Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Victimless Crime With a Different Twist

Here's a good news story to end the year on. From the website of the Multnomah (Oregon) County Sheriff's Office: Naked Home Invader Captured After Senior Citizen Grabs His 'Cahoochies'

Today [December 31] at 6:30 am, an 88-year old woman in her bathrobe was confronted by a naked man who had entered her home in the 2500 block of SE 287th Avenue through an unlocked sliding door. The man, saying nothing, backed her into the living room of the house and pushed her face down onto a chair. Before whatever plans the suspect might have had, the woman reached behind her and grabbed the man by the crotch, "giving him a good squeeze." The man tore free and ran back out the way he had come in.

A Multnomah County Code Enforcement Officer just happened to be in the area and heard the call come out over his radio. He parked at SE 287th and Division and saw two cars drive by him. The officer got the license plate information that allowed Troutdale officers to locate the car in the vicinity. The driver, identified as Michael G. Dick, 46, of Gresham, who matched the description of the suspect, was detained, questioned by Multnomah County detectives and then booked on charges of burglary, harassment and private indecency charges, with bail currently set at $110,000. The victim was quite shaken up, but not injured and wishes to remain anonymous. Other charges are pending. A photo of the suspect is available on-line.

I haven't seen an interview with the (near) victim. I don't know if she ever took a self-defense or rape prevention course, whether she is a fitness nut, or how she handles herself. But whatever she's been doing that makes her bold and resourceful enough to drive off a home invader/rapist half her age, keep it up.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Islamabad's Marriott Hotel is Open for Business Again

The hotel's owner vowed that he would reopen in time for New Year's, and so he has, just three months after the suicide bombing that killed 60 people and nearly destroyed the building.

Strangely, there was no coverage of the reopening in most of the mass media I checked this morning. Not even CNN or the BBC covered it. At least France 24 ran an Agence France-Presse story: Islamabad's 'fortress' Marriott reopens after suicide bombing.

The AFP story highlighted the new physical security measures that will prevent a repeat truck-bomb attack.

The hotel's new bombproof wall -- which is 14 feet (3.5-metre) high and 15 feet thick -- is capable of absorbing the shock of even a massive explosion like the one in September, said Hashoo chief operating officer Peter Alex.

Visitors will have to pass through a bombproof room within the wall in order to gain access to the hotel, which will feature sophisticated scanning equipment, he said.

There will however be no parking at the hotel. Even vehicles ferrying VIPs to the Marriott will have to deposit guests at the front gate and drive on.

The story included the picture above, which shows part of the new perimeter wall. What we see there is a pyramidal stack of earth-filled barriers (probably Hesco Concertainers, a modern version of the ancient Gabion field fortification) placed along the line of the hotel's front perimeter. Unseen in the photo is the new entry control point where visitors and their luggage will be screened before they proceed to the hotel. Together, the perimeter wall and the entry controls ensure the hotel will have the maximum available setback distance from the presumed points of detonation of any future truck-bombs, and setback is the best protection a building can have against bomb blast.

I expect that the Concertainers are a temporary arrangement, since their polypropylene walls degrade after a couple of years outdoors. There are many ways to build permanent anti-ram walls that are equally effective but far more aesthetic. And, despite the statement by Hashoo's COO about a "bombproof wall ... capable of absorbing the shock of even a massive explosion" there really is no protective benefit to that wall other than keeping uninspected vehicles out. The idea that a humongous big perimeter wall will protect buildings in its 'shadow' from bomb blast is a fallacy.

PS - The blast wall fallacy is so widely believed, even by consultants and contractors who are paid enough that they should know better, that I feel compelled to cite a reference work to prove my point. The U.S. Defense Department's guide to mitigating vehicle bombs makes it quite clear that an effective blast wall must be wider and taller than the building it protects, and must not be more than one story height away from the face of the building. A wall at the perimeter of a compound, no matter how massive it may be, does nothing to protect conventionally constructed buildings that are some distance away from the wall.

If you read page 42 of the linked reference you will have a better understanding of blast walls and their limitations than a certain mid six-figure security consultant I could name, as well as hundreds of less expensive but equally misinformed experts.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Afghanistan is No Country For Old Men

I'm a bit perplexed by the tactic of offering erectile dysfunction medication to Afghan warlords as an inducement for them to cooperate with the CIA, as reported yesterday by the Washington Post (Little Blue Pills Among the Ways CIA Wins Friends in Afghanistan).

I'm perplexed because, well, frankly, what kind of warlord is it who needs a little blue pill to get his freak on?

What kind of tribal strongman suffers from the sad disorder that Leon Phelps ("the Ladies Man") so poignantly termed Chronic Wangular Softitude?

I'm thinking maybe they're the kind that we really don't need on our team.

From the story:

"You didn't hand it out to younger guys, but it could be a silver bullet to make connections to the older ones," said one retired operative familiar with the drug's use in Afghanistan. Afghan tribal leaders often had four wives -- the maximum number allowed by the Koran -- and aging village patriarchs were easily sold on the utility of a pill that could "put them back in an authoritative position," the official said.

On a personal level, I'm sympathetic to the plight of an aging patriarch. But, let's face it, pharmacological reinforcement is a stopgap measure at best. Once a patriarch has lost his "authoritative position," whether its just among his four wives or among the village as a whole, it's time for him to step down and make way for one of those younger guys that our retired operative seems to disdain.

Forget about the little blue pills. Better we should offer those (im)potentates nice retirement condos in Florida.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

My Christmas Eve Tradition

After an exhausting day of last-minute shopping, I'm watching my traditional Christmas Eve movie, The Crossing, which depicts Washington's crossing of the Delaware River and his surprise attack on the Hessian garrison at Trenton. It isn't what you customarily think of as a Christmas movie, however, the Battle of Trenton did happen on December 25-26, 1776, so I think it qualifies.

Click on the embedded video below for a scene from near the end of the movie, in which the Continental Army, which had marched from the Delaware River to Trenton in two columns, converges on the Hessian barracks. Washington calls out "the Army will advance" and the troops - who, at that low point in the War of Independence, were only a ragged remnant of the force Congress had raised in 1775 - charge forward.

The young aide who gallops up to Washington early in this clip is Alexander Hamilton, the future Treasury Secretary. Hamilton and one other officer had just taken out the Hessian lookout post, killing the four pickets they found there. [Now that's a Treasury Secretary! It's probably been 100 years since we last had a Treasury Secretary who could handle a saber half so well. I'll bet Henry Paulson couldn't kill even one Hessian in hand-to-hand combat, not on his best day.] While that action at the lookout post happens to be fictitious, in real life Hamilton personally led far more impressive assaults, most notably the storming of Redoubt #10 at the Siege of Yorktown.

The Crossing is really a superb movie, both for its historical accuracy and for its unparalleled depiction of the character of George Washington. And I insist that it is also a Christmas movie, despite the grim and gory nature of the story. Having peace on earth and good will toward men required, in the historical circumstances of 1776, that dedicated Continental soldiers cross a frozen river and take the bayonet to the Republic's enemies. If it's Christmas Eve, you can bet I'm watching this movie.

Monday, December 22, 2008

On the Generosity of Arabs

Arabs lavish jewels on Secretary of State Rice and other administration officials, reports the Associated Press.

I can empathize, since I have also received lavish gifts from Arab states in the course of my official travels. The Saudis once gave me a nice Waterman pen, that I still use, and last year the Kuwaitis gave me a Cartier ball pen, which I found a tad feminine and re-gifted to my wife.

I found this part of the story significant:

Some gifts reflect the recipient's specialty. Gen. Peter Pace, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff received two machine guns — one mounted — worth $1,300 from his Colombian and Russian counterparts, while Defense Secretary Robert Gates got a $3,200 decorative Arab knife from a Bahraini official and a steel dagger valued at $345 from the Jordanian king.

Now it becomes clear why Arabs give me pens! What gift could better reflect my specialty as a pencil-pusher?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

FBI = Fraudulently Bounteous Incomes

Where was Deep Throat when this scam [FBI Managers Encouraged Workers in Iraq to Bill for Time Off ] was going on?

FBI counterterrorism division managers condoned a time-billing practice under which 1,150 employees between 2003 and 2007 earned about $71,000 during a typical 90-day tour -- nearly triple the typical worker's salary, Inspector General Glenn Fine reported.

The practice violated federal law and regulations and accounted for at least $7.8 million to the $99 million taxpayer cost of the FBI efforts.

Millions of dollars were wrongly paid to many FBI employees over a period of years with the connivance of their supervisors and managers? Wow. It's a good thing they're cops, otherwise that's illegal.

The FBI has roughly 12,000 agents and a couple thousand more support professionals, so the 1,150 employees who wrongly benefited represent almost 10 percent of its workforce. Even assuming repeat tours in Iraq, its still a non-trivial percentage. With so many people submitting, approving, and processing this improper time-billing, we may assume that this practice was widely known within the FBI.

Here's the part I liked best:

T.J. Harrington, then deputy assistant director of the counterterrorism division, said the pay was justified because agents were constantly on call, had no freedom to use off-time and exercised to maintain fitness and relieve stress, the report stated. Generous pay was needed to attract volunteers for dangerous and uncomfortable duty, he said.

Say, why didn't the State Department try that incentive when they were looking for more volunteers to go to Iraq? The recruitment pitch might have gone like this:

"While in Iraq you'll receive R&Rs and danger pay. Even better (but keep this on the down-low), we'll look the other way while you defraud the government about your Time and Attendance."

"Really? That's a pretty sweet deal. Where do I sign up?"

If somebody doesn't get criminally prosecuted for this, I'll be more impressed than ever by the FBI's impunity to political consequences.

The Five-Year Rule of Terrorism Prediction

The Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, which is co-chaired by Senator Bob Graham (D-Florida), recently released its report, which you can read here. The first sentence of the Executive Summary consists of this attention-getter:

"The Commission believes that unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013."

In other words, Senator Graham wants the world to know that a panel of experts has predicted we have a better than 50-50 chance of a terrorist attack involving some kind of WMD in the next five years. The panel further predicted, elsewhere in the report, that the weapon to be used is more likely to be a biological agent than either chemicals or nukes. Nowhere in the report did they describe the methodology, if any, they used to make those predictions.

Senator Graham has also made this, even bolder, prediction:

"If we were to ask any person who has a reasonable knowledge of the capabilities of terrorists and the extent of America's vulnerability the question, what is the likelihood the United States of America will suffer another successful terrorist attack on our homeland within the next 5 years, the consensus answer is certainly going to be almost a 100 percent likelihood of a successful attack."

Senator Graham made the above prediction on March 4, 2004 (you can read it here, in the Congressional Record, about 15 paragraphs into page S2014), so we'll have to wait three more months to see if he will be proved right. Of course, he can never be proven wrong, even if there is no attack by next March, since he hedged his bets by making the warning hypothetical and by using the word "almost."

His warning about weapons of mass destruction is even slipperier than his 2004 prediction, since: (1) it's much more modest, claiming only a little better than coin-flip odds, (2) it covers the entire world versus just the United States, and (3) it doesn't specify that the attack will be successful. He goes out on a limb only be saying this future attack will involve some kind of WMD.

Such non-falsifiable alarmism works best when it sunsets after five years. That's soon enough to call for immediate action, but still so far off in the future that the predictor won't lose credibility if his warnings don't pan out. Paul Elhrich's many predictions and quotes on environmental and economic topics pretty much define the art form of mid-term scaremongering. All his past predictions have been wrong, but evidently the public has too short an attention span to hold that against him, since his books keep selling.

I can confidently make three predictions of my own. First, neither Senator Graham nor anyone else will mention his previous warning when March 2009 comes and goes without an attack. Second, no one will remember his latest warning when 2013 arrives. Third, Senator Graham will continue to renew his terrorist attack predictions in five year increments as long as he is in public life.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Blackwater Defendants Start a Blog

The Blackwater defendants in the Nisoor Square case - minus the sixth BW contractor, the one who has plead guilty and will be a witness against the other five - have started a blog where you can follow their statements and court filings. See Raven 23, which takes its name from the radio call sign of the detail the defendants were manning.

Thanks to the Blackwater Facts blog for pointing that out. Thanks also for the hat tip.

Bill Clinton and Erik Prince: Three Degrees of Separation

I haven't seen the Clinton Foundation donors list for myself yet, since their website is still jammed and inaccessible. Anyway, the list is reportedly 2,922 pages long and not searchable, and no one with a normal home life will stay on his computer late into the night clicking "next" 2,922 times. So I'm relying on news media stories like this one in the Washington Post for the details of today's surprising revelation that one of ex-President Bill Clinton's donors was the Blackwater Training Center, home base of Blackwater Worldwide and its CEO, Erik Prince.

By the way, if you click on that story, dig deep; the WAPO buried the Blackwater item in paragraph 14 of a 19-paragraph story. I'm not sure whether that means they rated it low in news interest, or whether they were confused about how to report something that seems to implicate Bill Clinton and cause a problem for incoming SecState Hillary Clinton.

Granted, Prince was among the lesser fatcats on Clinton's list - in for only $10,001 to $25,000, rather than for millions like the Saudi Arabians and Barbra Streisand - nevertheless, there he was. So the question of the hour is: What was Erik Prince, the man liberals love to hate, doing on the list of Bill Clinton's 205,000 closest friends?

The controversies that have plagued Blackwater in Iraq, and it's main customer there, the U.S. State Department, are all too well-known. I find plenty of fault with Blackwater's operations in Iraq, and with the inadequate management provided by it's employer, as well. However, Prince has been demonized beyond what the facts justify and out of all sense of proportion. In the left-wing mind, Prince is the conservative Condottieri, the entrepreneur of mercenary mayhem, the impresario of death and destruction, the Praetorian protector of corporate interests, the commander of the Fundamentalist Freikorps, and - for all I know - the personal bodyguard to Dick Cheney himself. The picture presented by much of the news media and by various politicians is just too lurid and hyperventilating to be true.

So far as I can see, Erik Prince is just a former Navy SEAL who came from a wealthy family. When his father died, he left the Navy, put on a different kind of blue suit, and went into business for himself by founding and financing Blackwater Training Center, a place where he could employ a few Navy buddies and make some money training corporate security and law enforcement types. A remarkable biography, but really nothing extraordinary until the Iraq and Afghanistan wars created a huge demand for private protection contractors, resulting in Blackwater collecting over $1 billion in U.S. Government contracts between 2002 and 2008.

Prince appears to be the polar opposite of Bill Clinton. He's very private, very right-wing, and very religiously devout, a straight-laced military businessman and father of six who is hip-deep in Republican causes. What in the world led him to donate money to the Clinton Foundation? Which of Bill's worthy causes attracted Prince's interest? Was it health security, economic empowerment, leadership development and citizen service, or racial, ethnic and religious reconciliation? Or maybe HIV/AIDS, climate change, or fighting childhood obesity? Frankly, none of them sound like Prince's cup of tea. Maybe it was tsunami relief.

Bill Clinton and Erik Prince. Who or what could possibly bring this odd couple together? Could it be ... Hillary's political strategist Mark Penn ?

Last year, when the Democratic Party primary battle was getting started, some people pointed out the connection between Blackwater and Mark Penn. John Edwards was one. Bill Moyers was another. The below transcript from a PBS interview is typical:

BILL MOYERS: I was intrigued to learn that the PR-agency that is handling Prince, Burson-Marsteller , is also the guy who heads - the CEO is also Hillary Clinton's top strategist, Mark Penn.


BILL MOYERS: Mark Penn. Sort of-- he's been called Hillary's Rove. What-- I know something about how this system works. How a PR company comes to you and says hey I've got this client that would like to be on air here. Here's how we'd like to do it. And then, you see the same thing in being repeated from show to show to show — like Hillary Clinton was on all five of the Sunday morning talk shows recently. What have you learned about how the system works between the political and media elites?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I mean, PR-companies are also mercenaries and I know oftentimes work for the highest bidder. I think it's interesting that--

BILL MOYERS: They're not shooting people though.

JEREMY SCAHILL: No, no, no. But they're mercenaries in the sense that they'll rent their services out to anyone. And once you're defending Erik Prince, you're working for him, then you become part of his sort of mercenary operation. I also think that it was a strategic choice to go with the company with Mark Penn because of his connection with the democrats and Hillary Clinton.

But let's, lets remember here we're talking about Blackwater right now because we have a Republican administration. For so many years, we had a Republican dominated Congress. Blackwater is certainly the beneficiary of the Republican monopoly in government. But this system has been bi-partisan for a very long time.

When Hillary Clinton's husband was in the White House, he was an aggressive supporter of the privatization of the war machine. Bill Clinton used mercenary forces in the Balkans. Who do we think gave Dick Cheney's company all of those contracts during the Nineties? We talk about Halliburton. It was Clinton. It was the Clinton administration. And, and, Blackwater may be an extraordinary Republican company. But they're gonna be around when there's a Democrat in office.

It makes sense to me. Why not give Bill Clinton a little cash (and pay lots more to Hillary's chief political aide) when your government contracting business is going to be around long after the Bush Administration is gone?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

U.S. Diplomat Battles Warlord in 1949 Flick

It's Vice Consul Ken Seeley versus Marshal Yun Usu in the 1949 film: State Department: File 649, which can be viewed or downloaded here.

I suppose it isn't a realistic depiction of the Foreign Service back then. At least I don't think post-war diplomats normally pulled pistols on Mongolian warlords and sabotaged their trailers with dynamite bombs. But, if they did, that would be exactly the kind of diplomacy I'd have wanted my taxes to pay for.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Sixth Blackwater Defendant Proffers the Facts (and One Falsehood)

The Smoking Gun has posted the "Factual Proffer in Support of Guilty Plea" (here) that was signed last month by a sixth Blackwater contractor who was indicted for manslaughter and weapons violations in connection with the 2007 shooting incident in Baghdad's al-Nisoor Square. The other five aren't taking a plea deal, but will go to trial.

The sixth contractor, Jeremy Ridgeway, pleaded guilty last month. As part of his plea deal, he provided prosecutors with a sworn "proffer" of the facts surrounding the incident, all of which he acknowledged could have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt had the government taken him to trial. His narrative of the incident isn't pretty - it sounds like a live action version of Grand Theft Auto being played by overly hyped-up teenage boys without adult supervision - but it's about what I expected. However, the proffer also includes a whopping lie, although I can't fault Ridgeway for that, since the government made him say it.

Note the last sentence in the first paragraph of the document posted at The Smoking Gun: "Defendant Ridgeway's employment as a Blackwater contractor related to supporting the mission of the Department of Defense in Iraq." Of course, his employment was not at all in support of Defense, since Blackwater in Iraq was not contracted by or working for the Defense Department. Wishful thinking on that point is crucial to the government's case since they have no real, vice fanciful, basis in law for charging the Blackwater contractors, and evidently the prosecutors think gratuitous assertions like Ridgeway's will help maintain the suspension of disbelief they have created regarding the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act.

If the prosecutors can't come up with an actually convincing legal basis for manslaughter charges, Mr. Ridgeway might end up being the only one of the Blackwater Six to ever see the inside of a prison.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

DOJ, You Can't Handle the Truth (Blackwater Was Not a Defense Contractor)

It's been 15 months since the shooting in Baghdad's al-Nisoor Square and today, December 8, five Blackwater contractors surrendered themselves to a U.S. Federal Court, and a sixth is reportedly in negotiations for a plea deal, in connection with charges finally brought against them by the Justice Department (DOJ). Yesterday's Washington Post story has the few details that have been released so far.

The most interesting part of the story is the imaginative legal basis for the charges. DOJ is actually going to attempt to prosecute under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (18 USC Chapter 212) even though it applies only to Defense Department contractors and the defendants were employed under a State Department contract. And, as if that weren't already enough of a stretch, they are adding more charges under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 that carry a mandatory 30-year minimum sentence for using machine guns in the commission of a crime.

The strategy of using the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA) was hinted at last August (see this), and I find it simply preposterous. The premise appears to be that Blackwater, by working for the State Department, was really supporting the Defense Department without benefit of contract since, absent Blackwater, State would have had to call on Defense Department resources for personal protection. Therefore, DOJ will pretend that the MEJA applies to Blackwater even though, really, it doesn't. All that's left for DOJ to do is to find a jury willing to suspend disbelief about the MEJA.

Of course, State did have options for protection other than using Blackwater or DOD. Blackwater was only one of three companies that State used, and uses, for personal protection in Iraq. Not to mention that State has its own internal security service, or that State customarily uses host country police and security personnel to staff protective details in most countries.

Beyond those objections, isn't there also a fundamental objection to the implication that the State Department itself is merely supporting the Defense Department in Iraq, and not carrying out its own mission? Or at the very least, that the State Department is unable to support its own operations in Iraq? If the defense lawyers are really on the ball, they will get an affidavit from Ambassador Crocker on that point. I can see it now:

Q: Ambassador Crocker, it has been asserted by the prosecution that you and your embassy are in Iraq to support the Defense Department. Is that your understanding, as well?

A: No. I am the Chief of Mission and the representative of the President in Iraq. I am not subordinate to anyone else.

Q: You don't report to the Pentagon, or to CENTCOM, or to some military commander or other?

A: No, of course not.

Q: But is that little embassy operation of yours self-suporting? Do you have your own contracting authority, or do you go to the Defense Department when you need products or services?

A: We have our own separate contracting authority, as well as our own security resources.

Q: If you didn't have Blackwater, or any other security contractor, available in Iraq, would you be able to remain in operation without calling on Defense for your personal protection needs?

A: Yes, of course, just as the embassy in Afghanistan does, and all 275 of our other embassies and consulates do.

Q: Thank you.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Not to Soon to Start Remembering December 7th

Here's a good historical compilation from the Naval History Center.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Foreign Service Oral Histories On-Line

I've just discovered that the U.S. Library of Congress makes its Foreign Affairs Oral History Collection of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training available for browsing online. You can search the collection by subject or author.

It's great stuff! I've been browsing it by looking up interviews with those Ambassadors I had some interaction with over the years, such as the late Charles Anthony Gillespie Jr . His interview really brought back into vivid relief for me the wild late-1980s in Colombia, when the U.S. Embassy and its officers, no less than the host government authorities, were under severe threat of attack from narco cartels. (I'm starting to feel like an historical artifact myself at this point, having first gone to work for the State Department in 1986.)

Amid all the important foreign policy and national security stuff that was going on then, Bogota was also the scene of my minor masterpeice of protective ingenuity. In response to Ambassador Gillespie's special request, I figured out a way to have operable (opening) ballistic windows made and installed in one of our facilities. He wanted fresh air, plus he needed a way to get out through the windows in case of a fire, so I came up with an unconventional solution that actually worked pretty well. I would never get away with that sort of thing today, but back in the Miami Vice era everything was more laid-back.