Thursday, December 19, 2019

Accountability Review Boards - Is it Time for a Review of the System?

The 1980’s were difficult years for Americans at home and those living and working abroad, especially American diplomats and military personal. During the decade of the 80s, international terrorist groups declared open season on American interests, and staged a number of deadly attacks on U.S. facilities, killing hundreds of Americans, our allies, and innocent civilians who were in or near our diplomatic facilities at the time of the attacks.

A series of devastating attacks and disasters

By April 4, 1980, fifty-three members of the staff of the American Embassy in Tehran had been held hostage by militant students in Iran since November 4 of the previous year. On that day, the United States launched an operation to rescue them. Operation Eagle Claw, authorized by President Jimmy Carter, involved the Army’s newly-formed Delta Force being infiltrated into a remote area known as Desert One, from where they would locate and rescue the hostages. A collision between one of the RH-53 helicopters and a C-130 resulted in a massive explosion, killing all eight crew members on both aircraft. Not only did the rescue mission fail, and eight men on the rescue mission lose their lives, but the force had to execute an emergency withdrawal without destroying the aircraft remaining on the ground that were not destroyed, allowing their sensitive equipment to fall into the hands of the Iranians.

A month later, on May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens, in the state of Washington, erupted in the most violent volcanic eruption in the U.S. since 1915, killing 57 people, thousands of animals, and destroying more than 200 homes.

On June 5, 1981, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported the first cases of a rare lung infection in previously healthy young men, later learned to be a result of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

These three events, though not the only disasters of the 80s. There was the Challenger explosion in 1986, killing all of the astronauts on board, and the Wall Street crash of 1987. But they were the opening acts of a decade that was turbulent and deadly for Americans, in particular those who traveled, lived, or worked abroad.

The 1980s saw the birth of a number of international terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda, and a declaration of open season on Americans and American interests around the world. While there was an alarming upswing in extremist attacks worldwide, I will focus primarily on those targeted against Americans, American interests, and American allies.

The October 23, 1983 bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, of buildings housing the US and French troops of the Multi-National Force-Lebanon, when two bomb-laden trucks were driving into the structures, killed 305 people, including 241 US Marines, 58 French soldiers, and six civilians. This deadly attack came just over six months after the April 18 suicide attack on the US Embassy in Beirut, which killed 32 Lebanese, 17 members of the embassy and CIA staff at the facility, and 14 embassy visitors and passers-by. The April attack was the deadliest attack on an American diplomatic mission to that time, and was considered the beginning of Islamist attacks on American targets, and it was the beginning of a series of hijackings, suicide bombings, and other attacks that caused American casualties, and sent shockwaves through the Washington establishment.

The US Government Response

The US Government’s responses to these attacks varied from ‘no response,’ to preparations in some cases to conduct retaliatory strikes when the perpetrators or their supporters could be identified. The June 14, 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847, enroute from Cairo to San Diego, shortly after it took off from Athens, in which the hijackers killed US Navy diver Robert Stethen and dumped his body on the tarmac during a brief stopover in Beirut, resulted in indictments against the alleged perpetrators.  In April, 1986, the US launched air strikes against targets in Libya in retaliation for that country’s sponsorship of extremist attacks against American military and civilian targets.

It was the government’s response to the embassy and embassy annex bombings in Beirut, though, that I wish to focus on, for it’s the legacy and aftermath of those actions that I believe contribute today to what can be called a ‘climate of risk-averseness’ that exists in the Department today, which inhibits our ability to conduct truly effective diplomacy.

The initial reactions to the series of attacks were restrained. Even though President Ronald Reagan had initially agreed to a joint French-US air strike in Iran’s Bekar Valley, where it was believed the attacks were planned, Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger lobbied against US participation because at the time it was not certain that Iran was behind the attacks. The French conducted the air attack unilaterally, and President Reagan issued a statement condemning the attacks against us, and an expression of our resolve to return peace to Lebanon.

The United Stated Congress appropriated an additional $251 million in economic and military aid to Lebanon, but added an amendment to the spending bill forcing the White House to seek congressional approval for any expanded military role in Lebanon Many prominent legislators opposed any US presence in Lebanon, with Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, saying, ‘It’s high time we bring the boys home.”

Secretary of State George Shultz established an Advisory Panel on Overseas Security chaired by retired navy Admiral Bobby Ray Inman. The Inman Commission, as it is more widely known, issued its report in June, 1985, with a seven-year plan that initiated the replacement of 162 out of 264 diplomatic posts with facilities using higher security standards, such as walled compounds, setback from streets and thoroughfares, and other more stringent security standards. The Inman Report not only replaced existing posts, but established standards for construction of new posts in at-risk areas. The report also recommended the establishment of the Diplomatic Security Service (DS).

In 1986, Congress passed the Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Anti-terrorism Act, PL 99-399, 22 U.S.C. 4852.  Among the main components of this legislation were limits on overseas diplomatic construction projects, restricting them to U.S. persons or qualif8ied U.S. joint venture persons on all projects exceeding $10 million, or any value if projects involved technical security. Two exceptions to the foregoing requirement were that low-level technology projects were not included, and the limits did not apply in countries where local laws prohibited U.S. contractors.

In effect, PL99-399 accepted the Inman Report’s conclusions and recommendations, including authorization of DS.

The legislation also established the requirement for Accountability Review Boards (ARBs) in cases ‘involving serious injury, loss of life, or significant destruction of property at or related to a United States government mission abroad.’

A lot of positive things have come out of the Inman Report and the subsequent legislation, including more secure diplomatic facilities, and the creation of an organization within the State Department with overall responsibility for security. But like anything, the coin has two sides, and particularly in regards to how the ARB process has been implemented, the results have not always been positive.

While the objective of the accountability process, as stated in the opening paragraph of Foreign Affairs Manual 030 (2 FAM 030) is to establish a mechanism to foster more effective security of missions and personnel abroad by conducting a thorough and independent review of security-related incidents, it also ‘seeks to determine accountability, and encourage improved security programs and practices. While few of the 18 ARBs that have been established since 1986 are publicly available for review, an examination of those that are tends to indicate that in practice, the process is less engaged in ‘fact-finding and mitigation’ of risks than ‘fault-finding, and litigation against those deemed to have been negligent in the performance of their duties. There is also, unfortunately in our current hyper-partisan environment, more noise made over assigning blame than on improving the system.

While there is probably little—if anything—the State Department and the Administration can do to mitigate the negative impact of partisan behavior on the part of members of Congress, taking a look at the general tenor of the regulations that govern the ARB process is possible, and, I submit, essential if we’re to be able to conduct diplomacy in an increasingly hazardous and complicated environment. The extended congressional ‘hearings’ into the 2012 Benghazi incident in which the American ambassador and other American members of the Embassy Libya staff lost their lives is a case in point. While the ARB found several inadequacies, it found no evidence of willful neglect of duties on the part of any individual. Some in congress, though, went to extreme lengths to ‘pin the blame’ for the incident on the Secretary of State, who happened to be from the ‘other’ political party. During this process, several State Department personnel found themselves caught up in the whirlwind of highly partisan sniper to the detriment of their careers and reputations. Even the chair and co-chair of the ARB were publicly criticized because their findings didn’t accord with the views of those in congress.

I would hazard a guess that while most active duty Foreign Service and Civil Service personnel are unfamiliar with the details of the two State Department regulations governing operations of an ARB,  2 Fam -030, and the Foreign Affairs Handbook that outlines ARB implementation procedures, 12 FAH-12 H-010, they are sensitive to the potential negative career impacts of being the subject of, or a witness for an ARB. It is these two documents that I wish to focus on.

I will not go into these documents in detail, but I offer one starting point for considerations, which I believe will go a long way toward bringing them more in line with their states purpose—fostering more effective security procedures—while at the same time, mitigating the chilling effect the process has on the effective conduct of diplomacy.

In my review of the Omnibus Act, the FAM, and the Foreign Affairs Handbook, I focused on the impressions they gave me. Were they worded in such a way to underscore their stated purpose, or were there passages that were troubling? In the FAM, I found one passage that disturbed me greatly. That was the one stating that witnesses appearing before an ARB, voluntarily or under subpoena, are entitled to have personal legal representation ‘at their own expense.’ As I read this, the standard line from crime shows came to mind; “you’re entitled to have an attorney during questioning, and if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you. Now, active  Foreign Service and Civil Service personal are entitled to have appropriate legal representation from their bargaining unit, AFSA or AFGE, but one would think that the government would give its employees the same privileges granted to all Americans—access to legal advice and representation, without having to go into bankruptcy to do so.

I’m quite sure that there are more ‘fixes’ that could be made to the regulations, and to the law itself, that would, if not eliminate, at least mitigate the chilling effect they have on the way we do out jobs in the field. As our colleague, Ambassador (retired) Anne Woods Patterson, wrote in her outstanding article in the September 2019 issue of FSJ, “We Have to be there.” If we are to have the local knowledge in our countries of assignment that will enable effective policy making in Washington, we must be willing to take managed risks, but the rise of risk aversion at the State Department had undermined our ability to gather that knowledge, and that has significant consequences for our national security. We must ‘be there,’ but if we’re there and confined to our fortified offices, unable to venture out to engage with people who have the knowledge we need, we are ineffective.

When I was a relatively junior FSO assigned to our consulate general in Chiangmai, Thailand, in 1989, we received reports of damage to facilities along the Thai-Burmese border from fighting between two competing drug armies across the border. Since these facilities were popular tourist destinations, it was essential that we verify these reports in order to be able to provide accurate and timely information to American tourists coming to Thailand. The consul general, with approval from the embassy, sent me to the area to assess and verify this rumor. As DCM at our embassy in Freetown, Sierra Leone, from 1993 to 1996, during the bitter civil war, one of our objectives was to convince the Sierra Leonean military, which had recently taken over the government in a coup, to stay out of politics and allow planned elections to proceed. I had relatively good contacts within the junta leadership, and was asked by them to carry that message to their field commanders, most of whom were in areas with active contact with the attacking rebels. The ambassador at the time, agreed with me that with appropriate security precautions, while it was still risky to venture so near active battle zones, it was a risk worth taking. I visited each of the frontline brigades, sometimes hearing small-arms fire in the distance as I talked with the unit’s leaders, and on two occasions, we found scratches from weapons fire on the armored fuselage of the old Russian helicopter that a South African mercenary pilot used to ferry me from Freetown to the units. But the military stayed out of the fray, the elections were held, and in 1996, Sierra Leone had its first democratically elected president.

I find it hard to believe in today’s environment that any ambassador or consul general would allow such actions. The fear of the consequences should things go south is just too great, and the career impact of even exposing an embassy staffer to such risks can be devastating. In September 2019, along with Ambassador (retired) Ron Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, Ambassador Patterson, and Ambassador (retired) Richard Olson (an A-100 classmate), I participated in Sisco Memorial Forum briefings for Senate and House staffers on ‘Why Diplomats Should Take More Risk? And Why Congress Should Let Them.’ The purpose of these briefings was to underscore the need to move away from the culture of risk avoidance and adopt a mindset of risk management, to enable our diplomats to more effectively carry out their mandate to support and implement the nation’s foreign policy objectives, and enhance our national security.

Our central message was that effective diplomacy is not without risk—one has only to view the memorial plaques in the C Street lobby of the Department of State to know this—but if we are to be effective, we must weigh the risks against the benefits, and seek ways to mitigate as much of those risks as possible, while at the same time achieving critical goals. The only way to avoid the risks in a foreign country is to not be there; and, as September 11, 2001 demonstrated, even that is not a guarantee of complete safety. 

Changing the ARB process will not in itself completely eliminate the Department’s reluctance to put personnel in harm’s way under any circumstances, but it’s a start.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Texas: Not just a State, but a State of Mind

On August 3, 2019, when a lone gunman entered a Walmart in El Paso, Texas and began shooting with an assault weapon, eventually killing 22 and wounding scores of others, in his own words, ‘to stop the Mexican invasion of Texas,’ it sent shock waves around the world. Some of my friends, traumatized by this horrendous event, reached out to me, a native Texan, wanting to know if this was the event that would finally propel politicians in the Lone Star State to change their policies on ownership and possession of guns. I thought about it for a long time, and finally, I’m here to tell you, ‘it ain’t gonna happen in our lifetimes.

      Despite the fact that 89 percent of the voters in Texas support background checks on all gun purchases (including 91 percent of the state’s Republican voters), the GOP-controlled state legislature, which represents only 7 to 8 percent of Texas voters, remains firmly opposed to restrictive background checks, or any other common sense controls over ownership of firearms.

      You’re probably reading that statement with ‘shock and awe,’ and wondering how such a convoluted situation exists. Well, for starters, the Texas Republican party controls who in its ranks gets on state ballots, and just as it was before the defection of Yellow-Dog Democrats to the Republican party in protest against the Democratic party’s ‘liberal’ views on civil rights, Republican primary elections have taken the place of Democratic primaries as the determinant of the direction of Texas politics. As they used to say in Shelby County, where I grew up, when the Democratic primary is held, the election is already decided, and while my county remains in the hands of Democrats, the state is firmly under Republican control. And, not just any Republicans, but those who stand to the right of Atilla the Hun in their beliefs.

      That, however, is just the macro-view from a political perspective. At work in Texas is more than a century of social and cultural conditioning that works against a more enlightened view of guns and the havoc they can wreak upon society.

      It’s no exaggeration to say that Texans love guns. They revere guns along with football, pickup trucks, and barbecue, with, I am convinced, guns and football vying for the top spot. The Second Amendment is probably better read in Texas than the Bible, and it’s certainly more closely adhered to.

      I grew up around guns. My uncle, Buddy, my mother’s older brother, wore a .45 caliber revolver until the day he died. I was away in the army at the time, but I’m pretty sure that when he died ‘Old Bess’ was on the nightstand beside his bead. My grandmother, a feisty, pint-sized woman born in the late 1890s, was a crack shot with rifle and pistol, and is the one who taught me to shoot with the .22 single shot rifle I was given on my sixth birthday.

      Growing up, hearing of a shooting was such a common-place occurrence, it was never even discussed unless you knew the shooter or his victim—which, even in my small county of less than 12,000 inhabitants, was quite likely. As a four-year old, I still remember sitting on my tricycle in our front yard, on a hill overlooking a honkytonk, and seeing a man settle an argument over a domino game by going home, getting his .22 rifle—the town was only about a mile square, so no one lived all that far from anyone else—and coming back to get his revenge. Until I left home just before my seventeenth birthday and joined the army, I seem to remember not a month going by that I didn’t hear of another shooting somewhere within fifty miles of my tiny little hometown.

      I spent twenty years in the army, going home to visit or attend a funeral about every five years, and then joined the U.S. Foreign Service, which meant the time between visits was even longer. I only lived in Texas as an adult for nine months when the State Department assigned me as diplomat-in-residence at the University of Houston’s main campus. Now, I chose that because I was curious to see how Texas had changed, having gone from the segregated place I grew up in—in my home town even the parking places downtown were designated by race—to what I assumed would be a more enlightened, friendly place to live. I even toyed briefly with the idea of buying some lakefront property and living there when I eventually retired from government service.

      A few incidents in Houston, which was known as the ‘murder capital of the world,’ when I was a young boy, scotched that plan pretty dang fast.

      The first was an incident in a restaurant not far from the campus where I had my office in the Political Science Department. Four men dining together in the restaurant got into an argument. One pulled an automatic and shot one of the others. Even though the intended victim was sitting across the table from him, he missed and the bullet struck and killed a young mother several tables away. The next was when a resident of one of Houston’s wards came home late one night and discovered a would-be burglar concealed in a large planter on his front porch. He drew the pistol he was wearing and shot the intruder dead. The police reaction to this? A police spokesman on TV that night said, “It’s a good thing Mr. X had his gun with him.” You see, in Texas, you’re allowed to shoot trespassers, because protection of private property is a sacred right of Texans. There was an incident I read of where a man shot and killed a lady of the evening he’d met through a ‘dating’ service, because she took his money but refused to provide the purchased ‘service.’ He was not charged on the grounds that a person is allowed to use deadly force to retrieve ‘stolen’ property.

      Do you get where I’m coming from?

      Let me put in even better perspective. Texas is no stranger to mass shootings, or high-profile murders. The most notable is John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination in Dallas as his motorcade traversed the city. A lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, who was later killed in full view of TV cameras by Jack Ruby, should have been the impetus to take a long, hard look at the gun laws, but it wasn’t. Nor was the August 1, 1966 shooting at the University of Texas in Austin that left 14 dead, or the October 26, 1991 shooting at a restaurant in Killeen that killed 23.

      The list of mass shootings in Texas, defined as incidents in which four or more people are killed or injured, is long, and some people want something done. But nothing will be done because the legislature is controlled by fringe right-wing nuts who resist change with every fiber of their being.

      You’d think that in a state born out of revolution the people would rise up and throw the bums out. The political lash up makes that difficult, and the social and cultural attitudes of Texans, even those shocked by the violence and wanting some kind of rational control, also works against real change.

      Like I said at the beginning, Texans love them some guns. Texas has more gun owners than any other U.S. state, with approximately 51 million registered firearms of all kinds. To put that into perspective, that’s more guns than are owned by the entire population of the European Union. The state of Texas has 20 percent of the legally registered guns in the United States, or approximately two for every man, woman and child in the state. Everyone in Texas doesn’t own a gun, but the gun owners control the politics, and that makes all the difference.

      So, if you’re waiting for Texas to be the epicenter of movement toward universal background checks, red flag laws with some teeth, or stricter rules about who can own a gun—right now, only felons are barred from registering a firearm, and just about anything that shoots a projectile, except a tank or an F-15, is eligible for registration, don’t hold your breath.

      Texas, my friends, is not just a state, it’s a state of mind. When I was in high school, while students in the rest of the U.S. were learning American history, I was required to do a course in the history of Texas that focused a lot on the fact that it was once an independent republic. We took U.S. history as well, but I seem to remember that more hours were devoted to state history.

      How bad is it, really? Texas has long allowed carry, and now allows guns on college campuses. The state attorney general sued one of the counties over a county regulation prohibiting guns in courthouses. Think about those two situations for a minute. Not only is there the potential for teachers to be armed, but students as well—at least at the college level. Makes a professor think before assigning grades, or criticizing a student in class. And, heaven help us if someone in a courtroom disagrees with a verdict. It hasn’t happened yet, but I predict that it’s just a matter of time.

      I no longer call Texas home, having settled in Maryland over thirty years ago. But I’m still a Texan at heart—for the most part. I was once a member of the NRA, until they became a political lobbying group rather than a gun safety and hunting organization, and two tours in Vietnam, where I saw up close and personal what assault rifles can do to the human body, caused me to change my views on gun ownership. The Second Amendment, as interpreted by the gun-nut fringe, is no longer my Bible. I not only support restrictions on the acquisition of firearms, but an outright ban on certain weapons, especially rapid fire and high-capacity weapons that are meant for only one thing—killing. That alone is enough, I fear, to make me no longer welcome in my home state.

      I guess I no longer have that Texas state of mind.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

A Wannabe Dictator's Daydreams

After hijacking the 4th of July, what other holidays could our dictator-in-waiting be planning to distort to his blatant political aims? Given his ignorance of history (airports during the Revolutionary War, really?) he'll probably have the Pilgrims landing near Big Sur.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Politicization of the Military - Playing with Fire

Of the many unusual and troubling things that Donald J. Trump has done since becoming president, one that particularly troubles me is his using interactions with U.S. military forces and individuals like campaign events Ranging from signing MAGA caps during his Christmas visit to troops in Iraq to using a recent Pentagon visit to lambast his political opponents, Trump’s actions are blatantly partisan and definitely inappropriate.

      Since George Washington’s speech to army officers meeting in Newburgh, New York in March 1783 to discuss possibly defying the U.S. Congress over its failure to provide back pay due them, in which he opened with the statement, ‘Gentlemen. By an anonymous summons, an attempt has been made to convene you together, how inconsistent with the rules of propriety! How unmilitary~! And how subversive of all order and discipline . . .’ In a long speech, Washington dissuaded the disgruntled officers from carrying out what would have been, in effect, a military coup, and since that time, keeping the military shielded from partisan politics has been a fundamental part of the military profession.

      In addition to time-honored tradition, there are also legal and regulatory controls and restrictions regarding the military and political activity. Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution states, ‘The President shall be the Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual service of the United States. This clearly establishes civilian control of the military, and makes clear that the military must obey the legitimate orders of the civilian authority. Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) states, ‘Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Transportation, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Territory, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court martial may direct.

      It is abundantly clear from all this that through law and practice, it has never been intended that the military forces of the United States should be used for political purposes. For a president, therefore, to so blatantly introduce the partisan into his interactions with our active duty military forces is troubling on many fronts. For one, it is, in my view as a veteran of 20 years of military service, a violation of one of our most sacred positions. It puts military personnel in an uncomfortable and potentially untenable position. They cannot, by regulation and tradition, rebel against the commander in chief—the best that they can do, as was demonstrated in the recent Pentagon appearance, is to stand silently and respectfully. I fear, though, that there is an even greater danger. As traditional behavioral norms are slowly cast aside, and the unthinkable becomes more publicly acceptable, this constant political manipulation of the military has the potential to shift the military closer to the political sphere. In a country where the military’s role is to defend the country, not to serve a particular political party or individual, this is dangerous. To those who say it could never happen, I merely point to the events of 1783 to show that, without the intervention of George Washington, it could have happened early in our history.

      It is incumbent that those who have the president’s ear; the secretary of defense, GOP members of congress, such as Senator Lindsey Graham (who is himself a military veteran) to point out to him the potential danger of his actions, and persuade him to cease and desist.

      Words have consequences, and actions cause reactions. We have spent over 200 years building a democratic system that is (was?) the envy of the world. It behooves us to do everything possible to ensure that that work is not undone during one four-year period.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Friday, January 18, 2019

The Border Security Debate We Should be Having

Amid all the sturm und drang of the standoff between President Trump and Democratic congressional leadership over his stubborn demand for $5.7 billion to build the border wall he promised his base during the 2016 campaign, there is thankfully a bit of attention being paid to the anguish and financial hardship this childish situation places on the more than 400,000 federal workers either furloughed or being forced to work without pay. Neither side, however, seems to be seriously aware of or concerned about the law of unintended consequences beyond this admittedly terrible consequence of what is essentially a political stunt; the other consequences flowing out of this situation that either were unforeseen, or just ignored.

     Occasionally mentioned in the news are the economic impacts of the shutdown; national parks being damaged, services not being delivered, companies suffering economic losses, air travel negatively impacted, and the list goes on, and is likely to get longer. While some would have us believe that only those inside the Beltway know or care about, those 800,000 federal workers are scattered all over the country. It’s not just long screening wait times at Dulles and National that are a problem, airports from Newark to San Diego suffer as low-income TSA screeners call out sick, or contemplate a career change.

     Speaking not as someone who spent 20 years in the military and 30 in the Foreign Service, who has personal experience of the previously longest shutdown in history (21 days during the Clinton Administration), but as a private citizen who cares deeply about this country, I would submit that both sides in this senseless debate need to sit down, take a deep breath, and reassess their negotiating strategies and positions. As an outsider with no real political axe to grind, I would offer some suggestions for all sides to consider.

President Trump

Stop flogging what was essentially a campaign mnemonic device to help remind you to discuss immigration in your stump speeches that generated a chant (Build the Wall) that caught on with the crowd, as the most important policy of your administration. Be specific in what you’re seeking, and for Pete’s sake, make it more than just a wall. Sure, physical barriers can be helpful, but a wall, standing all alone in a field, that is not patrolled, monitored, or maintained (all of which cost money), it’s just an architectural eye sore. For those who use prison walls as an example of walls that work, I point out that they work because of guards, guns, searchlights, and the fact that prisoners are locked in cells for a good part of the day. If your goal is truly to achieve border security, then submit a detailed plan. How many miles or yards of wall, where will it or they be built, what supporting infrastructure (roads, sensors, etc.) will be included, what are the personnel monitoring requirements, and what are the long-term maintenance costs? What are the environmental impacts and costs of seized land? What is the potential impact on agriculture and commerce?

Stop using bogus statistics to support the wall. For example, most drugs come through legal ports of entry, or come in by boat. A wall won’t stop or even slow the flow of drugs.

Stop falsely using the scare of terrorism, with the claim that 4,000 terrorists have been nabbed at the southern border. Records indicate six people who appeared on the terrorist watch list were detained, but nothing is known of the resolution of their cases. If you’re going to insist on using terrorism as an excuse, you’d better add the northern border to your wall-building sites because that’s the only land border over which an actual terrorist has passed.

Accept that most of the American people (56%) do not support your wall, and the majority government employees do not support shutting down the government because of a policy dispute.

Stop trying to shift the blame to others. Sure, it takes two or more to make an argument, but you publicly stated before the shutdown that you’d be ‘proud to shut down the government for border security.’ You might also take a closer look at how your shutdown is affecting border security. Among the 800,000 federal workers on furlough or working for free are the border patrol officers charged with securing the border.


I fully empathize with the desire not to punish bad behavior, but in negotiations, if both sides aren’t willing to compromise a little, it’s not really a negotiation, but a two-way extortion attempt.

If the president shows a willingness to be reasonable, honest, and detailed in his border security proposals, then you should be willing to acknowledge that, while building a wall along the entire border is infeasible, impractical, and impossible, some physical barriers, with proper monitoring, are useful. Be prepared to work with him to find a reasonable middle ground that actually addresses border security.

A very short recommendation, but given the current dynamics, it should be enough to allow the Republican leadership to come out of hiding and engage in a bipartisan effort to end this charade.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

How Grump Stole Yuletime

A humorous little holiday-themed short story that I hope readers will enjoy.


Daxon Grump was angry. This was nothing new. He was always angry about something. But, on this occasion, he was angrier than he’d been in a long time. He didn’t like not getting his way, and the dunderheads—his word for them—in his parliament had committed the cardinal sin; they’d refused to give him something he’d wanted from the day he put on the crown of Washuptown.

      Formerly the owner and star performer in the Grump Circus of the Stars, Hermyonus Grump has ascended the throne of Washuptown by happenstance and accident, but after a few days there had accepted it as his due. In other words, he’d become royal, regal, and kingly in all the ways those words are thought of as negative, alienating his parliament, and causing him to doubt the efficacy of a parliamentary monarchy, where he had to share power with a bunch of former tradesmen or royals who hadn’t been high enough in the bloodline to lay claim to the throne.

      Because of this unfortunate—fortunate for him—the parliament had thrown the succession open to any citizen who could convince the people he was fit to lead. He, with his many years of experience parting suckers from their coin to see the acts in his circus, had campaigned throughout the kingdom of Washuptown, promising the world, and enthralling the crowds of peasants and merchants who had long labored under the often heavy and uncaring hands of the royals. In the end, he had prevailed. His victory against the other contenders had been narrow, but it was just enough to push him to the head of the list. That some of the votes for him had been purchased with the horde of gold he’d amassed over the years was something he gave little thought to, just hoping that it would never be known.

      Two days after the coronation, he’d met with Michel Orwell, speaker of parliament, and one of the people who had seen the direction in which the wind of change was blowing and supported him early, and each time he recalled that meeting, his blood boiled, his nostrils flared, and he felt like throwing things.

      “But, our majesty,” Orwell had said after he’d presented him with what he felt was a brilliant idea. “I think your desire to protect the kingdom from outsiders is admirable, but the method you propose to accomplish it is not within the ability of the royal treasury to achieve.”

      “What?” He reacted in shock and anger, the same way he’d always done whenever one of his circus minions had had the temerity to disagree with one of his ideas. “How much could it cost to build a simple wall around the kingdom? All the gold the royal family amassed during King Odan’s reign has to be sufficient to do that.”

      “Hardly, your majesty. We have . . . expenses and obligations that must be met. A wall would deplete the treasury to an extent that we would not be able to do so. Worse, Yuletime is fast approaching, and we must be able to pay the holiday bonuses. It is expected.”

      Grump was furious. He was livid. Obligations my foot, he thought. We’re paying hundreds of scribes and counselors to sit around creating mountains of paper that never go anywhere, and that less than half the kingdom could read, and the other half couldn’t understand. And, there were the princely salaries each of the members of the parliament received each month.

      This was unacceptable. He would find a way.

      “Very well, Speaker Orwell,” he said in a tight voice. “You are dismissed. I will consider this, and when I’ve made a decision, I will get back to you.”

      As the obese speaker, his loose jowls flapping bowed and backed out, Grump was having the beginnings of another brilliant idea.


He thought about it for a full two days. Well, actually, he didn’t do much thinking, for he’d already made up his mind before he’d even dismissed that toady Orwell. Mostly, he sat around two days stewing and doodling on a loose sheet of foolscap. He’d waited for the dramatic effect. His years in the circus had taught him the importance of timing and pacing.

      On the third day he was ready.

      He had a page summon Orwell.

      The fat fool came rushing in twenty minutes later, sweating like a peasant fresh in from the fields. He stopped in front of Grump and bowed deeply.

      “You wished to see me, your majesty?”

      “I do,” Grump said. “Did you get a chance to read the proposal I sent to your office yesterday?”

      Orwell’s head bobbed up and down.

      “I did, your majesty, and may I say it is an elegant design, elegant, while at the same time appearing quite sturdy.”

      Grump didn’t smile, because, despite the toadying words, he sensed a ‘but’ in there somewhere. That ‘but’ wasn’t long in coming.

      “But there is, your majesty, a problem, and I’m unable to get my fellow parliamentarians to agree to supporting it.”

      “They refuse to support it,” Grump sputtered. “Do they not know that this is my signature project, that it will be my legacy?”

      “Uh, they know all this, but the, ah, problem, you see, is that there is not enough in the treasury to pay for it.”

      Grump smiled now, for he’d anticipated that objection.

      “I have a plan for dealing with that little problem,” he said. “All we have to do is not pay all the useless hangers-on, like scribes and counselors for, oh, say six months, and there will be more than enough in the treasury to build my wall.”

      Orwell, though, was an experienced bureaucrat and a savvy politician. He was not to be outdone.

      “That will pay for the materials, sire, but what of the laborers who must build it? That will not be a small expense.”

      Again, Grump smiled, which caused Orwell to shudder.

      “Ah, the laborers,” Grump said. “I suppose we will have to pay for supervisors. I was thinking I could use the salary paid to you almost-useless parliamentarians for that. As for the common labor, I believe if I ask, enough citizens of Washuptown will volunteer their labor. After all, Washuptonians love me, do they not?”

      Orwell knew that was a dangerous question to answer incorrectly, for he’d learned very early that Grump was a man who valued what others thought of him above all but increasing his wealth—as long as they thought well of him. On the other hand, he knew that the citizens looked forward to Yuletime, that week in the spring of each year when they paid homage to the Yule tree, the source of heat, building materials, perfume, tools, and many other necessary items in their daily lives. It was a time they exchanged gifts, planted new Yule trees, and held long parties at which a potent liquor made from the sap of the tree was consumed. What they would definitely not want to do would be spending many, many months constructing a wall around the kingdom which would complicate trade with neighboring kingdoms, and interfere with Yuletime festivities.

      “Of course, the people love you, your majesty,” Orwell said. “But you must remember that Yuletime approaches, and the people might not like anything to interfere with observance of this sacred holiday. Oh, and that reminds me, there is one other expense that the treasury must provide for; each year the palace throws a huge Yuletime feast for the populace. It’s somewhat expensive, but well worth it in the goodwill it generates.

      “Oh, did I now tell you, Orwell,” Grump said. “In order to ensure the health of the treasury, so that my wall can be adequately funded, I’ve decided to cancel Yuletime this year.”

      Orwell’s eyes went wide. When Grump held up a royal edict written in his own crabby handwriting, that said, ‘Yooltime is cansuled until I get MY wall.  Grump Res,’ followed by the royal seal of Washuptown, his blood ran cold.

      This would not go over or down well with the citizens. Never in the history of the kingdom had the holiday been tampered with. He did not know how the people would react.

      “Don’t you think that’s bit extreme, sire?”

      “Of course not. My people love me. You’ll see. I’m having the population summoned this very afternoon in the forecourt of the palace, where I will announce my great plans. You and your parliamentarian colleagues will be there.”

      Orwell shuddered and swallowed hard. He had no choice. He would have to be there, but he had a sinking feeling that bad things were about to happen.

      Worse, he thought, the simpleton misspelled ‘Yuletime’ and ‘cancel.’ The people will forgive him the second, as most of them probably can’t spell it either, but as for the first . . . well, that was sacrilege. Oh yes, he thought, bad things are about to happen.



Just before the midday meal hour—not, in Orwell’s opinion a good time to assemble people to listen to a speech, even if the speech was for good news, which this one was not to be—most of Washuptown’s population had assembled in the castle’s forecourt. There were puzzled looks on many faces as people wondered why their new king wanted to speak with them. Some smiled, for they figured, if it was important enough for the king to call the whole kingdom together for it, it would be a great thing to participate in. Orwell and his fellow parliamentarians, though, were most definitely not happy to be there, for they knew that when the king announced his grand plan, there was no telling how the people might react—Orwell had shared Grump’s plan with the others, and it’s safe to say that each and every one of them was quaking in his boots.

      After making the people wait for half an hour—Grump had read somewhere that this was a sign of royalty, and showed his importance—Grump appeared on the balcony, beaming down at the crowd and waving his hands. Somewhat nearsighted, he didn’t notice the frowns on some of the faces in the crowd. Not everyone was happy at being made to stand so long in the hot sun, and be force to miss the midday meal.

      Grump waited until the murmuring, which he interpreted as murmuring of affection for his royal self, to die down, and then he held up his proclamation, and began explaining why he was doing it.

      As those in the front rows read the proclamation, stopping on Yooltime, and being shocked and passing this bit of heresy on to those behind them, the murmuring took up again.

      Thus, only the guards on the balcony heard the part about government workers not getting paid for six months. The sergeant of the guard sent one of the guards to carry that message through the castle.

      Orwell’s colleagues gasped when they realized that parliamentarians’ salaries were included in the things Grump was not going to pay.

      The crowd didn’t hear Grump’s call for free volunteer labor to build his wall. They were so steamed that the king butchered the name of their most sacred holiday, they’d stopped listening to his speech, and were talking among themselves.

      It was only the rising volume of his voice that caught their attention.

      “Citizens of Washuptown, what say you to my proposal?”


There was a moment of stunned silence.

      Then, from the middle of the crowd, someone shouted, “Off with his head!”

      “No, no,” someone else shouted. “That’s too good for him. Let’s boil him alive.”

      Grump could not believe at first what he was hearing. This couldn’t be happening. The people loved him, they would not be turning on him like this. Something was amiss. He turned and looked at Orwell.

      “What are they saying, Orwell? Why are they not happy?”

      The pudgy parliamentarian bowed, keeping his eyes averted from the confused king.

      “They are angry, your majesty. I warned you that it would be a mistake to muck with Yuletime.”

      “But they should be happy that I’m bringing security and safety to the kingdom. When I made speeches about it before I won the crown, they cheered wildly. Why have they changed?”

      “Well, your majesty, it’s like this. They did not feel insecure until you started making speeches about it. They still do not really insecure. Washuptonians simply like good speeches, and you are adept at giving them what they like. Now, though, you have given them something they do not like, or rather, you are threatening to take something they like away from them. I fear that you have pushed them to anger, and I cannot say what they might do.”

      “They’re threatening to boil me alive. They can’t do that to their king. They should love me.”

      “Sire, they loved you when you were making speeches. If you had left it at that, they might’ve continued to love you. Now you are proposing to do things they do not like or want to do. If I might be so bold as to venture an opinion, I think they just might boil you alive.”

      Grump’s ruddy complexion turned gray.

      “No, that cannot be allowed.” He turned to the captain of the guard. “Captain, have your men drive these people away from here. Any who resist, throw them into the dungeons.”

      The guard captain didn’t move.

      “Captain, did you hear me?”

      “Aye, your majesty. I heard you. But you just announced that royal employees are not being paid. We guards are royal employees. If we are not being paid, we cannot work. It’s in our contracts. We are not allowed to work for free.”

      Grump looked confused. He turned to Orwell.

      “Is that true?”

      “Yes, your majesty. Employees such as guards have an iron-clad contract. No pay, no work.”

      “Okay, okay, I’ll pay you from my personal funds. Now, move those people.”

      “Uh, I’m afraid they are not allowed to accept pay other than from the royal treasury, your majesty,” Orwell said. “That is to ensure their loyalty.”

      Grump had a sudden revelation. His own petard, his explosive idea that would bind everyone in the kingdom to him and have them bend to his will forever, was now affixed firmly to his nether regions. He had painted himself into a corner on a precipice, with no handholds, and was about to be pushed into the abyss. Being king was suddenly not such a glorious prospect. He wished he’d stayed in his circus.

      “W-what am I to do, Orwell. I do not wish to be boiled, dead or alive.”

      “Well, your majesty, there is one thing that you might consider. I cannot guarantee that it will work, but it just might placate them, and they just might spare you.”

      To a man in a hole, a rope is preferred, but if a string is all that is dropped down, he will grasp it.

      “Anything, Orwell, I’m willing to do anything to stay alive.”

      “If you publicly relinquish the crown, and put the power in the hands of the parliament, temporarily, mind you, until we can select another to be king. I am confident that the people will be merciful.”

      Grump thought about it for all of ten seconds. He’d wanted to be king, but most of all he just wanted to continue to be. Running a circus wasn’t all that bad. At least, he had total control over the clowns, acrobats, and other performers.

      “Very well then, I resign effective immediately.”

      “Repeat so the people hear, your majesty.”

      Grump walked to the railing and leaned forward. “I, King Grump, do hereby relinquish the throne. I am no longer your king. Yuletime is still on.”

      The murmuring stopped. People stared up at him.

      “You really gonna quit?” some asked.

      “Yes, I quit.”

      Orwell stepped forward.

      “The king has abdicated. The parliament is now in control, and Yuletime is not cancelled. Oh, and there will be no wall built, and all royal employees are to report to work immediately. Yuletime bonuses will be paid on the morrow.”  He turned to the captain of the guard. “Captain, please escort Daxon Grump to the gate and see that he leaves the royal premises.” He then turned back to Grump and not so gently removed the crown from his head.

      With a broad smile on face, the captain ordered two guards to seize the commoner. The two burly young men grabbed Grump by his arms and unceremoniously lifted him so that his toes dragged across the cobblestones. At the gate, they heaved him through the opening like a sack of waste and slammed the gate shut.

      He picked himself up, dusted himself off, looked around to see if anyone had seen what had happened. Elated to see that his humiliation was unwitnessed by any but the perpetrators, he walked away, whistling.


That should have been the end of it for Daxon Grump. Unfortunately, his stars were not so aligned. Some of the people he’d paid to vote for him were heard complaining in a local inn that the coins he’d used to pay them were iron, painted to look like gold sovereigns, and when they’d tried using them to buy things, they’d had them flung back in their faces and themselves flung from the establishments.

      When word of this reached Orwell at the parliament, he and his colleagues conferred and came to the decision that such malfeasance could not go unpunished. An example had to be made so that in the upcoming elections the candidates would be motivated to campaign honestly.

      A guard was dispatched to Grump’s circus, and he was again unceremoniously hosted between two guards, and thrown into an iron-barred cage and transported to the castle dungeon. The parliament held a speedy trial at which those who had received his counterfeit coins confessed that they’d sold their votes to one Daxon Grump. Each of them received a token two lashes on the back and warned never to commit such a grave offense again. Grump, found guilty of fraud and counterfeiting, was spared the lash. He was sentenced to ten years in the dungeon, allowed to leave his cell once a day only to clean the castle stables and pig sty.

      No one would speak to him, and it was forbidden to utter his name. Only the pigs, grunting when he fed them scraps from the castle kitchen, not unlike the swill he received each morning and evening in his cell, seemed to call his name, uttering, ‘grump, grump’ continuously as the plunged their snouts into the gray, mushy mess he fed them.

      Grump had always dreamed of a captive audience shouting his name over and over, and adoring him. He finally had realized his dream, and they were his to rule over for ten years.