The din of palace intrigue and scandal rang loudly this week but ultimately inconclusively, with no new indictments, personnel shake-ups, or other moves with clear consequences forthcoming. By contrast, less noted but potentially quite consequential developments abroad included Ebola reaching urbanized areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the potential collapse of much-ballyhooed peace talks with North Korea.
Meanwhile at home, the US Senate staged a couple of noteworthy votes featuring a modicum of bipartisanship. Gina Haspel was confirmed as CIA director despite some Republican opposition by picking up the votes of half a dozen Democrats, while three GOP senators broke with their party to help Democrats pass a resolution aiming to revive net neutrality rules.
Here’s what you need to know.
Gina Haspel is America’s new director of the CIA
Already ensconced as deputy director of the CIA and serving as acting director since Mike Pompeo’s confirmation as secretary of state, Gina Haspel was confirmed by the Senate on Thursday despite her deep involvement in Bush-era torture programs and opposition from a handful of Republican senators.
- Crossing the aisle: Republican Sens. Jeff Flake (AZ) and Rand Paul (KY) voted against confirming Haspel, and John McCain (AZ), who didn’t vote due to illness, voiced opposition. But Democratic Sens. Joe Donnelly (IN), Heidi Heitkamp (ND), Joe Manchin (WV), Bill Nelson (FL), Jeanne Shaheen (NH), and Mark Warner (VA) crossed the aisle to support her.
- The torture record: Haspel oversaw the CIA black site in Thailand at the time Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri was tortured there and was involved in the destruction of video evidence of al-Nashiri’s torture as well as torture of Abu Zubaydah that took place at the same site before she took over. As part of the confirmation process, Haspel officially disavowed the torture program, though she didn’t apologize for it. The combination of a rushed process and the cloak of classification that still hangs over much of the relevant information means some of the key details are still not really known to the public.
- What’s next? Trump was an enthusiastic proponent of torture as a candidate, and the main GOP opponent of torture in the legislature, McCain, is not going to be around for much longer. The current posture of the administration is officially anti-torture, in part due to Defense Secretary James Mattis’s stated opposition, but the stars do now seem to be aligned for “enhanced interrogation” to make a potential comeback, especially if the country suffers some kind of attack.
Net neutrality won a vote in the Senate
In a somewhat surprising 52-47 vote, the Senate passed a Congressional Review Act resolution to overturn the Federal Communication Commission’s December rulemaking that overturned Obama-era FCC net neutrality rules. The measure is almost certainly not going to pass the House of Representatives, but the fact that Senate Democrats were able to roll the GOP majority is a critical sign that the political battle is not yet over.
- What does all that mean? Net neutrality rules essentially force wired internet service providers to treat all data equally, the way phone companies treat all phone calls equally, rather than engage in the kind of price discrimination or selective throttling tactics that we see from mobile internet providers. The Congressional Review Act gives Congress one year to veto executive branch regulations, and CRA votes can’t be filibustered — this law was mostly used in Trump’s first year in office to override regulations promulgated in Obama’s last year, but now it’s back.
- What are the stakes? In practice, non-neutral wireless internet is (so far) not that big of a deal. A standard phone plan gives you “unlimited” data but restricts your ability to use your phone as a cellular modem for your computer and downgrades the resolution of streaming video unless you pay extra for full-res video. ISPs promise that bringing non-neutrality to home broadband will, similarly, not be a huge change, while advocates raise somewhat unlikely fears of censorship and more plausible fears of lost innovation.
- What’s next? To actually beat the FCC, the net neutrality resolution would have to pass the House and be signed by President Trump — neither of which seems likely.
The North Korea summit is suddenly in trouble
The too-good-to-be-true bromance between North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and the Trump administration hit some snags this week, as the North Koreans clarified that their position remains irreconcilably opposed to US demands for complete verifiable nuclear disarmament and the Trump administration was shown to still have no real way of achieving its policy aims. Suddenly, the Koreans are threatening to cancel the summit planned for Singapore on June 12, and the White House is scrambling to catch up.
- The “Libya model”: On April 29, National Security Adviser John Bolton said the US was aiming for a “Libya model” of disarmament, referring to the terms of an agreement struck between the Bush administration and then-dictator Muammar Qaddafi. North Korean officials specifically cited this as unacceptable this week, and Trump responded on Thursday by contradicting Bolton while also seeming to completely misunderstand what Bolton was saying.
- The “denuclearization” dilemma: The key issue is that while both countries have been describing “denuclearization” as their goal, they use this word to mean different things. For the North Koreans, denuclearization means arms control concessions on their part in exchange for an end to the US military alliance with South Korea. For the United States, it means CVID — complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization — on the part of North Korea in exchange for sanctions relief.
- What’s next? The Trump administration has invested heavily in spinning this summit as a big win, and for Kim, holding the summit would actually be a big win, so both sides have an incentive to patch things up on some level. But the real diplomatic action, if there is any, is likely to take place between Kim and South Korea’s newish left-wing president who, unlike Trump, is actually conversant on the issues in play.
There’s an Ebola outbreak in the DRC
A new Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo raises both some scary possibilities and an invaluable chance to field-test a potentially promising new Ebola vaccine. But if things get bad, the United States, traditionally a world leader in epidemic response, has greatly diminished capacity in this regard.
- The bad news: The outbreak, initially seen in the remote Bikoro region, appears to have generated at least one confirmed case in Mbandaka, a substantial city 100 miles away. Infection in urban areas could spread much more rapidly and is also more likely to end up infected people capable of traveling internationally and further spreading the virus.
- The good news: Merck has an experimental new vaccine — rVSV-ZEBOV — that appears to be the first effective Ebola vaccine ever developed. More than 4,000 doses of the vaccine have already been shipped to DRC, with more to come. The treatment has never been deployed in the field before, so we don’t really know how well it might work, but it’s an extremely promising new tool in the fight against a deadly infection.
- Back to bad news: Inconveniently, the head of the National Security Council’s global health security efforts abruptly left earlier this month as part of a Bolton-inspired shake-up. His whole team has been dismantled, and budget cuts have already forced US public health agencies to scale back their international work.