Why we need a little skepticism, and more evidence, on Russian bounties

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and George S. Beebe

July 5th 2020 in The Hill

The most fundamental task of both journalists and intelligence analysts is to clarify the often blurry line separating truth and falsehood. They must deal with a firehose of unverified claims pouring into their inboxes daily, and the consequences of lending credence to false reports can be severe. Sound analysis requires a careful balance between over- and under-connecting the dots. The recent track record in this endeavor, however, is discouraging. The Russian bounty controversy is the latest example.

This story has unfolded in two parts. The first is the allegation, which has seized American media headlines, that a secret Russian military intelligence unit has been paying Afghan militants to kill Americans. The second is the claim that President Trump either knows about this activity and has done nothing, or has preemptively closed White House doors to reports of Russian malfeasance.

The initial question to ask in evaluating the veracity of the allegation is, how credible are the sources? Here, the answer: not very. According to the New York Times, the primary sources are militants and criminals captured and interrogated by Afghanistan’s government. But human sources are often intentionally or unintentionally misleading. Captured militants frequently tell their interrogators things they hope will win more lenient treatment. Others relate stories they honestly believe, but amount to little more than hearsay. “Curveball,” the aptly named source for the now discredited claim in 2002 that Iraq had built mobile biological weapons laboratories, simply lied to his intelligence handlers to advance his anti-Saddam agenda.

The second question is, what other information might support or disconfirm the allegations? Here, too, there is reason for skepticism. The Times cites evidence of “large financial transfers” from Russian military intelligence to the Taliban. But scrutiny of that datapoint raises some puzzling questions. Between 14 and 22 Americans were killed in Afghanistan each year from 2016 to 2019; nine have been killed so far this year. If the Russian money indeed was sent to fund a bounty program within this time frame, why has it not had much impact? And if the Times report of large financial transfers — one of which was at least $500,000 — is accurate, it would appear that the typically tight-fisted Russians either were paying enormous sums per kill or were paying in advance, which is not how bounties usually work.

Which brings us to a third question: Who benefits from these allegations? The list certainly includes the central Afghan government, which has overseen the interrogations on which the story is based and desperately wants the U.S. military to remain in Afghanistan, despite President Trump’s efforts to wind down our presence. Few things could more effectively throw a wrench into the gears of Afghan peace talks than credible reports that the Taliban is working with Russians to kill Americans. The list also includes Trump’s domestic political opponents, who long have attempted to tar him with false accusations of working on the Kremlin’s behalf or even on its payroll. The discredited Russian collusion story is a prime example of this effort.  

Notably, the list does not include Russia. Moscow encouraged and supported the U.S. war against the Taliban for many years after the 9/11 attacks, but as the United States has drawn down its presence, it has backed both a U.S. withdrawal and peace talks with the Taliban. The Kremlin is not looking for ways to impede U.S. departure from a region that Moscow once dominated. Rather, it is trying to cultivate relationships with the many warlords and factions that are likely to rule Afghanistan’s various regions in the aftermath of the American withdrawal. That effort very likely includes limited provisions of weapons and money to Taliban leaders, but it would be quite surprising if it also included special bonuses for killing individual Americans.

Why such skepticism? For one thing, this kind of scalp-hunting would be an unprecedented escalatory act. Even at the height of the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and the United States refrained from such activity, despite engaging enthusiastically in proxy warfare in theaters around the world. The KGB even sought an explicit understanding with the CIA that neither organization would kidnap or assassinate its rival’s personnel, largely because it feared where such targeting could lead.

Russia today is undoubtedly hostile toward the United States and desirous of curtailing American global influence, but it nonetheless has not thrown all caution to the wind. There is no evidence that the Russians are head-hunting in Syria, where they would have greater incentives to target Americans and greater ability to do so. Instead, they have by universal acknowledgement worked with their U.S. counterparts to deconflict Russian and American military operations there. In 2018, when U.S. forces used the deconfliction channel to warn of a looming attack by a large contingent of Russian mercenaries who were trying to dislodge the U.S. from a strategic position in Syria, Russian officials did nothing to dissuade U.S. commanders from counterattacking, and Moscow did absolutely nothing after hundreds of Russian fighters were subsequently killed and wounded.

Finally, it is impossible to escape the impression that the rush toward outrage over the Russian bounty allegations is tinged with more than a whiff of hypocritical political opportunism. Senior Democrats who have been quick to charge Trump with treason for failing to punish the Russians might recall their own support for striking nuclear deals and lifting sanctions on Iran not long ago, despite undisputed facts that Teheran provided actual training, operational intelligence and weapons to Iraqi insurgents that led to the killing and maiming of thousands of American soldiers.

None of this disproves the allegation that the Russians are paying bounties for dead Americans in Afghanistan, an activity that, if true, would require a resolute U.S. response. It is not out of the question that the Russian government or parts of it might see such bounties as payback for perceived U.S. perfidy in Ukraine, Georgia and Russia itself. But it certainly means that the standard of evidence for validating such allegations should be much higher than our media’s barely concealed lust to embrace them would suggest.

Confirmed or not, the allegations should serve as a sobering reminder that unconstrained shadow warfare with Moscow can produce genuine dangers for Americans. One glaring difference between the Cold War and today is that the Cold War was fought within the parameters of agreed rules. Today, we have almost none. We would be wise to consider this as our national discourse on Russia proceeds.

David B. Rivkin, Jr., is a constitutional lawyer who has served in the Justice and Energy departments and the White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. He also worked for a number of years for the Defense Department as a defense and foreign policy analyst specializing in Soviet nuclear weapons policy.

George S. Beebe is vice president and director of studies at the Center for the National Interest, former head of Russia analysis at the CIA, and author of “The Russia Trap: How Our Shadow War with Russia Could Spiral into Nuclear Catastrophe.”

Source: https://thehill.com/opinion/national-security/505804-why-we-need-a-little-skepticism-and-more-evidence-on-russian

Bailing out states violates the Constitution’s ‘general welfare’ clause

By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Lee A. Casey

6 May 2020 in The Hill

Republican senators, led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), are right to oppose legislation that would provide a broad federal bailout of highly indebted states. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York calls this legislative stance “toxic and poison,” but it is constitutionally required.  

As senators, including Florida’s Rick Scott and Texas’s Ted Cruz, made clear in a recent letter to President Trump, no one doubts that the federal government can and should assist states in meeting the coronavirus emergency. Nor can there be any reasonable objection that this aid will benefit certain states — especially New York, which has the majority of coronavirus cases — more than others. There is, however, a profound objection to any plan that would use federal resources to ensure that heavily indebted states need not reassess their policy priorities. These states find themselves in dire fiscal straits primarily because of underfunded pension plans for their public employees. Virtually all of these states are Democrat-run and three of them — Illinois, New Jersey and Connecticut — are facing a particularly calamitous fiscal situation.

Politics aside, bailing out unfunded state pension plans with federal dollars would violate the Constitution’s often ignored, but nevertheless binding, “general welfare” clause. Congress does not, in fact, have unfettered power to spend money as it sees fit. The Constitution permits it to tax, and by implication spend, “to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States.” (Art. I, § 8, cl. 1) This language was neither puffery nor surplusage, but was added by the Constitution’s Framers for a compelling purpose.

The Framers were determined to vest the federal government with sufficient authority to carry out its national purpose, but also to limit that power. These principles are reflected in numerous constitutional provisions and that document’s overall architecture. Thus, all congressional powers have some limit, some cabining principle. Just as the commerce clause is limited to the regulation of economic activities and does not permit Congress to exercise a general “police power” regulating people simply because they are here, so Congress’s ability to tax and spend is limited by the requirement that this must be for the general welfare.

This requirement stems from the Framers’ concern that large, powerful states would dominate the federal government and would use federal institutions to benefit their own interests, rather than the Union as a whole. Indeed, the question of how to ensure that a cabal of large states would not run roughshod over small states dominated much of the Constitutional Convention. It shaped many key constitutional provisions, including the bicameral federal legislature, with all states having equal representation in the Senate, the apportionment requirement for direct federal taxes, and the language mandating that “all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.”  

Even such an ardent proponent of a strong federal government as Alexander Hamilton was sufficiently concerned about states acting selfishly that he argued initially for abolishing the states as independent sovereigns altogether because “states will prefer their particular concerns to the general welfare.” Eventually, this concern resulted in the constitutional language that required the federal government to operate for the general welfare of the entire nation. Notably, this language is found both in the Constitution’s preamble and Article I, Section 8, which enumerates Congress’s powers. And, as is made clear in an early draft of the general welfare clause, the Framers understood the phrase to mean that “which may concern the common interests of the Union.”

This understanding of the clause is similarly revealed in a debate that took place in September 1787, near the Convention’s end, after the general welfare language had taken its final form.  This debate concerned whether an additional provision should be included in the Constitution specifically vesting the federal government with the power to build canals, which would benefit some states more than others. Some thought yes; others argued that tasks such as canal-building should be the responsibility of the states that would directly benefit. Regardless of this disagreement, they all appeared to have shared the same view that such authority — which today we would take for granted as being well within Congress’s spending power — was not already present.

As in other areas, after the Constitution’s ratification, the Framers took different views of how far the spending power could go. Hamilton, always the preeminent Federalist, took the position that the power to tax and spend constituted a separate grant of authority to Congress, while James Madison believed it was merely a support for Congress’s otherwise enumerated powers.  Hamilton’s view prevailed and was endorsed by the Supreme Court in the 1936 case of United States v. Butler. The court did not, however, determine the meaning of “general welfare” in Butler, except to note that Hamilton understood it to mean “the purpose must be ‘general, and not local.’”

To be sure, the definition of what types of expenditures advance general welfare has been much debated throughout U.S. history. Prior to the Civil War, a stringent definition prevailed, with Congress vigorously debating expenditures for various types of infrastructure projects and presidents vetoing spending bills that they believed served local needs and did not sufficiently advance general welfare. Post-Civil War, and particularly following the New Deal, a far broader federal spending pattern emerged. This reflected the view that, using federal dollars to pay the costs of natural disasters and similar emergencies, or various infrastructure projects, while benefiting some states more than others at any given point in time, would benefit the nation as a whole in the long run. This practice broadened the understanding of what expenditures served the national interest, but it did not and could not abolish the general welfare requirement altogether.

Thus, however broad Congress’s power to tax and spend may be, this remains the fundamental limitation — expenditures must promote national, rather than local, interests. And it is difficult to imagine a more locally-oriented program than one designed to prop up the fiscal choices of a group of states — to benefit state and municipal government employees by establishing generous, underfunded pension systems — at the expense of other states. Significantly, numerous states repeatedly have rejected similar pension arrangements for themselves, vividly manifesting their view that this was not in their best interests or conducive to general welfare.  Indeed, by subsidizing a particular vision of what constitutes a proper state government, one of the basic justifications for our federalist system — that states can make their own choices as laboratories — would be discarded. True federalism requires that the federal government neither coerces states nor imposes on states’ fiscal burdens that properly belong to individual states that have incurred them.

Senate Republicans have every right, and all senators have an equal obligation, to ensure that any funding legislation meets the general welfare requirement, so that federal dollars cannot be used to pay, either directly or indirectly, for the repair of long-term fiscal liabilities of any recipient state.  

David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush and have litigated separation-of-powers cases, representing states in challenges to ObamaCare and the federal Clean Power Plan.

Source: https://thehill.com/opinion/judiciary/495961-bailing-out-states-violates-the-constitutions-general-welfare-clause

Before this pandemic ends, intel agencies should prepare for a world of threats

By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and George Beebe

31 March 2020 in The Hill

Few people regard the novel coronavirus pandemic as an intelligence failure. And, judging by conventional standards, it is not one. The U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) was created to collect and analyze secret information about our adversaries’ capabilities and intentions that pose strategic threats to American national security. Despite allegations by some foreign propagandists and domestic conspiracy-mongers, COVID-19 was not dreamed up in some biological weapons laboratory and unleashed diabolically on the world. Its origins in Chinese “wet markets” were far more prosaic. Today’s rapidly emerging global dangers could not have been uncovered by intercepting secret Chinese communications or capturing their plans for biological warfare.

In such situations, traditional approaches to gathering and analyzing intelligence can only make limited contributions. They can help to determine what secretive governments, such as those in China and Iran, actually know about the spread of COVID-19 and its lethality, and to what degree they may be hiding the truth. And some spinmeisters, evidently intent on both polishing the IC’s image and tarnishing that of President Trump, already have been portraying classified briefings in January and February as an intelligence success because they did just that.

But the notion that Trump is guilty of failing to heed these briefings — or that Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), and other U.S. senators are legally and ethically culpable for allegedly dumping stocks in response to them — overstates how actionable they were. Anyone who doubts this should ask whether the CIA itself took early action to protect its own personnel and facilities from the coming wave of danger that it supposedly forecast.

Rendering the entirely unsurprising judgment that Beijing was failing to level with its people or the world is not the same as sounding urgent alarms about a global health crisis that could lead to world economic depression. And making a marginal contribution to scaling a deadly threat after it has emerged is not why American taxpayers devote tens of billions of dollars annually to our intelligence cadre. The fundamental purpose of intelligence is to warn effectively about incipient dangers before they become urgent realities, not to help measure their dimensions — or advance partisan political agendas — afterward.

In the context of this larger purpose, the emergence of the novel coronavirus crisis highlights some unacceptable weaknesses in American intelligence. Since its inception in 1947, the IC’s primary mission has been to warn of deliberate, secretly planned attacks by our adversaries, whether they are powerful state actors or non-state terrorists. This challenge endures, as great power competition intensifies, and terrorism persists. While the IC’s record on this is mixed, it is at least a task well-suited to high-technology intelligence collection and to analysis, breaking down a problem and studying its component parts individually.

Unfortunately, our globalized 21st century-world also produces national security threats of a different kind, those that arise when small, non-secret factors combine to produce a devastating cascade of knock-on effects that no one has planned or anticipated. Novel coronavirus turned into a crisis not because it is deadlier than the SARS virus that emerged in China in 2002 (its fatality rate is lower, though it has claimed more lives), but because it debuted in a more entangled but less trusting world, whose weaker physical and psychological antibodies were not up to the challenge. This is the type of a problem that requires synthetic rather than analytic thinking: examining interconnections and feedback loops that can cause small developments to mutate into big dangers.

As it stands today, the IC is ill-staffed and poorly organized for warning about such emerging “complex systems” threats, unfolding in a chaotic world, before they become unmanageable crises. The IC’s enormous cadre of narrowly focused analysts and collectors is ideal for handling traditional intelligence tasks, where uncovering hidden technical details can spell the difference between success and failure in dealing with foreign adversaries.

But large organizational size and narrow specializations can be real handicaps when the task is to bring together a wide range of disciplines and understand the interconnections among factors that could produce “perfect storms” of danger. And old cultural and regulatory barriers between foreign intelligence and domestic American affairs impede understanding the feedback effects between factors internal to the United States and those beyond our borders.

To meet this type of challenge, intelligence must operate on a smaller and smarter scale. It must rely less on secret information, and more on interdisciplinary teams of experts tasked with understanding the larger context of events. In cases such as the novel coronavirus crisis, it must assemble diverse groups of doctors, epidemiologists, economists, business leaders, data scientists, psychologists and other experts who are not typically central players in intelligence assessments.

And it needs to be much better informed about what American entities are doing at home and abroad, because these entities are often important parts of complex international systems. Intelligence experts cannot understand how perfect storms of danger develop beyond our borders — nor can American policymakers know how to deal with them effectively — unless they also understand the ways U.S. factors and capabilities affect them.

Rising to this challenge also requires a much more cooperative and trusting relationship among the IC, White House and Congress. To provide meaningful assessments, intelligence organizations must engage policymakers in their discussion of systemic variables and feedback loops early in the process. They must view their role as helping policymakers to identify variables they can influence, directly and indirectly, and to anticipate the possible impacts on the system of various policy options. They must help U.S. leaders strike an effective balance between punishing Beijing for hiding the true extent of COVID-19’s early spread — a necessary deterrent to future misconduct — and pushing it too far, particularly in an environment where the Communist Party’s reputation and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s own sagacity have taken a beating, and adopting measures that might boomerang against our own national security.

None of that can happen when the IC is an active player in domestic political warfare. In this regard, press leaks about the IC’s supposedly perspicacious warnings about the novel coronavirus threat are actually indications of collective failure. Such internecine strife destroys the trust necessary for frank dialogue among those attempting to understand the dynamics of problems such as the novel coronavirus crisis, and those attempting to manage them.

Reckoning with these problems should be an urgent matter for the acting Director of National Intelligence, a position created to bring together diverse entities and foster collaboration across the IC. The cascade of developments flowing from the outbreak of COVID-19 is far from over. To one degree or another, the United States, Europe, Russia and China all will be wounded — physically, economically and psychologically. These wounds could very well contribute to a dangerous new phase of great power competition. Understanding the dynamics that could send it spiraling beyond manageable bounds into deadly warfare is a vital task for American intelligence.

David B. Rivkin, Jr., is a constitutional lawyer who has served in the Justice and Energy departments and the White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. He also worked for a number of years for the Defense Department as a defense and foreign policy analyst.

George S. Beebe is vice president and director of studies at the Center for the National Interest, former head of Russia analysis at the CIA, and author of “The Russia Trap: How Our Shadow War with Russia Could Spiral into Nuclear Catastrophe.”

Source: https://thehill.com/opinion/national-security/490160-before-this-pandemic-ends-intel-agencies-should-prepare-for-a-world-of-threats

Kavanaugh hearing antics showed Dems’ contempt of Congress

By David B. Rivkin Jr.

Sept. 9, 2018, in The Hill

Democrats like to pillory President Trump for destroying American institutions and breaking the norms of conduct. Yet, during the Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Judge Brett Kavanaugh, Democrats blatantly and flippantly violated Senate norms, rules and traditions — and inflicted in the process considerable damage on the institution.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) interrupted the very first sentence of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley’s (R-Iowa) opening statement. Protesters constantly interrupted questions asked by senators of both parties, as well as Kavanaugh’s answers; they were challenged only by Republican senators. But even in this chaotic atmosphere, Sen. Cory Booker’s (D-N.J.) decision to violate the committee’s confidentiality agreement with the executive branch, pursuant to which the committee received documents that otherwise would have been withheld, was particularly egregious.

On Wednesday night, Booker asked Kavanaugh about an email exchange dating to the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks. He quoted a committee confidential document — that is, a document that no senator had the authority to make public, and which Kavanaugh did not have in front of him.

Early Thursday, to ensure that  Kavanaugh and the American public would be able to see the emails for themselves, Grassley worked with the Department of Justice and former President George W. Bush’s attorney to release several committee confidential documents, including the one Booker had quoted. They were taken off the “committee confidential” roster at 4 a.m.

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