Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Thanksgiving Thought From Shakespeare

From Much Ado About Nothing (which is playing now at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, but closes on Friday, so hurry!) I give you this bit of dialog that sums up my holiday plans:


A lord to a lord, a man to a man; stuffed with all
honourable virtues.


It is so, indeed; he is no less than a stuffed man:
but for the stuffing,--well, we are all mortal.

Beatrice sounds just like my lovely wife!

"A Grande Cappuccino, Prithee"

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has posted an item about a new exhibit in Colonial Williamsburg: Coffeehouses, Storytelling, and Relevance.

This could be the story of Starbucks, Saxby’s, or Caribou Coffee. This could be the story of hundreds of independent coffee houses that dot the American landscape. Almost 240 years ago, a Williamsburg wigmaker named Richard Charlton opened up a coffeehouse. A few feet from the capitol building; this coffeehouse served as a space where colonists would gather to talk, socialize, debate, and gossip.

However, in 1776, amidst revolutionary turmoil, that coffeehouse became the scene of a clash between the tyranny of the stamp act and revolutionary fever. Today, Colonial Williamsburg (CW) is reopening the coffeehouse to the public, and like much of the interpretation it will tell a familiar piece of the larger story about American independence. I read about this yesterday in the Washington Post in an article that talks about how CW’s shift to active storytelling is a part of their broader plan to make history relevant.

Colonial Williamsburg is the 800-pound gorilla in the field of American public history, and I believe most public historians and preservationists have a love/hate relationship with the place. On the one hand, it's a popular tourist destination and a successful commercial enterprise that provides historical interpretation to the vacationing masses who would otherwise be at a water park or some such place. On the other hand, it's one big agglomeration of Kolonial Kitsch that offers infotainment in reconstructed - not preserved, rehabilitated, or restored original - historic buildings and landscapes, therefore it's really not a fit place for proper education.

So the question for the big brains at the National Trust is whether it is relevant for tourists to sip coffee and hot chocolate at R. Charlton's Coffeehouse, which they will inevitably regard as an 18th century Ye Olde Starbucks. I say it is relevant, but for many history snobs that sort of "active storytelling" has too much fluff and sweetening for their taste, kind of like a big ol' Liberty Latte.

Personally, I am fond of CW, kitsch and all. I have vivid memories of my first visit there, at around the age of eight. My kids likewise have lasting impressions from their childhood visits, and at least one of my kids was so influenced by CW and all of the battlefields and historic buildings I dragged them through on weekends and vacations that he's now preparing to become a history teacher.

All museums and interpretive historic sites are in the entertainment business first, and the education business second. I was taught that Resonance and Wonder is at the heart of the museum experience: a visitor must first see something that attracts his interest, then, from reading an exhibit label or listening to a docent, he learns something that has relevance or significance to him. With apologies to Stephen Greenblatt, the title of his essay should have been the other way around. The wonder comes first, and then - maybe - the resonance.

The National Trust and other serious types ought to drop their qualms and embrace the wonder of infotainment. OK, so the Cofffeehouse will probably be full of people in cargo shorts and t-shirts saying stuff like "I know not what drink others may have, but as for me, give me a skinny caramel macchiato or give me death." What's the harm? They're on vacation, not in class. If the exhibit designers and interpreters do their jobs, and I'm sure they will, everybody will come away a little better for the experience.

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Monday, November 23, 2009

Voices of U.S. Diplomacy and the Berlin Wall

Better late than never. Although the Fall of the Wall anniversary was two weeks ago, I saw only today that the State Department's U.S. Diplomacy Center has put up a fine on-line Berlin Wall Exhibit named "Voices of Diplomacy and the Berlin Wall."

Check out the Archive portion of the exhibit, in particular. That is a very good example of history and new media.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Contaminated Industrial Site Proposed for Diplomatic Security Training Center

A commenter brought to my attention the following article from the November 20 edition of the Frederick (Maryland) News-Post, Lawmakers hope to bring federal training center to Eastalco site:

Lawmakers are lobbying to bring a Bureau of Diplomatic Security training center to Frederick County, with the hope it will usher in hundreds of jobs.

On behalf of the county's state delegation, Delegate Paul Stull, R-Md., sent a letter to U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., about 10 days ago, asking that she support building the training center at the site of the shuttered Alcoa Eastalco Works aluminum plant near Ballenger Creek Pike.

"We think it would be an excellent opportunity to bring jobs to Frederick ," Delegate Galen Clagett, D-Md., said. "It would be a world-class center ... I'm very much in favor of it."

Mikulski and Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., on Nov. 16 sent letters to the State Department, which oversees the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, and the General Services Administration, which will help pick a location from several bids along the East Coast.

"We heartily endorse the creation of a diplomatic training facility in Maryland," the letters read. "Frederick County offers the Bureau many advantages including a highly-skilled professional labor work force, three top-quality higher education institutions, and a variety of lodging, dining, and retail establishments."

-- snip --

The training complex will be funded in part with money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and will cost more than $100 million, according to the recovery act's website. It includes indoor and outdoor shooting ranges, urban and unimproved road driving courses, high-speed anti-terrorism driving tracks and simulations buildings, the website says.

I liked this comment by one of the local elected officials:

Since the Eastalco plant shut down, the property has been mentioned as a possible location for electric power generators, solid waste disposal sites and housing developments.

Delegate Rick Weldon said the property was large enough to provide an ample buffer between the training center and the nearby communities.

"Given that Eastalco was there smelting aluminum and there was enough of a buffer," the 150-acre training center in the middle of a 2,000-acre site shouldn't be a problem, Weldon said.

By which he apparently meant that the training center's presence shouldn't bother local residents because the center will be right smack in the middle of the hazardous waste left behind by decades of aluminum smelting, and not close to them. Whether that should be a problem for the hundreds of DSS employees who would work and train at the center, Delegate Weldon didn't say.

My commenter said of all this:

Now some of you may be scratching your head asking, what are some of the hazardous materials produced from smelting operations? Most notably; cyanides, fluorides and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons all of which have the possibility of contamination of subterranean aquifers and surface waters.

Yes, probably not the healthiest location to stage basic training operations for our best and brightest working in federal law enforcement. The half-life on a majority of these waste products is much longer than one would expect. I know wouldn't want to live and work on the location / property of a decommissioned smelting operation.

I hope those in power in GSA and DSS will reevaluate this location and decide to move to one of the locations they have already scouted out or use part time in West Virginia and Virginia.

Aluminum Smelter Plant / Test Laboratory = bad location. West Virginia / Virginia = good location.

This isn't rocket science.

The choice of location for any kind of federal facility is mainly up to the General Services Administration (GSA), which does have certain site selection criteria pertaining to environmental contamination:

Sites for federal facilities do not have to be pristine to be selected, but they must support public health. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) regulates the disclosure, disposal, and remediation of contaminants and allows potentially problematic sites to be improved through the development of federal facilities.

Let's see how GSA squares those criteria with what looks to be a heavily contaminated site.

Of course, the Eastalco site could presumably be made safe for re-use with enough environmental remediation. How much that remediation would cost is anyone's guess at this point. However, just last February a Frederick County Commissioner told the Frederick News-Post that it could cost roughly $200 million to clean up the site sufficiently to use it as a landfill:

Eastalco has told the county the company is not interested in selling the Manor Woods Road property. If the county were to put a landfill on the Eastalco property, as some have proposed, hazardous waste cleanup could cost roughly $200 million, [Frederick County Commissioners President Jan] Gardner said. Eastalco was the site of an aluminum smelter for decades.

All in all, I think the State Department would be well advised to pass on the Eastalco site.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Stanley McChrystal's War on Poverty

History News Network has linked to this critique from the left of General McChrystal's strategy in Afghanistan. I'm not a leftist myself - I'm more like a Whig - but I think there is undeniable merit in points such as these:

The biggest obstacle to [McChystal's new counterinsurgency strategy as stated in his leaked interim assessment for the White House] isn’t the supposed invincibility of the Taliban or an American liberal failure of nerve; it is achieving McChrystal’s ambition to do in Kabul what Americans couldn’t or wouldn’t do in New Orleans.

-- snip --

McChrystal hopes to transcend the policies of both the militarist right and the social-welfare left by expanding the war to “embrace the people,” be “a positive force in the community,” and “use local economic initiatives” to displace the insurgency. With massive new resources, his new doctrine would integrate “military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions taken by a government to defeat insurgency." ... But whose government? Hamid Karzai’s has proven too corrupt as well as feckless.”

-- snip --

For half a century conservatives have derided and defunded such strategies except when they could be billed to “national defense,” like the U.S. Interstate Highway System and the first federal student loans. Small wonder, then, that people who so recently scorned “nation-building,” “community organizing,” community policing, and public jobs are now rhapsodizing them in the name of national defense.

-- snip --

The general also requests massive new resources to “fight corruption and improve the delivery of basic services such as clean water, paved roads, electricity, education, and a functioning legal system.” He wants to raise Afghan government salaries because “the notoriously low wages...are a major inducement for corruption.”... War on Poverty strategists wanted all this, too. So do American local and state governments. Right now.

The complete article, by Jim Sleeper, is in Dissent Magazine.

Retired State Department Official Pleads Guilty to Espionage

From the FBI press release (Former State Department Official and Wife Plead Guilty in 30-Year Espionage Conspiracy):

At a hearing before Judge Reggie B. Walton, defendant Walter Kendall Myers, 72, aka “Agent 202,” pleaded guilty to a three-count criminal information charging him with conspiracy to commit espionage and two counts of wire fraud. His wife, Gwendolyn Steingraber Myers, 71, aka “Agent 123,” and “Agent E-634,” pleaded guilty to a one-count criminal information charging her with conspiracy to gather and transmit national defense information.

As part of his plea agreement, Kendall Myers has agreed to serve a life prison sentence and to cooperate fully with the United States regarding any criminal activity and intelligence activity by him or others. As part of her plea agreement, Gwendolyn Myers has agreed to serve a sentence of between six and seven and a half years in prison and to cooperate fully with the United States.

Both defendants have agreed to the entry of a monetary judgment against them in the amount of $1,735,054. [TSB note: that amount is reportedly the salary Myers was paid over the course of his employment by the U.S. government.] The assets that will be forfeited to the government towards satisfaction of that judgment include: an apartment in Washington, D.C., a 37-foot sailing yacht, a vehicle, and various bank and investment accounts.

-- snip --

Kendall Myers began working at the State Department in 1977 as a contract instructor at the Department’s Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in Arlington, Va. After living briefly with Gwendolyn in South Dakota, he returned to Washington, D.C., and resumed employment as an instructor with FSI. From 1988 to 1999, in addition to his FSI duties, he performed work for the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). He later worked full-time at the INR and, from July 2001 until his retirement in October 2007, was a senior intelligence analyst for Europe in INR where he specialized on European matters and had daily access to classified information through computer databases and otherwise. He received a Top Secret security clearance in 1985 and, in 1999, his clearance was upgraded to Top Secret/SCI.

The Washington Post's story on the sentencing (here) reported this courtroom statement by the Myerses attorney:

The couple's attorney, Bradford Berenson, said in a statement after the hearing that the Myerses were not motivated by greed but spied "out of conscience and personal commitment."

"They always understood that they might someday be called to account for that conduct and always have been prepared to accept full responsibility for it," the statement said. "They have done so today."

I'd like to learn more about the "conscience and personal commitment" that compelled this haute bourgeoisie couple to commit espionage for Cuba. What was going on in the United States in 1978, the year the Myerses began their espionage, that so offended their consciences? Did they find the Carter administration to be an unbearable capitalist imperialist warmongering hegemon? Unlikely.

Why would the Myerses be personally committed to serving the communist regime in Cuba? Surely they didn't think that would make the world a better place, since by 1978 there were really no Marxist true believers left in America. The Marxist idea was already undergoing autopsies by radical historians who had been left behind when its intellectual tide receded after the events of 1968 and, particularly, the crushing of the Prague Spring. See this 1976 collection of dispirited essays on radical Visions of History, for example.

Perhaps Kendall Myers was a fan of Eurocommunism, that last great hope of leftist academics during the 70s, although even that somewhat more presentable version of Marxism was already losing its appeal by 1978. See, for example, this article by Jean-François Revel. Eurocommunism was not exclusively a European product, of course, and it could just be that the Myerses thought they had found in Castro the last possible chance to validate their self-concept as the Vanguard of the Proletariat. I don't know. But I wish I had a chance to ask them.

If I were the judge in their case, I wouldn't send the Myerses off to spend their Golden Years at some Club Fed of a penitentiary. No, I'd sentence them to serve as an exhibit at Washington DC's International Spy Museum, so that the public could experience these living political fossils for themselves and wonder about the thought processes that motivated them.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Rich Ambassador, Poor Ambassador

It was said of the plays of George Bernard Shaw - or was it Oscar Wilde? - that they consisted of "the obvious portrayed as the scandalous." I had the same reaction to this new report from the Center for Responsive Politics: Two Dozen Bankrollers-Turned-Ambassadors Bundled At Least $10 Million For Barack Obama. Really, does that sort of thing even count as news anymore?

By the Center for Responsive Politics' count, Obama has now nominated 99 people to represent the United States as ambassadors. These include ambassadors to foreign countries and more obscure top diplomats representing the nation to international organizations or championing issues such as war crimes prosecution, counterterrorism and AIDS.

The two-dozen bundlers elevated by Obama to serve in these diplomatic posts raised a minimum of $10.9 million for Obama's committees, the Center for Responsive Politics has found.

Since the Obama campaign only released information about its bundlers in broad ranges, this figure could be thousands, even millions, of dollars higher. The sum includes not only the dollar amount raised for Obama's 2008 presidential campaign committee, which you may view on here, but also the amount bundled for his presidential inauguration committee, per the records maintained by Public Citizen.

There's nothing to see here, people, so move along.

On the other hand, I thing there is something new to see in this brief observation from today's report:

Thirty-five of these ambassadors -- or about 35 percent -- are career members of the U.S. Foreign Service. Only one of these 35 people has any record of making any campaign contributions to federal candidates or committees.

Only one? What kind of impecunious diplomats do we have if only one of those career Foreign Service ambassadors has any record of political contributions? Or, if they aren't penniless, are they apathetic to domestic politics? This is embarrassing.

I'm not suggesting that aspiring ambassadors ought to start bundling funds from overseas interests, or anything like that. But, it would do them do harm to drop a hundred bucks or so now and then on their favorite candidates. Our elected officials never pass up a chance to add to their stash. And they have long memories.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Secretary Clinton -- Leader or Figurehead?

Kenneth Weisbrode, a historian at the European University Institute in Fiesole, Italy, has some free advice for Secstate Hillary Clinton. See Secretary Clinton -- Leader or Figurehead?

As for Clinton, she still appears unsure about the kind of role she wants. Until only very recently she appears to have confined herself to the quiet, bureaucratic parley and the goodwill tour.

In the meantime she has been upstaged by others, such as John Kerry and Joe Biden. This has led some critics to suggest a deliberate hedging strategy for a future political career, or for some other, unexplained motivation.

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Pathology and Ideology: Major Nidal Malik Hasan and the Case of Leon Czolgosz

The History News Network has a post about the parallels between Nidal Hasan and Leon Czolgosz, the anarchist assassin of President William McKinley. See Pathology and Ideology: Major Nidal Malik Hasan and the Case of Leon Czolgosz.

A brief quote:

Whether Czolgosz was a member of an anarchist cell dedicated to assassination and terrorism is not in dispute. He was not. However, he was a self-identified anarchist who held a personal identification with the goals of anarchist ideology and a willingness to act based on those ideological assumptions. So was Czolgosz a terrorist? Most historians today agree that he was.

This brings me to Hasan. The intelligence community, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, informs the public there is no evidence that Hasan was assisted in his act nor that he was operating as part of a larger terrorist plot. However, in similarity to Czolgosz, he exhibited an affinity—if no direct affiliation—with a radical ideology that supports the murder of its opponents. Like Czolgosz, he committed a terrorist act promoted by pathology and ideology.

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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's Rap Sheet

Unclassified summaries of the evidence against KSM and his four co-defendants, prepared for their Combatant Status Review Tribunals at Gitmo, can be viewed here.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

When Generals Disagree

Both the Washington Post and the New York Times are reporting tonight that the U.S. Ambassador in Afghanistan, ex-Lt. General Eikenberry, does not support General McChrystal's request for more troops.

From the WaPo story:

The U.S. ambassador in Kabul sent two classified cables to Washington in the last week expressing deep concerns about sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan until Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government demonstrates that it is willing to tackle the corruption and mismanagement that has fueled the Taliban's rise, said senior U.S. officials.

From the NYT:

Mr. Obama asked General Eikenberry about his concerns during the meeting on Wednesday, officials said, and raised questions about each of the four military options and how they might be tinkered with or changed ... [Senior] officials, who requested anonymity in order to discuss delicate White House deliberations, did not describe General Eikenberry’s reasons for opposing additional American forces, although he has recently expressed strong concerns about President Hamid Karzai’s reliability as a partner and corruption in his government.

I presume that Ambassador Eikenberry's concerns today are more or less the same as the ones he expressed during testimony before Congress in 2007:

Army Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, the outgoing top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, also warned that an even greater threat than the resurgent Taliban is the possibility that the government of President Hamid Karzai will suffer an irreversible loss of legitimacy among the Afghan population.

-- snip --

"The long-term threat to campaign success . . . is the potential irretrievable loss of legitimacy of the government of Afghanistan," he said.

"The accumulated effects of violent terrorist insurgent attacks, corruption, insufficient social resources and growing income disparities, all overlaid by a major international presence, are taking their toll on Afghan government legitimacy," he said. "A point could be reached at which the government of Afghanistan becomes irrelevant to its people, and the goal of establishing a democratic, moderate, self-sustaining state could be lost forever."

Veterans Day 2009

The facade of Memorial Amphitheater in Arlington National Cemetery

Today is, of course, Veterans Day. As I write this, a wreath-laying ceremony is taking place at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery, which will be followed by a ceremony in the Memorial Amphitheater.

The Amphitheater has become my favorite spot when I visit the cemetery, in large part because it has this statement inscribed inside the apse:

"When we assumed the soldier we did not lay aside the citizen"

It is a quote from George Washington's June 26, 1775, letter to the Provincial Congress, and it perfectly expresses the proper place of the military in a democratic society. I think it is an impeccably American sentiment to inscribe in a memorial to our nation's veterans.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Beltway Sniper is Executed

John Allen Muhammad, who was sentenced to death six years ago this month for the murder of Dean Harold Meyers on Oct. 9, 2002, at a gas station outside of Manassas, Virginia, was executed a few minutes ago. The murder of Myers was one of ten that Muhammad and his teenage accomplice committed during a three-week spree of sniper shootings in the Washington area.

Local residents recalled the horror of the sniper attacks for the Washington Post today. I remember the constant sense of dread that seemed to pervade everything. The omnipresent television coverage was bad enough, but you were also reminded of the threat as you went about your daily routine. For example, I drove past the Home Depot at Seven Corners in Fairfax County - the scene of one of the sniper's 15 attacks, and a place where my wife and I often shopped - every day on my commute to and from work.

Strictly speaking, it was irrational to be fearful during those weeks, given the enormous odds against becoming the next victim. But still, most people couldn't help it. People actually crouched down or stayed inside their cars while filing up at gas stations, despite the complete pointlessness of doing that against the threat of a .223 caliber rifle round.

The sense of fear escalated when a 13-year old boy was shot one morning as he arrived at school in Maryland. Some school districts closed after that, and most canceled their after-school events for the duration.

Some people did not give in to fear, I'm proud to say. My wife works at an elementary school in Fairfax County, and the staff there normally take turns standing outside for 45 minutes or so each morning to meet the school buses and oversee the arrival of the students. When her co-workers were reluctant to stay outside and exposed for so long, my wife volunteered to do the morning bus duty. She wore my ballistic vest under her coat while she met the arriving students and parents, and by her presence helped everybody at her school keep it under control during those panicky days.

I've always admired her poise and steadiness, but never more so than at that time.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Fall of the Wall Anniversary

The UK Daily Telegraph is not giving President Obama a pass for declining Angela Merkel's invitation to attend the ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall: Not enough about him? Barack Obama skips Berlin Wall ceremonies. Ouch!

At least Hillary went.

The ceremonies sounded like lots of fun. I loved the idea of having Lech Walesa push over the first of 1,000 big dominoes (photo above) set up where the Wall once stood.

Personally, I have been marking the occasion by playing the old David Bowie song Heroes. That might seem an odd choice, but the song was kinda sorta inspired by the Wall and it's got an appropriately triumphant sound.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Remembrance Sunday 2009

I wish I could embed these videos but the BBC doesn't allow it, so here are links (here and here) to the key events at today's Remembrance Sunday ceremony in London.

Big Ben chimes at 11 o'clock and a 2-minute silence is observed, ended by a single cannon shot followed by the playing of Last Post by the Royal Marine buglers. Dignitaries, led by Queen Elizabeth, then lay wreaths of poppies at the Cenotaph in Whitehall. It's a powerful ceremony.

I wish we had something like it. This week we Americans will observe Veterans Day, which began in 1919 as Armistice Day, our equivalent to Remembrance Day, before it was renamed in 1954 to include all veterans. In May, we observe Memorial Day to commemorate U.S. troops who died in military service. If we combined the two holidays and added a large measure of tradition and ritual, that would be roughly equivalent to Remembrance Sunday.

The British still do pomp and ceremony better than anyone else.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Historic U.S. Property in London Sold For $650 Million

The U.S. Embassy in London announced this week that:

The U.S. State Department has entered into an agreement to sell the Chancery in London, located in Grosvenor Square. The sale is to Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment Company headquartered in Doha, Qatar. The agreement was signed for the United States by the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Louis B. Susman.

With the signing of this contract the United States takes another step towards relocating to a new state-of-the-art embassy which will enhance the urban fabric of London and demonstrate exceptional American architecture. The construction of the new U.S. Embassy in the Nine Elms area of Wandsworth will provide a modern, open and secure American diplomatic facility in London.

In early 2010, the State Department will announce a winner of the design competition for the new U.S. Embassy in London. Actual groundbreaking will depend on many factors, but it is hoped that construction will begin in 2012 or 2013 with the project completed by 2016 or 2017.

The United States will continue to occupy the chancery in Grosvenor Square until the relocation is complete.

The press release doesn't indicate what price we got for the chancery, but the London Evening Standard reported that real estate experts estimated the sale price at about $650 million.

This property sale is quite a milestone for the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) and its new construction program. Up until a year or so ago, no one I know believed that we would ever actually replace our historically and culturally significant properties in London, Paris, or Rome with new embassy buildings. I still can't imagine replacing Paris or Rome (or New Delhi, either), no matter what the Capital Security Construction Program may say. Maybe the London sale portends a move someday out of the Place de la Concorde and the Palazzo Margherita, but I'll believe it when I see it.

Regarding the buyer of our embassy property, the Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment Company is wholly owned by the Qatar Investment Authority, which is a sovereign wealth fund that manages Qatar's oil and gas revenues. So, Qatari Diar is the mechanism by which Qatar's petroleum profits are invested in foreign real estate.

The chairman of Qatari Diar is Sheikh Hamid bin Jasim bin Jaber al-Thani, who must be a Grandmaster of multi-tasking since he is also Qatar's Foreign Minister and its Prime Minister. I have to admire how the Qataris cut down on red tape and bureaucracy. It looks like Sheikh Hamid can think up a foreign investment proposal, give it the diplomatic green light, and make an executive decision to implement it, all by himself. He could probably hold an entire Qatari cabinet meeting in the back seat of his limo while riding to work in the morning!

The most impressive thing I've learned about Sheikh Hamid is that, according to his Wikipedia entry, he owns a stake in Qatar Airways. QA is my favorite airline in the whole world, and I highly recommend you fly it if you ever get the chance. They have espresso machines in business class!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Iraq Spent $85 Million on Magical Bomb Detectors

The New York Times had a story Thursday on the infuriating commercial success in Iraq - $85 million in sales and still climbing - of the oldest and most ludicrous scam explosives detector that ever cursed the security market.

Some quotes from the NYT:

BAGHDAD — Despite major bombings that have rattled the nation, and fears of rising violence as American troops withdraw, Iraq’s security forces have been relying on a device to detect bombs and weapons that the United States military and technical experts say is useless.

The small hand-held wand, with a telescopic antenna on a swivel, is being used at hundreds of checkpoints in Iraq. But the device works “on the same principle as a Ouija board” — the power of suggestion — said a retired United States Air Force officer, Lt. Col. Hal Bidlack, who described the wand as nothing more than an explosives divining rod.

Still, the Iraqi government has purchased more than 1,500 of the devices, known as the "ADE 651", at costs from $16,500 to $60,000 each. Nearly every police checkpoint, and many Iraqi military checkpoints, have one of the devices, which are now normally used in place of physical inspections of vehicles.

-- snip --

The American military does not use the devices. “I don’t believe there’s a magic wand that can detect explosives,” said Maj. Gen. Richard J. Rowe Jr., who oversees Iraqi police training for the American military. “If there was, we would all be using it. I have no confidence that these work.”

The Iraqis, however, believe passionately in them. “Whether it’s magic or scientific, what I care about is it detects bombs,” said Maj. Gen. Jehad al-Jabiri, head of the Ministry of the Interior’s General Directorate for Combating Explosives.

-- snip --

Aqeel al-Turaihi, the inspector general for the Ministry of the Interior, reported that the ministry bought 800 of the devices from a company called ATSC (UK) Ltd. for $32 million in 2008, and an unspecified larger quantity for $53 million. Mr. Turaihi said Iraqi officials paid up to $60,000 apiece, when the wands could be purchased for as little as $18,500. He said he had begun an investigation into the no-bid contracts with ATSC.

And here's the bottom line:

Colonel Bidlack said, “When they say they are selling you something that will save your son or daughter on a patrol, they’ve crossed an insupportable line into moral depravity.”

It's not just Iraqis who are buying these devices. They are also being sold to credulous security authorities in Thailand, where there is an active insurgency in the south, under the name "GT-200." From a recent story in the Bangkok Post:

A bomb detection squad later arrived at the scene and searched the area with the help of GT-200 devices, which detected nothing suspicious. Shortly afterwards, the car exploded.

The Mexican police, military, and PEMEX (the national oil company) are also buying these useless playthings, which are marketed as being able to detect drugs as well as explosives. To take a story pulled at random about the Mexican drug wars:

Responding to another call, Espinosa's crew takes up positions behind an army platoon clustered around a warehouse. Federal detectives are breaking open the lock ... Inside, the soldiers discover magazines full of AK-47 bullets scattered across a patio. In the rooms beyond are hundreds of sacks and 55-gallon drums containing chemicals used for making methamphetamines ... It's a major find — but the Mexican military claims credit. Lt. Col. Oswaldo Bejar boasts that his unit has made five busts in eight days in Uruapan, many of them using a chemical-sniffing device known as a GT-200.

By whatever name, it is the same empty box with an antenna sticking out that was debunked by U.S. government testing way back as 1995 when it was called the "Quadro Tracker," and again in 2002 when it was called the "MOLE Programmable Detection System," and yet again in 2005 when it was called the "Sniffex." It's also been sold under the names GT-200 Molecular Detector, the Alpha 6, the Scandec, the PSD-22, and no doubt many others that I'm not aware of.

I'd like to think this is a case of European Enlightenment rationalism (“I don’t believe there’s a magic wand that can detect explosives ... If there was, we would all be using it. I have no confidence that these work”) versus the traditional magical thinking of the non-western world ("Whether it’s magic or scientific, what I care about is it detects bombs”).

I'd like to think that modern westerners, with all our concern for evidence, proofs, and falsification, would never buy an explosives detector that has absolutely no theoretical basis or credible principle of operation, or any favorable test results, or a successful track record, or even any components inside the box.

Surely rational men would laugh at gibberish like this:

Or at operator training sessions like this:

I'd like to think that. Except, the U.S. military once bought a few of them too.

If the consumers of security products can't be educated out of buying this dangerous fraud, I suggest we at least agree to rename it something more descriptive, like the PLACEBO 60K, the "Predatory Lucrative Advanced Confusinator Explosive-detecting Bankable Opportunity @ $60,000."

Conflicting Signals

Hillary is confusing her friends and allies with her recent shifting statements on the matter of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. See, for example

Last week Clinton hailed Benjamin Netanyahu's "unprecedented" concessions on settlement construction, when it was fairly clear that Palestinians didn't see evidence of any concessions

See also Palestinian-American journalist Daoud Kuttab, normally a Hillary fan:

After all these conflicting signals, many Palestinians would like to know what the real position of the US secretary of state is.

Daoud is an exemplary moderate on the Palestinian side, and when he sounds exasperated, that should be taken as a warning sign.

Monday, November 2, 2009

I Live For the Uncouth and Absurd

I don't know how he saw through my anonymity, but it's easy to tell that the author of the Foreign Service Journal article on the FS Blogosphere in 2009 has been visiting my office:

“He or she [it's "he"] reacts promptly and responsibly to even the most uncouth respondent or absurd situation with equanimity, humor and meticulousness.”

Yes, that pretty much sums up my daily routine.

It's not so easy to see why the author overlooked such prominent blogs as Consul-at-Arms II and Life After Jerusalem (especially since both were featured in an earlier FSJ article), not to mention the missing but still magnifique Madam Le Consul. Clearly, his sampling of the FS Blogosphere was very spotty.

Anyway, I'm adding this statement to my annual review: "During the rating period I remained equanimical and meticulous in the face of the uncouth and absurd." And I'll try to keep that up in 2010.

Jobs for Diplomatic Historians

The State Department's Office of the Historian has had its ups and downs lately, so I'm happy to see that they are hiring two new staff historians. has two GS-12 openings for historians listed today: vacancy announcement numbers PA-2010-0002 and PA-2010-0003.

I hope this signals a return to normality for the HO.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Former Gitmo Detainees Excited in Palau

Progress on closing Gitmo continues at its customary glacial pace, as 6 former Guantanamo detainees resettle in Palau:

Six [Uighur] Chinese Muslims newly released from Guantanamo Bay were wide awake and excited Sunday as they traded life behind bars for rooms with ocean view in the tiny Pacific nation of Palau, which agreed to a U.S. request to resettle them.

-- snip --

{Palau President Johnson] Toribiong said the Uighurs would be provided medical care, housing and education, including English lessons and instruction in skills that will help them find a job.

The U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement it would continue to consult with Palau regarding the former detainees.

Before this transfer of the Uighurs, about 221 prisoners remained at Guantanamo.

Evidently the Uighurs overcame their original objections to refuge in Palau.

Six detainees down, only 215 more to go.

"Oh! Never Mind. They Just Blew Themselves Up"

Here's a CENTCOM video that I enjoyed watching while having breakfast this morning. This is how CENTCOM describes the action:

U.S. helicopters watch as insurgents blow themselves up. Apache gunships with the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, TF Pegasus, observe insurgents in the act of emplacing an Improvised Explosive Device in southern Afghanistan. But before the Apaches move in for the strike, the insurgents' bomb goes off, killing them in the act.

There was a time when videos like this one would have to leak out unofficially, but now the U.S. military is freely providing them to the public, presumably under the heading of Information Operations.

You can find tons of this sort of material on the internet now. There's even a term for it: War Porn. I find most of it uninteresting, just firepower demonstrations without much context or back-story. But this video is different.

What I like about this one is its dramatic structure. It's a 2 minute and 55 second play, with exposition ("it looks like he appears to be covering something in the road"), rising action, suspense and tension ("go away kid, go away kid, go away kid!"), a surprise climax, and falling action. This one deserves to be called War Theater.


Update on 11/2

Since the CENTCOM website is having some problems playing this video today, here's an embed to the same video on Youtube:


Update again, on March 8, 2013.

Since I notice people are hitting on this old link, I'm updating the video embed again. I hope this one will stay current for awhile. Enjoy!