Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Victimless Crime With a Different Twist

Here's a good news story to end the year on. From the website of the Multnomah (Oregon) County Sheriff's Office: Naked Home Invader Captured After Senior Citizen Grabs His 'Cahoochies'

Today [December 31] at 6:30 am, an 88-year old woman in her bathrobe was confronted by a naked man who had entered her home in the 2500 block of SE 287th Avenue through an unlocked sliding door. The man, saying nothing, backed her into the living room of the house and pushed her face down onto a chair. Before whatever plans the suspect might have had, the woman reached behind her and grabbed the man by the crotch, "giving him a good squeeze." The man tore free and ran back out the way he had come in.

A Multnomah County Code Enforcement Officer just happened to be in the area and heard the call come out over his radio. He parked at SE 287th and Division and saw two cars drive by him. The officer got the license plate information that allowed Troutdale officers to locate the car in the vicinity. The driver, identified as Michael G. Dick, 46, of Gresham, who matched the description of the suspect, was detained, questioned by Multnomah County detectives and then booked on charges of burglary, harassment and private indecency charges, with bail currently set at $110,000. The victim was quite shaken up, but not injured and wishes to remain anonymous. Other charges are pending. A photo of the suspect is available on-line.

I haven't seen an interview with the (near) victim. I don't know if she ever took a self-defense or rape prevention course, whether she is a fitness nut, or how she handles herself. But whatever she's been doing that makes her bold and resourceful enough to drive off a home invader/rapist half her age, keep it up.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Islamabad's Marriott Hotel is Open for Business Again

The hotel's owner vowed that he would reopen in time for New Year's, and so he has, just three months after the suicide bombing that killed 60 people and nearly destroyed the building.

Strangely, there was no coverage of the reopening in most of the mass media I checked this morning. Not even CNN or the BBC covered it. At least France 24 ran an Agence France-Presse story: Islamabad's 'fortress' Marriott reopens after suicide bombing.

The AFP story highlighted the new physical security measures that will prevent a repeat truck-bomb attack.

The hotel's new bombproof wall -- which is 14 feet (3.5-metre) high and 15 feet thick -- is capable of absorbing the shock of even a massive explosion like the one in September, said Hashoo chief operating officer Peter Alex.

Visitors will have to pass through a bombproof room within the wall in order to gain access to the hotel, which will feature sophisticated scanning equipment, he said.

There will however be no parking at the hotel. Even vehicles ferrying VIPs to the Marriott will have to deposit guests at the front gate and drive on.

The story included the picture above, which shows part of the new perimeter wall. What we see there is a pyramidal stack of earth-filled barriers (probably Hesco Concertainers, a modern version of the ancient Gabion field fortification) placed along the line of the hotel's front perimeter. Unseen in the photo is the new entry control point where visitors and their luggage will be screened before they proceed to the hotel. Together, the perimeter wall and the entry controls ensure the hotel will have the maximum available setback distance from the presumed points of detonation of any future truck-bombs, and setback is the best protection a building can have against bomb blast.

I expect that the Concertainers are a temporary arrangement, since their polypropylene walls degrade after a couple of years outdoors. There are many ways to build permanent anti-ram walls that are equally effective but far more aesthetic. And, despite the statement by Hashoo's COO about a "bombproof wall ... capable of absorbing the shock of even a massive explosion" there really is no protective benefit to that wall other than keeping uninspected vehicles out. The idea that a humongous big perimeter wall will protect buildings in its 'shadow' from bomb blast is a fallacy.

PS - The blast wall fallacy is so widely believed, even by consultants and contractors who are paid enough that they should know better, that I feel compelled to cite a reference work to prove my point. The U.S. Defense Department's guide to mitigating vehicle bombs makes it quite clear that an effective blast wall must be wider and taller than the building it protects, and must not be more than one story height away from the face of the building. A wall at the perimeter of a compound, no matter how massive it may be, does nothing to protect conventionally constructed buildings that are some distance away from the wall.

If you read page 42 of the linked reference you will have a better understanding of blast walls and their limitations than a certain mid six-figure security consultant I could name, as well as hundreds of less expensive but equally misinformed experts.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Afghanistan is No Country For Old Men

I'm a bit perplexed by the tactic of offering erectile dysfunction medication to Afghan warlords as an inducement for them to cooperate with the CIA, as reported yesterday by the Washington Post (Little Blue Pills Among the Ways CIA Wins Friends in Afghanistan).

I'm perplexed because, well, frankly, what kind of warlord is it who needs a little blue pill to get his freak on?

What kind of tribal strongman suffers from the sad disorder that Leon Phelps ("the Ladies Man") so poignantly termed Chronic Wangular Softitude?

I'm thinking maybe they're the kind that we really don't need on our team.

From the story:

"You didn't hand it out to younger guys, but it could be a silver bullet to make connections to the older ones," said one retired operative familiar with the drug's use in Afghanistan. Afghan tribal leaders often had four wives -- the maximum number allowed by the Koran -- and aging village patriarchs were easily sold on the utility of a pill that could "put them back in an authoritative position," the official said.

On a personal level, I'm sympathetic to the plight of an aging patriarch. But, let's face it, pharmacological reinforcement is a stopgap measure at best. Once a patriarch has lost his "authoritative position," whether its just among his four wives or among the village as a whole, it's time for him to step down and make way for one of those younger guys that our retired operative seems to disdain.

Forget about the little blue pills. Better we should offer those (im)potentates nice retirement condos in Florida.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

My Christmas Eve Tradition

After an exhausting day of last-minute shopping, I'm watching my traditional Christmas Eve movie, The Crossing, which depicts Washington's crossing of the Delaware River and his surprise attack on the Hessian garrison at Trenton. It isn't what you customarily think of as a Christmas movie, however, the Battle of Trenton did happen on December 25-26, 1776, so I think it qualifies.

Click on the embedded video below for a scene from near the end of the movie, in which the Continental Army, which had marched from the Delaware River to Trenton in two columns, converges on the Hessian barracks. Washington calls out "the Army will advance" and the troops - who, at that low point in the War of Independence, were only a ragged remnant of the force Congress had raised in 1775 - charge forward.

The young aide who gallops up to Washington early in this clip is Alexander Hamilton, the future Treasury Secretary. Hamilton and one other officer had just taken out the Hessian lookout post, killing the four pickets they found there. [Now that's a Treasury Secretary! It's probably been 100 years since we last had a Treasury Secretary who could handle a saber half so well. I'll bet Henry Paulson couldn't kill even one Hessian in hand-to-hand combat, not on his best day.] While that action at the lookout post happens to be fictitious, in real life Hamilton personally led far more impressive assaults, most notably the storming of Redoubt #10 at the Siege of Yorktown.

The Crossing is really a superb movie, both for its historical accuracy and for its unparalleled depiction of the character of George Washington. And I insist that it is also a Christmas movie, despite the grim and gory nature of the story. Having peace on earth and good will toward men required, in the historical circumstances of 1776, that dedicated Continental soldiers cross a frozen river and take the bayonet to the Republic's enemies. If it's Christmas Eve, you can bet I'm watching this movie.

Monday, December 22, 2008

On the Generosity of Arabs

Arabs lavish jewels on Secretary of State Rice and other administration officials, reports the Associated Press.

I can empathize, since I have also received lavish gifts from Arab states in the course of my official travels. The Saudis once gave me a nice Waterman pen, that I still use, and last year the Kuwaitis gave me a Cartier ball pen, which I found a tad feminine and re-gifted to my wife.

I found this part of the story significant:

Some gifts reflect the recipient's specialty. Gen. Peter Pace, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff received two machine guns — one mounted — worth $1,300 from his Colombian and Russian counterparts, while Defense Secretary Robert Gates got a $3,200 decorative Arab knife from a Bahraini official and a steel dagger valued at $345 from the Jordanian king.

Now it becomes clear why Arabs give me pens! What gift could better reflect my specialty as a pencil-pusher?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

FBI = Fraudulently Bounteous Incomes

Where was Deep Throat when this scam [FBI Managers Encouraged Workers in Iraq to Bill for Time Off ] was going on?

FBI counterterrorism division managers condoned a time-billing practice under which 1,150 employees between 2003 and 2007 earned about $71,000 during a typical 90-day tour -- nearly triple the typical worker's salary, Inspector General Glenn Fine reported.

The practice violated federal law and regulations and accounted for at least $7.8 million to the $99 million taxpayer cost of the FBI efforts.

Millions of dollars were wrongly paid to many FBI employees over a period of years with the connivance of their supervisors and managers? Wow. It's a good thing they're cops, otherwise that's illegal.

The FBI has roughly 12,000 agents and a couple thousand more support professionals, so the 1,150 employees who wrongly benefited represent almost 10 percent of its workforce. Even assuming repeat tours in Iraq, its still a non-trivial percentage. With so many people submitting, approving, and processing this improper time-billing, we may assume that this practice was widely known within the FBI.

Here's the part I liked best:

T.J. Harrington, then deputy assistant director of the counterterrorism division, said the pay was justified because agents were constantly on call, had no freedom to use off-time and exercised to maintain fitness and relieve stress, the report stated. Generous pay was needed to attract volunteers for dangerous and uncomfortable duty, he said.

Say, why didn't the State Department try that incentive when they were looking for more volunteers to go to Iraq? The recruitment pitch might have gone like this:

"While in Iraq you'll receive R&Rs and danger pay. Even better (but keep this on the down-low), we'll look the other way while you defraud the government about your Time and Attendance."

"Really? That's a pretty sweet deal. Where do I sign up?"

If somebody doesn't get criminally prosecuted for this, I'll be more impressed than ever by the FBI's impunity to political consequences.

The Five-Year Rule of Terrorism Prediction

The Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, which is co-chaired by Senator Bob Graham (D-Florida), recently released its report, which you can read here. The first sentence of the Executive Summary consists of this attention-getter:

"The Commission believes that unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013."

In other words, Senator Graham wants the world to know that a panel of experts has predicted we have a better than 50-50 chance of a terrorist attack involving some kind of WMD in the next five years. The panel further predicted, elsewhere in the report, that the weapon to be used is more likely to be a biological agent than either chemicals or nukes. Nowhere in the report did they describe the methodology, if any, they used to make those predictions.

Senator Graham has also made this, even bolder, prediction:

"If we were to ask any person who has a reasonable knowledge of the capabilities of terrorists and the extent of America's vulnerability the question, what is the likelihood the United States of America will suffer another successful terrorist attack on our homeland within the next 5 years, the consensus answer is certainly going to be almost a 100 percent likelihood of a successful attack."

Senator Graham made the above prediction on March 4, 2004 (you can read it here, in the Congressional Record, about 15 paragraphs into page S2014), so we'll have to wait three more months to see if he will be proved right. Of course, he can never be proven wrong, even if there is no attack by next March, since he hedged his bets by making the warning hypothetical and by using the word "almost."

His warning about weapons of mass destruction is even slipperier than his 2004 prediction, since: (1) it's much more modest, claiming only a little better than coin-flip odds, (2) it covers the entire world versus just the United States, and (3) it doesn't specify that the attack will be successful. He goes out on a limb only be saying this future attack will involve some kind of WMD.

Such non-falsifiable alarmism works best when it sunsets after five years. That's soon enough to call for immediate action, but still so far off in the future that the predictor won't lose credibility if his warnings don't pan out. Paul Elhrich's many predictions and quotes on environmental and economic topics pretty much define the art form of mid-term scaremongering. All his past predictions have been wrong, but evidently the public has too short an attention span to hold that against him, since his books keep selling.

I can confidently make three predictions of my own. First, neither Senator Graham nor anyone else will mention his previous warning when March 2009 comes and goes without an attack. Second, no one will remember his latest warning when 2013 arrives. Third, Senator Graham will continue to renew his terrorist attack predictions in five year increments as long as he is in public life.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Blackwater Defendants Start a Blog

The Blackwater defendants in the Nisoor Square case - minus the sixth BW contractor, the one who has plead guilty and will be a witness against the other five - have started a blog where you can follow their statements and court filings. See Raven 23, which takes its name from the radio call sign of the detail the defendants were manning.

Thanks to the Blackwater Facts blog for pointing that out. Thanks also for the hat tip.

Bill Clinton and Erik Prince: Three Degrees of Separation

I haven't seen the Clinton Foundation donors list for myself yet, since their website is still jammed and inaccessible. Anyway, the list is reportedly 2,922 pages long and not searchable, and no one with a normal home life will stay on his computer late into the night clicking "next" 2,922 times. So I'm relying on news media stories like this one in the Washington Post for the details of today's surprising revelation that one of ex-President Bill Clinton's donors was the Blackwater Training Center, home base of Blackwater Worldwide and its CEO, Erik Prince.

By the way, if you click on that story, dig deep; the WAPO buried the Blackwater item in paragraph 14 of a 19-paragraph story. I'm not sure whether that means they rated it low in news interest, or whether they were confused about how to report something that seems to implicate Bill Clinton and cause a problem for incoming SecState Hillary Clinton.

Granted, Prince was among the lesser fatcats on Clinton's list - in for only $10,001 to $25,000, rather than for millions like the Saudi Arabians and Barbra Streisand - nevertheless, there he was. So the question of the hour is: What was Erik Prince, the man liberals love to hate, doing on the list of Bill Clinton's 205,000 closest friends?

The controversies that have plagued Blackwater in Iraq, and it's main customer there, the U.S. State Department, are all too well-known. I find plenty of fault with Blackwater's operations in Iraq, and with the inadequate management provided by it's employer, as well. However, Prince has been demonized beyond what the facts justify and out of all sense of proportion. In the left-wing mind, Prince is the conservative Condottieri, the entrepreneur of mercenary mayhem, the impresario of death and destruction, the Praetorian protector of corporate interests, the commander of the Fundamentalist Freikorps, and - for all I know - the personal bodyguard to Dick Cheney himself. The picture presented by much of the news media and by various politicians is just too lurid and hyperventilating to be true.

So far as I can see, Erik Prince is just a former Navy SEAL who came from a wealthy family. When his father died, he left the Navy, put on a different kind of blue suit, and went into business for himself by founding and financing Blackwater Training Center, a place where he could employ a few Navy buddies and make some money training corporate security and law enforcement types. A remarkable biography, but really nothing extraordinary until the Iraq and Afghanistan wars created a huge demand for private protection contractors, resulting in Blackwater collecting over $1 billion in U.S. Government contracts between 2002 and 2008.

Prince appears to be the polar opposite of Bill Clinton. He's very private, very right-wing, and very religiously devout, a straight-laced military businessman and father of six who is hip-deep in Republican causes. What in the world led him to donate money to the Clinton Foundation? Which of Bill's worthy causes attracted Prince's interest? Was it health security, economic empowerment, leadership development and citizen service, or racial, ethnic and religious reconciliation? Or maybe HIV/AIDS, climate change, or fighting childhood obesity? Frankly, none of them sound like Prince's cup of tea. Maybe it was tsunami relief.

Bill Clinton and Erik Prince. Who or what could possibly bring this odd couple together? Could it be ... Hillary's political strategist Mark Penn ?

Last year, when the Democratic Party primary battle was getting started, some people pointed out the connection between Blackwater and Mark Penn. John Edwards was one. Bill Moyers was another. The below transcript from a PBS interview is typical:

BILL MOYERS: I was intrigued to learn that the PR-agency that is handling Prince, Burson-Marsteller , is also the guy who heads - the CEO is also Hillary Clinton's top strategist, Mark Penn.


BILL MOYERS: Mark Penn. Sort of-- he's been called Hillary's Rove. What-- I know something about how this system works. How a PR company comes to you and says hey I've got this client that would like to be on air here. Here's how we'd like to do it. And then, you see the same thing in being repeated from show to show to show — like Hillary Clinton was on all five of the Sunday morning talk shows recently. What have you learned about how the system works between the political and media elites?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I mean, PR-companies are also mercenaries and I know oftentimes work for the highest bidder. I think it's interesting that--

BILL MOYERS: They're not shooting people though.

JEREMY SCAHILL: No, no, no. But they're mercenaries in the sense that they'll rent their services out to anyone. And once you're defending Erik Prince, you're working for him, then you become part of his sort of mercenary operation. I also think that it was a strategic choice to go with the company with Mark Penn because of his connection with the democrats and Hillary Clinton.

But let's, lets remember here we're talking about Blackwater right now because we have a Republican administration. For so many years, we had a Republican dominated Congress. Blackwater is certainly the beneficiary of the Republican monopoly in government. But this system has been bi-partisan for a very long time.

When Hillary Clinton's husband was in the White House, he was an aggressive supporter of the privatization of the war machine. Bill Clinton used mercenary forces in the Balkans. Who do we think gave Dick Cheney's company all of those contracts during the Nineties? We talk about Halliburton. It was Clinton. It was the Clinton administration. And, and, Blackwater may be an extraordinary Republican company. But they're gonna be around when there's a Democrat in office.

It makes sense to me. Why not give Bill Clinton a little cash (and pay lots more to Hillary's chief political aide) when your government contracting business is going to be around long after the Bush Administration is gone?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

U.S. Diplomat Battles Warlord in 1949 Flick

It's Vice Consul Ken Seeley versus Marshal Yun Usu in the 1949 film: State Department: File 649, which can be viewed or downloaded here.

I suppose it isn't a realistic depiction of the Foreign Service back then. At least I don't think post-war diplomats normally pulled pistols on Mongolian warlords and sabotaged their trailers with dynamite bombs. But, if they did, that would be exactly the kind of diplomacy I'd have wanted my taxes to pay for.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Sixth Blackwater Defendant Proffers the Facts (and One Falsehood)

The Smoking Gun has posted the "Factual Proffer in Support of Guilty Plea" (here) that was signed last month by a sixth Blackwater contractor who was indicted for manslaughter and weapons violations in connection with the 2007 shooting incident in Baghdad's al-Nisoor Square. The other five aren't taking a plea deal, but will go to trial.

The sixth contractor, Jeremy Ridgeway, pleaded guilty last month. As part of his plea deal, he provided prosecutors with a sworn "proffer" of the facts surrounding the incident, all of which he acknowledged could have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt had the government taken him to trial. His narrative of the incident isn't pretty - it sounds like a live action version of Grand Theft Auto being played by overly hyped-up teenage boys without adult supervision - but it's about what I expected. However, the proffer also includes a whopping lie, although I can't fault Ridgeway for that, since the government made him say it.

Note the last sentence in the first paragraph of the document posted at The Smoking Gun: "Defendant Ridgeway's employment as a Blackwater contractor related to supporting the mission of the Department of Defense in Iraq." Of course, his employment was not at all in support of Defense, since Blackwater in Iraq was not contracted by or working for the Defense Department. Wishful thinking on that point is crucial to the government's case since they have no real, vice fanciful, basis in law for charging the Blackwater contractors, and evidently the prosecutors think gratuitous assertions like Ridgeway's will help maintain the suspension of disbelief they have created regarding the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act.

If the prosecutors can't come up with an actually convincing legal basis for manslaughter charges, Mr. Ridgeway might end up being the only one of the Blackwater Six to ever see the inside of a prison.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

DOJ, You Can't Handle the Truth (Blackwater Was Not a Defense Contractor)

It's been 15 months since the shooting in Baghdad's al-Nisoor Square and today, December 8, five Blackwater contractors surrendered themselves to a U.S. Federal Court, and a sixth is reportedly in negotiations for a plea deal, in connection with charges finally brought against them by the Justice Department (DOJ). Yesterday's Washington Post story has the few details that have been released so far.

The most interesting part of the story is the imaginative legal basis for the charges. DOJ is actually going to attempt to prosecute under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (18 USC Chapter 212) even though it applies only to Defense Department contractors and the defendants were employed under a State Department contract. And, as if that weren't already enough of a stretch, they are adding more charges under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 that carry a mandatory 30-year minimum sentence for using machine guns in the commission of a crime.

The strategy of using the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA) was hinted at last August (see this), and I find it simply preposterous. The premise appears to be that Blackwater, by working for the State Department, was really supporting the Defense Department without benefit of contract since, absent Blackwater, State would have had to call on Defense Department resources for personal protection. Therefore, DOJ will pretend that the MEJA applies to Blackwater even though, really, it doesn't. All that's left for DOJ to do is to find a jury willing to suspend disbelief about the MEJA.

Of course, State did have options for protection other than using Blackwater or DOD. Blackwater was only one of three companies that State used, and uses, for personal protection in Iraq. Not to mention that State has its own internal security service, or that State customarily uses host country police and security personnel to staff protective details in most countries.

Beyond those objections, isn't there also a fundamental objection to the implication that the State Department itself is merely supporting the Defense Department in Iraq, and not carrying out its own mission? Or at the very least, that the State Department is unable to support its own operations in Iraq? If the defense lawyers are really on the ball, they will get an affidavit from Ambassador Crocker on that point. I can see it now:

Q: Ambassador Crocker, it has been asserted by the prosecution that you and your embassy are in Iraq to support the Defense Department. Is that your understanding, as well?

A: No. I am the Chief of Mission and the representative of the President in Iraq. I am not subordinate to anyone else.

Q: You don't report to the Pentagon, or to CENTCOM, or to some military commander or other?

A: No, of course not.

Q: But is that little embassy operation of yours self-suporting? Do you have your own contracting authority, or do you go to the Defense Department when you need products or services?

A: We have our own separate contracting authority, as well as our own security resources.

Q: If you didn't have Blackwater, or any other security contractor, available in Iraq, would you be able to remain in operation without calling on Defense for your personal protection needs?

A: Yes, of course, just as the embassy in Afghanistan does, and all 275 of our other embassies and consulates do.

Q: Thank you.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Not to Soon to Start Remembering December 7th

Here's a good historical compilation from the Naval History Center.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Foreign Service Oral Histories On-Line

I've just discovered that the U.S. Library of Congress makes its Foreign Affairs Oral History Collection of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training available for browsing online. You can search the collection by subject or author.

It's great stuff! I've been browsing it by looking up interviews with those Ambassadors I had some interaction with over the years, such as the late Charles Anthony Gillespie Jr . His interview really brought back into vivid relief for me the wild late-1980s in Colombia, when the U.S. Embassy and its officers, no less than the host government authorities, were under severe threat of attack from narco cartels. (I'm starting to feel like an historical artifact myself at this point, having first gone to work for the State Department in 1986.)

Amid all the important foreign policy and national security stuff that was going on then, Bogota was also the scene of my minor masterpeice of protective ingenuity. In response to Ambassador Gillespie's special request, I figured out a way to have operable (opening) ballistic windows made and installed in one of our facilities. He wanted fresh air, plus he needed a way to get out through the windows in case of a fire, so I came up with an unconventional solution that actually worked pretty well. I would never get away with that sort of thing today, but back in the Miami Vice era everything was more laid-back.

Friday, November 28, 2008

So, Hillary's No Longer a Monster?

From a story by the Associated Press's Matthew Lee about the forthcoming nomination of Hillary Clinton as SecState (here), I learned that Hillary is more magnanimous and tolerant toward former opponents than I would have expected.

An adviser to Barack Obama's presidential campaign who was forced to resign earlier this year after calling Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton a "monster" is now working on the transition team for the agency Clinton is expected to lead.

I must say I'm surprised. I never figured Hillary for the kind to bury the hatchet.

Guarding Hillary: It's All About the Benjamins

According to a story by Matthew Lee in the Associated Press (Agencies battle over security for Clinton) , there is a bureaucratic tug-of-war going on between the U.S. Secret Service and the Diplomatic Security Service over which agency gets the obligation to protect Hillary in the event she serves as Secretary of State. I've quoted the article below.

Something missing from the story is any mention of money - budgets - the life's blood of bureaucracies. It costs horrendous amounts of money to protect the SecState during overseas trips. Whichever agency wins this tussle will have to spend megabucks on logistics (for example, air-transporting the necessary fleet of armored vehicles around the world). It's kind of the opposite of the situation in the old movie The Bodyguard: imagine that Kevin Costner had to pay to protect Whitney Houston, instead of getting paid. How eager would he have been to get that job?

Despite all the talk of jealously guarded agency prerogatives, I'm not sure that either of these agencies really wants to win Hillary's hand unless she comes with a large dowry of supplemental appropriations.

It may not be your typical Washington power struggle, but Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's expected nomination to be secretary of state has already locked two turf-conscious federal agencies in a delicate behind-the-scenes dance over how to protect her.

Even before her appointment is announced, informal discussions have begun on resolving a conflict between the Secret Service and the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, both of which will be assigned to guard her if she becomes the nation's top diplomat.

Officials familiar with the matter said the talks revolve around which agency will protect her at home and abroad and who will have the ultimate say in planning her security.

As a former first lady, Mrs. Clinton is entitled to lifetime protection from the Secret Service. But as secretary of state that task normally would fall to the lesser-known Bureau of Diplomatic Security, the State Department's in-house law enforcement wing.

Neither agency is eager to give up the high-profile job, which will be further complicated by the fact that Mrs. Clinton's spouse, former President Bill Clinton, who might accompany her on overseas missions and who is also protected by the Secret Service, the officials said.

Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines declined to comment, saying the senator's office will not discuss speculation about her possible nomination or her security arrangements.

ASSOCIATED PRESS Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is the last former first lady to be covered by lifetime protection from the Secret Service. If she becomes the nation's top diplomat, the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security would have a stake in her protection.

Spokesmen for the Secret Service and Diplomatic Security, who routinely refuse to discuss the details of their protective responsibilities, would not comment publicly on the matter.

But other officials at the two agencies acknowledged that Mrs. Clinton's nomination would create an unprecedented logistical and jurisdictional hurdles that will require significant negotiation to resolve. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the internal deliberations.

The officials said Diplomatic Security is concerned about losing its role as bodyguard to the secretary. The Secret Service, meanwhile, is loath to abandon Mrs. Clinton, who under legislation passed in 1997 will be the last former first lady to get lifetime protection, they said.

It is not clear who will decide because such a situation has never arisen before. In the end, it may be up to Mrs. Clinton but the Homeland Security Department, of which the Secret Service is part, may play an advisory role, the officials said.

Mrs. Clinton can renounce her Secret Service detail, and a compromise might involve a sharing of duty, with Diplomatic Security providing her with protection while she is at work in Washington or on the road but not while she is at home with her husband, the officials said. But such a solution would not address the possibility of Mr. Clinton traveling with his wife, especially if he doesn't give up his Secret Service protection.

Diplomatic Security is far less well-known than its Secret Service cousin, even though it has been around since 1916 and, with agents in 157 countries, is the most widely represented U.S. security and law enforcement organization around the world.

It jealously guards its role as security provider to the secretary of state and Cabinet-level foreign officials who visit the U.S.

But it is the Secret Service, founded in 1865, that most people are more familiar with. It protects current and past presidents and their families, as well as visiting heads of foreign states or governments in the U.S.

Mrs. Clinton would be the first former first lady to hold a Cabinet position in the government, although Eleanor Roosevelt served as a delegate to the U.N. General Assembly from 1945 to 1953 and served as the first chair of the U.N. Human Rights Commission

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

We Have Been Warned (Vaguely)

The FBI and Homeland Security have issued another of their vague terrorism warnings ("analytical notes") to local law enforcement agencies. See the Washington Post article Feds Warn About Possible Terrorist Plot Targeting NYC. As usual, they have no specific threat information and, consequently, no security countermeasures to recommend. They just want to drop their warning and let you make of it what you will.

Here are some quotes from the story:

We have no specific details to confirm that this plot has developed beyond aspirational planning, but we are issuing this warning out of concern that such an attack could possibly be conducted during the forthcoming holiday season," states the warning, which is dated Tuesday.

While federal agencies regularly issue all sorts of advisory warnings, the language of this one is particularly blunt.

Intelligence and homeland security officials are working with local authorities to try to corroborate the information "and will continue to investigate every possible lead," the memo says.

Knocke, the DHS spokesman, said the warning was issued "out of an abundance of caution going into this holiday season."

No changes are being made to the nation's threat level, or for transit systems at this time.

Here are news reports of two previous warnings, from November, 2007, and October, 2008. The warnings always follow the same script. Timing is critical, since you want the threat to sound like it is imminent, but under no circumstances do you want it to be specific or linked to a certain date, like, 'next Monday,' otherwise people will start keeping track of how often these warnings are duds. The latest warning covers "the forthcoming holiday season," which is a nicely broad time frame. By the time the holiday season is over, we'll have new things to worry about and will have forgotten that something or other was supposed to have happened in New York.

I think of these FBI / DHS warnings as the Hallmark cards of the security industry, since they are sent out before all anniversaries and major occasions, religious holidays, national day celebrations, Presidential inaugurations, summit conferences, and so on. And that leads me to try my hand at some Hallmark-ish doggerel.

Roses are red, violets are blue,
here's a new analytical note for you.
You might be attacked this holiday season
or maybe not, who can tell? (there's no reason)

Our warnings we can't substantiate,
and against them there's no way to mitigate.
But take it from us and start to panic,
one day you'll go down just like the Titanic

We've been wrong in the past, but that's OK,
al Qaeda will strike again one of these days.
Maybe not now but someday, and soon,
we'll be right if we keep predicting your doom

Read us and worry, you never can tell,
it will do you no good, but then, what the hell?
It keeps us employed and no one minds,
So believe all our notes and our portents and signs!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Capitol Visitors Center's Final Price Tag = $621 Million

The Washington Times ran an editorial last week that excoriated the long over-due and fabulously over-budget Capitol Visitors Center, Washington DC's latest manifestation of the Edifice Complex.

See: The Last GOP Boondoggle, most of which I've quoted below.

It is a breathtaking vision of marble and glass, eye-catching exhibits, fountains, lanterns, seat-walls and woodwork. It fills 580,000 square feet and its price tag is astronomical - $621 million. [TSB note: that makes it only a little less expensive than the new U.S. Embassy Complex in Baghdad, or roughly the same cost as six new U.S. embassies of the normal type] Its original price tag was $265 million. All that money for what was supposed to be used as a holding zone for visitors waiting to tour the Capitol.

Of course, upgrades were needed to modernize the aging visitors center, ensure handicap accessibility and accommodate an increase in visitors - tripling from 1 million in 1970 to nearly 3 million today. But are two, 450-seat theaters really necessary? Or a 500-seat eatery?

The acting Architect of the Capitol, Stephen Ayers, defended the treasure, saying: "I don't think it's extravagant." Yet, the new structure is so over-the-top, NBC's Nightly News deemed it a "Fleecing of America" back in 2006 even before the final costs were tallied. Wisconsin Democratic Rep. David Obey said: "Pitiful oversight, exploding costs and embarrassing results."

While it's still among the cheapest attractions in the nation's capital, being free, the improved Capitol Visitors Center is not the best use of taxpayer money.

Actually, the Capitol Visitors Center is a handy symbol of why conservatives turned on the once Republican-led Congress - a pointless project on auto-pilot, hoovering up tax-dollars, without any protest from the solons who are supposed to be guarding the people's purse.

Many public building projects end up exceeding their schedules and budgets, but the Capitol Visitors Center is in a class by itself. From its modest original concept as a visitor screening and holding area, the scope of work just kept metastasizing like an architectural form of Kudzu (the vine that ate the South) until the Center finally filled all the space available for it on Capitol Hill.

There were no checks-and-balances at work here, unlike normal U.S. government construction projects, in which the Congress funds and the Executive implements. In this case, the U.S. Congress funded, implemented, and conducted oversight (or not) all by itself. The result was a monument to Congress, but not the kind they intended.

Another Muslim Police Officer Caught Leaking FBI Info

Last February, a police officer in Fairfax County, Virginia, was convicted of improperly accessing official databases on behalf of a fellow Muslim who suspected he was under FBI surveillance (and he was).

Now, a New York City police officer has been arrested for a similar offence - improperly accessing an FBI terrorist watch list as a favor to a fellow Muslim, one in Canada, who allegedly wanted the information in connection with a child-custody dispute. See: NYPD Sergeant Arrested on Federal Charges.

Have there been many instances of this sort of thing, Muslims in U.S. local law enforcement placing loyalty to their coreligionists ahead of their official obligations to protect Federal investigative information? If so, it's a troubling trend.

The Constitutional Problem of Hillary as SecState

Does the U.S. Constitution (specifically, Article I, Section 6, clause 2) bar Hillary Clinton from being appointed Secretary of State? It just might. See yesterday's article in The New Republic, Hillary Clinton's Emoluments Problem.

The relevant clause reads:

No Senator or Representative shall, during the time for which he was elected, be appointed to any civil office under the authority of the United States, which shall have been created, or the emoluments whereof shall have been increased during such time: and no person holding any office under the United States, shall be a member of either House during his continuance in office.

The SecState's salary was increased while Hillary was in the Senate, therefore it appears she is not eligible to serve as Secretary, at least not until after her Senate term expires. Now, there is a precedent for evading this clause; see the linked article for the "Saxby fix." And, of course, there is a chance that everyone will simply ignore the problem. Still, this will be interesting to watch during her confirmation hearing, assuming she is in fact appointed.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Where The Pants Are Not Striped, and Cookies Are Not Pushed

I'm back from my temporary duty, which consisted of a brief visit to a volatile country and a drop-in at one of our most hazardous diplomatic posts.

If you've been following the news, you can probably guess which diplomatic post that was from the following clues. All these incidents occurred there in the last week: a USAID contractor was ambushed and killed, an Iranian diplomat was abducted when departing his home for the office, two foreign journalists were shot, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the gates of a sports stadium, and, in a region outside the city, a missile strike of unattributed origin killed five al Qaeda figures, one of whom was reportedly a suspect in a 2006 plot to bomb ten airliners heading to the U.S. from Britain. In addition to all that, a few months ago the principal U.S. diplomat there was ambushed while en route to the office but escaped unharmed. A few weeks after that incident, the principal officer of another, non-U.S., diplomatic mission was successfully abducted in a similar attack.

Why was my pencil-pushing self in such a crazy place so far from my cubicle? Because Danger is my middle name, that's why. (Actually, Risk Analysis is my middle name, but there is no way to make that sound dashing; in fact, it should be the opposite of dashing).

More to the point, why are any of my fellow citizens there? I was lucky enough to make a flying visit and be back outside the city limits before nightfall, but others are doing a full year's tour there. During that tour they are separated from their families, working in dilapidated and overcrowded offices, facing a substantial risk of attack every time they move between home to office, and are constantly surrounded by police and security escorts.

I saw no striped pants, tuxedos, or dinner jackets on our diplomats there. The pants were either cargo-style or jeans. The women perhaps kept to a higher standard of casual dress than the men, but the diplomatic couture topped out around the L.L. Bean level. No one was passing out cookies on little china plates either, although the tiny on-site cafeteria where our diplomats eat lunch was selling fantastic banana bread made by one of the local employees who was originally a baker by trade.

During the drive to and from that city I was surfing the Internet via my Blackberry [and that was a real 21st century moment: reading the New York Times over my cell phone while riding past scenes of primitive agriculture - little terraced farms, huts with thatched roofs, donkey carts, children carrying bundles of firewood, sugar cane fields being harvested by the burning and chopping method, and so on] when I came upon Diplopundit's post of that same day with its link to this Washington Post Federal Diary column on the overseas pay gap that effects the Foreign Service. Reading that column I was forcibly struck by a U.S. Senator's perception of the lavish living that we all imagine goes on at those plush diplomatic posts:

"Congress should be focused on improving conditions of workers who have lost their jobs or may lose their jobs and not on handing out huge raises to foreign service officers who already receive very generous benefits overseas," said John Hart, Coburn's communications director.

That statement by Senator Coburn's spokesman is a perfect example of the ridiculously out-dated, but generally held, public perception of fancy embassy life that, so far as I can tell, is derived mostly from movies. That misperception adds insult to the injury of the pay gap. In the public mind every embassy is London, Paris or Rome, whereas in reality there are 277 embassies and consulates, most of which are unimpressive, and they are often located in places far more dangerous and/or unhealthy than, say, Washington DC. The staff who serve in those places deserve their danger pay or hardship differentials, to say nothing of equity with other agencies in their basic pay. For the record, I say this as a non-Foreign Service employee who has no personal interest in the pay gap issue.

Senator Coburn's position brought this rebuttal by a Foreign Service Officer:

He [the FSO quoted in the column] does quarrel, however, with Coburn's notion that foreign service officers are seeking huge raises on top of other big benefits. It's true that diplomats get a housing allowance and, in some cases, dangerous duty or hardship duty pay. But that doesn't negate the need to close the gap, especially for lower-level diplomats.

That sort of rebuttal doesn't go far enough. Leaving aside the merits of correcting the pay gap, I'd like to see someone correct the American public's perception of embassy life. Some sort of Foreign Service Truth Squad that could fill in the picture of what life is like in all those places where our diplomats work out of ratty hovels rather than palatial surroundings.

I saw that the FSO quoted in the WAPO column had previously served in the Central African Republic, which happens to be another diplomatic post that I have visited during my occasional forays outside the cubicle. That would be a good place to start correcting the image of embassy life, since no amount of pay or benefits could ever be enough to make diplomatic life in the Central African Republic desirable.

I normally object to the term 'third world hell-hole,' but in the case of the CAR it applies, and then some. First of all, the place is isolated. Joseph Conrad wrote his great novel Heart of Darkness about a scary expedition up the Congo River to the uncharted center of the Dark Continent, but that Belgian trading post where his protagonist met Mr. Kurtz wasn't the true center. If you go up the Congo River to Conrad's metaphorical Heart of Darkness and then keep going, you will reach its tributary, the Oubangui River, and eventually arrive at the true center of Africa in Bangui, capital city of the CAR. Even by air, the CAR is isolated, with only a few weekly flights. On the day I was due to leave, I didn't bother going to the airport, since flight schedules meant less than nothing, but instead stayed at the embassy through the night and occasionally called the airport control tower to ask if they saw a plane on their radar yet.

Secondly, the place is horribly impoverished. Our embassy there is located on a main street that I suppose was once paved but which long ago returned to a state of nature. Bangui seems to have reached its peak in the late 1970s, during the reign of Emperor Bokassa the First, and ever since then the city has been decaying to entropy. To relate a bit of local color, when I was there, the city had so few working fuel pumps that improvised gas stations were re-fueling cars from old wine bottles filled with diesel.

The pervasive misery of the CAR isn't just my subjective impression. The CAR ranks #171 out of 177 countries measured on the UN Development Program's World Development Index, making it just about the sorriest place on earth. (FYI, Sierra Leone gets the honors of being #177.) In the CAR, life expectancy at birth is 43.7 years, the Gross Domestic Product per capita is $1,200, and only 25% of the people have access to an improved water source, i.e., plumbing. In a place like that, not even the foreign diplomats can escape the general privation.

Having seen the U.S. embassy offices and houses in Bangui, and experienced the difficulties and uncertainties of simply getting there and back, I can assure my fellow Americans that Senator Coburn's lowliest intern wouldn't want to trade life styles with the most senior diplomat there, even with the housing allowance. Much less would he want to trade places with the diplomats in the hot-spot that I was happy to drive away from at high speed last week.

Maybe there should be a Truth Squad counterpart to State Magazine's happy-talk Post of the Month feature?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

On the Road Again

I'm packing my bag for another TDY, this time to a destination with low Internet availability, so I expect to be out of the net for the next week.

The outbound portion of this trip will be reasonably comfortable, since I'll be in business class almost all the way, but the return trip will include a 15-hour economy class flight (ouch!). I'm just hoping United Airlines will - please, in the name of God and everything holy - let me trade frequent flyer miles for an upgrade on that flight.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Middle-Aged Professor Arrested for Long-Ago Terrorist Bombing

No, not Bill Ayers, it was this other university instructor in Canada. The French want to put him on trial for his participation in a 1980 attack on a Paris synagogue.

The academic life must hold great appeal for left-wing bomb tossers, since so many become professors in their old age. In addition to Ayers and his lovely wife Bernardine Dohrn, I can think of: Mark Rudd (another Weather Underground colleague of Ayers who now teaches at a junior college in New Mexico), Susan Rosenberg (convicted for possession of more than 700 pounds of explosives and a stockpile of illicit weapons, pardoned by President Clinton, hired by New York's Hamilton College), Sami al-Arian (who pled guilty to conspiracy to assist the Palestinian Islamic Jihad Movement while a professor at the University of South Florida) and, over in Greece, Alexandros Giotopoulos (the economics professor who headed the Marxist terrorist group 17 November).

What wonderful memories they must have. I'd love to be in the faculty room sometime when they reminisce about the good old days.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Best Bumper Sticker I Saw on Veterans Day

The best I've seen in months, actually. It's the new Navy slogan: "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of All Who Threaten It."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veterans Day, and the Reconciliation of Former Enemies

On this Veterans Day morning I attended a brief ceremony in the cemetery of my local church in Annandale, Virgina. American Legion Post 1776 of Annandale placed American flags on the grave sites of the twenty-five veterans who are buried in the church yard. Afterwards, I read the headstones on those graves and noted that most of the men had served in the Second World War, a few in the Great War or the Spanish-American War, and three in the Civil War. Among the Civil War veterans was one Elhanah W. Wakefield, a First Sergent in the 2nd Massachusetts from 1863 to 1865, who has a special connection to that Annandale church.

In 1864, when Union troops around Alexandria, Virginia, were being raided and harassed by Confederate partisans under John Singleton Mosby ("the Grey Ghost"), First Sergent Wakefield was ordered to burn down the Annandale Chapel, and he did so. The reason for the order is no longer known, but possibly it was in reprisal for assistance given to Mosby's men by local residents. One year later the war was over, and Wakefield choose to be mustered out of the Army in Alexandria, where he married a local woman. He then helped to re-build the Annandale Chapel, and later became its Sunday School superintendent. He eventually became an ordained minister and started another chapel nearby (today known as the Wakefield Chapel, and a Fairfax County historic site). When Wakefield died in 1920, he was buried a few feet from the Annandale Chapel he had restored, which still stands and is in use on Colombia Pike.

A fuller account of Wakefield's story can be found here, based on contemporary sources from around the time of his death.

J.S. Mosby also had a sort of reconciliation with his old enemies, but not until one hundred and ten years after the war. When the U.S. Army built a training center for reservists at Fort Belvoir in Mosby's old stomping grounds of northern Virginia, it was dedicated as the John Singleton Mosby United States Army Reserve Center. When I was in a Reserve unit and attended drills there, it always tickled me that the place was named in honor of a man the U.S. Army would once have hanged if only it had been able to catch him.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Help Me Wolf Blitzer, You're My Only Hope

Was this the lamest special effect ever?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

National Voting Pattern Mostly Unchanged in 2008

These state-by-state scatterplots show the regional distribution of the Obama vote in 2008 versus the Kerry vote in 2004, and the Kerry vote versus the Gore vote in 2000. The states above (left of) the 45-degree diagonal line are those that went Democratic. The plots look pretty similar, huh? To be precise, the standard deviation between 2008-2004 was 3%, and the 2004-2000 SD was only 2.4%, so the electoral map has not changed much since 2000 apart from the obvious outlier of Hawaii (favorite son effect).

The plots come from a blog called Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State, which is written by a group of professors in political science and statistics departments. They have highly satisfying stuff if you like your election analysis quantified and on the dry side.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Poll of Feds Finds 51% Support McCain

From the 'For What it's Worth' Department

A private newsletter for Federal employees ( polled its readers on the eve of the election and found they favor McCain over Obama, 51% to 46%. Here's the story: Is The Presidential Election Close? Very Close According to Latest (and Last) Survey Before the Election .

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Metro Riders Question Bag Search Program

My fellow Washingtonians had an opportunity to ask questions of the Metro Transit Police Chief about the new bag search policy via an on-line forum conducted by the Washington Post (Metro Transit's Top Cop Discusses New Search Policy). Several of the questions went right to the essential pointlessness of the program, and the Chief didn't have any good answers.

Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn was online Tuesday, Oct. 28 at 1:30 p.m. ET to take your questions about the department's new policy of inspecting bags for explosives.

The transcript follows.

Rockville, Md.: Hi, thanks for taking questions on this important policy shift. Can you tell us how many times have the searches in the New York City and Boston systems have discovered any credible evidence of sabotage or terrorism, such as explosives?

Michael Taborn: Unfortunately, we cannot provide numbers for the programs in New York and Boston. But there is a growing consensus in the transit industry that these inspections are a valuable security initiative.

Silver Spring, MD: People don't approach metro station entrances in single file. So how can you really count off every 17th (or whatever) person? That just seems like a handy excuse to have ready when you get caught engaging in profiling.

Michael Taborn: We can do adequate job of counting passengers as they enter a station.

Washington, D.C.: How can they stop every 15th or 17th or 21st person? People enter in mobs, not single-file lines. Also, if the transit police stop someone who isn't the "every 15th person" or whatever, couldn't that person refuse because they weren't chosen randomly? Can you ask them to prove to you that you were the next person in the preset formula?

Michael Taborn: A supervisor will designate one officer with the specific task of counting the passengers as they enter the station.

Washington, D.C.: I am opposed to these searches and plan on refusing any Metro officer's request to go through my bags. Because I'll be allowed to refuse search and turn around without being detained, I will simply enter the Metro through another escalator or elevator. How do you plan on addressing this loophole?

Michael Taborn: You may choose not to be searched and leave the station with your bags or other items. We do have a plan to address suspicious behavior.

And the best question of them all came from "Green Line Rider," followed by the worst non-answer from Chief Taborn.

Green Line Rider: If you're not going to search every single person coming into a Metro station, how is the policy effective? Anyone with illicit substances will simply refuse to be searched and go to another station. If you don't search everyone, then it's not worth doing. If you do search everyone, then you'll probably lose half your ridership out of frustration with the delays (think security lines at the airport). Why not just take those officers and put them more visibly on the platforms and in the trains/busses?

I certainly will think twice about riding Metro if I'm going to be randomly selected. I consider that an infringement of my rights for no apparent gain in security.

Michael Taborn: Legal authority to inspect packages brought into mass transit systems and other venues has been upheld by the courts in numerous jurisdictions. Metro's inspection program is very similar to the one conducted in the subway system in New York City. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has specifically ruled on the constitutionality of the New York program in MacWade v. Kelly.

Hey Chief, you better get used to being asked how you can justify carrying out an intrusive inspection program that has no apparent benefit. That ruling you cited from the Second Circuit Court has no bearing on the central question of whether searching bags is a good idea or just a waste of time. It doesn't even preclude a court challenge, since the Second Circuit does not cover the Washington region.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Two Thumbs Up for Washington DC's Security Theater

The curtain is rising on a new act of security theater, a branch of the performing arts that is depressingly familiar to those of us who live or work in the Holy City of Washington. Already we can't enter most office buildings without doing the security dance at the metal detector and x-ray machine. Now, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has announced that Metro Police will start conducting inspections of passenger's bags (Metro Transit Police to begin bag inspection program).

The Metro Transit Police Department (MTPD) will begin a bag inspection program and look into passengers’ bags prior to them entering the Metro system in an ongoing effort to protect Metro riders, employees and facilities. Officers will be inspecting bags for explosive devices.

This is really a roadshow version of an original production that began in New York City shortly after the July, 2005, London Underground bombing. So far, terrorists have conducted bomb attacks in the subway systems of London, Mumbai, Madrid, and Paris. But none of those cities routinely screen passengers, since it just isn't feasible to do so given the large volume of passengers and the vast size and interconnectedness of urban metro systems. What's more, metro stations aren't suitable for conducting screening in an area away from concentrations of passersby, therefore they have no possible defense against suicide bombers. So those cities choose to accept the slight risk that one out of their millions of train passengers will be a bomber.

New York City, even though it has not experienced a subway attack, started to inspect its passengers at random and on a voluntary basis, despite the pointlessness of such partial measures. It also provides a high-profile police presence in the subway as a presumed deterrent to would-be terrorists. SWAT [Studly Wear and Theatrics] cops hang out on the subway platforms modeling the latest tactical gear and making like they're on high alert for signs of al Qaeda activity, whatever those might be. Reportedly, that kind of performance makes people "feel better." Not me, and not anyone I know, but supposedly somebody, somewhere.

Metro Police have put up Frequently Asked Questions about the new bag inspection program on their website (MTPD Security Inspection Program FAQ), some of which I've repeated below. As a public service, I've added a few questions, in bold italics, that should be frequently asked but aren't.

Q: Why is Metro doing this?

A: Metro is inspecting passenger bags to deter terrorist attacks by increasing our potential for detecting explosives or other hazardous material into the Metro system and to disrupt the ability of terrorists to discern a pattern in our security measures. The effort aims to increase awareness of the overall safety of passengers and employees in the Metro system and to ensure continuous operations during periods of heightened security in the National Capital area.

Are you sure Metro isn't doing this simply to follow the fashion set by NYC? The London metro system doesn't do this and they've actually had bomb attacks.

Q: How will the bag inspections be conducted?

A: A select team of trained officers may inspect passenger carry-on items prior to their entering the rail system or boarding a Metrobus. All carry-on items of passengers who enter a Metro facility will be subject to these inspections.

In general, customers will pass through inspection points prior to passing through a Metrorail faregate or boarding a Metrobus (before paying a fare). A customer whose items have been randomly selected for inspection will be taken to the inspection site off to the side. The customer will be asked to open his or her carry-on item. An officer will visually inspect the contents of the item. The inspection will be limited to searching for explosives and other items that may be harmful. Areas of bags that aren't capable of concealing an explosive will not be opened. If an explosive detecting canine is present, the customer may be asked to have his or her carry-on item sniffed by the canine. If the canine alerts for the presence of explosives the officers have legal authority to search the item, per United States v. Place.

In the event that neither the visual inspection nor the canine sniff reveals the presence of explosives, the customer immediately will be allowed to go on his or her way. Customers who aren't selected for an inspection will be allowed to enter the Metro system immediately. Customers who refuse to cooperate with the inspection will not be permitted to enter the Metro system with their items.

So, if I'm not permitted entry with my bag because I didn't cooperate, what's to stop me from just emptying the contents of the bag into my coat pockets and coming back? And if I want to keep my bag with me, does that mean I won't be permitted to re-enter that station ever again, or just for the rest of that day, or for an hour, or what? How would you know if I went to another station? It doesn't seem like you could enforce that ban on re-entering metro.

Q: What types of bags will be searched?

A: All types of carry-on items are subject to inspection including, but not limited to purses, briefcases, backpacks, gym bags, suitcases, shopping bags and boxes.

Why search only bags? Don’t terrorists sometimes carry bombs on their bodies, like in those hotel bombings in Amman, Jordan, a few years ago? Can’t a bomb intended for use on a metro train or bus be small enough to carry under a shirt or coat? Didn’t the bombs used in the London Underground attacks weigh just a couple pounds each?

Q: How long will it take to do a bag inspection and ensure it's thorough?

A: The time it takes to inspect a bag will depend on the size of the bag. In general, it should only take about eight to 15 seconds to inspect an item such as a briefcase or backpack.

So, then, I take it you won’t use an explosive trace detector to see if a passenger has explosive residue on his person or effects? Can a brief visual inspection of a bag really be effective? How do you guys know what a bomb looks like anyhow, especially if it's inside an innocent object?

Q: What type of reaction do you expect to get from customers?

A: We expect customers to voluntarily comply.

Don’t you expect a lot of them will turn around and leave the station rather than be hassled? That’s what I would do. Or maybe pass my bag to a friend who wasn't being singled out for inspection. Or, if I was a terrorist, I'd have an accomplice enter the station first and let me know if it was clear for me to proceed with my bomb.

: How did you determine when and where to do the bag inspections?

A: The Metro Transit Police Department will begin randomly inspecting passengers' carry-on items before they enter the Metro system when circumstances warrant heightened vigilance, such as an elevated security threat. However, we will take steps to ensure that there will be no discernible pattern to these inspections. The dates, times and locations of security inspections will not be announced in advance.

Doesn’t that decision have a lot to do with available funding? Is Metro getting a Homeland Security grant to pay for the manpower needed to do this program (the way New York City does)? If so, are you really sure this is the best use of those funds?

Q: Can't you do this system wide?

A: Metro is not looking to conduct inspections at all stations at all times.

But if you don’t do it system-wide, what’s to stop a terrorist from walking out of one station and then entering another one? In the downtown area, many Metro stations are only a few blocks apart. Now that I think about it, how could you conduct inspections in Metro Center unless you covered all of its many train lines and platforms and entrances at the same time? Nothing short of comprehensive would be effective.

Q: Will this really make a difference?

A: Yes.

Are you sure about that? I don’t see how it could actually deter or prevent a bombing attack in the Metro. It seems like something that's intended to make people think that Metro is on top of this terrorism threat, when really Metro is just as vulnerable as ever.

Q: What took so long for you to decide to do this?

A: We have been carefully watching developments in the transit industry, communicating with our counterparts in other systems and evaluating recommendations of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). There is a growing consensus within the industry that programs such as this are a good idea, and the DHS touts it as a Smart Security Practice. We believe the time has come to offer our customers this additional layer of protection. With the upcoming elections and inauguration, this is the right time to launch this effort.

No, really, what made you decide to do this?

Q: Will customers be required to pass through inspection points?

A: No. Signs will be posted to inform customers about the inspection point. Customers may choose to avoid the inspection point and not enter the Metro system.

Doesn’t that one fact alone pretty much make this bag inspection business an exercise in futility?

Is Hummus a Terrorist Group or a Delicious Chick Pea Dish?

Two years ago, Congress directed the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Intelligence and Analysis to study the feasibility of creating a domestic counterterrorism intelligence agency - which really means to study the feasibility of taking that function away from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. DHS contracted with the RAND Corporation, asking them to consider the question of whether a new organization could improve current domestic intelligence operations, and RAND has now released its report on that matter.

I think the report is disappointingly wishy-washy, full of 'on-the-one-hand-this but on-the-other-hand-that' type of discussion, and it mostly talks around the central question: do we or do we not need an alternative to the law enforcement-centric FBI in order to have an effective domestic antiterrorism effort? Yes, we do, but RAND seems to be afraid to break the FBI's rice bowl by saying that in so many words.

RAND did throw out a few good tid-bits about the benefits of creating a new agency. A separate agency could bring clarity to the preventive security mission of a domestic intelligence agency, which is something the FBI will never do so long as it's divided into separate police and intelligence elements. Furthermore, a separate service would be able to draw from a broader recruitment pool; officials in domestic intelligence services in other democracies told RAND they felt they were able to attract talent not normally drawn to a law enforcement culture.

That last point - the fact that distinctly different types of people are attracted to police and intelligence agencies - is a big one in favor of replacing the FBI's National Security Division with a whole new agency. The FBI recruits people who, in the main, are unabashed cultural illiterates [my personal opinion, obviously, but one that I formed based on experience working in law enforcement type environments; Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, but I know lots of Federally-employed people who live it all the same, and they seem content]. See this and this for examples of what I mean. Why should an FBI agent have to learn the difference between Sunni and Shite, or Iran and Iraq? It's all a lot of confusing foreign stuff, and busy agents can't be bothered to try to learn such trivia.

The senior leadership is just as obtuse in that regard as the rank-and-file agents. Consider this clip from a video deposition by Dale Watson, the former FBI Counterterrorism Division Director, in which he lamely insisted that it would be immaterial whether the IRA or an Islamic extremist group were the object of a bombing investigation because "the basic elements of the crime are the same." That's the police mentality. It has its place, but that place is not in an intelligence or couterterrorism agency.

We need a domestic counterterorrism agency staffed by people who think it does, in fact, make a difference whether they are working against Irish nationalists or Islamic jihadis. Those people won't work in a stepchild division of the FBI where they will always play second fiddle to the guns-and-badges guys

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Rwanda Joins the Anglophone world

The anglophonification [if there is such a word] of Rwanda may be a good thing for the Rwandans, but I suspect it will be a bad thing for me. Central Africa is now the only place on earth where I can speak French without being laughed at. Once they stop speaking it, where will I find non-snooty people to converse with en francais?

Maybe if I go back to school I can work my way up to a respectable French Canadian level of fluency in two or three years.

Rwandans Say Adieu to Français; Leaders Promote English as the Language of Learning, Governance and Trade

In another blow to the language of love, the Rwandan government has decided to change instruction in schools from French to English.

All government employees are now required to learn English, and everyone here from lawmakers to taxi drivers to students to businesspeople seems to believe that the usefulness of French, introduced by Belgian colonizers, is coming to an end.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Mr. Natural in 2008: Change I Can Believe In

It seems the University of Pennsylvania's Institute of Contemporary Art is having a showing of R. Crumb's artwork (Digging 'Underground'; In a Temple of High Art, the Lowbrow Work Of R. Crumb Certainly Rises to the Occasion), and the Washington Post has done a good deed by telling its readers about it the week before the Presidential elections.

I'm sure all of R. Crumb's artistry is just as transgressive and avant garde and whatnot as the WAPO article say it is, but the part of it I always liked best was Mr. Natural, his critique of phony gurus and their needy followers. Crumb created the cartoon character of Mr. Natural for an 'underground' San Francisco newspaper in 1967, and it also ran as a series in the Village Voice during the mid-1970s. Mr. Natural, the self-proclaimed "only knower of the cosmic secrets alive today," was a rather ill-tempered mystic of hazy origins who had renounced the material world and went about the San Francisco Bay area dispensing his wisdom to '60s burnouts in return for their admiration and - even better - cash. The demand for perfect masters was so high in the '60s that even suspect sages could thrive, and Mr. Natural was the perfect comment on that situation.

It was quite timely to be reminded of Mr. Natural just eight days before the nation will, in all likelihood, elect a messianic cult figure President. Any politician who wants his campaign to be "the occasion, the vehicle, of your hopes, and your dreams," and who speaks of remaking the world "as it should be," and who says he feels "a righteous wind at our backs," has departed the realm of politics and is way, way, over into mystic territory.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Latest Book by Someone Obama No Longer Knows

Bill Ayers, the superannuated New Left radical and former Weather Underground bomber, and his lovely wife Bernardine Dohrn, who was a regular La Passionaria to the bomb-tossers back in the Weather Underground's heyday (you can read all about it in Ayer's memoir of that time), have jointly authored a book about how white supremacy is the driving force in American life. Race Course Against White Supremacy is scheduled for release next June, but may be pre-ordered now at

From the Amazon website:

Product Description

White supremacy and its troubling endurance in American life is debated in these personal essays by two veteran political activists. Arguing that white supremacy has been the dominant political system in the United States since its earliest days—and that it is still very much with us—the discussion points to unexamined bigotry in the criminal justice system, election processes, war policy, and education. The book draws upon the authors' own confrontations with authorities during the Vietnam era, reasserts their belief that racism and war are interwoven issues, and offers personal stories about their lives today as parents, teachers, and reformers.

About the Author

William C. Ayers is a distinguished professor of education and a senior university scholar at the University of Illinois–Chicago. He is the author of To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher and Fugitive Days, a memoir about his life with his wife, Bernardine Dohrn. Bernardine Dohrn is the director of the Children and Family Law Justice Center and a clinical associate professor of law at Northwestern University. She is the coauthor of A Century of Juvenile Justice and Justice in the Making. They live in Chicago.

Barack Obama publicly praised an earlier book by Bill Ayers, but that was way back in 1997. Now that Obama is running for President he doesn't remember ever knowing Ayers, so I doubt he'll offer so much as a book jacket blurb for the geriatric ex-terrorist's latest work.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The West Bank Separation Wall

I saw this message written on the separation wall next to the checkpoint on the Jerusalem-Ramallah road. I assume it's intended as a reference to President Reagan at the Berlin Wall, however inaptly, since the Israelis certainly did not put the wall up to keep their population from fleeing to the West Bank.

The Berlin Wall lasted from 1961 until 1989 and the beginning of the end of the Cold War. It's hard for me to see any scenario under which the West Bank separation wall will be dismantled short of an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And, having read the Palestinian National Charter and the Covenant of HAMAS, both of which utterly reject any division of historic Palestine, I cannot foresee an end to that conflict unless one side or the other someday loses its national identity and dissolves.

It's hard to watch the suffering of the innocent Palestinians as they negotiate the checkpoints. On the same day my party crossed the Israeli green line into the West Bank, we heard that a woman who had gone into labor prematurely while at that same checkpoint lost the baby when the Israeli troops wouldn't call an ambulance. I couldn't confirm that story via the local press, but I can believe it. Border guards are callous the world over. Moreover, from purely anecdotal evidence as well as my own observation of the troops manning the checkpoints, I suspect there is a high percentage of Russians and other recent immigrants serving in the Israeli military and Border Police, which probably adds to the cultural distance between the guards and the guarded.

However, I also remember the suffering of the innocent Israelis during the hundreds of terrorist bombings that took place inside Israel during the second Intifada, killing around 1,000 persons as they went about their daily business in buses, schools, restaurants, markets, etc. The savagery of those attacks, and the gleeful celebrations in the West Bank that accompanied them, were truly striking. Were I an Israeli, I would have been all out of sympathy for the victims on the other side after a few incidents like the Ramallah lynching.

The separation wall has had one big redeeming feature: after its construction began in 2002, it quickly reduced the number of attacks launched from the West Bank and, hence, the tensions. The below chart is from a biased source, but I can find nothing wrong with its figures.

Monday, October 20, 2008

UN Security Department in Turmoil

I had a brief chat last week with the security officer for one of the United Nations program offices in Jerusalem, and it confirmed what I'd suspected from recent press reports. The UN Department of Safety and Security was thoroughly burned by the still-not-fully-released internal review of the circumstances surrounding the bomb attack on the UN headquarters building in Algiers last December, and the organization is expecting a further purge of the leadership. The UN/DSS Director had the grace to resign right after the attack, but his senior staff remains in place, at least for now.

The UN field security officers seem to be walking on eggshells today, since their leadership in New York has gotten excessively cautious and risk-averse. Unfortunately, an unwillingness on the part of Headquarters to tolerate any amount of risk is no more realistic or practical than the opposite extreme. Incidents like the Algiers bombing make a security bureaucracy gun-shy, and the effect usually persists for a few years before a sensible risk management attitude eventually emerges (if it ever does).

Borderline Dining

While TDY in Jerusalem last week I stayed in the eastern (Arab, that is) part of the city, and had a few experiences with the borderline between Arab and Israeli territories. The least serious of these was at the Borderline Cafe, a restaurant that is so named because it sits on the 1948 armistice line between East and West Jerusalem. It's a nice place and I enjoyed eating there, however, the names of the dishes could be a bit off-putting to a native English speaker. For instance, the "Borderline Pizza."

Having heard the theory that there is no such thing as bad pizza, since even when it's bad it's still pretty good, I was curious as to whether there is such a thing as borderline pizza. I'm happy to report that the Borderline Pizza was actually rather good.

Higher - much higher - up the pecking order of the East Jerusalem hospitality industry is the American Colony Hotel. That landmark establishment is far too exclusive for the likes of me to stay at, but I did have dinner there one evening (payment in U.S. dollars only, please). The hotel's website gushes about the many famous personalities who have stayed there:

The American Colony hotel has hosted many renowned guests from all walks of life: Sir Winston Churchill, Laurence of Arabia, Sir John Gielgud, Lauren Bacall Peter O’Toole, Marc Chagall, Alec Guiness, Richard Widmark, Joan Baez, Richard Gere, Leon Uris, Donald Pleasance, John le Carre, Graham Greene and the Empress of Ethiopia, among many other celebrities and dignitaries, have all made the Colony their home away from home.

But the above list is missing one especially renowned guest. From a plaque in the hotel lobby I learned that none other than CHUCK NORRIS himself has stayed at the American Colony. Now I'm impressed. Who are Winston Churchill and Laurence of Arabia compared to Walker Texas Ranger!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Happy Snaps of Jerusalem's Old City

I'm back from a quick business trip to Jerusalem and Ramallah, during which I earned danger pay by risking deep vein thrombosis from enduring excruciating economy class flights of well over 14 hours.

While I'm collecting my thoughts about the West Bank and the border crossing checkpoints that separate it from 'green line' Israel, here are a few tourist-y photos from Jerusalem's Old City.

(Above) A view of the inside of the city walls, near the New Gate

A street just inside the New Gate in the Armenian Quarter

The bazaars and vendors get more intensive as you walk into the lower levels of the Old City

Finally, you're in a subterranean warren of souvenir shops

Here's a very rare Old City street scene with no people in it

The entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, packed inside and outside with religious pilgrims.