Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Meet RSO Frank Dunniger, U.S. Embassy Beirut

While I'm still thinking about the curious lack of Hollywood interest in the Diplomatic Security Service, I must note the earliest movie portrayal of a U.S. Embassy Regional Security Officer (RSO), which was in the 1972 Cold War flick Embassy. I'm sure that movie never made it to DVD, but I'm hoping to catch it again on television some night.

The movie was set in an unnamed "developing country in the Middle East" but was actually filmed in Beirut, using the very impressive American Life Insurance Building, which I think is still standing, as a substitute for the real U.S. Embassy. The real embassy, which was small and plain like most of our overseas diplomatic facilities, would never have lived up to the Hollywood image of an embassy.

Embassy had a little something for everybody. Richard Roundtree - Shaft himself - was a CIA officer, Ray Milland was the distinguished Ambassador, Max von Sydow was a Russian defector taking refuge at the embassy, and Chuck Connors was a KGB assassin posing as a U.S. Air Force officer. Broderick Crawford played the embassy security officer, Frank Dunniger, who had to capture and hide the KGB man while the CIA smuggled the defector out of town.

I just loved Broderick Crawford as the RSO. Gravel-voiced, and looking just like he did in Highway Patrol, I could easily believe him as a 1950s-era American cop turned RSO. After all, Crawford pretty much defined the look of the 1950s-era American cop. I've known quite a few Old School cops, some of them in my family, and they ALL looked like Broderick Crawford. Over the years, I've often participated in training sessions for older retired RSOs, who remain available for short-term assignments overseas as re-hired annuitants, and I'm pretty sure Broderick Crawford could go unnoticed in any of those groups.

By the 1980s, DS agents, like cops in general, started getting better dressed and more corporate-looking, which I suppose was an improvement for their professional image. But I think something was lost when you could no longer tell the RSOs from the diplomats. Incidentally, did you know that the actual RSO at U.S. Embassy Prague played a cameo role as a diplomat in the 1996 movie Mission Impossible? No one, but no one, would have mistaken Broderick Crawford for a diplomat.

Should you ever visit the DS Training Center in Dunn Loring, Virginia, you can find old photos of SY (as DS was named then) agents going back to at least the 1960s, and I want to tell you that more of them than not looked like they could be Broderick Crawford's identical twin brothers. Personally, I prefer the Old School Cop look to the business suit look that replaced it, or to the paramilitary cargo-pants-and-Oakleys look that defines young DS agents today.

Embassy wasn't the finest of cinematic efforts, but if Hollywood ever does get around to depicting RSOs, they will follow in the footsteps of RSO Frank Dunniger.

Diplomatic Security Service Gets No Press, Once Again

Here's a Department of State press release from last week, which I've been mulling over: Diplomatic Security Coordinates Rescue of 3-year-old American Kidnapped in Guatemala.

And here are two key quotes:

While these phone negotiations were underway, the Regional Security Office in Embassy Guatemala was able to provide Guatemala's Anti-Kidnapping Unit critical information regarding the whereabouts of the kidnappers and the victim in Planes de Barcenas, Villa Nueva, Guatemala.

On the morning of August 28, Guatemala's CAS [the anti-kidnapping unit], utilizing the information provided by the Regional Security Office, successfully rescued the girl. All five kidnapping suspects were killed during the rescue operation.

This press release interests me because it leaves so much unsaid. Such as, how was the RSO able to provide the whereabouts of the kidnappers? And how did it happen that the local police killed all five of them, with no one wounded or captured, and no injuries on the police side? Obviously, there is a story behind this story, and it's probably something really good. But, most likely, we won't ever learn any more.

Incidents like this would surely be of popular interest, however, for reasons I don't understand, Diplomatic Security has never sought publicity, unlike other Federal law enforcement agencies and security services.

Indeed, some agencies are shameless press hogs. Let me digress for an old joke: A joint task force of DEA, ATF, and FBI agents raids a house. The DEA agents release their trained dog, who sniffs all over and finds a suitcase full of cocaine. Then the ATF agents release their trained dog, who finds a buried cache of AK-47s. Finally, the FBI agents release their trained dog, who runs outside and holds a press conference to announce that the FBI has just broken up a major drug and gun smuggling ring.

Those agencies that crave publicity have had no trouble getting it. The FBI, of course, has been mythologized in scores, maybe hundreds, of movies and TV series ranging from The FBI Story (1959), which was J. Edgar's own Authorized Version of his creation narrative, to grotesque travesties like The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977). But many other agencies are featured almost as often, and with greater or lesser degrees of hagiography.

The U.S. Marshals Service had a TV series once, and a few good recent movies, one of which (U.S. Marshals) had a DS agent character as the bad guy! Since that part was played by Robert Downey, Jr., it was a case of true to life casting, perhaps. The CIA, U.S. Secret Service, Customs, Border Patrol, Naval Criminal Investigative Service, etc., etc., etc., have all had TV series and / or movies that made them familiar to the American public. And those omnipresent reality TV shows, such as COPS, have profiled seemingly every obscure police outfit imaginable; I wouldn't be surprised to see "True Tales of the GSA Parking Lot Police" on some cheesy cable channel.

But poor old DS just gets no respect from the cop-happy viewing public. It is curious.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Shocking Statistics on Subprime Mortgages

You can find two spreadsheets at the website of the New York Federal Reserve Bank (here) that provide the shocking, state-by-state, statistics for subprime and "Alt-A" [a type slightly less risky than subprime] mortgages for 2008. The numbers are shocking because they show that those mortgages are in far, far, better shape than I had expected.

- Only 8.7% of subprime mortgages, nationwide, are in foreclosure; that number is higher in some states, particularly California and Florida, but, judging by the overheated news media coverage of foreclosures, I'd have guessed the national average was around 50%.

- Those foreclosures represent only 1.8 per 1,000 housing units, nationwide.

- Only 55.2% of the subprimes mortgage holders have been late with a payment even once in the last 12 months, and 57% are current in their payments, as are 81% of the Alt-A holders.

- Only 10% of the subprime holders were 30-to-60 days overdue with their payments.

Remember, these numbers are for the riskiest of all mortgage types, the ones that are at the rotten core of the derivative financial instruments whose failures brought on the current financial crisis. If that's what the worst is like, than maybe the markets and the news media need to take a deep breath and calm down.

Right now, Warren "be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful" Buffett's $5 billion investment in Goldman Sachs this week is looking pretty smart to me.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Gons Nachman, Inmate Number 72616-083

Gons Nachman on Copacabana Beach in happier times

Gons Nachman packed a lot of experiences into his 42 years of life. He was raised in Costa Rica, emigrated to the U.S. at age 17, went to college and law school, became an activist for the rights of nudists, worked in Miami for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and in the Congo and Brazil as a Foreign Service Officer, got charged with and plead guilt to possession of (self-produced) pornography, and is now serving a 20-year sentence in a Federal prison.

It's been a long road with many a twist and turn, but fate has finally deposited Gons here, in the Federal Correctional Institution at Petersburg, Virginia.

FYI, you can keep track of Gons' whereabouts for the next decade or two by going to the Federal Bureau of Prisons inmate locator page.

I confess that I find Gons fascinating, in a criminological sort of way. I've met a few sociopaths just like him - some of them also went to prison - and they were all intelligent and charming. I'm sure I would like Gons if I met him. Most people seem to.

You can find some background on Gons and the predatory behavior that landed him in prison here, and here. If you scroll through the comments on those posts you'll find one from a Brazilian visa applicant that he hit on, and a few from others who knew him.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Pre- and Post-Blast Marriott Hotel Photos

Here's the pre-blast hotel

Here's a post-blast photo

And here's another

And finally here's a pre-blast photo showing the main vehicle entrance. Note that the only barriers were drop bars (effective only against light vehicles).

The four wedge barriers that stopped the bomb-laden dump truck were added after the above photo was taken. Whichever Marriott executive signed off on the purchase of those expensive security products - probably around $250,000 total cost - earned his salary that year.

"The working man gets hurt the worst if you don't save the rich ones first"

I've posted a couple of times before about Merle Hazard, the financial analyst turned country music singer, but it seems he just keeps getting more topical every day. The Holy City of Washington has never needed Merle's lyrical wisdom more urgently than it does right now, as the Treasury Department is on the verge of bailing out nearly every big investment firm that wasn't already bailed out by the Federal Reserve earlier this year.

The issue Merle sings about the most is what economists call "Moral Hazard," which is what happens when you assure financial gamblers that the government will save them from the consequences of their risky behavior. That is to say, they indulge themselves in even more risky behavior than they would have otherwise. They're relentlessly logical in that way.

Merle's lyrics never fail to be on the cutting edge of financial news. A major goal of Treasury Secretary Paulson right now is to overturn the 'mark-to-market' accounting rule for valuing mortgage-backed securities, something that would save the big firms from having to honestly report the diminishing market value of their assets. Well, Merle saw that one coming:

Now the CMOs [Collateralized Mortgage Obligations] ,
And the other mortgage-backed securities
Are gettin' marked down to market causing much unease
In the Hamptons

Much unease, indeed.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Islamabad Marriott Hotel Bombing

As I write this, I'm still not completely certain that a co-worker of mine, who was returning via Islamabad from a visit to Kabul, was not at the Marriott when the attack took place. So far as I know, he's safe. But two U.S. military members are reportedly among the dead, and one State Department contractor is still missing. It will be another day or two before the casualties are fully known

One thing, however, is perfectly clear right now. Had an explosion of that size happened in front of the hotel, rather than 60 feet away at the entry control point, the building would have collapsed and the fatalities would have been in the several hundreds. The hotel was full at the time: 290 rooms were booked and over 200 people were in the restaurants.

The bomb was huge. The 2,000 pound TNT-equivalent figure is being reported from various sources, but I wouldn't be surprised if the final assessment placed it much higher. A vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) that leaves a crater 24 feet deep and 59 feet wide, according to the figures in the Pakistan Interior Ministry's press releases, and breaks windows two miles away, as reported by CNN, could easily turn out be in the 5,000-pound range. That would be about the largest VBIED on record since the 1995 Al-Khobar towers bomb. The bomb was carried in a medium-size dump truck, which could accommodate over 5,000 pounds of payload.

And the only thing that stopped the truck at the hotel's outermost entrance was an anti-ram vehicle barrier (see the video here). Marriott is the industry leader in hotel security at high-threat locations, and it is apparent that they spent the money for genuinely effective vehicle barriers. It isn't entirely clear from the video, but there were two layers of barriers - an outer line of wedge barriers capable of stopping large trucks, and an inner line of light-duty drop bar barricades. Also, and of critical importance, entering vehicles had to go through a chicane approach pattern that forced them to lower their speed; the VBIED had to make a very tight left turn into the vehicle entrance, and it looked to me like it was moving at only 15 to 20 miles per hour when it hit the outer barriers. A truck that size could have over-run even the most robust vehicle barriers if it had been able to get up to higher speed.

This hotel had an intelligently planned and well-funded ring of perimeter security, and that likely averted a death toll that could have gone to 500 victims or even higher.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

But Did They Lose Any Alcohol or Tobacco?

An audit has found that the Justice Department's Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Bureau has lost quite a few weapons (ATF lost 76 weapons).

(AP) The ATF lost 76 weapons and hundreds of laptops over five years, the Justice Department reported Wednesday, blaming carelessness and sloppy record-keeping.

Thirty-five of the missing handguns, rifles, Tasers and other weapons were stolen, as were 50 laptops, the internal audit found. Two of the stolen weapons were used in crimes.

The audit by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine found "inadequate" oversight of weapons and laptops resulted in "significant rates of losses" at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

"It is especially troubling that that ATF's rate of loss for weapons was nearly double that of the FBI and DEA, and that ATF did not even know whether most of its lost, stolen, or missing laptop computers contained sensitive or classified information," he added.

What's going on over there at ATF? Guys, this is embarrassing. If one of the firearms dealers you regulate 'lost' that many weapons you would yank his licence.

Equivocal Victory in Sanaa

The attack that occurred this morning at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yeman, was a failure for the attackers, in that they did not get their vehicle-borne bombs inside the chancery's perimeter or manage to kill any U.S. citizens, but that doesn't make it a victory for the other side. Such incidents, in which robust security measures prevent an attack from succeeding, are at best equivocal victories. They lost, but we didn't really win. No matter how well the security works to prevent a greater tragedy, innocent people are still killed. In this incident, one of the innocent victims was an Indian nurse who happened to be visiting the embassy on business.

There is much I could say about the scenario employed by the attackers, and how it illustrates a rising trend in multiple/sequential vehicle bombs. But since I'm trying to avoid 'matters of official concern' to the State Department, I'll hang back a day or two before commenting further on that. For now, suffice it to say that there are big lessons to be learned from this incident, and I hope the Department will conduct the same sort of accountability review that it would undertake if U.S. government employees had been killed.

Here's the official Department statement:

Attack on Embassy Sana’a, Statement by Secretary Condoleezza Rice

Washington, DC
September 17, 2008

The United States strongly condemns today’s terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a, Yemen. This attack underscores the malicious disregard for human life shown by the terrorists perpetrating this attack. No political cause justifies the murder of innocent people.

Fast action by Embassy security personnel and host nation Embassy forces, aided by the Embassy’s security systems and its emergency procedures, were vital in limiting the harm to Embassy employees and to the public who regularly visit the Embassy. This callous attack reminds us that American and locally-employed staff at our embassies serve the United States in many dangerous environments worldwide, often at great personal risk. We are proud of the work that they do.

I extend my condolences to the families and loved ones of those who were tragically killed or injured in the attack. Their sacrifices reinforce our commitment to remain vigilant and ready to defeat the forces of global terrorism.

FBI = Fallacious Bacillus Investigation

FBI Director Mueller appeared before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee today and repeated his performance at yesterday's House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing. That is to say, he flatly refused to answer their questions about the Amerithrax investigation.

Not all the Senators on the Committee took this lying down. According to the Washington Post (Lawmakers Question Results of Anthrax Investigation ):

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) told FBI leaders this morning that he does not believe "in any way shape or manner" that lead anthrax suspect Bruce E. Ivins acted alone.

Leahy, an intended recipient of one of the anthrax-packed 2001 letters, publicly cast doubt on the bureau's conclusion last month that the bioweapons researcher carried out the notorious attacks as the sole culprit.

See Salon.com for more (Key senators dispute FBI's anthrax case against Bruce Ivins).

When will the Congress finally stand up and pimp-slap Director Mueller? Leahy seemed mad enough to demand answers; it remains to be seen whether his fellow Congressmen are ready, at long last, to conduct actual oversight of the FBI.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

FBI = Fugacious Blindsiding Insult

The House Judiciary Committee held an FBI oversight hearing today, one they had prepared for by sending the FBI Director a set of specific questions. FBI Director Mueller appeared at the hearing - the sole witness - and blithely declined to answer those questions; instead, he provided this boilerplate written statement and then blew off the Committee's surprised responses.

Here's Salon.com's reaction to today's hearing:

But after just an hour of the hearing, it is painfully clear that -- as is true in virtually all of these hearings now before a pitifully powerless Congress -- Mueller won't provide the Committee with even a single answer of import, won't even pretend to, and the Committee has no intent to compel him to do so. Indeed, the hearing began with an angry statement from Chairman Conyers about the fact that the FBI, in general, simply ignores all inquiries for information and answers from the Committee for months and months and months and then shows up at these hearings unprepared to answer even the questions they are advised will be asked, knowing that each member only has five minutes and can't actually accomplish anything.

In response, Mueller, with palpable boredom at Conyer's angry outburst, dutifully recited a series of standard bureaucratic buzz-phrases about how the FBI endeavors to respond to the Committee's inquiries as promptly and fully as possible, how he is happy to meet with Committee members to address their concerns, how the need to carefully scrutinize the Bureau's responses makes delays inevitable, etc. etc. In response, Conyers literally pleaded with Mueller to be more forthcoming in the future, observed that the hearing was likely to be worthless -- it's certainly hard to argue with that -- and then assured Mueller that Conyers "wasn't trying to force you to give this information." Your impotent Congress in a nutshell. (The oversight joke)

It never ceases to amaze me how the FBI gets away with this sort of nonsense.

Passport to Prison

Two types of passport criminality were in the news today. First, the State Department announced mass arrests in a passport fraud investigation (Diplomatic Security Investigation Results in 112 Suspects Charged With Federal Passport Fraud ).

And second, one of the State Department contractor employees who was caught peeping into passport application files several months ago was charged with unauthorized computer access, a Class A misdemeanor (Contractor Charged In Passport Snoop).

Monday, September 15, 2008

Half a Million of my Fellow Civil Servants are Deadbeats

It seems that The Honorable Congressman Charles B. Rangel (D-New York) isn't the only civil servant with a low regard for the Internal Revenue Service. According to WTOP News, there were 171,549 current federal workers who did not voluntarily pay their federal income taxes in 2007, and nearly half a million federal employees of all types - both active and retired, military and civilian - who are delinquent (see Federal workers owe billions in unpaid taxes).

WASHINGTON — The Internal Revenue Service is trying to collect billions of dollars in late taxes from nearly half a million federal employees.

Documents obtained by WTOP radio through the Freedom of Information Act show the federal employees and retirees did not pay more than $3.5 billion in taxes owed last year. The agency with the most delinquent employees was the U.S. Postal Service. Nearly 4.2 percent of its 747,000 workers are delinquent.

The IRS would not provide comparable data for the general population. The Executive Office of the President, which includes the White House, has 58 employees who did not pay more than $319,000. More than 1,000 Capitol Hill workers are on the list. About 152,000 of the delinquent federal workers have entered into payment plans.

The most interesting thing about this story is that the IRS tracks federal worker non-payment by agency. According to the agency-by-agency breakdown that is linked to the WTOP report, the biggest deadbeats are at the General Printing Office, at 7.23%. Guys, get your heads out of those books and file a 1040! The lowest rates of delinquency were among those goody-two-shoes at the Justice (1.72%) and Treasury (1.13%) Departments.

My own agency, the [REDACTED] [the foreign affairs department] was reasonably law-abiding with only 3.03% non-payers, and I'm sure they all had good excuses, like being deployed to Iraq. The Defense Department delinquency rate was up there, at 5.0%, and the rates for the CIA and FBI were mysteriously unlisted.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Public Historian Who Actually Respects the Public

Retired Chief Historian of the National Park Service, Dwight Pitcaithley

There is a terrific interview with America's foremost public historian ["public," meaning one who practices history for the enlightenment of the general population, rather than for consumption within academic circles] at the Thunderbear web-zine (see: THE LAST WORD---DWIGHT PITCAITHLEY). Parts of it were excerpted by the National Park Service (here: A Historian's Take on the National Park Service), from which Dr. Pitcaithley recently retired as Chief Historian.

Dr. Pitcaithley changed the direction of the NPS from politically safe 'cultural resource management' of our national parks and heritage sites to the more important, but unavoidably contentious, task of historical interpretation. This especially effected how the NPS ran the Civil War battlefields that it inherited from the War Department in the 1930s, where the long-standing memorializing of the South's Lost Cause was increasingly challenged by an interpretation that found the primary cause of the war in the institution of slavery.

NPS today has an admirable record of correcting - gently, and always with respect for all parties - the conspicuous lack of historical legitimacy at many of the nation's most cherished and heavily-visited sites. These include Washington's birthplace, where the 'birth' house that was actually constructed in 1931 has finally been correctly labeled a Memorial House rather than a true replica, and the Lincoln birthplace site, where the log cabin, which is actually the somewhat jumbled remains of a traveling display built 30 years after Lincoln's death, has been re-named the 'symbolic' cabin. The NPS history staff is often in the uncomfortable position of telling the public, including its pressure groups and their Congressional representatives, that some of the things they've 'known' all their lives aren't true.

A few quotes:

NPS has a fundamental educational role to play in this country inside parks and outside parks. We require the study of history in our schools to develop a more informed citizenry, so that the decisions we make today are based on some knowledge of how similar issues were handled in the past. The value of historical parks is their infinite capacity to inspire us at places where this experiment in democracy, this journey of participatory government, plays out.

The stories embedded on the landscape of Gettysburg and Manzanar, and Little Bighorn, in the library at Adams NHS, and in the asphalt of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma all provide lessons in courage and determination and hope. They make us proud and they make us sad, and most of all we hope, they make us think about the future of the country and how we as individuals can improve it. Natural parks also contain stories, quoting from the Advisory Board report again, useful to "building a citizenry that is committed to conserving its heritage and its home on earth."

I especially liked this one:

If your question is "is it possible to keep politics out of the interpretation of history by the NPS?" I think the answer is probably a qualified "yes." In my thirty years as a historian in the Service, I never was required, or even asked, to change a message or text for political reasons. When one is interpreting history in the public sector or, as Ed Linenthal describes it, "committing history in public," there will always be those who have a different view of the past and will argue the point. The antidote is a strong understanding of the past based firmly on primary source material. Quoting, in context of course, the voices of the participants of historic events does not leave much room for argument.

Dr. Pitcaithley has an unusual background for an academic, which I'm sure contributes to his notable empathy for his dear, but often mis-educated, fellow citizens. His parents were Vaudeville performers who traveled throughout the country during the Depression. He dropped out of college to join the Marines, and was a forward artillery observer in Vietnam for six months in 1966 until badly wounded during a battle with two North Vietnamese Army regiments. As he relates in the interview, the fact that he could wear a Purple Heart lapel pin helped him to find common ground with the frequently furious Civil War heritage groups who objected to the NPS placing its interpretation of the cause of the war on the sacred ground of battlefields.

I got to know Dr. Pitcaithey slightly when he taught a course in historic preservation at a Washington-area university while working at NPS Headquarters, and I treasure the brief association I had with him. It was clear to me that he is an astute historian, but also, and just as importantly, a man who genuinely likes the American public and assumes the best of them. Would that all my fellow civil servants followed his example.

Mao Poster Art (Your Face Here)

I have to get one of these posters made. Perfect for decorating the cubicle! Everybody has the Gurkha knives, and the war carpets, and the travel mementos in their work space, but I don't know anyone with one of these.

This one says: "I may be just a peasant but I'm armed, so back off!"

This one appeals to me for the bookish aspects of Mao's regime; all those proletarians reading Mao's sayings as they go about their workday.

And one like this would make a great family portrait. I can see it now over my fireplace.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

UK Guardian to America: Elect Obama, or Else

A columnist at the UK Guardian, writing on behalf of the whole world, has warned America not to break his heart by electing anyone other than Barack Obama. Here it is: the world's verdict will be harsh if the US rejects the man it yearns for. Yes, the headline actually used the words "the man it yearns for."

It seems that consequences will follow if we fail to elect the world's heart throb. According to the article's sub-head, "an America that disdains Obama for his global support risks turning current anti-Bush feeling into something far worse." You might wonder what could possibly be far worse than the current anti-Bush feeling? What could the world do to us, anyway? Well, in the P.G. Woodhouse novel The Swoop!, England was occupied by foreign invaders and the Brits retaliated by giving their enemies the Supercilious Stare.

The Supercilious Stare unnerved them. There is nothing so terrible to the highly-strung foreigner as the cold, contemptuous, patronising gaze of the Englishman. It gave the invaders a perpetual feeling of doing the wrong thing.

Maybe the Brits will unleash something like the Stare on us if we toy with their feelings and then elect McCain.

Two quotes from the article:

If Americans choose McCain, they will be turning their back on the rest of the world, choosing to show us four more years of the Bush-Cheney finger. And I predict a deeply unpleasant shift.

And the manner of that decision will matter, too. If it is deemed to have been about race - that Obama was rejected because of his colour - the world's verdict will be harsh.

That last bit of finger-wagging is especially choice. The British love non-white politicians so much that they have two (two!) of their own in the House of Commons, and the rest of the EU nations seem to be likewise enamored of non-white office holders. So of course they claim the moral high ground.

America, you have been warned. Elect the man the world yearns for, or risk a deeply unpleasant shift and a harsh verdict in the court of world opinion. Maybe even the Supercilious Stare.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Community Organizers Strike Back

The jibes at community organizers at last week's Republican convention really struck a nerve. Already two groups have stood up to fight for the dignity of those put-upon souls.

The National Association of Social Workers was outraged to hear Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, one of the nation’s vice-presidential candidates, malign in a live international broadcast the work of community organizers.

Outraged is right, and they want you to read all about it: Social Workers Respond to Gov. Sarah Palin’s Attack on Community Organizers. According to the NASW, we owe our very democracy, our economic growth, and even our health and family services to community organizers. God bless them all, and I'm sure they could use some of your spare change.

And if the social workers are outraged, then the organized community organizers [I can find no other way to describe them] at Community Organizers Fight Back are angry and demanding an apology.

Community organizers across America, taken aback by a series of attacks from Republican leaders at the GOP convention in St. Paul, came together today to defend their work organizing Americans who have been left behind by unemployment, lack of health insurance and the national housing crisis. The organizers demanded an apology from Alaska Governor Sarah Palin for her statement that community organizers have no “actual responsibilities” and launched a web site, http://organizersfightback.wordpress.com, to defend themselves against Republican attacks.

Once again, I'm left perplexed when community organizers explain what they do, exactly:

Though many people are unfamiliar with community organizing, the job is both straightforward and vital: community organizers work with families who are struggling–because of low wages, poor health coverage, unaffordable housing, and other community problems–so that collectively, they can fix those problems and make government respond to their day-to-day concerns.

So, 'working with' these Dickensian families apparently consists of telling them to collectively fix their own problems by demanding that the government do something about them. Is that it? Everything I know about life tells me that if you expect the government to fix your problems for you, it will result in nothing but steady employment for more community organizers, generation after generation.

FBI = Forbidding Brutalist Irritant (to Washington's Federal Triangle)

The Washington Post ran a good opinion piece yesterday by a local community organizer - well, the executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations - calling for the demolition of the ugly and dysfunctional FBI Headquarters building, which he rightly calls a "dead zone in what should be the thriving heart of the city" (Let's Hoover Up a Dead Space on Pennsylvania Avenue).

One quote will give the flavor of the article:

The FBI building, a "brutalist" design constructed in the late 1960s and early '70s, probably suffers from the same conditions that many other buildings of that era do: poor construction and an abysmal layout; highly inefficient use of interior space; and nightmarish heating and cooling systems. The building surely is on the opposite end of today's goals for a "green" space.

By the way, that term "brutalist" isn't just a diss against one building. It refers to a style of modern architecture that was in vogue for a mercifully brief time in the 1960s. Brutalist Architecture originates from the French béton brut, or "raw concrete", a term used by Le Corbusier to describe his choice of material. That style might have had its fans once upon a time, but it has no place amid the neo-classical architecture of the Federal Triangle, the greatest part of the Holy City of Washington. The Hoover Building looks like a pesticide factory compared to the next-door Justice Department headquarters, which outclasses the Hoover Building in every way. There is more architectural merit in one of the Justice Department's art deco doors then there is in the entire Hoover Building.

The Hoover Building is already falling down all by itself, as the author notes ("if you have taken a closer look at the place, then you've seen that the upper part of the building is wrapped in netting. Chunks of concrete facade seem to have fallen off randomly around the exterior"). I say, put it out of its misery and build the FBI a new, secure, headquarters elsewhere.

On the topic of security, allow me to point out the obvious and note that the Hoover Building, which was completed and occupied in 1974, 21 years before the Oklahoma City Murrah Federal Building bombing and the creation of anti-terrorism physical security requirements for domestic government office buildings, is completely vulnerable to a truck-bomb. It has essentially no setback distance from the surrounding streets, therefore no ability to resist blast effects. Part of the structure even overhangs the street (see the above photo). No anti-ram vehicle barrier can mitigate that vulnerability.

This is one situation where both the troglodytes of government security and the sensitive artistes of public architecture should be in complete agreement. The Hoover building must go!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Do They Still Make Hush Puppies?

After re-reading Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers for the first time in at least 20 years, I was bowled over by how well Tom Wolfe captured bureaucrats, like this #2 official of the San Francisco Office of Economic Opportunity:

But he doesn't have to open his mouth. All you have to do is look at him and you get the picture. The man's a lifer. He's stone civil service. He has it all down from the wheatcolor Hush Puppies to the wash'n'dry semi-tab-collar shortsleeves white shirt. Those wheatcolor Hush Puppies must be like some kind of fraternal garb among the civil-service employees, because they all wear them. They cost about $4.99, and the second time you move your toes, the seams split and the tops come away from the soles. But they all wear them. The man's shirt looks like he bought it at the August end-of-summer sale at the White Front. It is one of those shirts with pockets on both sides. Sticking out of the pockets and running across his chest he has a lineup of ball-point pens, felt nibs, lead pencils, wax markers, such as you wouldn't believe, Paper-mates, Pentels, Scriptos, Eberhard Faber Mongol 482's, Dri-Marks, Bic PM-29's, everything. They are lined up across his chest like campaign ribbons.

And then it dawns on you, and you wonder why it took so long for you to realize it. This man is the flak catcher. His job is to catch the flak for the No. 1 man. He's like the professional mourners you can hire in Chinatown. They have certified wailers, professional mourners, in Chinatown, and when your loved one dies, you can hire the professional mourners to wail at the funeral and show what a great loss to the community the departed is. In the same way this lifer is ready to catch whatever flak you're sending up. It doesn't matter what bureau they put him in. It's all the same. Poverty, Japanese imports, valley fever, tomato-crop parity, partial disability, home loans, second-probate accounting, the Interstate 90 detour change order, lockouts, secondary boycotts, G.I. alimony, the Pakistani quota, cinch mites, the Tularemic Loa loa, veterans' dental benefits, workmen's compensation, suspended excise rebates -- whatever you're angry about, it doesn't matter, he's there to catch the flak. He's a lifer.

And this nugget about the skill of office malingering:

The jobs themselves were nothing. They were supposed to be for teenagers from poor families. It was an O.E.O. program, and you got $1.35 an hour and ended up as a file clerk or stock-room boy in some federal office or some foundation -- hell, they didn't even need one half the people they already had working for them, and so all you learned was how to make work, fake work, and malinger out by the Xerox machine. It is true that you learned those skills from experts in the field, but it was a depressing field to be in.

Truly, Tom Wolfe is the Marcel Proust of modern American life. The next chance I get, I'm going to go shopping for semi-tab collar shirts and Hush Puppies.

Community Organizing Explained

"Over the past five years, I've often had a difficult time explaining my profession to folks."

So said Barack Obama, about his former profession of community organizing (in After Alinsky: Community Organizing in Illinois, 1990).

Actually, it's easy to explain the profession of community organizing, and it was never done better than by Tom Wolfe in his 1970 essay about Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (you can read it here).

[Community organizers] were the kind of people the social-welfare professionals in the Kennedy Administration had in mind when they planned the poverty program in the first place. It was a truly adventurous and experimental approach they had. Instead of handing out alms, which never seemed to change anything, they would encourage the people in the ghettos to organize. They would help them become powerful enough to force the Establishment to give them what they needed. From the beginning the poverty program was aimed at helping ghetto people rise up against their oppressors. It was a scene in which the federal government came into the ghetto and said, "Here is some money and some field advisors. Now you organize your own pressure groups."

To sell the poverty program, its backers had to give it the protective coloration of "jobs" and "education," the Job Corps and Operation Head Start, things like that, things the country as a whole could accept. "Jobs" and "education" were things everybody could agree on. They were part of the free-enterprise ethic. They weren't uncomfortable subjects like racism and the class structure--and giving the poor the money and the tools to fight City Hall. But from the first that was what the lion's share of the poverty budget went into. It went into "community organizing," which was the bureaucratic term for "power to the people," the term for finding the real leaders of the ghetto and helping them organize the poor.

When you get down to the basics, community organizations and community development corporations are simply vessels for receiving and disbursing federal funds in the form of Community Development Block Grants. If you want the CDBG money, you first have to create an organization, which means you need a organizer or two to do the necessary paperwork and jump through the bureaucratic hoops. From the above link:

Citizen Participation - A [CDBG] grantee must develop and follow a detailed plan that provides for and encourages citizen participation. This integral process emphasizes participation by persons of low or moderate income, particularly residents of predominantly low- and moderate-income neighborhoods, slum or blighted areas, and areas in which the grantee proposes to use CDBG funds. The plan must provide citizens with the following: reasonable and timely access to local meetings; an opportunity to review proposed activities and program performance; provide for timely written answers to written complaints and grievances; and identify how the needs of non-English speaking residents will be met in the case of public hearings where a significant number of non-English speaking residents can be reasonably expected to participate.

I've encountered many such organizers and organizations in the 15 or so years I've done various types of volunteer work in Northern Virginia, and they were all primarily funding pass-through mechanisms, although a few of them were also safehavens for out-of-office politicians bidding their time between elections. It is clear what those community organizers do, but many of them surround themselves with an impenetrable word cloud of high-sounding justifications for the same reason an octopus emits ink when threatened by predators. The plain fact is that many community organizers don't really develop anything tangible with that development money except for their own offices, cars, debit cards, cell phones, expense accounts, travel vouchers and salaries.

Hence the difficulty Obama had explaining exactly what it was he did for a living for a few years in Chicago. According to the most detailed news media accounts I've seen, Obama's community development organization received about $400,000 in block grants over three years but could claim only the usual nebulous accomplishments, such as 'supporting' this group and 'standing by' that one and 'empowering' the other one.

I got a kick out of the way Obama's campaign manager responded to the laughter at the Republican Convention about community organizing:

Both Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin specifically mocked Barack's experience as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago more than two decades ago, where he worked with people who had lost jobs and been left behind when the local steel plants closed. Let's clarify something for them right now.

Community organizing is how ordinary people respond to out-of-touch politicians and their failed policies.

Enough is enough. Make your voice heard loud and clear by making a donation right now. Thank you for joining more than 2 million ordinary Americans who refuse to be silenced.

That's perfect. I don't know what 'working with' unemployed steel workers entailed exactly, although I doubt it meant something actually useful like finding them other jobs. I do know what 'responding to out-of-touch politicians and their failed policies' means, it means Mau-Mauing some hapless Chicago city agency employees exactly as Tom Wolfe described happening in San Francisco back in 1970.

And the icing on the cake is that Obama invites you to fight these outrageous slurs against community organizers by sending him some cash. Please dig deep, ordinary people across America are depending on you to keep the money flowing to their community organizers.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A Buncha Them Paki Bastard'adors

The August issue of Government Computer News had a piece on the digitization of the Johnson Presidential Library's many audio records, including LBJ's recorded telephone calls. Since the National Archives and Records Administration does not allow its personnel to make transcriptions of presidential recordings, the only transcripts released were the contemporary ones made by Johnson's staff, and they are far from perfect [see Lost in Transcription].

Among the many entertaining telephone conversations LBJ recorded was one to House Speaker McCormack on November 29, 1963, which was cut short when a foreign dignitary arrived. According to the transcript, LBJ told McCormack he had to hang up because:

"I've got a pack of them bastards waiting on me."

But the oral record has him saying:

"I've got the Pakistani Ambassador waiting on me."

I don't know. On this one, I might have to trust LBJ's staff to have the more accurate take.