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Op-ed: Why Obama should pardon Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden speaks via video link at a news conference for the launch of a campaign calling for President Obama to pardon him on September 14.Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Edward Snowden speaks via video link at a news conference for the launch of a campaign calling for President Obama to pardon him on September 14.Spencer Platt / Getty Images

A former Obama advisor on civil liberties says Snowden deserves one.

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden has asked President Barack Obama for a pardon, and the ACLU, which represents Snowden in the US, agrees. The following essay by Timothy Edgar, which originally appeared on the blog Lawfare, supports that position. Edgar is the former director of privacy and civil liberties for the Obama administration’s national security staff, and is currently the academic director of law and policy at Brown University’s Executive Master in Cybersecurity program, and visiting scholar at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

I have signed on to the letter asking President Obama to pardon Edward Snowden that was released today. I know this will be an unpopular position among many of my former colleagues in the national security community. My reasons for doing so are not fully captured by that letter. They are different from those who see Snowden simply as a hero and the NSA as the villain. I have concluded that a pardon for Edward Snowden, even if he does not personally deserve one, is in the broader interests of the nation.

Around the time Edward Snowden got his first job in the intelligence community, I decided to leave my position as an ACLU lawyer in the hope I could make a difference by going inside America’s growing surveillance state. Surprisingly, senior intelligence officials took a chance on hiring me in a unique new office safeguarding civil liberties and privacy. I began work in June 2006.

For the next seven years, I worked with a growing team of internal privacy watchdogs inside the intelligence community. We reviewed the most secret surveillance programs in government, including the major programs that Snowden later leaked. Our job was to ensure those programs had a firm basis in law and included protections for privacy and civil liberties. While I am proud of the work we did, it is fair to say that until Snowden stole a trove of top secret documents and gave them to reporters in 2013, we had limited success. It took a Snowden to spark meaningful change.

The NSA’s operations are essential to national security and to international stability, but it is hard to reconcile them with the values of a free society. Snowden forced the NSA to become more transparent, more accountable, more protective of privacy—and more effective. Today, the NSA’s vital surveillance operations are on a sounder footing—both legally and in the eyes of the public—than ever before.

For that, the United States government has reason to say, “Thank you, Edward Snowden.”

The Snowden reforms

In the last four years, there have been more significant reforms to mass surveillance than we saw in the four decades before the Snowden revelations began. Not since the post-Watergate reforms of the Ford and Carter administrations has the intelligence community faced such scrutiny. The NSA has taken painful steps to open up. The most secret of the government’s secret agencies will never be a model of transparency. Still, it has never been more transparent than it is today.

Before Snowden, basic information like the number of targets of the NSA’s mass surveillance operations affected by court-ordered surveillance was a closely-guarded secret. Today, the head of the intelligence community publishes an annual transparency report that provides these and other details.

Before Snowden, the NSA used a secret interpretation of the Patriot Act to amass a nationwide database of American telephone records. Congress has nowreplaced this program of bulk collection with an alternative program that leaves the data with telephone companies.

Before Snowden, the secret court that authorizes intelligence surveillance never heard more than the government’s side of the argument. Now, outside lawyersroutinely appear to argue the case for privacy.

Before Snowden, there was no written order, directive or policy that gave any consideration to the privacy of foreigners outside the United States. When intelligence officials asked lawyers like me about privacy, it went without saying that we were talking about American citizens and residents. Today, for the first time in history, a presidential directive requires privacy rules for surveillance programs that affect foreigners outside the United States. In an agreement with the European Union, the American government has been forced to adopt new protections for foreign data. In the next few years, the NSA’s partners in the United Kingdom will have to justify the surveillance practices of both countries in court against human rights challenges.

In 2017, Congress will review PRISM—a program leaked by Snowden that allows the NSA to obtain e-mails and other communications from American technology companies. The law that provides authority for PRISM expires at the end of the year. The law also gives the NSA access to the internet backbone facilities of American telecommunications companies, in a program called “upstream collection.” Until Snowden leaked details about PRISM and upstream collection, little was known about how the law worked. Thanks to Snowden, the debate over whether and how these programs should continue will be one in which the public is reasonably well informed – unlike the debates in Congress over the Patriot Act in 2001, 2005, 2009, and 2011, over the Protect America Act in 2007, over the FISA Amendments Act in 2008 and 2012, and over the constitutionality of the FISA Amendments Act in the Supreme Court in 2013.

The NSA’s new transparency about its surveillance operations showed that they were designed not to bring about a dystopian society where privacy would be abolished, but to collect intelligence vital to the national security. To be sure, Snowden’s trove of documents and the investigations that followed showed some programs were more effective than others.  The same privacy board that reviewed PRISM said that the NSA’s bulk collection of American telephone records had “minimal value.” The board could find “no instance in which the program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack.” Still, there has been remarkably little evidence of intentional abuse of the NSA’s sweeping powers for improper purposes unrelated to intelligence. None was revealed by Snowden. In response to inquiries from Congress in the fall of 2013, the NSA itself disclosed that itsinspector general had uncovered a dozen incidents over ten years in which analysts used overseas collection to spy on ex-girlfriends.

As a result, the programs Snowden exposed have all survived in some form. In the case of telephone records, the NSA says that the privacy reforms adopted by Congress have actually resulted “access to a greater volume of call records” than before. Many of the NSA’s other mass surveillance programs also enjoy greater public support and legitimacy than they did before Snowden came along. As Jack Goldsmith observes wryly, “These are but some of the public services for which the U.S. government has Snowden to thank.”

A failure of leadership

Edward Snowden’s actions caused great damage to national security. They should not have been necessary to achieve the sensible reforms of the past four years. That they were represents a failure of leadership by the intelligence community and the national security teams of the previous two administrations. For me, that failure is at least in part a personal one.

As a privacy and civil liberties official inside the intelligence community, and later at the White House, my job was precisely to provide top officials with confidential advice about how to ensure that intelligence programs were protective of our liberties. In doing so, I made just the sort of arguments that many have said Snowden should have raised internally instead of compromising classified information. Unlike Snowden, I had direct access to the officials that could have made surveillance reform a reality—and who did so, after the Snowden leaks forced their hand. There is no way a junior NSA contractor could have accomplished more.

Snowden’s critics argue that he should have made his concerns about privacy known through official channels without disclosing secrets and without breaking the law. That would have achieved nothing—even in an imaginary world in which the agency had a perfect system for protecting whistleblowers. Snowden’s concerns were not those of a traditional whistleblower. Snowden’s complaint was not that the NSA was violating its rules, but that its aggressive pursuit of its mission—even as it largely adhered to its existing rules – posed a serious risk to privacy in the digital age. If Snowden was wrong about mass surveillance being an “architecture of oppression,” he was certainly right about that, as many government officials have now acknowledged.

There is an inherent tension between the values of a free society and mass surveillance. For Snowden and his supporters, the answer is easy. End mass surveillance—which is to say, most of what the NSA does. Those of us who believe that the NSA’s far-flung operations are essential to national security and global stability have the harder task of keeping mass surveillance under control.

If Snowden deserves our thanks for both this round of surveillance reform and the next, it is only because the laws and institutions we created to control surveillance had become so obsolete. Intelligence agencies should not need the shock of massively damaging leak to abandon programs that are not working and refine and improve those that are. Disclosing details of classified programs should not be the most effective way to force change.

What do we do with Snowden?

It makes no sense for the United States government to pursue Snowden like a digital age Inspector Javert while at the same time admitting that his actions strengthened both our civil liberties and our national security. This is especially true because it was the intelligence community’s own shortcomings that made his reckless leak the only effective way to achieve reform.

If Snowden returned to the United States today, of course, he would have to stand trial for disclosing classification communications intelligence, among other serious crimes. This will never happen. Snowden’s lawyers know he would likely be convicted and would face a lengthy prison term.  Under federal sentencing guidelines, an offender with no criminal history who is convicted of disclosing “Top Secret” communications information under 18 U.S.C. § 793(d) faces a prison term in the range of 168-210 months, or 14 to 17.5 years. See U.S.S.G.M. § 2M3.2. Snowden might face a considerably longer sentence if convicted of additional charges, or as a result of sentencing enhancements. Naturally, Snowden prefers to stay abroad.

The law does not allow the public interest defense that Snowden says he wants, nor should it. Permitting such a defense would encourage copycats. A Snowden wannabe might hope his lawyer could convince a credulous jury that his leaks also had some positive outcome, even if the benefits were scant. The Snowden disclosures were a unique watershed event, resulting in historic reforms. It is highly unlikely a future leak of classified surveillance information would produce such positive change.

While Snowden might be enticed to return if offered a favorable plea agreement, negotiating such a deal would create poor incentives. One idea, favored by the top lawyer for the intelligence community, was for Snowden to plead guilty to a single felony charge and serve three to five years in exchange for his help undoing the damage he caused. Through his lawyer, Snowden has said he would never plead guilty to a felony. If a plea deal was ever really on the table, Snowden has less to offer every day, as the information he leaked becomes stale and the intelligence community moves on. In any event, the Justice Department rightly objects to negotiating plea agreements with fugitives, to avoid giving those who flee prosecution an advantage over those that do not.

The status quo

Nevertheless, the status quo is clearly not in American interests. Snowden’s exile in Russia is a continuing embarrassment. Snowden has become a potent symbol for privacy and civil liberties, human rights, and an open internet in which surveillance operations are controlled by law. His presence in Moscow is a gift to Vladimir Putin, allowing the Russian president to cynically pose as a defender of digital human rights. Every time Snowden makes a virtual appearance before his admirers, the unspoken message is that he has been forced to seek asylum because the United States opposes these values. The message is no less effective for being false and unfair.

By contrast with a trial or a plea agreement, a pardon is an unreviewable act of discretion by the president. Presidents have used them not only to correct injustices, but also when the broader interests of the nation outweigh the importance of punishing a crime even where some punishment is clearly deserved. Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon to help the country move beyond Watergate. Jimmy Carter pardoned draft dodgers to close the chapter on the Vietnam War.

Pardons are exceedingly rare. A pardon sets no precedent and so creates no incentives. Future leakers could not count on one. Even if Snowden does not deserve a pardon for what former Attorney General Eric Holder called his act of “public service,” we should give him one and move on. We are the good guys. It is time for the world to know it again.



Obama Signs Executive Order Relocating Congress to Guantánamo





WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—Making good on one of his key campaign promises, President Obama signed an executive order on Tuesday relocating the United States Congress to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The President seemed to relish signing the order, calling the relocation a “win-win for America,” and indicating that Congress could be moved to its new headquarters “immediately.”

“We don’t envision doing any renovations to the facility down there,” he said. “It is ready to house Congress right now.”

The President did not specify what the current U.S. Capitol building would be used for in the future, but he hinted that it could be the setting for historic reënactments in the manner of Colonial Williamsburg.

“I think it could be fascinating to school groups,” he said. “It could really take them back to the olden days when it was a real, functioning place.”

Minutes after the President signed the order, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) called it “an outrage” and “grounds for impeachment,” but Obama appeared to take such howls of protest in stride.

“If Congress believes that this executive order is illegal, they can take it up with the Supreme Court,” he said. “Oh wait—we don’t have a Supreme Court.”




President Obama warns against ‘a comfortable silence’

Click on image for President Obama’s speech at funeral of Charleston victim Clementa Pinckney


Noam Chomsky at Democracy Now

on Net’s speech, Iran, the Ukraine and IS


Why did Netanyahu respond to chickenshit with ‘grassy knoll’ remark?

Wading through all the chickensh*t over the last few days Netanyahu’s “grassy knoll” comeback somehow missed out on all the action, but what the hoot guys? Where I come from that terminology only means one thing, as far as I know, that applies to the lexicon anywhere in America, if not the world. Hey, even Google agrees with me. And what are the chances Netanyahu and/or his speechwriters don’t know this? Nada. Impossible.

Why would Netanyahu make a reference to one of the most alarming chapters in American history, the assassination of a beloved American president? And for many, an assassination still shrouded in mystery and deceit? I just thought it was very weird. Where is our press?

Winding down after scrutinizing, dissecting and eviscerating Goldberg’s now infamous Chickensh*t article, Justin Raimondo, in The Chickenshit Lobby Is Mad As Hell– but just how mad are they? makes the argument had a leader of Iran slipped “grassy knoll” into a message to an American president the press would have gone bonkers. I agree.

What’s surprising is how Netanyahu, in a speech to the Knesset, took the opportunity toanswer his critics in the Obama administration: “Netanyahu angrily insisted he was ‘under attack simply for defending Israel,’ adding that he ‘cherished’ Israel’s relationship with the US.”

The famously combative Israeli Prime Minister went on to say:

“When there are pressures on Israel to concede its security, the easiest thing to do is to concede. You get a round of applause, ceremonies on grassy knolls, and then come the missiles and the tunnels.”

Bibi, who spent many years in the United States, is surely cognizant of what his “grassy knoll” reference connotes. You can argue it was just an infelicitous phrase, or that Bibi was referring to himself, not Obama. Maybe so. But what if, say, an Iranian official, even a low-ranking one, had said such a thing? The uproar would be deafening. And so the question must be asked: was Bibi threatening the President of the United States?

If we take seriously Goldberg’s depiction of the poisoned relationship between Bibi and Obama, the possibility can’t be completely dismissed.

Do you think anyone at the White House noticed Netanyahu’s phraseology? Me too. So why the silence from the press? Grassy knoll, it only means one thing here in America:

Screehshot of Google "grassy knoll"

Netanyahu is widely faulted for helping to incite Rabin assassination, marching in a rally where guys were holding up a coffin for Rabin.

(H/t David Doppler)

About Annie Robbins

Annie Robbins is Editor at Large for Mondoweiss, a mother, a human rights activist and a ceramic artist. She lives in the SF bay area. Follow her on Twitter @anniefofani


  1. And don’t forget all the indications that Israel and its supporters were involved in the conspiracy to assassinate JFK. The evidence is discussed quite fully in Col. John Hugh-Wilson’s JFK: An American Coup D’etat: The Truth Behind the Kennedy Assassination

Obama has ignored Syria for too long: it’s the rise of Isis, stupid – now help


Obama has ignored Syria for too long: it’s the rise of Isis, stupid – now help

It’s time for him to do the right thing by arming moderate rebels, imposing a no-fly zone and expanding military action beyond Iraq


Blanket, cold-hearted realism doesn’t work when networked, cold-hearted terrorism does. Photo illustration: DonkeyHotey / Flickr via Creative Commons



Barack Obama is embarking on a global course correction, if not an outright reversal: the policy of “don’t do stupid stuff” – the non-interventionism so praised by the Farid Zakarias and Tom Friedmans of the world – is getting forced out, albeit in the typical Obama fashion of admitting nothing and never going fast or far enough.

And to hear the Chuck Hagels and John Kerrys of the administration tell the story for him, it’s all the fault of the Islamic State (Isis), which is “beyond just a terrorist group”, “an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision and which will eventually have to be defeated” – a feat which, realistically, will require some intervention not just in Iraq … but in Syria.

It’s difficult to do the right thing when you’ve already fucked up so badly. When the Obama administration refused to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria in 2011, the indifference gave rise to despair and forced people to abandon their nonviolent ways to defend themselves, effectively transforming the nonviolent protest movement into an armed resistance. Obama’s refusal to then support the rebels following the advice of his then-secretary of state, among other officials, created a vacuum that was gradually filled by extremist elements emerging out of the woodwork and jihadists pouring across the borders, a combination that paved the way for the emergence of the newly troubling and feared Isis.

Now, Isis has a vision being carried out – effectively, if with pure evil – by technocratic leaders with succession plans, flexible but enduing structures, and major funding, with major operations based out of its hub in Syria. Soon, some of its acolytes might make like Hezbollah and run legitimate businesses across multiple countries that secretly fund terror; some already appear to be attracted to the radicalized appeal of Isis leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi declaring a new Caliphate.

No wonder Obama is finding it so difficult to justify a policy of minimal engagement anymore – perhaps even to himself. Blanket, cold-hearted realism doesn’t work when networked, cold-hearted terrorism does. The line between realism and cynicism has always been too thin, and has long been crossed by the Administration. While realism is laudable, cynicism ends up producing the very outcomes that realism intends to avoid. Letting a region take care of itself is impossible to allow when your spies are telling you about the rise of a terror group across the world, including the West – of terrorists that are effectively becoming a global movement of disaffected Muslims everywhere.

Some “realists” are advocating cooperation with Bashar al-Assad. But that wouldn’t just being doing “stupid stuff” – it would be downright delusional, since cooperating with dictators who abuse their own people is exactly what gives rise to extremist anti-Western movements.

The only way for Obama to stop doing stupid stuff with his foreign policy is to arm moderate rebels in Syria, to bomb Isis bases in both Syria and Iraq and to finally impose a no-fly zone on the Assad regime. This combination of tactics could allow the Syrian opposition – which has thus far been unable to govern the liberated areas due to Assad’s use of aerial strikes, including barrel bombs, scud missiles, and, on occasion, chemical weapons and poison gas – to move in and work with the local councils to begin returning the basic services to the local communities, bringing a measure of relief to the local civilian population. Imposing a no-fly zone also avoids having to supply advanced weapons to rebels, including TOW missiles and MANPADs, thus minimizing the risk of having them end up in the wrong hands. Still, the opposition will have its work cut out for it in terms of ensuring effective governance of the areas under their control, especially when it comes to reaching agreements between Islamist and secularist currents. But by controlling the flow of humanitarian aid and the funds required for the reconstruction processes, the administration and other members of international community could exercise leverage to allow for compromises to be reached.

Obama already plans to take a leading role at next month’s UN General Assembly, where strategies for holding back Isis will be a top priority. But Western and Middle Eastern leaders need to begin preparing for a peace conference following such strikes, because a real transition plan for a post-conflict and post-Assad Syria needs to be developed. Talks will not be easy (and could drag out for months if not longer), but if the regime’s ability to wreak havoc on rebel communities is curbed by strikes and the economic blockade against it is strengthened, time will not be on its side – rendering hopes for an eventual breakthrough more realistic.

It’s about time for the Obama administration to do the right thing. It’s about time, after doing so much stupid stuff and aiding in the rise of Isis, to begin resolving a conflict that has killed close to 200,000 people in less than four years, and produced millions of refugees, becoming the worst humanitarian disaster since the Cold War.

Yes, American strikes may make disaffected Muslims more eager to join Isis. Yes, we may be witnessing the birth of a new Islamic sect. But Barack Obama needs to stop fighting the symptoms while embracing the disease – to become a true realist and not a cynical one. Sectarian violence was not inevitable in Syria, as some analysts argued at the beginning of the revolution, but indifference and cynicism made it so. Obama needs to engage in the region with a positive mindset, knowing that he can actually make a positive difference.



Obama to Israel — Time Is Running Out

Mar 2, 2014 2:00 PM ET


When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the White House tomorrow, President Barack Obama will tell him that his country could face a bleak future — one of international isolation and demographic disaster — if he refuses to endorse a U.S.-drafted framework agreement for peace with the Palestinians. Obama will warn Netanyahu that time is running out for Israel as a Jewish-majority democracy. And the president will make the case that Netanyahu, alone among Israelis, has the strength and political credibility to lead his people away from the precipice.

In an hourlong interview Thursday in the Oval Office, Obama, borrowing from the Jewish sage Rabbi Hillel, told me that his message to Netanyahu will be this: “If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who?” He then took a sharper tone, saying that if Netanyahu “does not believe that a peace deal with the Palestinians is the right thing to do for Israel, then he needs to articulate an alternative approach.” He added, “It’s hard to come up with one that’s plausible.”

Unlike Netanyahu, Obama will not address the annual convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group, this week — the administration is upset with Aipac for, in its view, trying to subvert American-led nuclear negotiations with Iran. In our interview, the president, while broadly supportive of Israel and a close U.S.-Israel relationship, made statements that would be met at an Aipac convention with cold silence.

Obama was blunter about Israel’s future than I’ve ever heard him. His language was striking, but of a piece with observations made in recent months by his secretary of state, John Kerry, who until this interview, had taken the lead in pressuring both Netanyahu and the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, to agree to a framework deal. Obama made it clear that he views Abbas as the most politically moderate leader the Palestinians may ever have. It seemed obvious to me that the president believes that the next move is Netanyahu’s.

“There comes a point where you can’t manage this anymore, and then you start having to make very difficult choices,” Obama said. “Do you resign yourself to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank? Is that the character of Israel as a state for a long period of time? Do you perpetuate, over the course of a decade or two decades, more and more restrictive policies in terms of Palestinian movement? Do you place restrictions on Arab-Israelis in ways that run counter to Israel’s traditions?”

During the interview, which took place a day before the Russian military incursion into Ukraine, Obama argued that American adversaries, such as Iran, Syria and Russia itself, still believe that he is capable of using force to advance American interests, despite his reluctance to strike Syria last year after President Bashar al-Assad crossed Obama’s chemical-weapons red line.

“We’ve now seen 15 to 20 percent of those chemical weapons on their way out of Syria with a very concrete schedule to get rid of the rest,” Obama told me. “That would not have happened had the Iranians said, ‘Obama’s bluffing, he’s not actually really willing to take a strike.’ If the Russians had said, ‘Ehh, don’t worry about it, all those submarines that are floating around your coastline, that’s all just for show.’ Of course they took it seriously! That’s why they engaged in the policy they did.”

I returned to this particularly sensitive subject. “Just to be clear,” I asked, “You don’t believe the Iranian leadership now thinks that your ‘all options are on the table’ threat as it relates to their nuclear program — you don’t think that they have stopped taking that seriously?”

Obama answered: “I know they take it seriously.”

How do you know? I asked. “We have a high degree of confidence that when they look at 35,000 U.S. military personnel in the region that are engaged in constant training exercises under the direction of a president who already has shown himself willing to take military action in the past, that they should take my statements seriously,” he replied. “And the American people should as well, and the Israelis should as well, and the Saudis should as well.”

I asked the president if, in retrospect, he should have provided more help to Syria’s rebels earlier in their struggle. “I think those who believe that two years ago, or three years ago, there was some swift resolution to this thing had we acted more forcefully, fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the conflict in Syria and the conditions on the ground there,” Obama said. “When you have a professional army that is well-armed and sponsored by two large states who have huge stakes in this, and they are fighting against a farmer, a carpenter, an engineer who started out as protesters and suddenly now see themselves in the midst of a civil conflict — the notion that we could have, in a clean way that didn’t commit U.S. military forces, changed the equation on the ground there was never true.”

He portrayed his reluctance to involve the U.S. in the Syrian civil war as a direct consequence of what he sees as America’s overly militarized engagement in the Muslim world: “There was the possibility that we would have made the situation worse rather than better on the ground, precisely because of U.S. involvement, which would have meant that we would have had the third, or, if you count Libya, the fourth war in a Muslim country in the span of a decade.”

Obama was adamant that he was correct to fight a congressional effort to impose more time-delayed sanctions on Iran just as nuclear negotiations were commencing: “There’s never been a negotiation in which at some point there isn’t some pause, some mechanism to indicate possible good faith,” he said. “Even in the old Westerns or gangster movies, right, everyone puts their gun down just for a second. You sit down, you have a conversation; if the conversation doesn’t go well, you leave the room and everybody knows what’s going to happen and everybody gets ready. But you don’t start shooting in the middle of the room during the course of negotiations.” He said he remains committed to keeping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and seemed unworried by reports that Iran’s economy is improving.

On the subject of Middle East peace, Obama told me that the U.S.’s friendship with Israel is undying, but he also issued what I took to be a veiled threat: The U.S., though willing to defend an isolated Israel at the United Nations and in other international bodies, might soon be unable to do so effectively.

“If you see no peace deal and continued aggressive settlement construction — and we have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we’ve seen in a very long time,” Obama said. “If Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited.”

We also spent a good deal of time talking about the unease the U.S.’s Sunni Arab allies feel about his approach to Iran, their traditional adversary. I asked the president, “What is more dangerous: Sunni extremism or Shia extremism?”

I found his answer revelatory. He did not address the issue of Sunni extremism. Instead he argued in essence that the Shiite Iranian regime is susceptible to logic, appeals to self-interest and incentives.

“I’m not big on extremism generally,” Obama said. “I don’t think you’ll get me to choose on those two issues. What I’ll say is that if you look at Iranian behavior, they are strategic, and they’re not impulsive. They have a worldview, and they see their interests, and they respond to costs and benefits. And that isn’t to say that they aren’t a theocracy that embraces all kinds of ideas that I find abhorrent, but they’re not North Korea. They are a large, powerful country that sees itself as an important player on the world stage, and I do not think has a suicide wish, and can respond to incentives.”

This view puts him at odds with Netanyahu’s understanding of Iran. In an interview after he won the premiership, the Israeli leader described the Iranian leadership to me as “a messianic apocalyptic cult.”

I asked Obama if he understood why his policies make the leaders of Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries nervous: “I think that there are shifts that are taking place in the region that have caught a lot of them off guard,” he said. “I think change is always scary.”

Below is a complete transcript of our conversation. I’ve condensed my questions. The president’s answers are reproduced in full.

President Barack Obama participates in an interview with Jeff Goldberg in the Oval Office, Feb. 27, 2014.  (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
        President Barack Obama participates in an interview with Jeff Goldberg in the Oval Office, Feb. 27, 2014.  (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)      

Congress to Give Egypt $1.5 Billion in Aid

Photo by Amr Dalsh/Reuters
New legislation dropping on Monday will free the Obama administration to send money to Cairo after last year’s military coup put a freeze on the cash.
Congress is preparing to allow the Obama administration to give more than $1 billion dollars to the Egyptian government and military, despite the fact the generals perpetrated a coup last summer and are suppressing opposition ahead of a nation-wide constitutional referendum.The House and Senate are set to unveil a year-long spending bill that will loosen restrictions on U.S. aid to Egypt and negate the law that prevents the U.S. from funding a foreign military that has conducted a coup against a democratically elected government. The Obama administration has been lobbying Congress for permission to give the aid to the Egyptian government. Several senior senators had been working to make sure that aid was conditioned on the Egyptian government pursing a path toward democracy and respect for the rule of law.

But now, with the Egyptians speeding toward a Constitutional referendum that will cement the rule of the military-led regime and with the Egyptian government’s crackdown on the opposition ongoing, most of those conditions could be lifted by Congress or waived by the Obama administration.

For experts and congressional officials who have followed the Obama administration’s clumsy and often incoherent policy on Egypt, the potential easing of restrictions on aid represents only the latest unfortunate twist in a failed effort to preserve U.S. influence in the Arab world’s most populous country.

“When the omnibus bill is passed, there’s going to be legislation in it that in effect is going to give the administration a waiver from the coup provisions and allow them to restore aid to Egypt,” said Michele Dunne, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Ever since the Egyptian military ousted and jailed ex-president Mohamed Morsi last July and began its campaign of arresting opposition leaders and protesters, the Obama administration and Congress have been withholding most of the $1.5 billion in annual aid the U.S. gives Egypt, most of which goes directly to the country’s army.

“I think there’s a sense of giving up on Egypt [inside of the Obama administration], on the Hill as well,” said Dunne. “There’s a sense that ‘Oh well they tried a democratic transition, it didn’t work, but we don’t want to cut ourselves off from Egypt as a security ally, so let’s just forget about the whole democracy and human rights thing except for giving it some lip service from time to time.’”


The law prevents the U.S. from funding a foreign military that has conducted a coup against a democratically elected government.

Congress is set to unveil the omnibus spending bill for the remainder of fiscal year 2014 Monday afternoon. The Daily Beast obtained the text of the section that deals with U.S. aid to Egypt. It states that the president must certify that Egypt is “sustaining the strategic relationship with the United States,” and “meeting its obligations under the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.”

Following that certification, Congress would allow Obama to give the Egyptian government $250 million in economic support. Also, Obama could give the Egyptian military $1.3 billion in two installments: $975 million after Egypt holds its constitutional referendum and $576.8 million after presidential and parliamentary elections.

Secretary of State John Kerry would have to certify “that a newly elected Government of Egypt is taking steps to govern democratically and implement economic reforms,” according to the text of the legislation. Kerry would also have to submit a comprehensive, multi-year strategic review of military assistance to Egypt and report back to Congress on the trials of former Egyptian leaders such as Morsi.

Egypt’s constitution referendum will be held January 14-15 amid charges of widespread voter suppression and intimidation by the Egyptian government security forces. Human Rights Watch detailed those abuses Monday, which included arrested the leaders of the political organizations who are campaigning against the ratification of the constitution.

“There’s no doubt that the referendum will pass because the people who are opposed to it won’t vote. For the first time since 2011 there is really questions about whether this is a free and fair vote,” said Nathan Brown, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It already seems criminal to challenge a constitution that hasn’t passed yet. This is a degree of shamelessness and a degree of accountability that really is a return to the pre-2011 era.”

Experts also point out that the new legislative language would override the existing law that prevents the U.S. from funding any military that has perpetrated a coup. Although the Obama administration decided not to say whether it believed Morsi’s overthrow was a coup, they have quietly followed the law and lobbied key congressional offices for legislative relief that would allow them to resume to flow of aid to Egypt.

Key lawmakers, including Patrick Leahy and Lindsey Graham, heads of the Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Subcommittee, had been the loudest critics of the administration’s effort to ignore the anti-coup law and continue giving billions to the Egyptian government and military. Last August, Graham and John McCain traveled to Cairo and publicly declared the takeover was a coup.

But both senators appear to have backed off their position that the aid to Egypt should be halted or at least heavily conditioned. Leahy’s office declined to comment and Graham’s office did not respond to several requests for comment.

“In six months, the appropriators went from railing about human rights and democracy to giving the military a blank check to continue its return to Mubarak-era policies. They are essentially endorsing a failed administration policy that many of them initially agitated against, with little to no public discussion,” said one senior GOP senate aide.

The language was negotiated behind closed doors between appropriators and leadership, without the consultation of key senators on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which had just approved an Egypt aid bill with extensive restrictions in December by a vote of 16-1.

Several congressional aides said the administration had been quietly working with key House and Senate offices on the new language. Elements of the pro-Israel lobby have also been on Capitol Hill lobbying for a resumption of U.S. aid to Egypt.

There has been long-standing tension over Egypt aid between the White House and the State Department, with the State Department leaning more towards support of the military-led Egyptian government. On a November trip to Egypt, Kerry defied National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s orders to publicly raise U.S. objections to the trial of Morsi, who stands accused of murder and other serious charges.

In October, the administration announced a partial suspension of Egypt aid and said it would not deliver planes, tanks, and missiles to the Egyptian military pending actual progress in the areas of democracy, human rights, and respect for the rule of law.

“They are in many ways saying the right things,” one senior administration official said in October. “It’s important to us to see those things actually happen.”

But now the administration seems to be backing off their insistence that the aid flow be linked to positive progress in Egypt, rather than just any kind of progress to a new government system. Experts see that as a return to the failed U.S. policies that guided U.S. interactions with Egyptian dictators for several decades.

“Frankly I don’t think there’s been that progress and it wouldn’t be realistic to claim so. On the aid front, the administration is adhering to the old status quo and wants to make sure the funds can go through uninterrupted while the situation in Egypt is deteriorating,” said Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy. “The administration seems to be turning a blind eye towards a lot of things that are going on in Egypt and that is part of how we got to where we are now.”


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