Monday, May 30, 2016

Everything You Wanted To Know About Hillary’s Email That The Media Refuses To Tell You

Official Washington loves few things more than a heavily annotated investigative report and it is even better when there is a political slant to it. The recently released report by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) at the Department of State meets both criteria. At 83 pages, it appears to have heft (even though the report itself is only 42 pages, the rest is an appendix of old memos and guidance documents) and its tsk-tsking of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server fits with the media’s narrative that she is untrustworthy. 

The breathless reporting portrayed Clinton as a rogue actor, flagrantly violating the law while dissembling in her after-the-fact excuses. But if you read the report and ignore the political spin, you find a much more nuanced story. For example, a former Secretary of State connected a private laptop to a private Internet connection to conduct government business and never attempted to store or retrieve the emails sent that way, but that person was Colin Powell, not Hillary Clinton. The archiving rule at the center of one of the two complaints against Clinton could have been levied at dozens of other people who failed to print out every email they sent or received and store the paper copies (the so-called “print and file” system.)  

For all the sturm und drang, the OIG criticizes Secretary Clinton for two things - first, for failing to comply with the ridiculous “print and file” archiving requirement that OIG itself admits few people follow; and second, conducting government business on private email connected to a personal server. What the report reveals however, (and what was unreported in the press) is that Secretary Clinton was hardly alone in these supposed “violations.” The IG notes that nearly 90 senior aides to Secretaries Powell and Rice used personal email. (IG report at 20). Secretary Powell himself not only used a personal email account, he connected a private laptop to the Internet through a “private” connection in his office, sidestepping the State Department’s portal (which was itself a violation of State Department rules). (IG report at 3, 21, 31). And when contacted by the IG during the pendency of their investigation, Powell, along with aides to Rice, ignored the IG’s entreaties to determine whether the email they sent via personal email could be retrieved. (IG report at 21-23). 

The IG concluded that “Secretary Powell did not comply with Department policies that were implemented in accordance with the Federal Records Act.” (IG report at 22). The IG made the same finding with regard to Secretary Clinton with one important caveat: her submission of 55,000 pages of emails “mitigated her failure to properly preserve emails …” (IG report at 23, emphasis added). Powell not only failed to comply at the time, but snubbed a request from the Department that he contact his ISP to determine if his records were retrievable. (IG report at 22). Even so, the “file and print” requirement is only followed “sporadically.” The Department’s internal guidelines contain “no explicit penalties for lack of compliance” and the Department “has never proposed discipline against an employee [for failing to comply.]” (IG report at 14). 

Ironically, had Hillary done as those 90 staffers and Secretary Powell had done and simply used a personal email account instead of her own server, it is unlikely any of her records could be retrieved. Instead, the State Department (and ultimately the world) got to pour through 55,000 pages of email, the vast majority of which was the boring work of government with some cherry picked threads of gossip and other click bait ephemera the media loves to focus on. Conversely, email Powell and his and Rice’s aides sent while we were at war in two countries and attacked on September 11th, 2001 are lost to history. 

So, on the first point - failing to properly archive her records, no one has ever been punished for not following the rules and Hillary complied after the fact. But what about the dreaded private server? Well, the server is really a red herring. The issue here is corresponding over a system without proper security features - whether that is done using a gmail account or your own private server is incidental. But here’s the thing: not only was using personal email not prohibited when Clinton was Secretary, it still is not prohibited. While the federal record keeping law was amended in 2014, it did not prohibit the use of private email for official purposes, it simply required that a person who did so copy her official email account or forward a copy of the email to that account within 20 days. (IG report at 9). And the Department’s most recent guidance, issued in 2015, says that the use of personal email is “discouraged” except “in very limited circumstances.” The Department does not articulate what those circumstances might be. (IG report at 32). 

Oddly, the conclusory nature of the IG’s findings (and those most heavily reported by the media) contain no substantiation. For a report with an average of four footnotes per page, the determination that Secretary Clinton had “an obligation” to discuss her email use is simply stated as fact without citing to any internal guidance, regulation or law. It is curious that such a finding was made, particularly since the report itself acknowledges that personal email use was not then and is not now, prohibited. 

Surely, if Secretary Clinton ran afoul of Department guidelines, so too did the 90 staff members who worked for Secretaries Powell and Rice, along with what I have to assume are many other anonymous employees in a Department of thousands who probably use their personal email accounts from time to time. And the concern over the security of Clinton’s server is a fortiori for servers run by Google, Microsoft, and ISPs that are targets of daily hacking attempts. And it is not like government servers are bastions of security. The Office of Personnel Management was hacked last year, resulting in the theft of more than 10 million social security numbers of current and former federal employees dating back to 2000.

If you want to point a finger, look at the records management at the State Department - it is a total shit show. Some archived email cannot be retrieved because much of it is corrupted, password protected or contains no information (IG report at 15), the integrated archiving system did not come online until this year (IG report at 15), and the Department broke its own rules by failing to archive the email of 50 top political appointees (IG report at 16). Even if the Department wanted to determine the frequency or volume of personal email use by its employees, it “currently lacks the resources” to do so. (IG report at 19).

This is another tempest in a teapot that ignored context such as the fact that close to 100 former senior officials were also known to have used private email and that many senior officials under prior Secretaries of State (and Secretary Powell himself) ignored requests to turn over their records. The archiving rule Clinton supposedly violated was also violated by Secretary Powell, is without sanction and has never been used to discipline anyone. Unlike Secretary Powell, Secretary Clinton complied with this rule after the fact. Hardly the crime of the century, but an easy way for a media hell bent on reinforcing its preferred narrative that Hillary thinks the rules do not apply to her.

If you want to read the report for yourself, it can be found here:

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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Temporarily Ban All Muslims? Not That Unpopular An Idea

Of the many despicable things Donald Trump has said since he announced his candidacy for the Presidency a little less than a year ago, his call to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the United States may be the worst. It is taken as an article of faith that banning all Muslims from our country is some combination of odious and unconstitutional. But this quote from The Washington Post tells a different story.

As it turns out, “banning all Muslims” is a popular idea with Republicans and not nearly as radioactive with the general public as the talking heads on TV would suggest. This is not to say it is a good idea or an idea that reflects well on our nation (it is not, and it does not), it is just to say that when you live inside a bubble it is easy to think everyone thinks the way you do, when in fact, they do not.

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Sunday, May 22, 2016

Tough Talk

News of the downing of EgyptAir Flight 804 had barely crossed the wire before Donald Trump hopped on Twitter to declare the incident an act of terrorism. The strong man routine fits his profile, after all, his “foreign policy” includes “knocking the hell” out of ISIS, which is an applause line, not a strategy. The media is quick to bolster his tough guy image but we have seen this movie before and the bark is always worse than the bite.

In Nixon’s time, it was called the “madman” strategy – Nixon wanted his adversaries in China and North Vietnam to think he was such a loose cannon, he might unleash nuclear weapons to settle the Vietnam War. The only people who suffered were the innocent Vietnamese people, who were subject to a bombing campaign unseen in the history of war, and the soldiers on both sides who died in the jungles of Southeast Asia. When the bombs failed to work, “peace with honor” and “Vietnamization” became a rebranding effort for admitting a victory could not be won. For all his bluster, the peace treaty Nixon agreed to in 1973 was no better a deal than had been offered five years previously.

Less than a decade later, another swaggering cowboy named Ronald Reagan rode into Washington, D.C. promising to stand tall against the Commies. After-the-fact mythologizing claims the Iranians so feared Reagan they released our hostages the day he was sworn in, but in reality, the deal had been cut weeks before, the hostages were held until Carter left office as a final humiliation to the one-term President not because the mullahs were afraid of Reagan. 

Indeed, just a few years later Reagan was selling arms to the Iranians to get hostages freed in Lebanon; this, after tucking tail and running from Beirut after our embassy was bombed in 1983. As detailed in Rachel Maddow’s book Drift, Reagan’s team could not even invade Grenada properly. The mission was bungled so badly, dozens of soldiers died. 

And if the old saying “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me” applies, it is uncertain what happens when we are fooled a third time, but that is exactly what happened when George W. Bush came into office. An Ivy-League educated son of privilege, “W” packaged himself as a Texas cowboy who loved nothing more than spending his down time (which was considerable) clearing brush at his ranch. Of course, he and his aides ignored warnings about Al Qaeda and even after September 11th, standing amid the rubble of the World Trade Center, his chesty proclamations would end up being largely hollow. Well before Iraq turned into a quagmire, he had failed to capture or kill the perpetrator of 9/11. Ultimately, he slinked out of office with record low approval ratings, the country trillions in debt and scarred by his actions.

Now, here comes Trump. A man who avoided serving in the Vietnam War and whose knowledge of the military could fit comfortably in a thimble. His rhetoric makes Bush’s “dead or alive” threats to Bin Laden and “axis of evil” non-sense look both sober and tame in comparison. Will Americans fall for the tough guy routine again?

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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Twenty Days To California

Hillary Clinton must wonder what she needs to do to make Bernie Sanders go away. Sweeps in various “super” Tuesdays stretched her pledged delegate lead to a point that made it mathematically impossible for Sanders to catch her. Yet, there he is, leveraging the media’s need to fill TV hours and column inches  to soldier on. After all, there is no shortage of college campuses and idealistic young people to make it seem like he still has a chance. And so, even if she need not win any more primaries between now and June 14th, when the District of Columbia has the final say, a loss in California on June 7th to Sanders would not look good. To the Beltway media, the dreaded “optics” of such a defeat would simply feed into the narrative that she is a weak general election candidate whose political host body (the Democratic Party) is rejecting her. 

I am sure the Clinton team would prefer not to spend any additional money locking up a nomination it thinks it has already won; however, allow me to offer a modest proposal. Instead of treating the next three weeks as an unnecessary epilogue to a primary contest that the Clinton team thinks is already over, look at this time as an unexpected opportunity to launch her general election campaign early. 

A month ago, everyone assumed attention would be focused on the Republicans, who were careening toward a contested convention and the possibility of a third-party challenger. Instead, opposition to Donald Trump folded and the race ended early. Because of this, Trump is likely to go dark as he focuses on catching up in fundraising, campaign infrastructure, and convention planning. For all his bluster, his campaign schedule even during the heat of the race was light - rarely doing more than one or two events a day - and now that he’s locked up the nomination, the idea of spending money on unnecessary rallies when so much needs to be done is unlikely. 

So with the media’s attention focused on California (and to a lesser extent New Jersey), the Clinton team should embrace this chance to dominate media coverage. Take the next twenty days to test drive her general election campaign themes, define her (and Trump) with the knowledge that she will generate an inordinate amount of national (and local) coverage simply because space needs to be filled -  so fill that space, with her message, with images of rallies and events with the diverse coalition that propelled President Obama to victory and interviews that give her a platform to speak with passion and fluency about how she will lead this country.

The return on investment from cross-country wins in New Jersey and California will not only snuff out the final embers of the Sanders insurgency, but springboard her into the fall campaign. 

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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Failing Upward

It does not suck to be Paul Ryan. He leads the largest Republican caucus in the House of Representatives since 1928 and come January, he will either be ramming through a legislative agenda at the behest of an inexperienced President Donald Trump or leading the opposition to anything President Hillary Clinton proposes while becoming the de facto leader in the clubhouse to run against her in 2020. It is a remarkable thing, made less so by the fawning and credulous coverage he receives by a DC media that frames him as both a serious policy wonk and someone unconcerned with political machinations. 

The former is perverse and the latter is baffling. A supposed budget hawk, Ryan has been in Congress for almost half his life and in that time voted for all the stuff that has increased our borrowing (wars, Medicare D expansion, tax cuts, etc.) and against all the stuff that reduces deficits and debt (tax hikes, Obamacare). A budget “framework” he introduced as chairman of that committee was so austere and crippling to the Social Security and Medicare safety net his own party refused to support it. As Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012, Ryan was reduced to playing the overeager student in a starched white shirt and striped rep tie while his own policy positions were shunted off to the side for fear of ostracizing moderate voters who like knowing they will have medical coverage in their golden years along with a check from Uncle Sam. 

You would think such a record would relegate Ryan to the dustbin of political history; instead, he became the Speaker of the House largely by not campaigning for the job after a rump group within his own caucus brought down John Boehner. With the rise of Donald Trump, the media have rekindled their romance with the P90X devotee. Back are the stories of him as a chart-loving nerd who cares passionately about the future of our country. Nowhere are the stories of how what he proposes is deeply unpopular and that his own votes in Congress have helped lead to the very problem he says he wants to solve. His tepid response to Trump is seen as principled, not political, with no evidence other than his own self-serving claims to that effect. 

Of course, things have worked out well for Ryan thus far even though his ideas are widely unpopular and given a national platform four years ago he barely made a ripple. Today, he has become the de facto leader of the Republican Party and a media darling who portray him as the last honest man in Washington. At this rate, Ryan may fail his way all the way to the White House. 

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Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Book Review - Life Reimagined

Like middle children, life’s second act often gets ignored. That window between about 40 and 60 lacks the excitement of youth and young adulthood or the finality of one’s golden years. In Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s Life Reimagined: The Science, Art & Opportunity of Midlife we get an exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) survey of this often paradoxical phase in our lives. On the one hand, “middle age” is in many ways a sweet spot of life - you are old enough to have learned many of life’s lessons and young enough to apply them, to look around a few corners anticipating blind alleys and avoiding them or directing your focus to the things you love. You are fully formed, or at least mostly so, secure in who you are and what defines you as a person. You may be married or divorced, a parent or childless, but you are at the peak of your earning power and far removed from the Ramen noodle diet you subsisted on in college. On the other hand, the suicide rate has skyrocketed among the middle-aged, divorce rates are ticking up, and research shows that happiness in life is “U” shaped, with the nadir smack dab in the middle sandwiched between peaks at the beginning and end. 

It makes sense. Middle age has both the nostalgia for lost youth and the fear of death, of paths not taken or too late to be started, of the risks we take if we divert from our established path. And this is where Hagerty rolls up her sleeves in an attempt to reframe these years in ways that people can make more enjoyable, more meaningful, and more explicable. Her tone is breezy and conversational, a gal pal who bops in and out of research clinics and first-person stories to weave a tale that focuses on everything from honing your mental acuity to the benefits of close personal friendships. If there is a common theme in Life it is engagement - that as we age, the importance of remaining present in our lives, of not pulling the sheet over our head and tuning out the world, but instead, re-committing ourselves to our own well being, our own growth, and what we can do to make our (personal) world a better place are the strategies we should adopt if we want to flatten that deep trough. 

It is an important subject taken seriously by a reporter who shows her chops, but it is also has the air of so many “first world problems.” Hagerty comes off as a plucky overachiever with a penchant for humble bragging. And that is fine - the book's target audience is surely demographically similar to Hagerty herself - well educated, upper middle class, and with the kind of resources and financial stability to contemplate the existential questions posed by middle age. And while I can certainly relate to this framing, I also found myself wondering how people of lesser means would view this book. Hagerty suffers from inflamed vocal cords but has the ability to seek out the finest medical practitioners to aid in her recovery. She breaks her collarbone in a bike accident along MacArther Boulevard (a tony section of suburban Washington, D.C.) but quickly hires a graduate student to help her with book research, a stenographer to take down interview notes, and a doting husband who tends to her. How many middle or lower income Americans could relate to this? 

An extended story about her brother (who we are reminded at least a half-dozen times is the owner of The Atlantic magazine) aiding in the rescue of journalists kidnapped abroad is meant to show his selflessness but comes off as self-promotion. Hagerty is also unapologetic about walking away from her own volunteer effort when it no longer "felt" right. Points for honesty, but I did cringe at the sentiment. Similarly, in a chapter that examines making changes in middle age, Hagerty uses as an example a woman who holds a Ph.D and has a husband able to support them both on his salary. Surely, that makes her desire for mid-career change less risky, but how realistic is that for most people? It is not to diminish the woman’s decision, it is just to say it is one that is foreclosed (or at least an incredible gamble) for those without that safety net.

Hagerty sprinkles some personal crumbs along the way - her laser focus on career, her later-in-life marriage, and childlessness, but the apple polishing on her own life is far more prevelant. Her great vacation, wonderful dog, and rich and successful brother garner ample page space but there is a part of the story that seems missing. Hagerty hints at this in briefly mentioning turbulence early on in her own marriage, but quickly moves on without further comment. It would have been far more interesting to hear more about those issues than pivoting away from that to how a two-week vacation (again, who among us can afford such a luxury or have an employer who would offer us one?) cemented how much she appreciated her husband.

Further, so much of what Hagerty writes about has the feeling of the exception proving the rule. Her case studies invariably support her thesis but failure is in  short supply. While there are many tales of survival and thriving, of barriers overcome and second chances accepted and rewarded, I worry that some false promise is there too - affluence affords a person a certain cushion against failure that they may not fully appreciate.

The book is told in short bites but is also over long at nearly 400 pages, particularly since a two-page afterword encapsulates much of the book's vibe without the lengthy descriptions of research studies and first-person accounts. In short, be engaged in your life with people you value and who value you, be charitable in meaningful ways, understand your limitations but do not stop challenging yourself, and keep your mind nimble and active to ward off dementia. All well meaning and intentioned, I am just not sure we needed so much book to tell us this.  

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