Veterans in the Crosshairs

June 7, 2014

“The best minds are not in government.” – Ronald Reagan

Studs Terkel (1912-2008) hurled brickbats from Chicago for decades. Never mind that the Windy City, if not Illinois, are two of the most corrupt polities in North America. Social inequalities and Capitalism were Terkel’s favored targets.

His most effective analytical tool was the interview where he artfully allowed victims to bare their souls – and sometimes self-destruct.  Terkel’s social criticism was often spot on – brutal and humorous, simultaneously. Unfortunately, he gave more thought to criticism than solutions. Diagnosis and remedy, like good will and achievement, are worlds apart.

With Studs you got blunt and often amusing analysis undone by flaccid, if not shopworn, urban bromides. For Terkel, bigger government at any level was better.

Alas, corrupt government is host to many ironies, but three are paramount: success is a liability, failure is an asset, and as long as the intentions are pure in the public mind, better funding follows failure, not success. Once established, bigger civic programs have few measures of effectives. The end game is there is no end.

The logic is pragmatic. No politician makes a career by defunding or eliminating failed programs. Think of effectiveness as you might Fitzgerald’s receding green light, a flash on the horizon not a destination.

Failure has a permanent constituency: passive taxpayers, venal politicians, and rent seekers who are smart enough to manipulate the first two. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, when it comes to public management and/or results; good intentions are more than enough.

The Veterans Administration (VA) and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) illustrate these phenomena.

The Veterans Administration, like a deer in the headlights, is again in the headlines – this time for fatal wait times. Seems the VA, like some criminal enterprise, is cooking the books; one set of books for incentive pay and bonuses and another set for the real world where former soldiers may be wasting in waiting rooms or dying on waiting lists. Medical apparatchiks are apparently reporting care statistics and/or mortality rates that do not comport with patient experience.  “Do no harm” seems to have been an early casualty at the VA.

The VA is the largest single payer, state sponsored, health care system in the country. Think of the VA as a prototype of the ACA. The VA has been around since 1930, a cabinet department since the end of the Gulf Wars. You might also stop wondering why, in the run-up to ACA, veteran’s care wasn’t held up as a role model, an exemplar for the federal health mecca to come.

The culture of deception evident at the VA is a federal, not a Phoenix problem. Indeed, when terms like “public servant” are deployed to defend apparatchiks, only half that phrase is likely to be true. In addition to six figure salaries, VA administrators are awarded bonuses or incentive pay to do a lousy job.

Fraudulent bookkeeping is necessary because true merit is lacking. Like T-Ball; everyone gets a good report card and everyone gets a dollar trophy.  Deadbeats flourish where there are no meaningful measures of effectiveness especially at the federal level where most real work is done by contractors and camp followers anyway.  Phony statistics thus become a stand-in for employee achievement. Reform at the VA is unimaginable without fundamental Civil Service reform.

Frankly, neither political party thinks much about places like the VA unless there’s a scandal. Republicans don’t complain, or respond to complaints, because it might offend public unions. And Democrats don’t want to publicize any incompetence that might screw the single payer pooch, nee total socialization.

With both, the political nomenclatura, evenformer military mandarins, will never subject themselves to the same indignities as the proletariat. Rest assured that John McCain, Harry Reid, Colin Powell, and Eric Shinseki, like Congress and staff, will never have to wait in line for three months for a colonoscopy or a prostate biopsy.

You could do worse than think of the Affordable Care Act as a kind of doubling down on Veteran’s health care; another federal bailout for failure, if you will. The VA and the ACA are not exactly comparable at the moment, but you don’t have to be a clairvoyant to see the specter of single-payer and an even bigger federal role in medicine on the horizon.

You might also wonder what a soldier like Eric Shinseki is doing in the health care or social services business. Shinseki is the longest serving VA secretary. He owns the fraud problem. Clearly, the retired general knows as much about medical good practice as David Petraeus did about good Intelligence. Giving an infantry officer control of a health care system is a little like giving a proctologist command of an amphibious landing.

To be fair, we should note that minor cabinet sinecures like the VA are usually more about politics; in Shinseki’s case, a reward for very public pushback against the Bush/Rumsfeld Iraq strategy.

And let’s not let organized veterans off the hook here. Most groups like the American Legion, the Veteran of Foreign Wars, and the Disabled American Veterans are social clubs where silly hats, parades, honor guards, convention bacchanals, and ‘selfies’ with celebrities take precedence over effective advocacy. Most organized veterans willingly pose with any nitwit running for office before succumbing to promissory dementia. Truth is few politicians give a damn. Veterans are clearly not an effective, visible, or loud voting bloc.


Given the half-life of Media interest in all things military, least of all veterans care, the net effects from the latest VA ‘scandal’ are fairly predictable.

Barack and Michelle Obama will make all the appropriate noises of indignation. Mrs. Obama might even pose with a sign, and a pouty face, as she did when Boko Haram kidnapped nearly 300 school girls for forced conversion to Islam and the sex slave trade.

Congress will do what it always does; throw more money at the VA, another failed federal institution. The answer is always more funding – never mind that more is never enough. Few federal bureaucrats will get fired! Unionized apparatchiks, like unionized teachers might be moved, but seldom removed.

Any congressional ‘reform’ will probably do more to protect civil servants, contactors, and rent seekers than it will improve the lives of aged or injured former soldiers. Unlike veterans, camp followers have real power inside the Beltway.

General Shinseki probably tarnished what was heretofore a distinguished military career by not falling on his sword earlier. Alas, he was at the VA long enough to get the lay of the land. Generals who dabble in politics are vulnerable and dispensable anyway. Shinseki, like Patraeus, will be just another sorry footnote to the Obama era.

Government solutions are never as real as problems.  Studs Terkel, as usual, is half right again. Hope might hang in there, but esperanza never outlasts funding. Money and institutional self-interest eats hope and good intentions for lunch.  Federal crime not only pays; indeed, there are incentives and bonuses for fraud!


G. Murphy Donovan, a combat veteran, served in USAF Intelligence for 25 years. He has never seen the inside of a VA waiting room or an American Legion hall.










Edward Snowden; Digital Don Quixote

June 5, 2014

“Just because information is stolen, that doesn’t make it more useful.” – Mike Hayden


The National Security Agency (NSA) is the child of Pearl Harbor, the worst warning disaster, until recently, in American history.  The World Trade Center was the first homeland test of NSA. The Fort Meade complex and General Mike Hayden, USAF, failed that test.

Hayden discovered the terror threat on daytime television, as Saudi/Arab/Muslim terrorists crashed into Manhattan, Pennsylvania, and the Pentagon. After the worst strategic failure in American history, Hayden was promoted to the inner circle at the White House. Funding at NSA exploded exponentially. Catastrophe is opportunity.

Thus does operational failure become a fiscal stimulus! Withal; religious wars still rage, bombs still explode in too many public places, girls are kidnapped by the hundreds, and airliners disappear without a trace. Nonetheless, Maryland and Utah and a few other states wallow midst the biggest Communications Intelligence (COMINT) funding windfall in American history.

After the Arab attack, Hayden was summoned to the White House and asked what NSA might need to prevent another surprise attack. Apparently, NSA replied: “everything,” including universal surveillance of all the social media and the telecom monopolies (AT&T and Verizon). Initially, the gnomes at NSA engineered a program that incorporated privacy safeguards. Those safeguards were discarded, but not without a cat fight at the Puzzle Palace and the Justice Department.

Recalcitrant senior NSA technicians were read out of “the program,” some became leakers, but all were neutralized with retirement and several years of retaliatory FBI intimidation.  Raise a problem in the IC and apparently you become the problem.

Edward Snowden would later school himself on the post-9/11 NSA whistleblowers. Snowden recognized that commercial data miners and government snoops were after the same personal data; playing fast and loose with privacy, albeit for different reasons.

The Justice Department wasn’t as easy to intimidate or roll at first. Nonetheless, the Oval Office circumvented the Attorney General by writing a new TOP SECRET CODEWORD presidential directive for NSA operations. Apparently, the major social networks, with one exception, and telecom monopolies collaborated with NSA without a public murmur.

Think of NSA as a stovepipe, a conduit to very special audiences like the White House. Other Intelligence agencies create their own limited access programs too, smaller pipes within the IC stovepipes. Most traffic is vertical not horizontal, the left hand of the IC often does not know what the right is doing – by design. When an agency like Justice refuses to play ball, as was the case with warrantless wiretapping, NSA pulls program access from critics, as they did with post- 9/11 internal dissenters.

Apparently, the purpose of most classification in the IC is to cover somebody’s ass, not to protect “sources and methods.” A ‘world of mirrors’ is the way James Angleton characterized the Intelligence universe, now a digital jungle where friend and enemy wear the same saccharine smiles.

Glen Greenwald now calls the Intelligence and law enforcement communities “one-way mirrors.” They know all about us and we know little of them. Manipulation, not integrity, is the high card in a United States of Secrets.

Mike Hayden, while at NSA, ran Intelligence collection in a moral vacuum shadowed by legal twilight. And Mike Morell, while at CIA, altered Intelligence analyses (see Benghazi talking points) like the political flavor of the day. With the new FBI director, the IC consensus on the literal end of privacy is a done deal.

Recall that under George Bush, when James B. Comey was the deputy at Justice, he offered to resign over warrantless surveillance. Now as top cop at the FBI under a Democrat, Comey seems to have leased his integrity to the politics of the moment.

We are assured by all parties that individual privacy rights are protected by the mysterious FISCR court. If we believe recent revelations On Frontline and in Nowhere to Hide, the IC’s “secret court” will indict a bad burrito and issue a warrant for the predictable results.  A “secret” (sic) court, for secret warrants, where only the government’s secret argument is heard is a little like installing one of Greenwald’s mirrors in a public toilet.

Say what you will about rogues like Edward Snowden, the high-school dropout who blew the whistle on the NSA/social Media/ telecom surveillance peep show. Snowden exhibits more skill, judgment, and ethical grit than Hayden, Morell, and Comey or the oligarchs. NSA and the greedy internet elite created the problem that the Snowden revelations might have to solve.

Indeed, Snowden, with an ‘all access’ ticket seems to know more about  NSA surveillance  than Jim Clapper,  Barack Obama, or Congress. Withal, one thing is clear; clueless sycophants like Mike Hayden, make skeptical apostates like Snowden possible.

Truth is, NSA, like the rest of the ironically named ‘Defense’ Department, invests most assets in offense, indiscriminate collection for example; an indigestible glut it seems. This Hoover tactic may explain why a malcontent like Snowden can steal the family jewels with a few discrete keystrokes. If NSA strategic defense failed before 9/11 and then internal defenses failed to prevent the Snowden heist, why believe Hayden’s assurances about the future? Three catastrophic surprises will not be a charm.

Key Judgments

Governments that can give you everything, say universal health care, can take anything; to wit, civil rights or personal privacy. The ACA was a party line vote. Nobody got to vote on the NSA expansion and surely not the PRISM computer and universal federal/commercial snooping.

The great irony of collection excess is that there is no evidence that more data, more processing, or more funding has improved Intelligence analysis. The same people who redefine phone calls, Tweets, photographs, and emails as “metadata” can’t name our strategic enemies. State Department sissies refuse to designate Boko Haram as a Muslim terrorist group. IC estimates gag on words like “terrorist.” Terms like Islam, Muslim, Islamist, or religious fascism have been stricken from the strategic vocabulary by fiat.

What doesn’t happen – is now an achievement!

Trying to understand terror and all those Muslim wars, without Islamism, is a little like ignoring pork at a sausage seminar. Within the Intelligence Community, Muslim sensitivities seem to trump common sense and national security.

If warning or candid analysis is the strategic dividend, then the Intelligence investment should be downgraded to junk bond status. Like advertising, the purpose of the end product, analysis, now seems to be influence or social sensitivity, not information or warning. Orwell’s pig lives!

Democratic socialists didn’t win the Cold War; they merely cloned Animal Farm. In the arithmetic of communes, compound failure equals excess. Cultural wars are illustrative, where nation or alliance building is now code for false flags, coups, regime changes, or ‘democratic’ imperialism.

Despotism has three requirements: control, compliance, and secrecy. The ethos of social and political absolutism is alive and well in the West, where failure is never pretty. But it still pays pretty well.

Money and institutional self-interest eats hope and good intentions for lunch.  The intersection of government voyeurs and a so-called “open” Internet is the kind of unnatural act that can only be explained by a critical mass of official and commercial trolls. Crime pays indeed – and well too!


The author is the former chief of the USAF Intelligence Research Division, NSA Friendship Annex, Fort Meade, Maryland

This essay was previously published by the American Thinker and the Iconoclast.