President Obama’s magical first pitch

President Barack Obama’s awkward ceremonial first pitch at the 2009 All Star baseball game last night was saved from bouncing in the dirt by Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols.

It was a shaky toss (Obama, known for his talent on the basketball court, admitted to the Fox Sports: “I did not play organized baseball when I was a kid and so, you know, I think some of these natural moves aren’t so natural to me”) but you wouldn’t have known that from many of the media accounts.

Barack Obama’s first pitch is a success” was the headline for Carol E. Lee’s piece in Politico, although her lead did admit: “It was low, and didn’t quite reach home plate.” Jack Curry’s New York Times blog post (“Obama to Pujols, Without a Bounce“) and ESPN.com’s coverage (“Obama gets first pitch to home plate“) reflected the generally positive spin in the mainstream media. You would have to turn to Fox News or, surprisingly, to the left-of-center British newspaper, the Guardian ( “Obama’s first pitch as president falls flat“) for a more clear-eyed account.

White House aides were apparently worried about the symbolic nature of Obama’s performance. They had to be happy with the  sympathetic media’s pro-Obama spin. Of course it didn’t really matter—so what if Obama looked uncomfortable throwing? President George H.W. Bush bounced a first pitch at an All-Star game, as did former Vice President Dick Cheney at the opening of the Washington National’s home season in 2006.  And George W. Bush demonstrated he could reach the plate, as he did at the 2001 World Series. In short, whether a politician’s throw reaches home plate or not shouldn’t be a symbol of anything (certainly not “manliness” or leadership). The losers in this silly episode: any journalist who bought into applauding Obama’s magical first pitch.

(Ted Guthrie, general manager of the minor league Charlotte Rangers, gave me this priceless tip for ceremonial first pitch throwing back in the mid-1990s: throw the ball high, aiming for a spot several feet over the catcher’s head. This compensates for the tendency to short-arm the ball, and the difficulty in gauging the distance from the pitching mound. The advice worked!)

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders

All rights reserved

June 2009: Nobody asked me, but…

Obama’s Afghan war-by-drone, Sanford as tabloid delight, and other observations

With a tip of the straw boater to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon: nobody asked me, but…

IT’S BECOMING CLEAR THAT PRESIDENT OBAMA INTENDS TO FIGHT THE CONFLICT IN AFGHANISTAN ON THE CHEAP, with bare-minimum American troops levels and drone strikes on suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda commanders substituting for the more substantial commitment many counterinsurgency experts believe is needed. But will this limited-resource strategy (war-by-drone), coupled with political reforms and a build-up of Afghan troops, work in establishing a stable Afghanistan?

The odds of war-by-drone succeeding are long. Despite the introduction of additional ground troops in June, the level of NATO forces in Afghanistan aren’t adequate for the mission of nation-building. The subtext of U.S. Afghan commander David McKiernan’s replacement by Stan McChrystal is that McKiernan wanted more troops than the Obama Administration was prepared to furnish. Already there are signs that force levels aren’t sufficient for a “clear and hold strategy”: the complaints by Allied field commanders in the Helmand River valley that Afghan military support is lacking illustrates one disconnect between strategy and resources. The substitution of air power for ground troops has also led to counterproductive bombing raids on Afghan villages.

Obama has dramatically expanded the drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is some irony that this tactic—of questionable legality under international law—has been embraced by an Administration concerned that harsh interrogation tactics are war crimes. Would an international court consider drone attacks an acceptable military tactic, or would they be regarded as illegal assassinations? What about the loss of civilian life when drones launch missiles at residential compounds thought to house Taliban and al Qaeda leaders? What about Pakistani sovereignty?

Obama campaigned on the idea that Afghanistan should be the chosen battlefield in confronting America’s Islamist adversaries. Convinced that the situation on the ground in early 2009 was rapidly deteriorating, Obama chose incremental escalation, a more politically palatable course, but one that ignores the lessons of Vietnam (encapsulated in the Weinberger Doctrine) by failing to bring overwhelming force to bear and by finessing the exit option. Will it buy enough time for the recruitment, training, and deployment of an indigenous Afghan military? What will Obama do when “clear and hold” requires much higher troop levels and the Afghan government and military can’t deliver? Will he endorse further escalation and pay the political price at home with the left wing of the Democratic Party? Or will Afghanistan in 2010 look like pre-surge Iraq in 2006-2007?

The strategy Obama is adopting may allow for a temporary, and fragile, stability in Afghanistan, but it will mean American ground troops must remain in the country for a much longer period of time. A true surge could accomplish more, produce fewer civilian casualties by lessening the need for airpower, and allow for a faster NATO exit.

THE PHILANDERING OF SOUTH CAROLINA’S GOVERNOR MARK SANFORD HAS BEEN A DELIGHT FOR TABLOID NEWSPAPERS. Sanford’s affair with an Argentine woman and his public disclosure of his messy emotional state inspired editors at the New York Daily News to produce this memorable front-page headline (wood): “BUENOS AIRHEAD.”

ANOTHER HOLE IN THE “BUSH LIED, PEOPLE DIED” MEME, COURTESY OF SADDAM HUSSEIN, FROM THE GRAVE. Before his execution, Iraq’s former ruler told his American interrogator that he refused U.N inspection and let the world believe that he had weapons of mass destruction because he didn’t want Iraq to appear weak in the eyes of his Iranian adversaries. This approach, of course, convinced Western intelligence agencies that Saddam was continuing to pursue WMDs.

Further debunking of the “Bush Lied” allegation: Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post (“‘Bush Lied?’ If Only It Was That Simple.”) notes that in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report released by Sen. Jay Rockefeller in June that Bush’s pre-war claims about the threat from Hussein were generally substantiated by intelligence information. The report found that the consensus in the intelligence community supported Bush’s claims about Iraq’s biological weapons, chemical weapons, its nuclear weapons program and it links to terrorist groups. Yes, the intelligence was later proved to be flawed in the extreme—but until Bush’s critics can show that the president knew that what he was hearing from the CIA, and other Western intelligence agencies, was faulty, he can’t be accused of lying.

WHILE IT’S A FUNCTIONAL AND PRETTY PLACE, THE RECENTLY OPENED CITI FIELD, HOME OF THE NEW YORK METS, has a decidedly artificial feel to it. By choosing to build an “instant classic” ballpark with red-brick facades and wrought-iron gates, the Mets are fabricating a tradition that doesn’t exist. That’s evident with the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, which celebrates the legendary African-American pioneer who broke the color bar in major league baseball, but who played for the Dodgers and has the flimsiest of historical connections with the Mets, as noted by the Los Angeles Times.

RECOMMENDED READING: CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS’ ABILITY TO ENTERTAIN AND ENLIGHTEN is evident in his Atlantic Monthly reminiscence of an obscure British author, Edward Upward, “The Captive Mind.”

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM BRITISH SCIENTIST AND PHYSICIAN SIR THOMAS BROWNE (1605-1682): “Men live by intervals of reason under the sovereignty of humor and passion.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders

All rights reserved

A newsworthy history of Soviet espionage: Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America

It’s the rare work of historical scholarship that also makes news but Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (Yale University Press) by John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev has accomplished just that, provoking headlines around the world with its revelations of Cold War Soviet espionage.

Based both on KGB* archival material glossed by Vassiliev (the “Vassiliev notebooks“) and extensive research by the authors, Spies has outed several agents who spied for the Soviets in the 1930s and 1940s, including physicist Engelbert Broda, who passed vital atomic secrets while working for the British; engineer Russell A. McNutt, who was recruited by Julius Rosenberg for atomic espionage; and U.S. government officials James Hibbens, Stanley Graze, and Henry Ware, among others.

In their heavily footnoted 704-page opus, Haynes, Klehr, and Vassiliev also seek to resolve some lingering historical questions: they reaffirm that Alger Hiss did indeed spy for the GRU (the chapter on Hiss caused Cambridge historian David A. Garrow to write in Newsweek that “the book provides irrefutable confirmation of guilt”); they argue that physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, while a secret member of the American Communist Party, did not pass Manhattan Project secrets to the Soviets; and they reveal that the KGB considered using Ethel Rosenberg as an agent independently of her husband, suggesting that she was more deeply entangled in spying than her defenders would care to admit.

That radical journalist I.F. Stone assisted the KGB in the late 1930s as an information source, talent spotter, and courier has proven to be the most controversial claim in Spies. Several of Stone’s biographers (D.D. Guttenplan, Myra McPherson) as well as left-of-center journalists (Eric Alterman, Todd Gitlin) challenged that assertion, arguing that Haynes, Klehr, and Vassiliev had jumped to unwarranted conclusions about Stone’s relationship with Soviet officials. Stone was engaged in nothing more than trading political gossip with his Russian sources, they argued, and questioned the substance of the case against Stone.

Yet the key KGB documents presented in Spies, coupled with later references in decoded Soviet cables, strongly suggests that Stone was under the operational control of Soviet intelligence from 1936-1938, and that his involvement went well beyond that of a journalist working his sources. (Max Holland’s Journal of Cold War Studies essay on Stone and the Soviets provides more detail and context, none of it helpful to Stone’s defense). While Spies does not accuse Stone of full-bore espionage (stealing government secrets), only of working for the KGB, a journalist who covertly assists a foreign intelligence service betrays some of the basic tenets of the profession (independence, transparency, integrity). Can Harvard’s Nieman Foundation continue to award the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence without some reservations?

Some argue that if Stone assisted the KGB, it was only a reflection of his commitment to fighting fascism. But do these “noble intentions” mitigate his actions? What of an American journalist of the 1930s with isolationist views sharing information with German intelligence in the hopes of keeping the U.S. out of any European conflict? Would that also be acceptable? Collaborating with the intelligence agency of a totalitarian power should be beyond the pale for any journalist. Further, the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939 resulted in close cooperation between the Abwehr, Gestapo, and the KGB, which meant that information passed to the Soviets in the late 1930s may very well have ended up in Berlin.

The historian as detective

The findings in Spies reflect painstaking historical detective work—comparing the Vassiliev notebook materials with Venona intercepts, FBI agent reports, and other historical records, to identify American agents, couriers, and sources for the KGB.

Haynes, Klehr, and Vassiliev unearthed some amazing stories, none more bizarre than that of Stanley Graze, a former OSS operative and State Department official who went from handing intelligence reports to Moscow Center in the 1940s to assisting swindler Robert Vesco in defrauding American investors in the 1960s. At a cocktail party in Costa Rica in 1976, Graze told a Soviet agent that his spying had been “most interesting, fruitful and beneficial to the cause of world peace.”

Other Americans, famous and obscure, were all too willing to help the KGB: Ernest Hemingway flirted with Soviet intelligence but never engaged in any clandestine work; journalist Bernard Redmond, later Moscow bureau chief for CBS and dean of Boston University’s College of Communication, became a source for the KGB in the late 1940s; and Martha Dodd Stern, the daughter of the American ambassador to Germany, saw herself as a left-wing Mata Hari but her casual sexual liaisons made the puritanical comrades nervous.

By telling these stories, Spies chronicles the decades-long love affair many American intellectuals had with Communism and how ideological fervor blinded them to the true nature of Stalinism. Despite the Great Terror, the Hitler-Stalin pact, the Katyn massacre, the invasion of Finland, the establishment of the Iron Curtain, and the never-ending purges in Moscow, many still kept faith, many remained willing to spy against their own country.

The historical significance

In the end, did this Soviet penetration of British and American political elites matter? Did the presence of Soviet agents in the corridors of power in the West change the course of history? Did it prolong, or extend, the Cold War? As the extent of Soviet espionage becomes clearer, its greater significance is also emerging.

It was the “XY line,” the KGB term for scientific, technical, and industrial espionage, where Soviet efforts bore the most fruit. As Spies relates, and historian Steve Usdin and others have documented, Soviet spying in the U.S. successfully focused on stealing technical and military secrets. As Spies concludes in assessing the performance of KGB operatives in pursuing the XY line:

…The scientific and technical data they transmitted to Moscow saved the Soviet Union untold amounts of money and resources by transferring American technology, which enabled it to build an atomic bomb and deploy jet planes, radar, sonar, artillery proximity fuses, and many other military advances long before its own industry, strained by rapid growth and immense wartime damage, could have developed them independently.

What was the benefit to Stalin of having well-placed agents and sources in the corridors of American and British power providing political intelligence? Laurence Rees in World War II Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West notes that Soviet agent Harry Dexter White pushed for the Morgenthau Plan for demilitarizing Germany and conjectures that advocacy was at the behest of the Soviets (although Morgenthau’s scheme was eventually discarded as too punitive).

It’s now clear that Stalin knew the negotiating positions of the Allies in advance of the Yalta, Potsdam, and San Francisco conferences, and that knowledge may have helped Moscow. But a strong argument can be made that it didn’t matter—the failure of Anglo-American policy toward the Soviet Union stemmed primarily from the misreading of “Uncle Joe” and his intentions by Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and, initially, Harry Truman. The flawed notion that the Allies could “do business with Stalin” in Eastern Europe had more to do with the shape of the post-war world than any covert assistance to the Kremlin by Western spies.

Countering espionage

Spies should be required reading for those responsible for countering espionage against the United States. One stark lesson: members of the elite (government officials, diplomats, journalists, scientists, academics, engineers), who on the surface should have no reason for spying, are often responsible for the most damaging betrayals. Attending the “right schools” and knowing the “right people” is no guarantee of loyalty: the American agents serving Stalin included Rhodes Scholars, numerous Ivy Leaguers, and others drawn from the ranks of the privileged “best and brightest.” During the Cold War years covered by Spies (roughly 1930-1950) most spied for ideological reasons, although other factors (the narcissistic thrill of wielding secret power, or a hidden resentment of authority) also played a part.

Just weeks after the publication of Spies came allegations that two members of the Washington’s contemporary elite, Walter Kendall Myers and his wife, Gwendolyn, spied for the Cubans for nearly three decades. Myers, a graduate of Brown and Johns Hopkins, came from a privileged background and yet embraced the leftist causes of the 1960s.

Did State Department officials know of Myers’ political radicalism and counterculture lifestyle, including a police drug raid on his South Dakota home, (risk factors for espionage which Ginger Thompson of the New York Times’ quickly uncovered) before granting him top-secret clearance? Did the vetting process surface other troubling signs of an erratic or narcissistic personality? That Myers, hired as a State Department analyst, was an open admirer of Neville Chamberlain’s policies of appeasement toward the Nazis adds a comic, but fitting, touch to this disturbing tale of lax security.


* I use “KGB” to describe the Soviet foreign intelligence service and “GRU” for Soviet military intelligence, although both had several name changes during the 20th century.

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved