Cloak-and-Ballot Stuff

If anyone needed some good news last weekend, it was Pennsylvania’s Democratic Lieutenant Governor and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman. 

After weeks of being badgered about his health and competence to hold office, he finally faced his Republican opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz, in a debate on October 26. His performance caused a collective wince across the spectrum due to his labored speech and incoherent responses to questions on fracking, student loan debt, and crime. 

On Sunday, Fetterman discovered that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the largest metropolitan paper in his home territory, had endorsed Oz after Fetterman had earned the endorsement of the Philadelphia Inquirer two weeks earlier. So, this past Sunday, Fetterman tweeted out an endorsement he hopes will corral some more votes in his column. He has the backing of National Security Leaders for America (NSL4A). 

The endorsement letter has little to do with Fetterman’s positions or his background. Its text makes no specific reference to any national security questions beyond defending “American democracy” from authoritarianism. The language NSL4A uses, along with several other tells, demonstrate that the organization is just one more partisan tendril of the military-industrial complex. 

NSL4A is not a serious nonpartisan organization voicing legitimate concerns of veterans and national security officials about threats to the nation. If it were, we might expect them to raise questions about Oz’s Turkish citizenship and ties to the Turkish government. But NSL4A has nothing to say about that. It’s odd, too, that Fetterman would win the endorsement of a group ostensibly interested in national security and U.S. foreign affairs. Fetterman’s campaign has focused almost entirely on domestic policy, and he doesn’t even include national security, border security, or foreign affairs on his campaign website’s list of issues

As it happens, NSL4A also endorsed Senator Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada. Eighty-nine percent of the wording endorsing her matches that of the Fetterman endorsement. The main differences are the candidates’ names, genders, home states, number of signers, and some brief background on their various local and state positions, as well as Cortez Masto’s distinction as the first Latina U.S. senator. Like Fetterman, Cortez Masto hasn’t had much to say about national security and foreign affairs, nor does she serve on any committees addressing those policies. She’s focused mainly on veteran healthcare

It’s the same story with NSL4A’s endorsement of U.S. Representative Tim Ryan in the Ohio U.S. Senate contest. Most tellingly, Ryan, Cortez Masto, and Senator Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) all received the NSL4A endorsements despite their opponents having military backgrounds yet having no national security or military backgrounds of their own.

In certain cases, the group’s decision to endorse a candidate makes no sense from any kind of national security perspective. For example, the group has made endorsements in state elections. 

NSL4A endorsed Democrat U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist for Florida governor, even though Crist visited Cuba in 2019 and met with Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez at the height of tensions with the communist island nation for its support for the authoritarian Maduro government in Venezuela. Crist did not announce the visit as an official act of his congressional office, and only disclosed it later in compliance with ethics requirements. Crist had supported lifting the U.S. embargo on Cuba, although not until after leaving the GOP during his failed 2010 U.S. Senate bid.

Behind the Mask

Who are the people behind NSL4A and how do they make their candidate endorsements? They are the successor group of National Security Leaders for Biden 2020 and base their endorsements on two “non-partisan issues”—voting rights and democratic resilience. They also admit that their endorsements are only made in elections in 11 critical states. But what of the professional backgrounds of the “national security leaders”? Some, in particular, should be noted either for their sparse experience or dubious distinctions:

  • Charles Blanchard served as general counsel of the U.S. Army from 1999 until 2001 and the Air Force from 2009 through 2013. While this position is important in the administration of the military branch, it is in a legal rather than security capacity. Blanchard’s private practice work is much more interesting given that he has negotiated the development and supply of the COVID-19 long-acting antibody from AstraZeneca as well as for an undisclosed global pharmaceutical company for a COVID-19 vaccine, both to the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) and the Department of Defense Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense.
  • Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman (U.S. Army, ret.) was director of Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council and the central witness in the first impeachment effort against Donald Trump. Vindman’s statements showed that much of the reasoning behind his role in outing conversations between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was not rooted in criminal concerns but in the feeling that Trump’s conditional attitude toward supporting Ukraine’s efforts in the Donbass region went against the “interagency consensus.” This statement, more than any other, undermines the notion that “protecting American democracy” motivates Vindman or the NSL4A, as the president is not subordinate to unelected defense officials when making national security decisions. 
  • Jack Watson, Jr. (USMC, ret.) was chief of staff to President Jimmy Carter during his last six months in office. He was also chief legal strategist for Monsanto from 1998 to 2000. The company has been fined billions of dollars over decades for its role in the production and disposal of chemicals like RoundUp, Agent Orange, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
  • William Krist was an official at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative under President Barack Obama and is a former Wilson Center Global Fellow, but has no known military or national security experience. In 2015, he published a position paper for the Foreign Policy Research Institute supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement that would have effectively kneecapped manufacturing workers’ collective bargaining power in the United States and every other partner country.
  • Rear Admiral Yotam Ben-Artzi is a former official of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, but information regarding his role there is scarce. The National Provider Identifier for Medicare and Medicaid Services has a profile that shows he also practices under the name James F. Lando.
  • Ann Tutwiler is the former deputy director general of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, and before that USDA food security coordinator during the Obama Administration. She began her career as a lobbying director for Eridania Beghin-Say, a French agribusiness. 

Many of these officials have gone through several spins of the revolving door between civilian life and the military. More information on the NSL4A, such as its funding sources, may take years to uncover, due to its only recently approved nonprofit status. The presence of a group like the NSL4A as a factor in political races, however, represents a new form of the old problem of defining the place of the military within America’s civilian government. 

A generation ago, Democrats were suspicious of letting the military-industrial complex have influence over political decisions without proper oversight. Republican scandals tended to involve military officers with distinguished records who bent or broke the rules in pursuit of their “national security” goals. In a time of dangerous international tension between the United States and Russia, the NSL4A doesn’t appear at all concerned with the deteriorating southern border or the bungled U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. And with Joe Biden overseeing a military that has been divided over vaccine mandates and facing its worst recruiting crisis ever, people are on alert to the failures of our military leaders. 

It all raises a curious question: Does NSL4A just not care about how poorly the Biden Administration is handling national security or are they protecting their professional futures by marching in lockstep with him?

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