Obama's Self-Inflicted Scandal

The only thing transparent about the White House is its perverse penchant for secrecy.

Forget Afghanistan, Syria, and the war or terror. Barack Obama's administration now finds itself embroiled in a three-front domestic war that threatens to undermine public confidence in the U.S. president's ability to lead the nation. The first of these, which has yet to quiet down, is the enormous dispute over the timeline involving acknowledgment of al Qaeda's involvement in the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The second involves the recent revelation that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) focused special scrutiny on applicants for tax-exempt status that sported Tea Party or other "small government" credentials. The last, and potentially most serious, is the recent revelations that Attorney General Eric Holder ordered extensive investigation into Associated Press (AP) reporters in April and May 2012.

Of these, the third is likely to cause the greatest grief for the president and strong calls for the resignation of Holder, who at latest report has already recused himself from a government investigation of massive snooping by the Department of Justice (DOJ) into key AP reporters in New York, Washington, and Hartford, Connecticut. On Benghazi, Obama has sought to defend himself on the ground that the supposed coverup never took place or that it was simply confusion due to incomplete information from a distant flash point, not political calculation in the heat of a tight election race. On the Tea Party investigation, he can distance himself from activities of high-level officials inside the IRS who fortunately, from his point of view, were not political appointees. But he has no such cover with respect to the AP investigation, where his own attorney general is on the line for going after journalists in ways that must be regarded as a deep and troublesome attack on the press, a secret Watergate-like affair that will send chills through the spines of media people everywhere.

Worse still, the source of the scandal goes to a foreign-policy area of great sensitivity. The president's credibility is on the line with respect to the use of drones in the war on terror and the administration's own garbled account of what counts as a "necessity" that justifies their secret deployment and the authorization of targeted killing. This has raised hackles not just among liberals and those concerned with executive privilege, but even among people like me who do not think that the nation benefits by having judges get involved in reviewing potential targets of attack. At this point, the two narratives run together. The very president who has pledged himself to the most open and transparent administration ever is now perceived on all sides of the political spectrum as a secretive soul who skulks about in the shadows, so sure of his own moral rectitude that he thinks that it is all right to ignore the procedural safeguards that the U.S. Constitution wisely puts in the path of less wise and omniscient presidents. Long ago, James Madison warned in Federalist No. 10 that the Constitution had to be rigged for bad times because it is in the nature of politics that "Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm." Madison's time has come.

Right now, neither Obama nor Holder looks like an enlightened statesman. We are only in the early stages of the investigation, but already the warning sirens are blaring loudly. The attorney general now defends himself on the ground that the gravity of the leak required immediate "aggressive" action because of the security risks to the United States. The nature and sources of the potential leak are subject to much uncertainty to say the least. Current accounts about John Brennan, now CIA director, suggest that the CIA had the matter well in hand, through control of a double agent -- and it is far from clear whether any security breach could be attributable to the AP story, which did not speak of Western "control" over the matter but only that "it's not immediately clear what happened to the alleged bomber." But spurred on by this incident, the DOJ, as Holder notes, pored through reams of other information before making the decision to subpoena the AP's telephone records from the telephone companies.

Presumably, those deliberations relieve Holder of the charge of acting recklessly and alone. But they also raise other troublesome questions. First, there is the issue as to whether the DOJ should have followed standard protocol by notifying the AP with an eye to narrowing the inquiry into the leaks coming from the administration. Second, it gives pause as to whether the exhaustive investigation taken prior to the search of the AP connections itself was undertaken in accordance with accepted practices in the identifying of targets of interest and the collection of information. Third, Holder's statement as to the grave security risk to American lives still does not explain why he cast the net so broadly in this instance, or waited so long before making the entire affair public. Fourth, and most troublesome, it does not seem as though the decision to ransack the AP phone calls were reviewed by an independent magistrate or done pursuant to any kind of search warrant, which constitutionally seems to be very much in order. It would be hard for Holder to claim -- which indeed he did not -- that there were "exigent circumstances" that made it impossible to go before a magistrate for an investigation that lasted for the better part of two months, especially since it does not appear that DOJ sought a warrant before it issued its subpoenas. The requirements on FISA surveillance warrants are a lot tougher than this.

The CEO of the AP, Gary Pruitt, has much the better of the public debate when he argues that the search of some 20 separate phone lines used by over 100 journalists is, to use his charitable word, "overbroad" -- particularly when the question is whether an AP reporter got information that the CIA had foiled an al Qaeda terrorist plot to blow up a U.S. plane on the way to the United States. As the AP now reports, it "delayed reporting the story at the request of government officials who said it would jeopardize national security. Once government officials said those concerns were allayed, the AP disclosed the plot because officials said it no longer endangered national security." If the CIA or the DOJ had concerns about the source of a leak, the first step would be to approach the AP directly to find ways in which to limit its inquiry so as not to trench on genuine news-gathering behavior. The applicable rules for news organizations require that subpoenas be "as narrowly drawn as possible" and "should be directed at relevant information regarding a limited subject matter and should cover a reasonably limited time period."

But as caution was cast to the winds, the DOJ inquiry went from zero to 100 miles per hour, without paying any heed to the countervailing interests that lay in its path. This sets out another gnawing question: Just how high up the chain did the authorization for the investigation go? Did Obama know of the decision before it was made, or sometime afterward? If not, what were the deliberative processes that were used to make it? And what should be done with the information collected? Pruitt wants it all to be returned and destroyed, but so long as there is a congressional investigation in the wings, that information is relevant to the question of administrative abuse -- even if it not relevant to the question of what, if anything, happened in Yemen in the spring of 2012. And to make matters still worse, someone, anyone, can still ask the question of whether this investigation was a unique event, or whether the future will reveal that the Justice Department, the State Department, and the CIA engaged in an unrelated problematic investigation of some different issue, with or without presidential involvement.

But, for the moment, Obama does not have any easy out: He pays a high political price if he distances himself from Holder or calls the DOJ investigation outrageous. This is not the Tea Party. To avoid the blowback, press secretary Jay Carney has tried to turn the discussion back to economic issues. But that will not carry the day. Washington loves a scandal, even one so clearly egregious that the Democrats will be reluctant to mount a principled defense of the Obama administration. The situation is only worse because of the secrecy that surrounds all key decisions coming out of the inner group in the White House, so much so that no one quite knows why the administration took so long to release this story or to explain the role that the attorney general had in overseeing events or in approving the subpoenas.

For the president and his aides, the first item on the agenda is damage control. The administration is likely in full-blown (but secret) polling mode, seeing how high the tides of dissent and resentment will rise, and who they will envelop. My guess is that Holder is history. Right now, it looks as if Obama will survive, though probably as a lame duck, just four months into his new term in office. It is a sad fall for an administration that has always prided itself as having escaped the muck of ordinary politics. But not this time. We are past the point where presidential protestations that the administration is innocent on all charges will be treated as evidence that it is covering up its own misdeeds. Cheap talk is dangerous in all professions, even in politics. The real tragedy is that the president and his attorney general believed overmuch in their own exalted rhetoric; the nation, and the world, is all the poorer because of their excesses. "Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall." Proverbs 16.18 should now be required reading in Washington.



This Alliance Is Brought to You by the Letter 'M'

Introducing the world's most unlikely political grouping.

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia — As a basis for an international alliance, a common first letter might not seem as natural as a common language, religion, or geography. But Mongolia needs all the friends it can get.

After all, it's not easy being a landlocked country with global ambitions. This land of a -- widely spaced -- 2.8 million people is undergoing one of the world's great economic booms, recording annual double-digit growth rates over the last two years, thanks largely to a mining windfall.

As fine a circumstance as that may be, it crystallizes the fact that a single economic partner wields tremendous influence over domestic affairs. The Chinese dragon has coiled its tail around Mongolia, accounting for more than 80 percent of Mongolia's exports. Additionally, to the north is Russia, an old but complicated friend with motives of its own. Mongolia imports near all its oil and petroleum from Russia over a domestic railway network still controlled by the Federal Agency for Railway Transport in Moscow -- more than 3,000 miles away.

You can't blame Mongolia for looking farther afield. As the country begins to monetize the trillions of dollars in mineral wealth beneath its soil, the stakes have risen. How can Mongolia leverage the mineral boom while safeguarding against the undue influence of its hungry superpower neighbors? Mongolian leaders are fixated on the limits of their geographical position, China and Russia's stranglehold on trade, and a desire to make lasting economic strides.

Purevsuren Lundeg, the foreign-policy advisor to Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, was brooding over this displeasure one day last August when across his desk came a news release issued by Silk Road Management, an Ulan Bator-based investment company specializing in public equities, money markets, and bonds in out-of-the-way markets. The notice announced the creation of something called the M3 Fund, "the first ever investment fund to be focused on Myanmar, Mongolia and Mozambique, three resource-rich countries which we term as M3." The news release noted that the countries have more in common than the letter M. All three are undergoing post-socialist democratic reforms. Each is experiencing a natural resources boom that will extend for decades. And most importantly, each borders at least one of the BRICS countries (in the cases of Mongolia and Myanmar, two), which are hungry for control of these natural resources. Alisher Ali, Silk Road's managing partner, told me that he thinks, "All three nations will be among the top five fastest-growing economies in the next decade." Mongolia's superheated economy already ranks No. 4.

Purevsuren's interest was piqued. It was the first time he had thought of these three countries in a single grouping, and Mongolia is eager to form new political and economic alliances. "We want to have less dependence on our two neighbors," Purevsuren told me. Could Mongolia, Mozambique, and Myanmar cooperate to the benefit of each individual country, massaging diplomatic, social, and economic growing pains?

This was the beginning of Ulan Bator's attempts to form the M3 cluster, a fledgling political alliance. The goal, vaguely sketched, is to join these three countries in a loose confederation of information, exchange, and advice, with groupings such as the G-20 and the Arab League serving as models. Mongolia is attempting to construct a union of allies that can protect it against the ravenous economies of its BRICS neighbors. "We're looking at the similarities, to bring to the forefront what we have in common and coordinate common goals and interests," Purevsuren says. "This idea is brand-new. Mongolia is going to show leadership on this."

Purevsuren drew up a proposal on President Elbegdorj's stationery. He sent one copy to colleagues in Naypyidaw, Myanmar's capital, which he had recently visited for bilateral talks on democracy. He dispatched another copy to the belly of the beast itself, Beijing, where the Mongolian ambassador to China handed the note to his Mozambican counterpart.

Mongolia is now initiating trilateral talks to be held this June at the World Economic Forum's East Asia summit in Naypyidaw. There are also preliminary plans for the presidents of the three countries to convene for talks in Ulan Bator. "We have a number of issues in common," says Victorino Xavier, the national director of economics at Mozambique's Ministry of Industry and Trade. "That process is welcome in Mozambique. For us, that would be a good initiative. We have a lot to gain from each other."

Thura Ko Ko, the managing director of YGA Capital Limited, a Naypyidaw-based firm investing in regional and international funds, also sees potential. "One of the interesting things that we could learn is if Mongolia takes control of its natural resources, instead of handing out concessions left, right, and center to the Chinese or the Russians," he said. "Maybe that's part of the reform process you'll see in Myanmar, whereby we no longer want to have to turn to our neighboring markets. We would like to have a wider frame in terms of our natural resources and reach out to the West, perhaps."

In March, Purevsuren and Mongolia's deputy minister of foreign affairs, Damba Gankhuyag, made an official visit to Myanmar. They discussed cooperative initiatives with the head of Myanmar's presidential administration, the deputy speaker of the parliament, and the chief of the committee on foreign affairs. The government of Myanmar announced that several of its representatives, along with Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and chair of the opposition National League for Democracy, would take part in the ministerial conference of the Community of Democracies, which was held at the end of April in Ulan Bator.

Gunaajav Batjargal, director of the Mongolian Foreign Ministry's department of policy planning and research, discussed his hopes for the alliance with me. "We have similarities. Why not get together and share our experiences?" he said. "We are close to the demand houses of the world. We have to prevent the complete rip-off of our natural resources. We'd like to cooperate to achieve a possibly unified position. It's a very ambitious task, and daunting. It's game-theory stuff." (One U.S. Embassy official was less charitable, quipping that the new collective would be the "mortar between the BRICS.")

So what are these countries actually going to work on? One convenient starting point might be the new mining law that officials in Myanmar are drafting, scheduled for a final debate in early 2014. In December, Mongolia published draft revisions to its own mining law. The changes would appear to steer Mongolia away from the free market practices that have underpinned its recent economic growth by granting the government free stakes in numerous mining developments. This sort of resource nationalism may not win Mongolia plaudits at Davos, but it's the kind of measure that the guardians of small, yet growing economies like those of the M3 believe may be necessary to avert domination at the hands of their stronger neighbors. Of the more than 4,000 mining licenses in Mongolia, more than half are already in Chinese hands.

As for Mozambique, though it may neighbor South Africa, the most relevant BRICS country for its future may be Brazil, with which it shares a language, colonial history, and deepening economic ties. The Brazilian mining company Vale plans to mine 4.5 million tons of Mozambican coal this year. Eletrobras, Latin America's largest utility, is considering building a $6 billion project in the capital, Maputo. In addition, India and China are among the potential developers of the recently discovered gas off its coast, which promises to make Mozambique the world's third-largest exporter of liquefied natural gas in the coming years.

Myanmar is looking to diversify its partners as well. Due to lengthy Western sanctions against the military junta running the country, China long ago established its primacy in Myanmar, taking strong positions in jade, timber, teak, real estate, and other industries. In the 2011-2012 fiscal year, trade between the two countries totaled $3.6 billion. China is Myanmar's No. 1 trading partner. However, domestic frustrations over perceived Chinese environmental indiscretions, underlined by a protest that halted the development of a multibillion-dollar hydroelectric dam in Myanmar, have boiled over.

The concern over Chinese dominance was likely one major factor behind Myanmar's recent moves to liberalize the country's political system, including allowing Aung San Suu Kyi to run for office. But though its emergence from pariah status may one day lead to fully normalized relations with the United States and Europe, Myanmar's leaders are also interested in friends closer to their own situation.

"Myanmar is very sensitive," says Murray Hiebert, Sumitro chair for Southeast Asia studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "There's certainly a concern. The goal is to open up the economy. They are strenuously looking for alternatives to China. They want to create models for good business practices."

While the governments move to formalize the alliance, the concept's originator, Silk Road, continues with plans of its own. The M3 fund is currently valued at $25 million. Ali, Silk Road's managing partner, recently established an NGO in Ulan Bator, the Mongolia-Myanmar Business Council, that fosters connections between those in the financial sectors in the two countries, though the organization has broader goals. "We would like to encourage political links," Ali says. "These countries should definitely get together and form policy. Hopefully, this will result in an effective response to the dark side of physical proximity to these BRICS countries."

The concept got a further vote of confidence recently when Supachai Panitchpakdi, secretary-general of the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development said in a speech in Ulan Bator, "The 3Ms -- Mozambique, Myanmar, and Mongolia -- are on the map and are raising investors' interest worldwide. There are many obstacles to climb, but they are in your hands." Less than a year old, the M3 idea is on the global agenda.

It may seem ironic that a political union dedicated to protecting against dangers of foreign investment was inspired by a foreign investor. Then again, the BRICS, now a formal political grouping with regular summit meetings, started out as a cheeky acronym in a Goldman Sachs report. And Mongolia, eager for solutions to its geographical challenges, will take inspiration where it can find it.

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