Sunday, December 29, 2013

First Lady of the United States Visits Pakistan and Tours Peshawar, the Khyber Pass, and Lahore

This visit happened in March, 1962. Does anyone want to speculate when we might next send FLOTUS on a goodwill tour of Pakistan?

The film is interesting in a 'wow, how the world has changed!' sort of way. Jacqueline Kennedy's itinerary included places where the USG does not dare to have a presence today, or if it does, it does so only in the most minimal way and with the utmost security countermeasures.

At the Khyber Pass, where NATO convoys now fear to go

Riding a camel on Clifton beach in Karachi

Arriving in Peshawar

That last photo is rather stunning to me. An open car? When was the last time the USG let anyone travel down a street in Peshawar outside of a convoy of heavily armored vehicles? It's as if 1962 was not just a different century, but a whole different world.

The visit was the subject of a 15-minute film produced by the U.S. Information Service (Invitation to Pakistan, March 1962), something unremarkable at the time, but which itself now has the feeling of a vanished era.

Given that USIS was folded into the State Department back in 1999, I expect there are few active members of the U.S. Foreign Service today who have any memory of when there was an independent government agency that did public diplomacy and broadcasting. If you don't remember it, or would like to refresh your memory, see this swan song commemorative booklet USIS published before it closed up shop.

In its last year of operation, USIS had 190 posts in 142 countries, an annual budget of $1 billion and change, and employed - even after a staffing reduction in 1997 - 6,352 employees, of whom 904 were Foreign Service personnel, 2,521 were locally engaged staff overseas, and 2,927 were Civil Service employees in the United States. How does that compare to the resources of the R Bureau today? Badly, I know.

In the film, Jacqueline Kennedy, accompanied by her sister, Princess Lee Radziwill [I recall seeing the Princess in the news way back when I was a kid, although I never did understand exactly what Kingdom she was the Princess of] visits Pakistani President Mohammad Ayub Khan and United States Ambassador to Pakistan Walter P. McConaughy, attends a horse and cattle show in Lahore, delivers gifts to children's hospitals, does fun stuff in Karachi, drives to the Khyber Pass, delivers remarks, and even provides a little voice-over.

The film is narrated by the Canadian-American actor Raymond Massey (1896 – 1983), a distinguished sort of guy who was then at the peak of a long film career. That's another indicator of how high a bar USIS set. Do we get actors of similar stature to do the voice work on our PD products today?

Friday, December 27, 2013

Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline Of The Week

"Python kills Bali security guard outside five-star hotel" (UK Guardian)

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Devyani Khobragade Case, Domestic Workers, And India's Feudal Tradtion

The Devyani Khobragade arrest is bringing attention to the problem of exploited domestic workers, both in the United States and in India.

The BBC had this report over the weekend, New York maids protest at Indian consulate:

Domestic workers who were exploited and abused in the US by foreign diplomats have held a rally outside the Indian consulate in New York.

-- snip --

The protestors outside the Indian consulate said they wanted to highlight the plight of the maid in the case. They are calling for all countries to agree minimum legal standards of work.

The Hindustani Times also covered the New York protest (here), and had more quotes than the BBC did from domestic employee labor unions and victim assistance groups.

For how this matter is perceived within India, see this most interesting Agence France-Presse story that explains why India's government and society seem to think that it is Devyani Khobragade who is the victim here, and not her domestic employee: plight of Indian maid in U.S. brings little concern back home.

That AFP story quotes a report that describes India as the world's largest exploiter of bonded domestic labor:  
According to the Global Slavery Index report released in October: "an estimated 13.95 million people in India are victims of forced labor — almost half of the world’s slave population. Domestic service is a key area of concern."

“The central government has completely ignored the conditions of domestic workers,” said Anannya Bhattacharjee, executive council member of the New Trade Union Initiative, who is based in northern Haryana state.

“It’s part of Indian feudal tradition. There’s always talk of domestic workers being ‘part of the family,’ but they want to be treated as workers,” she said.

-- snip --

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, points out that millions of mostly women and girls perform crucial jobs around the world as domestic helpers, often enabling employers to pursue careers.

But she said that in India and elsewhere, they remain “among the most exploited” despite a new international treaty adopted in 2011 to improve their rights.

“India should sign the Domestic Workers Convention, encourage domestic workers to organize, and ensure that their complaints of abuse, including sexual abuse, are promptly addressed,” Ganguly said.

The Global Slavery Index is a product of the Walk Free Foundation. Its 2013 country report on India was summarized as follows:
The country with the largest estimated number of people in modern slavery is India, which is estimated to have between 13,300,000 and 14,700,000 people enslaved. The India country study suggests that while this involves the exploitation of some foreign nationals, by far the largest proportion of this problem is the exploitation of Indians citizens within India itself, particularly through debt bondage and bonded labour.

The entire India country report is here.

The term "modern slavery" shouldn't be used without real cause, but the exploitation of domestic workers in India is so severe, and so immune from legal consequence, that it may legitimately be described as slavery.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Indian Consul's Arrest Controversy Keeps Escalating

Is orange still the new black?

-- UPDATE at 10:30 PM --

The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York issued a statement today after I had already published the post below. He rebutted various assertions made by the Indian press and politicians about the treatment of Dr. Khobragade by the U.S. legal system, and noted the general lack of concern that they have shown for the victim in this case, who of course is also an Indian.

Most importantly to me, he stated that the DSS agents arrested Dr. Khobragade "in the most discreet way possible, and unlike most defendants, she was not then handcuffed or restrained." Not then handcuffed, but presumably was later. Anyway, if his description of the arrest is accurate, then it was done with discretion and intelligence. I'd still like to see DSS make a statement about that itself, but so far so good.


I've been panning for gold nuggets in the stream of Indian news media updates on the arrest of India's NYC Deputy Consul-General Devyani Khobragade, and found a couple good ones.

First, there is the interesting counter allegation that U.S. Government agencies are facilitating the real visa fraud in this case, which was committed by Dr. Khobragade's maid when she absconded from her employer and ran to an immigration lawyer. A timeline helps to understand that allegation:

  • Dr. Khobragade obtained a U.S. visa for her maid in November, 2012, and the maid arrived in NYC the same month.
  • According to the Indian press, the maid “absconded” from the Khobragade household in June, 2013, and sometime afterwards Dr. Khobragade's husband reported to New York police that she has stolen some valuables.
  • In July, the Indian Embassy in the U.S. notified the State Department of the missing maid and requested assistance in locating her.
  • Around this point, according to Indian news media, the maid contacted an immigration lawyer in an attempt to stay in the United States. Around the same time, the State Department began to investigate how Dr. Khobragade obtained the maid's visa.
  • In September, the State Department notified the government of India of the visa fraud allegations against Dr. Khobragade, according to the State Department spokesperson yesterday.
  • Also in September, a court in India issued an injunction to the maid ordering her not to institute any legal proceedings outside of India against her employer.
  • December 10, two days before Dr. Khobragade was arrested in NYC, the maid’s husband and son departed India for NYC, presumably to join her.

  • The India news media is spinning this as a case of the USG facilitating immigration fraud, i.e., of helping the maid (former maid, now the USG’s witness in a criminal case) to legalize her presence in the U.S., and to bring her family over as well.

    In a second interesting development, the Indian government is considering a proposal to make the domestic household help of its diplomatic employees direct-hire employees of the Indian government “in order not to fall foul of minimum wages laws in developed countries.”

    Third, the Indian government may be trying to shift Dr. Khobragade's assignment from its New York Consulate to its Mission to the United Nations, in a ploy to obtain for her full diplomatic immunity versus the more limited consular immunity she currently holds. (See this handy pamphlet for an explanation of the difference.) As the Indian press noted, the only problem with this genius scheme is that the U.S. State Department would have to agree to recognize her new status.

    Fourth, the U.S. Marshal’s Service spokesperson confirmed that Dr. Khobragade was indeed strip-searched during prisoner intake at a U.S. Courthouse. She helpfully noted that the U.S. Marshal's Service was not the arresting agency – the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service was – and the USMS merely kept Dr. Khobragade in custody until she was released on bail. The search, like the DNA collection swab and the “available and suitable holding cell,” was a matter of standard procedure. The State Department Spokesperson likewise said yesterday that the DSS agents were following standard procedure by handcuffing Dr. Khobragade before transporting her to the custody of the Marshals Service. With everything done so impeccably in accordance with standard procedures, what could the Indians possibly complain about?

    The appeal to “standard procedures” reveals the cultural difference in play here. When Indians look at how Dr. Khobragade was arrested, they see an unnecessary, even outrageous, use of force and violation of her personal dignity. Why arrest her by surprise while she was taking her young children to school, and why handcuff her? Since there was no good reason to do that, they assume we intended to inflict abuse upon her for some hidden purpose, maybe one connected to her status as a Dalit, or untouchable (not that any of the Americans involved – with the possible exception of the Indian-born U.S. Attorney – would have known or cared about her caste identification).

    But to the Americans involved, the arrest was an impersonal matter. Just mindless, mechanical, process. Individuals have no need, or even opportunity, to exercise judgment when they simply follow procedure. The fact that Dr. Khobragade was treated exactly like everyone else who was under arrest and being processed at the U.S. Courthouse that day is assumed to be a solid defense against any charge of mistreatment, because standard procedure absolves the individuals who implement it of personal responsibility. “I’m not paid to think,” as some people say. If the arrestee and her home country infer any actual motive from our treatment of her, well, that’s their problem. They give us too much credit for independence.

    Fifth, the Indian press is reporting details of an e-mail Dr. Khobragade sent to collegues in which she describes the prisoner intake procedures and says that she broke down in tears many times. The strip-searching part of her arrest has now overwhelmed all other considerations, including the main one of her alleged visa fraud, in the Indian mind.

    This business is escalating from a diplomatic incident into a Mexican soap opera.

    Tuesday, December 17, 2013

    There's Diplomatic Immunity, Consular Immunity, And A Couple Other Kinds, Too, I Think

    An obstacle to U.S.-Indian relations

    So many unintended consequences have flowed from that simple arrest in New York City five days ago.

    The criminal allegation made by the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York (here) and its supporting statement by a Diplomatic Security agent (here) are clear enough: The Indian Deputy Vice Consul in New York, a nice looking lady named Dr. Devyani Khobrange, committed visa fraud and made false statements, felonies that could put her in prison for up to 15 years.

    The circumstances of Dr. Devyani Khobrange's arrest are not so clear. She wasn't fleeing, she wasn't accused of a violent crime, and she is a foreign diplomat. So why pull her out of her car when she was taking her kids to school and do the whole handcuffs-strip search-holding cell routine before cutting her loose on bail? Is that normal treatment for a white collar criminal in New York (I doubt it), or was the U.S. Attorney trying to make a point?

    The Indian Embassy in Washington "immediately conveyed its strong concerns to the U.S. Government" (here) over our treatment of their Deputy Vice Consul, and made counter allegations about the Indian domestic servant who was the object of Dr. Khobrange's alleged visa fraud and is now our witness in the criminal case against her. They even asked the U.S. government to extradite our witness back to India. Good luck!

    Some commenters in India pointed out that the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, was born in India to a Sikh father and a Hindu mother, and hinted at some mysterious ethnic feud between him and Dr. Khobrange, who is from the Dalit caste. I can't even guess whether that motive is at all plausible; the question wouldn't have come up if the U.S. Attorney were named John Smith, however.

    Meanwhile, the Indian government has gone completely over the top, calling in the U.S. Ambassador, harassing U.S. diplomats in India by yanking some airport access and import privileges and threatening to withdraw their diplomatic identity cards, going on a witch hunt for any of our locally engaged staff in India who might be underpaid, and finally, removing concrete vehicle barriers that they had previously allowed us to place on a public street outside our embassy compound in the diplomatic quarter of New Delhi.

    And, of course, the biggest question of all is, what kind of legal immunity does Dr. Khobrange enjoy? Is it full diplomatic, or the more limited type of consular immunity, and how does that affect her prosecution for visa fraud?

    This is a puzzling situation about a delicate matter of diplomatic relations. So you can imagine how anxious I was to hear State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf explain everything during the daily press briefing this afternoon. She did not disappoint.

    QUESTION: India.

    MS. HARF: Okay. Mm-hmm.

    QUESTION: Do you have anything to say on the steps announced by Indian Government today on the – withdrawing some of the consular facilities provided to Indian diplomats inside – U.S. diplomats in India and withdrawing the security parameters [surely "perimeters" not parameters] outside the embassy in opposition to the steps – arrest of Indian diplomats in New York?

    MS. HARF: Well, a couple points on this. I think you probably saw the statement that I put out just before coming out here, that the U.S. and India enjoy a broad and deep friendship, and this isolated episode is not in any way indicative of the close and respectful ties that we share and will continue to share. We have conveyed at high levels to the Government of India our expectations that India will continue to fulfill all of its obligations under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, and Vienna Convention – on Consular Relations, excuse me.

    Obviously, the safety and security of our diplomats and consular officers in the field is a top priority. We’ll continue to work with India to ensure that all of our diplomats and consular officers are being afforded full rights and protections. Also, of course, safety and security of our facilities as well is something we take very seriously, and we’ll keep working with the Indians on that.

    QUESTION: Why wasn’t that in the statement?

    MS. HARF: Because it was a short statement and I knew I’d get lots of questions on it in the briefing. I mean, there’s – I have a lot of information on this we can talk about in the briefing.

    -- snip --

    QUESTION: Your comment about how you have conveyed to the Indian Government at the highest levels or --

    MS. HARF: At high levels, I said.

    QUESTION: -- at high levels --

    MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.

    QUESTION: -- that you expect them to uphold the Vienna Convention – is that a reference to the fact that Indian police today removed security barriers around the Embassy?

    MS. HARF: Certainly part of it.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MS. HARF: Certainly part of it.

    QUESTION: So did you see the Indian police removing those security barriers as a reflection of their unhappiness at the treatment of their diplomat in New York?

    MS. HARF: I’d let them speak for what the reasoning was behind it, certainly.

    -- snip --

    QUESTION: Marie, have you actually asked for them to rescind these measures that they took today, particularly the ones about the security barriers?

    MS. HARF: I can double-check and see if we have more details about the diplomatic conversations. We’ve been very clear that they need to uphold all of their obligations under the Vienna Convention, and in terms of security, we’ll keep working with them on that as well. Again, our focus here is on moving the bilateral relationship forward, that this one isolated episode not impact the bilateral relationship.

    QUESTION: Do you feel that measures that were taken were actually proportionate to what happened to the deputy general consul in New York last week?

    [TSB note: Ms. Harf strayed off the topic a bit here, talking about measures the State Department had taken.]

    QUESTION: But I think my question was more – are the measures, were the measures taken by the Indian – Indians’ government proportionate to what --

    MS. HARF: Oh, I see. Measures by the Indian Government.

    QUESTION: Indian Government, yes.

    MS. HARF: Proportionate to what?

    QUESTION: To the arrest in New York of a deputy consul general.

    -- snip --

    QUESTION: So just to put a fine point on it, if you’re saying that [the arrest in New York and the measures the Indian government has taken against U.S. Embassy personnel in India] shouldn’t be linked and then you’re saying that they shouldn’t take actions against your diplomats in a response to one of their diplomats being arrested, even if it was handled possibly in an improper way?

    MS. HARF: Well, again, at this point there are no indications that it was, as I said just a second ago. Let me go back to this --

    QUESTION: Even if they have concerns with the way she was treated, it sounds like you’re saying, just to put a fine point on it, that the Indian Government should not take punitive measures against your diplomats in response to an incident that they feel one of their diplomats was (inaudible).

    MS. HARF: Certainly, we have called on them to uphold all of their obligations under the Vienna Convention, everything that they are obligated to do and according our diplomats rights and all of the things that go under the Vienna Convention.

    -- snip --

    QUESTION: Now could you talk – you talked a little bit about it, but you said you would get us some more answers on this diplomat’s – this deputy consul general’s diplomatic status. Could you expand on that a little bit?

    MS. HARF: Well, I don’t think I said I’d get on theirs specifically. I said there are different kinds of immunity – diplomatic immunity, consular immunity, I think there are a couple of other kinds. I have asked our folks to sort of lay out very explicitly, hopefully to be released as a TQ, exactly what all of those mean. But generally speaking, right, diplomatic immunity applies sort of across the board – again, this is a very general and the lawyers are probably going to be mad at me – but consular immunity only applies to things done in the actual functions of one’s job. And this just isn’t for diplomats in the U.S., of course; it’s for our diplomats overseas as well.

    QUESTION: Now, even if a diplomat doesn’t have diplomatic immunity or consular immunity --

    QUESTION: What’s the difference, by the way, between diplomatic immunity and consular immunity. I don’t understand that.

    MS. HARF: Well, diplomatic immunity applies to everything. Consular immunity only applies to official functions in – that one performs in the duty of their job.

    QUESTION: So is this person – does this person enjoy diplomatic immunity?

    MS. HARF: Consular immunity.

    QUESTION: Only consular?

    MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.

    QUESTION: Why don’t they enjoy diplomatic immunity, given that they are a diplomat?

    MS. HARF: Well, she’s the consul general at a consulate.

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    MS. HARF: I can double-check the exact specifics for who falls under what. I know it’s different everywhere. And again, this applies to our folks overseas as well.

    QUESTION: So – but that would be good to get clear.

    -- snip --

    QUESTION: One of the allegations that clearly has the Indian Government most angered --

    MS. HARF: Yes.

    QUESTION: -- is that she has said to have been strip searched. The question is whether you know – I mean, I can understand it would be embarrassing to admit it, but it’s also just a factual matter. And if --

    MS. HARF: I don’t speak for other government agencies, actually. I speak for the State Department, and that allegation --

    QUESTION: And the State Department is not aware of whether or not she was strip-searched? Because the State Department presumably wants to know whether or not she was strip-searched so that it can deal --

    MS. HARF: Again, we’re looking --

    QUESTION: Can I finish? So it can deal with the Indian Government.

    MS. HARF: Let me finish.

    QUESTION: Go right ahead. So you don’t want to know whether she was strip searched?

    MS. HARF: That’s why we’re looking into what transpired right now.

    QUESTION: So you don’t know?

    MS. HARF: That’s why we’re looking to get – I don’t have all the facts. No. I wasn’t there.

    QUESTION: Do you know that fact?

    MS. HARF: I don’t know what – I do not know the facts about exactly what happened and I’m not going to stand up here and say what I’ve heard or what I haven’t heard or what allegations are out there.

    QUESTION: But if you don’t know, I’m willing to accept that. That was my question.

    MS. HARF: I’m not telling you I haven’t heard anything – I’ve heard about the allegations.

    QUESTION: Right.

    -- snip --

    MS. HARF: Yep. On this still?

    QUESTION: Can we change topics?

    QUESTION: No, I’ve got one more. Sorry. It was mentioned by my colleague that one of the issues was the withdrawal of all ID cards issued by the Ministry of External Affairs. How is that going to affect the work that your diplomats do on the ground in India?

    MS. HARF: Well, we certainly don’t want any of the measures that he outlined to affect our work on the ground in India because it’s such an important relationship. We work together on so many important issues. And that’s why we’ll keep talking to the government about how to move forward.

    QUESTION: What are they actually used for on a day-to-day basis?

    MS. HARF: I can double-check. I can double-check.

    QUESTION: Have they actually taken those measures that he described, or you don’t know?

    MS. HARF: I’m not sure. I’ll double-check. I’ll double-check with --

    QUESTION: Is it true that if the diplomat doesn’t have that ID the diplomat can be arrested by the local police or --

    MS. HARF: I’ll check. I’ll check. I don’t know.

    Given a political matter this sensitive, a legal situation this complicated, and with so many facts still so elusive, I look forward to many more daily press conferences just like this one.

    Here's my question for Marie Harf: "Who do you want to play you in the inevitable Law and Order episode based on this incident, which is no doubt even now being written?"  

    Saturday, December 14, 2013

    Malabo's Nice New Fortress Embassy, And Its Bad Old Days Of Mayhem

    Image from KCCT website

    The Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) has cut the ribbon on another new Fortress Embassy, this one in Malabo, and for the low, low, price of only $71 million. That's bargain basement.

    I'm not being the least bit sarcastic about the cost. That has got to be the cheapest new embassy complex OBO has built in the last 10 years or more, especially considering that it includes staff housing, recreational facilities, and nearly self-sufficient site utilities, in addition to the chancery office building.

    From the press release:
    In an important symbol of our friendship and bilateral relationship with the Republic of Equatorial Guinea, Under Secretary for Management Patrick F. Kennedy, and U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Equatorial Guinea Mark L. Asquino presided over the dedication of the new U.S. Embassy complex in Malabo today.

    The new multi-building complex provides embassy employees with a safe, secure, and modern workplace. Situated on a 12.5-acre site in the Malabo Dos section of the capital, the complex includes a chancery building, a service/utility building, an access pavilion, Chief of Mission residence, Deputy Chief of Mission residence, staff housing, and a recreational facility.

    The $71 million project incorporates numerous sustainable features to conserve resources and reduce operating costs, including an energy recovery unit that reduces the need for heating and cooling, water-conserving plumbing fixtures, and the use of regional and recycled materials. The new Embassy is registered with the U.S. Green Building Certification Institute as a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) facility.

    The facility was designed by Karn Charuhas Chapman and Twohey (KCCT) of Washington, DC, and constructed by Caddell Construction Co. of Montgomery, Alabama.

    I'm delighted to read that the new embassy has an "access pavilion." A pavilion ... the very word makes me think of some pleasant little structure, maybe a nice shady place where the embassy staff can gather after work and have gin and tonics while they enjoy the spectacular equatorial sunset. But it's really just OBO's design excellence jargon for what is normally called a "compound access control" facility, i.e., a building for TSA-style screening of visitors.

    Hey, OBO, people can see through that architectural happy talk. What's the point of trying to soften the reality of metal detectors and x-ray machines? Just call it a Compound Access Control facility, which is the official term. Even KCCT, your design firm on the Malabo project, uses that term in its own press releases for other embassy work.

    KCCT, by the way, has made a specialty of overseas work for OBO and some other U.S. government agencies. That business model has been recession-proof, as described in a profile in a business journal last year:
    D.C. architecture firm KCCT stays under the radar thanks to work on overseas embassies, consulates

    The firm is now working on the Foreign Affairs Security Training Center for a possible 2,000-acre site near Fort Pickett in Blackstone, Va., where future diplomats will learn about terrorist tactics to help them prepare for working in dangerous locations abroad.

    Over the past two decades, KCCT has come to specialize in designing overseas diplomatic facilities, creating 151 of those projects in 114 nations. Those commissions include 18 new embassy and consulate compounds in countries as varied as Angola, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Vietnam.

    No post about Equatorial Guinea would be complete without noting how completely bat guano crazy the country once was. The place has settled down nicely since oil was discovered and business interests took over, but in the 1960s and '70s Malabo was very likely the worst place in Africa. More horrendous than even Idi Amin's Uganda.

    Globetrotting With Uncle Sam has a fine blog post from last February about the recent history of Murder and Violence in Malabo:

    Since 1968 when the country became independent, Equatorial Guineans have lived under two repressive dictators, both stemming from the same family. The current president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, is the nephew of the first president, Francisco, Marchias Nguema, who many considered insane and who on Christmas Day in 1975, has 150 coup plotters killed in the national stadium while a band played "Those Were the Days."

    Shortly after independence, the State Department opened an embassy in Malabo and assigned two officers -- a charge' d'affairs and an administrative officer. The stress of opening an embassy on Fernando Po must have gotten to the Charge' as in 1971 he radioed the Embassy in nearby Yaounde, Cameroon to report that the Administrative Officer was involved in a communist plot. The embassy directed that the consul from Douala immediately charter a plane to Malabo and to take control of the embassy. Upon arrival he found that the charge' had killed the administrative officer in the embassy under very mysterious circumstances.

    -- snip --

    Equatorial Guinea has been the target for at least two coup attempts. The first, against former President Marchia, is said to be the setting for Fredrick Forseyth's book "The Dogs of War" which was made into a movie by the same name. The second, the so-called Wonga Coup, took place after oil was discovered. It was led by Simon Mann, an Englishman living in South Africa and the son of former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, is said to have helped finance this attempt.

    Here's a first-person account of the 1971 incident by the FSO who was sent to Malabo in response to the chargé's bizarre radio calls and discovered the murder. The chargé' was convicted of murder in a U.S. court despite being irrational and possibly insane, and it has never been made clear what exactly happened and why. His son later attributed the murder to a mental breakdown brought on by the terrorizing conditions of Malabo in 1971, however, the son was far too young at the time to be in a position to really know that. 

    Forseyth's novel, "The Dogs of War," was extremely well-informed about the first coup attempt, and its plot anticipated the discovery of oil in Malabo, which discovery provided the motive for the later Wonga coup. The movie version of Dogs is worth watching - I found it on Netflix - for Christopher Walken's portrayal of the mercenary who goes a little crazy in a Malabo prison and then goes rogue on his London businessmen employers.

    Malabo inspired murder in the movies, too

    The movie had a happy ending. I mean, as happy as anything could get in Malabo in the days before the oil boom.

    Tuesday, December 10, 2013

    Art, Mm-Hmm, In Embassies

    Sean Scully's 'Wall of Light Cubed 2'

    As you may have read, the Art in Embassies program of the U.S. State Department shelled out one million dollars for the artwork depicted above, which will be displayed at the future new U.S. Embassy in London. The new embassy office building will be a work of art in its own right, so I guess we needed exactly the right sculpture to compliment the new building. Why the sculpture costs more than some entire buildings do, I just can't say.

    The artwork of Sean Scully, which you can browse on his website, is not something I am qualified to judge, so here is an expert description:

    Sean Scully is known for rich, painterly abstractions in which stripes or blocks of layered color are a prevailing motif. The delineated geometry of his work provides structure for an expressive, physical rendering of color, light, and texture. Scully’s simplification of his compositions and use of repetitive forms—squares, rectangles, bands—echoes architectural motifs (doors, windows, walls) and in this way appeals to a universal understanding and temporal navigation of the picture plane. However, the intimacy of Scully’s process, in which he layers and manipulates paint with varying brushstrokes and sensibilities, results in a highly sensual and tactile materiality. His colors and their interactions, often subtly harmonized, elicit profound emotional associations. Scully does not shy away from Romantic ideals and the potential for personal revelation. He strives to combine, as he has said, “intimacy with monumentality.”

    I think I'm starting to see it ... yes ... intimacy combined with monumentality ... abstract, geometric, repetitive, and it echoes architectural motifs (the motif part sounds good to me). Plus, it is universal, sensual in a tactile way (do we get to touch this art?), and it elicits emotional responses.   

    I can easily believe the part about eliciting emotional responses. With no disrespect for Sean Scully's artistry, any time the U.S. government spends a million dollars to buy a sculpture for display at an embassy you can be certain that there will be profound emotional responses, particularly from members of Congress. 

    The incomparable State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf displayed some performance art of her own at last Friday's daily press briefing when she tried to explain why she thinks this purchase is "a good use of our limited resources" (yes, she does):

    Okay, on the artwork, we have an Art in Embassies program run through the Office of Art in Embassies which curates permanent and temporary exhibitions for U.S. embassy and consulate facilities. It’s a public-private partnership engaging over 20,000 participants globally, including artists, museums, galleries, universities, and private collectors. For the past five decades, Art in Embassies has played a leading role in U.S. public diplomacy with a focused mission of cross-cultural dialogue and understanding through the visual arts and the artist exchange.

    In terms of the London piece, like much of the art purchased by this program, this piece was purchased under the market price after considerable negotiation with both the artist and the gallery. This is an important part of our diplomatic presence overseas. We maintain facilities that serve as the face of the U.S. Government all throughout the world, and where we can promote cross-cultural understanding, and in this case do so for under market value, we think that’s a good use of our limited resources. Yes, we do.

    -- snip --

    QUESTION: -- to give you the critics’ point of view. I don’t think any of the critics, even the more harshest ones, are saying that people should go to receptions at U.S. embassies abroad and drink Ripple or Natty Boh or something like that. And I’m not – and I don’t think that they’re saying that people --

    MS. HARF: (Off-mike.) Yes, go ahead.

    QUESTION: -- people at – people who are waiting in line or go to embassies should be looking at velvet Elvises and dogs playing poker either on the walls. (Laughter.) But do you acknowledge at least that the amount that was spent and the timing of – that the optics are not particularly good ... particularly going into the government shutdown?

    -- snip --

    QUESTION: You mentioned that you purchased the art at below market prices.

    MS. HARF: Sometimes. Sometimes.

    QUESTION: Sometimes.

    MS. HARF: I don’t know about --

    QUESTION: Is that not sort of stiffing the artist? I mean, why not – now, I understand you want to be good stewards of the public’s money. But on the other hand, why not pay them what their stuff is actually worth?

    MS. HARF: Well, it’s a negotiation between the artist and the gallery, and having their art displayed in a U.S. embassy and especially a prominent one in a place like London, I think is probably something that, if artists choose to sell us their pieces, is an important thing for them as well.

    QUESTION: And it is displayed prominently if anyone could actually get into the embassy to take a look at it, right?

    MS. HARF: Is that really a question?

    QUESTION: Well, it’s not exactly like it’s a public – it’s going to be – unless it is. I don’t know. Is it going to be outside?

    MS. HARF: I have no idea.

    "Is that really a question?" Yes, it really was a question, and a pretty basic one. Does the public get to see the art on display in our embassies, or not? Is a sculpture such as Wall of Light Cubed 2 going to be displayed inside or outside the walls of the new London embassy? That's the sort of question a Deputy Spokesperson might reasonably be expected to answer. Alas, Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf had no idea.

    I can't be the only one who gets the impression that Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf doesn't actually know all that much about the operations and activities of U.S. Embassies. She always comes off second-best in her frequent bantering with AP's Matt Lee, for example. Why doesn't she have a couple subject matter experts around to prompt her when questions arise that she can't answer?

    And don't even get me started on that annoying "Mm-hmm' sound she makes as a sly way to suggest agreement without saying anything. That sound was amusing when it came from Yoda - here's Yoda as Deputy Spokesperson: "A question you have? Mm-hmm" - and creepy when it came from the guy in Sling Blade. When it comes from someone conducting the State Department's daily press briefing it just makes me think she's a lightweight poser.


    P.S. - On the subject of art in embassies, let me put in a good word for Velvet Elvises and paintings of dogs playing poker. What's so wrong about those? Personally, I think American artists have only begun to explore the possibilities of the vernacular working-class theme of anthropormorphized dogs playing poker. It is art for the masses and therefore impeccably democratic, so why shouldn't it be displayed in a cross-cultural dialog thingee? At the very least, it ought to get us points for irony.

    And who is to say that sort of art doesn't have real cultural value? In a recent post I used a photo of a Proto-Elamite sculpture, a bull in a human pose, which is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to the Met's museum label, bulls in human poses were a common theme in Proto-Elamite art. Is that sculpture on display today merely because it was created around 3,000 BC in southwestern Iran, or because it has genuine artistic interest?

    I say to the fancy-pants curators of the Art in Embassies program, don't rule out paintings of dogs playing poker just because it's a modern theme favored exclusively by guys who drink domestic beer. Let's promote that cross-cultural dialog and understanding through the visual arts of the low-brow and the popular, as well as through the rarefied and expensive.

    Sunday, December 1, 2013

    Mess With The Bull And You Get The Horn

    Proto-Elamite bull sculpture, Southwestern Iran 

    This is a little weird, but the U.K. Daily Mail has an exposé of sorts about the bull market that exists in American bovine semen exports to Iran. That's right, we don't sell the Iranians the entire bull, we just bludgeon the beefsteak a bit and then sell the Iranians the resulting seed stock. It's an agricultural development thing, so that makes it okay.

    Despite most trade with Iran being illegal, the U.S. sent nearly $2 million dollars worth of bull semen to the Persian nation in 2012. In April 2013 alone, the U.S. sent $820,000 according to U.S. Census information gathered by Quartz.

    -- snip --

    Altogether the U.S. sent $45.7 million in humanitarian aid to Iran last April. While the number seems like a lot, it's nothing compared to the $26.2 billion sent to our biggest trading partner - Canada.

    Bovine sperm side-steps the usual rules against trade between the two nations since it qualifies as humanitarian aid.

    It's humanitarian aid to Iran, and therefore legal. I haven't googled the extraction techniques involved in rendering this aid, but I wonder whether the bulls would agree that that aspect of the business is also humanitarian. Maybe they would; really, I don't want to know.

    Humane considerations aside, bovine semen is a big business. Who says Americans don't make anything anymore? Our bulls are evidently some of the highest-T producers who ever swaggered around a barnyard.

    In fact, American cattle ranchers sell so very much bovine semen each year that sales to Iran amount to just a drop in the bucket.

    After following the links in the Daily Mail's article I learned that the U.S. is the world's second largest exporter of bovine semen. So robust are our bulls that the only foreign encroachment into our calf batter business comes from our neighbor to the north, Canada. Between us, we North Americans dominate the world's bovine semen market.

    Take that, Iran and the rest of OPEC! The next time you drink a glass of milk or grille a beef kabob, you'll know what cartel to thank.

    Saturday, November 30, 2013

    Ja' Makin' the Associated Press Confused

    Deputy Police Superintendent Steve Brown

    If Jamaica is fighting a war on crime, as DPS Brown says, then the Associated Press became a casualty of linguistic friendly fire when it reported yesterday that Jamaican police had "seized 3,300 missile warheads and a machine to make missiles and bullets" that they found concealed inside a barrel on the Kingston wharf.

    Thousands of missile warheads? How large was that barrel they were concealed inside? And what exactly is a machine to make missiles?  

    The WaPo published AP's report about thousands of warheads (here) with no explanation, as did all the other big news media outlets I checked today, with the exception of the New York Times. I can't tell whether the NYT took a pass on the AP's missile-making machine scoop out of journalistic integrity or, rather, from a lack of interest in Caribbean news.

    Al Jazeera's website not only ran the AP story, it elaborated on it (here) by describing "a huge haul of advanced weaponry" and working in mentions of international organizations, WikiLeaks cables, and official complicity in transnational smuggling. Are they just confused, or has someone there been watching old James Bond movies?

    Jamaica? Missiles? Smuggling?

    After seeing the Al Jazeera version tweeted and re-tweeted today as if it were a Really Big Deal, I was disappointed when I read the Jamaican Gleaner's original story (here):

    The police last night declared aid would be sought from international partners as a probe continues in relation to the seizure of a machine which can make ammunition as well as thousands of warheads.

    Head of the Constabulary Communication Network, Deputy Superintendent of Police Steve Brown, said during an interview on CVM Television that a team comprising the police and Customs officials discovered 3,300 warheads and the machine in a barrel on the wharf yesterday.

    Brown said the team also recovered items which can be used to make rounds of ammunition.

    -- snip --

    "(Gun) ranges have applied over the years to get machines like this but the government would never allow it. It can be dangerous if it gets into the wrong hands."

    [TSB note: Jamaica strictly controls the possession of firearms, and regulates and records the sale of ammunition. Hence, ammo reloading equipment "can be dangerous" there.]

    Brown said Customs agents were carrying out routine checks yesterday when they became suspicious of a barrel.

    He said the police were called in, the barrel was then opened and the contraband found in it.

    So the mysterious machine they seized in Jamaica was just a reloading press, a common piece of equipment that is used by sport shooters and gun ranges to make small arms ammunition inexpensively.

    As for the strange mention of warheads, that was cleared up when the Jamaica Observer published a photo (here) of the seized items. 

    Bullets, or Jamaican warheads

    I see two boxes of what look like cooper-jacketed pistol bullets, three clear bags of what might be empty pistol brass, some blue printed bags and some boxes I can't identify (maybe primers for the cartridge cases and dies for resizing the used brass?), and some paper bulls eye targets. But no missile warheads.

    Evidently, "warheads" is a charmingly lyrical Jamaican way of referring to ordinary rifle or pistol bullets.

    Bullets are, indeed, launched from the 'missile' of a cartridge. That is one definition of missile: any object thrown with the intention of causing injury or damage. I suspect that usage is more common in British than in American English, and possibly it was confusion over the meaning of "missile" that led the folks at AP and Al Jazeera to think that three thousand pieces of some sort of military munitions had been discovered concealed inside a barrel on the wharf in Kingston.

    Nothing to see here, you journalists. Move along. 

    Wednesday, November 20, 2013

    Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline of the Week

    If it hadn't happened at Wal-Mart I wouldn't believe it

    "Iowa man’s gun accidentally fires from pants pocket at Wal-Mart but he finishes shopping" (here)

    Thursday, November 14, 2013

    Breaking Ground In London, But Watch The Carbon Neutrality And Water Self-Sufficiency!

    The Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) has got a really hot hand right now, what with yesterday's groundbreaking for a new London embassy, plus the announcement of four new construction contracts for embassy renovations, and that coming on top of the four new embassy construction contracts it announced last week.

    From the London press release:
    In an important symbol of our enduring friendship with the United Kingdom, U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland Matthew W. Barzun and Director of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) Lydia Muniz broke ground on the new U.S. Embassy in London today.

    The new Embassy, designed by KieranTimberlake of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, will be situated on a 4.9-acre site in the Nine Elms Opportunity Planning Area and will include a chancery, a consular section, support spaces, a U.S. Marine residence, access pavilions, and parking.

    Its design incorporates sustainable features at the leading edge of practice, including aspirations for carbon neutrality, a self-sufficient water system, as well as goals for minimum certification at Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) Gold and Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) Excellent.

    -- snip --

    OBO’s mission is to provide safe, secure, and functional facilities that represent the U.S. Government to the host nation and support our staff in the achievement of U.S. foreign policy objectives.

    For its reported cost of one billion dollars, I hope that new embassy comes with an unprecedented degree of 'safe, secure, and functional' in addition to all of that greeny carbon neutrality stuff.

    The four renovation projects that OBO announced this week were for Vilnius, Lithuania (see the press release here), Wellington, New Zealand (here), Freetown, Sierra Leone (here), and Budapest, Hungary (here).

    U.S. Legation and Embassy since 1935 (photo:

    Budapest is a personal favorite city - and embassy - of mine. I'll be sorry if the day ever comes when we replace that elegant old building, drenched in the history of modern Europe from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the end of the Cold War, with a 'safe, secure, and functional' nonentity of a Fortress Embassy.

    Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline of the Week

    Don't the Brits call that an "own goal?"

    "Al-Qaeda-linked rebels apologise after cutting off head of wrong person" (UK Telegraph)

    ... Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham militants say sorry for decapitating a fellow extremist rather than enemy ...

    Sunday, November 10, 2013

    Four More Fortress Embassies

    Artist's rendering of future Moscow Annex (HOK website)

    The Department of State’s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) announced four new embassy construction contracts this week, which is quite a couple more than it could have announced at this time last fiscal year, and concrete evidence [concrete, get it?] of Congress's commitment to provide increased capital  funding to replace our most vulnerable overseas diplomatic facilities.

    The next four will be: an office annex in Moscow, Russia (see the press release here), and new embassy complexes in Nouakchott, Mauritania (here), The Hague, Netherlands (here), and Paramaribo, Suriname (here).

    All of them will get the Fortress treatment. Or, in OBO's language, they'll get "safe, secure, and functional facilities that represent the U.S. Government to the host nation and support our staff in the achievement of U.S. foreign policy objectives." With an extra helping of secure, please.

    Paramaribo's ticky-tack chancery (photo from official website)

    Remembrance Sunday 2013

    The Brits remain the world's best at holding dignified and moving commemorations. I'm feeling serious ceremony envy.

    Today's Remembrance Sunday observation in London was attended by 10,000 veterans and civilian representatives. The half-muffled church bells ringing, the two-minute silence ended by the firing of a 13-pounder World War One cannon, and then the procession of leaders laying wreaths of remembrance poppies at The Cenotaph in Central London. We in Washington will have nothing like it tomorrow on our Veterans Day.

    Beyond the merely ceremonial, we will also fall short of the Brits in the number of our national leaders who are conspicuously military veterans. Okay, the British Royalty are something of an exception in that they are expected to serve in, or at least hold honorary positions in, the military; starting with the Queen herself [here] and on down to her grandsons, they have really served in real wars. But so have many of the other national leaders and politicians that I saw laying wreaths in central London today.

    When I think of our President, Vice President, and cabinet officers, I don't see a lot of veterans. In fact, I can think of only two, Secretaries Kerry and Hagel. Plus, of course, the ex-General who runs the Department of  Veteran's Affairs, but I would think it must be obligatory to find a veteran for VA.

    After looking up the bios of our Congressional leadership, I see that House Majority Leader John Boehner enlisted in the Navy after High School but was medically discharged after only a few weeks. That makes him the only veteran among our House and Senate majority and minority leaders and whips. 

    Looking back to the last Presidential election, only two of the dozen or more primary and general election candidates served in the military. Ron Paul had been an Air Force flight surgeon, and Rick Perry had been an Air Force C-130 pilot. Then there was Herman Cain, who was a civilian employee - ballistics analyst - of the Navy Department while doing graduate studies in computer science. That's it. Nobody else.

    If our present government leadership were to muster every veteran among them for tomorrow's Veteran's Day ceremonies, would they be able to fill a street in downtown Washington DC? I doubt it.  


    Friday, October 18, 2013

    70% of Federal Salaries Were Paid During the Shutdown

    Treasury Secretary Gallatin, fiscal hardass

    During the Great Government Shutdown of Fiscal Year 2014 (October 1 to 16) the U.S. Treasury reported paying out $6.246 billion in federal salaries and another $2.801 billion in insurance premiums for federal employees. That appears to be about 70 percent of the amount that would have been paid to salaries under normal operations.

    So I guess we should call it the 30 percent shutdown.

    It is an historic irony that our longest-serving Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin (1801 to 1813, under presidents Jefferson and Madison), would probably have backed the shutdown. As a Jeffersonian, he hated having a national debt at all, and devoted three quarters of federal revenue to pay it down. He helped to create the House Committee on Finance, forerunner of the modern Ways and Means Committee, and encouraged the tactic of withholding funds by the House as a method of exercising congressional oversight of the executive branch.

    Thursday, October 17, 2013

    Government Reopens And It's All Unicorns and Rainbows

    It's morning again in Washington

    The deal was cut on Capital Hill last night, the debt ceiling was raised again (so we can add more to the 16.7 trillion we owe now), and today 800,000 Federal employees went back to work, joining the 1,350,000 who had been there all along.

    The only cloud I see on the horizon is that the National Zoo's Giant Panda cam is still dark this evening. Let's get with it, people!

    I don't get that. It doesn't cost anything to run a web cam anyway - and Ford is its corporate sponsor in case it does - so why can't Americans go back to watching non-stop panda adorableness? Unicorns and rainbows just aren't the same without pandas.

    Tuesday, October 15, 2013

    Hillary's Ticket: It's a Fair Cop

    'Allo, 'allo, 'allo, what's all this then? I hope someone said

    It's Day 15 of the government shutdown, assuming that Columbus Day counts. (Can you have a Federal holiday and a government shutdown at the same time, or is that like a double negative?) All I know is that I had to go to work again today, and I'm getting paid again this week, same as I did last payday. The crisis continues, I guess, but frankly, it's an abstraction.

    It relieved my workday ennui to see that Hillary Clinton's car was ticketed in London today. Job well done, Westminster City Council traffic warden! I'll bet that never happened to Hillary in DC.
    The Westminster City Council warden put an £80 penalty notice on the former US secretary of state’s silver Mercedes vehicle in Central London while she was attending an event at Chatham House.

    -- snip --

    The warden then arrived and put a ticket on the car which had transported 65-year-old Mrs Clinton to the event, prompting her security detail to jump out of the van in protest, [photographer] Mr Brennan said.

    The photographer claimed he saw one of the agents angrily waving his arms and flashing his badge to the warden, who remained unflustered and continued to issue the ticket to Mrs Clinton’s vehicle.

    Judging by the photos that accompanied the news stories, I suspect that the angry arm-waiving was not done by her security detail, but rather by some senior official, presumably an American, who was waiting around outside while Hillary was doing her business in Chatham House.

    The photo above shows the traffic warden with four men from Hillary's party. Three of the four are mature gentlemen with silver-grey hair, at least two of whom are unlikely to be security detail material due to their age and, well, gravitas. The third grey-hair could be a supervisory agent of some type, but I don't think so, based on the way he keeps well out of the action. The fourth man in the photo is younger and is the only one who is visibly wearing a lapel pin (a low-profile recognition device used by security details). None of the older gents appear to be wearing those tell-tale ear pieces. Deduction: I see one security agent and three geezers whose function is unidentified.

    It was one of the three older gents who got in the warden's face.  

    Senior Official #1 explaining this is a b-i-g, b-i-g, problem 

    Senior Official #1 threatening to execute the warden 

    Senior Official #1 ordering the warden to leave immediately

    All the officious arm-waiving was a waste of time, because the warden was not to be intimidated. England is the land of the Magna Carta, after all, where they invented the concept of equality before the law. Pay the £80, Mr. Senior Official, and let that be a lesson to scofflaws everywhere.

    Friday, October 11, 2013

    In America, You Break Law. In Putin's Russia, Law Breaks You

    Check out the last ten seconds of NPR's interview with Thomas Drake, the NSA whistle-blower and drama queen, about his visit with Edward Snowden in Moscow: View of Snowden's Exile Life.

    Drake said that Snowden chose "to escape the United States to have any chance at all of retaining his freedom and liberty."

    Um-hum. He left out the part about how Snowden is retaining his freedom and liberty in Russia, as a guest of Vladimir Putin.  

    Oh, yeah ... freedom and liberty ... coming right up!

    Well, enough levity. Here's a much more realistic appraisal of Snowden's life in Russia:
    “This interesting fish has swum into our nets of its own accord and it would be unthinkable of our special services to miss this rare chance to talk to a U.S. defector,” said Alexei Kondaurov, a retired general of the Soviet-era intelligence service.

    Young Mr. Snowden will be enjoying Putin's freedom and liberty for a long time to come, I think.

    Government Shutdown Day 11: Thin Gruel

    Us Feds are still hanging in there

    The WaPo is running a long End Of Week Two Story about the government shutdown (here), and I fully agree with this part:

    The federal government has become the behemoth that cried wolf. For more than two decades, budget brinksmanship has been such a mainstay of Washington politics that many Americans long ago grew skeptical of claims that if one deal or another weren’t made, the Statue of Liberty would close or the nation’s highways would seize up in the mother of all gridlocks.

    -- snip --

    But the reality is that the government is too large and too complex for something as dramatic as a shutdown to cause anything as dramatic as an actual shutdown. At the peak of this latest closing, 800,000 out of about 1.9 million civilian federal employees were put on ice. Many arms of government still had half, three-quarters or even nine-tenths of their workers coming in every day, despite the closing of the money spigot.

    "The government is too large and too complex for something as dramatic as a shutdown to cause anything as dramatic as an actual shutdown." Um .. okay .. if that means what I think it means, I agree. The administration has to dramatize the real shutdown - that is, the budget impasse - by staging a phony shutdown. Hence, the passive-aggressive nonsense of roping off open air monuments on the Washington Mall and scenic overlooks in national parks to make the impasse visible to Joe Citizen.

    Would Joe Citizen otherwise notice the shutdown that some parts of the federal government are not at work? Truthfully, no. Not unless he's employed by the feds either directly or via a contractor, or married to someone who is, or gets a check from some social program or other, or works for a business that gets regulated. That's a lot of people, but not nearly so many as the Washington hive assumes.

    Meanwhile, I'm warming up my soup.

    The Crisis Continues 

    Friday, October 4, 2013

    Government Shutdown Day 4, And It's Pretty Much Total Apocalypse

    It's bad, all right. The National Park Service has closed its parks and monuments. The National Zoo's beloved Giant Panda Cam has gone dark, even though it says it's sponsored by the Ford Motor Company Fund, and I didn't think Ford was shut down, too. U.S. Embassy Twitter feeds are not being regularly updated "due to the lapse in appropriations" necessary to do so (what?).

    Finally, last night, packs of mountain lions were seen roaming the abandoned streets of Washington DC. That's right. As government retreats, nature, red in tooth and claw, advances.

    Government Shutdown Theater aside, my sympathy goes out to anyone experiencing financial distress. All you can do is be prepared to ride it out, and remember that these lapses in appropriations rarely last more than a week or two. As a commenter told me, it's time to practice the ancient art of home economics until this shutdown blows over.

    Thursday, October 3, 2013

    Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline of the Week

    "Man Crushed To Death By 1,100 Pounds Of Weed In Police Chase" (Da Hora Bataguassu, via Jalopnik)

    Tuesday, October 1, 2013

    Relax, My Fellow Feds, Relax

    Some colleagues, taking a break from work

    NPR ran a calm and measured short history of government shutdowns yesterday, which I thought was a most welcome change from the otherwise hysterical media coverage of Washington's budget impasse. Did you know that these shutdowns used to treated with a big yawn? They were.

    "In the '60s and '70s down until 1980, it was not taken that seriously at all," says Charles Tiefer, a former legal adviser to the House of Representatives, who now teaches at the University of Baltimore Law School. In the old days, he says, when lawmakers reached a budget stalemate, the federal workforce just went about its business.

    "It was thought that Congress would soon get around to passing the spending bill and there was no point in raising a ruckus while waiting," he says.

    Ah, the good old days. "No point in raising a ruckus" about a passing event that is, in any case, an inevitable consequence of our system of divided government. Such an adult attitude. But then, we didn't have the internet back in the 60s and 70s, or even cable TV, so how would you raise a ruckus in the first place? By the time you did that with print media, I suppose a new budget would have been approved.

    It was Jimmy Carter's administration that invented Government Shutdown Theater. Turning Boy Scout Troops away from a closed Washington Monument, predicting that airplanes will fall from the skies and farmers will wander the earth not knowing what to plant without their Federal controllers and extension agents, and all that. I don't see how that was an improvement, but maybe it took people's minds off of the economic stagflation and 'odd/even' gasoline rationing that Carter had going on.

    "They [Carter's Justice Department] used an obscure statute to say that if any work continued in an agency where there wasn't money, the employees were behaving like illegal volunteers," says Tiefer. "So they not only could shut off the lights and leave, they were obliged to shut off the lights and leave."

    In the years leading up to [AG] Civiletti's opinion, budget standoffs lasting a week or more were commonplace. But after the opinion, no standoff lasted more than three days until the epic government shutdowns of 1995.

    The WaPo has a list of the 17 previous government shutdowns since 1976, when the current budgeting process took effect. These things are not that unusual, and are normally over in a few days. Until then, it's best to remain calm and carry on, as the posters say. Complaining to your Congressman, bitching to the newspapers, and - most of all - picketing either Congress or the White House, are silly and counterproductive.

    Fellow Feds, I say, don't be a bit player in Government Shutdown Theater. Refuse to raise a ruckus while we wait for a resolution. It would be quite pointless anyway. Outside the bubble of Washington DC no one, but no one, feels any sympathy for a class of people who make more than the average American, have better employment benefits than almost anyone else, and are least likely of all to be affected by the severe economic downturn that's going on out there in Real America. Those of us who don't get out of the bubble much need that tough love message occasionally.

    I know it's easier said than done, but really, the best course is to relax, light up a smoke (at least metaphorically), and ignore the breathless panic-mongering that feeds the 24-hour news cycle.

    Monday, September 16, 2013

    Not Someone Detached From the Details

    The House Oversight Committee has released transcripts of its interviews with Ambassador Pickering and Admiral Mullen, co-chairmen of the Benghazi Accountability Review Board. The interviews were conducted on June 4 and June 19, respectively. The Pickering transcript is here, and the Mullen transcript is here.

    No big revelations in there, but it is clear the Oversight Committee majority was looking for an opening to go after Under Secretary for Management Patrick Kennedy.

    My favorite quote is on page 114 of Admiral Mullen's transcript, in which Mr. Castor, majority Chief Investigating Counsel, questioned Admiral Mullen about the extent of U/S Kennedy's involvement in making decisions concerning Temporary Special Mission Benghazi:

    Q: Under Secretary Kennedy is not, by everyone's account, is not someone who is detached -

    A: - correct -

    Q: - from the details.

    U/S Kennedy will be interviewed by the Oversight Committee himself later this week, I believe. Maybe we'll hear more then.

    Sunday, September 15, 2013

    Fake Bomb Detector? No Harm In That, So Far As I Can See

    For the ADE-651, the test can cost $40,000 to $60,000

    Apparently a news outfit in Beirut is only now finding out that those 'bomb detectors' with the swiveling antennas - the ones that are in use all over Lebanon and beyond, the ones that have been exposed as bogus again and again, the ones the Iraqi Ministry of Interior got (some) of its money back from, the ones whose British manufacturer and salesmen have been convicted and sentenced for fraud, those ones? - are fake.

    Better late than never, I suppose, but really, how many times does that fraud have to be debunked before the reality sinks in? Folks, the 'bomb detector' known as the ADE-651, among other names, consists of an antenna and an empty box. Let me repeat that last part .. an .. empty .. box. How hard can it be to figure out that it couldn't possibly detect anything?

    Al-Akhbar English, from Lebanon, has not-so-breaking news today about the The Great Explosives Detector Hoax:
    After the recent car bombs that killed dozens in Beirut and Tripoli, Lebanon’s public and private security forces armed themselves with a simple device that allegedly can detect explosives in a car. Al-Akhbar put the detectors to the test. Here are the results.

    All over Beirut, you inevitably come across security guards carrying a plastic device, with what looks like an antenna extending from it, much like an old radio. You are asked to stop your car, and they run the scanner from front to back. If the metallic rod turns in the direction of the car, then it has sniffed a trace of explosives.

    But is this kind of detector genuine? Does it in fact protect thousands of lives by finding explosive material? How does it actually work, and how effective is it? Do all the security outfits use the same product or are there a number of different models available?

    I'll skip ahead a bit. Al-Akhbar's correspondent next describes loading explosives into his car and driving up to several Lebanese Army and Hezbollah security checkpoints in Beirut where they screened him with the ADE-651 explosives detector, and then  ///  SPOILER ALERT  ///  SPOILER ALERT  ///  SPOILER ALERT ///  pulled him out of his car and busted a cap in his dumb ass. No, just kidding! Actually, nothing happened, because the ADE-651 is only an empty box.

    The story concludes:

    Given the possibility that there are more effective models being used elsewhere, we decided to consult a security officer who is an expert in explosives. When we asked him about the detector, he laughed, saying it was a big hoax. He told us that the army had tested one machine, and upon opening it, found nothing more than what you might find inside a child’s toy.

    It is worth noting that the BBC aired an investigation into this type of “antenna” detector, enlisting the help of experts from Cambridge University and specialized laboratories. The results revealed, according to the report, that the device is completely ineffective, and the cost of the materials it contains is worth no more than a few dollars.

    Why have government agencies all over the world bought the ADE-651, and why do most of them continue to use it? It has no favorable test results, or successful track record, or credible theory of operation, or technology, or even any components other than the box and antenna.

    That whole credulity thing keeps bothering me. I think the sales genius behind the ADE-651 must be Irwin Mainway, the deliciously sleazy late night TV hustler portrayed by Dan Aykroyd in those SNL skits back in the 70s.

    "Johnny Fake Bomb Detector" sounds like it would fit right in with the other great Mainway toys, like the Invisible Pedestrian Halloween Costume, the Bag O' Glass, the General Tron Secret Police Confession Kit, Doggy Dentist, and the rest.

    Mainway said he was only packaging what people wanted, and he always had reasonable-sounding excuses for his dangerous toys. Even warnings right there on the label. If people buy them, hey, you can't fix stupid, I mean, so far as I can see, you know?