Monday, May 31, 2010

Another al-Qaeda #3 Bites the Dust

The WaPo is reporting that yet another AQ #3 leader has gone down.

A U.S. official [in Pakistan] said there is "strong reason" to believe that Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, known as Sheik Saeed al-Masri, was killed, apparently by a CIA drone strike in Pakistan's tribal belt within the past two weeks.

Since they appear to have an inexhaustible supply of Number 3 men, this won't be the end of al-Qaeda, and maybe not even the beginning of the end. But at least our Predator drones are keeping AQ on the run.

Two Former U.S. Diplomats on Gaza Flotilla

Update: The wife of former Ambassador Peck has told AP that she has received an e-mail from Israel's foreign ministry informing her that Peck will be sent home, likely arriving in New York tomorrow (Tuesday). Read her interview with AP here.

I've seen nothing about the status of the other detainee, Ann Wright. However, after reading her resignation letter, I realize why her name was familiar to me. I crossed paths with her in Islamabad, December 2001, when she was part of a group that departed from there to reopen the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Presumably she will be deported from Israel tomorrow.


According to news media reports today, there were two former U.S. State Department officials on the intercepted Gaza aid flotilla. They are both in Israeli custody, and will be deported.

They are Edward L. Peck, a former Chief of Mission in Baghdad, and Ann Wright, who was one of three State Department officials to publicly resign in protest of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Memorial Day

Perfectly stated by Consul-at-Arms.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Fortress Embassies, Yet Again

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If you ask me, the Fortress Embassy trope has been explored ad nauseum for over twenty years. Nevertheless, it seems to have become a matter of great interest to official Washington once again. So, once again, I am moved to discuss inside baseball stuff like setback distances and fenestration limits. Please read no further unless you are tremendously excited by such things.

Last September, as he was departing from Warsaw, Ambassador Victor Ashe made some remarks about diplomatic architecture and security in which he recycled old arguments that others have made before and better. I thought Ambassador Ashe was partly misguided, and I made some comments about why.

Now, the Council of American Ambassadors has put Ashe's old remarks into its current (Spring 2010) publication. Since they are recycling old complaints, I'll recycle some of the my old reactions.

All the kvetching by former Ambassador Ashe and others comes down to a few core points. Here's what they are and why I think they are mistaken, in whole or in part:

Chronic Complaint #1 - These onerous embassy security requirements are something new. As Ashe says, "After the tragic bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania followed by the attack on the World Trade Center, new security requirements were imposed on embassy and consulate constructions. Diplomatic security became involved in the design process." Actually, the physical security standards for new overseas diplomatic facilities have changed hardly at all since they were first established in 1986, and Diplomatic Security is no more or less involved in design matters today than it was then. Only one thing changed after the attacks on our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and that was the new willingness of Congress to provide a steady stream of multi year funding for new embassy construction.

Chronic Complaint #2 - Setback distance, the most prominent attribute of Fortress Embassies. "The requirement of a 100 foot setback on all four sides of an embassy makes it impossible in many cases to build an embassy in the central part of most capital cities" and causes new embassies to be located in remote and inaccessible places, as happened with U.S. Embassy Zagreb. Actually, a 100-foot requirement is not so great that it alone could drive new embassy locations to remote sites. Even the huge building that will be needed to house the new U.S. Embassy in London will get all the required setback from a plot of only 5 acres, and a plot of that size certainly could have been found reasonably near Zagreb's city center. The real culprit here is the Standard Embassy Design (SED), since it requires a lot of room, usually in a rectangular plot of 10 to 15 acres, to house an entire consolidated embassy space plan consisting of offices, COM and MSGQ residences, warehouses, shops, utility buildings, and sometimes recreation facilities. The 100-foot setback standard contributes to the site selection problem, but is only a minor factor. There is no security standard that calls for new embassy sites to be of any minimum size or to be located in remote areas, as anyone with access to 12 FAH-6 can verify for himself.

Chronic Complaint #3 - New embassies are designed without regard for local security conditions. "[S]ome countries, due to a high-risk threat, require these fortress-like facilities (regrettable but true). But this is not the case in every nation ... the law needs to be changed to allow flexibility by the State Department to construct embassies consistent with the security threat in a given nation." The reality of transnational terrorism is that all nations have some threats in common, particularly the threat of large vehicle-borne bombs, and therefore certain security measures must be applied equally to every new embassy. To do otherwise would create soft targets for groups like al Qaeda to exploit. I believe that was the lesson we learned by the East Africa embassy bombings, which occurred at purportedly low threat posts.

Chronic Complaint #4 - Fortress Embassies are unfriendly. "The approach of emphasizing security over design also causes American personnel difficulty in interacting with citizens of the host nation. Citizens do not enjoy coming to the embassy where they are searched numerous times and must cross the concrete barriers which surround the embassy." We are often told that foreign clients who wish to visit U.S. embassies are deterred by the hassle and perceived insult of having to be screened and searched. I believe it; everybody hates being screened and searched. But I do not see the alternative, especially not when body-borne explosives are an established tactic that has been used by terrorists who wish to attack U.S. targets. Shall we have less entry control for U.S. embassies than we do for U.S. airlines? I have yet to hear anyone even attempt to make the case that we should.

Chronic Complaint #5 - All those Fortress Embassies look like prisons. "These embassy designs invariably connote a fortress (or even a prison) with narrow windows. Often, these buildings are just plain ugly and stick out like sore thumbs." It is often said that there is some security standard that requires new embassies to have small or narrow windows. That was true once upon a time, back in the dim mists of history, during the first year or two of the Inman program. Back then, it was impossible to obtain windows that could stay intact under large bomb blasts, so in order to minimize harm to the people inside new embassies the State Department limited fenestration - principally windows - to 15% of the building's facade. The limit was quickly raised to 30%, and I believe even that wasn't followed in every Inman building. When Congress started funding new embassies again after the East Africa bombings, there was no longer any need to limit fenestration and no such security standard or criteria exists. In fact, there seems to be nothing but windows in this new embassy that was completed in 2008. As for new embassies often being ugly, I suppose that is in the eye of the beholder, so see for yourself at this publicly available source of information which has photos of completed projects.

None of these complaints will be dispelled any time soon, I know. They will be rehashed over and over again as OBO develops its design excellence program and the accompanying strategic plan.

The phrase "déjà vu" refers to something "already seen." I need another French phrase for the topic of Fortress Embassies, something that means "I've seen it before and I know I'm going to see it again, and again." Until the French come up with that one I shall just say, "plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose."

Friday, May 28, 2010

This Could Mean War

The cold war between India and Pakistan got hotter today, as Indian police caught a Pakistani spy flying across the Indo-Pak border. Kind of.

According to Indian news media, Pak 'spy' pigeon caught on border, police suspect ISI hand:

A pigeon from Pakistan suspected to be on a "spying mission" was caught on Thursday near the Indo-Pak border here, police said here.

The white pigeon carrying a Pakistani phone number and address on its body besides a rubber ring in its feet was found by border resident Harbans Lal Saini near his house and was brought to the police station here, 40 kms from Amritsar.

SHO Police station Ramdas Jagjit Singh Chahal said that he has informed his superiors who have directed that nobody should be allowed to visit the pigeon and an update would be passed to the SSP office at least thrice in day.

"Nobody should be allowed to visit the pigeon." The pigeon is being held incommunicado? Really? Well, I just hope the pigeon was allowed to make a phone call to a lawyer before he was locked up.

Police suspect that the pigeon, which landed in Indian territory, may be on "special mission of spying" and might have been pushed by Pakistan intelligence agency ISI.

The pigeon is being kept in an air conditioned room which is being guarded by policemen. A medical examination of the bird was carried out by the doctor from the state animal husbandry department.

After the recent killing of two Pakistan-based terrorists in a gun battle in Gurdaspur district, special instructions were issued to border inhabitants to report anything suspicious to the police, the SHO said.

Chahal said he has been asked by his seniors not to leave the police station or to proceed on leave until the fate of pigeon was decided.

The number '303-6284620' was written in red on the pigeon's feathers along with a rubber stamp – Islamabad Wazirabad-Pakistan.

Chahal said they suspected that the pigeon must have landed on Indian soil from Pakistan with a message, which has not be traced so far

The SHO said that Pakistani pigeon are easily recognisable as they have a "different look".

"There are five to six families on Indo-Pak border village that have keen interest in keeping pigeons in their houses. They have told us about the difference between Indian and Pakistani birds," he said.

The cops say that Pakistani pigeons "have a different look" than Indian pigeons? Hey, that's profiling!

I ♥ Historians

I just came across this interesting news item from last year:

Students of history enjoy the most active sex lives at university, says a survey carried out by the Oxford University student newspaper Cherwell.

What's more, those who take up politics, philosophy and economics, and English literature are also more sexually active than any other undergraduate, the survey revealed.

That kind of survey has almost no validity, of course, since one should never generalize about sex based on the experiences of the English. More importantly, the survey doesn't correct for disparities in coed interest in various academic fields. You'll find lots of ladies in humanities courses but very few who major in the hard sciences, and those who do are soon, in the words of a female engineer I used to work for, "hunted to extinction" by their male classmates.

But forget all that quibbling. So the real campus studs are in history, followed by those in politics, philosophy, economics and English? That's good to know. Just FYI, I majored in both history and economics. Not that I'm bragging, but, well ... do the math.

Memorial Day Really Starts Today

Today, in preparation for Memorial Day, the troops of the U.S. Army's 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) at Ft. Myer, joined by cememonial units from the other services, will conduct the annual Flags In exercise at Arlington National Cemetery. Upon the conclusion of the last burial scheduled for today, troops carrying rucksacks full of American flags will visit each of the grave sites and plant a flag centered on, and one foot in front of, each headstone.

More photos are here.

"Top Kill" Update and Comments

The Oil Drum ("discussions about energy and our future") has resumed its live video and comment thread on BP's ongoing efforts to shut down its run-away deepwater oil well.

See the comments here, and BP's live video from its remotely operated vehicles here.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

I Suspect Alcohol Was Involved

It might be a first. A foreign diplomatic called a U.S. State Department official a" house slave" during a public event this week.

When Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson took to the podium at Tuesday night's gala event [the Africa Day celebration in Washington DC], he probably didn't expect any hecklers.

But the unruly Ambassador from Zimbabwe, H.E. Machivenyika Mapuranga, kept getting in Carson's face and just wouldn't sit down and shut up.

Mapuranga was eventually removed from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, which prompted this observation by an anonymous attendee:

That diplomat remarked that in Africa, ambassadors are such bigwigs that they would never be booted out of a public event for shouting something. But in the United States, even ambassadors can be escorted out of the room by regular event staff.

"In Africa, an ambassador is treated like a king. Here he can be humiliated just like anyone else."

That's right, we are equal opportunity humiliators over here. It's in the Constitution. And don't you forget it!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Live-Blogging "Top Kill"

This is fascinating. A bunch of oil geeks are watching the live video of the British Petroleum deep water well blow-out and are commenting on the efforts underway to stop the leak by filling it with drilling mud. Click here.

That's Not a Wall, It's a Park

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The U.S. State Department has announced that an exhibit on the new London Embassy design officially opened today at the headquarters of the American Institute of Architects in Washington, D.C.

Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake [the project architects] will lead a discussion on the winning scheme at 6:30 pm tonight at the American Institute of Architects. Following the lecture and discussion, the exhibit will be open until 9:00 pm.

The exhibit is open to the public weekdays through June 30th from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., weekdays at the American Institute of Architects located 1735 New York Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. Admission is free.

There is more information at the American Institute of Architects (AIA) website.

The embassy is essentially a cube covered in high-tech ETFE plastic that sits on a circular plaza, separating different security planes with landscaping. The embassy is across the Thames, in an area called Nine Elms, a former industrial district that’s been highlighted for redevelopment. One half of the circular site is bisected by a reflecting pool, and the other contains meadows of native American plant species, terraced on several levels to limit pedestrian and vehicular access. The security checkpoint is disguised with a green roof, and all the required setbacks and blast-resistant structural members are in order.

Here's the exhibit, lecture, and discussion in a nutshell. Or rather, in a puzzle:

Boil all this down, and the irreducible design question is one of subterfuge and artful presentation: “When is a wall not a wall?” KieranTimberlake’s answer is, “When it’s a park.”

I like the idea. There is, in fact, a perimeter wall in the London embassy design and it does, in fact, prevent uninspected vehicles from approaching closer than 30 meters as required by State Department security standards and U.S. law. If that perimeter barrier is a circular nested wall and a water feature rather than something overwhelmingly obvious, then so much the better.

Here's more:

Evidence of this fact [that embassies are "bound in symbolic communication"] is apparent in the transition from the State Department’s previous Standard Embassy Design (SED) program to its new commitment to build embassies through a GSA-inspired Design Excellence program. The SED program began as a response to the 1998 terrorist bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa, and was meant to raise the level of security at diplomatic facilities. It succeeded at this goal, but the products of the SED program were often isolated, fortress-like compounds on exurban sites designed with static templates that didn’t reflect the context of their environment. With the help of an AIA report on embassy design issued last year, the State Department has pledged to find ways to balance the need for security and quality design in each of its projects.

I'm sure the Office of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) will be pleased to learn that it has transitioned from its "previous" Standard Embassy Design program. Actually, I think that program continues, but I can't blame the AIA for trying to abolish it.

The Internet: A Force For Good, Or Just Good For Porn?

Do you share certain widely-held rosy assumptions about the beneficial political effects of global internet freedom? Assumptions such as these:

- The Internet Has Been a Force for Good
- Twitter Will Undermine Dictators
- Google Defends Internet Freedom
- The Internet Makes Governments More Accountable
- The Internet Boosts Political Participation
- The Internet Is Killing Foreign News
- The Internet Brings Us Closer Together

If you do, then Evgeny Morozov, the Yahoo! fellow at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy who also writes's Net Effect blog, urges you to think again.

Here's his bottom line:

Two decades in, the Internet has neither brought down dictators nor eliminated borders. It has certainly not ushered in a post-political age of rational and data-driven policymaking. It has sped up and amplified many existing forces at work in the world, often making politics more combustible and unpredictable. Increasingly, the Internet looks like a hyper-charged version of the real world, with all of its promise and perils, while the cyber utopia that the early Web enthusiasts predicted seems ever more illusory.

So far as I know, the State Department is still optimistic that global internet freedom will undermine dictatorial regimes by circumventing their control over information, and it even puts its money where its mouth is.

Which makes me wonder whether Evgeny Morozov has ever been in the same room as my hero Jared Cohen, the guy who is reputed to be pioneering the use of the internet to do all of those good things that Morozov says it hasn't done. Such as the revolution-by-twitter that didn't happened in Iran last year.

Speaking of Jared - I shouldn't, but I can't resist - here's his latest tweet:

RT @mkapor: More cell phones than toilets in India

Really? I've had more experience with India than I care to have, and I'm pretty sure that factoid speaks to a scarcity of toilets over there rather than to an abundance of cell phones, but okay, whatever.

Here's another one from a few days ago:

I'm thinking of taking a vacation to Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Central African Republic ... has anyone been?

I've been, and I can't recommend any of them for a vacation, although I must say that the CAR is the only place in the world where I could speak my fractured French without being laughed at, so I have to give the locals points for being patient with visiting Gringos.

Jabbering about your vacation plans is exactly the sort of thing that Twitter is good for. Undermining dictators and so forth ... not so much.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Spring Cleaning, With Some Power

My new favorite toy is this gasoline engine power washer. After doing yard work these past two weekends (Mrs. TSB is a suburban slave driver) I have found that power washing is the most fun you can have outside of a water park.

I've washed aluminum siding, brick, upper story windows, wooden flower boxes, concrete steps, walkways, decks, the driveway, my car, and even cleaned down the sidewalk as far as my water hose could reach. I re-filled the washer's gas tank three times yesterday alone.

So far I have found no - repeat, no - type of muck, mire, mold or mildew that can stand up a 2600 psi blast of water out of a 25-degree nozzle. And I'm looking hard for one, because I'm itching to use the 0-degree nozzle and really turn the full force of that bad boy loose.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

What Would You Bid For a Work Visa?

Are there any good arguments against auctioning off the right to enter the U.S. on an H-1B work visa, thereby setting a market price for something that we now basically give away? The anti-auction half of the New York Times Bloggingheads: Visas For Sale? debate can't come up with one. The closest she comes is to say "it would be incredibly regressive," which strikes me as an odd remark to make about a program that exists to benefit foreign IT professionals and assorted other hi-tech geeks.

An auction seems like a very reasonable idea to me. Let Congress set an annual quota for H-1B visas, as it does now, let the State Department process and screen applicants, as it does now, and then open an auction in which the qualified applicants or their sponsoring U.S. employers bid against each other, thereby setting a fair market price for an H-1B ticket.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Aunt Zeituni Gets Asylum

The Kenyan Aunt of the President of the United States (KAOPOTUS), Ms. Zeituni Onyango, has finally prevailed over the legal system and been awarded asylum in the United States by an immigration court.

Our KAOPOTUS, whose situation I've been following since last year (here, here, and here), arrived in the U.S. on a tourist visa in 2000 and applied for political asylum in 2002, reportedly citing fears of violence in her native Kenya. Her request was turned down in 2004. She appealed the rejection of her request twice, but was denied each time and ordered to leave the country. Onyango remained in her Boston apartment illegally - and without any difficultly - until April of 2009, when a judge gave her permission to stay in the United States while he considered her case.

After three denials of her asylum request, the fourth time was the charm. According to today's Boston Herald:

A jubilant Zeituni Onyango celebrated in South Boston today after learning a U.S. immigration court granted her asylum - a decision her neighbors speculated was probably helped by her nephew, President Obama.

“It’s obvious her nephew helped,” said neighbor Marion Swain. “She’s a very nice person - very well spoken. That’s life.”

Onyango faced being deported to Kenya by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, but a judge ruled she can now apply for a work visa and green card.

“I don’t want to be disturbed,” said Onyango through the door of her public housing unit on L Street.

She doesn't want to be disturbed? I can't blame her. The government didn't disturb her peace during the five years she was a fugitive, so why should the news media bother her now?

The basis for her asylum request was never made public. People who seek asylum must show that they face persecution in their homeland on the basis of religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group.

“The asylum process is confidential and she wants to keep it that way, so we can’t get into details on why the judge granted asylum or the exact basis for her claim,” said her attorney Scott Bratton. He added: “She doesn’t want people to feel sorry for her.”

What's that? She just got awarded asylum after eight years of requests and appeals because she claims to face persecution back in Kenya, but now she doesn't want people to feel sorry for her? Is it too late to revoke that asylum?

Today's story was carried in Kenyan news media, and KAOPOTUS's claims of persecution generated quite a few reader comments (here), almost none of them favorable. This is a typical one:

This woman should never have been given assylum. At least not POLITICAL! What political persecution does she face in Kenya and what violence is she running away from? These are the people who go rubishing our country in foreign lands and degrade us. And there are many of such!

The case of Aunt Zeituni really sets the political asylum bar low. Will anyone get refused again? And by "anyone," I mean anyone not related to a U.S. president?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Have Oakleys, Will Travel

As it did last year, the State Department is once again hiring Security Protection Specialists, i.e., Limited Non-Career Appointment specialists at the FP-04 pay level who will supplement DS agents as supervisors of high-threat protection contractors.

Cool shades are a must in that line of work, along with all sorts of other studly wear.

From the job announcement:

The Department of State, Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS), is seeking highly qualified and motivated men and women with extensive experience in protective security operations to serve as Foreign Service Security Protective Specialists at certain U.S. Embassies, Consulates and regional offices abroad.

The announcement specifies those offices abroad will be: "Embassy Baghdad, Iraq Regional Embassy Offices Erbil, Al Hillah, Tallil and Basra; Embassy Kabul; Consulate General Jerusalem and Consulate Peshawar." Just in case any would-be applicant was thinking he might be assigned to, say, Milan.

SPSs will work in tandem with DS Special Agents (SA) to ensure that a DS SPS or SA is always present and involved with every protective motorcade element. The SPS or SA may act as the Detail Leader and may supervise other DS or contractor personnel.

-- snip --

Appointment as a Security Protective Specialist will be in the Limited Non-Career Appointment category. This category is based upon an annually renewable appointment with a 5-year maximum. Extensions beyond five years are not permitted. At the conclusion of the appointment, or at any time during the appointment SPSs may apply for any Department position for which they are qualified, to include the Special Agent position.

Federal retirement benefits accrue during time spent as a DS Security Protective Specialist.

This job sounds like a good deal for somebody currently working as a protection contractor who wants a direct-hire job that could transition into a DS agent slot in a few years.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Pakistani Denies Terrorism Charges: "I Don't Have a Beard"

The clean-shaven Muhammed Saif-ur-Rehman Khan (left)

*** Update - My latest news is that the Chilean judge in this case has rejected the prosecutor's request for preventive custody, and has released Mr. Khan pending trial on two counts of illegal association with an indigenous terrorist group and weapons and explosives violations. ***

Last Monday, a Pakistani citizen in Chile was arrested after he entered the U.S. Embassy in Santiago with traces of high explosive on his belongings. Today, he has been charged by local authorities with possession of explosives.

Here's the Reuters story, Chile charges Pakistani man in U.S. embassy case:

The man, identified by the U.S. State Department as 28-year-old Muhammad Saif-ur-Rehman Khan, was taken into custody at the embassy on Monday and held under an anti-terror law.

Police said traces of the explosive Tetryl were found on Khan's documents and mobile telephone. Tetryl is a compound used as a booster to help detonate explosive charges.

"He has been formally charged for illegal possession of explosives under a weapons control law," a court source said after a closed-door hearing in the capital Santiago.

The presiding judge did not invoke the anti-terror law and it was unclear whether Khan would continue to be detained.

A senior State Department official said on Tuesday that Khan, a student who had been in Chile for four months, was invited to the embassy so officials could notify him that his visa for the United States was being revoked.

The U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he was not aware of any link between Khan and the Pakistani-American accused of trying to bomb New York's Times Square on May 1.

Khan has denied any wrongdoing and instead criticized the United States.

"I have nothing to do with bombs. I have nothing to do with terrorists. I don't have a beard," Khan told reporters on Tuesday evening. "They (the United States) just want to cover up their shame and guilt for what they have done or are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Mr. Khan might not know anything about bombs or terrorists, or even about how he came to have traces of explosives on his cell phone and papers, but he does have his suspicions about why he is in custody.

It might all be the doing of "Mr. Bill from the U.S. Consulate" who, without any explanation, terminated an interview about a routine visa matter and locked Khan up in a room.

Hear the beardless Khan protest his innocence in the video clip below.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Fortress Embassies Under Seige

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Way back in July, I posted about an initiative by the architectural community, in and out of the U.S. State Department, to roll back some of the security requirements and management strictures that apply to new embassy design:

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has released a report on the distressingly low state of contemporary U.S. diplomatic design, a report done for the State Department's Office of Overseas Building Operations (OBO). It calls upon the Guardians of High Culture to fight back against the Troglodytes of Government Security, those lowbrow types who supposedly gained the upper hand over Art and Beauty after the 1983 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Beirut and Kuwait and haven't given it up since.

Although a lowbrow type myself, I look forward to a clash over this stuff since I think the AIA makes many good recommendations ... So let the clash begin! Bring it on, you architects!

Well, it took them ten whole months to bring it, but at long last the clash has begun.

The opening shot was fired today by Senator John Kerry, whose office sent out a press release with this mouthful of a title: To Improve Security And Enhance Environmental Sustainability, Chairman Kerry Introduces Legislation To Advance U.S. Embassy And Consulate Design. It's about a bill he has introduced, the Embassy Design and Security Act (S.2971), which would create a 'design excellence program' at the State Department and take other steps to free the Guardians of High Culture from the handcuffs that were clapped on them years ago by the Troglodytes of Government Security.

Kerry, joined by former Senator William Cohen, also wrote a brief article for CNN about his bill. These quotes from Concrete bunker U.S. embassies send wrong message will give you the idea:

The design of America's embassies overseas might seem at best a mere question of bricks and mortar or a relatively arcane issue in a time of big challenges.

But as we wage a global battle for hearts and minds, embassies can send a powerful message to people everywhere about what America stands for. As the first impression many foreign people have of the United States, embassies can be another force in our arsenal to convey who we really are, to bring allies closer to us, and, yes, even to make us safer.

Unfortunately, many of our embassies are not sending the right message. Our diplomats are engaged in heroic and difficult work every day. But too often, their buildings -- cold concrete at a forbidding distance, hidden away from city life, with little regard for the local surroundings -- undermine our diplomats' message and even their mission.

-- snip --

Let us be clear: Our diplomats risk their lives daily. Their security will always come first.

TSB Note: Whenever I see the words "security will always come first" they are invariably followed by the word "but".

But because diplomats are already taking such risks, we want to empower them to achieve their mission. If the job of diplomats is to reach out to people, promote U.S. values, obtain and share information, and help advance our diplomatic agenda, then we have to build embassies that neither compromise our diplomats' safety nor their work.

Kerry's bill, and in fact the whole 'Excellence in Design' business, is not supported by everyone in the Office of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO), and neither is is opposed by everyone in OBO's counterpart organization within Diplomatic Security. I'll have more comments on this topic in the next few days.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Another Bumbling Would-Be Terrorist

The Associated Press is reporting that a Pakistani gentleman was arrested by police in Santiago, Chile, after he entered the U.S. Embassy with traces of high explosive on his belongings. (This was not with a bomb, just detectable levels of explosive residue.) According to an unnamed senior State Department official in Washington, the Pakistani had been called to the embassy in order for officials there to inform him that they were revoking a U.S. visa that he held.

This sounds like a two-for-the-price-of-one deal. First, the embassy located a U.S. visa holder about whom it had received adverse information, and managed to yank his visa before he could attempt to enter the country. Second, the putz strolled into the embassy fresh from handling or having been around explosives, and he is now in Chilean custody being interrogated. Sweet!

That's almost as good as the one about the Pakistani immigrant who locked the keys to his get-away car inside the malfunctioning truck bomb he parked in Times Square. What will these guys do for an encore?

Here's the story as carried by National Public Radio, which had the most detail of any news account I saw today. Chilean Police Detain Pakistani In US Embassy:

SANTIAGO, Chile May 11, 2010, 07:47 pm ET

Traces of explosives were found on a Pakistani man who was summoned to the U.S. Embassy because his U.S. visa had been revoked, authorities said Tuesday, and a Chilean judge ordered him held in a high-security prison under anti-terrorism laws.

Mohammed Saif-ur-Rehman Khan, 28, was detained Monday after the embassy's detectors were set off by traces of bomb-making material, said Mario Schilling, a Chilean prosecutor's spokesman. Schilling did not elaborate on what kind of explosives were involved or provide more details about the case.

U.S. Ambassador Paul Simon said there was not any indication that the embassy was a target of a attack.

A judge agreed on Tuesday to keep Khan behind bars for five more days under Chile's anti-terrorism law to give more time for the investigation. Khan has not been charged with any crime.

Before being taken to jail, Khan was driven by police to a hospital for a medical checkup, and was able to briefly speak to reporters from a window of the police vehicle.

"No, I am not a terrorist. I do not have nothing to do with bombs, I am a working man," he said in heavily accented English.

"This represents an attempt by them to cover up their shame for what they have done in Iraq and Pakistan," he added, according to Chile's Radio Cooperativa.

His detention came nine days after Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistan-born U.S. citizen, allegedly tried to set off a bomb-laden SUV in New York's Times Square after receiving training from the Taliban in Pakistan.

Chile's interior minister, Rodrigo Hinzpeter, promised a thorough investigation. "We will be relentless in the fight against any form of crime, especially terrorism," he told reporters while touring southern Chile.

In Washington, the State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley, said U.S. and Chilean officials would conduct a joint investigation.

Investigators in white hazardous-materials suits searched Khan's apartment in a student residence in downtown Santiago.

A senior State Department official in Washington said U.S. authorities had received information about Khan that led them to revoke his visa and he was asked to visit the embassy in Santiago so diplomats could inform him of the revocation, as required by U.S. law. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case publicly.

Simon, the U.S. ambassador, told The Associated Press the embassy called Chile's government and police after "security procedures detected some traces of explosives during the interview." He said it didn't appear the embassy itself was targeted.

According to the Chilean newspaper La Segunda, the substance detected was Tetryl, a compound used to increase the explosive power of TNT.

TSB note: See here for a description of Tetryl and its use as a booster explosive. It isn't the sort of thing you might pick up innocently by, say, gardening or walking around a farm.

Asked about the report, Schilling, the prosecutor's spokesman, said, "I am not authorized to say that." He also wouldn't comment on a report in the newspaper El Mercurio that the substance was detected on a bag, documents and cellular telephone carried by Khan.

El Mercurio reported that Khan was in Chile legally to study tourism and had a job at a hotel.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Panic in Tweeterville

Our nation's tweeters dodged a bullet today, although if you have a job or a family life, you might not have noticed. Fortunately, the WaPo's Social Media reporter, Rob Pegoraro, was on top of the situation: Twitter briefly zeroes out 'follow' counts to fix a bug:

Twitter users might have felt a little devalued earlier this afternoon when their "following" and "follower" counts mysteriously reset to zero. As the latter number is the primary way people on the popular status-update-sharing site keep score -- it indicates how many other Twitter users see your updates when they log on -- seeing that vanish could have been distressing. (The former number indicates how many other people's updates you follow, and most people pay far less attention to it.)

The root cause of the hiccup was the discovery by some sneaky users of the San Francisco-based site of an old bug that let them force other users to follow them. That could allow for a fair amount of mischief, so Twitter management shut off its follow functions to close that vulnerability and posted a brief note on the site's status blog to that effect:

"We identified and resolved a bug that permitted a user to "force" other users to follow them. We're now working to rollback all abuse of the bug that took place. Follower/following numbers are currently at 0; we're aware and this too should shortly be resolved."

Within an hour or so, the site was back to normal.

Considering how rapidly Twitter has grown from its start-up roots, I'm somewhat surprised that this sort of glitch hasn't happened earlier or more often. And I'm relieved to see the site recover so quickly; things could have been a whole lot uglier in Twitterville.

It looks like Americans came together and supported each other in this very brief time of crisis. The following comments on the Twitter debugging story were posted to the WaPo's web site tonight:

I'm so relieved our nation made it through this terrible tragedy.

First the earthquake in Haiti and now this. Bad things comes in threes, so who knows what could be next?

Well done. I have never been prouder of my fellow Netizens.

Beware Tweets "of a Menacing Nature"

I've been browsing Twitter almost every day for the last few weeks, as I make up my mind about doing a Super Awesome Jared Parody Contest, and while I've often been appalled by tweets I have never felt menaced by one. Which makes me shake my head at today's news from Britain.

A British man has been convicted of the crime of tweeting with intent to menace after he sent off an intemperate Twitter message expressing frustration with an airport delay. From Briton Convicted for ‘Menacing’ Tweet Against Robin Hood Airport:

A British man who was arrested in January after joking on Twitter that he would blow Robin Hood Airport in Doncaster, England, “sky high” if his flight was delayed, was found guilty on Monday of the crime of sending a menacing message over a public telecommunications network.

Paul Chambers, a 26-year-old trainee accountant, was ordered to pay £1,000 ($1,500) in fines and court costs by a judge at Doncaster Magistrates Court, who said his post was “of a menacing nature in the context of the times in which we live,” according to The Daily Telegraph.

-- snip --

After he was arrested, and questioned for seven hours for possible violations of British anti-terror laws, the self-described “film-watching, football-loving, rubbish-talking, hyphen-using idiot,” told The Independent in London, “I had to explain Twitter to them in its entirety because they’d never heard of it.” The newspaper reported that the joke had immediate serious consequences for Mr. Chambers. He was suspended from work and initially told he would be banned from Robin Hood Airport for life, although that was later rescinded.

I love it that the airport was named after Robin Hood. But then, if Robin Hood were still around today, he'd no doubt get nicked for violation of some anti-terror law himself. The Sheriff of Nottingham is in charge these days.

Just Because You Should Know

The Department of State has thoughtfully provided an authoritative list of all Treaties in Force as of January 1, 2010 .

As every American knows, Article VI, Clause 2, of the United States Constitution says the Constitution, Federal Statutes, and U.S. treaties are "the supreme law of the land." Actually, in the case of treaties, they are maybe not quite so supreme as all that, but they are important nonetheless.

Read and discuss.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Modernizing Overseas Absentee Voting

I saw some excellent news tonight in the New York Times, States Move to Allow Overseas and Military Voters to Cast Ballots by Internet:

Nearly three million overseas and military voters from at least 33 states will be permitted to cast ballots over the Internet in November using e-mail or fax, in part because of new regulations proposed last month by the federal agency that oversees voting.

The move comes as state and federal election officials are trying to find faster ways to handle the ballots of these voters, which often go uncounted in elections because of distance and unreliable mail service.

About 22 percent of military and overseas voters surveyed were unable to return their ballots in the 2008 election because of such problems, according to the Overseas Vote Foundation, a nonpartisan advocacy group.

Cybersecurity experts, election officials and voting-integrity advocates, however, have raised concerns about the plan. They point out that e-mail messages can be intercepted, that voting Web sites can be hacked or taken down by malicious attacks, and that the secrecy of ballots is hard to ensure once they are sent over the Web.

I'm sure our overseas citizens appreciate the efforts of those cybersecurity geeks and voter-integrity advocates. But, really, how could internet voting be any worse than what we have now, when our present system disenfranchises a whopping 22 percent of overseas voters?

Here's the bottom line:

Johnnie McLean, the deputy director for administration at the North Carolina State Board of Elections, which has offered overseas and military voters the option to use e-mail or fax for their ballots since 2006, said that when she gets a call from a soldier overseas who has missed deadlines but wants to vote, she is glad she has the e-mail option.

“Even though there are security issues,” Ms. McLean said, “those soldiers are real happy, too, that they don’t have to lose their right to vote.

It's about time the present absentee voting system got fixed. No one serving his nation overseas should have to wonder whether or not he will be able to cast his vote.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Faisal Shahzad: A Man For All Seasons

Passport has a nice summary of the news media feeding frenzy that took place after Faisal Shahzad's Times Square would-be carbomb fizzled.

Read all about what we thought we knew, but didn't really:

The bomber was a "lone wolf." Or maybe he was actually trained in Pakistan.

The bomber was a "white male." Or a light-skinned South Asian.

The guy taking off his shirt in the video was involved. Probably not.

Vietnam veteran Lance Orton first noticed the smoking van. Or maybe it was Senegalese immigrant Aliou Niasse.

The bombing was in response to South Park's depiction of the Prophet Muhammed. Or U.S. foreign policy.

Faisal Shahzad was arrested with two other men. But they didn't do anything.

Faisal Shahzad is from Karachi. Or maybe it was Peshawar. Or Kashmir.

Faisal Shahzad's father was a Pakistani military official. Or maybe it was his grandfather.

The Pakistani Taliban took credit for the attempt. Until they denied it. But it still kinda seems like they did it.

I can add a few more. Mayor Bloomberg speculated that the bomber must be a Tea Party guy upset about the healthcare bill. Or about something else. Shahazad was under the eagle-eyed surveillance of the FBI every moment. Or he slipped away, and the FBI lost him until after he had boarded a flight to Dubai. Shahzad was on a terrorist watchhlist in 1999. Or he wasn't really. Shahzad was motivated by news reports of Predator drone strikes in Pakistan. Or by video tapes of a Yemeni cleric's sermons. (Those last two might not be contradictory, I'll admit).

Maybe it's because of the ambiguity about him that Shahzad has become a regular Rorschach test for domestic politics. Do you notice how he seems to provide a peg for advancing all sorts of political narratives? His home mortage was foreclosed, so he's a victim of the housing bubble. He bought a gun, so new gun restrictions ought to be imposed. He is a naturalized U.S. citizen, so we need to tighten up our naturalization procedures. He received both a student visa and a 'specialized work' H1-B visa, so we ought to stop admitting Muslims.

The development of this case will be a treasure trove of political opportunism.

Report on the Consolidation of Diplomatic Security Training (May 2008)

My post of yesterday about the law suit that has been filed by a community group in southern Maryland, in regard to the government's plans to construct a hard-skills security training center for State Department use, mentioned a government report on the consolidation of Diplomatic Security Training.

Here is a link to that report, courtesy of the Department of State itself.

I have no direct interest in the matter of where the Foreign Affairs Security Training Center eventually gets established. However, I can see why that report interests the community groups that filed suit, because it makes clear that as of May 2008 the Department of State desired to consolidate its security training at Bill Scott Raceway in Summit Point, West Virginia. That choice would make sense since the Department has been using BSR for driving and firearms training for 25 years, it is reasonably convenient to Washington DC, and the Department already has interim facilities there.

The report mentions due diligence, engineering, architectural and cost-benefit studies, as well as a Fiscal Year 2009 budget request, for acquiring and developing a 240-acre plot adjacent to BSR as a consolidated training site. It even has schematics of that plot and how it would be integrated with BSR and the existing interim facilities.

But, in late 2009, the Department announced that its best option for a consolidated training center is to create a whole new facility, for substantially more money, at a location that is farther away than BSR, and where there is no existing infrastructure to build on.

No one ever explained to the public why the Summit Point option was taken off the table during 2009.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Maryland Group Sues Over Foreign Affairs Security Training Center

Local citizens in southern Maryland have not gone along quietly with the federal government's plans to build a hard-skills training center for Diplomatic Security in their bucolic community. They have forced the government to hold a series of public meetings on the matter, but that did nothing to overcome their objections. Now, they are going to take the government to court.

The Queen Anne's Conservation Association (QACA) is suing to force the Department of State and the General Services Administration to release documents relating to the selection of a site in Queen Anne's County for construction of the Foreign Affairs Security Training Center (FASTC). The Association had previously filed a Freedom of Information Act request for those documents, but received no reply.

Read the complaint here, and a press release from the Queen Anne's Conservation Association here.

The Association's spokesman says they have already informally obtained a “Report on the Consolidation of Diplomatic Security Training” and found that it contains some new information - new to the public, that is - which raises questions about the selection of Queen Anne's County for the FASTC. In fact, he says the Report indicates the government originally preferred Summit Point, West Virginia, which is one of the locations where the State Department currently conducts training. The Association would like to find out why Summit Point was dropped from the government's plans.

That sounds like a reasonable request to me.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Fredo Corleone Syndrome

Passport, the Foreign Policy magazine blog, has some information about the impressive Pakistani family connections of Faisal Shahzad, the hapless Times Square bomber. He is the son of a retired Pakistani Air Force Vice Marshal who may also have been head of Pakistan's Civil Aviation Authority.

That background gives him something in common with a number of other radical Jihadis, and it might be a clue to his motivation. As Passport notes:

If all this is true, it's pretty interesting. There seems to be a pattern of mediocre sons from elite families becoming terrorists. Osama bin Laden's dad was a wildly succesful contractor with close ties to Saudi royalty. Underpants bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's father was a prominent Nigerian banker and one of the wealthiest men in Africa. Perhaps they feel like failures next to their successful dads, and militancy offers a pathway toward self-respect.

I can just hear Shahzad / Fredo whining:

"It ain't the way I wanted it! I can handle things! I'm smart! Not like everybody says... like dumb... I'm smart and I want respect!"

Truly, we could all learn much about power and conflict by applying The Godfather Doctrine.

Even better, we all ought to read Eric Hoffer's classic The True Believer. Nothing is better at explaining the attraction of fanaticism for disappointed people.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

May the Fourth

Did you know that today is Star Wars Appreciation Day? May the Fourth Be With You.

(I can take no responsibility for that joke. My kid told it to me.)

Another FRUS Volume: Korea, 1969-1972

The State Department's Office of the Historian announced today that HO has released the latest volume of the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series, Volume XIX, Part 1, Korea, 1969-1972.

The Department of State released today Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, Volume XIX, Part 1, Korea, 1969–1972. (Part 2 of the volume on U.S. bilateral relations with Japan, 1969–1972 will be published at a later date.) During the first Nixon administration, Washington confronted an array of difficult foreign policy questions concerning the Korean peninsula. The preponderance of documents published in this volume concern security issues. As in earlier years, U.S. policymakers continued to deal with North Korean provocations between 1969 and 1972, the most serious being the North Korean Air Force’s destruction of a U.S. surveillance (EC–121) airplane over the Sea of Japan in April 1969. The U.S. military presence in South Korea also surfaced as an important topic. During Nixon’s first term, the United States reduced its forces in Korea from 63,000 to 43,000 soldiers. Although President Park was unable to prevent the U.S. drawdown, he did extract aid with which to modernize the South Korean military. Other records in this publication relate to the deployment of South Korean combat forces in Vietnam.

This volume documents U.S. satisfaction with the Republic of Korea’s increasing confidence as an international actor, a result of the South’s burgeoning economic prosperity and its (uneven) growth in political stability. Park successfully thwarted efforts to improve the relationship between Japan and North Korea. Instead, South Korea made its own contacts with the North Korean Government, an initiative that yielded few tangible results but did promote regional stability. Nonetheless, the Nixon administration was not fully successful at allaying Seoul’s misgivings about two of Nixon’s most important foreign policy initiatives: the improvement in relations between the United States and China, and the U.S. departure from Vietnam. Park’s fears about U.S. reliability added to tensions that resulted from economic competition, especially in the textile trade.

The Republic of Korea’s skepticism of the U.S. security guarantee was used to justify authoritarian domestic policies. In 1970 Park and his party amended the Korean Constitution to permit his election to a third term as the country’s president. The following year, the two titans of late 20th century South Korean politics, Park Chung Hee and Kim Dae Jung, competed for the presidency. Department of State officials endeavored to demonstrate balance by making themselves available to both candidates. When Park, victorious in the 1971 election, declared martial law in October 1972, the U.S. Government expressed frustration with this blow to the Republic of Korea’s political institutions. U.S. officials feared that alliance with South Korea could be seen by some as implicating them in Park’s actions. Given Park’s determination to adopt anti-democratic measures, U.S. efforts to respond by punishing South Korea would likely be either ineffective or create instability there, either outcome potentially damaging the U.S.-Korean relationship.

The volume and this press release are available on the Office of the Historian website at Copies of the volume will be available for purchase from the U.S. Government Printing Office online at (GPO S/N 044–000–02610–4; ISBN 978–0–16–077108–8), or by calling toll-free 1–866–512–1800 (D.C. area 202–512–1800). For further information, contact Susan Weetman, Acting General Editor of the Foreign Relations series, at (202) 663–1276 or by e-mail to

Complaint Unsealed in Times Square Bomb Case

Read it here: United States of America vs. Faisal Shahzad, filed today before a United States Magistrate for the Southern District of New York.

For a guy with a Bachelor's in information systems and a Master's of Business Administration (see here), Shahzad must not have learned much at that bomb-making school he claims to have attended in Pakistan. Maybe he was absent the day the class was taught about fertilizer.

The subject of Mr. Shahzad and his visa history came up at today's State Department press briefing, and resulted in the following unsatisfactory exchange:

QUESTION: Can we go back to the – your very first thing on the – Pakistan?


QUESTION: First of all, a couple questions about the suspect who is in custody, who is a nationalized citizen. Can you tell us when he – presumably, he got a visa to get to the States in the first place before he became a naturalized citizen. Can you tell us when that visa was issued and what kind of visa it was?

MR. CROWLEY: I will – I think I’ve actually heard some reporting in the last few minutes on that, but I’ll take the question as to whether we can release specific information about his visa history.

QUESTION: You’ve heard reporting on this in the last few minutes?

MR. CROWLEY: Actually, I was watching NBC.

QUESTION: Okay. Well, if you’ve heard reporting on it, then you surely know.

MR. CROWLEY: Oh, I’m not disputing that we know. I’m just – I have to go sort through legal questions as to whether we’re allowed to release that information.

QUESTION: Well, he’s been charged with a crime.

MR. CROWLEY: I understand that.

QUESTION: I don’t think that – the Privacy Act doesn’t apply here.

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not sure if you – I can see a situation where if you’re convicted of a crime, perhaps you forfeit certain Privacy Act (inaudible) – I mean, I’ve agreed to take --

QUESTION: Well, once --

MR. CROWLEY: Wait a second. I’ve agreed to take the question.

QUESTION: Well, I’m a little surprised that --

MR. CROWLEY: I have to sort --

QUESTION: But I’m a little surprised that you don’t have that information ready to go. You clearly would have known this is going to be a matter of interest, no?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, there – I think there’s a difference between whether we have provided full information on this individual’s travel to the United States prior to becoming a citizen. That, you can rest assured, we have provided to the ongoing investigation. Whether we’re in a position to discuss this publicly is a separate issue.

QUESTION: Well, then when did he apply for and when did he receive a U.S. passport?

MR. CROWLEY: Again, I will take all – well, wait a second. I mean, again, all of these issues are subject to the Privacy Act. I pledge --

QUESTION: I’m sorry. This guy tried to blow up a car in Times Square (inaudible).

MR. CROWLEY: Let me finish. Let me finish. As to his visa history and as to whether or not – as to his passport information, I’ll take those questions. If we can release them publicly, I will do so.

QUESTION: There is --

QUESTION: No, no. Hold on a second. So you do know. It’s not as if you – I mean, the problem is that it sounds like you don’t know.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, but hang on a second. Does the United States State Department know if it has issued a visa to this individual in the past? Yes, we know. Does the United States Department of State know if we have issued a passport to this individual? Yes, we know. Again, whether I can share that information publicly, I’ve just got to consult before I can release that.

QUESTION: And on the cooperation with Pakistan, what is it that so far that you’re aware of that the Pakistanis have done?

MR. CROWLEY: I’ll defer to the Pakistanis to announce what they’ve done.

Hey, gentlemen of the press, just because someone has been charged with a crime doesn't release U.S. government agencies from their legal responsibility not to disclose information they may hold about him:

"No agency shall disclose any record which is contained in a system of records by any means of communication to any person, or to another agency, except pursuant to a written request by, or with the prior written consent of, the individual to whom the record pertains" etc.

Wait for the book and movie to come out, Mr. Questioner. Shahzad will tell you all about his history then.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Times Square Not-a-Bombing Story, Day 3

The failed car bomb in Times Square has generated more reporting and commentary based on less actual news than any other incident I can think of.

The New York Times was all over the story today, with five sidebars about bombs and security precautions to eke out its insubstantial main story. The WaPo was almost as overheated.

Even the Taliban inserted itself into the media buzz, and made a less than credible claim of responsibility for the would-be attack. Considering how inept the attacker was, the Taliban is really slumming to take credit for that one.

We learned that the stolen SUV had been loaded with three tanks of propane (with their valves safely closed), two jugs of gasoline, and about 30 large firecrackers. I have to say I'm not too impressed by that list. That could describe an SUV being driven by one of my relatives on his way to a cookout at the beach, but only if you added some rifle and pistol ammunition, because we usually like a little celebratory gunfire.

Speaking of guns, the SUV also contained a metal gun locker. Only, instead of guns, it was filled with about 100 pounds of fertilizer. Plain fertilizer, the kind you might put on your lawn. It had not been mixed with fuel oil into an explosive preparation, so it was harmless. Once again, I'm not feeling very threatened.

The only new news today was a 20-second video showing a purported 'person of interest.' The video is remarkably inconclusive, and both Mayor Bloomberg and Police Chief Kelly immediately hedged as to its significance.

The Mayor said on the Today Show: “the person on the tape may not become a suspect” ... “There are millions of people that come through Times Square” ... “This person happened to be in a position which a camera got a good shot of him, and maybe he had something to do with it, but there’s a very good chance that he did not. We’re exploring a lot of leads.”

Police Chief Kelly told the NYT: “We just felt that person warranted an interview” ... “It could be perfectly innocent.”

Both the news media and the legions of government spokesmen would be well advised to take a deep breath, relax, and wait until there is something new to report.


As an aside, the mention of celebratory gunfire at family cookouts made me think of the excellent song Choctaw Bingo by James McMurtry. The lyrics include this hair-raising shopping list for a family reunion:

Bought a SKS rifle and a couple a full cases of that steel core ammo
With the berdan primers from some East bloc nation that no longer needs 'em
And a Desert Eagle that's one great big ol' pistol
I mean .50 caliber made by badass Hebrews
And some surplus tracers for that old BAR of Slayton's
Soon as it gets dark we're gonna have us a time

The song's worth a listen. It's a much better way to spend a few minutes than enduring another rehash of fluff and hysteria about the Times Square not-a-bombing.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

A Safe Assumption About the Times Square Vehicle Bomb

The investigation into yesterday's failed Times Square bombing continues, and speculation about the bomber's identify and motive runs wild. Was it a Muslim or an infidel? Foreign or domestic? Retaliation against South Park's Viacom distributors or a blow against corporate oppressors? The Taliban or al-Qaeda? Anarchists or militias? Personally, I see no reason to jump to conclusions.

People have been using homemade explosives in New York City fairly regularly over the last few years, to include at the British Consulate in May 2005, at the Mexican Consulate in October 2007, at a Times Square Army recruiting in March 2008, and at an upper East Side Starbucks in May 2009. So far as I recall, there have been no arrests in any of those cases. To be sure, there were differences between those cases and yesterday's failed car bomb. The old cases involved small explosive charges that were detonated between the hours of 3:30 and 4:30 AM, presumably to avoid causing casualties, whereas the vehicle bomb was a large if highly eccentric assembly that fizzled and smoked at about 6:30 PM in a heavily trafficked location.

The most useful observation about the Times Square bomb that I've read so far was a piece re-tweeted by Marisa Urgo and written by Leah Farrall, a former senior Counter Terrorism Intelligence Analyst with the Australian Federal Police. According to a note on the failed [vehicle-borne improvised explosive device] in Times Square:

[W]hat strikes me about it all is the problem that repeatedly faces terrorists…actually getting something to go boom.

My first take is whoever did this didn’t have a whole lot of training, if any. And could have solely gone off manuals they’ve found on the net.

There are ample training materials out there from all manner of terrorist groups and crazies. And plenty of things that outline how to build a device just like this.

That said they knew enough to try to take identifying markers off the vehicle. However, this too can be found in a number of online guides.

Anyway, my point is that it is far more difficult to get something to go boom (for the average untrained person) than what people think. This is why, for example, training for construction of explosives and explosives devices in terrorist training camps has historically taken up to two years, as opposed to the usual basic training where people are trained how to *use* explosives instead of how to build devices. It is an ongoing problem for militant groups. This is why some of them (and here I’m thinking AQ) often sent the detonator or a key part of it back with those it was deploying to carry out attacks. Especially for the more sophisticated attacks. Or they gave intensive one on one or small group training. Not that this is the case here, but I point it out to reinforce the point that when groups or individuals don’t have training in construction of devices there is less likelihood their devices will detonate properly.

That's all that can be safely assumed right now. The bomber was an untrained person who was willing to cause mass casualties.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Multicultural Encounter in Houston Parking Garage = International Incident

The New York Times is reporting that the Chinese Deputy Consul-General in Houston had a minor encounter with local law enforcement last weekend, and now the Chi-Coms are making a big deal about it. I say, the Deputy CG is lucky it was Houston Police he was trying to evade and not Walker Texas Ranger, or else that injury to his neck might not have been so minor.

From the NYT, Diplomat’s Arrest in Houston Spurs Complaint From China:

Three Houston police officers caused an international incident last weekend when they followed a Chinese diplomat into a parking garage at the Chinese Consulate and arrested him, injuring him in the process, the authorities said.

Mayor Annise Parker said late Thursday that the officers had been restricted to desk duty while the police and the State Department investigated the arrest. The officers have said they were unaware the building the diplomat had entered was a consulate and off limits to them.

The arrest took place Saturday night. The diplomat, Yu Boren, the deputy consul general, was treated at a hospital for minor injuries to his neck and head. His wife, who was riding with him and also has a position at the consulate, was not injured, a spokesman for the consulate, Wang Peijun, said. “They are both at work now,” Mr. Wang said Friday.

In Beijing, the Chinese Foreign Ministry lodged a formal complaint with the United States over the arrest of Mr. Yu, noting that the police had violated international treaties by following Mr. Yu onto the consulate’s grounds.

The United States responded with a promise to investigate the episode quickly and fully. “The department takes this incident very seriously and has been in touch with the Chinese Embassy about what occurred,” a spokeswoman at the State Department, Nicole Thompson, said.

The police department declined to release any details about the arrest of Mr. Yu. The mayor’s office identified the officers as Timothy J. Riley II, Quang Tran and Victor Olivares. A local CBS television station, KTRK, reported on Thursday that the officers had followed Mr. Yu because his car was missing its rear license plate.

The officers' names were Riley, Tran, and Olivares? Houston is a more cosmopolitan place than I would have assumed. Add a Schwartz, a Vito, and a Jones, and you have the makings of a typical Army squad from a World War II movie.

But to return to Mr. Yu, police are not powerless when it comes to persons with diplomatic immunity, despite the impression created by countless movies. (Here's a handy summary of the Legal Aspects of Diplomatic Immunity and Privileges.) So the Deputy CG's privileges were not necessarily violated when Houston's multi-culti posse served a Habius Grabus on him after he scooted into a parking garage to avoid being pulled over for a traffic offense.

Deputy Consul-General Yu Boren could have simply stopped his car when the police signaled him to pull over, and avoided some trouble for himself, not to mention an international incident. Chris Rock once did a public service message that warned people to stop immediately when they see flashing red lights in the rear view mirror, because, if you make the police chase you, they're bringing an ass-kicking with them. That's good advice, however, it looks like no one ever explained that to Mr. Yu.

Since Mr. Yu was riding with his wife when he was arrested, it's also possible that he could have been violating another of Chris Rock's rules - Don't Ride With a Mad Woman. A mad woman might like nothing better than to see you get your ass kicked by the police.

I wonder if there was any dashboard video that recorded Mr. Yu as he played Do You Know Who I Am? with the local cops. I'm just guessing here, but what are the odds that an official from Communist China isn't a pompous jerk with an attitude?

I'll be interested in seeing what develops as this incident works its way through the process.