This entry is my second contribution to a debate with Joshua Foust about the recent arrest of Jamshid Muhtorov, as well as Uzbek militant movements more generally. As with the first, it is co-written with Lauren Morgan — but this time with less bombast and self-indulgence. To review the debate so far:
- Immediately following Muhtorov’s arrest, Foust wrote “The Crazy, Trumped Up Uzbek Hype” at Registan (Jan. 24)
- Our response: “Jamshid Muhtorov, the Islamic Jihad Union, and Joshua Foust” at Gunpowder & Lead (Jan. 30)
- Foust’s response to us: “The Merits of the Mukhtarov Case, and Why Skepticism Is Not Conspiracy” (Jan. 30)
Our article referred to Foust’s original contribution as “an epistemological wreck,” arguing that it made a number of claims that were either extremely hyperbolic or not supported by evidence. There were two parts to our argument. First, we argued that Muhtorov’s arrest did not constitute a “thought crime,” and that there was in fact probable cause for the arrest. Second, we argued that contrary to Foust’s original post, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), to which authorities allege Muhtorov was trying to provide material support, did in fact exist, and that there is reason to consider it a terrorist organization. On both of our points, Foust has either significantly backtracked or else conceded our points.
Probable Cause for Muhtorov’s Arrest
Foust’s original article argued that Muhtorov’s arrest amounted to “arresting people for sending emails… essentially criminalizing participation in a chat room.” In response, we quoted extensively from the arrest affidavit, establishing the panoply of facts from which authorities determined that Muhtorov was leaving the country to join up with the IJU — the act of going to join that organization constituting material support for a designated terrorist entity in contravention of U.S. law. We contrasted Muhtorov’s case with that of Youssef al Khattab, a big talker on the Internet who has spread militant Islamic propaganda from the U.S. — and has done so legally, his free speech rights protected.
In Foust’s rebuttal, he states that the area where we differ from him is “the presumption of Mukhtarov’s guilt.” This is plainly untrue. There is a significant difference between authorities having probable cause to make an arrest and proving a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt (which is the standard for conviction following a criminal trial, and also the area where a presumption of innocence becomes relevant). In fact, we made this point abundantly clear in our entry, noting that Foust has elsewhere asked “if the current charges are trumped up,” and explicitly calling this “a fair question.” It is quite clear that we do not presume guilt in this case: rather, it seems to us that there was probable cause to make the arrest, which is an entirely separate question from guilt or innocence.
Foust goes on to say that his objection to Muhtorov’s arrest was not that authorities lacked probable cause, but rather that the material-support law is itself flawed: “Mukhtarov does seem to have fallen afoul of the ‘material support’ laws in the U.S. My argument, poorly stated in that initial post, was that those laws are themselves inherently flawed.” We will take him at his word that this was the point he was trying to make — as Foust concedes, the fact that he was doing so was not entirely clear. But two problems remain with his argument. One is that, in critiquing the basis for Muhtorov’s arrest, Foust either improperly portrays or else simply does not understand what Muhtorov is being charged with. The second problem is that there may in fact be a better legal regime than the current material-support laws, but Foust proffers no alternative.
Foust’s inaccurate portrayal of the crimes with which Muhtorov is charged is clear when one reads Foust’s entry carefully:
While scolding me for reducing the Mukhtarov indictment to “crimes on a chatroom,” Daveed pulls from the indictment itself a list of crimes that include sending emails favorable of Juma Namangani and saying he supports the goals of a website administrator. I fail to see the distinction, even if he is working on semantics rather than specifics, between “email correspondence with a website administrator” and “crimes on a chatroom.”
Muhtorov’s reference to Namangani actually occurred in a phone call rather than an e-mail, but that is beside the point. The larger issue is that referring favorably to Namangani is not a crime, and Muhtorov is not being charged for doing so. If authorities tried to criminalize speaking favorably of Namangani, we would both oppose it, as that would be a clear contravention of the speech rights enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This is a vital distinction: the bullet pointed list that we took from the affidavit did not constitute “a list of crimes,” but rather a list of acts that put together gave authorities probable cause to make an arrest on the basis that Muhtorov was taking concrete action to join a designated terrorist group overseas, and support its activities. In his portrayal of this point, Foust is either being dishonest or else did not understand the distinction between acts and crimes: we assume it is the latter, both because it’s always best to assume good intentions in one’s debating opponents, and also because we have not known Foust to be purposefully dishonest in his previous writings. But informed critique of the material support laws is impossible without getting the basic facts right about the basis for an arrest under this statue.
Foust argues that “just because Mukhtarov said some scary things on the Internet, that doesn’t mean he committed any traditionally-defined crimes in doing so. To criminalize this sort of correspondence veers dangerously close to creating thought-crimes.”Again, the correspondence wasn’t criminalized — see the above-referenced case of Youssef al Khattab, which we also mentioned in our initial post, as it is instructive about the latitude individuals are given to “say scary things on the Internet,” in Foust’s parlance. Muhtorov’s arrest, rather, is based on multiple factors: what he said on the Internet about his desire to join the IJU, along with the fact that he immediately began searching for tickets to Turkey upon doing so, along with telephone conversations that further clarified his intentions with respect to the IJU, along with telling his daughter that she would never see him again except in heaven, along with quitting his job before finally purchasing his plane ticket to Turkey. Put together, this is not the criminalization of correspondence, but a case study in how various pieces of evidence that are indicative of intentions can combine to give authorities probable cause to believe that an overt (non-speech) act is a crime. Foust can still argue that the law should not allow an arrest under these circumstances, but the first step in any critique should be understanding how the law actually operates.
This brings us to the second problem with Foust’s critique of material-support laws: it critiques them without offering an alternative. Americans who have traveled overseas to join designated terrorist groups have in fact succeeded in killing people: two recent examples are Americans who executed suicide attacks in Somalia, Abdisalan Hussein Ali and Shirwa Ahmed. So, if the material-support laws are bad, what would be better? On one end of the spectrum we could have no material-support laws at all: Americans could have the right and ability to join and assist any violent non-state actor they choose, anywhere in the world. We do not think that such a legal regime would be an improvement on the present system. On the other hand, perhaps there is a revision to current material-support laws that would be be superior to what we have now. If that is Foust’s position, he would make the best contribution not just by calling the present law “dumb,” but by finding and proposing that superior alternative.
The Islamic Jihad Union
One particular reason that we decided to weigh in on this debate was Foust’s initial claim that the IJU didn’t actually exist. To quote Foust: “There’s this IJU group, which still doesn’t exist outside of some Internet chat rooms.” We replied by showing, at some length, that the IJU does exist, that it’s a real thing that has undertaken operations. Foust replies that the real issue is whether the IJU is capable of global reach: “Just because a group says it has global aspirations, that doesn’t mean they are capable of global action or warrant a global response…. So when Daveed says that I argued the IJU doesn’t exist, he’s misrepresenting my argument.” This is obviously a hard position to sustain: his initial post said that the IJU “doesn’t exist outside of some Internet chat rooms” — and proving in response that it does exist constitutes an on-point refutation. Thus, Foust’s co-blogger at Registan, Nathan Hamm, noted in the comments to Foust’s latter post: “I think it’s hard to say that Daveed is grossly misrepresenting your position when you, well, said these things.”
Indeed, the only way Foust’s observations about the IJU can fit with his original critique of the Muhtorov arrest is if the IJU isn’t a real group, or really shouldn’t be considered a terrorist organization, thus underscoring the injustice of the arrest. So Foust now concedes our point, that the IJU exists; but he goes on to claim that our position is that “the IJU is a really real thing that does stuff and is scary.” The “scariness” flourish is, of course, just that — a flourish. As we made clear in our first entry, neither of us consider the Provisional IRA to be “scary,” or “a threat to all peoples.” But it is real, and it supports and undertakes violence, and we are better off if our government does not give Americans carte blanche to assist the organization.
That is all we really need to establish with respect to the IJU: that it is real, and that it supports and undertakes militant activities, and so designating it is a rational decision. Whether the IJU is “capable of global action” or not is beside the point with respect to a discussion of Muhtorov’s arrest. But it is worth noting that, as with Muhtorov, the case that the IJU is a real organization that undertakes violence is not a matter of trusting what they say on the Internet. There have been arrests by multiple governments — not just Uzbekistan but also Germany and Turkey. (While Foust argues that there may be a distinction between the IJU and the “Islamic Jihad Group” behind the 2007 plot to set off explosives in Germany, he certainly does not prove this point, and the intelligence sources with whom we have spoken deny this distinction. Foust himself mentions that a multiplicity of languages are being spoken within IJU, which includes non-Uzbek speakers, and this fact can lend itself to multiple translations of the group’s name. Indeed, various other jihadi groups, including al Qaeda in Iraq, have operated under different names and operated different websites.) Moreover, with respect to IJU’s Internet claims, one can — as with Muhtorov — look to the intersection between what it is claiming and the facts on the ground. The IJU has been able to provide credible accounts of attacks in Afghanistan and drone strikes in Pakistan that suggests an inside knowledge of these incidents — so when American analysts put stock in these IJU claims, they are not just taking these groups at their word. Rather, they are judging the IJU’s claims in light of external evidence that can either verify or undermine those claims.
So our overarching point is that it seems the IJU was properly designated as a terrorist entity. Whether or not it is a “global threat” is a beside the point. We do not claim to be able to pinpoint exactly how powerful it is at present, in part because the IJU is an institution in flux, as are many violent non-state actors. But as we can see from AQAP’s remarkable advances over the past year in Yemen’s Abyan province, jihadi groups are capable of gaining momentum beyond what analysts expect. This is not to say that the IJU or IMU will do so — but rather that, when exploring such questions as the threat a group poses, some degree of humility should always be in order.
And that’s all, folks. Foust has backed down from the rather soaring claims of his first post, and has adopted a more moderate position that opposes current material-support laws. His representation of what those laws actually prohibit is imperfect, but this post hopefully clarifies for Foust the distinction between crimes and acts that his previous posts misapprehend. The area where Foust could take this discussion in the future is toward a more sustained critique of the material-support laws. But if he does that, it is our hope that he will try to contribute to the question of what he would prefer in their place.
As regular Gunpowder & Lead readers will know, one of my preferred genres of writing is known informally as the “evisceration.” My recent piece on Fawaz Gerges’s proclamation that al Qaeda has died is one example of this genre (the thrust of which is probably evident from its rather descriptive name). So over the weekend, I mentioned on Twitter that if I had time to eviscerate one piece written during the previous week, it would be an offering at Registan by Joshua Foust– my friend and frequent sparring partner – about the indictment of Jamshid Muhtorov, an Uzbek man living in Colorado, on terrorism charges (material support for the Islamic Jihad Union). Alas, I felt that I had no time to do such a thing: before I leave the continental U.S. on Thursday, I need to finish a major study on the tactical and strategic use of small arms by terrorist groups, finish editing a book on terrorism in Canada for which I am volume editor, write an academic piece on jihadi perceptions of the Arab Spring, write a book review, and teach my weekly course at the Catholic University of America.
When pressed by Foust on the fact that my tweet offered no actual refutation of his work, I demurred that I utterly lacked the time to get into a debate, but urged Foust to consider himself “THEORETICALLY EVISCERATED.” Not seeing the humor in such a concept (humor that I thought was obvious from the use of ALL CAPS), Foust insisted that theoretical eviscerations were “weak sauce,” and repeatedly goaded me for my unwillingness to write an actual refutation of his work. This prompted Lauren Morgan, who is sometimes known as my female alter-ego, to offer to assist me in writing a response to Foust, and give him the intellectual beat-down he was apparently pining for. Thus, I bring you…
The Evisceration of Joshua Foust
by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross & Lauren Morgan
Jamshid Muhtorov was arrested last week for allegedly providing and attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU). Immediately after the arrest, Joshua Foust wrote a rather unsubtly titled Registan entry, “The Crazy, Trumped Up Uzbek Hype.” In it, Foust argues that the case against Muhtorov is based upon weak evidence, and argues that the group Muhtorov allegedly supported in fact “doesn’t exist outside of some Internet chat rooms.”
The major problem with Foust’s piece is that it is an epistemological wreck, littered with claims that either he has no way of knowing or are simply unproven, while employing a style that smacks of absolute certitude. This is not the first time one of us has called Foust out for an article that makes epistemological errors; and doing so may in some small way enhance the public sphere. As C.J. Chivers wrote in his excellent review of Foust’s book Afghanistan Journal: “The collection bluntly challenges many of the people, in and out of the military, organizing or speaking for the war, and submits their assumptions to a determined inquiry…. If Mr. Foust were to have a slogan, it might be this: ‘What’s your evidence?’” In our view, it is important for Foust to apply that same standard — one demanding evidence for all assertions — to his own work outside the context of Afghanistan. Our critique of Foust’s contribution to the debate over the Muhtorov case is just that that: “What’s your evidence?”
Criminalizing Participation in a Chat Room?
Foust argues that the facts alleged in the arrest affidavit represent “awfully thin stuff for a terrorism investigation — essentially criminalizing participation in a chat room.” Taking the affidavit at face value (which one must do in determining whether its allegations are “thin stuff”), it is a remarkable exaggeration to say that it amounts to the criminalization of participation in a chat room. Beside the rather obvious problem that the complaint never once mentions chat rooms, the allegations show that this is not a case about freedom of expression. According to the indictment:
- Muhtorov began e-mail correspondence with the administrator (named Muhammad) of the IJU-affiliated website http://www.sodiqlar.com on February 5, 2011.
- In a phone call on March 8, 2011, Muhtorov informed an associate that the IJU (“our guys over there”) is in need of support. He specifically referenced Juma Namangani, one of the founders of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), before being warned by his associate that he shouldn’t mention Namangani because the call may be subjected to surveillance.
- On March 22-23, 2011, Muhtorov made bay’ah (an oath of allegiance) to the IJU, and told Muhammad that he was “ready for any task, even with the risk of dying.” Muhammad would later tell Muhtorov that the pledge of bay’ah had been passed on to the group’s leadership.
- Beginning in April 2011, Muhtorov repeatedly told Muhammad that an associate wanted to send along money for a “wedding gift” (the affidavit notes that the out-of-place reference to a “wedding” was likely “code for a terrorist event or attack”), and became agitated when he heard that the “master of ceremonies” was unable to communicate with him directly.
- Muhtorov began looking for one-way flights to Istanbul in May 2011, but instead of purchasing one immediately, he began working long hours.
- On July 25, 2011, Muhtorov spoke to his daughter on the phone, telling her he would never see her again, but that “if she was a good Muslim girl, he will see her in heaven.”
- Finally, in January 2012, Muhtorov quits his job and purchases a one-way ticket to Istanbul, scheduled to leave January 21, 2012 at 5:25 p.m. CST.
In other words, according to the arrest affidavit, it seems that Muhtorov opened up communications with the administrator of an IJU website, spoke favorably of Juma Namangani, committed himself to IJU in an electronic pledge of bay’at, wanted to send money to IJU, quit his job, and was preparing to travel abroad when he was arrested — after telling his daughter that she would only see him again in heaven. Unless there are some very bizarre circumstances that explain this behavior, it seems there was probable cause for the U.S. to arrest him. Foust can argue that Muhtorov’s situation should have played out longer, and investigators should have gathered more information, but given that he was actively preparing to leave the U.S., it’s uncertain what the authorities were supposed to do.
There is an obvious difference between an individual who expresses sympathy for a terrorist organization or creates Internet fodder promoting their ideologies (take, for example, the case of Youssef al Khattab) and an individual who has made bay’ah to an organization, and has purchased a one-way ticket to leave the U.S. and join said organization. The Constitution guarantees freedom of speech; it does not guarantee citizens the right to travel abroad to join a foreign terrorist organization.
Elsewhere, Foust asks if the current charges are trumped up. While this is a fair question, Foust would do a service to his readers — and best assist them in actually approaching the question — by fairly portraying the facts of the case rather than jumping to the most hyperbolic conclusion.
Does the Islamic Jihad Union Not Actually Exist?
Foust argues that the IJU “doesn’t exist outside of some Internet chat rooms,” stating that the IJU is only alleged to have ever done one thing, “some bombings in Tashkent in 2004,” and that this could have simply been made up by the Uzbek government. (For the record, we both agree with Foust that the Uzbek government’s claims should not be taken at face value — but that doesn’t settle the issue, as we will explain.) The 2004 Tashkent bombings are in fact the only thing the IJU is alleged to have done on page 2 of the arrest affidavit, but there is more on page 3:
- “In September 2007, German authorities arrested three IJU operatives, disrupting a plot against unidentified U.S. or Western facilities in Germany. The IJU operatives had acquired about 700 kg of hydrogen peroxide and an explosives precursor, which was enough raw material to make the equivalent about about 1,200 pounds of TNT. The IJU claimed responsibility for the foiled plot.”
- “The IJU has claimed responsibility for attacks on Coalition forces in Afghanistan in 2008, including a March 2008 suicide attack against a U.S. military post purportedly carried out by a German-born Turk.”
- “In April 2009, Turkish authorities seized weapons and detained extremists with ties to the IJU. The IJU has also claimed responsibility for a May 2009 attack in Uzbekistan and numerous attacks in Afghanistan against coalition forces.”
So it really cannot come down to security officials simply being duped by the Uzbekistan government; it is not just Uzbekistan that is trumping the IJU as a real thing, but also Germany, Turkey, and the IJU itself. They could all be wrong, of course, but we are talking about more than the U.S. just accepting Uzbekistan’s word. (Nor is it accurate to say, as Foust claims in this section, that the designation of the IJU “made it a crime to communicate with them” — the material support statute plainly does not prohibit communication with designated entities.)
But Foust provides a link when he says that the IJU doesn’t exist — maybe it brings us to a piece that definitively shows that the IJU is a fiction? Clicking through, you get this analysis by Foust. Does it prove that the IJU isn’t a real thing? Well, let me quote: “None of this means the IJU is an actual hoax.” That’s right: Foust manages to misquote his own work in arguing that the IJU does not exist.
The other thing Foust takes issue with is the depiction of the IMU as being a “global jihadi movement” (something that JZ Adams claimed in the Asia Times). Adams wrote that the IMU “evolved from being a group focused on overthrowing the ‘apostate’ regime of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan in the late 1990s and early 2000s into the global jihadi movement that it is now.” In response, Foust writes that it is “patently ridiculous to call the IMU a ‘global jihad threat.’” Now, if you compare those quotes carefully, you will see that Foust’s direct quote of Adams actually misquotes him. Adams didn’t write that the IMU is a “global jihad threat,” but rather that it had evolved from a regional focus into being part of the “global jihadi movement.” This misquotation is actually significant because the question of whether IMU is positioning itself as part of the global jihadi movement is separate from the question of whether it should be seen as a “global threat.”
Why are the IMU and IJU seen as being global in outlook? It is not because of “crazy, trumped up Uzbek hype” (though someone somewhere will certainly hype virtually any issue under the sun), but rather because both groups are actively portraying themselves that way, and reaching out to the global jihadi movement. Significant in this regard are the photos circulating on jihadi websites of IJU amir Abdullah Fatih meeting with high-level al Qaeda leader Abu Yahya al Libi.* In August 2011, the IJU claimed that three of their members were martyred by a drone strike in Pakistan. Then there’s this March 2011 statement from IJU expressing solidarity with the mujahedin in the Caucasus region.
Further, both the IJU and IMU have been actively seeking recruits in Europe, Germany in particular. (The IJU’s Eric Breininger hailed from Saarland, Germany.) Indeed, in the middle of this month German officials arrested a man of Afghan descent and charged him with recruiting for the IMU. In reaching European jihadists, Uzbek militant groups have emphasized the role the Khurasan region plays in Islamic end-times prophecy. This region comprises parts of modern-day Afghanistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, and is mentioned in multiple ahadith. The late Syed Saleem Shahzad opened his book Inside Al Qaeda and the Taliban by emphasizing the importance of this region to Islamic militant groups: “Khurasan was to be the first battleground for the End of Time battles, before a decisive confrontation against the West, with the last battle being fought in the Middle East for the liberation of Palestine and all occupied Muslim lands.”
The evidence goes on: the point is that the perception of these groups being global in outlook comes not from the Uzbek government, but from the groups themselves.
Foust has repeatedly criticized the idea that “Uzbeks are scary,” and on Twitter he commented to us, “I await hearing how the IJU is a threat to all peoples!” This is part of the problem when you are discussing a legal case, as Foust is here. Neither of us find the Irish to be scary, nor do we believe that the IRA is “a threat to all peoples” — but that doesn’t mean that Americans have the right to join the IRA and assist its militant activities. Nor is the idea that the IJU simply doesn’t exist self-evident when IJU leaders had met with Abu Yahya al Libi, and multiple governments have arrested its members. The least that can be said about Foust’s contribution is that it goes far, far beyond any conclusions that the evidence can sustain.
But the bigger, and far more important lesson is that you should never beg Daveed Gartenstein-Ross to eviscerate you over Twitter.
* Note: Previous version prior to correction said that Eric Breininger, and not Fatih, had met with al Libi. A video of the meeting had improperly been labeled “Eric Breininger und Abu Yahya al Libi,” but a subsequent archival search made clear that the meeting had featured Fatih rather than Breininger. Thanks to Kévin Jackson for pointing out the error.
This afternoon, the Pentagon will put some more meat on the bones of its recently released strategic guidance. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff GEN Martin Dempsey will release the DoD FY13 budget request and unveil the specific programs that will not survive approximately $487 billion in budget cuts. Shortly thereafter, we’ll probably get something similar to Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Buck McKeon’s statement in response to the strategic guidance:
This is a lead from behind strategy for a left-behind America. The President has packaged our retreat from the world in the guise of a new strategy to mask his divestment of our military and national defense. This strategy ensures American decline in exchange for more failed domestic programs. In order to justify massive cuts to our military, he has revoked the guarantee that America will support our allies, defend our interests, and defy our opponents. The President must understand that the world has always had, and will always have a leader. As America steps back, someone else will step forward. (Emphasis mine.)
Former George W. Bush DoD comptroller and current Mitt Romney foreign policy adviser Dov Zakheim had this to say in response to the State of the Union:
He claimed that our alliances were stronger than ever, but glossed over the fact that there is deep unease in Europe over the administration’s much ballyhooed “pivot” to Asia. As for that pivot, to which the president did refer, it currently amounts to the redeployment, on a rotating basis, of a grand total of 2,500 Marines to Australia.
The president said very little about his defense budget cuts. He did not explain how America would retain all its commitments worldwide with a shrunken force that his own secretary of defense has lamented. He did not, of course, note that defense is paying for half the deficit reduction while its budget constitutes a fifth of all federal spending each year, when off-budget entitlements are counted, as they should be. (Emphasis mine.)
These statements reflect the almost axiomatic idea that the United States of America can and should continue to organize, train, and equip a military that provides security for everyone, everywhere. This is not a partisan concept; this has been central to defense policy since the early days of the Cold War and hasn’t budged since. In the post-Cold War era, conservatives of various stripes have championed the use of American military power for outright imperialism while liberals have championed its use under the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. American involvement in Libya in early 2011 demonstrated that the two sides had very different notions of how American involvement played out, but not about involvement itself. Of course we should get involved; that’s what we do.
I want to explore a prominent theme in McKeon’s statement and the larger GOP establishment view on the role and size of America’s military: the idea that commitments made sixty years ago cannot and should not be reevaluated.
Let’s take Europe as an example. Today, roughly twenty years after the end of the Cold War, there are 41,000 American soldiers permanently stationed on the European continent (this figure does not even include personnel from the other three services). As a result of the strategic review and the budget cuts, two Brigade Combat Teams — roughly 10,000 soldiers — are set to withdraw from Europe and may be cut entirely as the army shrinks below 500,000 active duty soldiers. Aside from the Charlie Foxtrot known as the single currency, the European continent is remarkably stable and the threat of conventional war between major states is very low. On the other hand, Asia is emerging as a region where the United States has greater interests and the threat of conflict is higher (how much higher is very much up for debate and I offer no assessment here). Would it not be more prudent to either re-position those forces to another theater? Or, if that theatre is not conducive to hosting large numbers of ground forces, would it not be more prudent to station those troops on United States territory? As an aside, the 41,000 army soldiers in Europe and their 100,000 dependents aren’t stimulating the American economy by spending their disposable income in Germany and Italy.
The point is that defense strategy can’t be frozen in time and it can’t be promulgated and then left alone. Strategy is an iterative process that requires adjustments and tweaks as realities change. The international system and United States fiscal realities are not static. Why then would defense policy remain static? I understand that the United States made a commitment to the defense of Europe during the Cold War, but is that still a valid and necessary requirement? If so, is the permanent basing of 41,000 soldiers in Europe necessary to meeting that requirement? Might say, the designating the XVIII Airborne Corps and II Marine Expeditionary Force, both of which are based on the East Coast and quick reaction forces (of sorts), responsible for operations in Europe? This commitment has underwritten Europe’s security and enabled European governments to vastly scale back their own defense spending. Since the end of the Cold War, what tangible security benefits has this commitment made to the security of American citizens?
We can no longer pretend to be able to afford to be the global guarantor of security while our own society becomes increasingly fragmented. With that realization should come the painful but necessary reexamination of our strategic priorities. If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority. Commitments made sixty years ago may no longer serve our needs, and those commitments cannot be held untouchable in budgetary or strategic debates. We just can’t afford it.
UPDATE: You can see Rep. McKeon’s response to the announcement here.
On January 4 2012, Boeing announced that it would be shuttering its Wichita plant at the end of 2013, prior to beginning construction on the KC-X tanker contract that it had finally won in February of 2011.
“The decision to close our Wichita facility was difficult but ultimately was based on a thorough study of the current and future market environment and our ability to remain competitive while meeting our customers’ needs with the best and most affordable solutions,” –Mark Bass, Vice President and General Manager for Boeing
If you are unfamiliar with the KC-X Tanker debacle that has literally lasted the last decade, you can catch up on it here, here, here and here. I should also note that while it was designated KC-X for the majority of the last 10 years, it has now been given the formal designation of KC-46 by the USAF.
The short version is that the US Air Force has been trying to decide whether their next tanker should be the Boeing 767 or the Airbus A330 for the last decade. The program has been started, stopped and restarted so many times that its almost impossible to keep count. People have been sent to jail over it, millions of dollars have been wasted on it and yet, to date not a single plane has been built.
However, thats not actually the point of this post…
I want to focus on the closing of the Wichita plant and use it to highlight exactly how large-scale defense acquisition decisions are actually made. While Kansas and Boeing have played a key role for the duration of the debacle, I really want to focus in on roughly the last 5 years or so. So, first, in the interest of full disclosure, let me lay this part out: I am originally from Kansas and my entire family still lives there. Several members of my extended family live and work in Wichita, one of them directly for a aircraft manufacturer (not Boeing). Suffice to say, the politics behind the KC-X competition have been the backdrop for much spirited discussion over the years with my family.
Additionally, you need to understand a few things about Wichita. The first is that the aircraft manufacturing industry is far and away the largest employment sector in the city. Its a huge industry made up of several companies and everyone who lives in and around Wichita is routinely effected by it. Wichita even bills itself as ‘The Air Capital of the World.‘ Understandably, since aircraft manufacturing is such a large part of the local economy, community and state politicians are constantly looking for ways to promote the industry and steer new customers to the city. New work means more gainfully employed citizens and corporations generating higher profits, both of which (at least in theory) translate into higher tax revenue for the city and state. Additionally, military work has an added benefit of allowing politicians to campaign on the basis of national security contributions made during their terms. For their part, the corporations are happy to accept the assistance from politicians and routinely do their part to keep campaign contributions flowing. Boeing is routinely the largest reelection campaign contributor for Kansas politicians. (Also, check out Gulliver with a corollary to this topic over here)
So, thats the simple backdrop for the last 10 years of KC-X Tanker competition. Over the entire duration, Kansas politicians continuously tried to steer the award to Boeing on the promise that the tanker would be constructed/modified at the Wichita plant…
<<Seriously, if you don’t know this whole KC-X story, go back and read Shane Harris’s great piece on it. I’m glossing over the earliest, juciest ‘lease the planes’ fiasco that ran from ~2002-2005 that landed Darlene Druryen in the pokey for 9 months, got the CFO of Boeing fired, sent to jail *and* cost the company $615 million in fines. Also, the hero of that story is a young, idealistic Arizona upstart by the name of Johnny McCain.>>
…now, the fact that if Boeing won the award the tanker was going to be built in Wichita was not some kind of smoky backroom deal made between Kansas politicians and Boeing executives. This was an explicitly stated fact. Here are some excerpts from Boeing press material from April of 2010.
TOPEKA, Kan., April 30, 2010 — The Boeing Company [NYSE: BA] today announced that Kansas will benefit from approximately 7,500 jobs and an estimated $388 million in annual economic impact if the Boeing NewGen Tanker is selected as the U.S. Air Force’s next aerial refueling aircraft.
“The national recession has hit the aviation industry hard, with thousands of Kansans out of work,” said Gov. Mark Parkinson. “The jobs from this contract can provide meaningful economic recovery to our state and country. The delays on this project have been frustrating, and unnecessary. I urge our military leaders to act swiftly and award this contract to Boeing. It’s time we bring these jobs home to Kansas.”
“I am confident that the Air Force will select Boeing to build its new tanker because I know the strength of the Kansas work force. Our workers will provide the skills and expertise that a new generation of airmen will depend on to keep America secure,” said U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback. “I am excited for Boeing to win the contract and get these tankers rolling off of the line, and excited that we are working together to create new jobs in Kansas and grow the Kansas economy.”
“This announcement today confirms what we all know to be true, that Boeing will make the best next-generation aerial refueling tanker. Boeing’s proposal is based on a proven platform founded on the expertise of a well-established pool of skilled workers,” said U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts. ”The tanker proposal must be based on a level playing field and not construed to accommodate the business needs of an illegally subsidized company at the sacrifice of American servicemembers.”
“While unemployment remains high and our economy is still sluggish, nothing is more welcome news than a possible 7,500 jobs coming to Kansas. An American tanker should be built by an American company with American workers — and that is the Boeing 767 — made by our highly skilled workers here in Kansas,” said U.S. Congressman Todd Tiahrt. “I will continue to press the Pentagon for a fair and level playing field for our American workers. With an equal competition, there is no doubt that U.S. workers can compete and win this tanker contract. I look forward to seeing these high-quality jobs come home to the Sunflower State very soon.”
In addition to the 2,586 Boeing employees in Kansas, the company also works with 464 suppliers/vendors around the state, resulting in an estimated $3 billion in annual economic impact and supporting an estimated 125,000 direct and indirect Kansas jobs.
(emphasis on key quotes and politicians names’ mine)
Now, go back and carefully read the politicians’ quotes. Did you see the part where it said that the Boeing proposal represented the best value for the US Air Force and American taxpayers? Did you see the part where they emphasize the need to maintain a certain level of defense industrial manufacturing capability as a component of national security? Nope? Did you see the part where each and every one of these (Republican) politicians emphasizes how this funding will stimulate the local economy and create jobs in an economic downturn? Ahh….there it is. Here my friends, here is the real story. The KC-X competition turned 6 Republicans from the reddest of red states into unabashed disciples of John Maynard Keynes.
Here is the other way to illustrate my point. Go back and review the quotes above you will see a couple of veiled references to unfair competition between Boeing (the “Americans”) and EADS (the “foreigners). The recurring mantra for Boeing and their supporters was that the competition was inherently unfair because EADS/Airbus was subsidized by European countries and therefore their bid had an inherent advantage (FTR, the truth is much more complex and the World Trade Organization found that both companies benefited from a range of government subsidies). Loren Thompson even wrote a somewhat mind-bending post where he states that closing the factory in Wichita is the fault of the US Air Force (and the Obama administration?) for having the gall to try and get their tankers at the lowest price and not allowing Boeing to build in their normal profit margins (yes, seriously).
The acquisition strategy that the Obama Administration put together to finally break the impasse over purchase of a new tanker was what people in the defense business call a “price shootout.” In other words, price was the key determinant of who won, because both bidders met all the other criteria for selection.
Subsidies were the main reason why the European company thought it could beat Boeing in its home market to win the tanker program. And they were the reason why Boeing management was convinced it had to bid very aggressively if it was to have any hope of besting its rival.
Pentagon acquisition officials were able to brag that they had secured a new generation of aerial-refueling tankers for less money than anyone thought possible. But here’s the downside: Boeing ended up having to cut costs everywhere it could to avoid losing money on the tanker program, including Wichita. Keeping an under-utilized, high-cost facility in the production mix would have eroded the program’s already razor-thin profit margin. With Boeing’s resources over-stretched trying to match Airbus’s heavily subsidized development efforts on the commercial side, Wichita had to go. If I was one of the workers in Wichita, I’d feel betrayed too. But having watched the way the tanker competition played out in the nation’s capital, it’s obvious to me why Boeing couldn’t afford to be sentimental.
Focus hard on what Loren Thompson is actually arguing here. He is stating that an acquisition program designed with realistic technical criteria that drives industry to compete on price is a dangerous thing. He also implies that the primary motivation of the Pentagon program managers was to be able to brag about how much money they had saved on this program (I wish).
Additionally, consider the “anti-subsidies” argument that Loren Thompson (and many others) put forth against EADS. He is implying that the US government should not have allowed the cost of a giant defense acquisition program to be defrayed by previous investments from the governments of our European allies. That if we would have just allowed for a “level playing field” that this wouldn’t have been a problem and the Wichita facility could have stayed open. Now, I certainly agree that corporations need to adhere to laws surrounding international trade, but that isn’t really what he is saying. Loren Thompson is basically saying that we have to prioritize “American” jobs over a frugal defense acquisitions community. I use the quotes, because in this case had EADS won the award, they were formally committed to building a new plant in Mobile, Alabama. Thus they would have also produced American jobs.
<<Thought experiment: Imagine the outcry if EADS would have won the latest contract and then stated that instead of building a factory in Mobile, Alabama they were just going to use their existing one in Dresden, Germany.>>
So, just what lengths did the delegation from Kansas go to in order to assure that the KC-X was awarded to Boeing? Well, after the USAF awarded the contract to Northrup/EADS in Feb of 2008, they actually introduced bills (H.R. 5298 and S.3361) that would have essentially made it illegal for anyone but Boeing to win.
WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Pat Roberts (R-KS) today introduced the KC-X Tanker Recompete Act. Representative Todd Tiahrt (R-KS) introduced companion legislation in the House. The legislation would prohibit use of any funds by the Department of Defense on the KC-Tanker unless the DoD chooses to outright award the KC-X tanker to Boeing or decides to fairly recompete the KC-X contract using the KC-135 criteria.
“The fastest way for the Air Force to get a new tanker is to award the contract to Boeing,” said Senator Brownback. “If the Air Force instead chooses to rebid the contract, this legislation would ensure a new competition assesses all of the relevant factors, including subsidies and foreign corruption. Only a thorough and complete assessment of tanker proposals will prevent further delays in the tanker replacement program.”
Representative Tiahrt said, “The Air Force used a flawed and incompetent process to evaluate the original KC-X tanker proposal. There is no way to get around this fact. My bill offers two choices. The Air Force can either award the contract to Boeing, the company that meets all the requirements set forth by the Air Force. Or, the Air Force can rebid the tanker contract on a fair and level playing field—the way it should have been done the first time. I urge the Air Force to respond quickly and not delay awarding the contract to Boeing, which represents the best tanker for the Air Force and the American taxpayer.”
“The full GAO report is in and it is now clear that the Air Force made critical mistakes and chose the wrong plane for our men and women in uniform, for our nation and for our Kansas workers,” Senator Roberts said. “It is time to get this contract awarded fair and square. Our bill will keep the Department of Defense from spending one dollar on the tanker unless it goes to the group that best meets the Air Force’s criteria. The GAO report indicates that this should be an easy decision for the Air Force.” [source]
According to the GAO press release, the Air Force did screw the pooch on this solicitation. However, the reasons were technical, programmatic and accounting. They had nothing to do with illegal subsidies. Also, the GAO report in no way states that the Air Force choose the wrong contractor, only that their process was flawed and that they *may* have chosen the wrong contractor.
Now, Kansas politicians may not actually be worse than any other politicians; as a matter of fact, Norm Dicks (D-WA) was actually known as ‘The Congressmen from Boeing.’ I just want to use them to illustrate a larger point. In this case, they had a very understandable motivation to bring business, especially lucrative government business to Kansas. The problem is this motivation trumped their responsibility to the national interests that they are also pledged to represent. Their motivation is actually for the federal government to spend as much as possible on programs that benefit their district since the taxes to fund it are collected from across all 50 states and then focused on their state. The real issue is that KC-X was not the exception. It is just one example of many programs across the federal government that work much the same way. Politicians, enabled by a legion of lobbyists, think tanks, and corporate PR people participate in variations of this process all the time.
If you pay attention to defense spending at all, you are probably saying something along the lines of “duh” right now. I know this isn’t exactly a shocking revelation, but my concern is that it should be. It seems that we have lost our capacity to be appalled. There have been millions (billions) of dollars spent on the KC-X competition over the last 10 years and that money has not yet trickled down to any of the working class people that these politicians were so quick to point to as the beneficiaries. Instead, this money has gone into the pockets of people who produce nothing more than PR campaigns, PowerPoint Slides and “parting gifts.”
So, going back to the factory in Wichita, what should we take away from this? Well, lets ask some of those Kansas politicians that fought so hard for it…
…Boeing pledged that a win would bring approximately 7,500 jobs to Kansas, including hundreds of Boeing jobs associated with the finishing work on the new tankers. It is hard to believe that conditions would have changed so rapidly over the past few months to bring about the decision to not only move the tanker finishing work elsewhere, but to also close down the entire facility. The fact that Boeing is now refusing to honor its commitment to the people of Kansas is greatly troubling to me and to thousands of Kansans who trusted that Boeing’s promise would be kept.
I have urged Boeing leadership to meet with state and local officials to discuss alternatives to the closure of its facility. To my dismay, Boeing’s senior leadership chose not to meet with local Wichita officials or even give them a serious opportunity to work together on a different plan for the future. I am astonished Boeing would make such a hasty decision without considering all of the alternatives or the significant impact this decision will have. [Sen Jerry Moran R-KS]
Regrettably, we have now learned that Boeing will not only walk away from its commitment to the people of Kansas to finish the KC-46A tanker here, but it will also leave the state altogether—a state that helped make Boeing successful for more than 80 years and a state whose pride in its heritage with Boeing is second to none. Do not be fooled by Boeing’s announcement that it will continue to rely on sub-supplier work in Kansas. While economically important, that development is not news. That work in no way substitutes for the decade of promises made by the Boeing Company with regard to defense work on the KC-46A tanker at the Boeing-Wichita facility.
As I have said repeatedly—both publicly and to Boeing—Boeing, like every company, has the right to change its business plans and operate in the best interests of its stakeholders. What neither Boeing, nor any other company, has the right to do is make false statements, violate long-held commitments to communities or to receive federal contracts based on representations that it knows are not accurate. The fact that Boeing now appears determined to leave our state will not prevent me from seeking to hold the company accountable for its promises and commitments. [Rep Mike Pompeo R-KS]
Its seems pretty clear that these politicians now realize that they were played by Boeing. They understand that the decision to close the Wichita plant has been in the works since well in advance of the KC-X contract award. They also recognize that at this point, they have no real recourse against Boeing. Despite the implications from the Kansas delegation, I assure you that there is nothing in the KC-X contract that states that the aircraft will be assembled in Kansas. Boeing may very well have broken, “promises and commitments” but they did not break any contractual obligations. The fact is, Boeing and the Kansas politicians always had two very different goals. Boeings’ goal was to be awarded $35 billion dollars worth of work and to have the largest possible percentage of that go into profits. The politicians’ goal was to have the largest percentage of defense dollars possible come to their state. When those two goals overlap it gives the appearance that they are on a team. When those goals diverge you get what happened in Wichita.
For the record, I have no idea how to solve this issue. Saying Congress should stay out of these decisions is easy, but it’s not realistic. Saying that corporations should be less concerned with profits and more invested in communities is probably equally naive. The reality is that unless there is more sincere public scrutiny on the machinations of large government awards this kind of activity will continue. The real shame in this case is that neither the Kansas politicians nor Boeing writ large will actually suffer any true damage from this decision. The only people that are going to pay the price are the Boeing workers of Wichita who are being laid off by their employer and should be embarrassed by their elected officials.
Just because someone’s willing to die for their country doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to protect them.
Joshua Foust and Zack Beauchamp had an argument on Twitter this morning about the morality of drones, one that has already inspired this Atlantic piece by Foust (which is worth a read on the moral implications not just of drones specifically, but of our nation’s global counterterrorism initiative as a whole). I saw the debate a little after it happened, a lengthy back-and-forth between the two of them, with occasional comments from others I follow, plus a few retweets by Foust or Beauchamp of comments from people I don’t. I thought both had moments of clear, serious argumentation, as well as the occasional minor cheat, but overall the conversation was interesting and brought up a number of issues with broader applications, beyond the realm of drones (a number of which were addressed at greater length by Foust in the Atlantic piece).
There was one claim that cropped up around the edges of the argument–especially in some of the outside comments on the debate–that niggled at me: specifically, the idea that because individuals accept inherent dangers when joining the military, up to and including the potential loss of their own lives in the course of duty, then decision-makers are not under obligation to avoid exposing them to risk.
This is wrong. It is at the heart of the civil-military bargain that precisely because these men and women commit to service and bear the risks it entails, the rest of society–represented by our policymakers–has an obligation to take those risks seriously. The primary thing society owes to service members is not to put their lives in danger lightly, to respect their willingness to put themselves at risk and not take advantage of it foolishly or for no clear end. To say that because they agree to the risks, we don’t need to factor in the degree to which our political, strategic, or operational choices will put them in harm’s way, is unacceptable. There will be risk, and in war it is inevitable that many members of the military will be put in harm’s way, but why, and when, and to what degree must be considered by the decision-makers among the many factors that determine what wars we choose to wage, and how we choose to wage them.
UPDATE: The internet being known as Petulant Skeptic made the very solid point that there are a number of other examples of professions/situations where enormous sacrifice might be asked of people, but their lives are not risked without serious consideration. With his permission, I will quote him directly:
Police aren’t asked to individually rush into drug dens. First rule of search and rescue is that you don’t put the rescuers at risk. Firefighters don’t rush into buildings they know will collapse.
Point being that when people accept great risk to themselves, they can commonly have an expectation that this willingness to sacrifice will not be exploited without all available precautions and forethought.
ADDITIONAL UPDATE: In response to this post, James Joyner posted a link to his truly excellent piece in the American Conservative that covers similar territory to this in much greater depth. I wish I had thought to include a link to it in this in the first place, because it is one of the best things I’ve read on civil-military relations.
German authorities recently uncovered a strategy paper drafted by al Qaeda’s leadership in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area that describes its war-of-attrition strategy against the West. From German daily Der Tagesspiegel on January 23 (translation via Open Source Center):
According to information obtained by Der Tagesspiegel, terror organization al-Qa’ida plans to fight a war of attrition against Germany and other Western states. Security sources say that a strategy paper drafted by the al-Qa’ida leadership based in the Pakistani-Afghan border area suggests that a combination of smaller and larger attacks “will drive the enemy to despair.” Other documents describe the taking and subsequent killing of hostages, the use of toxic substances, and how to give cover to fighters smuggled in.
Al-Qa’ida expects that growing fear among the general population and increasing reprisals on the part of the security authorities will marginalize Muslims. As a result of such escalation, Muslims will join the Holy War in ever larger numbers, security sources quote from the papers.
These documents, hidden in coded electronic files, were discovered by Germany’s Federal Office of Criminal Investigation on a 22-year-old Austrian citizen who was presumed to be an al Qaeda member, Maqsood L. (It is the custom of German authorities to withhold the full last name of suspects.) German authorities arrested Maqsood L. and a 26-year-old Turkish-German from Berlin named Yusuf O. in May of last year, and both face trial beginning Jan. 25; given the date of arrest, the strategy paper referenced above was almost certainly drafted prior to Osama bin Laden’s death. Der Tagesspiegel notes: “Security experts stress that some of the documents have given the German authorities a first-ever insight into the strategic planning as pursued by the al-Qa’ida leadership.”
This strategy won’t come as a surprise to readers of Bin Laden’s Legacy, but data points providing a glimpse of how al Qaeda’s senior leadership views its conflict against the West that a) come from the leadership itself, and b) are internal to al Qaeda rather than intended for wider public consumption, are rare in the open source. Moreover, this strategy paper shows that the group continues to depend on the West’s reactions to advance its objectives, demonstrated by its expectation that “increasing reprisals on the part of the security authorities will marginalize Muslims,” thus causing more Muslims to flock to al Qaeda’s jihad. I won’t reiterate the idea of al Qaeda’s rope-a-dope here, but it is worth being cognizant of to understand how the jihadi group used American reactions to strengthen its own hand over the past decade.
I like nuance as much as the next guy, but sometimes something is either right or it’s wrong.
Like many people, I was disturbed this week to hear about the video-recorded incident wherein a few Marines urinated on the corpses of what are purported to be Taliban fighters. And I was angry to hear about Mossad’s alleged ‘false flag’ operation, using American money and passports to pose as CIA when hiring terrorists. These two incidents are disturbing enough in and of themselves, but the defenses, justifications, and equivocations I have heard around them are what spurred me to write.
What those Marines did was wrong. There is no argument you can make that can make it not wrong, though plenty of people seem to be trying. Some have argued that the Taliban do much worse to any dead soldiers they get their hands on. Well, are the Taliban really the role models we want to be following? We are not in the business of trying to be more like the Taliban. I hear this sort of argument used regularly to justify the more questionable activities undertaken by our government in the name of national security, and I find it baffling. Why would the fact that al Qaeda, or the Taliban, or al-Shabaab, or any other like organization, does something serve as our justification for doing the same? Are we not fighting them on the premise that what they do is wrong and criminal and they must be stopped? If that is the case, why would we ever seek to emulate them? And if it’s not the case, what are we doing fighting them?
Many also have made the point that terrible things happen in war; that this type of incident is not new; that war is not sanitary or palatable; that it is ugly, and crude, and people do unspeakable things in its course. This is all true. Horrible things happen in war. However, we can understand and acknowledge that fact without letting go of our striving to be better.
In justifying the ‘false flag’ operation, people leap to Israel’s defense by stating that e.g., Pakistan, or Afghanistan, has been a much worse ally to the United State. Even taking at its face the argument that, to use a favorite example of these arguers, Pakistan has been an overall less reliable ally to the US than Israel, that doesn’t change the fact that what Israel is alleged to have done is wrong and no way to treat your staunchest ally. It isn’t a ‘Crappiest Ally’ contest. We don’t have to argue that Israel’s worse than Pakistan, or France, or Afghanistan, or Burkina Faso, or anyone else in order to make our case that this is not OK: putting our people, our reputation, our operations in danger is unacceptable, is a hostile act, and is no way to treat a nation that protects you, subsidizes you, and goes to bat for you in the UN and the International Community in general even when that’s an overwhelmingly unpopular decision.
As complex as some factors are in both of these cases, some things just aren’t.