Thursday, May 29, 2008

FBI: Finding Bassem Inconvenient

Last week, the House Judiciary Committee held a subcommittee hearing featuring FBI whistleblower Bassem Youssef, a Supervisory Special Agent and Unit Chief in the FBI Counterterrorism Division, who reported that only 62% of the positions in that division are filled. See this post for more detail.

Yesterday, members of the Senate and House Judiciary committees followed up on Youssef's testimony by sending a letter to the General Accountability Office (GAO) asking for an investigation into the FBI's "unacceptable vacancy rates." The letter was signed by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat; Judiciary Committee member Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican; House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat; Judiciary Committee member Rep. Robert C. Scott, Virginia Democrat; and Judiciary Committee member Rep. Louie Gohmert, Texas Republican.

That development was reported today by Congressional Quarterly (Lawmakers Seek GAO Probe of FBI Staffing Levels) and the Washington Times (Hill tells FBI to explain staff gap), among other news media, but not the Washington Post.

According to a May 21 post in the Whistleblower Protection Blog about news media coverage of Bassem Youssef's testimony of last week, ABC News, Fox News, Reuters, CNN, Washington Times, LA Times, USA Today, Think Progress, American Library Association, CNN Wire,, AFP, and all ran stories about it. But not the Washington Post.

Isn't the WAPO interested in the fact that the FBI has allowed 2 out of 5 positions in its Counterterrorism Division to go vacant? Surely it is. So why the strange reticence to report a story that embarrasses the Bureau? Does J. Edgar Hoover's ghost haunt the WAPO building? The U.S. Congress has finally stopped handling the FBI with kid gloves, so why has the WAPO now started?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Last U.S. Veteran of the Great War

(Frank Buckles at age 16)

I was pleasantly surprised to learn - courtesy of the History News Network - that there is a last surviving American veteran of the First World War. Of the 4.5 million U.S. troops who served in the European Theatre during that war, the last one left 90 years later is Frank W. Buckles, now age 107.

The HNN article notes:

The dwindling ranks of our World War I veterans – literally from millions to one – marks a poignant moment in our nation’s history. When Frank Buckles is gone, our direct and living connection to the Great War will be gone. Only images, artifacts, and words of the period will remain.

When Frank W. Buckles dies, his name will be added to a list of "last veterans" kept by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The most recent update to this list took place in 1992 when Nathan Cook died at the age of 106. He was the last surviving veteran of the Spanish-American War.

As if World War I wasn't enough, Buckles was a civilian working for an American shipping line in the Philippines when World War II began. He was captured by the Japanese and spent most of the war in a prison camp.

(Frank Buckles at age 103. Quite the dapper gentleman!)

Friday, May 23, 2008

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Whistles Were Blown, but the Washington Post Wasn't Listening

The House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security, had quite a hearing yesterday on FBI whistleblowers. It featured FBI Supervisory Special Agent Bassem Youssef, the Unit Chief in the FBI Counterterrorism Division's Communications Analysis Unit, who had a striking written statement. Here are the key points he made:

* Currently the ITOS sections are inexcusably understaffed. Critical supervisory personnel within ITOS (which includes the Unit that tracks AI-Qaeda) staffng level is only 62% of its mandated Funded Staffng Level. This has forced the FBI to recruit supervisors into ITOS who lack the background and expertise necessary to direct America's most important law enforcement mission.

* The mismanagement of the FBI's Counterterrorism program has already resulted in the systemic and needless violation of the civil liberties of thousands of Americans, the misidentification of threats against the United States and repeated sloppy mistakes within the counterterrorism program.

* The continuing failure of the FBI to hire or train agents who are fluent in Arabic, knowledgeable about the Middle East and/or experienced in operational counterterrorism is rooted in two factors: First, an ongoing policy which does not reward these skills in the promotional process and Second, deep seated discriminatory practices within the Bureau.

* A full independent review of the counterterrorism program is badly needed. The review must be conducted by persons with unquestionable expertise in Middle Eastern terrorism.

On the one hand, this is shocking stuff. On the other hand, what's new? It sounds like nothing much has changed since 2002, when the FBI's own Inspector General reviewed its counterterrorism program and said much the same.

The hearing was covered in today's Washington Times, which reported FBI Director Miller's verbal tap-dancing in response to Youssef's testimony ("While we appreciate any employee's views on the state and direction of the FBI, those assessments may be very limited in scope") but I saw nothing about it in today's Washington Post. What's up with that? The WAPO is normally all over these whistleblower dramas. Is the FBI still a sacred cow?

All You Ever Wanted to Know About Petroleum

For anyone who would like to track gasoline prices and energy markets in general, I highly recommend subscribing to This Week In Petroleum, a weekly product of the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration. You can sign up for e-mail updates and get all the charts and data analysis you could possibly want.

Monday, May 19, 2008

U.S. to Assist Saudi Arabia with Nuclear Energy

I'm surprised that last Friday's announcement of U.S-Saudi nuclear energy assistance [U.S.-Saudi Arabia Memorandum of Understanding on Nuclear Energy Cooperation] hasn't gotten more critical attention.

"The United States will assist the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to develop civilian nuclear energy for use in medicine, industry, and power generation and will help in development of both the human and infrastructure resources in accordance with evolving International Atomic Energy Agency guidance and standards."

The deal coincided with President Bush's recent visit to the magical Kingdom, however, he wasn't the first Western head of state to offer the Saudis nuclear energy assistance. French President Sarkozy did so last January (which is something of a habit for Sarkozy, who has also expressed his willingness to provide civilian nuclear assistance to Egypt and the United Arab Emirates). Apparently the Saudis have been looking for this kind of assistance for some time.

There will be much predictable scoffing about why the Saudis would have any use for nuclear energy in "medicine, industry, and power generation," but it's really not so odd given that Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC) has been making a major effort to market itself as an investment destination for petroleum spin-off industries. For example, last year SABIC entered into a joint venture with Dow Chemical to produce plastics and other 'downstream' petroleum products in Saudi Arabia, and also acquired the plastics division of GE. I can easily see why it makes sense to move the plastics industry to Saudi Arabia, since that will put manufacturing facilities next to almost unlimited amounts of the feedstock chemicals and power they need. I suppose the same reasoning could apply to many other industries.

Water desalination is another good reason to produce nuclear energy in the Kingdom. About 70% of Saudi Arabia's drinking water is produced in 30 or so desalination plants and those plants require about 21 percent of all the electricity now generated in the Kingdom, according to articles like this one and this one. The Saudis need to build even more such plants, and that's clearly an attractive scenario for nuclear power.

Could the Saudis also want to acquire nuclear weapons? Maybe; here's a research thesis that suggests why they might. But surely they could do that much more easily by funding under-the-table weapons efforts in Pakistan than by building the weapons themselves. Developing nuclear weapons is not so easy, even for a wealthy nation. The Israelis did it [read The Bomb in the Basement to see how and why] but only after many years of effort during which they first developed a world-class scientific establishment, obtained critical assistance from certain guilt-ridden officials in post-World War II France, and persuaded the United States to look the other way at times. The Saudis just might want to have a few nukes, but I don't think this new agreement will be a route to get them.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Where Are They Now? Cpl. Arnold Bracy 21 Years After Moscow

I got a blast from the past today when I saw a Washington DC local television news report about the troubles of the District of Colombia Protective Services Police, the city agency that provides security for DC government buildings. The Chief of that organization is Arnold Bracy, the same Arnold Bracy who was a Marine Security Guard at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow during 1985-87, and who was unfairly caught up in the espionage scandal surrounding Sgt. Lonetree.

Bracy was accused by the Naval Investigative Service of conspiring with Lonetree to let Russians into the embassy's communications center, but charges were never pressed against him, and he was eventually exonerated. I believe he even recovered his security clearance.

In 1988, Bracy landed a job with security contractor Vance International and worked his way up to become their Regional Manager for Washington, DC. In 2001, he was hired by the District of Colombia as Deputy Chief for Security Management, Protective Services Police. In 2003, he was promoted to Assistant Chief, and in 2006 to Chief.

He's in a bit of trouble now, according to this series of reports on the DC Fox News channel: part 1, part 2, and part 3 (the one that features an interview with Bracy).

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Czar Peter (Principle)

I've been looking over Barack Obama's foreign policy advisers lately, to get an idea of who will be running the [redacted] [the foreign affairs department of the largest employer in the washington, DC area] in the next administration if he wins the election. Foreign Policy in Focus had this run-down of the likely suspects:

Senator Barack Obama’s foreign policy advisers, who on average tend to be younger than those of the former first lady, include mainstream strategic analysts who have worked with previous Democratic administrations, such as former national security advisors Zbigniew Brzezinski and Anthony Lake, former assistant secretary of state Susan Rice, and former navy secretary Richard Danzig. They have also included some of the more enlightened and creative members of the Democratic Party establishment, such as Joseph Cirincione and Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress, and former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke.

That last name alarms me. Richard Clarke was a professional bureaucrat from 1973 to 2003, and he was without peer as a self-promoter and empire-builder [I'm not counting J. Edgar Hoover, since Hoover was sui generis]. Clarke held all sorts of important-sounding jobs in the last stage of his career, during which he evidently convinced many big Washington players that he was actually in charge of some national function or other related to counterterorrism, even though he was really just a staff weenie with no line responsibility for anything at all. As White House 'Counterterrorism Czar,' Clarke could probably have ordered an intern to make a Starbucks run, but that would have been about the limit of his authority.

Clarke's career is a perfect illustration of the Peter Principle. He was a bright functionary who worked his way up the hierarchical food chain until he was over-promoted into a job he couldn't perform, and then, having reached his level of incompetence, there he stayed.

Those staff functions he should have performed - like threat analysis, policy coordination, or budget prioritizing - he did poorly or not at all. He had so little substance to show, yet was so full of himself, when he briefed Congressman Shays's subcommittee after 9/11 that Shays unloaded on him in a series of scathing letters to Clarke himself, to the 911 Commission, and to Condoleezza Rice urging her not to retain Clarke for a senior position in the Bush Administration. After his run-in with Shays, Clarke was lucky to have Rice throw him a bone in the form of the Cyberterrorism Czar job. [What an irony it is that the press calls these powerless bureaucrats 'Czars.' A more descriptive term would be 'Alpha Wonk.']

In the event Obama is elected, I hope he'll accept some adult supervision from the old foreign policy hands, like Zbigniew Brzezinski, and leave Czar Peter the Powerless in his well-deserved exile.

Friday, May 9, 2008

In the Spring a Young Man’s Fancy Lightly Turns to Thoughts of Guns

It's springtime in Washington, the warm nights are filled with the sounds of 9mm 'DC hummingbirds,' and the Metropolitan Police have announced that they intend to equip every patrol car with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.

The Washington Post story on this development was very short and subdued (D.C. to Arm Patrol Officers With Assault Rifles), not at all what I would have expected. The Washington Times story (D.C. to Arm Police with Assault Rifles), however, had full details and provided some background on the troubles the D.C. police have already experienced using the firearms they have now.

From the Washington Times story:

Concerns about D.C. officers using excessive force surfaced after the city lowered standards in police recruiting in 1989 and 1990 ...... On April 7 [2008], the department qualified to end a seven-year, voluntary Justice Department oversight of incidents in which officers used their weapons or other forms of force in the line of duty ...... City officers fired 219 rounds last year, up from 64 in 2006. The department is now investigating the conduct of two officers who this month were exonerated by federal investigators in the fatal shooting of 14-year-old DeOnte Rawlings, whom they suspected in the theft of a mini-bike.

The Times also had this critical comment from the Baltimore PD, which is not following the nationwide trend to arm officers with rifles instead of the shotguns that have traditionally been the patrol car back-up weapon:

A spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department said only SWAT officers have assault rifles because the department has seen mostly handguns used in crime. "It's a specialized weapon for specialized units," said Officer Troy Harris, a Baltimore police spokesman.

I'll leave aside the question of whether it makes sense for an urban police department to equip every officer with a rifle, and just note that the last time the DC police adopted a new firearm - the Glock pistol - they became a menace to themselves, each other, and society at large.

Poorly trained and trigger-happy was a bad combination for everybody but the plaintiff's lawyers back in the 1990s when the DC police led the nation in shootings, both intentional and accidental. In the first ten years after adopting the Glock, DC cops had more than 120 negligent discharges of the handgun.

I'm thinking of starting an office pool: whoever guesses the date of the first mistaken firing of a Washington Metropolitan Police AR-15 takes the whole pot. That should fill the sports gap nicely. Basketball season has ended, and I'm pretty sure we'll see the first accidental firing before baseball season gets going.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Worst Olympics Ever?

Susan Brownell, the author of Training the Body for China, the leading scholarly work on Chinese sports, has a post in The China Beat that provides historical context for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. She sees a close parallel with an earlier Olympic Games, and it's not the Nazi Games.

For multiple reasons, I do not subscribe to the current fad for drawing parallels between the 1936 "Hitler" Games and the 2008 Beijing Games. If one is looking for actual historical connections, then I would argue that the 104-year connection between the U.S. and China through Olympic sports, which dates back to the 1904 St. Louis Olympic Games, is today exerting a much greater influence on the shape of the Beijing Olympics than is the legacy of a now-defunct German regime.

The third modern Olympic Games were held in St. Louis in 1904 alongside the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (world’s fair), and while China did not take part in the sports (it would send its first Olympic athlete to the 1932 Los Angeles Games), the Qing dynasty sent the first official delegation that it had ever sent to an international exposition. It was motivated to do so by concerns about the negative national image of China promoted by the unofficial exhibits at previous fairs, such as the opium den exhibit at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The 1904 Olympics were apparently the first Olympics to be reported in the press back in China.

The world’s fair was America’s coming-out party as a world power. It had just acquired the former Spanish colonies of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam as a result of the Spanish-American war in 1898. At the fair, it presented itself as an expanding power, with an extremely large display devoted to the Philippines. Another large section of the exposition grounds was devoted to displays intended to demonstrate that the government was succeeding in civilizing American Indians.

[A particular embarrassment was] the Anthropology Days, in which natives who had been brought to the fair for the ethnic displays competed in some track and field events and pole-climbing, and their performances were unfavorably compared with those of the "civilized" men who took part in the Olympic Games.

It's surprising stuff for someone - like me - who had known nothing about the 1904 Games. Her entire post has much more, and it makes a convincing case that the St. Louis Olympics of 1904 is the best historical key to understanding the Beijing Olympics of 2008.