Tuesday, July 31, 2012

"We Are Able To Make Money In Bundles"

It makes the world go around

It's a good day when the U.S. government can take an action that makes everybody happy. Here are two examples from today's news.

In Baghdad, the State Department awarded a contract for operations and maintenance of the mega embassy compound. H/T to U.S. Trade and Aid Monitor:
A $348 million contract to maintain the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad was awarded this week by the U.S. Department of State to PAE Government Services, which will be tasked with delivering operations and maintenance services for the 104-acre compound. An unspecified portion of that amount will be devoted to providing a residence manager, two cooks, two waiters, and four housekeepers to serve the U.S. ambassador and deputy chief of mission.

People are employed, paychecks are cashed, dinners are served, and maybe the embassy's lawn even gets some grass. What's not to like about all that?

Even better is what happened today in Afghanistan. H/T to Foreign Policy's Passport blog:

U.S. and Pakistani officials signed a memorandum of understanding today, finally reopening supply routes to Afghanistan after a seven month blockade. In a statement to the press, Pakistan Foreign Office spokesman Mozzam Ahmed Khan assured that public that the decision to restore supply lines was made "without any financial benefit."

That may be true for Pakistan, but not everyone is coming out of this empty-handed. The Associated Press reports:

"Stopping these supplies caused us real trouble," a Taliban commander who leads about 60 insurgents in eastern Ghazni province told The Associated Press in an interview. "Earnings dropped down pretty badly. Therefore the rebellion was not as strong as we had planned."

A second Taliban commander who controls several dozen fighters in southern Kandahar province said the money from security companies was a key source of financing for the insurgency, which uses it to pay fighters and buy weapons, ammunition and other supplies.

"We are able to make money in bundles," the commander told the AP by telephone. "Therefore, the NATO supply is very important for us."

The U.S. military estimates that theft, bribery and mismanagement put $360 million in the hands of the Taliban, regional war lords and criminals in 2010 alone -- with more than half that amount pinched from convoys along the supply routes.

Those Talib commanders sound even happier than PAE Government Services. And so they should be, now that their cash flow is positive again and their earnings projections are heading straight up. I don't know what their tax situation is, but even assuming they have to kick some thick percentage upwards, they still probably net more income than PAE's Baghdad program manager.   

Congratulations boys, and don't spend it all in one place!

Friday, July 27, 2012

None So Blind As Those Who Will Not See (The Sheikh Is Staying In Prison)

The NYT reports that Just Off Tahrir Square, Protesters Demand Release of Blind Sheik Jailed in U.S:

When Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s president-elect, pledged on Friday that he would work for the release of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric convicted of conspiring to blow up New York City landmarks in 1995, some Egyptian bloggers expressed shock and dismay. But Mr. Morsi had promised to do just that on the campaign trail, as Ahram Online, a state-owned news site, reported last month.

Let those losers express shock and dismay. Personally, I'm glad to learn that a campaign promise still means something, even if it's in Egypt.

But it seems that some people don't trust President Morsi to keep his word, and they are making vague threats directed at the U.S. Embassy employees in Cairo.

Son of 'Blind Sheikh' threatens US embassy employees:

The son of Omar Abdel Rahman, a Jama’a al-Islamiya leader known as the “Blind Sheikh” who was convicted of terrorism charges in the US in 1995, threatened to organize a protest at the US Embassy in Cairo and detain the employees inside. Abdallah Abdel Rahman’s threat came during a press conference organized by the sheikh’s family near the highly fortified American embassy compound on Thursday evening.

Abdel Rahman demanded that President Mohamed Morsy intervene for the release of his father as he did in the case of Egyptian journalist Shaimaa Adel who was detained for nearly two weeks for covering protests in Sudan then flown back to Egypt on a plane with Morsy.

He called for applying the “principle of reciprocity,” saying that every American detained in Egypt should be put in solitary confinement and refused visitors like Egyptian prisoners are in the US. He said that his father has been treated badly in US prison.

Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman is “a wronged man whose case has been fabricated, and he should be retried because some witnesses retracted their statements, which they made because of pressure from the former regime,” said Aboud al-Zomor, a member of Jama’a al-Islamiya’s Shura Council who was in jail until the revolution for being involved in the assassination of former President Anwar Sadat.

Following the press conference, Abdel Rahman’s family distributed a statement to attendees that calls on Morsy to form a committee to visit the sheikh in prison, check his health and assign him legal counsel to file a lawsuit against the US Department of Justice over his long-term solitary confinement.

I give the son points for loyalty, but Morsi will be thinking about getting Egypt's customary boodle in U.S. aid next year, and that concern is liable to, ah, temper his enthusiasm for making a big fuss about the Blind Sheikh.

Pardon me, but I have to ask - are those Ray-Ban Wayfarers that the Blind Sheikh is always sporting?

I lost a pair of those a while ago and never replaced them because they seemed so old fashioned. A kid at Starbucks had asked me where I got the "classic Blues Brothers glasses" (he had never heard of Wayfarers), and that made me suspect those shades are no longer the epitome of cool. So I got some more contemporary wraparound sunglasses, but those made another kid, this one a co-worker, smile whenever he saw me wearing them. Now, I am thinking I should go back to the more age-appropriate Wayfarers. Thanks, Sheikh!

Psst! ... It Was The Russians ... Pass It On

The National Security Archives' blog, UNREDACTED, has a somewhat depressing Document Friday post today. It seems that the U.S. Defense Department considers it classifiable national security information to state that the identity of our major Cold War enemy was - wait for it - the Soviet Union. 

The Cold War’s “Major Enemy Threat Facing the US” is Classified:
According to Department of Defense reviewers, the “major enemy threat facing the United States” in 1975 must remain classified information. We can know that, “This situation had been prevalent for a number of years and was likely to continue for the foreseeable future,” but not that –ostensibly to protect US “national defense or foreign policy”– the Soviet Union was the Cold War rival to the United States. This redaction serves as further proof of the broken declassification system and the vast swaths of historic information that remain (even after a FOIA review) overclassified and restricted from the public.
To redact that the Soviet Union was America’s “major enemy threat,” the DOD cited the b(1) classified information exemption. The accompanying letter does not specifically state which of eight categories of b(1) information that naming the Soviet Union would violate, but claims that it is either b(1) 1.4 (a) “military plans,” (c) “intelligence activities,” or (d) US “foreign relations.”

[S]ome may see protests of the redaction of who we fought the Cold War against by the Department of Defense as a whiny quibble, but I see it as the pinnacle of the iceberg of the state’s indifference to the people’s right to know. This idea of a limited government subservient to the people was, after all, a primary reason we threw off the chains of tyranny and fought our Revolutionary War against [redacted].

Saturday, July 21, 2012

On The Links With Obama

President Obama and CEO Robert Wolf

Reading the New York Times continues to be rewarding, despite its aggravating pay wall. This morning I saw a story about the uncanny way in which the Swiss banking firm UBS has avoided the legal consequences of a long series of financial crimes in the United States. The NYT writer sounds amazed at UBS's ability to obtain a series of wrist-slaps for some quite serous misbehavior.

Dated July 20, For UBS, a Record of Averting Prosecution:

At UBS, a series of immunity, nonprosecution and deferred prosecution agreements in recent years — evidently the government’s preferred approach to corporate crime — seems to have had scant, if any, deterrent effect.

They are far from the only offender, but ...

But in many ways, UBS is in a league of its own given its track record for scandals. Should UBS be implicated in the Libor rate-fixing conspiracy, it’s hard to imagine a better corporate candidate for a criminal indictment — even though it has already been granted conditional immunity from some aspects of the Libor scandal.

-- snip --

The bank’s recidivism seems rivaled only by its ability to escape prosecution:

UBS obtained a deferred prosecution agreement in 2009 for conspiring to defraud the United States of tax revenue by creating more than 17,000 secret Swiss accounts for United States taxpayers who failed to declare income and committed tax fraud ... [see the linked story for more]

In May 2011, UBS admitted that its employees had repeatedly conspired to rig bids in the municipal bond derivatives market over a five-year period, defrauding more than 100 municipalities and nonprofit organizations, and agreed to pay $160 million in fines and restitution. An S.E.C. official called UBS’s conduct “a ‘how to’ primer for bid-rigging and securities fraud.” UBS landed a nonprosecution agreement for that behavior, and the Justice Department lauded the bank’s “remedial efforts” to curb anticompetitive practices.

In what the S.E.C. called at the time the largest settlement in its history, in 2008 UBS agreed to reimburse clients $22.7 billion to resolve charges that it defrauded customers who purchased auction-rate securities, which were sold by UBS as ultrasafe cash equivalents even though top UBS executives knew the market for the securities was collapsing ...

There’s more — including UBS’s prominent role and big losses in the mortgage-backed securities debacle that helped bring on the financial crisis. The federal agency overseeing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac sued UBS for securities law violations, accusing it of “materially false statements and omissions.”

In the continuing global interest rates investigations, UBS last summer revealed that it had received conditional immunity from the Justice Department and other authorities. It was shown this leniency even though the Justice Department has pointedly said that Barclays, not UBS, was the first bank to cooperate. … The department’s antitrust division stresses that it makes only one grant of immunity per conspiracy, so it isn’t clear how both Barclays and UBS managed to get it.

Well, things start to become clearer when you look at this other article in the NYT, dated July 19, Wolf to Leave UBS to Form New Firm:

One of President Obama’s biggest supporters on Wall Street is about to leave his perch at UBS, one of the world’s largest banks.

Robert Wolf, who is the UBS chairman for the Americas, is leaving at the end of the month to set up his own advisory shop. He will retain close ties to UBS, which will be the first client of his firm.

A 28-year veteran of Wall Street, Mr. Wolf has enjoyed his status as a prominent defender of the Obama administration and a top-ranking fund-raiser. He has garnered more than $500,000 to re-elect the president this year, and regularly plays golf and vacations with Mr. Obama on Martha’s Vineyard.

-- snip --

Mr. Wolf’s friendship with the president began before other financiers were seeking to curry favor with Mr. Obama during the 2008 campaign. The two met at a 2006 fund-raiser hosted by the billionaire George Soros and quickly became friends. During the financial crisis, he regularly advised Mr. Obama on the turmoil on Wall Street.

You can hear Mr. Wolf describe his close ties to Obama in his 2011 oral history interview with PBS Nightline. After being introduced to then-Senator Obama in 2006 by George Soros, Wolf became, in PBS's words, "an informal adviser to his presidential campaign. During the financial meltdown, Wolf was often Obama’s link to closed-door discussions of the crisis. Wolf was a member of the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board." PBS omitted to mention it but Wolf is also, of course, a heavy-hitter financial contributor (here) and campaign money bundler.

A cynical person might suspect that Wolf's close ties to Obama could possibly have something to do with UBS's knack for escaping prosecution by the U.S. Justice Department.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Foreign Service Conversion - All About The Benjamins

Seeking mid-level employees willing to take new
jobs for entry-level pay. Inquire within.

I've been browsing the GAO report on Foreign Service staffing gaps, which is discussed by Domani Spero today, and particularly the portion on Civil Service to Foreign Service conversions. She noted the comically insufficient extent of those conversions:  

State has 10,490 Civil Service employees and was only able to convert four employees to the Foreign Service. That’s like what – 0.03813 percent conversion rate to help bridge the gap? That’s not going to make any dent whatsoever.

Indeed. According to the GAO report, State "opened" only 88 CS employees to conversion in 2011, of which a mere 26 applied. Those 26 were winnowed down to 7 who were given the opportunity to convert, only four of whom were actually converted. With numbers like those, something tells me State really isn't all that into the whole idea of Civil Service conversion.

However, State did much better with temporary appointments. Again according to the GAO report, 159 Civil Service employees were placed in Limited Non-Career Appointments (LNAs) to overseas FS positions from 2009 to 2011. Those appointments are for periods of up to five years, most of them were made at the mid-level, and most of them were for hard-to-fill positions.

The LNA route looks like an obvious feeder track for CS-to-FS conversions. There are some obstacles, particularly the requirement that affected bureaus - those losing CS employees - must guarantee that applicants will be placed into permanent positions within the same bureau when they return from their overseas assignments. "This requirement creates some reluctance on the part of bureaus to approve applications for overseas assignments" the GAO report says. I suppose it would.

Speaking as a CS employee myself, I wouldn't want to be re-employed in any bureau that would agree to lose me for two, three, or five years. Oh, I know co-workers who have done it, but - and this is purely my own observation, so it is likely to be skewed and unrepresentative - they rarely returned to the losing bureau, or at least not to the same Branch, Division, or Office. Their LNA tours were a change of pace, or a developmental opportunity, or a spacer in between two different Civil Service jobs, but rarely were they a step toward permanent conversion.

Don't get me wrong, temporary appointments can be very good gigs. I know of a CS employee in my own pay grade who did a tour as the Chief of Mission at a very small overseas post. I could possibly be persuaded to give up my Rosslyn cubicle for that kind of job.  

So, State is looking to fill mid-level FS staffing gaps, and it has a non-negligible number of CS employees who could fill them, i.e., those who have previously taken temporary appointments and have the two years in FS positions abroad in the past six years that is required to qualify for conversion. The question is, why don't many more of those former LNA guys apply to convert?

Maybe I'm missing something in the Byzantine regulations that govern conversions, but I think the reason is obvious. State hires for FS positions only at the entry pay grades, which max out at the FP-04 level. That means the CS employees who are most likely to be conversion candidates would take a big pay cut, even if there were some flexibility as to the exact step within that pay grade at which a converted employee might enter.

By "big" I mean about 50 percent, assuming the conversion candidate is a GS-13 pay grade employee who has been around ten or more years. 

Even that temporary Chief of Mission job would lose its appeal if I had to take such a severe financial haircut to convert.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

On France's National Day, Bonne Fête Nationale

A little guitar tribute on this Joyeux Quatorze Juillet:

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Casting Flies, Catching E-Mail

I just opened my 50th e-mail of the day, and so far I've sent eight replies. Yeah for BlackBerries! And I mean that; I'd rather deal with that stuff while on vacation than have it all piled up for me on Monday morning.

In between messages, I'm fly-fishing for smallmouth bass in this stretch of the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, which is just downstream from a little hydro dam. I know the fish are here somewhere, probably hiding in the deeper pools and staying in the shade, but so far they are nowhere near as busy as my phone.

All in all, a pleasant way to spend the week.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Have A Cautious 4th Of July

H/T to William M. Briggs (statistician to the stars!) for this rant which touches on a pet peeve of mine, the practice of forecasting subjective temperature.

The Heat Index and the Wind Chill Factor supposedly tell you the 'human-perceived equivalent temperature' as opposed to the actual temperature, and the whole idea of that drives me crazy. The temperature is x degrees, and that is all there is to say about that subject. It is not x degrees but feels like y degrees. When it is x degrees it feels exactly like x degrees. Our individual interpretation of how x degrees feels to us in any particular circumstance is a personal matter, and has no place in the practice of meteorology. Whew! I feel better now after blowing off that steam.

Wm. Briggs on today's temperature:        
The heat did not abate; no, not even in the shade. If anything, it grew hotter. And when I finally reached the bodega in which lay the amber, life-giving well-hopped fluid which my body so desperately craved, I realized to my horror that the air in the place was not conditioned! Avert your eyes if you don’t like graphic descriptions of bodily functions—but this final serving of blistering heat actually caused me to sweat!

I tell you the truth: I have never before suffered such minor inconveniences as this.

I should have listened to the radio, to the television, to the newspaper, to the media in every form which had dispatched scores of reporters to the far corners of the city, where to a man each of them reported that it was hot. These dedicated newsmen warned me to stay inside. They cautioned me to stay where the air was electrically cooled. They told me that sure death awaited me if I dared venture forth without saturating my bodily fluids.

Not satisfied with telling me the temperature, the journalists invented something called a “heat index.” I discovered (via statistical calculation) that this was actual temperature multiplied by three. The heat index isn’t therefore the temperature, but is a number to show what the temperature would be were it hotter than it is. It is a kind of maybe temperature, a temperature that isn’t, an index which can be adjusted up or down according to the importance the journalist gives the story.

When I went out onto the street, I naturally expected to see piles of bodies which had succumbed to the heat. But there were none. This was curious. Perhaps those that were to die had died already; their corpses efficiently removed by the Soylent Corporation.

-- snip --

Who knows where the truth lies. But if there’s anything to this global warming we hear about, it’s likely to stay summer until at least September. Worse, sophisticated computer models say the whole cycle could repeat next year.

It’s the glorious 4th. Happy Birthday, America! Be careful, it’s Summer out there and hot. And since it’s never been Summer and hot before, heed the warnings of your elected and unelected leaders and stay away from any activity in which you might find enjoyment.

HRC To Pakistan: Please Accept My Apology $1.2 Billion

So the story goes that Hillary has finally apologized to Pakistan's Foreign Minister for our errant airstrike of last November that killed 24 Pakistani troops, and Pakistan's leadership, now sufficiently placated, has in return allowed our convoys to resume transiting their country to support our troops in Afghanistan.

The apology was delicately worded to avoid using the word "apology."

“We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military ... We are committed to working closely with Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent this from ever happening again.”

That was all it took to get Pakistan to end its blockade of our convoys? Yes, that plus our resumption of annual payments to Pakistan of 1.2 billion.

Yesterday's The Cable broke down the back story of Hillary's apology, which is considerably more complex than a matter of polite manners:

Tuesday's announcement came after months of protracted and often excruciating negotiations between the two governments. On the U.S. side of the table, the process was led by Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides, who was in Pakistan Monday, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs Peter Lavoy, and Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman. ISAF Commander Gen. John Allen also traveled to Pakistan twice over the past two weeks, once at the invitation of Pakistani Army Chief of Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and again as part of larger discussions regarding the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

The internal U.S. process that led to today's remarks by Clinton was extensive -- and rocky at times. It has been well reported that the State Department, especially soon-to-be-former U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter, urged the White House to apologize long ago but was overruled due to objections from the Defense Department, where officials were angered by the fact that the Pakstani military accused the U.S. military of killing the soldiers intentionally.

Three administration sources confirmed to The Cable that between December and early spring, the National Security Council convened at least 8 separate high-level meetings to debate the apology, and ultimately, the White House earlier this year decided to issue one.

The Pakistani government in early Spring asked the White House not to issue the apology because the Pakistani parliament was in the middle of its comprehensive review of the bilateral relationship. Then, following deadly attacks in Kabul on NATO forces in April, which were traced back to the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, the White House took the apology off the table.

That's why today's comments by Clinton came as a huge surprise to many Pakistan-watchers. But experts saw in her comments a careful dance that the administration thinks represents a compromise, because Clinton never actually said the word "apology" or "apologize."

"It allows the administration to say to Congress, we didn't ‘apologize,' we said we were ‘sorry,'" said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. He emphasized that discussions about several thorny issues in the relationship are still ongoing.

Asked directly at today's press briefing if the "sorry" comment constituted an "apology," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland wouldn't say that it did. In conjunction with Tuesday's announcement, the Obama administration has agreed to hand over about $1.2 billion to the Pakistanis in Coalition Support Funds (CSF) that were owed but delayed as part of the overall unhappiness between the two governments, two administration sources confirmed. Pakistan, which views the funds as reimbursements the United Sates agreed to pay in exchange for Pakistan's help in fighting the war on terror, argues that America owes it a larger sum.

-- snip --

Getting the CSF funding was always the real goal of the negotiations as far as the Pakistanis were concerned, according to [a former U.S. official who spoke to The Cable]. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Derecho Me Mucho

I think I can hear Tina Turner somewhere, singing ... "out of the ruins, out from the wreckage" ... how did the rest of that song go?

Maybe it wasn't quite Beyond Thunderdome, but I did feel very post-apocalyptic when the power was finally restored to my home this afternoon. Our neighborhood had been off the grid ever since that derecho hit the region last Friday night, and my family and I have been hauling away downed trees, suffering 100 degree heat, and scavenging for bags of ice by candlelight from then until now. 

Strictly speaking, it was only my wife and kids who were doing that all along. I went to work yesterday and today, where I enjoyed the AC and did a moderate and responsible amount of web-surfing while recharging my iPod and other stuff in the government's power outlets. But, you know, I suffered, too. 

The WaPo is running a name the derecho contest. The winning entry will be announced Thursday.