In the early-morning hours of May 2, 2011, a small team of American military and intelligence professionals landed inside the high white walls of a mysterious compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The team’s mission, code-named Operation Neptune Spear, had two primary objectives: capture or kill Osama bin Laden and gather as much intelligence as possible about the al Qaeda leader and his network. A bullet to bin Laden’s head accomplished the first; the quick work of the Sensitive Site Exploitation team accomplished the second.
It was quite a haul: 10 hard drives, nearly 100 thumb drives and a dozen cellphones. There were DVDs, audio and video tapes, data cards, reams of handwritten materials, newspapers and magazines. At a Pentagon briefing days after the raid, a senior military intelligence official described it as “the single largest collection of senior terrorist materials ever.”
The United States had gotten its hands on al Qaeda’s playbook—its recent history, its current operations, its future plans. An interagency team led by the Central Intelligence Agency got the first look at the cache. They performed a hasty scrub—a “triage”—on a small sliver of the document collection, looking for actionable intelligence. According to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, the team produced more than 400 separate reports based on information in the documents.
But it is what happened next that is truly stunning: nothing. The analysis of the materials—the “document exploitation,” in the parlance of intelligence professionals—came to an abrupt stop. According to five senior U.S. intelligence officials, the documents sat largely untouched for months—perhaps as long as a year.
In spring 2012, a year after the raid that killed bin Laden and six months before the 2012 presidential election, the Obama administration launched a concerted campaign to persuade the American people that the long war with al Qaeda was ending. In a speech commemorating the anniversary of the raid, John Brennan , Mr. Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser and later his CIA director, predicted the imminent demise of al Qaeda. The next day, on May 1, 2012, Mr. Obama made a bold claim: “The goal that I set—to defeat al Qaeda and deny it a chance to rebuild—is now within our reach.”
The White House provided 17 handpicked documents to the Combatting Terror Center at the West Point military academy, where a team of analysts reached the conclusion the Obama administration wanted. Bin Laden, they found, had been isolated and relatively powerless, a sad and lonely man sitting atop a crumbling terror network.
The site, later razed, in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was killed.PHOTO:AFP/GETTY IMAGES
It was a reassuring portrayal. It was also wrong. And those responsible for winning the war—as opposed to an election—couldn’t afford to engage in such dangerous self-delusion.
“The leadership down at Central Command wanted to know what were we learning from these documents,” says Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, according to the transcript of an interview with Fox News anchor Bret Baier for a coming Fox News Reporting special. “We were still facing a growing al Qaeda threat. And it was not just Pakistan and Afghanistan and Iraq. But we saw it growing in Yemen. We clearly saw it growing still in East Africa.” The threat “wasn’t going away,” he adds, “and we wanted to know: What can we learn from these documents?”
After a pitched bureaucratic battle, a small team of analysts from the Defense Intelligence Agency and Centcom was given time-limited, read-only access to the documents. The DIA team began producing analyses reflecting what they were seeing in the documents.
At precisely the time Mr. Obama was campaigning on the imminent death of al Qaeda, those with access to the bin Laden documents were seeing, in bin Laden’s own words, that the opposite was true. Says Lt. Gen. Flynn: “By that time, they probably had grown by about—I’d say close to doubling by that time. And we knew that.”
This wasn’t what the Obama White House wanted to hear. So the administration cut off DIA access to the documents and instructed DIA officials to stop producing analyses based on them.
Even this limited glimpse into the broader set of documents revealed the problems with the administration’s claims about al Qaeda. Bin Laden had clear control of al Qaeda and was intimately involved in day-to-day management. More important, given the dramatic growth of the terror threat in the years since, the documents showed that bin Laden had expansion plans. Lt. Gen. Flynn says bin Laden was giving direction to “members of the wider al Qaeda leadership team, if you will, that went all the way to places like West Africa where we see a problem today with Boko Haram and [al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb], all the way back into the things that were going on in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Bin Laden advised them on everything from specific operations in Europe to the types of crops his minions should plant in East Africa.
To date, the public has seen only two dozen of the 1.5 million documents captured in Abbottabad. “It’s a thimble-full,” says Derek Harvey, a senior intelligence official who helped lead the DIA analysis of the bin Laden collection.
And while it is impossible to paint a complete picture of al Qaeda based on the small set of documents available to the public, documents we are able to read, including those released last week in a Brooklyn terror trial, reveal stunning new details.
According to one letter, dated July 2010, the brother of Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s current prime minister, sought to strike a peace deal with the jihadists. Bin Laden was informed that Shahbaz Sharif, who was then the chief minister of Punjab, wanted to cut a deal with the Pakistani Taliban, whose leadership was close to bin Laden. The government “was ready to reestablish normal relations as long as [the Pakistani Taliban] do not conduct operations in Punjab,” according to the letter from Atiyah Abd al Rahman, one of bin Laden’s top deputies. Attacks elsewhere in Pakistan were apparently acceptable under the terms of the alleged proposal. Al Qaeda intended to guide the Pakistani Taliban throughout the negotiations. The same letter reveals how al Qaeda and its allies used the threat of terrorist attacks as a negotiating tactic in its talks with the Pakistani military.
The letter also shows that Pakistani intelligence was willing to negotiate with al Qaeda. Al Qaeda “leaked” word to the press that “big, earth shaking operations” were planned in Pakistan, the letter says, but bin Laden’s men and their allies would back off if the Pakistani army eased up on its offensive against the jihadists in the north: “In the aftermath” of the al Qaeda leak, “the intelligence people . . . started reaching out to us through some of the Pakistani ‘jihadist’ groups, the ones they approve of.” One of the Pakistani intelligence service’s emissaries was Fazl-ur-Rahman Khalil, a longtime bin Laden ally who leads the Harakat-ul-Mujahideen. Khalil was an early booster of bin Laden’s war against the West, having signed the al Qaeda master’s infamous 1998 fatwa declaring jihad “against the Jews and the Crusaders.” Another government intermediary was Hamid Gul, the one-time head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
Al Qaeda’s network in Iran is also described in bin Laden’s letters. The Iranian regime held some senior al Qaeda leaders, eventually releasing them. This led to disagreements between the two sides. But the mullahs have also allowed al Qaeda to use Iranian soil as a key transit hub, shuttling fighters and cash to and from South Asia. One letter recounts a plan, devised by Yunis al Mauritani, one of bin Laden’s senior lieutenants, to relocate to Iran. Once there, Mauritani would dispatch terrorists to take part in operations around the world.
Mauritani was tasked by bin Laden with planning Mumbai-style shootings in Europe in 2010. The plot was fortunately thwarted. But all of the terrorists selected to take part transited Iran, according to court proceedings in Germany, taking advantage of the Iranian regime’s agreement with al Qaeda.
During the Arab uprisings in 2011, Obama administration officials argued that al Qaeda had been “sidelined” by the peaceful protests. Just weeks before he was killed, however, bin Laden’s men dispatched operatives to Libya and elsewhere to take advantage of the upheaval. “There has been an active Jihadist Islamic renaissance under way in Eastern Libya (Benghazi, Derna, Bayda and that area) for some time, just waiting for this kind of opportunity,” Atiyah Abd al Rahman wrote in early April 2011. Rahman thought there was much “good” in the so-called Arab Spring. And bin Laden believed that the upheaval presented al Qaeda with “unprecedented opportunities” to spread its radical ideology.
The fight over the bin Laden documents continues. Mr. Harvey, the senior DIA official, believes that the documents should be declassified and released to the public as soon as possible, after taking precautions to avoid compromising sources or methods. Rep. Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, inserted language in the 2014 intelligence authorization bill requiring just that.
Making the documents public is long overdue. The information in them is directly relevant to many of the challenges we face today—from a nuclear deal with an Iranian regime that supports al Qaeda to the rise of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; from confidence-building measures meant to please the Afghan Taliban to the trustworthiness of senior Pakistani officials.
Choosing ignorance shouldn’t be an option.
Mr. Hayes is a senior writer for the Weekly Standard. Mr. Joscelyn is senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton checks her PDA upon her departure in a military C-17 plane from Malta bound for Tripoli, Libya, in this October 18, 2011, file photo.
CREDIT: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE/FILES
In assessing the Benghazi select committee headed up by Chairman Trey Gowdy (R., S.C.), there are two possibilities, and they are not mutually exclusive: (1) The committee is just a Potemkin probe erected by the Republican establishment to get restive conservatives to pipe down, and (2) the committee is incompetent.
The panel, of course, was commissioned by the Republican-controlled House to investigate the circumstances surrounding the September 11, 2012, attack in which al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists killed Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans — information-management officer Sean Smith and two former Navy SEALs, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, contract employees whose valor saved dozens of lives during the siege.
The select committee’s ten sleepy months of operation have not warranted much attention — except to observe its lethargy. But questions about it arise thanks to the newly erupted Hillary Clinton e-mail scandal. Mostly, it is one question: Why is the scandal newly erupted?
The Benghazi massacre was the lowlight of Mrs. Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state. Suddenly this week, the public was informed, for the first time, that during those four tumultuous years, she conducted State Department business through a private e-mail system designed to evade government record-keeping requirements. The scheme is redolent of Clintonian hypocrisy: Even while Mrs. Clinton was exclusively using personal e-mail, she admonished State Department personnel that doing so was prohibited as a major security breach, and she forced the resignation of the U.S. ambassador to Kenya for, among other things, using private e-mail for public business. The scheme’s revelation has been redolent of tendentious Clintonian parsing: Suspicions that Mrs. Clinton violated not only e-mail retention regulations but also criminallaws are being countered by lawyerly dilations on the definition of a “government record.”
And who wouldn’t want to relive That Nineties Show?
In Washington’s best headline-grabbing fashion, Chairman Gowdy leaped on the latest Clinton scandal to announce that his Benghazi committee, on Wednesday, issued subpoenas for all of Clinton’s communications related to Libya. On the same day, the committee subpoenaed the State Department “for other individuals who have information pertinent to the investigation,” and issued “preservation letters” to telecom firms directing them to retain potentially relevant documents.
What on earth took them so long?
In announcing the new subpoenas, Gowdy, a highly experienced prosecutor with a real courtroom flair, offered his signature biting barbs that sweep conservatives off their feet. Mrs. Clinton “did not use personal email in addition to government e-mail,” he inveighed, “she used personal e-mail in lieu of government e-mail.” He authoritatively explained that she had more than one private e-mail account. He scalded the State Department for its inability to account for Clinton’s communications because they neither have them nor control access to them — only Clinton does.
Just the fiery outrage we’ve come to expect from Congressman Gowdy. But for all the big wind, there never seems to be much rain.
Speaking of which, Gowdy let something else slip while unburdening himself to Politico: he and his committee have known since last summer that Mrs. Clinton conducted business by private e-mail.
So what you’re just finding out now, Gowdy has known for at least six months. So what did he do about it? According to Politico, “He said the committee has worked with Clinton advisers and the department to gain access to documents relating to the Benghazi attacks.”
Fabulous! Gowdy just got finished railing about how Clinton used private e-mail precisely to avoid the government-mandated paper trail. So what’s he been doing about it for six months? Discussing the matter with Clinton’s loyal staffers — i.e., people who helped her carry out the scheme — and with the State Department — i.e., the people he just got done telling you have neither the relevant e-mails nor access to them.
That’s it: no subpoenas, no hearings, no nothing. Just as Mrs. Clinton did not turn over any of her private e-mails until the State Department finally asked for them, Gowdy, by his own account, did not issue a subpoena to address a scandal he has long known about until the scandal became public.
That in itself is a scandal.
Mrs. Clinton is one of the two central figures — the president being the other — in the Benghazi investigation. The administration failed to take any meaningful action to attempt the rescue of Americans under a terrorist siege. All indications are that the White House and the Defense Department deferred — abdicated is probably a better word — to the State Department in what became the administration’s non-response.
But that’s not the half of it. Unanswered questions abound:
What mission was so important to Obama and Clinton that it was worth assigning American personnel to work in Benghazi, a notorious hotbed of anti-American jihadism?
Was the United States involved in facilitating the transfer of arms from jihadists in Libya to jihadists in Syria?
Why were Americans kept in Benghazi despite months of terrorist attacks on the U.S. facilities and other Western targets?
Why during those months, when other nations had the good sense to withdraw their forces because Benghazi was too dangerous, did the Obama administration not only maintain ours there but also reduce security?
Why, in particular, did Secretary Clinton turn a deaf ear to Ambassador Stevens’s personal pleas for more protection?
Why, in light of the history of attacks and the ratcheting up of terrorist threats on the eve of the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, were military assets not moved closer to hot spots like Benghazi and placed on high alert?
Why in the aftermath of the terrorist attack did the administration concoct for public consumption a fraudulent story framing the siege as a “spontaneous protest” over an anti-Muslim video, rather than an attack by jihadist terrorists?
Why, when it is now clear that the State Department knew from the first moments of the siege that a terrorist attack was underway, and knew within the first hours that the local al-Qaeda affiliate was claiming credit, did Secretary Clinton put out a press statement blaming the video?
What, if any, communications did Secretary Clinton have with her top staff — some of whom may also have been using the Clinton private e-mail system — in the lead-up to the statement Clinton issued that night?
What communications did Mrs. Clinton have with the White House — including with President Obama, with whom, according to her congressional testimony, she spoke on the phone minutes before the statement blaming the video was issued?
What was President Obama doing during the hours of the attack, and why did the White House first deny that he had spoken with any top cabinet officials before changing its story after Mrs. Clinton testified?
Why did Mrs. Clinton tell the father of one of our fallen SEALs that the administration was going to “get” the man they were blaming for the attack — no, not the head of al-Qaeda, but the producer of the completely irrelevant anti-Muslim video?
What administration officials were involved in the Justice Department’s shameful S.W.A.T.-style arrest and prosecution of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the video producer?
It has been ten months since the Benghazi select committee was appointed. We have no answers.
When Trey Gowdy took this high-profile assignment, he vowed to conduct it with energetic prosecutorial rigor. That has been the excuse for the paucity of public hearings over the last ten months: they are too busy meticulously scrutinizing documents and lining up witnesses to conduct hearings. Indeed, the few short hearings the committee has held focused on the recommendations of the State Department’s Accountability Review Board (ARB) investigation. Not only was that an utter waste of time in light of how discredited the ARB report is; the committee also steered clear of evidence that Mrs. Clinton’s top aides obstructed the ARB by withholding documents — evidence that emerged just as the committee held its long-awaited first hearing . . . on the ARB.
Now we learn that, for six months, they’ve known about the Clinton e-mail scheme — a scheme patently intended to erase the paper trails they tell us they’re so carefully tracing behind the scenes. Yet they never made a peep about it. They didn’t issue a subpoena, didn’t alert the telecoms to preserve records, and apparently relied on the good will of the people they are investigating to safeguard the damning evidence.
As some of us have contended for some time, there is abundant reason to fear that Republicans do not want to get to the bottom of Benghazi. GOP congressional leaders were major supporters of Obama’s disastrous decision to ditch our counterterrorism alliance with Qaddafi and empower jihadists to oust him. Some of those jihadists were complicit in the Benghazi attack — and they’ve since turned Libya into a failed state in which both al-Qaeda and ISIS now have footholds.
Furthermore, if there was a covert operation to help move arms from Libya to the Syrian “rebels” — some of whom worked with al-Qaeda, others of whom became ISIS — it is a near certainty that top congressional Republicans were in the loop when it was approved.
To listen to what Trey Gowdy says is to be confident that these fears are baseless, that his committee will relentlessly pursue the truth wherever it leads.
To watch what Trey Gowdy does, which doesn’t seem to be much, is to worry.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 3, 2015. In a speech that stirred political intrigue in two countries, Netanyahu told Congress that negotiations underway between Iran and the U.S. would "all but guarantee" that Tehran will get nuclear weapons, a step that the world must avoid at all costs. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress was notable in two respects. Queen Esther got her first standing O in 2,500 years. And President Obama came up empty in his campaign to preemptively undermine Netanyahu before the Israeli prime minister could present his case on the Iran negotiations.
On the contrary. The steady stream of slights and insults turned an irritant into an international event and vastly increased the speech’s audience and reach. Instead of dramatically unveiling an Iranian nuclear deal as a fait accompli, Obama must now first defend his Iranian diplomacy.
In particular, argues The Post, he must defend its fundamental premise. It had been the policy of every president since 1979 that Islamist Iran must be sanctioned and contained. Obama, however, is betting instead on detente to tame Iran’s aggressive behavior and nuclear ambitions.
For six years, Obama has offered the mullahs an extended hand. He has imagined that with Kissingerian brilliance he would turn the Khamenei regime into a de facto U.S. ally in pacifying the Middle East. For his pains, Obama has been rewarded with an Iran that has ramped up its aggressiveness in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen, and brazenly defied the world on uranium enrichment.
Like the Bourbons, however, Obama learns nothing. He persists in believing that Iran’s radical Islamist regime can be turned by sweet reason and fine parchment into a force for stability. It’s akin to his refusal to face the true nature of the Islamic State, Iran’s Sunni counterpart. He simply can’t believe that such people actually believe what they say.
That’s what made Netanyahu’s critique of the U.S.-Iran deal so powerful. Especially his dissection of the sunset clause. In about 10 years, the deal expires. Sanctions are lifted and Iran is permitted unlimited uranium enrichment with an unlimited number of centrifuges of unlimited sophistication. As the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens points out, we don’t even allow that for democratic South Korea.
The prime minister offered a concrete alternative. Sunset? Yes, but only after Iran changes its behavior, giving up its regional aggression and worldwide support for terror.
Netanyahu’s veiled suggestion was that such a modification — plus a significant reduction in Iran’s current nuclear infrastructure, which the Obama deal leaves intact — could produce a deal that “Israel and its [Arab] neighbors may not like, but with which we could live, literally.”
Obama’s petulant response was: “The prime minister didn’t offer any viable alternatives.” But he just did: conditional sunset, smaller infrastructure. And if the Iranians walk away, then you ratchet up sanctions, as Congress is urging, which, with collapsed oil prices, would render the regime extremely vulnerable.
And if that doesn’t work? Hence Netanyahu’s final point: Israel is prepared to stand alone, a declaration that was met with enthusiastic applause reflecting widespread popular support.
It was an important moment, especially because of the libel being perpetrated by some that Netanyahu is trying to get America to go to war with Iran. This is as malicious a calumny as Charles Lindbergh’s charge on Sept. 11, 1941, that “the three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration.”
In its near-70 year history, Israel has never once asked America to fight for it. Not in 1948 when 650,000 Jews faced 40 million Arabs. Not in 1967 when Israel was being encircled and strangled by three Arab armies. Not in 1973 when Israel was on the brink of destruction. Not in the three Gaza wars or the two Lebanon wars.
Compare that to a very partial list of nations for which America has fought and for which so many Americans have fallen: Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Vietnam, Korea, and every West European country beginning with France (twice).
Change the deal, strengthen the sanctions, give Israel a free hand. Netanyahu offered a different path in his clear, bold and often moving address, Churchillian in its appeal to resist appeasement. This was not Churchill of the 1940s, but Churchill of the 1930s, the wilderness prophet. Which is why for all its sonorous strength, Netanyahu’s speech had a terrible poignancy. After all, Churchill was ignored.
Thousands of people follow the coffin of Boris Nemtsov during a farewell ceremony at the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Public Center in Moscow Tuesday. The charismatic Russian opposition leader and sharp critic of President Vladimir Putin was slain Feb. 27. PAVEL GOLOVKIN/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Russian intellectuals, opposition leaders, oligarchs, and state bureaucrats rarely meet in one place. But they gathered Tuesday in Moscow to offer a last tribute and say a few words in memory of Boris Nemtsov, the reformer, true democrat, and fearless opposition leader who was murdered in sight of the Kremlin on Friday night. Several speakers addressed Nemtsov’s 86-year-old mother and his four children as they stood by his coffin, asking them for forgiveness for not protecting Nemtsov enough in his dangerous struggle, for not being there when he needed them most.
This week, locals lined the main street of his hometown of Nizhny Novgorod with portraits of Boris Yefimovich, as he was known—or to close friends and family, just Borya. “I Am Nemtsov” was written at the bottom of the portraits. In Moscow on Tuesday, the line of people waiting to mourn the politician at the Sakharov Center stretched for hundreds of meters and several hours. It was a historic day in Russia, when state television channels covered the Nemtsov news in prime time, when ordinary Russians remembered the most passionate critic of President Vladimir Putin’s rule.
As has been traditional at past funerals of assassinated Kremlin critics, friends and supporters pledged to wake Russia up and find out the truth behind the tragedy. Nemtsov did just that, when he was alive. Back in October 2006, he attended the funeral of Anna Politkovskaya, the brave reporter who was gunned down on the doorstep to her apartment building in downtown Moscow. Along with more than 3,000 people, Nemtsov accompanied Politkovskaya on her final journey. “It takes Russians a long time to wake up, but they will wake up. The entire world is in shock. The Kremlin should pay attention and make conclusions,” Nemtsov said that day.
But after Politkovskaya’s murder, the list of assassinated journalists, politicians, human rights activists, lawyers, and religious and educational leaders continued to grow, until Nemtsov himself joined their number. What must be done to stop the political terror in Russia? One of the speakers at the funeral, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, remembered that he and Nemtsov had become friends after Nemtsov served as deputy prime minister, oil minister, and Duma deputy. “We were really close friends, spent time together—this is a big personal tragedy for me. The most important thing I feel keenly about it right now is that this atmosphere of dividing people into ‘ours’ and ‘not ours’ is the cause of such tragedies. It must be stopped, urgently. First and foremost, everybody should start respecting different opinions,” Prokhorov said.
Nemtsov’s mother, a fragile old woman, looked attentively at every visitor who entered the room that held her son’s coffin. In one of his last interviews, last month, Nemtsov said his mother was very worried that “Putin might kill me.” Nemtsov’s mother did not see Russia’s president on the day of her son’s funeral, nor did Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev come to bid farewell. But several high-profile officials, including Deputy Prime Ministers Sergei Prokhodko and Arkady Dvorkovich, brought flowers to the coffin. Once upon a time, Nemtsov himself was deputy prime minister, under President Boris Yeltsin.
Alexei Kudrin, a former minister of finance who is now advising Putin on how to deal with the current economic crisis, took his turn at the microphone. “I would like to stress that Nemtsov’s murder is a dramatic page of Russian history, because we’ve seen an opponent stopped by...a bullet,” he said. “This is a new reality. The authorities have a responsibility to prevent this kind of dialogue, this kind of dispute, involving illegal means.”
During the funeral, Nemtsov’s colleagues in the opposition discussed who could be that violent opponent so eager to stop the politician. Alexei Navalny, who is serving a 15-day prison sentence and was not allowed to attend, blamed the Russian authorities, and Vladimir Milov came up with arguments on his LiveJournal page that he said proved the special services had murdered Nemtsov. All were in agreement that the politician was killed by those who hate the so-called fifth column, or a strong opposition. Unfortunately, even on the day of Nemtsov’s funeral, Moscow was still a hostile place. Outside the Sakharov Center, as journalists discussed the murder, the prominent independent journalist and blogger Ksenia Sobchak received a death threat. “A man approached me and said, ‘Keep in mind that you’ll be next, Ksenia,’” Sobchak tweeted later.
Last April, after the president’s annexation of Crimea, a banner featuring the faces of prominent Putin critics alongside the words “strangers” and “fifth column” appeared on the side of a building on Novy Arbat, a Moscow avenue. Soon after, a number of activists lined up on the same street wearing T-shirts that read: “I called for sanctions against my own people. I lost my face.” Nemtsov’s face was on those T-shirts, as were those of Sobchak and the rocker Andrei Makarevich, among others. Nemtsov’s friends remembered that at the time, he was in Israel undergoing medical treatment. Many advised him to stay abroad, but he brushed off the idea. He was convinced that he was needed in Russia. He saw his role as a key critic of Putin’s policies. During the funeral, Nemtsov’s friends gave their word that the bullets that stopped him would not scare them away, that the opposition would continue his struggle.
Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) is now chairman of the Ways and Means subcommittee whose jurisdiction includes oversight of the Internal Revenue Service, and hence of Lois G. Lerner’s legacy. He knows how interesting her career was before she, as head of the IRS tax-exempt organizations division, directed the suppression of conservative advocacy groups by delaying and denying them the exempt status that was swiftly given to comparable liberal groups.
In 2013, Roskam, in a televised committee hearing, told the story of Al Salvi, who in 1996 was the Republican Senate candidate against the then-congressman, now senator, Dick Durbin. Democrats filed charges with the Federal Election Commission against Salvi’s campaign, charges that threatened to dominate the campaign’s final weeks. Salvi telephoned the head of the FEC’s Enforcement Division, who he says told him: “Promise me you will never run for office again, and we’ll drop this case.” That official was Lois Lerner. After Salvi lost, FBI agents visited his elderly mother, demanding to know, concerning her $2,000 contribution to her son’s campaign, where she got “that kind of money.” When a federal court held that the charges against Salvi were spurious, the FEC’s losing lawyer was Lois Lerner.
Roskam’s telling of Salvi’s story elicited no denial from Lerner. Neither did the retelling of it in this column [June 13, 2013]. No wonder: The story had not been deemed newsworthy by the three broadcast networks’ evening news programs, by the New York Times or by The Post. With most of the media uninterested in the use of government institutions to handicap conservatives, stonewalling would work.
It still is working through dilatory and incomplete responses to subpoenas, and unresponsive answers to congressional questions. Lerner’s name now has an indelible Nixonian stain, but there probably will be no prosecution. If the administration’s stonewalling continues as the statute of limitations clock ticks, Roskam says, “She will get away with it.”
Now in his fifth House term, Roskam, 53, says, “The advantage in this town is always with the entity that doesn’t want to do anything.” Many thousands of Lerner’s e-mails that supposedly were irretrievably lost have been found, but not released. The Justice Department’s investigation, which was entrusted to a political appointee who was a generous contributor to Barack Obama’s campaign, is a stone in the stone wall.
Roskam says the task now is “to see that Lois Lerner 2.0 is impossible.” One place to begin is with the evidence — anecdotal but, in the context of proven IRS corruption, convincing — of other possibly punitive IRS behavior toward Republican contributors and other conservative activists. This justifies examining the IRS’s audit selection process. This would produce interesting hearings for most of the media to ignore.
Next, there should be hearings into the illegal disclosure of taxpayer information about conservative individuals and groups to the media and to liberal officials and groups. Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer for some groups abused by the IRS (and for this columnist on different matters), also suggests prohibiting IRS employees from joining a union.
“The National Treasury Employees Union,” she says, “provides no protection to IRS employees that federal statutes and the civil service system do not already provide. It already takes an act of God to hold an IRS employee accountable for his or her actions. But it is worse than merely redundant for IRS employees to belong to the NTEU. Because it adds nothing to its members’ protections, it is a purely political organization. In 2014, fully 95 percent of its contributions went to Democrats, including 11 Democratic members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. So, the IRS employees’ union dues finance the election of people who are supposed to scrutinize IRS behavior.”
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments about whether the IRS’s lawlessness has extended to its role in implementing the Affordable Care Act. The act says that federal subsidies shall be distributed by the IRS to persons who buy insurance through exchanges “established by the State.” The act’s logic and legislative history, as well as a forceful statement by one of its architects, professor Jonathan Gruber of MIT, demonstrate that this clear language was written to “squeeze” — Gruber’s word — the states into establishing exchanges. But when 34 states did not establish them, the IRS began disbursing billions of dollars through federal exchanges.
The court probably will rule that the IRS acted contrary to law. If so, the IRS certainly will not have acted contrary to its pattern of corruption in the service of the current administration.
Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) wrote hundreds of poems, including the epic "Lepanto" and "The Ballad of the White Horse".
"A complete poem is one where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found its words." — Robert Frost
In his otherwise disparaging review of Dr. Ian Ker’s G. K. Chesterton: A Biography, the late atheist critic Christopher Hitchens noted that he and Ker were in agreement “on the high quality of Chesterton’s poems.” Hitchens had many unkind comments about a whole host of Catholic writers but on the subject of Chesterton’s poetic works, he found within the rhymes “his magic faculty of being unforgettable.”
This will come as a surprise for many, even as G. K. Chesterton’s work has undergone something of a renaissance with practically all his work being brought back into print. However, few are aware of his poetry outside of his drinking poems and what W. H. Auden called “the best pure nonsense verse in English.” Chesterton's poetry sold well in his own time and earned him praise, but even the great Bombastic Journalist thought of himself as “a very minor poet.” So it is that few people today neither read much of his poetry nor are familiar enough with it to see the brilliance hiding beneath the careful rhymes and whimsical verse.
With the renewed interest in Chesterton and his work, we should not neglect the contribution he made to English verse, which is at times child-like as it explores the deep mysteries of faith and existence with the very heart of a child he was so praised for possessing. While his poetry might have seemed archaic compared to the great modernist poets of the twentieth century, his desire to express beauty and truth within a traditional rhyming and sometimes iambic form left a legacy of good and unforgettable poems that are worthy of study and memorization.
Wine, Water, and Song
The majority of those who have encountered Chesterton’s poetry have most likely heard his drinking ballads as they are recited before or after a pub crawl. With the right cadence, these particular verses are a golden mean between traditional drinking songs and rowdy poetry. His most famous one is “The Rolling English Road,” a poem against temperance societies and possible prohibition in England:
Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode, The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road. A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire, And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire; A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.
The rolling drunkard and road in this case is part of a theme underlying much of Chesterton’s work: looking back on the English way of doing things in defense against what he saw as the rising tide of the cult of progressivism. Like many historians, Chesterton saw the pub and the pint as essential to the English soul as the ancient footpaths of central England. Even in something as simple as a pint of ale, the Chestertonian sees a highly traditional practice worth protecting and preserving.
The new world's wisest did surround Me; and it pains me to record I did not think their views profound, Or their conclusions well assured; The simple life I can't afford, Besides, I do not like the grub — I want a mash and sausage, `scored'— Will someone take me to a pub?
The jovial tone of Chesterton obfuscates his desire for a more earthly life of drink and song, which he praises greatly throughout his poetic oeuvre, over and against the discussions and plans of society’s elite. In much of his work Chesterton lampooned the modernist poets as well as those with strange, new philosophies in such verse that remains memorable even when the subjects become forgettable.
Against the rise of new philosophies and cultural approaches to the old pagan beliefs, Chesterton found a way to question their underlying ideas while defending what he saw as the virtue of the old pagans and the wisdom of his Christian faith:
If I had been a Heathen, I'd have piled my pyre on high, And in a great red whirlwind Gone roaring to the sky; But Higgins is a Heathen, And a richer man than I: And they put him in an oven, Just as if he were a pie.
Now who that runs can read it, The riddle that I write, Of why this poor old sinner, Should sin without delight— But I, I cannot read it (Although I run and run), Of them that do not have the faith, And will not have the fun.
Songs of War and Grief
While Chesterton was known for his jolly demeanor—he was described by Dorothy L. Sayers as the “beneficent bomb”—he was certainly not one to mistaken his desire for innocence with naivety. His poetry during the Great War tended to be a call to remember why England was great, even in the midst of a brutal war, but to also reflect on the loss of England’s sons—including his brother, Cecil.
Lepanto was his great poem written in 1911 and first published during the War; it would serve as an inspiration to the men in the trenches who saw some parallels with Don John of Austria’s great sea battle and the struggle of the Allies on land, sea, and air. The ballade of Chesterton’s Lepanto is a rollicking and rousing tale of martial exploits and bravery that sets the pace of a grand adventure.
Torchlight crimson on the copper kettle-drums, Then the tuckets, then the trumpets, then the cannon, and he comes. Don John laughing in the brave beard curled, Spurning of his stirrups like the thrones of all the world. Holding his head up for a flag of all the free. Love-light of Spain - hurrah! Death-light of Africa! Don John of Austria Is riding to the sea.
Shortly before the publication of Lepanto, Chesterton wrote one of the last great English epics about King Alfred the Great and his struggle against the Danes. The Ballad of the White Horse is a poem on the grandest scale, covering the defeat of Alfred before he bands together the chieftains to fight the great victory over the Danes at the Battle of Ethandun.
The brilliance and impact of this poem, originally published in 1911, cannot be overstated. It had a profound impact on a young J. R. R. Tolkien (though he would reconsider it later in life) as well as Conan the Barbarian author Robert E. Howard. Famed novelist Graham Greene, who had called Chesterton an “underestimated poet,” compared The Ballad with T. S. Eliot’s landmark The Waste Land, stating: “Put The Ballad of the White Horseagainst The Waste Land. If I had to lose one of them, I’m not sure that…well, anyhow, let’s just say I re-read The Ballad more often.”
The Ballad was carried by many soldiers in the First World War and Chesterton received letters of gratitude from widows and wives for writing it. Likewise, during the Second World War, when the The Times wrote of the Allies’ defeat at the Battle of Crete the article ended with the words of the Virgin Mary to King Alfred:
I tell you naught for your comfort, Yea, naught for your desire, Save that the sky grows darker yet And the sea rises higher.
Night shall be thrice night over you, And heaven an iron cope. Do you have joy without a cause, Yea, faith without a hope?
We can imagine that the great journalist and poet of Beaconsfield was filled with joy to see his work having a positive impact on his fellow Englishmen.
As much as he may have loved his nation, Chesterton was not always the jingoist flag-waver who cheered the war effort. Writing in The Defendant (1901), Chesterton stressed a love of native land against the “lust of territory” and the desire to conquer and hold lands. He remarked on the new patriotism sweeping Europe,
'My country, right or wrong,' is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, 'My mother, drunk or sober.' No doubt if a decent man's mother took to drink he would share her troubles to the last; but to talk as if he would be in a state of gay indifference as to whether his mother took to drink or not is certainly not the language of men who know the great mystery.
The horrors of losing friends and family to war would also move him to write one of the darkest and most damning anti-war poems ever printed in the English language, Elegy in a Country Churchyard:
The men that worked for England They have their graves at home: And bees and birds of England About the cross can roam.
But they that fought for England, Following a falling star, Alas, alas for England They have their graves afar.
And they that rule in England, In stately conclave met, Alas, alas for England, They have no graves as yet.
Chesterton's brother had died while serving England, shortly before the Armistice, and that great loss induced one his more melancholic moods.
While Chesterton was seen as a generally happy man, some scholarship indicates that he may have battled a depressive mood now and again. Certainly he wrote about the afflictions of his mind while a young man, and the death of his beloved brother caused him to compose some uncharacteristic harsh words in letters as well as meditations on suffering. In one of these spells he wrote A Prayer in Darkness which, to this author’s mind, is Chesterton's most moving poem:
THIS much, O heaven—if I should brood or rave, Pity me not; but let the world be fed, Yea, in my madness if I strike me dead, Heed you the grass that grows upon my grave.
If I dare snarl between this sun and sod, Whimper and clamour, give me grace to own, In sun and rain and fruit in season shown, The shining silence of the scorn of God.
Thank God the stars are set beyond my power, If I must travail in a night of wrath, Thank God my tears will never vex a moth, Nor any curse of mine cut down a flower.
Men say the sun was darkened: yet I had Thought it beat brightly, even on—Calvary: And He that hung upon the Torturing Tree Heard all the crickets singing, and was glad.
A Prayer in Darkness deals with some darker themes, much like his more famous A Ballade of Suicide, but it is also a poem of hope and gladness. The speaker of both poems is not able to change everything, but can find the things in life and in God that enable him to say, “I think I will not hang myself to-day.” It is not a mere empty comfort or a song of self-help but is in fact an acknowledgement of the state of the world and the troubles of the mind while still possessing the faith, hope, and tenacity to seek out what makes life worth living.
Chesterton’s poems range from the rollicking drinking verses to the exciting fantasies and back to the poems seeking hope when life can seem so bleak—and even one that acknowledges the horrors of jingoism and warfare. As with his prose, Chesterton wrote so many pages of verse that many of them had to be hunted down by his wife and publisher before they could be collected. As publishers such as Ignatius Pressbring his poetry to more readers, we ought to raise our glasses and bow our heads in gratitude that the Creator had given us a bard who could speak to the fullness of human experience in rhyme and meter.
About the Author
Michael J. Lichens
Michael J. Lichens is the editor of Catholic Exchangeand blog editor of St. Austin Review. When he's not busy revising and editing, he is often writing on Chesterton and films. He is currently working on a forthcoming series of short ghostly tales and a graphic novel. Find his musings on Twitter at mjordanlichens.