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Three Things: Flying Moochin’ Mnuchin Air

Usually when I pull together a Three Things post they’re unrelated topics worth a quick look but not necessarily a full-blown post. This time these three things are related and I can’t write a post on each one because my blood pressure won’t handle it, thanks to Moochin’ Mnuchin.

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Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) recently FOIAd Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s travel data. You’ve probably heard by now about his use of military aircraft for eight trips costing nearly one million dollars. CREW looked at the regulations covering government travel and authorization for spending. Take the time to read their work, it’s worth the effort.

And then read the FOIAd records CREW shares, but only after you’ve taken your blood pressure medications and/or prepared for a tooth-grinding tension migraine. There were repeated indications to Mnuchin and staff these trips were expensive — one cost $26,953.33 when commercial airfare for the same trip was $688 per person.

It’s this trip which first made me do a double take, because Mnuchin’s plane was on the ground in Miami on June 15, 2017, for a mere two hours and 45 minutes or less.

Mnuchin traveled to Miami to attend the Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America held at FIU’s campus, roughly 15 minutes by car from Miami International Airport. Assuming the travel times were prompt and on the mark, Mnuchin made it to the conference for a fucking two-hour lunch.

An institutionally-prepared $13,476-an-hour lunch.

But get this — here are the other U.S. attendees at this event:

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, and Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin co-hosted the Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America in Miami, Florida on June 15-16, 2017 with Mexican Foreign Secretary Videgaray Caso, Interior Secretary Osorio Chong, and Secretary of Finance José Antonio Meade Kuribeña, and attended by President Jimmy Morales of Guatemala, President Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras, and Vice President Oscar Ortiz of El Salvador. Other meeting participants included U.S. and Latin American private sector leaders, senior government representatives from Belize, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the European Union, Nicaragua, Panama, and Spain, and leaders from the Inter-American Development Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. …

Mnuchin was a bloody co-host. Why did he not travel with one of the other co-hosts? Why did he have to commission his own military aircraft instead of tagging along with another cabinet member? Or even the vice-president?

Mnuchin’s use of military aircraft was repeatedly justified by the need for secure communications. The June 15 trip to Miami was one such occasion; a call on the return leg needed an aircraft on which persons without adequate security clearance would be traveling.

CREW noted this as well:

Two days before the scheduled departure, Treasury advised the FAA that “due to a new need to access to secured comms during this mission, which cannot be accommodated on the available aircraft, we are going to have to pull this mission down and will have to utilize another means of transport.” (UST 00024). The call was scheduled during the two and one-half hour return flight (UST 000063). The use of a military aircraft increased the cost of the approximately two-hour flight to $45,136 (UST 00003). In other words, a scheduling conflict that the Secretary apparently did nothing to avoid cost the government an additional $18,000. Of note, the five listed individuals on the manifest could have made the same trip on a commercial aircraft for approximately $3,440 (or $688 per person, UST 00001). …

Again, Mnuchin was a conference co-host. There were other cabinet members traveling to Miami. What was so bloody important that he couldn’t travel earlier with the rest of the U.S. co-hosts? Why did Mnuchin schedule a call needing secure communications two days before the trip?

And why over the last year was there repeated insistence on the availability of secure communications, unlike Mnuchin’s predecessors? What changed so dramatically about the Treasury Secretary’s job?

What might have been happening on June 15 about which Mnuchin knew more than 48 hours in advance?

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Remember last year when I noted the odd timing of Jared Kushner’s unannounced, unpublicized trip to Saudi Arabia during which he had a pajama party of sorts with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman where they discussed who knows what?

It seemed quite the coincidence that Kushner arrived during Treasury Secretary Mnuchin’s publicized trip to Saudi Arabia. What incredible timing!

Except it wasn’t a coincidence. Our forgetful Boy Wonder was on the same goddamned military aircraft with Mnuchin, who had insisted on a military plane for access to secure communications.

Here’s a screenshot from page 57/126 (from document 2018-2-15-Production-redactions-applied.pdf via CREW), an amended request to White House by Treasury for mission support, required to obtain a military aircraft. Note the Requesting Principal and the trip’s purpose as well as the date, August 31:

Here’s a screenshot of page 59/126 from the manifest included with the same amended request:

Kushner isn’t mentioned in the request or the agenda except as a line item in the manifest; he appeared to be included in every leg of this trip, including a visit to United Arab Emirates and Qatar. There’s an awful lot of redacted material related to this trip, too, big swaths blanking out what could be entire emails or attachments.

Worth noting the FOIAd documents dated July 25 reflect this Middle East trip was originally scheduled for September; by August 31 the trip has been pushed back to October. The mission requested a plane with secure communications capability from the first, which does make sense in this case given the level of discussions being held between Treasury Department, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar.

But the frequent insistence on secure communications capability and Kushner’s presence on this October trip spawns several questions: is the use of military aircraft a flying backchannel? Is Mnuchin equally invested in the use of a backchannel?

Was this trip really another negotiation related to the blockade of Qatar and was Kushner involved for that reason? Is this why his presence wasn’t openly communicated?

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And then there’s the possibility Moochin’ Mnuchin took his spouse, our generation’s Marie Antoinette, for a vacation in Edinburgh, Scotland and other European locations using one of our military aircraft. I may have an aneurysm if I don’t stop here. Just look at the itinerary on page 66/126 and tell me what you make of it. I can’t find coincident formal events scheduled for Scotland or Italy, or for virtual attendance during this trip’s time frame. CREW reported the trip was their goddamned honeymoon (modifying epithet all mine).

Did Mnuchin and Linton seriously tie up a military aircraft so they could go walkabout in Scotland? Let me guess Linton is a big fan of the premium cable show Outlander and she wanted to take in the show’s shooting locations. The sole argument presented for the use of our military aircraft is “to be able to monitor issues [redacted], and participate in scheduled [redacted]” and the need for access to secure communications.

Don’t we have an undersecretary or a deputy to do whatever [redacted] so Mnuchin can take his honeymoon on his own time, on his own dime? Or is [redacted] something in which nobody else should be involved?

Go ahead and argue this trip request says it’s a “reimbursable mission.” This request is dated August 1, and his trip was from August 3 through August 12. This means our government personnel had to drop everything else they were doing during what is traditionally a short-staffed month and scramble to get this aircraft and crew and flight plan together for his damned honeymoon.

I suppose I should be less surprised by this wasteful crap bordering on theft after Mnuchin unnecessarily flew by military plane with the same high maintenance prima donna spouse to Fort Knox, just in time on August 8 to observe the rare complete solar eclipse.

I’m still suspicious of Mnuchin’s need for an entire bloody military plane and crew for his honeymoon so he has access to secure communications. Again, is this a flying backchannel he’s using? Does his wife have a security clearance necessary to hear whatever it is that’s so secret that he has to do it while on his honeymoon?

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This is an open thread. Bring your pitchforks and torches.

Will Successful Bergdahl Negotiations Get US-Taliban Peace Negotiations Going Again?

This weekend’s swap of Bowe Bergdahl for five Afghan Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo has triggered responses on a large number of fronts. For now, I will leave it to others to sort through whether Obama was required to inform Congress, whether the move provides incentive to the Taliban to capture more prisoners and whether Bergdahl was a deserter. Instead, I want to focus on the fact that this prisoner exchange stands as a significant accomplishment in negotiation among parties who have seen previous attempts at negotiation fail.

Recall that back in early 2012, we first learned that the Afghan Taliban was opening an office in Qatar:

The Taliban said in a surprise announcement last week they had reached a preliminary agreement to set up a political address in Qatar and asked for the release of prisoners held by the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay.

So the release of Afghan Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo was at the top of the list for setting up the office in Qatar and beginning negotiations. It is also important to note that the Haqqani Network, who held Bergdahl in Pakistan, was also to be included in the talks at the same time that the opening for negotiations was first noted and that Pakistan helped to move things along:

The US has taken Pakistan into confidence over the unprecedented development of allowing the Taliban a political office in Qatar to advance the Afghan reconciliation process, sources revealed.

A senior Pakistani official stated that the Obama administration not only sought Pakistan’s consent over the Taliban office but had also given a ‘green light’ to allow the deadliest Afghan insurgent group, the Haqqani network, to be a part of the reconciliation process.

The move by Washington was a clear deflection from its previous policy of keeping Islamabad at bay over its peace overtures with the Afghan Taliban.

“Yes, we were onboard,” said the senior Pakistani official referring to the latest push by Washington to seek a political settlement of the Afghan conflict.

The process suffered a major setback when the office was found to be flying the flag the Taliban used when they ruled Afghanistan and when the sign on the door seemed to suggest that the Taliban felt they were still the legitimate governing body. Hamid Karzai threw a huge fit over that development, and even though his government hadn’t been invited to the talks, he managed to stall the process. About a year and a half later, things settled down a bit and the provocative sign and flag were removed.

In today’s New York Times, we are warned not to infer that the prisoner swap means that additional talks look likely: Read more

Attempted Coup in Qatar? Updated: Probably Not

Both the Iranian Fars News Agency and Pakistan’s The News Tribe are reporting that a coup attempt in Qatar has failed. The post by The News Tribe cites Al Arabiya TV, but nothing appears on Al Arabiya’s English website as of this writing, nor is there anything on the story at the English version of Al Jazeera, which is based in Qatar.

From Fars:

Qatar is experiencing critical conditions after it was the scene of a coup attempt against Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, sources close to the country’s royal family revealed on Tuesday.

Informed sources close to the royal family in Qatar told FNA that a failed coup d’état has happened in Qatar but the Qatari officials have sought hard to keep it away from the media and the public, given the growingly fragile conditions in the country and the instability in a number of regional Arab states.

/snip/

The limited news reports released by some local and Arab media earlier this week said that the Qatari Emir succeeded over the past weekend to foil a coup attempt against him. They added some 30 senior army officers were detained while some others were put under house arrest.

The News Tribe starts out with pretty much the same information as Fars:

According to Al Arabiya TV, a number of high-ranking military officers rose against the Qatari Emir, triggering fierce clashes between some 30 military officers and US-backed royal guards outside the Emir’s palace, the report said on Tuesday.

The coup was foiled following the arrest of the officers involved in the effort.

But they have much more:

American helicopters have reportedly transferred the Qatari Emir and his wife to an unknown location.

Meanwhile, informed Kuwaiti sources said that mediated recent disputes between Saudi Arabia and Qatar have unveiled a new series of disagreements between the officials of the two Persian Gulf states.

The revelation of Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani’s secret phone conversation on the internet intensified internal conflicts between the two Arab states.

In a telephone conversation, the Qatari premier envisioned a definite overthrow of the Saudi regime, saying Qatar will step in the al-Qatif and al-Sharqiya regions one day and Saudi Arabia will be disintegrated.

The US, of course, relies very heavily on Qatar. From the Congressional Research Service (pdf) in May of 2011: Read more

While NY Times Agitates for Resumption of Drone Strikes, Peace Talks Set to Add Afghanistan, Haqqani Network

Over the weekend, the New York Times published a piece whose headline seemed to cry out that drone strikes in Pakistan need to resume: “Lull in Strikes by U.S. Drones Aids Militants in Pakistan”. In reading the article, it is difficult to find strong evidence for the claim that the lull in strikes has helped militant groups. While the article does note a slight uptick in some forms of violence, there have been no major attacks on US forces in Afghanistan as one would expect if the insurgent groups truly had gained significant additional strength and operational capability. An alternative reading of the lull in strikes, however, is that it has provided an important opening for negotiations aimed at ending hostilities in Afghanistan. Two very important developments on that front are now in place, as Afghanistan is sending a delegation to Qatar to visit the newly established Taliban office there and the Express Tribune reports that the US is ready for the Haqqani network to take part in the peace negotiations. In the meantime, the Express Tribune also reports that negotiations between Pakistan and the US have nearly reached the point that drone strikes will resume. If the strikes resume, will progress in the peace talks be slowed or halted?

The poor footing on which the Times bases its claim that insurgents have been aided by the suspension of drone attacks is given away in the opening sentence of the article:

A nearly two-month lull in American drone strikes in Pakistan has helped embolden Al Qaeda and several Pakistani militant factions to regroup, increase attacks against Pakistani security forces and threaten intensified strikes against allied forces in Afghanistan, American and Pakistani officials say.

Attacks on the US have not increased, we only have American and Pakistani officials saying that “intensified” strikes on NATO forces are possible or threatened. As for the increase in attacks on Pakistani security forces, we have this:

Other militant groups continue attacking Pakistani forces. Just last week, Taliban insurgents killed 15 security soldiers who had been kidnapped in retaliation for the death of a militant commander.

The spike in violence in the tribal areas — up nearly 10 percent in 2011 from the previous year, according to a new independent report — comes amid reports of negotiations between Pakistan’s government and some local Taliban factions, although the military denies that such talks are taking place.

So that’s it when it comes to documentation of the strengthening of militant groups: a 10% increase for the year in violence in tribal areas, when the drone “pause” has only been for the last two months or so, with earlier shorter pauses over the Raymond Davis incident and the killing of Osama bin Laden.

The article also notes that the drones have not stopped flying, it’s just that they are not launching missiles. Perhaps US intelligence personnel will take this opportunity to improve the quality of their intelligence so that fewer innocent civilians will be at risk when missile strikes resume.

Meanwhile, we learn that the newly established office for the Taliban in Qatar is about to be visited by a delegation from Afghanistan’s High Peace Council: Read more