Friday, December 25, 2015

From The National Mall

My wishes for a Merry Christmas to all my fellow citizens.

And, because it's a Friday, one Eyebrow-Raising Headline of the Week with a faintly Christmas-y, or at least a Santa-ish, theme:

"Gazprom Executives Killed by Reindeer Herdsmen" - Upstream Online

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Friday Document Dump

Okay, technically it's a Thursday, but today is a Federal Friday by Executive Order, so this qualifies as a Friday document dump.

The Director of National Intelligence has made a 'proactive disclosure' of assorted Benghazi-related documents, none of them particularly interesting. You can read them here.
New Freedom of Information Act Request Documents Released by ODNI

December 24, 2015

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence is one of seven federal agencies participating in a pilot program to make records requested via the Freedom of Information Act more readily available to the public, as reflected in the recently released Third National Action Plan for Open Government.

Over the course of the pilot, ODNI will note the release of new “proactive disclosure” documents here on IC on the Record. Documents posted to this week include:

- The revocation of American passport of Anwar al-Aulaqi by the U.S. Dept. of State and any criminal complaint by the Dept. of Justice against U.S. citizens Mr. al-Aulaqi or Samir Khan

- All emails and means of correspondence pertaining to the overall situation in and around Benghazi, Libya

- PDDNI memo – changes to the HUMINT Control System (HCS) May 20, 2014

- NCSC Director Bill Evanina’s appointment calendar January January 5-9, 2015

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Spammity Spam, Wonderful Spam

Ireland and United Kingdom foods, maybe

While doing some shopping today at my local Wegman's, I went through their international foods section and was delighted to see cans of Spam - quite a lot of them - in the "Ireland and United Kingdom" aisle. Does Wegman's sell Spam anyplace else in their stores? Not that I've ever noticed.

Brits liking Spam - is that just a stereotype left over from the WWII years, or do they still really like their Spam? I know it's produced in the UK, and they do indeed seem to eat a lot of it, but is it a distinctive national dish?

Whatever it is, it has the "Spam Spam Spam Spam" song running in my head.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Star Wars Told in the Style of Ken Burns

Thank you, WaPo Pop Culture blogger Alyssa Rosenberg, that was excellent. I'm even overlooking the annoying vocal fry.

Best reader comment on the WaPo site came from Nitpicker:
Alyssa, spend 30 years drinking whiskey and smoking cigars, then re-voice

A bit cruel, I suppose, but he's not wrong.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Friday, December 11, 2015

Friday, December 4, 2015

House Oversight Committee Releases Report on U.S. Secret Service

Read the report here U.S. Secret Service: An Agency in Crisis (alternative title: Jason's Revenge). Be prepared to spend several hours, because it's a long compendium of scandals, misconduct, failures, abuse, mismanagement, and collapsing morale.

Best quote from a Secret Service agent's e-mail was this item on a pre-departure checklist: “Cash fo dem hoes-check

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

House Oversight Committee Hearing on New London Embassy

The Crystal Fortress, in architectural vision

The New London Embassy construction project has come in for criticism from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee before, and it will again on Tuesday, December 8, at 10 AM. Watch this space for live video: Review of the New London Embassy Project.

While you're waiting please enjoy Embassy London's weekly photos of the construction site, and let your inner architect be inspired by the designer's vision:
[The State Department] wanted to pursue a new paradigm in embassy design, termed Design Excellence, which emphasizes the role of architecture in diplomacy. This new model seeks buildings that represent the ideals of the American government—giving priority to transparency, openness, and equality, and drawing on the best of American architecture, engineering, technology, art, and culture.

Here's hoping my good friends in Overseas Buildings Operations will send their first string to handle the Committee. Which means Ambassador Will Moser. I really don't think that OBO's Director and her Deputy Director in Charge of Design Excellence are up to handling the hostile questioning that is likely to come to them.

Is 'The Benghazi Chill' Lifting in Washington?

I'm amazed that this article got published, especially in an election year.

A reasonable discussion of risk-aversion and diplomatic missions? One that doesn't make ridiculous statements about the Benghazi attack? And, most of all, one that suggests Washington politics is to blame for hobbling our efforts to advance our national interests overseas?

Read it here: Benghazi chill ripples through State Department:
A survey of 1,600 active-duty State Department employees released in April by the American Foreign Service Association found that more than half believed that "post-Benghazi, it is now more difficult for employees to effectively engage overseas." Twenty-five percent of diplomatic security agents said the same thing.
Hear a voice of reason:
The job “has always come with risk, which we are fully prepared to accept,” said Barbara Stephenson, the head of the American Foreign Service Association and a 30-year veteran of the Foreign Service.

What we ask in return is a dedicated effort to mitigate danger where possible,” she added, “including through providing the resources needed to accomplish our mission safely while serving abroad.”

And the icing on the cake is a prediction by my favorite adult in the room, Ambassador Ronald Neumann:
“Rightly or wrongly, it has become a political issue for the Republicans,” said Neumann, the former ambassador to Afghanistan, who has been appointed to top posts by presidents of both parties.

“But I think it has made the issue of casualties so sensitive that that may carry over into the next administration — whichever party it is.”

Surely, the issue of casualties will remain sensitive. But, could this discussion be an indication that the political establishment is finally about to recover its equilibrium, and may be ready to once again accept the reality that diplomacy is an inherently risky enterprise?

Thursday, November 26, 2015

I Think We Need a Higher Fence

The luckiest man in Washington DC today is the guy who jumped over the White House fence and then, by some almost unbelievable stroke of luck, or by an only slightly less unbelievable lapse of security, was not immediately shot to death.

The WaPo reports:
A man draped in an American flag was taken into custody Thursday afternoon after he jumped the fence of the White House while the first family was inside celebrating Thanksgiving.

Joseph Caputo faces criminal charges after he scaled over the north fence line of the grounds and was immediately apprehended about 2:45 p.m., said Robert Hoback, a spokesman for the Secret Service. Officials did not provide details on Caputo’s age, home town or any reason for the jumper’s actions.

The Secret Service did not immediately provide further details of the incident, and officials were working to determine how the man made it past new “pencil-point” spikes added to the White House perimeter this year to deter intruders.

The WaPo article links to more on the "pencil-point" spikes, but really, isn't it obvious how the jumper made it past them? They are a pathetic excuse for an anti-climb fence topping, being only a few inches high. That's how he made it past them.

Hey Secret Service officials, you can stop working to determine how this happened and start working on getting a higher fence.

Monday, November 23, 2015

OBO's Year in Review Video

It's Fortress Embassies on Parade in this institutional self-congratulatory video showing off all the new embassy construction projects that were completed or are in progress during 2015. I'm lifting a glass to my good friends in the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations as I type this.

The video is introduced by SecState Kerry, who is well known to be a fan of good public architecture. He opens by talking a bit about the Poetry of Architecture versus the Prose of Security, I think it was. And then he talks a bit more about The Face of America, which foreigners can perceive in the façades of our embassies. Then he talks a bit more still about how protection is our top priority BUT we must not allow our security footprint to leave our visitors with the wrong impression.

Please enjoy!

New Worldwide Travel Alert

The U.S. State Department has alerted U.S. citizens to possible risks of overseas travel due to increased terrorist threats. The alert encompasses the entire world, and expires on February 24, 2016.

This is the part I found most significant:
Authorities believe the likelihood of terror attacks will continue as members of ISIL/Da’esh return from Syria and Iraq. Additionally, there is a continuing threat from unaffiliated persons planning attacks inspired by major terrorist organizations but conducted on an individual basis. Extremists have targeted large sporting events, theatres, open markets, and aviation services. In the past year, there have been multiple attacks in France, Nigeria, Denmark, Turkey, and Mali. ISIL/Da’esh has claimed responsibility for the bombing of a Russian airliner in Egypt.

Overly broad? Yes. Even a little panic-mongering? Maybe. But I don't disagree with any part of it. Both the range and the tempo of attacks on public venues have been increasing sharply, and successful attacks will lead to more attacks. Furthermore, successful tactics will lead to more of the same. We can reasonably expect to see more active shooter attacks and fewer car bombs, as extremist groups copy the tactics that worked in Mumbai, in Kenya's Westgate Mall, in Paris, and in Mali's Radisson Hotel.

I do not live my life in a constant state of fear, even when traveling in high threat locations, and I hope you won't either. That said, there is a time to be properly cautious. Even a time to defer going to large sporting events, theaters (or theatres), open markets, and on trains and planes.

To my fellow citizens living or traveling abroad, I quote the words of Kid Sally Palumbo's grandmother in the great comic novel The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight - "you watcha you ass."

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline of the Week

Free Ottawa yoga class scrapped over 'cultural issues' - Ottawa Sun

The Centre for Students with Disabilities official argues since many of those cultures "have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy ... we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practising yoga."

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

A Novel Application Of The No Double Standard Policy

The WaPo reported yesterday that the U.S. military has banned troops from traveling to Paris on their free time due to security concerns:
The U.S. Defense Department has banned U.S. troops and employees from traveling in their free time within 50 kilometers of Paris, following the terrorist attacks in the French capital on Friday night.

The ban was put in place late Sunday by U.S. European Command. It applies to all military personnel, civilian employees, contractors and family members who are sponsored by a specific military command. Anyone who wants to travel to the area on official business or for emergency reasons must obtain approval from a general officer or other senior official in their chain of command.

According to EUCOM's website, the travel restriction applies to travel anywhere in France, not just to Paris:
Official travel and emergency leave travel to France requires approval from the first general/flag officer (or SES) in the chain of command.

Do you suppose EUCOM consulted the Chief of Mission in France before issuing this travel restriction and making it a matter of public information? I don't know, but I think not.

I could have sworn there is some kind of official USG policy about such situations. Maybe it's in this publicly available source of information:
7 FAM 052.3 Coordination of Threat Information with the Military Under the No Double Standard Policy

It can be consistent with the "no double standard" policy for the Department of State to determine that sharing information with private U.S. citizens is not appropriate in cases where the Department of Defense (DoD) releases threat information to military personnel. For example, upon receiving information concerning a possible threat to U.S. citizens in a particular country, the chief of mission (COM) may conclude that the information is not credible. In this case, the Emergency Action Committee (EAC) would not recommend releasing the information to other DOS personnel and private U.S. citizens in country. However, a military commander, upon receiving the same threat information, might decide to release the threat information to U.S. troops in country, or might confine the troops to their base without informing them of the alleged threat. The paragraphs below provide a clarification of how military procedures relate to the "no double standard" policy.

DoD Personnel Under Military Command: The Department of Defense is responsible for the safety and security of DoD personnel under military command. U.S. military commanders therefore make independent decisions about whether or when to disseminate threat information to their personnel. Should post become aware of a DoD notification made locally, post should immediately inform the Department. Once notified that DoD has disseminated threat formation to their personnel, the Department of State decides, in conjunction with relevant posts, whether information about the threat is such that the Department of State should also disseminate it to the non-official U.S. community.

So if I understand EUCOM correctly, there is a threat condition that effects military personnel, civilian employees, contractors, family members, and persons on official travel or emergency leave, but we civilians and tourists may carry on enjoying Paris as usual.

I haven't seen any press accounts of American tourists asking U.S. Embassy Paris whether it's safe to travel there now. Tourism in France is probably at a low ebb at the moment anyway. But still, sending uncoordinated security warnings is a very poor practice.

Press Briefing on Refugee Screening - Actually Informative!

That was quite a good presser they did yesterday on the subject of Syrian refugee screening and admissions. I doubt it will have much impact on the domestic politics of the situation, but it was nicely detailed about the resources the USG applies to refugee vetting and it had information I hadn't seen elsewhere, such as the number of refugees currently being screened, their demographic breakdown, and the denial rate so far.

Hi, everybody. This is Senior Administration Official One speaking. Thank you for your attention today to our program that admits refugees to the United States. It’s been a successful program that has been running since the mid-1970s, the post-Vietnam War era. Over that time, 3 million refugees have come and successfully resettled in the United States.

-- Snip --

So I want to reassure you all that all refugees of all nationalities considered for admission to the United States undergo intensive security screening, and this involves multiple federal intelligence, security, and law enforcement agencies. And we do this to ensure that those admitted are not known to pose a threat to our country. The safeguards that are used include biometrics, or fingerprint and biographic checks, and a lengthy in-person overseas interview that is carried out by specially trained DHS – Department of Homeland Security – officers, who scrutinize the applicant’s explanation of individual circumstances to ensure the applicant is a bona fide refugee and is not known to present security concerns to the United States.

Mindful of the particular conditions of the Syria crisis, Syrian refugees go through additional forms of security screening. And we continue to examine options for further enhancement for screening refugees, the details of which are classified. But the classified details are regularly shared with relevant congressional committees.

"SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO" emphasized the whole-of-government effort involved:
Again, this is a part of our program that is extremely interdisciplinary. It’s a lot of different federal agencies. So on the operational front, while the State Department and USCIS take the lead overseas, when it comes to doing the security vetting we have law enforcement and intelligence community colleagues who are really integral parts of the program.

So refugee applicants of all nationalities go through both biographic – that’s name and date of birth and other biographic elements – and also biometric security checks. So we check fingerprints for all refugee applicants. Collecting that information and coordinating those checks is a shared responsibility between the Department of State and DHS. And then, as I mentioned, the – it’s other agencies within the federal government, including the FBI, the Department of Defense, and others, who actually vet the information of the refugee applicants against those other holdings.

-- Snip --

What I’ve been describing up till now are checks that are for refugee applicants of all nationalities, but with the Syria program we also instituted an additional set of screening that we call the Syria Enhanced Review. So for Syrian refugee applicants, all of those cases are reviewed at headquarters by refugee specialists ahead of time. And there’s a file that’s already been created by virtue of their registration with the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, and through their first administrative contact with the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. So there’s information there about where the refugee has come from, what caused him or her to flee, what their experience was. And depending on what we see in that file, we review certain cases with national security indicators to a special part of our agency – our Fraud Detection and National Security unit. And they can do individualized research using classified and unclassified records and give – prepare information back for the individual refugee adjudicator that’s individualized to that case.

This is Official Number Three from [title withheld]. A couple of points to make here on behalf of the larger intelligence community as relates to this process. The refugee vetting and screening process has really benefitted, in a lot of ways, from the lessons that we learned with respect to information sharing for CT purposes since 9/11. Over those years, we’ve managed to refine and enhance the degree to which we can compare information in the communities’ holdings, representing all the different agencies against refugee and other types of traveler data. So the refugees as a population get the same type of attention that we apply to many other classes of traveler, only it’s more intensive on the refugee side for the very process reasons that you’ve heard outlined by the two preceding officials. So we’ve integrated a lot of the data that relates to CT and can use it to adjudicate the biographic and the biometric information that we have coming in from the adjudicating agencies.

Then it was the press's turn. Brad Klapper of Associated Press asked "What is your refusal rate? How many have you denied resettlement – percentage or total"?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Sure. Let me talk about the first part of your question first, in terms of what our acceptance and approval rates are. Right now, our approval rate is a little over 50 percent, but the other half of that – the other 50 percent includes both denials and cases that are still pending. And so a number of those cases that are still pending may ripen into approvals, and in fact, we expect that that approval rate will edge up a bit above the 50 percent. But that’s where we are right now. As you know, we haven’t – for us, in terms of interviewing these applicants, it’s relatively new for us to be seeing large numbers. And there are some cases that post – after the interview, come back to headquarters for another round of review, and so some of those cases don’t have a final decision yet at this point.

Todd Spangler, Detroit Free Press, asked whether state Governors can refuse to accept refugees. "I’m just curious – yesterday a lot of the news was governors saying they would not accept Syrian refugees. I just hope you could talk a little bit about what roles governors or their administrations play or don’t play – maybe more importantly – in this process."

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Sure. This is Speaker One again. So this is a federal program carried out under the authority of federal law, and refugees arriving in the U.S. are protected by the Constitution and federal law. And they are required to apply to adjust their status to become a legal permanent resident within one year of arriving in the United States. So he or she is also free to move anywhere in the country, although we set up that some of the state benefits they get may be available to the refugee only in the state that they’re originally resettled to.

William LaJeunesse of Fox News asked "can you give me a rough demographic breakdown of, say, the 2,500 Syrians we’ve taken in recently – women, children, those under 18, that kind of thing"?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Half of the Syrian refugees brought to the U.S. so far have been children; [2.5 percent] are adults over 60. And I think you will have heard that only 2 percent are single males of combat age. So we – there’s slightly more – it’s roughly 50/50 men and women, slightly more men I would say, but not – not a lot more men. So this is normal that as you’re – as we set a priority of bringing the most vulnerable people, we’re going to have female-headed households with a lot of children, and we’re going to have extended families that are maybe missing the person who used to be the top breadwinner but have several generations – grandparents, a widowed mother, and children.

I assume the politics of refugee admission will roll on according to their own election year logic, regardless of what our apparatchiks know or don't know about the matter. But at least I'm better informed!


Friday, November 13, 2015

Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline of the Week

Woman wrestles 800-pound gator into submission at Texas hair salon - UPI

The alligator, which is blind in one eye, measures more than 12 feet long and is estimated to be 50 years old, was captured Saturday morning in a Sugar Land parking lot by Christy Krobroth, a full-time dental hygienist licensed as an alligator trapper by the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Fake Bomb Detectors Are Back, And This Time They're Egyptian

Hey, a guy with an empty box! 

The notorious fake bomb detector that was sold under the name ADE 651, among others, before its manufacturers were sent to prison in the UK for fraud, is back in use once again. This time it's Egyptian hotels in Sharm El Sheik that are using them to not find hidden bombs.

The Daily Mail reports:
British families in Sharm El Sheikh are being guarded with useless bomb detectors based on a bogus device produced by UK fraudsters, the Mail can reveal.

The revelation comes as Egyptian police investigate whether a Sharm hotel worker might be responsible for a suspected attack on a Russian passenger jet. Police fear a bomb may have been smuggled inside luggage.

As thousands of UK families were still waiting to fly home yesterday, the Mail discovered fraudulent 'scanning devices' were being used to protect at least five top hotels packed with Britons. Security guards use them to 'sweep' guests, their cars and luggage.

But experts say these 'screening tools' are almost identical to the bogus devices produced by British fraudsters and sold for millions to foreign governments, resulting in prosecutions in 2013 and 2014.

The Egyptian army appears to have copied these devices and produced its own version called C-Fast, which is being used across Sharm.

It means a terrorist bomb could easily have been smuggled into a hotel, put in a passenger's luggage and potentially taken on to a plane. Since C-Fast devices are made by the Egyptian army, it is likely they are also used at Sharm's airport.

Why not use them at the Sharm airport? The same scam detectors were, and possibly still are, in use at airports in Jordan, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Iraq, among other places.

The ADE 651 consists of an empty box and a telescoping antenna. And nothing else. They have no operating parts, or technology, or theory of operation, or test results, or any history of actually detecting anything. It's an empty box. And yet, the government of Iraq spent $85 million to equip its forces with them. So did other nations. Click on the "ADE 651" label below this post and prepare to be amazed at how many nations bought them, defended them, and continued to use them even after the UK locked up the snake oil salesmen who sold them.

So now the Egyptian Army has joined the scam with its own knock-off version called the C-Fast. Well, there's a fool born every minute. I just wonder whether the Army is fooling itself, or only those British tourists?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

State Department Contractor Sentenced in Fraud and Coverup Scheme

The Justice Department announced sentencing today for the last State Department contractor to be convicted in a fraud and coverup case that involved two staff employees and two contractors of the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations' Security Management Division. The four conspired to charge the government for nutritional supplements that were sold by the two staff employees and purchased by low-level employees of the two contractors in a pyramid scheme gone wrong.

Here's the bottom line from today's FBI press release, Final Defendant Sentenced in State Department Contracting Fraud Scheme and Contractor Cover-Up:
Marvin Hulsey, 52, of Stafford, was sentenced today to one year and one day in prison, and two years of supervised release for conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

According to court documents, Hulsey, who was employed as a program manager for a government contractor, admitted to conspiring with Tony Chandler, 69, of Severn, Maryland, an employee of the State Department, to submit false invoices to the State Department in order to conceal unallowable costs for nutritional supplements purchased by employees under Hulsey’s supervision ... Chandler, as an authorized distributor of the nutritional supplements for a multi-level marketing company, earned commissions in excess of $25,000 from the purchases made by Hulsey’s employees.

-- snip --

In a related case, Curtis L. Wrenn, Jr., 60, of Triangle, pleaded guilty to making a false statement to the State Department by concealing that an internal investigation conducted by the contractor discovered credible information of fraud involving Chandler and Hulsey.

-- snip --

Hulsey pleaded guilty on July 24, 2015. In court documents filed on Oct. 5, 2015, Hulsey admitted that he engaged in a second fraud scheme in which he submitted false and inflated claims to the State Department related to a business owned by his wife. This second fraud scheme caused an additional loss of approximately $140,000.

Chandler and Wrenn both pleaded guilty on June 12, 2015, and were both sentenced on Sept. 18, 2015. Chandler was sentenced to six months in prison, while Wrenn was sentenced to one year of probation.

At ages 52, 60, and 69, they will be the Grand Old Men of whatever prison they enter, according to U.S. Bureau of Prisons statistics on the age ranges of federal prisoners. It saddens me to think of such geezers mature gentlemen going to prison. Well, the 52-year old isn't really all that old. And the 60-year old only got probation. But as for the 69-year old, well, even the most minimum security prison isn't a place anyone wants to spend his golden years.

The fourth person convicted in the case, a long-time OBO employee who is older than the others, pleaded guilty to conflict of interest charges back in April but what sentence he received, if any yet, is unknown to me.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Embassy Bishkek Leaves the Silver Diner

Photo from U.S. Embassy Bishkek's Facebook page

SecState Kerry went to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, today to cut the ribbon on another new U.S. Embassy that was completed by my good friends in the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations. He made some appropriate remarks at the dedication ceremony.

First, Ambassador Sheila Gwaltney recalled the old embassy building - the one that's being replaced today - which was brand new the first time she was posted to Bishkek.

The American Embassy in the Kyrgyz Republic has come a very long way. Our initial embassy was a kindergarten here in Bishkek, and we very quickly outgrew it. When I served in the Kyrgyz Republic for the first time in 1999, I felt fortunate to work in our current embassy building which was new at that time. It was great. Everyone had decent office space, new computers and printers, and for the first time in my Foreign Service career all of the furniture in our offices matched. (Laughter.) I think others had the same experience.

That second embassy was modular, meaning that it was built in the United States, shipped to Bishkek, and assembled here. However, as our partnership with the Kyrgyz Republic deepened and our cooperation expanded, we quickly outgrew that office space and needed a new chancery that would represent the strength and the importance of our bilateral relationship with the Government and the people of the Kyrgyz Republic.

Now we have a chancery that is built on this site and is anchored in Kyrgyz soil. This building represents an investment in the future of our bilateral relationship. We are very proud of this new chancery. I am delighted that my colleagues will work in an embassy where they will be safe, secure, and have a comfortable environment that will facilitate their creativity and efficiency.

Then, SecState Kerry enthused about our new new embassy in Bishkek - "It’s a superb building. It is brilliantly designed. It’s bright; it’s open; it’s energy-efficient" - but he did find fault with its lack of trees and saw room for aesthetic growth. (Does he mean shrubbery?)
We – I want to congratulate all those who have been involved in helping to bring the construction of this building to a successful conclusion, and I hope you’ll all agree that the effort has been worthwhile. I don’t know if our security people will allow it, I don’t know what the rules are, but I was sitting here thinking I want to see some trees along these walls here, and maybe we can do some things that aesthetically grow it as we go forward.

When Ambassador Gwaltney got the microphone back she recognized OBO's representative at the dedication.
Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary. We are also honored to have with us today Ambassador Will Moser, who is the principal deputy director of the Office of Overseas Building Operations at the Department of State, the office that had responsibility for building this beautiful chancery. Ambassador Moser, would you join us? Mr. Secretary, Mr. Minister, shall we go and cut the ribbon.

As an aside, Will Moser is someone OBO-watchers should keep an eye on. Ambassador to the Republic of Moldova before being assigned to OBO as PDAS, he is an experienced career Foreign Service Office with a strong background in embassy management, logistics, and global support. In other words, he is just the sort to provide OBO with the adult supervision that its current Director and her Deputy Director cannot. He also handles hostile questioning from Congress a lot better than they do, judging from what I saw at the recent House Oversight hearing on Mexican border violence.

Lastly, allow me to say a word about the old embassy building in Bishkek and why it was known as The Silver Diner.

As Ambassador Gwaltney noted, the building was of modular construction, meaning it was built in sections at a factory in the U.S., with the sections shipped to Bishkek and assembled on the embassy site. The result was not something an architect would love, but it was a functional and secure office building. Ambassador Gwaltney seems to have fond memories of working there.

Above all, that modular building was fast and cheap. Our initial embassy in Bishkek was in a former kindergarten which we replaced with the modular building in 1998. The cycle of planning, contracting, designing and constructing that replacement was probably not more than two years. The cost was $15 million. That's not a typo. The new embassy office building actually cost $15 million, an amount of money that would not pay for the windows or the doors in any current Fortress Embassy. OBO's contractor, Kullman Industries, won an industry Design-Build Award in 1999 in the category of Public Sector Projects under $15 million. I will never again be able to type "$15 million" in a post about new U.S. Embassy construction costs.

Old Embassy Bishkek, photo from

A Silver Diner - see the shared architectural DNA? 

That's it, above left. On the right is a typical Silver Diner restaurant. The similarity is no accident.

The embassy construction constructor was Kullman Building Corporation, which began in 1927 as Kullman Dining Car Company, a builder of railroad dining cars. By the 1940s, railroad cars had morphed into roadside restaurants, of which Kullman was a prime builder. Eventually, Kullman used the techniques of railroad dining car construction to manufacture buildings of all types, as explained in New York Architecture's salute to the diner:
Strip a diner of its stainless steel, its restaurant equipment, furnishings and ornamentation, and what remains is a highly durable steel and concrete building module, that interconnects with other such modules to form a variety of building types. Kullman, with Robert's urging, aggressively pursued this new potential in the corrections, educational, institutional, and broader food service markets.

The company coined the term "Accelerated Construction" to describe a building process free from the uncertainties of weather, site conditions, and contractor relations. Accelerated or factory construction utilizes the same building materials and labor found on any project site, but with an extra measure of quality control and predictability.

-- snip --

In 1994, Kullman made history yet again by building a United States embassy building at its plant in Avenel, New Jersey and shipping it to Bissau, Guinea-Bissau. This development marked the first construction of an American embassy in America, and its success led to projects for Ashgabat, Turkmenistan and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Built, shipped, and assembled by American personnel with security clearances, Kullman helped the State Department avoid the security risks that often plague on-site construction by local labor in foreign countries.

Modular construction is a common practice for school systems, chain restaurants, banks, hotels, and so forth. It makes sense because there are only a very few different ways you can lay out, for example, a branch bank. The tellers have to be in a certain configuration and relationship to the bank officers, to the vault, and to the drive-up window. You can design it once and build it many times. It's the same thing with hotels. Frequent travelers must have noticed that all Hyatt Hotels have pretty much the same lobby and atrium.

New U.S. embassy buildings could also be modularized, which would not only reduce their design costs but also greatly shorten their construction times, which is where the big savings would occur compared to conventional construction.

Such a great deal! Why doesn't OBO do more modular construction? In my opinion, it's because architects generally hate modular construction, and OBO is pretty much run in the interests of architects.

Maybe that will change if, someday, an experienced Foreign Service Officer with a strong background in management, logistics, and global support were ever to be put in charge of OBO.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline of the Week

Dog named Trigger shoots owner while hunting - WANE, North Webster, Indiana

Allie Carter, 25, of Avilla was hunting waterfowl at Tri-County Fish and Wildlife Area on Saturday.

Carter was apparently repositioning herself while hunting and placed her 12-gauge shotgun on the ground at her feet. That’s when the Department of Natural resources said her 10-year-old chocolate Labrador, “which is ironically  and aptly named Trigger,” stepped on the shotgun. The gun went off and shot Carter in the foot, point-blank.

Carter reportedly did not complete a hunter education course.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

From the Golden Age of Homeland Security - Teen Angst Songs

Here's a 1962 Atomic Age teen love song, preserved by the Cold War pop culture folks at CONELRAD.

A little background on this Atomic Platter:
Pop culture historians and music scholars have long noted that the so-called teenage "death" songs of the late fifties and early sixties (1959's "Teen Angel," 1960's "Tell Laura I Love Her" 1962's "Patches," etc.) were, in effect, allegorical Bomb songs. These dire, yet catchy songs about train accidents, car wrecks and double suicides channeled the atomic angst of America's youth into mainstream hit singles.

The unforgettable 1962 release "Fallout Shelter" took a more direct approach in conveying the fears of teenagers everywhere over nuclear annihilation. Its melodramatic storyline of a boy who wants to share his family's shelter with his girlfriend and his father's intervention is a perfect blending of elements from the overt and the allegorical/subtle Bomb song.

Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline of the Week

"Puerto Rico's high murder rate is creating a huge opening in organ transplant industry for Americans who need surgery" - Reuters via UK Daily Mail

Puerto Rico's murder and non-negligent manslaughter rate of 19.2 per 100,000 people translates into a pool of donors in the 18-30 age range unmatched in the mainland ... "The donors (are) victims of car accidents or gunshot wounds to the head, because Puerto Rico, sadly, we have a very high crime rate."

Beyond Capitol Thunderdome: Can't Anybody Read?

I mentioned this before, on the evening of the first day of the marathon Benghazi Select Committee hearing - or was there only one day? It seemed like more - but it continues to bug me that there is so much confusion over the rather important question of whether or not the SecState waived legal requirements and security standards for the facility in Benghazi.

The mistaken impression that Hillary Clinton either waived or failed to waive the requirements of the law pertaining to the Special Mission facility in Benghazi appears to have set in as one of the few gotchas to come out of the hearing. That impression is mistaken because SECCA applies only to overseas diplomatic facilities that have been notified to the host government as diplomatic premises, such as chanceries and consulates. The policy for applying SECCA is established in Foreign Affairs Manual 12 FAM-300, which is publicly available. According to the report of the Accountability Review Board (ARB) - which is also publicly available - the facility in Benghazi was not notified to the host government as a diplomatic premise, therefore the law did not apply and it did not require a waiver.

Anyone interested in this matter can read 12 FAM 300 for himself and see what I'm talking about. Here's a tip: read the entire thing starting from the top, and don't skip the part that states how diplomatic facilities are defined for the purpose of applying SECCA. For some reason, journalists, Congressional staffers, and commentators who quote from it, are skipping ahead to the part they like, where the SecState has waiver authority that may not be delegated, and ignoring the all-important bureaucratic minutia of 12 FAM-313, paragraph b.

But what do I know? Here a report from Breitbart which quotes the back-and-forth between Rep. Susan Brooks and Hillary Clinton that constitutes the smoking gun of this false allegation:
Brooks asked, “Congress passed something referred to as SECA, the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act, which requires the secretary of state to issue a waiver if under two conditions if US government personnel work in separate facilities, or if US overseas facilities do not meet security setback distances specified by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. the law specifies that only the secretary of state may sign these waivers, and that requirement is not to be delegated. Was a waiver issued for the temporary mission in Benghazi, and the CIA annex after the temporary mission compound was authorized through December of 2012? And did you sign that waiver, Madame Secretary?”

Hillary answered, “T think that the CIA annex, I had no responsibility for, so I cannot speak to what the decisions were with respect to the CIA annex.” She did acknowledge she was responsible for the temporary mission compound before continuing, “I had no responsibility for the CIA annex, obviously. The compound in Benghazi was neither an embassy nor a consulate. Those are the only two facilities for which we would obtain a formal diplomatic notification, and those were the only kinds of facilities that we would have sought waivers for at the time, because we were trying to, as has been testified to earlier, understand whether we were going to have a permanent mission or not. That means you have to survey available facilities, try to find a secure facility, and the standards that are set by the inter-agency Overseas Security Policy Board are the goals we try to drive for. But it is very difficult, if not impossible to do that in the immediate aftermath of a conflict situation. The temporary mission in Benghazi was set up to try to find out what was going on in the area, to work with the CIA, where appropriate, and to make a decision as to whether there would be a permanent facility. So, we could not have met the goals under the Overseas Security Policy Board, nor could we have issued a waiver, because we had to set up operations in order to make the assessments as to whether or not we would have a permanent mission, whether that mission would remain open, and we made extensive and constant improvements to the physical security, some of which I mentioned before.”
Hillary answered the question correctly, i.e., the Special Mission facility was not a chancery or consulate and those are the only types of facilities that would need waivers. But then she rambled on about other matters until she seemed to be saying that the uncertain duration of the Mission was the main thing.

Another commentator who seems to have poor reading comprehension is Victoria Toensing, who is confused by both 12 FAM-300 and the Benghazi Accountability Review Board report.

This is Toensing's critique of Rep. Brook's inept questioning of the witness - By law, Clinton was required to waive the security in Benghazi and could not delegate that decision:
Repeatedly, the Committee allowed Clinton to claim she had nothing to do with security in Libya. Such requests “were rightly handled by the security professionals…. I did not see them. I did not approve them. I did not deny them.” However, the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act of 1999, SECCA, passed in the wake of the 1998 Embassy twin bombings in Africa when Bill Clinton was president, required her to rule on the substandard security in Benghazi.

As with Benghazi, an Accountability Review Board (ARB) for each African bombing was convened. The ARBs faulted the State Department for no accountability for the security in Kenya and Tanzania, and made specific recommendations for future Secretaries of State. But Congress went further. SECCA requires the Secretary to waive any situation where all the embassy buildings are not housed in one facility, as was the case with Benghazi, and states that the decision cannot be delegated.

For a long time, the Committee seemed to be aware only of the ARB language, quoting it extensively while ignoring the statutory mandate. Finally, during the dinner hour, Rep. Susan Brooks broached the issue but clearly did not understand the law. When Sec. Clinton demurred she did not sign a waiver because the Benghazi consulate was “temporary,” Brooks abandoned the subject. But Brooks’ acquiescence missed the point of the law. It was intended to cover such “temporary” facilities.

The Benghazi ARB admitted in its 2013 report that there had been a waiver, describing the Benghazi compound as being “excepted” under the law. Was no one on the Committee aware of that fact? An obvious follow up question: “But Ms. Clinton, who did the ARB refer to when saying Benghazi had been excepted?” And then: “If you did not sign the waiver, who did?” But the Committee let her escape an admission of violating the law by falsely claiming it did not cover a temporary facility.

Toensing is berating the Committee members and staffers for being unaware of this passage in the ARB report:
Another key driver behind the weak security platform in Benghazi was the decision to treat Benghazi as a temporary, residential facility, not officially notified to the host government, even though it was also a full time office facility. This resulted in the Special Mission compound being excepted from office facility standards and accountability under the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act of 1999 (SECCA) and the Overseas Security Policy Board (OSPB). Benghazi’s initial platform in November 2011 was far short of OSPB standards and remained so even in September 2012, despite multiple field-expedient upgrades funded by DS. (As a temporary, residential facility, SMC was not eligible for OBO-funded security upgrades.) A comprehensive upgrade and risk-mitigation plan did not exist, nor was a comprehensive security review conducted by Washington for Benghazi in 2012. The unique circumstances surrounding the creation of the mission in Benghazi as a temporary mission outside the realm of permanent diplomatic posts resulted in significant disconnects and support gaps.

Did the ARB Report really say that the SecState, or anyone else, had signed a SECCA waiver for the facility in Benghazi? Is that what the report means by "excepted" from the law?

No. The report clearly states that because the facility was not officially notified to the host government, SECCA did not apply, which resulted in the facility being excepted from both SECCA and overseas security standards.

Sorry, but there is no smoking gun here. And I say that as someone who does not have any personal, professional, or political fondness for Hillary.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Beyond the Thunderdome

That hearing went on for eleven hours? If I watch it all this weekend I'll feel like I'm binge-watching Netflix.

Luckily for me, the WaPo had the entire transcript today - Full text: Clinton testifies before House committee on Benghazi. Thank you!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Capitol Thunderdome, as Night Follows Day

The Benghazi Select Committee hearing is still going on as we approach 8PM. I'm home trying to catch up while having a brew, and so far I have to give this match to Hillary.

One interesting thing happened right around 7PM, when Rep. Susan Brooks played the SECCA card. SECCA is the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act of 1999, and it creates certain legal requirements for physical security at overseas diplomatic facilities. Rep Brooks quoted to Hillary Clinton from Foreign Affairs Manual 12 FAM-315, which concerns SECCA and the SecState's authority to waive certain requirements of the law if he or she finds it is in the national interest.

BTW, that Foreign Affairs Manual is a publicly available source of information which you may read for yourself here.

Anyway, Rep. Brooks evidently thought she had Hillary dead to rights on the question of whether or not she had signed a waiver for the Benghazi Special Mission facility. That sounded like Hillary is in quite a fix. Either she deliberately waived security standards - which would be politically explosive - or else she was at fault for not complying with the law. So which was it? Did she or did she not sign a waiver?

It was neither. A waiver was not required, because SECCA did not in fact apply to the Benghazi Special Mission. Evidently, neither Rep. Brooks nor her staffers bothered to actually read much of that Foreign Affairs Manual, or else she would have read 12 FAM-313, para b., in which it states that "for purposes of applying SECCA, a U.S. diplomatic facility is any chancery, consulate, or other office notified to the host government as diplomatic or consular premises ..." The Special Mission was not a chancery or consulate or any other kind of office so notified.

So, to quote White Goodman of the great movie Dodgeball, "you can put away your rule book on that one, Poindexter." Point: Hillary.

Now, will this hearing ever end so I can go to bed?

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Capitol Thunderdome: Two Political Careers Go In, One Comes Out

The House Benghazi Special Committee interviews Hillary Clinton tomorrow in a marathon public session that starts at 10AM and may run into late afternoon. To view it live, watch this space.

It will be Committee Chairman Harold Watson Gowdy III ("Trey") versus Hillary Rodham Clinton. Gowdy gets only one shot, since Hillary has agreed to a single session. When the hearing ends tomorrow afternoon, which one will go home victorious, and which one will just go home?

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Jimmy Carter Helps Out His Fishing Buddy Vladimir Putin

Ex-President Jimmy Carter says he has delivered maps of ISIS positions in Syria to the Russian Embassy in Washington, in order to improve the accuracy of Russian air attacks.

Yes, he really did say that. It's on video.

That is all.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline of the Week

Well, why should the Clanton Gang always lose?

"2 Shot During 'Old West' Gunfight Reenactment In Tombstone, Arizona" - Huffpost Crime

Two people were shot in Tombstone, Arizona, during a gunfight reenactment when one of the actors allegedly used real bullets.

Tombstone is known for its historical reenactments of Old West gunfights ... Next week marks the anniversary of the Oct. 26, 1881 "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral."

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Will Julian Assange Fade Away?

Assange has been staying in the dark for three years now, shut up in Ecuador's London embassy and getting paler by the day while waiting for criminal charges placed against him in Sweden to expire. Three of four charges have now expired but a fourth charge, of rape, remains.

Last week, the London Metropolitan Police announced they are removing their static guards from outside the Ecuadorian embassy. But they aren't letting Assange go ghost. Rather, they say they "will deploy a number of overt and covert tactics to arrest him."

See London Police Stop Watching Ecuadorean Embassy For Sign Of Assange.

Good luck to them. Judging from that recent photo, Assange leaves very little sign anymore. He could sneak out on a bright day and not be spotted. 

FBI's Hoover Building HQ - Not Worth Fixing, And Too Expensive to Replace

The Hoover Building in Legos (better built than the real thing)

Will Representative Jason Chaffetz and his House Oversight and Government Reform Committee please take official notice of the Hoover Building? Chaffetz is hot on the trail of cost overruns and purported mismanagement in the case of U.S. embassy overseas office building construction, but he's passing up a good one right in front of his face in the Federal Triangle of Washington DC.

The FBI's Headquarters building is a well-known architectural, managerial, financial, and security disaster. The inability of the USG to either fix or replace it is a disaster of another kind. See the WaPo story of this week, which asks a good question - The FBI’s headquarters is falling apart. Why is it so hard for America to build a new one? That kind of question is right up HOGR's alley, isn't it?

How big a disaster is the FBI headquarters building, exactly? Well, it is only forty years old yet the structure is already collapsing - big chunks of it drop off regularly. The office space is dysfunctional - only 53 percent of it is judged to be usable. It is insufficient to house all headquarters' activities - the FBI has non-consolidated annexes all over the region. It cannot comply with modern Federal office building security standards, policies, and best practices due to its design and location, especially its total lack of setback distance from surrounding streets.

That's all bad enough. But consider that the Hoover Building was the most expensive new federal office building ever when it was completed in 1975 at a cost of $126 million. That final cost was more than double the original cost estimate of $60 million. Was HOGR asleep at the switch back in the 1970s, too?

The current cost estimates for a replacement FBI Headquarters run between $1.4 and $2 billion. That is more than twice the cost of the much-maligned new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, a project that drew intense House Oversight, if not much Reform, less than ten years ago. And unlike in Baghdad, the FBI doesn't need a campus full of 20-some buildings, perimeter walls and gates, defenses against mortars and rockets, on-compound housing and feeding for its staff and third-country security guards, an aviation wing, medical facilities, and more stuff like that. Not to mention that there was a very active war going on all around, and sometimes on, that Baghdad construction site.

If the FBI does manage to get a new Headquarters built someday, it will have to be on the outskirts of Washington DC in order to get the setback distances that are necessary to meet our domestic government office building security standards. Those standards, BTW, are not nearly as onerous as their counterparts for overseas buildings.

Why is it that Rep Chaffetz will spend so much time and trouble to beat up on my good friends in the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations over comparatively penny-ante costs and overruns for U.S. embassy construction and security in places like Kabul, London, Jakarta, and Mexico City, but then give the FBI a pass for running a decrepit and security-deficient headquarters building and pursuing a TWO BILLION DOLLAR replacement project?

A few excerpts from the WaPo:

Beneath the headquarters of America’s premier crime-fighting organization, one of the parking ramps has been condemned because corroded pieces of the ceiling were falling on cars.

Netting hangs on the Ninth Street facade to prevent broken concrete from hitting passersby 160 feet down on the sidewalk below. During a July fire drill, half of the building’s alarms didn’t go off.

-- snip --

Three years ago, the federal government launched a search for a new site for its headquarters but that effort is months behind schedule. FBI officials fear that with Congress increasingly unwilling to pass funding measures, the move to a new building could be dramatically pushed back or set aside following next year’s election.

-- snip --

Looming over the process is the failed attempt to consolidate the Department of Homeland Security, whose own headquarters consolidation in Southeast D.C. won approval six years ago but is less than one-quarter complete, a decade behind schedule and more than $1 billion over budget.

Nearly three years after the FBI’s search began a final location has not been identified and funding has not been secured. In the meantime, the FBI’s 9,500 headquarters employees are spread throughout 14 locations in the Washington region.

-- snip --

In an effort to secure its perimeter, the FBI shuttered some exterior entrances and put 298 cement planters on the sidewalks around the building, most of them filled with only dirt because plants were deemed too costly to maintain. The netting on Ninth Street catches falling pieces of concrete; Director James B. Comey Jr. keeps one of the larger pieces in his office.

Further retrofitting is prohibitively expensive; despite the Hoover building’s overall size of 2.4 million gross square feet only 53 percent of that is usable according to a 2011 report from the Government Accountability Office.

-- snip --

As the Hoover’s problems worsened, the FBI and GSA planned a 2.1-million-square-foot campus that could accommodate 11,000 FBI personnel within two-and-a-half miles of the Capital Beltway and two miles of a Metro station.

Unlike the Hoover Building, which is separated by a sidewalk from traffic, the new campus would likely have 50-foot setbacks with blast-resistant façades and separate facilities for mail screening and visitors.

GSA officials, lacking congressionally approved funds to build such a campus, proposed a novel solution to pay for it, trading the Hoover Building site for the money needed to build the new facility.

The strategy aimed to take advantage of booming property values along Pennsylvania Avenue and to avoid the fate of St. Elizabeths, where Congress approved the consolidation of the Department of Homeland Security but repeatedly failed to provide construction money. The search has narrowed to three sites, in Greenbelt, Landover and Springfield, and attracted a half dozen big money development teams interested in the work.

-- snip --

Without funding, Hoover and the other FBI buildings will remain in a state of purgatory — not worth fixing, but not worth saving.

It seems to me the U.S. taxpayers are in another kind of purgatory, stuck with the bill for two perpetually unfinished multi-billion dollar office consolidation projects - the FBI's, and the even more expensive and screwed-up beyond repair DHS headquarters - neither of which Congress will either cancel or fund sufficiently to bring them to completion.

Where can the taxpayers go to get oversight and reform of that situation?

Friday, October 9, 2015

Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline of the Week

Comfortably numb?

"Man who calls police to say he’s ‘too high’ found in pile of Doritos" - Fox 8 Ohio

Police arrived at the 22-year-old man's home at approximately 5:20 p.m, according to WJW.

There, they found him on the floor "in a fetal position," surrounded by, "a plethora of Doritos, Pepperidge Farm Goldfish and Chips Ahoy cookies."

According to a police report, the man told the officer that he couldn't feel his hands because he smoked too much weed.

Monday, October 5, 2015

New Embassy Project Vientiane a "Global Best Project" Winner

Kudos to my good friends in the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) for this: New U.S. Embassy in Vientiane Wins Global Best Project Award From Engineering News-Record Magazine:
Engineering News-Record (ENR), a leading journal for the construction industry, honored the U.S. Embassy Project in Vientiane, Laos as a Global Best Project in the Government Buildings category. The U.S. Government and the project team were celebrated alongside other complex, global projects including stadiums, airports and infrastructure developments. The award was announced at this year’s ENR Global Best Projects Award ceremony in September 2015.

Since 1999, as part of the Department’s Capital Security Construction Program, the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) has completed 122 new diplomatic facilities and has an additional 46 projects in design or under construction.

The mission of the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations is to provide safe, secure, and functional facilities that represent the U.S. government to the host nation and support our staff in the achievement of U.S. foreign policy objectives. These facilities should represent U.S. values and the best in U.S. architecture, engineering, technology, sustainability, art, culture, and construction execution.

That's from the bottom of my heart, because I admire good project management over almost any other endeavor.

BTW, Vientiane is pronounced like "Vee-end-tee-on," and it is the capitol of a land-locked country in Asia that is neither Chinese nor Japanese.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

"Fuck Off" She Explained

Harry Truman was a POTUS who could really cuss up a storm

Ronald Kessler is basically the Boswell of U.S. federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies, having published about 20 or so books on the CIA, FBI, and the U.S. Secret Service.

His latest is about the interactions of Secret Service details assigned to the President's families, First Family Detail. It goes on sale August 5, just in time for the start of the 2016 election season.

The next time I visit a bookstore I plan to flip straight to the index and look up stuff like this:
Because Hillary Clinton is so nasty to agents, being assigned to her protective detail is considered a form of punishment and the worst assignment in the Secret Service. (pgs. 5, 16-26)

The New York Post today reviewed an advance copy of Kessler's book and quoted recollections by former members of the Hillary Clinton protective detail, none of them flattering. See Secret Service agents: Hillary is a nightmare to work with.

This one is typical:
“‘Good morning, ma’am,” a member of the uniformed Secret Service once greeted Hillary Clinton.

“F— off,” she replied.

None of this comes as a surprise. While Hillary partisans will of course denounce Kessler - some already have (here) - Hillary is a well-known personality, after having being in Washington and the public eye ever since 1992. Even I, at my lowly perch on the government ladder, have gotten loads of hearsay about her from Secret Service agents right from the start of Bill Clinton's first term, all of it consistent with Kessler's anecdotes.

Will this book drag down Hillary's public image? I doubt it. Surely, every sentient voter already has a firm fixed image of her after all this time. Her devotees are practiced at ignoring stuff like this, and her haters weren't going to vote for her anyway. But, the media machine needs material to fill the 24-hour news cycle, and stories like Kessler's are more entertaining than most.

Word to the wise politician - the drivers and bodyguards hear and see everything you do, so you might want to resist any impulse you have to insult and belittle them.

In Which the Rand Corporation Gives Two Cheers for a Reality-Based Strategy

The Rand Corporation's - justly - renowned deep thinker on counterterrorism, Brian Jenkins, posted an article today that reads like a bucket of cold water thrown in the face of our national security establishment. Read it here: Any Review of Syria and Iraq Strategy Needs Realistic Reappraisal.

Note that the title juxtaposes the words "Syria and Iraq strategy" and "realistic," which signals that the author is not going to deliver the usual happy-talk about 'degrade and defeat' or 'train and assist' or whatever other buzz words are in fashion. Instead, he starts by listing some obvious realities:

  • The continued fighting has seen the diminishing strength of Syria's secular rebels and the ascent of its most extreme jihadist component, represented by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
  • The conflicts in Syria and Iraq seem to be at a stalemate.
  • National armies in both countries have failed.
  • Syria and Iraq are now effectively partitioned.

  • He closes with this:
    Although these stark conclusions hardly sound controversial, they are antithetical to American policy. The very idea of a military stalemate lasting years — or decades — defies America's sense of progress. Secular, democratic governance and religious tolerance are deeply held American values. The United States operates on the presumption that the sectarian and ethnic divisions can be bridged; that Iraq's national army can be rebuilt into an effective fighting force; that the Bashar Assad regime in Syria can be replaced by a more inclusive government; that the Sunnis can be won over and the jihadists can be isolated, contained and defeated; that peace and national unity can be restored, enabling the refugees to return; and that this can be achieved without the commitment of large numbers of combat forces or even with the commitment of American combat forces.

    Unquestionably, these are noble aims, and diplomats are required to be optimists. Nonetheless, national objectives must be based upon realistic assessments of the situation. Here, the distance between presumed aspiration and reality seems great.

    So you say we ought to consider reality as we pursue our national objectives in the partitioned and stalemated Iraq and Syria? You are right, Mr, Jenkins, that does not sound at all controversial.

    But bear in mind that the Rand Corporation is the government-funded policy think tank of the Pentagon, so even that mild scolding is coming from the inside. Could it indicate a new willingness to stop stumbling along with our Neo-Wilsonian approach to the Middle East?

    From Brian Jenkin's mouth to God's ears (you should forgive the Yiddishism).

    Friday, October 2, 2015

    Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline of the Week

    Virginia Beach mom finds ammo in Toys "R" Us package - ABC 13 News Now

    Jasemin Stephenson says she ordered a "Minecraft Foam Diamond Sword" from the toy store's website last week.

    When the package arrived Tuesday, Stephenson says she found 800 rounds of 9mm ammunition in the box, along with the sword.

    Thursday, October 1, 2015

    Secret Service Shoots Itself in the Foot

    What is going on at the U.S. Secret Service? I mean, I dislike Representative Jason Chaffetz as much as anyone, but really? Leaking gossipy tidbits to the press is very petty harassment, not to mention a violation of the Privacy Act when those tidbits come from your internal official files. Also not to mention stupid and reckless, since who else but Secret Service insiders could have accessed the 12-year old file on Chaffetz's unsuccessful application for a Secret Service agent job, and didn't they realize that would come back to bite the Service at a time when it can ill afford any more scandals?

    The OIG report on this incident is short and sweet. A couple excerpts:
    We have substantially completed our review of the allegation and have determined that a Secret Service database containing sensitive personally identifiable information (PII) pertaining to Congressman Jason Chaffetz, Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, was accessed on approximately 60 occasions by Secret Service employees. We have concluded that a vast majority of those who had accessed the information did so in violation of the Privacy Act, as well as Secret Service and DHS policy. Additionally, we identified one individual who acknowledged disclosing information protected by the Privacy Act to an outside source. However, because the number of individuals with access to this information was so great, we were unable to identify others who may have disclosed protected information to third parties.

    [Chaffetz's] application had not been acted upon and the applicant had not been interviewed, reflected in MCI by a data field that read “BQA,” which meant that other better qualified applicants existed.

    We identified 18 supervisors at the GS-15 or Senior Executive Service level who appeared to have known or should have known, prior to the publication of the fact, that Chairman Chaffetz’ MCI record was being accessed.

    Moreover, at least one senior Secret Service executive, who knew about the fact of the Chaffetz application, suggested that it be leaked. On March 31st, two days before the publication of the information, Ed Lowery, who is an Assistant Director and in charge of training for the Secret Service, replied to an email from Faron Paramore, another Assistant Director who was in charge of Congressional and public affairs. Paramore’s email distributed a press statement by Secretary Johnson regarding Chairman Chaffetz’ decision to subpoena Secret Service agents. Lowery’s reply, sent only to Paramore, is reprinted in its entirety:

    "Some information that he might find embarrassing needs to get out there."

    An Assistant Director was incautious enough to say that in an e-mail? A 'better qualified applicant' will be found for his job very soon, I think.

    Monday, September 21, 2015

    Joe Biden Waits To Catch a Wave

    The New York Times today: Soul-Searching Continues for Possible Joe Biden Run.

    He makes it sound like he's siting on a surfboard, rocking back and forth a bit in the tide, emptying his mind, and just waiting for a wave to come and sweep him into the 2016 contest, or not.

    "It comes or it doesn't ... It's just not quite there yet and it might not get there in time ... If that's it, that's it. It's not like I can rush it."

    The soul-searching could go on for quite some time yet, especially if he keeps getting press attention.