While most of us were enjoying the Fourth of July holiday last weekend, Sen. Martin Heinrich was returning from a trip to the Middle East, where he met with Israeli and Palestinian officials in his capacity as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
I caught up with the New Mexico Democrat by phone last week after he returned to Washington.
Heinrich shared some of his newly-learned geopolitical Middle East insights, as well as thoughts on the latest revelations about the National Security Agency’s controversial data collection and whether President Obama should have visited the Mexican border when he traveled to Texas last week.
The freshman senator traveled to Israel on an intelligence and fact-finding mission sponsored by the Intelligence Committee. He said he visited Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and some Palestinian territories, including Ramallah, and Jordan.
He met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as a slew of other Israeli and Palestinian officials. While the meetings were ostensibly about intelligence, they, of course, were overshadowed by the tragic flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
“There is no question the issues around the three Israeli teens who were murdered and the Palestinian teen murdered as retaliation permeated everything,” Heinrich said.
On June 30, the bodies of three abducted Israeli teenagers were found buried under rubble in a field near the occupied West Bank. Then, on July 5, a Palestinian boy was found burned to death in what was widely seen as a revenge killing.
“Until this (recent violence) happened there was really quite hopeful cooperation on the security front between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Defense Forces and other Israeli defense and security infrastructure,” Heinrich said. “Goodness knows where that is now given all of the tension and all the conflict. I hope all of that isn’t reversed but obviously we are in a time when we are unclear when this escalating cycle of violence will stop.”
Asked if there is anything the U.S. can realistically do to help calm the region, Heinrich wasn’t hopeful: “‘No’ is the short answer – the solutions will have to come from people there and in concert with each other. We can play a role and often do, I think play a very constructive role … but there is nothing we can do to force progress from the outside. I give Secretary (of State John) Kerry a lot of credit for doing the hard work of making sure that the sides were in communication and could get closer to a settlement. That will never be imposed from the outside; it has to bubble up from the parties on the ground.”
Heinrich said the larger issue there is the dangerous percolation of longstanding conflicts between the Shia and Sunni Islamic sects. Tensions have exploded into violence in Iraq, as the brutal Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militant group has carried out attacks on the Shia-led government of Nouri al-Maliki.
“I think we should be humble in what we think we can impose from the outside,” he said. “I certainly wouldn’t support any scenario where we go back to sending combat troops into Iraq again. … They have to decide it is in their interest to try to work out some of these cultural issues that are driving the current unrest.”
Asked about a Washington Post story in which Edward Snowden detailed how ordinary Americans’ electronic communications are being stored by the NSA, Heinrich suggested he was unaware of the scope of communications being stored but said he has long been troubled by the agency’s rationale, which holds that any information swept up can be used “for whatever they want after the fact.”
“So, if they are targeting a foreign potential terrorist and they happen to sweep up a bunch of information about American citizens, so long as that action was legal in their minds it’s OK to hang on and use this other information about Americans,” Heinrich said. “I think that view is counter to this constitutional view of privacy and the Fourth Amendment that we have held for well over 200 years.”
Finally, asked if President Obama should have visited the Mexican border on last week’s trip to Texas, where thousands of children are arriving hopeful for passage into the U.S., Heinrich said he should have.
“Given the nature of this crisis it’s good to have firsthand knowledge of what is going on,” Heinrich said. “I think the president should have visited the border on this trip. I think it would have been the right call.”