Mayor Pete and the Spies Who Love Him

Pete Buttigieg
Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks at rally, Council Bluffs, IA, January 31, 2020. Photo credit: Matt "A.J." Johnson / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Reading Time: 21 minutes

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Mayor Pete’s “outsider” image, carefully constructed by spin-masters, obscures deep establishment roots.
  • His foreign policy adviser is a powerful DC and Pentagon insider who started mentoring him right out of college. 
  • This was the same man who encouraged once-peacenik Buttigieg to join the military, an important factor in his political climb. 
  • Buttigieg claims to be running to “upend” the foreign policy establishment but his 450-member foreign policy apparatus is led by pillars of the status quo.

A millennial newcomer to the national stage is suddenly playing a starring role in the “Stop Bernie” effort. 

As Sen. Bernie Sanders — long a thorn in the side of the Democratic establishment — keeps cementing his frontrunner status for the Democratic nomination, Joe Biden, the establishment’s standard bearer, is faltering. In the meantime, Pete Buttigieg, whose main claim is his “outsider” status, has been getting growing public support from party insiders and favorable attention from the media. But a WhoWhatWhy investigation finds that he was actually anointed early on — as a charismatic reboot of Barack Obama — by DC elites, especially those with ties to the military. 

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In a February 25 pre–South Carolina primary debate during which Sanders took fire from all five candidates, Buttigieg called attention to himself by the intensity of his attacks on the frontrunner.

At one point, an argument broke out between the two after Sanders took aim at US foreign policy for being responsible for overthrowing “governments all over the world in Chile, in Guatemala, in Iran,” and supporting pro-business dictatorships. Buttigieg responded that Sanders represents the “revolutionary politics of the 1960s” — and hammers a recurring theme, that the Vermont senator is as divisive and dangerous as Trump.

Buttigieg was able to put his military service front and center at the debate. Responding to a question framing him as the only veteran on the stage, he brought up his first trip to the state, when he attended Fort Jackson for three weeks of special training before being deployed to Afghanistan in 2015. He recalled looking down at his uniform sleeve and feeling pride that “the flag on [his] shoulder represented a country known to keep its word.”

Since 400,000 vets live in South Carolina, and it has eight bases, representing Army, Navy, the Marines, and Airforce, military service carries special weight there

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Regardless of who wins the most delegates this primary season, given his strong party support, Buttigieg cannot be counted out — especially in the case of a brokered convention, in which 771 superdelegates by and large represent the establishment. 

As his star has risen, Buttigieg faces increased scrutiny. However, much of it — and the skepticism that sometimes accompanies it — seems to skirt a fundamental quandary: What exactly is the Buttigieg phenomenon? And what explains it? 

How was the little-known mayor of a small American city (ranked 308th largest) transformed into a candidate deemed most qualified to handle some of the most complex decisions facing this country and the world, at a time perhaps more challenging than any in history? 

The answer, research suggests, is that Buttigieg has benefited — like many politicians — from a career-long shaping, punctuated by repositionings and makeovers, until he had the right set of credentials and backers to make it to the top. But the particulars of the makeover are like no other. 

The Buttigieg we think we know today came into focus over the course of about 16 years, as he was bundled into a package of appealing but vague impressions — energetic, reformer, articulate, thoughtful, youthful, reasonable. 

During his presidential campaign, his handlers have pivoted from difficult-to-prove and politically profitless assertions about his tenure in South Bend, IN, to equally vague but far more savvy branding as a healing national figure, a hardheaded realist, and seasoned man of the world: global businessman and traveler, and, not least, military veteran. 

Perhaps paradoxically, he turns out to be backed by a mighty retinue from the very national security elite he says he hopes to “upend.” 

A fair share of the credit for realizing Buttigieg’s political potential should go to a man few Americans have heard of. He’s a consummate Washington insider, and his name is Doug Wilson. 

Wilson first appears in the Buttigieg saga right after the latter leaves Harvard, and then surfaces periodically on his way up, finally becoming a leading national security adviser to Buttigieg’s presidential campaign — and bringing on board a substantial cohort from the Democratic national security establishment. In between the Kerry campaign and the Buttiegeg campaign, Wilson could be glimpsed in South Bend with Mayor Pete, explaining on local television why he chose the city as a pilot location for a national veterans’ support network he has formed.

Why is Buttigieg a favorite of this establishment? And what is at stake? The nearly one-trillion-dollar military budget, to be sure, with the tangible security benefits that global military superiority ensures, but also the temptations to use such weapons in ways that can foster hostility and even chaos.

Maintaining the largest military establishment in the world entails an astonishing fiscal and physical burden, and it is steadily growing, with no end in sight. As the administration of George W. Bush — which launched the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — came to a close, Special Operations forces were reportedly deployed in roughly 60 countries around the world. By 2013, under Democratic President Barack Obama, the US had elite forces in 134 countries. A more recent figure is 149 countries

The Pentagon budget dwarfs all others. It is about the same size as the combined spending of the next seven largest countries’ military budgets, and about 37 percent of what is spent on armed forces worldwide. The other costs of war and the war machine are almost impossible to fully capture. Just one facet is the environment, as the Pentagon is the No. 1 consumer of fossil fuels worldwide  — and therefore a major factor in climate change. Another is how the constantly growing US military budget coincides with harsh cuts to education, basic sustenance to the poor, and much more.

Little is done to rein in the beast. Not since Franklin Roosevelt has a president been able to exert serious control over what a general-turned-president, Dwight Eisenhower, warned, as he left office, was a “military industrial complex” needing close watch. Since John F. Kennedy, who privately battled and sometimes publicly challenged the military, no president has dared. 

The national security community is certainly not a monolith, and those supporting Buttigieg come out of the more moderate portion of that community, but in the end it is a lucrative revolving-door culture benefiting everyone on the inside, while for the rest of society, it is a far more problematic situation. And one that is rarely mentioned on the campaign trail. 

How and why did Buttigieg become the favorite of this establishment? Certain patterns emerge from closer examination. 

Mayor Pete, Foreign Policy Expert? 

Pete Buttigieg, Afghanistan, orphanage

Lt. Pete Buttigieg at an orphanage in Afghanistan. Photo credit: US Navy (PDF)

Although Buttigieg, like all candidates, is the sum of his past and his political beliefs, neither seems all that clear. Portions of his past, particularly his work abroad, are especially hazy — and the candidate and his campaign have done little to clear things up. Even his own supporters don’t seem to know too much — including top policy people whose endorsements have given the campaign credibility.

Peter Galbraith — who spent years working for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as a US ambassador, and UN official in Afghanistan — is a supporter of Buttigieg. He said it was some of Buttigieg’s domestic pronouncements that first drew his interest, and when Doug Wilson asked him to join a list of former diplomatic, military, intelligence, and national security folk officially endorsing the Indianan’s candidacy, he obliged. 

Galbraith nonetheless thinks the candidate should say more about his life and activities. “He ought to explain all these things he was doing,” he told WhoWhatWhy. Galbraith told us he was unfamiliar with and surprised by many of the details of Buttigieg’s past we asked him about.

To some, the candidate’s confusing biography and wide (if opaque) travels only underscore his relatively limited experience, which isn’t surprising given his age, Galbraith says. “Going around the world [in brief spurts] isn’t the same thing as being on the foreign relations committee staff or a diplomat.”

“Mayor Pete,” as he has become known, has both focused on his foreign adventures and eschewed the details. Most Americans are aware that he served in Afghanistan. It’s the first thing listed on his Twitter bio. What he did there, however, is as much of a mystery as the foreign work he did for the international management consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

No matter. It all was enough to make the man presidential timber. 

The biography itself deserves a closer look, as does the manner in which a young man was introduced to the right people and given the opportunity of a lifetime.

Buttigieg Meets His Mentor

Buttigieg first revealed his national aspirations when he ran for Democratic National Committee Chair in 2017 but dropped out before a single vote was cast. In just showing up, however, Buttigieg garnered accolades from party insiders like David Axelrod and Dan Pfeiffer. “He very much is the future of the party,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. However, his political drive was evident much earlier.  

Getting into Harvard and doing well there is already a badge for the ambitious, but Buttigieg had his breakthrough moment in 2004 when, right out of school, he applied for a low-level position on John Kerry’s presidential campaign in Arizona, and caught the attention of the state campaign manager, an Arizona-born DC insider named Doug Wilson. Over the next 15 years, their lives and interests would intersect at key points of Buttigieg’s career.  

Douglas B. Wilson

Douglas B. Wilson, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, speaks at the 2011 Communicators of Excellence awards ceremony May 13, 2011, at the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, MD. Photo credit: US Air Force

Wilson is now leading a 450-person campaign operation focused on foreign policy (Ned Price, a former CIA official and National Security Council spokesman, also leads this apparatus). And last December, in a master stroke for the campaign, Buttigieg’s effort to go head-to-head on foreign policy with former Vice President Joe Biden got a boost when 200 foreign policy experts, including many who served in the Obama administration, signed a letter endorsing Buttigieg. 

We have involved people we think have a tremendous amount to contribute to that next generation, who have experience and expertise but are not at the end of their careers,” Wilson told USA Today.

So who is Doug Wilson, and how has he helped Buttigieg over the years? 

WhoWhatWhy contacted Wilson via his personal email address twice in a week, seeking an interview. Each time, he forwarded our request to the campaign which responded but did not make him available.

But in a rare interview with Foreign Policy, a Washington establishment favorite, Wilson said he’d been impressed with Buttigieg when he volunteered to work for the Kerry campaign. 

The qualities that attracted me to him, that made me respect him … are the same qualities that he’s bringing to the campaign,” Wilson told the magazine. “He impressed everybody that he was a team player.” 

****

Buttigieg, the son of a Notre Dame professor, was a fairly typical liberal-left student — not the sort one could easily envision voluntarily joining the military in recent times. In high school he had been an ardent fan of Sanders. And when he met Wilson, he had just come off an interesting period at Harvard, having, in the spring of 2003, publicly opposed the US invasion of Iraq. 

As described in an account from the military publication Stars and Stripes, the crowd loved him and he clearly enjoyed the attention. 

It was a gray March day in 2003, a week before the invasion of Iraq, and the “Emergency Anti-War Rally” had attracted about 350 people to the courtyard in front of Harvard’s ziggurat-like Science Center.

Sophomore Jesse Stellato was the first speaker. Junior Pete Buttigieg followed him, speaking without notes on behalf of the campus Democrats and eliciting a roar from the gathering.

Stellato said that Buttigieg was “brilliant,” but added, “He seemed more like a partisan than a pacifist … I’m not sure he would have been there if the Democrats hadn’t come out against the invasion.”

Buttigieg’s journey from tepid dove to moderate hawk began after he went to work for Wilson on the Kerry campaign the following year. 

As he states in his memoir:

The education that began at Harvard continued in one form or another for the next 10 years. First came Campaigns 101, for which my classroom was a cubicle in a windowless office in downtown Phoenix, where I did research and press work for the Kerry-Edwards presidential run of 2004. After that defeat, I followed my boss, Doug Wilson, back to Washington where he worked for the former Defense secretary, William Cohen. The winter and spring amounted to Washington 101, an education in the mechanics of our capital, which I navigated as a sort of gofer for Doug, helping him to organize a conference of American and Muslim leaders.

This is the sole mention of Wilson in the entire book.

Shortly after his volunteer stint with the Kerry campaign, Wilson got Buttigieg a job working with him at the Cohen Group. This geopolitical lobbying and consulting group with strong Middle East connections was headed by Wilson’s old Pentagon boss. The firm was part of a new wave of international consultancy firms started by Clinton-era national security advisers, practicing what Charles Lewis, the founder of the Center for Public Integrity, has called “globalized influence peddling.”

The two worked together on a Middle East conference. 

Over the years, Buttigieg would continue to impress his elders as he made his way through a series of distinguished establishment institutions and programs for shaping leaders. He won a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, as had another political wunderkind, Bill Clinton —  (Clinton was just 31 when he was first elected Arkansas “boy governor”). Clinton’s Georgetown professor, historian Carroll Quigley, a favorite of young Bill’s, wrote about the founder of the scholarships, Cecil Rhodes, and his dedication to an Anglo-American empire. 

Buttigieg stopped first to study Arabic in Tunisia, then took his place at the ancient university. According to an alumni publication for his college at Oxford, Pembroke (writing about him after he became mayor of South Bend):

He was recruited by former master [at] Pembroke Giles Henderson and his wife Lynne to take care of the resident Henderson Golden Retrievers during the periods when the Hendersons were away from College. “I had the run of the Master’s Lodgings, the piano, everything. It was a very warm place, heaven,” he remembers.

After Oxford, Buttigieg took a job with McKinsey and was given assignments that took him to hotspots in the Muslim and Arab world.

As with his military service, specific information about what Buttigieg did for McKinsey has been slow to surface, and lacking in detail when it does. 

As the New York Times put it, 

[Buttigieg’s] time at the world’s most prestigious management-consulting company is one piece of his meticulously programmed biography that he mentions barely, if at all, on the campaign trail. 

He has stated that, while with the firm, he was in Baghdad during the Iraq war, though he says he spent only two nights there. As for his McKinsey work in Afghanistan, he has blandly described it as consulting for “the agricultural industry — onions, tomatoes, olive oil — as well as paint manufacturing.” 

McKinsey and Company

McKinsey & Company building in Shanghai, China. Photo credit: Philip McMaster / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Initially, Buttigieg said he could not discuss McKinsey due to the non-disclosure agreement he signed at the firm, which is known for its highly secretive practices. But under pressure of media scrutiny, he subsequently released a partial list limited to nine clients, including Canadian supermarket chain Loblaw, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the US Defense Department.

Whatever the particulars, Mayor Pete’s assignments were certainly among the more thrilling and unusual opportunities granted a young management trainee. In 2008, with a friend, he traveled to an obscure and difficult-to-reach but strategically important place, Somaliland — a self-declared state abutting the world’s oil shipping lanes, and managed to get a polished PR-type story promoting the place on the op-ed pages of the New York Times. 

And Who Is Doug Wilson?

It’s not clear how many of these chances would have come his way had he not met Wilson.

In Wilson, Buttigieg found a mentor with things he shared in common. Like Buttigieg, Wilson, now 69, had a high-octane university run (Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Stanford University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy).  

At the time they first worked together in 2004, the future mayor had not come out as a gay man. Wilson, however, had — at least to some — and would later become the highest ranking “out” official at the Pentagon. It was sometime after they met, Wilson said, that he realized that Buttigieg “had been on the same personal journey I had been on years before.”

Shortly after the Kerry campaign, Wilson would introduce his protégé to Washington insiders. It was the first step in a decade-long process that enabled Buttigieg to be repackaged from a fresh-faced and ambitious Ivy Leaguer into a tough military veteran, and then rebranded as an “outsider” who would shake things up. 

Doug Wilson had gotten his professional start in the Foreign Service and served on the Senate staff of Foreign Relations Committee member Gary Hart. He then ran Arizona for the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign in 1996 and achieved a significant milestone: For the first time since Harry Truman (and not repeated since), Arizona awarded its electoral votes to a Democrat. 

Wilson’s stint with the Clinton campaign led him to the Pentagon, where he served in the public affairs office. 

Wilson left government after Bill Clinton’s second term, and took a job with Business Executives for National Security, a nonprofit with powerful figures from the private sector and NatSec, that works on what its website calls “our country’s most pressing security problems.”

He returned to the Pentagon eight years later under President Barack Obama, this time elevated to the post of assistant secretary of defense for public affairs.

Barack Obama, Don't Ask Don't Tell Repeal Act

President Barack Obama signs the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010 on December 22, 2010. The repeal became effective on September 20, 2011. Photo credit: Obama White House Archive

There he helped lead the repeal of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, which deemed it acceptable to be gay in the military as long as one’s sexual orientation was not advertised. This was at the time when his young associate Buttigieg was beginning his Naval Reserve duty, and not yet open about his sexuality. 

Wilson was certainly a star — in both Democratic administrations. His work on behalf of Clinton was deemed significant enough that he received the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service in 1999, the Pentagon’s top civilian honor. He received the award again in 2001 as the Clinton administration was leaving office, and yet a third time in 2012 as he left the Obama administration. 

But it is his post-government career that may have been most helpful to Buttigieg. Wilson has held top positions in several major think tanks that bring together military, Pentagon, and business leaders, all espousing a centrist position on national security. He also consulted for Boeing, a major defense contractor. Even though Wilson’s nomination by Obama to the prestigious US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy was derailed when the Republican-controlled Senate let the nomination lapse, Wilson has maintained other influential networks from his long career in Washington.

Wilson is a former national political director of the now-defunct Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which helped develop state and local Democratic leaders in a Clinton-style brand of politics. The DLC approach was criticized by the liberal wing of the party, which said it was too willing to compromise on principles with conservatives and Wall Street, and insensitive to poor and marginalized communities. 

Wilson chaired the nonprofit Truman National Security Project, and since leaving both McKinsey and the military, Buttigieg, too, became active in the group.  

“The Truman Project mobilizes Democrats who serve the conventional interventionist agenda,” American Conservative journalist Kelly Vlahos wrote. “Beyond that, they are part of a broader orbit of not so dissimilar foot soldiers on the other side of the aisle.”

Wilson’s connections would have been invaluable to a rising young candidate. And Buttigieg’s moderate pro-defense views must have been political balm to Wilson. As Buttigieg told the Military Times: “I’ve been clear that we need to maintain absolute military superiority. The question of how much we should spend should be defined by where and how we need to spend it to best protect our citizens and our interests.” 

USGS, Afghanistan, resources, map

Geologic and Mineral Resource Map of Afghanistan. Photo credit: USGS

The apparent high-wire act between advocate of reform and of empire-building was captured by Vogue when it caught up with Buttigieg for a cover profile at his tasteful South Bend white Victorian. The interviewer was struck bya huge mineral and resource map of Afghanistanin his living room. No hint was provided as to whether Buttigieg was for or against realpolitik based on perceived US national or corporate interests. 

According to a recent short profile on Wilson in Foreign Policy,

Several advisors [said] Wilson played a key role in encouraging Buttigieg to pursue a career path in the U.S. military.

In 2009, Buttigieg joined the US Naval Reserve, and served nine months on active duty as an intelligence officer, including six months in Afghanistan. What he did during his stint in Afghanistan is unclear. His service record has been mostly redacted by the Pentagon. 

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Buttigieg returned later to active duty. 

Buttigieg’s redeployment to Aghanistan came at a moment of maximum political peril when, as mayor of South Bend, three months into his first term, he found himself embroiled in his first real political crisis, which stemmed from fallout over his firing of a popular black police chief for improperly taping white cops who were allegedly making racist remarks. To some, this raises questions about how he handles tough situations.  

His work in his Afghan go-round is also a little hazy. He describes what sounds like sophisticated technical work, saying he helped detect financial networks in the region assisting the Taliban. But he also describes some of his work as more menial.

Responding to questions about Buttigieg’s service record in Afghanistan, his commander there, Lt. Col. Guy Hollingsworth, told the Deseret News last month that he assigned him to Kabul, where he “proved to be a vital intelligence gatherer, liaison, counselor and even one of his main security drivers when they ventured outside the wire.” 

Some critics say this in no way translates to being ready to be commander in chief. 

“To say that because he was in the military, he has a particular understanding of foreign affairs and how to handle the national security of the US, I don’t buy that,” Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University School of Law, told WhoWhatWhy. “It’s not like he was a general in charge of CentCom.” 

“Pete is a veteran of having been in a ‘combat zone,’” said a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who asked that his name not be used. “He is not a ‘veteran of combat.’ Wish someone would make this distinction clear.” 

Whatever his service may have entailed, it’s helped to burnish his foreign policy credentials. 

Buttigieg now has the distinction of being the top recipient of donations from the national security sector — from staff of the State Department, Homeland Security, and the Justice Department. 

“The common thread in supporting Pete is — somebody we feel can take us past Trump but not going back to the default of pre-Trump,” Wilson told USA Today. “We have great respect for the Obama administration, but there is also a recognition that there are new issues and a new set of challenges, and we feel that Pete understands them.” 

Buttigieg’s surge in some early states shows how easily he can convince voters — and the media — to trust him to make the right moves in a world full of hair-trigger circumstances and looming catastrophe, from Iran to North Korea, from terrorism to climate change. But the extent of Buttigieg’s preparation — aside from honing his skills as an effective orator — is unclear. 

And Buttigieg and his campaign have not gone out of their way to clarify just what that preparation is — in part, it is hinted, because of super-clandestine work about which he may not speak. 

With a big and distinguished team, why has Buttigieg avoided so many foreign policy questions?

Pete Buttigieg

Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg on his New Hampshire bus tour route on November 8, 2019. Photo credit: Pete For America

No Answer to 19 out of 36 Questions

Greenberg gives Mayor Pete credit for trying to build a NatSec brain trust, and for being well-spoken. But she was struck by his failure to answer a whopping 19 out of 36 items in a recent New York Times foreign policy questionnaire given to the Democratic candidates.

Foreign Policy Questions Buttigieg Didn’t Answer (Click to read more)

Among the questions he chose not to answer were those exploring core issues of international relations, such as whether he would use “military troops or covert action in regime change effort,” tighten sanctions on North Korea, or be willing to say whether any option is off the table regarding use of nuclear weapons against Iran. 

“Look at the other candidates; it’s very rare they won’t answer these kinds of things,” Greenberg adds. “Sanders and Warren gave zero ‘I-don’t-have-an-answer’s.” Moreover, although Buttigieg has built his candidacy on being an outsider who will dismantle the status quo, the answers he did provide ran largely counter to that image. 

For example, Buttigieg’s answers about the use of force were pretty much in line with answers from Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) opposes the use of force to prevent tests of nuclear weapons by North Korea and Iran, but Buttigieg, Biden, Bloomberg, and Sanders said they’d be willing to use force. (Klobuchar did not answer.) But it is the unanswered questions that are most intriguing.  

He would not state whether there was “any situation” in which he would use troops or covert action to effect regime change. Biden, Warren, Bloomberg, and Sanders all responded they would not use troops or covert action for regime change. 

He would not say whether it was “appropriate” for the US to “provide nonmilitary support for regime-change efforts,” as the Trump administration has done.  

He would not say whether he would meet personally with North Korea leader Kim Jong-un, or whether he’d tighten sanctions against the country until it gives up all its nuclear and missile programs.

He also would not comment on how many troops would be serving in Afghanistan by the end of his first term, or whether he’d limit their mission to counterterrorism and intelligence gathering. He wouldn’t say how long troops would stay there, or whether their presence would be contingent on other allies contributing ground troops. 

He was equally noncommittal about whether Russia should give up its claims to Crimea if it wished to rejoin the G-7. All other candidates said rejoining the world’s industrialized nations ought to be contingent on Russia dropping its claims.

And he failed to say whether the US should make Hong Kong’s political independence or the closing of Uighur internment camps a “prerequisite for normal relations with China.”

He also refused to answer any questions concerning the appropriate US preparation and response to cyberattacks. All other candidates answered those questions. 

He wouldn’t even say whether the US would defend NATO allies even if they fell behind on their defense spending. All other candidates gave a resounding “Yes” to that question.

Muzzling Whistleblowers

For a liberal and a critic of US policy excesses, even one with his military service, Buttigieg has been notably hostile to whistleblowers in a time when federal agencies, faced with concerns that government grows more secretive and unaccountable all the time, are themselves increasingly establishing provisions encouraging and protecting whistleblowers. 

Buttigieg Attitude Toward Whistleblowers (Click to read more)

In 2019 he said he was “troubled” that Chelsea Manning — who, convicted under the World War I-era Espionage Act, had served seven years in solitary confinement and was re-imprisoned for not divulging facts about Wikileaks — was let out of jail by Obama. (Using the Espionage Act, Obama prosecuted eight whistleblowers, which represents more than double all previous presidents combined.)

Manning, an Army intelligence analyst (and LGBTQ hero), had, in 2010, downloaded troves of documents containing evidence of US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, including the gut-wrenching “Collateral Murder” video, which, filmed from a low-flying Apache in 2007, shows its crew machine-gunning eight unarmed civilians to death (including two Reuters journalists).  

She also criticized Edward Snowden’s disclosure of the National Security Agency’s mass-surveillance techniques, saying, “the way for that to come out is through congressional oversight, not through a breach of classified information” — though congressional intelligence oversight has historically proved largely ineffective.  

A Shadowy Incident? 

Today’s intelligence organizations and military pride themselves on mastery of what are called “information operations” — changing regimes and winning wars without a drop of blood. Worries about this extending into the American political landscape only heightened with some peculiar results in the primaries.

A recent incident during the Iowa caucuses prompted questions about possible unfair access to the app used by party officials tabulating the caucus results. 

Critics noted that Buttigieg’s campaign made $40,000 in payments to Shadow Inc., the maker of the caucus app. David Plouffe, a Democratic strategist who served as Obama’s campaign manager, sits on the board of Shadow’s nonprofit parent entity ACRONYM, whose startup funding is unclear. The CEO of ACRONYM, Tara McGowan, is the wife of Buttigieg senior campaign strategist Michael Halle. 

The app created havoc and shut down the caucuses, causing a national uproar. 

On the night of the Caucus, Michael Halle’s brother, Ben, tweeted out pictures of caucus results worksheets with a PIN (to login to the app) visible on top, before anything was officially released

The Buttigieg campaign’s relationship to the funders of the app gave some pause — especially given Buttigieg’s claim of “victory” before any precinct had begun reporting results. The next morning, however, he told MSNBC that he had no data to back up his claim: “No, we don’t have anything from the party, at least I don’t, that you wouldn’t have heard as well.” 

Yet Buttigieg had been correct, if only by a hair. When the final account was released, Sanders had won the popular tally, but came up short two delegates. Mayor Pete had been awarded three delegates by a  coin toss.  

 Pete Buttigieg, cardboard cutout

Presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg visits Iowa headquarters and participates in media interviews in Des Moines, IA, on January 15, 2020. Photo credit: Pete For America

New Wave: Former Intelligence Officials Running as Democrats

There was a time when anyone with intelligence credentials running for office would have attracted keen interest. The first major figure with such known ties was President George H.W. Bush, who had served as CIA director before — and, in a still mysterious role, served in the Navy and then worked covertly in intelligence as a young man. Before he became a PT boat commander, John F. Kennedy served with Naval Intelligence.  

In recent years, going from Langley to the halls of Congress, if not the White House, has become so commonplace that it is no longer considered worth discussing. 

But Mayor Pete’s candidacy dovetails with a profound shift in US politics in which the alphabet agencies — and, increasingly, sectors of the Pentagon — have aligned behind the center of the Democratic Party. In turn, the party, and much of its base, has become more trusting of segments of the spy apparatus.

In 2017, a widely read left-wing news site published its study on the military and intelligence connections of Democratic candidates in 102 primaries coming up in 2018. They found that  

44 involve candidates with a military-intelligence or State Department background, with 11 districts having two such candidates, and one district having three.  

Especially feted by party apparatchiks with fundraising drives, well-known endorsements, and advertising dollars, 30 were eventually nominated — most of them in districts held by Republicans — and five won. 

Why Aren’t 2020 Hopefuls Talking About Election Security?

If the Presidential Candidates Ever Debate Climate Change…

In an NBC report with findings similar to the one cited above, Elizabeth Arsenault, a professor at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, chalked up the trend to fears among intelligence operatives that Trump could seriously damage the US-led world order. 

“The wave of former intelligence officials running as Democrats is new,” she said.   

Indeed, the alliance between Democrats and a vocal segment of the NatSec establishment reflects looming mutual distrust and ongoing battles inside and outside of government between the Trump White House and components of the vast intelligence community. Nonetheless, the flipping of the normal order, where Republicans were historically closer to the “military-industrial complex” while Democrats viewed it warily, is apparent in many ways.  

One example: In perceived retaliation for the now-famous Ukraine call leaked by a CIA analyst attached to the White House, and other acts that Trump and his followers alleged were “deep state” machinations, the president was quietly culling 70 members of his National Security Council.  

If Mayor Pete were to become the nominee, the matrix of corporate-military-intel connections which surrounds him, and the sizable war chest which funds him, could be a major liability in the Democrats’ battle against Trump. 

He will be cast immediately by Trump proxies (if not by the man himself) as a  “deep state” conspirator — something at least as scary to some as a “socialist.” 

Buttigieg could be the best candidate of them all — but the influence of the new NatSec establishment is baked into the structure of his candidacy.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from US Government, South Bend, Nick Thompson / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0), and Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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2 responses to “Mayor Pete and the Spies Who Love Him”

  1. bob says:

    Bernie is the ONLY candidate running that can beat Trump, sorry mayor Pete and uncle Joe but if this continues YOU folks and Liz will keep Trump in office for another four years and by then the country’s middle class will be completely destroyed…

  2. Larry Payne says:

    “Deep State conspirator” is exponentially more scary than Socialism, which is the same as Populism.