Desperate times call for desperate measures.
In centuries past, during a time of war a country could issue a license called a Letter of Marque and Reprisal that allowed privately owned ships to capture vessels of its enemy and keep the results from the sale of the captured ship and its cargo. With this commission, these actions were considered privateering, instead of the free agents of piracy (as in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies). Operating independently of the navy, the privateer captains’ willingness to risk and their desire for profit contributed to the weakening of their country’s enemy.
The Constitution grants to the U.S. Congress the right to grant these Letters of Marque, in the same section as the right to declare war and to call forth the militia. Congress has not officially granted any Letters of Marque since 1815, although there was discussion of a new Marque and Reprisal Act against terrorists (instead of foreign countries) after 9/11.
This bill was not enacted, but recent actions suggest that some government entities may be operating as if they have a Letter of Marque – perhaps in the guise of an Executive Order, that circumvents Congress and the powers granted by the Constitution.
Secrecy is one of the key ingredients of diplomacy, as are covert intelligence-gathering operations. They involve risk on a number of levels – to the individuals involved and to the government they represent – but are undertaken with a clear sense of the benefit they are expected to provide to our country. It is when something goes wrong in these operations that the question of under whose authority they were undertaken, and their motive, becomes crucial.
When information about the 1985-87 Iran-Contra affair came out, with a hand-off of the proceeds from arms sales to Iran in order to free hostages, being provided to anti-Communist Contras in Nicaragua, President Reagan told the American public about it, admitted that the original plan had deteriorated into an unacceptable situation, and he took full responsibility – even for any actions that he was unaware of. In correcting this failure, Reagan provided a clear example of leadership.
The record of the current administration, however, shows an absence of this kind of leadership when actions and who is behind them is revealed.
In the past few years, the operation known as Fast & Furious’ strategy of letting guns from the U.S. “walk” to Mexican drug lords – proposed as a sting – instead resulted in American casualties at the U.S. border, then an attempt to frame a whistle-blower, and leading to the Attorney General becoming the first sitting member of the White House Cabinet to be held in criminal contempt of Congress for refusing to disclose subpoenaed internal Justice Department documents – less than 5 months before the 2012 presidential election. The President ordered a full investigation, although we have not yet seen the outcome. When we do, what country will we find this extra-legal operation served and what was its prize?
We are now learning the truth about another incident in which the colors being flown have changed so many times – 12 at the last count – that it’s hard to tell who is commanding the ship in question. What is clear is that the American people were intentionally deceived about what happened on September 11, 2012 at the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya. From neglecting to provide appropriate defenses on the anniversary of a significant attack on our country, to releasing as news that the cause of the attack was a video with the inflammatory title of “Innocence of Muslims” – while discrediting the President of Syria when he announced that it was a terrorist attack – who was the enemy that our government sought to weaken? And could it be true that the prize in the subsequent distractions was the deflecting of potentially damaging attention until after the 2012 presidential election?
There were no prizes here. And we lost more than four irreplaceable diplomatic personnel that day.
Eight months later, the finger-pointing in the Benghazi investigation is picking up steam. Did Congress authorize this action? As a young Hillary Clinton asked during the Watergate investigation: what did the President know, and when did he know it? And when did We the People know it? Do we know it now?
Why does this matter? Because we should know if it’s the prize that’s being towed into port behind our ship that will be condemned – or our country, for engaging in privateering. Or – if we find that no Letter of Marque was issued by Congress – that we will be implicated in an act of piracy. Will this example weaken our own country and its credibility, in the eyes of the world?
We know what Will Turner said he would do if he met a pirate, in the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie. What will we do, if we find a pirate among ourselves?
We don’t want a government operating with letters of marque, we want a government with credibility – that commands international presence, provides accurate representation to its own citizens, and that supports its own Constitution and those who have sworn to defend it. Not an entity seeking profit for just a subset of its leaders – political or otherwise.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. How will we answer that call? Maybe we should check everyone’s credentials, and what are their true colors.