Archive for January, 2009

Oklahoma Is Doing Pretty OK, Actually

Monday, January 19th, 2009

As a wonderfully menacing Christmas card sent out by the Oklahoma GOP last month reminded us, Oklahoma was the only state in the Union to go completely and utterly red: Not one county–and only one of the state’s 2249 precincts–voted for the Obama/Biden ticket in November. (“It was god, guns, and gays with a little bit of race thrown in there,” a local Democrat quipped bitterly.) And yet, two months later, a crowd of 800 Oklahomans merrily rang in the Obama presidency on Sunday night at the Museum of the American Indian. A sense of marvelous good luck (for some) and of smirking at the gods (for others) permeated a crowd that had as many Native Americans as ten-gallon hats and bright blonde coiffures. Tribal chiefs and Air Force ROTC high schoolers mingled with state representatives, local business people, and young couples around piles of jalapeño corn bread and chicken pot pie. One Oklahoma architect, bopping his head towards the merry crowd, snipped, “These are all the people that voted for Obama in Oklahoma. That’s it. They’re all here.”

One of those voters was a reluctant one: Oklahoma’s lone Democratic congressman Dan Boren, a vocal board member of the NRA and scourge of environmentalists. In July, he made news for refusing to endorse Obama because of his “liberal Illinois voting record,” before finally coming around. “I had reservations about him,” he told me as a soft jazz band inexplicably sent strains of “Georgia on My Mind” up to the rotunda’s ceiling. “But the President-elect’s early moves have signaled that he isn’t going to govern from the left, that he won’t govern as an ideologue, that he’s going to give tax cuts to small businesses, and that he won’t try to stifle growth. So we’re very hopeful.”

The state’s other professional Democrats were, for the most part, Obama-backers from Edwards’s departure and got behind him to the best of their hobbled abilities. Dr. Ivan Holmes, the state’s Democratic Party Chair, recalled how Obama called him to say that he would not be coming to the state and that Holmes was not to spend a dime on his campaign after initial polling suggested that Obama could only scrape together 35 percent of the vote. (He ended up with 34.) But the state party did as much as it could: State Representative Anastasia Pittman beamed with pride as she recalled how many voters her team had registered: 2,000. Holmes, in spite of the party nominee’s diktat, disbursed $50,000 to buy 50,000 lawn signs.

This was like shaking a fist at a rain cloud, however, and the November returns were devastating. “I completely understand why Obama didn’t spend any resources here,” Democratic governor Brad Henry told me. “It’s a waste of time.” But when their candidate pulled through because of the other 28 states in the win column, Oklahoma Democrats’ relief was tinged with more than a little embarrassment. Many whispered of an undercurrent of racism in the rural areas. Linda Edmondson, the wife of the state attorney general who plans to run for governor in two years, said some of her friends held firm to the belief that Utah was actually the reddest state. “It’s pretty depressing,” she said. Holmes, the otherwise feet-on-the-ground state party chair, repeated a similarly soothing, if inaccurate, factoid: “I think there were three states that were actually redder, percentage-wise,” he insisted over a plate of chocolate-covered strawberries. “I can’t recall which ones, but I’m pretty sure there were three that were worse.”

But the mood was so infectiously happy–the rotunda was still packed when the security guards threatened to lock the doors on a crowd that wouldn’t go home until it had shouted through the entirety of “Oklahoma,” a capella–that even the few Republicans in the crowd seemed to be warming to the changing of the guard. Everyone was simply trying to make the best of a situation that hadn’t gone anyone’s way: Oklahoma Democrats hadn’t delivered the state for their candidate, and the others hadn’t gotten their candidate at all. And though the most stalwart Republican members of Oklahoma’s Congressional delegation were in absentia (most had timed their returns to D.C. for the last minute before the inauguration; others, like Senator James Inhofe, promised to come, but, held up by mysterious delays, never showed), the ones that were there wouldn’t badmouth the incoming president. “It was a fair election and nobody’s sulking,” Representative Tom Cole told me later, echoing the mood of his constituents back home. “It’s clearly an exceptional moment for the Democrats, and it’s preeminently their celebration. We’re just pleased to be invited.”

WTF Else R We Gna Do?

Friday, January 16th, 2009

Earlier this week, David Frum and his wife, Danielle Crittenden, invited some of their (conservative) friends to fete the inauguration of a man they didn’t vote for. “We’re going to watch and have a few drinks–well, maybe more than a few–and discuss how we’re going to deal with this,” Frum, a fellow at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, told me. He sounded chipper, almost wondrous at how the conservatives had gotten to this point. At the bottom of the invitation, he and Danielle wrote “celebrate/commiserate cuz wtf else r we gna do?” “That’s short for ‘What else are you going to do?’” says Frum, laughing.

“Seriously, though,” he continues, “never, ever, ever go to an inaugural ball. They’re terrible. First you get in a taxi and instantly hit terrible traffic. Then the taxi drops you off at some cavernous space, like the Air and Space Museum. Then you get in a long line to drop off your coat. Then, once you’ve dropped off your coat, you get into another long line to get a drink and the whole time you’re surrounded by people you don’t know, and people who don’t know each other.”

Frum’s event was supposed to be an antidote to such anonymous elbow-rubbing, a low-key gathering at his Glover Park home–but it seemed to tap into a hidden demand and was soon overrun. “We just hung out the shingle a couple days ago and over 100 people responded,” he said. “Most conservatives live in Virginia and feel cut off by the bridge closings.” Though Frum is keeping the guest list close to his chest, the party, co-sponsored by Laura Ingraham and Marty and Byron York, will be attended by Frum’s AEI colleagues, Giuliani campaign veterans, mysterious-sounding Canadian and Norwegian parliamentarians, as well as many other alienated DC right-wingers looking for a stiff drink before heading out into the Democratic blizzard.

Incidentally, the event is doing double duty as a launch party for, which will go live at 12:01am on Inauguration Day. The site, Frum says, will serve as a platform for reform and renewal of the GOP and will feature what he called “a cross-section of conservatives.”

An axis of opposition, perhaps?

“No,” Frum says, souring. “That gag has had its run. This is just a group that’s not so hopeful about the change.”

The Gun Club

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

Last month at the Golden Idea Awards [1], an annual ceremony for the Russian defense industry, Deputy Premier and ex-KGB hard-liner Sergey Ivanov told the prize winners that he was supremely proud of them. “Even in the midst of the world financial crisis,” he said, “there has been no drop-off in the demand for our products.”

It is probably the only Russian industry that can claim such an honor. November’s dismal economic data showed [2] that the Russian economy had gone off a cliff; the double-digit declines in industrial output, commodities prices, and consumer spending were the biggest since the country’s outright collapse in 1998. Yet Russia’s weapons exporters are still doing brisk business. Their expected earnings for 2008 [3], a disastrous year for everyone else in Russia, were $8 billion, with a crop of future contracts worth some $33 billion.

The industry starts with a considerable advantage—proximity to the Kremlin. The weapons export monopoly, Russian Technologies [4], is run by Sergey Chemezov, Putin’s buddy from their Dresden days in the KGB. “There’s been a significant increase in Russian arms exports under Putin,” says Paul Holtom of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute [5]. Russia is now second only to the United States in weapons exports.

And now, the industry is set to get another gift from the nation’s rulers. World demand for most Russian products—oil, nickel, gas—has collapsed, and Russia’s currency reserves are leaking like a sieve. So the Kremlin has started notching the ruble downward to ease those pressures. Its phased devaluation [6]—about 1 percent to 2 percent a week for the last two months—has left the ruble some 18 percent lower than its August peak. What’s more, economists predict that the Kremlin will deflate the ruble another 20 percent this year in order to protect the country’s reserves and revive its exports. (Even after years of promising diversification, commodity exports are still Russia’s lifeblood.)

As the ruble drops by more than one-third of its value, Russian guns, planes, and tanks, already the bargain alternative to pricey American models, will become still cheaper. This is important for two reasons: As the revenue streams of Kremlin-connected oligarchs dwindle, this one could hold steady since a cheaper product can catch dropping world demand. This could also help because some of Russia’s weapons customers are oil producers hurt by tumbling oil prices. Venezuela, for example, has signed a series of lucrative arms contracts with Russia but is already negotiating a loan [4] to pay for all those goodies. Cheaper arms, however, should alleviate these pressures—and keep pinched customers from reneging on those defense contracts.

That’s good news for Russian weapons exporters but bad news for some of the world’s peacekeepers. Once the world’s arms warehouse, the Russian defense industry since the collapse of the Soviet Union has been hobbled by inefficiency, an aging work force, and inferior products. (In an unprecedented incident last year [7], Algeria, an old Soviet customer, sent back 15 MiG fighter jets, claiming they were lemons. “It was the first time a foreign customer returned a military hardware purchase—ever,” says Stephanie Neuman, a weapons trade expert at SIPA. “It was unheard of.”) But what Russia lost in market share, it made up for in zeal, aggressively peddling its weaponry all over the world. Desperate to attract new customers and win back old Cold War allies, Moscow attached few strings to its weapons deals. Such terms of trade were very attractive to the countries that America refused to do business with, and soon Syria, Iran, North Korea, Libya, Venezuela, Somalia, Eritrea, Burma, Yemen, and Sudan all became Russian customers.

Of course, the United States has armed its fair share of unsavory actors, but on the whole, say weapons experts, its export controls are much tighter than Russia’s. “The U.S. sells widely, but places where it draws the line, Russia jumps in,” says William Hartung of the New America Foundation [8]. And Russia, recognizing that the West looks askance at sales to these rogue actors, has made some gestures of appeasement, like promising to do surprise inspections after a sale is completed to someone in what it calls the “awkward” market. It is unclear whether any such inspections have taken place.

The other discrepancy between the two superpowers is what they sell. America makes the bulk of its money selling very expensive, high-end technology—big-ticket items like fifth-generation fighter planes. Russia also sells mostly tanks and planes, but it also churns out a huge number of small arms and light weapons, the industry term for things like AK-47s, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, and RPGs. The figures are murky, but last year Russia sold as much as $400 million worth of these. And once these cheap and highly portable weapons are sold to “awkward” states, they very quickly turn up somewhere else entirely.

While the big stuff like planes and helicopters has been found in some nefarious corners of the world (Darfur, for example), it is the light, cheap stuff that presents the biggest problem. “Soviet-bloc weaponry constitutes the bulk of illicit circulation,” says Matt Schroeder of the Federation of American Scientists. And circulate it does. Russian guns sold to Eritrea recently surfaced in the hands of Somali insurgents [9]; the computer of a captured FARC leader revealed that Hugo Chávez was planning on arming them with Russian shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles; Russian rifles sold to Algeria were found being used by death squads; and, in the summer of 2006, Russian anti-tank missiles, or RPGs, sold to Syria were found under the auspices of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. (RPGs are cheap, but they cost the Israeli army nearly three dozen tanks.) And those Hamas missiles we’ve been hearing about of late? According to military sources, those are Russian Grad missiles, funneled to Gaza through Syrian and Iranian intermediaries.

It remains to be seen, of course, if a devalued ruble exacerbates the situation by making small arms and light weapons even cheaper. For one thing, the Kremlin seems unwilling to take the ruble down 20 percent in one fell swoop, which would really give the weapons exporters a boost. The Russian weapons industry is not in good shape: In recent years, there has been very little spent on R&D and even less on the Russian army (the industry is almost completely dependent on exports), and it is fast losing market share in its two largest markets: India and China. And, given that the entire world is hurting, there may be a bunch of canceled arms contracts around the corner.

On the other hand, countries might cut back on the big, less portable weaponry but keep the light and cheap guns flowing. The collapse of other Russian industries may make selling arms that much more urgent for the cash-strapped Kremlin, which has already stepped up its salesmanship, sending President Dmitry Medvedev on a sales trip to Venezuela in November [10]. And, with a cheaper ruble at its back, Russia might find some eager customers in the increasingly awkward and dangerous corners of the globe.


Legend of The Fall

Monday, January 12th, 2009

Last month, far from his old D.C. stomping grounds, a very old W. Mark Felt, Sr., died quietly in Santa Rosa, California. The press, who had known him as the dashing, silver-haired spook dubbed Deep Throat, portrayed this as a major event, the passing of one of the late 20th century’s most influential figures. The New York Times remembered him as the man who “helped bring down President Richard M. Nixon by resisting the Watergate cover-up and becoming Deep Throat, the most famous anonymous source in American history.” Across the Pond, the Guardian’s obituary only heightened the legend. “Long after memories of Linda Lovelace’s pornographic film have vanished,” it wrote, “Felt will live on in American political history as Deep Throat, the mysterious insider whose leaks to journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought well-deserved ruin to the Nixon presidency.”

In no small part because of Hal Holbrook’s goggle-eyed, cotton-mouthed portrayal of him in All the President’s Men, we’ve come to think of Deep Throat in these romantic terms: as the mystery man feeding rounds into Woodward and Bernstein’s gumshoe guns. That was in 1976. Nixon had resigned, the bad guys had gone to jail or had been publicly shamed, the movie won four Oscars, and still no one knew who Deep Throat was. So a large and devoted gaggle of politicians, journalists, and scholars began to guess at Deep Throat’s identity. Then they began to obsess over it, doubling back on every possible hypothesis, and Deep Throat’s legend ballooned. “A lot of awfully intelligent people made awful fools of themselves,” says Slate’s Timothy Noah, who, until Deep Throat’s outing, was an active participant in the guessing game. A bemused Woodward told me that, over the years, he’s received scores of PhD and masters dissertations trying to uncloak Deep Throat once and for all. It took three decades for Felt to come out and put an end to (most of) the speculation.

But this most anonymous of sources was not nearly as important to Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting–or to Nixon’s demise–as we have come to believe. He was useful, yes, but the Washington Post staffers who midwifed the Watergate story readily admit that he was just one of many, many sources, some of whom are still anonymous. In fact, the entire editorial team did not know about Deep Throat’s identity until after Nixon resigned. To them, Deep Throat was not the man who helped two reporters fell a crooked president, but just one piece of a huge and dynamic puzzle.

“Don’t think for a second that if Deep Throat was so important, Ben Bradlee wouldn’t have asked who he was,” Barry Sussman, Woodward and Bernstein’s direct editor on the Watergate articles, told me recently. (Today, Bradlee, the Post’s former executive editor, says he didn’t ask because Deep Throat was usually right. “Being right is what you care about in a source,” he explained. “If he was caught way off base telling a lie, then I would’ve asked. I would’ve throttled Woodward.”)

The Post had a two-source rule for the investigation–that is, every bit of information had to be corroborated–but Deep Throat was never one of them. He was rarely the one to approach Woodward; he didn’t offer documents or leads or even many details; he spoke in code and disappeared for long stretches of time. For the most part, he was a check on information Woodward and Bernstein had already cobbled together. “He was important, but the story could’ve been done without him,” says former metro editor (and Sussman’s boss) Harry Rosenfeld. “It wasn’t like any story stood or fell by what he told us.”

“I think his nickname elevated him into history more than his actual contribution,” Bradlee says. Thirty-odd years later, he is still baffled and delighted by the naughtiness of the moniker. “It’s extraordinary that it caught on. I mean, the average person had not seen the movie, I guess, and did not know that we were talking about oral intercourse here!”

On the two Woodward and Bernstein stories that made the biggest difference in the Watergate investigation, Deep Throat was of little help. The first was an August 1, 1972, piece about how Nixon reelection funds had been deposited to the account of one of the Watergate burglars. This was Woodward and Bernstein’s big break on Watergate, the first to link the burglary to the White House, and it launched an investigation by the GAO (which was largely ignored). The tip, however, had come not from Deep Throat, but a story in The New York Times. After reading the story, Bernstein flew down to Miami and plied the local investigator into showing him the burglar’s phone and bank records. The FBI had looked into this weeks earlier, but Deep Throat had kept mum.

The second was an October 10 article on Donald Segretti, a foot soldier in Nixon’s army of dirty tricksters. Before the story ran, Woodward met with Deep Throat to see if the story’s allegations were true. Deep Throat confirmed that the Post was right about Segretti, but hinted that there were more like him and that the rot reached wide and high, up to the very top of the administration. A pretty vague and useless hint for the reporters on deadline, but such were Deep Throat’s ways.

Even Felt, back when he was still denying that he was Deep Throat, told the Hartford Courant that, had he actually been Deep Throat, he would’ve “done it better. I would have been more effective. Deep Throat didn’t exactly bring the White House crashing down, did he?”

A good question. If Deep Throat didn’t bring the president down, what did he do?

Deep Throat, it turns out, was more of a vague guide than a fount of contraband information. “He didn’t just say, ‘Go into the office, open the third door on the left, and under the desk you’ll find something,'” says Bradlee. “But he pointed them in the right direction and gave guidance. He saved them all sorts of time and energy.” Deep Throat’s biggest impact was in the beginning of the beginning of the Watergate saga, before the machinery of an FBI investigation and Congressional inquiry took over the job of putting pressure on the White House. When news of the break-in first surfaced in June 1972, it was thought to have been a rogue operation and most news outlets quickly dropped the story. Woodward cajoled a very reluctant Mark Felt into hinting that the break-in was not an isolated incident, so Woodward and Bernstein, two relatively inexperienced city reporters, figured they should keep going. And so, as Nixon was actively trying to stuff the matter under the rug, the Post was able to keep the public spotlight trained on the administration long enough for Senator Sam Ervin to take notice and set up a Congressional inquiry. (The FBI had been investigating the break-in since the beginning, but the extent was largely unknown to the public.) “The information they got from Deep Throat gave Woodward and Bernstein the confidence and credibility to keep going and to create a climate that would allow for a Senate Watergate investigation and special prosecutor,” says Timothy Naftali, the director of the Nixon Presidential Library.

But Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting was not what ultimately brought down Nixon; it was the famous “smoking gun” tape in which the president voiced his intent to snuff out the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in–and that didn’t come out until August 1974, after months of bruising hearings and a Supreme Court decision. On August 9 of that year, two years since the initial burglary, Nixon finally resigned–the result of all the little hatchets of the government’s investigative and judicial agencies slowly chipping away at the hydra’s many necks. And Deep Throat had little to do with that.

“I think that the press minimized the role of the government and the power of subpoenas and the threat of prison and all the things the Justice Department can do to people to say, ‘Unless you testify, you’re going to wind up in prison,'” says Edward Jay Epstein, a writer who was one of the first to investigate the role of the press in exposing Watergate.

Woodward, too, admits that Deep Throat’s role in taking down Nixon has been exaggerated, but he doesn’t think it was negligible. “The accurate answer is, we played a role in a certain period, very early on, in finding out what happened,” Woodward says in his soft, serious voice. On the line from his Post office where he is most days of the week, he is frustrated that his source, protected by the sacrosanct code of confidentiality, became the subject of a glib parlor game. “Deep Throat was invaluable, but, you know, he wasn’t Daniel Ellsberg coming in with a grocery cart full of documents and Pentagon Papers.”