The Washington Intervention War

With diplomatic options dead in the water, camps are forming in the administration about how to arm the Syrian rebels.

Immediately after Susan Rice was named U.S. national security advisor and Samantha Power was tapped as America's next ambassador to the United Nations, Washington had a simple question: Could the Obama administration's two newest liberal hawks mold U.S. foreign policy? And will the exit of current National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, the architect of President Barack Obama's "pivot to Asia," mean a pivot toward a more energetic intervention in Syria?

Right now, the answer to that last question is: Nobody knows. The White House kicked off this week with meetings to consider more-aggressive options in Syria, including potentially arming the rebels in either a modest or a larger way. But if the United States adopts a new Syria policy, State Department insiders agree that it won't be because of Power or Rice -- it will be the work of Obama himself.

"Ultimately it has always been the president's decision," said a State Department official, who also noted that Rice and Power would inevitably receive credit or blame for any policy evolution regardless of their impact. "If it changes, it is because he has changed his mind."

So far, Obama remains reluctant to get more involved in a conflict that is estimated to have killed more than 80,000 people and left more than 1 million displaced. Last fall, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, then-CIA Director David Petraeus, and then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had backed a plan to arm the rebels. The president said no, wary of leading the country into another intractable conflict after a decade of wars. His skepticism was shared by Donilon, along with Vice President Joe Biden. Rice, then ambassador to the United Nations, was also said to be skeptical.

The U.S. bureaucracy is currently divided over how to respond to the worsening crisis in Syria. On one side are those who see the fight as a quagmire from which the United States will not easily be freed. On the other are those who say that looking irrelevant in the Middle East will eventually come back to haunt Washington.

The State Department is out in front of the White House and is actively pushing for arming the rebels. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is far less forward-leaning, focused on the risks and potential pitfalls of lethal aid and potential military action. Indeed, Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey has publicly called intervention in Syria "very difficult."

However, shifting facts on the ground might empower those favoring more energetic intervention. While Secretary of State John Kerry had been pushing for peace talks between the regime and the opposition, those plans remain on hold as rebel losses mount. Discussions to be held in Geneva already have been postponed once, and no rain date looks imminent. Some have criticized Kerry for getting played diplomatically by the Russians, who continue to make arms shipments to the Syrian government, but others say that the United States must first be seen as exhausting all diplomatic options, even if they are lousy. The improbability of a negotiated solution, combined with military losses for the rebels, has spurred discussion in the White House about what comes next. Moreover, the intervention of Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters to buttress the Syrian government's forces has sparked fears in Washington that Tehran could actually emerge from the conflict in a stronger position in Syria.

"If anything gets us moving, it will be the Iran threat," said the State Department official. "Right now Iran is winning the strategic game in the region."

So far, however, the White House appears to be erring on the side of caution. A second State Department official said there was energy to do more -- but "what 'more' looks like is a completely different question." Despite the very real concern about rebel losses and Iranian intervention, this official said, "I just don't know when [U.S. policy] will change."

Both officials agree that Obama is not on the verge of authorizing a far-reaching and aggressive new Syria policy. Caution, rather than energetic intervention, is still the president's default position.

"I don't think they are mentally prepared to do anything significant," said the first official. "They might do some covert arming, but I think what is needed might actually have to be targeted strikes -- and I just highly doubt that they will do it."

Some diplomatic veterans are concerned that splitting the difference will not bolster U.S. influence.

"If the objective is to affect the balance of power, but to use minimal means, that doesn't make any sense," says former Ambassador Dennis Ross, who spent more than a decade helping to shape U.S. policy in the Middle East and served Secretary of State Clinton as a special advisor on Iran. Ross argues that the United States should "be prepared" to consider deploying Patriot missiles along the Turkey-Syria border as part of a "limited no-fly" zone and says the same thing may have to be considered for Jordan.

On the idea of arming the rebels, Ross notes "it is only likely to be effective if it is done in a very significant way," with training, funding, and equipment part of the package. "If you are going to go down this route, then you ought to go down this route in a really serious way. That means being prepared to shape the whole operation and with a very senior person, maybe a four-star [general] in charge of it."

Ross notes that lack of U.S. military action to date could mean that any greater intervention could speak even louder than it otherwise would. "The worst thing is to do something in a very limited way that engages you a bit more, but has a very limited effect," says Ross.

But even if the White House is not primed for a dramatic about-face on Syria, the opposition's advocates in Washington say that in the past few months they have seen the first signs of positive change from the Obama administration. Dan Layman, a spokesman for the Syrian Support Group, a U.S. advocacy group with extensive contacts to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), says his organization started noticing a shift in late February and March. "From that point, when we got the OK to go in with food and medicine, they already were talking about their interest in sending in harder stuff," he said.

State Department officials asked Layman and his colleagues this year to find out from Gen. Salim Idriss, who leads the opposition FSA, what he needed in terms of more potent nonlethal aid. The answer included communications gear, including radios and satellite uplinks, to coordinate battlefield movements.

"I would honestly suspect that we are going to see this before Aug. 1," Layman said, referring to increased nonlethal assistance. "I am not sure we are going to see arms this summer, but I am 100 percent confident that we are going to see more nonlethal stuff this summer."

Layman noted that his team just last week finished coordinating the delivery of a U.S.-funded $8 million shipment of nonlethal supplies to Idriss's forces. This shipment included more than 200,000 halal meals, several hundred personal medical kits, and field hospital supplies.

In Layman's view, such shipments simply mark the beginning of Washington's relationship with the Syrian rebels. He views the food and medical supplies as a "pilot" that will prove that Idriss and the FSA can be trusted to distribute supplies to moderates without bolstering extremists.

"If that is done successfully we can amp it up to the nonlethal aid that is communications equipment or night vision goggles or radios that they have originally mentioned," Layman said.

And then, perhaps, weapons?

"We are hopeful with the Rice and Power shift that the White House is going to be leaning forward on Syria even more than they have been," Layman said.

Coming days will tell. In the meantime the fighting continues.

"We are dying; we are suffering," said Idriss. "The situation is very dangerous now; we need someone who can help us." That was two weeks ago.


National Security

One Era's Traitor Is Another Era's Whistle-Blower

How the media covered national-security leaks in Daniel Ellsberg's day.

When the Guardian named Edward Snowden as the source behind a series of leaks last week on National Security Agency surveillance programs, the backlash was swift. In a rare show of bipartisanship, several members of Congress -- including House Speaker John Boehner, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton -- labeled the 29-year-old contractor a traitor. The Guardian's profile, meanwhile, characterized Snowden as "one of America's most consequential whistleblowers" and compared him to Daniel Ellsberg.

The Guardian isn't alone in comparing Snowden to Ellsberg, who leaked a secret Pentagon-authored history of the Vietnam War, known as the Pentagon Papers, to reporters at the New York Times and Washington Post in 1971. Over the past 40 years, Ellsberg has defended his actions, saying that he hoped the documents would bring an end to the conflict. His conscientious objection to the war mirrors Snowden's stated reasons for leaking the NSA documents. As he told the Guardian, "My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them."

But the reaction to Snowden's leaks is in many ways different than the response Ellsberg received when the Pentagon Papers were published four decades ago. Then, politicians went out of their way to be associated with Ellsberg's disclosures. Sen. George McGovern, who was running for president at the time, told the New York Times that he suggested Ellsberg make the Pentagon Papers available to "a respectable newspaper" and that he did not release the Pentagon Papers himself because it would have seemed too political, according to an Aug. 1, 1971 article. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's muted criticism was that he hoped the "man who leaked the report will be forgotten." Retired Gen. Lyman Lemnitzer, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did write in an editorial that Ellsberg had committed a "traitorous act" and "didn't know what he was doing to the security of the United States." But while that language may be par for the course today, it was an unusually scathing indictment at the time.

When Ellsberg did face harsh criticism, it was often personal in nature. Consider this July 23, 1971 letter to the editor of LIFE magazine on Ellsberg, who had served in Vietnam as a State Department official:

This Ellsberg is too much to believe! He was so bloodthirsty in Vietnam that, though a civilian, he just had to grab up a rifle. Then, he was so concerned with Vietnamese welfare that he stole his own government's documents while a trusted employee! I have seen this kind of instability in women's bridge club politics.

Ellsberg was also accused of being a narcissist in search of a book deal -- and within months of the New York Times publishing the Pentagon Papers, he had sold a manuscript about the Vietnam War that he had reportedly been shopping to publishers for years. It was hard to deny his rising profile. "Certainly Ellsberg himself has gained a personal celebrity, or notoriety, that some critics argue was an original motivation. Public fame will no doubt continue to provide him platforms from which he can press his own ideas," Walter Pincus, a stalwart defender of Ellsberg, wrote in New York Magazine on Aug. 16, 1971.

These criticisms hounded Ellsberg. A year after the leaks, a syndicated editorial called Ellsberg "the Ph.D. enfant terrible" whose actions "assured [him] a niche in the pantheon of radical chic." One paper scoffed at Ellsberg's appearance at the 1972 Republican National Convention: "Apparently still after the limelight he sought so avidly in the Pentagon Papers case, Dr. Ellsberg claimed new sensations to reveal."

The Nixon administration also tried to discredit Ellsberg on a personal level. Nixon's private investigation squad, the "Plumbers," broke into Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office in search of juicy details of his private life; they later testified to a grand jury about Ellsberg cavorting "with females of foreign birth and extraction," which constituted "a danger signal to anybody in the counter-espionage field," and engaging in "some rather bizarre sexual practices."

Snowden has already been the target of personal attacks as well. Legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin has called him "a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison," while New York Times columnist David Brooks has characterized Snowden as a loner representative of the "growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments."

Still, Ellsberg enjoyed considerable public support for his actions -- both in and out of government. Sen. Bob Dole, then the chairman of the Republican National Committee, worried that prosecuting Ellsberg "could be politically harmful to the Republican Party," and a government attorney told TIME, "what the Government has done in this case is a terribly unpopular thing. We are vilified on all sides." The case against Ellsberg was eventually thrown out after the Plumbers' burglary and illegal government wiretapping were revealed -- actions that offended "a sense of justice" and "incurably infected the prosecution of this case," the judge in the Pentagon Papers case declared in 1973.

Today, the fault for the leak -- and its potential consequences -- falls to the leaker. In Brooks's column, he writes that Snowden "betrayed the cause of open government. Every time there is a leak like this, the powers that be close the circle of trust a little tighter. They limit debate a little more."

Forty years ago, however, that criticism was leveled not so much at Ellsberg but at the New York Times. "When publishers and editors decide on their own what security laws to obey," Sen. Barry Goldwater said in response to the publication of the Pentagon Papers, "it puts them in the same category as those radicals who foment civil and criminal disobedience of laws they disagree with for moral reasons." Rep. Samuel Stratton called the New York Times and Washington Post "un-American" for publishing the report. The Nixon administration, meanwhile, rushed a court case to halt the serialized publication of Pentagon Paper reports to the Supreme Court, which decided that the newspapers could continue publishing the stories because the government could not demonstrate that disclosing the Defense Department's study would pose "grave and irreparable" danger to national security. But in his dissent, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote, "I strongly urge, and sincerely hope, that these two newspapers will be fully aware of their ultimate responsibilities to the United States of America." If the publication of the Pentagon Papers resulted in the deaths of soldiers, damage to U.S. alliances, the "prolongation of the war and of further delay in the freeing of United States prisoners, then the Nation's people will know where the responsibility for these sad consequences rests," he added.

The critique echoed inside the publishing world as well. A LIFE magazine staff editorial highlighted the government's right to challenge the New York Times and Washington Post:

In the case of the Pentagon papers, the government has the ultimate remedy of prosecuting the Times, as well as other newspapers that have published portions of the documents, if it can prove that the publication did endanger national security. On the basis of the first three lengthy instalments [sic] that appeared in the Times and the articles published elsewhere, the disclosure of the material does not appear to constitute such a threat.

Speaking at the 1971 meeting of the Associated Press Managing Editors Association, Martin Hayden, editor of the Detroit News, was less sanguine. "If every pamphleteer could publish a plan of a secret submarine or a list of foreign agents abroad, obtained from any peddler of secrets, I don't think the public would stand for it," he told conference. He was "scared to death," he continued, that the further publication of leaks would prompt Congress "to regulate or control the press."

This time around, few lawmakers are blaming the press for the NSA leaks. (Branding a British paper "un-American" just doesn't have the same ring to it.) Rep. Mike Rogers's criticism of the Guardian's reporting on the NSA's surveillance apparatus was simply that while journalist Glenn Greenwald "says that he's got it all and now is an expert on the program," he "doesn't have a clue how this thing works. Neither did the person who released just enough information to be literally dangerous." Rep. Peter King is alone, so far, in calling for the prosecution of the reporters involved in breaking the story, telling CNN's Anderson Cooper, "On something of this magnitude, there is an obligation both moral but also legal, I believe, against a reporter disclosing something that would so severely compromise national security." While the Justice Department is reportedly weighing its options for how best to extradite and prosecute Snowden, there have been no reports of a potential case against the Guardian.

As for Ellsberg himself, he's come out as an admirer of Snowden: "I think there has not been a more significant or helpful leak or unauthorized disclosure in American history ever ... and that definitely includes the Pentagon Papers," he told the Daily Beast. The open question is how, in a post-9/11 climate that differs in many ways from the Vietnam era, Snowden's fate may diverge from Ellsberg's. 

The Guardian via Getty Images