a scandal where I don’t even know what they are.  I know that this blog has a fair number of conservative readers. And perhaps other sites will pick this up. I hope so, and if so: answers, please. Specific ones, point by point. Then we’ll at least have something we can argue about.

Update: Yes, I know my  bemusement on this isn’t new. The “nothingburger” label I got from Kevin Drum’s post, which can be added to the above links and many others. But I haven’t seen the demand for specifics laid out in numbered points and subpoints before. And sometimes that helps. If nothing else, conservatives may have to ask themselves whether they’ve been sold a bill of goods by conservative media outlets selling a scandal vaguer than they realize.

Second Update: I’d like to stress that I’m engaged in an exercise in arguendum: even if the conservative slant on Benghazi is accurate, there has been no “cover up” that I can see. A less partisan account, e.g. that of the New York Times, casts doubt on that slant to begin with. For one thing, having a department lawyer be present during congressional investigation visits was, allegedly, a longstanding State policy. This should be easily verifiable (or disprovable). For another, State claims that Hicks has not been demoted but given a temporary job, at the same salary, pending a transfer he requested. I’m more dubious about this—clearly Hicks thinks he’s been wronged—but we should note that Hicks’ account has not gone unchallenged.

Leave Agribusiness Lobbyists ALOOOONE!!!!

Agribusiness is Very Sensitive
Agribusiness is Very Sensitive

A few weeks ago, I posted about the Obama Administration’s effort to change outrageous and wasteful food aid rules that line the pockets of agribusiness and shipping companies.  The more you look at the absurd policy preventing USAID from purchasing food locally for famine relief, the worse it looks: it wastes money, it prevents getting food to people that need it, it undermines local agriculture, and it despoils the environment.

I didn’t think it could get any worse.  But the lobbyists have outdone even themselves this time!  Reuters has the story today:

A White House plan to modernize the major U.S. food aid program, by donating cash rather than American-grown food, is in trouble after fierce lobbying by farm groups, food processors, shippers and others who set out to sink the idea months before it was unveiled in President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2014 budget…

In pressing the case to shift more aid to a cash system, the White House and the U.S. Agency for International Development have highlighted the potential ability to feed up to 4 million more needy people each year at a lower cost. Several major aid groups, including Oxfam America and CARE, favor such changes….

Commodities shipped under the Food for Peace program “currently account for less than two tenths of one percent of U.S. agricultural production and about one half of one percent of U.S. agricultural exports,” the White House estimated.

“Exports via food aid are a small drop in the market,” said Veronica Nigh, an economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation. “Our concern is less about decreasing an important revenue stream for U.S. agriculture. It’s more about the loss of a sense of pride.”

Well, how touching.  All these commodity groups, agribusinesses, shippers, and food processors don’t stand to lose much money, and they admit it.  But you see, they will lose their sense of pride.   Obviously, then, 4 million people should go hungry.

What’s more outrageous?  That we have such a policy; that those who support it can so blithely make these kinds of arguments; or that they might still win?  Inquiring minds want to know.  In the meantime, this is a no-brainer: the current system is about the purest form of special interest legislation conceivable.  In Kevin Drum’s words, “Call your congress critter today and tell them, for once in their benighted careers, to just suck it up and do the right thing.”


US Food Aid Rules: If You’re Not Outraged, You’re Not Paying Attention

enoughThe Obama Administration announced yesterday that it wants to change US food aid rules to allow for more “local procurement” of food aid in the countries that need it.  Predictably, the special interests are aghast.  But the administration is right: current food aid rules are among the most egregious special interest legislation in the world right now, preventing this country from stopping starvation, often helping it, wasting taxpayer money, increasing greenhouse gas emissions, and causing soil degradation in Africa.  I have been working on this issue for the last couple of years with the American Jewish World Service, one of the world’s best charities: ending the current rules is a win-win-win-win all around, which is why it will probably be a fight to accomplish it.  The most important source on this issue is Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman’s outstanding book Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve In An Age of Plenty.  Run, don’t walk, and go and read it.  But in the meantime, here is what you need to know.

In order to see how egregious current rules are, suppose that there is a famine in Ethiopia (I know, hard to do).  the quickest and most effective thing to do would be to find some farmer or group of farmers in other parts of the country, or in neighboring countries, buy their food and get it to the stricken area.  After all, one key cause of famine is the lack of money, not lack of crops.  But under current law, USAID is basically forbidden from doing that.  Instead, it must buy grain in the United States and ship it several thousand miles to the famine area.  You can imagine the amount of time that that takes; sometimes, several weeks.  it’s a logistic nightmare.  In the meantime, thousands die, usually the weakest such as children and the elderly.

But it’s worse than that.

If the food needs to be shipped, then that means that the shipping must be paid for.  And it sure is: according to a study done by AJWS and Oxfam, nearly 55% of the cost of American international food aid goes not to food, but to shipping costs.  That’s what your tax dollars are going to.

But it’s worse than that.

Just because a ship is flagged American, doesn’t mean that the sailors on it are American.  Hundreds of ships have been flagged under Liberian registry for years, and during much of that time, there was no “Liberia” to speak of.  So your tax dollars are not necessarily going to American jobs, and probably are not.

But it’s worse than that.

Recall, of course, that the food that will be shipped to the famine area is subsidized, so in fact, we are spending food aid money not on people who are starving, but on relatively wealthy American farmers.

But it’s worse than that!

Once the food finally makes its way to the country in question, not all of it gets to the famine area.  Free food from the United States is simply too attractive to smugglers, who siphon it off and then sell it in markets.  I personally have several instances of markets selling food in bags stating quite clearly: “GIFT OF THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: NOT FOR RESALE.”  You can it in markets throughout Africa.  And what that does is put local farmers out of business because they cannot compete with this illegally dumped food from the United States.  in other words, by this sort of dumping, in many instances, we are actually making the problem worse over the long term because we are undermining other countries’ ability to feed themselves.  Ikal Angelei, whom I blogged about several months ago, told me that in her village in Kenya, they used to have enough supplies to last for several months in the event of a famine.  Now, in no small part because of the dumping, the village only has a few days’ worth.  This is not-not-not to say that there should not be food aid, but rather that it needs to be done effectively and efficiently.

But it’s even worse than that!

The inability of local farmers to farm the land means that the topsoil begins to erode.  Native farming techniques were hardly environmentally perfect, and caused damage, but the failure to farm at all often mean environmental degradation.  So when we hear that “Africa Is Dying,” as I did back in 2010, we should know that we are part of the problem.

That’s pretty awful isn’t it?  And the really shocking thing is just how little it gets us.  James Caponiti, the executive director/lobbyist of the American Maritime Congress, claimed in the NYT article that moving to local procurement could cost the United States “hundreds of jobs.”  Hundreds?  That’s what he claims?  Hell, we could end the sequester and write a bigger transit bill and multiply that over several times.  And that’s taking his argument at face value.  One remembers Muhammed Ali’s famous taunt to George Foreman in Kinshasa:  “Is that all you got, George?  Is that it?”

My friend Timi Gerson, AJWS’ advocacy director, is quoted at the end of the article: “From a taxpayers’ and policy perspective, the food aid program is clearly in need of reform. The only thing getting in the way is politics and special interest.”  Absolutely, 1 million percent true.  Call your Congressmember and tell them how important it is to support the administration.

It will be very interesting to see what evangelicals and so-called fiscal conservatives do on this issue.  Very interesting indeed.

Jack Lew’s bonus

Murdoch’s thugs try to twist an arrangement to avoid conflict of interest into one more pseudo-scandal.

Pay for senior jobs in big financial services firms consists of salary plus bonus, with the bonus being a large part of the total. If the employee stays at the firm, the bonus decision may be fraught with tension, but it’s reasonably straightforward ethically: the bonus is intended to reward performance in the past and keep the employee working hard in the future.

If the person leaves, or announces the intention to leave, before the bonus is paid some year, the forward-looking justification for paying a bonus disappears, and the firm has to decide whether it wants, in effect, to hand the departing employee a gift, or instead cheap out and punish him for leaving. That’s life in the big city; as a result, people are likely, if they have a choice, to wait until they have last year’s bonus in hand before announcing their intention to leave.

Now imagine that someone in such a job gets an offer to take an important post in one of the federal agencies whose actions influence the financial-services industry: the Treasury, or the Fed, or the SEC, and that the offer becomes public before last year’s bonus is paid. (People offered such jobs have very little control over the timing.)

Now the firm has a real problem. Presumably it doesn’t want to cheap out. On the other hand, if it pays a big bonus, it has just made a gift to an official whose decisions will help or harm the firm. Such a payment, even if fully justified by past performance, will have the appearance of a bribe. No such problem would arise if the person left to run the Ford Foundation or the Red Cross.)

So if a firm hires someone with a public-service background and ambitions to go back into government, it makes sense to negotiate a severance bonus up front, specifically in case the person leaves to take a senior Federal job. That way the person is protected against a big financial hit if such a job comes through – otherwise he might want to take a different job now, one that’s not bonus-dependent or one where receiving a bonus wouldn’t create the appearance of impropriety – while the firm avoids the problem of voluntarily either paying or not paying a big bonus to someone who will exercise power over it in the future.

That’s the deal Jack Lew negotiated with CitiGroup, and that Rupert Mudoch’s character assassins at the Wall Street Journal want to make a scandal out of. And yet Kevin Drum wonders what the innocent explanation for such a deal might be.

In fact, what would be hard would be inventing a guilty explanation. If Citi wanted to grease the palm of someone departing throug the revolving door, there would have been no need to make the deal in advance, or in writing. The only purpose of doing so would have been to avoid what otherwise would have been a confict of interest.

It’s pretty disappointing that Jack’s well-earned reputation for integrity not only doesn’t insulate him from cheap attacks from gutter press and the gutter Republicans, but doesn’t even protect him from having smart, decent people like Kevin accuse him of wrongdoing when – to my eye – none is present.

Footnote Jack is an old friend, but all my knowledge of the bonus deal comes from Kevin’s post. The above isn’t based on any private knowledge; it seems to me like a perfectly straightforward reading of the situation.

Careful-what-you-wish-for Dep’t

Do we really want to live in a country where the money men can force the winner of a Senate primary to withdraw?

Of course I’m delighted that Todd Akin put his foot in his mouth about abortion, that the GOP establishment is running away from him, and that the result is to get the theocrats mad at the plutocrats. All good, clean fun.

But if it’s really true that the NRSC and Karl Rove have the power, by threatening to withhold money, to force the winner of a statewide primary to drop out of the race, that’s much worse for American politics than some stupid misogyny backed by bad science.

Who SHOULD be the Next Treasury Secretary?

Four days ago, Ezra Klein reported that Erskine Bowles is the front-runner for Treasury Secretary in a second Obama Administration.  It’s hard to think of any plausible Democrat who would be a greater disaster.  Bowles has a man-crush on Paul Ryan; his chairman’s mark for his eponymous commission was simply an embarrassment on both political and policy grounds; a managing director of Morgan Stanley, he is Wall Street’s creature.  He has no business running Treasury any more than I do.  Take a look:

But if that is the case, then assuming (in best chickens-counting style) that there even is a second Obama Administration, who should the next Treasury Secretary be?

This isn’t merely idle blog talk (although I am under no illusions about RBC’s awesome policy influence).  One great failing of progressives is that after the 2008 election, we simply celebrated.  Wall Street did not: it got to work making sure that its people were in key positions, and that Barack Obama’s agenda would never challenge the financial industry’s power.  That’s how we got Timothy Geithner at Treasury, Larry Summers at NEC, Ben Bernanke reappointed at the Fed, Bowles himself appointed to an absurd “deficit reduction commission”, Christy Romer sidelined at CEA, and ditto Elizabeth Warren.

So if, as anyone not committed to entrenched plutocracy should hope, President Obama wins a second term, the very next day should be devoted to making sure that President Obama does not make such disastrous picks again.  That means being prepared to push very hard against rancid appointments like Bowles and in favor of someone else.  I would hope that the day after Obama’s re-election, Al Franken and re-elected Senator Sherrod Brown call the White House and make it very clear that if they have anything to say about, Bowles will never be confirmed.

But who should be?  A couple of notes: 1) at this stage, we should not worry about confirmability too much.  The Republicans will seek to block anyone (whether by filibuster or otherwise), and at some point progressives will have to press President Obama to make a recess appointment; and 2) for what it’s worth (and it may not be worth much), there has never been a woman or a minority heading Treasury.

There are a few I can think of offhand: former FDIC chair Sheila Bair, former CFTC chair Brooksley Born, Paul Volcker (too old?), Gary Gensler, Christy Romer, Jared Bernstein.  Hillary?  I would be very wary: the Clintons created the Wall Street Democratic party, all of her advisors will be Rubinites, and if she wants to run for President in 2016, negotiating with Wall Street potential campaign contributors provides dark incentives.  Still, she could be more progressive as a way of attracting primary support. 

 Paul Campos wants The Shrill One: that would be great, but I think that’s a little too far-fetched even at this stage.  Nevertheless, Campos is asking the right question.

By the day after Election Day, progressives should have an answer.  Because Wall Street sure will.


All Hail Harry Reid!

Once again, Mark and I disagree.

1)  What Reid said is not McCarthyism because his allegations are easy to disprove with evidence that Mitt Romney himself has, viz., Romney’s tax returns.  It’s not at all like accusing somebody of being something because of someone that they knew, or proving that they weren’t a Communist.  If Romney wants to show that Reid is full of crap, then all he needs to do is release his returns.

2)  What Reid said is not slimy because demanding that Romeny release his returns is perfectly legitimate.  Every party nominee for 40 years has done the same thing.  He’s not asking Romney to, say, release sealed divorce records (the case of Jack Ryan, who was going to be Obama’s opponent in the 2004 Senate race) or release the Romney sex tape or some such.  These are tax records.  They are fair game.

3)  And they are particularly fair game because Romney’s whole campaign is based on the idea that he is some sort of economic genius who will wave fairy dust over the economy like he did with, say, his IRA.  Fine: show us the goddam fairy dust.

Reid is right.  Romney is wrong.  Put up or shut up, Mitt.  End of story.

TBogg has more, including the notion that Harry Reid is the honey badger.  See for yourself.

QUICK UPDATE: I could be persuaded otherwise if I thought Reid was just making his source up out of whole cloth, but he isn’t: Dana Bash reports that Reid’s source 1) exists; and 2) is very credible.  Mitt’s in trouble, and he deserves it.

How did Sheldon Adelson get his Macau casino license?

Apparently by successfully lobbying Tom DeLay to block a House bill that might have derailed Beijing’s Olympic bid (on human-rights grounds).

Now maybe that bill was a bad idea. But there doesn’t seem to be much doubt that Mitt Romney’s biggest donor is carrying water for the Chinese tyranny, and that his influence means that Chinese money is flowing in American politics, just as John McCain said.

All of this worries me a lot more that Adelson’s apparent violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, just because corruption in Washington bothers me more than corruption in Macau. As to Adelson’s dealings with the triads, they don’t threaten my future nearly as much as his dealings with the Chinese politboro.

Yes, this is one more reason to overturn Citizens United, which we now know presents a substantial threat to the national security. But it’s also one more question for Mitt Romney to answer, after he tells us why we can’t see his tax returns.