Alexandra Chandler is competing for the Democratic nomination for the 3rd congressional district in Massachusetts with candidates with greater name recognition locally than she has. But in troubled times like these, Chandler represents a new wave of aspiring policy makers. She’s got an impressive resume—her 13 years analyzing intelligence for the Navy will be incredibly valuable as a Democratic House of Representatives deals with an impulsive executive with an unhealthy affection for America’s adversaries. She also represents a great deal of progress that we’ve witnessed in this country which is in peril as Trump attempts to replace Anthony Kennedy at the Supreme Court. Chandler would be the first openly transgender representative in Congress.
I spoke to Chandler over the phone just before the world began to watch our Southern Border in horror as immigrants and refugees fleeing all manner of violence in their own countries were met with a new, Trump-made, American horror—the United States was effectively stealing the children of those seeking what Ronald Reagan frequently called a “shining city on a hill.” (Paraphrasing an immigrant-John Winthrop) It can be difficult in these obstreperous times to remember that democracy is still moving as this exhausting perpetual news cycle continues. One of the biggest stories in recent weeks was the on-again/off-again US/North Korean summit in Singapore that ended with what proved to be empty promises. Since most members of Congress have no idea what the intelligence community does, I started by asking Chandler how she came to find herself immersed in such a unique field. She was living in New York City as a law student when the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001. “My girlfriend, now my wife, was on a subway train at the time the towers fell,” she explained. “I didn’t know if she’d made it.” Thankfully, she did but thousands did not. “And it changed my life.”
“I shifted gears in what I intended to do with my life.” She applied to and was accepted to the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) and, “…for 12 of those 13 years I worked on counter proliferation.” Her job was “to do analysis on weapons of mass destruction related material and technology from one country to another by the state. So that is working on trying to prevent countries like North Korea from spreading its missile technology to other countries and trying to prevent countries such as Iran from building up their own nuclear and missile programs. The work was countering arms smuggling and preventing transfers to conflict zones like Syria and Yemen.” Chandler’s team at ONI would sift through data “trying to identify this activity detected and inform national decision makers to provide them with options to disrupt these activities.” The tedious work of these intelligence analysts is critically important to American foreign policy which has been in the spotlight since Donald Trump began verbally attacking allies while embracing adversaries.
In times like this, the hard earned experience of separating facts from fiction is more important than ever. Chandler had to be able to go into the room with decision makers and lay out the picture. “This is the activity before us. Here are different options. Here’s what we could see the possibility for stemming from each and in a non-prescriptive way, explain: This is our assessment.” The key to this exchange was that the intelligence team provided a non-prescriptive assessment. “I always had to stop short of prescribing a specific option. We really couldn’t even recommend a specific option. We could provide our assessment as to efficacy but the policymakers always had to be the ones to weigh our intelligence assessment of what each action would do versus their other considerations.”
If the congressional nominating race goes her way, the fact that Chandler would experience a complete role reversal isn’t lost on her. She explains how the complexity of using intelligence analysis can be complicated by a variety of factors. “If we’re talking about stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction or stopping weapons from going into conflicts,” Chandler explains using her career specialty, “not surprisingly, these priorities have to be weighed with other priorities. For instance the president may be trying to work with the given country on a human rights issue or trade or something else while at the same time we in the intelligence community are saying, ‘Well here’s the WMD issue.’”
I asked the former intelligence analyst if after the 2016 attack on the elections and other cyber warfare being waged by the Russian government if she might be starting to view certain types of information warfare as almost a deployment of a weapon of mass destruction considering the consequences.
“I don’t know if it’s helpful,” she began carefully, “to put a particular label or nomenclature on what is fundamentally information war fare. I think it’s most helpful to speak of it as plainly as possible. We can both educate the public and articulate the nature of the attack most readily, that it is warfare and it is warfare utilizing information which can seem innocuous.” Chandler hopes that her background in analyzing the patterns between events like Brexit and the 2016 election attack is something she can bring to Congress. “We as a nation are still catching up to what was done to us, to what was done to the British, and to what Russia and I imagine what other [state] actors now will endeavor to do in the future. Congress has already been so far behind the curve on national security which is part of why they have ceded so much authority to the executive branch over the last few decades. If there was ever a time for more national security and intelligence expertise to get into Congress, it is right now.”
Moving onto the Mueller investigation, Muller and his team and the press have uncovered numerous ties to Russian money and influence swarming around Donald Trump. But that leads to the obvious question, how do we keep it to the facts and avoid a “Red Scare?” I asked her, “How do we separate real from imagined especially when ‘imagined’ is actually a weapon?”
The candidate was kind enough to listen intently as I rattled off the many indictments and guilty pleas that have resulted from the Mueller investigation, the acknowledgement by Putin that he believes we’ve been in a new Cold War since President George W. Bush decided to back out of the ABM Treaty, and Donald Trump’s infatuation with dictators before replying, “I think it’s important to recognize that the use of information warfare by the Russians is an implicit recognition of Russia’s relative weakness compared to that of the United States and our EU allies. In so far this is a strategy with a set of tactics that recognizes that Russia cannot compete in the battle space of ideas. And for the Russian vision of the world order compared with the American internationalists post World War 2 consensus, the only way that Russia can compete is in a distorted battle space whereby they inject selectively targeted propaganda, for want of a better term, to influence our election processes. They can’t succeed in this in an overt way, so it has to be done covertly. And this is a tool of a nation state that if you look at the Russian economy, if you look at Russia’s geopolitical position particularly before Mr. Trump did so much to undermine ours, Russia was operating from a position of weakness.” Chandler is confident in her assessment of the Russian threat and our ability to resist falling into the tropes of a red scare but she does conclude by saying, “We are fundamentally back in a Cold War with the Russians whether we wanted it or not. Whether we intended it, or not. A realist view of foreign policy is such that we are and we will be for the foreseeable future.”
As a Democrat, I couldn’t help but preface the next question with my belief that, politically Democrats need to remain focused on economic issues and providing a vision for the future. But when you’re talking to a foreign policy expert (my words, not hers) it would be malpractice not to ask, is Donald Trump a national security threat in the White House? “I do see him as a threat to national security in his current role, however in terms of running a congressional campaign and in terms of my own campaign, my own message to the voters of my district day in and day out it is focused on what will make the working and middle class people’s lives better; better paying jobs, addressing underemployment, our health care costs—some of the highest in the country—our child care costs, and combating the opioid epidemic.”
This wasn’t a retreat, Chandler continues, “But what I can do and what I do, is also say that I as a candidate and there are other candidates around the country that can say this, I also have a vision for our national security, for our foreign policy, for trade policy that will advance a more peaceful and more prosperous world. And we’ll check the negative actions of the administration in the realm of national security which then directly impacts economic security at home. When we recklessly pull out of the Iran deal, the price of gas goes up and continues to go up as the markets started to price them out because of all the threatening rhetoric in the months preceding. When we engage in a completely unnecessary prelude to a trade war including most sharply with our closest allies, that will mean higher prices for American consumers and it will not be an esoteric goods; the price of refrigerators, of microwaves…people will feel it. Foreign policy and national security have relevance to the day to day lives of people and that’s where I see myself as uniquely positioned, to be able to connect that for voters and then if I have the honor to address it as a member of Congress, using my oversight powers, using my powers over the budget powers, using, if needed, the ability—particularly if we have the blue wave that we’re hoping for—to look at agency funding, look at de-funding activities if necessary to bring about appropriate change.”
She has a message for Democrats around the country: “Don’t just get bogged down with policy prescriptions, though have them and be serious about them. But talk about the picture of the world you’re trying to create. Talk about how every full time job in America should be a living wage job, and it can be. And here’s how we do that; every American should have access to quality and affordable health care, and what does that look like. Start with those end states and then buttress it with the supporting policy.”
For someone who has spent much of her adult life serving her country, it’s clear that this is a candidate who could be a real asset in defining the Democratic Party for voters and restoring steadiness to a Congress that has lost its way.
Alexandra Chandler – She’s a Democratic Candidate for Congress, #MA3, working to get things done for the working & middle class people. Former Navy Intel civilian, former lawyer, transgender, wife, mom, optimist. Follow her journey to make history @a_Chandler