President George H.W. Bush and the MTCR

I worked on several issues at the State Department that at least came close to being reviewed byPresident George H.W. Bush. 

As deputy director of a non-proliferation office in the Politico-Military Bureau (PM) I was the most senior person dealing exclusively with missile proliferation, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).  Everybody above me dealt with missile proliferation and other issues.  The initial members of the MTCR were the G-7: the US, UK, France, Germany, Japan, Canada, and Italy. As an international plenary meeting of all the original members was coming up in July 1990, there was a debate about whether to invite theSoviet Union to join.  The US government was split on this issue and could not come to a consensus on whether to invite them.  The assistant secretary for PM was Richard Clarke, later famous as the anti-terrorism chief for the White House on9/11.  Clarke held several interagency meetings of his counterparts, but there was no agreement.  The State Department position was that we should invite the Soviets.

No one ever wouldtell me what the problem was with inviting the Soviets, but the resistanceseemed to be coming from the intelligence community.  The best explanation I heard was that it might have complicated the CIA’s program of providing Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to the Afghan resistance, a program well described in the book and the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War,” although the Afghan war was winding down by then.   The US was supplying its Afghan proxies withsmall Stingers, while the Soviets had supplied their proxies with SCUDmissiles, a large ground-to-cround missile capable of destroying multiplebuildings over 100 miles away.  The MTCRonly covered large missiles capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.  The MTCR covered SCUDs, but not Stingers.  Thus the MTCR might have imposed limits onthe Soviets in Afghanistan, but not on the US. Although it was a diminishing problem it might have been imprudent toadd it to the existing stress in the relationship.

Another problem was that the Soviet Union was disintegrating.  The Soviets appeared willing to join., but the mysterious American ambivalence could have been due to President Bush’s overall goal of ending the Cold War with minimal turmoil  Was it better to get the Soviet Union (and presumably any successor state) on board with the MTCR’s arms control  guidelines while we had he chance, or was it better to wait and try to get agreement from a more stable successor government?  Unfortunately no one ever discussed these issues in any meetings that I attended.  I did not detect any such concern on the part of the State Department Soviet desk, which was willing to approve an invitation. 

In any case, we could not get agreement, and so I prepared a memo to the White House to get President Bush to make a decision.  The memo gave the background and then asked the President to check a box on whether to invite the Soviets: yes or no.  Attached to the memo were two draft instruction telegrams, giving the US delegation talking points: one telegram told our MTCR partners that we wanted to invite the Soviets, and one told them that we did not want to invite them.  The White House would send the appropriate telegram depending on which box the President checked.  I think around this time,  I also drafted a memo from Secretary of State Jim Baker to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell asking the JCS to join State in recommending that the President approve inviting the Soviets, but the JCS declined. 

We sent the decision memo to the White House weeks before the MTCR meeting, but heard nothing back.  One of the main NSC staffers working on the issue was Condi Rice, because she was responsible for Soviet affairs.  I tried repeatedly to call her, but could never talk to her.  I could only talk to her assistant, who kept saying that they were working on it.  Finally it was time to go to the meeting in Ottawa, and we still had no instructions. 

In Ottawa just hours before the meeting, around midnight, we got a call at our hotel that the embassy had a niact (night action) immediate telegram that we had to come down and read at the embassy.  When we got to there, we found that the White House had sent an instruction telegram, but it was neither of the ones I had drafted.  It looked as if they had picked alternate paragraphs from the two cables and combined them into one that did not make sense.  It did not clearly say whether to invite them or not.  We called Assistant Secretary Clarke the first thing in the morning, and he made a command decision to go ahead and invite the Soviets.  So, just minutes before the meeting started, we met with our fellow members and told them that we supported inviting the Soviets.  In the meeting, it was formally decided to invite them. 

When we got home, we found that the President had decided that he did not want to invite the Soviets.  So, we had to quickly tell our partners before the invitation was issued that we had changed our minds and that we did not want to invite the Soviets.  The invitation was not sent, but the US looked pretty bad for the way it had handled the issue.  Russia later joined the MTCR in 1995. 


Paper Ballots

There is a relatively easy solution to concerns about Russian hacking of American elections: just use paper ballots.  Some states are probably completely dependent on electronic voting now, but they can have paper ballots printed up quickly.  If the Secretary of State for a given state thinks his computerized voting is reliable, he can use it, but require him to have paper backups.  If there is not dispute after the election, the electronic voting can stand.  If there are questions, then they would have to look at the paper ballots.  If the totals don’t match, courts and experts will have to decide which system is the most accurate and reliable.  In an ideal world there would be a serial number linking a paper ballot to an electronic ballot, but it may be too late to set up such a system.

This would not be a problem for Colorado, since most voting is done by mail on paper ballots.  There is concern that computers totaling election returns might be hacked.  If there is any indication of such hacking, the ballots would have to be counted by hand.  Paper ballots and hand counting worked for centuries; it can still work.

All the hype about Russian interference in actual voting seems to be overblown.  I think that Russian and Iranian interference in elections through the use of posts on social media is also overblown.  Americans should be able to think for themselves.  The US broadcast political information into the old Soviet bloc for decades through the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, as well as through some more secret CIA interference.  It’s not a new things, just the way of doing it through social media is new.  If a foreign country can change the results of an election by broadcasting false information, then the American educational system and political system are as much to blame as the foreigners.

George Marshall vs. John Brennan

The media is going crazy about the fact that Donald Trump revoked the security clearance of former CIA chief John Brennan.  Trump has been criticized by a number of senior former intelligence and military professionals.  The media has particularly emphasized the letter by retired Adm. William McRaven, who was the Navy Seal commander.  I particularly look up to former CIA chiefs Robert Gates and William Webster, who wrote to support Brennan.

More than them, however, I look up to World War II General George Marshall, who went on to be Secretary of State and namesake of the Marshall Plan.  As General Petraeus said in this interview with the Armed Forces Journal, General Marshall did not vote, because he felt that even the slightest degree of political participation would compromise his professional independence and judgment.  In this article, General Petraeus said he had not voted since he was a major general.

Of course, none of the people signing these letters was an active duty officer.  Nevertheless, the non-political position take by Marshall and other conscientious officers illustrates the importance of nonpartisanship among the military and other public servants.  If these officers feel so strongly about an issue that they cannot continue to serve, then they have to leave the service.  This is what happened to the State Department’s Foreign Service during the first year of the Trump administration under Secretary of State Tillerson.  The Foreign Service lost many of its senior officers.

The US has had a number of military presidents, starting with George Washington, but by and large they have retired and gone through the traditional political process.  One exception to this military deference to the political system may be General Douglas MacArthur.  MacArthur appeared to defy President Truman’s orders during the Korean War.  When he tried to appeal to Congress and the people over Truman’s head.  The firing led to a Constitutional crisis; Truman’s popularity fell to 22 percent, but he prevailed and MacArthur faded away.

Compared to George Marshall’s non-partisanship and MacArthur’s firing, the removal of John Brennan’s security clearance is nothing.  Brennan appeared to be a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party while he was still head of the CIA.  His partisanship, combined with the accusations of Russian interference in the US election placed a huge cloud over the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community from President Trump’s perspective.  He thought that the Democrats were trying to invalidate his election and that the CIA was helping them.  Pompeo’s terms as head of the CIA seems to have helped close the rift between Trump and the CIA, but tensions remain because of the continuing Mueller investigation.  Brennan, who has accused Trump of treason, clearly wants to see Trump removed from office.  We’ll see whether that happens.  Trump certainly has no obligation to help Brennan remove him from office.