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Bad Theater in the Hearing Room

General Petraeus and His Senate Vassals

by WINSLOW T. WHEELER

Whatever you may think of General Stanley McChrystal and his succession by General David Petraeus, something very sad is about to happen. The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) has already scheduled its hearing for the constitutionally required confirmation of General Petraeus in his new job. Watch that hearing. (It will occur at 9:30 am on Tuesday, June 29 and will be broadcast by the committee’s webcast, and surely C-SPAN.) You will observe how useless and ineffectual the Senate Armed Services Committee, among others, has become at performing its most important job.

That job is oversight. Oversight is, rather should be, the basis of everything Congress does. In essence, it consists of finding out what is, or has been, going on. Understanding the issues should, in a more perfect world, be the basis for legislation; to address a problem, it helps to understand it. The same thing applies to confirming presidential appointments and the policies they advocate.

I saw an exemplar exercise of oversight in 1972 shortly after I started work for my first Senate employer, Jacob K. Javits, a liberal Republican from New York. He was a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then chaired by J. William Fulbright, D- AR, who held frequent hearings on the disastrous war of that era, Indochina. Secretary of State William P. Rogers was testifying. Fulbright’s staff had discovered and reported privately to him about some illegal US combat operations in Laos. During the hearing, Fulbright refuted Rogers’ statements about the conduct of the war, periodically correcting him. It was clear Rogers either had no clue what was going on or was trying to cover it up.

At the time, I was so junior on Javits’ staff that I had to sit in the public gallery of the hearing room, behind Rogers and his staff. The part I will never forget occurred as Rogers left the room, visibly – but silently – fuming. As he and his equally unhappy entourage swept past me, one of them growled to an underling, "Find out how those b——s found that out."

This provides a key test for whether any real oversight occurs at a congressional hearing. As he leaves, is the witness smiling? None. Angry and cursing? Well done!

We will see no frowns when the SASC considers the Petraeus nomination on June 29. I can say that with confidence because I watched the committee’s most recent hearing with the general. It occurred on June 15 and 16. It was supposed to be an oversight hearing "on the situation in Afghanistan."

The first sign that little oversight was to occur was the witness list. Invited to testify were General Petraeus and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy. No one else was heard; not any authors of independent reports, such as from GAO, CRS, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or a recent, widely reported study about Pakistan’s intelligence service undermining the US war effort. Nor were any critics of the war invited, such as the widely respected Col. Andrew Bacevich (USA, Ret.) from Boston University or any other retired military officer, some of whom have been eloquently critical.

SASC Chairman Carl Levin, D-MI, started the hearing articulating his longstanding, position that the Afghan security forces should take on more responsibility for fighting the war. His first question asked Petraeus how many Afghan army troops were available in June and later in September for the important offensive in Kandahar.

Petraeus’ answer was short and simple; he didn’t know. He made no effort to turn to his staff behind him to give him the data or to – quick – go get it. Instead, he said he would provide the information later, "for the record" of the hearing.

How strange. The committee chairman has a well known concern; the general and his staff fail to anticipate the obvious point of inquiry and then basically discount the chairman’s inquiry, saying they’ll get him something on that later.

Levin showed no sign of being perturbed, and asked no follow up question on the matter. Nor did he remind General Petraeus the next day when the hearing continued that he wanted the missing information. The whole exercise seemed to have no point whatsoever.

It would have been simple for Levin and his staff to be far more competent. They might have warned Petraeus’ staff about the subject matter of interest to the chairman, perhaps even sharing the specific question, so that it was sure to be answered. Had Levin and his staff been really on their toes, they also would have independently researched the answer to their question before the hearing. That way, when they got Petraeus’ nothing response, they could say what the data were, point out that the Afghans were not pulling their weight, and then drive home the point that chairman wanted administration policy to address his concerns.

Had the general done his homework and anticipated the question, he might – hypothetically – have selected to try to mask the Afghans incomplete participation in the upcoming offensive. Had they done their homework, Levin and his staff would have been in the position to correct the misstatement – like Fulbright. Not only would the Chairman’s policy point be reinforced, it would also emphasize that the chairman was not to be toyed with and knew what he was asking about. This would have put the witness on warning that he better answer fully and accurately, setting the tone for the rest of the hearing.

Instead, the marker was laid down by Petraeus, not Levin, that he would control what information, if any, was divulged in the hearing. It was all downhill from there.

The third senator to engage General Petraeus was Joe Lieberman, I-CT. Rather than ask any question, he basically gave a speech about his position on the war. At the end, he gave General Petraeus an opportunity to say anything he cared to. This is a common tactic at SASC hearings; a member’s allotted time for questions is used instead for a long winded statement and the witness is prompted to respond however he or she may care. It is not oversight; it is speech making, and most of the time it doesn’t even open up any new policy perspectives. Lieberman’s exchange of bromides with Petraeus was a classic example.

Senators Mark Udall (D-CO), Scott Brown (R-MA) and Kay Hagen (D-NC) provided other examples of how not to ask questions when their turn came.

Udall started out saying he would cue up two separate questions and listen to the answers – much like bashful callers on talk radio shows. He got a vague answer in response to his inquiry about Afghan President Karzai that amounted to little more than saying Karzai has a tough job, and Udall was told that a study rehashing decades old information about minerals in Afghanistan was a new product of a US bureaucrat who did "phenomenal work." Udall said nothing to indicate he had the slightest disappointment with the useless, even misdirecting, answers he got.

Brown made it clear Petraeus had nothing to fear by saying he had limited time and was leaving the hearing soon but wanted to know about contracting and warlordism in Afghanistan (two huge issues) and about Pakistan’s counter-Taliban operations. Petraeus gave short answers that can be summarized by saying "I’m working on it" and did not even mention that study about Pakistan continuing to help some factions of the Taliban. Incredibly, Brown concluded by thanking Petraeus for his "very thorough answer."

Interestingly, the warlordism and corruption issue that Senator Brown feigned interest in was the subject of an important new congressional study on exactly that subject. On June 22, Congressman John Tierney, D – MA, released a real oversight report from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on the corruption of Afghan warlords that had the effect of funneling $millions to the Taliban. Senator Brown, his own staff, and that of the committee clearly had no clue this report was about to be released. So much for knowing what is going on immediately around you.

Hagen read off from notes in front of her presenting a jumble of concerns and ultimately a question about reconciliation between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban. Petraeus suggested, at least to me, the possibility that it was a question planted by Petraeus or his staff by praising the "nuance" of the question. My notes show no new information transpiring, after which Senator Hagen changed the subject to territory already covered in the hearing, those newly discovered minerals that the Soviets found in the 1980s.

And so it went: Questions that weren’t really questions and responses that certainly weren’t answers. Senators saw it as their job to assert interest in some matter but to fade away, sometimes with obsequious smiles, when they got nothing in response. Other senators were mostly interested to lay down markers about what policy they preferred, and Petraeus offered in response either approving assent or caveats, as he pleased.

Basically it was a hearing chaired by General Petraeus and attended by politicians supplicating him to offer any response he might care to, preferably blessing the "questioner" with either praise or agreement. It wasn’t oversight; it was bad theater.

At the end of it, the cameras did not show Petraeus leaving the hearing, but I am quite sure he was smiling.

We will see the same thing on June 29. The senators will maneuver to acquire the benediction of agreement, or if they are lucky praise, from the General Petraeus. Ostensibly there to gain the senators’ approval; in reality, the general will be dispensing it, however he may please.

To have other witnesses giving a different perspective on the war or General Petraeus himself would mean there is some sort of controversy. Surely not; there is no alternative to pursuing victory in Afghanistan, just as we achieved it in Iraq, thanks to General Petraeus. No one would possibly dissent from that. To acknowledge anything of the sort would require a whole different set of actors from the ones on this stage.

WINSLOW T. WHEELER spent 31 years working on Capitol Hill with senators from both political parties and the Government Accountability Office, specializing in national security affairs. Currently, he directs the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information in Washington. He is author of The Wastrels of Defense and the editor of a new anthology: ‘America’s Defense Meltdown: Pentagon Reform for President Obama and the New Congress’.

 

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